Aliya date: October 31, 2007
Family status: Single (has girlfriend)
When he was 16, Thomas Franz met a group of young Israelis who had been sent to his high school in Germany on a two-week cultural exchange program. He had no idea then what an impact the group's visit would eventually have on his life.
"I had such good contact with the group that I decided to come to Israel on the same exchange program," says Franz. "I stayed in Holon with a family and had a great time. I really liked it here, and thought that I would like to eventually live here for a longer period of time."
Born and raised in Cologne, Franz first came here in 1990 when he was still in high school. The impact of his visit led him to join a group for peace and reconciliation in Germany. Rather than doing regular army service, he opted for a peace service that brought him here again when he was 22. "I lived in Israel for 18 months, but I didn't have the right to stay. I thought that would be my 'long stay' in Israel."
In 1996, he started studying law. As part of an ensuing internship, he was able to come here again for four months. This time, the non-practicing Catholic decided he would convert. "At that time, I realized I was Jewish. I never had belief as a Catholic, but with Judaism, my belief was born."
"After about seven years of knowing I wanted to convert and live in Israel, I finally started the process. I felt it would be better to do it than regret not doing it forever."
Thus, without a work permit or any rights, Franz returned in 2005 and started an Orthodox conversion with the Tel Aviv Rabbinate. "An Orthodox conversion is the only way to do it because you get full rights. I wasn't interested in doing only part of the job." He attended tri-weekly classes for one year, joined a synagogue and studied.
Although not permitted to work for almost a year, he says he was able to survive with support from his parents, his own savings and help from above. "I used the time to learn Hebrew really well and study. The process took two and a half years, but it was worth it," he says, pulling out his brand new ID card.
His grandparents are all deceased, and his parents are still living in Cologne. His younger brother works in marketing and PR for a bank, and his father is a former director of an insurance company. During World War II, Franz says one grandfather was a soldier in Russia and the other worked as an electrician repairing traffic lights for the city.
Franz completed his law degree in 2005 and has worked for several law firms that deal with civil rights and Holocaust restitution groups. Unable to legally work until a few weeks ago, he is currently looking for a job with a German-Israeli law firm in Tel Aviv. "My specialty is a small niche, but when I find it, it will be good." Franz says that although jobs are scarce and salaries are much lower here, the price of his choice to convert has been worth it. "It's not easy, but it's not hopeless either."
For the time being, Franz and his Israeli girlfriend live in a cozy, two-and-a-half-room apartment not far from the beach in Tel Aviv. "It's small but it's comfortable," he says. "It's not the time to buy now, although we recently saw a dream place in Neveh Tzedek with a roof and a view of the beach that we want to rent. We'll move sooner or later because it's too noisy. For now, we like the energy here."
"I'm an early bird. I get up at dawn." Franz says he likes to maximize his time in the morning. After prayers, he usually spends about an hour and a half walking along the seashore. "Once I get a job, I will go to work. For now, I study a lot, meet up with friends in coffeehouses in the evenings and then study more."
An active person, Franz says he loves walking, swimming and yoga. "I like to study, and I have taken advantage of my free time to learn more psychology and read more classical literature." He also loves to cook but says it is difficult to compete with the well-known chefs his girlfriend promotes in her work at a PR firm in Tel Aviv.
"I still have friends here whom I met when I was 16," says Franz. His girlfriend has an American background but has been here since she was two. He also has friends from his conversion class, his synagogue, the Israeli-German lawyers' association and the German Embassy. "I don't only have German friends, but it is a part of my life. I don't run away from them. This community is a part of my life like many others."
A native German speaker, Franz speaks flawless English and is proficient enough in Hebrew to read Haaretz. "Ulpan wasn't for me. I'm completely self-taught," he says. "Reading the newspaper is still work for me, but I can get through most texts as long as they are not too academic."
Judging by the feedback he gets from Israelis who cannot quite place his accent, he says his spoken Hebrew is quite good. As part of his law studies, he spent a year in Seville, where he picked up Spanish. "My Spanish is a little bit forgotten because I don't use it enough."
With the completion of his Orthodox conversion process just a few weeks ago, Franz is now officially Jewish. "I have felt Jewish for a long time. I never identified with my Catholic upbringing." He keeps Shabbat, attends a lovely synagogue in the center of Tel Aviv and is faithful about saying his prayers.
"I'm from Germany. I'm still not Israeli, but I feel at home here." For Franz, identity is not a question of citizenship. "I am proud to be Jewish and proud to be living in Israel."
"My first goal is to find a job," Franz says. After that, he hopes to marry and have children. "I hope to one day own a house with a garden. It doesn't have to be in Tel Aviv, but it will be in Israel somewhere. As far as dreams go, I hope to see long-term peace in Israel."
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