The secrets to a successful aliyah

A successful aliyah requires coming prepared mentally. Israeli culture and norms are different than those in the US, for good and for bad.

An Israeli landscape  (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli landscape
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I believe that my aliyah to Israel has been successful. Of course, success is a subjective term. I define it as being happy with my community, my children’s schools, my career path and frequently feeling grateful that I made the move. There are several key elements that can greatly contribute to a successful relocation to Israel.
First, a word of background. I grew up in New York, took a break from university in the US to serve in the IDF, and made aliyah right after graduating. For a number of years, as I sought to integrate and served in various Israeli government roles, I felt somewhat embarrassed by my American background. Only more recently have I come to fully embrace my American-Israeli identity.
A successful aliyah requires coming prepared mentally. Israeli culture and norms are different than those in the US, for good and for bad. Olim (immigrants to Israel) who have only previously experienced the country as tourists are sometimes jarred by the differences. True, all statements about cultures are generalizations, and all generalizations are wrong, but it can be useful to point out distinguishing characteristics nonetheless.
Israeli society tends to be results-oriented, while American society tends to be process- and rule-oriented. As a result, native-born Israelis like to believe that any administrative decision can be changed by arguing. Frequently, they are right.
The rituals of politeness common in American stores and offices are largely absent. From an American perspective, native-born Israelis can be unbelievably warm and open, and shockingly insulting and direct. Israelis hug, while Americans usually shake hands (at least on the East Coast.) One of the cultural effects of the IDF experience is a disinclination toward chafirot – overly intellectual or repetitive discussions.
One of the most important traits for a successful move is simply being able to go with the flow in terms of the culture and norms; to embrace what is beautiful, while accepting what is unfamiliar.
In terms of careers, the cliché that you need “protectzia,” i.e. connections, is somewhat true. The good news is that with just a little assertiveness and chutzpah, it is not difficult to create your own connections. There are not six degrees of separation in Israel; there are at most one or two.
As an example: soon after making aliyah, I decided to look for a job in the Knesset. A friend, active in politics, gave me the cell number of one of the ministers. I called him up, he gave me his secretary’s number, and we set a meeting for the following week in Tel Aviv. I took the bus from Jerusalem and arrived at his office, only to be dismayed at finding that the meeting would be cut short because he had to travel back to Jerusalem. Thinking quickly, I asked him for a ride back to the capital, and we ended up discussing politics and diplomacy for nearly an hour on the way.
THIS ABSENCE of degrees of separation leads to one of the distinctive features of Israel: the relative ease with which one can take part in the public discourse and policy process, in any field. While actually affecting meaningful change is a complex process, access to the centers of decision-making and influence is generally open.
Finding a rewarding job in Israel often requires flexibility and adaptability. While skill sets are transferable, exact job descriptions and titles are in many cases less so. And yes, for most olim working in Israel, their income will be lower than it would be if they remained abroad.
On the other hand, work-life balance in Israel tends to be much healthier. Stories of financial or law firms which expect new employees to stay at their desks until all hours of the night are rare. Family life also plays a more prominent role in the Israeli workplace. Everyone – from the most senior CEO to the most junior support staff – needs to take a morning off because a kid is sick, or to take care of some errand (especially since Sundays are a workday). As a result, everyone is more understanding.
It is, of course, legitimate to make aliyah and live and work in a primarily English-speaking environment. But if one wants to truly integrate, there is no getting around learning Hebrew. Even the most talented individuals are likely to find their progress stymied or slowed if they cannot write a memo or conduct a meeting in Hebrew.
For younger olim, or those thinking about making the move, serving in the IDF is an incredibly helpful experience. The language, rites of passage and modes of thinking in the army have a strong impact on workplace culture as well. While serving in a combat unit has its own advantages, it is not necessary in order to get the IDF experience. In fact, potential olim or lone soldiers are often unaware of the range of fascinating and impactful roles available in the IDF, from intelligence to communications to strategic planning and even international relations.
Moving to Israel with unrealistic expectations, or trying to look at everything through rose-colored glasses, is not a recipe for a successful aliyah. Despite living in a Hebrew-speaking community and working in a Hebrew-speaking environment (and being happily married to a wonderful, native-born Israeli), there are still aspects of Israeli culture that can drive me mad.
Yet time and time again, when I see, on the one hand, how my children celebrate Tu Bishvat in school, the beauty of Jerusalem’s hills, and the solidarity between strangers in times of conflict; and on the other, when I see the crises of Jewish identity and continuity abroad, and the particularities of Diaspora culture, I am thankful to have the opportunity to live in the Jewish state.
Israel is certainly still a work in progress, for better or worse. It is a tremendous privilege to be able to play a part in shaping its future.
The writer made aliyah in 2008. After serving nine years in the government, he today serves as a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, and as a strategy and communications consultant. Follow him @fredman_a.