Esther Rothenberg, a retiree in Strasbourg, France was recently asked who she views as her Jewish role model. Her answer, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, is no surprise. It was the Breslov Rebbe after all who said, “Wherever I go, I’m always going to Israel.”
Along with her husband David, Esther will soon make Aliyah (immigrate to Israel). She joins an expected 4,000 French Jews who will be immigrating to Israel this year through The Jewish Agency. The Aliyah rate from France has increased by more than 70 percent over last year at this point. As thousands of potential olim packed The Agency’s recent Aliyah fair in Paris, it appears that last year’s surge was not a one-time occurrence.
According to Jewish Agency figures, Aliyah from France has risen sharply since the start of the year: More than 850 new olim (immigrants) from France arrived in Israel during the months of January and February, compared to 274 during the comparable period in 2013. The significant upward trend in French Aliyah, which saw the arrival of 3,280 new olim in 2013 (a 70% increase compared to the 1,917 people who arrived in 2012) is set to continue in 2014.
The primary reasons for this emergent immigration wave are threefold: economic, increased anti-Semitism and a culture of passionate Zionism that runs deep in French Jewry. For the Rothenbergs it’s the latter. “We both share the same vision,” Esther said. “Israel is where we should be. Our place is there. We are very attached to Eretz Israel and to the people of Israel in its broadest possible sense.”
While the Rothenbergs continue with their Hebrew immersion studies (ulpan) in Strasbourg, Johanna Rubinstein, of Marseille, her husband David and their two school-aged children are making their own preparations for Aliyah. They made their decision after celebrating their daughter’s recent Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall.
“Zionism is linked to our identity and the desire to live in our land, the land of our forefather,” Johanna said. “Living in Israel is the best way for us to express our Judaism as much as possible.”
Like many olim, Johanna said that it’s hard to predict what they’ll do professionally. They remain open-minded and ready for whatever changes they’ll confront. “We have no barriers. We would like to find something we enjoy, but we are open to many things.”
A sense of adventure and a willingness to embrace possibility are key ingredients for successful Aliyah. And The Jewish Agency is there to ensure that olim have the support they need as they begin life in Israel. The Agency assists with immigration and application for citizenship as well as making arrangements for temporary housing in cities, absorption centers and kibbutzim. It also provides transportation to Israel, living stipends during the ulpan period, job placement services, assistance with registering for Israel’s universal health coverage and programs that help children integrate into Israel’s education system.
“The help we’ve gotten from The Jewish Agency has been precious,” Rubinstein said. “We need this assistance, we need answers. We couldn’t do this without The Jewish Agency, which has helped us understand Israeli society and the mentality.”
Rabbi Nachman also once said, "All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is to have no fear at all." Soon enough, with The Agency at their side, the Rubinsteins, Rothenbergs, and thousands of fellow French olim, will make new homes for themselves in Israel. And they will find new truths to the Rebbe’s timeless words.