North America’s Aliya engine
When Daniel Rebuck made aliya last December, his decision dovetailed with an unexpected emptiness. “I’ve lost all the things I’ve built up,” said Rebuck, 36, a native of England who was living in New Orleans when he lost his job after Hurricane Katrina last summer. “And I said to myself, ‘Blimey, what have I wanted to do the last few years? Israel.’”
Rebuck, who considers himself more spiritual than religious, said he suddenly “realized we don’t need what we think we need. And that was one of the reasons I didn’t go to Israel before. Things were going well for me financially. I saw so many people who lost everything, literally everything. I came out not so bad. It’s an opportunity for me to start a whole new life.”
Unlike Rebuck, Amanda Niskar, 34, had long planned to move to Israel. A single Conservative woman from Atlanta, she is a registered nurse with a doctorate in public health who worked at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Niskar settled with her mother in Ramat Gan in September 2005. Her professional destination: the Israel Center for Disease Control in the Ministry of Health. The euphoria she felt on the flight over has remained with her. “I want to use this position to bring my two countries together,” she said several months after her arrival. “I want to show the scientists in the U.S. the Israel that I see, not the one on TV.”
For Tuvia Grossman, making aliya was a life-affirming act. Now 25, Grossman had been studying at an Orthodox yeshiva five years ago when he survived a horrific terror attack. On his way to pray at the Western Wall, he was pulled out of a taxi, beaten severely and stabbed in the leg. Miraculously, he found the strength to run away, ultimately finding refuge among Israeli soldiers. He lost so much blood doctors didn’t think he would survive.
Despite the attack, he was still in love with Israel. He allowed his parents to take him back to his native Chicago to recover on one condition: that they permit him to return. He has never washed the tzitzit he wore the day of the attack, and this past Yom Kippur, the one day a year he wears them, he put them on again in Jerusalem, not long after he made aliya. “I just feel as Jews there is no reason for us to be outside of Israel,” Grossman said.
As different as they are, what Rebuck, Niskar and Grossman share is that they all made aliya under the auspices of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization whose aim is assisting North Americans to move to Israel. The group’s name, known in the vernacular simply as Nefesh, translates as soul with soul.
Participants receive complimentary one-way tickets from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Tel Aviv, part of an incentive that in 2005 brought 3,200 people to Israel. According to Nefesh officials, a few hundred others make aliya on their own but seek out Nefesh’s services in Israel. Since 2004, its collaboration with the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency has been “virtually organic,” said Nefesh spokesperson Renana Levine.
Although the number of flights varies each year, most occur during the summer, with usually at least one in the winter. With 15 flights so far, Nefesh has helped settle approximately 7,000 American and Canadian Jews since its launch in 2002. Several thousand more are expected in coming years.
Ever since the rise of modern Zionism in the late 1800’s, Jews have immigrated to Israel in waves. From 23,000 in 1880, the Jewish population grew a hundredfold to 2.3 million in 1970. And nearly 1.7 million people have moved to Israel, the majority from the former Soviet Union, since the Six-Day War in 1967. Aliya declined from the start of the second intifada in 2000 to about 1,500 to 2,000 each year.
As the Jewish population of Israel (about 5 million) approaches that of the United States (5.2 to 5.8 million), many olim recognize the significance of their move. “We’re making history,” said Noah Eisenberg, a 30-something Orthodox New Yorker who came with Nefesh in late 2004, following a common yeshiva-to-aliya trajectory.
Demand has grown so much that Nefesh now operates two offices, one in Jerusalem and one in New York (866-425-4924;www.nefeshbnefesh.com), with a total of 40 employees. The program’s success is largely due to the efforts of cofounders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, president and chief executive officer of CPM Worldwide Group, a Florida-based investment company with holdings in Israel and the United States. Together, they have attracted several other philanthropists to fund their efforts.
I’m trying to build a strong economy [and] political and moral bridges between America and Israel,” explained Gelbart. “President Bush…says we have to build a strong democracy in the Middle East. What’s the democracy I know in the Middle East? That’s Israel. We don’t care if you’re Ashkenazi or Sefardi, right or left, religious or not. If you’re Jewish and you have the desire, we’re going to help you.”
Fass, executive director of Nefesh, moved to Israel on the premier flight in 2002. He conceived of the idea after his 14-year-old cousin was murdered with other children in a 2001 Hamas suicide bombing. “One goal of Nefesh,” he says, “is to inspire every North American Jew to ask the question: Is aliya a good fit for me and my family?”
Fass, in many ways the face of Nefesh, is the first contact for applicants, determining their eligibility for assistance. The cost of pilot trips, a new home, acquiring or shipping household appliances and furnishings and the income lost during the process often discourages young families from making the move. Nefesh estimates a family of six will require $21,920. The money is essentially a loan that turns into a grant if recipients stay in Israel for more than three years. Singles receive approximately $5,000 to $7,000; families, between $15,000 and $22,000.
