It may seem odd to assume that US Jews don't come to Israel in greater numbers because of a lack of money, but in a lot of cases, that's true. A former radio show host who was sent on shlichut (worked as an emissary for the aliyah branch of the Jewish Agency) wrote, upon his return to Israel, an article in the Jerusalem Post, apologizing for his preconceptions of American Jewish life. He had always known that American electrical appliances didn't work on Israeli current, but he'd never realized the degree to which Americans live on credit, and once they repay the mortgage, and the car financing, student loans, and all the other debts, the average young Zionist family is left with very little cash in hand with which to begin a new life in Israel. But it's also true that very few American Jews want to live in Israel at a standard much below that which they enjoyed in the States--and that takes money. There is also simple ignorance of the lifestyle here--only about 15% of American Jews ever visit Israel (although those who do, usually visit more than once), and a lot of prospective immigrants have erroneous ideas of what they need here and rather exaggerated ideas of what they'll accomplish here as well.
So, Nefesh B'Nefesh (a free translation is "Jewish Souls United") was founded. Initially, Rabbi Fass wasn't loath to take money from evangelical Christian groups who believe that Jesus' Second Coming will only happen when all the Jews in the world are in Israel (not to mention being converted to Christianity) and are happy to help. After considerable criticism, he sought, and found more Jewish donors. During the initial promotional period, rumors swirled around about the grant amounts--the only condition placed on the grant recipient is that the money must be paid back if the recipient returns to America before three years pass--and most of the rumors were wildly exaggerated. NBN also promised to find work for its immigrants, and to shepherd them through the bureaucracy.
Aliyah from North America has never been huge, but since the intifada began in 2000, it slumped badly. With great fanfare, NBN brought its first planeload of olim in the summer of 2002. It prefers to declare that it brought 150 people rather than 70-80 families (it certainly sounds better), and it did get the Interior Ministry to put a clerk on the plane so all the necessary paperwork for the necessary documents for the olim could be started immediately. From that time on, NBN has been reluctant in the extreme to give any information on how its members have fared in Israel. Potential NBN olim are encouraged to communicate with those already here via an internet list, but non-NBN Israelis--veteran North American olim with vastly more experience--aren't allowed to participate, for fear they'll be too "negative". Certain interests are actively promoted: the various groups involved in yishuvim over the Green Line, for instance, have access to the list, and so do certain importers and merchants.
In the summer of 2003, NBN brought two planeloads of olim--as closely as can be guessed, about 2/3 of them are children, who are, of course, potentially productive Israelis but for the time being, are recipients of lots of State aid--and the preponderance are "Modern Orthodox" (which has been the trend in American aliyah for quite a while, BTW). This year, it has been announced, three planeloads will arrive. The net effect has, actually, to return the annual number of olim to the pre-intifada levels, so claims of encouraging mass aliyah are somewhat exaggerated.
Given that all olim get a variety of subsidies, perks, and discounts during their first year (and in decreasing amounts, during their second and third years, too), and the grants (recipients are told not to disclose what they get. It seems to be between $5-15k per family) and the new "absorption basket" (sal klita) gives them cash, it might be thought that the new arrivals are having an easy time acclimating themselves to Israel. The truth is, no one knows. Israel is in a deep depression right now. A great many of the olim from North America in the past few years are either medical or legal professionals, or in hi-tech. Some want to start their own businesses, or become entrepreneurs. All well and good, but the Russian aliyah brought scads of medically trained professionals and paraprofessionals to Israel; lawyers, no matter how experienced in the US, have to undergo an apprenticeship because the legal system here is radically different from America, and it takes quite a while to begin making money; the hi-tech situation is...well, you all know what state that's in, and it's not easy to start your own business when you know nothing about the business environment or legal/tax situation here (not to mention the market).
NBN's high profile aliyah, with the "fact" that its olim are coming with bulging wallets, has created some juicy pickings. Rents on apartments in Jerusalem and the center of the country are through the roof. The Israeli government has been trying to phase out the Absorption Centers for some time--the maximum one can stay in one is now only 2 months, so even someone planning to buy a home is forced to find a rented flat for at least the short term. And Israelis who own an extra flat have learned that Americans are so used to high rents they'll pay almost anything. The export shops in New York and other American cities are doing a roaring business, as they convince ignorant olim that Israel is an appliance wasteland (quite the reverse, for the past decade)and they'd better buy everything they need for the next 30 years, right down to hair-dryers and toasters, before they leave the US. When the Israeli government announced it was removing the giant tax break on car purchases by immigrants, there was something approaching mass panic by those who hadn't yet sent their shipments--a frequent question is whether it pays to ship their American car (it doesn't).
