Episode 27 – Unholy Matrimony in the Holy Land with Jessica Fishman

The right of return for the Jewish people states that anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent may become a citizen of the State of Israel. The reasoning: this was the criteria by which the Jews were persecuted under the Third Reich.

On the other hand, if you want to have an ordained marriage in the State of Israel, the par is set a little higher: your mother must be Jewish.

This dissonance leads to an inevitable rift in Israeli society: people who live here as lawful citizens, but are unable to legally marry their partner.

Jessica Fishman, author of the new book “Chutzpah and High Heels”, joins Two Nice Jewish Boys to share her story of Aliyah and talk about her devastation at the hands of this little known discrepancy in Israeli law.

Listen here:

Jessica’s book tour dates.

Photo by Reuters

The Aliyah Exchange, Part 3: Do young American Zionists have an accurate picture of Israel?

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel after graduating from Indiana University with a degree in Journalism and Business. She spent her first few years in the country serving in the Israel Defense Forces, learning the Hebrew language, and getting acclimated to the country. Fishman was the author of the popular Aliyah Survival Blog and the story of her struggles with the Israeli rabbinate has been featured in leading Israeli and Jewish media.

This exchange will focus on Fishman’s upcoming memoir, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land. Parts one and two can be found here and here.


Dear Jessica,

In your last answer you asked why more people aren’t outraged by the Chief Rabbinate’s religious coercion and by Israel’s dismissive attitude toward alternative forms of Judaism and to many of the country’s citizens.

The answer to your question might be simple: people are not outraged because what you see as a great interruption is barely a nuisance for most Israelis. They dislike rabbinic rulings and ways, but they rarely meet them and hardly feel their impact. It might be even convenient for many of them to leave these matters of little importance (for them) in the hands of the Orthodox rabbis.

But then there are wonderfully motivated young olim such as yourself, who come to Israel for all the right reasons and are almost bound to be disappointed by the state’s attitude.

My question: do you feel that young Zionists abroad are given an excessively rosy picture of life in Israel? Is there a need for recalibrating expectations (what we call תיאום ציפיות)? What would you tell your pre-Aliyah self about the country she was about to move to?

Thanks again for doing this exchange.



Dear Shmuel,

Your question brings up a lot of interesting points. I cannot speak to what each and every person thinks, and I would never be so presumptuous to do so. Outside of citing some of Hiddush’s research findings, all I can do is speak to my experience. A Hiddush survey on tensions between religion & state found that 71% of Israeli Jews consider the controversial issue of marriage & divorce and the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over these matters to be either the most important or second most important such conflict; far more than any other dispute in the religion & state arena. This is most likely because marriage is an issue that impacts an overwhelming majority of Israelis. Despite this sentiment by the public, we do not see the government taking any action towards change.

In my experience, there are two issues that are impeding change. The first is awareness. I have found that many Israeli and American Jews are not familiar with, or even aware of, these discriminatory laws. I have had to explain to many Israelis and American Jews alike that the Jewish homeland actually has two legal and contradictory definitions for the question “who is a Jew.” Once learning this, many people are shocked. However, they are not moved to action. I don’t know if this is because, as you say, they see it as just a nuisance or if they feel as if being critical of Israel is anti-Zionist or if they feel that the issue is too big for them and give up. Or perhaps since they don’t believe it directly impacts them, they don’t think this is a priority. Whatever the reason is, leaving these matters in the hands of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate will create a deeper divide between secular and religious Israelis and between the Jewish diaspora and Israel. Because when the Israeli government rejects the converts and their descendants of a stream of Judaism, it is also a rejection of that entire belief system and community.

Now, to answer your question. Besides focusing on the issues of Jewish pluralism and religious coercion in Israel, my book, I hope, also gives insight into what it is really like to make aliyah. I try to highlight the humorous juxtapositions between expectations and reality and joke about both the challenges and even disappointments. Such as when I expected that I would be changing Israel’s image in the media when I served in the IDF Spokesperson Department, but in reality, the first year I spent more time in kitchen duty or counting down the hours of my guard duty.

I think that you are right that many young Zionists do have an excessively rosy picture of Israel. This reminds me of a poster that I saw in the Absorption Office (משרד הקליטה) when I made aliyah. The poster was a photo of a cactus in the desert and written on it was: “We didn’t promise you a rose garden.” I always found it ironic that this was not a message in any of the pre-aliyah offices. Perhaps part of the reason that many new immigrants are overly optimistic may be due to the Jewish programs in which we are raised. But another part of this, in my experience, is that young people are looking for a challenge – to conquer the world and find their place in it. In this respect, I wasn’t different from anyone else. I was young, and a Zionist; I wasn’t thinking about marriage, but about making a contribution. And I think if someone would have warned me that it was going to be so much harder than I expected, it would not have made a difference. I don’t think there is anything that I could have told my pre-aliyah self to change my mind or better prepare me. I was (am) stubborn like that. I, like many young people, thought that I was invincible or that I was the exception. But it is exactly that kind of thinking that gives many of us the ability and desire to move to Israel. It is also the key to our success in Israel. That being said, I believe that we owe it to our next generation of Zionist youth to create an Israel that lives up to its name and potential.

In the end, I did move back to Israel after spending a few years in the U.S. My move back was much easier than my original aliyah process. This might have been because I knew Hebrew, had a better understanding of how to work the bureaucracy, and already had a network of friends and acquaintances. However, I think the real reason, is that, as you stated it, I had recalibrated my expectations (what Israelis call תיאום ציפיות).



A homecoming for Olim

Elissa Einhorn first wanted to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel) 30 years ago, but her late father, a Holocaust survivor who was convinced America was the best place in the world, didn’t support her dream. 

So, the 56-year-old writer from Sacramento stifled the urge to relocate to the Jewish homeland until last summer when, on a mission to Israel with Honest Reporting, a media watchdog that monitors coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, her desire to make aliyah was rekindled.

“I was surprised that all those emotions came back after 30 years, so I just decided to really think about whether I can really do this. I’m not a young person anymore, and, uh,” she said, beginning to cry as she spoke onboard an Aug. 17 chartered Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, “it’s just unbelievable I’m on this plane.”

Founded in 2001, Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) facilitates aliyah for people from North America and the United Kingdom. The organization works with numerous agencies, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigration Absorption, and the Jewish National Fund-USA in making the aliyah process as smooth as possible. The organization crossed the threshold of bringing its 50,000th oleh (immigrant) on last week’s charter flight.

From left: San Fernando Valley residents Lidor Asulin, Natalie Rubinstein and Tamir Marom were among those onboard the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Photo by Ryan Torok 

The plane, which departed New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) on Aug. 16, carried 223 olim (people making aliyah) who, incuding Einhorn, have followed through with their wish of moving to Israel. The plane landed in Israel at Ben Gurion International Airport on the morning of Aug. 17. Those on board included 75 young adults who are making aliyah with the intention of joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with women outnumbering men, 41 to 34. 

There were 13 people from California on board, including three 18-year-olds from the San Fernando Valley who are from Israeli families and are joining the IDF.

“I don’t want to do an office job; I can do that here,” Natalie Rubinstein, 18, of West Hills, who wants to be an artillery instructor in the IDF, told the Journal in a restaurant at LAX before the departure of a red-eye flight to New York. “I want to do physical stuff.” 

She was joined by Tamir Marom, 18, and Lidor Asulin, 18, both from Woodland Hills. The three met through their membership in Tzofim, an organization offering programs that develop and maintain the connection between Tzofim (Israeli Scouts) in Israel and Jews in North America. After completing their preparation for the IDF through Tzofim’s Garin Tzabar program, the youth are enlisted into an IDF unit, becoming “lone soldiers” — members of the IDF who are living in Israel without the support of immediate family members. More than  6,300 lone soldiers are currently serving in the IDF, according to lonesoldiercenter.com, an organization that offers social and practical support to lone soldiers and their families.

“I don’t think we’re really alone, to be honest,” said Asulin, who is joining the IDF after deciding he wasn’t yet ready for college. “Eventually we all become family, one way or another.”

That’s the hope of NBN. Tani Kramer, the organization’s associate manager of public relations and communications, was among those staffing the flight. Originally from Sacramento, Kramer made aliyah to Israel with his family after he completed ninth grade. The family had been living in Israel for two years at the time, for what they believed would be a temporary stay. His father, a professor from the University of California, Davis, was ready to take the family back to California, but Kramer wasn’t interested. When he told his parents he’d found a family friend who would take him in, Kramer’s father decided the entire family would stay.

In an interview with the Journal on board the El Al airplane, Kramer spoke about what he called his “Nefesh moment,” which he had several years ago, after having joined the organization. Kramer interacted with a young adult who’d been contemplating aliyah but who had decided he wasn’t ready. Later, he ran into this man’s father. The man hugged Kramer, told him his son had made aliyah and that he was thankful to Kramer for facilitating the son’s decision.

Shortly before the plane landed in Tel Aviv, Kramer was wrapping tefillin with many of the observant olim. Meanwhile, the less observant were mingling. The excitement was palpable as the airplane neared its destination. Soon the flight attendants told everyone to be seated, and as the airplane descended into Israel, people on board broke out singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”

The plane was filled with a variety of passengers, and families with small children constituted a considerable number of those on board. Among them were the Eisens, a family of six from Los Angeles with plans to settle in a home they’ve purchased in Beit Shemesh.

“We’re excited,” said Ethan Eisen, a father of four who with his family most recently lived in the Pico-Robertson area, “[though] it was a little tough saying goodbye to some friends.” 

The youngest person on the flight was 3 1/2 weeks old. The oldest was 85. 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and NBN co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart were among those who addressed the olim during a welcoming ceremony in an airplane hangar at Ben Gurion airport. 

“You are no longer Jews in exile,” Rivlin said, speaking to a crowd of hundreds, including current Israeli soldiers who came to greet the olim. “You are Israelis.”

Ethiopian Jews take aliyah quest to Camp Ramah

Gezahegn Dereve and Demoz Deboch have dreamed of making aliyah to Israel from Ethiopia for almost their entire lives.

As children, the young men moved with their families from rural villages to an Israeli government-sponsored Jewish compound in the Ethiopian city of Gondar, leaving behind everything they owned. They and thousands of other Ethiopians who claim Jewish lineage saw the journey as a first step toward making aliyah. 

Now, years later, having grown up immersed in Judaism, studying at a Jewish school, learning to speak Hebrew, reading the Torah and honoring Jewish traditions, Dereve and Deboch are still waiting to go to the Holy Land. On Aug. 14, the young men stood before dozens of teenagers and staff at Camp Ramah in Ojai to ask them to help put pressure on the Israeli government to allow them to fulfill their dream.

“We believe that our homeland is Israel,” Deboch, 24, said. “We believe we are brothers. We are from one ancestor — we came from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

“It is time to return to our country,” Dereve, 21, added. “We came here to make it soon, and to ask for help from you.”

Dereve and Deboch’s stop at Camp Ramah, a Conservative Jewish summer camp located about 80 miles north of Los Angeles, was part of a monthlong speaking tour organized by a group of American Jewish leaders and rabbis sympathetic to the plight of some 9,000 Ethiopian Jews waiting for aliyah in transit camps in Gondar and the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. These Jews, known as the Falash Mura, a pejorative Ethiopian term that means “outsider,” profess to come from a long line of Jews, although some of their ancestors converted to Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries, often because of persecution and economic duress.  

Over the past 30 years, tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews have immigrated into Israel, including thousands of Falash Mura, with the help of the Israeli government. In 2013, the Jewish Agency announced the end of Ethhiopian aliyah, saying that Israel had finally “closed the circle” on returning these Jews to their ancestral homeland.

The 9,000 Falash Mura still living in Gondar and Addis Ababa, many of whom have relatives in Israel, did not qualify as Jewish under the country’s Law of Return. That law requires at least one Jewish grandparent and does not accept people who converted to another religion in the past. However, in November of last year, under mounting pressure, the Israeli government agreed to allow the remaining 9,000 Ethiopian Jews to immigrate.

That immigration has yet to happen. In February, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the state didn’t have the $1 billion it needed to absorb the remaining Falash Mura into Israeli society. A later agreement to bring some of the Falash Mura to Israel starting in June has stalled.

The delay is “devastating” for the Falash Mura, said David Elcott, a professor at New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service, who helped organize Dereve and Deboch’s visit to the United States.

“These guys both have siblings in Israel, aunts and uncles in Israel, cousins in Israel, nephews and nieces in Israel that they have not seen in 15 years,” Elcott said. “The idea that we would consciously and knowingly tear families apart is unconscionable just on a humanitarian basis.”

So far, Devere and Deboch have visited Jewish leaders, summer camps, rabbis and other members of the Jewish community in New York, Florida, Washington, D.C., and now Southern California. They spent three days at Camp Ramah, where they shared meals and participated in services, as well as speaking directly to about 500 campers. 

They are asking American Jews to put pressure on the Israeli government to speed up the immigration of the Falash Mura by signing an online petition. More than 600 people have signed the petition, accessible through the Facebook page titled “Return to Zion — Completing the Exodus of the Ethiopian Jews.”

Dereve told the Journal he has enjoyed meeting American Jews and is happy to be able to share his people’s story. But he also feels angry that he has to go to such lengths to achieve what he considers a birthright.

“We think and hope that the situation now will change and we will do aliyah and move to Israel,” he said, speaking in Hebrew through a translator. “But I think to myself, why are we asking for help all the time? Why can’t we just be like any other Jews? … We have to come all the way to America and talk about it and ask for help.”

The two men told the Journal their lives in Ethiopia are forever on hold as they wait to go to Israel. They said their community also is terrified by current ethnic strife in Ethiopia, and they worry that Jews — already ostracized by Christians and Muslims — will become targets. 

Both men said when they move to Israel, they intend to join the Israeli army. Deboch, currently a university student in Ethiopia, dreams of becoming an ambassador. Devere’s goal is to be a doctor.

Rabbi Joe Menashe, Camp Ramah’s executive director, said his decision to have the Ethiopians visit the summer camp was not an official endorsement of their request for support. However, Menashe said he believed campers would learn from the speakers about the broader Jewish community and the role of the State of Israel.

