Posts Tagged ‘Aliyah’

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Dispatches From Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Future Face of Olim

June 22, 2010

“After a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces.”  – Cynthia Ozick, American author

In the midst of running back and forth among business meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem earlier this week, I was happy to have the rare treat to spend time connecting with a young post-collegiate daughter of a friend from back home.  Mara, a recent olah from Atlanta, has decided to make her life in Israel, finding love with a new fiancée and satisfaction with a new job with an Israeli NGO. A daughter of Young Judean alumni and a product of Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Mara is deeply rooted in her family’s and people’s history and values, and their shared love of Israel. Stepping out of the heat of the day, we met for coffee in a small café within a used bookstore, a perfect setting for sharing a little bit of old biography, a some of discussion of the ongoing drama in the world and even a few words of childhood stories. We sat together, sharing the texts of our lives, each looking from our different vantage points, but nonetheless facing one another.

And that is when, looking at Mara, I realized something important, not only to me, but also to the way we all should look at Aliyah in 2010  – while the need to attract olim has remained the same, the face and biography of the typical olah has changed.

Yes, we still live in a world where aliyah of necessity remains a constant possibility (consider the newest olim from Kyrgyzstan that arrived this week), but the truth of the matter is that necessity is less of likelihood than it has been for generations. As Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky shared with the Agency Assembly earlier this week, 94% of Jews live in countries with relative freedom and prosperity, with little need to leave these countries under duress or for lack of tolerance. Instead, the majority of the new olim are making ‘aliyah of choice’ – a personal desire to be living in Israel and Israeli society at this unique and extraordinary time in Israel history. These olim come with a different face than the waves of recent olim, they are not fleeing a totalitarian state or an economically devastated area, they are coming because of a sense of pride, an aspiration of change and inspired sense of their Jewish selves. In short, they are coming to Israel because of who they are, not where they are.

So this, in a nutshell, is the changing face of olim – where once it the face was of Jews uprooted from their homes, now it is the face of Jews deeply rooted in their identity. They can make it anywhere, but they want to make it here – here in the homeland of their people and an axis of their identity.  With this change comes an important question: will we meet these changing faces with a new face of the Jewish Agency grounded in helping reinforcing identity and inspire aliyah, or will we look for the faces no longer coming with a face of an Agency that is grounded by unchanging ways? The truth is, it would be responsible to do the former, and wasteful to do the latter.

With that in mind, it is time for the Jewish Agency, as part of its new strategic plan, to look closely at its aliyah operations and make not only strategic decisions regarding the operation of the department, but also the overall strategy of inspiring aliyah. There must always remain a basic ability to assist olim, especially for Jews in need, but the Agency must not only react to the needs of the current olim, it must inspire the future olim – by helping give root to individual identities and then strengthening those roots so they grow all the way back home to Israel.  This will not be easy, and it will take a reimagining of the very way the Agency operates, the way the government of Israel views the role of the Agency and the way the Diaspora Jewry embraces the strategies of the Agency.

Possible? Yes. Achievable? Hopefully. But it will take more than lip service to identity to change the face of aliyah, it will take political courage and new approaches to the Israeli-Diaspora partnerships; and it will take many more biographies and faces…

just like Mara’s.

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Good for the Jews?: A Few Thoughts on the Debate About Aliyah (Israel 2009 – Day 3)

October 22, 2009

Today, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the survival of the Jews and the survival of Israel are the same; and whether Israel can survive depends, among other things, on the numbers and talents of Diaspora Jews who will come to it – which means it depends on you… –  Hillel Halkin, Letters to an American Jewish Friend: A Zionist’s Polemic (1977)

When visiting Israel one generally encounters an inquisitiveness of where you came from and what reason brought you to Israel.  While those questions are standard for almost any person visiting any place in the world, it is the question that generally follows that is unique in the Israeli context – and that is the question of whether one plans to move to Israel and make Aliyah.  Indeed, how the question is formulated and in whatever tone it is spoken it can be more than a simple inquiry; it is often a suggestion, a complaint, a possibility or a prayer.  In a nation filled with all types of olim, Aliyah is still a notion that fills the heart, the mind, and the discourse like few other ideas do.  In 2009, the debate about Aliyah has in many ways overshadowed the encouragement of Aliyah, and unlike when Halkin wrote his strongly worded essay on the its urgency thirty-two years ago, we now more often speak of Aliyah as an ideological aspect of the Jewish State as opposed to an answer to the existential question of the Jewish State.

During the second day of the Facing Tomorrow: The Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, the complexity and the passion of the Aliyah debate was fully evident in a packed and provocatively titled panel discussion that asked  – is Aliyah good for the Jews?  Moderated by Alisa Rubin Kurshan, the Vice-President for Strategic Planning and Organizational resources for UJA-Fed NY, the panel included Matthew Bronfman, Rabbi Ricardo Shmuel Diesegni – the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Meir Kraus, an expert in the field of Israeli/Diaspora relations, Rabbi Michael Melchior, former Minister of Diaspora and Social Affairs, and Jay Sarver – co-chair of the Aliyah and Klitah Committee of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors.  Each member of the group expressed insightful and often strongly worded positions, and certainly those in the audience looking to understand the contours of the Aliyah debate were not disappointed. From Rabbi Melchior’s frank and forceful assertion that there is a total abscess of support for encouraging and sustaining Aliyah in the Israeli political establishment to Matt Bronfman’s personalized and optimistic assertion how Aliyah is being refined in this area of interconnection and the “living bridge”, each panelist brought to the table a voice that authentically expressed the challenges and opportunities of Aliyah at this point in history. And they were not alone, members of the audience too expressed their opinions (under the guise of questions) regarding the challenges not only relating to Aliyah, but of the challenges of absorption and integration into Israeli society. Were there agendas and opinions in the room?  Of course. But there also was genuine interest and concern, and that was what made the discussion so powerful.

For my own part, I walked away from the discussion with a few key observations.  First (and as usual), I found the debate among an academics and professionals to be of distant relevance to the debates I hear back in my own community in Atlanta.  For a vast majority of North American Jews, Aliyah is a concept to be understood, but not an opportunity to be examined.  Certainly there remains the possibility to encourage North American olim, but just because there is a possibility does not mean there is a substantially realistic outcome to be expected.  And while the concept of redefining Aliyah and reframing Israeli-Diaspora relations within the context of the “living bridge” certainly sound like imaginative approaches in an era that depends on increased Jewish creativity, we cannot lose sight of the fact that certain concepts lose their integrity when we casually begin to change their meaning.  Lastly, I was reminded by the discussion that although Americans often think of Diaspora relations as North American relations, there are other communities that have vital stakes in the debate regarding the future of global Jewry and their relationship to the State of Israel and we are myopic if we don’t recognize the entirety of the participants in this truly global discussion.

Aliyah perhaps is no longer just a strategy to respond to an existential need of an Israeli future, it is now more so a factor in the evolutionary nature of Jewish existence. While there can be little debate that historical the essence of Aliyah has been of a physical nature, the continuing assertions of spiritual Aliyah challenge us to think harder about what it truly means to encourage personal and communal commitments to Israel.  We also can’t lose sight of the impact on Israeli society  (and the correlative impact of global Jewish communities) when considering what role Aliyah can and should play in the future of the Jewish People.  So, in the spirit of Mr. Halkin’s thirty-two year old polemic and in response to the question of whether is Aliyah good for the Jews, I respond with a different question – if Israel still truly depends on Jews (whoever and wherever they are), are thoroughly modern Jews good for Aliyah?

Now that is a panel discussion I would like to see.