Israelis living here no longer faulted for leaving home

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When Zipora Peri moved to the Bay Area from Tel Aviv in 1967, she and her husband, Reuven, were one of only a dozen or so Israeli families in Silicon Valley.

To the Israeli government and some of their friends, they were yordim — a derogatory Hebrew term that means those who "go down." It's the opposite of making aliyah, which means "go up."

Today, the Israeli community in the Bay Area is estimated to number between 20,000 and 30,000. The social stigma of leaving Israel has largely disappeared, and the term "yordim" is barely heard.

But Israeli emigres are divided on whether or not that represents a change for the better.

"People are less idealistic now, more materialistic," said Peri, who recently retired as an engineer. "Back in the 1960s, we felt it was our duty to make Israel survive, so you were yordim if you left."

Nowadays, she said, "the country is more like America — it's about the individual."

Edith Deutsch, a multimedia designer who has lived in the Bay Area for eight years, agrees.

"I know a lot of people in Israel who wish they could relocate here," she said. "There's no longer any prejudice attached to emigration. Life here is easy. You don't have the same pressures and tensions as in Israel."

Clearly, many Israelis coming to the Bay Area in recent years have been drawn by economic and technological opportunities in Silicon Valley. Though Israel has its own flourishing high-tech industry, it can't always match what's available in the Bay Area.

Here, working everywhere from small start-ups to multinational firms, Israeli engineers learn skills that will take them to the top of their fields.

"Nowadays, the typical mother in Israel doesn't want her child to be a doctor or lawyer. She wants him or her to be a high-tech businessperson," said Consul Eran Etzion of the Consulate General of Israel, based in San Francisco.

"Silicon Valley is the global hub for that, so clearly people want to come here."

Once here, though, they may be reluctant to go home.

A cleaner environment, lower income taxes, better tax breaks for homeowners and a tradition of courtesy all speak in California's favor, said some of the emigres.

After 32 years in the Bay Area, Peri said, it would be hard for her to return to Israel.

"In Israel, a minority of aggressive people sets the tone," she said. "If you don't drive fast enough, they insult you. If you stand in line to buy something, they push in front of you."

Her allegiance to the United States is shared by Orit Atzmon, a clinical psychologist who lives in Palo Alto. Atzmon, whose grandparents emigrated from Yemen to Israel in the 1920s, moved to the Bay Area 11 years ago when her husband got a job as a computer science professor at Stanford.

"We won't return in the short run, though it's something we haven't made a final decision about," she said. "I like the multiculturalism here. It makes me feel comfortable."

She acknowledges that some Israelis feel like "I've betrayed them. Their perception of someone who leaves is of a betrayer. But really, that idea was more common 10 years ago."

Indeed, long gone are the days when Israeli leaders — such as the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — referred to emigrants as "wimps."

Now, the government's emphasis is on inclusion. In the early 1980s, Ofira Navon, wife of fifth Israeli President Yitzhak Navon, initiated a movement to set up support for emigres in select consulates around the world.

"Instead of blaming them and making them feel guilty, the idea was to try to maintain a connection between them and their home country," Etzion said.

Israel's consulate in San Francisco maintains the Israeli House, which organizes lectures and gatherings. Many take place at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. It's a beginning, say many Bay Area Israelis. But they'd like to see more.

"The consulate doesn't want to give out too much information. It doesn't want to help people to stay here. But the people are here, so they need help," said Dafna Mizrahi, a Peninsula real-estate agent who moved to the United States from Israel as a teenager.

"There's no Web page about going from Israel to the Bay Area," Mizrahi added. "A lot of what happens here is through word of mouth. I have Israelis calling me from the airport, begging me to find them a rental unit."

Etzion replies that Israeli House's cultural events and lectures are well attended and serve the needs of many Israelis in the area. An annual celebration of Israel's establishment attracts 900 people, for example.

Two years ago, in order to provide a supportive community for Bay Area Israelis, Mizrahi and several friends set up the Israeli Roundtable, a social hub and support group for small-business owners.

"There's a real need, and we try to do nice things for the community," said Mizrahi. She adds that "25 years ago, Israeli emigres wouldn't have done something like that. They would have felt that they were only here for a short time."

Like Peri and Atzmon, Mizrahi doubts that she will return to Israel.

"The longer you live in the U.S., you have these comforts that Israel doesn't have yet," she said. "A lot of Israelis here now have beaucoup money, and they're not going back."

But while jobs may be relatively easy to find, adjusting to American culture isn't always such a snap — especially for non-working female partners of Israeli men.

Atzmon, who leads a support group for women students at Stanford's school of business, hopes to start a similar group for Israeli women.

Her flier for the group, printed in Hebrew on bright yellow paper, reads: "Have you arrived in the area following your husband? Have you felt you're giving a lot to your family but not enough to yourself?…If you answered 'yes' to those questions and you'd like to feel different, join other women who are coping with similar realities."

Said Atzmon, "The move here is complex. It's a series of behaviors that you have to learn. Successful adjustment requires emotional support, and that's not always found, especially if one's extended family and close friends are in Israel."

While Atzmon's group is primarily geared toward those who intend to stay in the United States long-term, other Israelis regard themselves as temporary residents.

Avi Kopelman, a Sunnyvale resident who works for the Israeli high-tech company Terayon in Santa Clara, said he's one of the "victims of the globalization of the economy."

Kopelman considers himself a Zionist and plans to return to Israel, although he is not sure when. He believes it's "unfortunate" that many Israelis are picking Silicon Valley as their home for life.

"The best thing that can happen to the Israeli economy is that [Israeli] engineers will have exposure to Silicon Valley and work for global companies, then go back," Kopelman said. "If the trend is only one way — outwards — that's a problem."

Though he asserts that "the stigma of yordim is not there in Israel anymore," Kopelman also expresses some frustration at the way he and his Silicon Valley peers are perceived in Israel.

"When Israeli soccer players go to Europe, they go back to Israel and they're seen as national heroes," he said. "But when Israelis go to the center of the technological world to promote their careers, they're not celebrated in the same way."

Etzion disagrees. "Israelis in Silicon Valley are perceived as the elite who've emigrated from Israel."

Indeed, with so many of the "elite" relocating, there's a danger that Israel's high-tech industry will experience a brain drain. But Etzion is confident this won't happen.

"Most Israelis here maintain professional connections with Israel, and the largest foreign investments in Israel are made by emigres," he said. "These people are boosting the high-tech industry in Israel."

Kopelman, who attends Israeli House events, believes that it's important to maintain connections with Israel and Israelis.

"Most of my friends, at work and outside, are Israelis," said Kopelman, who also sits on the board of the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School, which his children attend. "We tend to stick together. It's natural."

Even so, many Israelis who live in the Bay Area end up adopting American customs.

"In Israel, it's common that a neighbor will drop in to your house without calling," Peri said. "Here, they'll call first, like an American."

Israelis here share other characteristics as well.

"You cannot have a deep friendship like you have in Israel," Peri said. She speculates that "part of the reason is that the type of people who come here are those who find it easier to separate from friends and family. They're more individualistic to start with."

Nevertheless, said Peri, she doesn't regret her decision to settle in the Bay Area.

"Israel is such a tiny country that it can handle only so many people before it overflows," she said. "We all love the country we came from — but that doesn't mean we want to go back."