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Recession Spurs Families to Make Aliyah -- Finally!

October 15, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Staff
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Recent new "olim" Tova Goldfine (right), with daughters Daniella, 10, and Dara, 20

Adam Levick, 41, spent more than half a decade working with the Anti-Defamation League. Having started out as an unpaid intern, spurred on by the outbreak of the Second Intifada, the native Philadelphian progressed through the organization first to a part-time position and then to a full-time gig, most recently as the group's assistant director of Jewish security, analyzing and contextualizing manifestations of left-wing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, primarily in U.S. media outlets and blogs.

But when ADL's finances were affected by the economic downturn, Levick and others were let go. With job prospects dim in his field of Israel advocacy, he began looking not west, but east -- the Middle East, to be specific.

Though the recession may have cost him his job, it also provided him with just the right set of circumstances to realize a long-held dream, and on May 19, he boarded a plane to Israel -- with a one-way ticket in hand.

Levick is among a number of American Jews whose experience with the recession has acted as a catalyst for making aliyah, or immigration to the Jewish state.

"Everyone who knew me knew that it was just a matter of time before I moved to Israel," said Levick, noting that the hardest part of the whole thing was the notion of completely starting over again.

Fortunately, he had some help: While Levick relied on savings to get started, he also receives a stipend for immigrants from the Israeli government, as well as money from Nefesh B'Nefesh, the group that handles North American aliyah.

Though still looking for a paid position in Israel advocacy work, Levick volunteers part-time, and is studying in an ulpan. He has also been accepted into a government program seeking to fill the nation's shortage of English teachers. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

Officials at the Jewish Agency for Israel say that figures show a likely 15 percent increase in the number of North Americans who have made aliyah in 2009, compared to last year.

Nefesh B'Nefesh said that its North American call center in New York handled 9,536 calls between January and July, up from 6,238 from the corresponding time period in 2008. Nearly 140 Philadelphians have made aliyah through the group since 2002, including 20 this year.

"It's not been a trigger for making aliyah, but rather an accelerator," Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the founder of Nefesh B'Nefesh, said of the recession. He spoke recently at a ceremony at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York celebrating the departure of a planeload of 238 immigrants to Israel from North America.

"There aren't that many opportunities in America right now, so people say, why not go now?" he said.

Josef Mandelbaum, one of the new olim at the ceremony, said that a number of friends have had that experience.

"Many of my friends who have been thinking about making aliyah say they are planning on doing it now because the economic situation here has really taken a downturn," he said.

As the CEO for the card company American Greetings, Mandelbaum noted that he has not been affected personally by the recession, but he's making aliyah nonetheless. He plans to continue working in his current position by "commuting and telecommuting" from Israel.

In the Israeli town of Chashmonaim, located about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Wilens family has been busy unpacking and adjusting to their new surroundings after recently relocating from Boca Raton, Fla.

"Without a question, the economy has played a big role in our decision to make aliyah," said Jeff Wilens, who owns a mortgage company in Florida. "I've been in the business for 15 years. In the last 21/2 years, especially in southern Florida, [it] was one of the hardest hit."

Wilens, who has four children, said that one of the biggest reasons he and his wife decided to move was the growing cost of Jewish day-school tuition. Last year alone, he said, the family spent $60,000 to send their children to school.

"For me, tuition was unsustainable," he said. "I haven't the ability to earn what I earned. We said, if we were going to struggle, we might as well do it here."

The cost of day school was also a factor for Tova Goldfine of Bala Cynwyd, who also made aliyah recently. While the recession helped provide the timing, she was quick to point out that at home, it cost "$18,000 for my daughter to go to Jewish day school. Here, it's free."

But in certain instances, the recession has had a reverse effect, stifling plans to immigrate to Israel.

Zumi Brody, 36, of St. Louis, wanted to make aliyah with his wife and four children last year, but when the housing market collapsed, he couldn't get a decent price for his property and had to put his plans on hold.

"Last year, there were signs things might get better, but this year, there were signs it was only getting worse," he said.

After waiting for prices to bounce back, Brody and his family finally decided they couldn't wait anymore. He said that they'll be moving to Israel next month.

"We wanted our 6-year-old to start going to kindergarten in Israel," said Brody. "This is something that we really want to do, and we can't wait forever."

Gil Shefler of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.

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