“At Camp Ramah, we believe in the State of Israel, we believe in the Jewish people, we believe in Jewish values, and this is something that touches all of those, and expands and exposes our kids to a real living, breathing part of the Jewish people,” he said. “We’re not just teaching about a subject in school, but we’re teaching about something that shapes who we are and the trajectory of lives.”

Some of the campers said they had already heard about the plight of the Ethiopian Jews, while others said it was their first time. Many marveled that the men had come from such a faraway place to visit.

Camper Aliza Abusch-Magder, 15, of Atlanta, said she was deeply touched by the men’s story and felt heartbroken that they have not been able to go to Israel.

“I thought it was really incredible. I mean, Israel is somewhere that was created as a safe haven for Jews and yet the Jews who need the safety and the love of the community the most aren’t getting it,” she said. It’s “really upsetting because it’s not how I like to picture Israel.”

Bradley Gerber, 15, of West Hills, said he was impressed with Dereve and Deboch and intended to sign their petition.

“I think it’s incredible that people from halfway across the world have such a passion to go to Israel,” he said. “I wish them the best of luck.”

Mom, Dad: Welcome home — to Israel

When Shoshanah Kahn, now 57, made aliyah from the United States with her husband and children 24 years ago, her parents were an active Los Angeles-based couple in their 60s.

But as her parents, Adaire and Manny Klein, grew older — they’re now 84 and 87, respectively — they began to miss their three adult children, who lived out of state and in Israel.

“They were very happy in L.A.,” Kahn said, “but they finally came to the realization they needed to move closer to one of us.  It took a long time but they decided to live in Jerusalem.”

Kahn said the move took some getting used to for everyone, but that she and her parents — including her mother, the long-time librarian at the Simon Wiesenthal Center — feel blessed to finally live in the same city. 

“There’s no question it’s been a big adjustment,” Kahn said. “For one thing, it’s taken time for them to get used to the medical system. They had the same doctor for 30 years, and here they had to start from scratch.”

One decision that eased the transition was the Kleins’ eagerness to move into an assisted living facility.

“They both have physical challenges, and in the beginning needed me to take them everywhere. Now they get themselves into a taxi and go everywhere. I try to give them as much independence as possible and they want that independence,” Kahn said.

While millions of members of the boomer generation are caring for aging parents, additional factors come into play when boomers who made aliyah bring their parents to live in the Jewish state, experts say. 

“As with boomers everywhere, just when your kids are getting out of the house, mom needs to move in,” said Josie Arbel, director of absorption and programming at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. “But those stresses are complicated by distance.” 

Although some elderly parents decide to make aliyah because they have a lifelong dream of living in Israel, Arbel said, more often than not the catalyst is the death of one of the parents or the illness of both that prompts a move to Israel to join family. Arbel advises olim who bring their parents to have a frank talk with them before the latter’s aliyah. 

What are your expectations and their expectations? How involved do they want and expect you to be? If your parents are relatively independent, they will still need to rely on their Hebrew-speaking children to deal with Israeli bureaucracy: the health care system, city taxes and various appointments. 

Although Israel’s excellent universal health care system must provide medical care to citizens of any age, in any condition (the first year is free for new olim), the supplementary insurance provided by the various health funds (HMOs) for an additional fee may deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, Arbel said. Immigrants must be in Israel at least 183 days per year to be eligible for government health care.

Where newly arrived elderly parents will live is arguably the most important decision a family can make, she said. 

“Sometimes a parent will say, ‘My kids want me to move to Modi’in [located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv] but I’d like a social life, so want to live in Jerusalem.’ How does the parent see his or her retirement? There are many opportunities for seniors, a huge amount of volunteer opportunities and learning enrichment,”  Arbel said.

Those who can’t live on their own can choose from a wide assortment of assisted living facilities and nursing homes all over Israel. Others choose to live in their children’s homes, an adjoining “granny flat” or a separate apartment with or without a caregiver. 

Barbara Brown, director of Aliyah121 Private Aliyah Assistance and Consultation Services for Seniors, is a geriatric social worker. She advises family members to really talk and listen to one another when considering aliyah at an older age. That’s good advice for any parent making this kind of transition, but especially important for a change of this magnitude. 

“Children, find out what your parents want, what you can do for them, what they can do independently. Parents, you need to think where you want be in relation to your adult children as you grow older and may need some assistance and support,” Brown said. “For some, joining their children in Israel can be an excellent move, while in some situations, if they are settled safely and have good support abroad, perhaps they might consider not moving. Good pre-aliyah planning and consultation can help make for a better decision.” 

Brown said that, just as in North America, many Israeli retirement homes and assisted living facilities have a nursing branch on-site. 

“Dad may need nursing care on the sixth floor while mom is much more independent on the second floor. They can eat and spend time together if they like, even while living in different departments based upon their different needs.”

Some facilities require a deposit, which range from  tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, but charge lower monthly fees, while others require no deposit but can cost around $3,500 and upward per month, Brown said. Nursing home beds can range from around $2,600 to nearly $5,000 per month. Nursing homes and some assisted living facilities receive government subsidies for those who cannot afford but need the care.

Brown’s own mother moved into an independent living residence in Jerusalem after selling a home in Canada. This enabled her to pay an entrance fee and a “fairly reasonable” monthly maintenance fee that covers security, on-site medical services as well as activities. 

A free, comprehensive, step-by-step guide to the issue of elderly parents and Israel has been written by Fern Allen, who based it on her own experiences. “An Informal Guide to Bringing Your Elderly Parents to Israel,” available by emailing jewishpapercuts@gmail.com, covers topics ranging from finding the best health fund to finding a paid caregiver. 

Allen said caring for an elderly parent requires an extraordinary amount of time and energy, but it’s worth it. 

“Your work and family life will be tremendously disrupted,” Allen said, “but this is a precious time you’ll never regret.”

Film on French fugitive living free in Israel stirs unease

An authoritative voice and phone credit was all Gilbert Chikli needed to steal millions of euros from seasoned bankers and businessmen in his native France.

One of France’s most famous criminals, the 50-year-old Chikli was sentenced in May by a Paris court to seven years in jail for defrauding dozens of telephone victims out of more than $8 million in 2005-06 while he was living in Israel.

But Chikli is living as a free man in Israel — the country has no extradition treaty with France.

Now his story is getting a fresh look because of a new and controversial French film starring President Francois Hollande’s girlfriend, Julie Gayet, based loosely on the Chikli saga. Coming at a time of rising Jewish emigration from France to Israel, the French-language feature “Thank You for Calling” (known in France as “Je Compte sur Vous,” French for “I’m counting on you”) is drawing attention in both countries to a criminal fringe of French Jews for whom aliyah, or immigration to Israel, serves as a get-out-of-jail card.

In Chikli’s case, he scammed his victims from Israel by presenting himself as a secret service agent in need of their help or as the president of the financial enterprise where they worked. After building trust and preying on victims’ insecurities or vanity, he persuaded them to empty accounts belonging to their clients.

In one case, Chikli had a mark give an accomplice in Paris $400,000 in a bag that she passed to him under the divide of a public restroom. The cloak-and-dagger techniques were necessary, Chikli told her, to protect the identity of the “secret agent” handling the dropoff.

At other times, he asked victims to put clients’ money into a “temporary account” so that France’s DSGE foreign intelligence agency could “flag” the money before returning it to the owner. In reality, Chikli emptied the fictitious recipient accounts and kept the money.

Gilbert Chikli giving an interview at his Ashdod home, Dec. 29, 2015. (Courtesy of i24 News)

Gilbert Chikli giving an interview at his Ashdod home, Dec. 29, 2015. Photo courtesy of i24 News

Chikli, a tall and handsome man, fled France in 2009 for Israel through a third country while French police were working to indict him. He already had spent three years in jail awaiting indictment, but was set free that year due to a lack of evidence; the prosecution presented its evidence only in 2011. Far from disputing his 2015 conviction, Chikli has bragged to the media about his technique, which he labeled “the president scam” in an interview he gave last December to i24 TV.

“When it works,” he boasted, “you get off on it. Because you’re 5,000 kilometers from Paris with a telephone and a 100-euro calling card and you can make 10 million euros” (over $11 million). Eloquent and self-confident, Chikli told France 2 in an earlier interview: “I’m not a crook. I’m a player, and it was a game to me.”

Justice Ministry officials from France and Israel said talks are ongoing about extraditing Chikli, whom Israeli police questioned many times and briefly arrested in September in connection with a brawl.

Chikli says he has a good life in Israel, where he deals in real estate. He even recently earned an undisclosed amount, estimated at several thousand euros, from consultancy services he gave to Pascal Elbe, the French-Jewish director of the new film based on his story.

Released in December in France, the film generated unprecedented attention on Chikli in the mainstream media as the symbol of an Israeli-French underworld that is out of reach of French authorities because of the complications in extraditing suspects from Israel. Likewise, suspects in France are out of reach of Israeli authorities because French laws restrict extradition only to EU member states.

“It’s a small phenomenon that is part of the much larger issue of criminality during globalization,” Elbe told JTA.

Elbe’s film has led the French media, including the TF1 and France 2 television channels, to devote extensive coverage in recent months to what they call the “Franco-Israeli mafia.”

This attention is troubling to many French Jews, including Avi Zana, director of the nonprofit Ami Israel, which helps French immigrants in Israel integrate into their new society.

Calling the coverage “disproportionate,” Zana said the apparent presence of a few dozen French criminals in Israel is a “normal result of an increase in French aliyah and diversification in the spectrum of newcomers. It does not suggest any proclivity to criminality” among French immigrants to Israel.

The crooks among the newcomers, Zana said, “are detested by the rest of us, who feel they give us and Israel a bad name.”

Elbe’s film, he said, “is regrettably blowing things out of context at a time when French Jews have already enough trouble from anti-Semitic stereotypes this film risks augmenting.”

French-Jewish director Pascal Elbe giving an interview in Marseille, June 2014. (Screenshot from YouTube)French-Jewish director Pascal Elbe giving an interview in Marseille, June 2014.  Photo is screenshot from YouTube

Elbe, who is Jewish, said he anticipated the film “would be a divisive” among French Jews, but decided to make it anyway because “the subject is fascinating and anti-Semites can’t be allowed to intimidate us into self-censorship.”

Last year, Israeli prosecutors charged 10 recent immigrants from France for alleged telephone scams, cyber crimes and real-estate fraud — all involving France-based victims. The exact number of French citizens thought to be evading authorities in Israel is unknown, but France has sent to Israel at least 70 formal requests for judicial assistance with cases involving suspected fraud by dual nationals residing in the Jewish state, according to a 2014 expose by the Challenges weekly. Compliance on the Israeli side was partial.

While some suspects have been extradited – including the 2015 case of an insurance scammer who killed someone in an arson in Paris – Israel is reluctant to extradite because Paris will not reciprocate, said Sammy Ghozlan, a French former police commissioner who moved to Israel last year.

Ghozlan noted France’s refusal to hand over two French citizens whom Israeli authorities sought to prosecute in connection with a 2011 hit-and-run in Tel Aviv that killed Lee Zeitouni, a 25-year-old fitness instructor.

Ignoring Israel’s requests for extradition, a Paris court in 2014 gave her killers, Eric Robic and Claude Khayat, prison sentences of five years and 15 months, respectively, for leaving Zeitouni for dead before fleeing the country.

Israeli justice officials insist they maintain a “tight cooperation on crime prevention” with France, a Justice Ministry official told JTA.

But the lack of an extradition treaty, Ghozlan said, means that some crooks “use aliyah as a way of setting up shop out of sight and reach of French police who know them well.” However, he added, the 10 arrests last year in Israel “show that Israeli and French justice authorities have learned to cooperate and share information despite complications.”

In parallel, Israeli authorities have made it more difficult for foreign nationals to open bank accounts in Israel as part of a larger effort against money laundering launched in 2010.

French aliyah has been rising steadily. The 7,238 newcomers in 2014 tripled the number of French immigrants in 2013, and aliyah rose again in 2015, to nearly 8,000 immigrants. Experts attribute the growth to violent anti-Semitic attacks and a stagnant economy in France.

French Jews, struggling to find work in Israel, consider going home

Before she traded her native France for Israel, Catherine Berdah ran a successful drug store in an affluent suburb on the eastern edge of Paris.

A 50-year-old pharmacist with a master’s degree in business and decades of experience, Berdah earned over $6,000 per month and presided over an expanding business with 14 employees. But Berdah sold out last year and moved with her husband and two teenage daughters to this central Israeli city because she feared for their future in France amid rising anti-Semitic violence.

Berdah hoped to build a new pharmacy business in the Jewish state. But six months after settling here, she has already quit a $6-per-hour job as a cashier that offered no prospect of advancement and another in a health clinic where she was told to stack boxes in a storage room. Berdah left the latter because she was unable to lift the boxes.

“At 60, I was told that lifting boxes was basically all I’m good for,” Bredah said. “That’s when I started to feel humiliated.”

Now Berdah is studying Hebrew and waiting to take an exam that will grant her an Israeli pharmacist’s license. But before she can do that, she must meet a range of demands, including that she produce her attendance log from a pharmacology internship she completed 30 years ago with a French pharmacist who is no longer alive. According to Qualita, an umbrella group of 12 French immigrant associations in Israel, the exam has an 80 percent fail rate.

All of which has Berdah wondering if she made a terrible mistake in uprooting her comfortable life in France for a chance at a better one in Israel.

“I’m going to give it another year,” Berdah said. “But it’s not going too well.”

Some 15,000 French Jews have settled in Israel in the past two years alone, driven here by a combination of rising anti-Semitism and economic stagnation, among other factors. But while their impact is felt everywhere from the opening of multiple kosher patisseries to the launch last year of a French-language kindergarten to the sounds of yarmulke-wearing boys imitating their favorite French movie stars in Raanana’s Yad L’Banim Square, Israel’s Francophone newcomers are struggling to make economic inroads.

Their plight recalls that of Russian immigrants who arrived in Israel in the 1990s, many of them highly trained professionals with advanced degrees forced to work low-skill jobs as garbage collectors and street sweepers because their credentials did not transfer.

