• ISRAEL \ Jul 02, 2002
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    U.S. olim will land softly, thanks to Christian help
U.S. olim will land softly, thanks to Christian help "It all started when a young cousin of Rabbi Joshua Fass [of Boca Raton, Florida] was killed by a suicide bomber last year. He felt that he must come on aliyah [innigration to Israel] as a type of tikkun [way of `fixing the world'] and encourage other people to do the same. He approached Tony [Gelbart], who is a member of his synagogue and together they founded the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization for encouraging aliyah," explains George Birnbaum, director of the Boca-based group, whose name in English means "Soul in Soul."

Rabbi Fass and his congregant, Gelbart, a millionaire, discovered that many Jews would immigrate to Israel if relieved of the financial burden such a move entails.

Says Birnbaum: "We decided to see how many Jews would respond if we offered them financial assistance to immigrate. In November of last year, we put a one-day advertisement in some Jewish newspapers. Over the next three months, we got over 6,000 applications."

With the help of $2 million donated by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), Nefesh B'Nefesh is bringing over the chartered plane in July of American Jews, including Rabbi Fass, who plan to live here permanently - or at least for three years, the period they committed themselves to in order to receive grants ranging anywhere from $5,000-$30,000.

Most of the donors who facilitated this undertaking are Christians who contribute millions of dollars annually to the IFCJ, which is founded and headed by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who himself immigrated last year.

Founded in 1983, the IFCJ raises and distributes funds for immigration (especially to the Jewish Agency, on whose board Eckstein sits), as well as for absorption and welfare purposes. The rabbi explains that fundraising is done mostly through "info-mercials" on television and by direct-mail marketing in the States.

"We raise Christian support in the U.S. and around the world for Israel and the Jewish people," he explains. "In the past, we focused on tourism, but now we focus on aliyah. We have contributed over $60 million to projects, primarily absorption of immigrants from Argentina, Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union."

Eckstein says he doesn't think the Christian donors' motivation "has anything to do with their belief that all the Jews must come to Israel so that the messiah will return. They believe they are called upon to bless Israel and the Jewish people. Otherwise, they wouldn't fund our projects - like armored school buses and soup kitchens, which don't affect immigration."

It was former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who "hooked up" Gelbart with Eckstein, he notes. "We originally said [the IFCJ] should give $1 million, and the Jewish community should come up with the other $1 million. Bibi came to my board and asked [it] for the entire $2 million. I agreed."

The objective of this enterprise, Eckstein stresses, "is for me is to trigger further aliyah in hopes the American Jewish community will sponsor it in the future."

Says Birnbaum: "This is a long-term goal: We plan to bring a planeload of [American Jewish immigrants] to Israel every quarter."

The Jews arriving in less than two weeks will begin their absorption process in the air. The Ministry of Absorption is flying clerks to New York so that they can join the newcomers on the plane and help them fill out the forms even before they land.

"Aliyah should be the fulfillment of a dream. We don't want the first thing people do when they come to Israel to be standing in line for five hours," Birnbaum explains. "Within three days of their arrival, they will all be able to pick up their ID cards from one site instead of going to the ministry."

Local presence

Nefesh B'Nefesh runs a "mini-absorption office" in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, funded by the organization's Florida headquarters and staffed with social workers to help with adjustment problems, "head hunters" to assist with employment, and other personnel dealing with housing issues of new immigrants.

"Most of the people will be going to homes of family, friends or their own homes they've already bought," says Danny Oberman, an Australian immigrant who manages the office. "Fifty-five percent are going to Ramat Beit Shemesh and Beit Shemesh, 20 percent to Jerusalem and the rest will be spread around the country. Only a few will be going to settlements, but we don't decide for anyone where they will live."

He explains that initially, all applicants took psychological evaluation exams, which were meant to assess their ability to persevere in Israel; 531 passed, although not all of them will arrive on this flight.

"They're a reflection of the spectrum of American Jewry in that they are from all different backgrounds: ultra-Orthodox, converts, children of Israelis who moved to America, and so on," Oberman adds.

"The advantage is these Jews can hit the ground running - get a job in computers, health care, etc. They need [financial] help for the first months so that afterward, they can contribute to society," says Birnbaum, adding, "it's a very desirable aliyah."

"This is a test," says Rabbi Eckstein. "If the incentives are financial, primarily with regard to the 25- to 35-year-old category, and this provides them with the break they need, my belief is that thousands would come."