It’s not easy to tell your parents, ‘I love you, and I’m moving across the world,” says Nili Fischer.
Twenty-year-old Fischer of Denver, Colorado, decided to remain in Israel to attend college after spending a year at Midreshet HaRova, a Religious Zionist seminary in Jerusalem’s Old City. But despite her parents’ wholehearted backing, Fischer still has moments where she feels regret and even guilt about leaving others behind. “My family and friends are also Zionistic, but it’s hard for me to hear them occasionally say, ‘You left us.’ And they’re right. I did.”
Now in year two of a three-year English language program at Reichman University in Herzliya pursuing a bachelor’s in communications, Fischer is among a growing number of Jewish North American young adults who are choosing to pursue higher education in Israel and then settle there. It’s a trend that’s a decade—some say longer—in the making and has spurred the growth of the vibrant, dynamic communities of Givat Shmuel, Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Jerusalem and Haifa, bringing New York’s Upper West Side feel to the Middle East.
“There’s a snowball effect,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, OU chief strategy officer and former international director of the OU’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC), which serves as a critical home away from home for Modern Orthodox students on thirty-two campuses in Israel, Canada and the United States. “Ten years ago, there weren’t many people coming or staying here for university. Now it’s more common. People feel they have a formal support system and network as more of their friends choose to stay in Israel in general—not just to attend university but to build their lives here.”
“The diverse people, the great weather and the flavors of Israeli society combine to create an overall excellent quality of life that is causing more and more North American young professionals, before or after university, to make Israel the place to launch their careers,” explains Marc Rosenberg, Nefesh B’Nefesh vice president of Diaspora Partnerships.
According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the number of olim in their twenties and thirties who made aliyah from within Israel (that is, after completing a gap year in the country or serving in the IDF) has risen dramatically in recent years. In 2021–2022, 630 olim in this age group made aliyah from within Israel. In 2019–2020, 739 olim in this age group made aliyah from within Israel.
Compared to a decade earlier, the numbers have more than doubled: in 2009, for example, only 286 olim in their twenties and thirties made aliyah from within Israel.
“An estimated ten percent of North American Modern Orthodox day school students are coming to Israel for college,” says Rabbi Jonathan Shulman, associate director of JLIC and director of JLIC Israel. “Every year, more and more students are coming; the Modern Orthodox yeshivas and seminaries in Israel often report that at least 15 to 20 percent of their graduates end up going to college in Israel,” says Rabbi Shulman, who is charged with tending to the social and religious needs of these emerging populations. “If they’re coming, we want to be there for them.”
A Courageous Choice
For young adults, the choice to pursue higher education and subsequently make Israel their home is a courageous one.
Fischer admits moving was challenging; she would have loved to have had her parents nearby for help when moving to her apartment in Herzliya. She was apprehensive about starting school and about not yet having a support system of friends. “Moving into life on my own,” she says, was one of the scariest things she’s ever done. Yet once she joined the “incredible community of Herzliya,” and started attending an “American-style” JLIC program with Anglos, she began meeting peers from different cultures and making new friends who share her values.
“When you live in Israel without your family, your friends become your family,” notes Fischer. “If I’m having a hard day, I just want to go home to my three amazing roommates who are more like my sisters. Adjusting to friends being family has definitely been a challenge—but it’s something that’s made me appreciate my friends that much more.”
Other young Anglos express similar challenges. Jordan Landes decided to stay in Israel shortly after completing his gap year at Yeshivat Shaalvim. “I felt that if I returned to the States, I probably wouldn’t come back,” says Landes, who is originally from Boca Raton, Florida. “Even though it’s a tough decision to make at eighteen, looking back it was certainly the right decision,” says the now twenty-three-year-old who has since graduated from Reichman University with a BA in communications and a minor in business administration. “I’m living the dream.”
Despite his relatively smooth integration into Israeli society—Landes is a successful investment relations analyst—he doesn’t sugarcoat the oleh experience. “People need to understand that [making aliyah] is often difficult. It’s not about strolling in Machane Yehuda . . . it’s real life, and it can be challenging.” There is certainly the feeling of being an immigrant, he says. A great-great grandson of Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, chief rabbi of Jerusalem from 1936 until 1960, Landes recalls that even fairly simple tasks in the States, such as opening a bank account or getting a driver’s license, can be arduous due to the language barrier and bureaucracy. Students need to be able to figure out the health care system, how to negotiate with their landlord, how to find a job upon graduating—all in a different language.
“You are forced to grow up a little faster,” says Meital Wiederhorn, a graduate of SAR Academy in Riverdale, New York, who is majoring in psychology at Reichman University.
What helped Landes acclimate? “The most important thing,” he says, echoing Fischer, is “having a core group of like-minded friends. The Herzliya Anglo community started out as my community on campus. As they get married and start having children, they’ve become my community in Israel.”
Founded seven years ago as the first JLIC campus in Israel, JLIC at Herzliya, a program in partnership with World Mizrachi, now offers a thriving Jewish life both on and off campus, catering to 500 students, alumni, professionals, married couples, singles, soldiers, Bnot Sherut, young people right out of yeshivah or seminary and others who never attended yeshivah or seminary. Currently, JLIC engages 2,225 young adults in Israel by offering a religious framework on campuses including Reichman University, Bar-Ilan University, Tel Aviv University, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and most recently, Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev and Machon Tal).
