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Friday, July 20, 2007

Jewish Agency tries to kill the goose that laid the golden egg

When I made aliya (emigrated to Israel) in 1991, I can say with all due modesty that materially it was a tremendous self-sacrifice. We left our parents in the US (Mrs. Carl's parents made aliya three years after we did; as most of you know my Dad still lives in Boston and my Mom passed away two years ago), sold our house for barely what we paid for it, and set out to live in a 59-square meter apartment with two bedrooms and four kids. And I took a paycut of more than 90%. I'll be very open with you. My last salary in New York in 1991 was $11,000 per month pre-tax and about $7000 after tax. My first salary in Israel (as an apprentice after seven years practicing law in New York!) was $1000 per month with very little difference between before and after tax at that income level. When I closed a $42 million initial public offering in the US, the boss gave me a 'bonus' of 1000 Shekels (about $300 at the time) after he collected $125,000 in fees for my work. We really were crazy!

No one helped to cover our expenses. There were certain appliances that we were allowed to bring in tax free as new immigrants because the tax rates on them here were often triple digit. We took $22,000 out of our pockets to pay for a car, which might have cost $10,000 in the US - if that. We paid $15,000 - $20,000 to the shippers. We got a very small loan (less than $1000) to help cover these costs, but we had to find guarantors! We lived rent-free for the first three years thanks to the generosity of relatives, but after that we paid rent for two more years until our apartment was ready. We had to dip into savings (which we still had then) every month to cover our monthly expenses. It was a different world than it is today.

The main thing that has changed on the aliya scene in the last several years is a group called Nefesh b'Nefesh, which among other things grants people moving to Israel with kids significant funding that helps get you over the gap of the first couple of years when you aren't earning anything. The results have been astounding. Aliya from North America - which may be the only place in the world from which people make aliya out of choice and not out of necessity - has increased from a few hundred to several thousand per year over the past few years. Most of the credit for that goes to Nefesh b'Nefesh. Some 3500 immigrants are expected to arrive in Israel from English-speaking countries this year. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's the most since 1983.

Not everyone has been pleased with the new olim (immigrants). In July 2002, nearly 400 American immigrants arrived in Israel at the height of the 'Palestinian' war against the Jews. What could be more inspiring to a country under siege, and in the throes of a long-term recession, than 400 Jews choosing voluntarily to plight their troth to Israel’s future? These immigrants were not fleeing for their lives, but rather choosing to enter a war zone. Most of them left behind secure jobs to come to a country with unemployment at over 10% and rising.

Not surprisingly, their arrival occasioned a great deal of fanfare. But a few days before their plane touched down, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel published an article on Beit Shemesh, the planned destination of many of the immigrants. In that article, then-Shinui leader Tommy Lapid complained that North American aliyah is overwhelmingly religious. He added for good measure, "Quite frankly Israel could do without [religious North American Jews]." (Shinui was an anti-religious Israeli political party).

Lapid subsequently clarified that he did not mean to single out religious North American immigrants. In his opinion, Israel could do without charedi (ultra-Orthodox) immigrants wherever they come from; indeed it could do without the charedim that were already here.

Most of the immigrants who come to Israel through Nefesh b'Nefesh are Orthodox (not necessarily ultra-Orthodox, but definitely Orthodox). That's not because Nefesh b'Nefesh won't service non-Orthodox immigrants - they are happy to service the non-Orthodox. It's because most North American immigrants to Israel - those who come to Israel out of choice rather than necessity - are Orthodox and have been for more than forty years.

Apparently Tommy Lapid isn't the only one who is unhappy that so many religious Jews are making aliya. So is the Jewish Agency. The Jewish Agency, as you may recall, used to be headed by Avram Burg. Today, it's headed by former Ra'anana Mayor Zev Bielsky, who was put into the position by Ariel Sharon, because Bielsky backed the expulsion of Jews from Gaza, while Natan Sharansky, the Likud's choice, did not. The Jewish Agency - which is officially in charge of aliya to this country - announced yesterday that it will stop cooperating with Nefesh b'Nefesh. The excuse is that Nefesh b'Nefesh 'broke its word' by not bringing 10,000 immigrants per year as it 'promised' to do in 2005. The reality is quite different:
The real issue, however, is the quasi-official government agency’s insistence that the organization recruit more non-religious Jews.

Claims that NBN has focused its efforts solely on the religious population were denied by a spokesperson for the group.

According to the statistics released by the organization, only 68 percent of its aliyah “graduates” are Orthodox Jews, with 25 percent coming from the Conservative movement and some 5 percent from Reform congregations.

The organization added that some 65 percent of its single immigrants are not religious, although the majority of immigrant families are Orthodox.
But they're not just stopping cooperation. The Jewish Agency is also trying to use the local Jewish federations in the US to play dirty pool by drying up Nefesh b'Nefesh's funding sources in the Jewish community:
NBN has since its inception relied on private donors for its funding, but its increasing success in attracting new immigrants by helping them fund their move to Israel has prompted an expansion of fundraising efforts.

Competition for millions of dollars in funding from Jewish Federation chapters across the U.S. has prompted the Jewish Agency to mount a dirty campaign against donations by local groups to NBN.

The Jewish Agency recently began to threaten the local Jewish Federations with a less-than-subtle warning that they may face legal problems if they grant funding to NBN, which is a registered 501(c) 3 non-profit charitable organization under U.S. law.

Legal experts said however that the complex legal reasoning used by the agency in its letter to the federations is unlikely to hold up under the close scrutiny of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) which regulates non-profit funding allocations.
Now go back to the post I did last week about the real battle between right and left in Israel. See what I meant?

What the Jewish Agency is trying to do to Nefesh b'Nefesh is bad for the country. It's also disgusting.

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