Israel may be the land of milk and honey, but for a group of Pittsburgh college students interested in making aliyah, Israel means ice cream.
Last year, the Jewish Agency for Israel launched its Campus Aliyah Fellowship, which promoted students on cam- puses around the country to organize their Israel-loving peers to learn more about the process of making aliyah. Each group is called a garin aliyah, or the seed of aliyah; the groups have reached 50 campuses in just under two years, surely contributing to the growing number of olim, or new immigrants, in Israel. In 2010, over 19,000 people made aliyah; with the average age set at 29, many of them are college-aged.
To lead Pittsburgh’s garin aliyah, which is supported logistically and financially by the Hillel University Center, University of Pittsburgh senior Micah Toll wanted to sweeten the deal.
“I wanted to create a fun and inviting atmosphere, so I decided to bring ice cream to each meeting and name the group Aliyah and Ice Cream,” he said.
About twice a month, when universities are in session, Toll’s group holds social and informational meetings, “which never start sooner than 15 minutes late,” said Toll. “We eat ice cream and spend the first half hour on a pres- entation on a topic, like the aliyah process, serving in the Israeli Defense Force, Ulpan, continuing higher education and employment. I wanted to have a ‘learn to act like an Israeli’ topic, but I don’t think I’m qualified to teach it yet. One day.”
The purpose of these garins, said Barry Spielman, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Director of Communications in North America, is to “provide a social cushion” for students interested in making aliyah. “I have no doubt that being part of a garin will facilitate the process for them and strengthen them in their decision,” he said.
The tactic seems to be working, especially in Pittsburgh.
“The garin in Pittsburgh is rather unique,” said Spielman. “While many of our Fellows have been successful in a promotion, programming and awareness on campus, only in Pittsburgh am I aware of an actual garin of people who have expressed a desire to make aliyah.”
In other words, Toll just might be the most successful of the Jewish Agency’s Campus Aliyah Fellows in the country.
Toll noted, “at least three students planning on making aliyah together in the summer of 2012, and others that are going by themselves or with friends from other cities.”
Students’ reasons for wanting to make aliyah vary, of course. Toll sets out to simply be a resource for students with questions: “Aliyah isn’t the answer for everyone, but its hard to know whether it’s right for you without learning about it,” he said.
For Samantha Vinokor, who just graduated from Pitt, making aliyah looms in her uncertain future “two or three years from now,” she said. “I’ll get a job here first, get some money together and go.”
“It’s important to show support to the Jewish state — people can do it in any number of ways,” she continued. “Doing work in the diaspora, fundraising, donating… I’d like to do so by my physical presence.”
After its first year, Toll’s garin aliyah meeting attendance crawled “close to hitting double digits,” he said. “We aren’t huge, but neither is Israel, and it seems to be doing alright.”
Toll described the students in his group as, “people who understand the certain craziness it takes to give up the ‘American Dream’ in search of the Israeli counterpart, which I think is even better.”
Though some students attending Pittsburgh’s garin aliyah meetings show up simply to learn about a different option — and their aliyah experience ends there — the group takes itself seriously, ice cream and all.
“By building a community of like-minded young adults all interested in the prospect of aliyah it takes away the scary ‘I’m in this alone’ feeling that can turn away potential olim,” said Toll. “You may be boarding the plane alone, but for the year or more leading up to your aliyah you’ve spent time with other young adults in the same boat as you.”
Toll plans to make aliyah next summer upon gradu- ating from Pitt, and his reasons are threefold: his strong Zion- ism, his plan to bring an electric car company to Israel and “an absolutely amazing, intelligent and beautiful Israeli girlfriend waiting for me in Tel Aviv.”
“Making aliyah just for a girl is rarely a good idea,” he admitted, “but paired with Zionism and solving the world’s energy crisis, I think it makes a pretty good cocktail.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)