by Miriam Karp
Wherever we may live, we hold a special place in our heart for Israel. Some want to actually move to make aliyah to Israel.
Aliyah literally means rising or going up, a term also used in the Synagogue service. A Bar Mitzvah boy steps up to the bimah and rises spiritually when called to read the Torah. Regardless of where we come from, moving to Israel is an aliyah - a step up.
In the words of Judah Halevy, 14th century poet, I am in the west, but my heart is in the east.
But just having your heart in the east is much easier than actually packing up, schlepping your stuff and transplanting your whole life.
A potential oleh is usually overwhelmed by questions like, How do I start? Will I find a job? How can I afford to make a pilot trip, sell my house, pay off my loans and tide my family over during the transition? Do I have the strength and smarts to deal with the infamous Israeli bureaucracy?
Many wannabe Israelis who couldnt surmount these obstacles have resigned themselves to occasional visits to Israel and leaving aliyah in their hearts.
Enter Nefesh BNefesh-Jewish Souls United, a privately funded organization that is revitalizing Western aliyah. It offers new immigrants financial support throughout the aliyah process. Grants between $7-25,000 dont have to be repaid if the recipient stay in Israel for at least three years. Aggressive employment counselors help find job placement and mentors. Procedures are streamlined, with custom officials on board the chartered flight to take care of all the paperwork en route to Israel.
Each family is paired with a support family from their new neighborhood to ease the transition. Nefesh BNefeshs web site and staff provide answers to myriad issues including schools, appliances, which items to bring from the States and which are easily available in Israel.
North American aliyah had been in a slump, with an average of 1,000 attempts per year and a 50% dropout rate. But by the end of this summer, Nefesh BNefesh will have brought over 1,500 olim in two short years. Of their 519 initial participants in 2002, only one has temporarily returned for medical treatment, 93% have gainful employment, 29 families have given birth to native-born Israeli sabras, and three marriages have taken place.
Thousands of applicants were turned down this year due to lack of funds. Nefesh BNefesh co-founder Tony Gelbart, a Florida businessman, hopes to raise enough funds to bring 100,000 olim over the next 5 years.
We also have aliyah from Argentina, France, Russia and Ethiopia, Gelbart explains, but American and Canadian olim are different. Theyre making aliyah by choice, rather than fleeing poverty or oppression. They just need a little help.
Western aliyah of educated professionals freely choosing Israel gives Israeli society a tremendous economic and morale boost. Within months, the new immigrants generate many thousands of dollars for Israels economy with their spending, working, families visiting, so the initial investment grants pay off generously.
How did this dynamic organization start? A terrible tragedy was the catalyst. Rabbi Yehoshua Fass was devastated by the murder of his 14 year old cousin by Hamas terrorists on March 28, 2001. A successful rabbi at an upscale Boca Raton synagogue whose membership had doubled in his six-year tenure, Fass was about to renew his contract.
His cousins death, however, left him no rest. The pain was raw. Reciting Psalms seemed like a muted, impotent response. I could no longer be a good Jew pushing for Israel from Florida. I had to move there to take Naftalis place.
To his surprise, some of Fasss friends confided that they, too, wanted to move, but needed to pay off debt and build up a cash reserve before such a major move. Intrigued, Fass hired a research firm to pinpoint just why American aliyah was lack-luster. He found that the assumption that North American Jews lost interest in aliyah is wrong. The problem was mainly financial. Singles and families lacked that $15,000- $25,000 to cover the expenses and transition. Fass used his organizational skills to create Nefesh B'Nefesh, whose dramatic flights of excited olim have made the headlines.
The July 9th, 2003 flight of 318 was greeted by Prime Minister Sharon and Finance Minister Netanyahu and an emotional crowd waving Israeli flags and singing, Haveinu Shalom Alecheim. Sharon told the immigrants that aliyah is our top priority, and Netanyahu shared stories about the experiences of his immigrant grandfather.
Nefesh B'Nefesh olim come from all walks of life. Mike Lewin, a native of Cleveland who never had a bar mitzvah panicked when he arrived at JFK airport for the flight to Israel. Lewin became a Zionist during a trip to Israel at age 16 and as an exchange graduate student in Tel Aviv.
While he had suspected that many of the 519 Nefesh immigrants were likely observant, Id never seen so many religious people in my life.
A year later, sitting in his Ramat Gan office, Lewin chuckles. His acclimation has been successful, and his Hebrew is almost fluent; he has an apartment in Tel Aviv; a good job as a buyer at the Office Depot chain (similar to his job in Ohio). He dates Israeli women; and is grateful for the Nefesh network.
He describes his new life during these turbulent times. This was the most fantastic year of my life. People here are warm. With all the heartache, Israelis really know how to live. Here we belong. Holidays that I never celebrated in Cleveland, are real happenings here.