The Parkins family of four looked dazed standing in the large lobby of John Jay College in Midtown Manhattan. Having driven all night from Chicago, they were a bit bedraggled and blinked at the hundreds milling about this massive annual event promoting immigration to Israel.
The parents, Andrea and Paul, had visited Israel three years ago and fallen in love with the country. With two high school-aged kids, however, uprooting their family wasn’t a decision to be made lightly.
Asked at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Mega Event on February 26 if the current political climate in the United States contributed in any way to their decision, Paul chuckled and said no. Andrea, however, hesitated and said, “Well, maybe a little.”
Making aliyah “was already something on our plate,” she explained. The family, a double minority in that they are both black and Jewish, has already submitted much of their paperwork. They are serious about completing their immigration process — and soon.
Gesturing to her children, Andrea said, “We’re thinking about the future.”
With a recent increase in reports of US-based anti-Semitic attacks, Andrea’s concern for her children’s future in America could be well founded. On Monday, another spate of bomb threats to Jewish community centers brought the total of such call-in threats to 90, at 73 locations. Occurring both at JCCs and Jewish day schools, the threats have taken place in 30 states and 1 Canadian province over five waves in January and February. (Perhaps with this in mind, Sunday’s Nefesh B’Nefesh event saw serious security protecting the campus — from metal detectors at the entrance to a visible police presence in its halls.)
Preceded by desecration of graves at two US Jewish cemeteries, after this newest series of call-in threats, on Monday Labor party leader MK Isaac Herzog called on the Israeli government to “urgently prepare and establish and emergency national program for the possibility that we will see waves of our Jewish brothers immigrating to Israel.”
‘The State of Israel is ready for every number of immigrants that will come’
A day earlier at Sunday’s fair, Minister of Absorption Sofa Landver had pooh-poohed the idea of a new wave of US immigration. Regardless, she assured journalists that “the State of Israel is ready for every number of immigrants that will come.”
After greeting a large group of teenage future citizens and their parents, Landver acknowledged a rise in American anti-Semitism, but told The Times of Israel that the Trump administration would strengthen ties between Israel and its “big brother,” America. Landver said that while she hopes immigration would be spurred by “a desire to be home,” when anti-Semitism reaches a certain level “it could be pushing people home [to Israel].”
Among the diverse Jewish population The Times of Israel spoke with at Sunday’s fair, the impetus for immigration is a mix of personal and political reasons. From 18-year-old Israeli Defense Forces enlistees to octogenarian retirees, however, their decisions to leave the US had much to do with where they find their own and their families’ futures, and, to a lesser extent, their relationships to US President Donald Trump.
Each in his own corner of the US ‘boxing ring’
For Cindy and Gil Roter, the political influence on their decision “is very unconscious,” said Cindy. Both Roters are Trump supporters, whom they saw as the only pro-Israel candidate. For Gil, it “was a single-issue vote,” said Cindy, a teacher, who said she put liberalism to the side and voted based on Israel, national security, and the economy.
Regarding the contentious presidential election and its aftermath, she said it is as though everyone in her social sphere is sitting in their own boxing ring corner with their gloves on. In making a new life elsewhere, she said she feels that she and her physician husband, would make “a fresh start.”
The Roters had sat in on a session on transferring Gil’s medical license for practice in Israel, one of the over 50 sessions and workshops on all aspects of life in Israel presented at the Mega Event.
Organized in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and JNF-USA, the event drew a record 1,500 attendees and offered what NBN labeled “a full-service aliyah planning experience” — from meetings with employment professionals and lawyers to booths with movers and realtors. Similar fairs are scheduled for Toronto, Montreal and Los Angeles in early March.
In addition to Minister Landver, other high-profile Israelis greeting participants in New York included a cadre of mayors and former Knesset member Dov Lipman. Comedian Joel Chasnoff kept the recruits entertained and an Orthodox a cappella group was relentlessly, loudly cheerful.
Founded in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh works throughout North America and the UK in cooperation with the Israeli government and The Jewish Agency for Israel to raise awareness of immigration to the Jewish state. While immigration is never easy, NBN attempts to reduce the “financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles of aliyah.” According to NBN, its work has seen a 90 percent retention rate of the over 50,000 new immigrants it has helped bring to Israel.
For some at the fair, aliyah was something to consider in another few years, or upon retirement. For others, such as 19-year-old Miriam, it was an imminent proposition.
The modestly dressed Modern Orthodox teen from Long Island said she wants to move within the next few years because Israel “is the place I could live the life I want to live in the most optimal way.”
While not involved or interested in US politics — she did not vote in the recent elections, although her accompanying mother voted for Trump — Miriam said, “It just helps that nothing here is speaking to me anymore.”
Time to come ‘home’
At the New York fair, an entire floor was dedicated to Israelis living in the US who have decided to return to the Jewish state. According to several couples approached by The Times of Israel, they were there because it was simply “time to come back home.”
For the Rubenchik family, however, the Trump era was the direct cause of their exploration of their rights and obligations in returning to the Jewish state. After 30 years in the US, Motti Rubenchik compared the new administration with the rise of Nazi Germany. Saying he doesn’t want to repeat historical mistakes, the dentist and his anesthesiologist wife are seriously considering replanting their family’s roots.
Motti and Naomi, who didn’t support either candidate in the presidential elections, said “We couldn’t bring ourselves to vote.” With the rise of Trump, however, Naomi said they are “very frightened.”
“We didn’t think it would come to this,” she said, adding that while they don’t necessarily want to return to Israel, “We don’t have any other place to go.”
The sentiments expressed by the Rubenchiks were definitely the minority at Sunday’s event, however, which seemed to belie the national stats in which only 30% of Jews voted for Trump.
Most who spoke with The Times of Israel were of a similar mindset as Larry and Judy Polsky, a retired couple from Riverdale whose daughter has lived in Israel since 2009. As they await the birth of their first grandchild, the couple contemplates moving to an Israel that, they said, has a stronger friend in the US with Trump in office.
The Obama administration was very anti-Israel and did “unfixable damage” to Israel with its “disastrous Iran deal,” said Larry, a smiling retired physicist. Trump, on the other hand, “truly will protect Israel,” he said.
It is a fallacy to think the administration is driving people away to Israel, he said. Quite the opposite: Today Jews can feel “especially good” about moving to Israel.
“Trump’s election increases the desire to make aliyah, because now Israel has a future,” said Polsky.
The Times of Israel reporter’s trip was financed by Nefesh B’Nefesh.