Jewish Journal

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

by Orit Arfa

August 4, 2010 | 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.

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