The Pull of Israel Tugs at Eight Philadelphians

Since the year 2001, the number of people who have made aliyah has nearly doubled, according to Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Israel Aliyah Center in New York. And 3,000 people from North America are expected to immigrate to Israel this year – a number not seen since 1983.

In light of such fervor, last week, eight Philadelphians – five young adults, some accompanied by their parents, and one family of three with existing ties to Israel – met with Landsberg to discuss the possibility of making aliyah.

"Israel may not be the land of milk and honey," Landsberg told the group sitting in a conference room at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's offices in Center City. "On the other hand, Israel is the place when on a Friday afternoon, you sense something in the air that is different. You sense something holy."

Shai Freedman, 17, and Tal Roth, 25, have already spent significant time in Israel – Freedman spent a semester there, and Roth lived at an absorption center in Ra'anana after graduating college. Each would like to move to Israel in order to join the Israel Defense Forces.

First, though, Roth had to be sure that his age wouldn't impede him from enlisting.

"I may have second thoughts about going if I'm not allowed to serve at least one year," said the Langhorne resident.

Landsberg told the group about the benefits they were entitled to as new olim – Hebrew for "immigrants" – including rent subsidies and mortgages, travel concessions to Israel, tax deductions on car purchases and shipping costs, cash to help start life there, even free education at certain institutions.

Ways to Live There
Freedman said he intended to go to university after his army service, and was even thinking about going into some sort of police work after he earned his degree.

Roth, a graduate of Temple University, said that though here he was a "city kid," in Israel he could see himself living on a kibbutz in a small town in the north.

Though some had their plans figured out – or at least they appeared to – others, like 19-year-old Mindy Lane of Cherry Hill, N.J., came just to listen to what Landsberg had to say.

"I want to be in Israel by next September," said the Israel-born Lane, who has already received an exemption from the army. "It makes sense to go to university and make friends there, but I'm still up in the air. The process is very complicated."

And the process is definitely time-consuming – applicants must fill out piles of paperwork, obtain a letter from a rabbi proving they are Jewish or married to a Jew, and work closely with a professional aliyah shaliach (or "emissary" from Israel) to plan what they'll do once they get there.

Still, the Israel Aliyah Center, an organization affiliated with the Jewish Agency for Israel and with a branch office here in Philadelphia, helps walk prospective olim through each step of the process.

Like Roth and Freedman, Niriel Laurence hopes to be able to join the army and serve for two years; she also wants to take advantage of the free education.

"I feel like more things make sense there," said the 17-year-old from Elkins Park, who spent a high school semester in Israel. "Why would I live here if I can live there?"

Her mother, Ruth Kasow, an Israeli herself whose three sisters all served in the Israeli army, recognizes that her daughter is going for the right reasons, and understands the deep connection Laurence feels to the country.

But, as any mother would, she worries.

"I don't worry about safety because hundreds of thousands of people join the army," said Kasow. "I worry about the language, and about fitting in and the cultural differences.

"The main thing, though, is, I'm just going to miss her."



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