Long Ride Home (Extract)

191 new immigrants from North America arrive in Israel on the flight that will change their lives forever

21nbn (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Ezra Raoul Weissman, dressed in jeans and a loose sweater, looks at his parents anxiously as he waits for the ceremony to begin. They stand together, a small circle, alternately embracing then standing apart, as if they want the moment never to end, so they will never have to say goodbye. Weissman says he wants to get on the plane. "I'm so proud of him," says his mother, then adds, "I'm so sad." Weissman, 22, a recent graduate of Hofstra College from Philadelphia, was one of 191 U.S. and Canadian olim (immigrants to Israel), who, together with six dogs and two cats and seemingly unlimited pieces of luggage, boarded a chartered plane at JFK airport in New York, in late December 2007, to make aliya (immigrate) to Israel. This was the 16th and final flight of the year for an organization known as Nefesh B'Nefesh (which means "Soul and Soul Together"). In the five years since its founding, Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) has brought over more than 13,000 new immigrants from North America, more than 3000 of them in 2007. With comprehensive programs that include financial aid, career advice, social counseling and bureaucratic streamlining, the non-profit organization, which holds tax-exempt status in the U.S. and is funded largely through private donations, has, it claims, "revitalized Western aliya," while putting the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental institution traditionally responsible for aliya, and other official institutions on the defensive. On an upper floor of the el al terminal at JFK, NBN and El Al officials have organized a ceremony, complete with a decorated sheet cake and drinks. Quoting psalm 126, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder, co-chairman and a chief contributor, recites, "'When we returned to Zion, it was as if we were dreaming.' May the reality of life in Israel surpass your most wonderful dreams." The crowd cheers. Turning to the parents and families, Fass, a former practicing rabbi and Jewish educator from Boca Raton who now lives in Israel, says , "I know this is hard for you, but I know you're proud that a member of your family is going to Israel." Weissman's parents don't seem so sure. And Weissman isn't quite sure what he'll be doing when he gets to Israel. First, he says, he'll go to a residential ulpan, where he'll be in a mid-level Hebrew class, in the coastal plain city of Ra'anana, where many English-speaking Israelis have made their home. Then he'd like to go into the Israel Defense Forces and perhaps continue his studies at one of Israel's universities. "I know I want to live in Israel because I am a Jew," says Ezra, who has been to Israel once before. "I'm not religious, but I want to live in a country where things are Jewish, and the holidays are my holidays." The officials tell the crowd to say their goodbyes and to start moving towards security. "Well, I guess that's it, Dad," says Weissman, slapping his father on the back, then embracing him closely. They walk down the stairs. Weissman fixes his knapsack on his shoulders, straightens his cap, and walks through passport control, not looking back. His parents stare after him, long after he's passed through the opaque doors and they can't see him anymore. NBN is widely conceived of AS being a primarily religious organization that brings Orthodox immigrants to Israel; many of them, the assumption goes, to settlements in the territories. But the reality is a little more complex, says businessman and NBN co-founder Tony Gelbart, who is president and CEO of Old City Partners LLC, an investment company based in Boca Raton, Flordia, with holdings in both the U.S. and Israel. "Since Rabbi Fass and I are observant, when we began this project, we naturally attracted people from our close circles," Gelbart explains. "At the time, religious Jews, many of them nationalistic, were the majority of Jews coming to Israel. But as the numbers grow, we're seeing larger numbers of non-religious families and singles on our flights." On this flight, 82 of the olim were single and another four couples were engaged; 60 percent of them described themselves as non-Orthodox, the majority of them as secular. Of the 32 families, 60 percent described themselves as Orthodox. Not one oleh listed a settlement as his or her destination. "That's fine by me," Gelbart says. "All Jews are welcome." When flying on El Al, Israelis are a rather rowdy crowd, and at least with regard to flight etiquette, these soon-to-be Israelis adjusted quickly, as they hopped from seat to seat and strolled up and down the aisles. Almost no one, it seemed, got much sleep - not even the dignitaries and VIPs accompanying the flight, including Fass, Gelbart, former Israeli basketball star of the 1970s Tal Brody, himself a veteran