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Saturday, December 26, 2009


How to bring US aliya

Article's topics: Aliya, US Jewry, Olim, Nefesh B'nefesh

American Jews make up the vast majority of the Diaspora, anywhere from two-thirds to perhaps 80 percent. Many national Jewish communities number in the thousands, even in the tens of thousands, but only the United States is home to five million.
A North American oleh blows a...

A North American oleh blows a Shofar as another holds a Torah scroll upon their arrival at Ben Gurion airport.
Photo: AP [file]

Yet the aliya statistics don't reflect this demographic reality. Just 3,000 Americans, out of almost 20,000 olim, make their way to Israel each year. (The figure for 2009 may prove to be as high as 4,000, but it took the worst American economy since the 1930s to achieve that modest increase.)

Despite the millions of dollars spent each year on promoting aliya from the US, transporting the olim and absorbing them into Israeli society, American aliya stubbornly remains numerically insignificant.

According to Nefesh B'Nefesh, the officially-recognized private organization charged with bringing American Jews to Israel, the numbers are low because of the many obstacles that stand in the path of olim.

As our Israeli readers know firsthand, aliya is financially difficult and socially jarring. But ease the financial burden and construct a tight-knit English-speaking community to absorb the olim, and you change the rules of the game, say Nefesh planners.

With fewer obstacles in their path, aliya will increase not just linearly, but geometrically, they promise. The more olim come, the more normative it will become for other Jews to do the same. Every oleh, they say, will be an Israeli anchor for an entire family, a circle of friends, a former workplace.

In other words, they say, the investment of millions of dollars in making aliya easier is meant to push the numbers "over the hump," creating an inertia where aliya becomes such a positive and normative experience that it becomes self-sustaining, with each oleh inspiring many others to make the dramatic move.

With this rationale, Nefesh has spent vast funds on easing the aliya process, finding jobs for the immigrants and lending close support, social and financial, to aid their absorption. Nefesh's work is clearly linked to the dramatic decline in the traditionally high rate of American olim who return to the US. But it has not translated into a corresponding growth in the number of Jews who choose to come.

And while aliya remains stuck at less than one-tenth of 1 percent of American Jewry annually (even counting the more affiliated among them, the number remains demographically minuscule), studies and experience suggest that deeper trends are working against aliya and, in fact, driving American Jews away from Israel.

THE OBSTACLE to American aliya is not financial. It is cultural. American Jews live their Jewish lives differently from anyone else in the world. For most, their Jewishness is just one of many affiliations, one aspect among many in their sense of self. Besides being Jews, they are also profoundly American, Democratic or Republican, passionate supporters of health care reform or human rights. Their identities - even their Jewishness - are constructed by the radically individualistic culture in which they live.

For such Jews, even the most Orthodox among them, to leave individualistic American spirituality behind and join a national Jewishness is to cross a vast chasm.

If American aliya is the goal, personal self-realization must be the means. Americans generally do not emigrate, and extremely rarely join other national collectives. But nearly all Americans seek to make of their lives meaningful stories, to set challenges and meet them, to take part in larger narratives. It is this way of thinking Jewishly that brings students to spend semesters in Israeli yeshivot and idealistic college students to volunteer in Israel's poor neighborhoods by the thousands.

There is tremendous energy in American individualism, and already, unconsciously, organizations such as Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency tap into it.

It is time to do so much more consciously.

In Theodor Herzl's Altneuland, the idealistic 1902 work in which the founder of political Zionism imagined touring the Jewish country founded by his movement, we find one of the finest expressions of Israel as dream. We read of a Jewish state that has constructed the Third Temple in Jerusalem, but simultaneously internationalized the city and founded within it the world's largest foreign aid organization. Herzl's Jewish state has both an Arab minister of government and universal suffrage - radical notions among fin de si├Ęcle nationalisms.

To bring American Jews, Israel must become open to American dreams. A country where religion is more often a political fault line than a force for good could stand to gain from asking American Jews to live their American religious story here. A country that awaits a constitution and struggles with improving the lot of even its most loyal minorities could stand to learn from liberal-minded American Jews about their very Jewish commitment to social justice and good governance.

If we want to bring American olim, we, as a nation, have to give them a reason to come.

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