Going home Eager Bay Area Jewspreparing for a new life in Israel

"The bus system, my daughter doesn't want me to take it. It's just like over here — when you get on, they don't wait for you to sit down before they start driving," said the feisty 86-year-old, who plans to move to a Jerusalem home for independent living within the next couple of months.

In addition to lead-footed bus drivers, Grossman realizes that living in Israel today comes equipped with its share of hardships.

"Oh, the shopping. The prices are really higher. And the electric system isn't too good. I don't like the heat. And the garbage collection isn't too good. The banking system is bad. And they don't watch out for the environment," she continues.

Then, with a wry hint of a chuckle, she concludes, "And there's all that fighting there."

While the hazards of substandard garbage collection and pricey groceries are always unwelcome, it has been the specter of terrorist bombings and increasing violence that have kept thousands of Jews worldwide from making aliyah in recent years.

In better times, 50 to 60 Bay Area residents a year could be counted on to make the permanent move to Israel. Last year, between escalating mayhem in the Mideast and the domestic terrorism of Sept. 11, only 15 people departed the region for Israel.

While projections for this year still fall well below the norm, they definitely are an improvement over last year's bare-bones totals. Nationally, emigration to Israel is up more than 25 percent over last year, nearly reaching the numbers of four years ago.

Michal Segal, the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's Israel aliyah and programs adviser, said 12 people have departed for Israel since Jan. 1, with a healthy four making the move in June alone. Summer is usually the busiest time of year, she added.

Segal, who fields calls and arranges paperwork for potential emigres throughout the entire northwest region of the country, said she deals with a less religious clientele than her colleagues around the United States.

"I was sure the only ones moving would be religious people who don't care about the situation. But most people making aliyah are not religious, [their reasons] are mostly ideological. For me it is a good surprise," said Segal.

Matthew Shapiro isn't ultra-religious. But he does value his Jewish identity enough to make the move.

Shapiro's wife, Sharona, is Israeli, which makes it easier for his friends and co-workers to comprehend why he'd leave Brisbane for the Tel Aviv area. In reality, however, Shapiro has been the one pushing for the move.

In short, the 28-year-old marketing professional wants his kids to grow up Israeli.

"As Israelis, obviously your Jewish identity is taken for granted. Most of my friends from high school are intermarried. That's not a big issue in Israel," said Shapiro, who met his wife through Hillel activities when they were students at San Francisco State.

"Life there is different from here. There's a lot more time for family…I guess I'm an optimistic person. I really have hopes things are going to get better. When a peaceful solution is found, there'll be a lot of business opportunities in Israel for someone with my background."

Sharona admits the "security situation" is troublesome, but adds that friends and acquaintances who can't understand her desire to move home "wouldn't understand going to Israel even if it was not a time of war."

And while Sharona's parents are happy to have her back after seven years away, Matthew's are "having a heart attack."

"They think I can do better here, and in a lot of ways they're right. Financially, you can earn a lot more money in America. That's not something to debate. And there's always the possibility of a war in Israel," he said. "It's hard to fill my parents in on the Zionist dream. I really think they don't understand, but, hopefully, in time, they will. It's always hard when a child moves away, and it's not easier when it makes less sense to them."

Yet "the Zionist dream" is often a fleeting one. And despite Segal's obvious goal of getting as many Americans into Israel as possible, she refrains from salesperson behavior.

"Many people wake up in the morning with this dream, but they don't know what it takes to move to another country. If they've never met an Israeli, they don't know how tough we are, how we are sometimes not polite," said Segal with a laugh. "I send [people] information to read so they'll know what to expect, so they'll have, as we say in Israel, 'one foot on the Earth.'"

When Segal said she sends out reading material, she isn't kidding. Prospective Israelis are barraged with a package containing as many as three dozen pamphlets or guidebooks, which weighs a little more than three pounds.

Those with more than a fleeting desire to make aliyah must fill out a variety of forms, including proving their Judaism — which is often harder than it sounds.

"You ever try to get a rabbi to write a letter stating you're Jewish? I don't belong to a synagogue, so I approached my uncle's rabbi in Chicago. He's known me and my family forever. It's like writing a letter of recommendation, and he got a little hesitant," recalled Concord's Marty Marcus, who hopes to resettle in Tel Aviv by September or October.

"I had to ask for my mother and father's ketubah, but my mother is dead and my father was in the hospital at the time. I had to go back to the synagogue where I grew up in Michigan, but the rabbis had changed like 15 times since then. Fortunately, I went to Hebrew school with the lady in the office, and she went through the records and documents."

Returning home, Marcus stumbled upon his circumcision papers in a box of old documents — which would have worked just as well and saved him a lot of trouble.

Yet with his hassle out of the way, Marcus is gratefully ready to accept many of the incentives the Israeli government has set up for olim.

New immigrants are entitled to take six months of ulpan — intense instruction in Hebrew — free of charge and live rent-free in an absorption center. Stipends and breaks on future utility bills are also available, and special one-way tickets on El Al cost a whopping $50.

Marcus, who runs a bookkeeping service specializing in car dealerships, plans to "work his butt off" on trips back to the United States in between periods of "relaxing and enjoying Israel."

While he's cognizant of Israel's dangers, he doesn't dwell on them.

"There are plenty of places that are equally dangerous in the U.S., places you can't go into that are like a war zone," he said. "I have lots of family in the Cabrini Green area in Chicago. When the sun sets, no police car or fire truck will respond to a call in the area. It's worse than Israel."

And while she's in no hurry to speed up the process, Grossman is very open that Israel is where she always wanted to end up.

"I have been to Israel at least 30 times. Sixteen years ago, my husband had a heart attack when in Israel and he is buried there," she recalled.

"There is a plot for me there."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.