On the final day of President Shimon Peres’s Tomorrow Conference, a panel discussion on Aliyah and the Israel-Diaspora relationship took place.

The questions asked of the panel were: “Do current trends necessarily widen the gap or is it possible to cement relations between Israel and the Diaspora? What can be done to bring two geographically separate societies together so they can understand each other, share a single Jewish identity and work for common goals? What role does Aliyah play in this relationship?”

Moderated by Dr. Ruth Calderon of the Alma Home for Hebrew Culture in Tel Aviv, the panel included Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Danny Oberman, Jewish Agency Treasurer Hagai Meirom, senior Jewish Federation official Dr. Steven Nasatir and student activists Aharon Horowitz, of the PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism and Jason Lustig, of ImpactAliyah.

Dr. Calderon began by saying, “Israel is too important to leave to the Israelis,” explaining that the relationship between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora is like that of a husband and wife, who must work together as equal partners.

Dr. Nasatir developed the point from the perspective of the Federation system, which tries to galvanize support for Israel into community involvement and the funding of local educational initiatives. American Jewish philanthropy is not so much for the Israeli causes that benefit financially, he explained, but “for us to feel we are playing a part.”

Both Calderon and Nasatir spoke positively about the Israelis living in North America. “They come to realize that language alone won’t be enough to keep their children connected,” Nasatir said. “I’ve talked to Israelis in Chicago who were not observant here [in Israel] but there decide to send their kids to day school and really begin to understand the value of communities, while in the states.” Nasatir said that hang-ups about both Aliyah and yerida (immigration to and from Israel respectively) have largely disappeared.

“Aliyah plays a different role in different countries,” Nasatir said. “Americans are supportive of Aliyah, but don’t expect large numbers for Aliyah from the US or Canada any time soon.”

Aliyah Not at its Peak
Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Oberman said that the Aliyah-assistance organization sees Aliyah as a critical bridge in the building of the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

Oberman said that blanket statements that North American Aliyah cannot reach great numbers do not recognize the snowball effect that is already visible. “People are making Aliyah now who are the friends and neighbors of those who made Aliyah with us in 2002, 2003 and 2004. This is the snowball we were looking for. We do not believe Aliyah has peaked and we believe the numbers will continue to grow.”

He said just last year an average of 100 requests for information about Aliyah were received in a week, while 150 is now the norm. “That translated to 7,000 family units a year. Our conversion rate at the moment is 42 percent of those who inquire come on Aliyah. We seek to raise that to 52 percent , which means thousands. Though these are still small numbers for American Jewry, for the small country of Israel this is huge.”

Oberman said that Aliyah is becoming far more acceptable sociologically within the Jewish communities of America. He told a story of two brothers who showed up to an Aliyah seminar in Teaneck, NJ two years ago. “They each came independently and were shocked to see each other there,” he said. “ ‘Did you tell our parents?’ asked one. ‘No, did you?’ said the other. It was like coming out of a closet.” Now, Oberman said, the option of Aliyah is out in the open; considered something to be proud of. “It is an exclusive, exceptional bunch of people who are taking that decision to come here,” he said.

The Nefesh B’Nefesh official also credited programs like Birthright and Masa, who bring young people to visit Israel, with providing the sparks that ignite an increasing number of young, single Jews to make the move to Israel. “Of the over 3,000 people who came last year – 1,000 of them were singles.” He noted that 65 percent of the singles were non-Orthodox – almost all of whom moved to Tel Aviv. He joked that the other 35 percent all moved to Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood.

The Activists Speak
The youngest presenter on the panel, Jason Lustig, said that he is finishing his degree this year at Brandeis University before making Aliyah in order not to "sacrifice my college education.”

Lustig lamented that for students in American universities, all aspects of university life lead “toward a pipeline that leads students toward success in the US... I have friends who were very enthusiastic about Aliyah, but got sucked into the pipeline.”

Lustig and his friends sought a solution, forming a group called ImpactAliyah that brings college students interested in Aliyah to Israel so they can identify how they can best contribute and succeed in the Jewish state following the immigration.

“Aliyah is not just a dream, not just a place where you go on vacation,” Lustig said, “but a place where I can make a difference…Moving to Israel creates an opportunity to take all I learned and gained in the Diaspora and contribute toward strengthening Israel.”

Responding to the earlier speakers’ concerns for the Diaspora, Lustig said that Aliyah is his contribution to the Diaspora. “My Aliyah gives back to the Diaspora. I am reinvesting in the Jewish state and strengthening it as something that will give back to the Diaspora in which I was raised.”

“All of Israel is a family. As time goes by and Jews migrate in both directions – the interconnectedness of this family will only increase. The married-couple is not the right metaphor. Families can divorce – Israel and the Diaspora cannot. Families support each other. Israel and the Diaspora ARE each other.”

Jewish Agency Treasurer Meirom accepted Nasitir’s premise that large numbers of Jewish immigrants from the US are not to be expected soon, suggesting that the target must be adjusted. He put forth a still-ambiguous proposal being examined by the Jewish Agency called “flexible Aliyah.”

