Groups use soft-sell of a booming Israel to entice wavering would-be olim

For Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, the challenge is to learn from what went wrong during failed aliya attempts.

YOUNG PEOPLE attend an Impact Israel conference (photo credit: MARK VON HOLDEN)
YOUNG PEOPLE attend an Impact Israel conference
(photo credit: MARK VON HOLDEN)
NEW YORK – Disenchanted Israelis now resettled in the US are being wooed back to the Holy Land with a singular message: Israel has changed, and you can be a part of it.
At conferences in New York and Los Angeles this week, Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Immigrant and Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and JNF-USA together delivered an optimistic pitch over the state of affairs in Israel to an audience largely on the fence over whether to make the move.
Many in the crowd have already tried once before.
The conferences, called Impact Israel, included breakout sessions meant to demonstrate to possible immigrants the scope of opportunity now in the country, from job prospects in hi-tech, politics and social work to quality of life.
“There are some people who are closer to that decision. There are some people who are just sort of noodling it around,” said Doreet Freedman, director of strategic partnerships at Nefesh B’Nefesh.
“An Israeli who’s been living in America for a long time feels a bit more American, and feels Israeli as well. So people need to be embraced.”
For Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, the challenge is to learn from what went wrong during failed aliya attempts: where people felt unwelcome, struggled to assimilate or be heard in their communities.
Freedman says efforts are deeply personalized – they now call newly settled aliya families once a month for their first year in Israel – and rely heavily on data to recruit.
“It’s not a hard sell. It’s a soft sell,” she said. “At the end of the day, they’re an investment.”
But the collective, overall pitch – that Israel is a different place since 2002, when 60 percent of those who made aliya from the US chose to return – reflects where Israel and its government see the country’s strengths.
Immigration officials touted the bureau’s personal cooperation with newcomers, after surveys determined one of the chief obstacles to aliya is the bureaucratic paperwork.
Other Israelis spoke of the possibilities Israel offers beyond money: fun, good weather, and possibly love.
“There’s a new generation of Jews all over the world who are looking at Israel as a place of opportunity and not just as a place of problems, for the first time. We’ve never had that,” Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul-general in New York, said at the conference. “The opportunity is abundant for each and every one of you.”
Despite the Gaza conflict over the summer, which lasted nearly two months and significantly impacted travel to the country, incoming tourism to Israel for 2014 is set to meet the record year of 2013, Aharoni said.
“Only in Israel do they appreciate that young immigrants come with different backgrounds, with a host of different experiences, with our language,” Josh Hantman, senior adviser to Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, told the crowd. “Our English is an asset.”
Freedman said that the 2002 retention rate was low because new olim “were not understood properly.” That number has flipped, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh, to a 94% retention rate.
And the average age is now 26, the organization notes, broadening opportunities for newcomers and fundamentally changing the social dynamic of the experience.
“In 2009, all of Israel’s medical schools graduated 400 doctors,” Freedman said.
“And we’re bringing that same number of specialists over. So we’re feeling the difference in a palpable way.”