MERCAZ USA Newsletter — Summer 2009
Putting Aliyah on the Map
While aliyah to Israel has been a key element of the Zionist movement, aliyah from North America has for most of the past 100 years been a marginal phenomenon. To be sure, there have been notable American olim like Golda Meir, Moshe Arens and Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter who, though born in Israel, spent a number of years as a teenager, young adult and junior diplomat in the United States, before his permanent return to Israel in the early 1990's. However, in contrast to other parts of the world, North American aliyah has been the exception rather than the rule.
But, over the past half-dozen years, North American aliyah in general and Conservative Jewish aliyah in particular has moved to center stage. And two recent developments – the new partnership between the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh and the public support that the Conservative Movement is now giving aliyah – give reason to believe that Conservative aliyah is finally being put on the map.
Although still a minority among American olim, where the bulk of new immigrants define themselves as Orthodox, Conservative olim make up about 15% of the North American aliyah. In 2008, of the 3,000 North American olim, more than 400 described themselves or, at least their backgrounds, as Conservative, and this number is expected to grow.
Who are the new Conservative olim? They are young people who moved to Israel to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces like Zach Schapira, former Ramah camper and staffmember, Debbi Kitmacher, a graduate of the NATIV program, and Michael Bassin, Rachel Schneider, Aaron Binik-Thomas and Leah Glassman, the latter group all USY-ers from Cincinnati who were saluted at a recent Yom HaAtzmaut event there.
They are young couples like Shira Taylor and Boaz Gura who are moving from Cherry Hill, NJ, to Kibbutz Hannaton.
They are Conservative rabbis like Miriam and Matthew Berkowitz, Joshua Cohen, Eitan Julius, Robert Kahn, Barry Leff and Noach Shapiro, who have made aliyah recently or are in the process of doing so, not as retirees like so many of their colleagues but in the middle of their professional lives with the plan to continue working and teaching in Israel.
What is fueling this rise in Conservative aliyah? Certainly, positive changes in Israel – the greater day-to-day security in the country since the end of the Second Intifada, the continued growth of the Israeli high-tech and bio-tech industries and the increasing opportunities via email and video conferencing for telecommuting – have made aliyah a more viable option.
In addition, the Jewish Agency (JAFI)-Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) partnership and the new public support within the Conservative Movement vis-à-vis aliyah have also helped to transform the situation
The new JAFI-NBN partnership has been an important step forward. For the past half-dozen years, since the private aliyah-promotion agency Nefesh B'Nefesh has been operating, new immigrants have had to run between the two different frameworks – the Jewish Agency, which enjoys exclusive jurisdiction from the Israeli government to determine aliyah eligibility, and Nefesh B'Nefesh, which organizes group flights and provides financial grants – in order to complete two separate applications and interviews and coordinate separate approvals before making aliyah.
Finally, late last year, after months of negotiations, Nefesh B'Nefesh and the Jewish Agency reached an historic partnership, which set up a "one-stop aliyah shop," with one online application and one set of jointly conducted interviews.
At the same time, the Conservative Movement has moved from regarding aliyah as a private matter to a public mission. While Conservative Judaism has always been publicly pro-Israel and pro-Zionist, aliyah has never been a part of the movement's public agenda for most of its affiliates.
Now, Conservative Judaism is "putting aliyah on the map", as the new brochure of the Conservative/Masorti Forum on Aliyah puts it. The new committee, which includes representatives of the Masorti Movement, Rabbinical Assembly Israel Region and MERCAZ Olami and is chaired by Rabbi Paul Freedman, publicly launched the initiative at the annual Rabbinical Assembly convention, which took place earlier this year in Jerusalem.
As the flyer, entitled "A Call to Action – Putting Aliyah on the Map", affirms: "The creation of the State of Israel is the most important and most exciting event to happen to the Jewish people in over 2,000 years. Conservative/Masorti Judaism has supported Zionism and the State of Israel right from the start. The Israel-based Aliyah Forum of Conservative/Masorti Judaism invites you and your congregation to be part of this amazing accomplishment".
For more information about aliyah, contact Naomi Freedman, our aliyah shlicha, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-533-2061. Also, visit www.linktoisrael.org, the MERCAZ website dedicated to aliyah. Material on the special website includes five steps one should be following while planning aliyah, and written and video interviews with olim to learn what motivates people to move to Israel.
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