Minna Felig epitomizes the modern Orthodox aliyah success story – so much so, that it seems that the aliyah arc of her life seems as if it was planned from the outset. A savvy lawyer, she founded and runs a high-powered legal recruiting firm that works with some of Israel’s top law firms and hi-tech companies. Her four children have enjoyed successful IDF careers in combat units and intelligence units. Her husband has enjoyed an equally successful legal career in the private sector.
Yet, she concedes, for much of her formative years, living in Israel was not on her radar at all. “I didn’t go to a Jewish high school,” Felig recalls. She attended Horace Mann School, a private college prep school in the Bronx, and had never been to Israel. “It didn’t even occur to me, and I had never heard of the term ‘gap year,’” she jokes.
Though she and her four siblings attended Jewish, Zionist schools, she says, her parents did not visit Israel until their fourth child was in Israel and threatened to join the army. It was only then, says Minna, that her parents went to bring him home and make him go to college.
“My parents were Zionistic from a very American point of view, where Israel is a great place to support, but you shouldn’t live there,” she says,
In the middle of her sophomore year in college, Felig realized that if she were to spend a semester in Israel, her tuition costs would be far lower for that semester than what her parents were paying at Barnard College. She spent the second semester of her sophomore year at Tel Aviv University and became hooked on Israel. “I realized this was where I felt more at home than any other place,” she says.
“When I was in my semester at Tel Aviv, I was a little bit obstinate,” she chuckles. “I decided I was going to learn Hebrew, so I refused to speak to anyone in English.”
A chance encounter with Rabbi Haim Druckman before her journey helped smooth her absorption as a college student in Israel. “Before I came for my semester in Israel,” she recalls, “my mother took me to the Lower East Side to buy underwear and T-shirts. She told the owner of the store that I was going to Israel. He said, ‘There’s a member of Knesset here in the store,’ and he introduced us to Rabbi Druckman.
“I told him I would be at Tel Aviv University, and then I forgot about it. A week after I arrived, I received a call from the overseas students’ office that he had left a message for me to call him. He invited me for Shabbat, and I became a frequent guest at his home over the next half year.”
AFTER SPENDING the semester in Israel, Felig returned to the US and completed her undergraduate studies before continuing to law school at Georgetown University. In 1990, she married Cliff Felig, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, and two years later, they moved to Israel.
“One of the first times we spoke seriously,” she says, “Cliff told me he was planning on making aliyah, and I said, ‘Really, when’s that?’ And he answered, ‘In two years.’ I said, ‘Two years from when?’ He said, ‘Two years from whenever you ask me. It’s always been two more years, and two more years.’ When we got engaged, I said, ‘Okay, we’re making aliyah two years after our wedding.’”
In July 1992, Cliff and Minna, who was pregnant with their first child, made aliyah and lived in Jerusalem initially. Over the years, she had to travel quite a bit and keep late hours with US clients. She found it challenging to maintain her job and care for her children, and was seeking a job that would enable her to work regular Israeli hours.
At the time, there were no legal recruiters in Israel, and in late 2000, she founded Israel’s first legal recruitment company. The company, Machshavot SmartJOB, acts as a resource for international companies and law firms that want to expand their business network into Israel and Israeli firms.
“Every oleh who is a lawyer knows who I am.”Minna Felig
Helping English-speaking lawyers making aliyah find employment in Israel
Many English-speaking lawyers making aliyah speak with Felig when looking for employment in Israel. “Every oleh who is a lawyer knows who I am,” she says. Felig notes that while fluency in English can be very important, all lawyers need to learn Hebrew.
Citing Maimonides’s statement that the highest form of charity is helping someone find employment, Felig says that one of the greatest rewards she gains from her work is making a difference in people’s lives.
She mentions the case of an Ethiopian woman who graduated from a low-ranking law school with poor grades and had an undistinguished resume. “I saw she had received a scholarship to study for a year at the University of Michigan, and her English was a high level,” says Felig.
The woman came in for an interview and told her that her dream was to work at an international company preparing contracts. Felig contacted Israel Aircraft Industries, and the woman was hired. “It was an amazing thing. They never would have looked at her resume,” she says.
Felig recalls an encounter with an Arab lawyer who had studied law at the University of Haifa and worked as a local property lawyer in northern Israel. He had also studied at the University of Michigan, but no one was interested in hiring him, she says, because they told him he did not have the proper experience.
“I told him to go to New York, work in corporate law for two years and then call me,” she says. The lawyer took her advice and today is a senior partner at Herzog Fox & Neeman, one of Israel’s top law firms.
Minna and Cliff have hosted prospective converts on Shabbat for a number of years. “I was open to it because they were my kids’ age, and we enjoy having interesting guests on Friday night,” she says.
The conversion candidates spent many Shabbat dinners at their home throughout the process – usually 10 or 15 meals – but Felig says that her experience has been mixed. While some converts have stayed in touch after their conversion, a recent experience left her feeling hurt.
“One of the converts failed her conversion exam twice,” she says. “I brought her to our house, and my husband and I spent four hours with her the day before the exam.” She passed her exam, but they never heard from her again.
TODAY, MINNA and Cliff live in Ramat Gan. Felig credits her children’s army service with engendering a feeling of responsibility to others. “Growing up in Israel, they gained a lot of the simplicity of life. When they want to have a good time, they go on a hike – they don’t go to a movie. When my son finished his IDF service, the first thing he did was go on the Israel National Trail (Shvil Yisrael). I think that IDF service creates the feeling when you are growing up that it is not all about you. It amazes me to see how much responsibility young people get in the army. It creates a person who realizes that it is not just about you – it is about the country and giving.”
Felig loves to exercise and work out and says that she and her husband occasionally walk from their Ramat Gan home to the sea – an hour and a quarter walk – to go out for dinner. “We walk there to justify dessert,” she quips.
Other than the importance of learning Hebrew, she stresses that new immigrants should stay relaxed. “You have to have a good sense of humor and go with the flow.” Minna Felig has been doing just that since her sophomore year of college and has found it to be the secret of her aliyah success. ■
Minna Felig, 60 From New York to Ramat Gan, 1992