About 20 years ago, as a young rabbinical student in Jerusalem recently graduated from college, I met some members of a Jewish Federation mission from America, in downtown Jerusalem. We began talking, one thing led to another, and I then told them one of my “pet” ideas of the time.
I pointed out that there were a lot of programs run by the Jewish Agency or funded by various ministries of the Israeli government, to encourage young people to come to Israel. What’s lacking, I said, was assistance from the organized Jewish community to help finance these young people to get to Israel.
Now, two decades years, I am satisfied to see free programs like “Birthright Israel” and “Nefesh B’Nefesh” achieving some of those goals.
Why do I tell you all this? As an introduction to my next “pet” idea.
While reading the Torah portion Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1), where God tells Avram (not yet renamed Avraham), to “Go from your land, from your relatives and father’s home, to the land I will show you,” which is the basis for the mitzvah for Jews to live in the land of Israel; I thought about this verse in today’s context. This is the Zionist mitzvah — for aliyah, par excellance. Yet Avraham and Sara were not youngsters when they made aliyah. According to the Torah, they were 75 and 65, respectively.
So here is my new idea, based on God’s model: Develop programs to bring older people to Israel. Older people need to be encouraged to make aliyah and “retire” to Israel, to start the next stage of their lives — just as Abraham and Sara did.
You could call it the Abraham and Sara Project.
I say “retire,” but most older people today don’t really stop working and sit around reminiscing about the good old days. With many people living into their 80s and 90s, these days retiring at 65 leaves at least 20 more good years of life. Since today’s retirees are in much better health for their age than used to be the case, they can still be productive contributors to society. Bring those people to Israel; they’re full of life experiences, skills, connections and yes, resources.
Unlike younger people just starting out in life, most older adults have worked for many years. They’ve raised families; many own homes, have investments, businesses and property. They won’t come to Israel as financial burdens, but as assets.
We should be encouraging older people to “retire” to Israel, to start chapter two or three or four of their lives. Encourage them to volunteer. Encourage them to start businesses. Encourage them to act as consultants. Israeli businessmen need help getting into markets abroad. These people have a lifetime of connections. The weather is as good as in Florida or California, and it’s the Jewish state.
Today’s Israel has a modern, developed economy, and the white-collar- and entrepreneurial skills of Jews from America, Europe, Australia and South Africa fit nicely into that model. Older people can make great contributions to Israel’s economy and society.
It was always thought in professional Zionist circles that young people settling down in Israel would act as a magnet to attract their families. It was hoped that parents, brothers and sisters would follow and move there too.
I want to propose a new model of aliyah. Older people — grandparents — will immigrate to Israel. Their grown children, who also have more wealth and resources than those just starting out in life, will come out for visits. Who doesn’t fly across America to visit their elderly parents? They’ll send their kids on vacation to see their grandparents, only now the kids will be taking a trip to Israel. Someone who “retires” to Israel at 65 may well see their children “retire” there as well.
This is the future. Jewish birthrates are at an all-time low, except in Israel. The aging Jewish populations of America and Europe are growing faster than the general population. While the potential pool of aliyah by young Jews in America and Europe is drying up, the numbers of Jewish retirees is growing. The baby boom generation must be tapped for the next big wave of aliyah.
Ariel Natan Pasko is an independent analyst and consultant on international relations and policy analysis living in Israel.