Menu JTA Search

Despite Terror and Economic Trouble, More North Americans Making Aliyah

It’s the time of year when hemlines recede, sports head outdoors and North American Jews move to Israel.

Each year, most North Americans who make aliyah do so in the summer. Paradoxically, that number has been growing since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000.

“Israel’s going through a very difficult time right now,” said Marcos Monheit of North Miami Beach, voicing a key reason many new immigrants give for their move. “We can’t take it for granted, and the best way to help is to be there.”

About 1,000 North Americans are expected to take the plunge this summer, joining 500 who departed for the Jewish state earlier this year.

Another 300-400 North Americans visiting Israel are expected to adopt Israeli citizenship by summer’s end.

North American aliyah has averaged between 1,300 and 1,500 for the past decade, according to Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s North American aliyah department.

Last year, however, 2,020 North American Jews made aliyah, up from 1,560 in 2001, he said.

The last major wave of aliyah was in the 1970s, when the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War and 1973 Yom Kippur War — when Israel seemed particularly embattled — helped raise North American aliyah to levels of 6,000 to 7,000 Jews annually, he said.

Now, while general immigration to Israel is down — due to Israel’s shaky security and troubled economy — aliyah from the West is up, according to the Jewish Agency.

Several immigrants say the intifada has rekindled their Zionism, many received economic help to make the move and some say it’s just serendipity.

Like Monheit, most of the North American immigrants are Orthodox Jews — some 56 percent this year, down from 69 percent the previous year, according to the Jewish Agency.

“We’ve been away from the land for 2,000 years,” said Monheit, chief financial officer for a chain of nursing homes.

“It doesn’t makes sense to pray for it and not to be there,” said Monheit, who will move with his wife and four pre- teen children next month. “Today it’s a matter of getting on a plane and going.”

Conservative Jews also are a major component of the increased aliyah.

The Jewish Agency, which handles immigration and absorption in Israel, began targeting Conservative Jews in the last five months. With so many Jewish organizational leaders having grown up in the Conservative movement, Landsberg said the Jewish Agency has tried to foster aliyah by sending its emissaries to work with Conservative synagogues.

This year, Conservative Jews make up 21 percent of the group making aliyah, nearly double their proportion in recent years.

Economic assistance also has contributed to the increase.

Nefesh b’Nefesh, a Florida-based group that formed last year, raises funds to help North American Jews make aliyah. According to Landsberg, the group is responsible for 20 percent to 30 percent of the rise in North American aliyah.

Last summer the group brought 525 North American Jews to Israel; this summer, it will send 930, said George Birnbaum, the group’s spokesman.

Nefesh b’Nefesh gives an average grant of $18,000 to a family of four and $7,000 to an individual making aliyah, Birnbaum said. The group raises money from private donors in North America with assistance from the Jewish Agency.

For Israel, he added, it’s a great return on investment: The average family of four injects $40,000 to $45,000 into Israel’s economy within six months of making aliyah.

By summer’s end, roughly half of the North American Jews making aliyah will have received some assistance from Nefesh b’Nefesh.

Israel, too, has tried to sweeten the deal for North Americans.

Since November, the Israeli government has been offering the same aid package to North American immigrants as it does to immigrants from communities in distress, such as Argentina or the former Soviet Union.

“Aliyah is aliyah is aliyah,” said Landsberg, saying Israel will provide all immigrants to Israel with about $3,300 in cash — the other money comes in housing and job training.

“We need our brothers and sisters here” to offset the demographic challenge of the growing Arab community, he said.

While economic assistance may make it easier for North American Jews to make aliyah, it’s not the reason they move, Birnbaum said.

“They’re not coming to Israel looking for economic opportunity,” Birnbaum said.

“The economy in Israel is far more depressed than the economy in America,” he said. “They’re coming because they have a Zionist feeling.”

However, financial assistance makes “all the difference in the world” for someone to start a life in Israel, he said.

All kinds of Jews give all kinds of reasons for making aliyah.

Some even discover their roots through other cultures: For Matthew Mausner, the impetus came from his work with Native Americans.

An anti-globalization activist and champion for the rights of Native Americans, Mausner was asked about Israel by a Native American who pointed out that he was lucky to have the opportunity to live in his homeland.

“I had never thought of it that way before,” said Mausner, 29, a Yale graduate who consults for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.

After attending a birthright israel trip, Mausner said he “finally understood what” the Native Americans “were talking about.”

They talk of “sacred places and their connection to the land and their feeling of belonging, and I felt that in Israel,” he said.

Chana Levi Julian, 48, was visiting Israel when a Bedouin tour guide named Younis changed her life.

“He asked me what are you doing in New York,” said Julian, who identifies with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. “A Jew should be living here in Eretz Yisrael,” Younis continued.

Julian told Younis about the family’s fear of terrorism and, in particular, the anxiety felt by her daughter, Coby, 12.

The two then called Coby, who was back in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

“There is no safer place in the entire world for a Jew” than Israel, where “God is in charge,” Younis told the child.

To prove his point, Younis hosted the family for a week. The family was easily convinced, and Coby was eager to return to Israel.

Until that time, Julian and her husband had considered aliyah a distant dream.

Younis “is why we’re moving,” she said. “He was God’s messenger.”

Jennifer Klor, 32, of Rochester, decided to move after her husband, Esteban, was offered an economics professorship at Hebrew University.

They wanted to transition while their children, aged 2 and four months, were still young.

Conservative Judaism also factors prominently in the decision for the couple, who met in Israel.

Their wedding in Jerusalem barely took place, due to difficulty obtaining approval from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, which only certifies Orthodox weddings in Israel.

Conservative Judaism “is a very important part of us, and that was a big frustration of ours when we lived there,” said Klor, whose father, Joel Meyers, is executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the world association of Conservative rabbis. “We’re hopeful that we can make a more pluralistic society.”

Klor will be working with the local branch of the Conservative movement.

“I know that in Israel there’s a vibrant, dynamic Masorti community,” she said, using the Hebrew term for the Conservative movement. “I feel it’s important to be part of that community, because the epicenter of Jewish life is in Israel.”

NEXT STORY