By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
Six years ago, Israeli entrepreneur and start-up mentor Raphael Gross made a commitment to his rabbi that he would enable Jews to experience Israel in person. His ambition quickly became a larger undertaking with his establishment of the Israel Aliyah Fund (IAF), an online platform that reconsiders what Israel can offer Jews living in the diaspora.
By facilitating the development of unique “mentor-candidate” relationships around the world, Gross hopes the IAF has the potential to prompt a new wave of Jewish immigration to the Holy Land and to change the Israeli mentality.
In the past, “Jews have always come to Israel out of crisis,” Gross tells JNS.org, listing the migrations from Yemen in the 1950s, the Ethiopians arriving in the 70s, and the Russians in the late 80s and early 90s. He also notes how French Jews are beginning to emigrate in droves over fear of growing anti-Semitism there and elsewhere in Europe. (The interview with Gross took place before the Nov. 13 Islamist terror attacks that killed 129 people in Paris, which only served to amplify the conversation on French aliyah.)
Integrating foreign nationals is never easy. The task is especially difficult when trauma underlies an immigrant’s journey. Although Israelis are proud of their collective immigrant experience, absorbing so many people from troubled lands brings with it an emotional toll and a significant economic burden on Israelis.
Gross explains that the longer-established Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah agency evolved to address the needs of immigrants to Israel and eventually became incorporated into the Israeli government. New olim (immigrants) “fear the unknown,” he says.
“They fear the culture and not understanding how things operate in the Middle East,” says Gross. He also acknowledges that there is a language barrier and significant financial challenges for immigrants.
“How does a foreigner come to a new land and afford transition?” Gross asks. “The [Israeli] government provides six months of aid, then there is a financial cliff.”
One statistic that Gross finds particularly troubling is the nearly 70-percent failure rate for olim coming from Western and English-speaking countries.
“I talk to a lot of olim,” he says. “They’re frustrated because they feel like they’re living in a bubble.”
Once the bubble pops and an immigrant’s assistance dries up, it’s much easier to pull the escape hatch and go home than it is to integrate and begin a new life—and such a high failure rate indicates a poor return on investment for Israelis, reasons Gross.
Indeed, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped numerous people immigrate to Israel. The organization provides comprehensive services including assistance with the application process, ongoing counseling regarding education and community options, and even sponsored flights to Israel. Yet Gross laments the costly bureaucracy and lack of individualized attention that the aliyah system in general affords.
“We’re trying to create a reason to come to Israel out of opportunity,” he says of the IAF. “You want to live in your country and pave a path forward to success, and ultimately to thrive.” Gross believes this is uniquely possible in the so-called “start-up nation,” where high-tech and other creative ventures thrive.
The “About” section on reigive.com, the beta launch site for the IAF, reads, “Taking olim from the drawing board to the boardroom.” The idea is to create a new kind of immigrant to Israel. Instead of relying on government aid for a fresh start, individuals are in control of their destiny. Provided that a participant can articulate a worthy dream for what he or she hopes to achieve in Israel, the IAF portal grants access to a supportive network of dedicated mentors who can, in turn, provide steady and measured private equity investment in that participant’s future.
From a website visitor’s perspective, the software and even the concept are remarkably simple. “Candidates”—prospective immigrants seeking guidance as they explore opportunities in Israel— are prompted to complete a nine-question form requesting basic information concerning their background and education. The pivotal question, however, prompts candidates to describe their dream(s) in 140 characters or less. Upon submission of this form, an algorithm matches the participant with potential mentors. Simultaneously, mentors complete a similar questionnaire focused on their interests and hobbies, and, when there is a match, they are prepared to volunteer their time, communicating with candidates and monitoring their progress.
“Once the mentor gets to a place [with his or her candidate] where he feels there is enough willingness, there’s enough desire—the dream is actually going to almost come true,” says Gross in an interview with Alan Wainkrantz of the Rackspace Start-ups Program at the 2015 Israel Conference in Los Angeles. Then, he says, “the mentor can go to a circle of wisdom—that’s seven people who can draw on capital, and they can actually determine how much money [the candidate] will need to achieve success over the next two, three, or five years by allowing them to really passionately enter Israeli society.”
Upon arriving in Israel, Gross believes immigrants should be able to hit the ground running. He stresses that the IAF advisory board will take each candidate’s personal situation, cultural differences, family dynamics, financial challenges, and language barriers into account before determining the individual’s business plan and start-up funding.
Monetization of the IAF platform—specifically, the private equity investment that Gross envisions—will take time. Gross admits that the program is far from ready to promise users a path toward funding. He does acknowledge, however, that there is a critical mass of talent and capital converging around the platform and concept.
“Eighty percent of the people I have contacted since February 2015 have said, ‘I’m in!’” Gross says. “The numbers are very fresh, but we have groups that are approaching us, and we have access to 500-1,000 mentors.”
This initial human energy represents a tremendous first step in achieving the global community necessary to inspire Jews worldwide to make aliyah as a personal aspiration. At this stage in Gross’s venture, recruitment and community development remain his primary objective.
As for attracting candidates, there is a target audience: the 30,000-40,000 young adult Jews attending free 10-day Birthright trips annually.
“That’s our feeding ground,” says Gross. “Those are kids who are graduating college, and they’re excited to experience their homeland and birthright.”
If mentors can make Birthright participants realize possibilities for personal growth in Israel, then aliyah retention likely will increase, Gross anticipates.
By providing concentrated and personalized outreach and mentorship, Gross strives to solve the problem of the 70-percent failure rate affecting Western immigrants to Israel. He views Jews from developed nations as the missing pieces in the diaspora puzzle and is confident his platform will help bring about what Israel’s founders envisioned: “a kibbutz galuyot,” the gathering of Jews from all nations.
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