But that's not the right question. The right question is, can I afford to HAVE a car in Israel? When the perks and discounts vanish, when I'm living on an Israeli, not an American, salary (which is between a third to a half less, in dollar terms), will I be able to make ends meet? If approximately 70% of Israelis have overdrafts at the bank, doesn't that say something about the cost of living in Israel? It's not just a choice between buying, say, Taster's Choice imported instant coffee or the locally produced Elite (which some would say is more like a coffee-flavored beverage than the real thing), but whether I can drink coffee at all? It looks great on paper that I get a 90% discount on property taxes and don't pay income tax the first year I'm in Israel, but for six months of that first year I'll be studying Hebrew in an ulpan and most probably not even find a job until that year is up...
Getting here is the easy part. Staying here is a lot harder. There are no statistics on how many American olim return to America after 1/3/5/10 years. Very few admit to it. I've seen numbers of anywhere between 25% and 70%, depending on (mostly) completely unproveable speculation. But it's a lot. An internet message board for the Jerusalem area carries announcements of "moving sales" which, when they consist of entire house contents, are obviously "leaving sales". If asked, almost everyone who is intending to go back to America, is only going back for "a brief period". There are, of course, real family situations that require returning to the US. There are also some who find they just don't like the country. But by far the biggest number who return to America do so because they couldn't manage economically--whether relatively (couldn't make enough money to have the lifestyle they want) or absolutely (are in danger of starving). It would be immensely difficult (and expensive) to try to do some real research, to find out exactly how many do leave Israel permanently, and why they did. But, because of the way it's set up, Nefesh B'Nefesh is an almost perfect laboratory. It's completely inexplicable to me why they seem to feel everything about themselves is a State secret. I fail to see why more transparency wouldn't actually help them. Olim want to know what they're up against.
Over the years, one of the biggest culprits has been the Israeli government and governmental agency--the Jewish Agency or Sochnut--itself. Israelis are themselves very ambivalent about aliyah from "rich" countries. There is some jealousy and resentment of the fact that the Israeli taxpayer foots (at least some of) the bill to bring people here who can afford to have a higher standard of living than the Israelis themselves. (This is, IMHO, a rather dated view.) On the other hand, aliyah which is entirely voluntary, and ideological, rather than born of necessity by persecution in the former homeland, is far more "encouraging" and vindicates the Zionist ideal much more. So the Jewish Agency, which in itself is a considerable bureaucracy which has a parasitic relationship with olim (no olim, no jobs for all those clerks!) has chosen to avoid reality whenever possible. "Accentuate the positive" at all costs! The main cost, of course, being the oleh's ability to adjust, physically, emotionally, and economically to his new situation. He becomes a statistic in a high stakes game. I was once told by someone who worked for the American immigrants' organization, the AACI, not to tell olim what life was really like here: "The important thing is to get them here; then they'll HAVE to cope".
And now, the Jewish Agency, which has so mismanaged North American aliyah over the 5 decades of Israel's existence, is trying to link up with Nefesh B'Nefesh. Dare I say, attempt to hijack it, as they've done with other immigrant organizations (the AACI gets a large part of its budget from the Sochnut)? This appeared in Haaretz's weekend edition (Anglo File):
"The Jewish Agency gives Nefesh B'Nefesh a lot of credit for increasing aliyah [from North America] between 2002 and 2003," said Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating. They proved that the way they work increases aliyah from North America, so the next step is a strategic partnership with them."
Jankelowitz explained that the Jewish Agency will allocate funds and services toward the administrative costs of Nefesh B'Nefesh "so that they can do more of what they have been doing, and help more and more immigrants."
If I were Nefesh B'Nefesh I'd feel a lot like Little Red Riding Hood confronted by the wolf right now. And if I were about to be a grant recipient from NBN, I'd take the money and run. But most of all, I'd keep in mind that there's never any free lunch.