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Act of Faith : A Jewish Family, Drawn Irresistibly to Israel, Gives Up Comforts of Homes in Orange County

EXODUS: ORANGE COUNTIANS IN ISRAEL. First of Two Parts. FRIDAY: Israelis in Orange County.

July 28, 1988|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Richard and Ellen Jaffe, Orthodox Jews and Zionists, believe God gave Israel to them, their ancestors and their descendants. But that is not why they left their homes in Irvine and Laguna Beach, sold Richard's prosperous medical practice in Santa Ana and moved with their four children to Jerusalem.

They believe that if Jews like themselves do not live on the land, it will be lost to Arabs who want it back. But that is not the whole reason either.

At the root of their decision to resettle in the beleaguered nation was an undeniable feeling that Israel is, and always has been, home.

"As soon as you get off the plane, you feel it. . . . This is ours," said Richard, 43. Both his and Ellen's grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, but Richard said he long felt that the United States was only the last of a series of places of exile from the Holy Land that began in AD 70 when the Romans dispersed the Jews. Besides, he said, "it's hard to be Jewish in a non-Jewish place."

The Jaffes are among 2,500 Americans immigrating to Israel each year, about 40% of whom are "making aliyah ," a Hebrew term meaning "going up" or settling in Israel for religious reasons. Aliyah represents the spiritual and geographical ascent in biblical times of Jews who were required to go up a mountain to the temple three times a year.

Even for those who are not religious, the term aliyah is still used, according to Gerald Bubis, professor of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. "The ideological premise behind Zionism is that with the Jews being dispersed and land taken away, they were unfulfilled and incomplete human beings. With the restoration of the land, it would follow that they would be whole and complete and they would go back to the land."

Under this premise, the very act of moving becomes an ideological act, he said. While most Jews don't live by the ideology, they still honor those who do, he said.

Conversely, people who leave Israel are considered to go down or yored , he said.

In addition to an official policy of Israel urging Jews from around the world to relocate there, the daily prayers of religious Jews also include the words: "Return in mercy to Jerusalem your city and dwell therein as you have promised."

And despite the current unrest between Israelis and Palestinians, American immigration to Israel remains a constant 2,300 to 2,500 a year, according to Alan Karpas, director of the Israel Aliyah Center, sponsored by the World Zionist Organization. This year, immigrants from Southern California and Nevada to Israel rose 10% to 185, he said.

In 1986, 14,000 people left Israel while only 10,142 immigrated to the country, according to the Israel Ministry of Immigration. Last year, however, the flow reversed, and 13,727 people, including 2,191 Americans, arrived and only 9,000 left. So far this year, Israel has received 5,988 immigrants including 829 from the United States and Canada.

But within two years, 40% of American immigrants become so discouraged by language problems, drastic cuts in their standard of living, or feelings of insecurity, they return to the United States, said David Kurtz, director of the Aliyah Demonstration Project, an experimental program of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Agency to encourage U.S. Jews to make aliyah .

"Nobody claims it's easy to live in Israel, certainly not materially," Kurtz said.

Jews "making aliyah now are making a strong statement" not only in support of Zionism but also for the security and well-being of the state of Israel, said Chelle Friedman, director of community and public relations of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Four years ago, the Jaffes' life included a 3,000-square-foot house with a $2,000-a-month house payment in Irvine, another house in Laguna Beach, a Porsche 911 SC and an extremely advantageous tax position.

"Being visible, walking around as a Jew in Orange County is a hard thing to do," Richard said.

"Kids were heavy into swastikas at that time in Irvine. If we walked to synagogue with our hats on, kids rode by and called us Jews." (He said that happened in 1981, but it calmed down later.) "We were shocked."

The Jaffes sent their children to Hebrew Academy. Their lives were religious but basically apolitical.

They moved to a country of hot, dusty summers, forests, deserts and hills, to a Mediterranean village on the ridge, what Richard calls "an archeological garden" with evidence of 3,000 years of civilization.

Coming from a county with only 75,000 Jews, or .0375% of the 2 million population, they are now in a nation of 4.5 million, of which 3.5 million are Jews. For the vast majority, there is no Christmas, and the new year begins on Rosh Hashana in September.

They have lived in cramped quarters with one bathroom for the whole family. For transportation, they take buses or Richard's used Fiat. Their children attend religious schools for free.

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