A two-way street

Talking to Israelis who went to try their luck as citizens of the world, but eventually decided to come back.

An El Al Boeing 777 aircraft at Ben-Gurion International Airport (photo credit: REUTERS)
An El Al Boeing 777 aircraft at Ben-Gurion International Airport
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A Taub Center report from October 2013 stated that “the brain drain from Israel to the US is incomparable to anywhere else in the Western World.” The Hebrew for “brain drain” translates into something like “brain flee,” referring to academics and leading professionals who decide to try their luck in developing their careers elsewhere.
Indeed, Israelis emigrate – or as we say here yordim (descend), which has pejorative overtones – to other countries in great numbers. Over 250,000 Israelis live in New York, London and Los Angeles each, not to mention Berlin, which has turned into a vibrant Israeli hub.
This trend receives careful attention from the Israeli media, reminding the public of how costly Tel Aviv is, and suggesting that the Israeli government invests less and less in its citizens.
This might be true, but it’s a two-way street. Israelis not only leave in herds, they also return in flocks. Some of them come back with their tail between their legs after their dreams of making big bucks, becoming stars or just living comfortably are shattered. However, there are also many Israelis who did realize their dreams, modest or ambitious, and decided to come back home.
Somewhat like the Israelites who shortly after the Exodus expressed longing for alleged prosperity in Egypt, Israelis, too, are obsessed with an imaginary place called hul in Hebrew, an abbreviation of hutz la’aretz (outside the land). Many Israelis think that in everything is better and more glamorous there.
Sometimes they are right, but even those who “make it” still maintain a love-hate relationship with their homeland.
The voices of those who go away to Berlin, London and New York are often heard loud and clear in the homeland; Haaretz, Ynet and even Israel Hayom give a platform to live online debates on where it is better to live. A key issue in this debate is the cost of living. At the same time, even though dairy products are cheaper in Berlin, the same number of Israelis who leave the country every year, come back.
THE TELEVISION Tower is seen behind blooming cherry blossom trees in Berlin, last month. The city is home to a thriving Israeli community. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)THE TELEVISION Tower is seen behind blooming cherry blossom trees in Berlin, last month. The city is home to a thriving Israeli community. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
ELLA SABAN has been working at the Immigration and Absorption Ministry since 1999; since 2004 she has headed the office responsible for maintaining relationship with Israelis abroad and encouraging them to return. She supervises teams that work in North America, London, Moscow and Paris, and also runs “Israeli Homes.” Israeli Homes, she explained to The Jerusalem Post Magazine, “isn’t a physical entity, but an approachable virtual space for Israeli citizens abroad.” The site helps provide services for Israelis who are contemplating coming back, have questions or need assistance with formalities.
A key responsibility of Saban’s teams is to keep touch with the Israeli community through various programs.
“We try to tailor events for the population. For instance, in New York City, where there are many academics, we have a program named “Scientist on the Bar.” We bring a scientist to speak and invite all the scientists in the area.
In Miami, on the other hand, I’ll bring someone who could explain how to build a business in Israel and work with the tax authorities.”
Saban said that they work closely with second-generation Israelis – sons and daughters of Israelis who settled abroad.
“We concluded that the second generation is the bridge. Every year we bring some 400 second-generation citizens to the army, mostly from North America, and by and large they end up staying and the parents eventually follow suit…” Saban thinks that there is a difference between Israelis who live abroad and Diaspora Jews. “Israelis assimilate more. Unlike Israelis, American Jews, for instance, have a lively community, JCCs and summer camps. When the kids are young it doesn’t matter that much, but when they start dating – then the parents freak out. That’s where my office can come in handy. “ Asked how many Israelis leave Israel, she says that they “don’t have the exact numbers.”
“No one calls up the state to say goodbye,” she explains, “I’m assuming, and that’s a rough estimate, that a few thousand leave annually. By and large, they have more than a high school education; many of them are academics.
We don’t check their backgrounds so we don’t know how many of them are Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, religious, Arab and so forth… There are many reasons for emigrating, she says.
“Some go on a post-army trip and stay there. Some didn’t prepare and kind of just fell into it. Others relocate with their jobs, or go for post-doctorate studies.
There are those who want to reunite with their family or the family of their loved ones, follow loved ones, their kids who left beforehand…” How many return? “In a regular year about 6,000 to 7,000 fly home; in a year that we do campaigns to encourage people to come back, we reach some 11,000 to 12,000.
 A KEY issue is the high cost of living. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters) A KEY issue is the high cost of living. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
“They return for almost the same reason they leave,” she says. “We did research in 2010 and what we found out surprised us. The bottom line was that they are lonely. Israelis like their hevre – their group of friends. Abroad, they feel alone. It kills them. Many thought they would make a lot of money, and when they didn’t they came back.
