After 10 years, Nefesh B’Nefesh looks back, forward
Since arriving on aliya scene, NGO has streamlined absorption process, but immigration from North America hasn't risen dramatically.
New immigrants pose upon arrival Photo: Courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh
The scene that greeted passengers on a chartered flight from New York as it
slowly taxied toward Terminal 1 at Ben-Gurion Airport at 6:15 a.m. on Thursday
was jubilant, yet familiar.
When the plane came to a full stop, 229
excited immigrants from North America burst through its opened doors and walked
down the ramps onto the warm tarmac. Buses whisked them away from the rapidly
building Middle Eastern early-morning heat to the blissfully air-conditioned
terminal, where there was a brief ceremony.
Immigrant Absorption Minister
Sofa Landver and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky gave short speeches,
alongside other politicians and figures such as MK Danny Danon.
ceremony, the tired travelers underwent one last short bureaucratic procedure
and posed for photos with official documents granting them Israeli citizenship.
They exchanged contact details with friends made during the 12-hour flight
before dispersing to to start the newest chapter of their lives.
similar ceremony takes place several times each year. But what made this one
special was the 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of Nefesh B’Nefesh,
an organization which helps bring Jews from North America to Israel. The
milestone was an opportunity for the NGO’s founders and others to reflect on the
changes it has made since it set out to streamline aliya.
“In the past
decade, Western aliya has become increasingly common among many Jews in North
America and Britain, and this is a great source of pride and inspiration for
us,” Tony Gelbart, who founded the organization with Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, told
the newcomers. “We shall continue to develop this amazing organization to help
thousands more olim realize their dream and make aliya.”
When NBN first
appeared on the aliya scene in 2002, it was the ambitious new-kid-on-the-block,
out to challenge the authority of the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption
Ministry. Confident that it could do much better than the cumbersome system in
place at the time, NBN immediately introduced many streamlining measures, both
large and small.
It helped cut red tape by bringing bureaucrats overseas
to start citizenship procedures abroad.
It also put newcomers in touch
with employers and health insurance providers and its employees – the vast
majority of whom are themselves immigrants – and helped organize countless
social events to provide the new arrivals with a sense of community.
recognition is that aliya from North America is not the same as from other
places,” said NBN executive vice president Danny Oberman, explaining why so much
is invested in olim from North America. “It is an aliya by
Encouraging people to move to Israel is one battle, getting them
to stay is another. Over the years, countless Western immigrants who came to
Israel hoping to start anew eventually returned due to the difficulties of
acclimatizing to a place where the average salary is still about half of that in
the US and serious social conflicts and wars with neighbors flare up on
However, Oberman boasted a “97 percent retention rate” for olim
from North America, an astounding figure if true. One sociologist contacted by
The Jerusalem Post said, however, he had serious doubts the figure was
Back in 2002, there was much resistance to NBN being founded.
Competition over funding with other groups is still fierce, but the value of
many of the methods introduced by NBN has since been recognized.
Jewish Agency, NBN’s partner and sometime rival in the business of aliya, has
incorporated many of its techniques into flights of olim from France. Today, the
working relationship between the two groups is better than it was a few years
ago, a reality reflected in the speech Sharansky gave at Ben-Gurion Airport on
“The Jewish Agency for Israel, which brings tens of thousands
of Jewish olim from around the world, sees NBN as a loyal and important
partner,” he said. “Tony Gelbart is an important partner in the national effort
to gather Jews from around the world in Israel.”
Yet NBN’s stated goal is
not only to facilitate migration from North America, but to significantly
increase it. So far, that seems out of reach.
immigration to Israel from North America remains little more than a trickle. Of
the approximately six million Jews in North America – a figure that is highly
contested and may be clarified after an expected study, the first in a decade,
is released next year – only about 3,512 people, or 0.06%, made aliya in
In comparison, some 0.35% of Jews in France made aliya in 2010 –
1,775 of about 500,000 in the country. Percentages are even higher for places
such as Ukraine and Russia.
For all of the innovation introduced by NBN,
the number of North American olim has not come close to breaking the 1970
record, when 7,130 people from the US and Canada moved to the Jewish state,
basking in the glory of its victory in the Six Day War. It is also far from
hitting the target of 10,000 olim a year by 2015 set by Oberman in a 2010
interview with the Post.
Nonetheless, Oberman, who made aliya from
Australia in the 1970s, has still not given up on reaching that ambitious
“That figure is still feasible,” he said on Thursday.
said that while NBN is not satisfied with the number of olim coming from North
America, he is confident the figures will grow due to a “snowball
“Many of those coming now are friends and family of those who
already came, so we are looking for higher numbers in the near future,” he
He cited other factors that may lead to a dramatic increase in
aliya, like the strong Israeli economy and wildly successful programs such as
Masa and Taglit-Birthright, which were founded around the same time as
“I think we’re reaching a tipping point both because of the economic
situation in North America and also because of programs like Birthright and
Masa, when singles come to Israel after college, where the economy is robust and
unemployment is low,” Oberman said.