They came from all over the United States and Canada — college and graduate students, ready to embark on a whirlwind tour of Israel.
This wasn’t a Birthright trip, though. The 33 students who participated in the Jewish Agency’s Campus Aliyah Fellowship pilot trip had all been to Israel before. Now, they came with practical goals — and big dreams.
Aspiring actress and Queens College student Hannah Ziring, 19, of Staten Island, wants to be “Israel’s version of Ellen DeGeneres.” Shoshana Gilbert, 21, of Teaneck, N.J., hopes to work as a doctor in the Galilee or Negev, after finishing her studies at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Los Angeleno Jasmine Einalhori, 21, is studying hotel management at New York University and wants to open her own restaurant in Israel.
They already love Israel. Now, they want to live there — and on this trip, they were offered multiple versions of what their lives could look like in the Jewish state.
Students marveled at the swarms of red, white and yellow koi swimming in tanks at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, a kibbutz on the Mediterranean coast that breeds the decorative fish. They were amazed by the mud-brick housing at Adiel Village, a student settlement that’s a green oasis in the Negev.
Every day, for a little over a week, they rose early — sometimes at 6:30 in the morning — and sat through as many as seven seminars a day, on topics such as Israel’s health care system, serving in the Israel Defense Forces and job-hunting strategies.
The message of the trip: You can do whatever you want in Israel — as long as you make aliyah.
While some students already have close familial ties to Israel, others hope to start their own families in the Holy Land.
“I wish I was born here,” said Ahuva Graber, 22, a friendly, curly-haired Memphis, Tenn., native who just graduated from New York University. “I want my kids to be able to grow up here and be surrounded by other religious Jews.”
There’s just one problem. “I always planned on being married, but I can’t find someone who wants to move to Israel,” Graber said. “No one I date ever wants to move to Israel.”
That’s a concern shared by several of the Orthodox young women on the trip, who fear making the journey to Israel alone. Danny Oberman, executive vice president of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that assists people with the aliyah process, said that while 70 percent of the families who make aliyah through his organization are Orthodox, among singles the ratio is almost reversed.
In each other, the students found a support group — “Aliyah Anonymous,” as some of them joked.
Sitting on the grass at night at Kibbutz Hokuk in the Galilee, they could speak candidly about their fears of making aliyah, whether large — “I’m most scared of being in Israel and my grandparents dying” — or small — “I don’t like Israeli food.”
For some, the trip was a reality check. Students who had always planned on moving to a kibbutz had second thoughts when confronted with the reality of communal living. Suddenly, they realized they’d be losing a lot of their personal space and freedom.
Others who planned on joining the army were somewhat shell-shocked after visiting Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz in northern Israel. As American-born female soldiers recounted their experiences as shooting instructors, combat soldiers and search-and-rescue workers, the students looked impressed — and intimidated.
After the presentation, they gathered around the playground at the kibbutz, climbing trees and enjoying being kids for a little while longer.
Max Saltzman was among those looking stressed at lunchtime. As a Campus Aliyah Fellow — a student selected by the Jewish Agency to spread the message of aliyah on campus — the 23-year-old was one of the acknowledged leaders of the trip.
More than that, though, the Yeshiva University graduate was a role model for the others. Unlike most of the students, who planned on staying in the States for at least a few more years, Saltzman is making aliyah on Aug. 18.
His future is set, but his stubble-covered face was starting to take on a nervous expression.
“It’s getting a little more real,” he said. “It’s getting a little more intense. There are some things I’m getting more anxious about now than I did before.”
Although Saltzman will not be alone when he moves to Israel — his older sister has already made aliyah, and his younger sister will do the same next summer — he’ll still face challenges: the army, finding community and, perhaps scariest of all, paying off his student loans.
Still, Saltzman — who wants to start a yishuv, or settlement, in Israel (not in the West Bank) — feels strongly about making the move, noting that there’s too much talk and not enough action regarding aliyah in the Orthodox community.
“I feel like if a rabbi from Teaneck said, OK, we are going to pack up and we are going to move as a community … I think that would be a much heavier statement,” he said. “I think we need more leading by example.”
About two-thirds of the students identified themselves as practicing Orthodox Jews, an interesting figure in the wake of Peter Beinart’s recent New York Review of Books article (“The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment”), where he argued that non-Orthodox young Jews feel increasingly alienated from Israel.
Another campus aliyah fellow, Brooke Katz, who describes herself as Orthodox, held the earliest aliyah date, Aug. 2.