“This community gave me friends, a place to start off, an English-speaking environment; it helped me build a successful life as an immigrant in this country,” says Landes.
“It’s a really special community,” agrees Wiederhorn.
Of course, even with a strong Anglo peer group, students must learn how to navigate the language challenges. While ulpan lessons and a background in Hebrew are helpful, many experience difficulty mastering subtle nuances, expressions and generally communicating with Israelis.
“I came in as a new immigrant, alone, to a degree program that is entirely in Hebrew,” says twenty-five-year-old Yitzi Rothschild, who spent eighteen months in an IDF combat engineering unit as part of a hesder yeshivah program and recently graduated from Bar-Ilan University’s (BIU) special education and Tanach programs. “Academic Hebrew is different from social Hebrew. There was only one other Anglo in my program, who wasn’t in all of my classes, so I didn’t have peers to speak to in English. I had to adapt to the people around me and the culture. When I served in Tzahal, only guys were on my base, so I spoke Hebrew in masculine tense; once I got to university, I would address the girls in the masculine [form], and everyone would laugh. In the process of developing your Hebrew, you make a ton of mistakes, and you just have to accept it and learn and grow.”
The diverse array of opportunities available for young people, while positive, also impacts the ways they will acclimate. “There are so many different things people can do—they can go to a yeshivah, or to the army, to Sherut Leumi [National Service] or to college,” says Landes.
Even before they decide to pursue higher education in Israel, many young North Americans feel an intense desire to contribute to Eretz Yisrael by volunteering for the IDF or by doing Sherut Leumi. According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, more than 900 North Americans serve in the IDF at any time. Approximately 220 lone Bnot Sherut (those without family in Israel) serve the country annually.
“Everyone who comes here has different challenges; it depends on what they choose to do,” says Landes.
Behind the Phenomenon
Why are so many North American day school graduates choosing to pursue higher education in Israel? Not surprisingly, for a large majority of young olim, especially those who attended Modern Orthodox day schools with a strong commitment to Religious Zionism, the choice is ideological.
Rothschild, for example, was inspired to make aliyah after attending Jerusalem’s Yeshivat Hakotel. A native of Teaneck, New Jersey, he spent four-and-a-half years at Hakotel’s hesder program. “The yeshivah strengthened my love for the Land of Israel,” he reflects. “Being in the army, training and protecting Israel’s citizens, I fell more and more in love with the country, and I wanted to stay and build a life here.” Upon his release from the IDF, Rothschild returned to Hakotel to serve as a madrich for an additional year before making the move to Givat Shmuel to attend BIU. Today, he is very happy to be part of the “incredibly warm” JLIC Mizrachi community in Givat Shmuel filled with different kinds of people from “arba kanfot ha’Aretz [the four corners of the globe]” including “plenty of Anglos.”
Other students come for pragmatic reasons. Olim are entitled to receive tuition reimbursement for higher education through the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration’s Student Authority as part of their benefits package. Thus the majority of undergraduate programs at Israeli universities are fully covered by the Student Authority for olim, except for a few private programs. However, even private programs are significantly cheaper than in the States, averaging about $15,500 a year. Additionally, a tuition benefit for olim reduces the cost of private programs by a few thousand dollars. In 2021–22, 1,352 olim received tuition assistance from the Ministry of Aliyah’s Student Authority.
“Annual tuition in an American private university was about $35,000 eight years ago,” says Rabbi Shlomo Anapolle, international program director of Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT). “Today it’s more like $55,000. If you’re attending an Ivy League university, you’re looking at accumulating between $80,000 to $100,000 annually in student debt, which is beyond crazy for students who are not going to be making more than $80,000 annually at a regular business job with a four-year degree. We’re talking about the cost-benefit analysis here.” JCT, with about 5,000 students in total, spanning men’s (Machon Lev) and women’s campuses (Machon Tal), has the greatest percentage of student olim in the country, with 21 percent of the student body born outside of Israel. With the help of philanthropist David Magerman, JLIC is partnering with JCT to open programs for both the men’s and women’s campuses.
Some Israeli universities have created partnerships with universities in the US, enabling students to benefit from their exposure to Israel’s people, language and culture.
“Tel Aviv University [TAU] has a four-year dual-degree program with Columbia University,” says Maureen Meyer Adiri, director of TAU’s Lowy International School. “This is increasingly attractive because Americans can graduate with an Ivy League degree but spend two years in the vibrant, open setting of Tel Aviv and then two years in New York.”
For some students, however, the rising anti-Zionist and antisemitic rhetoric on American campuses is reason enough to seek out Israeli universities for higher education.
[With the onset of the war and the horrifying rise of antisemitism on campuses across the United States, an even greater number of American Jewish students are likely to find Israeli universities more appealing.]
