An Exclusive Q&A With Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass.
Since Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded by Tony Gelbart and Rabbi Yehoshua Fass in 2002, helping Olim realize the dream of aliyah, some 55,000 Jews have made the new journey in their lives come true in over 55 flights since 2002. The impact on Israel’s economy is worth over $450 million dollars. The impact on the lives changed and even the impact on the Jewish state has been priceless.
Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) is not planning a special 70th flight. It is, however, holding a special Israel Memorial Day Ceremony, entitled “70 Years of Remembrance,” specifically geared toward English speakers, in order to make this powerful day more accessible to everyone. The ceremony will feature Olim sharing their personal experiences of losing their loved ones in defense of the country and in terror attacks. It is important to NBN that it recognize Olim as a vital part of Israeli society, and that means being included in the country’s most difficult days as well as her celebratory and exciting ones.
As Medinat Yisrael readies for its 70th anniversary, The Jewish Link was privileged to interview NBN’s co-founder and resident dreamer, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, who is originally from Edison, New Jersey. The following is a Q&A with Rabbi Fass.
Jewish Link: Where are you from, Rabbi Fass? Where did you grow up? Describe your Jewish community for our readers.
Rabbi Fass: I made aliyah from Boca Raton, Florida, which was a very warm and loving community for me and my family. I grew up in Edison, New Jersey, and spent a year of my childhood in Jerusalem.
Jewish Link: When was the first time you remember hearing of Israel, and then when was the first time you traveled there? Do you remember what you thought Israel would look like, and then what it actually looked like when you arrived?
Rabbi Fass: I was born in the United States, and moved to Israel for one year with my family when I was 10 years old. I grew up in a very Zionistic home. My father was born in Israel and our family regularly traveled back there to spend time with family members while getting to know the people and appreciating the land.
Jewish Link: How did the idea of Nefesh B’Nefesh come to be?
Rabbi Fass: After my relative, Naftali Lanzkron, z”l, was murdered in 2001 by a terrorist bombing in Petach Tikva, I felt compelled to embark on a personal mission. I was serving as associate rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue of Florida at the time, and this loss served as a trigger for me by recalibrating my Zionist compass and priorities about Israel. I came to the realization that I wanted to do something to continue Naftali’s legacy. One Shabbat afternoon, I took a long walk with a congregant, successful businessman and philanthropist, and dear friend of mine, Tony Gelbart, during which we discussed some of the challenges facing North American Jews who wish to make aliyah. Together, we developed the initial concept of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization which would address these specific challenges. Our goal with Nefesh B’Nefesh was, and still is, to provide potential Olim with the proper resources and guidance to have a smooth and successful aliyah, thereby making aliyah more obtainable and realistic.
Jewish Link: When you first bounced the idea off of others, how was it received? Were there any skeptics?
Rabbi Fass: Tony and I began to travel and meet with various Israeli political leaders, community leaders and potential Olim. The concept of a holistic approach to aliyah and easing the bureaucratic process was embraced across the board. As always, there were some skeptics regarding the technicalities of such an ambitious idea; however, there was unanimous support for the fundamental concept behind the organization.
Jewish Link: How was the idea received by the Israel government?
Rabbi Fass: All the Israeli leaders we met with were extremely positive and supportive of the idea and many were on hand to personally greet the first charter flight of Olim in July 2002. Over the past 16 years, we have forged a strong partnership with all the various Israeli governmental offices, including an unprecedented cabinet decision in 2005 instituting state funding for Nefesh B’Nefesh. Additionally, we have a government advocacy department specifically in place to act as a liaison for the rights of Olim.
Jewish Link: What was the biggest need you saw when you created Nefesh B’Nefesh? How have those needs evolved or changed since 2001 when you started the organization?
Rabbi Fass: Following our extensive research into the challenges facing potential Olim, we discovered that there were four main obstacles preventing North American Jewry from making aliyah. These included financial concerns, employment, social integration and the challenge of navigating Israeli bureaucracy. By addressing these potential hurdles, we have been able to help facilitate and revitalize successful aliyah from North America and the UK.
Since we began, we have developed various ways to provide comprehensive guidance for our Olim. Nefesh B’Nefesh has become a one-stop-shop for aliyah. From the moment potential Olim reach out with interest in aliyah, through years after they have made Israel their home, we are here for them. We offer services in all aspects of the move, from employment assistance to where they are going to live, how they will support themselves in the beginning stages to social gatherings all over Israel.
Prior to the creation of the organization, the retention rate of North American Olim who remained in Israel after their aliyah was estimated between 50-60 percent. However, we have managed to raise the retention rate to over 90 percent, which is a clear metric of success for Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Jewish Link: Do you remember the first NBN flight? How many people made aliyah on that flight? How long before the word got out?
