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Behind the Headlines: with Little to Lose Economically, More North Americans Making Aliyah

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When the Abell family of Chicago made aliyah in August, they left behind loving relatives and a comfortable lifestyle.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” said 30-year-old Fran Abell, the mother of four young children, “but this is where we want to live, where we want our kids to grow up. We want their lives to have Jewish content, and Israel is obviously the best place for that.” Evidently, Abell is far from alone in these sentiments. Aliyah from North America is on the rise, and according to immigration officials, hundreds of people in the United States and Canada are planning to take the plunge in the near future.

During the first eight months of 1992, some 1,449 North American Jews made aliyah, a 43 percent rise over the same period last year. Nearly 420 people immigrated in August alone – the highest monthly figure in the past four years. At this rate, about 2,600 North American olim are expected by year’s end.

While the numbers are still paltry compared to the great wave of aliyah from the former Soviet republics, they indicate a change in attitude within the North American Jewish community. For the first time in many years, a growing number of North American Jews are seeing Israel as a viable option.

“While people come on aliyah for a variety of reasons, the sad state of the economy in the U.S. and Canada seems to be playing a large role right now,” said Akiva Werber, director of the North American section of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Whereas in the past many Jews were reluctant to give up secure jobs or business opportunities for an uncertain future in Israel, the economic uncertainty in North America has led many people to rethink their decision.

According to Werber, “people used to have a good job, a nice house, an upwardly mobile lifestyle. These days, they’re losing their jobs. Now that they’re no longer clinging to the American dream, they’re willing to take a chance. Sometimes that chance includes moving to Israel.”

There are other factors at play as well, said Michael Goldstein, director of development at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. “The rate of assimilation and intermarriage in the Diaspora is growing at an alarming rate, and parents are worried that their children don’t have a strong Jewish identity. Many of the people who make aliyah do so for the sake of their children,” he said.

A growing number of single people are also making aliyah, in part to find a Jewish spouse, said Werber of the Jewish Agency. “We have no statistics on just how many singles have come recently, but the numbers are significant, especially in the 35 to 45 age group. They seem to be seeking a Jewish lifestyle as well as a partner.”

Married or single, those who immigrate usually make the decision after much deliberation, said Goldstein. “It’s not easy to leave one’s family and community, to uproot from familiar surroundings,” he said. “Potential immigrants do a lot of research before making up their minds.”

This view was confirmed by Werber, who processes the files of new olim.

“No one who has come on aliyah in recent months is discovering Israel for the first time,” he said. “Many have a religious tie to the country, though they are not necessarily Orthodox. Some have family here, others have participated in Zionist youth movements. Most have visited Israel at least once.”

For Boaz Fletcher, 25, from Toronto, coming on aliyah last month “was just something I had to do. I’ve always felt more at home here than anyplace else.”

Fletcher, who attended Jewish day school and Bnei Akiva summer camps, said he had planned the move for several years.

“I’ve visited Israel several times, and I have many friends here who were immigrants themselves at one time” he said. “They give me advice, and I’ve learned through their experiences.”

While Israel’s unemployment rate is quite high, Fletcher, a designer of computer software, is confident he will find work eventually.

“I saved money while working in Canada, and I plan to live off it for a while, until I get a job,” he said.

“Due to the recession, it took longer to save the money than I had anticipated,” he added. “Now that I’m here, I hope my skills will prove marketable, and that knowing Hebrew will be a plus.”

The only down side, he said, “is being so far from my family. It’s very difficult, but there comes a point when you have to make a break, whether it’s down the block or across the globe.”

Here just two months, Fran Abell is just now becoming adjusted to life in Israel.

“There are so many little details,” she said. “The first thing was getting my 6-year-old into first grade, and now I’m busy settling into our house. My husband travels back and forth to the States a great deal, so it’s been a bit crazy.”

Though she misses her family, she is hopeful that they, too, will make aliyah. “I hope to drag them here. My sister is already planning on coming, so it will be all right,” she said a bit wistfully.

“I admit that there have been sacrifices in moving to Israel, such as family and money, but we never had such a high standard of living to begin with,” she said. “When I look at the gains for my children, I know we made the right decision.”

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