War veteran Irving Matlow, 96, has joined a growing crew of Canadians immigrating to Israel after Oct. 7

Canadian community leader Irving Matlow, 96, receives a special welcome from the El Al flight crew as he immigrates to Israel from North America on Tuesday Jan. 2, 2024. (Credit: El Al)

Irving Matlow insisted that no one at the airport makes a fuss when he touches down in Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

But people have been paying attention to his travels because he’s 96 years of age—and a Canadian veteran who volunteered to fight in the Jewish State’s 1948 War of Independence. And now he’s about to become one of Israel’s newest, and oldest, citizens.

It’s the fulfilment of a 75-year-long Zionist dream, and a highly symbolic one at this time.

“I don’t want to make a big tzimmes [fuss] as they say. I’m doing it for myself. If it would be an example for others, fine and dandy,” Matlow told The CJN Daily in an interview before departing Toronto. “It’s something that I felt in the last year—that it’s the last step of identifying with something that you’ve identified all your whole life with.”

The widower planned to depart on Oct. 18. But after the murderous attack by Hamas that killed 1,200 Israeli residents and saw 240 others taken hostage—and sparked the subsequent war by Israel against the terrorists—Matlow wanted to depart even sooner. His children convinced him to delay his travel plans until it was safer. Getting there in October was difficult anyway, as most major airlines including Air Canada stopped flying to Israel.

Machal volunteer in 1948

Matlow has long felt a deep spiritual and personal connection to the State of Israel. The Canadian son of Jewish immigrants from Belarus, he left his studies at the University of Toronto in 1948 to join the fledgling Israel Defence Forces. He spent a year helping defend the new Jewish state from surrounding Arab armies.

He’d served as a signaller with B Company of the 72th Battalion in the 7th Brigade. His outfit was where Israel’s military commanders sent most of the English-speaking volunteers from Canada, the U.S., Great Britain and elsewhere. Under the leadership of Ben Dunkelman, a former Toronto menswear magnate who had served with distinction in the Second World War, the brigade captured much of central Israel and the Galilee.

Matlow was not involved in the fighting to capture Nazareth on July 16, 1948. However, he said Dunkelman refused to obey orders to expel the 40,000 Arab residents of the town–including refugees who had fled Israeli advances elsewhere.

Machal fighters from Canada
Irving Matlow, second from right, stands with fellow Canadians (left to right) Bob Eisen, Isadore Weinsweig, Walter Leff and Al G. Rosenberg before departing for Israel to fight in the Machal units of foreign volunteers during Israel’s War of Independence. (Photo courtesy Ontario Jewish Archives)

After the war ended in 1949, Matlow had dreamed of eventually living full time in Israel, but he returned to Toronto. Life intervened: marriage, four kids, making a living, community work in Toronto. Matlow’s parents immigrated to Israel in 1955. He brought his own family to live there for one year in the 1970s.

“My grandfather and grandmother are buried there, my parents are buried there,” he explained. “Our home was basically concerned with Israel and Jewish nationhood and Jewish independence and Hebrew, but, you know, your life takes you in a different direction for a while.”

Now that he is, in his words, “getting a little older”, he decided it was time to take out Israeli citizenship, just like the saying from the Ethics of the Fathers: “If not now, when?”.

“Just to feel that I’m much more closely identified with the Jewish state, which was so very important in my family, that I would have missed out on something.”

Spike in immigration applications from North America

Matlow’s immigration comes as the Israeli government released year-end figures showing 45,000 people moved to Israel in 2023. That’s down sharply from 2022 when refugees from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine arrived by the tens of thousands.

However, Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Israeli organization which brings Jewish immigrants from North America, said 720 new arrivals came since the onset of Oct. 7 and the war. Some 200 people landed in the final week of December: the oldest was 100 and the youngest was a babe in arms.

“People making aliyah now have mostly started the process over this past year, in essence before the war broke out,” said Avichai Ivgui, a Nefesh B’Nefesh spokesman. “Some individuals did delay their flight dates for November or December but none of them have requested to cancel their aliyah.”

The agency reported a 142 per cent increase in applications coming from North America since the war began, compared with the year before. This amounts to 3,709 people expressing interest in immigrating to Israel during 2023, versus 1,985 in 2022. Surprisingly, it isn’t the spike in antisemitism in Canada and the U.S. that is the main motivator for Diaspora Jews wanting to move to Israel.

“Deeper analysis of the data has shown that the main reason for the increase in aliyah interest is due to Zionism (50%), while the issue of antisemitism drives only a small amount of the applicants (6%),” the agency said in a statement.

