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Jewish Journal

Making Dreams of Israel Come True

by Gaby Wenig

August 14, 2003 | 8:00 pm

A young girl waits to board a flight to Israel at Kennedy International Airport in New York on July 22. Photo by David Karp/JTA

A young girl waits to board a flight to Israel at Kennedy International Airport in New York on July 22. Photo by David Karp/JTA

In the international terminal at New York's Kennedy Airport, the luggage carts sag under the weight of bulging suitcases, and it seems as if every family moving to Israel on this group flight is accompanied by a 10-person entourage to see them off.

Despite the El Al security guards screening passengers, all semblance of decorum is missing from the scene: children holding small suitcases run under the ropes as their mothers try to quiet them; grandparents dab their eyes with crumpled tissues, some sobbing unabashedly; everyone hugs and says goodbye with smiles, blessings and tears.

In the center of this confusion is a table strewn with informational packets from Nefesh B'Nefesh, a relatively new organization, whose name means Jewish Souls United and whose sponsorship of this trip stems from its mission to encourage families to make aliyah (move to Israel) by aiding them financially.

As the crowd makes its way to the boarding area, they pass supporters holding signs that read, "We are the future of Israel" and "road map home." Others hand out blue-and-white badges that say, "I'm making aliyah" and "aliyah revolution."

This is the third group aliyah flight that Nefesh B'Nefesh has sponsored since last summer, when it loaded an El Al plane with 519 North American Jews who wanted to move to Israel. Since then, Nefesh B'Nefesh, which calls itself an "aliyah revitalization organization," has helped more than 1,000 North American Jews move to Israel. Its ambitious goal is to help send 100,000 to Israel by the end of the decade.

The group's determination to encourage Jews to move to Israel comes at a time when tourism to the country is at an all-time low, devastated by almost three years of the intifada. (The conflict has also caused a drop in immigration from 377,000 in 1991, when Russian aliyah was at its peak, to 7,692 in the first five months of this year.) At the same time, the intifada has also sparked emigration, with some Israelis seeking sanctuary on calmer shores.

The willingness of so many people to leave their comfortable lives in America to move to a country beset by violence and political turmoil reflects a bond stronger than current events.

"We did a little bit of market research, and we saw that across the gamut the dismal number of Americans making aliyah annually was not a true reflection of people wanting to go," said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, who founded the organization with Florida businessman Tony Gelbart. "The interesting comment that we were receiving was that people would love to do it, but couldn't because they had no nest egg to pay for relocation."

Israel grants zechuyot (rights) to people making aliyah, such as a reduced-rate mortgages, subsidized rent, free health insurance and the ability to import a tax-free container of household goods. (These rights have been curtailed with the recent budget cuts.) Even so, the privileges often do little to alleviate the harsh economic realities of life in Israel.

As a result, Fass and Gelbart started providing grants ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 to help singles and families make aliyah. They also provided them with a support system to ease their transition into Israeli society.

Nefesh B'Nefesh helps their olim (immigrants) find jobs and housing, and they introduce them to other North American families who have made aliyah. On the group flights, the organization cuts through Israeli red tape by having representatives from the Interior Ministry process paperwork on the plane so the olim don't have to spend hours waiting in line at government offices.

On this July 23 flight, the atmosphere on the plane is mildly chaotic, like one big party. Journalists try to interview olim, Nefesh B'Nefesh staffers walk the aisles, making sure everyone is being treated right, and the olim say hello to friends they met at Nefesh B'Nefesh meetings and talk about the joys of moving to Israel.

"No more yeshiva tuition fees!" says one man, excited about the heavily subsidized religious education available in Israel.

Reuven Ashenberg, a 33-year-old special education teacher from New Jersey, makes his way to Gelbart and says, "Thank you for making my dreams come true."

A Los Angeles couple, Shifra and Donny Weltman, tell The Journal that they are looking forward to moving because "it's a mitzvah."

When the plane touches down in Israel after a 12-hour flight, the olim are greeted by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, MK Ehud Olmert and a parade of 150 Israel Defense Forces soldiers waving flags.

"This is a good start," Peres tells The Journal. "What can create a momentum is the way they will be absorbed, the letters that they will send back home. What we have to do is not to make more speeches but to see that the people will get jobs and houses."

There's an old joke that the best way to cure people of Zionism is to have them live in Israel. The question is not whether Nefesh B'Nefesh can bring people to Israel, but whether the people will stay.

On this flight, most of the idealistic families are motivated by a conviction that they are fulfilling a biblical commandment, some also they can contribute to Israeli society, thereby helping the world Jewish community. (The organization says that 79 percent of the olim are Orthodox, 14 percent Conservative, 4 percent Reform and 5 percent are unaffiliated.) But will their idealism last once the realities of daily life set in?

With this in mind, Nefesh B'Nefesh only grants money to people they think will have a good chance of making it in Israel (i.e., people who are professionals and who have a strong commitment to the land). Also, the grants are vested over a three-year period, and must be returned if a family does not stay.

Of the 519 Nefesh B'Nefesh families who moved to Israel in 2002, 99 percent have stayed and and 93 percent have found jobs. But one year is often too early to tell, especially since olim from economically secure countries like the United States may leave after a longer period -- five to seven years -- often for economic reasons, and more recently, due to the violence in the region.

"However much we talk about absorbing these people and making their klitah [absorption] as successful as possible, one of the things that they are going to learn over time is that they need to have the ability to get away from here because it is so overwhelming," says Kelly Hartog, an Australian olah who moved to Israel 10 years ago and would now like to leave for an unspecified amount of time.

Yet the organization's founders are optimistic that they will change Israeli society by bringing a substantial number of North American olim.

"It was difficult to explain to people what we were trying to do," Gelbart says. "And nobody believed us, because what Jews are moving to Israel in times of such turbulence?"

"But today aliyah is a reality," he adds. "Maybe the 2002 plane was a fluke, but the two planes we had this year aren't -- and the people who are coming later aren't either."

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