59 lone soldiers make Aliyah on the August 17 Nefesh B'Nefesh Aliyah flight from New York.
(photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
Today, a group of 230 olim from Ukraine landed at Ben-Gurion Airport. This marks the 14th flight of olim we’ve brought to Israel since we began our aliya program in December 2014. Between now and the end of the year, we will also bring hundreds of additional olim from France, Venezuela, Uruguay, Moldova and Arab lands.
Aliya has always been a central factor in rebuilding Jewish life in Israel and in realizing the Zionist dream. It is the raison d’etre for the founding of Israel: to provide refuge to Jews from around the world who are in distress, fleeing persecution or who wish to fulfill their dream of being part of the Jewish state and in joining the narrative of a people who have returned to their historical homeland.
But aliya is not only a lifeline for Jews in the Diaspora. It plays a key strategic role in safeguarding and strengthening the Jewish state. Over the decades, Israel’s olim have enriched Israel’s economic, cultural, democratic and technological edge. Who could imagine Israel without the aliya of over 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union? A few years ago, when I served as an adviser to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, I asked him how our organization could help Israel. Without any hesitation, he answered, “Yechiel, three things: Aliya, aliya, aliya.”
Unfortunately, the importance of aliya and the centrality it used to play in both Israel and the Diaspora have diminished significantly. I believe there are a few reasons for this.
One is a false notion that the major waves of aliya are behind us, that Jews around the world are, for the most part, secure and not in need of refuge as they were in the past.
This is why the Jewish Agency for Israel, which was historically responsible for aliya, closed its aliya department a few years ago and changed its strategic plan to one that focuses on Jewish identity rather than aliya.
But the truth is that many Jewish communities all around the world are in the midst of a crisis, whether economic or a result of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in recent years. There is a desperate need – and opportunity – to rev up the aliya engines, seize the moment and bring Jews to Israel.
Another reason aliya is not reaching its full potential is the obstacles that prevent potential olim from taking the plunge and moving to Israel – more specifically, the total inadequacy of the current klita process. While the challenges differ from community to community, and from oleh to oleh, most potential olim are concerned about the same things: Will I find a good job in Israel? Will my family adjust to living there? Will I be able to afford an apartment there? For some, especially those fleeing war-torn eastern Ukraine, the main question they are asking is, How will I survive my first year in Israel, when I’m coming with only the shirt on my back, no savings or pension, no appropriate job skills or Hebrew-language proficiency? In launching our aliya and klita department a few months ago, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (Keren L’Yedidut) has proven, that if you help potential olim by providing them with a secure safety net here in Israel, then Israel’s annual aliyah numbers would increase significantly.
Clearly, what is needed, and has been sorely lacking over the years, is a more personalized, non-bureaucratic, handson approach to aliya and klita. The old method of running an aliya business as “Here’s a flight ticket and a sal klitah, come!” is totally inadequate today. What the Fellowship has done with the fourteen planeloads of olim we have already brought from Ukraine is to provide them with an economic and social buffer – a safety net that ensures a soft landing in Israel. And that is why they are coming with us. In addition, to providing each oleh with a monetary grant, we pair every oleh with a local Israeli volunteer who helps them with all their needs for a period of six months. The volunteers call the oleh within 24 hours after they land at Ben-Gurion Airport, help answer those newbie questions, like “How do I open up a bank account? Where is there a good kindergarten for my kids? Can you help me with a particular errand until my Hebrew gets better and I can go on my own?” In addition, The Fellowship helps the olim in paying rent, providing emergency medical care, if needed, even funds for daycare for their children. For many olim, getting a small boost up front and knowing that there’s someone looking out for you once you get here can make the difference between a smooth or a tumultuous klita period – which sometimes marks the difference between a successful life in Israel and a struggling one.
And so, while the aliya numbers for 2015 are indeed up, they could be much higher.
There is a direct correlation between the number of olim coming to Israel and, on the other hand, the quality of the klita they receive. The better the klita, the larger the number of olim that will come.
Let’s recommit ourselves to being a society that welcomes our fellow Jews home. Let’s be more tolerant of our new neighbors with their accents and questions.
Let’s continue making aliya more accessible and not resign ourselves to the apathetic “sink or swim” approach.
Let us be more tolerant of the new oleh who is just learning the language and the ropes here, and be a nation that looks outward and expands its notion of self.
And, most of all, if we wish to genuinely increase the number of olim coming on aliya, let us all commit to do more to welcome these new citizens and to help them resettle here in their new homeland.
The author, a rabbi, is president and founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.