Expert Speaks to ‘the Single Most Influential Jewish Experience’

In the past, contacting the Jewish Agency for Israel – a quasi-governmental Israeli institution with branches worldwide – suggested a desire for a one-way ticket to Israel, and to trade one home country for another.

While JAFI has far from given up on its original goals, its American arm is now reformulating its mission in broader terms. Fostering Jewish identity and Israeli-Diaspora dialogue have become as much a part of JAFI's mandate as assisting Jews in becoming Israeli citizens, according to Michael Landsberg, executive director of JAFI's North American Aliyah Delegation, based in New York.

"The single most influential Jewish experience is the Israel experience," declared Landsberg while addressing a gathering of professionals from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia last week during a luncheon that featured that ubiquitous Israeli staple – falafel – on the menu.

First, he stated that North American aliyah is actually on the upswing, despite the political uncertainty surrounding the looming pullout from the Gaza Strip. Landsberg projected that more than 3,000 North Americans will make aliyah by the end of 2005, the largest number in more than 20 years, thanks largely to the help of Nefesh B'Nefesh, a privately run Florida-based organization that offers financial incentives and job-placement assistance for prospective Israelis.

(Nefesh B'Nefesh most recently sent 500-plus immigrants to Israel on two flights – one from New York and one from Toronto – that arrived on July 13. Organizers claimed that the flights represented the largest-ever single-day arrival of immigrants from North America.)

The waves of olim come despite the way JAFI officials characterize the political situation in Israel, known as the matzav in Hebrew.

"We tell them the truth," said Landsberg. "Nobody believes the stories about the land of milk and honey."

But the Israeli-born Landsberg, who has served in his post for slightly more than two years, said that equally as important to the aliyah success story is the sheer number of North Americans who are experiencing life in Israel, if only for a limited time, due to a variety of programs now offered through JAFI.

These range from offers of free tuition for undergraduate and graduate studies in Israel to highly subsidized opportunities for volunteering at hospitals, army bases and kibbutzim.

"We are offering Mr. and Mrs. Client the right to free study in Israel," he said, explaining that he is treating the Jewish Agency like a business, with a tangible product to offer. The agency welcomes, with open arms, anyone "interested in checking out their life opportunities in Israel."

Even if such programs don't translate into American Jews making the leap to immigration, they often become leaders within their respective Jewish communities, serving as a vital link between Israeli and Diaspora Jewry. And they also tend to visit again and again.

"Is that a worthwhile investment in Israel?" he asked rhetorically. "We will have our future. This is a win-win investment."



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