Then, of course, the country’s tech boom should not be underestimated. It has made the country a “highly attractive place to work, especially to young people,” says Rabbi Haber. “There is real opportunity here, not only to get jobs but to thrive and grow in one’s career.” Indeed, Landes got the “tech bug” while in college and currently works at Vintage Investment Partners, a private firm in Herzliya. He notes the “plethora of different opportunities in Israel. Israel is a start-up nation in every way.”
Creating a Religious Community
On the Reichman University campus, Friday night davening used to take place in one of the smaller classrooms. Currently, it’s located in one of the biggest lecture halls on campus.
Religious life is thriving at the university with an array of shiurim, lunch ‘n’ learns, guest speakers, programs for the chagim and so much more.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Back in 2016, a couple of students attending IDC (Reichman University was formerly IDC, the Interdisciplinary Center) approached Rabbi Jonathan Shulman, who had recently returned to Israel after having served as the JLIC campus rabbi at the University of Pennsylvania. They had a serious concern. “Had we gone to Brandeis or Maryland, we would have six Shabbat dinners to choose from,” they said. “Here we are in IDC in Israel, and we are sitting in our pajamas on Friday night alone in our apartments with nowhere to go.”
That conversation marked a turning point.
Rabbi Shulman did some research and discovered that there were hundreds of North American day school graduates in IDC with no religious support whatsoever. “You would think going to Israel for college you would thrive religiously . . . but that’s not what I was finding,” he said.
A few months later, in the fall of 2017, the first JLIC campus in Israel was launched on the IDC campus (today known as JLIC Mizrachi). A young rabbinic couple was hired, and they started advertising Friday night minyan on campus. They had no idea what to expect. The first minyan drew between forty and fifty people. By the end of that year, the minyan had more than a hundred.
“We started getting requests from other colleges,” says Rabbi Shulman. “The same basic story was happening all over Israel—North American day school graduates on college campuses with no religious structure.”
In 2019, JLIC, in partnership with World Mizrachi, came to BIU in Givat Shmuel. Previously, there were one or two shiurim offered to English-speaking students on campus. Once Rabbi Tzvi Wohlgelernter, director of JLIC Mizrachi at BIU, came on the scene, an entire beit midrash program geared for Anglos was built. With BIU serving as a partner, religious programming on campus blossomed, and Rabbi Tzvi and Tali Wohlgelernter were recently joined by another couple, Rabbi Uri and Abby Lorkis. The Wohlgelernters serve the dynamic and growing student community in Givat Shmuel, and the Lorkises serve the needs of first- and second-year students on campus.
One of the main reasons Dalia Katz, twenty-two, from New Rochelle, New York, chose to attend BIU was because she knew the Givat Shmuel community was a vibrant one. “It’s even better because of JLIC Mizrachi, which offers resources, learning sessions and different events both during the week and on Shabbat,” says the SAR Academy graduate who recently got married. Currently in her third year of a Hebrew-language program majoring in sociology and anthropology, Katz appreciates the diversity of the community “with people stemming from various backgrounds.”
“These are great, ideologically driven day school graduates coming to Israel for school . . . Why should they have less of a religious life on campus than students have in the States?” asks Rabbi Shulman.
Historically, TAU, the world’s largest Jewish university, with over 30,000 Jewish students, was viewed as not easily accessible to religious Anglo students, says Rabbi Shulman. But in 2022, TAU International recognized the value of supporting religious students and sought the help of JLIC. With the support of the Katz family from Englewood, New Jersey, JLIC is strengthening religious life for Anglos at TAU by offering weekly Shabbat services and programming, ongoing shiurim and much more.
JLIC worked on obtaining funding, hired a rabbinic couple and rented a house off campus in one of the most expensive locations in Israel, near the university. The couple hung up a sign-up sheet publicizing a Friday night dinner. They didn’t have high hopes. But students began signing up in droves. Once there were eighty sign-ups, they had to start turning people away. Currently, the M.D. Katz OU-JLIC program at TAU, in memory of Dr. Mordecai (Morty) Katz, z”l, serves the religious needs of hundreds of English-speaking students at TAU.
It is important to note, says Rabbi Haber, that while universities like TAU and Hebrew University are in Israel, they are secular, not religious, universities. Students at a secular university—in Israel or in the States—are forced to consider their values and priorities. “Going to university in Israel doesn’t mean one will automatically go to minyan and be shomer Shabbat, or that Jewish studies courses will be taught from a Torah perspective. Even though the challenges are significantly less than what you would find at a secular university in America, students who want to live by religious values still need to make an active decision to do so.”
As for now, the trend does not seem to be slowing down any time soon. North American students are continuing to attend colleges throughout Israel, and many of them ultimately decide to make Israel their permanent home.
Fischer wasn’t sure she wanted to make aliyah—until recently. Over the past year, she became very involved with JLIC on campus, which helped her ease into her new life. This fall, she made aliyah. Fischer, who now serves as president of JLIC Mizrachi at Reichman University, has acclimated so well that “making aliyah feels like a formality.”
Her advice for her peers considering making the move: “Making aliyah is not for everyone,” she says. “Having said that, if you want to make aliyah, it’s much easier to do so when you are young; it just makes sense.”
Aviva Engel is a staff writer at the OU and an award-winning freelance journalist living in Jerusalem.