Israel pans for aliyah gold among former Soviet teens

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Israel is mining the depths of the former Soviet Union for young tourists and turning up an aliyah motherlode.

Since 1992, the Jewish Agency and Israel's Ministry of Education have aggressively sought Jewish youths in the former Soviet republics and brought thousands of teens to Israel for schooling.

Only a few have gone home.

One who stayed is Slavek Hafez, who left behind his younger sister, mother and father, the only Jewish doctor in Kazakhstan, to come to Israel on one of the programs, Aliyah 16.

Slavek lived in a city with a population of 300,000 but only 50 Jewish families, so he'd never seen a synagogue, knew no practicing Jews and did not celebrate the Jewish holidays.

"I read many books about Israel in English," said Slavek. "I knew, even before I met the people from Aliyah 16, that I wanted to graduate high school in Israel and study at the prestigious Technion in Haifa."

Ultimately the Israeli agenciesombined Aliyah 16 and another program, Na'aleh, as Na'aleh 16 and spent millions of dollars to bring 5,000 students to Israel

It was Na'aleh that brought Katia Vashenko to the Isaac and Naomi Kaplan Academy for Sciences in Herzliya. Katia, like many of her Russian friends studying at the academy, is an only child. Although her divorced mother misses her, she supported Katia's decision to go.

"I came to study," said Katia. "The education in Israel is good, and with the political unrest in Ukraine no one knows what the future will hold."

For 60 years Israel has brought Jewish youth to their ancenstral homeland to promote aliyah, or permanent immigration to Israel. Eli Amir, director-general of the Youth Aliyah Department, said Na'aleh 16 kept that tradition alive.

"We see the program as a historic opportunity to bring…youngsters to Israel, educate them and expose them to Jewish and Zionist values and to Israeli cultural and social life," he said.

The students coming on Na'aleh 16 were ages 15 to 17 and studied in a one-, two- or three-year track, depending on their age, until they matriculated.

They then chose a Youth Aliyah village, a kibbutz or a religious educational institution, and between academics, technology, maritime studies, music or sports.

One of the big draws of Na'aleh 16 was that the youth came to Israel as tourists, so they were not obligated to commit themselves to the Jewish state at first.

That helped assuage parents' apprehensions and gave the young people more time to decide whether they wanted to make aliyah, according to program officials.

"We knew that many of these kids had a negative image of Israel," said Menachem Yavor of the Ministry of Education. "We thought that when they went home for the summer vacation, many would think twice about returning. Fortunately, we were wrong."

"It was very difficult at first," said Laurena Todes from Lithuania, "but we got a lot of support from our teachers and the staff at our school. Many of them speak Russian and understand what we're going through."

"Years ago, parents were not so willing to send their children ahead to Israel," said Dr. Baruch Gur of the Jewish Agency's Division for the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. "Now they don't believe there's a future in the [former Soviet Union] and they are asking us to bring their children to Israel."