Israel – When Nisan and Gilan Gertz stepped off the plane at Ben-Gurion International Airport with their children last August, they were seven of almost 4,000 North Americans to make aliyah in 2009 – the largest number to do so in a single year since 1983.
There were a lot of reasons that the Gertzes chose to move their new home in Beit Shemesh, some 25 miles west of Jerusalem, from their home in Passaic, N.J. There was “inspiration and spirituality,” as Nisan describes it. “For the first time in 2,000 years, we can live in a sovereign nation that’s Jewish.”
But money was also an issue. Four of the Gertzes’ five children – the oldest is 15, the youngest is 3 – were enrolled at Jewish day schools, which together cost the family upward of $50,000 per year in tuition.
“All of our money was being dumped into the increasing cost of education and the increasing cost of health care,” said Nisan, who is an architect specializing in the development of hospitals while his wife is a clinical social worker.
“I describe it as being on a treadmill.” The summer home they’d always wanted, the yearly vacations to nice places, all seemed less and less attainable as tuition bills mounted. “We were running and running and running, and never going anywhere.”
With unemployment rates hovering at around 10 percent (more than double what they were two years ago), one ripple effect of America’s recession is increased immigration to Israel. It is no panacea. But unemployment there is hovering at around 8 percent, while the economy overall has contracted less than in the United States and now appears on the way back to growth. “Israel has proved to be resilient to this particular global shock,” the International Monetary Fund noted admiringly in a January report.
Then there are the actual cash incentives Israel offers to ease the way for those immigrating under the country’s Law of Return, which offers automatic citizenship to anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption provides about $4,000 per adult and about $2,000 per child to these immigrants, paid out over seven months. Immigrants are also entitled to free education up to the master’s degree level and are customarily granted a 70 percent to 90 percent reduction on their property taxes. Plus, they receive discounts and tax waivers on Israeli-made appliances.
If that is not enough, additional financial help is available from Nefesh B’Nefesh, a relatively new nongovernmental organization that facilitates immigration for American Jews. About 70 percent of the immigrants apply for this, according to Danny Oberman, the organization’s executive vice president of Israeli operations. The amount of these grants covers a “wide range,” he said. “The more we have, the more we give away.”
Cash handouts alone are not likely to cause American families to pick up and move to Israel, of course. But the number of North Americans immigrating to Israel has been, on the whole, rising in recent years. And the last time there was an uptick as high as this year’s – 17 percent – was in 2003, one year after Nefesh was established in Israel with private funding and a mission “to revitalize Aliyah and to substantially increase the number of future olim,” or Jewish immigrants.
Since that time, Nefesh has been aggressively promoting aliyah throughout the United States and Canada, trying “to increase the perception that aliyah is normative behavior – something that regular people do,” Oberman said.
In 2009, after years of processing an increasingly larger share of aliyah applications, Nefesh formally took over from the Jewish Agency the marketing and processing of all North American aliyah applications. Now, Oberman said, “we’re seeing the snowball effect. Many of the people who came in 2009 are relatives of, friends of, neighbors of those people who came earlier.?
The economy is “not the reason, but it’s a reason American Jews are making aliyah,” said Michael Jankelowitz, the foreign press spokesman for the Jewish Agency. “They have Israel in their hearts. That’s coupled with an economic crisis.”
The economy was an issue even for those without children – and the rates of aliyah among this group seem to be rising. According to Nefesh, almost half of olim in 2008 and 2009 were between the ages of 18 and 35.