After 10 years, Nefesh B’Nefesh looks back, forward

Since arriving on aliya scene, NGO has streamlined absorption process, but immigration from North America hasn't risen dramatically.

July 13, 2012 02:32
New immigrants pose upon arrival

New immigrants pose upon arrival 370. (photo credit: Courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh)

The scene that greeted passengers on a chartered flight from New York as it slowly taxied toward Terminal 1 at Ben-Gurion Airport at 6:15 a.m. on Thursday was jubilant, yet familiar.

When the plane came to a full stop, 229 excited immigrants from North America burst through its opened doors and walked down the ramps onto the warm tarmac. Buses whisked them away from the rapidly building Middle Eastern early-morning heat to the blissfully air-conditioned terminal, where there was a brief ceremony.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky gave short speeches, alongside other politicians and figures such as MK Danny Danon.

After the ceremony, the tired travelers underwent one last short bureaucratic procedure and posed for photos with official documents granting them Israeli citizenship. They exchanged contact details with friends made during the 12-hour flight before dispersing to to start the newest chapter of their lives.

A similar ceremony takes place several times each year. But what made this one special was the 10th anniversary celebration of the founding of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization which helps bring Jews from North America to Israel. The milestone was an opportunity for the NGO’s founders and others to reflect on the changes it has made since it set out to streamline aliya.

“In the past decade, Western aliya has become increasingly common among many Jews in North America and Britain, and this is a great source of pride and inspiration for us,” Tony Gelbart, who founded the organization with Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, told the newcomers. “We shall continue to develop this amazing organization to help thousands more olim realize their dream and make aliya.”

When NBN first appeared on the aliya scene in 2002, it was the ambitious new-kid-on-the-block, out to challenge the authority of the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. Confident that it could do much better than the cumbersome system in place at the time, NBN immediately introduced many streamlining measures, both large and small.

It helped cut red tape by bringing bureaucrats overseas to start citizenship procedures abroad.

It also put newcomers in touch with employers and health insurance providers and its employees – the vast majority of whom are themselves immigrants – and helped organize countless social events to provide the new arrivals with a sense of community.

“The recognition is that aliya from North America is not the same as from other places,” said NBN executive vice president Danny Oberman, explaining why so much is invested in olim from North America. “It is an aliya by choice.”

Encouraging people to move to Israel is one battle, getting them to stay is another. Over the years, countless Western immigrants who came to Israel hoping to start anew eventually returned due to the difficulties of acclimatizing to a place where the average salary is still about half of that in the US and serious social conflicts and wars with neighbors flare up on occasion.

However, Oberman boasted a “97 percent retention rate” for olim from North America, an astounding figure if true. One sociologist contacted by The Jerusalem Post said, however, he had serious doubts the figure was accurate.

Back in 2002, there was much resistance to NBN being founded. Competition over funding with other groups is still fierce, but the value of many of the methods introduced by NBN has since been recognized.

The Jewish Agency, NBN’s partner and sometime rival in the business of aliya, has incorporated many of its techniques into flights of olim from France. Today, the working relationship between the two groups is better than it was a few years ago, a reality reflected in the speech Sharansky gave at Ben-Gurion Airport on Thursday.

“The Jewish Agency for Israel, which brings tens of thousands of Jewish olim from around the world, sees NBN as a loyal and important partner,” he said. “Tony Gelbart is an important partner in the national effort to gather Jews from around the world in Israel.”

Yet NBN’s stated goal is not only to facilitate migration from North America, but to significantly increase it. So far, that seems out of reach.

Proportionately, immigration to Israel from North America remains little more than a trickle. Of the approximately six million Jews in North America – a figure that is highly contested and may be clarified after an expected study, the first in a decade, is released next year – only about 3,512 people, or 0.06%, made aliya in 2011.

In comparison, some 0.35% of Jews in France made aliya in 2010 – 1,775 of about 500,000 in the country. Percentages are even higher for places such as Ukraine and Russia.

For all of the innovation introduced by NBN, the number of North American olim has not come close to breaking the 1970 record, when 7,130 people from the US and Canada moved to the Jewish state, basking in the glory of its victory in the Six Day War. It is also far from hitting the target of 10,000 olim a year by 2015 set by Oberman in a 2010 interview with the Post.

Nonetheless, Oberman, who made aliya from Australia in the 1970s, has still not given up on reaching that ambitious goal.

“That figure is still feasible,” he said on Thursday.

He said that while NBN is not satisfied with the number of olim coming from North America, he is confident the figures will grow due to a “snowball effect.”

“Many of those coming now are friends and family of those who already came, so we are looking for higher numbers in the near future,” he said.

He cited other factors that may lead to a dramatic increase in aliya, like the strong Israeli economy and wildly successful programs such as Masa and Taglit-Birthright, which were founded around the same time as NBN.

“I think we’re reaching a tipping point both because of the economic situation in North America and also because of programs like Birthright and Masa, when singles come to Israel after college, where the economy is robust and unemployment is low,” Oberman said.

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