Illustration: New immigrants at Ben Gurion airport (Image credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office of Israel)
In the midst of Israel’s coronavirus and unemployment woes, there is a bright ray of hope. Almost every group which deals with aliyah and the absorption of new immigrants into the country reports a doubled to threefold increase in aliyah requests from Jewish communities around the world. While the forecasts sound promising, I spoke with aliyah officials and grassroots activists to glean more information about the “Aliyah Rush” and what turns out to be a more sober overall picture.
According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 35,000 new immigrants, known as olim, arrived in the country last year. In 2018, the total was 30,000 olim, with the majority, almost 19,000, or 65%, coming from the former Soviet Union. Roughly 2,800 came from North America, 2,500 from France, 515 from the United Kingdom, 283 from Argentina, 256 from South America, and progressively lower numbers from other countries around the globe. "By the end of 2021, we can expect the arrival of 90,000 immigrants, compared to the 35,463 of 2019," Minister of Aliyah and Immigration Pnina Tamano-Shata told Knesset. The Jewish Agency predicts 250,000 immigrants in the next five years.
On the one hand, the expected increase in immigrants is refreshing news considering the relative trickle of olim throughout the past decade (with a very large number of them non-Jews from Russia). On the other hand, when we consider the six to seven million Jews still residing in the Diaspora, the aliyah rate is downright embarrassing. Take the United States for example.
While a definitive figure is impossible to come by, given the intermarriage epidemic there and the difficulty in knowing exactly who is a Jew, let’s say there are five million halachic Jews in America. The 2,800 Jewish-American olim who came on aliyah in 2018 represents .056 percent, way under one percent. If we calculate the increasing numbers of people “flooding” the Nefesh B’Nefesh dashboard with calls to fill out aliyah forms, and call it a threefold increase — though a great many people who fill out the forms never make aliyah — the whopping 2021 forecast of 8,400 new olim approaches .168% of American Jewry; certainly nothing to brag about. And that’s with the added incentive of escaping the increasing COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and rampant anti-Semitism, both of which are very likely to worsen.
“Zion remains far, far away…”
What’s the situation like in other places? Yaacov Fridlin runs the Sefer Jewish Publishing and Bookstore in Brazil. He told me that 70,000 people have died in the epidemic, including 100 Jews. “The Jews here generally enjoy a good parnassa and lifestyle. Of the 100,000 Jews in Brazil, some 80,000 live in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Aliyah numbers have never been high, and most of the people moving to Israel today began the process before corona began, people largely from the middle class. The worsening economic situation has caused a greater interest, and shalichim from Israel working with the Jewish Agency have managed to put aliyah on the map, but in the minds of most people, Zion remains far-far away.”
Two years ago, Jean Carlos Freitas completed the conversion program at Jerusalem’s Machon Meir yeshiva. After receiving Israeli citizenship, he returned to his birthplace in Brazil to pack up all of his belongings. Now back in Israel, he is finishing two-weeks of isolation at a corona “hotel” in Jerusalem. “The situation in Brazil is catastrophic,” he told me. “I spoke to all the Jews I could, telling them to hurry and make aliyah to Israel, but most of them replied that the epidemic will pass and the economy will bounce back. It is funny to me, a convert, telling Jews to make aliyah. When I tell them that I love the Holy Land, they look at me like I am some kind of kook — not Rabbi Kook. Most Jews in Brazil have never heard of him.”
“… self-made ghettos”
Jerusalem attorney Nili Naouri heads the grassroots aliyah organization, Israel is Forever. She spoke to me about the situation in France, saying, “... (it) is worsening every day, both economically and with outright anti-Semitism, not to mention the corona epidemic. The French Government has surrendered to the Islamic invasion. The Jews of France live in self-made ghettos, but the ghetto walls are rattling and crumbling. Almost 2000 Jews died from corona. The angry protests of the ‘Yellow Vests’ have further put the country’s Jews on guard. Students of Jewish History all know that the Jews are invariably blamed for economic recession. It’s a canon waiting to explode.
