Giving Olim a Home Away from Home

Nefesh B’Nefesh's opening of the new Aliyah Campus has provided Jerusalem with an expansive event space which educates and advocates for the Aliyah experience by putting community in the center.

 Tony Gelbart and Rabbi Yehoshua Fass Co-Founders of Nefesh B'Nefesh (photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)
Tony Gelbart and Rabbi Yehoshua Fass Co-Founders of Nefesh B'Nefesh
(photo credit: YOSSI ZWECKER)

When Shiri Isaac left the Nefesh B’Nefesh campus last week, she exited the building with her brand new Teudat Zehut (Israeli ID card), and an engagement ring.

Shiri is just one of many Olim who have celebrated a significant occasion at the organization’s new Aliyah Campus, which officially opened in the heart of Jerusalem in November 2021. 

Earlier in the day, Shiri had received a call from a Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Advisor, notifying her that her Teudat Zehut was ready to be picked up from the campus. Despite having plans to meet her then-boyfriend, Natan Oliff, in Mamilla later that day, she figured she’d be able to squeeze in the quick errand before her date.

Lone Soldiers and Lone Bnot Sherut Thanksgiving Dinner at Nefesh B'Nefesh Aliyah Campus (Credit: Yonit Schiller)Lone Soldiers and Lone Bnot Sherut Thanksgiving Dinner at Nefesh B'Nefesh Aliyah Campus (Credit: Yonit Schiller)

Little did Shiri know that her best friend Shira Gottlieb, Events and Marketing Coordinator at Nefesh B’Nefesh, was secretly working with Natan to orchestrate a surprise engagement on top of the organization’s expansive rooftop.

Together with Shira, Natan decorated the rooftop with balloons and had a bottle of champagne ready to be popped open. A short while later, Shiri arrived at the campus’ rooftop overlooking the breathtaking view of Jerusalem and said “yes.”

Lone Soldiers Wedding Ceremony on Nefesh B'Nefesh Aliyah Campus Rooftop (Credit: HODAYA TOLEDANO)Lone Soldiers Wedding Ceremony on Nefesh B'Nefesh Aliyah Campus Rooftop (Credit: HODAYA TOLEDANO)

“We decided we wanted to make Aliyah within a few months of each other,” Oliff said, referring to him and his fiancé. “We’re so grateful for Nefesh B’Nefesh for not only making our Aliyah possible, but for providing their beautiful space for our engagement. Between Nefesh B’Nefesh and Shiri, that’s really all I needed to make Aliyah.”

For Gottlieb, coordinating this special event was perhaps the most personal example of how the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus has helped enrich the life of Olim all over the country. From a star-studded evening featuring Nefesh B’Nefesh Oleh Aleeza Ben Shalom who hosted a watch party for the release of her brand-new hit Netflix show 'The Jewish Matchmaker,' to helping 50 Ezrachim Vatikim (senior immigrants) download the new digital senior citizen card and learn about senior rights and benefits in Israel, to a fitness event for nearly 400 women hosted by Olah Esther Taub who launched the largest online workout program in Israel, the building has far surpassed merely being an office with four walls. Rather, the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus has become a center in which the essence of Jerusalem, Zionism and the Aliyah experience are combined into a multitude of community enriching events.

“I think that Jerusalem is one of the best places for Olim. Living here is the dream and I think that's what a lot of Olim picture. Having a place they can turn to enhances their experience and makes their Aliyah journey easier,” Shira added.

“Since we moved into this new building over a year and a half ago, we’ve been able to reach out to and advocate for Olim in Israel in unprecedented ways,” she said. “The purpose of the campus is to benefit Olim from all over the country – a place where they can find a community of their own and in doing so, we’ve been able to change the focus of Aliyah to something much more comprehensive than just getting on a plane and moving to Israel.”

As such, the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus ushers in a new phase for the organization, which works in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, KKL and JNF-USA, that has been a pioneer in facilitating Aliyah from North America for over 20 years. In addition to making Aliyah as seamless as possible for future Olim back home, the organization now strives to also educate, advocate, and celebrate. Through the doors of the campus, native Israelis arrive to learn about the Oleh experience, while Diaspora Jews visit the campus to be educated on the realities of living in Israel and modern-day Zionism.

Standing proud at 2000 square meters and three stories, the building has multiple outdoor and indoor spaces, including a conference hall, meeting rooms and a multimedia presentation center. 

“The thousands of Olim who have already walked through the doors of our Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus have exceeded all our expectations,” said Co-Founder and Chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Tony Gelbart. “Today we are celebrating the impact the campus has in Jerusalem and beyond, which could only have been achieved through the strong and valued partnership we have with the Jerusalem municipality. We look forward to welcoming thousands of more guests, as we continue to facilitate, advocate, celebrate and educate the importance of Aliyah and Zionism.”