“French physicians, nurses and pharmacists who’ve studied for five, eight years won’t work here as sanitary workers like their Russian counterparts did in the 1990s,” said Mickael Bensadoun, the director of Qualita. “They’re Zionist, but there’s a limit. And if it comes to that, they’ll return to France or move to countries hungry for skilled newcomers, like Canada.”

Both Bensadoun and Berdah believe Israeli authorities have presented unnecessary obstacles to protect local professionals from immigrant competition. The Israeli Health Ministry declined to respond to the charge and referred all inquiries to the Ministry for Immigrant Absorption, which told JTA that efforts are underway to smooth out the certification process for health care professionals.

“We represent a boon for Israel, please don’t put us through a bureaucratic hell for this desire,” David Tibi, a dentist who immigrated to Israel in 2014, wrote in a letter last month to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the meantime, French immigrants are taking matters into their own hands. In 2014, they launched an aggressive lobbying effort to break through the bureaucratic tangles they fault for making absorption exceedingly difficult for those already in Israel, while deterring countless others from coming.

The lobbying, led by Qualita and its member organizations, has already led to some changes, including the easing of certification requirements for French physicians in 2014 and pending legislation that would exempt experienced French dentists from taking a certification exam. Other professionals still must undergo thorough testing to work, regardless of their experience or the French standards they meet.

Last month, the lobbying effort received a big push from Meyer Habib, a Jewish member of France’s National Assembly and friend of Netanyahu, who declared he would advise French Jews against moving to Israel unless progress is made within three months.

“I cannot support a situation which creates tragedies in people’s lives,” Habib wrote on Facebook.

According to Bensadoun, some 300-400 French health care professionals cannot work in their chosen field because of certification issues. He also pointed to official figures suggesting that the situation is leading 15-20 percent of French immigrants to return to France within two years.

Still, Bensadoun says he is optimistic, partly because of lessons drawn from the trials of Russian immigrants in the 1990s.

“The Russian olim’s success and immense contribution to Israel’s rise as a start-up nation have created an awareness in the Knesset and public of the potential dividends from educated olim,” said Bensadoun, using the Hebrew word for immigrants. “In a way, we’re sailing in their wake.”

For all her troubles, Berdah is not quite ready to give up on Israel. But the situation has put strains on her marriage. Her husband, Michel, wants the family to return.

“You think you have something to offer here?” Michel says as they argue on the subject. “Israel doesn’t want anything from you.”

Berdah, in turn, has her own disagreements with her oldest daughter, Clara, 18, who wants to stay in Israel and – to Berdah’s chagrin – serve in an army combat unit. Her younger daughter, Naomi, has acclimated well at her high school, where she studies in a special class for new immigrants and is considering starting a modeling career.

“The silver lining here is that the girls are really fitting in,” Berdah said. “It makes me wonder whether Israel really wants us or only our children.”

Fleeing recession and violence, Brazilian Jews moving to Israel in record numbers

For four years, llana Lerner Kalmanovich rode a hot and crowded bus three hours each day to reach the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, where she was pursuing degrees in physical education and nutrition.

Police raids into nearby slums, or favelas, often blocked the freeway, and stray bullets from gun battles with criminals were a constant threat. Even on the Federal University campus, the oldest and among the most prestigious in Brazil, Kalmanovich felt unsafe. Robberies were commonplace and, every now then, corpses were found in the nearby woods.

So in 2007, Kalmanovich moved to Israel. She had spent a whole year there a decade earlier on a youth movement program and fallen in love with the country. And though she holds German citizenship and could have built a new life for herself in Europe, there was never any doubt she would make her home in the Jewish state.

“Israel is the place where I feel at home, happy, among my people,” Kalmanovich told JTA. “We say ‘Shabbat shalom’ to the bus driver, to the garbage man, to the sales clerk. Everyone shares mostly the same social and economic level. We all celebrate the same national holidays. It’s like living in a huge kibbutz of 8 million people. Here I am the rule, not the exception.”

Kalmanovich is not alone. Immigration to Israel, or aliyah, from Brazil has more than doubled in the past four years, from 191 in 2011 to over 400 so far this year. The average growth in aliyah for all of Latin America in the same period was just 7 percent. Though it has approximately half the Jewish population of neighboring Argentina, Brazil has sent more immigrants to Israel for two years running. An estimated 120,000 Jews live in Brazil.

“They seek a better future,” said Gladis Berezowsky, 58, who helps run Beit Brasil, a nongovernmental organization based in Israel established in 2014 to assist Brazilians seeking to move to Israel.

Brazil, a nation of 200 million, is facing its steepest recession in a quarter century, with the economy expected to shrink by almost 2 percent this year – down from more than 7 percent GDP growth in 2010. The Brazilian real has shrunk 138 percent compared to the American dollar in the past five years and the inflation rate has edged up to 10 percent.

The country is also one of the bloodiest on earth, with more than 58,000 Brazilians dying a violent death in 2014.

“More people are killed every year in Brazil through intentional violence than anywhere else on the planet, including most of the world’s war zones combined,” said Robert Muggah, a research director of a Rio-based think tank that studies the intersection between violence and the drug trade.

“The absurd violence in Rio was postponing our plans to have children,” said Silvia Brafman, 33, who moved from Brazil’s second-largest city to Haifa in late October with her husband. “The high unemployment rate and lack of opportunities were the second reason to head for Israel. The current stabbing wave here does not scare us at all. What really frightens me most is the language, which can delay my entering the job market.”

Fabio Erlich, 33, hasn’t had that problem. Erlich, who moved last year with his wife and three daughters to the central Israeli city of Modiin, secured jobs at two Jerusalem yeshivas before he arrived with help from Brazilian friends who were already established in the country.

Brazilian immigrant Fabio Erlich, far left, with his family and other Brazilian emigres in the Israeli city of Modiin. (Courtesy of Erlich family)Fabio Erlich, standing left, with his family and other Brazilian emigres in the Israeli city of Modiin. Photo courtesy of Erlich family

“We wanted to give our children a better quality of life in the educational, social and religious fields,” Erlich said. “Israel allows you to be a Jew with no limitations, not only in the outside but mainly deep within. Finding a job in Israel made our big Zionist dream come true.”

Brazilian Jews have traditionally boasted a comfortable upper-middle-class life, but things are changing. Several Jewish day schools have merged or are in the process in order to survive, while administrators at some of them say the number of scholarship applications has never been higher.

“We have seen a 100 percent rise in requests recently,” said Yehoshua Goldman, the chief Rio representative of Chabad, which runs Lar da Esperanca (Home of Hope), an organization for Jews in financial need.

Despite the economic slowdown, real estate prices have nearly tripled in some parts of Rio in the past five years. Carlos Cohen, 36, a skilled IT specialist, could not afford the exorbitant rents, so he found an apartment in a favela near his office. When his daughter was born, Cohen realized he needed to get out.

“The high-tech market here is very vibrant,” said Cohen, who moved to the coastal city of Netanya with his family in 2012. “You only remain jobless if you want. We are proud to call this place ours, where we can truly put our citizenship in practice. Urban violence here is nearly zero, the safety feeling is absolute. We now can finally raise our family in a better place.”

For Martin and Michele Teitelbaum, being robbed in broad daylight in Higienopolis, an upscale and heavily Jewish neighborhood of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, was the last straw. In 2010, they took their three children – ages 2, 5 and 7 – and headed for Raanana, a city in central Israel with a large population of immigrants from Europe and the Americas.

“In Brazil, I was merely one more trying to survive,” Martin said.

“Life was sort of superfluous there, with many inverted values,” Michele added. “Here in Israel we value what must be valued.”

Psychologist Rita Cohen Wolf is a neighbor of the Teitelbaums in Raanana, where she settled in 1977 after she had been robbed eight times in Brazil. The last time, she had a gun pointed at her head.

In 2014, Wolf posted an open letter to President Dilma Rousseff on Facebook in which she criticized the violence in Brazil. She was astonished to see it republished in the Brazilian press.

“In Brazil, violence is felt every day,” Wolf told JTA. “In Israel, we don’t feel threatened with imminent violence. The feeling of security with our police and army plus unity of the population reinforces the generalized feeling that we are not alone.”

Marcus Moraes is JTA's correspondent in Rio de Janeiro. A freelance journalist and columnist, he contributes to Brazilian Jewish newspapers, magazines and news portals. He also produces news content for Web sites.

Israeli Cabinet approves immigration of 9,000 more Ethiopians of Jewish descent

Israel’s government has approved the entry of some 9,000 Ethiopians who claim Jewish descent, two years after bringing what it said was the final airlift of Ethiopians to Israel.

The Cabinet on Sunday unanimously voted to bring the Ethiopians, known as Falash Mura, to Israel over the next five years.

Falash Mura are Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago but now seek to return to Judaism and immigrate to Israel. Their permanent entry into Israel will be dependent on completing the conversion process.

“Today we made an important decision, to bring to Israel the last of the Ethiopian communities waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement after the vote. “This is an important step that will enable the reunification of Ethiopian families who are in the country, some of which have been split over the years.”

About 135,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent are living in Israel. Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel during Operation Moses in 1984 and Operation Solomon in 1992.

Israel announced in August 2013 that it had brought the last of the eligible Falash Mura to the country after a steady trickle of approximately 200 Ethiopian immigrants per month had been coming to Israel since 2010, when Israel launched Operation Wings of a Dove after checking the aliyah eligibility of an additional 8,000 Ethiopians. Many of those that remained had family who were already in Israel.

For aliyah promoters, Ukraine’s troubles provide a boost

Until April of last year, Julia Podinovskaya felt like she had a pretty good handle on where her life was going.

Born to a middle-class Jewish family in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, Podinovskaya, who is in her 20s, was volunteering with the local Jewish community while preparing to finish her bachelor’s degree in education at a local university.

Moving to Israel, or anywhere else, was not on her mind.

“Everything was planned,” she said in an interview at a Jewish summer camp near Tbilisi, the capital city of this republic. “On my father’s birthday, I already knew what I would give him the following year.”

But Podinovskaya’s life was turned upside down in the spring of 2014 when her city — and its Jewish community — were ripped apart in deadly fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian government troops. When the university shut down, Podinovskaya began helping the Jews of Donetsk, restarting the besieged city’s cultural activities for Jewish children after their shuttering because of the war.

In February she left for Kharkiv, a city located 185 miles northwest of her hometown, joining hundreds of thousands of internally displaced Ukrainians.

Now, after spending the summer at the Zionist camp in Georgia, Podinovskaya is considering leaving Ukraine for Israel.

While not “instinctively attracted” to the idea of living in the Jewish state, Podinovskaya said, “I need to weigh my options because of the circumstances of my life.”

The summer camp she attended, Tchelet, is run by the Kiev-based Zionist Seminary, or Midrasha Zionit. It’s part of an effort by the Jewish Agency, which works to facilitate immigration to Israel and co-funds the camp, to reach out to Ukrainian and other Russian speakers who once had been resistant to the idea of moving to Israel.

“Generally speaking, those who wanted to leave left in the ’90s,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, referring to the approximately 1 million Jews who came to Israel from the former Soviet Union.

But war has driven thousands more to Israel, or at least to consider the possibility. From January to August, 4,204 Ukrainian Jews immigrated to Israel — a 50 percent increase over the corresponding period the previous year. That’s on top of a nearly 200 percent increase in immigration to Israel, or aliyah, between 2013 and 2014. In the latter year, 5,920 Ukrainians moved to Israel. Only France, whose Jewish population is about twice that of Ukraine’s, sent more immigrants to Israel in 2014.

War and instability are also contributing to aliyah from neighboring Russia, where the economy is suffering from international sanctions connected to its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and support for separatists. The conflict also has unleashed a nationalistic resurgence that is making many Russian Jews uncomfortable.

Aliyah from Russia in the first seven months of 2015 was 3,756 people — a 52 percent increase over the same period last year. Sharansky told JTA that he expects 6,000 Russian Jews and 7,000 Ukrainians to make aliyah this year. The European Jewish Congress estimates that there are 260,000 Jews in Russia and 380,000 in Ukraine.

“In Russia there’s a serious increase from Moscow and St. Petersburg that we haven’t seen in the past, and that’s mainly businessmen, intelligentsia, people who are afraid to find themselves closed off from the free world,” Sharansky said.

Amid the increased interest in aliyah from Ukraine and Russia, the Tchelet camp expanded this summer to include families in addition to its usual groups of teenagers and young adults. This was also the first summer that Tchelet was taking place in Georgia; from 2008 to 2014, the camp was situated in Ukraine, near Kiev, where the Zionist Seminary was established in 2006.

The move to Georgia was part of a push by the Jewish Agency to relocate nearly 1,000 youths from Jewish summer camps in Ukraine. Recognizing an increase in demand for aliyah among populations of Ukrainian and Russian Jews, the Jewish Agency sent in dozens of extra workers to facilitate the influx.

Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry, meanwhile, responded to the Ukraine war by simplifying aliyah procedures for Jews in eastern Ukraine. And the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews — a Christian-funded group that has facilitated aliyah as well as community life in the former Soviet Union and beyond — stepped in with extra funding of millions of dollars for relief operations and special aliyah flights from Ukraine.

At Tchelet, 140 participants — most of them young, single adults, but also some families — stayed for one to two weeks this month at a rustic mountain resort. The visitors — the majority were from Ukraine and Russia, but also some from Belarus, Israel and even France — attended mandatory discussion and workshop sessions led by a mostly modern Orthodox staff about the Jews’ biblical connections to the Land of Israel and their longing for it in the Diaspora.

But at the end of each day, groups of young men and women, many wielding guitars and sometimes a bottle of vodka or two, went down to the lake or stayed indoors as they sang a repertoire of Israeli, Ukrainian and Russian pop songs until the wee hours of the morning.

Despite the counselors’ declared commitment to promoting aliyah, some participants came in the hope of strengthening Jewish life in Ukraine, not Israel.

“This year I came here with the goal of finding a bride,” said Itshak Reynish, a 28-year-old Orthodox Jew from Kiev who has attended Tchelet for seven consecutive years.

