Moving to Israel after 50 means joys, challenges for Americans

JERUSALEM — Five years ago, Roz Soltz and her husband left their Miami home of 53 years and moved to Jerusalem.

"I'm been a Zionist since I was 18 years old, when I was in Junior Hadassah and fell in love with the country," says Soltz, now 73 and the president of the Tamar chapter of Hadassah in Jerusalem.

Even so, relocating was far from easy.

"We have two children and five grandchildren in Miami," says Soltz a bit wistfully. "It was hard to leave them. Of course, we also have a daughter and four grandchildren one block away from us in Jerusalem, and that's wonderful."

Parting with children and grandchildren is just one of the challenges those who make aliyah over the age of 50 must contend with. There's also the challenge of adapting to a new culture, learning a new language and making a living. Or, in the case of retirees, ensuring that savings and pension plans cover the cost of living in such an expensive country.

Even so, most of the older North Americans who make aliyah every year — generally no more than a few hundred — insist that the rewards far outweigh the difficulties. For many, the move means reuniting with grown children, brothers or sisters who immigrated before them. For virtually all, it means fulfilling a lifelong dream.

The latter was true for Bettina Gould, who made aliyah in 1994 from Minneapolis.

"I had come on a visit in 1990, on a mission from Minnesota," recalls Gould, now 58. "I just fell in love with the spirit of the country and I came back once a year to volunteer with the navy. A few years later I decided to come on aliyah to see if it would work."

Unlike most 50-plus newcomers, Gould, who worked in real estate back in the States, moved to Israel completely on her own. She does not have any family in Israel.

"If you have children and grandchildren here, you have a type of emotional support I haven't had," she says. "They know the language and the system and can serve as a mouthpiece for you. Without this support system, I found that the stress when I made aliyah was almost unendurable. For someone who doesn't speak Hebrew, just opening an account at the bank or dealing with the government agencies can be an ordeal. I didn't anticipate all the stress I would experience."

Determined to make her aliyah work despite the obstacles, Gould worked hard to meet people and put down roots.

In addition to joining a Hebrew-language ulpan, she began volunteering at Yad Sarah, one of Israel's most decorated nonprofit organizations. With branches throughout the country, Yad Sarah lends medical equipment to Israelis and tourists of all ages and provides home visits and emergency alert systems to the frail elderly. The organization has a few hundred North American volunteers in its network of several thousand.

Gould was able to forfeit a paycheck thanks to her savings.

Her advice to anyone over 50 but not yet at retirement age contemplating aliyah: "Make sure you have enough money. I know of older people who come here thinking they've laid all the groundwork from the States, but when they arrive they find they can't find a job. They end up going back."

According to Rivka Ben-Ari, a counselor for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, those who make aliyah before the age of 60 will not be entitled to Bituah Leumi, the Israeli equivalent of Social Security, unless they have paid into the system for at least four years. Those who aren't working can contribute retroactively and will be entitled to a monthly $250 payment.

Ben-Ari acknowledges that older immigrants, particularly from Western countries, have a particularly hard time finding work.

"They come from high positions abroad and are shocked to learn that because of their age, employers often won't hire them. Israeli employers are looking for someone right out of