It’s been three years since Hanna and Shamshy Schlager traded their home in Kew Gardens Hills for a new one in Modi’in, Israel.
It’s been a good three years, they’ll tell you, a time of growth, not the least of which was adding a third child to their family. But that first year was not without its challenges, including arranging for bank accounts and credit cards, insurance policies—not to mention the paperwork around setting up his private psychology practice.
“All of a sudden, you need to create your entire life here like you’ve just been born,” says Hanna. “Between the language barrier and trying to understand when the offices are closed and how to make appointments online, it can be overwhelming—luckily, my sister-in-law was here to help, but still it had its moments.”
Making sure the Schlagers and tens of thousands like them immigrating to Israel have systems in place to assure a positive welcome and an efficient integration into their newly adopted country is one impetus behind last week’s rollout of the new Nefesh B’Nefesh Institute for Aliyah Policy and Strategy.
Designed to identify and promote policy changes relating to the absorption and integration olim, the institute will rely on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s two decades of data and feedback from the nearly 70,000 people it’s helped make aliyah over the years.
That’s in addition to its goal of advocating for olim as they not only seek to integrate but also put their own stamp on Israeli society.
“One central goal is for olim to have a seat at the table, to contribute their voice to Israeli life,” is how the institute’s newly appointed head Michal Cotler-Wunsh puts it. “To use their skills to help move the State of Israel forward and build bridges, both internally and externally.”
As such, the institute represents a giant leap beyond the original goal of Nefesh B’Nefesh: easing the aliyah process and getting more North Americans on the plane en route to new lives in the Jewish state.
In 2001, after a relative of Rabbi Yehoshua Fass was murdered in a terrorist attack, he teamed up with Florida businessman Tony Gelbart to form Nefesh B’Nefesh. Partners included Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA. The mission was to inject new life into aliyah with a step-by-step process designed to lower financial, professional, logistical and social hurdles that got in the way.
The following year, Nefesh brought 519 newly minted Israelis on its first chartered flight; many of the babies from that trip are likely Israel Defense Forces soldiers by now.
In addition to the number of newcomers who have arrived with assistance from Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization is equally proud of another figure: more than 90 percent of them stay.
In the wake of COVID-19 and social unrest across North America, the numbers of aliyah are dramatically up (2021 figures are projected at 5,000—1,000 of them expected in August alone, up 95 percent from 2020).
“During this past year, our Nefesh B’Nefesh hotline has been ringing round the clock,” says Rabbi Fass. “And it’s undeniable that a majority of these issues could have been prevented with broader strategic planning in advance, which unfortunately cannot take place when you are in crisis mode.”
Cotler-Wunsh is a native Jerusalemite with her feet in both the Jewish state and the diaspora. Her mother, Ariela Ze’evi, was secretary of Gahal and Likud during former Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s tenure. When Cotler-Wunsh was 8, she moved to Montreal when her mother married Irwin Cotler, who founded the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights and served as Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General.
Returning to Israel as a young adult, Cotler-Wunsh served as a lone soldier and earned her law degree before working at the Ministry of Justice. After another period in Canada, for the last 11 years she and her family have been back in Israel. She served in the 2019-20 Knesset under the Blue and White Party, chairing the Subcommittee on Israel-Diaspora Relations.
“I just realized I’ve spent exactly half of my 50 years in Canada and half here, and now the Israel half is edging out the Canadian,” she says with a laugh.
Hot-button immigration issues that she’s looking forward to tackling through the institute include shaping policy around professional licensure, certification and academic equivalency, to maximize newcomers’ opportunities for both professional advancement and sharing their skills with their new homeland. “We’re looking to open doors not just professionally, but also socially and in every way,” she adds.
“By opening up more opportunities, even more will be encouraged to come—and more Israelis living elsewhere will return home.”
Each and every immigrant is an important addition to the Israeli enterprise, Cotler-Wunsh emphasizes. “And especially those who come from democracies have a huge role to play—to bring that sensibility, those values with them as they take their place around the public-policy table.”
Even though they are a small percentage, she adds, “at the end of the day, the olim who come from democracies will make changes that will affect all of Israel and the future of the Jewish people here and around the world.