Many have predicted the decline or even the end of the era of aliyah, the but recent statistics clearly demonstrate that the period of aliyah is alive and well.
More than 30,000 people moved to Israel in 2015, the highest number in over a decade and a 10 percent increase over the previous year. The highest number, 7,900, came from France, followed by 7,000 from Ukraine, and 6,600 from Russia. There was an overall increase of 25% from Eastern Europe, and a 6% increase from Western Europe.
Who are these new immigrants? For one thing, they’re younger: there was a 20 percent increase in olim age 19 and under, and close to half of the new oilm were under 30. Many of them were lone soldiers. A new survey conducted by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Merage Foundation has revealed that 90% of lone soldiers choose to make Israel their permanent home with 62% reporting that they had family members who followed their example and made Aliyah themselves. The breakdown of their countries of origin was: 50% from the former Soviet Union, 22% from North America, 11% from Western Europe, 10% from Latin America, and 7% from elsewhere.
Despite the trend towards younger immigrants, 2015 saw its fair share of elderly olim as well, including the oldest immigrant, 97-year-old Melba Landa. Melba was a human rights activist in the former Soviet Union, and had been sent into exile in the remote regions of the Soviet Union for several years. This year’s olim also included 95-year-old Phillip and 93-year-old Dorothy Grossman from Baltimore, Maryland, who have been married for 71 years and are the proud parents of three, grandparents to five, great- grandparents of 14, and great-great-grandparents to two.
Numerous factors indicate that the number of olim will continue to rise. It is clear that anti-Semitism, security concerns, and the overall economic situation have contributed to the rise in Aliyah from Europe – especially from France and Ukraine. Those factors will not disappear anytime in the near future. The fact that Rabbi Menachem Margolin, General Director of the European Jewish Association chose to write a Newsweek article entitled “How to Stop Europe’s Jewish Exodus to Israel” says it all.
The new initiative of the World Zionist Organization to open nearly 100 Hebrew-language institutes in France in 2016 — which will include information about the aliyah process — will certainly help the aliyah trend from that country to continue. Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, director of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has announced that his organization plans to help as many as 6,000 Jews move to Israel next year – reaching countries of origin such as Moldova, Turkey, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Other initiatives – such as the law recently passed by the Knesset to enable dentists from advanced countries to move to Israel without having to take certification exams – will further contribute to increased aliyah in the years to come.
There was, however, one statistic among the recently released figures which I found to be disturbing: a slight decrease in the number of immigrants from the United States – 3,768 in 2015 compared with 3,871 in 2014. My concern is not why the numbers went down, since the decrease was quite minor. I am really concerned about why the numbers have not increased.
In the survey of the lone soldiers conducted by the Jewish Agency, 43% said they made aliyah “in order to live in Israel as Israelis” and 23% related that they did so “to live as Jews in the Jewish state.” Only ten percent said they moved due to “a sense of personal insecurity in their countries of origin” and only nine percent “due to the difficult economic situation in their countries of origin.” As chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky declared upon seeing the survey results, they demonstrate “the powerful attraction of the Zionist idea” and that “Israel gives their lives meaning that they [don’t] find in other places.”
The fact that 58% reported that they consider themselves first and foremost as “Israelis,” that 78% said they “feel that other Israelis care about them” and “that they feel involved in what is happening in Israel,” and that 90% report that their command of Hebrew is good enough to enable them to handle life in Israel with ease, indicates that the atmosphere in Israel is ripe for ideologically driven olim and not simply for those who must move to Israel out of need.
I will never forget the farewell ceremony for my own aliyah flight at JFK Airport. Rabbi Josh Fass, executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh noted the words that we say every morning in our prayers: “V’tolicheinu kommimiyut l’artzeinu” – “and lead us upright to our country” – words that I had said for years without giving them any real thought. Rabbi Fass pointed out that most of the people who had moved to Israel were fleeing persecution and coming as a broken people. But we merited to emigrate standing proudly, upright, not running away from something but running toward something.
The dream of the Zionist movement was the return of the Jewish people to their ancient and biblical homeland, and we have been blessed to witness in our lifetime the ingathering of the exiles as prophesized in the Bible. It is my hope and prayer that as we celebrate the increase in overall aliyah — an aliyah largely being driven now by running FROM something — that Jews worldwide will tap into the spirit captured by those lone soldiers and be inspired to run TOWARD something.
Israel wants you. Now the decision is yours.