August 26, 2010
By AARON HOWARD
Many early 20th-century Zionists probably wouldn’t have understood. When they established the Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1929, their singular purpose was to return to the land to rebuild the Jewish national home. For them, aliyah (move to Israel) was the main option to guarantee the security of the Jewish people in the wake of the upheavals caused by World War I, the rise of communism, xenophobic European nationalism and the beginning of the Depression.
But, this is the early 21st century. Israel has been a reality for 62 years. Anyone who wants to make aliyah can board an airplane and do so within 24 hours. The Jewish Agency is now the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Jennifer Taviv, director of marketing for aliyah programs at the Jewish Agency for Israel in New York, was hired in November 2009. That JAFI hired a director of marketing is a giant step away from the agency’s traditional political/ideological model toward a new consumer/user paradigm. “It had become clear that we’re not known to North American Jews,” said Taviv. “How do we get on the map, so to speak? We decided to start at the beginning. We asked: What is people’s perception of us? What is their previous experience with us? What is their perception of aliyah? Although the mission of JAFI remains the same since 1929, we wanted to position the Aliyah Department in a relevant way for our target audience.”
That meant taking a page from the for-profit sector and conducting some basic market research. Enter Geoff Ledet, president and creative director of Letter 7. Ledet heads a strategic marketing and branding firm commissioned by JAFI in February to help better understand how to serve aliyah-prone North American Jews.
“Our task is to help JAFI understand their main target audiences, to refresh the brand, to raise awareness of JAFI programs, services and events, and to create marketing materials that would increase participation in pre-aliyah programs in North America,” said Ledet. “We’d also like to facilitate aliyah.
“This was a branding and marketing task. Branding is creating an identity for the organization. Marketing is raising awareness and letting people know what the organization does.”
Ledet began by reviewing the existing literature. Secondly, he developed an online survey and sent it out to different target audiences. Then, he conducted in-person interviews with senior JAFI personnel. “Staff people are usually aware of an organization’s strength and how the organization can become stronger,” said Ledet. “The shlichim [emissaries from Israel], in particular, also have insights into the target audience, what are the best methods and ways for reaching this audience.
“At this point, we know that people who met with shlichim had a high regard for them. On the other hand, people who haven’t directly engaged the organization had a misperception about JAFI. They felt it was bureaucratic.”
About 3,800 North American Jews made aliyah in 2009, up from 3,200 in 2008. The Jewish Agency traditionally was the sole organization handling aliyah. But the private organization Nefesh B’Nefesh stepped into the aliyah picture in 2002. NBN streamlined the aliyah process and worked closely with North Americans, from initial contact to scheduling one-way flights to Israel to operating a post-arrival support network in Israel. NBN now is the sole organization handling official applications for aliyah from North America.
As the Jewish Agency has begun to study the North American aliyah target audience, some interesting findings have merged. When asked about perceptions concerning barriers to a successful aliyah, many of the respondents listed concerns like not making enough money or finding the right job. But, surprisingly, said Taviv, among people who actually lived in Israel in academic or yeshiva settings, many respondents expressed a real concern that they would fail at being Israeli.
“There’s a perception, especially among young people in the midst of their education or just starting out in their careers, that they may be giving up something better – whatever they perceive as the opportunities for them in America. They are essentially asking: Is aliyah worth it? Maybe this speaks toward where people are when they make decisions about aliyah. For example, for young people, there’s a fear that they might make the wrong decision and somehow become failures because of that. Obviously, the decision to make aliyah raises some complex issues as to one’s basic identity,” said Taviv.
“One of the things that we’re writing into our direction is to dispel some of these anxieties. Aliyah is a huge decision, but one that doesn’t necessarily define you as a success or not. If we could reduce this kind of anxiety that may come with such a decision, then we would be able to remove some of the barriers that come with making aliyah.
“We provide a host of pre-aliyah services, especially the ‘Preparing for Change’ seminar,” said Taviv. “Because Hebrew is so important to a successful aliyah, we sponsor ulpan programs that are almost completely subsidized. We assist new immigrants with places where they can live. We are providing tachlis [practical substance].”
Yet, at this stage, the majority of North American Jews still don’t know about JAFI. And, many of the people who know about the Jewish Agency still think of it as the old Sochnut (the pre-state Jewish Agency).
The bottom line for Taviv: North American Jews need to perceive the Aliyah Department of JAFI as relevant so that they will engage with it. In other words, it’s a branding and marketing problem. “How do we get there? I ask these questions myself, and we’ve not even yet launched our new website,” said Taviv.
“We’ve taken the constructive criticisms from our research. Whatever was within our ability to improve, we did. Whatever we saw that perceptions are, that’s what our campaigns will speak to. We’ll be sending out a lot more surveys and engaging, through social media, to find out people’s perceptions of us. We should have this conversation in another six months because we can then look at how people responded to our plan.
“We hope to measure our effectiveness through twice-a-year surveys, particularly perception of the Aliyah Department. We can also measure how many contacts we are generating. It would be wonderful if an increase in aliyah were an outcome. But, I don’t think it’s that simple. People make and don’t make aliyah for a variety of reasons, and we’re not in a position to alter some of those reasons. We have some control over perceptions of aliyah: how easy or difficult the process is. We can make the process more simple or transparent. But, we needed to figure out what to improve before we could make improvements.”