Author Topic: Jerusalem Conference Focuses on the Future of Aliyah  (Read 1352 times)

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Jerusalem Conference Focuses on the Future of Aliyah
« on: February 19, 2008, 06:23:26 PM »
by Ezra HaLevi

( This year’s Jerusalem Conference featured a focus on immigration to Israel (aliyah) from Western countries, with an all-English session dedicated to the future of Jewish aliyah.

At the opening of the fifth annual Jerusalem Conference, Chairman Robert Rechnitz explained a conscious decision by organizers to increase the number of speakers who would be delivering their addresses in English. "We have switched the central language to English so that the huge Anglo population that has moved to Israel and tied their destiny with Israel will have a medium to have their voices heard," he said, criticizing the Israeli press for under-representing the views of Western immigrants.

During the first slot following the opening session on the future of Jerusalem, the future of Aliyah – Jewish immigration to Israel – was discussed.

MK Yuli Edelstein (Likud), a former refusenik in the Soviet Union and past Minister of Absorption, chaired the session, introducing the topic, which was: “Aliyah – is it Still Vital to Israel?”

“We didn’t use to have to think about Aliyah,” he said. “So many people were coming. But the numbers dropped and the Jewish Agency began to look toward people who – to be politically correct – didn’t have much in common with the Jewish people. But today we are dealing with the rise of Western Aliyah and we are here to examine the challenges that face this very different wave of Aliyah.”

Former Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon, who is now co-Chairman of the Nefesh b’Nefesh Aliyah organization spoke about the importance of Jewish immigration in Jewish history. “The ingathering of exiles today is just as important as it was 60 years ago and 120 years ago,” he said, using the phrase the prophets used to describe the return of the Jews to their land. “It is the most important thing for the Jewish people and the State of Israel to secure its future. The question is how do we do it in the age of globalization and individualism. In the age of the most successful Jewish communities abroad in history.”

Ayalon suggested that from the perspective of cost-effectiveness, Israel must focus its efforts and resources on the United States – the largest Diaspora Jewish community. “We also have to look back on Aliyah from the US and admit that there was not really Aliyah from American in the past. They would come as individuals, but before Nefesh b’Nefesh was established about 1,500 came on average and more than half left before their third year here.”

Nefesh b’Nefesh has highlighted the need for a new model to bring the Jewish people home, Ayalon said, refraining from mentioning the Jewish Agency by name, though veiling his criticism of the quasi-governmental organization that traditionally oversaw Jewish immigration. “A different model for Aliyah has been created,” Ayalon said. “It is a combination of private sector entrepreneurial and dynamic initiatives working with the government. Today, in the 21st century, we cannot ask the government to take care of all our needs and aspirations. They have priorities, budgets and 1001 problems of their own. I think Aliyah should be the first priority it can’t be because of political considerations; it must be homegrown.

“It must be understood that each community has different needs, different expectations, different capabilities. We can’t use one yardstick for France, Argentina, UK and the US – each community has its own model that should be encouraged…We offer our model, free of charge, to any Jewish community on the globe. This is the Aliyah of the third millennium.”

Ayalon said the Nefesh B’Nefesh model has already been replicated in France, by its sister organization AMI, and has been asked to assist in the creation of such a body in Argentina as well.

But the US remains the center of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s focus. “By 2015, our goal is to have 100,000 American Jews here in Israel,” Ayalon said. “They already have made a tremendous contribution, but they will be able to give so much more.”

The State as a Facilitator of Jewish Return
Yishai Fleisher, co-founder of the Kumah Aliyah movement and Program Director of Arutz Sheva’s Israel National Radio addressed the global Jewish ramifications of the Jewish return to Zion.

Fleisher recalled an encounter with two anti-Zionist Satmar chassidim prior to his Aliyah to Israel. The men expressed reservations about his move, expressing wariness at the prospect of joining an “anti-religious state.”

“Don’t you see,” Fleisher told them. “For thousands of year we have wanted to return. This state is a vessel for that return – nothing more. We hope it will be made into something more, but we are not making Aliyah to serve the state. The state is serving the cause and dream of Aliyah.”

A second point Fleisher made was that a majority of the Jewish people will soon live in the Land of Israel – a fact that brings about several critical shifts in Jewish laws relating to agriculture and Jewish life in Israel. “There were serious arguments about early Zionism – but not every argument stays an argument forever. Look at the Talmud – eventually a decision is made and the fact that the Jewish people have returned to Israel is that decision.”

Fleisher added that world Jewry must look at the latest statistics and come to terms with the fact that Israel is the future of the Jewish people. “According to the latest JPPPI figures 41% of world Jewry is living in Israel,” Fleisher said. “My mother, when she made Aliyah from the Soviet Union in the 70s had a friend who was the 3 millionth Jew in Israel. We are now almost at 6 million. We have nearly doubled in 30 years.

