The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is set to expand its nascent immigration program to cover several more countries, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, the organization’s founder, told The Jerusalem Post.
Eckstein first announced his intention to create his own aliyah program in October, telling the Post that he anticipated flights would begin within a matter of weeks, although it took several months for the first flight to take off.
The program will expand to include immigration from several countries, including Moldova, France, Venezuela and “an Arab country that Israel doesn’t have diplomatic relations with,” Eckstein said.
The Jewish Agency’s monopoly over immigration was broken over a decade ago when Nefesh B’Nefesh began bringing in North American Jews without the quasi-governmental body’s intervention, Eckstein said.
While Eckstein and the Jewish Agency initially worked together on IFCJ’s initial “Freedom Flights” bringing Ukrainian refugees to Israel, their relationship, already in free fall for some time, deteriorated rapidly.
With dwindling budgets and challenges to its dominance, Eckstein said that the Jewish Agency retooled and “changed its strategic plan to things like Birthright, Masa, and youth programs in Israel and they closed the aliyah desk. Now they maintain they’re still doing aliyah, and there’s a spiral movement – if you get Jewish identity then it leads to aliyah, but the bottom line is they closed their aliyah desk, and they reduced the budgets for aliyah and the number of emissaries of aliyah around the world.”
While professing that he did not want to get into an argument with the Jewish Agency, Eckstein, who is heavily involved with efforts to rehabilitate Jewish war refugees in eastern Ukraine, said that he found the agency’s efforts to bring Ukrainians to Israel to be less than satisfactory.
More than 7,500 Ukrainians have moved to Israel in the last year and a half, making it the second largest source of immigration after France.
The agency only has one aliyah emissary in the entire country, Eckstein said, calling the situation “absurd” and stating that the organization was “not up for the urgencies and the exigencies of the needs of these people.”
Asked about the Jewish Agency workers stationed across the country, Eckstein then called their staff “bloated.”
“I went to [agency chairman Natan] Sharansky, I told him we’re starting our own thing, can we work together if you want to work together on that... And not only did they not cooperate, but they’ve done everything to undermine our operation including calling every oleh and telling them that we are not operating with the Israeli government’s approval... That we were broke, that we were a rogue organization.”
“The only thing that the Jewish Agency provides is the plane ticket,” he added.
Eckstein believes that the system is broken and that making the necessary changes would allow for a substantive increase in immigration.
“The fact is that there are many more Jews who are able and willing and even wanting to come to Israel, but they have certain needs that need to be addressed,” he said, adding that the basic basket of immigrant benefits is insufficient.
Bringing immigrants together on group flights, providing them with extended social services and helping them with the bureaucratic hurdles inherent to moving to Israel, both before and after their flight, is key, Eckstein said.
“It’s a different feeling to come to a country together with 160 other people, to know that you already have a place to live, that you have someone who’s going to hold your hand for six months, help you with a job, and help you financially with furniture, with an apartment, with daycare centers, with medical needs, that’s also something that we do. Let’s say they need emergency dental care, we’ll provide that for them,” he explained.
“In other words, the whole idea here is to provide for them so that they have a good experience and tell others about it... that increases aliyah. Now I don’t want us to replace the Jewish Agency. I want us to supplement the work of the Jewish Agency. But the problem is that the Jewish Agency just does not have the pockets, the funds, to even have a department of aliya. And meanwhile you have Jews who are suffering, either from anti-Semitism or from war like the refugees in Ukraine, who want to come to Israel, but they want to be assured of certain things.”
Speaking to the Post , the Jewish Agency’s Benny Lidsky said that he had been receiving numerous phone calls from new immigrants who had arrived on last week’s IFCJ flight from Ukraine complaining about missing luggage and stating that they had not received their identification cards.
“I think you can say that tens of people had problems like these,” he said. “Eckstein, instead of sitting with the Jewish Agency and connecting and doing things together, prefers to do things alone. And what happens in the end is that the immigrants get hurt by it.”
According to Ariela Vole Laniado, who heads the IFCJ aliyah program, last week’s flight was overbooked and much of the immigrants’ luggage was slated to arrive on a flight the next day.
“We knew it in advance, the olim knew it in advance. And this is what happened,” she said, adding that everyone on the flight received an identification number and would receive their official paperwork as soon as the Immigration and Absorption Ministry processed everyone. The decision to issue cards or just numbers is one made by the government, according to the IFCJ.
“We knew exactly what we were doing, we gave the best service we could,” she said.
There are volunteers tasked with helping the new immigrants in the communities to which they are moving who are available to help with any issue that crops up, from furniture to emergency medical treatments, she added.
“What a shame that instead of bringing more Jews to Israel, the Jewish Agency, an organization that for 90 years was instrumental in bringing Jews to Israel from the four corners of the world, is now spending its time bemoaning the loss of its aliyah empire by grasping at straws and disseminating petty press releases against those who are doing the job better than they,” IFCJ spokeswoman Tali Aronsky told the Post.
In response, a senior agency official said that he believed that the IFCJ had “bitten off more than it can chew, and it is now directly harming the very people it purports to be helping.”
Calling reports that the agency had shut down its aliyah operation “tired nonsense,” he pointed to the more than 26,000 new immigrants who arrived last year and said that “no organization is more deeply involved and invested in aliyah than the Jewish Agency is. Our entire organizational budget is geared toward deepening Jewish identity around the world and thus increasing aliyah, and – as recent aliyah data clearly shows – our strategy is working. The crusty tactics of yesteryear are no longer relevant, and the bottom line is that the Jewish Agency’s notion of aliyah as the culmination of a sustained, long-term process of identity-building and Israel engagement is proving itself.”
“The notion that a thinly staffed, inexperienced organization could produce more immigration from Western countries by tossing wads of dollars at people is laughable and frankly somewhat offensive.”