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Sunday, July 18, 2004

Israel's plight draws American Jews to homeland / Californians among immigrants seeking religious roots, life in a Jewish atmosphere

Israel's plight draws American Jews to homeland / Californians among immigrants seeking religious roots, life in a Jewish atmosphere


Jerusalem -- Last month, Leilah Krounbi was in San Francisco working as a caregiver for the elderly and helping to feed the homeless in the Haight.

The 26-year-old woke up Thursday morning in Jerusalem, thousands of miles from her home and family, complete with a new Israeli nationality.

Krounbi was one of more than 400 Jews from 33 U.S. states and four Canadian provinces who stepped off a jumbo jet last week to begin a new life in Israel. At a time when the threat of suicide bombs and a shaky economy have sliced annual Jewish immigration to Israel to 24,000 from the normal pace of 60,000 in the past three years, American and Canadian Jews are coming in increasing numbers, responding to the call from the place where they were not born, but they still call their homeland.

By the end of this summer, more than 1,500 Jews will have arrived from North America on planes chartered by the Nefesh B'Nefesh (Soul to Soul) organization, which encourages aliyah -- the emigration of Jews to Israel.

The number includes 252 families and 273 single people, ranging in age from 2 months to 82 years. The average adult age is 33. Many of those coming are 30- and 40-something middle-class professionals who want to raise their children in a Jewish atmosphere. Most are from New York, but 103 of them hail from California.

While 70 percent of the new immigrants are observant Jews and many are coming to join family and friends who have already made the move to Israel, neither of those factors applies to Krounbi. She has no family in Israel. Her father is a Lebanese Muslim who left his country when the civil war broke out in 1975 and turned his back on religion. She always considered herself Jewish, like her American mother, but it meant little to her until she encountered a group of Israeli backpackers in India three years ago.

"Jews in America are different from Israelis. They were just so cool," she said. "For some reason, it made me feel OK about being Jewish and being who I am, and I felt like I could belong in Israel better than in the Jewish community in other places. I realized being Jewish wasn't what I always thought it was. It didn't necessarily mean being religious or hanging out in a certain community."

Jewish immigrants assisted

For thousands of Jews worldwide, the idea of aliyah remains a concrete ambition. According to the Law of Return, enacted to provide instant citizenship to the thousands of displaced Jewish refugees in post-war Europe, all Jews, their children and grandchildren have the right to instant citizenship.

Israel's population has rocketed from 600,000 when the state was founded in 1948 to more than 6 million today, fueled by successive waves of immigration. Many came to escape persecution or economic hardship, but those from the prosperous democracies of Europe and North America came because they felt that Israel was the Jewish home.

New immigrants receive free housing and Hebrew lessons for five months, a small subsistence stipend and various tax breaks to ease their way. Nefesh B'Nefesh gives each family a grant of $20,000 to help with moving costs. Students receive free university tuition and small stipends. Money for immigrant absorption is raised by appeals to Jewish communities abroad.

Various small loans for training and business development are available. In 2002, for example, the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption gave nearly $3 million in grants to self-employed immigrant entrepreneurs.

"You have taken the opportunity to fulfill your birthright to play your part in Israeli society," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the latest immigrants Thursday as they arrived to begin their new lives. He has pledged to welcome a million new Israelis in the next decade, matching the number who arrived in the 1990s after the former Communist bloc collapsed.

Over time, the waves of immigration have provided a major boost to the Israeli economy, spurring growth and creating demand for housing, consumer goods and major infrastructure projects. Highly educated entrepreneurs and technicians from the United States and the former Soviet Union spearheaded the country's high-tech boom. But unemployment and housing among some new immigrants have proved problematic.

Howie Kahn, a counselor for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, said there was "a little craziness" in the decision to come to Israel, but despite the difficulties of a lower economic standard of living, the threat of terrorist violence and the problems of adjusting to a new language and culture, people found it "much more spiritually fulfilling."

Violence not a deterrent

He said about 130,000 North American-born Jews live in the country. On average, one-third of them do not stay, but he said very few had left because of the intifada. "I think only one family in all four years left because of violence," said Kahn. "A number of them left for economic reasons. I don't think violence really comes into the picture when people decide to move here. I'm not saying they don't think about it. Maybe they come and don't ride buses or don't eat at restaurants, but I don't think it plays into the decision of aliyah.

"When Israel appears to be in some kind of danger, the trend is that immigration from the U.S. goes up," he said.

Krounbi admitted she had some reservations about her own safety, despite her enthusiasm for living in Israel. "The security factor here definitely scared me," she said. "I've shipped over my bicycle, trying to avoid the buses. "

She said her family had been supportive, even though they had no interest in Judaism or Israel, but her younger sisters were fairly bemused. "My sisters think it's pretty crazy that I'm here," she said. "My dad was surprised, but he supports me."

Emigrating for the children

Other California emigrants came from more traditional Jewish backgrounds. The biggest family to arrive was Gigi and Charles Tover of Tarzana (Los Angeles County) and their seven children, ages 1 to 17.

"We've been planning this for 20 years," said Gigi Tover, 43, who like her husband is a CPA. She said their Orthodox religious family had come "to give a better life to our children. This is our homeland. We're all Jewish people, and this is where we belong."

They went straight from the airport to their new home in Hashmonaim, a West Bank settlement where Gigi Tover's brother-in-law lives.

Although the settlements are regarded by Palestinians and many Israelis as a major obstacle to peace, for many Orthodox Jews they represent a contribution to Israeli security and a return to the biblical homeland. And although they have been a focus for attacks by Palestinian militants, Tover said her greatest concern was more mundane: "Just that my kids will be happy."

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