Reports of the demise of the Jewish Agency's Aliyah programs are highly exaggerated, says Michael Jankelowitz, a senior spokesperson for the organization. “We're not moving out of Aliyah,” he says. “Instead, we're undergoing structural changes that we believe will strengthen the cause of Israel, Jewish identity, and Aliyah even further.”
Aliyah has been a confusing subject for many immigrants from North America – perhaps now more than ever, as several programs for new immigrants from the U.S. and Canada run by different government ministries are canceled or revamped. Jankelowitz understands that confusion – and believes that the Jewish Agency can go a long way to clarifying it, making itself more efficient and effective.
“Natan Sharansky, who now directs the Jewish agency, is as committed to Aliyah as anyone, but he realizes that without identification with Israel and the Jewish people, American Jews are not going to come here. We've refocused our strategy to ensure that we can build that identification, which we believe is the best – maybe even the only – way to encourage Jews to move here,” says Jankelowitz.
The new direction
The new focus, as described in a document called “Securing the Future: Forging a Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish People,” entails expanding educational and identification programs among diaspora Jewish communities, and encouraging youth to get to know Israel via programs like Taglit (Birthright) and Masa. The program was approved last June and put into operation this week.
From a practical point of view, the plan entails the closure of the three independent units that made up the Jewish Agency – the education, Aliyah, and Israel departments – and rolling all their functions into a single unit. As a result, the Agency has been attacked by Mks and several Israeli newspapers, who accuse it of “giving up” on Aliyah.
But nothing could be further from the truth, says Janekelowitz. “Instead of having three director generals, we will now have one, who will coordinate all of the Agency's resources for a single goal – encouraging connection with Israel, and from there, encouraging the next step, which is Aliyah.” Clarifying the mission will help makes things clearer to participants in programs, and to workers in Israel and abroad – as well as to those making Aliyah, who will know what to expect from each element in the Aliyah process.
Not NBN's fault
Why the change? “Let's face it, what we had until now just wasn't working,” a source close to Sharansky told Israel National News. “Even with the best efforts of Nefesh B'Nefesh – which is doing fantastic work - no more than 4,000 Jews have made Aliyah from the U.S. in any single year. And its not the fault of NBN, the Jewish Agency, or anyone else. We are spending millions, even tens of millions, and Aliyah has been, and continues to be, statistically next to zero. In 2009, the number went up from 3,000 to 4,000 – and that was at the height of the financial crisis in the U.S.”
Whatever motivates western Aliyah, says the source, it isn't persecution or economic privation.
So what does motivate Aliyah? “We have been poring over reports and studies done by the top sociological researchers in the American Jewish community, and we've made some interesting observations,” says the source. “The most successful Aliyah program in history from North America is Masa, which takes college kids and young adults and sends them to Israel for a semester of study, work and touring. Seventeen percent of Masa participants, who generally did not have a strong Jewish education, end up making Aliyah.” What's more, the source says, 92% of non-Orthodox Jewish communal leaders in the U.S. under 40 years of age have been on Masa or other fourth month-plus programs in Israel.
“We've seen studies that show a clear connection between participation in Taglit and increased participation in Jewish community activities,” the source continues. “It's clear that the first step to get them to make Aliyah is to interface with Israel, and in order to get them to do that, you have to connect them to the Jewish community and to Israel. That's what this plan is all about.”
In any event, says Jankelowitz, the Jewish Agency remains formally in charge of Aliyah. “We take care of the filing of paperwork and approval, which we are legally bound to do, and once olim get here, they take advantage of the Agency's programs for new immigrants. But we need to refocus – we need to be relevant to the needs of Jewish communities today. Fifty or sixty years ago, the old system with shlichim [Aliyah emissaries - ed.] and knocking on doors was appropriate for a new state, and it still works fine in Russia. But the U.S. is different; the old system was clearly not working, and since 80% of Jews are in the U.S., we need to adjust our strategy to work with them,” he says.
And with the revamping, money that was formerly spent on organization structure can now be spent on programs to encourage identity and Aliyah. “Imagine if we could bring 100,000 kids on Masa instead of just 10,000,” says the source close to Sharansky. “We would have no Aliyah problems to speak of.”