This is a story about two Americans who managed to beat the system, overcome bureaucracy, and convince tens of thousands of US Jews to give up their comfortable lives in favor of making aliyah to the hot, frenetic land of Israel.
These two men identified the potential, and within a year organized a lavish reception and first-class absorption packages for future immigrants.
Gelbart, the brains and deep pockets behind the organization, is a Jewish American businessman and a well known figure in both Israeli and American political and financial circles.
His name can be found on the Republicans' list of closest patrons, alongside senior donors for Israel's top political echelon.
Gelbart resides in the resort city of Boca Raton, Florida, and usually likes to stay away from the limelight. His many companies are mainly involved in agriculture, food products, packaging, technology and software.
When asked what he does for a living, Gelbart smiles and says, "I export Israeli products to the United States, and import Americans to Israel."
Gilbert founded Nefesh B'Nefesh as a non-profit organization, but runs it as a business in every way.
In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Gelbart said he remembers the exact moment he realized there was a problem that needed a solution. It was a Saturday afternoon, and suddenly he heard a knock on the door. It was Rabbi Yehoshua Fass.
Gilbert, who describes Fass as a brilliant teacher, thought the rabbi wanted to go over the weekly Torah portion. But a few moments later, Fass began telling Gilbert about his relative who was killed during an attack in Jerusalem.
The tragic incident made the rabbi realize that he must do something to help American Jews who wish to make aliyah.
No proper absorptionThe two did not waste any time – they founded Nefesh B'Nefesh, began examining the reasons why American Jews didn't immigrate to Israel, and why many who did ended up returning to America within the first year.
According to Gelbart, the findings were astonishing – some 50% of immigrants were not properly absorbed in Israel, and therefore returned to the United States.
The two realized that while Ethiopian immigrants ran away from their country, and Russians escaped Communism in search of freedom, Americans were looking for something else – they expected to find similar living standards, good schools to send their children to, and jobs in their field of work.
Following the organization's activity, the rate of American immigrants staying in Israel has increased to 98%, with only few going back.
Gelbart credits part of the organization's success to the fact it operates the largest employment agency in the country. This way, many immigrants already have jobs lined up for them upon arrival.
Nefesh B'Nefesh also gives new olim a special perk – no bureaucratic headaches and standing in line. As soon as they board the airplane, they are greeted by representatives from the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Absorption, who pass through the aisles with laptops and fill out all the necessary paperwork, so that the immigrants can collect their new oleh certificate upon landing.
Gelbart says that unlike the past, when the government would send a good-natured representative to convince people that Israel is a nice place to live in, Nefesh B'Nefesh employees are 85 former immigrants who were successfully absorbed in Israel and can address any issue that might be raised.
The organization attracts a wide variety of olim – religious and secular, young teens and families with children, and even a few homosexual couples.
Gelbart's and Fass' successful formula led the Knesset to establish a parliamentary Lobby for the Encouragement of Aliya from the West, headed by MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima).
"The truth must be told," says MK Hasson, "Immigration from the former Soviet Union is over, and what's left is olim from the United States. When the immigrants hail from rich or developed countries, they must be persuaded to come, and be given red carpet treatment."
Some 18,000 olim are currently on the organization's wailist. But why stop there? Gelbart says his goal is to bring as many olim as possible in the next decade.
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