July 20, 2005

Shh! Don't tell them it's 'aliya'

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

How do you get an American to leave the comforts of his US home for a life in faraway Israel? Tell him how much money he'll save-and don't tell him it's aliya.

At least, that's the strategy the Jewish Agency for Israel is hoping will help make 2005 a banner year for North American aliya-immigration to Israel.

In a campaign spearheaded by the Jewish Agency's New York-based Israel Aliyah Center, the agency is trying to draw North Americans to Israel with the lure of free education. Rather than advertise aliya, which carries with it the incidental benefit of free tuition, the Jewish Agency instead is promoting programs of free education in Israel-with nary a mention that aliya is a mandatory component.

"The whole point is to make aliya easy and appealing-to serve the customer," says Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Israel Aliyah Center. Saving tens of thousands of dollars in US tuition costs, he says, is the "tipping point" for many North American Jews contemplating immigration to the Jewish state.

"I don't have to come to you selling the old Zionist clichés," Landsberg says. "It's just a constructive way to get people to think creatively about their lives."

While it may seem counterintuitive to pitch aliya to North Americans on the basis of economics, it's a pitch that may ring true for many North American families.

The Nefesh B'Nefesh program, which has brought thousands of new olim to Israel over the last few years, has succeeded in large part because of aliya subsidies that run into the thousands of dollars per person, providing the added impetus apparently needed to transform some Zionist Americans into immigrants to Israel. Just last week, two additional planeloads of immigrants came to Israel from North America-on free airfare-thanks to Nefesh B'Nefesh.

For American families contemplating the costs of their children's education, the Jewish Agency says families can save far more substantial sums by immigrating to Israel-particularly if they plan on sending their children to Jewish day schools and private colleges.

The total educational cost in the United States for a family of three children easily can exceed $1 million, accounting for Jewish day school tuition (between $10,000 and $20,000 per year), the annual cost of study at a private university (more than $40,000 for tuition, room and board) and inflation. The majority of North American olim are part of yeshiva or day-school families.

"Being a Jew is very expensive," Landsberg says. "We have a solution: Study for free in Israel."

The Aliyah Center's free university program, called Free Tuition Study, is actually aliya masquerading as free tuition.

"Earn a free BA, MA or PhD from Israel's finest Universities and Colleges, internationally recognized for academic excellence," boasts the program's brochure. The only catch: participants must "hold an Israeli passport." Translation: aliya.

"We used to call it aliya," Landsberg says, his eyes twinkling. "It's just different marketing."

What the Americans are not told is that enrollment in the program brings other benefits, such as voting rights and tax benefits for new Israeli immigrants, as well as responsibilities-including army service.

Another program, the Elite Academy high school, was opened last September to North Americans willing to spend their last three years of high school in Israel. Students get free tuition, medical and dental insurance, round-trip airfare and adoptive families in the Jewish state. The program, which encourages but does not require aliya, costs Israel roughly $7,000 to $10,000 per student. Twenty-five students enrolled in the program's pilot year for US participants, and 36 US students have been accepted so far for next year.

"I want to make aliya anyway and this will get me into Israeli society," says Yitzhak, a high schooler who applied to join the program next year. "I've been there so many times anyway; I might as well be there full-time."

The Elite Academy program, also known as Naale, is entering its fourteenth year, but this will be only the second year it is open to Americans. Students are placed in one of 50 or so participating Israeli schools, which include both religious and secular institutions.

Ted Brandt, a modern Orthodox parent from Denver, has two girls enrolled in the program. His eldest daughter made aliya last year, at age 18.

"It's hard to send them away, but Denver's a small community and there's nothing in between a Beis Yaakov [fervently religious school] and a secular school," Brandt said. "And they really want to do this from the bottom of their heart."

Eytan Peer, executive director of the Israel Program Center in New York, a division of the Jewish Agency, said most parents come to the program looking for educational alternatives.

"They come because there is no good education where they are, because they don't have money for Jewish schools or because they're unhappy with public schools," Peer said.

The program has attracted many Russian-speaking immigrants, and a mix of Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.

Unexpectedly, the program also has attracted many children of Israeli yordim, which Peer says can help bring their parents back to live in Israel. "Americans follow the parents; Israelis sometimes follow the kids," he said.

Herzl Pallas, an Israeli who moved to Long Island 24 years ago, said his teenage daughter's eagerness to study in an Israeli high school eventually may draw the family back home.

"Maybe in the future this will push us back to Israel," Pallas said. "Many people, when they want to make aliya, say, 'Well, what about the children?' But when the desire comes from the kids, you can't find a single reason not to."

And, he added, "When you read about all the assimilation here, it's worrisome."

Increasing the numbers of olim from North America is not simply an exercise in Zionism. For one thing, Israeli government officials would like to bolster Israel's Jewish population any way they can in the face of rising Arab birthrates. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced that he wants to see 1 million more Jews immigrate to Israel.

In addition, olim from North America tend to be more educated, wealthier and more motivated toward public service than most immigrants to Israel, and that can yield many benefits for the state, immigration officials say.

Though some have decried North American olim as a bunch of rabble-rousing settlers, religious fanatics or social misfits-from Shinui leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid to the president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, Stephen Savitsky-aliya officials in North America say that's not true.

North American immigrants are "a real contribution to Israel," Landsberg says. "They're developing the country, they're bringing ideas, they're bringing their politeness, they're bringing their way of life. These are great future citizens."

For those who question whether the best use of Israel's money is to spend thousands of dollars per person on Americans who can better afford aliya than immigrants to Israel from practically any other country, Landsberg says Israel is getting these North American olim at a bargain. He cites by contrast the cost of absorbing olim from Ethiopia, which the Israeli government estimates at $100,000 per person.

"Do you know how much money we are investing in olim from Ethiopia?" Landsberg says. North American aliya, he argues, "is the best aliya. What else can Israel pay for? I think this is a good investment in our future as a people. We'll get much more out of it than what we're investing. They come with a culture and a constructive work ethic that can offer much to the Israeli economy and Israeli society."

In 2004, aliya from North America reached a high not seen since 1997-about 2,640 immigrants, nearly 60% more than came in 2001. This year, with 1,800 immigrants already in Israel, the number is expected to top 3,000, making 2005 the best year for North American aliya since 1983. Landsberg says he hopes the number will double before the decade is out.

North American aliya still constitutes only a small proportion of total immigration to Israel. Since Israel's founding, about 115,000 Jews have made aliya from North America.

These Jewish Agency programs offer no guarantee that participants will choose to stay in Israel once they're over, raising the possibility that thousands of dollars of investment by Israel won't even yield an oleh.

No matter, says Landsberg. Even those who return to America doubtless will be great assets to the Jewish people. Fluent in two languages and cultures, they will serve as bridges between Israel and the Diaspora, will likely marry within the faith and will probably be strong supporters of Zionist causes.

"It's a win-win for the Jewish people whether he stays or not," Landsberg says. "If every American Jew were to spend three or four years in Israel, that would be a real victory for the Jewish people."