“Another reason is the kids – they want to raise them in a familiar environment, near their family and friends. Many of them “live in a movie” there. It’s not really their lives. They are play-acting.
It’s fun for young people who are looking for excitement, but in the end of the day they miss home.
Asked why she was surprised at the survey results, she explains that they were “surprised that they said they are lonely.
“They say things along the lines of ‘I’m at the top of my career, I’m making a load of money, but I’m lonely… when I see photos of a family event on Facebook, it pains me.’ It’s hard for Israelis to adjust to American and European culture, politeness and habits. All in all, everything is fine. But then, when in the afternoon a mom wants to send her kid to play with another kid she needs to book a play-date with the other mom or dad months in advance – something that in Israel seems ludicrous.”
And how old are they when they come back? “Most of those who return are in the working stage, 25 to 55, and of them more come back between the ages of 35 to 40. The ones making the decisions are the women…”
The burlesque dancer
Hadas Gamzo-Kellner, 31, was born in Ramat Gan and raised in Yehud, where she currently lives. She is married to Ziv and is raising a 17-month-old child. However, just two years ago she belly-danced her way to London’s most prestigious stages.
“Growing up, I knew I wanted to live abroad. I loved Europe, especially London, perhaps because the music scene there mesmerized me.”
Gamzo-Kellner started learning belly dancing at the age of 17 and continued practicing throughout her early 20s while studying Education with the Arts, a creative education method for kindergarten teachers. Around that time she started flirting with a stranger on Facebook. That stranger, who goes by the name Ziv, was charming and funny so she went on a date with him, then on few more.
In 2012, they went on a trip to Europe. Two things happened there that changed their lives. The first is that during a music festival in Paris, they decided to get married. The second, is that when in London, they decided to move there.
It’s not that we didn’t want to be in Israel per se as much as we knew that we wanted to be London. We had a very good experience there the year before, and in the cab on our way back from the airport to Ramat Gan – it was on Jabotinsky Street, I vividly remember – everything seemed so gray and we were depressed. We just didn’t want to be home. My husband’s family has strong European roots and the passports that go with it. His older brother already lived abroad, in Hong Kong, with his wife, whom he met when she was the Austrian ambassador to Israel, so it wasn’t super odd for us to want to move out of here.”
Hadas Gamzo-Kellner (OFEK BIRENBAUM)Hadas Gamzo-Kellner (OFEK BIRENBAUM)
A YEAR after that visit, they arrived in London without a plan.
“I was 27 at the time and thought of it as an adventure. I discovered it’s very hard to get by in London. On one hand, the city was magical and glamorous but on the other hand, everything was harder. It was hard to open a bank account, find a job or an apartment.”
That first year, they lived with three flatmates in Hendon and struggled to make ends meet each month.
“One of the ways to get by,” says Gamzo-Kellner, “is to work for Jewish families.” She found a job as a babysitter and her husband as a water boy of sorts in an accounting office. Ziv climbed the ranks to a better position as an IT and QA person.
“This office represented the biggest musical stars – from Kylie Minogue and the Arctic Monkeys to Eric Clapton and Paul McCartney. My husband is a joker.
The stuck-up Brits found his humor refreshing. He was the company’s owner’s favorite guy, which became tragic when the owner died one evening from heart failure. My husband was very close to him.”
At that point, Gamzo-Kellner herself wasn’t doing that well. She was bored with babysitting and didn’t see much future for herself in London. But then the wheel started to turn. She enrolled into a burlesque school.
“You must understand. Burlesque is huge in London.”
She enjoyed the classes, but not her peers.
“On the final performance, the other dancers behaved like an unbearable bunch of chicks, rambling about as if they are [singer-songwriter] Maria Kelly or something. I stood out – I wasn’t a diva and more professional. The director of the school was impressed with me and hired me to teach both burlesque and belly dancing.”
Slowly, Gamzo-Kellner gained traction and was invited by art directors to perform on many stages.
“I lived the dream of working in my profession… I taught in crazy places, preformed in places like Madam Jojo’s in London’s West End and women started recognizing me on the street.”
But then something happened to her.
“I’m very close to my family and I was pressured to come back. I have two young brothers – twins – that I’m attached to.” She realized it was “now or never,” that “if you stay, you stay.”
She and her husband had to choose – go home or make London their home.
Ziv was on the fence, but she wasn’t.
She was pregnant and the combination of her distaste for the British mentality and her inclination to have her baby near her parents were deal makers.
Now, Hadas and Ziv live in Yehud, not too far from her family. Her husband works at cyber-security company Check Point and she runs a bachelorette party business called Oh La La! “Some things were better in London, and Israel is hard, but there’s no replacement for your friends from age 13. It’s in your blood… family is just more important.”