With France so close to Israel, a short boat-ride away, I would think a greater number of Jews would make aliyah each year?
Many of them have become accustomed to a comfortable material existence. Even though Israel has become an international powerhouse, the inertia caused by the deep-seated French culture and ‘Vive la France,’ national pride, is like glue. Nonetheless, French Jews are very Zionistic. They donate to charitable causes in Israel, buy apartments, spend vacation time here, and send their children to yeshivot in the Holy Land, and encourage them to make aliyah, in preparation for their own coming when they retire. We estimate that out of the country’s 450,000 Jews, 200,000 want to make aliyah as soon as possible. When Ben Gurion closed because of the corona epidemic, and the health crisis in France grew out of control, many other French Jews began to make inquiries about immigrating to Israel.
But ironically, although the interest in aliyah is great, over the last five years, the annual rate of immigrants from France has lessened. Why? Because Medinat Yisrael (the state of Israel) has not made the effort to prepare the foundations for a successful mass aliyah, geared for the special needs to French olim.
First, the bureaucracy involved is enormous. Second, in many cases, potential olim discover that their education degrees and professional work experience are not honored. Thirdly, there is no official employment agency to help them find work, especially for the fathers and mothers of families. Young singles can get by with very little and build bright futures, but families need to know they can make a living. By and large, the Jews of France want to leave ‘La Belle France’ but if Israel wants to seize the historic opportunity of receiving a very qualified and patriotic community of olim, it will have to adopt a national project of immigrant absorption, revamping the existing system, and making aliyah and klita (absorption) a top priority.
Do you believe that grassroots activity like yours has an effect on government policy?
Absolutely. For example, a half a year ago, I sent a program I wrote for expanding aliyah from France to Yaacov HaGoel, Vice Director of the WZO. Today, he announced in the media that he was moving forward with a new program (partly based on my proposal) to bring 50,000 French Jews to Israel.
“he won’t go without bread…”
I asked HaRav Yosef Zini, the spiritual leader of the Eder HaYakar Synagogue in Ashdod, about the Jews in France who weren’t interested in moving to Israel. Born in Algeria, he made aliyah from Paris in 1967. His brother, Eliahu, served as the Rabbi of the Technion University in Haifa for three decades. His son, Brigadier General, David Zini, is one of the highest-ranking religious soldiers Tzahal. Over the years, he has written hundreds of articles and letters in French on the mitzvah of living in Israel.
“The Rabbis in France don’t encourage aliyah because they don’t believe the Jews are in danger there. Just a few days ago, a group of them wrote to me, asking how they could inspire Jews to put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. This is what they are concerned about!
“When I speak to them about aliyah, they maintain that as captains of the ship, they can’t abandon the passengers, but when the boat is already half sunk in the sea, the captain has to save whoever he can, and the only way to save the Jews in France from assimilation is by getting them to immediately come on aliyah. Even if it means becoming a street cleaner, a Jew is better off here than in France. Every Jew who speaks Hebrew, and who is willing to take any job he can to survive, is promised that he won’t go without bread.
“It is true that Israel has economic problems, but during the Gulf War, when missiles from Iraq fell on Tel Aviv, a mass aliyah came from Russia nonetheless, and the economy rebounded. The Land of Israel is like a woman who gives birth. When the child arrives, suddenly she has milk to feed the baby. When droves of Jews arrive in the Land, automatically it becomes a Land flowing with milk and honey.”
“... limiting the number of non-Jews entering Israel”
Nativ is an independent administrative unit at the Prime Minister's Office that handles aliyah from the Former Soviet Union (FSU). It oversees the complicated work of determining who is qualified to immigrate to Israel, a process which can take a year and more due the destruction of archival records during the Soviet regime, and because of the false-document “industry” which necessitates the careful examination of every document and applicant. Nativ also operates nine cultural centers throughout the FSU, which work to increase people’s familiarity with Jewish Heritage and their knowledge about the State of Israel.
