Aliya fair wins over ex-Israelis

...despite some of the warts-and-all speakers.

french olim 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
french olim 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Nine months pregnant with her second child, Rivi is impatient these days. She has the nerves of a woman about to give birth, but there is something else, too. Come July, Rivi and her husband are returning to Israel, after several years in New York and countless discussions about when to return. Rivi moved to New York eight years ago and has experienced many of life's critical moments here. She completed a master's degree, met her future husband, married, had her first child and is about to have a second - all on American soil. But like many Israelis who leave, Rivi never felt "at home" in the United States, and has always known she would eventually go home. She has thought about it several times over the years, and several times she has decided to stay. "It's been three years already back and forth, and every time, there is another opportunity, another reason to stay," said Rivi. "But in the end, you understand there will always be opportunities in the US, and you have to make a decision." Rivi and her husband were among hundreds of Israelis who turned up at a recent aliya fair in New York, one of several across the United States organized by the Jewish Agency in coordination with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. In the largest effort yet to persuade yordim - Israeli expatriates - to return home, dozens of government officials flew to North America last weekend to participate in the business and job fairs tailored to that group. The initiative is part of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry's flagship program, "Returning Home on Israel's 60th," a massive effort to offer new incentives for the estimated 700,000 Israelis living overseas to come home. The project, which includes reducing the tax burden on Israelis who return, is intended to ease the process. Half of the seminars offered at the New York aliya fair were geared toward returning Israelis - and over 50 percent of attendees were Israelis looking to return. "It was natural for us to cooperate with the Ministry of Absorption - we are one state," said Boaz Herman, head of the Jewish Agency's Aliya Department in North America. An estimated 19,000 Israelis leave the country every year. But the number of Israelis who return to Israel has been steadily growing since 2000, according to ministry numbers. That year, 2,641 returned, and in 2007, 4,070 returned. This year, given the tax breaks, more are expected. Aliya, on the other hand, has dropped to a steady trickle. In recent weeks, budget cuts and organizational changes at the Jewish Agency left some speculating that the organization was moving away from its focus on aliya. Officials have denied it. But as Israel's 60th anniversary approaches, there is no avoiding the fact that aliya has reached its lowest point in two decades. Leading one seminar on employment opportunities was a Russian olah in a miniskirt and knee-high leather boots. The crowd that came to listen - largely young, secular Israelis - stood out next to their Jewish American counterparts, many of whom were religious and may have balked at the sight of the young Israeli speaker. For some Israelis in the room, the session was everything they missed about Israel; for others, it reminded them of why they left. The speaker made no attempt to paint rosy pictures about the homeland, and her directness sometimes verged on arrogance. "Can you believe how she talks?" Lilly, a woman in the audience, kept repeating, laughing nervously at times. "That's a terrible introduction to Israel." But it wasn't enough to deter her from returning. "I'm going home," said Lilly, who is going back after 30 years in the US. Like many Israelis who move abroad (50%), Lilly never became an American citizen. "I'm Israeli, not American," she said. Miriam and Shlomi, a young, recently engaged couple, in many ways represent the typical returning Israelis. Miriam came to the US to study psychology and has been here for seven years; Shlomi came with his company for one year, which ended up being extended to four. They feel "at home" in Israel, but financially "it is tempting to stay," said Miriam. "When I first came, I thought I might want to stay all my life. I felt free," continued Miriam, who grew up religious but turned secular. "But I realize I miss Israel and don't feel at home here." The longer Israelis stay abroad, the less likely they are to return, according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. One-third of returning Israelis go back after four or fewer years abroad; another third return after five to 10 years abroad; and 27% return after 11 or more years abroad. Less than 10% who have lived abroad for 20 years or more return. Of the 14,000 Israeli expats who have returned in the past three years, 30% were academics, scientists, researchers, engineers or technicians, 40% had academic degrees and 54% were between the ages of 20 and 44. In short, returning expats are often skilled, educated and of working age. Yotam Hod is a different kind of returning Israeli. Born in Israel, he grew up in the US. Now, at 30, he has decided to return. "I'm at a point in my life that if I don't go now, I will stay here and will regret never having gone," he said. "At every transitional period, I've always considered going, but for different reasons, I was always convinced it wasn't the right time. Now is the right time."