Loving the Big Apple

Some Orthodox Europeans however are not getting a gracious welcome.

statue of liberty  88 (photo credit: )
statue of liberty 88
(photo credit: )
Avi Mazloumi is a 30-year-old Persian Jew born and raised in Germany. When he came to study in New York, he heard, for the first time in his life, a non-Jew wishing him a happy Hanukka. "For 22 years, it was always merry Christmas, or happy Easter - I didn't expect anybody to wish me happy Hanukka," Mazloumi said, explaining why this was a significant moment in his life. "It is important that your background is recognized by your surroundings." Mazloumi, whose father had emigrated from Iran to Hamburg in the 1970s, studied economics at Yeshiva University. By the time he graduated, he had acquired a taste for the New World and accepted a job offer by an energy trading company in Connecticut. The company also promised to sponsor Mazloumi, which means it would help him obtain an H-1B work visa. Mazloumi had been lucky. Even in pre-9/11 years, it was difficult to get American companies to sponsor foreign students. Today it is even more difficult, according to Elaine Thompson, director of international student advisement at Yeshiva. "There are currently very few avenues for students to remain in the United States after they graduate," she said. Only 65,000 visas are given out for bachelor's degree holders, with an additional 20,000 for master's. The number of applicants keeps rising, while the quota stays more or less steady. Hundreds of Jewish students from all over Europe go to college in the US, for various reasons, but they all have one thing in common: If they want to stay, they have to first find a company willing to sponsor them, and then hope that their H-1B application is accepted by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. "Every year, it gets worse and worse," said Steven Singer, an immigration expert at Barst & Mukamal law firm in New York. In 2007, USCIS received more than 65,000 applications on the opening day of the application period. A lottery picked among the entries of the first two days - all other applications were not even considered, Singer said. Without an H1-B, students need to leave the country after one year of "optional practical training," for which they may apply after graduation to complement their studies. In spite of the difficulties, European Jews are still coming to universities in New York, and many of them still have the goal of staying here. Many choose New York specifically because "no one looks at you like you're not normal," Thompson said. "You can walk around with your yarmulke on, and no one is going to think differently. There's a huge sense of freedom in that." Mazloumi, who married an American last December and four months later received his Permanent Resident Card, or Green Card, came to New York because his relatives there had urged him to. He shouldn't stay in Germany, they said. But as a young student who had just recently acquired German citizenship - he had to turn 16 before he could apply - it wasn't clear from the beginning that he would eventually abandon his home country for good. "As time passed, I started to spread roots in New York," Mazloumi recalled. "Certain German values that I held in high esteem started to lose their luster. Whenever I was back in Hamburg, I realized my attachment to Germany became weaker and weaker, while my excitement to return to New York became stronger and stronger." "Ignorance is bliss," he added, referring to his upbringing. "As long as I lived in Germany, I didn't know how great it is to live as a Jew in New York." While the times when Jews weren't welcome in Germany are long gone, it can still be difficult to lead an active Jewish life. There is no real infrastructure - almost no kosher restaurants, schools or synagogues - and nobody on the street wishing happy Hanukka. In the last 15 years, Germany encouraged a large wave of immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union, which doubled the country's Jewish population and made it the fastest growing Jewish community in the world. However, even 100,000 Jews in a country of 80 million do not guarantee a vibrant Jewish community. Like Mazloumi, Robert Nowbakht, 26, left Germany for New York because his family urged him to. "I didn't come to America out of great passion," he said. He originally wanted to move to Israel after high school, but his Israeli citizenship would have required him to join the army. His parents vetoed the idea, and - because he, too, had many relatives there - he ended up in the Big Apple. One thing was always clear to Nowbakht: He would not stay in Germany, although he said he enjoyed his childhood there. "It's tough to live in Germany as an Orthodox Jew. There's no future for me there." After college, Nowbakht was faced with the same problem that all of America's half million foreign students have when they don't want to go back home: finding a job and getting an H-1B visa. A jewelry company whose owner Nowbakht knew from the Jewish community eventually hired him and helped with the paperwork. But not everybody was so lucky. One of Nowbakht's friends - also a Jew from Germany - worked for an American company, but USCIS rejected his H-1B application. The 25-year-old, who withheld his name because he is currently "unlawfully present" in America, spent about $17,000 on legal fees, appealing and reapplying, but to no avail. FOR MOST German Jews, anti-Semitism was not the reason why they left. However, many of their French co-religionists - who have Europe's largest and most energetic community - said they left because they didn't feel safe. Joseph Perez, 25, lived in Paris before he came to America, where two years ago he received a master's degree in mathematical finance from New York University. In France, Arabs had stolen his brother's watch on his way home from the gym, and his sister was called "dirty Jew" and similar expressions. "It's little events like these that make you try out another country," Perez said. Indeed, an ever more intense anti-Semitism rages through France, including many "little events" but also some bigger ones, such as the case of 23-year-old Ilan Halimi, who was tortured and murdered by Muslim immigrants in 2006. Perez currently works as a quantitative analyst for Barclays. He wants to stay five or six more years in New York, he said, "to make some money," before joining his family, who just moved to Israel. At least Perez didn't have to worry too much about the dreaded H-1B issue. "It was very easy," he recalled. The only thing he had to do was photocopy his passport - the bank took care of the rest. It wasn't so easy for Jonathan Wanono. The 24-year-old Parisian came to Rutgers University on a tennis scholarship, and after graduation started working for a French accounting firm in New York. When his current visa expires, Wanono will have to apply for an H-1B, risking being one of the many thousands who will either have to leave the country or stay illegally. Wanono came here for two reasons. First of all - or accounting for "70 percent," as he said - he had "ideological reasons." "I believe in the American dream," he said, referring to the country's economic opportunities. He added, "I believe I have more freedom here as a student and as a Jew." The remaining 30 percent have to do with anti-Semitism. While he has never experienced any violence, he was insulted and threatened several times in Paris. What if he doesn't make the quota, or if his application is rejected? "If I'll have to go back, I'll go back," he said. "I mean, life is not so bad there." He is well advised, according to immigration experts who point out the severe penalties for staying illegally in the US. "It's always a bad idea to become out-of-status," Singer cautioned. Foreign nationals "unlawfully present" for six months who then leave the country are not allowed to reenter for three years. If they were here for more than a year, they are barred for 10 years, Singer said. But even while still in the US, life is very difficult "in the shadows," Thompson said. "If I had to advise someone who's thinking about it, I would advise them to make their decisions carefully." The writer was raised as an Orthodox Jew in Germany. He studied in the US and in 2006 applied for an H1-B visa, but did not make the quota. He is currently a student at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.