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More Aliyah from North America? It’s No Joke at the Jewish Agency

Sallai Meridor, chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, is on a mission to get large numbers of North American Jews to immigrate to Israel.

He dismisses any suggestion that his plan is unrealistic with a shrug and a wave of his hand.

“I think Israel is a great place,” he says. “Many American Jews see Israel as a great place.”

He cites the jump in aliyah figures from North America in the last three years. In 2001, some 1,500 North Americans immigrated to the Jewish state, and in 2003 the number climbed to 2,400.

“We want to help keep the momentum,” Meridor said during a recent interview with JTA at his Tel Aviv office.

The tensions of life in the shadow of the Palestinian intifada and the grim economic situation that Israel has faced in recent years should not deter people from leaving comfortable homes and communities in the Diaspora, Meridor said.

“After over 2,000 years of exile, the Jewish people want to come back to Israel,” he said.

The Jewish Agency is backing its initiative with new money, agency officials say. It’s current $325 million budget includes more than $1 million to promote aliyah in North America. The total budget for aliyah in the region is some $5 million.

But North American Jews are far from a sure bet for aliyah.

“Our experience shows that aliyah from North America has always been quite low,” said Uzi Rebhun, who researches Jewish demographics and North American and Israeli Jewry at the Hebrew University’s Institute for Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem.

Since the founding of Israel in 1948, about 115,000 Jews have made aliyah from North America.

As long as North America remains a place where Jews thrive, Rebhun said, there never will be aliyah in great numbers from there.

However, Rebhun suggests, there are pockets within North American Jewish society that would be especially amenable to aliyah — such as families seeking affordable Jewish education for their children, former Israelis and immigrants to North America from the former Soviet Union.

Jews from the former Soviet Union are among the groups the Jewish Agency is targeting for aliyah from North America, Meridor said.

For Jews raised in a Soviet society that classified Jews as a national group, “Israel is the most important element of what being Jewish means for them,” he said.

For now, the Jewish Agency is focusing on youth from the former Soviet Union in North America. Some are being brought to Israel for university study; others are coming on volunteer programs.

The Jewish Agency is hoping their strong ties to Israel via close family members who already live in the Jewish state will be a pull to get them to immigrate.

Meridor acknowledges that the task of getting North American Jews to move to Israel is “a great challenge,” but he says such immigrants are critical for strengthening Israel. Meridor says that North American immigrants are of special value to the Jewish state because of their democratic values and economic know-how.

Aliyah from North America would also help boost Israel’s fortunes in the demographic battle in the Jewish state. With Arab birthrates rising and Israel’s final borders still open to question, Israeli leaders are keen on bolstering Israel’s Jewish population.

Not long ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced that he wants to see 1 million more Jews immigrate to Israel.

For its part, the North American Jewish federation system is backing the Jewish Agency’s plan.

“We continue to believe that the option of aliyah should be presented to all Jews, regardless of where they live,” Stephen Hoffman, CEO of the United Jewish Communities federation umbrella group, told JTA.

“The system has always been supportive, and in many communities you have special assistance made available to olim.”

Members of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, for example, planned to pass a resolution endorsing North American aliyah during their current “miracle mission” to Israel. The resolution was being voted on at a board meeting during the 600-person, 10-day mission, which left for Israel on Saturday.

“Resolutions are only resolutions, but it’s symbolic,” said the federation’s CEO, Robert Aronson. “The important thing for us right now is to say that we believe in it, we endorse it and then we’ll sit down and think about how to make an inroad into it.”

Hoffman knew of no other communities yet taking similar steps to support the Jewish Agency’s initiative.

North American aliyah constitutes only a small proportion of total immigration to Israel.

But other sources of olim are drying up. The mass wave of immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, which brought some 1 million immigrants to Israel during the 1990s, has slowed to a trickle. Some have even returned to their birthplaces.

And some Jewish immigrants from Argentina, who began immigrating to Israel in large numbers when Argentina’s economy went into a tailspin, have returned to Argentina now that the country’s economy has stabilized.

Historically, immigration to Israel has been marked less by ideology than by pragmatism: The Jews who came to Israel were fleeing unwelcome conditions in their home countries, either because of anti-Semitism, a weak economy or war.

Convincing North American Jews to leave their comfortable surroundings on the western side of the Atlantic always has been a largely unsuccessful endeavor.

Skeptics of the Jewish Agency’s plan — among them Israelis who have worked in North America as emissaries of the Jewish state, or shlichim — say a targeted campaign only will turn off North American Jewry. They say American and Canadian Jews do not want to have aliyah marketed to them like a product.

Instead, they argue, the concept of immigration to Israel must be introduced to the North American Jewish psyche through a long-term process of Jewish and Zionist education.

The Jewish Agency has heeded that call.

The agency recently launched an “Israel Connection” alumni club for North Americans returning from Israel trips to keep the experience fresh in their minds. The agency also is trying to cultivate an ideological aliyah movement through small groups around the United States.

The Jewish Agency also hopes to export Israel to North America through the energy of young Israelis. The agency runs programs that give Israelis in their late teens national-service jobs in North America such as teaching Hebrew school or working with youth movements. It also offers recent army graduates Jewish and Zionist programming jobs in universities and within Jewish communities.

Both programs have expanded dramatically in recent years, with about 65 emissaries today in the national-service program, and 33 in the post-army program.

In addition, the agency is awaiting the Israeli government’s passage of a funding package that will provide tens of millions of dollars for Zionist education in the Diaspora.

The money would go toward programs in Israel for Diaspora youth that last between five months and a year, said Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Jewish Agency’s North American aliyah movement.

If approved, the program would begin this year with $10 million, and $10 million more would be added each year until funding for the program levels off at an annual $50 million.

Officials from the Jewish Agency also tout as a major coup the support of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform movements in America in encouraging aliyah.

Michael Jankelowitz, a Jewish Agency spokesman, said that support was a “major breakthrough,” and he cited the movements’ participation in an ad campaign in Jewish newspapers over Passover proclaiming “This Year in Jerusalem.”

Their support is part of the Jewish Agency’s overall strategy for North American aliyah: to create a North American community friendly to the idea of aliyah — something the community historically has not been active in pushing for its own members.

“For a person to make aliyah, you need to have a supportive environment,” Meridor said.

Plans are also under way to increase help for North American immigrants once they land in Israel by creating stronger support systems between veterans and newcomers from North America.

Recent government cutbacks in social spending have reduced the budget for absorbing immigrants from Western countries, but Meridor is hoping the government will restore previous allocations and add to existing ones once Israel’s economy improves.

Meridor also acknowledges that new tax laws that make immigrants’ assets abroad subject to Israeli taxes have become a sore point among immigrants.

Eyal Berkowitz, 28, is among the more recent of North American immigrants, having made aliyah from Toronto in January.

The security and economic situation in Israel are a concern, he said, but Israel is a place where he can feel at home.

Berkowitz worked as a management consultant in Canada and has an MBA, but he has had trouble finding work in Israel. Nevertheless, he remains upbeat.

“It’s never an easy time to change countries,” Berkowitz said.

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