As an organization whose greatest strength rests in warm, person-to-person contact, well-attended Aliyah seminars, and providing detailed assistance to prospective Olim, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique challenge to Nefesh B’Nefesh. Sarah Kantor, head of the organization’s marketing and events division, explains, “Traditionally, looking at what Nefesh B’Nefesh has done in the past, we had staff members who traveled to the United States and Canada for personal meetings in various locations, or we had offered seminars on certain dates which people could attend.”
When the pandemic arrived, the organization quickly pivoted to holding online, virtual meetings, webinars, and sessions. Kantor explains that the online format has produced some major, unforeseen benefits. “We have been reaching a much wider audience because there are people considering Aliyah from all over North America. Since March, we have had potential Olim virtually attend from 48 states and provinces.” In pre-Corona days, when Nefesh B’Nefesh would fly staff from Israel to meet with prospective olim, they were limited in their ability to travel to every location with people interested in making Aliyah, she says.
“The benefit of what we are doing virtually,” explains Kantor, “outweighs the need to sit physically in a room with someone. The most important numbers for me are the geographic ones — to see the number of people we have been able to reach. Whereas in the past, it may have been challenging for our Aliyah advisors to travel to many small communities across North America, we have now been given a gift to be able to reach all those seeking Aliyah information and advice across the board. ״
A second benefit from presenting seminars online, explains Kantor, is that Nefesh B’Nefesh has been able to provide very specific, targeted seminars to groups that they would have previously been unable to do in the pre-COVID era. “We have offered incredibly niche virtual programming, such as sessions on how to bring your adult child with special needs on aliyah, how best to make Aliyah with teens, or programming for retirees, which now can include local experts for all those seeking.”
Kantor adds that another added benefit of virtual Aliyah seminars is that they remain online and do not have to be viewed live. Many people sign up for the session, and if they cannot view the seminar live, will watch it later, on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s YouTube channel.
The massive number of events and participants in Nefesh B’Nefesh online programs bears out Kantor’s comments. Between March and September, Nefesh B’Nefesh conducted 71 online events with a registration of more than 18,000 participants. The total number of people who tuned in live was over 10,000 – an impressive 57% participation rate – before taking into account people who had registered and then watched the online recordings at a later date. Attendees came from an international spectrum – a total of 33 different counties were recorded in the registration process, including Bulgaria, France, Finland, India, Costa Rica, Mexico, and even Egypt.
“We are witnessing growth across the board,” says Kantor. “We’re seeing more people come to our social media and more people joining our mailing list. Social media trends are showing steady growth, and we have been offering exponential growth in programming.” Overall, Nefesh B’Nefesh has experienced a tremendous spike in the number of people expressing interest in Aliyah, compared to previous years. From April to October 2019, 2,379 Aliyah applications were filed. In the same period in 2020, 5,593 were processed, and the organization has received more than 10,000 calls to its Aliyah Hotline since April 1.
Kantor says that the most popular virtual seminars have been those that offer practical tips for Aliyah, such as seminars on financial planning, how to plan Aliyah and specific steps to take. “People are saying ‘How can I make my Aliyah happen.’” Typically, a Nefesh B’Nefesh webinar consists of a presentation on a specific subject.During the presentation, Nefesh B’Nefesh personnel monitor the questions sent in by viewers and provide answers in a chat box during the online session. In addition, Nefesh B’Nefesh has instituted follow-up ‘Open Forums,’ for popular topics such as healthcare, financial planning, and real estate, in which the presenter appears in an open, unscripted format, allowing people to ask questions live to the host, who then responds in the context of the video chat.
Shlomit Metz-Poolat made Aliyah from Long Island to Raanana in June, together with her partner and her 84-year-old mother-in-law. Before Aliyah, she participated in many Nefesh B’Nefesh virtual seminars, including general aliyah planning, real estate, financing purchasing and renting, and health care. She enthusiastically says that they were all “phenomenal” in terms of the practical information she gained. She learned about the importance of obtaining a durable power of attorney document for her mother-in-law and how to prepare a will. The healthcare webinar gave them practical information on joining the local healthcare provider (Kupat Holim) in their neighborhood, and the financial planning seminar enabled them to plan for their future and locate an accountant and financial advisor. “Israelis think we that we are crazy to come during corona,” she laughs, “but “we are really big Zionists. People have been very warm, and it has been an easier absorption in some ways.”
Moving forward, Sarah Kantor says that Nefesh B’Nefesh is planning a series of virtual events on taking practical steps for Aliyah. “If you want to come by the Summer of 2021, now is the time to begin your homework.” Nefesh B’Nefesh currently is offering a wide variety of online seminars on a wide range of subjects, including choosing communities, opportunities in high-tech, basics of Aliyah, rights and benefits, special webinars for medical professionals looking into Aliyah, finances, higher education in Israel, leasing a car, and how to pack and ship for aliyah. She adds that they will be holding an Open Forum on healthcare, explaining the major differences between the American healthcare system versus the Israeli one.
People interested in finding out more about upcoming NBN programming can visit the virtual events calendar on the NBN website (https://www.nbn.org.il/virtual-events-calendar/ ) or follow NBN on Facebook or Instagram. Recordings of all previous seminars and online programming can be found on NBN’s YouTube channel.
Despite the limitations in physical interaction caused by the coronavirus, Shlomit Metz-Poolat says that Nefesh B’Nefesh has remained very much in touch. “They keep calling and checking on us. They have been our rock here. It is very special for us to be coming under their wing. They covered all the bases in terms of what we need to do. We came in a time where it is difficult, but we felt it was the most important time to come to show Israel that she means a lot to us. We’re just happy to be home.”
This article was written in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA.