Move to Israel.  Loans, services among incentives

by Eileen Travers,  July 21, 2003
With a packed trunk stuffed with clothes, a computer and sentimental items, Deborah Weiss said goodbye to her family yesterday and left Montreal to start a new life in Israel.

The 25-year-old joined 329 others in New York who will leave for Jerusalem tomorrow with help from a Florida-based
organization Nefesh B'Nefesh.

"I feel like I belong there," she said.  "My father's Romanian, my mother's Moroccan, I was born in France and lived here for
the last 10 years.  In any other country, I would feel like an outsider."

Weiss is part of a small but growning movement of young North American Jewish individuals and families selling their homes
and cars and moving to Israel for widely different reasons.

At a time when immigration to Israel has hit a decade low and the Middle East peace process hobbles slowly along, groups like Nefesh B'Nefesh are offering loans, grants and services to encourage Jews to make aliyah, which is spiritual ascent in Hebrew.

Throughout North America, aliyah groups are flourishing with growing support from Israel and private donors.

"It's a new movement," said Frank Azoulay, 26, who is moving to Beersheva from Laval in August. "Group aliyah in Canada is not common.  Many Jews who move to Israel do so because they have no choice.  The people who do, you see less of them moving.  But in the last couple of years, you hear about it more and more."

New American organizations such as Kumah and Aloh Na'aleh provide incentives to move and the Canadian Zionist Federation organizes aliyah across the country.  Azoulay is one of 15 young Jewish francophone Montrealers planning to make aliyah next month with help from the Magshimim Foundation.

Arie Levy, 24, began the foundation in 2001 and for the last year has been planning the move to Beersheva, Montreal's Jewish community's sister-city of about 180,000.  Levy and his wife will live with the group for six months before parting ways.

"We've seen models of this in France, and the whole idea is to better prepare ourselves and not to feel completely isolated once
we get there,"
he said.  "Personally, I want to take part in the rebirth of the Jewish people in their land.  I want my children to grow up there."

Levy will join hundreds of North Americans in Israel.  Last year, 2,040 North Americans moved there, according to the Jewish Agency, an international group that promotes and tracks immigration.  The number is expected to jump to 20 per cent this year partly because of new aliyah groups, said Michael Landsberg, who heads the agency's North American office in New York.

"Jews feel today that one reaction to what is happening in Israel is that they are joining us there," Landsberg said. "There is no doubt that financial assistance and the Israeli government plays a part in it."

Nefesh B'Nefesh ran advertisments in 2001.  Within five months, more than 6,000 people applied.  The group gave $10,000 to $20,000 relocation loans to 519 North Americans last year and 940 this year.  About 10 per cent are Canadian.

Next year, Nefesh hopes to reach about 3,000 people, spokesperson George Birnbaum said.

Once in Israel, Nefesh B'Nefesh provides employment services, language classes and training programs for newcomers.  If people stay beyond three years, their loans become a one-time grant.

Israel also provides an "absorption basket," with a $5,000 grant, to each new immigrant.

Most people Nefesh B'Nefesh helps move to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Ranana.  Less than five per cent will settle in disputed areas, Birnbaum said.

Despite a weak economy and sporadic violence, Birnbaum said a growing number of North American Jews want to help build the country.

"There are a lot of Jews living in North America who are very zionist and idealistic," he said.  "When there is a time of.economic hardship, now is the time to make a statement."

In a country where one in every five is foreign-born, immigration is crucial.  Last year, 33,565 people immigrated to Israel,
according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.  That's 10,000 less than the previous year and less than half of the 76,766 people who moved there in 1999.

So the small waves of new immigrants often get a fanfare welcome.  Earlier this month, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other government officials greeted 300 people who arrived on a plane chartered by Nefesh B'Nefesh.

"We have always needed you," Sharon told them, "but now we need you more than ever."

While the trend of North American groups organizing immigration is relatively new, an organized movement to Israel is not.  For several decades, groups of immigrants arrived together, said Anat Uzzan, an emissary from Israel's World Zionist Organization to Montreal's Jewish community.

In the 1970s, groups of North and South Americans immigrated in small groups.  Since the 1970s, thousands of young people and families have joined kibbutzim in an effort to help build the nation.

"In the years where people were feeling it's a big challenge to go to help build the state, they needed to go as a group," she said. "Today, life is more individual, with people focusing on building their careers and their families.  I still think it's a big motivator to build the state."

Weiss got her own motivation three years ago on her first trip to Israel.  She toured the country as part of a t0-day youth package sponsored by Montreal's Jewish community.  A trip to an Israeli soldier's grave in Jerusalem left a deep impression.

"Our counsellor told us stories about his army service and about his friend," she said. "And at the end of the story, he showed us the tombstone of his friend.  It touched me how young people gave up their lives for the foundation of Israel.  It was the first time I felt such a thing."

Weiss returned to Montreal to finish a psychology degree.  When her cousin mentioned Nefesh B'Nefesh in January, everything fell into place, she said.

Now she's set to start a new life with a $10,000 loan, Hebrew lessons and a friend she'll be staying with in Tel Aviv.

As for violence reported in the region, she said she is not afraid.

"There's not really any violence in the cities," she said.  "It's in the colonies, where I'm not going to go.  I'm very against that.  I don't think we should go there.  We're trying to live in peace with other people and I don't think that's the way to do it."

On Thursday, Weiss emptied out her apartment.  On Friday, she packed her trunk.  She spent Saturday with her parents, grand- parents and sister.  Tomorrow, she leaves for Israel.

"I'm looking forward to trying new things," she said.  "My identity is being Jewish.  This is not a zionist experience.  I feel like I belong.  I feel like I can call it a home."
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