American immigrant, and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Danny Ayalon, who now serves as Nefesh B'Nefesh's co-chair, together with Gelbart and Fass. Particularly active were the singles; nothing could stop them from flirting on the plane once the fasten-your-seatbelt sign was turned off. After all, says Sara, a young, single woman from New York, "Everyone on the plane is Jewish, so I have a good chance, don't I?" And NBN does have a good track record - claiming that nearly 300 married couples met while in their program - a good number of them on the 31 chartered planes they have brought to Israel. NBN officials also state that another 19,000 people have contacted their offices throughout the U.S. and Canada, requesting guidance and support for making aliya in the near future. "If we had enough money," says Gelbart, "we'd be bringing even more olim to Israel." In its first years, NBN was largely funded by the U.S.-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), headed by Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, who has recently been appointed to the executive of the Jewish Agency. But due to public opposition - it was embarrassing that Christians seemed more willing than Jews to promote aliya - NBN ended its ties with the IFCJ, although NBN's achievements still feature prominently on evangelical websites. Although he declines to say how much money he or Fass personally contribute to the organization, Gelbart says that the average oleh "costs" well over $3,000 dollars, not including the benefits provided by the Israeli government. "With 3,000 olim this year, that means our budget, including operating costs, is about $11 million a year." Some potential olim receive as much as $23,000 - if the family stays in Israel for at least three years. Yet some of the olim had upgraded their NBN-paid for seats to business class - an indication, it might be assumed, that they did not need the free flight. Gelbart shrugs goodnaturedly. "We're in the business of bringing Jews to Israel," he says. "That's what we do. And we do it well. If a few people take advantage of us, well, so be it. In the larger scheme of things, it really doesn't matter much at all." According to the latest statistics released by Israel's Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, aliya in 2007 was projected to decrease by 9.3 percent, continuing its steady decline over the past seven years. But the numbers of olim from North America, while still small, are actually growing, and NBN takes credit for this, too. This is in line with current thinking in the Zionist organizations. Now that Israel has brought over most of the potential immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Ethiopia, Jewish institutions have begun to shift their attention to the wealthier Jewish communities in the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Australia and South America. Private initiatives - such as, in addition to NBN, the Birthright program, Ami in France, Youth Aliya in Australia, a new NBN initiative in Britain and other smaller organizations in other Western countries - that offer incentives and streamlined, kid-gloved handling are succeeding in bringing Western immigrants to Israel, despite the overall dwindling numbers of immigrants and especially when compared with the apparent inability of the traditional national institutions to bring and retain immigrants from the Westernized, first-world countries. Gelbart attributes the organization's success to its formula - extensive pre-aliya preparation, a paid-for pre-aliya pilot trip, information venues for future olim; streamlined bureaucratic procedures upon arrival in Israel, and extensive career counseling and social services for the first year or so in Israel. Says Ayalon, "The Americans and Canadians on this flight represent one of the very few organized groups of Jews making aliya from first world, wealthy countries. Most of the olim who have come to Israel have come because they needed to or because they had few other options in their lives. But the Jews from Nefesh B'Nefesh are really olim - they are really 'going up' to the land of Israel - they are coming because they want to. And they won't want to if their aliya is cumbersome or bogged down in bureaucratic hassles. That's where we come in. We make things easier - financially, professionally, logistically." But the established Jewish organizations, and most especially, the Jewish Agency, perhaps recognizing that these private upstarts were impinging on their very raison d'?tre, opposed granting them any formal recognition or funding. Although NBN initially worked in partnership during its first few years with the Jewish Agency, more recently, the Agency cut off all ties with the organization. A tense competition between the two organizations continues to simmer just under the surface. Extract from an article in Issue 21, February 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.