Talking Seriously About Aliya

by Haviv Rettig Gur

Let’s be honest: English-speaking Jews will not make aliya because you showed them a brochure extolling the financial benefits of immigration. That’s not because they are waiting for more money, but because it’s not about money.

Young Diaspora Jews in the West are not seeking comfort, but challenge. They don’t want to blindly follow in the footsteps of their parents, but are nevertheless willing to explore Jewish life and tradition as a source of authentic identity. More than anything else, they want to feel that their lives are a product of their own initiative.

(I should know. In 1999, at the age of 18, I left a beloved community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a red 9-seater Chevrolet Suburban, bought for me by my parents when I learned to drive at 16, in order to join the IDF.)

The real challenge of aliya, therefore, is not bureaucratic. It’s not about reducing the paperwork or improving the benefits package. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anything that could change the mind of an American Jew, especially a young one, on the question of whether or not to remain American. Hard, but not impossible.

Faced with these facts, we must ask ourselves if we actually know how to bring American Jews on aliya. For the first time, we find ourselves competing for their attention in a completely open marketplace, without the pressure of parents or tradition. Are we up to that challenge?

Which brings us to the Jewish Agency’s reform and to Thursday’s angry screed by Isi Liebler against what he sees as the capitulation of everyone who isn’t him to the dark forces of anti-Zionism. (Indeed, Isi may go down in history as the only man to ever accuse Natan Sharansky of “capitulation.” Where the KGB failed, the lay leadership of the federation world apparently succeeded.)

The Agency’s reform is emphatically not an abandonment of aliya. It is the recognition that we are already failing at aliya. 4,000 American Jewish olim each year – from a community of six million – is not a success, even if it marks a rise from a decades-long low of 2,000 a few years ago. In 2002, the terrifying wave of suicide bombings in Israel could not stop 2,000 from coming. And in 2010, the worst American economic crisis in 80 years could not convince more than 4,000 to make the move.

American Jewish aliya is neither scared away by war, nor attracted by financial benefits.

At the Agency, we are not seeking the bureaucratic efficiencies that will bring another 200 olim. We are seeking a transformation of Jewish life, an engine that can reverse the trend of young American Jewish “distancing” from Israel and Jewish life, and transform aliya from a marginal phenomenon to a central pillar of the western Jewish experience.

To do that, we, led by Natan Sharansky, have taken a dramatic and risky step, replacing the aliya institutions of yesteryear, the Aliya Department that spectacularly rescued three million Jews from hunger, murder, expulsion and bigotry in the 20th century, with new, modern aliya institutions built around offering powerful life stories, Israel experiences and identity-building programs. We believe that there is a spiral of Israel experiences, from 10 days on Birthright to 10 months on Masa, that is the real engine for aliya.

Why do we believe this? Because some 80% of Masa’s 10,000 annual participants were on a short-term trip first. And some 20% of Masa participants over 21 make aliya.

At the same time, over half of American Jewish leaders under 40 have been on a long- term program in Israel, according to an Avi Chai Foundation study published a few months ago titled “Generation of Change.” This is almost double the rate of their parents.

In other words, according to the most up-to-date research on American Jewry, nothing inspires aliya as well as personally experiencing Israel. And few experiences are more closely correlated with being a young Jewish leader back home than that same Israel experience.

In a democratic, individualistic world, it no longer makes sense to “encourage aliya” using brochures about tax benefits, and it no longer makes sense to separate our efforts to bring aliya from our efforts at strengthening Diaspora communities and connecting them to Israel. These are intertwined goals, and achieving the one will help us to accomplish the other.

There are many organizations who seek to justify their existence by obsessing about the failures of others. Isi Liebler no doubt speaks for some of them. But the future of the Jewish world will not be decided by those who spend their time hand-wringing about ideological purity. The future will be built by those who possess a clear vision of our challenges, and propose creative and relevant solutions to these challenges.

Haviv Rettig Gur is Director of Communications, Jewish Agency for Israel.