There is something magical, perhaps even miraculous, about the Zionist mission of Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, who 20 years ago co-founded the nonprofit organization Nefesh B’Nefesh. At first, they say, everyone thought they were crazy when they set up the organization to provide olim (immigrants) from the US and Canada a soft landing in Israel. But after 63 flights and 75,000 North American olim, they can sit back today and smile – although they are certainly not resting on their laurels.
In their first joint sit-down interview – at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus, their new state-of-the-art premises in Jerusalem – they reflect on the past two decades and outline their vision for the future.
It’s a day after your 63rd charter flight landed, bringing 225 new immigrants from JFK on August 16. How was that?
Tony Gelbart: Believe it or not, it was almost like the first flight. I get so excited for every flight and I’ve been on most of them. Like I said at JFK before we took off, the only thing really changing is the people, who all have their dreams, aspirations and reasons for making aliyah. And you never know when they get to Israel – how their lives will impact the Jewish state and what they will accomplish.
How was this flight different from previous ones?
Rabbi Yehoshua Fass: This flight was really magnificent. I look at it through two prisms: professional and pastoral. Pastorally and spiritually, it is very fulfilling and nourishing to see the emotional elements of a charter flight crystallized – the final hug before a family gets on a plane, blessings from parents to children, Lone Soldiers about to go into the Israeli army, grandparents saying goodbye to their grandkids. And then accompanying the olim on their transition, their journey together in a coordinated community on board, and seeing their excitement as they come off the plane. Then helping them into taxis and getting messages from them in their new home that they made it. Organizationally, it’s very satisfying to see everything coming together, especially given the challenges of coordinating such an endeavor in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic that changed the face of travel so much.
How does it feel when you look back at all those charter flights on which you brought 75,000 olim to Israel in 20 years?
Gelbart: It really doesn’t feel like 20 years. It seems like yesterday. It’s a moment, but a moment that changed 75,000 lives. So many thousands of babies have been born here and there are so many good things that these 75,000 people have done for Israel, for American Jewry and for Jews around the world. In the beginning people came during the Intifada; everything was dark and they were the light, a beacon of hope. Now they’re coming to Gan Eden. You can see how they’ve changed the face of the country.
Fass: I’m glad it feels like yesterday, because we have so many plans for the future together. If it felt like we’ve been doing this for 20 years, we’d be really tired, but we aren’t. We walk to work with a skip in our step. We talk at least once a day for 20 years. It’s a deep friendship and partnership, and that in itself is an extremely rewarding element in doing this: finding a kindred spirit, a soul mate of sorts, which allows us to bounce off ideas, to complement and supplement one another’s talents.
How did you come up with the idea of Nefesh B’Nefesh?
Fass: I always wanted to move to Israel. My wife and I, when we were dating and I was about to start medical school, had a 10-year aliyah plan. But then I shifted and decided to go into the rabbinate and fell in love with teaching and said goodbye to medical school. I eventually made my way to Boca Raton, where Tony lived, and I served as associate rabbi there for six years. In the beginning of the Second Intifada, my cousin who had just had his bar mitzvah was killed by a Hamas suicide bomber, and it just made me pause and calibrate my compass.
I was about to sign a multi-year contract, and this was really a wake-up call. I said to my wife that we have to get back on our track and bring some light to that tragedy. I started sharing this with other people, and the common refrain I heard from them was: “We also want to make aliyah, but...,” and they listed a bunch of obstacles. I started doing a little research with The Jewish Agency to see why people weren’t moving to Israel. I saw that maybe there could be a solution to lift these barriers, to at least allow those who wanted to move, to make aliyah. If you want to contribute to the State of Israel, why should you feel that there are challenges that are holding you back? And then I said I need a partner; I can’t do this alone. I had this incredible congregant in my synagogue who is both very networked within Israel, who is a philanthropist in his own right, and a person I respect. I asked Tony if I could come by and pick his brain.
Gelbart: I remember thinking how brilliant Rabbi Fass is – I saw him in the shul and he was like a magnet. People are attracted to him, the way he spoke, how he dealt with his congregants. I wanted to learn with him. So when I got a knock on my door and saw him, I thought: This is good! What are we going to do? He said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
We have a lake near our home, and he explained his idea to me. I went back to my house and spoke to Judy, my wife, and she said, “For sure, do what you can do!” So I came back to Rabbi Fass and said there were two conditions: that we run it like a business, but with a heart. There actually was a third one – we don’t work 100%, we work 200%. We took off two weeks and flew to Israel.
Fass: We said, before we design a plan for moving ahead with North American aliyah, we need to see if there’s receptivity on the side of Israel. We spoke with multiple sources, from the Jewish Agency to the chief rabbi and the president and former prime ministers – [Shimon] Peres and [Ariel] Sharon, [Benjamin] “Bibi” [Netanyahu] – and Tzipi [Livni]. And they were all on board. But from the first moment, we kept on hearing two things: it’s an amazing idea, but you’re crazy; or, it’s a great idea but it’s not going to work – which propelled us to want to do it even more!
How do you remember those days?
Gelbart: I remember sitting in the King David Hotel. It was dark and cold, and a good friend of mine – high up in the military, who contributed a great deal to the State of Israel – looked me in the eyes and said, “This is crazy!” Sharon said the same thing, and so did almost everyone else, and I thought to myself, “Maybe we are crazy, but crazy is good some times.” There’s a very fine line between crazy and smart. But if you succeed, it will be the best thing you’ve ever done in your life.
