Thursday, November 24, 2005

Paper: Financial Boost For Aliyah?

From The Jewish Week:

Financial Boost For Aliyah?

Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization promoting North American immigration, is poised to score government resources — but only if an Israeli cabinet decision is actually implemented.

Michele Chabin - Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem - Suddenly, aliyah to Israel, which has been growing over the last few years, has been thrust onto the country’s national stage. And it could emerge as an election issue if a showdown over national priorities — domestic issues vs. security — materializes in a matchup between Labor’s new head, Amir Peretz, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The cabinet’s unprecedented decision this week to directly fund “experienced organizations that operate programs to encourage immigration and promote the successful absorption of new immigrants” from Western countries should theoretically give a big boost to Nefesh B’Nefesh, which actively promotes the aliyah of North American Jews. The group’s name means “soul to soul.”

The problem is the timing. The cabinet’s announcement coincided with Sharon’s decision to quit the Likud and the scheduling of new elections in March.

As someone very familiar with the project’s terms told The Jewish Week, “the government made the decision, but whether it will be implemented is another question. We have elections coming up soon and it’s unclear what will happen after that, or even before. We know what happened with birthright,” the source said, referring to the fact that the government temporarily slashed its funding of the popular Israel experience program, despite a formal commitment to provide millions of dollars on a multi-year basis.

“You shouldn’t count on anything,” said the source.

What is clear is that Sharon, who has cut public assistance to the bone during his tenure, will be going head-to-head with Peretz, a self-proclaimed champion of the underclass. Whether the government’s decision to fund organizations that promote aliyah will go over well with the masses come Election Day remains to be seen.

Assuming the decision is indeed enacted, the treasury will initially allocate approximately $2.5 million (approximately $5 million in 2006 and 2007) to the prime minister’s office, which will in turn funnel the money directly to organizations with a proven track record dating back at least two years.

In reality, only Nefesh B’Nefesh — which the cabinet singled out as a positive example in its communiqué — has been around two years, meaning that other, similar organizations — most notably the French aliyah organization AMI — will not at this point receive funding. This fact has reportedly raised the ire of AMI officials, who declined to comment for this article.

An official in the prime minister’s office said that the criteria might soon be eased to enable AMI, which this year brought some 3,000 French immigrants to Israel, to receive funding.

Danny Oberman, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s executive vice president, said in an interview that he could not discuss the exact details of the proposed funding, since they had yet to be finalized.

“What I can say is that we are very excited about the government’s decision,” Oberman said. “Our problem has always been that there are more [immigrants] requesting assistance than we’re able to assist.”

Although Nefesh B’Nefesh, whose budget has until now depended on contributions from private donors and the Jewish Agency, is currently in the midst of a promotional campaign to woo potential immigrants, “there is much more we could do with the necessary funds,” Oberman said.

Oberman said the proposed government funding “will help us expand in two areas. First, to give additional financial assistance to a wider audience and second, to be more proactive: to place more ads, to hold more seminars, more meetings with potential olim. For example, we just flew over the minister of health to meet with American medical personnel, to give them information on how to get licensed in Israel.”

Asked why only about 3,000 North Americans will have made aliyah by the end of this year — a substantial increase over previous years but still a tiny percentage of the Jews who live in North America — Oberman replied, “I don’t think Israel has been marketed sufficiently well. Until recently, aliyah hasn’t been on the American Jewish agenda. Perhaps people aren’t aware that people [who make aliyah] are leading happy, productive lives. The fact that planeloads of Americans are making aliyah is giving aliyah a new prominence.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh brought over six planes full of immigrants during the summer, and another flight is scheduled for Chanukah. By the end of 2005, it will have facilitated the aliyah of 3,200 individuals. Almost 7,000 people have made aliyah through the organization since its inception in 2002.

According to the organization’s fact sheet, 94 percent of Nefesh B’Nefesh-enabled households have at least one employed person. A whopping 99 percent have remained in Israel, a substantial achievement given the fact that many olim arrived at the height of the Palestinian uprising and while the country’s economy was in a shambles due not only to the intifada but the high-tech crash.

“During the past several years the economy has been terrible, the intifada was terrible,” said David London, the director of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), an organization that provides information, social activities and job assistance to both new and veteran immigrants. “Many veteran olim left, mostly for financial reasons.”

Now that the economic and security situations have both improved, London said, “an organization like Nefesh B’Nefesh, which utilizes direct marketing and all the latest technological advances like call centers and teleconferencing, can increase the numbers. The organization is very professional.”

Some say that level of professionalism has grown over time. In the past, Nefesh B’Nefesh raised the ire of some new immigrants, who found themselves unable to avail themselves of the organization’s many services — including expedited passports and other paperwork; job and housing assistance; and a social network — because they were either unable or unwilling to join one of its scheduled flights. Now, all new immigrants from North America are eligible, provided they apply to the organization prior to making aliyah.

Also eligible are people already living in Israel who decide to change their status from student or temporary/permanent resident to new immigrant.

Thanks to a special grant earmarked for this purpose, Oberman said, “we instituted ‘Express Aliyah’ in 2004 because we believe that people living here should be Israeli citizens. We think their chances of staying here increase by making a commitment to the country. The assistance we provide is mostly on a bureaucratic level, though some financial aid is available.”

Although Chava Neustadter, a 33-year-old new immigrant from Englewood, N.J., by way of Manhattan, would have changed her status from resident to olah hadasha even without Nefesh B’Nefesh’s help, she was happy when the organization gave her some sage advice and cut through the paperwork.

“I came on my own in March 2003 as a temporary resident,” Neustadter recalled, seated on the plush American sofa that had arrived on her “lift” [shipment] from the U.S. just the day before. “At the time I wasn’t quite ready to sign on the dotted line to become a citizen.”

When she met her future husband, Marc, a year and a half later, “it cemented my desire to stay here,” Neustadter continued. “But when I went to the Interior Ministry, I was told I’d have to wait two months for an appointment. Then I approached Nefesh B’Nefesh and they gave me a lot of information, including the fact that if you leave the country before the ministry appointment, it sets the clock back. They eased the process.”

Oberman said that Nefesh B’Nefesh’s mission to cut through the red tape at a government ministry, to provide a job or help translate a resume into Hebrew is akin to a calling.

“Aliyah is what the state is founded on. Israel has become the center of the Jewish world. Our future depends on this.”


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