Analysis: Making aliya the American way

The agreement between the JA and NBN announced Sunday is momentous

aliya 224.88 nefesh  (photo credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh)
aliya 224.88 nefesh
(photo credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh)
It would be a mistake to view the agreement announced on Sunday between the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh to cede aliya promotion in North America to the smaller organization as a mere logistical arrangement, as Jewish Agency spokespeople have claimed in recent days. Nor is the Jewish Agency's ceding ground in itself a history-changing event, as Nefesh B'Nefesh officials believe. The agency is not losing its exclusive right to determine eligibility for aliya, and a majority of its North American staff, who work largely in education and fundraising, and not aliya, will stay put. Even so, Sunday's announcement was a momentous one. It amounted to a recognition by the Jewish Agency that the Jewish world has changed. The agency has come to recognize that the spectacularly successful tools it has developed over some eight decades, during which it brought over three million Jews to Israel, do not work in the United States. It recognizes that American Jewish culture is so different from the Jewish cultures of Israel, Europe, Africa and Asia, where the Jewish Agency's methods have flourished, that it will require a different skill-set to bring Americans on successful aliya. Enter Nefesh B'Nefesh, a quintessentially American kind of organization. Founded in 2002, the group was designed from the ground up around the individualistic American mindset, combining incentives, professional assistance and recognition of the oleh's autonomy rather than an all-encompassing bureaucracy offering a single track for all olim. It comes from the private sector and has applied business models and skills to deal with the national challenge of promoting aliya from America. Israelis who visit American Jewry are often surprised that the entirety of American Jewry is organized in this entrepreneurial, bottom-up fashion. While aliya numbers have not risen significantly since NBN's founding in 2002, all indications point to a vastly improved absorption experience. This is critically important considering the demographic estimates that nearly half of the 120,000 North American olim who arrived since the founding of the state left the country soon after. While these are still early days, it is significant that NBN can claim 98 percent retention. The new agreement does not mean that Nefesh B'Nefesh can replace the Jewish Agency, which alone possesses the skills to provide protection and support to Jewish communities in need. The agency emissaries who went into war-torn Gori last month in search of Jewish families are ample testament that the need for such a service has not passed. Furthermore, the agency has come to understand the advantage of letting Nefesh B'Nefesh interface with American Jewry on behalf of the aliya agenda. A similar realization has been growing in the halls of power in Israel in recent months, a recognition that Israel faces an American Jewish world that is independent and culturally distinct. In response to this realization, the government has launched new programs and announced new "paradigms" for its relationship with this enormous component of the Diaspora. Yet, despite a few interesting ideas for Israeli-American interaction that have been raised among Israeli officials, no concrete policies have been adopted to fundamentally change this conversation. Instead, it was the Jewish Agency that has taken the first step of any organ of the Israeli establishment toward a real acceptance of the different character of American Jewish life. The agreement it signed with Nefesh B'Nefesh is the first acknowledgement in practice that the challenge of connecting to American Jewry - in other words, to more than three-quarters of the Diaspora - is a challenge that requires American thinking in order to succeed.