Is teaching Hebrew the key to increasing immigration? - opinion

It takes both a great love for Israel and a willingness to voluntarily leave a relatively safe and prosperous country to settle here.

 NEW DIASPORA Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli is pledging to invest in ‘strengthening Jewish identity and teaching Hebrew to Jews in the Diaspora.’ (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
NEW DIASPORA Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli is pledging to invest in ‘strengthening Jewish identity and teaching Hebrew to Jews in the Diaspora.’
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/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 the 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 as today, more than 50% of world Jewry lives in our ancestral homeland.

Though largely successful, the continued push for immigration, Aliyah in Hebrew, should remain at the top of the State’s list of priorities. With the new Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli pledging to invest in “strengthening Jewish identity and teaching Hebrew to Jews in the Diaspora,” it is worthwhile to consider new ways to increase immigration.

Since the initial waves of aliyah in the late 1800s and early 1900s, immigration to Israel has been rooted in a deep sense of yearning and willingness to rebuild a tortured Land. Young pioneers, religious and secular, flocked to the Holy Land 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 all across Eastern and Western Europe. This of course culminated in the Shoah which brought many of its survivors to Israel. Fast forward until today, and it appears that the largest waves of aliyah have been due to force, rather than initiative on the part of the olim (immigrants).

 New immigrants from USA and Canada arrive on a special '' Aliyah Flight 2016'' on behalf of Nefesh B'Nefesh organization, at Ben Gurion airport in central Israel on August 17, 2016. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) New immigrants from USA and Canada arrive on a special '' Aliyah Flight 2016'' on behalf of Nefesh B'Nefesh organization, at Ben Gurion airport in central Israel on August 17, 2016. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

LOOKING AT the two largest aliyot (immigrations to Israel) 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 aliyah 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 largest mass immigration to Israel, however, is from the United States.

Olim from all over the world

Traveling around Israel, you will find many olim, myself included, who have moved from America. Despite the large numbers you may encounter, practically all have come on their own initiative and are usually unique among those who grew up in the US.

That said, it takes both a great love for Israel and a willingness to voluntarily leave a relatively safe and prosperous country to settle here.

Today, organizations such as Taglit-Birthright do so much to forge connections between disconnected American-Jewish youth and Israel – similar to that which Chikli wishes to accomplish. The results are astounding, with many ending up making aliyah themselves. However, despite the 1000s who go on these free trips, not nearly enough are moving to Israel. It is worth asking why this is the case.

As an oleh, I can say that one of the biggest hurdles to both making the move to Israel and integrating properly, is the language barrier. Most young people 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. One way to improve aliyah from the United States – aside from building Jewish identity – is to offer free Ulpanim (Hebrew classes) in the major cities in America and elsewhere.

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 there, no such program existed.

While applications (apps) such as Duolingo can help with the basics, generally, they do not bring people up to a level at which they feel comfortable speaking. Additionally, the self-motivation required to learn with an app makes it a poor substitute for learning Hebrew in a classroom setting.

The infrastructure already exists for setting up Ulpan centers in every major Diaspora city across the world; rooms can be set aside for Jews to learn Hebrew for free at Jewish Agency centers, Jewish schools, Nefesh B’Nefesh offices and so on. Teachers are easily accessible too, as many Israelis who do Sherut Leumi (national service) spend a year abroad teaching Hebrew courses to youths at Jewish day schools – so why not for adults as well?

As a pilot, classes can be offered initially to past participants of Birthright and their parents. A small deposit could be requested to be either refunded or donated if the participant successfully completes the course.

At these centers, Hebrew should be taught in a way that also exposes the students to Israeli culture and identity, while offering free resources and guidance to start the aliyah process. As an example, participants could get fingerprinted and have their prints sent for the background checks required for aliyah.

At the end of a 6-month course, the students may have both the language skills necessary to enable them to become immersed in Israeli life and the necessary paperwork to get them on the flight. 

Minister Chikli, why not give it a try?

The writer, a Jerusalem Post staff member, is an entrepreneur and Hebrew thinker, known as Osher in Hebrew. A recent oleh, he also helps oversee the start-up ecosystem in Jerusalem with Made in JLM. On Twitter: @troyfritzhand.