As the plane doors open in Israel this coming August, the following new immigrants will disembark one after another - 24-year-old Ariana Gewurz from Boston; Itzhak and Odelia Maman, a couple with their two children from Long Island; Felicia Weintraub, a single 22-year-old New Yorker; Michael and Michelle Siegal from Manhattan; and 24 -year-old Alec Kremins, who is joining his fiancée Molly (who made Aliyah on her own this past year). These newcomers will be joined by 230 others who came from North America after making the monumental decision to immigrate to Israel.
Overall, there are between 6 to 8 million Jews currently living in the United States (Jews and partial Jews). A 2008 Pew survey researching the status of religions in the United States discovered that American Jews are living the American dream to its fullest.
American Jews tend to be better educated and earn more than the general American population. For example, 46% of American Jews, with U.S. citizenship, have an annual income of over $100,000, making Jews the highest-earning religion in the United States. For comparative purposes, only 18% of the general American population earns over $100,000 a year.
The survey also found that while only 27% of Americans have graduated from tertiary programs, the figure within the Jewish population is 59%. Additionally, while 46% of Americans work in professional or managerial positions, 61% of American Jews are professionally employed in fields that require higher education, including engineering, science, medicine, law, banking, finance, and academia.
Economic contribution of 13.04 billion NIS
“The Land of Israel needs not just immigrants, but rather pioneers, and the difference between them is simple: the immigrant takes from the country, while the pioneer gives to the country - We must prioritize the immigration of pioneers,” said David Ben-Gurion, during the establishment of the State of Israel. Indeed, the contribution of North American Olim to the State of Israel is phenomenal. According to a recent study published by Deloitte, during the first two decades since the founding of Nefesh B’Nefesh (2002-2022), the organization responsible for facilitating Aliyah from North America, 75,000 of its Olim have contributed a net profit of over 13.04 billion NIS to the Israeli economy.
Well, if that’s not enough, it turns out that the State of Israel’s investment in immigrants per capita (e.g., Hebrew learning programs, government absorption basket, etc.) is returned to the State’s treasury within one year, and the ROI (Return on Investment) of immigrants within the past 20 years to Israel’s economy is 480%.
"This is an unparalleled growth engine," said Zev Gershinsky, Executive VP of Nefesh B'Nefesh. "We are a startup nation. I don’t know of a better investment than Aliyah – and we have the numbers to back it. This is the biggest startup that the State of Israel should be investing in, unequivocally.”
Throughout the years, most of the immigration to Israel from countries like North Africa, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Russia, stemmed from antisemitism, terrorism, financial pressure, or a lack of security.
“The increase of Aliyah is essential and must continue this trajectory. Israel’s Declaration of Independence’s first operative sentence is ‘The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles.’ However, when it comes to Aliyah from North America, it is a whole different kind of immigration. This is where the State of Israel needs to create appealing motives to making Aliyah,” Gershinsky said.
Motives for American Jews to make Aliyah
According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, there is an over 90% retention rate among Olim to Israel. Yet, despite the success, it is important to understand the motives behind the decision to make Aliyah. What causes men and women - young and old, single or with families - to uproot their lives, leave their communities and familiar surroundings, and test their luck in a new country while facing foreign and complex challenges – like the Israeli bureaucracy system?
I set out to find the answer to this question at Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Homecoming event in Englewood, New Jersey. Hundreds of soon-to-be Olim who are expected to arrive in Israel throughout the summer were invited with their families to a festive barbeque. Also present at the event were Minister of Aliyah and Integration Ofir Sofer, Minister of Labor Yoav Ben-Zur, and representatives from Nefesh B’Nefesh who were on hand to assist the soon-to-be Olim.
A vast majority of those present had a profound common denominator. They tend to identify as “Modern Orthodox,” more so than the general Jewish population in the United States, and their motivation for making Aliyah is generally attributed to Zionism – religious or ideological. In fact, Modern Orthodox Judaism is one of the smallest sects of American Jewry (approximately 3%), yet is the most prominent amongst the families of Olim, a percentage which has been increasing throughout the last 20 years.
Modern Orthodoxy is a sect that advocates for integrating Judaism, according to Jewish Law, with the values and lifestyles of the modern world, deriving mainly from the philosophy of combining “Torah and Science.” In terms of Hebrew proficiency, 52% of Jews belonging to this sect have a full or majority understanding of Hebrew words, and 37% can fluently converse in Hebrew. Consequently, the contribution of Olim to the State of Israel expands to all areas of life, including medicine, science, economics, community, and, of course, serving the country by drafting in the IDF.
"The secret is to create more and more success stories"
Still, 4,000 Olim a year out of the millions of American Jews is a drop in the ocean. “Statistically, we would like to see many more Olim a year,” Gershinsky says. “We are constantly working on creating more and more success stories.
