Ilana Pickett was tired of packing. She had moved every year for the past 6 years. Yet when 24 year-old Pickett made Aliyah this May, she didn't pack a single box. Pickett had already been living in Israel since August 2011, and decided to take advantage of a convenient shortcut: Nefesh B'Nefesh's Guided Aliyah program.
Wish you could make Aliyah without packing up any of your stuff? Each year, close to 1,000 singles and families of all ages and backgrounds do just that, via Guided Aliyah; a free service that enables people currently living in Israel to acquire citizenship. Is it practical considerations, patriotism, or just an allergy to bureaucracy, that motivates people to acquire Israeli citizenship this way? And what motivated Nefesh B'Nefesh to create such a program in the first place? If people are already here, aren't they in a good position to take care of this on their own?
“In 2005 we saw that people were calling us from within Israel saying they plan on staying here, but they're having problems with the language barrier or the culture or with the bureaucracy of the Ministry of the Interior,” reports Chaim Rhein, Director of Guided Aliyah. “That's when we created the program, which assists citizens of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom already living in Israel.”
Due to rising demand, Rhein has started hosting monthly events, where the Olim assemble at the Nefesh B'Nefesh office, to sign a few final forms, and speak with a Ministry of the Interior representative for 5-15 minutes. Most of these Olim have not set foot inside a government office. They simply gave their documents to Nefesh B'Nefesh and let the Guided Aliyah staff shepherd their paperwork along to all the right people. “I worked about three hours on the paperwork,” Pickett attests. “I did not go to any government offices before that meeting. I think that there are a lot of people who put off making Aliyah because they know they'll need to deal with government agencies and bureaucracy, but that's the beauty of Nefesh B'Nefesh. They do everything for you: review your documents, ensure that the interview will be stress-free, and even provide some yummy Jerusalem boureakas.”
About one week after that initial meeting, Pickett returned to Jerusalem to receive her Israeli identity card and passport with visa. In truth, Pickett, who works as a paralegal in a Tel Aviv immigration law office, had the option to complete the process independently. Nevertheless, she preferred to let Nefesh B'Nefesh handle her change of status. “I have lawyers at my office who could have helped me with the Ministry of the Interior, but in the end I chose to go with NBN because they provide you with a lot of personalized information. They give you a clear picture, and that served my needs better.”
What are the needs of a typical Guided Oleh? There actually isn't such a person. “About a third are singles and young professionals, a third are Ultra Orthodox and the remainder are retirees. Each of these populations have their own needs and we therefore tailor our services accordingly,” Rhein points out. Beyond paperwork and answering questions, Nefesh B'Nefesh's Post Aliyah staff conduct helpful lectures and events for all Olim, Guided Olim included. “Seniors appreciate the social events,” he notes, “but working people benefit more from our employment information sessions as well.”
Even though there is no typical Guided Oleh, Rhein has still seen some atypical applicants. “We had someone who's been living here 42 years,” he shares. “We also had a 99 year-old individual, and triplets in their 20's who all made Aliyah on the same day.”
On the same day that Pickett finalized her Aliyah, 44 others did as well. This group included Rivkah and Shmuel Posen, Ramat Beit Shemesh residents who hail from Woodmere, New York. The Posens have lived in Israel for about 10 years. Making Aliyah “caught them up” with the rest of their extended family. “We knew eventually we were going to do it,” she reflects. “My entire family are citizens and whoever is here from my husband's side of the family are too. We're the last ones.” Ironically, until making Guided Aliyah, all four of the family's children were native “Sabras” yet still tourists in the land of their birth. For the Posens, making Aliyah was about making life simpler logistically. “I feel the same, I don't feel like I'm moving. It's just easier to do things as a citizen,” Mrs. Posen remarked.
For some Guided Olim, it's more about patriotism and less about paperwork. Lone soldier Ephraim Becker made Aliyah from London at the same time as Pickett and Posen. When asked to discuss his decision, Ephraim beamed with idealism: “It's about giving everything up to defend our people and our land.” Even so, isn't is tough to go about it alone? Ephraim is quick to set the record straight: “Dovy (Aliyah Advisor Dovy Singal) helped me a lot.” Besides, he adds: “The Jewish People are my family.”
Regardless of their varied backgrounds and ideological perspectives, one thing Guided Olim generally have in common is that they came to Israel and tested the waters before making a decision.
Beyond the ease and the speed, Guided Olim can also enjoy the government's basket of benefits that is available to all new immigrants, depending on how long they have lived here before making Aliyah. Pickett, who majored in Family Sciences and International Relations, will be taking advantage of an ulpan subsidy, and tuition assistance towards a graduate degree. Yet even people who do not stand to receive financial assistance, may want citizenship anyway. As Rhein quips: “Many people who have been here 15-20 years have no practical reason to do it, but they say 'Why not?'”
Most Guided Aliyah Olim, however, have good reasons. As Pickett put it: “It was really wonderful that I could go to Jerusalem with just my purse, make Aliyah, and return to my settled apartment and closet full of clothes!”
To find out how you can make Aliyah suitcase-free, call: 02-659-5820 or visit: www.nbn.org.il/guided
Some names and details have been changed.