In addition to grants, Nefesh also helps reduce the red tape of obtaining citizenship, a driver’s license and a temporary passport; finding jobs, schools and Hebrew-language programs; and other details of setting up life in a new country.
On board, the extensive application process continues with workers from Israel’s Ministry of the Interior. After the plane reaches a cruising altitude, officials circulate through the aisles, processing forms for Israeli identity cards. By the time they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, the newcomers have already submitted much of the paperwork that entitles them to a “sal klita,” the basket of benefits designed to ease absorption. These include tax breaks on shipments of home appliances, mortgages and living stipends.
Demographics vary from flight to flight, but about 70 percent of participants identify themselves as Orthodox. Many anticipate Israel’s affordable Jewish education.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests a large number of recent college graduates making aliya have participated in Birthright Israel, the program that offers a free trip to Israel for American Jews under 26. Michelle Hannon, 27, made aliya in 2004, two years after spending time in Israel. A former receptionist at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland, Hannon was going through a “metamorphosis” when she was on Birthright. During another five-month stay in 2003, she felt she “could make a life there.” About half the 202 passengers on her flight were young singles, many of them proud Birthright graduates.
Others, like Rabbi Irwin Albert, 78, who made aliya with his wife, Joy, in fall 2005 after serving as a pulpit rabbi for 52 years in New York, are entering retirement. Some who became religious later in life or converted decided to make their life in Israel. “It’s home,” said Eliyahu Fuller, formerly of Waterbury, Connecticut, whose wife wasn’t interested in converting but whose children did and are now living religious lives in Israel. “If you want something, you go for it.”
In their diversity, the arrivals fulfill the prophesy of Jeremiah 31:17, “V’shavu banim l’gvulam/ And your children will return to their borders,” the verse posted on the old terminal at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, where the olim disembark.
Nefesh advertises flight arrivals in The Jerusalem Post, inviting the public to greet the new immigrants at exuberant ceremonies. The terminal lends itself well to the logistics of a reception. Photographers snap photos of passengers descending a long line of stairs as soldiers cheer and wave Israeli flags. Shofars are sounded and signs announce an “Aliya Revolution.” The wild abandon of circle dancing usually reserved for weddings breaks out. Once the crowd settles into their seats, there are greetings from dignitaries.
“You will witness in your lifetime a monumental shift, not seen since biblical times and the days of the Second Temple: The majority of Jews will live in the Jewish state,” Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told one group of arrivals. “For half a century, the survival and the future of Israel depended on aliya. In the next half-century, however, the survival and future of the Jewish people will depend on the State of Israel.”
The real test of Nefesh’s mission comes, of course, long after the passport stamp. The greatest challenge is finding work, a support system and a sense of belonging. Toward that end, Nefesh offers seminars and workshops throughout the country on job-searching strategies, employee rights and benefits and how to live on an Israeli salary. There are also outings for families, an annual singles barbecue, Super Bowl parties and a variety of other events.
Still, many immigrants describe a first year filled with difficulties and adjustments. Shlomo Katz, 25, earned a master’s degree in computer science before moving to Haifa from Fairfield, Connecticut, with his widowed father more than a year ago. Originally, he felt very supported by Nefesh. But a year later, a job still hasn’t come through. “I’m not happy about it,” he said. “Luckily, I have enough to live on with savings from the U.S. and by living with my dad.”
Katz recently enrolled in a yearlong software engineering course to enhance his qualifications for a “high-level job.” In the meantime, his father, Eliezer Katz, commutes to the States periodically to supplement his income as an electrician. The higher wages in America make brief stays there at the home of friends worthwhile. It’s not what the Katzes dreamed of, but for now it’s manageable; they don’t plan on leaving.
For other olim, once the ad- justments of the first year pass, life gets easier. Deena and Aaron Singer, both 33, who made aliya from New York in July 2003 with Naama Shira, 5, and Ahuva, 3, experienced months of upheaval. Each had to return to the States to help care for ill family members.
“I was nervous about leaving family, finding jobs, all the typical aliya fears,” said Deena. Life has calmed down considerably since then. Aaron has settled into a sales position at the Shalem Center, a post-Zionist think tank, and Deena works as a behavorial consultant with autistic children. After two years in an Orthodox absorption center, the Singers moved to a “mixed” moshav near Gush Etzion.
Despite the problems, the formula seems to be working. As of January 2005, 99 percent of Nefesh participants have remained in Israel; 94 percent of families have at least one employed spouse; 110 babies have been born; and 36 immigrants have married, including two couples who met on Nefesh flights.
Daniel Rebuck doesn’t expect things will be easy, but he remains hopeful. A former professional soccer player, he would like to find a position coaching, as he did in New Orleans. “I’ve been to Israel six times and I always feel very much at home,” he said. “With the hurricane, I looked at my life and I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.’”