Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh .
(photo credit:Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Devora (not her real name) is a housewife living in an ultra-Orthodox community
While she helps her children with homework and takes care
of all of her family’s domestic needs, her husband is abroad, working in an
office in England to support his growing family.
Speaking on condition of
anonymity, Devora complained that while she could not have made aliya without
her husband maintaining his position in London, it has taken a real toll on her
She feels that her family made the right decision, but it was
only because after being married for decades, she says, that she and her husband
knew their marriage could survive his prolonged absences.
husband gone for more than a month at a time, she has nobody to take her son,
who is now studying for his bar mitzva, to the synagogue on Shabbat, nor did she
have anybody to help her when one of her daughters recently stayed overnight in
the hospital for a surgical procedure.
Devora and her husband are
examples, albeit negative, of a new phenomenon, that of transnational commuters
or, in other words, part-time olim.
It is important, she implores, to
tell people what a toll such a lifestyle can take on the families of immigrants.
Her husband has also had a hard time fully acclimating to Israel, she
“Today more Jews either choose more than one place as their place
of residence or commute between places (living and working in different
places),” wrote Israel Pupko in 2007. “It seems that this new trend is becoming
more common in Israel and among Diaspora Jews.”
Pupko, the director of
the NGO Mishelanu: For Israelis Abroad, is an expert on what he terms
“transnational immigrants” – people who live in one country and travel to
another on a regular basis for purposes of earning a livelihood.
only a decade or so ago it would have been impossible for new immigrants to
continue working full-time in US-based jobs, the “globalization process,
improvements in the means of transportation and communication and the
dissemination of multicultural absorption policies have contributed to the fact
that more and more immigrants live in or maintain links to more than one
country,” Pupko notes.
During previous waves of immigration, from
countries such as Yemen or Ethiopia, there was little reason to expect largely poor and uneducated
immigrants to maintain ties with their hostile and economically undeveloped
nations of origin.
The Zionist dream was largely centered around settling
in Israel and staying put.
However, globalization, the commoditization of
air travel and professionals’ newfound ability to stay in constant touch via
real-time video chatting has meant that significant numbers of immigrants to
Israel have been able to continue working in American jobs and that commuting
every few weeks has suddenly become a viable option.
In fact, Kim Ephrat,
an employment specialist with the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliya organization, tells
Metro, for older immigrants with established careers, she “encourages it.”
However, she does note that “for somebody who is just starting out, I would
encourage them to get established here and to establish their career path
While Pupko believes that “at least 20 percent of the North
American and nearly half of French immigrants arriving to Israel in the last few
years are multilocal,” Ephrat disagrees, stating that “not more than 10% [and]
probably a bit less” physically commute from one country to another.
either case, these are incredible numbers and may require Israelis to reexamine
the Zionist ideal of living and working full-time in Israel in light of the
realities of a globalized, hi-tech economy.
The Israeli government seems
to have begun to do so, having implemented tax reforms under which income earned
while abroad became tax exempt for the first decade following the earner’s
“It’s a reality of the global marketplace. More and more
companies are outsourcing all over the world and Israel has a tremendous amount
of talented potential employees and I think that the government has facilitated
this as well to some extent.”
THE JEWISH Agency has also begun rethinking
the traditional view of aliya.
Rafi Nasi, the director of the Jewish
Agency’s Aliyah Delegation in London, says that people who work abroad and who
are engaged in what he thinks of as “aliya in progress” are “good for the
economy of Israel.”
“They bring their families, they start to invest in
Israel, they continue to have their business, they start to open branches here
and at the end of the day once you move to Israel then you spend most of the
year in Israel because because you can’t continue living abroad. You can commute
but you must most of the days of the year be in Israel,” he
Ephrat agrees with Nasi’s assessment.
“You know, there
are communities that are close to the airport that allow for easy commuting, and
the fact that they can keep their jobs, either commuting or telecommuting, for
people who don’t have language skills or for whom their profession is not easily
transferable here, the fact that they do have the possibility of continuation of
income from there enables them to make aliya where 30 years ago they probably
couldn’t have,” notes Ephrat.
“Because it’s such a practical option, such
a viable option I should say, for people, I think that more people are enabled
to make aliya.”
One such person is Aryeh Kieffer, an immigrant from south
Florida who deals in real estate, primarily in Atlanta, Georgia.
Having already begun commuting, spending two days out of every week in Atlanta
while his wife and four children remained in Florida, Kieffer was “figuring out
all sorts of different ways to run our business remotely” while still living
full-time in the US.
In 2009, as the economy tanked and his children
reached preschool age, he decided that it was time to realize his dream of
living in Israel.
