Israel has long beckoned for a group of 20 primarily New York-area college students, all of whom have visited Israel often and experienced the powerful pull of the Jewish state. But the thought of making aliyah on their own seemed daunting.
“It’s very hard to move across the world and to leave your family and friends behind,” said Esti Schloss of Riverdale, a 22-year-old junior at Brandeis University.
A classmate, Ben Mern, 21, of Manhattan, said that even though he lived on a kibbutz in Israel for a year and visited about 10 other times, making aliyah was different.
So the two of them, along with 18 other students from Brandeis and Wellesley College, will by flying to Israel Jan. 3 for a 10-day trip with a newly formed group, ImpactAliyah, to view the Jewish state through another prism.
“This trip will be different from birthright or a family trip because it is not geared to seeing the society from the perspective of a tourist,” said Mern, a graduate of the pluralistic Heschel School and the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter High School of New York. “Rather it is an attempt to learn more about how Israel presents itself to someone who lives there permanently — to see the nitty-gritty of professional, social and academic opportunities for people who might want to make it their home.”
Caroline Phillips, 20, of Brooklyn Heights, is a Wellesley sophomore who says she has always “thought of making aliyah.”
“I love Israel and think it’s a wonderful place and where I belong and want to raise my children,” said Phillips, who attended the Modern Orthodox Ramaz School from K-12. “This trip is about helping me make connections with other students who want to make aliyah and those who are already there.”
And Schloss, a graduate of the Modern Orthodox SAR in Riverdale and the Ma’ayanot High School for Girls in Teaneck, said next month’s trip will also seek to “reassure people about the technical aspects of how to find a job and how to get into [graduate] schools.”
Jason Lustig of Chicago and Avi Bass, 22, a Brandeis senior from Pittsburgh, organized the trip.
“I always knew I was interested in aliyah and in my freshman year I began asking questions about different educational tracks and internships and what programs I should be taking,” he recalled. “I wanted to get an idea of what I should be doing in terms of making aliyah and making it successful. I spoke to advisers and professors in the career department and my academic adviser. They gave me some contacts but the answers were very basic. They said they knew more about American programs.”
But in talking with fellow students, he found a number who were interested in aliyah. The school even had a list of them but did little with it, Bass said.
He said that he contacted Nefesh b’Nefesh, an organization that helps to facilitate the aliyah process.
“They help people in terms of logistics and paperwork and they provide subsidies to those who need it,” Bass said. “But it doesn’t act as a support group for students and that is something we wanted to create. It is really important for those making aliyah to make connections” with those who will also be resettling in Israel.
So Bass and Lustig created the organization ImpactAliyah (www.impactaliyah.com) and asked both Nefesh b’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for help in putting their trip together. Both agreed and said they already had people and programs in place to help.
“We feel we should be helping these grass-roots groups,” said Jacob Dallal, the Jewish Agency’s marketing director in New York.
He pointed out that his organization has a growing internship program for those who wish to “work in their field and see how it is to live and work in Israel. People can spend from several weeks to a half-year working and interning, and we help to place them in jobs relevant to their profession.”
In addition, he said the Jewish Agency has a more structured half-year program, the Masa Internship Program that arranges for a place to stay, to study Hebrew if needed and provides other activities.
For those seeking information about Israeli graduate and undergraduate programs and requirements, the Nefesh b’Nefesh staff has experts in that subject, according to Yael Katsman, its communications director in Israel.
She said her group would be hosting the group part of the time “to help them make an informed decision about aliyah. You can click on our Internet site and we have a list of every university in Israel, the requirements and the cost of the programs. A lot of them are free for new olim [immigrants].”
“We can help them find jobs through our free placement agency,” she said. “There is no fee, so it is attractive to employers. We were recently counseling students at Yeshiva University and Stern College, telling them of the most sought out professional fields and how to develop a resume that is suitable for the Israeli market.”
Despite those efforts, Bass said he believes ImpactAliyah — which gets funding from the American Zionist Movement and the World Zionist Organization — is still needed because “aliyah from the U.S. has been on the rise for the past couple of years and there needs to be a mechanism in an American university setting that helps students support each other with this idea.”
Bass said that many in the group are considering making aliyah because “we feel we would have the ability to make changes in Israeli society and in the global Jewish community.”
“One of the things we are trying to explore is how American olim have come to Israel and led the way in terms of activism and social entrepreneurship,” he said. “We’ll be introducing the group to people in Israel who really made a difference. Not all of the people we are going to meet are the most famous, but we are meeting with someone who started an environmental organization and is looking at Judaism and the environment.”
Unlike many groups of people who move to a different country, Bass said Americans who make aliyah “are not going because of persecution but because of ideology. And that doesn’t end when they step off the plane. We often see Americans in Israel who are leading the way in making change and making things better.”
In addition to the cost of the airline ticket, the 20 students on the trip are also paying a portion of the $40,000 cost of the trip. The group is raising money to cover as much of the cost as possible and has received some financial support from the Hillel Council of New England.