Reynish said he does not intend to leave.

“Who said all Jews should leave? I think we should stay and make a strong community,” he said. “At least I intend to.”

Tchelet instructor Efraim Bogolyubov, who grew up in a secular home in Kiev but became religiously observant and made aliyah in 2012, said that despite the aliyah push, “we also give them the feeling it’s legitimate to stay and be Jewish back home.”

(The Zionist Seminary sponsored Cnaan Liphshiz’s trip to Georgia. It had no role in the writing or editing of this story.)

Fifteen percent of West Bank settlers are American citizens.

Fifteen percent of West Bank settlers are American citizens.

According to an Oxford University professor, approximately 60,000 American Jews live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Haaretz reported Thursday.

“This provides hard evidence that this constituency is strikingly over-represented, both within the settler population itself and within the total population of Jewish American immigrants in Israel,” Sara Yael Hirschhorn, the author of the forthcoming book “City on a Hilltop: Jewish-American Settlers in the Occupied Territories Since 1967,” said during a presentation at Jerusalem’s Limmud conference, Haaretz reported.

The book will be published by Harvard University Press next year.

An estimated 170,000 American immigrants and their children live in Israel, according to Haaretz.

Hirschhorn said her findings contradict much of the conventional wisdom about American Israelis who immigrated in the 1960s and ‘70s, particularly that they came to Israel for lack of any other options, that they were very Orthodox and that they had supported right-wing causes in America.

Hirschhorn said her research reveals that most American Jewish settlers came when they “were young, single, highly-educated – something like 10 percent of American settlers in the occupied territories hold PhDs, they’re upwardly mobile, they’re traditional but not necessarily Orthodox in their religious practice, and most importantly, they were politically active in the leftist socialist movements in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s and voted for the Democratic Party prior to their immigration to Israel.”

She said her 10 years of research reveal a portrait that “is one of young, idealistic, intelligent and seasoned liberal Americans who were Zionist activists, and who were eager to apply their values and experiences to the Israeli settler movement.”

According to Haaretz, Hirschhorn said at Limmud that she reached the following conclusion about this group of immigrants: “They’re not only compelled by some biblical imperative to live in the Holy Land of Israel and hasten the coming of the messiah, but also deeply inspired by an American vision of pioneering and building new suburbanized utopian communities in the occupied territories. They draw on their American background and mobilize the language they were comfortable with, discourses about human rights and civil liberties that justify the kind of work that they’re doing.”

Many American settlers “use the values and language of the left to justify projects on the right,” she added.

For Americans making aliyah, lacrosse, army service and real estate dreams beckon

Professional lacrosse player Chase Clark was told that there are three keys to survival in Israel: Realize that everyone else thinks their time is more important than yours, avoid the crazy drivers while crossing the road and enjoy yourself as much as possible.

Before this month, Clark had never been to the Jewish state. But on July 13, the Grand Junction, Colorado, resident moved there — with big plans to play for the country’s national indoor lacrosse team.

“I found out later in life that I wanted to find more of my religion,” said Clark, who has a blue and yellow Star of David tattoo on his calf. “Now I’m going to the holiest place in the world. How can you not be excited about that?”

Clark, 25, was one of 221 Jews who moved to Israel on Monday via the 53rd charter flight organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit founded in 2002 to encourage and facilitate the aliyah process for Jews from North America and the United Kingdom. The organization is funded in part by the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and private donations.

For most of the passengers, who hailed from 14 states and Canada and ranged in age from 4 months to 90 years (Sue Tyler Friedman, grandmother of Knesset member Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu party), the flight was an epic mix of celebration, unease and hope for the future.

A Nefesh B’Nefesh flight is always bookended by two ceremonies — a measured one at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and a raucous celebratory one at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv. On Tuesday morning, the olim, the Hebrew word for new immigrants, were greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters and some Israeli lawmakers, including Azaria and Oren Hazan of the Likud party.

“You are the answer to BDS,” Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, told the olim at the JFK ceremony, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that targets the Israeli economy. “You are the answer to anti-Semitism. You are the answer to those who would question the existence of the Jewish state.”

Clark, who played three years in America’s National Lacrosse League and has lived in Australia, Canada and the Czech Republic, says he feels indebted to Israel for giving him the chance to continue to play the sport he loves. In his mid-20s, Clark says he is getting “old” in lacrosse years, due in no small part to his multiple shoulder injuries and broken bones. (He also notes that all of his front teeth are fake.)

He still owns a lacrosse and hockey goods store in Grand Junction, and says once he’s done playing professionally, he hopes to open a lacrosse goods shop in Israel, too.

For Tracy Beavers, 35, an African-American Jew from Columbus, Ohio, who is moving with her family, it was an extended visit in 2012 that convinced her and her husband to realize their dream of buying a piece of land in Israel’s north.

For Hilla Singerman, 19, from what she calls the “little shtetl” of Pikesville, Maryland, near Baltimore, it was a recent gap year after high school that convinced her that she belonged in Israel (even the “creepy cats” that she says lurk in the dumpsters there did not bother her). Both Hilla and her brother, Yaniv, 21, who is also making aliyah, will serve in the Israeli army.

“All of my friends picked their colleges for the school color, and I just decided that army green was my thing,” she joked.

There were 32 families and 95 children on Monday’s flight, but of the 53 single adult olim, 12 of them will serve in the Israel Defense Forces shortly after they arrive. A former Marine, Elliot Joseph, who did not want to give his last name because of past positions in the military, is 29 and has passed the age of mandatory IDF service but wants to join nonetheless.

After being injured in Afghanistan in his fourth tour of duty, Elliot Joseph took a trip to Israel and remembers feeling connected to the country on his first day.

“I remember watching a Holocaust survivor sitting in a restaurant in downtown Tel Aviv. He was speaking in German or Yiddish, and he was completely happy, satisfied with his life where it was at,” Elliott Joseph said. “I remember seeing that and thinking that after all the horrible things that I saw overseas, I knew that I, too, could be happy like that. It really gave me some hope.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founder Tony Gelbart said that immigration to Israel from North America is usually driven by wanting to be in Israel, as opposed to emigration from Europe, for which rising anti-Semitism is often the main impetus.

“The truth is, for [European Jews], they’re running away from something,” Gelbart said. “… Nobody’s running away from America because of the blatant anti-Semitism there or, God forbid, something worse than that. This is something that they’re running to.”

(JTA’s Gabe Friedman traveled to Israel courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh.)

As a Jew, would you stay in France?

In the wake of the horrific terrorist killings in France, my heart took many turns. First there was shock, soon replaced by grief, then anger, followed by resolve. Now it may be time for reflection.

The response from the French and then the Israelis to the two attacks raised some important issues for Jews living in the Diaspora and also in Israel.

I have been struck by the irony of Israel’s offer of the Jewish state as a safe haven for Jews. Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky, the heroic chairman of the Jewish Agency whose task is to bring Jews to Israel, have reiterated the familiar and all-important offer: Jews are welcome in Israel. We want you here. This is your home. It is here that you are safe.

Such words stir the heart of every Jew who remembers the desperation of Jews fleeing Germany and later German-occupied Europe — Jews who were unwanted everywhere else.

But does this promise still hold true? We shall return to that question.

What has changed in the aftermath of the recent events in France — the murderous attack at Charlie Hebdo, the killings of innocent shoppers at the Jewish supermarket, the worldwide march of solidarity, the declarations by the French leadership that France is at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam” and the statement that France without its Jews is not France? What is new in the remorse expressed by the French prime minister that his country has not done enough to combat anti-Semitism?


Or perhaps everything.

Permit me to explain.

This is, of course, not the first time that free speech has been attacked by radical militant Islam. Previously, in fatwas, in killings and in violent rioting, the extremist Islamists have tried to silence those they deem to have insulted Islam. From the death sentence declared against Salman Rushdie to the threats on the life of a Danish cartoonist, from massive street demonstrations in Egypt following the release of a minor video by a marginal, unimportant American Protestant to the killings at Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, the Islamists’ politics of rage have defined radical Islam. And rage leads directly to violence. 

Simply put, outrage is being used to legitimize and justify murder, and in the eyes of many Muslims, murder has become a reasonable response to what they see as the desecration of their religion and the Prophet Muhammad. Nothing new here.

Let’s look specifically at the most recent violent outbreak. 

For a dozen years, I have been writing about anti-Semitism in France, suggesting that we should distinguish between anti-Semitism in France and anti-Semitism of France. Those who are of France have accepted the values of the French Revolution — liberty, equality and fraternity — and they have few problems seeing Jews as part of France. These French citizens interact daily with Jews and Muslims, Christians and secularists and think nothing of it. They may be outspoken in their opposition to the policies of Israel, but they do not see that as license to attack their Jewish neighbors.

On the other hand, there is also a sizable population of Muslim immigrants and their descendants who live in France but feel themselves untouched, and even alienated from, or appalled by, the values of France. These people have no stake in the values of French society. Despite having by now dwelled in France for some two generations, they nevertheless do not feel part of France, but consider themselves in exile from their true home in the Middle East. Their alienation from the society in which they dwell is fueling their attraction to the values that are wreaking havoc throughout the Middle East, where the politics of rage dominate. Poverty and lack of opportunity created their alienation, but religion fuels their rage; religion justifies their anger and sanctions their violence. 

But even as we look the politics of outrage in the eye, let us be clear that our battle is against militant radical Islam and not against all Muslims. We were touched and heartened by the report that Jewish lives were saved in the Hyper Cacher attack by a Muslim employee. Expressions of solidarity on both sides are important. Nevertheless, it is not sufficient for politically correct people, including our president, Barack Obama, and even his predecessor, George W. Bush, to proclaim that the politics of rage does not define the views of a vast sector of Islam today, and moderate Muslims must be the first and loudest to reclaim the voice of their faith. Without a powerful, even outraged objection from moderate Muslims to the violence, we are engaged in a one-sided discussion among Western Christians (and sometimes Jews) who assure one another that true Islam is actually moderate. And when the people making the case for Islam do not even understand the religious differences between Sunni and Shia, the discussion is not only not credible but also hardly relevant.

Before the killings in recent weeks, when militant Islamists attacked Jews, much of France seemed to turn a blind eye to the violence: A swastika on a synagogue was petty graffiti; mugging a rabbi or a pious Jew en route to synagogue was a minor crime; the murder of yeshiva students was a one- or two-day news story; and the idea that anger at Israel was behind an explosion of anti-Jewish violence — that what happened in Israel, in Gaza and in Lebanon was sufficient reason to attack the Jews in one’s neighborhood — these actions by radical Islamists were allowed for too long by the French as understandable, largely because Israel’s actions infuriated many Europeans as well, and the French in particular. 

Only when this same violence turned against a French non-Jew on the streets of Lyon or Marseilles was attention paid. 

Bridging the divide between the Muslims in France from everyone else who identifies with France will require a fundamental rethinking of French policy. It will require an admission of a fundamental problem in France’s attitude toward its immigrant workers, most especially its lower-class immigrants, who are essential to the nation’s workforce but were never integrated into French society or French culture.

The problem, a longstanding one, cannot be solved in the short term, and it will not go away without a dramatic change of attitude.

But what has changed, perhaps?

It appears that the French finally have come to the realization — or, perhaps more cynically, at least vocalized it — that the very nature of France, its self-image, its self-perception and its core values are at stake if Jews cannot feel secure living as Jews in France. Because the French people today want to believe that they are not the same as they were during World War II. In the aftermath of that war, the French populace was horrified by its own collaborators, those who helped the Nazis, including the French police who participated in the roundup and deportation of Jews, and Vichy France. The French today see themselves as a liberal, inclusive, democratic society. It therefore follows that if the Jews of France are truly once again vulnerable to outbreaks of anti-Semitism and violence without the protections of a civilized society, France today is not, in its very essence, true to its core values — values that had to be painstakingly rebuilt after the Shoah. 

If this realization has finally come, then I say, better late than never. But let us hold them to it.

The concept of a war against radical Islam articulated so passionately in recent days by French President Francois Hollande may — and I stress the word may — spell the end of France’s appeasement to the politics of rage. Let us hold them to that as well.

Still, their immediate reaction was weak. The Grand Synagogue in Paris never should never have closed, even for a day, as many synagogues in Paris closed down and did not hold Shabbat services immediately after the attacks. The French government should have provided its Jewish institutions with adequate security immediately, and the president himself should have appeared in the pews that very first Shabbat on the evening of and the day following the attacks. 

In Los Angeles, I went to services at Temple Beth Am on Friday evening and Shabbat morning, Jan. 9 and 10, and the Los Angeles Police Department was present outside the shul, simply as a demonstration of vigilance.


I doubt that France’s newfound avowal of commitment to its Jews will ally France with Israel. The government of France and significant segments of French society tend to see Israel in colonialist terms, as a country occupying another people’s land and as a problem that can be solved only by withdrawal and the establishment of two states. By contrast, Netanyahu sees Israel as battling the same forces of radical Islam as the French government and the people of France. Both may be right, but neither side accepts the other’s interpretation as correct.

So the Israelis have invited French Jews to make aliyah, promising safety and security in the Jewish state. This invitation comes despite the fact that, over the past decades, even with the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, both per capita and in absolute numbers, many more Jews have been killed in Israel because there were more Jews there than anywhere else in the world. 

As I write these words, I shed tears because it wasn’t supposed to be so. We Zionists believed that the creation of an independent Jewish state with an army of its own would end Jewish vulnerability. But Jewish history is filled with irony. In reality, Israeli independence came just as the world became increasingly interdependent, and the State of Israel has not ended Jewish vulnerability, it has simply given us — Israelis and all Jews — new tools to combat that vulnerability.

More worrisome today, if Netanyahu is to be believed, Israel currently faces an existential threat of vulnerability, due to the development by Iran of nuclear weaponry that can be used against Israel, either by Iran or by other nonstate actors armed by the Iranian state. 

If safety is what French Jews are seeking, will their lives really be any safer in Tel Aviv than in Paris?