Last week, David Bitan, head of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, announced that this year’s 25% cut in the Nativ budget would make it impossible for the agency to carry on its work, crippling the expected increase in immigration from Russia this year and the next few years to come.
Former “Prisoner of Zion,” HaRav Yosef Mendelevich, served 11 years in Soviet prisons for attempting to hijack an airplane to come to Israel. Each year, he travels throughout the FSU, lecturing about Judaism and aliyah. I asked him what could be done to limit the amount of non-Jewish people from immigrating to the Jewish State.
"On the one hand, a budget cut to Nativ could be welcome in limiting the number of non-Jews entering Israel, but it would also decrease the number of Jewish olim. HaRav Beryl Lazer, Chief Rabbi of Russia, estimates that out of the one million Jews left in the FSU with a connection to Am Yisrael, only half are halachically Jewish. Because of assimilation, the number of Russians with a connection to Judaism will multiply rapidly. The Chabad movement offers courses in Judaism in most of the large cities, but it is a slow process of education.
“The clauses in the Law of Return were formulated by the pressure of American Jews who feared that their descendants wouldn’t be categorized as Jews because of intermarriage. Thus, if an immigrant’s grandfather was Jewish, he or she is automatically awarded citizenship when arriving in Israel. Some non-Jews convert in Russia and others after they arrive in Israel. The seriousness of their Jewishness is a big debate, but most are at least patriotic Israelis. Whether their “Jewishness” can be solidified by Jewish education in Israel is dubious considering the negative influence of radical liberal organizations inside of the country with aggressive anti-Jewish agendas. At present, no one has a viable solution.”
“… aliyah is a formidable, life-changing experience”
Dov Newmark heads Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) aliyah operations for the UK, which generates about 500 new olim per year, out of a total Jewish population of some 250,000. While the percentage is slightly higher than the U.S. batting average, it isn’t something to write home about. I asked him why more British Jews don’t come.
“You have to remember that we are not selling something like cars, which most people want. For you and me, who are living in Israel, we experience the advantages of Jewish life in the Jewish Homeland, but for Diaspora Jews, aliyah is a formidable, life-changing experience. At NBN, we emphasize that olim are not running away from something, but rather ascending to a new high in life. But expectations have to be realistic for a successful aliyah. In the UK, the Jewish Agency handles the recruitment aspect of the process, so I cannot tell you how we can attract greater numbers.”
“… we can bring home any Jew who wishes to make aliyah”
The North American branch of NBN, which will be building a new aliyah Center in Jerusalem, put out optimistic press releases each time a small group of idealistic olim arrive at Ben Gurion aliyah during the corona epidemic. The hard-working organization, which aids new immigrants all through the aliyah journey and afterward in Israel, has booked seats on 14 special El Al flights this summer. Nonetheless, as we mentioned, the numbers remain modest. Yael Katsman is the NBN Director of Marketing and Communications. She answered my questions with the organizations typical politically-correct neutrality.
The current second wave of the coronavirus has sent Israel into an economic tailspin. Voices in the government are beginning to question the country’s ability to handle the forecasts of a mass aliyah.
"Nefesh B’Nefesh is working closely with all relevant government offices to ensure that aliyah continues and that we can bring home any Jew who wishes to make aliyah. We are hoping all the various government ministries and bodies will coalesce together to increase the budgets where possible in order to maximize all of our aliyah efforts."
NBN has proven to be an effective and personalized method to facilitate the aliyah process. Why not duplicate the NBN model in all Diaspora countries with large Jewish communities?
"At this time, our official mandate is to assist aliyah from North America and this is where we are focusing."
While there has been a threefold increase in aliyah registration from North America, (and who knows how many will actually come?), the figure is still low considering the millions of Jews who reside there. Besides the unpleasant incentives of corona and anti-Semitism, what more could be done on a positive, educational side to increase the interest in moving to the Jewish Homeland?
