- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2006

Despite continued violence in Israel, 220 North American Jews, including 26 from the District, arrived in Tel Aviv July 20 to begin new lives in a homeland under fire.

After the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and with a crime wave in the District, the immigrants from Washington determined there was no “safe place in the world,” said Yair Kalush, director of immigration at the Washington office of Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), a nongovernmental organization with headquarters in Jerusalem. Many told him they want to be a part of a young developing country of which they can be proud.

“In order to move to a country that’s under fire, you have to make [the decision] by yourself,” Mr. Kalush said. Money and incentives might help, he said, but they will not draw people into such a dangerous area unless they have another reason for being there: Some “want to bring peace,” but others just “want to be in the Holy Land.”

For the Fischer family, the eruption of Hezbollah violence has tested their decision to emigrate to Israel — to “make aliyah” — to live the “full Jewish life.”

“Living outside of Israel is like living in exile,” said Rabbi Elli Fischer. “Ultimately, it’s just practice for the real thing.”

“Honestly, I’m a little bit nervous,” said Mr. Fischer, who is planning on moving from his position at the Hillel at the University of Maryland with his wife and three children, ages 1 month to 5 years, to Israel without a prospective job.

Mr. Fischer and his wife, Pesha, both 27, made aliyah in 2000, bought a house and declared full Israeli citizenship, but he still owed teaching time in the United States in return for his full scholarship for graduate school at the Yeshiva University in New York. Mr. Fischer’s mother has been taking care of their house until they return home in August.

“We are excited; we are nervous, especially with the last couple days of news,” Mrs. Fischer said. “We are moving our family and our three children into war. If we didn’t want to do it so badly, this is a time to be running from this.”

Israel, she said, is “a safer place in terms in raising your kids in a community where people have family values,” but “living there has that tension. … You don’t realize that you have that fear while you’re living in it. In America, you don’t really think twice about parking in a shopping plaza. In Israel, they search your car before you go to the mall.”

She said the “daily fight for Israel’s existence” is “part of the good stuff.”

“It’s hard,” Mrs. Fischer said. “I definitely say this with all honesty: It’s not for everyone, but it’s definitely worth a shot.”

The security of the people who are immigrating, interning or volunteering in Israel is JAFI’s first priority, Mr. Kalush said. The agency is relocating newcomers into quieter, southern regions of Israel. “It’s a recommendation. We’re not forcing them,” he said.

Since Mr. Kalush became the director of immigration four years ago in the middle of the intifada — which has killed 444 Israeli citizens — the number of new immigrants to Israel has increased 300 percent, he said. “Every year, the number [of immigrants] increases 25 percent.”

Last year, 2,987 immigrated to Israel. By the end of September, JAFI hopes 2,300 to 2,400 will have immigrated, said Michael Landsberg, executive director of JAFI’s Aliyah Department in North America.

“Last year, we got into a record high — the highest since 1983,” Mr. Landsberg said. “All of that would not have happened if people had not already wanted to move,” he said. “All the benefits are nothing if people were not already considering Israel.” JAFI offers incentives for people moving to Israel, including tax breaks and sizable educational grants.

“The land of Israel has asserted this sort of gravitational attraction on Jews wherever they live throughout the centuries,” said Charlie Levine, spokesman for Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization that helps people integrate into Israeli communities. “It’s just a sense of belonging.”

“I felt at home in Israel,” said Mr. Levine, a Texas native who immigrated to Israel 28 years ago. “Don’t get me wrong — America is wonderful; I love America — but the minute you step foot in Israel, you feel, ‘Hey, this is my country with all of the problems and with all of the challenges.’ ”

“There are different ways to be Jewish,” he said. “I believe that being Jewish in Israel really puts you in center stage in Jewish history.”

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