The fact is, even as Jews consider leaving France, other Jews are leaving Israel. We don’t know why some Jews today are leaving Israel, getting European passports and moving to Europe, but the prospect of endless war in Israel is surely one contributing factor. Israeli Jews weary of war and perceiving a bleak future of unending battles are moving to Germany and other European countries — including France. This is true even as French Jews, feeling like targets of attack, are coming to Israel to take their place.

I was not as moved as many were by the fact that the victims of the Hyper Cacher attack — Yohan Cohen, Francois-Michel Saada, Phillipe Barham and Yoav Hattab — were buried in Israel rather than on French soil. They were not killed because they were Israelis; they were killed because they were Jews. 

If safety is what French Jews are seeking, will their lives really be any
safer in Tel Aviv
than in Paris?

Their burial in Israel, therefore, may have reinforced the idea that Jews do not belong to France, but rather to Israel, and that their murders were a Jewish problem and not a French problem.  

This cannot be the message that we offer up to the world. We must insist that France claim French Jews as their own, as citizens of France, not only publicly and loudly, but also sincerely, just as we must mourn them as Jews.

Comparisons to the 1930s are being offered now by those who understand neither the 1930s nor today. It is essential to remember that, in the 1930s, the attack against the Jews was government sponsored, by the most powerful people as well as by important interest groups native to their country. Today’s attacks are by disempowered people who impose their views through criminal acts of violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, the world powers, the leaders of Europe — Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain, Hollande and Pope Francis among them — are condemning anti-Semitism loudly and clearly. One cannot compare the power of contemporary Jews and the reality of Israel with the abject powerlessness and statelessness of Jews in the 1930s. The refusal to equate today’s events with the Holocaust should not be license to minimize their importance, but rather to insist that we affirm how far we have come since then.

Walking home from synagogue in Los Angeles, I saw that my French neighbor displayed a sign, Je Suis Charlie, on his lawn, and I asked for a similar sign to place on mine. I would have felt better, much better, if my neighbor and his fellow countrymen all had exhibited two signs side by side: Je Suis Charlie, Je Suis Juif.

Only when both signs stand side by side — when the rights of French citizens are valued just as highly as the essential democratic right to free speech — only then will the situation of Jews in France truly change.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Click here to read his A Jew blog.

Stay or go? French Jews face a growing – and emotional – dilemma

Israel? The United States? Canada? South Korea, India, Singapore or Japan? French Jews have intensified their search for a new home, and they’ve diversified their potential destinations. For the past 15 years, anti-Semitism has become more and more common, more and more violent, and no one wants to see what it will be like in 10 or 20 years. 

When the “new anti-Semitism” began some 15 years ago, Jews were attacked almost exclusively in certain impoverished Parisian suburbs and neighborhoods. Young men would insult, spit and hit the easily identified pious members of the community. They wrote graffiti on synagogues, threw eggs at and stoned Jewish schools. The Jewish community complained about these attacks perpetrated “mainly” by young Muslims hostile toward Israel and Jews, but few of the French cared. Jewish leaders’ attempts to reverse the situation through interreligious dialogue failed.

Gradually, broader segments of the community started to face assaults. In 2003, 23-year-old DJ Sebastien Selam was murdered by his Muslim neighbor, who told police he would go to heaven because he had killed a Jew. In 2006, cell-phone salesman Ilan Halimi was abducted, held captive, tortured and set on fire by the self-proclaimed Gang of Barbarians. But the attack that convinced most Jews they were no longer safe in France was Toulouse 2012, when terrorist Mohammed Merah went on a killing spree at the Jewish school Ozar Hatorah, murdering three children and a teacher. The violence of that attack on such young children, and the fact that it happened in the traditionally open and quiet southern city of Toulouse, proved no place in France was safe any longer. Many of France’s 200,000 practicing Jews (out of the country’s estimated community of 550,000 to 600,000 ) started calling the Jewish Agency for Israel, to plan their departure. 

But for many French Jews, the situation wasn’t desperate enough to make aliyah

“There’s much more violence in Israel than here. I’m not going anywhere,” I was told by a friend I see at various Jewish events. 

As some community members immigrated to Israel, others preferred to move within their cities to safer neighborhoods. With every new attack, they re-examined their situation: Is staying in France still the right choice? Is it more dangerous to send children to public schools, where some have been attacked by schoolmates, or to Jewish schools, which have been stoned and could become a target for terrorists?

“The situation is complicated. My little brother goes to a Jewish school and a car drops him off five meters away from our building’s entrance, and yet, even in these five meters, he has been insulted. Men took his kippah away from him. What can we do? We take every precaution, and yet the problem is still there,” a 20-year-old Jewish student told me.   

In the summer of 2014, following the protests against Israel’s war with Hamas, French Jews saw for the first time whole groups of people attacking synagogues and Jewish businesses with firebombs and stones.

When the kosher supermarket Hyper Cacher, located in one of France’s calmest bourgeois neighborhoods, was attacked on Jan. 9, two days after the murders at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it became obvious that anyone could be hit anywhere.

Community members now have to choose: Will they stay in France and fight for their rights? Stay and conceal their religion? Or will they seek shelter abroad, perhaps in a country where people care as little as possible about Jews and the Middle East. 

Many in the community refuse to leave, as they feel strong attachments to France, the first country to recognize them as equal citizens, under Napoleon.

“If we don’t resist, no one will, and then it would all be over. The terrorists would have won,” I was told by a young man who had gone to a tribute to the victims killed at Hyper Cacher a day after the attack. 

Many French nationals appreciate this attitude.

“Please don’t leave! We’re with you!” several demonstrators at the Jan. 11 “Je Suis Charlie” march told a Jewish protester.

“We’re not leaving!” the protester replied.

Other Jews would rather avoid confrontation by hiding their identity, denying being Jewish, and presenting themselves as Christians. Others have made the decision to leave. 

Some have created groups to plan their departures and make them easier. People who wouldn’t ever have thought of leaving France had the situation not deteriorated are holding information meetings similar to ones organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, but for other destinations. French migrants who have already settled in Jewish-friendly countries help them out by giving as much insight and assistance as possible.

Touring with my family in Canada, hoping to find our new land of milk and honey, I met a Vancouver, British Columbia, resident who had analyzed the situation. 

“You need to get as far away as possible from France, where many in the Muslim community are hostile toward Jews and Israel. Coming to America isn’t enough. Don’t settle in Montreal; it’s too European! Go West!”

Figures show many French Jews are moving to Israel. A record 7,000 made aliyah in 2014, twice as many as the previous year. This means that approximately 1 percent of France’s Jewish community moved to Israel alone. At the same time, about 0.4 percent of all French nationals moved abroad.

Over the past week, the Jewish Agency beat another record, getting calls from 2,000 people asking to join information sessions. As French Jews start panicking, the agency is forecasting that it could bring 10,000 olim (those who make aliyah) to Israel this year.

Most of those who emigrate undoubtedly want to keep their families as far away as possible from any future terror attack, but many also may be concerned by a less bloody phenomenon — the widening rift between them and France’s growing Muslim community. After the shooting in Charlie Hebdo, people have again started pointing fingers at the Jewish community, saying Charlie Hebdo never criticized Jews, only Muslims.

“When a cartoonist criticized former [French] president [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s son when he married a Jew, the cartoonist was fired, but nobody cares when these people represent Prophet Mohammad,” several people wrote on Facebook.

“There are obvious double standards in this country,” one of my colleagues wrote.

For Jews, it’s well-known that Charlie Hebdo repeatedly criticized all religions, or all religious extremists and hierarchies, and, if anything, Muslim fundamentalists were criticized less than others. Some see this as an alteration of facts at their expense.

The growing support as well for the controversial comedian Dieudonne (his real name is Dieudonne M’bala M’bala), who has been condemned numerous times for anti-Semitism and inciting hatred, also has increased Jews’ concern for the future.

French law protects the right to criticize religion but bans incitement, which suits perfectly the local Jewish community. But this balance could change.

As Dieudonne wrote on Facebook that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly,” combining the names of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly — the man who attacked the kosher supermarket — French authorities and many nationals saw the move as a new incitement. But to many Muslims, his words were far more tolerable than a drawing representing their prophet.

Some fear that pressure from them and from abroad could lead to a change of French values and laws, which currently protect free speech as it exists in France, and ban racism and anti-Semitism. These are values that many Jews believe are vital for them to be able to live in France, especially now, as they face growing hatred.

Shirli Sitbon is a journalist from Paris working for French TV station France 24 and Haaretz.

For embattled French Jews, mixed feelings about call to move to Israel

French Jews are feeling embattled. Arsonists have targeted their synagogues, terrorists have attacked their schools and shops, and, with only a few exceptions, French society has not united behind them to stop the assaults and harassment.

The solution, according to Israel’s prime minister, is simple: Move to Israel.

“To all the Jews of France, all the Jews of Europe, I would like to say that Israel is not just the place in whose direction you pray; the State of Israel is your home,” Benjamin Netanyahu said on Jan. 10 in Jerusalem, the day after an attack on a Paris kosher supermarket killed four Jewish men.

“This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism. All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms,” he said.

But for French Jews, the answer isn’t so simple.

“The Israeli government must stop this Pavlovian response every time there is an attack against Jews in Europe,” Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the director of the European Jewish Association, told the Israeli news website NRG.

“I regret that after every anti-Semitic attack in Europe, the Israeli government dispenses the same statements about the importance of aliyah rather than take all measures … at its disposal in order to increase the safety of Jewish life in Europe. Every such Israeli campaign severely weakens and damages the Jewish communities that have the right to live securely wherever they are,” the rabbi said.

The crux of the dispute — one that is hardly limited to Netanyahu and Margolin — are divergent views about the viability of Diaspora Jewish life.

On one side are the many Israelis who believe Diaspora Jewry has no future because of anti-Semitism (see: France) or assimilation (see: America), and often believe that Jewish life in the Diaspora is somehow less authentic or legitimate than Jewish life in Israel.

On the other side are many Diaspora Jews who see themselves as part and parcel of their home countries and consider their communities vibrant expressions of Jewish life. In their view, Israeli calls for aliyah in response to the challenges they face are offensive and counterproductive. Instead, they believe, Israel ought to be thinking about how it can help Diaspora Jewish communities thrive.

Netanyahu is hardly the first prime minister to ruffle feathers in the Diaspora this way. In July 2004, then-Premier Ariel Sharon irked French Jews with a similar call.

“If I have to advocate to our brothers in France, I will tell them one thing: Move to Israel as early as possible,” Sharon told a gathering of North American Jewish Federation leaders. “I say that to Jews all around the world, but there I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”

In response, France’s then-President Jacques Chirac told Sharon he was not welcome in France. Like many non-Jewish government leaders, Chirac bristled at the implication that Jews should leave en masse.

In the United States, Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua ignited a firestorm in 2006 when he told the audience at a centennial celebration of the American Jewish Committee that American Jews are only “partial Jews” because they live in the Diaspora.

“Judaism cannot exist outside Israel,” he said, according to an account in Israel’s daily Haaretz. “Those who do not live in Israel and do not participate in the daily decisions that are made there … do not have a Jewish identity of any significance.”

Yehoshua hit upon a similar note in a February 2013 speech to a group of several hundred American Jews on volunteer and study programs in Israel when he said, “I’m happy to see so many Americans here. I hope you all become Israelis and don’t return to America.”

Needless to say, they didn’t all move to Israel.

French Jews are in a much different situation than American Jews, however, in that they face the threat of physical violence. Add France’s serious economic problems, and many French Jews agree with the view that the prognosis for their community is bleak.

In 2014, nearly 7,000 French immigrants arrived in Israel out of a French-Jewish population of 500,000. That’s the equivalent, proportionately, of 84,000 American Jews moving to Israel. The actual number of Americans who immigrated to Israel in 2014 was 3,470.

Additionally, the highly symbolic decision by all four families of the Hyper Cacher attack victims to bury their loved ones in Israel reinforces the message that French Jews have a dim view of their future in France.

Of course, not all of those who are emigrating are moving to Israel. Montreal, Miami, London and New York all have seen significant numbers of French-Jewish newcomers over the last decade or so.

St. John’s Wood Synagogue in London now holds a French-language Sabbath service. Montreal’s primary Jewish social services and resettlement organization, Agence Ometz, has seen a significant increase in newcomers from France over the last year, JTA reported in November. In 2013, the Italian daily La Stampa wrote a feature about the surge of French Jews in New York.

Unlike with Israel, however, there is no precise data about the number of French Jews moving to the United States, Britain or Canada.

But the migration westward is a reminder that Israel is not the only alternative for French Jews seeking to leave the country.

Founder of French anti-Semitism watchdog moving to Israel

Sammy Ghozlan, founder of France’s National Bureau for Vigilance Against Anti-Semitism, said he is immigrating to Israel.

Ghozlan, a former police commissioner whose organization is one of France’s leading watchdog groups on anti-Semitism, announced his departure on Monday – shortly after the annual roundup of the Jewish Agency showed that 2014 was the first year ever that the most immigrants to Israel came from France.

“The departure, it’s a message,” Ghozlan said in an interview about his decision that was published Monday on JSSnews.com. “Leaving is better than running away. We do not know how things will play out tomorrow.”

France’s growing anti-Semitism problem is believed to be driving the influx of over 7,000 newcomers to Israel from France last year, more than double the figure for 2013. Ghozlan has warned that while most of the hundreds of violent attacks recorded in 2014 were the work of Muslims, the French far right also is adding to the problem with incitement and attempts to limit freedom of worship.

In an interview published Friday with the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, Roger Cukierman, president of the CRIF umbrella of French Jewish organizations, said the emigration of Jews “represents a failure for France, where one population group suffers persecution because of its origins.”

In his interview, Ghozlan said that in addition to his growing discomfort in his native France because of anti-Semitism, he is also leaving because most of his children and grandchildren live in Israel, along with other relatives and former members of his community.

His organization, BNVCA, will continue working with French and Israeli staff, said Ghozlan, who added that he intends to settle in Netanya.

His attitude to France changed last year, he said, when French Jews came under unprecedented attack by their countrymen over Israel’s actions against Hamas in Gaza. He cited violent and hateful protests in the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles in July.

