Are high-tech immigrants the new Israeli pioneers

JERUSALEM — Bay Area native David Teten will never drain a swamp or hoe a field, yet he considers himself a pioneer.

The 29-year-old Harvard MBA decided to officially make aliyah last fall after moving to Israel in the summer of 1998.

He left behind a promising job at the high-tech investment banking firm Bear Stearns "because I wanted to help build up the state — and because I'm somewhat crazy."

Now the founder and CEO of the Internet financial startup Goldfire, Teten is part of a small but growing group of affluent young professionals who have left promising high-tech careers in America to have a more fulfilling Jewish life — and the same promising high-tech career — in Israel.

"All of us can earn more money at much lower risk in our countries of origin. So in a sense, we are all pioneers. In the early days, Israel needed pioneers to till the fields. Nowadays, it needs people to help build the economy," says Teten, who was born in San Francisco and raised in Marin County's Kentfield.

While the possibility of maintaining a comparable standard of living in Israel's booming high-tech sector made the decision easier, Teten says he would still be in New York if he did not feel a strong Jewish connection to Israel.

Focusing on potential immigrants with Teten's combination of technology and ideology is part of the Jewish Agency's new strategy for attracting immigrants from affluent Western countries, according to Leah Golan, who heads the Jewish Agency's Western Aliyah Department.

Instead of focusing on ideology alone, potential immigrants are now being told about opportunities for economic advancement in Israel, as well as the traditional sales pitch about the benefits of living in the Jewish state.

Talk of the dangers of anti-Semitism and assimilation are being abandoned in favor of positive messages of helping the state meet its economic potential.

"People need to be given the message that Israel is not only a place to go in case of an emergency — it's a place with opportunities and development," Golan says.

"But at the same time, they need something more. Without ideology, people won't come even if they have the greatest contract with Intel."

To sell that message, the Jewish Agency has started a number of programs that give potential immigrants a taste of what the state has to offer.

In a strategy the Agency calls "aliyah in stages," potential immigrants are brought here through a combination of job fairs, training courses and internship programs that aim to show that aliyah can be practical.

More than 200 people have come for two- to six- month subsidized internships sponsored by the Jewish Agency in a number of fields. These programs, geared toward university students, give them a chance to break into their professions in Israel.

For those interested in working in the high-tech world and who have college degrees, the agency is offering an academic retraining program this summer. The program offers families a five-month stay at a Ra'anana absorption center where they will study in ulpan and take a course in software quality assurance, technical writing or Microsoft-certified systems engineering.

The program, sponsored by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, guarantees automatic job placement to those who pass the course and help finding a job for those who don't.

"The programs deal with the reality of Israel and help make starry-eyed ideology into something real," says Akiva Werber, who runs the agency's North American desk and recently returned from recruiting at Israeli high-tech job fairs in San Francisco, Boston and New York.

"We're not staying in the offices anymore and waiting for people to come. We're saying 'let's go get 'em' and offering opportunities to people who want to make aliyah but are afraid to follow through."

In an effort to tackle the shortage of some 3,000 engineers in Israel, the Jewish Agency and the Immigration and Absorption Ministry co-sponsor job fairs in many Western countries with companies such as Motorola, IBM, and ECI Telecom.

The agencies obtain resumes in advance, so the companies can interview candidates and hire them on the spot.

Teten has also done his share to increase the flow of professionals to Israel. He has recruited employees for Goldfire from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch and Salomon Brothers. And he has founded a program that brings MBA students and recent graduates from America's top business schools for 10 days of touring, meetings with Israeli business leaders, and classes in Jewish studies.

The aim of the Jewish MBA Jerusalem Fellowships, Teten says, is to give young Jews a taste of the Israeli employment scene and get them more in touch with their heritage.

The program fits Teten's belief that having a high-tech scene in Israel is helpful, but what really will increase Western aliyah is increasing Jewish knowledge and pride.

"Even if tomorrow Israel were as wealthy as Hong Kong, most Jews still would not make aliyah because they lack a connection to Israel," he says.

Teten's theory is backed by agency statistics, which indicate that the peak years of aliyah from the West were the early 1970s when Jewish pride swelled worldwide after the 1967 Six-Day War.

Aliyah from North America reached a record 8,122 in 1971, compared with only 1,809 Americans and Canadians who made the jump in 1998 and 1,507 in 1999, indicating that aliyah is based more on ideology than on a high standard of living.

Immigration and Absorption Minister Yael "Yuli" Tamir says Israel needs to become "a more open and pluralistic industrialized society" to attract a significant increase in aliyah from affluent countries.

"In order to bring in immigrants, you need to reform the society, to change the atmosphere and make it more attractive," Tamir says.

"Rather than show Jewish Agency movies [that idealize the state], Israel needs to appeal to the potential immigrants with the reality. I am eager to prove to them that there is a comparable quality of life in Israel, not measured only in how much you earn but in a more involved, welcoming society."

Regarding high-tech, Tamir says, "I hope young people in Silicon Valley will see Israel as an option. We need to be aware that, at the end of the day, these are the people who can contribute and help us push Israeli society forward into the 21st century."

That kind of statement is music to the ears of people like Teten.

"There's a kind of pioneer spirit," Teten says. "Americans feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves. Imagine how much Israel could improve if a quarter of a million Americans came."