“In some cases, North American Olim lower their standard of living, and much changes when moving to Israel. But there are other reasons Olim choose to move to Israel, which include self-realization, concern for them and their children’s futures, Zionism and a love for Israel, and understanding that Israel is their home. Our job is to help them succeed,” Gershinsky says.
Nefesh B’Nefesh has accompanied Olim on their journey since its inception in 2002. They work in close cooperation with their dedicated partners – Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and JNF-USA. The organization aims to minimize the financial, professional, logistical, and social obstacles faced by Olim.
Nefesh B’Nefesh works closely with the Israeli government and other entities involved in immigration to Israel and assists with employment in many fields and industries, including health professionals and high-tech professionals. Nefesh B’Nefesh encourages Olim to settle in Israel’s periphery, including the Negev and Galilee, as well as in Jerusalem, in order to strengthen these regions. The organization also operates holistic programs aiming to support Lone Soldiers and Lone National Service Volunteers from around the world.
In addition to supporting and facilitating Olim, the organization also celebrates the success of both young and veteran immigrants through their prestigious Sylvan Adams Nefesh B’N’efesh Bonei Zion Prize as well as offers entrepreneurial grants to encourage and foster the extraordinary contribution of Olim from English-speaking countries to Israeli society.
Over 80% of the immigrants who have made Aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh have found employment within a year. The success stories exist. How are the numbers of Olim not rising? “Israelis love Aliyah, but how are they encouraging it?’ Israeli society needs to understand that Aliyah is, in fact, a very worthwhile investment. In recent years, we have recognized the need to engage in advocacy with the Israeli public, going beyond the ongoing engagement we have with Olim. If we tell ourselves, “I have a role in ensuring the successful integration of Olim,' then together we can generate progressively more stories of successful immigration to Israel, which in turn will enhance the attraction of making Aliyah, bringing about the next wave of Olim.”
Okay. You convinced me. And how do you make this happen? “The IDF serves a significant role in changing the sentiments towards Olim within the Israeli public – especially coming from the ranks of the commanders. Every soldier who goes to the officer's course should be encouraged to convey this message to their soldiers. We would love for the IDF’s Sunday cultural trips, in addition to soldiers visiting Ben Gurion’s grave, Yad Vashem, and the Knesset, to attend a Nefesh B’Nefesh program on our Aliyah campus. We would also love to work with high school students within the framework of the educational system."
Additionally, Labor Minister Yoav Ben Tzur stated that upon taking office, he commenced the creation of special programs for Olim from the United States. “Olim contribute to the country economically, medically, and professionally. We must give them all the tools they need to succeed. I intend to present my plan within the next few months,” he said, and now only time will tell.
It should be noted for a small portion of Olim – mainly for families with many children – there are economic considerations that come into play. Orthodox Jews in the United States tend to have larger families than Reform or Conservative Jews, and on average, have lower incomes. According to the 2013 Pew survey, 81% of families would send their children to Jewish schools, and when taking into account that on average, an Orthodox family has 4 children in comparison to fewer than 2 in other sects - the consequences are not so simple. The cost of education in a Jewish school (Jewish private school) is significantly higher. The annual tuition, for instance, for students from first grade through high school at the Ramaz Jewish day school in the heart of Manhattan, which we visited during our recent trip to the US, is $40,000.
"The most important thing for me is to find a husband in Israel"
Michelle, who is making Aliyah with her husband Michael, is a social worker who grew up in Florida in a family with strong Zionistic ideals. She will be joining her sister who made Aliyah 11 years ago, completing the family puzzle. Alec Kremins, 24, will be meeting his fiancée Molly as he steps off the plane. He is leaving behind a thriving business (a candy company, no less) in the United States and hopes to be able to continue working remotely. Yet, Alec can’t wait to hold his Israeli ID card. “When I hear ‘Hatikvah,’ I get goosebumps,” he said.
Felicia Weintraub, 22, is planning to arrive in Israel in August. She already has a bachelor’s degree in business administration and hopes to pursue a master’s degree in healthcare administration at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She will join her sister, Erica, who made Aliyah last summer and has been serving in the IDF as a Lone Soldier. Her other sister, Emily, also made Aliyah recently and is doing National Service in the oncology department of Shaare Zedek Medical Center. And what about their parents? They plan on joining their three daughters within the next 5 years.
“I feel like Israel is my home and my destiny,” Weintraub said. “Every time I visit Israel, I feel so much closer to my Judaism. I also know that making Aliyah won’t be easy – I’ve already heard about the Israeli bureaucracy. But the most important thing for me right now is to find myself a groom,” she adds with a smile, “I couldn’t find anyone in New York.”
The writer was a guest of a Nefesh B'Nefesh press delegation to the United States.