|U.S. JEWS FEEL THE CALL TO PUT ROOTS DOWN
by Michael A.W. Ottey, July 21, 2003
|Israel is beset with growing unemployment, the worst recession in its 55-year history, an austerity plan to cut government payroll and programs, and a tenuous peace.
Yet thousands of Americans - South Floridians among them -- are giving up relatively comfortable lives to move to Israel, lured by Zionism, idealism, a sense of belonging, and programs that entice young people with offers of study and tuition-free college education.
The exodus is nationwide, but in few places it is more pronounced than in South Florida, with its sizable Jewish population that has strong ties to Israel.
"I always dreamed of coming here," said David Michael Pollock, 28, originally from Kendall, in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.
"It wasn't as acute until the Intifada started," Pollock said, using the Arabic word that has come to symbolize the struggle
between Israelis and Palestinians. "Watching it on the news, I felt I had to be with my people."
Pollock resettled in Israel nearly two weeks ago as part of a group of 350 American Jews who traded their homeland for the
Promised Land. The next planeload leaves Tuesday.
This year marks the second consecutive year that a record-braking number of American Jews will resettle in Israel, according to officials in Israel and the United States.
The exodus, referred to in Hebrew as Aliyah, is subsidized in part by the Israeli government through the quasi-governmental
Jewish Agency for Israel and a host of private organizations in the United States, including newcomer Nefesh B'Nefesh of Boca Raton.
Nefesh B'Nefesh was founded two years ago by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, formerly of Boca Raton and now residing in Israel, to aid North American Jews' move there.
"These troubled times have reawakened the desire of many to become directly connected to the destiny of the Jewish people in the state of Israel," Fass said in a written statement.
So far this year, hundreds of Americans such as Pollock have disposed of just about everything they own, quit jobs, and said goodbye to loved ones, as waves of others prepare to follow. And that is despite 10.8 percent unemployment in Israel that is expected by year's end to surpass the record 11.2 percent jobless rate set 11 years ago.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics in Israel, the number of immigrants currently out of work is even greater -- 11.4 percent -- though that's a drop from a high of 12.2 percent last quarter.
The economic downpin and conflict has hurt tourism, but clearly not Aliyah.
Michael Landsberg, executive director of the Israel Aliyah Center in New York City, said in a telephone interview that this year -- so far -- there has been a 30 percent jump in individuals making Aliyah from North America.
On Tuesday, some 300 Americans and Canadians will board an El Al Airlines flight from New York bound for Ben-Gurion
International Airport. There, as has been the case with previous arrivals, distinguished and high-level Israeli officials will welcome the newcomers.
Danielle Rosen, 23, and her fiance' Roy Sayag, 25, of Coral Springs, will be on that flight Tuesday. For Sayag, born in Israel, it's
a return home. For Rosen, an American, a new life awaits.
Israel, said Rosen, is where she belongs.
"I don't feel a connection with America," said Rosen, who specializes in massages for expectant mothers and women who've
recently given birth. "The second I set foot on the plane I'm Israeli."
Rosen said she relishes being among her Jewish brothers and sisters, on Israeli soil, living under morals and values Judaism set forth. And as for safety, she's not worried.
"I feel more safe in Israel than in America," she said. "Everywhere you go there are guards outside."
Rosen and Sayag plan to live with Sayag's parents in Shoham, near Tel Aviv, while the couple tries to find work.
Pollock, who gave up a Manhattan apartment and career in sales and marketing, settled into a two-bedroom apartment in Jerusalem he shares with a roommate. He's unemployed but exploring a business venture with an American company in Israel, he said.
Pollock, who lived in Manhattan for four years and made frequent business trips to the Financial District, said Sept. 11 has taught him that the world -- not just Israel -- isn't safe. But still he takes precautions.
"I don't readily take buses, and I generally go places where there's security," Pollock said. ".... We're all very careful, always
watching. It's definitely not carefree living."
Pollock said if he had to give up his American citizenship to become Israeli he would have thought twice about the move.
"I love America," he said. "I'm proud of my American heritage. But there's definitely a calling to come here."
Landsberg said by the end of the month he expects a total of 1,200 people from across the United States and Canada to migrate to Israel, compared to 900 during the same time period last year. By the end of the year, he expects 2,400 North Americans to have resettled in Israel compared to 2,040 last year, an increase of 360.
Ran Sagee, director of the Israel Aliyah Center in Miami, which covers the southeastern United States, said 200 of those will come from the region that includes Florida, compared to 197 last year.
While most have pledged to live in Israel for the rest of their lives, there is no rule or law that says they must.
Sagee said the Israeli government attaches no conditions that Olim -- the Hebrew name for people who make Aliyah -- to live
in the country for any specified length of time. Through 18 regional Aliyah centers across the United States, the Jewish Agency for Israel issues $3,300 grants to individuals approved for resettlement in Israel.
While Israel Aliyah centers screen applicants to assess their residency commitment to Israel, the individuals aren't forced to repay the money if they then decide to leave. That's not the case with Nefesh B'Nefesh, the private organization that works in partnership with the Jewish Agency.
Nefesh B'Nefesh gives up to $7,000 to each immigrant, and up to $19,000 per family with the stipulation they remain in Israel for
a minimum of three years. Leave sooner and the money must be repaid.
But most of the families and individuals setting off to Israel say they're in it for the long haul, that Israel will be their country, their new homeland. And while they say they'll forever hold the Stars and Stripes in the highest regard, it's the banner bearing the Star of David that they'll henceforth hold high.
"I see it as a historic opportunity," said Eli Kavon, 39, a lecturer and adult education teacher at Brownard Community College who lives in Sunrise.
"It's a historic chance to fulfill a dream that Jews have had for so many centuries. I love American. I love Florida. I'm proud
to be an American. But as a Jew I think my place is in the land of Israel."