Analysis: Why Nefesh B'Nefesh changes everything

America brings a whole new vision of Israel and aliya to the table.

aliya 224.88 nefesh  (photo credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh)
aliya 224.88 nefesh
(photo credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Let's get the bad news out of the way first: mass American aliya is unlikely in the near term. However you count American Jewry - serious counts place the number at anywhere from 4.2 million to as many as 7.4 million - there is no doubt that an average aliya of 3,000 per year is insignificant in national or strategic terms. The private aliya organization Nefesh B'Nefesh, which last week brought 238 olim to Israel from North America, hopes this aliya will rise above 4,000 for 2009, a figure it says will be driven by the economic recession in the US. But even then, aliya will count for less than 0.1 percent of the smallest estimate of American Jewry. Nefesh B'Nefesh disputes these conclusions. "You have to remember that only maybe 20% of American Jews have ever visited Israel," says Danny Oberman, executive vice president of Israel operations for Nefesh B'Nefesh. Thus, the potential aliya population is around 1 million, not 5 million. Furthermore, "the average number of relatives directly affected by the 22,000 to 23,000 Americans who have made aliya since Nefesh started [in 2001] is between seven and 10," he says, suggesting that a little bit of growth in the short term is an investment that will translate into geometric growth in the near future. Since most olim already have a relative in the country, the more olim there are, the more American Jews have relatives here. But it's an open question if even these numbers reflect any kind of success story. Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, for example, says the Nefesh B'Nefesh figures include returning Israeli citizens and people making aliya after already living in Israel. The number of truly new immigrants hovers closer to 2,000 per year, according to Central Bureau of Statistics figures, he points out. DellaPergola believes that American aliya is not growing any faster than aliya from other parts of the world. Despite the efforts of Nefesh, the Jewish Agency and others, he says, "the numbers from the US have been consistent with the numbers from other countries." For advocates of aliya, this is particularly troubling, since the US Jewish community constitutes as much as 80% of the worldwide Jewish Diaspora, making it the last great "reservoir" of potential aliya. BEFORE REACHING any conclusions, however, it is important to put this "failure" in context. Nefesh is trying mightily to do something that's never been done before. As DellaPergola and others point out, no mass aliya has ever occurred without a driving disaster, whether political or natural. Throughout the history of political Zionism, masses of Jews were never pulled to Israel by pure idealism. Indeed, the mass immigrations of the 20th century were driven by pogroms, expulsions, famines and outright genocides that emptied three continents of their millennia-old Jewish life. It is a sad truth that Zionism's near-universal acceptance among Jews flows from the fact that its worst fears and direst warnings have all come to pass. Except, of course, in America. Only in the United States (and a handful of other smaller English-speaking communities), the story of the 20th century includes no organized murder, no expulsions and no famine. The Americans, who make up over 90% of the English-speaking Jewish world, learned from American culture that identity is a matter of choice, that religious and political freedom is innate and universal. Theirs is the story of relatively minor discrimination that slowly dissolved into utter acceptance and widespread respect and admiration. From a Harvard president who refused to accept Jews in the 1930s to a Jewish president of Harvard; from Jews growing up in Brooklyn without meeting a single non-Jew until they went to college, to "Jewish heritage" being one of many harmless aspects of one's wholly American identity - this is the story of American Jews. THIS DIFFERENCE isn't for the history books alone; it explains some of the deepest differences between Israelis and Americans today, and between the Israeli and American notions of aliya. To Israelis, "aliya" refers to waves of refugees fleeing a cruel world to take control of their destiny in a place where Jews are an indigenous nation. The vision of Israel as a free Jewish political space, a refuge and a voice for a people that had neither, informs Israeli Jewish identity in deep ways. But Americans have no parallel memory of destruction, and no experience of sacrifice. They are five generations removed from the Czarist pogroms that drove so many Eastern European Jews to America's shores in the 19th century. Their Jewishness is a personal choice, as valid as many other chosen identities, and their national experience one of prosperity, freedom and social acceptance. "Aliya" cannot mean the same thing in such radically different cultures. Indeed, it doesn't. DR. MARC ARKOVITZ, a pediatric surgeon from New York, is making aliya to become the next head of pediatrics at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. "I think America is a great place," he says, trying to put into words his decision to leave, which included leaving a far more lucrative position, at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, than the one he will take up in the Jewish state. "My father fought and was wounded in World War II in Europe fighting for a country he loved. I also love America. I'm not making aliya because [there will be] another Holocaust in America. "But Israel is in my blood. I can't explain it. My love for Israel is not something I can neglect," Arkovitz says over the din of the engines of the Boeing 777 that brought him to Israel on Tuesday. Aliya need not be universal, he adds. "I want to see US Jews taking their Yiddishkeit [Jewishness] seriously and their Judaism seriously, so I don't think [American] rabbis who bring Jews closer to Judaism should make aliya, because they give American Jews their identity," he says. Also on the plane are Sherilyn and Josef