By Deborah Danan/JNS.org
Member of Knesset Michael Oren (Kulanu), the self-described “resident old man,” surveys the scene unfolding before his eyes with growing astonishment.
Seven-hundred pounds of grilling meat, 20 bags of charcoal, 150 gallons of Negev beer, and 600 new immigrants from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, Argentina, France, Chile, Japan, Ukraine, Russia, South Africa, India, Greece, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Venezuela, and Guatemala, all coming together last week to celebrate Israel’s 68th Independence Day at JNFuture Israel’s annual Yom Ha’atzmaut barbecue.
Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. shakes his head in astonishment.
“I don’t know whether to be excited or to cry,” Oren quips as he enjoys a hot dog right off the grill. “I’m a little envious. We had nothing like this when I came to this country. Zero. Israel was a frontier country then.”
Tel Aviv’s young immigrant community has boomed since Oren’s own aliyah (immigration to Israel) from his native New Jersey in the late 1970s. Today, the number of immigrants from the U.S. tops 200,000—and the numbers keep rising.
According to Jay Shultz, president of the Am Yisrael Foundation and co-founder of Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) community of young professionals, JNFuture Israel, one reason behind the increased aliyah among young American Jews is that Israel has become a more attractive place for Jews to live.
“There has never been an easier time in history to be a Jew living in the land of Israel,” Shultz says. “Many of the new immigrants are also drawn to Tel Aviv’s cultural and financial capital. This is where everyone initially comes to network, get a job, and explore future opportunities.”
Known as “The White City,” what happens in Tel Aviv very quickly influences the rest of the country, says Oren.
“The fact that young Jewish people from different backgrounds, some religious and some far less, come to this city and find an inclusive, exciting, vibrant, creative society in which one can fulfill oneself not only spiritually but also professionally, that’s an amazing accomplishment,” he says.
Shultz explains that the Independence Day celebration is just one of many events on the Israeli calendar designed to foster community and inspire young Jews to take an active role in what he calls “modern pioneering.”
“Bringing everyone together to celebrate our national independence with such vibrant community sends an important message: Young Israelis are hungry to take the reins of the Zionist dream, and steer it towards a brighter and stronger future. At 68 years young, the most exciting part of the tremendous success of this country is that it has only just begun,” he says.
JNFuture Israel has strived to create a movement that empowers the next generation to take up the mantle of nation-building. For Birmingham, Ala., native Natalie Solomon, that sentiment is especially felt on Yom Ha’atzmaut.
“It’s really a day for me of humility, but also of pride—an incredible sense of we did this, we built this, and I feel honored to be a part of the next generation of people who came to Tel Aviv and said, ‘We’re not done yet, we have a lot still to do,’” says Solomon, the CEO of the Am Yisrael Foundation.
Solomon also notes the high price the Jewish state has paid for its freedom in its 68 years of existence, and in a nod to the soldier standing next to her, expresses her gratitude for all the immigrants and native Israelis serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
The soldier standing alongside Solomon is 26-year-old Iowa native Sariba Feinstein, who is now living out her childhood dream and serving in the IDF’s Caracal battalion.
“Moving to Israel has given more meaning to my life than I could have ever imagined,” Feinstein says. “I am so thankful to live here every day, and even when it gets really difficult you know that you have a purpose, you know that there’s a bigger picture.”
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