For Baruch Seff, making aliyah isn't a question of if, but when.
So when the 34-year-old project manager from Cherry Hill, N.J., heard that young entrepreneurs who were driving social change in Israel would speak in Center City on Monday, he jumped at the chance to build connections to his future home.
The Nefesh B'Nefesh panel discussion was the latest event in the nonprofit agency's "One Aliyah" initiative, started last year to target young professionals "who have aliyah potential," said overseas program coordinator Sharon Millendorf.
They may not be rushing to sign citizenship paperwork right this minute, she said, but maybe they'll be on that path years from now. At the very least, she continued, programs like this could inspire them to think about aliyah in the future or apply for a short-term fellowship that later leads to a more permanent stay.
Whatever the impetus, the number of young professionals moving to Israel seems to be on the rise. According to the agency's data, 1,200 North Americans between the ages of 17 and 35 made aliyah last year. That's more than double the 540 who arrived in 2005. While the margority of immigrants are Orthodox, within that age group, the percentage of Conservative, Reform and non-affiliated Jews grew from 46 percent to 65 percent.
Millendorf's expecting even more young immigrants in 2011. Just this week, she said, an Israeli shaliach at University of Pennsylvania counted seven students intent on making aliyah after graduating and about 30 discussing the idea.
One of them is 26-year-old Vivian Futran, an environmental studies graduate student who said she fell in love with the country during an internship at the Arava Institute. With her boyfriend there, too, Futran said she expects to stay in Israel to pursue her doctorate degree.
"You know what, I would be very proud to call myself a citizen," said Futran. "It feels good, kind of heartwarming."
While Seff has already made up his mind, he said hearing this week from young people doing great work in Israel made him even more eager to move.
For his family, he said, the only hold-up is financial security. Nefesh B'Nefesh would help them navigate logistics and offer grant incentives, he said, but staff members can't necessarily provide jobs in Israel or sell their home in Cherry Hill.
With those challenges ahead, Seff said he and his wife have set a loose goal to move in time for their 8-year-old daughter, the oldest of four, to celebrate her Bat Mitzvah in the Jewish state.
It's hard to explain why it means so much, Seff said, but after visiting three times, "that's where we know we should be."
"It's our home."
At the program's end, the presenters encouraged the 22 attendees crowded in the upstairs bar at Raven Lounge to create their own stories in Israel.