‘I don’t feel safe in Canada’

Moshe Appel and his wife Leah Appel had recently started running the My Way Bikery, a popular kosher bakery in Victoria, B.C., when they decided they wanted to move the family to Israel. The ex-Montrealers had been attracting fans of all faiths for their challahs, cakes, hamantaschen and Leah’s famous invention: the “chall-nut”. Her jam-filled challah treat sold out regularly.

But as the Appels’ faith journey found them becoming more observant and living an Orthodox Chabad lifestyle, they felt it was becoming too difficult to source kosher dairy ingredients for the shop, or even for Leah to find modest clothing to wear while living in the B.C. capital with such a small Jewish community of fewer than 5,000 people.

Leah and Moshe Appel, with Raya and Avrum
Leah Appeal, her husband Moshe Appel, and their children Avrum and Raya, in Montreal before immigrating to Israel on Dec. 11, 2023. (Submitted photo)

A sudden cancer diagnosis for Leah’s mother back in Montreal during the summer of 2023, forced the couple to abruptly sell the bakery and move east to care for her.

They had already asked Israeli authorities to get their application approved as soon as possible, but after Oct. 7, their friends and family thought they surely would cancel their plans to immigrate.

“When the war broke out, everybody looked at us and said, ‘Of course, naturally you’re going to stay in Montreal now, right?’,” Leah recalled. “And we looked at them and we said, ‘No, like it doesn’t really change our plans. In fact, it kind of knocked down a couple of walls that were left for us.”

The Appels watched the explosion of antisemitism on their native Montreal streets, as well as the pro-Hamas position taken by a Victoria city councillor, Susan Kim, who has refused to resign and signed a letter denying Israeli women and girls were raped, tortured and murders by Hamas terrorists.

“We’re not the only ones who are feeling this way. North America is not necessarily very friendly to Jews right now,” said Leah Appel, adding that she shaken to the core by the incidents of violent antisemitism and attacks on Jewish students at a pro-Israel display at Concordia University in the fall.

Her husband recalled other incidents that scared them, including the Molotov cocktail targeting a Montreal synagogue, and when bullets were fired through the doors of two Montreal Jewish schools after Oct. 7.

“That is the reality in Montreal, where if you are visibly Jewish, you’re not safe,” Moshe said.

While it upset locals to see that a popular kosher restaurant in Montreal, Pizza Pita, stationed a security guard outside their establishment after Oct. 7, Moshe knows that such security measures are commonplace in Israel. Having ubiquitous safe rooms and bomb shelters and guards, though, actually makes the Appels feel safer.

“There, [in Israel] there’s more danger, but if you’re not in Israel and something terrible happens, you have no protection, if terrorists were to attack the Cavendish Mall. They shot at the Yeshiva Gedola school on Saint Kevin street near Van Horne and the city didn’t really know what to do with it,” Moshe said.

The family arrived in Israel on Dec. 11 via New York, where they had first paid a visit to Lubavitch world headquarters and the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Queens. The Appels have already moved into an apartment in the Baka neighbourhood of Jerusalem (officially known as Geulim) where many of the residents are also immigrants from English-speaking countries. They like that most of their neighbours are religious.

indeed, it was through a Chabad connection that they were able to find a place to live, for what they feel is a reasonable price, as many other people pay upwards of 12,000 Israeli shekels a month—which is about $4,400 Canadian dollars.

Moshe hopes to work for a bakery in Jerusalem owned by expatriate-Montrealers, while Leah will put off thoughts of opening a business until the family is settled, especially their two younger children Raya and Avrahm. Moshe’s older daughter works in Victoria, where she remained.

But the family is sure they won’t be alone for long in Israel. They have friends, and some cousins there already.

“We’re basically the trailblazers,” Leah predicts. “We have people in our family who are saying ‘Well, you know, go and we’ll follow you, see how it goes.”

‘I feel at home, I feel at peace’

Unlike the Appels, Montreal school teacher Laurence Ittah isn’t the trailblazer in her family, but rather the latecomer: she is joining two older sisters already living in Netanya, a seaside city in Israel.

Ittah, 27, left Montreal on Nov. 28 to move to Israel. Her two siblings have lived in Israel for eight years.

Born in Canada to an Israeli mother and a Moroccan father, Ittah attended Concordia University and completed teacher’s training, and then worked teaching English as a Second Language in Montreal-area schools.

It was in the classroom where she says she first encountered antisemitism years before Oct. 7. It came from her own students who weren’t aware that their teacher was Jewish.

“A lot of Palestinian kids, a lot of Algerian and Lebanese kids. So they grew up with a lot of hatred and so for them, Israel, the state, does not exist,” she recalled, explaining that the students would refuse to read classroom material chosen by the school that mentioned the word Israel.

“This is one thing that really led me to really want to go to Israel because I don’t like experiencing this. And it makes me really sad, honestly.”

