By Leah Garber
Ninety-three years ago this month, the fifth wave of immigration to Israel began. The immigrants, mostly from Asia and Europe, fled their homelands, including Germany, in part, because of the rise of Nazism and persecution of Jews in that country. During the horrors of Nazi rule, some 250,000 Jews fled with their lives, but many others did not—either because they couldn’t or because they didn’t believe the Nazi propaganda overtaking the country.
Even before it was declared a sovereign state, the land of our Hebrew ancestors was a haven for the world’s Jews, although during the three-decades-long British Mandate, its holy soil was unable to embrace its sons and daughters with open arms.
This fifth wave of immigrants—together with waves that preceded and followed it—was the driving force behind the State of Israel, bringing human resources to the land that enabled the Jewish homeland to be established and turned it into a flourishing country, a source of pride, and a model for excellence in many fields. Over time, the diversity of immigrants from more than 100 countries has spiced up Israeli society and its human capital, as people with different traditions and cultures continue to make aliyah.
Growing up in Jerusalem in the 1970s, we were surrounded by new immigrant families, mainly from North America and the former Soviet Union. As a child, I didn’t think twice about Jews moving to Israel, but as an adult, I have much greater appreciation for olim chadashim (new immigrants) and the choices they’ve made.
Despite the many difficulties and global challenges of 2021, it was a solid year for immigration to Israel, with a 30% increase over the previous year. Perhaps because of the pandemic and the social isolation it imposes, many Jewish families chose to leave the familiar to embark on a new life in Israel. In 2021, the country absorbed 4,400 immigrants from North America alone, more than any other year since 1973. Alongside these immigrants are those who arrive from other places, all full of hope that they will find a safe Jewish home here.
However, not everyone making aliyah today is in search of refuge from danger. Fifty-five percent are Jews under the age of 35 whose professional future is still ahead of them—especially in this land of unlimited possibilities—and despite the difficulties and challenges that await them, they make a conscious decision to start over in Israel. Whether they come as lone soldiers, far from the day-to-day support of an embracing family; as newlyweds who establish a home and raise sabra children; or as established professionals who put their success, reputation, and achievements on the line to strengthen the State of Israel, their idealism stems from their Zionism, and it is admirable.
These examples all demonstrate the beauty of Jewish peoplehood—our mutual responsibility to recognize and support the diverse communities whose members continue, for many reasons, to make aliyah to Israel, where they can build a rich and secure Jewish life. Mutual responsibility is the foundation of Jewish peoplehood, enabling the Jewish community to be simultaneously long-established and innovative.
May this new secular year find Jewish communities in Israel and around the world thriving, safe, and focused on creativity and growth—and may we all have the strength to protect the chain of Jewish peoplehood, so we never lose a single link.
Leah Garber is a vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.