Yonatan Cooper had a hot new sports car, a swank apartment near Beverly Hills and a job he loved in politics. But this week, the 24-year-old New Jersey native plans to trade it all in for a choice that has startled some of his closest friends and family:
He has decided to emigrate to Israel and aims to serve as a paratrooper with the Israel Defense Forces.
Along with more than 200 other North American Jews, Cooper will board a plane today in New York and prepare to make Israel his new home.
The flight will mark a milestone for the sponsoring organization, Nefesh B'Nefesh, which will have sent 10,000 emigrants since launching itself five years ago to encourage North American Jews to move to Israel.
For Cooper, the decision was grounded in a deep passion for his ancestral land and a powerful call to duty prompted by a tragic event. Earlier this year, a good friend, a fellow American Jew who served as a paratrooper with the Israel Defense Forces, was killed in action during the conflict in Lebanon. Cooper said he felt that he needed to take his friend's place.
"I'm proud to be an American," said Cooper, who worked for the Los Angeles office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel advocacy organization. "But at the same time I feel I want to move to Israel in these troubled times. I don't ever want to look back and say there was something I could have done to ensure the safety and security of Israel ... and know throughout my life that I didn't do it."
Jews call it "aliyah," a Hebrew term that literally means ascent and refers to Jewish emigration to Israel. The concept is deeply embedded in Jewish culture, religion and politics as a foundation of Zionism, a tenet of Israel's Law of Return, giving automatic citizenship to all Jews, and a wish expressed in Passover Seders and daily ritual prayers.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, chairman of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said some observant Jews regard aliyah as a biblical mandate.
That's because some of the tradition's 613 commandments can only be performed in Israel, such as raising food on Israeli land and sharing it with priests and the poor, he said.
Although Jewish law over the issue remains in dispute, Adlerstein said he personally believes that God is beckoning Jews to move to Israel and that he considers it a "personal failure" that he has not yet done so. But one of his children has made aliyah, and Adlerstein said he continues to hope that he will also eventually make the move as well.
Jewish migration to Israel has peaked and waned, often depending on the level of persecution Jews have suffered in Europe and elsewhere. The largest recent surge occurred in the early 1990s, when nearly 400,000 people from the former Soviet Union moved to Israel, followed by a significant but smaller number from Ethiopia.
Since renewed Palestinian-Israeli violence began six years ago, however, the number of emigrants to Israel has dropped markedly, from 61,542 in 2000 to 19,200 as of November this year, according to Israeli government statistics.
During the same period, however, the number of emigrants from North America slowly but steadily increased by nearly 50%, to nearly 3,000 this year.
Unlike other emigrants, many of whom fled persecution and discrimination in their home countries, North Americans tend to be motivated by dreams of spiritual fulfillment or idealistic longing to help build up the relatively young Jewish state, said Nefesh B'Nefesh spokesman Charley J. Levine, who lives in Israel.
Levine said his organization's assistance with jobs, housing, schooling and even monetary grants has helped many American Jews make the move. The nonprofit organization operates offices in New York, Israel and Britain.
"We were created on the premise that tens of thousands of American Jews would consider moving to Israel if the hurdles were made a little lower," said Levine, 54, a Texas native who made aliyah nearly three decades ago.
Levine said 99% of the 10,000 emigrants his group has helped bring to Israel have stayed. So far, most of them have been religiously observant, but Levine said his aim was to broaden the appeal of aliyah to all Jews, even the secular.
For them, he said, the chance to make a discernible difference in a young country could be one attraction. Living as a majority member of society -- seeing Hanukkah candles in every window rather than Christmas lights, for instance -- could be another.
"We want to change the entire model of how American Jews look at us -- that we're not just what a small minority of very fervent people do," Levine said.
Mark Margolis, 54, may represent that new kind of emigrant. A West Hollywood accountant, Margolis grew up in Britain as a nonobservant Jew who celebrated major holidays but has not regularly attended synagogue services since his bar mitzvah four decades ago.
Today, he will board a plane with his wife, Kandi Abelson, and move to Israel. They hope to open a clinic specializing in reiki, a form of energy healing developed in Japan.
Margolis said his life here had become "staid and not very exciting." So when a friend urged him to do something he had always dreamed about, Margolis took the plunge. As a young man fired up by the Zionist movement in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, he said, he had dreamed one day of doing something to help Israel.
"This is the fulfillment of a 30-year-old dream," Margolis said. "I'm older and wiser now and can't go out and dig ditches. But the country can still use new blood, and that's what I want to give."