By Jessica Hanewinckel
As Sagi Hebron, Gabriela Kramer, Elona Brage and Guy Harel boarded their Nefesh B’Nefesh flights bound for Israel this summer, the four San Diegans bade farewell to their friends and family for what will be many years. That’s because the four young Jews — ages 18, 18, 22 and 22, respectively — have made aliyah with plans to attend school followed by enlisting in the Israel Defense Forces (Kramer) and to enter the IDF and live on a kibbutz through the Tzofim Garin Tzabar program (Hebron, Brage and Harel). Their choice to make Israel their home as young adults, and to voluntarily join its army, is unusual for their demographic, to say the least. For the last quarter century, study after study examining American Jews’ attitudes toward Israel has shown that Jewish young adults are less likely than their older counterparts to be supportive. A 2007 study, “Beyond Distancing: Young Adult American Jews and Their Alienation from Israel,” by Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman of Hebrew Union College and UC Davis, respectively, showed the trend was worse than anyone had previously thought.
“These days we find instances of genuine alienation as many more Jews, especially young people [under 35 in the study], profess a near-total absence of any positive feelings toward Israel,” Cohen and Kelman say in the study’s conclusion. The study showed, for example, that 54 percent of Jews under 35 are comfortable with the concept of a Jewish state at all. (For explanations for the trend, read the study.)
But young adults like Hebron, Kramer, Brage and Harel are bucking that trend. And they’re not the only ones.
According to Yael Katsman, director of communications and marketing for Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that provides guidance, support and assistance to olim before, during and after their immigration, 2012 is shaping up to be a record year for olim making aliyah with the organization’s assistance.
“We’ve maintained a rise in North American aliyah since we started our operations in 2002,” Katsman says. “In 2002, we brought about 510 olim from the U.S. and Canada, and it’s been exponential growth. Today we’re bringing close to 5,000 a year.”
Dec. 2011 marked the organization’s 30,000th olah. Since 2002, the number of young adults on Nefesh B’Nefesh flights has grown. The first year, there was just one. In 2004, seven percent were young adults, and that number has increased almost every year. In 2011, 26 percent were in the demographic, and at present, about 28 percent are. In fact, Katsman says, it’s this demographic that’s contributing to those growing numbers of olim.
“We’re seeing a lot of graduates of Birthright and Masa Israel Journey,” she says. “They’re looking to make Israel their permanent home. … We have a lot of young professionals who are making great lives for themselves here and are very happy, and they’re transmitting that home, so their friends are following them. And I think it’s also the economy. Young professionals who are starting off are thinking about their professional track. The economy in the U.S. isn’t so strong, but the economy in Israel right now is doing well. People also see the option of free education and free tuition here for new olim, and it’s a major pull financially.”
Nefesh B’Nefesh also has a special department called One Aliyah, which offers special assistance for singles or young professionals age 18-35. And it’s those singles and young professionals who are already affiliated and who feel a closeness to Israel who are making aliyah, not those who, for a variety of reasons, feel disconnected or negative toward Israel.
Affiliation and familiarity with Israel were the common link in the lives of Hebron, Kramer, Brage and Harel during their formative years in San Diego, and an important factor in their decisions to make aliyah.
Hebron, a recent graduate of Southern California Yeshiva High School in San Diego and the first of his school, he says, to enlist in the IDF immediately upon graduation, comes from a family of Israelis. (A dual citizen, Hebron says he plans to attend university upon completion of his service.) His mother’s entire family is in Israel, as is his sister, who has already embarked on the path Hebron has just started. In fact, he says, as part of the Tzofim Garin Tzabar program, they’ll live on the same kibbutz.
A partner of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Tzofim Garin Tzabar works solely with Diaspora Jews ages 18-23 who specifically plan to enlist in the IDF upon arriving in Israel as new olim. Many of these are lone soldiers, or those without family in Israel, and others may have family there but prefer to be with others who can relate to what they are experiencing. To ease the transition and assist olim in adjusting to their new home and responsibilities, Tzofim Garin Tzabar coordinates seminars and meetings before and after arrival, and they house olim on kibbutzim with other olim from their region, where they learn Hebrew and work on the kibbutz.
This summer, Tzofim Garin Tzabar has brought about six San Diego-area young adults and 32 from the entire southwest region to Israel, says Orit Mizner, the organization’s southwest area director. Hebron, she says, is a good example of the types of young adults who seek to make aliyah and join the IDF — those with a history or family in Israel, who were raised in Zionist homes or in the Tzofim (Israel Scouts) youth movement, or those who see it as their ticket to making Israel their permanent home.
Like Nefesh B’Nefesh, Tzofim Garin Tzabar has seen substantial growth since its 1991 founding. This summer session (there are two sessions each year, the other being winter, which just started last year), they helped to send 350 young adults to Israel, divided between 12 groups across the U.S. Their first year, they began with only one group in the entire country. For their part, she says, they’re working to create programming (not just for olim, but for kids in the Diaspora as well, like Israel Scouts and summer trips to Israel) that aims to foster a love of Israel.
