Religion & Beliefs

Making Aliyah, American Style

Why would an American Jew emigrate anywhere? Why is the draw to live in Israel so powerful for these olim [immigrants]? I was one of a few embedded bloggers on the 40th flight of immigrants to Israel from North America … Read More

By / September 9, 2009

Why would an American Jew emigrate anywhere? Why is the draw to live in Israel so powerful for these olim [immigrants]?

I was one of a few embedded bloggers on the 40th flight of immigrants to Israel from North America sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), an NGO that has streamlined the immigration process as the State ofIsrael has renewed its push for North American Jewish immigrants, an immigration group that has been increasing during the recent economic downturn.  Over twenty-three thousand immigrants have moved to Israel in the past eight years through NBN, which, according to Renana Levine, seeks specifically to alleviate four major categories of entry problems for olim: funding, employment, social problems, and navigating Israel’s infamous bureaucracy. Even name changing—from say, Koenigsberg or Kaplinksy to a more appropriate Israeli last name, perhaps one that means lightning or steel–is facilitated batch file along with other olim needs, such as the application for national health insurance.

The flight itself offers a group experience and support for the final flight to Israel. My flight was the “singles flight,” and there was plenty of Israeli excitement over this flight in part because of this, making the front page of Yedioth Ahranoth. Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition party, Kadima, explained at the welcoming ceremony at the old terminal at Ben Gurion Airport for the olim that, “Matchmaking is the national sport.”

But again…why do they come? Why would anyone leave the U.S.?

According to Levine, two inspirations consistently surface with olim: Birthright Israel, and a family legacy of the Holocaust.

Galit Heller comes from a Modern Orthodox background, a religious paradigm most typical of an American Aliyah candidate. Heller and attended the illustrious Yeshivah Flatbush in Brooklyn, and then went to U.Penn.  For Heller, Zionism is a family tradition. Her ancestor was on the last legal boat from Hungary to Palestine in 1939. Heller notes that in Israel, “everyone is family.”

Not everyone is Orthodox, of course, and NBN seeks Jews from varied backgrounds.

Lauren Shumaker, an English teacher, comes from a Liberal Jewish background, her mother the sole child of Holocaust survivors.  Shumaker is from Detroit, but “re-found” her Jewish identity in Prague, after visiting the Jewish Quarter. “There’s no Jews. It’s creepy. “ Shumaker tattooed the Hebrew word "tikvah," or “hope,”on her wrist, in the same spot that concentration camp victims had their numbers tattooed.

Shumaker credits Israelis for “taking the best part of being Jewish: surviving. They’re not victims.”

For Shumaker, the ten-day Birthright Israel experience was critical. “[Detroit] never felt like home to me.  The ten days in Israel felt like home more than my entire life in Michigan.”  Shumaker is moving first to Zichron Yakov, and eventually to Haifa.

For Rabbi Charlie Buckholtz, Aliyah was prompted by professional opportunity.

“I love Israel, but I wasn’t looking to make Aliyah at this moment. I was open to it in a general way,” Buckholtz was looking for a new challenge after three years of revitalizing the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in New York. He is becoming the senior editor of the Hartman Institute’s publications.

I asked Buckholtz if he grew up Modern Orthodox, had an Israeli parent, was inspired by Birthright, or was the descendant of Holocaust survivors.

None of the above.

“I have no claim. I’m just here,” he said.