An Interview with Rabbi Yehoshua Fass
Note to Readers: R. Yehoshua Fass is the co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps people from North America and the UK make aliyah. The organization aims to ease the transition of émigrés to Israel as much as possible. Since its founding, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped 30,000 people move to Israel, 97% of whom have chosen to remain in Israel. R. Fass received his semicha from Yeshiva University and will be the Keynote Speaker at this year’s YU Commencement.
What inspired you to found Nefesh B’Nefesh and what do you see as its mission?
My wife and I always had the intention to make aliyah, but our plans never seemed to concretize. However, in 2002, when a family member was tragically killed in a suicide bombing in Israel, his death and our subsequent attempt to come to terms with the loss were the catalyst for our decision to finally move and try our best to help develop our country.
When sharing my feelings about aliyah with friends and colleagues, I began to hear echoes of similar ambitions. We shared a dream, but many people feared that the practical and economic challenges of making aliyah were too difficult to overcome. Listening to their concerns, I started to understand why North American aliyah was so stagnant. People had legitimate concerns, but I began to wonder: What would happen if these issues could be alleviated? Working together with Tony Gelbart, a successful businessman and philanthropist living in my community, we started to sketch a plan for developing an organization that would address the specific challenges of North American Jews making aliyah. We felt that if people had the proper resources and guidance, these obstacles could be overcome and North American aliyah would start to grow. This, in essence, was the beginning of Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Our mission over the past decade has been to help facilitate and revitalize successful aliyah from North America and the UK by removing or minimizing the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles that potential olim face. This goal reflects our belief in aliyah as Israel’s life source, a concept at the very core of Zionist ideology.
Can you explain the origins and meaning of the organization’s title?
The inspiration for the naming of the organization – Nefesh B’Nefesh – came following the tragic terrorist attack that took the life of my first cousin, Naftali Lanzkron. I was overcome with the emotion of wanting to fight terror and darkness with hope and optimism while searching for a meaningful way to memorialize his legacy. Hence Nefesh B’Nefesh was created – “Jewish Souls United” or a soul to soul – for his soul to be remembered and his legacy continued through building the Jewish homeland and connecting our nation.
Were there any challenges that Nefesh B’Nefesh faced when it was first founded?
When we first began, the existing obstacles to Western aliyah discouraged many potential olim from even considering it as an option. The challenge we took upon ourselves was to change this paradigm and make aliyah more mainstream among North American Jewry, so that it would be a realistic and attainable goal at the forefront of Diaspora consciousness.
As the organization grows, and we continue to help thousands of olim from different countries, it is a challenge to maintain the same level of personalized service so that each oleh feels part of Nefesh B’Nefesh’s extended family. We also find ourselves operating in a very dynamic environment, as the social, economic, and Jewish organizational spheres are constantly evolving. We are, therefore, constantly adapting and improving the way we provide our services.
Between financial subsidies, help with bureaucracy, career and school advice, and more, Nefesh B’Nefesh supports olim in many different ways. What do you see as your most important/impactful service?
The decision to make aliyah is a major life choice, affecting every aspect of one’s life – socially, economically and culturally. Being that the success of such a move will depend largely on the amount of planning and preparation that goes into it, Nefesh B’Nefesh aims to provide the most comprehensive assistance and guidance for people making aliyah. This holistic approach is vital to making sure olim have all the information and resources that they require in order to make the best decisions for a successful transition. This extends to all aspects of the move – from employment assistance, to where they are going to live, and how they will support themselves in the beginning stages.
How do you envision Nefesh B’Nefesh growing in the future?
We celebrated Nefesh B’Nefesh’s tenth anniversary last year, and we are still constantly striving to improve our efforts to provide the most comprehensive assistance and guidance for people making aliyah from North America and the UK. In addition to increasing programming in North America and having more specialized and enhanced seminars, we are focusing on building Israel’s periphery, with the tremendous support of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (the JNF), through our flagship “Go North” and “Go South” programs. We are also expanding the services we provide to Lone Soldiers (together with FIDF – Friends of the Israel Defense Forces) from around the globe, providing them with assistance throughout every stage of their aliyah, army service, and post-army acclimation.
