When venerable Florida entrepreneur cum Jewish philanthropist, Tony Gelbart and young Yeshiva University rabbinical graduate, Joshua (Yehoshua) Fass, decided to create Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) in 2002, they had no idea if their non-profit start-up, designed to actively enable American aliyah to Israel sans the Israeli bureaucratic boondoggle, would actually attract substantial interest. What they did know, was that aliyah from the USA was rapidly drying up and a daring initiative was desperately needed to trigger a new wave.
A decade and 27,000 new immigrants later, Messrs Gelbart and Fass, can take pride in the fact that their NBN concept has morphed into an aliyah juggernaut. They have also educated the Israeli business, political and quasi-governmental communities on how to attract highly motivated people of all ages who are willing to exchange the comforts of the "American Dream" for the challenges of living and working in the Promised Land. As a result, the impact of NBN’s aliyah program on Israeli society has paid huge dividends across the Jewish State’s cultural, economic and social spectrums.
NBN’s streamlined, anti-bureaucratic model has been so successful that current Jewish Agency Chairman, Natan Sharansky, has allowed NBN to assume the aliyah recruitment operation for North America, an idea that even Gelbart and Fass could not have foreseen.
"The staff at Nefesh B’Nefesh make the whole process of aliyah easier. It was a real experience getting on a flight and receiving my formal government aliyah papers from smiling staff members. And upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, we were greeted by people on the tarmac waving flags and dancing. It’s an exhilarating feeling," said Galit Heller-Farkash, who made aliyah from East Brunswick, New Jersey in 2009.
Galit could not be construed as a ‘rookie Zionist.’ She has strong familial ties to Israel and even came to the Jewish State on numerous occasions as a student to do volunteer "hasbara" (public relations) work. Even so, the idea of actually making aliyah didn’t strike a chord with her until after she spent a year learning at the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. "With my strong pro-Israel background, which also included working for AIPAC in Washington and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, I was looking for ways to settle in Israel," Galit recalled. "Living and learning at Pardes provided me with a realistic experience of what it takes to understand the culture and society. I also applied to law school at Hebrew University."
After making aliyah, Galit immersed herself in an ulpan program, which she thought would be just enough to get her through the intensive courses at Hebrew University. But while ulpan courses provided the linguistic foundation, Galit still faced real challenges. She revealed, "In law school, nothing is in English, so even with my background, I struggled with the language, especially with Hebrew books and legal documents. This is a field that actually forced me to learn Hebrew language and educational nuances. Yes, everyone who thinks about making aliyah, wants to ‘Live the Dream.’ But the reality is somewhat different. You must experience the culture and the pace of Israeli life, which is lived at a fast clip. Despite the challenges, I can say that this was the right decision. What’s also important is the fact that the staff at Nefesh B’Nefesh stay in contact you even after you make aliyah. They know that each person or family has to deal with a myriad of things during their transition. It was always nice to hear from an NBN staff member in Jerusalem, calling up and asking how I was doing and if I need any advice or help. That’s a comforting feeling."
For Jacob and Helen Berman, the lure of making aliyah from the Central Park South section of Manhattan to the pristine seaside Herzliya Pituach community in 2008, was seemingly very simple. Their four children had come to Israel for a year of post high-school learning and "never really came back." Ms Berman quipped, "No one put anything in their food. It started 12 years ago, when our first child made aliyah and then every two years after that another one would come home, pack up and go."
As Mr and Mrs Berman had also been to Israel many times in the past, moving from Manhattan to Herzliya Pituach was not a tough transition. "Yes, I decided I wanted to be a full-time grandmother, which is a form of ‘domestic engineering." Ms. Berman kibbitzed. "We knew what to expect culturally and we were prepared for a variety of challenges. It’s not too hard to deal with the Israeli ‘attitude’ and I’ve already found a coffee bar that’s just as good as Starbucks! But don’t think that it was easy for us when we did our ulpan classes. Five hours a day, five days a week is pretty intense, but it was a positive experience. And the staff at Nefesh B’Nefesh were professional and encouraging during the entire process."
In fact, the Bermans offered sage advice to couples of all ages who are thinking about making the move to the Promised Land. Ms. Berman explained, "People must have realistic expectations when they consider making aliyah, otherwise they will be disappointed. You have to really want to be here and make a realistic commitment."
“This article is part of a promotional Aliyah section.”