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Nefesh B'Nefesh, the organization that provides grants to North American Jews to emigrate to Israel, is considering setting up in the UK, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said on Wednesday.
"They expressed an interest in extending their activities into Britain and I've said yes," Sacks told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. He spoke with Nefesh B'Nefesh representatives this week during a visit to Israel that he undertook with 28 other British community rabbis.
Sacks disclosed that this was the first time he had properly learned about the organization.
"I hadn't really been fully aware of its work before. It's absolutely clear that we must bring it to British Jewry as well. They want to and I give it my full support. It's a wonderful program and we're going to go for it," he said.
However, because the plans are at a very early stage, Sacks had "no idea" about how he could help facilitate the organization's expansion into the UK.
A spokeswoman for Nefesh B'Nefesh declined to comment on Sacks's remarks, although The Jerusalem Post has learned that the organization is already in negotiations with the Jewish Agency to co-operate on the initiative.
Before being founded in 2002, an average of 1,300 US and Canadian Jews moved to Israel per year over the previous 20 years, figures on the Nefesh B'Nefesh web site show. Since then, it has helped around 7,000 North American Jews to make aliyah, with Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz saying that a record 3,100 moved to Israel from the US in 2005.
He added that partly with the help of Ami, the French equivalent organization that was set up a year ago, more than 3,000 people emigrated from France. Meanwhile, 481 emigrated from the UK, also a record number.
Jankelowitz warned that while he "saluted" Nefesh B'Nefesh, any UK initiative should have a strong British infrastructure.
"What is so unique and special (about these programs) is that it is Americans talking to Americans, French talking to French. We think that this thing will succeed if its Brits talking to Brits. A Briton doesn't need an American telling him why to make aliyah," he said.
Jankelowitz also warned that Nefesh B'Nefesh would have to overcome bureaucratic challenges.
"Nefesh B'Nefesh is an American organization. Its funders are American. What is their status going to be? There are all sorts of legal issues that one has got to take into consideration," he said.
"For Nefesh B'Nefesh to start operating in Britain they are going to have to apply for all types of statuses," he added. "If there are Brits who are partnering with Nefesh B'Nefesh and it is sharing its know-how, I think that is positive."
Sacks also said that in conjunction with the United Jewish Israel Appeal, his office will increase its 2006 donation to the Birthright organization to â‚¤250,000 from â‚¤80,000 last year. Birthright provides free trips to Israel for young people from all over the world.
Sacks praised the organization for helping to facilitate Jewish continuity, in which he believes Israel plays a central role.
"Israel has never failed to inspire our young people," he said. "Israel should become the classroom of the Jewish world."
Sacks indicated that the purpose of the trip, which he described as "very inspiring," was to help equip the rabbis to promote Israel to their congregants back home against the background of negative press coverage.
"I said to the rabbis that they must become ambassadors for Israel," Sacks said.
However, he also said that some of that press has become more positive recently, with the BBC especially more balanced in its coverage.
"I think we have noted a distinct improvement in recent months," Sacks said. "They have taken on board the distress of the community."
During their visit, which was sponsored by the UK arm of the Jewish National Fund, Sacks and the other rabbis visited the Aleh Negev project in Ofakim, a new residential facility for severely mentally and physically disabled teenagers.
They also met former residents of Gush Katif who are living at the Or Negev project near Beersheba, although Sacks declined to be drawn on whether Israel should carry out further disengagements.
"I don't presume to know what is best for the people of Israel," he said, adding that he would support the government in whatever it decided to do.