- The Washington Times - Monday, August 2, 2004

A new life begins today for Washington resident Tova Serkin, one of about 420 U.S. and Canadian Jews who will board a flight in New York this afternoon to immigrate to Israel.

The mass immigration effort has been organized and partly financed by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a private organization dedicated to reversing a long decline in immigration to Israel and helping the Jewish state head off a demographic crisis.

The organization plans to move more than 1,500 Jews to Israel this year, substantially boosting a North American immigration rate that has averaged 1,300 people a year since the 1980s. The group’s ultimate goal is to bring 100,000 Jews to Israel within the next five to 10 years.

Miss Serkin, who has visited Israel regularly since she was in high school, understands the politics of what she is doing and said she is “committed to helping Israel to flourish into a democratic state.”

But, she said, she was motivated to move more by cultural and lifestyle reasons.

“As a Jew, it is a unique experience to live in a place where Judaism is already a culture,” she said. “The whole rhythm of my life in Israel reflects my culture and my tradition.”

Another factor was generous financial assistance from Nefesh B’Nefesh, which provides grants of up to $25,000 for each new immigrant.

“I don’t think I could be doing this without Nefesh B’Nefesh,” said Miss Serkin, a 24-year-old Harvard University graduate who is still repaying college loans and found the economic aid “incredibly helpful.”

This money comes from private donors who have provided Nefesh B’Nefesh with gifts of up to $1 million. This year, its budget has increased by more than $1 million — to $4.2 million.

Nefesh B’Nefesh also helps the immigrants settle in Israel. Each of the three summer flights — today’s is the second — is accompanied by officials from the Israeli health, absorption and education ministries who will help the travelers fill out documents and will answer basic questions such as how to obtain a driver’s license.

Nefesh B’Nefesh spokesman Charley Levine said new immigrants to Israel often spend their first weeks “running from office to office waiting for some rude clerk” when they “should enjoy” arriving in the country.

Nefesh B’Nefesh wants to overcome these obstacles and make moving to Israel more “user-friendly,” he said, adding that his organization “firmly believes that Israel is a great place for Jews to live in.”

But with the Jewish birthrate much lower than those of their Palestinian and Arab neighbors, Israeli officials fear that without increased immigration, Jews will become a minority within their own territory and that Israel either will cease to be democratic or lose its Jewish character.

The Israeli government, therefore, has thrown its full support behind the efforts of groups such as Nefesh B’Nefesh, which already had brought 1,500 North American Jews to Israel before this year and has been contacted by an additional 7,000 to 8,000 prospective immigrants.

“Nefesh B’Nefesh represents making one of the dreams I fought for a reality: Bringing home to Zion our Jewish brethren from the diaspora,” Israeli Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, wrote in a letter to the organization.

Nefesh B’Nefesh means “Soul to Soul.” Rabbi Joshua Fass and businessman Tony Gelbart founded the organization in 2001 after a 14-year-old cousin of Mr. Fass was killed in a terrorist bombing while waiting for a bus to go to school. Mr. Fass now lives in Israel.

For today’s new immigrants, the decision to go to Israel means living in a country where security forces stand guard outside cafes and residents have to worry about terrorist attacks every day. But Miss Serkin said she was not afraid of living in Jerusalem.

“Between crime, it is more dangerous to live in most places in America,” said Miss Serkin, who was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. She also said she was more worried about terrorism in the United States than in Israel, which she described as a “very vibrant” place with “a passion for living.”

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