Mandelbaum of Cleveland, the latter a top executive in the American Greetings greeting card company who plans to keep his job and telecommute from Israel. "On [Israeli] Independence Day, we have a beautiful ceremony where community members who are making aliya are on stage. It draws 1,000 people every year, and eventually you say to yourself, 'Wow, we should be up there,'" relates Sherilyn. "Our aliya energizes people in the community, and they're very supportive," she says. "We're blessed to be able to do this," says Josef, who adds that the move "is a personal thing." For American communal planners, too, aliya is a question of personal identity and involvement more than the traditional notions of a refuge or a physical "redemption" of the land. "One of the bigger problems we as a Jewish people face is the divergence between Israeli Jews and the Jews of the Diaspora - the disconnect where they don't understand each other and have different ideas as to what being Jewish is all about," says Misha Galperin, executive vice president and CEO of the Washington Jewish Federation. "Anything that makes the connection personal - not abstract but real - I think strengthens the connection, and therefore strengthens Jewish identity on both sides," he asserts. Aliya, he adds, is a crucial part of this strengthening of identity. Himself an immigrant from Russia, Galperin points to the experience of Russian Jews in the US to prove the point. "Russian Jews in America visit Israel more often than American-born Jews. Why? Because they have relatives in Israel," he says. While he doesn't believe aliya will rise dramatically without some unimaginable disaster pushing Jews out of the United States, he still has praise for Nefesh B'Nefesh. They "are making the aliya process more attractive, making olim better prepared and connected," he says. Indeed, statistics are bearing this out. Nefesh has dramatically changed the retention rate of North American olim. It claims a retention rate of some 94%. Compare that to the rough estimate of 50% of American olim who returned to the US in earlier decades. NEFESH LEADERS do not deny that the organization's goals include strengthening American Jewish identity, but, they say, the organization's goal was and remains strengthening Israel through traditional notions of aliya. "Our organization is about building the country and [strengthening] Zionist ideals," says Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, cofounder and executive director of Nefesh. That this aliya enhances American Jewish identity "is a beneficial byproduct" of the central mission of aliya itself, he insists. But Fass's partner in founding the organization, chairman Tony Gelbart, speaks more about education and identity than the building of Israel. In his vision, American Jewry seems to preserve its separate strength and identity. "I'm trying to build a bridge between American Jews and Israelis," he says. "Instead of two ships passing in the night, we should start being two gloves coming together." American aliya "is about the exposure of the next generation to what Israel is, and also about reclaiming the centrality of Israel in American Jewish culture and identity," he says. Indeed, not only is American aliya utterly different from the classic notion of an Israeli rescue mission, it actually constitutes a lesson in identity, in idealism, for Israelis. It is "as important for Israeli identity as it is for the Americans," Gelbart believes, because it teaches "the Israeli in the street why an American who has everything would move to Israel. For Israelis who lost loved ones or experienced sacrifice, America is seen as a place to which people escape." For them, seeing someone come from America to Israel "because of their commitment to the Jewish nation" is an important statement about the value of Israeli identity, says Gelbart. ALL AGREE that Nefesh has dramatically eased the rigors and trials of aliya from North America and the UK. It operates like a private-sector business, using its organizational flexibility to outperform official bureaucracies and even to improve them. It has earned the trust of Israeli government agencies to the point that Israeli border authorities entrust a Nefesh official with the scanning of passports and the Interior Ministry sends clerks on Nefesh charter flights armed with Nefesh-funded Tablet PCs to fill the necessary applications for national ID cards and government services. More importantly, Nefesh offers olim financial grants, a social network in Israel, and help in job searches both before and after the aliya process. But besides the organizational improvements, Nefesh may be forging, unexpectedly, a deeper revolution in aliya, a new paradigm of aliya not merely as "aliya by choice," but aliya as identity formation. Comprising some 40% of world Jewry, the American Jewish community is as large, as complex, as introspective and vocal as Israel itself. With no government involvement, it has constructed vast networks of synagogues, welfare agencies, summer camps, universities, rabbinates and an entire media world. It is a community divided into ideological and social camps that engage in enthusiastic debate. And its greatest need, its greatest existential challenge, is education. Whatever its founding purpose, Nefesh B'Nefesh has begun to serve another, profoundly American function. Israelis view the Land of Israel through the prism of their historical experience, and so do Americans. The new American aliya may never be great in numbers, but it will play a social role unlike any previous aliya. This is aliya as education, an essentially American phenomenon through which American Jews take ownership of the Land of Israel for their own purposes - not statehood, but identity. To survive and flourish, American Jewry doesn't need Jewish political sovereignty. As parts of the community drift away, the community wants to tap into the organic ethnicity and authenticity of Israeli life and "landedness." In a world of chosen identities and individualism, American Jewry is using Israel as part of its own path to spiritual and institutional survival. Other Jewish communities come to Israel; American Jews, even in aliya, are bringing Israel to America.