When a local philanthropist speaks, there’s usually a personal connection to the cause. For Lawrence attorney Phil Rosen, it was a trip to northern Israel with his daughter last year, where they kept encountering Hebrew speakers with American accents. At a coffee shop outside Tzfat, they met a young Californian olah in uniform, and asked to hear her story.
“She told a great story of a lone soldier who came on Nefesh B’Nefesh after a birthright tour. She was in love with the country,” Rosen said, at a fundraising evening at the Cedarhurst home of Moshe Berger, where they welcomed Nefesh B’Nefesh cofounder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass. “Nefesh is one of the two game changers in Israel. It takes facts on the ground and changes them to the right direction.”
For Rabbi Fass, the catalyst was a Hamas suicide bombing a decade ago where his 13-year-old cousin was killed. “The overwhelming sense was to stand in and continue a life that was snuffed. Stand and show and fight with a sense of hope,” Rabbi Fass said. The Boca Raton rabbi connected other prospective olim from around the county and fundraised to make a dramatic gesture. It paid off with an inaugural $2 million Nefesh B’Nefesh flight in July 2002, which brought 360 Jews to Israel, the largest single number of American olim in a single group to date.
Rabbi Fass said that while the hard numbers are small, the potential is there and polls prove it. “The low number of North Americans is not for a lack of will and passion. They have four top concerns, bureaucracy, loans for young couples whose average age is 31, social infrastructure, and employment. We created a foundation to address these problems,” Rabbi Fass said.
Initially an independent nonprofit, Nefesh B’Nefesh gained the support of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who added government funding to the organization, which has been renewed by his successors. “A 97 percent retention rate and our thirty thousandth oleh is coming this August, it is an unparalleled model for any country,” Rabbi Fass said.