“The even more interesting figure is that 200,000 new Jews were counted in 2007. This is the net figure of plus 300,000 in Israel and minus 100,000 in the Diaspora. These are major trends. They are not only due to assimilation but to an aging population in America and different birthrates here and in the exile. A strategic decision is faced by Jewish organizations and philanthropists. Do we put our money and efforts into saving the Diaspora in the coming years or do we look to the future and build something that is expanding instead of fading.”

Summing up and eliciting applause from the mostly-immigrant crowd at the Aliyah session, Fleisher said: “Most Jews in the past 100 years had to run away from something. American Jews have an unbelievable merit to be able to come here by choice.”

From Charles Dickens to the Holy Land
Fleur Nachum of the Tikva Center in Odessa spoke about the phenomenon of abused and orphaned Jewish youngsters in Russia. “We deal with children who were abused and placed in state institutions,” she said. “It is like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. Often, these children don’t even know they are Jewish and most don’t have an idea of what being Jewish means.”

The center, run by Rabbi Shlomo Bakst, Chief Rabbi of Odessa, seeks to nurture and educate the children, while navigating the delicate legal and bureaucratic issues surrounding the children’s future.

“Many ask us why don’t we bring them directly to Israel,” Fleur said. “There are all sorts of legal problems with that. So what we can do is help them heal and raise them as Jews and Zionists who can eventually decide to come to Israel. We have a center in Israel, which I must say is modeled from many lessons we learned from Nefesh b’Nefesh to help our kids with absorption. And only 10 percent of the kids go back.”

On a larger scale, Fleur said such initiatives are needed to find lost and downtrodden Jews the world over. “We need communities to connect people with their tribe and to their surrogate family within the Jewish people.”

Aliyah Below the Radar For Most in the US
Jerusalem Rabbi and Aliyah activist Shalom Gold recounted a recent conversation with a group of American yeshiva boys studying in Israel. “Aliyah is simply not on most of their minds – it is just completely below the radar,” he lamented. “My wife asked them why they would not move to Israel and they gave the most astounding reasons.” One of the reasons included having to flip a switch and wait half an hour for hot water [though many homes have constant solar-heated or boiler-heated water –ed].

Rabbi Gold recalled his days as a rabbi in America, when he would constantly talk about Aliyah and says it is extremely rewarding to meet old congregants and acquaintances in Israel who have made the move. “I talked so much about Aliyah that I talked myself into it,” he said. “And it is the greatest thing we ever did. My wife and I often think of what a tragedy it would have been if we didn’t come and my children and grand-children are here – speaking English with an accent like my Zayde (grandfather) did.”

The rabbi says a major effort is needed to place Aliyah on the communal and rabbinic agenda in the US. He hoped for the revival of a rabbis’ organization called Aloh Naaleh, which would send American Jews who successfully made the move back to congregations and communities in the states to speak “in their language and let them know they can do it.”

He said that at the heart of the matter is a serious educational deficiency. “During all my years in yeshivas I never heard a single class about Aliyah,” the rabbi said. “There is simply no education for Aliyah in America, except B’nai Akiva. We must wake them up - at least the religious community. Wake them up and shake them up.”

Still “Crazy” After All These Years
Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, who  facilitates the return of ‘lost’ Jewish tribes and communities to their faith and homeland, began on a personal note.

“Thirteen years ago today, my wife and I got on a plane and made Aliyah,” Freund said. So in a way, I am celebrating my bar mitzvah with you. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate that event than sitting on a panel with some of my heroes.

“We all remember those first days, weeks or months of wandering the streets and euphorically saying ‘I made it!’ But you also remember conversations with the natives, saying “Are you crazy? You left New York for here? If I could, I’d get a green card and go there!” I often wonder why this is the case. Unfortunately the pattern has gotten worse.

“Something has gone very, very wrong. Our government has been adopting a post-Zionist position on Aliyah. Modeling after Europe and America and judging Aliyah based on the economic value of Jews who come here and the cost of bring them here. The Interior Minister even suggested recently that Jews should not always we granted automatic citizenship. It was shouted down from all sides of the spectrum, but the fact that a senior Cabinet member could make such a statement is alarming. Aliyah is the oxygen of this country, the engine of our economic growth.

“I think we need to go one step further, thinking outside the box creatively. We need to reach out and think about the communities of descendents of the Jewish people. More and more people, in Portugal and Spain and elsewhere are looking at their Jewish heritage and looking for a way back. These were people who were torn away from our people by force and are looking to complete the circle and return. Whether it is the B’nei Anousim (Marranos) – descendents of those forced to convert under the Inquisition - or the Bnei Menashe - descended of the tribe of Menashe forced to convert - or the hidden Jews of Poland from the Holocaust – the children and grandchildren of those placed up for adoption during the war and raised as Polish Catholics – we need to be there for them.

“These people are no longer halachically Jewish, but they fall under the category of zera yisrael, part of the extended Jewish family. And it behooves us to reach out to them, and through conversion and education, to bring them home.

“All the prophets say that this will eventually happen. See the end of Nehemia, Ezekial – the lost Jews are going to come home. Our responsibility is to do whatever we can to make this happen.”

David Ben Ze'ev Aryeh