Aliya 'king' Fass has helped 23,000 to Israel

WHEN the second Intifada broke out in 2000 and no Israeli street was safe from terror attacks, most Diaspora Jews were too afraid to go to Israel.

But the death of a young second cousin by a Hamas suicide bomb attack at a Petach Tikva bus stop not only inspired successful Florida rabbi Yehoshua Fass to emigrate to Israel with his family but also to found an organisation which has greatly facilitated the immigration of thousands of English-speaking olim to Israel.

In fact, the decision to found Nefesh B'Nefesh was a second change in career direction for New York-born Rabbi Fass.

He told me: "I always wanted to be a doctor. I did my pre-med in biology at Yeshiva University. But because I finished college early I had a year off before I was old enough to go to medical school.

"I spent it teaching a lot of Hebrew classes to youngsters and adults across New York and New Jersey. I decided that teaching Torah was my true love and all those years at college gearing for medical school went out of the window."

During his supposed "gap year", the 20-year-old also managed to gain an MA in education and marry his young wife Batsheva.

Before marrying, the couple shared a dream of making aliya - but an extremely successful rabbinic career relegated it to the backburner.

He said: "I had wanted to be a doctor in order to become involved in people's lives. But I found that as a rabbi I was becoming involved in people's lives in multiple ways. It was extremely fulfilling."

After his rabbinic ordination, Rabbi Fass was appointed a Judaic Fellow of the Judaic Fellowship Programme in the rapidly-growing Florida Jewish community of Boca Raton.

He explained: "Boca Raton was the quickest growing Jewish community in the USA because of its large influx of retirees and young medical professionals. The Fellowship Programme was a quasi-kollel combined with a lot of adult education and outreach activity."

For his outreach educational work, he was awarded the Rabbinic Leadership Award from the United Jewish Communities in Chicago.

After 18 months in the Fellowship Programme, Rabbi Fass was appointed assistant and then associate rabbi of the US's fastest growing Orthodox congregation - Boca Raton Synagogue.

His extremely satisfying synagogal role combined educational, pastoral and counselling duties with membership of Boca Raton's Beth Din, which he headed for a year.

He also opened the Helen Julius Reiter Institute of Judaic Studies - an adult education college providing 500 students a week with a wide choice of study from ulpan to philosophy and halacha.

As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, Rabbi Fass also served as the educator and religious leader of the Southern Region of North America participants in the March of the Living.

Then a few days before Pesach, 2001, his rabbinic career took a sudden change of direction.

Newly-barmitzvah Naftali Lanzkrom was standing with his Petach Tikva classmates at a bus stop when a Hamas bomber blew himself up, killing Naftali and another boy and injuring others.

Rabbi Fass said: "After the initially overwhelming emotion of rage, the tragedy shook up both me and Batsheva and made us calibrate our compasses and assess what we were doing with our lives.

"We had always wanted to move to Israel and really wanted to raise our children there. But we had become so entrenched in people's lives in Boca Raton that we had become diverted from the focus of our initial dreams and mission.

"Naftali's death made me want to stand in his stead in Israel."

He continued: "As I started to share my dream of making aliya with other people, I kept hearing a common refrain.

"They also wanted to make aliya but found it impossible because they couldn't find jobs in Israel, had student loans and needed financial help, had no support system there or that the bureaucracy involved was impossible.

"These were concerns that no-one was really addressing. The Jewish Agency had done a heroic job in bringing in three million immigrants. But they had a very standardised approach.

"Westerners who were coming by choice had different concerns than those fleeing persecution.

"I did intensive research to see why American aliya had not risen since 1973."

With the help of fellow Nefesh B'Nefesh founder, congregant and philanthropist Tony Gelbart, Rabbi Fass addressed these concerns and within six months was able to make aliya with his family, accompanied by 500 other American Jews able to make that drastic step bang in the middle of the Intifada.

He said: "We put an ad in a few American Jewish newspapers appealing to those who had always dreamed of moving to Israel but had concerns about finance, employment, bureaucracy and social integration.

"We were flooded with applications from all over the USA and Canada."

Accompanying them on the aliya trip were Rabbi and Mrs Fass and their offspring. They now have six children and live in Bet Shemesh.

Since its first Israel flight in 2002, Nefesh B'Nefesh has grown from strength to strength. The organisation established a Jerusalem office which is now staffed by 100 - mainly American - immigrants who have not only brought 23,000 people to Israel but also kept in close contact post-aliya to make sure their needs are being met.

Being inundated with aliya requests from the UK, in 2006 Rabbi Fass offered NB'N services to Brits. This year alone 700 olim from the UK were helped by NB'N.

But the organisation is currently resisting requests from other parts of the world like Europe and the southern hemisphere to expand its activities there.

Rabbi Fass has found the whole enterprise humbling.

He said: "It is extremely fulfilling and humbling to be somehow involved in facilitating aliya. Our whole philosophy of constant following up of olim breeds success."

And he stressed: "Aliya is so important to Israel ideologically, demographically and economically. It is Israel's life force."

And despite his busy schedule, which includes monthly trips abroad to the USA and sometimes the UK, the busy rabbi still finds time to teach in a Bet Shemesh yeshiva.

© 2010 Jewish Telegraph