“After the protests in Sarcelles and Paris, where they shouted ‘death to the Jews’ in the presence of public officials, I carry in me a lot of bitterness,” Ghozlan said.

North American immigration to Israel rose 7 percent in 2014

Immigration to Israel from North America rose 7 percent in 2014 over the previous year to 3,762 olim from the United States and Canada, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh.

The immigrants came on 17 special aliyah flights from North America, sponsored by facilitated by Nefesh B’Nefesh in partnership with the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and JNF-USA.

The flights included 296 families with 813 children under the age of 18 and 1,703 singles. The immigrants came mostly from New York, New Jersey, Florida, California, Illinois, Maryland and Pennsylvania in the United States, and from Quebec and Ontario in Canada.

Aliyah from Britain rose 6 percent to 525 olim in 2014, with 49 families, 97 children and 183 singles, most from London and Manchester.

In 2014, the number of lone soldiers, young people who make aliyah without their immediate family, rose by 10 percent over the previous year, to 350. There are currently about 3,000 lone soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces.

Summer is traditionally the peak time for aliyah.  Erez Halfon, vice chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, noted in a statement that olim continued to come during the summer, despite Israel’s 50-day operation in Gaza operation and the hundreds of rockets that rained down on southern and central Israel.

“Despite the events that transpired during the traditional summer peak period for Aliyah, we saw that immigration to Israel grew significantly from North America and the U.K.,” Halfon said. “These olim, including hundreds of soldiers, left behind careers, families, and communities, and their sacrifice and courage was widely acknowledged by the Israeli public.”


On packed flight to Israel, hundreds of American Jews, emboldened by Gaza crisis, start lives anew

Daniel Knafo was wide awake aboard the Boeing 747 as sunlight began peaking over the northern horizon of the Mediterranean Sea early on the morning of Aug. 12.

Less than 10 hours earlier, he was at the departure terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport with more than 300 American Jews, all of them embarking on a journey to start new lives in Israel.

And shortly before that, the teenager was at Los Angeles International Airport, bidding farewell to the city he called home for the first 17 years of his life.

At about 5 a.m., Knafo was standing in the aisle of El Al chartered flight 3004, which was cruising above the Mediterranean and less than two hours west of Ben Gurion International Airport, where the Woodland Hills native  would step on to the tarmac with the other 338 other Jews onboard—young, old, married and single.

Guy Zohar and Daniel Knafo, both from the San Fernando Valley, at Ben Gurion Airport.

Of those, Knafo was also one of 108 young Jews planning to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces within the first few months of making Israel home. This flight was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes aliyah to Israel from North America and the United Kingdom. The group assists families and individuals in making the move, with financial support, assistance with the job hunt and other myriad obstacles that immigrants have to navigate.

It was the organization’s 52nd chartered aliyah flight since its founding in 2002, during which time, according to its website, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 30,000 diaspora Jews move to Israel.

The timing of this particular flight full of immigrants, or olim, may strike some as particularly poignant, given the on-and-off war that has enveloped Israel for the past several weeks—Hamas has fired 3,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, according to the IDF. And in response to the rockets and the discovery of more than 30 underground cross-border attack tunnels, Israel’s military launched a ground and air assault on Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza, most of which are densely populated within civilian neighborhoods. The war has left a reported 64 Israeli soldiers, three Israeli civilians, and 1,881 Palestinians dead.

But for Knafo and numerous other American olim interviewed by the Journal at JFK airport and aboard the flight, the Gaza war is not a deterrent to making aliyah—it is, at least in part, a catalyst to move to the Jewish state.

“I want to be there more than ever,” Knafo said, as dozens of fellow soon-to-be soldiers socialized around him. “Nothing will stop me from joining.”

Knafo, who attended El Camino Real High School and graduated from New Community Jewish High School, hopes to serve either in the IDF’s paratrooper unit (Tzanchanim) or in the elite Golani Brigade. He is honest with himself about the risks he will face. “If they tell you they are not scared, they’re lying,” he said of all the  young immigrants preparing for military service.

Not long before leaving, on July 20, Knafo attended an evening candlelight vigil in Los Angeles for Max Steinberg, another former student at El Camino Real High School who left Los Angeles to volunteer in the IDF. Steinberg and six other soldiers were killed in Gaza when their Golani unit’s vehicle was struck by Hamas anti-tank missiles in the first days of the IDF’s ground incursion.

Knafo said that he felt guilty leading a normal life while Israel was embroiled in war.
“It kills me that while they are fighting I’m in L.A. living the life, driving my car, going to the beach,” he said. “I don’t think its right. That’s why I want to be there more than ever.”

Knafo is one of 49 Jews from California who landed at Ben Gurion Airport early on the morning of Aug. 12 on the chartered flight—25 of whom will be joining the IDF. And while a large swath of the plane’s other passengers were also from New York and New Jersey (117 and 45, respectively), the group of olim hailed from places as far north as Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, also from Los Angeles, decided that this would be their last chance to make the move with their three children. Their oldest, Yishai, 8, was approaching the age when, Matt said, he and Ariella wouldn’t feel as comfortable starting a new life for the entire family.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, moving to Israel from Los Angeles, with their three children at JFK after a ceremony led by Nefesh B'Nefesh

The Rosenblatts plan to stay with relatives this week until they receive the key to their apartment in Efrat; Matt, who had a job as an actuary in Los Angeles, will follow up on some work leads in Israel. Shortly before a joyful and celebratory departure ceremony at JFK—where the olim were greeted by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor and American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman — Matt said he and Ariella discussed the distinctive timing of their move, but decided against delaying or cancelling .

“Had we been there already two months and then this started up while we were already there, we wouldn’t have come back, so, really, what’s the difference?” Matt said.

The Rosenblatts a few moments after landing in Israel. They will soon move into an apartment in Efrat.

Onboard, as the flight neared Israel, Ariella was keeping an eye on 1-year-old Yair, her youngest, and recalling the couples’ conversations about the fact that their children would eventually have to serve in the Israeli military.

“We’ve talked about it. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s two sons in the army,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Feeling “excited” and “a little nervous,” Ariella added, seeing your children serve in the military is a price of living in Israel, and that, “We need to be home when our country is in this situation.”

Throughout the group, not one person interviewed expressed regret or fear, either at the decision to start anew in Israel, or at the choice to go now and not wait until the advent of cease-fires that would endure in longer than 72-hour intervals.

In fact, the spirited mood on board the airplane echoed, on the one hand, the feel of a Jewish summer camp field trip (with teenagers and young adults mingling, sitting on laps and barely sleeping), and on another hand, the patriotic Zionist mission that it was. Many passengers wore shirts that read, “Aliyah is my protective edge,” a reference to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s official moniker for its Gaza campaign.

Whenever a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member referenced over loudspeaker those on the flight who would be enlisting with the IDF, much of the plane erupted in applause.

And, upon arrival at Ben Gurion, the new arrivals were greeted by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s recently appointed president, and Natan Sharansky, the renowned Soviet refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency—as well as hundreds of cheering Israelis and dozens of reporters and cameramen covering the arrival of the newcomers from North America.President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky greet the olim as they descend to the tarmac.

Lena Elkins, who flew Friday from her hometown of San Francisco to New York, was one of a small number of young olim aboard the flight who will jump straight into her professional life without first joining the military. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, Elkins’ younger sister moved to Israel last year and is in the IDF.

Living in Israel, Elkins said a few hours into the flight, has been on her mind since a visit six years ago with the Jewish Federation’s Diller Teen Fellows Program. And while she wishes she had served in the military, she said finding work is her priority now. Doing so in Israel, she said, particularly now, is also a major part of the Zionist project.

“I think it [Gaza] honestly has strengthened it [aliyah],” Elkins said. “It’s what Israel needs right now. This is what Zionism is. It’s people being there for Israel.”

Shortly after stepping foot on the tarmac and getting a feel for the love Israelis heap on diaspora Jews who move here, Channah Barkhordarie, a recent doctoral graduate of UCLA, said aliyah entered her mind last September, when her PhD advisor moved to Israel.

Barkhordarie, like Elkins, has no plans to enlist in the military and views her decision to live here as a way to “support this state.”

“Coming here and studying here and living my life here—that’s my show of support,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, had made their aliyah decision long before this summer’s turmoil but that decision was only rendered more meaningful by the recent war, as well as the deaths of three Israeli teens by terrorists that provoked the fighting.

Toby and Chaby Karan, from Riverdale, at JFK airport.

“We just couldn’t cope with just being here,” Toby Karan, who moved from Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Chava, and four children, said at JFK airport before departure. “There were days through the past two months, the hardest days, that we said we’d never more wanted to live in Israel.”

On the flight, Liat Aharon, 18, sat calmly in her seat as many of her friends around her bounced around the cabin. “It seems like a dream,” said the Encino native of the approach to Israel, but she added, “It keeps getting scarier and scarier; I can’t believe it’s already happening.”

When asked, though, whether she felt as if she was leaving home or going home, she responded immediately:

“I’m going home.”

Yankees president hosts future Israeli soldiers before their aliyah

The president of the New York Yankees hosted some 40 young men and women who are making aliyah and plan to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.

Randy Levine and his wife, Mindy, hosted the future soldiers at Yankee Stadium on Sunday prior to the game against the Cleveland Indians.

Many of the young guests were scheduled to arrive in Israel on Tuesday as part of an aliyah charter flight. Of the 338 people arriving on the flight, 108 will be joining the IDF.

The flight was organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption and Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel in cooperation with The Jewish Agency for Israel, JNF-USA and Tzofim Garin Tzabar.

The new soldiers will be taken care of, in part, by the Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program.

L.A. grad Max Levin survives attack in Gaza by ‘a quarter of a millimeter’

At 2 a.m. on July 23, Bud and Judy Levin were awakened by a call from Israel to their home in Los Angeles. It was their son, Max, a 21-year-old paratrooper in the Israeli army — calling from a hospital.

Just a few hours earlier, he had been securing a three-story home in Gaza with other members of his unit when a booby-trapped explosive planted by Hamas detonated, killing three soldiers, seriously wounding at least four others and lodging a piece of shrapnel above one of Max’s eyes.

If the shrapnel had struck “a quarter of a millimeter” in any other direction, Max likely would have been killed, Bud Levin told the Journal. Following the explosion, Max was airlifted to Rabin Medical Center in Petah Tikva for surgery. He has since been released. 

Speaking from Los Angeles recently, Max’s father said that he had just returned from a brief trip to Israel, where his wife remains with their son.

A 2011 graduate of New Community Jewish High School, Max Levin made aliyah in 2012 and is serving out the army’s mandatory three-year service for citizens. His unit’s July 23 operation in Gaza was part of Israel’s ongoing effort to find and destroy Hamas’ dwindling cache of weapons and explosives, and its network of underground tunnels, which the terrorist group has used in recent weeks to attempt to kill and kidnap Israeli civilians and soldiers on the other side of the border.

Jonathan Price, a cousin of Max Levin’s and his only relative in Israel, wrote in an email to friends and family that a “steady stream” of people Max didn’t know paid him visits bearing food, balloons, flowers, letters and pictures drawn by Israeli schoolchildren for wounded soldiers.

“They offered Max their prayers and blessings, sang songs, told him stories, asked him about himself, and most of all, just said, ‘Thank you,’ ” Price wrote.

That evening, Price added, Israeli officials cleared the room of visitors so that an army psychologist could inform Max of the deaths of his three fellow soldiers and the serious wounds inflicted upon the others.

According to Price, Max was particularly close with his commander, Lt. Paz Eliyahu, who was killed in the explosion. “[He] is said to have been an extraordinary person, and to have helped Max in a personal way through the many difficulties of his army service,” he wrote.

Bud Levin said that even though his son probably won’t be in any shape to go back into combat for at least a month, he’s eager to return immediately.

“Everybody says no, including the army,” he said, adding that when he asked Max if, just maybe, he would consider returning to California to recover, his son responded:

“No. Somebody’s got to keep up the memory of my three buddies who we lost.”

From Grizzly Bears to Gaza Rockets: Alaskan olim head for Israel

Rebecca Scoggin lived in a lot of places growing up: Juneau, Nome, Fairbanks, Homer, Anchorage. But except for the two years she lived in Seattle after high school, she never lived outside Alaska.

At least she hadn’t until a few months ago. Inspired by a Birthright trip she took at age 19, Scoggin decided to pick up and move to Tel Aviv.

“It was kind of a random decision. There was no real reason for it,” Scoggin, 23, told JTA in a recent phone interview from Anchorage, where she was back visiting family. “I fell in love with Tel Aviv and sun. It’s become more home to me than any other place.”

Scoggin is not your typical immigrant to Israel, and not just because she hails from the 49th state. Scoggin has no family in the Holy Land, hasn’t had much Judaism in her life and has a Christian father. But something drew her to Israel.

“I’m not religious, I grew up celebrating Christmas my whole life, but I do feel that connection to my land,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s my Jewishness or if I just like the heat.”

Scoggin is one of several Jews from Alaska immigrating to Israel this year. Among the others making aliyah are a 51-year-old CT scan-MRI technician who wants to get away from the ice; a 51-year-old expert on refugee resettlement who is relocating with her son and Scottish husband; and a 58-year-old former corrections officer and deputy sheriff from Anchorage.

“It’s not every day that we are privileged to take care of new olim from Alaska,” said Erez Halfon, vice chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization used by the Israeli government  to handle the logistics of U.S. immigration to Israel. “It’s astounding and inspiring to me that Jews living in a kind of paradise, with a comfortable and luxurious life, are deciding to leave home, work, community and friends to move to the other side of the world — especially these days when Israel is under fire.”

The technician, Donn Ungar, whose aliyah flight left from New York on Monday, says he’s not nervous about going to Israel despite the rocket fire from Gaza.

“It’s crazy over there now, but it doesn’t change my decision at all,” Ungar said. “It’s not a reason not to go there. I know they have wars. I’m going to be a part of Israel and a part of the community. You can’t pick and choose.”

Karen Ferguson, director of the refugee program at Catholic Social Services in Anchorage, where she works with refugees from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Bhutan and Burma, has a similar take. She will be moving to Haifa in August with her 13-year-old son, to be followed in December by her husband, Stewart.

