US Reform Movement hopes Nefesh B'Nefesh will support 'flex aliya' concept

Initiative to help those seeking to plant their feet in both countries.

nefesh aliya 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
nefesh aliya 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Leaders in the US Reform Movement said Tuesday they hope the privately run aliya organization Nefesh B'Nefesh will support programs developed with the Jewish Agency to attract liberal Jews who want to split their time between Israel and their existing homes in North America. Nefesh B'Nefesh, which under an agreement announced Sunday will take over North American aliya operations for the Jewish Agency, has largely attracted Orthodox Jews aboard its planes, in part through an early partnership with the Orthodox Union, though it has also recently reached out to the Reform and Conservative movements. In the meantime, the Association of Reform Zionists of America and the Jewish Agency have spent the past four years jointly promoting so-called "flex aliya" alternatives to the classic aliya, which for American Jews conjures up images of families waving good-bye as they pick up one-way tickets to Israel from the El Al Israel Airways check-in desk. Instead, ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America - the Zionist arm of the Union for Reform Judaism - has offered seminars catering to retirees interested in buying second homes in Israel rather than in Arizona or Florida, professionals looking for mid-career sabbaticals and others seeking to plant their feet on both sides of the Atlantic. "We have shown people in the Reform Movement there are a lot of doorways through which they can walk," said Rabbi Andrew Davids, executive director of ARZA, who said he had met repeatedly with Nefesh B'Nefesh over the past year. "So if Nefesh B'Nefesh would support it they'd find a very willing and enthusiastic partner in ARZA and the Union for Reform Judaism." The move toward flex aliya establishes a new paradigm in which someone who returned to the US after several years in Israel, or split his time between the countries, wasn't seen as a failed oleh, Davids said. "It's false to see it in the binary mode, that you're all the way in or you're all the way out," he said. Rabbi Michael Weinberg of Temple Beth Israel in Skokie, Illinois, on the northwest border of Chicago, said he counted himself among those seeking a middle ground: One of his sons recently made aliya with his wife, but another son still lives in the US. "We'll end up with children on both sides of the ocean," he said. "So I'm interested in it [flex aliya] myself." His synagogue is hosting a tour later this month arranged by the Jewish Agency's aliya emissary in New York, Liran Avisar Gazit, on buying a vacation or retirement home in Israel. Nefesh B'Nefesh spokeswoman Yael Katsman said no decisions had been made on the specifics of which Jewish Agency initiatives would be continued. "We look forward to broader cooperation with anyone who is interested in promoting aliya," she said. Conservative leaders, who dropped their partnership with Nefesh B'Nefesh last year during the organization's bitter turf battle with the Jewish Agency, said they were relieved to see an end to the conflict and expected to renew their ties to Nefesh B'Nefesh. "We're really glad it's settled," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and a member of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency. "I think that Orthodox Jews have been more interested in aliya and one of our challenges in the Conservative Movement is to convince members it should be looked at as an option," he said. Yet some Reform rabbis raised concerns that their congregants - especially those with complicated familial ties whose eligibility for aliya might be questioned under Nefesh B'Nefesh rules that were narrower than the Jewish Agency's - might be wary of working with an organization perceived as friendlier toward more traditionally religious Jews. "For American Jews, especially those in liberal movements, focusing on these things really defies the logic of their daily lives," said Rabbi Michael Zedek of Chicago's Emanuel Congregation, who recently helped a former congregant and recent oleh in establishing his eligibility for aliya with the Jewish Agency. "If it's perceived as moving to a more authoritarian, univocal approach, it adds to the American and Israeli Jewish communities growing apart." Under the new agreement, the Jewish Agency will still exercise final approval on the eligibility of prospective olim, and will continue to assist those who meet its standards but not those of Nefesh B'Nefesh. "We'll have to ask the difficult questions about who will be recognized for aliya, of how our constituents will not only continue to receive support but don't find themselves being called into question," said Davids from ARZA.