Diaspora Affairs: Making aliyah again 5 years later - What’s changed?

A lot is different for Jews in the United States and for American immigrants in the Jewish state.

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August 24, 2019 01:48
Diaspora Affairs: Making aliyah again 5 years later - What’s changed?

ARYEH AND Shoshana Wasserman, along with two of their children, arrive in Israel last week after making aliyah. . (photo credit: NEFESH B'NEFESH)

As the airplane wheels screech to a halt on the Tel Aviv runway, exhausted and excited faces peer out of the windows to see the orange and pink-streaked sky as the sun rises over their new home.

Hundreds of people wait to greet the new olim (immigrants) at Ben-Gurion Airport: politicians, public figures, family, friends.

Israeli flags wave, shofars blast, a live band plays classic Zionist melodies. As they deplane, children yelp with enthusiasm while their parents weep. Future lone soldiers dance with those already in uniform, who await them on the tarmac.

The Nefesh B’Nefesh chartered aliyah flight that landed last week brought 242 immigrants from North America to start their lives anew in Israel; more than a hundred were children and 41 plan to serve in the IDF. The new arrivals were among 2,282 immigrants making aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh this summer.

The flight was facilitated in cooperation with Israel’s Aliyah and Integration Ministry, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel (KKL), and Jewish Nation Fund-USA.

While I took part in the trip, I had actually done this already once before – arriving in JFK airport with my parents nearly five years ago, Nefesh B’Nefesh cap over my then-much longer hair, equipped with my American passport and pretty much everything I owned.

But taking the flight again alongside these fresh-faced olim, I realized that I was not the only one who changed a lot over the past five years.

Changes can’t necessarily be seen in Israel’s government, which is still being led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, just as it was then. Nor can it be seen in the tensions between Israel and Gaza which, much like in 2014, seems to be near the breaking point all the time. The changes cannot be seen in the West Bank, where in 2014 Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered three young boys and, this month five years later, the young poet Dvir Sorek was found stabbed to death not too far away.

But America is not quite the same place it was when I left it five years earlier.

Since my September 2014 flight, white supremacists have marched in Charlottesville, screaming: “the Jews will not replace us!”; US congresswomen have used antisemitic tropes to demonize the Jewish state; and Jews have been murdered in synagogues, including one five minutes away from where I grew up in Pittsburgh.

Donald Trump became president of the United States, gifting the Israeli government with his move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem and with his recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan, but also worrying American Jews due to numerous comments and responses deemed antisemitic – including one this week where he mentioned a “disloyalty” of Jews who vote for a Democrat.

Yet, all the while the face of the United States seems to be changing, the age-old Jewish desire to return to its homeland seems to have continued steady.

“IT’S TIME to go home,” Rabbi Daniel Wasserman says, fighting back tears at JFK Airport and cradling his four-month-old granddaughter in the nook of his arm.

Wasserman, a rabbi from Pittsburgh, is at the airport to say goodbye to his son Aryeh, daughter-in-law Shoshana and three grandchildren, who are about to board the chartered aliyah flight to Tel Aviv.

The rabbi had been one of only a select few people who entered the Tree of Life Congregation just after the horrific shooting claimed 11 lives last October. As a member of the Hevra Kadisha, the Orthodox Jewish burial society, he was tasked with the unique job of preparing the murdered Jews for burial.

The shooting was the worst antisemitic attack to ever occur on American soil – but today, his tears are being shed for an entirely different reason.

“It’s wonderful,” he says, his voice cracking as John Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” blares through the speakers. “We have two daughters already living [in Israel]. Now our son is going, and our other daughter is hopefully going in a year. It’s wonderful.”
Wasserman who, along with his wife and family, is wearing custom-made aliyah-themed T-shirts, says he believes it won’t be too long before it will be him who will be boarding the aliyah flight.

“People in my shul know I’ve been yelling about this for years – 20 years I’ve been telling them – ‘a time will come when my wife and I are getting up and going, and you need to come with us,’” he says.

While he has always felt he would eventually move, the shooting that took place in a synagogue in the neighborhood where he leads a congregation makes the decision feel all the more relevant.

“The thing is that the last couple of years, I’ve been telling [my congregants] ‘it’s coming closer,’” he says. “And it is coming closer.”

“We were on the trajectory anyway, but certainly the events of last October have moved that along,” he adds.

WHILE THE tragedy impacted Wasserman directly and may have led to him feeling stronger about making the move, Nefesh B’Nefesh asserts that the number of people making aliyah has not risen as a result of concern about antisemitism.

According to Marc Rosenberg, the pre-aliyah director at Nefesh B’Nefesh, while there are some people discussing security concerns and politics in the United States as a reason to move to the Jewish state, there is a large contrast between those people and the ones who actually board that plane.

“I actually think politics has little to do with why people make aliyah,” he says.

Despite him speaking with hundreds of people per week, he says that issues like politics and security are hardly ever discussed. “Ninety-five percent of the time, security issues don’t come up – even security issues in Israel... In my experience, those who come in and say ‘America is changing’ – and 10 years ago they said that as well – are not the ones who will actually go forward with their application. Because to move out of your comfort zone, you really have to have a plan.”

Instead, he argues that people are moving to Israel due to a draw from the Jewish state.

