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U.S. Immigration to Israel Up, Reversing Recent Downward Trend

May 10, 2002
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Shira Shudofsky was 30,000 feet in the air when she decided to jump — en route to Israel on a summer teen tour, she caught sight of the land from her plane window and decided, in a moment, to make aliyah.

Shudofsky was 16 then. Now, after nearly seven years of waiting to become an Israeli, her move this month comes amid one of the most violent episodes in the country’s history.

But that “doesn’t affect my decision at all,” she said.

In fact, despite — and, in some cases, because of the violence in Israel — more American Jews are choosing to move to the Jewish state.

Aliyah from the United States has been decreasing in recent years. But the first four months of this year saw 260 new immigrants from North America — up from last year’s tally at this time of 207, a 26 percent increase, and nearly equal to where it was four years ago.

For the most part, the new American olim, or new immigrants, are Orthodox — roughly two-thirds of them. And for many, the crisis is the tipping point pushing them to Israel.

It’s precisely the reason why Chicago lawyer Lawrence Wolf Levin is making the move.

“The crisis brought home the fact that I have substantial ties to the country and to the people, and I believe it’s the right thing to do and the right time.”

The increasing difficulty has only underscored a feeling of “kindred spirits with the people there, and that’s where I want to be,” he said, adding that despite what he calls the “tumus” — a Yiddish word for turmoil — he feels safer and a “certain peace” in Israel.

It’s not the first time a war in Israel has prompted Diaspora Jews to move there.

The record years of aliyah followed the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, according to Maurice Singer, director of the midwest region of the Israel Aliyah Center, who added that the mass immigration after 1948 was largely a result of Jews being forced to flee Arab countries.

But American aliyah is a drop in the bucket of the number of immigrants Israel absorbs from other countries. In fact, Americans have only been little more than 3 percent of the 3 million Jews who have made aliyah since the creation of the State of Israel.

That’s because America has escaped the economic and political strife which has driven so many Jews to Israel, said Dan Biron, executive director of the Israel Aliyah Center for North America. With the exception of September 11, “you cannot find a more secure place than America. Jews from here don’t have any other reason to go to look for other places” — just ideological ones to live in Israel, he said.

Aliyah officials say the events in Israel — and even the terrorist events in America — have triggered the increase.

The memory of Sept. 11 occasionally crosses the mind of New Yorker Michelle Davidowitz, who is moving to Israel in July.

After that day, Davidowitz realized, “You’re not safe anywhere.”

But she’s wanted to move to Israel for a long time and, now, before her oldest of three daughters begins first grade, it makes sense for them to move. She’s headed to Israel with her husband, Avraham, and the faith that they won’t be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Certain days, I get very freaked out,” she said. “I think I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go,” but when a bomb explodes in Israel, they cope by pretending they already live there, like they’re one of the many Israelis who aren’t budging. “That’s how we’re able to go. We have to just sit there and think like we’re there already.”

Anyway, she said, when she thinks about “how others had to fight” for Israel, “for us, going now, it’s easy.”

New organizations are also popping up to encourage American aliyah, like Nefesh B’Nefesh, which funds new immigrants, and Kumah, a student organization. Some synagogues are working to promote the cause.

And the crisis is churning out hundreds who want to go to Israel as volunteers.

Like aliyah, the increase in volunteers is a wartime pattern, said the Israel Aliyah Center’s Singer, who himself made aliyah after volunteering in the Six-Day War — one-third of the volunteers at that time decided to move to Israel, a group Singer refers to as the “aliyah boomers.”

To meet the demand as well as find replacements for army reservists and boost the morale of Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, the Jewish Agency for Israel, which handles aliyah and Jewish education, began a new volunteer program three weeks ago. They are sending volunteers to help Magen David Adom, Israel’s relief agency, or work on a kibbutz or pitch in at an army base. Of the roughly 1,400 inquiries they’ve received so far, almost 800 have been from Americans.

Volunteers for Israel, which manages the army portion of the program, has already sent 400 American volunteers to Israel this year — quadruple the number they sent at this time last year.

Since the fighting began and paralyzed Israel’s tourism industry, “now to have 400 people who are ready to go is amazing,” said Jason Orenstein, North American director of student affairs for the Israel Aliyah Center. This momentum will “breathe life back into” the economy and people of Israel along with uniting the world Jewish community, he said.

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