Nefesh B’Nefesh |

Covid-19 and the Return Home

Every year, Nefesh B’Nefesh welcomes home thousands of North American Olim, guiding them through the Aliyah process and assisting them to integrate into Israeli society. Despite the pandemic, 2021 is breaking all records for Aliyah

Josh Brook
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Co-Founder of NBN Rabbi Fass and Minister of Aliyah and Intergation Pnina Tamano-Shata welcome Olim at Ben Gurion
Co-Founder of NBN Rabbi Fass and Minister of Aliyah and Intergation Pnina Tamano-Shata welcome Olim at Ben GurionCredit: Shahar Azran
Josh Brook
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In February of 2020, Nefesh B’Nefesh was gearing up for its annual Mega Aliyah event in New Jersey. The event, attended by thousands of potential Olim, is a whirlwind of information and meetings set to get the ball rolling for many North Americans planning to make Aliyah. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic merely days before, the organization cancelled the event and went into overdrive, pivoting all topics and sessions into well planned online webinars and discussions, providing the information needed in an ever-changing world. 
Looking back, nobody would have believed that the pandemic would be the catalyst that would inspire conversation and encourage the Aliyah of so many to Israel. 

A group of new olim arrive at Ben Gurion Aiport, July 2020Credit: Yonit Schiller

An opportunity to focus on dreams and priorities

Founded in 2002, Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) partners with Israel's Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA to facilitate the process of making Aliyah from North America by minimizing the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles. Nefesh B'Nefesh provides comprehensive long-term support and social services to new Olim from these countries, softens their absorption into Israeli society and ensures that each Aliyah story is a success. Of the 70,000 new immigrants the organization has assisted to date, over 90% have remained in Israel.

Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, over 19,000 Aliyah applications have been opened by potential North American Olim looking to make Israel their home – in comparison to an average year where approximately 5,000 applications are opened. Despite the seemingly high numbers of applications, the proof is in the Olim. The number of new immigrants expected by the end of 2021 is 42% higher than the organization’s yearly average. So, in essence, people weren’t just filling in applications to pass the time, they were making real decisions for their future. 

Major changes in people’s lives often tend to push them toward decisions they may not have been ready to make, nor might have been open to, beforehand. Despite the obvious hardships and turmoil, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a real opportunity for many people to rethink what was important to them and realize where they see themselves and their lives unfolding. 

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, characterizes this phenomenon as a result of how individuals were reassessing their lives in wake of the pandemic. “For many Jews who have been contemplating Aliyah, being home with their individual families has given them an opportunity to focus on individual dreams and priorities,” he said. “People have been able to stay close to family members without being in the same physical space; they have felt part of a wider community without stepping foot in a synagogue or community center, and many have been able to adapt to working remotely without compromising on productivity. We are seeing how these changes, while fundamentally challenging, are allowing more and more people to consider Aliyah today.”

Eric, Pnina and their children, Noah, Avigayil and Eliana, before their Aliyah Flight August 2021Credit: Ari Schuchman

“If not now, when?” 

Eric Distenfeld, Pnina Herskovits and their three children are among some 700 families making Aliyah in 2021. The family, originally from Teaneck, New Jersey, will be moving to Modi’in. Both Eric and Pnina will be keeping their respective jobs by working remotely, and although the pandemic wasn’t a direct catalyst for their Aliyah, their positive attitude towards the situation is evident.

“We are very fortunate that we are able to make Aliyah, and even though my wife and I are able to keep our jobs, it wasn’t a huge factor in our decision to move, but it definitely made sense.” Eric said. “The real reason is the timing. We had been planning our Aliyah for a while, and were debating between this summer or next. Realistically, no one can predict when the pandemic will end, whether or not schools either here or in America will open, but we realized that it is a kind of ‘if not now, when’ situation – you just have to get up and do it. We’re ready and prepared and look forward to our move.” 

“It is for sure hard to leave friends and family, but it is for a good reason. It will be great for our kids and make a better life for ourselves,” Eric added.  
The Aliyah journey for Max Kaller, a 24-year-old native of California, actually started in Israel. Max was on a Masa program when the pandemic hit. “We were given the option to go home (back to the US), but I decided that I wanted to stay and finish the program.” Max had planned to return to the US to pursue a graduate degree in law, but the pandemic allowed him to reassess his plans and presented him with an opportunity. “School was going to be online, and I didn’t really think that was a good way to start. Being in Israel at the time really gave me the opportunity to think and reflect on what I wanted.” 

According to Kaller, had the pandemic not happened, he would have most likely continued on his previously planned path and once again put his Aliyah on the backburner. “I’m glad it happened when it did. It really allowed me to consider what was important. Law school will always be there, but being young and having the ability to make Aliyah and serve the country might not be.” 

Keeping jobs thanks to remote work

According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, close to 500 individuals reported that they planned to keep their job and work remotely while making Aliyah in 2021. This is an almost 100% increase on the recorded number for 2020 and, unsurprisingly, higher than the total number of Olim who listed remote work for their employment plan in all of 2019 and 2020 combined. 

If you had told San Diego native Lilian Liebman a year ago that she would be working for a New York-based company from her Tel Aviv living room, she probably wouldn’t have believed you. “I always planned on making Aliyah,” said Lilian, who made Aliyah in July 2021. “I had finished my computer science degree in California and was interning for a company in New York. When I was offered a permanent job, and I was able to keep working remotely, I realized the time had come. It really pushed me forward. I had no more excuses. It honestly made my decision to come that much easier.” 

In addition, the pandemic created growth in many high-tech companies, which resulted in a hiring spree in the sector in Israel. Many Israel-based companies are in need of English-speaking employees, and engineers and software developers are in high demand. Potential Olim with experience in these fields are looking to Israel more than ever before as their possibility for employment is growing exponentially. 

The pandemic also presented a unique opportunity for the organization. The expansion and normalization of online programing allowed Nefesh B’Nefesh to reach more people than ever before. Since the beginning of the pandemic NBN hosted 220 online events, reaching more than 16,000 unique households, equating to approximately 25,000 people. “The enormous benefit of our online pivot was not only the ability to reach smaller communities, which in the past were more logistically challenging to get to, but also tailor-making online events which would suit the needs of more targeted demographics, that at larger conferences might not have occurred,” explained Sarah Kantor, Head of Marketing at Nefesh B’Nefesh. “People had increased access to endless information at any given time, which only made their decisions easier,” she added. 

By the end of 2021 Nefesh B’Nefesh is expecting the arrival of 4,500 Olim, bringing the total number of Olim who made Aliyah during the pandemic to almost 8,000. Since the beginning of 2021, over 5,400 Aliyah applications have been opened, more than the total opened in 2019. North American Aliyah is on the rise and is showing very few signs of slowing down.

For information about Nefesh B’Nefesh, go to the website