In addition, we are working to increase our promotional efforts to expand the pool of potential olim. For example, over the past few years we’ve noticed a growing trend of young couples and professionals making aliyah who are taking advantage of the healthy job market and great social opportunities available in Israel. We have created social media-based contests to increase awareness of aliyah by encouraging friends and family to share in the journey, and actively follow and support the contestants as they launch careers and start new lives in Israel.
Right now, Nefesh B’Nefesh serves the United States, Canada, and the UK. Are there any plans to expand Nefesh B’Nefesh to other countries?
At present, our mandate from the Government of Israel is to help olim from North America and the UK; however, we just currently expanded our services worldwide for all “lone soldiers.”
In your professional and personal experience, what are the biggest challenges new olim face?
When olim arrive in Israel, the transition into their new lives requires them to adapt their lifestyles to a new reality. Apart from choosing the right communities to live in, finding schools for their children, and finding suitable employment, it can be challenging to acclimate to a new social and cultural environment with a new language.
When we founded Nefesh B’Nefesh, we conducted extensive research into the challenges potential olim face and discovered four major areas that consistently presented obstacles for North American olim: financial concerns, employment, social integration, and the challenge of navigating Israeli bureaucracy.
Nefesh B’Nefesh works to solve each of these challenges for potential olim. With this in mind, we provide olim with grants to help alleviate the financial strain of aliyah during the first year. In addition, our Employment Department works with each individual, providing counseling regarding career opportunities in Israel and helping olim connect with other professionals in their fields. In terms of social integration, our Guidance and Community Resources Department helps olim find the right communities and suitable schools for their children, helping people meet the challenges that come along with adapting to life in Israel. Finally, our Absorption Department works closely with various government offices, removing the red tape that frustrates so many olim.
Do you believe that Anglo olim play a unique role in Israeli society?
Nefesh B’Nefesh olim have not only become integrated, and not only succeeded in adapting and thriving, but they also have an invaluable impact on Israeli society. This is true both on the ideological and the practical level. Ideologically speaking, we live in an era where some argue that Zionism is subsiding; however, the growth of olim from North America and other Western countries presents a strong case against this supposition. These individuals are making aliyah out of choice. They are not coming to Israel because they are running away from threat or persecution; rather, they choose to move because of an ideal in which they deeply believe. This type of aliyah makes a significant statement about commitment and love for the Land, and it strengthens the roots of Zionism on which this country was built.
From a more practical standpoint, olim from North America bring with them a set of talents and professional skills that are unparalleled. Nefesh B’Nefesh has welcomed successful and accomplished olim with varied backgrounds, each bringing his or her own unique experiences to the table. Our olim, who include engineers, physicians, entrepreneurs, teachers, and many other types of professionals, have joined the workforce and have positively impacted on all sectors of Israeli society.
Looking beyond the professional realm, Nefesh B’Nefesh has also welcomed home students and soldiers, young people who are incredibly idealistic and have committed themselves to the future of Israel. The impact of these unusually dedicated individuals on Israeli society is something we can’t measure yet, but I have no doubt we will reap the benefits of their contributions in years to come.
Is there any particularly rewarding or special moment or experience that stands out to you over your years working at Nefesh B’Nefesh?
I have had the remarkable privilege of joining every single charter flight since Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded in 2002. The feeling of excitement, the expressions of hope and optimism that are felt on each flight, are still one of the most emotionally charged experiences I have ever encountered.
Sitting on each aliyah flight, I look around and see Jews of all backgrounds, all affiliations, a full range of ages and professional skills. All of us are joined together through shared experiences and emotions: a passionate love of Israel and commitment to building a life in the Jewish homeland, a common journey away from the country we grew up in, a flight together towards a new place that we have decided to call home.
The flight has also become an incredible social experience. We’ve had olim who have met their future spouses on the flights, and more commonly we’ve had olim of all ages who have made new best friends through serendipitous seating arrangements in the air.
However, I also feel that it’s not just the personal stories I’m witnessing. I’m also watching the very fabric of Jewish history being woven before my eyes. Each individual on the plane brings his or her own story, a story being joined with the national story of our people. And as each plane lands, olim step off the plane and into a sea of family and friends who have been waiting for hours at the airport, anxious to see them and excited to welcome them home. It is truly an inspiring scene of homecoming, which makes a deep impression each time and reminds me – and everyone involved in these efforts – why we love what we do.