“Flexible Aliyah offers a variety of methods and opportunities for strengthening Jewish identity through active and meaningful participation in 21st century life in Israel,” Meirom explained. “Those interested in experiencing life in Israel will be able to choose between various life and work settings in both Hebrew and English… For example, you have a business in France and you want to make Aliyah. You can go to Israel and start to spend years exploring the opportunities – living in both Israel and France.”

An Israeli student from the audience criticized the idea, saying it repackaged what are already options for new immigrants (to commute back to old businesses) by stripping the obligations of citizenship. “I am afraid of what these new ‘flexible citizens’ will bring – either you are with Israel or not,” he said.

Meirom responded that he did not see the issue as black and white.

Another speaker, Aharon Horowitz, preceded his time at an American college with service in the IDF. He later returned to Israel, making Aliyah after graduation and establishing an organization empowering “non-profit entrepreneurs.”

Horowitz spoke about the Jewish mission in the world, reminding those present that Zionism as a movement “was always about the stage beyond establishment [of the state]. It was necessary to build a home for the Jews that was safe and secure, but it was about the potential of this home to be a beacon, a shining light for the people of the world.”

Horowitz echoed Lustig’s sentiment that today’s Zionism should be about more than the geographic relocation of Jews to Israel – but about making Israel the staging ground for the various projects and missions that ideological Jews seek to implement.

Horowitz used the term “transmedia,” which he explained is the phenomenon of allowing for spinoffs and various multimedia expositions upon a central film or television show. “The stories of [TV shows] Heroes or Lost are not taking place only on TV, but through video games, in graphic novels, on message boards on the web. The story is always being extended through different sorts of media. This is an interesting idea for the Jewish people. Our story is being written all over the place. There are entrepreneurs and innovators who are building small parts of the mission to extend the Jewish mission in many, many directions.”

Horowitz said that the concept means that passionate Jews must be sought out and empowered to start new initiatives that will expand the reach and influence of the larger Jewish project.

Referring to ideas like flexible Aliyah, Horowitz said that the concept of “peoplehood – which has much energy behind it and is being discussed as a key topic by the Federations and Jewish Agency – must be defined in terms of its obligations. It is clear what the obligations are of Zionism, or rabbinic Judaism – but the obligations are not at all clear for peoplehood.” Until such definitions are in place, Horowitz warned, peoplehood remains a mere brand or phrase. He suggested that his work in empowering Jewish initiatives recognizes that different individuals are contributing in many different ways, but acknowledged that it remains difficult for Israelis, whose society has shouldered the burden of defining a sovereign Jewish entity, to hear American Jews speak of a “shared march forward.”

Questions/Statements From the Audience
Jesse (Australian Union of Jewish Students): We can all agree that Aliyah is important. But for every person that makes Aliyah, there’s a person who leaves the Diaspora and weakens it. And Israel needs a strong Diaspora.

Oberman: When I left Australia in ‘75, there were 70,000 Jews. Now there are 120,000 due to influx of South Africans, Russians and even Israelis. I don’t think you have anything to worry about in terms of Aliyah being a drain – certainly in Australia.

Meirom: There was a question about the threat to Disapora due to Aliyah. The real threat to Diaspora communities is assimilation and intermarriage – not Aliyah. Aliyah strengthens the communities from which the olim come and places Israel at the center of Jewish life there.

Marc Fishman made Aliyah in 2003: My parents were furious with me when I decided to move here, and my sister didn’t talk to me for six months. Three days ago my sister called me and said that now she is coming. There is a growing wave. Steve [Nasatir], how can you say that Aliyah from North America is not growing?

Nasatir: My point is that significant numbers are not going to come in the foreseeable future. There is no way to expect that those numbers will come to Israel.

Ben Fried, gap-year program participant: Haggai – what is Israel’s expectation of the Zionist college community – which is currently on the defensive and is looking for a way to go out and express how Israel is a great place instead of doing anti-divestment protests and the like?

Another gap-year student: So many of us are interested in Aliyah. I went so far as to have my Gar’in Tzabar [a group-Aliyah program for children of Israelis seeking to make Aliyah –ed] interview and fill out my NBN papers, but in the end I decided to go home and make sure I’m not being brainwashed by my youth group. How do you avoid getting sucked into the pipeline? Maybe we need the push while we are here? I think it is important for us to consider doing what very few people on my program are doing – going home for the summer and then coming back on the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight and joining to the army.”

Horowitz: I found that the first two years of my activism I spent at protests and rallies - usually running them. The second two years I spent in a classroom discussing Zionist texts with other students. The ideas we are implementing today were thought up and discussed in coffee shops in the twenties. It is up to students today to continue these conversations, ideas and expansions of the scope of the vision.

Lustig: What we seek to do is create a separate pipeline that leads to Israel. For me it was a journal about Israel and identity that kept me on track. Aliyah is an expression of Jewish identity. Many students and people making Aliyah see it as an identity and not something outside it. You have to do things that keep you involved. It is a process.

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