Revolutionizing aliya

An interview with Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart

NEFESH B’NEFESH co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart.  (photo credit: SHACHAR AZRAN NEFESH B’NEFESH)
NEFESH B’NEFESH co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart.
Since Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart co-founded Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002, the organization has brought more than 50,000 olim (immigrants) from the USA, Canada and the UK. As they celebrate Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 15th anniversary, they spoke to The Jerusalem Post about how they revolutionized the process of aliya (immigration to Israel) – and their dreams for the future.
What inspired you to establish Nefesh B’Nefesh?
Fass: "My wife and I always had the intention to make aliya, but our plans never seemed to concretize. However, in 2001, when a family member was tragically killed in a suicide bombing in Israel, his death and our subsequent attempt to come to terms with the loss were the catalyst for our decision to finally move and try our best to help develop our country.
When sharing my feelings about aliya with friends and colleagues, I began to hear echoes of similar ambitions. We shared a dream, but many people feared that the practical and economic challenges of making aliya were too difficult to overcome. Listening to their concerns, I started to understand why North American aliya was so stagnant.
People had legitimate concerns, but I began to wonder: What would happen if these issues could be alleviated? Working together with Tony Gelbart, a successful businessman and philanthropist living in my community, we started to sketch a plan for developing an organization that would address the specific challenges of North American Jews making aliya.
We felt that if people had the proper resources and guidance, these obstacles could be overcome, and North American aliya would start to grow. This in essence, was the beginning of Nefesh B’Nefesh."
Gelbart: "When I opened the door of my house to greet Rabbi Fass one Shabbat morning, I was immediately inspired and moved by the compelling story of his cousin being murdered by a suicide bomber in Israel and how he wanted to do something in his honor.
We then took a long walk and he told me he wanted to make aliya and that he might know 'a few more people' who wanted to move as well. He wanted to make it as easy as possible for everyone who shared that similar dream, and needed some connections to help make it happen. I asked him for 24 hours to think about how I could help. NBN, to me, is a business with a heart. We managed to identify that there was a great need to help Jews make aliya, and after looking at all the challenges, we managed to effect change, improve the system, and indeed help over 50,000 olim to date."
 What do you see as your greatest achievements?
Fass: "We are extremely proud that aliya has become a central part of conversations in Jewish communities across North America – which may be the direct result of the dramatic change of the North American aliya retention rate. Since we founded Nefesh B’Nefesh, we have managed to increase the retention rate from 60% to over 90%.
Olim are telling their family and friends back “home” they are happy and doing well in Israel which transmits optimism and thoughts of others following in their footsteps.
Aliya has become part of the mainstream across all Jewish affiliations.
In addition, the Israeli bureaucracy has often been daunting for newcomers. We have managed to revolutionize the aliya process, together with various Israeli governmental ministries and the Jewish Agency, and create special systems which expedite the process and enable olim to hit the ground running upon arrival in Israel."
Gelbart: "We went into this with the goal to make the process easier, and we’ve accomplished that. When we look at our olim we truly believe that 'their success is our success.'
From my perspective, just staying in Israel is the starting point, but the contribution of our olim takes it to the next level. We have oleh soldiers protecting our country, oleh teachers educating our children, oleh doctors healing Israelis and olim setting down roots and growing their families in this country. It is beyond what we could have imagined."
What for you personally was the most moving moment in the past 15 years?
Fass: "There have been so many that it’s actually hard to choose just one. Some of my most favorite have been conducting sheva brachot for a newly married couple at 10,000 feet above the Atlantic (with guitars and dancing); NBN’s first aliya charter flight – which was also the day my family made aliya; summer 2005 was definitely an incredible summer as we managed to simultaneously land three aliya flights – from the US, Canada and UK; multiple generations making aliya together; a Holocaust survivor holding the hand of a nine-year-old oleh while disembarking in Israel… and many, many more memories."
Gelbart: "For me, the most moving moments are the ones that set the Jewish people apart. The perseverance, at the most difficult of times, to continue and push forward. During Operation Protective Edge, when most people would run away from fire and danger, getting out of the way of rockets, we had a planeload of people run to Israel.
We saw this during the intifada, during the Second Lebanon War, we as a people continued the forward momentum.
I’ve had the unique experience of seeing prime ministers and senior government officials come and greet a plane of new immigrants; people of that caliber arriving at a big ceremony just doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. Watching the whole country come together for olim and aliya has been humbling. The mosaic of society I’ve seen, from different political affiliations, and religious backgrounds, all coming together to both make aliya and to greet the new olim and welcome them home, has been profound.
There is a sense of national unity through aliya that cannot be witnessed anywhere else."
 What do you see as the main challenges facing you today?
Fass: We are living in wondrous times. We are interacting with a generation of Jews who were born into a world with a strong and vibrant State of Israel, without historical memory of a time when this didn’t exist. They never experienced a visit to Israel where access to the Western Wall was prohibited. Theodor Herzl’s declaration that 'If you will it, it is no dream' is not a vintage concept – it is still very relevant and we must constantly bring it to the attention of this generation in a way that engages them both personally and professionally. Our challenge is to inspire and empower this generation to develop and maintain a palpable connection to the State of Israel.
We need their energy, passion and ingenuity to accept the challenge and to propel Israel, and the Jewish people into the future."
Gelbart: "Nefesh B’Nefesh has achieved a lot but there is much more for us to do. We need to ensure we have financial sustainability, as well as the ability to expand to other countries which have been requesting our services. We are at a tipping point in Israel’s history. Now more than ever, Israel’s vibrant economy and multinational corporations need human resources to propel into an economic superpower.
We need like-minded partners who share our values, understand the vital role Nefesh B’Nefesh plays in Israel and North America, and are committed to dedicating their time and financial resources to this one-of-a kind venture and sacred mission on behalf of the Jewish people."
What is your own personal dream for the future of NBN?
Fass: "To see a steady, exponential increase in North American and British Jewry, Olim and their families thriving in Israel, becoming ambassadors for aliya and Israel, and to achieve excellence in our pre- and post-aliya programming."
Gelbart: "To expand and replicate the model of Nefesh B’Nefesh for aliya from more countries around the world. I hope we can have the honor of helping more Jews from all over the world (and not just North America and the UK)."              
The Jerusalem Post and Nefesh B’Nefesh are proud to cooperate on the “Moving Up” project.