Laurence Ittah
Montrealer Laurence Ittah, 27, immigrated to Netanya, Israel on Nov. 29. She felt at home in Israel all her life, where the schoolteacher’s two sisters have lived for nearly a decade.

More recently, she’s watched campus antisemitism erupt at her Montreal alma mater, Concordia University. She’s glad she graduated long before Jewish students walking the gauntlets of anti-Israel protests and other students screaming in their faces.

She’s experienced it in other ways, though, losing Palestinian friends who had family killed in the Gaza Strip.

“They died and it’s extremely sad and on both ends, it’s extremely sad. But now they don’t want to talk to me because I’m Jewish,” Ittah said. “There were a lot of comments being thrown back, you know, like ‘You should be ashamed. You guys are killing people’ and things like that.”

Ittah has left behind her parents, and a fourth sister in Montreal. Immigrating to Israel also meant the end of her serious romantic relationship with the man she was dating. But the pull of reuniting permanently in Netanya with her two married sisters and a baby nephew was too strong, coupled with her lifelong feeling that Israel is where she belongs.

“I’m not a really religious person, but when I would go to Israel, I just feel at home. I don’t know how to explain that,” she said. “It’s just, you feel like everyone understands you, you don’t have to explain yourself… it’s just like you’re always with your family.”

Ittah will stay with one of her siblings in Netanya until she completes language school and finds her own apartment. She plans to do some tutoring on the side, but she isn’t convinced she will resume her teaching career. Instead, she hopes to work in some form of business venture with both her sisters.

And she hopes her parents will eventually join the family for good.

Ittah was originally supposed to leave for Israel on Oct. 8. Her father had already flown to Israel ahead of her to bring some of her extra suitcases, as the self-described “shopping addict” was going to be way over the permitted baggage allowance.

After the Hamas attack the day earlier, her immigration flight was cancelled, which left her father stranded for several weeks until he was eventually able to make his way home to Canada via Dubai.

Her mother tried to convince her to delay moving to Israel while the war was going on, but Ittah felt that to do that would be cowardly, even though she personally won’t be required to do military service because of her age.

“I feel like my journey has been extended a few times, but, you know, everything happens for a reason and you know, I guess it wasn’t my time to be there,” she said. “If I’m going to be living there for the rest of my life, how can I say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to go because there’s war.’ Then I don’t deserve to be there.”

Return ticket to Canada

Irving Matlow got a special welcome Tuesday en route to Israel. The pilots invited him into the cockpit for a visit while the El Al plane was somewhere over the Atlantic.

After he lands, Matlow will live in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighbourhood, in an apartment which his family has owned for decades. Matlow and his late wife Esther spent the winters in Israel, and he has continued the tradition since her death in 2012–except now he will be arriving as a dual citizen of both Canada and Israel.

His son, Toronto lawyer and community leader David Matlow, accompanied his dad on the long flight, first from Toronto to Newark, and then on to Tel Aviv.

David Matlow made sure all the required paperwork is in order for when the pair lands early Wednesday morning: a birth certificate, a letter from their rabbi, Steven Wernick of Toronto’s large Conservative synagogue, Beth Tzedec Congregation confirming Matlow is Jewish, plus his marriage certificate and some passport photos.

His father was adamant that there shouldn’t be a special welcoming ceremony for him, despite his amazing story.

“So we’ve been dealing with Nefesh B’Nefesh and The Jewish Agency, who have been fantastic to accommodate my dad’s dream to be an Israeli citizen,” explained David Matlow. “My father specifically said there should be no hoopla, because there are lots of other important things going on in Israel, like the defence of the country, so as not to distract people from their important tasks.”

Irving Matlow
Irving Matlow fought in Israel’s War of Independence as a volunteer in 1948. Now the widower is immigrating to Israel officially, 76 years later, but he doesn’t want people to make a fuss. (Ellin Bessner photo)

Matlow senior has been closely following the news coming out of Israel after Oct. 7, which he calls “a very tough situation and a tragic situation.”

He hurts for the Jewish people and for the Palestinians, and all innocent people. Even from afar, Matlow did his bit to help an Israeli family of six displaced from Sderot, by inviting them to live in his empty Jerusalem apartment until he arrived.

Matlow isn’t going to be in Israel alone, after David returns to Toronto. Irving’s daughter Elaine Matlow Tal-El and her family live in the country and will look after him. But the patriarch isn’t sure how life will be for him once he completes the aliyah process and settles in. He plans to return to Canada in April for Passover, and he isn’t selling his Toronto home.

“I don’t know how my health could be there. I don’t know what the situation will be there. If anything, if it gets worse, maybe Jerusalem could be under attack from Hezbollah, supposedly they have rockets that can reach Jerusalem.

“So I want to say Yom Yom, you take it day by day, hour by hour and hopefully things will be alright.”