Rabbi Fass: I made aliyah with my wife and three children on our first Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. It was an incredible experience to have moved as a unified group, together with 450 new Olim, with one core goal and dream. On top of that, we were greeted by the prime minister of the country, as well as ministers and leaders from across the political and religious spectrum, again all united to watch this incredible dream come to fruition. There was a mass media corps waiting for the flight as it took place during the height of the Second Intifada and the public was amazed that there were Olim making aliyah during such a challenging time. Word got out immediately that despite all the strife going on within the country, North American Jews were still committed to the ideal of a Jewish nation, and nothing would stop them from fulfilling their lifelong dreams.
Jewish Link: Do you try to host each arrival at the airport? How many flights have there been over the years and what nations are included in those flights?
Rabbi Fass: As I mentioned, I made aliyah with my family on the first Nefesh B’Nefesh charter aliyah flight on July 9, 2002. Since that inaugural flight, I have been blessed to have taken part in each of our 57 charter flights filled with Olim from the USA and Canada, as well as one from the UK in 2006. In addition to our dedicated chartered flights, we have 18 designated group aliyah flights annually, and I have been fortunate to welcome several of those flights as well.
Jewish Link: How would you describe what Nefesh B’Nefesh’s contribution has been to Israel’s 70 years? How will you celebrate the 70th?
Rabbi Fass: Since our first flight, Nefesh B’Nefesh has brought over 55,000 Olim who have not only successfully integrated, adapted and thrived in Israel, but have also made an incredible impact on Israeli society. From an ideological standpoint, these Olim are choosing to make Israel their home out of purely Zionistic values. They are not running away from threat or persecution; in fact many could have perhaps enjoyed more comfortable lives elsewhere, but instead chose to build new lives in the Jewish state. On a practical level, these Olim bring a specific and high-level set of talents and professional skills from their home countries. These professions include highly skilled engineers, physicians, entrepreneurs, teachers and many others who have joined the Israeli workforce and are making significant changes to all sectors of Israeli society. In addition to these professionals, Nefesh B’Nefesh has assisted countless students, lone soldiers and young people in making Israel their home. The impact of these incredibly idealistic and committed individuals cannot yet be measured, but we can already tell that Israeli society will reap the benefit of their contributions for the next 70 years, and more, to come.
Personally, I will be celebrating Israel’s 70th by attending communal and national celebrations and by having a traditional family BBQ with all of my family, including my parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, all of whom are as privileged as I to live in Israel.
Jewish Link: What are Nefesh B’Nefesh’s future goals for those wanting to make aliyah? Have the goals changed over the years? Now we live in an even more high tech and social media oriented world since 2002. How has that impacted aliyah?
Rabbi Fass: We are constantly striving to improve our efforts to provide the most comprehensive assistance and guidance for people making aliyah from North America and the UK. In addition to increasing programming in North America, and having more specialized and enhanced seminars, we are focusing on building Israel’s periphery, together with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA, through our flagship “Go Beyond” initiative. We are also addressing the growing shortage of physicians and medical professionals in Israel by assisting them with licensing and job placement. Additionally, we are expanding the services we provide to lone soldiers (together with FIDF—Friends of the Israel Defense Forces) from around the globe, providing them with assistance throughout every stage of their aliyah, army service and post-army acclimation.
As most people probably know, Israel is often referred to as the start-up nation, but it is difficult to see from the outside just how truly cutting-edge and modern this country is in every sector. Israel’s innovation and drive to constantly succeed and excel is already drawing many Olim who, previously, may not have thought about Israel as an incredible place to grow a business and follow their passions. Many of these developments are starting to reach potential Olim through the power of social media and the internet.
Jewish Link: Rabbi, what has amazed you about Nefesh B’Nefesh? Can you tell our readers one of your most favorite Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah stories?
Rabbi Fass: What has amazed me most about Nefesh B’Nefesh has been the dynamic pace at which our organization and its wonderful staff strive to constantly serve our Olim to the best of our abilities. For instance, we now have five offices throughout the country, including a collaborative workspace for Olim in Tel Aviv, offices in the North (Karmiel) and South (Beersheva), headquarters in Jerusalem and a dedicated office in Tel Aviv housing our Lone Soldiers Program. Before Olim even make the move, we provide annually dozens of seminars throughout North America and the UK as well as numerous webinars, fairs and mega events. We have grown from five people working out of one room to over 100 staff members handling [every] single facet of the aliyah process.
One of my most emotional aliyah moments was an experience I witnessed on a charter aliyah flight. An Auschwitz survivor was seated next to a 9-year-old girl, and throughout the course of the flight they got to know each other. It was amazing to see someone who had survived the atrocities of the Holocaust connecting with such a young, strong symbol of the future of the Jewish people. Together they experienced this historic moment of the Jewish people returning to their homeland. I will never forget the sight of the two of them disembarking in Israel, holding hands, as they took their first steps together as Israeli citizens. For me, the experience was an essential reminder of the eternal nature of the Jewish people and the miracle of our return to Eretz Israel.
By Phil Jacobs