“Since I had already spent the several years prior
figuring out different ways to manage the business from [afar], it was a
question of tweaking it so that instead of a 500 mile commute it was 6,000 mile
commute,” he explains.
“The principles behind it of how to run it are the
Now working from a home office in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Kieffer
arranges his work day to allow him to pick up his children from school and spend
time helping his wife at home. Traveling “for a week to 10 days every fifth or
sixth week,” he says, has allowed him to maintain a standard of living that he
could not maintain if he had taken jobs offered him here.
While he admits
that the job carries with it certain stresses and that he does not want to find
himself doing the same thing into his 50s, this 30-something businessman is
happy with his choice.
“I had to make a decision,” he explains. “Do I
want to raise my family in America so I can have my job there or do I want to
raise my family in Israel because this is where I want my family to be and then
sacrifice on the type of career that I want? Basically,” he concludes, “I said
no to both of those and found a way to kind of make them work
“Is this my optimal a priori position? Not necessarily. I
would be much happier working and living in Israel so I guess in that sort of
answer it’s not the optimal, but I love what I do and the things that I do. I
don’t see that I would have the ability to do that pretty much anywhere [other]
WHILE HE avoided the pitfalls that have caused such
hardship to Devora, the problem of integration for commuting olim worries Nefesh
“When people commute it does slow down the integration process
for the person and possibly for the family as well,” warns Ephrat. “I encourage
commuters to use the time that they are here to learn Hebrew and go to ulpan so
they do become part of life here.”
Asked if most immigrants who commute
internationally do so out of necessity or choice, Ephrat explains that she
thinks “that you find all of the above.”
“There are people who have their
own businesses and they don’t want to give them up so they have to
commute. Like I said, some people don’t have language skills, which makes
it harder to find a job here, so they have to. Other people, I think, are quite
happy with this. They like that fact that when they are here they are really
here and they have that quote-unquote quality time with their
Nefesh B’Nefesh conducted a survey of commuters about two years
“What I really wanted to find out was whether this was a permanent
solution or a temporary solution for people,” says Ephrat. “It was interesting
because we found that the majority of the people considered it to be a long-term
arrangement. Maybe it had started out as a temporary measure but for most of
them it was working out and they were planning to continue it for as long as
they were able to.”
DESPITE THESE findings, however, there are a great
many immigrants who do not wish to work abroad and a significant number of those
who do who are unhappy with the necessity. As the Jewish Agency’s Nasi remarks,
it is ultimately an unsustainable lifestyle in the long term and is, for
Israelis, ideologically undesirable.
One Anglo-born citizen of Israel who
was unable to sustain such a lifestyle is Patrick Zagdanski.
former IT manager at Rutgers University in New Jersey, made aliya with Nefesh
B’Nefesh five years ago and for the better part of his first year in Israel,
kept his university position.
“I could do everything remotely so I was
trying to get them to let me stay in Israel and work from here remotely, but
they weren’t so eager to let me do that.
So after about seven months I
quit because I was using my vacation time to go back and forth to Israel so I
was five weeks in America and about one week here. It was really hard for the
family,” he sighs.
Looking back on his first seven months here, he notes
that he was “missing all kinds of events when I was there.”
hard to call because we are on different schedules and [so] I would call
sometimes and nobody could answer because my wife was putting the kids to bed
and sometimes I was busy, so it’s very hard to keep in touch with seven hours
[of time] difference.”
His son, he says, did not want to acknowledge his
prolonged absences and would refuse to speak to him even when they did
successfully connect on the telephone.
However, his story turned out to
be successful, he says, “because the day I gave my notice was the day I got
through a friend information about a company here in Israel that was looking to
hire people and I got the job.”
Zagdanski currently commutes “only” four
times a year for two to three weeks at a time.
While the three commuters
and their spouses interviewed have had radically different experiences, their
stories all share a common thread in that their immigration would have been
impossible only a short while ago.
As Internet speeds get faster,
airfares get cheaper and employers become more used to their workers coming from
all corners of the globe, more and more Anglos in Israel will be tempted to seek
employment in the “old country” and increasing numbers of people who had
previously thought of aliya as impractical will be tempted to move due to their
ability to maintain their current employment.
While the “vast majority”
of his friends “who made aliya still have their work related to or in America,”
Kieffer notes, “less than half” are currently “physically
That is still an astounding thought if you consider how
revolutionary it would have seemed a generation ago.
It is quite possible
that Western aliya will end up being fundamentally different from the waves of
immigration that preceded it and that, to many Anglos, is just fine.