The 52 new Israeli immigrants who arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Monday night began their journey to Zion in typical fashion, with an 80-minute delay on the runway at Heathrow. They took it in their stride, some even clapping when the plane finally landed in Tel Aviv though, on the whole, they were remarkably sober and quiet throughout the flight and immigration process.
There was a bit of singing and dancing as they waited for the bus to take them to the Immigration Ministry offices in the old terminal building, but that was mainly the French families. Minutes before receiving their new citizenship, the English clung to their customs, even letting the French go through first into the cramped booths to get their aliyah certificates. English? Well, not entirely — there were a fair number of Scottish accents among the contingent organised by the aliyah organisation Nefesh b’Nefesh. Someone even unfurled a saltire before boarding the bus, a last nostalgic gesture of national pride.
These 52 olim, the first major group to arrive this summer, are part of an all-time record year for aliyah from Britain, with over 800 expected by December. So who are the 2009 British olim? As always, there is a large number of young couples, usually religious, taking the plunge with their children, and of course the older couples who, after a long career, leave their empty nest to fulfil a long-cherished dream to live out their retirement in Israel.
But according to Danny Oberman, Nefesh b’Nefesh’s vice-president of Israel operations, “the trends in aliyah, both from Britain and North America, are increasingly moving towards more secular olim and a lot more singles”.
While in the past about two-thirds of the olim that Nefesh assisted were religious, today the proportion is closer to half. And naturally the recession has become a major factor in the decision to emigrate.
“Most of the people who are planning to come now are those who always had aliyah at the back of their minds but they stayed in Britain because there was more money to be made there,” says Oberman. “All of a sudden that isn’t so clear. The fundamentals of the Israeli economy are better now and if someone loses their job or is just starting out in the market, they just prefer to move here. In recent months, the number of phone enquiries we are receiving has doubled.”
Yoni Forsyth, from Poole in Dorset, is certainly not the conventional kind of immigrant to Israel. Originally named Dirk John and born in Inverness, Forsyth decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to become Jewish like his godparents. “My parents are atheist so they didn’t really mind,” he says.
During the conversion process he also came out as gay. Now, at the age of 22, he has decided to make aliyah and will spend the next three years studying international relations at the Hebrew University and working as an intern at the Open House, Jerusalem’s gay rights centre.
“Aliyah theologically fits into my life and it is my duty to be in the home of the Jewish people,” he says. “I know as a gay man that I won’t enjoy all the freedoms I have in the UK, but I see Israel as my back garden and I want to help put it in order. I don’t want to be an armchair Zionist. Bitching about Israel without living there is like not voting and then bitching about Gordon Brown.”
While he says that he has “got a fantastic amount from the British community”, he thinks that it is “a dying group, and there is a feeling that the last Jew to leave should turn out the Ner Tamid”.
The sense that there is a dwindling of Jewish life in Britain is acute, especially among those emigrating from communities far away from London. Dr Kenneth and Irene Collins from Glasgow finally made the decision to move after Kenneth retired from the NHS after over three decades as a GP. “We were always Zionist inclined and all our four children went to Bnei Akiva,” he says. Now two of those children live in London and the other two have already made aliyah. “We still feel that our Scottish and Jewish identities go together,” says the former president of the community’s representative council, “but most of the people our age have no more children living in Glasgow. We just want to spend more time with our children and grandchildren.”
For Corinne and Benjy Berenblut from Hendon, north London, the decision to emigrate was “now or never”. Both in their mid-30s, with three boys, the oldest aged 10, it was clear to them “after putting it off so many times, we would not move the kids after they started high school, so this was the last chance”, says Benjy. Despite both of them describing themselves as Zionists, Benjy says the reason to move “was mainly for a change of lifestyle. In London I’m scared when the boys walk around the corner. In Israel they will have a lot more independence and space, and sunshine and the beach.”
He also has a sense of a decline in Jewish life in the UK and believes that the community they are joining in Ra’anana will be “more relaxed, accepting and inclusive. After 36 years living in Hendon I want an adventure.” He will continue working for his family business and will fly back to London every other week. “My main concern is keeping everything together despite all this travelling.”
Corinne, who is a speech therapist, is planning to start a new career as a personal trainer “once the kids are settled down”. Meanwhile she is mainly worried about “needing to argue in the shops in Israel, I kind of like people saying ‘I’m very sorry’”.
Nefesh b’Nefesh says that despite the rise in anti-Jewish attacks in Britain, antisemitism has not been cited by emigrants as a main reason for leaving. Twenty-two-year-old Lisa Lever, of Chigwell in Essex, says she was alarmed by attacks on Jews in London and on campus at Leeds University where she studied, but insists that her move is inspired by “a feeling that it’s appropriate for a Jew to live in Israel. I never felt that England was my country, just the place where I was born.”
Rebecca Korn, 29, from Watford, says that she decided to emigrate after a weekend visit to Israel rekindled the teenage enthusiasm of her first visit on a school trip. “I realised that I didn’t like my job and there was nothing keeping me in Britain. It’s not hardcore Zionism, but I always wanted to live abroad. After my grandparents died, I realised that I want to be reconnected to Judaism, but without having to go to shul.”
About three-quarters of the 800 British olim expected to settle in Israel this year have used Nefesh b’Nefesh’s services. The independent organisation takes them through all the stages of the process, helping them locate a home, an ulpan, schools and universities, and putting them in contact with employers. The organisation’s main market is North America, from where this year it is hoping to bring over 4,000 olim, many of them in specially chartered El Al planes. “The numbers of British olim coming in one go don’t justify a special plane yet,” says Nefesh UK project manager, Dov Newmark, “but at the rate of interest we are seeing now, I’m pretty sure we will be bringing a whole plane over next year.”