Rosenberg describes a change occurring in the demographics of those making aliyah, pointing to an increase in under 30, single, secular immigrants who have spent time in the country on Birthright, Masa, or a gap-year or internship program and were drawn by the country’s culture.

These opportunities, which exist in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – but also in smaller towns and cities throughout the country – are increasing steadily, along with the number of young people who want to add work experience “in the Start-Up Nation” to their resume, Rosenberg says. But these experiences allow Americans to get a taste of the country, and leave many wanting more.

“There’s a lot more commonality found among olim with regards to a search for meaning and the cultural malaise they might feel in America, or a lack of energy in the lifestyle they are living,” Rosenberg says. “And coming to Israel – where the country will allow you to go to college without going into debt – has been a pull for people.”

Rosenberg says he believes there’s a draw to Israel for the culture regardless of age or stage of life.

“I think for people trying to find their place culturally and socially, Israel has a great recipe: It’s family focused; people are real and honest and straightforward,” he says. “So if you’re willing to tolerate the good that comes with the bad, which any place has, it’s one of those things that can be positive.”

The Jewish state is a young 71 years old, which means that the five years I have spent here is about 1/15th of the state’s existence – a relatively significant time. It also means that while some of the smoothness that people were used to in America don’t yet exist in Israel, such conveniences are still being developed and the kinks are being ironed out.

“It is a young country and there are still those points that need changing and growing up, but many people are coming because they want to be the ones to change them,” Rosenberg says. “They see the opportunity involved.”

Some of that development can even be seen physically, since the country’s cities look quite different than they did when I arrived.

Jerusalem is in the middle of a makeover, with the entire entrance to the city under development to create office spaces and apartments. The high-speed train is set to be rolled out in its entirety, bringing the two major cities of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv even closer together.

Meanwhile, the hi-tech scene has continued to develop in Tel Aviv – and at a fast pace. With the young start-ups opening up daily comes their desire to make the next big “exit.” Many offer services and market globally, requiring a growing number of native English speakers to fill digital marketing and copywriting roles.

A Nefesh B’Nefesh job board found that on its platform, opportunities for these positions have more than doubled since 2016, although some of that increase has to do with the general growth of online job boards over that time.


“WHEN YOU’RE a fluent, mother-tongue English speaker in a community that needs to be open to the greater world, it’s easier to find a position that celebrates your English-level skills because it’s necessary – whether it’s dealing in business or sales or content writing or SEO or business development,” says Nefesh B’Nefesh post-aliyah and employment director Rachel Berger.

“There are so many international companies in Israel or companies that start in Israel now, that want to make sure they have an English speaking face.”

While many olim find jobs in their fields, Rosenberg finds that some immigrants are comfortable switching careers when they arrive, increasingly finding their way into the hi-tech scene.

“I think there is a mentality in Israel that is not so rigid,” he says, “where people don’t ask you where you went to school or whatever, so it allows people to easily switch careers for those who went to college and don’t like what they do. Often people seem to realize that your job is not who you are here in Israel, and so that hi-tech world really opens a lot of doors.”

The result of this change on Tel Aviv means that the city is more Anglo-friendly than ever before, says Rosenberg, another reason why so many olim are now choosing to move there.


WHILE FIVE years is a significant amount of time in such a young country, it is also significant with regard to the world of technology, which has been able to offer conveniences for immigrants never before experienced.

Countless new apps have been created over the last five years that make it easier to stay in touch with people olim left behind, and make it easier to figure out life in a foreign country. Apps for translating, learning languages, ride-sharing, taxis, banking, directions, bus schedules, news, university, parking and tourism make previously challenging tasks much simpler for overwhelmed immigrants.

Likewise, social media has developed, and aliyah-themed Facebook groups created five years ago continue to gather data, providing immigrants with valuable, relevant information and an increasing pool of people to assist with nearly every issue you can think of.

“The information that people are able to share on Facebook has totally changed the experience,” Berger says. “These groups offer information, support, shared experiences and events you may otherwise not know about. And I think more and more people are using them now over the last five years. Now if you ask a question on these groups – about pension, keren hishtalmut [trust fund], what to expect for your first salary, freelancing content writing, entrepreneurship, or whatever else – you will find between 20 and 80 answers. And I feel like that changes your experience.”

These tools are especially helpful for those immigrants choosing to live outside of the more common destinations.

This may be why many people on the chartered flight that arrived last week are moving to places other than Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, including Beit Shemesh, Efrat, Erez, Givatayim, Haifa, Hod Hasharon, Kfar Adumim, Lod, Ma’aleh Adumim, Mitzpe Netufa, Modi’in, Netanya, Petah Tikva, Ra’anana, Sha’arei Tikva and Zichron Yaakov.

Wasserman’s son Aryeh is one of those moving to a less common location: Talmon, in the Samaria region. The settlement is about a 30-minute drive from Modi’in, where he will be working.

But because of the ease of getting by in English in so many places in Israel and therefore to never fully acclimate, Aryeh says he looks forward to moving to a place without “an American bubble.”

Nonetheless, he is excited about the move, and will be reuniting with his sister and her family, who already live in the community.
And most of all, he’s happy now that things have changed since last October, when his father was mentioned in the media all over the world, following the horrific shooting.

“There was an article about us making aliyah after the Nefesh B’Nefesh mega event,” he says. “And I shared it with my family and said how nice it was that now we could be in the news for happy events, not just sad ones.”


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