Jews abroad love Israel, though fewer call it home

NEW YORK (Reuters) - David Borowich was raised as a Zionist in America, and when he was a teenager and his neighbors made Aliyah -- literally the ascent, or immigration to Israel -- he knew he would soon follow.

Borowich went further than some olim -- those who make Aliyah -- by serving in the Israeli armed forces as a tank gunner, and planned to raise his family there.

Yet he returned to the United States for graduate school and now, as a financial professional in the New York area, has stayed in America, though he visits Israel frequently.

As Israel turns 60, Jews from around the world view the homeland with a range of emotions, whether reverence and awe, or disillusionment and aloofness. And for the first time since its founding in 1948, the country may be losing more emigrants than immigrants it receives, some experts say.

But Jews love Israel even if they decide not to live there, says Borowich, founder of Dor Chadash, a group that seeks to build ties between Israel and American Jews.

“Jews around the world walk with their heads up a little higher because there is a state of Israel,” he said.

“Whether a Jew decides to live in Israel or not, there is an inextricable link between their Jewish identity and the fact that we have a Jewish homeland.”

Israel’s Jewish population has grown from less than 800,000 at its founding on May 14, 1948, to roughly 5.5 million out of a total Israel population of 7.3 million today. There have been several waves of immigration from around the world. Roughly a million former Soviet Jews have migrated to Israel since 1989.

Annual immigration has slowed to less than 20,000, down from nearly 200,000 in 1990, when Russian Jews migrated in mass.

Some experts say globalization and improved living conditions in Russia may be reversing the flow, though they caution that meaningful statistics may take years to collect.

“We know that about ... 17,000 to 20,000 have left Israel. How many are students and how many will come back is very difficult to say,” said Colette Avital, an Israeli parliamentarian who has chaired the immigration committee.

“...There is unfortunately some kind of emigration brain drain in the past few years which can be a reason for some of us to worry,” she said.


Some people leave for business and education opportunities abroad and may still return. Others flee the hardships of a country at conflict with its neighbors, or have difficulty adjusting to Middle Eastern culture or speaking Hebrew.

“I stayed there for two weeks and I got the experience that in reality life there is not as brilliant and as dizzy as we imagine it beforehand,” said Alexander Axelrod of Moscow.

Another Muscovite, Mikhail Oslon, said he does not have the same emotional connection to Israel as his grandparents, who moved there from Russia 15 years ago.

“I don’t even perceive it (as) a ‘Jewish’ state. My recent visit to Nazareth, for instance, made me feel ashamed of not speaking Arabic,” Oslon said.

“It certainly fulfilled the hopes of my grandparents, for whom it’s really like a permanent holiday resort,” he said.

With fewer Jews fleeing places such as Ethiopia or the former Soviet Union in recent years, proponents of Aliyah have been recruiting more in the United States and Europe, notably Britain and France.

Joshua Oxenham, 24, a civil servant from London who described himself as Orthodox and wore a black skullcap, said he has considered moving to Israel to attend a seminary.

“It’s not really as much of a religious state as some think. If I was going to move there, I’d do it to mostly to go to study at Yeshiva,” said the resident of Golders Green, a district of north London with a large Jewish population.

Stephanie Kramer, 18, a high school student in London, said she was less likely to move to Israel because she wants to work in finance and there were more jobs at home.

“I want a more cosmopolitan lifestyle,” she said. “I don’t necessarily think it’s become the country it set out to become yet -- there’s lots of conflict for instance. I’m not denying it’s an amazing place, but I don’t think it’s where I want to be right now.”

Jordan Alter, an American dentist, found fulfillment in Israel, moving his family there from New Jersey three years ago. He still commutes back and forth to New Jersey, where he has a dental practice.

“It’s hard to express the importance of having your own country, culturally, religiously. It provides us with a certain amount of respect around the world,” Alter said.

“Jewish people were a wandering people. To have a place for us to call home, whether you live there or not or just have as a place to visit, it’s a sense of pride and really important.”

(Additional reporting by Luke Baker in London and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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