“I don’t think you can pick a time and hope that will be a time of peaceful tranquility in Israel and say that’s when you’re going to move,” Ferguson said. “This is the reality of Israel. We’re going there to immigrate and be part of the country. You have to take the country for all it is — the good and the bad.”

Ferguson’s move will be the latest stop in a lifetime marked, she says, by “a desire for change and adventure.”

After meeting her Scottish, non-Jewish husband in Ohio and marrying in Nova Scotia, Canada, the couple soon moved to the Pacific island nation of Samoa, where their daughter was born. When they moved to Anchorage 17 years ago, they planned to stay just a year or two.

But with good jobs, young kids and a fondness for catching their own wild salmon, they decided to stay put for a while.

Every year the family catches up to 55 pounds of salmon (their legal limit) using dipnet fishing: Stewart affixes a large, circular net to the end of a long pole, then dips it into the ocean where the salmon swim into an inlet. Karen chops off the heads, guts the fish and takes the meat to a facility that turns it into lox and smoked salmon and filets. The family hasn’t had to buy salmon in 15 years, Ferguson says.

But now they’re ready to say “So long, and thanks for all the fish.” With their daughter off to college and their son about to start high school, they’re set for a new phase in their lives.

“We’re in this window of opportunity now,” Ferguson said. “We could continue doing what we’re doing or try and do something different. My husband and I decided we really wanted to take on new horizons.”


So why Israel?

“I haven’t quite figured out how to articulate it. It’s a place I would love to have lived in and been a part of,” said Ferguson, who has raised her children as Jews, though her husband has not converted.

“There’s just something about Israel that is both dynamic and magnetic. The intellectual and historical experiences when I’m there are very challenging. And for me, I grew up never being around very many Jews. We were a very secular Jewish family. I went to an Episcopalian boarding school. I work for Catholic Social Services. There’s something really appealing for once about being among my own and having the holidays be the Jewish holidays.”

Unlike many immigrants, Ferguson says she’s not necessarily thinking about Israel as a final destination. She will be starting a master’s program in peace and conflict management at Haifa University; her husband will telecommute to his job doing telemedicine for small, rural communities around Alaska.

“We’re going to Israel looking for a connection and a place to be our next home,” she said. “You really can’t predict well whether a place you stay for a while will become your home. Things unfold for you.”

That was how Ungar ended up spending 17 years in Alaska. He decided to move there after falling in love with it while on vacation from Florida, found work quickly and made good friends. But after a brutally cold winter three years ago that never seemed to end, Ungar, who is single, began thinking about an early retirement destination. He wanted someplace simple and inexpensive.

But Israel, where his family unsuccessfully tried living for a few months in 1971 and where Ungar now has a brother and other relatives, kept popping into his head. Ungar went there on a three-week vacation in February and was smitten.

“The energy just felt amazing,” he said. “That’s what brought me to Alaska in the first place — the feeling that this is where I should be at that point in my life. Now I was feeling that for Israel. I’ve learned to listen to that little voice in my head.”

So he contacted aliyah authorities, packed up and got rid of his most prized Alaska possession: a fur bomber jacket. It was the warmest thing he ever owned.

“People say to me, ‘Why are you going?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘I have no idea. It’s just where I’m supposed to be.’”

‘Baby boomerangers’ head back to Israel

As Israel hosted more than 3.5 million tourists in 2013 — a record-breaking benchmark that included over 600,000 Americans — program operators and attendees have noticed a new niche demographic gaining interest in seeing the Holy Land.

Call them “baby boomerangers,” Jews in roughly the 50-to 65-year-old age bracket who are parents of youth who have taken part in work and study programs in Israel, or who were themselves once there, and want to find a more experiential and even spiritual sojourn.

“We’ve had questions from [program members] or parents, saying, ‘You know, you should be doing a parents’ program,’ ” said Meir Paltiel of the Safed-based Livnot U’Lehibanot (“To Build and to Be Built”) program, which combines social assistance volunteering with hiking and Jewish study.

The older generation “wanted a kind of experience similar to the one their kids had,” Paltiel said, noting the results of an internal survey conducted among alumni and their parents. “We’re actually going to run one in May of next year.”

Fostering traditional Jewish values, knowledge and lore to relatively non-observant 20-somethings is a less complex task than imparting similar material to a more mature age group, Paltiel said. But, he added, many Jewish boomerangers have their own motivations for a spiritual trek.

“[Even though] you settle down and create your own community, norms and habits, there’s a certain age when the kids are moving off and you’re reanalyzing your life and you tend to go over that again,” Paltiel said. 

He believes that while empty-nester moms and dads may have more set opinions and be less familiar with Israeli mores — both on the hiking trail and in the synagogue — they are willing to get out of their comfort zone.

“We have a lot of people who say, ‘I know a lot of things, but there’s a lot I don’t know, and I’m interested in exploring.’ ”

While attending a yeshiva might be too abrupt and comprehensive a change for boomers, Paltiel suggested that a multiweek program at Livnot might better fit the needs, abilities and interests of older demographic groups.

Pamela Lazarus, program coordinator of Sar-El, a national project for volunteers for Israel, told the Journal that more than 60 percent of the 3,500 to 4,000 members it hosts annually for its three-week program are older returnees who have come back for the second or third time — and some, even more.

The program by design isn’t ritzy, say alumni, who see it as a way to experience Israel far behind the headlines, hotel and tour-bus windows, and media spin.

“Being able to come from abroad and be a part of a program like this is a tremendous opportunity for people, and it’s very fulfilling, said Modi’in resident Howie Mischel, 62, who made aliyah from Teaneck, N.J., several years ago. “It’s a really meaningful way to help out.”

Members serve in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) depots and related medical facilities, bunk in the same barracks as the soldiers (by gender), eat with the troops in the mess hall and help out with numerous — and sometimes onerous — on-base chores. 

In addition to working as an adviser for the aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, Mischel runs a chug (parlor group) for Sar-El alumni, most of whom are over 50. Mischel helps incoming older olim on the program, as a form of weeklong volunteer reserve duty.

“There are people who want to come, make a contribution; they still see themselves, and still definitely are, viable contributors in many ways and have a lot to offer,” he said.

New Jersey residents Diana and Sheldon Horowitz certainly fit that demographic; the two retirees are on their second three-week stint with Sar-El.

“Israel does this very well,” Diana Horowitz said of their latest stint in green, working in a hospital near Tel Aviv. (The members are informally outfitted in khaki green IDF uniforms.) 

“We’ve made some lasting relationships, and it’s not just Jews on the program.
 There were people from all over the world, and the facilitators discourage talking about politics,” she said. “Not only are you doing the volunteer work — you’re really having fun.”

Just not the kind of “tourist” recreation you might expect.
Members view their “scut work” duties, Spartan living conditions, group Shabbats, hikes and field trips as a sort of low-impact but mission-rich Outward Bound. 

“There’s no ‘evening activity,’ as in, ‘Here’s the movie, here’s the TV,’ ” Diana Horowitz noted. “You’re on an army base! But we would sit out and talk for hours on end; somebody would bring a guitar. … It was just a very, very positive experience, and they make it that way.”

She dismissed a query about whether the program could be construed by outsiders abroad as aiding the military of a foreign country, one enmeshed in a controversial conflict with terrorists and hostile neighbors.

“It’s not paramilitary; it’s humanitarian,” she stressed. 

“[Israel] sent aid to Haiti, to the Philippines — this is what I was doing. It may have been associated with the army, but this is what I was doing: sorting medical supplies. Why, they sent aid when [Hurricane] Sandy came,” Horowitz pointed out. “That’s us!”

Her husband chimed in, too: “They sent aid when those tornadoes touched down in Missouri” in 2011.

He recounted how they prepared pallets of medical supplies, as U.S. cable TV reports described the catastrophic damage and loss of life. “The next thing, a day or two later, I’m packing up skids of this stuff,” he said, surmising that it was meant for those hammered by the tornadoes’ wrath.

Long after they’ve outgrown Birthright, boomers like the Horowitzes are finding their own ways back to Israel — to give, but also to receive. As Diana Horowitz concluded: “The best part of it was the camaraderie, and you knew you were helping the country.”

New initiative would encourage European Jews to make aliyah

A new aliyah agency tasked with persuading European Jews to move to Israel is under consideration.

The Joint Operation for Aliyah Promotion would be a joint initiative of the Israeli government and the institutions involved in aliyah and Europe: the Jewish Agency for Israel, the United Israel Appeal, the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund, according to the Jewish Agency.

JNF already has raised the money for the initiative — approximately $29 million over the next two years.

The money would be used to provide outreach such as information sessions and job fairs to Jews living in areas experiencing a rise in anti-Semitism, as well as financial incentives to convince them to move to Israel rather than another country.

The issue could be brought to the Cabinet as early as next week.

Sofa Landver, Israel’s minister of aliyah and immigrant absorption, said in a statement that the joint effort “will enable us to increase the number of immigrants coming to Israel and will illustrate Israel’s role and the importance it places on ingathering the exiles.”

The pioneers: A revealing look at Israel’s early prime ministers

Moriah Films, the documentary-making arm of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has bitten off another solid chunk of Israeli history in “The Prime Ministers,” a film based on the lively book of the same title by Yehuda Avner, who doubles as the chief narrator of the two-part production.

Born in Manchester, England, Avner made aliyah in time to serve in Israel’s War of Independence and eventually became the trusted speechwriter and adviser to five prime ministers, from Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir to Yitzhak Rabin and Menachem Begin, and, later, Shimon Peres.

One of his jobs was to take confidential notes at cabinet and other top-level meetings, which would underpin the official minutes of the meetings and then be destroyed.

Instead, Avner stashed away the notes and eventually extracted them from filing cabinets as ready-made reminders of the momentous years between 1963 and 1983, during which Israel fought the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War six years later.

At times, the film bridges the historical footage with voice-over comments by the leaders, with Moriah’s usual assembly of top Hollywood talent doing the honors, for free.

In this case, Leonard Nimoy is the voice of Eshkol, Sandra Bullock is Golda Meir, Michael Douglas is Rabin and Christopher Waltz is Begin.

There is a touch of irony in the choice of Waltz, the German-Austrian actor who made his name in American movies as the ruthless Nazi and relentless Jew hunter in “Inglourious Basterds,” now becoming the voice of the Israeli statesman. In Moriah’s preceding “It Is No Dream,” Waltz was the voice of Theodor Herzl.

While there are no earth-shaking revelations in “Prime Ministers,” there are small and intimate moments that shed light on the Israeli leaders and the history they made.

On the day David Ben-Gurion was to announce the country’s independence, its inhabitants were in the dark about the new state’s name.

One inquiring resident was Leopold Mahler, a descendent of composer Gustav Mahler, 

The often underrated Eshkol, frequently accused of indecisiveness in the run-up to the Six-Day War, emerges as a man “who made the right decision at the right time,” Avner said.

In one wonderful scene, Eshkol arrives at the Texas ranch of President Lyndon B. Johnson to plead for American aid to replenish Israel’s depleted arsenal after the Six-Day War.

LBJ proudly shows Eshkol around his spread, and when the old kibbutznik expertly examines a cow’s muscles, the two unlike men bond.

Abba Eban, adored in the Diaspora for his eloquence and mastery of English, comes off as the frequent butt of derision by his earthier colleagues.

“Eban never makes the right decision, only the right speech,” was Eshkol’s putdown, and Rabin, while ambassador to the United States, complained that “a conversation with Eban is a soliloquy — he talks and we listen.”

Co-producers and writers Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and Richard Trank (who also directed) started research on “The Prime Ministers” in 2010 and initiated the first of about 100 interviews with Avner in November 2011.

“Our biggest challenge was how to cut our great interviews with Avner,” Trank said. “Everything he said was gold.”

Part I of “Prime Ministers” is the 13th production by the Oscar-winning Moriah team, which now has its own in-house digital film studio. It will open in theaters in mid-October.

Part II, focusing on Rabin and Begin, is scheduled for completion next spring or summer.

How to become a Jew


There are a variety of options for how to begin the process, but all involve study with a rabbi. Some people study with an individual rabbi for a period of time, and other people enroll in group classes designed especially for converts.

People find out about conversion classes in a number of ways: through the Internet, through family and friends, or by making an appointment to meet with a synagogue rabbi who recommends a program. Some students choose a particular religious movement’s program because that is the movement to which a Jewish partner’s family belongs, or perhaps the student is attracted to a particular rabbi or synagogue of that movement.

My program, Judaism by Choice, offers a Conservative curriculum, but which also welcomes other denominations; it includes 18 three-hour classes that cover such topics as Jewish history (biblical, rabbinic, medieval, modern, Holocaust, Israel/Zionism, American Judaism), Jewish holidays, Shabbat, kashrut, Jewish lifecycle (birth, marriage, death), theology, prayers, philosophy and rituals.

Students must also connect to a local synagogue and attend Shabbat services weekly, meet with the synagogue rabbi, observe Shabbat fully every week — including meals from Friday night to Saturday night — keep a level of kashrut (no pork, shellfish or mixing of meat and milk), learn to read Hebrew and have experiences in the Jewish community. Students must also attend our monthly Shabbat dinners and Shabbat morning learning services at Sinai Temple or Temple Beth Am and a Havdalah social evening at private homes.

When students in my program meet the conversion requirements, I give them a letter saying that they have completed all requirements in the Judaism by Choice program and are now eligible for conversion with either the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative) or the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California (interdenominational). 


Men must undergo a ritual circumcision, or, if already circumcised, hatafat dam brit (symbolic circumcision), which is a procedure where the mohel draws a little bit of blood from the penis.


Once the candidate has fulfilled all the requirements, he or she meets with a beit din — a rabbinical court. The rabbis ask about why the candidate wants to convert to Judaism, what observances he or she follows and his or her knowledge of Jewish holidays and Judaica. The candidate must also willingly give up any former religion. After 30 minutes of questioning, the candidate is told whether they have passed, and those who have are asked to read aloud the “Declaration of Faith,” affirming that he or she is ready to assume the obligations of Judaism.

