Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Jewish Link’s readership and community is relatively diverse and broad but if there is one thing that I feel is shared by nearly all our readers and community, it is the very strong and visceral connection that many of us feel to the land of Israel. As part of my sales pitch to Israel-based advertisers, I often like to say that virtually everyone in our readership either dreams about going to Israel at least once a year, is already visiting Israel multiple times yearly or has close family members and friends living in Israel already. That pitch resonates and is effective most of the time because it’s true. We as a community do always have Israel on our minds and our readers and advertisers see it weekly on the pages of this paper.

But over the past two decades, I feel something very significant and profound has shifted in the ground beneath us here in the Orthodox Diaspora community in North America, and the shift is continuing to play out within our families and across the generations. When I graduated high school, relatively few of my peers seriously considered making aliyah or saw it as a strong, competitive option. Although we were educated in a fairly strong religious Zionist environment, I always felt that our generation and the one before us all imbibed a strong message from our own parents, grandparents and teachers that Israel was a wonderful place to visit and learn and study, but not to live in. Certainly, people made aliyah but they were often looked upon as either the most idealistic ones (alternately known as the crazy ones), or the Bnei Akiva/Moshava alums, or they were people who could easily afford to make the move (or all of the above). But Israel, for most of us, was not the place we were being educated or directed to see ourselves living in long-term. It just wasn’t.

For many reasons, ranging from societal, economic, religious, and even political, everything has now changed in how we look at Israel and that change has all occurred within the last 20-25 years. With help from organizations such as Nefesh B’Nefesh and the thriving and growing Anglo communities throughout Israel, almost no one today can just dismiss the thought of moving there. Nearly everyone I know at this point has either thought about moving to Israel or has had a family member such as a parent, child or sibling thinking seriously about moving to Israel (or has already done so). One can almost visualize the truth that the center and core of our community is shifting to Israel today. For the more yeshivish and right wing among us, communities like Lakewood and Monsey are growing exponentially, but for the more centrist, modern Orthodox community, it’s clear that the center is shifting further and further towards Israel.

It’s also clear to me that the organization probably most responsible for this ongoing shift is Nefesh B’Nefesh, which was co-founded in 2002 by my friend, and MTA, YU and RIETS classmate, Rabbi Josh (Yehoshua) Fass. In the wake of the suicide bombings and the tragic death of his 14-year old cousin, Rabbi Fass left a wonderful community and rabbinic position in Boca Raton and started Nefesh B’Nefesh with his co-founder, Tony Gelbart, with a goal of making aliyah easier.

Boy, have they succeeded, with nearly 60,000 olim making aliyah since they started and with a 90+ percent retention rate. We all know many people who have made aliyah in the past 10-15 years, almost all with the help of NBN. I have also had the good fortune to fly with one plane of NBN olim back in 2017 and my wife and I always like to watch the livestream whenever a new plane lands in Israel in the summer. There is something powerful and emotion-tugging about watching people you know and don’t know stepping on the ground in Israel and being welcomed as new citizens and olim. I usually cry while watching it.

It is with all of the above in mind that I attended two local Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) events this past Sunday and Monday. First, on a rainy, cold and windy Sunday, I joined well over 1,000 attendees at NBN’s 11th Annual Mega Event, this year in Teaneck at the Glenpointe Marriott. It was the first-time held in Teaneck and although The Jewish Link has certainly written about and covered past NBN Mega Events in the city, this was the first time I ever attended and I was literally blown away.

I was simply amazed at how many people came to the event. I saw singles, young marrieds, mid-career professionals, educators, successful physicians and businesspeople, all looking seriously into the prospect of moving to or spending a pilot year or buying a home in Israel—and all within the very immediate future. Most of the dozen or so that I spoke to were planning to go within the next six months to a year!

Although I could not attend any of the sessions, the overall vibe and energetic atmosphere of the event was so upbeat that I almost got swept away and signed up to make aliyah this August, although I am not sure how I could manage—yet— to run a hyperlocal Jewish community paper and media group from Israel...although who knows today….anything is possible!
(Read more about the Mega Event on p. 64)

Then, on Monday morning, NBN arranged a special briefing of editors and writers from throughout the Jewish media world led by Rabbi Fass. Over the course of an hour, Rabbi Fass led us all through the current state of aliyah from North America and where he believes it is heading. He shared with us statistics and strategies and anecdotes that NBN uses to sell aliyah to each generation. Unsurprisingly, Orthodox olim comprise over 50 percent of the total number of olim but I was surprised to learn that the majority of singles moving to Israel today are non-Orthodox.

Another surprising takeaway for me was learning that for growing numbers of olim, the rationale for making aliyah is not Zionistic or religiously based at all, but rather almost purely economic- and opportunity-based. Rabbi Fass explained that many today truly see Israel as a place of tremendous economic opportunity, and the fact that it’s a smaller country means that one’s resume is not necessarily competing against 5,000 resumes for a coveted job opportunity here in the U.S., but likely only competing against a few dozen at best. This fact today is a significant driver in the aliyah growth he and NBN are experiencing. Because of this, NBN is ramping up their college campus efforts significantly and expects to see major growth in aliyah from U.S. college graduates, with the majority likely from outside the Orthodox community. This was all news to me.

He closed the session by explaining that although NBN does receive some government support, the support is limited and he and NBN do have a tremendous need to raise funds from both within Israel and outside it. Hatzlacha rabba to my friends at NBN in all their work and good luck in raising the funds needed to continue making aliyah smoother and easier for so many!

By Moshe Kinderlehrer,
JLNJ Co-Publisher & Co-Founder

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