April 29, 2005
More North American Jews are moving to Israel.
By Oscar Avila
Myron and Marilyn Weintraub had all kinds of reasons not to board that plane to Tel Aviv in late December. They were looking forward to a comfortable retirement in Rogers Park, Ill. And some friends raised eyebrows that they would move to Israel after having visited the country just once.
But the Weintraubs took the leap of faith, joining an uptick in immigrants from North America who are embracing aliyah, a Hebrew word meaning "ascension" that refers to Jews who move to Israel.
About 2,800 U.S. and Canadian citizens migrated to Israel in 2004, the highest total in 20 years and 75 percent higher than the number five years ago, according to the Israeli government.
While Israel has long been a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, U.S. immigrants have been drawn by a variety of factors, including the search for new economic opportunities and a unique chance to renew their faith.
And the immigrants make the move with the knowledge that they are entering one of the world's hot spots, where the threat of suicide bombers has become part of daily life.
Israeli officials consider immigrants, known as olim, to be vital to their nation's economic and cultural health. Studies show that most U.S. immigrants to Israel come with college degrees and quickly find work.
As migrant flows dwindle from other parts of the world, Israeli officials said they are placing greater importance on newcomers like the Weintraubs.
Myron Weintraub, 58, said Israel's mild climate and high-quality medical care would appeal to anyone approaching retirement.
But Weintraub said their decision was about more than practicality. He said they felt a profound connection to their spiritual heritage in 2003 when they visited Israel for the first time.
"Israel really is a home for the Jewish people that needs to exist and needs to thrive," he said. "Yes, we've donated money and participated in different events. But going there and becoming a part of the society, we think that's a way to really make a contribution, by putting ourselves right there."
Israel claims immigration as a core value, spelled out in the 1950 Law of Return that gave every Jew the right to claim Israeli citizenship. The law was expanded in 1970 to include non-Jewish spouses and some relatives.
Israel, which became a state in 1948, instantly served as a refuge for Jews displaced during World War II. Likewise, more than 300,000 Jews emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1990 and 1991 as that nation collapsed.
But in recent years, the migration flow dried out. Only 23,226 Jews migrated to Israel in 2003, the lowest total since 1988.
Michael Landsberg, an official with the Jewish Agency for Israel, a nonprofit group, said the Israeli government and other agencies responded to the crisis by expanding their outreach to prospective immigrants.
The Israeli government and nonprofit groups offer job training, Hebrew classes, and are considering special mortgage rates for immigrants, Landsberg said.
Nonprofit groups like the Florida-based Nefesh B'Nefesh, which helped the Weintraubs relocate, supplement the aid by offering help with everything from shipping refrigerators to filing tax returns.
Landsberg, executive director of the Jewish Agency's immigration department, said he thinks many Americans began considering Israel after the U.S. economic downturn left them looking for a fresh start.
Likewise, the 2001 terrorist attacks left many Jews in America shaken and more open to life-changing decisions, Landsberg said.
While other immigrants might be "pushed" to move to Israel, Americans need job opportunities or other factors that "pull" them there, said Andy David, Israel's deputy consul general in Chicago.
David said Israel is trying to promote its burgeoning high-tech industry, for example, to Jewish professionals seeking work.
But as more American Jews move to Israel, some politicians there have expressed concern that American culture will overwhelm traditional Jewish values.
David said it is often tough for newcomers to coexist with longtime residents.
"It's always a challenge," David said. "You always ask, `are you going to be a melting pot or a salad bowl?'"
Chaim Waxman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, said American Jews in Israel typically form "Little Americas" and often have higher education and income levels that set them apart from typical Israelis.
But Waxman, author of American Aliya, said any resentment takes a back seat to the admiration many Israelis feel about Americans who make the move.
"I know there are Israelis who say to the Americans, `You're nuts. Why did you come? You have so much going for you,'" Waxman said. "But those questions show that [Americans] are appreciated much more for their contributions."
Waxman said he thinks migration from the United States has reached its peak, but Jewish Agency officials say proper marketing could double the numbers.
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