Jerusalem — Determined to continue to play a central role in aliyah at a time when the number of immigrants coming to the country is declining dramatically and as private immigration organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh are expanding their activities and boasting their successes, the Jewish Agency for Israel will soon unveil a “flex aliyah” program for potential olim who do not necessarily want to live in Israel full time.
The program will be aimed at Jews worldwide who might be interested in eventually making Israel their home but who do not yet feel ready to make an all-or-nothing commitment.
Moshe Vigdor, the Agency’s director general, said the program, which is still in the planning stages but could be implemented by the summer, will provide aliyah-related support services and perhaps certain financial benefits to any diaspora Jew wishing to check out his or her aliyah options on a trial basis ranging from a few weeks to a year. The visitor would presumably come to Israel on a “trial aliyah” visa created specifically for this purpose.
“The way we see it, you don’t have to make a dramatic decision to leave everything behind and come to the Holy Land with no way back. Many potential olim find this model too threatening.”
Assuming it comes to fruition, “flex aliyah” will represent a fundamental shift for JAFI, which has provided one-way tickets to Israel for the vast majority of immigrants during the past six decades. The shift, Vigdor said, reflects the global reality and the ever-evolving needs and tastes of contemporary Jewry.
“For decades, the Jewish Agency was involved almost exclusively with rescue aliyah from North Africa, the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and even at times from South America,” Vigdor said. “Today, with the exception of rescue aliyah from Ethiopia, Iran and a handful of other places, what we see is an aliyah of choice.”
In short, today’s Jews move to Israel not because they have to, but because they want to, Vigdor said.
The fact that most Jews feel safe in their home countries has resulted in a huge drop in immigration in recent years, according to the JAFI, based on statistics provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Only 19,692 olim arrived in 2007 (down from 20,966 in 2006), the lowest number since 1989.
“JAFI has to adapt itself to the new environment,” acknowledged Oded Salomon, director general of JAFI’s immigration and absorption department. “We must remain relevant.”
Sounding very much like a marketing executive, Salomon said the “modernization process” JAFI has undergone in recent years has led the organization to pursue “a much more marketing-oriented concept.” To boost aliyah, he said, “we must define a new target population and build our services and products around this.”
That population, Salomon said, will include people with second homes in Israel as well as others who spend long periods of time there; and young people, especially graduates of birthright israel and MASA, the Agency’s umbrella body for long-term Israel programs.
Salomon predicted the “trial aliyah” program will succeed because it will provide “a support system” that has, until now, been absent. He noted that long-term visitors who have not made aliyah exist in a type of bureaucratic limbo, not eligible for government health benefits or subsidized housing, Hebrew-language classes or any of the other services provided to olim.
“Trial aliyah participants won’t receive the absorption basket of services, but JAFI will be much more involved in helping them decide whether aliyah is right for them,” the administrator said.
As Salomon envisions it, young people would come for three to five months “not only to have an adventure but to be exposed to real life in Israel. We’d like to be more specific in making aliyah an end goal.”
To facilitate this, JAFI plans on providing accommodations for young people in major cities, where work is abundant but rental prices are astronomically high at the moment.
“We would help them secure internships, work in volunteer programs, help them find a job. During this period they could change their status and become olim. Those who don’t will come back later and in the meantime be good agents for Israel in their home communities.”
Vigdor said JAFI also plans to engage the many families, particularly from North America and France, who have recently purchased vacation homes in Israel.
“If a family comes here for a few months and continues to conduct business abroad and goes back to that country for a time, what we’re really talking about is partial aliyah. You can decide to have a base here and a base there. The hope is they will spend more and more time in Israel, until a certain tipping point, when they are here the majority of the time.”
To encourage this, Vigdor said potential immigrants will likely receive “a specific legal status” that would enable them to receive some sort of subsidized health insurance, permission to work and free Hebrew classes. Tax issues — one of the main reasons why wealthy Jews do not take the aliyah plunge — “are still under analysis,” he said.
Full-fledged immigrants receive free health insurance for the first six months, rental subsidies, free university tuition and a tax break, and those who change their status from trial oleh to new oleh will still receive these benefits, Vigdor said.
Those who come on the flex program will be able to tap into JAFI’s brand-new employment center, which is already helping new immigrants from all countries find employment.
“We believe many more than the few thousand who are coming every year are open to the idea of aliyah, if they receive the needed support and flexibility,” Vigdor said. “There are many faces of aliyah.”
Asked whether JAFI had come up with the flex aliyah concept because it is competing with Nefesh B’Nefesh for new immigrants — and perhaps borrowing some of that group’s strategies to make newcomers feel more welcome — Vigdor replied, “Nefesh B’Nefesh is doing a good job. They’ve succeeded in making [the concept of] aliyah legitimate in North America. We feel it’s important to work with them, and we do.”
Vigdor stressed that flex aliyah is not solely a JAFI initiative. He said funding would come from Keren Hayesod, Jewish federations, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (which just pledged $45 million over three years to JAFI) and Israeli philanthropists.
“Flex aliyah is geared to Jews all over the world. We envision a lot coming from France, Latin America, Europe and the former Soviet Union. This isn’t only about North America.”
A Nefesh B’Nefesh spokeswoman declined to comment, citing a lack of information about JAFI’s proposed program.
Eliezer Jaffe, co-chairman of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, believes the flex aliyah program is one of the ways JAFI is trying to appeal to the new, younger generation of financial donors, “who are increasingly giving their money to local institutions like the symphony. They don’t necessarily want to donate to Jewish causes like the UJC,” which in turn funds JAFI.
Jaffe congratulated JAFI for seeking new ways to increase aliyah, but credited Nefesh B’Nefesh for much of the inspiration.
“Nefesh B’Nefesh has been the catalyst. In a way [JAFI] has adopted a model of a private nonprofit. I wish the government would do that.” Josie Arbel, director of absorption services at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), said JAFI has not yet discussed the flex program with her organization.
Arbel, who spends her days counseling new immigrants — and potential immigrants — on their rights and responsibilities, expressed mixed feelings about the notion of trial aliyah.
On the one hand, she said, “such a program could enable people, including some already living in Israel for a limited period of time, to more fully check things out and clarify their thinking.” But Arbel couldn’t hide the fear that “a no risk, no-fault” aliyah option “used as a marketing tool” could jeopardize the “serious planning that should go into aliyah.”
“Aliyah should be seen as a life-changing event,” Arbel said.