The Jewish Agency and aliya

This summer, more than 1,000 young adults will be bringing Israel to Jewish summer camps.

NBN aliya flight_311 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
NBN aliya flight_311
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Later this summer, Jews around the world will be learning about Parshat Pinchas. While it would be better for me to comment on this parsha in July, Isi Leibler’s recent column denouncing the Jewish Agency for having “sidelined aliya from being a primary objective” makes it impossible for me to wait.
In the parsha, the five daughters of Zelophehad appeal to G-d to allow them to receive their rightful inheritance, even though they were women and, also, Moses did not hold their father in the highest esteem. Nevertheless, G-d looked at the daughters’ case objectively and decided in their favor, indicating that neither their status as women nor any misdeeds of their father should prevent them from obtaining what was rightfully theirs.
Moreover, G-d was furious with Moses’s poor leadership. He was passive, stubborn and hopelessly behind the curve. G-d essentially canned Moses, despite his having led with success for so long. Fair or not, collective confidence in Moses as a leader had become an issue.
With major challenges ahead, G-d was taking no chances.
What does this have to do with the Jewish Agency and Leibler’s misguided attack? The answer is easy for anybody who has been to North America lately.
The Jewish community remains extremely vibrant and rich with opportunities for Jews of all ages to find their pintele yid. At the same time, more opportunities exist than ever for Jews to find alternative paths for fulfillment. And to an alarming extent, that is exactly what many young Jews are doing.
Gone are the days where a shaliach could hand out copies of Exodus, hold a slideshow and successfully recruit olim by the planeload. Young Jews are not gathering in any single place where old engagement models would have a chance to succeed. They are scattered on campuses, where they are bombarded with negative messages about Israel; they are social media entrepreneurs trying to raise venture capital; they are inventing electric bikes and dancing in professional ballets; and they are studying law or medicine in happy fellowship with their Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and atheist friends.
Sure, they would be make great Israelis, but it takes more these days than Exodus and pictures of kibbutzniks tending to Israel’s orchards.
Far from abandoning aliya, the Jewish Agency has embraced its mission headon.
But we are doing so with a 360-degree view of the underlying, multi-dimensional issues facing the Jewish world. The fragmentation of Jewish identity and community prevents us from even getting into the batter’s box unless we tackle that challenge holistically.
To connect with young North American Jews today, we need the most dynamic, web-savvy, creative and personable emissaries we can find. And we need to increase their ranks. This past year we had talented and charismatic young Israelis on 50 of North America’s most “Jewish” university campuses, where they helped affiliated Jewish students develop ways to “Talk Israel” with their unaffiliated friends. Next fall, there will be 60 campus shlichim, and in a few years there will be 100.
But truthfully, the disconnected Jewish college students are hard to reach, even for the best shaliach. So we need to connect with young Jews before they become hopelessly “jaded.” This past year, we sent more than 200 shinshinim to Jewish communities throughout North America, many with a particular knack for connecting with the smart-asses in the back of every Hebrew school classroom.
This summer, more than 1,000 young adults will be bringing Israel to Jewish summer camps. These younger shlichim, as fantastic as they are, need guidance.
So we have increased the number of professional shlichim in North America by 20 percent.
Yet, without a product to sell a master salesman or saleswoman will still fail – especially in a “try before you buy” culture, where we feel entitled to sample a few spoonfuls of frozen yogurt before committing to a full bowl. Because of the Jewish Agency, shlichim can offer young Jewish adults the chance to travel to Israel without it being a financial burden.
We all know it doesn’t take long to “get it” once somebody is on that tour bus or walking up Mount Herzl. Still, who can blame that person if he or she has not concluded that a 10-day bus tour is sufficient basis for a monumental life change. And it is so easy to forget that intense feeling of belonging once back in the grind.
Our shlichim are responsible for making sure that doesn’t happen, and again the Jewish Agency has brought the disruptive product to market. Thousands of young adults each year have taken the next step in the continuum of commitment.
For five months to one year, they are immersing themselves in Israeli society.
Whether its interning, studying, volunteering or training for a triathlon, they are living their lives in Israel – with minimal financial cost – through more than 200 Masa programs that the Jewish Agency has made possible. Without the Jewish Agency, the range of programs that fill this need would not have the funding, incubation or infrastructure to operate at a necessary scale.
In 2010, Stephen Cohen of Hebrew Union College and New York University found that 65% of young adults who followed their Birthright trips with a Masa experience have given serious thought to aliya.
Does this strategy of gradually cultivating deep ties work as an alternative to lecturing sophisticated young people about their obligation as Jews? A recent Jewish Agency study found that 52% of young North American olim were influenced by campus activity, 21% were significantly influenced by Birthright and 45% were significantly influenced by longer programs, such as those that are part of the Masa framework.
Our findings also bolster the notion that we need to reach Jews before adulthood.
Thirty-seven percent said they began to consider aliya between the ages of 15 and 19. Finally, when dealing with a population outside of orthodoxy, the Israel experience is indispensable. Fortythree percent of young non-Orthodox olim were influenced by a visit and 45% lived in Israel for an extended time period before making aliya.
With the data staring us in the face, and the reality that life in North America is comfortable for both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, why would we do anything but calibrate our strategies with reality? When Steve Jobs looked at the rapidlychanging ways by which people were consuming information, did he invest in manufacturing more desktop PCs? No, he left that to Hewlett-Packard and went about reshaping media as we know it. His goal did not change; his strategy did.
Like Jobs, in order for the Jewish Agency to become more involved in the lives of Jews everywhere, we have had to adapt.
We still serve as the first address for Jews whose lives may depend on making aliya.
Moreover, we remain deeply engaged in the actual aliya process. Our partner, Nefesh b’ Nefesh, counsels those who have gotten to the point where aliya is a real possibility, while we open and maintain the pathways to that point. Our shlichim work with the government to verify eligibility, we arrange the flights and many young North American Jews form the lifelong friendships, critical to their success, in our ulpanim.
The Jewish Agency remains deeply committed to aliya. But too much is at stake for us to approach our challenge with tunnel vision. The task before us requires real leadership, and that is what we intend to provide.
Joshua A. Berkman is the associate director for communications of the Jewish Agency for Israel.