Living on dollars in Israel

Many transactions require pricey international wire fees, making transferring and converting amounts under $10,000 financially inefficient.

Quick and easy transfers: Joseph Sokol (left) and Meir Leff. (photo credit: YITZ WOOLF)
Quick and easy transfers: Joseph Sokol (left) and Meir Leff.
(photo credit: YITZ WOOLF)
 When Joseph Sokol was a yeshiva student in Jerusalem, he was frustrated by how cramped his allotted dorm space was, so he rented an apartment nearby. He had a place to put his things, but a new problem presented itself. How could he pay rent in shekels when his income was in dollars? 
That problem inspired Sokol to create OlehPay, a streamlined and affordable way to transfer US dollars to shekels.
Living with two currencies is a common problem for lots of people, among them recipients of US Social Security payments, lone soldiers, students whose American parents are paying their tuition and living expenses, as well as olim who live in Israel and earn dollars.
Existing solutions are all imperfect. Many transactions require pricey international wire fees, making transferring and converting amounts under $10,000 financially inefficient. Other obstacles include poor exchange rates, limits on shekel withdrawals, the necessity to visit the bank in person and needing to manage transactions in Hebrew. OlehPay, which launched in August of this year, removes all those obstacles.
Sokol, 21, who frequently travels back and forth between his apartment in Baka and Los Angeles on business, is the tech brain behind OlehPay. He readily speaks about customer interfaces, financial industry partnerships, methods of encoding data and other geeky details. Even so, it’s important to him that people understand how OlehPay works and why it represents an improvement for people who need to transfer relatively small amounts of dollars to shekels, quickly and easily.
Once a customer opens an account, they can transfer any dollar amount with just two clicks on an English website and have the money appear in shekels in their Israeli bank account just a few business days later. No need to go to the bank, withdraw money from an ATM or say a single word in Hebrew.
Meir Leff, 22, is the company’s operations manager, responsible for marketing, business development and compliance with banking industry regulations. He laughingly reported that, “We don’t recommend this, but some customers transferred one dollar just to test our system.”
Sokol and Leff met a few weeks after they enrolled in the English-language yeshiva program at Machon Meir in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood. Eventually, Sokol created OlehPay and brought Leff on to manage the business side of things. The pair, along with a handful of interns who handle quality assurance and other tech tasks, work out of the Siftech incubator on Hebron Road.
“Usually you have to be invited to join Siftech,” reported Sokol. “I just went in and introduced myself and explained what I was working on and that’s how we ended up there.” Both agree that Siftech, which houses about a dozen start-ups, is “a fantastic working space where we’ve made incredible connections. We get advised by other start-ups and we offer help to others when we can.”
One tangible benefit of being located at Siftech is a connection made with an overseas investor. “Siftech brings in delegations to present technology and innovation in Israel,” Sokol explained.
In the middle of pitching his startup in front of a group of Chinese billionaires, “some guy interrupts and says he wants to invest in OlehPay. Turns out he’s a billionaire who runs a equivalent in China,” Sokol enthused. That led to follow-up meetings and a deal between the parties. “We sold him a piece of equity in the business. He’s so influential in the finance industry. And he’s well connected in Chinese banks,” Sokol said.
Up until now, the tiny company, which has already processed over a million dollars for more than 400 customers in its first three months, was bootstrapping operations. “We have a minuscule marketing budget,” Leff confirmed.
With the company’s two principals under the age of 23, does OlehPay have an issue with credibility? “Actually, our age is totally an advantage. It works in our favor. We’ve been able to score meetings with people who just want to help. Also, we can learn quickly and have flexible schedules. We can easily adapt to new systems,” Sokol asserted.
Leff added that entrepreneurship is generally associated with youth. The pair are confident that, as the company grows, they will gain even more credibility.
They each work some 60 hours a week, a load neither finds particularly taxing. “Work is incredibly enjoyable. We get along and work well together,” said Leff. Sokol added that they “wake up every morning, thrilled to run to work.”
As Americans living in Israel, they started OlehPay with one pair of currencies (US dollars and shekels) and one direction (dollars to shekels). Now that the platform is proven and they’ve worked with hundreds of customers, the young team has lots of plans to expand.
The first service they expect to add is transferring shekels to dollars. After that, they intend to add other currency pairings, like Euros for French olim and pounds sterling for olim from the UK. Eventually, Sokol explained, OlehPay will go international. “We plan to iterate the product around the world.”
For now, OlehPay is gradually building its customer base here in Israel. Their ideal customers are those, like Social Security recipients, who are living month-to-month on dollar-based incomes. Their service is also well-suited for people who don’t have the time, physical ability or sufficient Hebrew skills to go to the bank or post office regularly.
“We want to grow organically through recommendations from satisfied users,” Leff said. “Our customers endorse us in Facebook groups like Living Financially Smarter in Israel, Secret Jerusalem, Secret Tel Aviv and Keep Olim in Israel,” Sokol added.
OlehPay employs state-of-the-art cyber security measures, including keeping customer info, login credentials and transaction data in three separate, encrypted systems. “We are Israeli cyber security by definition,” Sokol reassured.
They also partner with a licensed US money changer so all transactions are compliant with existing banking regulations.
Leff and Sokol are keenly aware that living with multiple currencies is a challenge for olim, many of whom would prefer to leave their money in dollars until it’s needed in Israel. OlehPay makes it so easy to move money that olim can still invest and manage their money in dollars, if they prefer to do that.
Their company aims to make the financial transition to living in Israel easier for American olim. With OlehPay’s system, unlike with conventional international money changing options, there is no downside to moving smaller amounts of money more frequently. They charge the same flat fee for moving $10 as for moving $10,000.
Because they are a fee-based service, they don’t tinker with the exchange rate. Their customers get the same exchange rate that banks give one another. By contrast, foreign exchange companies and retail money changers make their money by offering a slightly lower exchange rate than banks offer. In effect, OlehPay makes it possible for ordinary consumers to get the same exchange rate that businesses get when exchanging much larger amounts.
Sokol advises potential customers, “Next time you need to transfer dollars to Israel, it’s worthwhile to price the transaction with OlehPay. We can almost always save you money while making the whole process much easier.”
“Everything we do is so simple and transparent,” Leff explained. “When I needed to pay my rent in shekels, I faced a problem, solved it and built OlehPay to apply that solution to others. I’m very proud of it.”