"Nefesh B'Nefesh work focuses on those individuals who have expressed interest in exploring their options of moving to Israel. Concurrently, we endeavor to make the aliyah and absorption process as streamlined as possible for new olim. Today, we are at the height of a renewed interest in aliyah and so it is still too early to know how this will translate into actual aliyah numbers and how the trends will shift."
“... another nail in the coffin of aliyah”
Rabbi Nachman Kahana, co-founder of The Temple Institute and head of the Young Israel Synagogue in the Moslem Quarter of the Old City for over thirty years, tends to be far less diplomatic when discussing what could be done to promote greater aliyah from America.
“Before we come to the conclusion that Rabbis should be encouraging aliyah, let's take the initial step that Rabbis should cease to discourage it. With every new community shul they build in the Diaspora, with every new mikvah and day school they open, they hammer another nail in the coffin of aliyah.”
Recently, a leader of an Orthodox organization in America told me that the first priority of Jewish educators in America is to stop the ever-increasing tide of assimilation.
“Any Rabbi who thinks he can stem the tide of assimilation or Judenhass (Jew hatred), should review history books detailing our sad sojourn in all the galiyot (exiles) that we were in. We are not contractors for Hashem to save the Jewish Nation. Each one of us has a personal duty to fill the mitzvot, and the Torah commandment to dwell in Eretz HaKodesh is, according to Chazal, equal to all the other precepts combined.
“My wife and I have been here almost 58 years, and we have gone through almost all of the experiences that life brings to a person in this fantastic Land — the army, wars, unemployment, miracles before our eyes, six children born here who have given us grandchildren who have given us great grandchildren, and so much more. We never looked back. We thank Hashem every minute that we live here.”
“Israel is clearly the Torah center of the world”
One of the several grassroots groups which have recently arisen to promote aliyah from America is called Bring Them Home, headed by Josh Wander of Jerusalem. “I grew discouraged with the non-aggressive policy of the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh,” he told me.
“They help people who express an interest in immigrating to Israel, but don’t do anything to reach out to new audiences. Myriads of Jews in America are ignorant of the truly Jewish spirit of life in Eretz Yisrael and the advantages of living here, not just because Jewish education is far less expensive here, or because intermarriage is a tiny fraction of the disaster proportions in America, but because of the spiritual advantages as well, just by being in the Holy Land, and because Israel is clearly the Torah center of the world, with more Torah institutions than everywhere else combined.
“Our outreach and advertising campaign is aimed at the ‘yeshivish’ world — Jews who may not be Zionists but who aren’t opposed to the State of Israel, and who haven’t been taught the large body of Torah which underscores the centrality of Eretz Yisrael to Jewish life. No one has ever reached out to enlighten them of the true miracle of Israel’s revival in Zion in our time, and its significance to our long-awaited Redemption. When you explore the sources, it turns out that a long list of Gedolei Yisrael taught that living in the Land of Israel is a Torah commandment in all generations and stressed the necessity to play an active part in rebuilding the Jewish Nation in the Holy Land. On our Bring Them Home website, we present videos of Rabbis speaking about today’s imperative to make aliyah, along with a wealth of in-depth articles and personal aliyah stories.”
“...exalted quality of Torah life”
In order to boost the small percentage of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry making aliyah from America, a group of young Haredi olim have taken the initiative to form revolutionary organizations whose goal is to educate the Haredi community to the “spiritual high” and “exalted quality of Torah life” in the Land of Israel. Originally from Boro Park, Rav Elisha Bruck has lived in Beit Shemesh for nine years. After studying at the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, he married, and now teaches Gemara in Mevaseret Zion. His organization, Kedushat Tzion, works to familiarize the Haredi community in Israel and abroad with the vital value of Eretz Yisrael to Torah life and to encourage Haredi involvement in all aspects of the public sector.
Does that include recognizing the value of Medinat Yisrael?
