The Road to Aliyah Begins with Small Steps
For young Jews from the FSU, Visiting Israel Can Lead to Making Aliyah
In a nation where there are Jewish senators, governors and Supreme Court justices, it can be hard for us to imagine being 18 and afraid to walk down the street wearing a yarmulke or a Star of David. But in some parts of the former Soviet Union, including many cosmopolitan cities, cultural alienation is still a reality for some.
“It is extremely anti-Semitic, socially” says 18-year-old Boris of his native Kiev. Boris arrived in Israel last November as a participant of MIR, a Jewish Agency program formerly known as Sela, which allows high school graduates to spend a year in Israel taking intensive Hebrew instruction (ulpan) while also attending post-secondary academic classes. A majority of the participants then join the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) followed by degree study at an Israeli university.
Along with Hebrew, Boris is studying computers, history and languages at Nitzana, the Jewish Agency’s sprawling educational campus and conservation center in the northern Negev. Nitzana hosts a number of programs in addition to MIR, including The Jewish Agency’s Masa Desert Sports Challenge for post-university adults from around the world; week-long conservation retreats for Israeli school groups; a program for at-risk youth; and Derech Eretz, a year-long, pre-IDF prep program for high-achieving youth from Israel’s periphery.
At Nitzana, young adults representing all segments of global Jewish society live with one another, dine together, share holiday celebrations, and join one another in social and recreational activities.
Places like Nitzana represent major steps along a path towards Aliyah, but they are not the first exposure to Israel for most of world Jewry. Because of The Jewish Agency’s global presence, the Jewish identity-building process is begins much earlier in childhood than it used to for most. For Boris (like many younger Jews from the former Soviet Union) the spark that eventually blazed the path to Aliyah was lit when he somehow found himself at a holiday event at the Jewish Cultural Center in his native city. There, a Jewish Agency emissary (Shaliach) befriended him and his family and encouraged him to attend a Jewish Agency camp for a week.
“Today in the former Soviet Union we are working with absolutely assimilated youth of absolutely assimilated parents of absolutely assimilated grandparents,” Natan Sharansky, The Jewish Agency’s Chairman of the Executive, recently told leaders of the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FCJ). “Some of these 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls, who are at our camps, find out that they are Jews two or three days before they come.”
In a recent study, The FJC found that young Jews are 55 percent more likely to feel attached to Israel if they have attended a Jewish camp. The Jewish Agency is working to replicate this impact in the former Soviet Union. Last year, more than 6,000 youth in the former Soviet Union spent a week at a Jewish camp staffed by Israelis along with local Jewish peer leaders.
At the camps, children and teenagers are introduced to local Jewish history, Jewish customs, Zionism and Israeli culture. The Jewish Agency camping experience is often their first immersive exposure to Jewish community and their first step onto an identity-building continuum that now includes Taglit-Birthright Israel and Masa. Sharansky added that many parents don’t see any need to tell their children they are Jewish since there is no longer state-sponsored anti-Semitism. They send their kids to camp because it is free and, like in North America, they see camp as an opportunity for their children to get out of the city. But, for children in the FSU, an intense and new feeling of belonging often emerges at camp in a very short time.
“Over the 10 days, the kids discover that they can be part of a very exciting, very interesting history and a very big family,” Sharansky added.
Boris recalls, “When most kids arrive at camp, they don’t even know they are Jewish. They come because it’s free. But at camp, they begin to understand they are Jewish and what that means. I started to take part in Jewish life and learned more about the Jewish people.”
After camp, participants return home to communities where they are once again in the minority. But they emerge secure in knowledge that they are not alone as Jews; that there is a Jewish home for them, and that they will soon have the opportunity to experience Israel. For Boris, living in Israel, at Nitzana, means finally feeling a sense of belonging as a Jew.
“Here I can feel Jewish freely,” he said.