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American Jews still move to Israel during Mideast crisis

Posted: Friday, June 15, 2001

MIAMI (AP) -- A suburban family leaving their comfortable life and home in south Florida might not raise eyebrows -- moves happen. But when mom, dad and two little kids are headed for a small nation torn by months of violence, it's another matter.

Leigh and Daniel Bar-Yakov of Coral Springs are about to emigrate to Israel with their son, Noam, 5, and 8-month-old daughter, Penina. Relatives worry about the Bar-Yakovs' safety, but the couple feels compelled to make the move and they aren't alone.

Last year, more than 1,000 Jews from the United States and Canada decided to make aliyah -- to pack up and move to Israel, permanently. They are driven by a combination of factors: belief that God ordained Israel as the Jewish homeland, and a desire to support and live in a Jewish nation state, among them.

''We both feel that it's our personal roles to live in Israel,'' said Leigh Bar-Yakov, who is studying for a doctorate in psychology. ''We have some path to complete there in our lives.''

Making aliyah is made possible by the ''Law of Return,'' passed by the Israeli parliament in 1950. It grants the right to Israeli citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent. Israel also provides financial assistance after the move.

Over the last half-century, Jews from around the world have taken advantage of the law to go to Israel. American Jews who make aliyah can also keep their U.S. citizenship.

Palestinian-Americans are unable to make a similar move to Israel. To them, the situation is unfair and should change.

''American Jews can move to a settlement in the West Bank. A Palestinian, an American whose family hails from what is today Israel ... cannot go back,'' said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

For Jews, the religious basis for their belief in Israel as a sacred homeland comes from Genesis 15:13-20, in which God bequeaths the land to Abraham's descendants.

''Fundamentally in Judaism, just like we believe that there is a God, so too we believe Israel is our homeland. You can't have Judaism without Israel,'' said Rabbi Mark Cohn, who will head to Israel with his wife, Shira, and their seven children in mid-July.

Today, Jews are doing what they couldn't do for nearly 2,000 years, said Daniel Eisenberg, spokesman for Tehilla, a group that provides social and psychological assistance to future immigrants. And he says their migration should be no surprise.

In ''the traditional prayers, Israel is mentioned again and again ... the better question is, why are people staying in America?'' added Eisenberg.

Dozens of youngsters, adults and seniors joined the Bar-Yakovs, who will depart in late September, at a farewell party in North Miami for those who have chosen to emigrate to Israel.

Local Jewish leaders made speeches, the Tehilla organization distributed books about Israel written by a Holocaust victim and some emigrants filled out immigration documents.

But it wasn't an entirely festive occasion. Asked for her reaction to her daughter's upcoming move, Rosalind Rice, Leigh Bar-Yakov's mother, said crisply: ''I have mixed feelings.''

Some of the families and individuals honored at the party have already made preparations to leave. They have sold their homes, left their careers, live in temporary housing and have started taking Hebrew classes.

They have also met with the director of the Israel Aliyah Center in Miami, Ran Sagee, who advises them on where to live, subsidies offered to immigrants, and other services, such as Hebrew classes.

Those who choose to leave recognize they're making a serious commitment.

''Many people have sacrificed themselves in one way or another to ensure the existence of the state of Israel,'' said Howard Schulman, 40 and a retired deputy sheriff. ''I think, for me personally, that now it's my time to do my share and I regret that there aren't more North American Jews that feel that way.''

But the events of the last nine months may have made now a particularly difficult time to move. Nearly 500 Palestinians and more than 100 Israelis have died in the violence that began last September.

That includes two Americans who made aliyah, and settled in the disputed West Bank, where some 200,000 Israelis live.

Sarah Blaustein, 53 and formerly of Lawrence, N.Y., was killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on a car in which she was riding. Koby Mandell, 13 and formerly of College Park, Md., was one of two Israeli boys found stoned to death in a cave in the West Bank.

The number of Canadians and Americans emigrating to Israel has dropped from a high in the 1990s of 2,503 in 1995 to 1,401 in 2000, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

And the U.S. Department of State has issued a statement that ''warns U.S. citizens to defer travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.''

Leigh Bar-Yakov said that she has ''real concerns'' about her children's safety.

''I have had people call me up and say 'You have no right to do this to your children. Your ideology is all well and fine, but when it comes to the safety of your children, you have no right to put them at risk,''' she said. ''At that moment, I have difficulty finding words.''

But the Bar-Yakovs are steadfast in their decision to go, as is Spencer Levine, an attorney who recently left for Israel with his wife, Judith, and their three daughters, ages 1, 3 and 6.

''Some people would think this is the wrong time to go. I think it's the best time to go. I think that Jews are motivated by a call to a challenge,'' said Spencer Levine,

Leigh and Daniel Bar-Yakov agreed.

''We strongly feel this is where we should be,'' said Daniel Bar-Yakov, who was born in America and grew up in Israel.

Leigh added, ''And the truth is, if people like us stop going, then what right do we have to call it our homeland?''

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On the Net:

The Jewish Agency for Israel: http://www.jafi.org.il/aliyah/

Tehilla organization: http://www.tehilla.com

U.S. Department of State: http://www.state.gov/

End Adv for Friday AMs, June 15



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