Homeward Bound

03adi (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
03adi (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
On the 18th floor of Manhattan's Pennsylvania Hotel one cold Sunday in early April, a line of confused visitors crowds around a metal detector. The young woman in front of me is struggling to modestly peel off one more layer of clothing in a desparate attempt to silence the shrieking machine. "Maybe it's your belt?" a friendly but intimidating Israeli security guard suggests. His suggestion is her command. She takes off her belt - the machine is placated and she goes through. I go through, too. Inside, hordes of people swarm around: families and singles, young and old, religious and secular. Abruptly pushed aside, I am engulfed by a familiar, homey feeling: in this mini-planet of once-and-future-Israelis, all American-style lining up has been suddenly cast aside: There are no lines, decibel levels soar and the mood is hectic. Welcome to the "Returning Home" seminar, part of a drive to encourage Israelis living abroad to go home. I was born and raised in Israel and met my to-be husband there. And now, after working and studying in Europe and the United States for seven years, we are planning on returning to Israel's warm, rude and enveloping embrace with both dread and anticipation: You cannot live there, but, once you have, you can't stay away either. Until today, I thought I was alone in wanting to go back, while everyone else seems to be coming here. Like, maybe I'm going in the wrong direction on a trans-Atlantic people-mover. Estimates vary wildly, but some say there are 300,000-500,000 Israelis in the New York area alone, and nearly a million in North America. So I'm thrilled to see there are others like me. A lot of them. More than 1,000 people have showed up for the seminar, according to the Israeli government officials who organized it. Similar events have been held in seven other cities on the East Coast, and more are planned across the United States and Canada, as well as in Paris and London. We all share a peculiar sense of being lost in an unfamiliar familiarity, of going home to a place we are not sure that we still know. We have to learn the rules all over again. I feel like a child on the first day of school after a long summer vacation. I am nervous and excited and bewildered, trying to remember what it's supposed to be like. Worried about the brain drain, the Israeli government is making a particular effort to welcome us expats, laying down a red carpet woven with tax breaks and exemptions, a multitude of special benefits and other social and primarily financial incentives, including tax exemptions on earnings and property from abroad, accelerated restoration of social security for health insurance benefits, employment guidance and referrals, educational support for returning minors, assistance with setting up businesses and a special program for scientists and researchers. The seminars are organized to inform us about our responsibilities, options and rights when we return. The officials are emphasizing the rights, of course, and according to officials from the Israeli Consulate in New York, the number of returning resident applications has tripled from last year and is expected to grow even more between now and the end of 2008. Officials assume that the tax incentives are the main reason for the increased numbers, especially the fact that returning Israelis can now become part of a special tax bracket, wherein their American assets will be untouchable, in accordance with legislation expected to pass in the coming months. "Love of the country is a given, but for many, the push to finally do the deed is the financial one," a spokeswoman says. Walking around this makeshift marketplace of information, I am impressed by how well organized it is and the variety of information on offer. Social security officials, representatives of the Jewish Agency, real estate advisers, university personnel, tax and employment consultants, and even mayors encouraging people to relocate to their towns are all hawking their wares. Two days later, I find myself keeping an adviser on the phone just a bit longer than I need to. She's already patiently answered all my questions. Maybe I just enjoy knowing that someone is there for me, waiting for me, welcoming me. I don't know if this plan will block the brain drain, but it is sure going to bring lots of hearts home.