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by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
September 15, 2002

This past week with the focus on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, America has been in the news here even more than usual. American olim took the opportunity to hold several events that drew attention to American aliya.

On September 10, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) held it's annual ceremony commemorating those Americans and Canadian Israelis killed in acts of terror over the past year. The event always takes place between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur at the AACI Memorial Forest near Shaar Hagai, just off the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway not far from Beit Shemesh. There are more than 200 names on the simple plaque that nestles among the pine trees in the forest. Many of those listed are soldiers who fell defending the country in all the wars since 1947. But over the past two years of Arab violence, the numbers being added have jumped dramatically, and they're almost all civilians. This year 25 new names were engraved on the plaque.

As three AACI members take turns reading short profiles of those who had fallen, nods of recognition pass through the crowd. Several hundred people gather in the late afternoon to pay their respects to their fellow immigrants who made the ultimate sacrifice for the state. With so many terror attacks this past year, it's difficult to realize that it's less than a year since Shoshi Ben Yishai, 16, was killed in a bus attack; or that it was only last February that Keren Shatzky,14, was murdered one Saturday night while eating pizza in Karnei Shomron.

Fluttering American and Candian flags flank a larger Israeli flag as parents of young terror victims light the memorial torch. US and Candian government representatives lay wreaths in front of the memorial as the recently bereaved families seated in the front row look on.

Col. Miri Eisen, the head of the IDF Combat Intelligence Department, rises to speak. Young, attractive and articulate in Hebrew and English, Eisen's face has become well known in the international media since someone in the IDF Spokesperson's unit belatedly realized what an asset she could be to Israel's hasbara (PR) efforts. In the midst of her brief remarks, Eisen, normally steely eyed and self assured, has to stop several times to compose herself. "This doesn't happen to me on TV," she quips as she continues on to speak of her own aliya as a child in 1971, accompanying her parents who chose to come to Israel from San Francisco. "I'm so proud to be standing here as an Israeli--as a woman, a mother and an American immigrant," she manages to say through her tears. "As a full colonel in the IDF, I salute you," she concludes.

Several IDF officers, sons of US immigrants, were killed in battle this past year, most during Operation Defensive Shield. Simcha and Penina Mellick sit quietly through the ceremony in the back row. In the alphabetical reading of the fallen, the name of their son Gedalya, is read right before that of one his closest friends, Matanya Robinson, who was killed one day before Gedalya last April. Both boys were 21 years old.

The day after the memorial ceremony, September 11, a new aliya organization purposely chose the date to kick off it's campaign to encourage American aliya. The mission of Aloh Naaleh, founded by a group of modern orthodox rabbis who themselves made aliya, is to motivate American Jews to come to Israel. " We believe that the mitzvah (commandment) of Yishuv Haaretz (returning to the Land) is of utmost importance and that aliya for the majority of Jews is an achievable goal," says their publicity material. "we seek to legitimize aliya and place it firmly on the agenda of the North American Jewish community."

To date, less than 1 percent of American Jewry has made Israel their home. Over the past ten years the number of American olim has been stuck at only 1,200 per year. Best estimates are that up to one third eventually return to the US. The arrival this summer of 400 US immigrants through the Nefesh B'Nefesh (Jewish Souls United) organization is a hopeful indicator of a potential rise in American aliya figures.

According to one conference speaker, Prof. Chaim Waxman, a sociologist from Rutgers University, Americans in the post 9/11 world are increasingly searching for meaning and spirituality, and a sense of belonging--something Jews could find in Israel.

MK Zvi Hendel (National Union) the head of the Knesset Aliya Committee tells the crowd that the country needs the initiative of American Jewish immigrants. "We need the strength of those who come because of the pull of aliya, not the push of anti-Semitism," he says.

Several other speakers mention new aliya initiatives--a new shaliach working specifically with Jews from the former Soviet Union now living in the US; greater emphasis on Zionist education in Jewish day schools--refraining from hiring yordim (Israelis who have left the country) as Hebrew teachers; sending successful, young American olim back to speak to their peers about aliya.

Two young members of the panel, Rabbi David Marcus, former US director of Tehillah, the movement for religious aliyah, and Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the co-founder and director of Nefesh B'Nefesh, decry the apathy of most rabbis regarding encouraging aliya. But Fass notes that 1300 families have already approached his organization to register for the summer 2003 aliya flight and benefits they offer. "I believe there are thousands who want to come but there are obstacles..." he says. Nefesh B'Nefesh gives need-based grants to immigrants, providing they stay in Israel for at least three years.

It remains to be seen whether the economic and social changes in a post 9/11 America will be the stimulus that will help motivate Jews to consider linking their personal destiny to that of Israel.