Has N. American aliya plateaued? Nefesh B’Nefesh thinks not

Jewish Agency predicts a rise to 5,000 next year, from 3,750 over past 12 months.

Nefesh B'Nefesh flight mother and kids 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Nefesh B'Nefesh flight mother and kids 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Since 2002, the annual figure for aliya from North America has almost doubled, from 2,040 olim in 2002 to 3,750 over the past 12 months, according to data released by the Jewish Agency on Saturday.
But this year, the number has increased by a modest 160 people over last year’s figure, raising the question: How much more can aliya from North America grow? If you ask Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates aliya from North America, the answer is quite a lot. On Sunday, one of its senior officials said he believed the annual number could double again in five years’ time.
Danny Oberman, NBN’s executive vice president, told The Jerusalem Post he hoped the number of US and Canadian olim would reach 10,000 a year by 2015 – an ambitious goal that would require an average annual increase of about 1,000 olim over the next five years.
“Growth is exponential,” Oberman said. “Many of the people who we’ve seen come to Israel this year are friends and family of those who’ve already made aliya. There’s a snowball effect.”
North America, which is home to about 80 percent of the Jews outside Israel, contributes less than 20% of each year’s aliya. While higher than before, current rates of immigration are a far cry from 1970, when a record 7,130 North Americans moved to Israel.
Recognizing an untapped potential for aliya, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart founded NBN in 2002 to streamline the immigration process, making it easier for North American Jews to move to Israel than ever before.
Many of the methods the organization introduced – such as having Ministry of Interior officials begin the registration process for olim in their country of origin – are now standard procedure for all aliya from Western countries.
However, the data released by the Jewish Agency, which partners with NBN in handling aliya, suggests that immigration from North America might have plateaued. Over the past 12 months, 3,350 US citizens moved to Israel, compared to 3,120 the year before – a rise of 230 people. At the same time, the number of olim from Canada fell from 460 to 380.
Prof. Steven Cohen, an expert on the sociology of American Jewry at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said there were plenty of reasons to believe aliya from North America would continue to rise – although he had doubts about NBN’s prediction, which he said “is not likely, but it is still in the realm of possibility.”
According to Cohen, there have been two major factors in the growth of aliya from North America: “the Orthodox population and children of former Israelis, both of which are growing fast and are the two biggest pools of people for aliya.”
Eli Cohen, director-general of the Jewish Agency’s Department for Aliya and Absorption, said he believed the number of North American olim would rise next year to 5,000, although he expected it to remain more or less around that number in the next few years.
“I don’t see a jump in aliya numbers from North America similar to that of the many thousands who came from the former Soviet Union in 1990, or even a proportional rise in numbers like the one in Argentina during the economic slump there between 1999 and 2001,” he said.
Cohen and Oberman added that retention rates were just as important as the number of immigrants. Historically, more than half of the olim from North America have moved back within a few years of their arrival.
Oberman said one of NBN’s major successes had been in boosting the number of olim who remained in Israel after the first few years. Thanks to the organization’s extensive support system, which provides new Israelis with help finding jobs and building social networks, many more newcomers have been successfully absorbed.
“That’s really the key,” he said. “I can put people in planes and bring them over here, but if they won’t stay, it won’t do any good.”