Is teaching Hebrew the key to boosting aliyah to Israel? - opinion

Though large and successful, the continued push for aliyah should remain at the top of Israel’s list of priorities. Thus, it is worthwhile to contemplate ways to increase immigration.

 NEW IMMIGRANTS from North America receive a shofar’s welcome upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport on a special ‘aliyah flight’ on behalf of Nefesh B’Nefesh.  (photo credit: FLASH90)
NEW IMMIGRANTS from North America receive a shofar’s welcome upon arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport on a special ‘aliyah flight’ on behalf of Nefesh B’Nefesh.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

From its inception as an idea at the First Zionist Congress in Basel to the modern state’s declaration and surely until this day, the central pillar of the Zionist movement to rebuild a Jewish Homeland in the historical land of Israel has been based on the common cause to facilitate Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles. Indeed, this has been met with incredible success. Today, more than 50% of world Jewry lives in our ancestral homeland. Though large and successful, the continued push for aliyah should remain at the top of Israel’s list of priorities. Thus, it is worthwhile to contemplate ways to increase immigration.

From the initial waves of aliyah in the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigration to Israel was rooted in a deep sense of yearning and willingness to rebuild a tortured land. Young pioneers, religious and secular, flocked to Israel to drain swamps, revive a dead language and reestablish Jewish sovereignty over the land. The sense of urgency to settle the land intensified during the early 1900s, as antisemitic attacks occurred across Eastern and Western Europe. This, of course, culminated in the Shoah, which brought many of its survivors to Israel. Fast forward to today, it appears that the largest waves of aliyah have been due to force, rather than on the initiative of the olim.

Aliyot have been forced, not chosen

Looking at the two largest aliyot since World War II, we have the mass immigration of Mizrahim, who were forced from their homes in the Levant to Israel, and the Russian aliyot that brought nearly two million Jews back home. In between, there were the Ethiopians, who were brought to Israel, as well as many French olim who have immigrated over the past few decades, due to a new rise of antisemitism in France.

Many have also come from other European, Latin American and North American countries. The great outlier to mass immigration to Israel, though, is the United States. Going around Israel, you will find many olim – myself included – who have moved to Israel from America. Despite the large number you may encounter, practically all have come on their own initiative and are usually unique among those who grow up within the US. With this said, it takes a great amount of love for Israel and a willingness to voluntarily leave a relatively safe and prosperous country to settle in Israel.

 Birthright Israel Mega Event. (credit: BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL) Birthright Israel Mega Event. (credit: BIRTHRIGHT ISRAEL)
The government is already opening minds to Israel

There exist, today, organizations such as Taglit-Birthright that do much to instill a connection to Israel with otherwise disconnected American Jewish youth. The impact is great, with many Taglit alum ending up making aliyah themselves. However, despite the thousands that go on these free trips, not nearly enough are moving to Israel. It is worth asking why this is the case.

As an oleh to Israel, I can say that one of the biggest hurdles to making the move to Israel and ultimately integrating is the language barrier. Most youth in America only speak one language, English, so learning a new language is much more difficult than for those in Europe, who may already speak three or four languages. I believe a way to improve aliyah numbers from the US is to offer free ulpanim (Hebrew language courses) in the major cities in America and elsewhere.

Teaching Hebrew to prospective olim will make the transition easier

I remember, in the year leading up to my aliyah, looking frantically for an Ulpan in New York, where I grew up. Despite a large number of Israelis and Jews living in New York, no such program existed. Currently, the infrastructure exists for setting up ulpan centers in every major Diasporic city across the world. Either at a Jewish Agency center, Jewish school, Nefesh B’Nefesh office, or consulate, rooms can be set aside for Jews to learn Hebrew for free. Teachers are easily accessible too, as even today, many Israelis who do Sherut Leumi spend a year abroad teaching Hebrew courses to youth at Jewish day schools. Why not for adults, as well?

As a pilot, it can be offered initially to past participants of Taglit and their parents. A small deposit could be required that can be refunded, or donated if the participant successfully completes the course. At these centers, Hebrew can be taught in a way that also exposes the participants to Israeli culture and identity, while offering free resources to start the Aliyah process. As an example, participants can get fingerprinted and have their prints sent for the background check that is required for aliyah.

At the end of a six-month course, participants can have both the language skills necessary to immerse themselves in Israel and the paperwork ready to get them on the flight. Why not give it a try?

The writer is an entrepreneur and a Hebrew thinker, as well as a recent oleh.