The 20-year-old Syosset, L.I., native, her long brown hair pulled back by a headband, was the picture of certainty when talking about her plans. She’ll join the female soldiers at Sde Eliyahu, doing Garin Tzabar, a program that combines ulpan (intensive Hebrew classes), the army and living in a religious kibbutz environment.
“My mom always says, if you don’t like it, you can come back,” the Johns Hopkins grad said, as she waited in LaGuardia Airport for the first of two flights that would take her to Israel.
“I understand that’s a concept, that I can always return, but ideologically I need to be there, and I want to raise my children there.”
Like all North American olim, Katz and Saltzman will be making aliyah through Nefesh b’Nefesh, which also assists olim from the United Kingdom.
Campus aliyah representative David Steinberg acknowledged the “generous financial investment” that Nefesh B’Nefesh had made in the pilot trip — a behind-the-scenes partnership, since only the Jewish Agency’s name was connected to the trip.
The contrast between the two organizations was striking. The quasi-governmental Jewish Agency finds itself at a crossroads right now, balancing its historical focus on aliyah with Chairman Natan Sharansky’s new focus on Jewish identity.
“In a time when the vast majority of Jews live in freedom, Aliya will be a choice that grows from Jewish identity and from spending extended periods of time in Israel, and therefore predominantly the pool of potential olim is among the Jewishly engaged,” JAFI’s new mission statement reads. “We will focus our efforts on this pool.”
It’s no coincidence that the director general of the Jewish Agency, Alan Hoffmann, spoke to the students on “Aliyah and Jewish Identity.” He sought to synthesize the two in his talk at Beit Ar-El —the headquarters of the Young Judaea youth group in Jerusalem, where the students bunked for several days.
“When we talk about aliyah, we’re ultimately talking about picking the fruit that is already on the tree,” Hoffmann said, referring to Jews who already have strong identities and connections to Israel.
Without watering and fertilizing that tree, he said, “we are going to be very soon at a place where there is no fruit.”
“There is no competition between Jewish identity and aliyah,” said Eli Cohen, director general of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah and Absorption Department. “One completes the other.
“We would be a different nation if another one million arrived to Israel,” said Cohen, who visited the students during their trip to the Jewish Agency-run Ulpan Etzion, in Jerusalem.
Aliyah, Cohen said, is “like a tax that any Jew should pay to ensure the continued future and the continuity of the Jewish people in the land of Israel.”
Last year, 16,225 people from all over the world made aliyah through the Jewish Agency — a 17 percent increase over 2008 (excluding Ethiopian aliyah, which had been halted by the Israeli government). Nearly 3,000 olim arrived from January through March of 2010, a 14 percent increase over the same period last year (again, excluding Ethiopian aliyah).
If promoting aliyah is a primary goal of the Jewish Agency, it is the only goal of Nefesh B’Nefesh.
The group’s communications director, Yael Katsman, said about 4,200 people made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh last year, up from about 3,500 in 2008 — and that the organization is expecting a “definite increase” this year as well.
“Nefesh B’Nefesh is an organization that is very focused on the aliyah business,” said Oberman from the organization’s headquarters at Beit Ofer in Jerusalem.
“The brand name of aliyah today in North America is Nefesh B’Nefesh.”
The students on the Jewish Agency trip had clearly bought into the Nefesh B’Nefesh brand.
They chatted excitedly before the organization’s presentation, cried while watching the videos and greeted Sharon Millendorf, the students and young professionals program coordinator, whom several of them had already met, with open arms.
It remains to be seen whether the Jewish Agency will be able to command that level of devotion — although the students expressed deep affection for their Jewish Agency emissary Liran Avisar, who is about to move back to Israel, and their indefatigable leader, David Steinberg, who had just made aliyah himself right before the beginning of the trip.
Now that Steinberg has passed the torch to a new campus aliyah representative, he’ll have to find his way in Israel — and so will the students.
And when — if — they all pursue their dreams, they’ll have a group of their peers standing right behind them.
The thought comforts Max Saltzman, who was much more relaxed over the group’s final dinner at Jerusalem’s Grill Bar.
“We’re part of this community,” he said, as everyone enjoyed their last moments together over chicken kebabs and Israeli salad. “One day, we’re all going to continue that here.”
Note: This reporter’s trip was funded by the Jewish Agency.
Next week: Young New Yorkers finding their way in Israel.
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