On making aliya

Younger generations are moving to Israel, and in doing so, revitalizing the country.

Olim arriving on Nefesh B'Nefesh flight 300 (photo credit: Courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Olim arriving on Nefesh B'Nefesh flight 300
(photo credit: Courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh)
The State of Israel is hurtling toward pensionable age, having turned 64 this past April, and the numbers of new migrants being absorbed has declined dramatically since the exodus that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. But year upon year, thousands of young people continue to make aliya, in order to take advantage of the nation's dynamic economy and rich culture. This could mean attending university, learning Hebrew, working on a kibbutz, joining the army, or simply beginning life anew.
This may sound cliché but the statistics show it to be a truism: there is a clear generational bulge amongst new olim (Jewish immigrants), between the ages of 18 and 30, and they journey to Israel from around the world. The newest ulpan– a five-month intensive Hebrew course – has just commenced, and its attendees find their origins in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Finland and Hungary, amongst others.
Kyle [pseudonym] made aliya in April of last year from South Africa, at only 19-years-old, following in brother’s steps. Though Jewish by the Law of Return on his father’s side, he was in fact raised Christian, his father having converted from Judaism some years prior to marriage. His paternal lineage extends back to Europe: to Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. When his brother wished to move to Israel, he had to prove this heritage by way of photographs of the graves of family members who had perished in the Shoah.
In making the leap, Kyle felt both the pull of Israel and a certain degree of push out of South Africa. In a nation where 50 percent of citizens live below the poverty line, “a girl is more likely to be raped than finish [secondary] school”, he noted, citing a Time magazine report published in March on the issue of "corrective rape."
Almost 20 years since the first universal elections there, South Africa struggles with chronically high unemployment (presently at 23.9 percent) and a low GDP per capita of only $11,000 per annum, in addition to systemic problems with crime and governmental corruption. Contrast this with Israel, where the economy is growing at just under 5 percent a year, unemployment is below 6 percent, and the GDP per capita stands at $31,000 per annum, and the journey from South Africa to the Promised Land becomes all the more understandable.
Less than a month after arriving in Israel, Kyle moved to the kibbutz in order to participate in an ulpan, going from knowing nothing more than shalom and toda (thanks) to passing the “bet” (advanced beginners) class with an end score of 95 percent. Though the aim of the ulpan is to depart with a working knowledge of conversational Hebrew and the ability to read simplified texts and newspapers, it was not until the end of the course, when he worked six months on a kibbutz and spoke Hebrew daily amongst people whose English is by no means fluent, that Kyle says he gained confidence in the language.
In achieving this, it seems Kyle accomplished more than most. A 2007 report found that 60 percent of those who take the ulpan course over the age of 30 are unable to read, write or speak Hebrew fluently, hindering their absorption into the wider community and their ability to find employment. Kyle, on the other hand, labeled the kibbutz ulpan in particular a “fantastic experience," citing the opportunity for him and the other participants to mix and integrate with olim and volunteers he never would have encountered under normal circumstance, a tremendous advantage of the kibbutz system.
Following the ulpan and his spell working full-time in the great outdoors, Kyle was like most, if not all, young Israelis drafted into the armed services. Having excelled in the initial physical, psychological, and intelligence examinations, he is now participating in an additional three-month Hebrew course within the IDF, before having his pick of units and roles on account of his aptitude. As such, he will not necessarily have to serve in a combat role. Nonetheless, Kyle expressed no qualms in principle at the prospect of operating in the West Bank, or participating, in a manner of speaking, in the ongoing occupation there.
Initially, the thought of military service was a kind of disincentive when it came to making aliya. He suspected that this time of his life could be better spent elsewhere (South Africa has no policy of enforced conscription). But with the passage of time, Kyle says he changed his mind. On the one hand, he realized the importance of military service not only to the nation, but also to those who had already been through it. “The most common question I was asked in my time here [on the kibbutz] was, ‘What do you want to do in the army?” he said.
Other people he encountered in ulpan and in the forces have also made him think differently. Particularly amongst those of his own age — he is now 20 — he sensed an uplifting passion for service to one’s adopted homeland. Some made aliya, they said, specifically to join what Kyle called —and many would agree might be — “one of the best armed forces in the world." So even as Israel ages, and grapples with all the messy problems that come with that, it appears it will always be refreshed by the vivacity and vitality of its younger migrants.
The writer is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in The Atlantic, The Forward, and The Jewish Chronicle. He is currently based in Kibbutz Ein Ha'Shofet.