Idealism tempered by pragmatism at Nefesh B'Nefesh mega event

Nefesh b'Nefesh. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nefesh b'Nefesh.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 A Jewish sculpture artist and a hassidic couple walked into a hotel in New Jersey. No, this is not the beginning of a joke, but the beginnings of a journey to Israel which might bring three Jews of very different cultures together in the same city in the Jewish state.
Blair Smith – the sculpture artist from Long Island – and Itzy and Rachel – the hassidic couple – along with some 1,000 other potential immigrants packed into a Nefesh B’Nefesh “mega event” in New Jersey to begin or further explore the idea of moving to Israel.
In truth, Blair, Itzy and Rachel were outliers at the event, where there was a noticeable and heavy preponderance of modern Orthodox or modern haredi participants.
But what was common to all was a clear strain of idealism regardless of religious affiliation and identification, where everyone expressed a desire to realize an ideological dream, be it living amongst the Jewish people, experiencing an immersive Jewish culture, or fulfilling a religious precept of living in the Holy Land.
And noticeably absent was any mention by any participant of antisemitism as a cause for aliyah, regardless of concerns with rising antisemitism on the far right or left in the US, and the various utterances of antagonistic members of congress.
This is something Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founder points out. In fact, he says that terrorism waves and armed conflicts in Israel actually lead to a spike in aliyah applications.
“People are making real life choices and so events in US are not driving aliyah and neither politics or antisemitism are going to change aliyah rates,” he says.
And yet, raw idealism was not the only motivating factor for the potential immigrants, with several mentioning the financial burdens of raising a Jewish family in the US.
Adam and Danielle Ginsburg, a young couple with two children living in Queens, New York, are still weighing the option of moving to Israel and came to the event to find out how they might make the move.
They say they are “passionate about moving to the Holy Land,” and living in the Jewish state, but are also mindful of some of the high cost of raising their family in America, and the help that the State of Israel provides in that regard.
Adam notes how much both a Jewish education in the US and health insurance coverage for the family, costs which can and does amount to tens of thousands of dollars every year, but which in Israel comes at a fraction of the price Americans pay for such services.
Expanding the family in Israel is therefore much more viable from a financial perspective than it is in the US, says Danielle.
Adam also says he would be disinclined to make aliyah before having a job in place.
And this is a widely held sentiment, with many of the potential immigrants stating that employment in Israel is their biggest concern and that they would be reticent to leave before knowing that they have a job in place.
Indeed, the longest line at the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah fair is for the employment advice stand.
David Malchman, 56, is another idealist and dreamer, with a pragmatic side.
“I feel at home in Israel, it’s the Jewish homeland and that’s where I’d like to be,” he says, adding that he is “psyched” about the possibility.
But he too cannot ignore the hard realities of making aliyah, and says that he could not afford the financial risk of making aliyah without a job.
Malchman is also thinking about where he can settle down, weighing both cost of living expenses and where he will best fit in.
He would love to live in Tel Aviv, but says housing there is out of his price range. At the same time, he wants to be where somewhere with an Anglo community to help make the transition and integration process easier.
But Blair the sculpture artist is making aliyah without question. She says that she was inspired by a Birthright trip she took some 14 years ago, relating that she felt in Israel “such a connection to my history and my people,” to the extent that it planted in her the aliyah bug even then.
“The happiest I ever was in my entire life was when I did birthright,” she says.
“I’m in my thirties now and to this day its still the happiest I ever was. I’m in between jobs right now and I feel like this is the time. I’m not married, I don’t have any kids, so I feel like this is the time for a big change.”
Blair’s dream is to open an art gallery in Israel and, like many artists and dreamers in Israel wants to do move to the mystical and inspirational holy city of Safed in the Galilee to do so.
As do Itzy and Rachel, the young hassidic couple. They come from the Boyan hassidic community in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and are certainly not the average Nefesh B’Nefesh clientele.
In fact, they are not average hassidic Jews either, given their ardent fervor to move to Israel, an uncommon trait amongst the Diaspora haredi community which is generally speaking content to wait for the messiah before upping sticks.
“Why would you not go home?” he demands.
“Everywhere else is temporary for a Jew while Israel is the natural place for a Jew. God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, and the divine influence and providence there is more immediate. My question is, why do people not make aliyah?”