“That isn’t a focus. We don’t get involved with politics. We believe in a Torah State and teach about the exalted level of Eretz Yisrael, about the importance of aliyah, and we help potential Haredi olim by providing all of the advice and information they need to begin a new life in Israel, including in-depth descriptions of Haredi communities in Israel, schooling options, and work possibilities, information that the very worthwhile Nefesh B’Nefesh organization doesn’t specialize in. We publish a pamphlet each month and distribute it to Haredi communities here and in the United States. We have offices in Yerushalayim and on Seventh Avenue in New York. We work in conjunction with a group called Naava Kodesh, which reaches out to the Haredi world with its excellent website on frum aliyah.
“There is a lot of false information about Israel circulating throughout Haredi communities in America, and we try to set things straight; distorted notions like everyone is secular in Israel, and that the army strips soldiers of their Yiddishkeit, that you can’t make a parnassa (income), and that the Government hates the Ultra-Orthodox, while in truth, the Government of Israel is the number one benefactor of Haredi yeshivot and Torah institutions in the world. With Naava Kodesh, we provide a database of Haredi olim and resources in Israel ready to help people with their aliyah and klita in the country. Basically, we try to kindle the yearning for the Holy Land and to illuminate the best way to get here and to succeed.”
Are government authorities in Israel aware of your work?
“They are now, thanks to the meeting we had with MK David Bitan, Head of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs . He listened with great interest and invited me back for a joint meeting with representatives of the Sachnut.”
“... we should work together to help the Jews who do immigrate”
A longtime follower of Chabad, Rivka Gornall Leiner lives in Yitzhar. She has worked on an aliyah forum advising Haredim from America about Haredi communities and schooling in Israel. She wrote to me: “When you put aside the argument whether all Jews should make aliyah or not, I think we all agree that we should work together to help the Jews who do immigrate, in order to facilitate the difficult transition. The Rebbe made it very clear that aliyah is not a halachic imperative, nor is it what every Jew is supposed to do. When the Israeli Government tried to arrange that all Russian Jews arriving in Vienna in the 1990’s be aided only to go to Israel, the Rebbe opposed.”
“The American community, including the Lubavitch community, is different than the rest of the world. For Jews considering aliyah, preparation is the key, both in America, and here in Israel. I can describe personal and community tragedies, and many missed opportunities, because the emphasis in both American Jewish Education and aliyah preparation has emphasized primarily financial considerations and material expectations. Preparation is not at all about having money and managing the normal administrative issues. Preparation is about understanding that for 70 years of the State of Israel, the only thing many of us have had in common was our Jewishness. That means that we need to highlight and strengthen the Jewish aspects, and make sure that non-Jewish philosophies and culture don’t get passed onto our children.”
“French olim were encouraged to come and many left. The government wanted them, but neither set up a proper absorption mechanism, nor gave them a proper preparation for entering Israeli society. The French Jews are primarily Sefardi, traditional, and many speak Hebrew, and their successful immigration should have gone smoothly had the authorities in Israel used a little more thought and effort.”
“It is obvious in the past years of gradually increasing aliyah from America that the Israeli Government, and the aliyah organizations working with them, are inadequately equipped to absorb groups of Jewishly-ignorant olim, and those from the Haredi sector. In essence, new immigrants are marched off the plane, fussed over at the airport, and left to fend for themselves. The main aliyah facilitator insists you have wads of cash, but nothing about the absolute necessity of learning Hebrew or understanding Israelite culture, meaning Torah Judaism.”
“It’s like two 16-year-olds singing, ‘Love will keep us together,’ when they don’t understand each other at all. You want to sell aliyah? Fix the very complicated issues involved and it will sell itself. Notice how high healthcare and tuition costs in the U.S. have done more for aliyah from America than the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh combined — even before corona and anti-Semitism raised their ugly heads.”
Mr Fishman is making a number of his books free to the reading public during these times of isolation. Please visit here for your download.