Think about it: we were saying, ‘let’s take American and Canadian Jews and help them go to Israel. They’re going to live their dream and also bring their culture to the Middle East.’ In the beginning, I can assure you, we received no help from any existing institutions, no one.
What made you go ahead if everyone was telling you that it wouldn’t work and why did you call the organization Nefesh B’Nefesh?
Fass: It really was a paradigm shift that was threatening not only to the mindset but to the institutional psyche at that time. There were established institutions with their own role, and to bring in a new kid on the block was not only agitating the establishment and changing the synergetic flow between Israel and America, but also the contractual relationship that dated to Ben-Gurion’s time between funding and immigration.
One of my favorite movies is Glory, which encapsulates the battles of the American Civil War. The climactic moment of the movie is the symbolism of the flag, which focuses on the sacrifices people are willing to make for something greater than themselves.
When my cousin was killed, I kept on seeing that scene. Who will carry that flag of Zionism and immigration? Who can stand and unfurl that banner of what that family represents? Nefesh B’Nefesh – soul to soul – came from a pasuk (verse) in the Torah. It doesn’t mean there’s a replacement of a soul, but standing in the place of another person.
It also conjures up the phrase “nefesh Yehudi homiya” (from the national anthem), the longing of the Jewish soul to return home, and the concept of soul to soul, from American to Israeli. It was very visceral, very emotional, and created for me that momentum to move forward. Many people have run with their own interpretations, such as the intimate relationship between an aliyah adviser and the oleh client. But for me, it dates back to my personal tragedy and the image of that movie.
What gives you most fulfillment after 20 years at the helm of NBN?
Fass: The best thing today is when someone asks us if we’re still involved with Nefesh B’Nefesh. It means that we’ve built a brand that exists without us, and that’s awesome. It’s the best compliment in the world. The greatest naches (satisfaction) is to see other staff treat it like it’s their own and we can sit on the sidelines and kvell (be proud). You’re never jealous of your child.
How has Nefesh B’Nefesh changed over the years?
Fass: The mission statement of the organization has evolved. It used to be very specific: facilitating aliyah. If we were able to move a family from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to a thriving life in Israel, we were successful. And then it shifted into national projects: how do we get that family or individual to fulfill a need of the nation, whether that be building the periphery or filling a medical shortage, while tending to their own needs.
Then we shifted recently not only to facilitate but to educate, advocate and celebrate – and they all network with one another to either increase aliyah or increase the thriving elements of people to stay here and contribute more, but also raising modern-day Zionism to a different platform. Making sure that people are educated about what is really happening here in Israel, and the real relationship between Israel and the Diaspora; celebrate the accomplishments of Israel and the immigration body so that other people can also be enamored by what’s happening here, and advocate for long-term solutions.
There is a need to create a holistic approach for the future and ask what is immigration going to look like 20 years from now, or what are the issues we’re going to face 10 years from now. There are millions of Jews in the Diaspora. How do we feel and feed the future?
This also involves tackling major issues, like the housing issue here in Israel. Housing is challenging, and we must be able to provide a future residence to the next generation that is affordable and allows them to achieve their goals, you are stunting growth, for those who are living here and for those who want to move to the country. We’re taking 20 years of aggregated data, partnership and know-how, and asking how we address long-term goals.
People laughed at us 20 years ago, but today we’re not scared to tackle major issues that require major funding – and I think we can meet those challenges. One thing we’ve discovered is that things are much more doable than perceived. People want to do good, and if you give them the tools, we can create solutions. But you can’t do it alone, and you have to leverage partners and have the sense of humility to know that you can’t do everything alone. That’s a recipe for success. If we can do that, it will be a blessing to us and to the Jewish people, we hope.
How has moving into the new Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Campus in Jerusalem, which was given to you last year by the City of Jerusalem, changed things?
Gelbart: One thing I can say is that over the past 20 years, we’ve learned a lot. You have to change people’s mindsets, but you have to also give them hope. If you show them a little bit of light, they’ll push the door wide open. You know, no one thinks we’re crazy anymore. I always say that failure is an orphan and success has many fathers. For me, this new building is not about the four walls, but about what goes on inside these four walls. This is our home and it’s a warm home – a place where anybody can come and feel free. Upstairs on the rooftop, we’re going to have weddings for Lone Soldiers who can’t afford it. Our first one is coming up on October 23... I feel we’re on a high and there’s no stopping us.
Fass: Someone in the government reached out a few months ago and warned me that some institutions are nimble and great, but once they get a building that’s the end, the beginning of their decline. Because many people feel that once they have a building they can rest on their laurels. I said, “You don’t understand. This is like giving a toddler his first shoe. That’s how we view the building. It’s not a feather in our cap. It’s just an ability to start running.”
Theodore Roethke said the world needs more people who specialize in the impossible. Things don’t have to be the way that they are, and if you feel you can tackle it, or at least try, it’s better than not trying. And if it works, fantastic!
Gelbart: It might sound a little corny, but as I look back, I’m really proud of Josh (Rabbi Fass). Over the last 20 years, seeing what he and our team have done here – and there are some people from the beginning who are still here – I’m so proud of them. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished and the things that we’ve changed and the people who we’ve helped. I’m very grateful to all the people who joined us along the way, even the naysayers and organizations who joined us later.
I leave you with this message: if you want to help the Jewish people and the people of Israel, join us, because there is a lot more to come! ■