The real apple of his eye

Former Apple senior director Eric Sirkin admits he got caught up in a career abroad, but always knew he would make aliya.

Eric Sirkin (L) 521 (photo credit: Marina Choikhet)
Eric Sirkin (L) 521
(photo credit: Marina Choikhet)
Leaning back in his chair, in a corner cafe on a small Tel Aviv residential side street connecting the windswept seashore with the bustling, noisy Carmel Market, Eric Sirkin orders a cup of hot cocoa.
The former Apple senior director, who settled in Israel a year ago, spends his time studying Hebrew, supporting several charity organizations and working on a new, as-yet-undisclosed project.
The people who immigrate nowadays from all corners of the world to the tiny democratic oasis of the Middle East have all kinds of cultural and spiritual backgrounds. Many of them are talented, highly educated workers with valuable skills in areas such as hi-tech, art and medicine. They have, or could have had, a great life in their home countries if they had not found Israel more appealing for themselves and their families. For these people, aliya is a choice, not a necessity.
“Either you care about your Jewish origin or not. If it means something to you, then I do not understand how you cannot live in Israel,” says Sirkin.
For the American-born Jew, the US has never been “his country.”
“I never felt that I belonged there. Three thousand years of national history cannot be so easily crossed out. And I feel like a part of it. Once I realized that, I knew I must come here.”
His original intention was to make aliya 30 years ago. Yet Sirkin hailed from neither a religious nor a Zionist family. Growing up in a suburb of St. Louis amid a Reform community, he had pork more often than gefilte fish for dinner.
Besides this, “the subject of Israel was laid out on the table only on rare occasions. Moving to Israel had never been taken into account by my family. It was not until 1974, when I became a freshman at the chemistry faculty at UC Berkeley, that I started actively discovering my Jewish roots.”
As a pioneer in the academic field, Berkeley not only set cross-country trends, but was the stronghold of the most liberal, creative and highly talented hippies in the world, who turned it into an academic vanguard of the anti- Israel protests.
“Everywhere on campus I was being attacked from all sides about the political situation in Israel. In a case like this, one can either stay silent or stand behind his convictions; so I decided to do something about it,” remembers Sirkin, who spontaneously took a year off from school to get involved in the activities of the Israel Action Committee. “We invited renowned speakers to our meetings and organized panel discussions in order to inform our fellow students about Israel and to create an open debate.”
CONSIDERING THIS background, it is not surprising that the nonconformist decided to continue his academic career at the Hebrew University. His plan was to do post-doctoral work for two years and then look for something here in his field.
“However, after my studies, I had trouble finding a decent job here,” he recalls. “On the one hand, I did not understand the system right away, but on the other hand, at that time, in economic terms, the country was still a desert.”
Were he today a university graduate standing at the gateway to the Israeli hi-tech world, he would likely knock at Checkpoint’s door, “or even better, at Apple,” he corrects himself, as the latter intends to “make aliya” soon as well and open its first development center outside of California in the Holy Land.
Why not in Japan, Germany or the Scandinavian countries? “Because Israelis are more creative and progressive, and because all companies that have a name in this area, be it Intel, Microsoft, Checkpoint or Google, already established Israeli branches a long time ago.” Moreover, he says, the Israeli hi-tech mentality resembles strongly that of Silicon Valley.
In the early ’80s, he began his career at the Xerox Research Center in Palo Alto, California. “My plan was to wait until something significant would happen in the Israeli computer industry,” he says.
Yet while his aliya plan was still “under construction,” he had already picked the most desirable fruit from the hi-tech tree. As senior director at Apple and senior vice president at GetThere, and in leading positions with Zoran and other companies, he worked among the brightest minds in the computer industry.
Thus, “Project Aliya” was repeatedly delayed: “Five years became 10, then 15, then 20... what can you do when you have three adolescent daughters and a wife who do not want to leave the US at any price?”
Having said this, he looks thoughtfully into his cocoa, as if he were seeking his answer in the depths of the opaque porcelain cup. “The most difficult time for me was during the second intifada [in 2002]. I am not a passive observer and could not simply sit around idly watching TV and the terrible news. I did not know what to do specifically, but I wanted to be in Israel.”
That is how, despite terror attacks and travel warnings, the Sirkins found themselves at Ben-Gurion Airport for a short visit a few weeks later, “at least to be part of it for just two weeks, so as not to be separated from our friends and the events in the country.”
Except for a nephew, he has no relatives in his new home. His daughters are now adults living in the US, and he is divorced. “In America, we are used to living far away from our families. I get to see my children only a few times per year.”
In this respect, it makes no difference for the new immigrant whether he lives in California or in the historical homeland.
This perception is especially true as the retiree keeps up business relationships with his former colleagues from Apple, with whom he is developing a new product that will be launched in the US and revealed in a few months.
Other than that, he enjoys becoming part of the Israeli community and generously supports it by donating to the Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, helping the Israel Venture Network and being active in the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.
“It is wrong to expect the government to take care of everything,” he says. “It is important that we give back to the community.”
After 30 long years, he has finally reached the right place: “Here I am in harmony with myself. No way will I go back again.”