Nine years ago I made aliya from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As both a lifelong Zionist and a member of a “Palestinian” Jewish family that moved to the United States after the establishment of the British Mandate, I felt that Israel was my home.
While, for the most part, my aliya experience went smoothly, I definitely was conscious of the fact that the system did not allow for much hand-holding or follow- up. Once in Israel, I was largely on my own.
Founded in 2001, Nefesh B’Nefesh, which now markets aliya in North America as a partner of the Jewish Agency, has worked hard to change an immigration process that many have felt has traditionally been oriented more toward rescuing Jews in distress than encouraging aliya of choice from the affluent West.
From employment services, financial incentives, educational advice, and regular follow-up calls, Nefesh B’Nefesh claims that it has been able to raise the North American immigrant retention rate from a dismal half of all olim to “96 percent.”
On Sunday I returned to my old New York stomping grounds – something of surreal experience, as I have gone from a jaded city dweller to a friendly Beit Shemesh suburbanite – and attended one of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s aliya “mega fairs” being held in Times Square.
Such fairs were also organized in Toronto, Montreal, Florida, Baltimore, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Attended by over a thousand people, the fair featured advice booths representing real estate, shipping, educational, and financial firms dealing with new olim and seminars on the ins and outs of military service, careers in Israel, financial planning, taxes and budgeting, the Israeli healthcare system, introduction to the aliya process, and aliya rights and benefits.
The crowd appeared to be split between those approaching retirement and those just graduating from school, with a smattering of young families leavening the mix. Aliya for those in the middle of their careers and with children more advanced in their schooling is harder, it seems.
Mayors of several Israeli cities were on hand, and Nefesh officials worked hard to promote their Go North and Go South programs, which provide a bundle of incentives for new olim to settle in the periphery.
“It has been incredibly humbling and inspiring to see thousands of Jews gather in New York today as well as throughout North America this past week, who are seriously considering making aliya to Israel,” Nefesh B’Nefesh founder and chairman Tony Gelbart told the participants.
“We put special emphasis this year on providing participants with detailed information about moving to the Negev and the Galilee – to us this is Zionism of special significance.”
Immigration from the developed world is largely steady, and while Nefesh B’Nefesh succeeded in simplifying and streamlining the aliya process, making a once daunting process much more user-friendly, it remains to be seen just how much the organization can do to boost aliya numbers.
“The overwhelming majority of Jews lives in developed democratic countries. Under the present distribution of global development and democracy, no major migration waves can be expected.
“Periodical economic crises, like the financial downfall of 2008-2009, had only minor consequences for Jewish migration,” said Hebrew University demographer Prof. Sergio Dellapergola.
“Of course, nobody can predict the collapse of empires. See the breakdown of the USSR and the subsequent wave of emigration. If something similar happens to the European Union or to the US, there will be major consequences for Jewish migration. But it is difficult to rely on such occurrences.
“Emigration from Israel, too, currently quite low, might increase if the circumstances were to become extremely hard,” he said.
NBN to date “has assisted over 38,000 olim,” a spokesman said.
“More than 50,000 North American and British Jews have attended Nefesh B’Nefesh pre-aliya informational seminars throughout the US, Canada, and UK.”
A total of 3,504 immigrants came from the US and Canada in 2013.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post following the event, Nefesh spokesman Tani Kramer said that now that his organization has managed to raise the immigrant retention rate, it is exploring ways of identifying obstacles to aliya and boosting aliya figures.
Aliya numbers for 2014 have been up significantly over 2013, he asserted.
“We have been comparing the first quarter of 2014 [with] the first quarter of 2013. We hit the numbers of I want to say [is] the halfway mark of 2013 already now in terms of applications being downloaded,” he said.
“We have seen an increase in numbers already now in terms of applications being submitted and finalized.”
One way in which aliya can be boosted, he said, is by leveraging the successful integration of previous Nefesh olim to showcase how much easier it is today to be an oleh.
“We highlight success stories as much as we can, somebody someone can relate to.”
Yehuda Sharf, the Jewish Agency’s director of aliya, said that beyond the necessity of streamlining aliya, a revision in Israeli attitudes toward new immigrants must take place.
“Israelis love aliya but not always olim,” he quipped, insisting that a cultural change in which Israelis embrace their newest citizens must take place.