NEW JERSEY — Stephanie Wolf-Rosenblum arrived at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah mega event with a suitcase. Not because she was planning on immediately hopping onto a plane and moving to Israel, but because the potential immigrant wanted to gather as much information as she possibly could.
Wolf-Rosenblum said she attended the New Jersey fair — organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a non-profit tasked with promoting and facilitating immigration to Israel from North America and Britain — because she is considering making the move to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. But when asked whether the political climate in the United States contributed in any way to her decision, she noted she is starting to feel uncomfortable as a Jew in America.
“Anti-Semitism has always been an undercurrent. What’s happened in the last six to 12 months and the latest remarks by some of our newer congresswomen have really played into my concerns,” she said, referring to comments by freshman Democrat Ilhan Omar whose recent comments on Israel led to an uproar.
“It’s coming from the left and from the right,” Wolf-Rosenblum added. “I never felt it up until now with this kind of acuity.
“My Israeli son-in-law has said to me that he’s more worried about me here [in the United States] than I should be about them there [in Israel] because I go to synagogue every week,” she said. “I’m not concerned about security situation there. I feel safer there than here right now as a Jew.”
In October 2018, 11 Jews were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh by an attacker who had allegedly previously professed anti-Semitic opinions. In January, a man was charged with planning to carry out a shooting attack at an Ohio synagogue. According to data released last year by the Anti-Defamation League, 2017 saw a dramatic increase in anti-Semitic events in the US compared to a year earlier.
However, Nefesh b’Nefesh said there has not been a clear spike in people planning a move to Israel after a wave of anti-Semitic attacks in their countries of origin.
“We underestimate the power of inertia,” said Nefesh b’Nefesh founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass in a briefing with journalists. He noted there was anecdotal evidence that some move to Israel as a way of channeling their Zionism after facing anti-Israel sentiment on campus and added that his organization has seen an increase in applications when Israel is involved in a security situation or war.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency, KKL and JNF-USA, aims to encourage Western immigration to Israel by easing the process for American, Canadian, and British Jews. The organization holds events to enable potential immigrants to prepare for a possible move and says it has assisted 59,000 people in making aliyah.
Wolf-Rosenblum was somewhat of an outlier at the Mega Event which was held this year for the first time in Teaneck, New Jersey. It was a deliberate move by Nefesh b’Nefesh to make it easier for families to attend, but as a result of moving to the heavily Orthodox area, the 1,000 attendees were predominately religious and appeared to consider making the move for idealistic reasons.
Wolf-Rosenblum isn’t naive about the challenges she would face as a new immigrant to Israel, particularly as a physician who would be navigating an alien healthcare system. On the other hand, jobs are increasingly available: The Israeli medical system is suffering from a shortage of medical professionals, which a Globes report on Monday suggested may be exacerbated as the wave of doctors who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s begin to reach retirement age.
Nefesh b’Nefesh has inaugurated a program to make the medical license conversion process easier, as well as aid medical professionals find positions. Representatives from Israeli hospitals attended the New Jersey event to meet with potential recruits, who were able to start the process of transferring their licenses prior to their arrival in Israel.
“Not only am I not ready to give up my profession, but I want to be able to contribute,” said Wolf-Rosenblum, who traveled from her home in New Hampshire to the fair so that she would fully understand what she needs to do to be able to practice in Israel.
Wolf-Rosenblum has another daughter in London. She said she is increasingly concerned about her, given the rise of anti-Semitism in the British Labour party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
“The climate there with Jeremy Corbyn and others is very alarming, in my opinion,” said Wolf-Rosenblum. Corbyn has faced repeated accusations of anti-Semitism as well as enabling Jew hatred within his party. “I would be happier if everyone in the family was in one place, and that one place was Israel.”
Another person examining the possibility of immigration was David Chasan from New Jersey, who with his wife is considering a move to Israel to be closer to grandchildren.
“We’ve always wanted to move to Israel, and having the grandchildren there has provided us with the push we needed,” he said. “But as much as 75% [of the decision] is a pull toward living in Israel, 25% is not so happy here anymore,” Chasan said.
“I’m not thrilled with what’s happening in Congress with the recent freshman anti-Semitic remarks,” he added, referring to Omar. “I never would have believed this kind of thing would happen in the United States.”
JNF-KKL head Danny Atar attended the event to launch the JNF-KKL “2040” initiative which aims to bring 1.5 million Israelis (immigrants among them) to live in periphery communities in the north and south of the country.
In a briefing with journalists, Atar issued a stark warning about the threat facing the Jewish people in the Diaspora, which he sees as coming from increased assimilation.
“A catastrophe threatens the small Jewish people,” warned Atar in a briefing with journalists. “A majority of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, about 65%, choose to disengage from the Jewish people.” (According to the 2013 Pew Report, 75% of Jewish Americans say they have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.)
Philadelphian Aryeh Wasserman plans to move to Israel later this year with his family to begin a teaching position. The reason for his decision is simple: “I believe the future of the Jewish people is in Israel,” Wasserman said.
Throughout press briefings, community leaders said they see Jewish, and Israel, education at the forefront of a perceived battle against Jews losing touch with their identity. For some Jews in the pews, however, the prohibitively expensive cost of Jewish day schools is cited as a challenge.
Tsivia and Hillel Boim are moving to Efrat this summer with their children. In speaking with The Times of Israel, the couple immediately cited the quality of education they believe their children will receive in Israel as the first reason for the move.
“Unfortunately my brother passed away this past year, very suddenly and very tragically,” explained Tsivia. “It definitely made us think about our life and what we want. Life is short – it was the kick we needed and helped us move faster in our plans.
“Sometimes as a Jew in the US you want to stay low-key and not make a big deal. But in Israel you naturally celebrate your roots and your Judaism and it’s easier to feel proud. Especially for children, who can feel proud of who they are because everyone is celebrating it too,” she said.
For Wolf-Rosenblum, a third generation American, the pull of grandchildren is a pretty good reason to move to Israel. But it’s an emigration tinged with a sadness.
“I increasingly just don’t feel at home here, I’m sorry to say,” she said.
Naomi Lanzkron’s trip was sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh.