While a sizable number of North American young adults studying in Israeli yeshivas and seminaries ultimately immigrate to Israel, many of the schools have avoided making an all-out "aliyah pitch" out of fear that parents would object.
Aloh Naaleh, an 8-month-old organization founded by a group of North American rabbis now living in Israel, is challenging that taboo.
The organization recently held a festive melave malke, a holy meal after Shabbat, at Jerusalem’s Renaissance Hotel dedicated to the theme of aliyah. The gathering, which was held in cooperation with some 15 prominent yeshivas, attracted 800 male students. An evening for female students is planned for January.
An unnamed donor sponsored the $25,000 event, which included free bus transportation, lectures by prominent rabbis, refreshments and live music. It attracted post-high school students from a variety of noted yeshivas, including Keren B’Yavneh, Ohr Yerushalayim, Shapells/Darche Noam, Har Etzion, Derech Eitz Chaim and Hamivtar Orot Lev.
The organizers were able to attract such a large crowd thanks to the cooperation of several yeshiva heads, who informed their students of the event and assisted them in arranging transportation. Officials from various yeshivas had attended Aloh Naaleh’s planning meeting and helped shape the program.
Despite the intifada, several thousand Orthodox men and women from overseas currently attend Israeli yeshivas and seminaries, and the numbers are, in fact, rising. This is in sharp contrast to students from other religious denominations, as well as those from secular universities, whose numbers continue to dwindle.
During their presentations, the event’s speakers stressed that aliyah is a mitzvah and that Torah Jews like themselves should give the move some serious thought from a religious perspective. At the same time, they were careful to state that aliyah isn’t for everyone, is financially and emotionally challenging, and that students should make such a decision in consultation with their parents.
In his speech, Rabbi Shalom Gold, the organization’s founder, mixed Jewish and American themes. Quoting President Theodore Roosevelt, he said, " ‘He who does not participate in the passion of his time will be considered as not having lived.’
"The passion of our time is Eretz Yisrael," Rabbi Gold concluded.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Yerachmiel Roness, the group’s executive director and a former New Yorker, said Aloh Naaleh was created for one purpose: "to motivate yeshiva students to think of aliyah as an option."
As it is, Rabbi Roness said, "The yeshivas that participated have between a 20 to 35 percent rate of aliyah" among their alumni. While this number is very high, and accounts for the vast majority of those North Americans who have immigrated to Israel in recent years, Rabbi Roness "would like to see it double."
To accomplish this, he said, yeshiva students need to think of their Israel-based studies as a possible aliyah tryout rather than a break from school or career, no matter how enriching.
Those who attend the one- or two-year programs "come because they see Israel as a central feature of Jewish life. But all too often they view yeshiva study the way others view Swiss finishing school — you go back to home and reality. We want them to realize that living in Israel can also be a reality."
Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky, dean and rosh yeshiva of Shapells/Yeshivat Darche Noam, believes that due to their religious beliefs, yeshiva students are the obvious choice for aliyah recruitment.
"A yeshiva student has a natural connection with Eretz Yisrael on a spiritual, transcendent level. Aliyah is the natural implementation of this vision," he said.
Non-yeshiva programs have to work harder, Rabbi Karlinsky said, because "they are not built on this [foundation]. They have to appeal to students on some other dimension that may or may not be as effective."
Approximately 40 percent of his yeshiva’s overseas alumni have made aliyah, Karlinsky noted, obviously proud of this record.
Rabbi Mallen Galinsky, dean and rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Shaalvim, shares the view that aliyah should be more central to the thinking of young yeshiva students. He termed the melave malke "an attempt to try to at least expose them to the possibility of living in Israel."
"We feel the only place in the world where one can live a full Jewish life is in Israel," Rabbi Galinsky said.
He said his yeshiva had "encouraged" students to attend the event but that it was optional. "We don’t try to brainwash our students, just to show them that aliyah is one of several options," Rabbi Galinsky said.
According to Rabbi Roness, the rabbis did not inform the students’ parents ahead of time that an aliyah-oriented event was taking place. Those parents who learned of the evening did so via their children.
"We did not feel it necessary to seek permission, inasmuch as speaking about the Torah and the commandments is part of why these young adults were sent here," Rabbi Roness said. "Our program proceeded along these lines."
Nachliel Dyson, executive director of the national office of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, where Aloh Naaleh is headquartered, called the organization’s objectives "bold" and "refreshing."
"To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time in more than 50 years that yeshiva students have [attended an event] en masse to hear about aliyah," Dyson said.
Dyson accused Israeli and Jewish institutions of sidestepping the importance of North American aliyah out of fear that it would turn off diaspora Jews.
"You won’t hear a Jewish Agency emissary or Ariel Sharon approaching various federations and saying ‘we want 1,000 people from your community to make aliyah next year,’ " Dyson said.
"There are too many diaspora Jews who don’t want to hear this. They say, ‘we’ll send money but leave our children alone.’ "
While some of the rabbis interviewed for this article — and who asked not to be quoted — acknowledged that aliyah is a potentially explosive subject for some North American parents, they insisted that many are in favor of such a move for their children.
One such parent is Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council in New York, whose three children all studied in Israel after high school.
"Speaking as a parent, we encourage our children to consider aliyah an option, and we would be very pleased if at the time that is right for them, our children were to make aliyah," he said.
Still, Miller believes that the rabbis should have informed the parents about the event’s agenda, realizing it might have promoted anxiety in some. "I think it is then the obligation of the parent to speak with the child," he said.
As for other parents, Miller said, "I don’t think they are necessarily upset. I think most parents want their children to come back home safe and sound, and then to decide on their life’s path."
Another father, who asked that his name not be published for fear that it might embarrass his child, said: "I think it would be foolish for any parent who has sent their child to Israel to study not to expect their son or daughter to come back with a very Zionist attitude, intent on making aliyah someday.
"To think otherwise," he said, "would be really naive."
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