Nefesh B’Nefesh turns immigrants into pioneers

With biggest Aliyah Mega Event ever in NY, group aims to increase North American numbers and move them to the Israeli frontier

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Goofing off at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Mega event in Times Square on Sunday, March 9, 2014. (Shahar Azran)
Goofing off at the Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Mega event in Times Square on Sunday, March 9, 2014. (Shahar Azran)

NEW YORK — El Paso, Texas natives Hank and Susy Rothschild have been planning their aliyah to Israel for a while now; some 37 years, and counting. But their wait may finally be over.

“If you had asked me yesterday, I would’ve told you I’m not sure if I’m ready yet,” said Hank Rothschild, 65. “Now, after seeing all this? I feel energized.”

The “all this” was the 1,000-plus people who attended Sunday’s annual Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Mega Event in New York City, an all-afternoon affair that included some speeches, but was mostly informative sessions about employment opportunities, health plans and financial planning, and one-on-one meetings with shipping agents, insurance representatives, accountants, colleges and universities, an HMO, mayors of local cities and towns, organizational recruiters, and clusters of Nefesh B’Nefesh staffers, answering every kind of possible question.

Held in a midtown Manhattan hotel, the second-to-last in a week of fairs held across the North America, including Toronto, Montreal, Florida, Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles, the New York Mega event was the organization’s largest in six years, and included a recorded address from Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who was supposed to attend the event in person.

The Rothschilds have been ostensibly planning their immigration to Israel since 1977 when they spent their first year of marriage in the southern town of Arad on the WUJS program. But despite the homey familiarity of the Arad desert plain – particularly for Susy Rothschild, who grew up a farmer’s daughter in Chamberino, New Mexico – the couple decided to move closer to family and headed to El Paso.

Now, after 35 years and four grown kids, including one in Israel, they just may be ready.

“It’s night and day for me,” said Hank Rothschild. “Last night I wasn’t ready, and now, after all this, I can’t wait.”

Part of their plan, which includes selling their house and frame store in El Paso, is living in the apartment they recently bought on the outskirts of southern development town Kiryat Gat, known for its immigrant population and Intel factory. The new neighborhood Carmei Gat, which will number 25,000 residents, is geared toward English-speakers, and is a project organized by their married daughter and a group of her like-minded friends living in Israel.

“Why would I want to live in eight square feet in Katamon?” said Rothschild, referring to a Jerusalem neighborhood popular with English speakers.

For Susy Rothschild, the benefits of living in a small town include possibly directing a local school band, her former profession, and finding a quilting circle.

“I’m ready,” she said.

Nefesh B'Nefesh opens its suitcase of options for immigrants in its New York Mega Event. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Nefesh B’Nefesh opens its suitcase of options for immigrants in its New York Mega Event. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

The Rothschild’s Kiryat Gat future is another facet of the Nefesh B’Nefesh suitcase of plans for their potential immigrants, which includes the Go North and Go South programs, encouraging new olim to move to the periphery of Israel.

Russell Robinson, CEO of the Jewish National Fund USA, remarked in Sunday morning’s opening speeches that the programs don’t represent Israel’s periphery any longer, but the “new frontier of Israel.”

“You are now more powerful than an F-16,” he told the crowd of potential immigrants. “This isn’t exile, it’s part of 21st century Israel.”

Encouraging immigrants to move to the south or north certainly represents a new direction for the 12-year-old organization. Founded in 2002 by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and businessmen Tony Gelbart during the height of the Second Intifada, Nefesh B’Nefesh was first known for streamlining the aliyah process to Israel – bringing all the paperwork on board the plane. It also began by offering grants to eligible immigrants, based on the philanthropic donations gathered from a group of foundations, including the Marcus Foundation, the Legacy Heritage Fund and the Irving Moskowitz Foundation.

The organization raised immigration from North America to new heights – 38,000 in the last 12 years – and brought a range of immigrants, from singles and young couples to established families, offering an easier method for navigating the often complicated bureaucracy of immigration and absorption.

Now, however, the Nefesh B’Nefesh numbers have plateaued at around 4,000 on an annual basis, said Eric Michaelson, the Nefesh B’Nefesh vice president, who himself was raised in Israel by Anglo parents. Those figures also include a 97% retention rate of immigrants who stay in Israel, far higher than the 50% rate that was typical for pre-Nefesh B’Nefesh days. That said, they’d like to see annual immigration from North America reach 10,000 or 15,000, said Michaelson, who claims they would, if they had endless funding.

And so they’ve pushed hard on certain aspects of their system. They work with programs like Garin Zabar, which offers a Hebrew ulpan program to young immigrants before entering the army, hoping to encourage more young, single olim who will have an even better chance of succeeding in Israel if they join the army. There’s also their own Lone Soldier program, teaming Nefesh B’Nefesh families with North American lone soldiers, a program that was so successful the Friends of the IDF organization asked them to extend it to non-North American lone soldiers as well, partnering with them in the effort.

‘We used to count on two hands how many people went north or south’

Nefesh also invests in its employment services, which recently placed 15 professionals in one month, said Michaelson, helped by the organization’s huge alumni network and buddy system.

What also appears to have changed is a solid friendship with the government, particularly as they work closely with Keren Kayemet l’Yisrael, the Israeli arm of the JNF which is their partner in the Go North, Go South programs. Additionally, the program works with the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jewish Agency and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption under Landver who is herself a Russian immigrant.

“We are the outsourced arm of the government,” said Michaelson, referring to the organization’s aliyah services.

“We used to count on two hands how many people went north or south,” he added. “Now there’s been 3,000 pioneers, most of them in the north, and we’re working on the south.”

Several representatives from northern and southern cities, including Haifa, Safed, Migdal HaEmek, Bnei Shimon and Beersheba were at the Mega event, paying their own way in order to meet with potential residents.

“We often get the relocaters,” said Shay Fishel, general manager of the Haifa Association for Immigrant Absorption. “People don’t ‘get’ Haifa right away, it’s not a city you get to know at first.”

But if they attend the city’s renowned Carmel Etzion ulpan, or consider the better real estate prices for the city’s best neighborhoods, the city is hoping to get more Anglo immigrants.

Ditto for Beersheba, which has a growing pool of English speakers, said Tal El Al, Beersheba’s Vice Mayor, also often making their second relocation after living in Jerusalem, he said.

“Jerusalem is a brand name for immigrants, and the Negev isn’t yet,” he said. ‘But they figure it out farther down the road.”

Nathaniel and Elise Marciano, a French couple who expect to move to Jerusalem this year. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Nathaniel and Elise Marciano, a French couple who expect to move to Jerusalem this year. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Sometimes it just depends on what you’re seeking. For Nathaniel and Elise Marciano, a French couple who have been living in New York for several years, their destination will be Jerusalem, where most of her family lives, and where there is already a large French community in place.

But for Gideon, a single South African who has been living in New York for many years, the north appeals more, even though most of his extended family lives in Tel Aviv.

“I like higher density, metropolitan living,” he said. “But when it comes to Israel, I’m interested in another frontier.”

(Jessica Steinberg traveled to New York as a guest of Nefesh B’Nefesh)

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