Aliya in progress

More Western immigrants are choosing to maintain their careers back in the old country.

Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh  (photo credit: Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh
(photo credit: Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Devora (not her real name) is a housewife living in an ultra-Orthodox community near Jerusalem.
While she helps her children with homework and takes care of all of her family’s domestic needs, her husband is abroad, working in an office in England to support his growing family.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, Devora complained that while she could not have made aliya without her husband maintaining his position in London, it has taken a real toll on her family.
She feels that her family made the right decision, but it was only because after being married for decades, she says, that she and her husband knew their marriage could survive his prolonged absences.
With her husband gone for more than a month at a time, she has nobody to take her son, who is now studying for his bar mitzva, to the synagogue on Shabbat, nor did she have anybody to help her when one of her daughters recently stayed overnight in the hospital for a surgical procedure.
Devora and her husband are examples, albeit negative, of a new phenomenon, that of transnational commuters or, in other words, part-time olim.
It is important, she implores, to tell people what a toll such a lifestyle can take on the families of immigrants. Her husband has also had a hard time fully acclimating to Israel, she added.
“Today more Jews either choose more than one place as their place of residence or commute between places (living and working in different places),” wrote Israel Pupko in 2007. “It seems that this new trend is becoming more common in Israel and among Diaspora Jews.”
Pupko, the director of the NGO Mishelanu: For Israelis Abroad, is an expert on what he terms “transnational immigrants” – people who live in one country and travel to another on a regular basis for purposes of earning a livelihood.
While only a decade or so ago it would have been impossible for new immigrants to continue working full-time in US-based jobs, the “globalization process, improvements in the means of transportation and communication and the dissemination of multicultural absorption policies have contributed to the fact that more and more immigrants live in or maintain links to more than one country,” Pupko notes.
During previous waves of immigration, from countries such as Yemen or Ethiopia, there was little reason to expect largely poor and uneducated immigrants to maintain ties with their hostile and economically undeveloped nations of origin.
The Zionist dream was largely centered around settling in Israel and staying put.
However, globalization, the commoditization of air travel and professionals’ newfound ability to stay in constant touch via real-time video chatting has meant that significant numbers of immigrants to Israel have been able to continue working in American jobs and that commuting every few weeks has suddenly become a viable option.
In fact, Kim Ephrat, an employment specialist with the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliya organization, tells Metro, for older immigrants with established careers, she “encourages it.” However, she does note that “for somebody who is just starting out, I would encourage them to get established here and to establish their career path here.”
While Pupko believes that “at least 20 percent of the North American and nearly half of French immigrants arriving to Israel in the last few years are multilocal,” Ephrat disagrees, stating that “not more than 10% [and] probably a bit less” physically commute from one country to another.
In either case, these are incredible numbers and may require Israelis to reexamine the Zionist ideal of living and working full-time in Israel in light of the realities of a globalized, hi-tech economy.
The Israeli government seems to have begun to do so, having implemented tax reforms under which income earned while abroad became tax exempt for the first decade following the earner’s aliya.
“It’s a reality of the global marketplace. More and more companies are outsourcing all over the world and Israel has a tremendous amount of talented potential employees and I think that the government has facilitated this as well to some extent.”
THE JEWISH Agency has also begun rethinking the traditional view of aliya.
Rafi Nasi, the director of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah Delegation in London, says that people who work abroad and who are engaged in what he thinks of as “aliya in progress” are “good for the economy of Israel.”
“They bring their families, they start to invest in Israel, they continue to have their business, they start to open branches here and at the end of the day once you move to Israel then you spend most of the year in Israel because because you can’t continue living abroad. You can commute but you must most of the days of the year be in Israel,” he explains.
Ephrat agrees with Nasi’s assessment.
“You know, there are communities that are close to the airport that allow for easy commuting, and the fact that they can keep their jobs, either commuting or telecommuting, for people who don’t have language skills or for whom their profession is not easily transferable here, the fact that they do have the possibility of continuation of income from there enables them to make aliya where 30 years ago they probably couldn’t have,” notes Ephrat.
“Because it’s such a practical option, such a viable option I should say, for people, I think that more people are enabled to make aliya.”
One such person is Aryeh Kieffer, an immigrant from south Florida who deals in real estate, primarily in Atlanta, Georgia.
Having already begun commuting, spending two days out of every week in Atlanta while his wife and four children remained in Florida, Kieffer was “figuring out all sorts of different ways to run our business remotely” while still living full-time in the US.
