Despite fighting, moving to Israel

Ever since spending their honeymoon in Israel in 2000, David and Helaine Brenner had dreamed about returning to live and raise a family in what they believe to be their ancestral Jewish homeland.

On Monday, the Northwest Baltimore couple and their sons, ages 13 and 11, will board a flight from New York to Tel Aviv and head for a Jewish settlement of about 700 families in a rural, mountainous patch about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. It's a place they already have begun to think of as home, where neighbors are welcoming and look out for each others' children.

But the region, at the heart of a decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, also has become one of the world's most troubled hot spots, with fighting escalating in recent days. Just a day before the Brenners were to fly to Israel with 230 and U.S. or Canadian immigrants, casualties rose during a two-week Israeli offensive into Gaza. Israel's military has said it was targeting Hamas militants, whom it accused of firing rockets into Israel. Officials from Gaza's Health Ministry have said more than 400 Palestinians have been killed and about 2,600 wounded.

Heading into a war zone was never part of the plan for the Brenners, both observant Jews. But the erupting tensions haven't deterred them either, the couple said Sunday, as they drove to New York in a rented minivan crammed with eight oversized duffel bags, four carry-on suitcases, four backpacks and one bass guitar.

"We are both people of faith," David Brenner said. "You have to have a trust in God if you're going to do something like this. … It's very difficult, and we understand that the Arabs have a great attachment to land, and this is a complex and difficult problem. But the Jewish people have sacrificed so much to come back home."

Says his wife of the recent battles, "It's a concern, and it's not anything anyone wishes to immerse themselves in. ... There happens to be a cycle of escalation right now. God willing, it will subside."

The family had visited Israel over the years but decided to act on their longtime desire to live there only after they lost jobs in 2011. David Brenner, now 47, lost a job as vice president of software solutions for Bravo Health in Canton after the company was acquired. Helaine Brenner, 45, had taught preschool at a private Jewish day school, Yeshivat Rambam, which closed. They saw it as a sign.

They tested their idea by living last summer in Jerusalem, where David Brenner worked at his computer consulting business from their rented apartment and the boys attended Hebrew-speaking Israeli summer camp. When they returned to Baltimore, the planning began in earnest.

"If it can happen, we should be there," Helaine Brenner said. "We don't have an excuse not to be there."

They needed to shed many of the belongings and furniture that filled a 4,000-square-foot house near Pikesville and take only what would fit into a 1,000-cubic-foot trans-Atlantic shipping container. In the settlement of Alon Shvut, they plan to rent a one-story house less than half the size of their Baltimore home. David Brenner will relocate his business, while his wife plans to study Hebrew and eventually return to the classroom. The boys, who had been students at Talmudical Academy on Old Court Road, will be enrolled in a Hebrew-speaking school in the nearby city of Efrat.

The family's flight was organized by Nefesh B'Nefesh, an organization that has helped 40,000 Jews from the United States and Canada move to Israel, or make "aliyah," since 2002. The charter, one of two each summer, will be the group's 51st, said Yael Katsman, a spokeswoman for the group, which helps immigrants with paperwork, career counseling and finding communities. The number of immigrants it aids has grown from 500 a year to between 4,000 and 5,000 a year, she said.

"The premise is to hold and support the hands of anyone who wants to move to Israel, and once they get here, to accompany them as well," she said. The group has worked exclusively as the government's immigration liaison since 2008.

Katsman said none of Monday's passengers canceled their plans, despite the recent days of rocket fire and shelling.

For David Brenner, Israel is a Jewish homeland "in a world where we have yet to find full acceptance. … Jewish people before us have sacrificed to support the Jewish people. This is a process we feel strongly about being a part of."

Still, he said, he knows it has not been easy for his sons.

"No child is excited to leave their friends and the place they're comfortable with, and truly we've been very happy in our community in Baltimore," he said. "What we've tried to do is explain to the boys why we're doing this."

The Brenners acknowledge the controversy surrounding moves such as theirs, part of a larger movement that many view as a stumbling block to peace in the region. But they say peace is also part of their dream.

"We understand that there are other people living in Israel. … We want to live in peace," David Brenner said. "My wife and I pray for a time when the Jewish people and Arabs and Christians will be able to live peacefully side by side."

Tribune news services contributed to this article.

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