The candidate then immerses in the spiritual waters of the mikveh, going fully under the water three times. For the first two immersions, he or she says blessings, and on the third immersion, recites the Shema, affirming the oneness of God. After fulfilling this, the candidate is officially a Jew.

For those who want to make aliyah (immigration to Israel), conversions are regulated by the Jewish Agency under the Law of Return, and all converts, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, are accepted. Israel’s Chief Rabbinate still regulates permission to marry within the Jewish state, and non-Orthodox and even some Orthodox converts are not accepted for that ritual, although many are. 


After the conversion, some people celebrate at their synagogue, where the congregation welcomes them to the Jewish religion. The newly converted might be called for an aliyah (saying blessings over the Torah) during the Torah service, and a special blessing might be recited for them in front of the ark during a Shabbat service. We do this at our Judaism by Choice Shabbat morning service.

Our program also includes a special ceremony at a Shabbat dinner, or a Havdalah social evening, where we officially hand the new Jew by Choice a conversion certificate and publicly acknowledge that the person is now part of the Jewish People and Jewish community. Family and friends also come to share this happy occasion.


We hope the new Jew by Choice will be involved in the Jewish community, in addition to involvement in a synagogue. Our program also provides supplemental programs throughout the year specially geared to Jews by Choice. These have included a pre-High Holy Days spiritual retreat, a Sukkot wine-tasting party, Chanukah and Purim parties, a second-night Passover seder and an annual trip to Israel. 

 Just as the biblical Naomi was welcoming to Ruth, so should the Jewish community be welcoming to those who embrace Judaism. Jews by Choice are knowledgeable and observant Jews, and we should all celebrate the fact that they will help the Jewish religion and Jewish people to grow and survive.

Rabbi Neal Weinberg is rabbinic director and instructor of Judaism by Choice Inc.

In a single day, Ethiopian immigrants make aliyah—and are thrust into a war zone

The explosion occurred close enough to Stesyahu Alema to shake his apartment, where he sat with his wife and two of his five children.

But he didn’t flinch. None of them did.

“There are a lot of people with me, so I don’t need to worry,” Alema told JTA. “I don’t worry.”

The Alemas were among 91 Ethiopian immigrants who arrived in Israel last week, just a day after Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense began. The new olim immediately were sent to the Ibim immigrant absorption center, a former aliyah youth village run by the Jewish Agency for Israel about three miles from the Gaza border. Other immigrant absorption centers were full.

During a visit Sunday, two explosions rocked the area in the space of just a few minutes. The first, a rocket launched from Gaza into Israel, had prompted a warning siren, sending the Alema family into the reinforced room that doubled as their children’s bedroom. One of the Alema daughters slept through the echoing impact that followed.

The Alema family knew that bombs were falling all around them, but they didn’t know much about Israel’s 5-day-old operation, not even its name. They didn’t know about the senior Hamas officials that Israel had killed or about the frantic push for a cease-fire that day in Cairo.

What was clear was that their world had been turned upside down, having moved from a subsistent existence in a sleepy town in rural Ethiopia to the epicenter of an escalating conflict. And they knew when the siren sounded to get into the children’s bedroom.

Usually when a planeload of Ethiopian immigrants arrives at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, the Ethiopians go through the same process as any other group of immigrants: They receive some food, temporary identity cards and health insurance, and some cash to see them through the month.

But when the Alemas landed, along with their health insurance, documents and money, they received a security briefing from the Jewish Agency, which helped facilitate their immigration.

Ethiopian families at Ibim this week did not seem preoccupied with the war next door. Children played in a yard outside their apartments, while parents became accustomed to amenities they never had in Ethiopia, like refrigerators and electric stoves. Some had never even slept in beds.

“In Ethiopia, we slept on the floor, on top of each other,” Alema said. His wife, Yikanu, added, “We had no light. We had leeches. That’s why we’re happy here.”

The Ethiopian immigrants didn’t venture far from their apartments in case an alarm sounded and they had to run back inside.

The group also avoided congregating: Instead of a communal Shabbat meal, each family remained in its apartment to eat the traditional meal with flat, thick injara, the pancake-like Ethiopian staple.

“Instead of dealing with them, trying to absorb them, I’m trying to explain the security situation,” said Moshe Bahta, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 and now runs Ibim. “I told them the Arabs want to throw us into the sea and we’re not ready to acquiesce. Since Israel was established, until today, there’s never been quiet — always war.”

Alemnh Yeshuas, another immigrant, said his apartment feels spacious enough, even if he can’t always leave it.

“We have four rooms in our apartment here, running water and a bathroom,” he said. One of his daughters had a faint blue cross tattooed on her forehead.

Bahta said that to give the immigrants a sense of normalcy, he “broadcasts security to them,” always remaining calm — even as rockets land.

“It’s OK to be scared, but don’t lose control,” he said. “We don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow, but meanwhile we don’t panic. If you go into the reinforced room, nothing will happen.”

Yeshuas said any fear of rockets paled in comparison to the spiritual fulfillment he got from finally living in Israel.

“We’ve dreamed many years of getting to Israel,” he said. “The dream is realized and we’re very happy. I believe in God — God knows.”

Bahta said Ethiopians are used to thinking in terms of survival. “If you have food, good. If not, you die,” he said.

None of them would refuse an opportunity to move to Israel, he said. Many Ethiopians see Israel as a land of plenty and a way out of Africa’s desperate poverty. For many, aliyah is the realization of a lifelong dream.

“Every beginning is hard, but the hardship gets canceled out because of the happiness,” Bahta said. “You realized the dream. What, they shouldn’t come? There’s nothing like that. This will change their lives.”

Australian woman, 96, making aliyah calls it ‘a dream come true’

A 96-year-old woman from Australia is immigrating to Israel.

Lily Hyde will leave the Sir Moses Montefiore Jewish Home in Sydney on Wednesday morning for Tel Aviv, where she will be reunited with her family. She is believed to be the oldest Australian ever to immigrate to Israel.

“It’s a dream come true,” Hyde was reported as saying Tuesday just hours before her departure. It will be comforting to have “so many of my family by my side.”

Her son Robert, 68, made aliyah with his family in 2010. Hyde, a native of Durban, South Africa, who worked as a music teacher in an orphanage in Johannesburg, has a great-grandchild she has yet to meet.

“She took ill recently and we thought of her on her own, and I made enquiries with an aged care home in Herzliya and booked her a room,” Robert Hyde told J-Wire, a local Jewish website.

The State Zionist Council of New South Wales had to fast-track Hyde’s application forms, according to the report.

“We managed to work with Israel and get all the necessary paperwork taken care of in less than 24 hours,” a Zionist council official said.

Hyde is scheduled to move into Beit Protea in Herliyza, which was opened in 1992 by the Zionist Federation of South Africa.

She is not believed to be the oldest immigrant to Israel. Two Jews from the former Soviet Union were said to have been 111 when they arrived in the 1990s.

Phillip and Dorothy Grossman were 95 and 93, respectively, when they arrived in February this year from Baltimore—the oldest married couple to make aliyah.

Thousands of French Jews check out aliyah

Some 5,000 French Jews participated in an aliyah fair in Paris.

The fair, organized and run by the Jewish Agency, took place Sunday as French voters went to the polls and elected Francois Hollande as their new president, beating incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, considered the favored choice in the Jewish community.

“I cannot recall having seen such a massive number of people interested in aliyah since the days when lines of people stretched out of the Israeli embassy in Moscow,” said Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky, who attended the fair. The annual fair usually attracts about 2,000 visitors, according to the Jewish Agency.

The French Jewish community is the largest in Europe, with some 500,000 members, according to the Jewish Agency.

The fair comes on the heels of an attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse in which a rabbi and his two young sons and the daughter of the head of the school were killed.

On a visit Monday to Toulouse, Sharansky said the Jewish Agency and the Israel Trauma Coalition will send counselors to the Ozar Hatorah school from Israel in the coming days, followed by a delegation of Israeli youth counselors. The professionals are charged with helping the students and their parents, as well as the teaching staff, return to their normal routine following the March attack.

“I came to Toulouse in order to strengthen the children and the community, but also to remind them that the Jewish Agency will strengthen their connection to Israel and assist those who are interested in making aliyah,” said Sharansky, though he added that aliyah should not be based solely on a tragedy like the one in Toulouse.

Couple married 71 years makes aliyah

A Baltimore couple married 71 years is believed to be the oldest couple to make aliyah.

Phillip and Dorothy Grossman, 95 and 93 respectively, made aliyah Tuesday on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight in cooperation with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency, together with 43 new emigres from North America.

One of their three children lives in Israel; another will be making aliyah this summer.

The Grossmans were met at the airport by some of their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren living in Israel.

Single olim in their 80s and 90s have previously made aliyah, including a woman, age 99, in 2010. 

“Phillip and Dorothy are probably the oldest olim couple that the State of Israel has ever absorbed, and they are proof that it is never too late to fulfill your dream and make such a significant decision in life,” said Erez Halfon, vice chairman of Nefesh B’Nefesh. “We congratulate them and wish them many more years of health and happiness living together with their family in Israel.”

They will make their home in Jerusalem.

Ethiopian aliyah hindered by overload at Israeli absorption centers

It’s a typical Friday morning in Israel’s largest absorption center: A handful of local residents, all immigrants from Ethiopia, mill about examining wares for sale at a small, unofficial souk.

Located in Mevasseret Zion, a town just outside Jerusalem, the center has become more like a town within a town. Run by the Jewish Agency for Israel, it is meant to provide immigrants with basic language skills and cultural tools needed for their new lives in Israel.

Though the center is only meant to be a starting point for those lives – immigrants are encouraged to move out after two years – a growing number of the new arrivals are finding it economically impossible to leave given the high real estate costs in their new land.

“I want to move to Jerusalem or Rishon LeZion,” says a woman named Yeshalem who has lived in the absorption center since her arrival in Israel five years ago. “But I’m a single mother, I have four children and I just do not have enough money.”

Yeshalem says she receives about $750 per month in government benefits and has not been able to find work. In the meantime, she and her children live in a cramped two-room apartment. The mortgage package provided by the government is not sufficient for her to buy a place of her own, she said.

“Most of the families have been here for at least three or four years, some of them even longer,” says a young man named Berian who peddles bric-a-brac from a white van. “The government spends so much money on immigration, but the people here are so poor, we sometimes wonder where all that money goes.”

Supporters of Ethiopian aliyah worry that the Israeli government’s inability to adequately address the problems at the absorption centers not only will harm the integration of Ethiopian immigrants into Israeli society, but also could derail Ethiopian aliyah because there is no place to put the new arrivals.

Already the Israeli government has reduced the number of Ethiopian immigrants it allows in per month to 110, down from 200, and in recent months at least two absorption centers have been closed.

“Come December, there will be no more room here to absorb new immigrants and the whole aliyah process will come to an end,” warned Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler, a longtime advocate for Falash Mura aliyah and now acting legal counsel for the Public Committee for Ethiopian Jews.

It’s just the latest hurdle for the immigration of the Falash Mura—Ethiopians who claim links to descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity generations ago and who are now returning to Jewish practice.

Their aliyah has been dogged by setbacks and controversy for at least a decade. Opponents question the Jewish credentials of the Ethiopians and view the immigrants as an economic and social burden to the state. Advocates of Ethiopian aliyah blame the government for dragging its feet on implementing decisions to bring the Ethiopians, exacerbating the problems for those living in poverty in Ethiopia and waiting to immigrate. More than 6,000 such people are left in Ethiopia, according to aliyah advocacy organizations, about 2,700 of whom have been approved by Israel to immigrate.

Last month, the Public Committee for Ethiopian Jews submitted a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court to ensure that Ethiopian immigration continues at the pace promised by the government. The petition argues that the government’s decrease in the monthly immigration quota contradicts an Israeli Cabinet decision last November to bring as many as 8,000 additional immigrants before ending mass Ethiopian aliyah.

Yehuda Sharf, the Jewish Agency’s director of aliyah, absorption and special operations, said the commitment was to bring 200 people during the first year of the current aliyah operation, and then to reduce the number to 120 due to a lack of space. In fact, Sharf noted, more people than originally anticipated have arrived in 2011 because the government brought more Ethiopians than planned during the first half of the year.

“I truly believe that this entire aliyah will be wrapped up within the next two years,” he told JTA.

Avraham Neguise, executive director of South Wing to Zion, which lobbies the Israeli government on behalf of the Falash Mura, said those who have been approved for aliyah—the Ethiopians checked by Israeli officials who meet the criteria for Jewish links and for immigration under Israel’s Law of Entry—should be allowed to come immediately.

“The government should simply open more absorption centers to accommodate them,” Neguise said. “It is very sad that people who have already been approved have to wait so long before they can actually come.”

Neguise said he recently visited Gondar, where the Ethiopians awaiting aliyah are served by Jewish aid compounds originally opened by the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry but taken over by the Jewish Agency earlier this year. The compounds provide some schooling, food assistance and employment training. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee also operates a health clinic for the aliyah petitioners.

“The situation is not good at all,” Neguise said, arguing that the Ethiopians are living in dire poverty.

The solution to the problem is not that simple, said Elad Sonn, a spokesman from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, which has been coordinating efforts between the ministries of housing and finance to find a solution to the housing problem.

Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver “is well aware of the situation,” Sonn said. “She visited Ethiopia last year and knows the problems the immigrants are facing. However, in order to absorb all these people effectively, it needs to be done carefully and in stages.”

For the moment, the plan is to offer Ethiopian immigrants at the Israeli absorption centers a chance to hold the mortgage allowance they get from the government in abeyance and instead take rental subsidies, Sharf said.

“This will mean that, come January, February and March, many people will be able to leave the absorption centers to make room for newer immigrants,” he said.

As for conditions on the ground in Gondar, the Jewish Agency’s representative in Ethiopia, Asher Seyum, acknowledges that they aren’t great but insists that people are getting as much help as possible in preparing for aliyah.

“Those who are learning Hebrew and Jewish studies in our newly opened center are getting a monthly stipend depending on their family size, and those who are not are working,” he said. “I believe that within two years, as long as another government does not come and change the previous decision, we will be able to end mass aliyah from Ethiopia.”