Jewish Journal

Aliyah Program Takes Off With First Group Flights Direct From L.A.

by Orit Arfa

Posted on Aug. 4, 2010 at 9:19 am

The Bergers at the airport, ready to leave Los Angeles.  Photo by Orit Arfa

The Bergers at the airport, ready to leave Los Angeles. Photo by Orit Arfa

On July 26, for the first time ever, an official from Israel’s Ministry of Interior was on hand at the El Al ticket counter at the Los Angeles International Airport to naturalize 62 Southern California Jews as Israelis and three more as permanent residents.

Carrying a computer tablet installed with official government paperwork, she went down the line designated for the families and singles making aliyah— the ascent to Israel — to get their electronic John Hancocks. Within 24 hours of their arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, the paperwork would be processed and their new Israeli identification cards would be ready.

These new arrivals get their Israeli documents at a festive reception at the Jerusalem headquarters of Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase immigration among Jews from Western countries by removing logistical, financial and professional obstacles that might prevent them from moving to Israel. At NBN, the new Israelis are greeted by a host of counselors and vendors who will guide them through the more mundane aspects of realizing the Zionist dream: opening a bank account, acquiring health insurance, registering for ulpan (Hebrew language school free for new olim), and getting a phone.

Group and charter flights for olim previously departed from New York, Toronto and the United Kingdom. This first direct group journey from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, organized by NBN with the cooperation of the Jewish Agency for Israel, made the trip more convenient for Angelenos and also created a sense of community among the group members.

“It’s a milestone as far as aliyah from Los Angeles is concerned, and I think it’s also emotionally important,” said John Levey, who just ended his two-year term as shaliach aliyah (aliyah emissary) for the South West Region for the Jewish Agency and will be returning to Israel in mid-August. He looked on proudly as all the olim he had interviewed and counseled over the years gathered with loved ones for refreshments and final goodbyes at a preflight airport lounge.

According to the Jewish Agency, an average of 243 Jews from Southern California made aliyah annually from 2003 to 2008, the majority independently of NBN. When NBN first launched in 2002, only 15 Angelenos participated in its program; that number increased to 115 in 2007.

In 2008, NBN signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Jewish Agency, in which the Jewish Agency maintains responsibility for the eligibility process, while NBN takes care of marketing and promotion of aliyah to North America. Prospective olim now fill out a joint application, which is available online with interactive support features.

This year, about 5,000 Jews are projected to make aliyah from North America and the United Kingdom, a 20 percent increase from last year, with an estimated 360 from Southern California, up from 325 in 2009. These statistics don’t include yordim (Israeli ex-patriates), who have been returning to Israel in larger numbers in the wake of the U.S. economic crash of 2008. (See “Exodus to Israel” Feb. 12, 2009, at jewishjournal.com)

While statistics show a correlation between the rise of olim and the economic crash, Yael Katsman, NBN’s director of marketing and communications, says the U.S. economic crisis may have served as a trigger for those already thinking about aliyah, but, “The main reason, though, is having that drive and pursuing the dream you’ve had for a while. The rest falls into place,” Katsman said.

Levey has made the same observation.

“I get so many different kinds of people coming into the office wanting to make aliyah, each for their own reasons,” he said.  “I think the majority will just say, ‘Because that’s where we belong’ or ‘That’s where I feel at home.’ ”

A confluence of factors has made the decision to make aliyah practical as well as idealistic. These include the mainstreaming and systematization of aliyah; crossbreeding between Israelis and Americans; the relative strength of Israel’s economy today; costs of health care and Jewish education, which are publicly funded in Israel and, hence, more affordable there for some families; globalization; and the digital age, which has shortened virtual distances worldwide.

NBN has witnessed a domino effect.

“Success breeds success,” Katsman said. “People are successfully integrating into society here [in Israel] so they’re calling their family back home and saying, ‘It’s working for us.’ ”

Nefesh B’Nefesh said it has a 98 percent retention rate of those who have remained in Israel since its first flight in 2002.

While NBN has made the move to Israel significantly easier, the process remains as emotionally difficult as ever.

Standing in line at LAX, waiting for her family’s allotted 15 suitcases to be loaded onto the baggage belt, Shani Berger kept her emotions in check. 

“It’s nervous excitement,” she said, inching her way toward the counter as she pushed the stroller with her 4-year-old son, who kept himself busy pulling apart Oreos. Berger’s 8-year-old daughter amused herself with a stuffed sea lion, and her eldest, at 10, stood at his mother’s side, monitoring his siblings’ comments to the press. Shani’s mother-in-law, Carol Berger, watched a few feet away, trying not to cry.

“Intellectually, I know it’s a very good thing,” Carol Berger said, giving in to her tears. “We’re very excited for them, and of course we’re scared. We have mixed feelings. We want them to be successful. It’s great for the kids. It’s exciting. Emotionally, for us, it’s a killer.”

She and her husband will miss seeing their grandchildren as often as they did when they lived nearby in the La Brea/Beverly neighborhood.

A few weeks earlier, with shippers scheduled to arrive the next day, the Bergers’ living room was still cluttered with Legos, toys in plastic bins and stacks of English-language children’s books, among the must-haves for their children.

“All Jews talk about it for thousands of years — going back to Israel,” Shani said, sitting on her sofa, taking a break from packing.

She and husband Avi, a native Angeleno and alumnus of Yeshiva Gedolah high school and Yeshiva University, have dreamed of aliyah since their wedding day 13 years ago but admit to finding excuses for delaying it. A pilot trip with their children in January convinced them the family as a whole could integrate successfully.