“We see that when you create the right programs, when you create things they can relate to, they come,” Mizner says. “Obviously Israel will be a strong and important part of Jewish life in the Diaspora. We need to find more ways to make it stronger within that [18-35] age demographic.”
Like Hebron, fellow San Diegan Elana Brage is going through Tzofim Garin Tzabar and Nefesh B’Nefesh to make aliyah and enlist in the IDF. At 22, she’s been in college in California, but the former biology major realized she didn’t have any particular goals in mind pertaining to her major. So she left school midway through and, after returning from the summer program Marva Israel Experience, which Brage describes as “mock basic training” for the IDF, she knew what she wanted to do.
“It was an extremely fulfilling experience, and when it was over I realized I didn’t want to give the uniform back,” Brage says. “This felt like something good to be doing; it felt like it had a purpose.”
Also like Hebron, Brage is following in the footsteps of her sister, who has already made aliyah and enlisted in the IDF, with the help of Tzofim Garin Tzabar. (Brage has an Israeli mother, and she visited each summer as a child.)
“I spent one year of high school in Israel on my own doing an exchange program,” she says. “I grew up with family there, and I grew up loving to visit. … Actually when I was a child I always imagined I would go to serve in the [Israeli] army just because I always thought my cousins were so cool, because they were all older than me, and they’d come back home for the weekend [in their uniforms].”
Gabriela Kramer is choosing a slightly different path. At 18, she plans to make aliyah and attend the Interdisciplinary College in Herzaliya and earn her bachelor’s degree in diplomacy and international relations, and at age 21, she’ll enlist in the IDF. Also the daughter of an Israeli woman, Kramer has a lifelong connection to Israel, including summer visits with family there.
Still, she admits, it’s tough to leave her U.S. family and the city where she was raised. Like all the young adults who make aliyah, she’s making sacrifices.
“It’s hard,” she admits. “I don’t think it’s going to be an easy change, but I have a good support system. It’s not something I’m unsure about. It’s not something I’m doubting in my head. I’m sure it’s the right thing. I don’t see myself doing anything else but going there right now at this point in my life.”
And regarding the instability and particularly tense situations occurring across the entire Middle East right now, all three new olim say they aren’t deterred.
“I’ve never felt unsafe in Israel,” Kramer says. “I was in Israel when I was 12 and it was the Second Lebanon War. We had to evacuate the village my mom grew up in because there were bombs falling into the area and actually into the village. We were in the middle of a war, and it was scary and we were anxious and tense, but you still had this sense that you were safe. When it comes to instability, I’ve never thought twice about that being the issue.”
Even though she’ll be in the role of a soldier doing the protecting, not a civilian being protected? Even though, she says.
So what of this confidence in their futures in Israel, and of their willingness, even eagerness, to serve it militarily? The one common denominator, it seems, is their prior experience visiting Israel.
Guy Harel possesses a similar background. The 22-year-old and recent alumnus of San Diego State University says he’s “fulfilling the Zionist dream” by making aliyah and serving in the IDF for two years (though his requirement is just six months, due to his age).
“Since I was young, I always fantasized about making aliyah and living in Israel,” he says. “I grew up in a very Zionist household. My grandparents were all born in Mandate Palestine, and I have a very deep connection to Israel and always wanted to live here. I also attended private Zionist Orthodox Jewish day school until college. I visited Israel almost yearly since I was born.
“I decided on making aliyah after learning more and more about my family history and its connection to Israel, as well as seeing how the world views Israel. It’s important to protect the Jewish state.”
Cohen and Kelman’s 2007 study seems to back up that hypothesis.
It concludes, “This study underscores previous findings showing that promoting trips to Israel maybe the most policy-relevant action organized Jews can undertake to stem the erosion in Israel attachment among younger adult Jews. A single trip has clear positive effects on Israel attachment, repeat trips are even more effective and so are trips of longer duration.”
From personal experience, Brage and Harel agree.
“Birthright helps a lot,” Harel says. “I’ve seen many students go on Birthright, decide to learn Hebrew and invest more time in learning about and supporting Israel.”
Adds Brage, “I could understand if I had never gone and I had never had any personal connection to the country, why someone would be disinterested,” she says. “…Every person I know who didn’t have a personal connection and then did a trip like Birthright or who has even visited Israel on their own has loved the country, has loved the trip, has loved the experience. I would hope that all of those young adults who feel disinterested or disconnected would have the ability to take at least one trip there, because after that I don’t think they would feel that way.”
For information on Nefesh B’Nefesh, visit www.nbn.org.il. Information on Tzofim Garin Tzabar is at www.israelscouts.org. For information on the wide array of opportunities available for visiting Israel, contact the Israel and Overseas Center, at the Jewish Federation of San Diego County, at (858) 737-7132 or visit www.jewishinsandiego.org/israeloverseascenter.aspx.