In 2009, as the economy tanked and his children reached preschool age, he decided that it was time to realize his dream of living in Israel.
“Since I had already spent the several years prior figuring out different ways to manage the business from [afar], it was a question of tweaking it so that instead of a 500 mile commute it was 6,000 mile commute,” he explains.
“The principles behind it of how to run it are the same.”
Now working from a home office in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Kieffer arranges his work day to allow him to pick up his children from school and spend time helping his wife at home. Traveling “for a week to 10 days every fifth or sixth week,” he says, has allowed him to maintain a standard of living that he could not maintain if he had taken jobs offered him here.
While he admits that the job carries with it certain stresses and that he does not want to find himself doing the same thing into his 50s, this 30-something businessman is happy with his choice.
“I had to make a decision,” he explains. “Do I want to raise my family in America so I can have my job there or do I want to raise my family in Israel because this is where I want my family to be and then sacrifice on the type of career that I want? Basically,” he concludes, “I said no to both of those and found a way to kind of make them work together.”
“Is this my optimal a priori position? Not necessarily. I would be much happier working and living in Israel so I guess in that sort of answer it’s not the optimal, but I love what I do and the things that I do. I don’t see that I would have the ability to do that pretty much anywhere [other] than America.”
WHILE HE avoided the pitfalls that have caused such hardship to Devora, the problem of integration for commuting olim worries Nefesh B’Nefesh.
“When people commute it does slow down the integration process for the person and possibly for the family as well,” warns Ephrat. “I encourage commuters to use the time that they are here to learn Hebrew and go to ulpan so they do become part of life here.”
Asked if most immigrants who commute internationally do so out of necessity or choice, Ephrat explains that she thinks “that you find all of the above.”
“There are people who have their own businesses and they don’t want to give them up so they have to commute. Like I said, some people don’t have language skills, which makes it harder to find a job here, so they have to. Other people, I think, are quite happy with this. They like that fact that when they are here they are really here and they have that quote-unquote quality time with their family.”
Nefesh B’Nefesh conducted a survey of commuters about two years ago.
“What I really wanted to find out was whether this was a permanent solution or a temporary solution for people,” says Ephrat. “It was interesting because we found that the majority of the people considered it to be a long-term arrangement. Maybe it had started out as a temporary measure but for most of them it was working out and they were planning to continue it for as long as they were able to.”
DESPITE THESE findings, however, there are a great many immigrants who do not wish to work abroad and a significant number of those who do who are unhappy with the necessity. As the Jewish Agency’s Nasi remarks, it is ultimately an unsustainable lifestyle in the long term and is, for Israelis, ideologically undesirable.
One Anglo-born citizen of Israel who was unable to sustain such a lifestyle is Patrick Zagdanski.
Zagdanski, a former IT manager at Rutgers University in New Jersey, made aliya with Nefesh B’Nefesh five years ago and for the better part of his first year in Israel, kept his university position.
“I could do everything remotely so I was trying to get them to let me stay in Israel and work from here remotely, but they weren’t so eager to let me do that.
So after about seven months I quit because I was using my vacation time to go back and forth to Israel so I was five weeks in America and about one week here. It was really hard for the family,” he sighs.
Looking back on his first seven months here, he notes that he was “missing all kinds of events when I was there.”
“It’s even hard to call because we are on different schedules and [so] I would call sometimes and nobody could answer because my wife was putting the kids to bed and sometimes I was busy, so it’s very hard to keep in touch with seven hours [of time] difference.”
His son, he says, did not want to acknowledge his prolonged absences and would refuse to speak to him even when they did successfully connect on the telephone.
However, his story turned out to be successful, he says, “because the day I gave my notice was the day I got through a friend information about a company here in Israel that was looking to hire people and I got the job.”
Zagdanski currently commutes “only” four times a year for two to three weeks at a time.
While the three commuters and their spouses interviewed have had radically different experiences, their stories all share a common thread in that their immigration would have been impossible only a short while ago.
As Internet speeds get faster, airfares get cheaper and employers become more used to their workers coming from all corners of the globe, more and more Anglos in Israel will be tempted to seek employment in the “old country” and increasing numbers of people who had previously thought of aliya as impractical will be tempted to move due to their ability to maintain their current employment.
While the “vast majority” of his friends “who made aliya still have their work related to or in America,” Kieffer notes, “less than half” are currently “physically commuting.”
That is still an astounding thought if you consider how revolutionary it would have seemed a generation ago.
It is quite possible that Western aliya will end up being fundamentally different from the waves of immigration that preceded it and that, to many Anglos, is just fine.