The financial consultant
Ashraf Hussein, 26, left home straight after high school. He currently rents a flat in Haifa, just 30 minutes drive from Sha’ab, the village where he was brought up and his parents still live, but he spent the better part of the past decade far away from there. He started at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, and continued as an analyst in a leading financial corporation in Boston.
He spoke of his hopes and expectations going there.
“As a kid, I liked reading the business section in the newspaper. I knew that the US is the best place to learn about economics and finance. On the personal level, I wanted to gain tools that would enable me to bring people together in Israel.”
Hussein did well at Brandeis University.
While studying, his first job was in the campus dining hall.
“My English was crap when I arrived, but things got better with time. In my second year, professors started asking me to be their teaching assistant. Then, in my senior year, I taught graduate-level MBA classes with students way older and more experienced than I was. In fact, I was the youngest dude in the room…” Most of Hussein’s friends were American Jews. “I fitted in very comfortably there. There were other Israelis on campus, most of them Jewish, who felt less at home than I did.
While some people on campus raised their eyebrows when they met an Israeli-Arab-Palestinian on a Jewish campus, all in all I found the community there very accepting, nice, and willing to learn. I even felt at home with all the holidays such as Passover and Rosh Hashana.”
In his fourth year, Hussein applied for a summer internship as an investment analyst with Highfield, a Boston-based hedge fund. The next year, he continued at Brandeis to complete his MA in the International Business School. After graduation, he joined a financial firm that does consulting for US public and private companies that have offices in 150 countries, including four offices in Israel. He worked there for three and a half years, then pushed for a relocation to their Israel offices.
“I wanted to be closer to my fiancée, family and friends whom I hadn’t seen on an everyday basis for many years.
Every time I came to visit and saw the initiatives that go on here, I knew that I wanted to be part of it. It’s safe to say that now I work with the most interesting companies.”
Coming back was a mixed bag, but Hussein wishes to focus on the bright side.
“American and Israeli working habits are very different. In Boston if I had to ask a client something I’d email him from my work account. Here, my boss told me, ‘send him a WhatsApp message and if he doesn’t reply within the hour, give him a call. Nudge him until you get an answer.’ That was at 8 p.m. I was like, ‘What do you mean? It’s a client,’ but he told me it’s okay…” Hussein’s homecoming also had a domesticating affect on his social life.
“In Boston I used to go out clubbing.
Now I work hard during the week and on weekends I spend time with my family and friends.” He thinks that returning was a good decision, but it’s likely that he has another American episode in him.
“There is more to learn and develop in the US and the market is bigger…”
The jazz musician
Ehud Ettun, a 29-year-old bass player from Jerusalem, left Israel for a master’s degree in the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
“I had a great time there. I studied with David Holland and Donny McCaslin, musicians I admire.”
After graduating, Ettun stayed in Boston and New York for three and a half more years. He played with “true jazz masters” such as Fred Hirsh, George Calzone, Frank London and more.
“Truth be told,” he told the Magazine before boarding an airplane to Warsaw on a three-week international tour with his band, “I started to perform all over the world, and at some point I figured that what I’m doing is music as a tool for social change… and use improvised music to connect between people. I thought it’s ironic to do it in Boston or all over the world and then come back to Boston. Boston and New York don’t need me. They have great musicians and I felt like I have less to contribute there.
There are many amazing musicians in Israel as well, but I felt like it’s more natural for me to try to do meaningful things in the place where I am from.
“The trigger for this was when I swung by Israel for three days during the previous elections. I left with a bitter taste in my mouth that people here hate each other. That feeling, that the air in Israel is poisoned, made me want to do something about it with music. Two days after I returned to Boston I decided to go home.”
Ettun made his home in the Negev, in Mitzpe Ramon. About two years ago, he led a seminar there and the students asked for more. He always had a dream of establishing a school, and when he came back, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place, in cooperation with Sapir College and the Mitzpe Ramon Municipality.
This June, the first class of 17 students will finish their first year at the Mitzpe Ramon School of Jazz and Improvised Music.
Ettun believes in the transformative power of music.
“Looking at the world musically is looking at the world with curiosity. I like to think of curiosity and fear as opposites that challenge each other. I’ll give you an example. Many Israelis express vehement hatred toward Arabs, but they love, absolutely adore, Arab music.”
About 18 months ago, Ettun partnered with the Jerusalem Municipality, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Euro-Mediterranean Institute of Dialogue and the Interfaith Encounter Association, to establish Internal Campus – a program for east and west Jerusalemite young musicians for improvised music.
“Working with Arabs and Jews jointly has its problems but also its merits. I hope to see these kids do meaningful things together in the future.”