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For some U.S. Jews, recession is catalyst for aliyah

North American immigrants wave as they arrive in Israel on a flight organized by Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel from New York, July 7, 2009. (Sasson Tiram)

North American immigrants wave as they arrive in Israel on a flight organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel from New York, July 7, 2009. (Sasson Tiram)

NEW YORK (JTA) — For six years, Laurie Turnof worked long hours as an assistant vice president at Lehman Brothers; her career was her top priority.

But after the company’s meltdown last year, Turnof decided she needed a change of direction. First she went on a six-month tour of southeast Asia that took her to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Now, back from her travels, the 28-year-old New Yorker is planning to move to Israel.

"I go there about every other year and I’ve always enjoyed it," Turnof told JTA. "So now I have this opportunity and I said, well maybe I’ll go."

Turnof, a native of Holmdel, N.J., plans to fly to Israel in December to look for a job in micro-finance and then immigrate. She’s thinking about moving to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, where she has friends.

Turnof is among a number of American Jews who are experiencing the recession as a catalyst for aliyah, or immigration to the Jewish state.

Officials at the Jewish Agency for Israel say its figures show a likely 15 percent increase in the number of North American olim in 2009 compared to last year. Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that handles North American aliyah, said its North American call center in New York handled 9,536 calls between January and July, up from 6,238 from the corresponding period in 2008.

"It’s not been a trigger for making aliyah but rather an accelerator," Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, said of the recession. He spoke recently at a ceremony at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York celebrating the departure of a planeload of 238 immigrants to Israel from North America.

"There aren’t that many opportunities in America right now, so people say, why not go now?" he said.

Josef Mandelbaum, one of the olim at the ceremony, said many of his friends have had that experience.

"Many of my friends who have been thinking about making aliyah say they are planning on doing it now because the economic situation here has really taken a downturn," he said.

As the CEO for American Greetings, a major greeting cards company, Mandelbaum said he has not been affected personally by the recession, but he’s making aliyah nonetheless. He plans to continue working in his current position by way of "commuting and telecommuting" from Israel.

In the Israeli town of Chashmonaim, located about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Wilens family has been busy unpacking and adjusting to their new surroundings after recently moving from Boca Raton, Fla.

"Without a question, the economy has played a big role in our decision to make aliyah," said Jeff Wilens, who owns a mortgage company in Florida. "I’ve been in the mortgage business for 15 years. In the last 2 1/2 years the mortgage business, especially in southern Florida, was one of the hardest hit."

Wilens, who has four children, said one of the biggest reasons he and his wife decided to move was the growing cost of Jewish day school tuition. Last year alone, he said, the family spent $60,000 to send their children to school.

"For me tuition was unsustainable," Wilens said. "I haven’t the ability to earn what I earned. We said, if we were going to struggle, we might as well do it here."

In some instances the recession has had a reverse effect, stifling plans to immigrate to Israel.

Zumi Brody, 36, of St. Louis, wanted to make aliyah with his wife and four children last year, but when the housing market collapsed he couldn’t get a decent price for his property and had to put his plans on hold.

"Last year there were signs things might get better, but this year there were signs it was only getting worse," he said.

After waiting in vain for prices to bounce back, Brody and his family finally decided they couldn’t wait anymore. He said they’ll be moving to Israel next month.

"We wanted our 6-year-old to start going to kindergarten in Israel," Brody said. "This is something that we really want to do and we can’t wait forever."

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