It is fitting, then, that the campus is located in the heart of Jerusalem and often hosts government officials, ministerial agencies and IDF units. Visitors are not only given the opportunity to use the state-of-the-art facility, but they also gain a deeper understanding of what Aliyah is all about.  

In a relatively short period of time, the campus has left an indelible mark on the city.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion said, "It has been exceptional to witness the Nefesh B'Nefesh Campus in Jerusalem become such a central part of the city's landscape for thousands of Olim. Nefesh B'Nefesh has demonstrated it does much more than promote Aliyah: It creates a community and educates towards modern-day Zionism. As we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, we are grateful for all of the organization's contributions thus far and are excited to see what they have in store for the city and its residents in the future."

Mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Lion at Bonei Zion Award Ceremony (Credit: Hezi Hojesta)Mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Lion at Bonei Zion Award Ceremony (Credit: Hezi Hojesta)

The campus prides itself on being a resource for Olim in a myriad of ways. In fact, over the past year alone, the campus has hosted over 450 events and almost 33,000 guests have entered its doors.

An example of such an event was Nefesh B’Nefesh’s collaboration with the Living Financially Smarter in Israel Facebook group, which hosted its first conference on financial literacy in January of this year. The conference drew more than 400 participants, aimed to help Olim achieve financial empowerment in Israel. The sessions provided insights and tools regarding financial planning and maximizing savings while making the Israeli financial system work for Olim.

“People came from all over the country,” Josh Sussman, Senior Events Manager at Nefesh B’Nefesh, marveled. “The feedback we got was phenomenal. People were grateful to listen to actual professionals instead of posting a question online and waiting for a stranger to give an answer. It brought this powerful Facebook group to life.” 

As for the campus’s impact on Jerusalem, Sussman suspects the building is constantly a flurry of activity because it fills a void. “Despite Jerusalem’s size, there’s actually a dearth of venues appropriate for community events. People are clamoring for accessible and useful gatherings.”

In many ways, the campus has also provided a soft place to land for Olim who simply don’t have a plethora of resources at their fingertips.

Take lone soldiers, for instance. The last week of November may bring on waves of homesickness, knowing their families are enjoying a festive Thanksgiving dinner an ocean away and they can’t be there to celebrate.

Recognizing the opportunity to fill an emotional need, this past Thanksgiving, Nefesh B’Nefesh hosted a dinner exclusively for these lone soldiers. Over 300 lone soldiers and lone national service volunteers arrived at the campus for the holiday celebration, which was organized in coordination with the FIDF-Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program, the Nefesh B’Nefesh “Ori” program for Lone B’not Sherut, and the Michael Levin Base. It may not have been mom’s living room, but Nefesh B’Nefesh dedicated itself to replicating the Thanksgiving experience at that event: guests devoured traditional dishes, enjoyed a performance by singer-songwriter Mayer Malik, and watched a live broadcast of a football game.

Another hardship lone soldiers face is living on a tight budget. Nefesh B’Nefesh stepped up to the plate in this regard when it hosted a 200-person wedding for Yoel Epstein and Alana Bon, natives of London and New York, respectively. The two lone soldiers gathered under the chuppah held on the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus rooftop, making it the organization's first wedding.

“I am grateful for Nefesh B’Nefesh and every individual who was part of the process of our Aliyah and army service." Epstein said, "There are many more stories like ours, and I wish for us and all of them a lifetime of joyous moments, good health, and continued Zionism."

And sometimes, the campus even helped make reunions happen.

Last year, Nefesh B’Nefesh collaborated with Momentum, an organization which helps mothers connect to their Jewish values and Israel. During what was supposed to be an informative lecture, the dozens of mothers burst into tears when they saw their children, all in IDF uniform, file in one by one with a single rose in each hand as they surprised their mothers. Many of them hadn’t seen their children in more than a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Seeing that reunion alone filled me with enough gratitude — dayenu!” Kansas City native Sherri Jacobs said of seeing her lone soldier son. “But then I saw Avi come in with a single rose. We hugged, and he put his paratrooper pin on me. It was a beautiful and kind gesture of Nefesh B’Nefesh and Momentum to coordinate this event for us. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life that I’ll treasure forever.”

Despite the success, Nefesh B’Nefesh has much more in store for the years to come.

“Someone in the government reached out to me a few months ago and warned me that

some institutions are nimble and great, but once they get a building that’s the end - the beginning of their decline,” Nefesh B’Nefesh Co-Founder and Executive Director, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, told Steve Linde at The Jerusalem Report last year. “Because many people feel that once they have a building they can rest on their laurels. I said, ‘You don’t understand. This is like giving a toddler his first shoe. That’s how we view the building. It’s not a feather in our cap. It’s just an ability to start running.’”

With the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus, the organization plans to continue the sprint well past the finish line. 

This article was written in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh.