April 22, 2024
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April 22, 2024
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About Aliyah: A Conversation With MK Ofir Sofer

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

I sat down with MK Ofir Sofer, the new minister of aliyah and integration in Israel’s government. Minister Sofer was an invited guest at Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Homecoming Event in Englewood, New Jersey, for 400 olim who will be making aliyah over the course of the summer.

What are the greatest hurdles that need to be overcome in order for people to decide to make aliyah?

1) Education for their children, particularly for the religious community, is very significant; 2) finding a job where a decent living can be made; and 3) they would miss their families. These are the classical three hurdles, but a fourth reason is the bureaucracy involved, which is perhaps even bigger than the first three.

What is your agenda in your position? What are your plans?

We also need to build and develop more communities that contain these infrastructures and provide these services. Much work has been done along these lines, but we need to make a far larger effort. It has succeeded in Efrat, in Modi’in, in Beit Shemesh. We work well with Nefesh B’Nefesh to help expand communities where olim would be comfortable.

But we also need to look for other venues where the cost of living is lower than in the cities (like Raanana and Modi’in, where the cost of living is higher).

What about Teveria?

That is a good idea. I actually live near there in the Galil. I live in a village in the north some 18 minutes from Teveria. It is one of the four holiest cities in all of Israel. I know that, for example, in Afula, Rabbi Menachem Gold has started a community there and it is rather successful. We have to study what he has done to replicate it elsewhere, and we also have to help him succeed.

When I say that we need to seed new communities, we must ensure that the culture of the new place is similar to that of the olim.

As I mentioned, I myself live in the Galil, but quite honestly I am unsure if we should send the olim to the north or the south; they need jobs and, quite frankly, finding employment in the periphery is difficult. It is a struggle. It is more difficult there.

Yes, but now, as a repercussion of COVID, there is Zoom. It is much easier. I have a brother-in-law who works as a lawyer in California.

True, but as you know, the new trend in the United States is to bring them back into the office. Also, that may be effective for the olim from France, as there is a four-hour time gap, but for the United States, where it is seven hours on the East Coast and 10 hours on the West Coast, that would be too large of a gap.

Getting back to the northern periphery of Israel, Teveria has lower priced real estate, and it has an affordable cost of living. If someone were to start an American kollel and schooling that catered toward the American community, it may take off significantly.

I am happy you brought up Teveria because there is truly a lot of potential there. There is the water and the Kinneret. There is much more that can be done there economically. But I am somewhat hesitant that we should start with Teveria, because jobs there are harder to come by for a typical American oleh. In any place, though, the primary challenge is to start the first kehilla there.

There are Israeli religious kehillot there. There are six Israeli kollels there. Starting an American one would not be such a hurdle. Americans do visit there regularly. Every kever of the Tannaim, and of the Rambam, is there. And once an American kollel is established there, it could easily kick-start another American community of workers along with businesses.

That is a very interesting point. And one that I would very much consider pursuing. We need to learn from the Jewish community in the United States not to be so disunited and exclusionary. There is much more cohesion in the Jewish communities in the United States.

What in the past has prompted the sudden rise in aliyah?

Poor economic situations in the golah, antisemitism, and war, an ISIS-like war environment. These, however, are not the general reasons for the rises. Generally, it is the perspective olim have that Israel is the Jewish homeland, the land Hashem promised us.

Do you have funding from the government to kick things off, for a seeding program, so to speak?

Yes, we do have access to some funding. It is somewhat complicated to explain in an interview, but this can be done.

There is another issue that exists in that there are five categories in the observant Jewish world. There is the category associated with both the Neturei Karta and Satmar; they have a community in, say, Meah Shearim and parts of Beit Shemesh. There is the category associated with the yeshiva movements or the Agudath Israel camp in its earlier stages. I’ll describe category 3 in a moment. Category 4 is composed of Religious Zionists. They look at the development of the State of Israel as part of God’s divine plan of redemption. Category 5 subscribers are people who are religious but markedly more secular and modern in their observance.

The third category comprises people who identify with categories 1 and 2 socially, but look at Zionism and the State of Israel much as Orthodox religious Jews look at a hospital or a volunteer ambulance company. Many observant Jews in the United States identify with this third category. And there is no real infrastructure for them in Israel.

I understand exactly what you are saying. And, yes, we have identified this problem as well. There is a vacuum in that none of our communities cater to that particular group you are referring to. Your category 3 does not find the educational institutions, does not find the synagogues, and does not even find the communities. But Rabbi Gold in Afula is part of the No. 3 category, and if he succeeds things will certainly pick up.

Another matter that exists in the United States is that there is a secondary mortgage market, and there is something called PMI, private mortgage insurance, to make buying a house affordable. This allows people to buy homes even when they just start out. If the minister of aliyah could help kick-start this change—even if it is a program that would be started by American philanthropists—it may have a very significant effect.

What you are suggesting is very interesting. I am unsure of the feasibility of it now, but I do promise you that I will study it further.

Thank you so much for your time.

I would very much like to continue the conversation. Let us be in touch!

The author can be reached at [email protected].

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