"Retiring" to Israel Like Abraham

Avraham and Sara were not youngsters when they made aliyah. According to the Torah text, they were 75 and 65 years old respectively. So, here is my new idea, based on G-d's model. Programs need to be developed to bring older people to Israel, just as there is today a wealth of programs for younger people.

Ariel Natan Pasko

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About twenty years ago, as a young yeshiva (rabbinical seminary) student in Jerusalem - recently graduated from college - I met some members of a Jewish Federation Mission from America in downtown Jerusalem. We began talking, one thing led to another, and I then told them one of my "pet" ideas of the time.

I pointed out that there were a lot of programs that are run by the Jewish Agency, or funded by various ministries of the Israeli government, to encourage young people to come to Israel. There are ulpans (Hebrew language study programs), volunteer programs on kibbutzim (collective farms), one-year programs for overseas students at Israeli universities, and yeshiva programs to learn about Judaism or strengthen Jewish identity; but even when young people really fall in love with Israel and decide to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel), many need to go back to the states or Europe first. They need to get a job to pay off student loans or other debts, and in the process get bogged down there and never return to Israel.

I told them that many other young people would love to come on these programs, but since they have to be able to pay their own airfare - even for the programs that are totally free - they can't afford it. What's lacking, I told them, is assistance from the organized Jewish community in America or elsewhere to help finance these young people to get to Israel.

Why not, I asked them, create a fund to pay for the plane tickets, for those who want to go on these programs? And also, to help pay off student loans and other debts, for those who want to make aliyah? Why not help them in job hunting and dealing with the Israeli immigration bureaucracy during that difficult transition period once in Israel? Not only did I tell these people on a Federation mission, but I also told others who came for the World Zionist Congress meeting and for the Jewish Agency meetings held later that summer. I was telling everyone in those days about my "idea".

I have no clear evidence that anyone worked on it, but almost twenty years later, I can sit back with some satisfaction and watch as projects like Birthright Israel and Nefesh B'Nefesh, which do just as I suggested, are successfully implemented. They now bring many young people to Israel for totally free programs - airfares included - and help people, including families, pay off their debts, find jobs in Israel and process the paperwork, making the aliyah process smother.

Why do I tell you all this? As an introduction to my next "pet" idea.

While reading the Torah portion Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1), where G-d tells Avram - not yet renamed Avraham - to "Go from your land, from your relatives and father's home, to the land I will show you," which is the basis for the mitzvah (divine commandment) for Jews to live in the Land of Israel, I thought about this verse in today's context. This is the Zionist mitzvah - for aliyah - par excellence.

Yet, Avram and Sarai - later Avraham and Sara - were not youngsters when they made aliyah. According to the Torah text, they were 75 and 65 years old respectively. So, here is my new idea, based on G-d's model. Programs need to be developed to bring older people to Israel, just as there is today a wealth of programs for younger people. Older people need to be encouraged to make aliyah and "retire" to Israel, to start the next stage of their lives, just as Abraham and Sara did. You could call it the "Abraham and Sara Project".

I say, "retire" because most older people today don't really stop working and sit around reminiscing about the good old days. With many people living into their 80s, 90s and beyond, these days, retiring at 65 leaves at least 20 more good years of life. Since most people are in much better health for their age than used to be the case, "retirees" can still be productive contributors to society. Heck, living 10, 20 or 30 years staring at the "four walls" has got to be boring enough to kill you. Bring those people to Israel; they're full of life experiences, skills, connections and, yes, resources.

Unlike younger people just starting out in life, most older people have worked their whole life. They've raised families; many own homes, have investments, businesses and property. They won't come to Israel as financial burdens, but as assets. We should be encouraging older people to "retire" to Israel; i.e., move there and start chapter two, or three, or four, of their lives. Encourage them to volunteer. Encourage them to start businesses in Israel. Encourage them to act as consultants. Israeli businessmen need help getting into markets abroad. These people have a lifetime of connections. The weather is as good as Florida or California, and it's the Jewish State.

Most people in professional Zionist circles have always thought of encouraging youth to make aliyah. The work was tough. Israel needed soldiers. It wasn't a place for sissies. It still isn't, but most people don't work in agriculture or backbreaking labor anymore. Israel has a modern, developed economy, and the white-collar and entrepreneurial skills of Jews from America, Europe, Australia and South Africa fit nicely into that. Older people can make great contributions to Israel's economy and to Israeli society.

It was always thought in professional Zionist circles, that young people settling down in Israel would act as a magnet to attract their families. It was hoped that parents, brothers and sisters would follow them and move there, too. I want to propose a new model of aliyah. Older people - grandparents - will move to Israel. Their now-grown children, who also have more wealth and resources than those just starting out in life, will come out for visits. Who doesn't fly across America to visit their elderly parents? They'll send their kids on vacation to Savta and Saba, to Bubby and Zaidie, or to Grandma and Grandpa's just as they always do. Only now, the kids will be taking a trip to Israel. Since people are living much longer, someone who "retires" out to Israel at 65, and lives another 20 or 30 years, is likely to see their children "retire" out there as well.

Another important point to stress is that this is the future. Jewish birthrates are at an all time low, except in Israel. The aging Jewish populations of America and Europe are growing faster than the general population. While the potential pool of aliyah from young Jews in America and Europe is drying up, numbers are shrinking, the numbers of Jewish retirees is growing. The Baby Boom generation will begin retiring soon and they must be tapped for the next big wave of aliyah. It makes sense to reach out to these people.

The lone son or daughter who moved to Israel can be discounted as just another "rebellion". But when Grandma and Grandpa move to Israel, they'll be setting an example that will have lasting impact on the family. Since grandparents tend to be the links to Jewish tradition, it will teach everyone in the family how important being Jewish and living in Israel are. If they open a new business, well, they'll be able to invite someone (their grandson or granddaughter?) from the "old country" to help run it. And although it's not pleasant to talk about, when they die, family members will want to go out there to acquire their inheritances. How many will decide to move to Israel permanently when they already own factories, stores and real estate there?

With all the elderly moving to Israel, whole new industries will pop-up; remember, they're elderly with money. Geriatric medicine will expand, putting many of the underused "Russian" doctors to work. New entertainment places will open. Why can't retirement communities be built, just as in Florida? They can be.

G-d would never have told Abraham to pick himself up and go to Israel if it wouldn't have been good for him. We have a concept, "Ma'ase avot siman l'banim." (The actions of our forefathers are guides to what we should do.) Rather than just encourage aliyah for the young, Israel must make a concerted effort to encourage aliyah for the aged. It will be the renewal of their lives - just as Abraham and Sara started their lives anew - and that will be good for them and for the Jewish people.

(c) 2005/5766 Pasko