Goodbye, America - hello, Israel

After law school at Boston University, a stint in the DA's office, and managing a few election campaigns, Jay Ruderman's career was on track professionally and politically. But before entering private law practice, he decided "to give Israel a try." A two-month stay in 1998 set a new direction for his life. This month, he and his family are moving there permanently.

"I love America - it's the land of my birth and a symbol of freedom for the world. But Israel is the homeland for the Jewish people, and that's what draws me," says the orthodox Jew from Brookline, Mass.

The Rudermans, it seems, have plenty of company. Israel has long been the refuge for Jews fleeing persecution, but this summer, some 1,800 from the United States and Canada are "making aliyah" (going to live in Israel). Tuesday, the fifth planeload of the season leaves from New York City. The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) estimates that 3,200 Jews will emigrate in 2005 - the highest number in 20 years.

While most share Mr. Ruderman's ideological motivation, planeloads taking off from New York and Toronto are getting a boost from Israel itself, which has made North American Jews its new target by providing a host of tantalizing incentives. Benefits range from free education and airfareto tax breaks, job-hunting help, and substantial grants.

Israel is eager to maintain its Jewish majority, but has experienced a dramatic decline in immigration, from 200,000 in 1990 to 23,000 in 2004, as arrivals from Russia, Europe, and Central Asia have dropped off. This has led Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to declare that "Aliyah is the central goal of the state of Israel."

"The aim is 1 million immigrants over the next decade, and North America is the priority area," says Michael Landsberg, head of Aliyah for JAFI in the US. Some 6.3 million Jews reside on the continent, a well-educated population that offers prized high-tech skills and democratic values not always possessed by other arrivals.

To spur immigration, JAFI has joined in a strong marketing effort with a private organization, Nefesh B'Nefesh (Jewish Souls United).

For each North American immigrant, Israel provides unconditional help: a $3,300 grant, airline tickets, health insurance, Hebrew study, tax deductions, and rent assistance. Nefesh B'Nefesh gives an additional conditional grant (to be returned if people return to the US within three years), as well as support services for settling in. More funds go to those choosing certain cities and rural areas. Immigrants must become Israeli citizens.

"All this might equal between $25,000 and $40,000 for a family," says Mr. Landsberg.

Such largesse is a boon to Eli Gurevich and his family, of Baltimore, who are climbing on the Aug. 16 flight to Tel Aviv sponsored by Nefesh B'Nefesh.

"We're moving mostly out of religious reasons," Mr. Gurevich says. "We've wanted to do it for five years, but couldn't afford it." His company, Intel, agreed to transfer him to Israel, and the family - including his wife Rachel, a writer, and two sons - has chosen to live in a town with a largely Anglo population, drawn from the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa, he says.

Yet reaching the immigration goal is far from assured, some say, since the Jewish community has flourished in the New World.

"The greatest potential for aliyah is from those who are very strongly identified religion-ethnically - such as the Orthodox and more traditionally Conservative," says Chaim Waxman, professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University. "I expect some increase, but not a massive aliyah because ... many feel they can retain their Orthodox lifestyle very well in American society."

Recognizing that leaving a free, prosperous society calls for a very personal choice tied to Jewish identity, JAFI encourages what it calls "aliyah by stages." "We first offer people to go on a short-term visit, then a longer-term visit, and then hopefully on a one-way ticket," Landsberg explains.

And now there are special educational campaigns. "We're offering the right to free study between the ages of 15 and 37," he adds. Visiting high school students can receive full tuition and living costs. In higher education, immigrants are offered free tuition for three years of undergraduate study, up to two years for a master's degree, and up to three for a PhD in certain professions.

"When you offer so many things, it's like the tipping point," Landsberg suggests. "People will say ... 'Instead of taking out a huge loan for Columbia University, maybe I'll go to Hebrew University and they'll pay for me.' "

Many youths have gone to Israel for a short program of a few months and now are taking advantage of the benefits. Canadian Raphael Woznica, a student at theUniversity of Toronto, spent nine months there in 2001-2002 studying history, Hebrew, and the Torah, and volunteering on a kibbutz and for the ambulance service. Once back in Toronto, "the differences stood out ... and I realized how much I felt at home [in Israel]," he says. "Canada is a great country, but as an observant Jew, I can't help feeling here I'm going against the grain; there I belong."

During high school in Newton, Mass., Ilit Cohen "was struggling a lot with religion and was a really confused teenager." But she says a year in Israel with the Young Judea program transformed her.

One of 20 Americans in a group of 300 Jewish teens from around the world, she volunteered in a youth village for kids from Russia and Ethiopia and studied at Hebrew University. But the highlight of her time, Ilit emphasizes, was 2-1/2 months of basic training in the army.

"We got guns and had the real discipline, set up a base in the desert, and learned how a soldier functions in war - conditions were very hard," she says. "I went through a real change; the group formed something so great in the end, and I really connected to the land. That's when I decided to make aliyah."

After flying to Israel Sept. 6, she plans to attend Hebrew University for seven years, through medical school, to become a gynecologist.

Terrorist incidents may loom large in news reports on Israel, but none of those interviewed felt unsafe there. "I worry more about driving there," Ruderman says.

He and his wife, Shira - an Israeli he met during his stint studying Hebrew - see this as a good time to move. Their children are still infants. Most important, this is a difficult time for Israel, he says, and "people who are talented and qualified to help the country should do so."

Until recently the New England deputy director for AIPAC, the influential Jewish lobby, Ruderman has his new job lined up: as liaison for the Israeli Defense Forces with the Jewish community outside Israel. In a recent poll of North American Jews by Harris Interactive, about 1.5 percent (representing 100,000 people) said there was a high chance of their moving to Israel, permanently or temporarily, within the next five years.

That's an unprecedented figure, but Dr. Waxman is studying a new phenomenon that might hint at intentions behind it: the ability to live in Israel and commute to work in the US. These days, he says, Thursday night flights to Israel and Sunday night flights to the US are tightly booked with regular commuters.

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