For the first time in its history, the Jewish Agency for Israel has ceded its function of promoting aliya to a private organization.
According to an agreement signed on August 22 but only announced on Sunday, aliya promotion in the United States and Canada will be handled by the private Nefesh B'Nefesh organization. The Jewish Agency will maintain sole rights to determine eligibility and to open files in official Israeli agencies, but this function will be made accessible through the NBN Web site.
The agreement marks a shift of responsibility from the large, history-laden Jewish Agency, whose leadership is appointed by political coalitions of Zionist groups in the World Zionist Organization, to a tech-savvy organization utilizing up-to-date business models and marketing strategies.
According to officials in the Jewish Agency, the shift will include largely dismantling the network of 12 aliya shlichim (emissaries) in North America, "redeploying" a few of them and focusing on Internet-based marketing and communications methods utilized by Nefesh B'Nefesh for aliya promotion.
The new cooperation has effectively established a "one-stop shop" for Americans and Canadians interested in aliya, according to a press release put out by the two organizations.
The agreement comes after months of a bitter turf war between the organizations. Even the latest press release was delayed for several days due to disagreement over its phrasing.
The agreement is viewed by officials in both organizations as a "victory" for Nefesh B'Nefesh, which has taken over the implementation of aliya policy in North America from an organization that has held a de facto monopoly over all aspects of aliya worldwide since its founding in 1929.
"We are pleased to have formalized a working agreement with the Jewish Agency, and are eager to continue facilitating and promoting North American aliya in our new enhanced capacity," said Nefesh B'Nefesh co-founder Tony Gelbart. "This agreement will enable Nefesh B'Nefesh to further fulfill our mission of making aliya as seamless and successful as possible."
"The Jewish Agency is confident that as a result of this cooperation with Nefesh B'Nefesh, aliya from North America will grow," Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski said.
Despite the apparent loss of turf, a senior Jewish Agency official told The Jerusalem Post that the agency's leadership believed the move would be beneficial for their organization.
"It's a big change. We know it, and we're still learning about it," the official said. "We've gotten used to being a monopoly where no one else touches aliya. Now, suddenly we're cooperating with a local organization."
The Jewish Agency is "an organization built on consensus that tends to be very conservative," he said, but its ultimate commitment to increasing aliya has forced it to recognize that "Nefesh B'Nefesh has taken the idea of a friendlier and more efficient process to a very advanced level."
The new cooperation will mean that olim won't face "two different organizations, which is confusing," the official said, "but one [aliya application] form with both our logos, one information system. It's a collaborative venture."
According to Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland President Stephen Hoffman, who together with UJA Federation of New York chief executive John Ruskay and Washington, DC, mediator Kenneth Feinberg brought the two organizations together to hammer out the agreement, the final result is a "win-win situation."
"The only issue here was, is there a better way to do the job? If there is, and somebody is pouring new money into it, it's a huge win."
According to Hoffman, the work of Nefesh B'Nefesh has changed the debate over aliya in the United States. Whereas American Jewish leaders used to argue that aliya "was not something [the US Jewish community] had a big interest in," the tech-savvy, customer-oriented operating style of Nefesh B'Nefesh "has got federations saying that this is something different. Suddenly we do have people who want to make aliya. They've created a buzz about it. We've gone from aliya in the West being an ideological battle to being an enthusiastic choice that's being offered to people."
The new excitement surrounding aliya has not yet translated into significant increases in the number of immigrants. According to figures compiled by Prof. Chaim Waxman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, American aliya has accounted for 2,335 olim in 2007, a dramatic rise from the 1,237 who came in 2000, but not much higher than the 2,253 of 1995.
But Nefesh B'Nefesh can point to a 98-percent retention rate among olim who come with the organization. This is achieved by a combination of factors. NBN will only accept olim who have visited Israel before deciding to immigrate to the country, those who are not fleeing financial or other sorts of "crises," and those whose personal situation - "on a case by case basis," according to an organization official - make a successful absorption more likely. In the new agreement, those who are eligible for aliya but are not accepted by Nefesh B'Nefesh will register with the Jewish Agency but still be brought to Israel on NBN-organized flights.
The organization also operates a comprehensive support network in Israel which helps the new arrivals find work and connect socially. It offers many olim who immigrate through the organization loans that are turned into grants after a number of years in the country. Perhaps most importantly, according to the olim themselves, Nefesh B'Nefesh workers and volunteers help the immigrants navigate the complicated Israeli bureaucracy.