For many Jews, Israel has always been the “final destination,” with their current residence (even one that is several generations strong!) merely a “pitstop” on the way home. Of course, that temporary sojourn is often further protracted by the comfortable lifestyle, ever-increasing opportunities and vibrant Jewish life that the Western world has to offer.
And then came COVID-19. For many of us, the lockdown last Passover was an even more powerful catalyst for introspection than the High Holidays. It was the first time we were forced to be truly present, sans the myriad distractions that so conveniently keep us away from…ourselves. Interestingly, that encounter led many people to consider some serious questions: “Who am I?” “What do I want?” “Where do I want to be?”
Yael Katzman, director of marketing and communications at Nefesh B’Nefesh, said that since COVID struck the organization has seen a massive 240 percent spike in people expressing interest in aliyah. The non-profit organization works mostly with North Americans, facilitating aliyah before, during and after, and increasing the retention rate of its olim to 90 percent. Through the height of the COVID lockdown and afterward, Nefesh B’Nefesh has continued to help absorb planes full of new olim. “Of course, most of the people arriving now had already been in the pipeline before the coronavirus hit,” noted Katzman, “but their joy in coming to Israel was palpable, regardless of the fact that they had to immediately enter isolation for 14 days.”
Katzman reported that interest in aliyah is across the board, including singles, young families, older families, seniors, professionals, students, and retirees. “We are currently helping a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor with no children, who since COVID had been feeling lonely and wanted to move to Israel to be closer to her niece,” she said.
For many families, moving to Israel had always been a long-term dream, relegated to some distant time on the horizon. “I always believed I’d return to Israel eventually,” said Rachel Kapeluto, a toshav chozer (returning Israeli). “But you know how it is; one year led to another and then another and another. When the coronavirus crisis hit, I saw that Israel was the safest place to be compared to Europe, the U.S. and most other countries.” Rachel is now happily resettled in Israel, and said that despite the second COVID wave, she felt very secure.
Additional factors such as an increase in anti-Semitism worldwide, challenges to the religious Jewish educational system in the U.K. and U.S., and the continued mass protests in some American cities are additional factors that have contributed to the feeling that the time had come to pack up and go “home.”
Katzman clarified that she doesn’t advise anyone regarding where to set down roots; she only provides the information to enable potential olim to make the best, most educated decision. “No one can guarantee a future for anyone, no matter where they live. The most important thing is to have as much information as possible and to come as informed and prepared as possible.”
Clearly, one of the factors impacting an oleh’s decision as to where to purchase housing is economic, but there will always be those for whom location takes precedence, even if that means settling for a smaller dwelling. “For me and my family, aliyah didn’t just mean Israel, it meant Yerushalayim,” said Parisian born Yoel. “Yerushalayim is the heart of the country and it is in my heart; I think that every Jew dreams about Yerushalayim.”
Jerusalem today is a huge, cosmopolitan city, sprawled over a vast area and boasting dozens of neighborhoods, each with its own unique character. For Yoel the first priority was finding an apartment that “captured as much of Yerushalayim as possible.” He found what he was looking for in the upscale Jerusalem Spirit project in the very center of the city.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity, a luxury residence within walking distance of all the charm, spirituality, and material benefits that Jerusalem has to offer: the Old City, hundreds of shuls, plenty of stores and eateries, and, surprisingly, even spacious parks,” said Hillel Zuravin, CEO of Hadas Capital, the project’s developer.
Construction is already underway, with foundations and lower levels completed. Occupancy is less than three years away. The location has the singular advantage of being right in the center of things, off of King George and Hillel streets, but nestled in a quiet, out-of-the-way corner, right across from Independence Park, which gives it a suburban feel.
Lionel, a lawyer from South Africa, purchased a unit in the project as an investment that he hopes one day to enjoy himself. “Here in South Africa, the Jews are not moving away in massive numbers, but we are becoming increasingly concerned by issues of personal security and the government corruption. So, yes, there is definitely talk of emigration,” he said. Lionel made his decision during the coronavirus lockdown, and promptly closed the deal over the phone in the ensuing months. “I didn’t need to see it to know that I was getting the best value for my money. The location is unsurpassed, and then there are the facilities—the gym with jacuzzi, the mikvahs, function hall and more.”
Real estate attorney Yitzchak Steinberg agreed that when it comes to investment, a home in the city is the way to go. “Societal trends, globally as well as in Israel, indicate a shift to the city center, even if that means downsizing and moving the family into an apartment as opposed to a house. He added, “That applies to any city, all the more so to the eternal city of Yerushalayim.”
By Ben Horodenker