They decided to settle in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a suburb 11 miles west of Jerusalem, in part for its high concentration of Orthodox olim and the advanced public religious school system. They sold their three-bedroom Los Angeles home and have rented a five-bedroom house for about one-third of what their house would rent for in Los Angeles.

Waiting to depart on the Nefesh B’Nefesh/Jewish Agency direct flight from L.A. to Tel Aviv.  Photo by Orit Arfa

“The idealism comes first,” Shani added. “That’s the main reason why we’re going. Obviously, you want to be practical, and when you go through the nitty-gritty things, there are very practical benefits.”

For one, the Bergers will save about $40,000 annually on Jewish day-school tuition.

“What are the two greatest expenses here? Tuition and healthcare,” Avi said while packing books. “There, you’re covered. Granted, you have taxes to cover it, but here it’s a big chunk of your paycheck.”

The cost of health care and Jewish education are cited repeatedly by families making aliyah, among them (soon-to-be) former Orange County residents Steven and Anat Cirt. In June, the Cirts attended a farewell celebration organized by the Jewish Agency at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which, along with an Aliyah Expo, was among the summer events celebrating and encouraging aliyah from Los Angeles. The Cirts are redeeming their free one-way ticket to Israel in late August on a nongroup flight.

Anat, an Israeli native, met her future husband, an American with an Israeli father, about eight years ago when she moved to Los Angeles en route to travels in Australia. From the moment they met, he spoke of his dream of following in his brother’s footsteps and moving to Israel. Nefesh B’Nefesh encouraged them to wait until they both shared the dream.

Now a mother of three, Anat is ready.

“My son is autistic, and one of the major things I felt, first of all, is that one language would be much better for him, his quality of life, and his special needs,” she said in an Israeli accent. “By quality of life, I mean more friends, more supporting families. Second, to let our children grow up there. Here they learn about Christian holidays, not Jewish holidays.”

As traditional Jews, the Cirts’ main communal link to Judaism has been the Chabad of Yorba Linda. They couldn’t afford to send their children to private Jewish schools, which also weren’t as equipped with special-needs programs. Anat said she believes special-needs education in Israel is superior to its counterpart in the United States.

A CNC machinist, Steven was laid off two years ago but found another job not long after. He’s optimistic he’ll find his niche in Israel’s high-tech sector.

“It’s going to be tough, but it’s tough here, also,” Anat said. “At least there we have my family.” The Cirts will live with Anat’s parents in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim.

A media buyer for television commercials, Avi Berger is also optimistic about employment options. While he gave up a secure job with an employer of seven years, he didn’t foresee any real advancement in the United States with the advertising market in a state of flux. Ahead of the pilot trip, he researched and cold-called advertising companies. “They were so nice; they were so willing to meet with me,” Berger said.

He will spend the first few months at ulpan to improve his Hebrew for the Israeli job market. “I made a commitment to make this work,” he said.

While Jewish families cite definite practical and spiritual gains for raising a family in a Jewish country, singles account for about half of this year’s batch of L.A. olim. On the whole, they’re motivated by Zionist ideals and an attraction to Israeli cultural life.

“With singles it’s different, because there’s excitement of change of pace and atmosphere and environment,” Katsman said. “You have the dating and social networking component of it. It’s less complicated on the macro level.”

Eitan Rosenfeld, 24, came by himself to Los Angeles. His parents are already in Israel, visiting family, while he stayed behind to take advantage of the direct flight from LAX. An alumnus of Beverly Hills High School and UC Santa Barbara, he speaks proudly of his decision to leave his comfortable job as a program manager at Microsoft in Seattle and move to Israel, where he will study for his master’s degree in computer science at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. 

“I realized I belong in Israel and that I want to be contributing in some way, shape or form to the welfare of the country. Right now, the plan is higher education,” he said.

For the first time, he felt like a bona-fide Israeli rather than a tourist on a visit to Israel in December, hanging out in Tel Aviv with college friends who already made aliyah. “It was a very fun, natural lifestyle,” Rosenfeld said.

He said he’s trading in a high standard of living for quality of life. “I’m looking forward to unlearning the emphasis they place here [in the United States] on material things.”

This year, about 58 young adults from Los Angeles, mostly children of ex-pat Israelis, are making aliyah as new Israel Defense Forces (IDF) recruits, the subject to be explored in a forthcoming article in The Jewish Journal.

At LAX, Joseph Cooper, 19, from Calabasas was among the participants in Garin Tzabar, a program of the Friends of Israel Scouts that assists college-age olim with absorption into the IDF by providing them with a social framework and home base at a kibbutz.

“Honestly, I looked at my life the way it is now, and I didn’t feel like I was doing something purposeful,” said the Calabasas High School graduate in a telephone interview ahead of the flight. He’s been to Israel twice on family trips and describes a deep, personal connection to the Jewish State. “I want to look back in 10 years, and I wanted to be proud of what I did with my life. I got good grades, but I didn’t feel community college was what I wanted right now.”

His brother, sister, mother and father could hardly stop embracing him as he was called to the gate.

“I just sort of feel like HaShem will take care of it,” his mother, Shelly, said, seeing him off with tears. “He’ll give me a reason to pray every day. I’m extremely proud of him.”

Later this month, follow author Orit Arfa’s blog at jewishjournal.com about her trip to Israel as a member of in-flight press on NBN’s Aug. 18 charter flight to Israel.

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