Reports are that American aliya this past year totaled almost 4000 souls. It may not sound like a lot, and total yerida from Israel (a closely held secret) may far exceed total aliya, but it is nonetheless a remarkable achievement. It is made even more astonishing by the anecdotal evidence of the olim themselves. There are few large Jewish communities today in which aliya, or plans for aliya, does not figure widely in people’s calculations. In my community, almost fifteen families – our members or children of our members – ascended to the Land of Israel in the last six months. Why is it more common today than in years past – indeed, in the United States, the highest number since after the Yom Kippur War?
[CAVEAT: Most American Rabbis shy away from discussing aliya for the most obvious reason: it usually generates the tart and uncomfortable question: “so why don’t you go?” Or, if he says he will, then “why don’t you go already?” – the latter, a question that many congregants are thinking, in any event. Preachers should set the example, and lead. Of course, if the pro-aliya Rabbinate left America, then there would be no pro-aliya Rabbinate in America, and we would be left listening to those who subtly oppose aliya before of fear of a “brain drain” or the loss to American Jewish life of the most committed Jews. I have always felt that, notwithstanding that challenge and the questions tossed at the Rabbi, it was as important to speak about aliya as any other mitzvah, and leave my personal situation aside. ]
A number of reasons present as to the uptick in aliya:
1) The remarkable success of Nefesh B’Nefesh in putting aliya in the consciousness of American Jewry – remarkable because most Jewish organizations are not very useful in advancing any Jewish agenda and many are downright counterproductive. Nefesh B’nefesh is therefore unique, and it shows how two people with vision– Rabbi Joshua Fass and Tony Gelbart – and resources can accomplish wonders for the Jewish people. For a fraction of what Jews spend on, e.g., fighting a non-existent Jew-hatred in America (i.e., hundreds of millions of dollars annually!), an organization revolutionized American-Jewish life and gave a needed psychological boost to a beleaguered Israel, as well as assisted thousands of Jews in fulfilling this essential mitzva and extraordinary dream. That is, and continues to be, historic, and may their successes only grow. [Disclosure: I received no remuneration for that endorsement !)
2) Nefesh B’Nefesh made aliya less imposing. Hearing horror stories of olim from 20 years ago, the thought occasionally crossed my mind that Israel’s aliya apparatus was designed to discourage, not encourage, aliya. (True story: I attended an aliya planning meeting many years ago with official representatives from Israel, and their focus was on “things that can go wrong when you send your lift.” Indeed, my only memory of the event was the vivid description of someone who watched all his worldly possessions – in the container – fall from the cargo ship and into the water in New York harbor. I still live in the US.)
But NBN smoothes the transition, eases – as much as possible – the oleh’s bumpy ride through the Israeli bureaucracy, facilitates the absorption into Israeli life, gives sound and realistic guidance on communities, employment, education, etc. and serves as a continuing resource. Their planning meetings are upbeat and positive without being phony or hokey. In short, NBN is a very professionally run organization that has set a very high standard for Jewish organizations generally.
3) Can it be true? That, finally, decades of Religious Zionist education in American yeshivot that emphasized love of Israel, aliya, parades, rallies and the like has succeeded? Well, I don’t know about that. As much as I would like to think this is a compelling factor in the recent renaissance, it is probably just a factor, while not a very compelling one. Interestingly, the Israeli Yeshivot (the post high school programs) gave a much harder aliya sell when I learned in Israel in the 1970’s than they do now. Today, the emphasis is more on shana bet and the continuation of learning Torah after that, and the focus on aliya has waned.
4) Israel has become a much more livable country from a Western perspective than it was twenty, and certainly thirty years ago. Almost every amenity that makes life in America comfortable – Fox News (!), modern gadgets, spacious homes, culture, even sensibility – can be found in Israel today. And because of the plethora of American olim and Anglo communities, one can move to Israel and not feel like a keren yarok (greenhorn… And there is no such idiom in Hebrew). The internet, Skype, unlimited telephone access, and the ease and frequency of travel have made the world smaller and the distance between olim and family left behind smaller as well. So the creature comforts are similar, and in a much holier and more Jewishly-rewarding atmosphere.
But all these reasons pale before the catalyst for the American aliya that NBN has facilitated:
5) The declining American economy and the excessive cost of living-Jewishly in American today. The financial burdens faced by the average American Jew are, literally, frightening. Factoring only yeshiva tuition, mortgage and health insurance, the average family can face fixed costs of over $100,000 per year before putting a falafel on the dinner table. To most Americans, the notion of someone earning more than six figures and struggling to make ends meet – indeed, even sometimes qualifying for tuition assistance – would be hard to comprehend, but that is the reality for a growing number of families, and a daunting, insurmountable reality for many young ones. For many, to earn an amount of money that provides for the standard of living commensurate with modern Jewish life requires working an inordinate amount of hours – that is to say, working but not really living, and not having much of a family life.
And with the health care reform debacle now taking shape in Congress, the Obama administration spending America into bankruptcy (maybe his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize haul should be use to pay down some of the $12,000,000,000,000 deficit – that’s trillion, by the way), and the declining economy that is being transformed from one based on free enterprise to one based on state control, it is likely that the situation will get worse, if it ever gets better.
Who would have ever thought that people would make aliya for financial reasons – i.e., they could more easily prosper in Israel, and have an easier material life (very limited tuition and health care costs)? The bad joke from the 1970’s was: “How do you make a small fortune in Israel? A. Come with a large fortune.” Now, that joke’s on us. A young family is more likely today to live a less-pressured, more economically stable life in Israel than in America – and if not today, then maybe in several more days.
I have heard Rabbis in Israel opine that America’s economic woes are all part of the divine plan to gather to Israel this last, great Jewish population still largely untapped. I am not that gifted in reading the Divine mind, but who can argue? Those American Jews who insist that Jews must remain here to protect Israel’s political interests in the United States have probably not been following the news recently: the president whom Jews supported more overwhelmingly than any other in history is decidedly cool to Israel, if not to Jews generally. The “influence” argument rings a little hollow today.
So, for an increasing number of young couples, families with children, and retirees, the return to the Jewish home will proceed apace. We are the last of the exiles to be ingathered, and the most difficult to convince – a reservoir of potential olim not fleeing political persecution but (perhaps?) financial distress. Or, perhaps it is simply the desire to be part of Jewish history, perceive the trends of modern times, and complete the historical circle started almost 2000 years ago. What awaits us is the next great moment in Jewish history.