The Future of Aliyah
An Interview With Minister Ofir Sofer
Since the State of Israel was established just 75 years ago, the country has absorbed over 3 million olim. Ofir Sofer, Israel’s Minister of Aliyah and Absorption, works every day to welcome and assist olim from Moscow to Miami. Rabbi Aron White met with Minister Sofer to hear about his plans, his trips to the USA and France, and to discuss the future of communal Aliyah to Israel.
Minister Sofer, thank you for meeting with us. You became the Minister of Aliyah in December of last year. What are your goals for the ministry?
As a religious Jew, I am deeply inspired by the mission of shivat Tzion, of helping the Jewish people to return home to their Land. Historically, most of the waves of mass Aliyah have been driven by crises like antisemitism, war or economic challenges. That exists today too, but we also want to do everything for those who are making Aliyah for more ideological and inspired reasons. There are countless practical things that we do, from running ulpanim, to receiving olim from all over the world to providing financial assistance to olim already in the country, so we can do everything possible to help Jews move and integrate in their homeland.
Let’s start with today’s biggest Aliyah story. Last year, 75,000 people made Aliyah, the highest number in a year since 1999. Most of these olim came from the former Soviet Union because of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Is this the new normal? Are we in the middle of another wave of mass Aliyah?
In the first few months of the war there was a spike of olim from Ukraine, followed by an increase from Russia, and recently we are specifically seeing large numbers coming from Moscow. We have to be realistic – most people do not expect that the war will end tomorrow, so we have to continue to be ready for this. When I became the Minister, the Ministry was actually operating under crisis mode, as it had been overwhelmed by this sudden increase in olim. Much of my initial months were spent restoring regularity in how we operated.
As much as each country has its own needs, the increase in Aliyah from one place does affect olim from everywhere. Our ulpan programs were overflowing, and we had to open new programs to be able to cater for the demand.
Since you have become Minister, you have visited the two largest Diaspora communities, the USA and France. What did you learn from meeting these communities?
I had many conversations and heard a broad range of views – from people who are very comfortable in their communities, to parents who want their kids to move, and increasing fears of antisemitism. I also learned that many people don’t know the remarkable things that Israel has to offer olim. For example, young people who make Aliyah are able to study for a degree in Israel for free. This is an incredible benefit, and so many people don’t know this!
I also have met with Anglo communities in Israel, in places like Carmei Gat. There is no question that having strong communities is a huge part of successful Aliyah. As much as the government can give and help, there are forms of support that only communities can provide to individuals and families making Aliyah.
For many religious people, there is this dream of what I would call the “Rabbi Riskin model,” in which a successful Diaspora community builds a new community in Israel in their own image. Is this vision still alive and possible, 40 years after Rabbi Riskin did it?
It definitely is alive and possible! However, there are a number of challenges to making something like this work. First, it requires a certain number of pioneers willing to leave their comfort zone to start something new. But we also have to be realistic because of the rise of property prices in Israel. We are fighting to try and keep prices down, but it is a tough battle – the continuing growth of the population means demand is high, making it harder for prices to drop. This creates a challenge for creating new communities. To create new communities in places that are affordable means sending people to outlying areas of the country. It is hard to ask olim, who are already making the sacrifice of leaving their home countries, to sacrifice again by moving to outlying parts of the country.
I recently sat with the head of the Israel Land Authority to explore the possibility of earmarking certain neighborhoods currently being developed for olim. However, the types of places that were given as options were Yerucham and Teveria. In the 1950s, the Israeli government sent recent olim to far flung areas to help settle the land, but that isn’t our policy now. It is hard to find places that can be affordable for a whole community that also are in central locations with good job opportunities.
In one of your first interviews in your role, you said you want to improve the profile of Aliyah within Israeli society. What do you mean by that?
I want olim to feel valued and respected for their decision to make Aliyah by the broader Israeli society. For many years I have advocated for reservists’ rights in the country. When a child goes to a shop in Israel, and tells the shopkeeper that his father is serving in miluim (reserve duty), the shopkeeper will often say “Kol Hakavod!” I want olim families to feel that same level of respect in Israeli society. For this reason, we have launched programs like Aliyah Week, in which children in the education system learn about olim and the sacrifices they have made.
One of my first exposures to olim and the sacrifices they make occurred when I was an officer in the IDF and got to know the lone soldiers from the Diaspora in my unit. It still moves me to tears when I think about their remarkable commitment to Israel and the Jewish people. We introduced a program to pair up lone soldiers with an Israeli home to host them for the chagim. For the soldiers, it means they don’t have to spend the holiday on their own, and for the families it allows them to meet an oleh who has chosen to leave their home country to move to Israel and to fight to defend it.
We also try to highlight how olim are helping Israel face some of its strategic challenges. Aliyah is a value in and of itself, but we also want to celebrate the ways olim assist Israel. When 1,000 doctors and medical professionals make Aliyah, this has a huge impact. We also have programs together with Nefesh B’Nefesh and other government ministries to support olim who are moving to the Negev and the Galil.
As someone who is from the Religious Zionist community, I think there is much that our community in Israel can do or has room to improve on. Of the seventy plus Hesder Yeshivot, there are maybe 5 or 6 that have students from overseas. I know that not every yeshiva is right for Diaspora students, but I believe there should be more programs for Jews from around the world. Religious Zionist youth groups get involved in all sorts of social causes, from chessed to settling the land and more, but how many are involved in helping olim integrate?
What are the new programs you are currently working on?
We are focusing a lot of effort on helping young people and students make Aliyah. It is easier on many levels for people to move when they are not yet married with families, and they can integrate more easily into society through the army or through their studies and starting their career here. We support free university studies for olim in different languages – English at Bar-Ilan University, Russian at Ariel University and now in French at Ben-Gurion University. These are very significant programs that we want to expand.
We are also working on increasing the amount of rental support we give to families who make Aliyah, as well as expanding the range of options for ulpan. The Aliyah and absorption process really has many elements to it, and we hope to be there for olim every step of the way!