Israels bleak economy spurs reverse aliyah — to U.S.

JERUSALEM — As the Israeli government rolled out the red carpet for North American Jews moving to the Holy Land this summer, a quiet reverse exodus was taking place.

Longtime English-speaking immigrants slipped out of the country, victims of Israel's deepening recession and steep national budget cuts.

In fact, a new report suggests that one-quarter of the North Americans who have immigrated to Israel since 1989 have since left the country.

The findings, compiled by the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, estimate that more than 25 percent of Canadians and 22.5 percent of Americans have left Israel, based on Interior Ministry statistics.

The violent end of the cease-fire has accentuated a sense of instability in Israel for many olim, as recent bombings have included U.S. immigrants.

One of the best barometers of the growing exodus is Janglo, an online bulletin board where English-speaking Jerusalemites buy and sell goods and services (a similar list exists in Tel Aviv). Since May, almost every mailing has included a large-scale moving sale, listing everything from small appliances to the family car.

Another barometer: the downward enrollment for the fall at English-language nursery schools. Preschool teachers say many parents are opting to make yerida, the somewhat derogatory Hebrew term for emigration from Israel, before their children enter kindergarten.

Charles Liebman, a scholar of American Jewry at Bar-Ilan University, suggested that many Americans and Canadians — who generally make aliyah for ideological rather than practical reasons — are naive about Israel's economic problems and return to their home countries for a higher quality of life.

"We know that people are leaving," Murray Safran, co-chairman of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel/Jerusalem, told The Jewish Week during a recent aliyah fair for 300 North Americans who arrived this summer. "My own son left a month ago because he couldn't get a decent job in Israel."

Nachliel Dison, the AACI's national executive director, said that "we do know from anecdotal evidence that the economic situation is forcing out good people."

While Dison was "overjoyed at the prospect of so many new olim coming from North America" — more than 1,000 had been expected this summer — he was also "deeply disturbed" that both the Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency were likely to withhold tens of thousands of dollars promised to the AACI and other immigrant groups because of national budget cuts.

He called it "ironic" that the government recently announced its plans to allocate $10 million next year to an educational program designed to encourage diaspora Jews to make aliyah "at a time when it is slashing its services to the immigrants already here."

Unless the organization's existing support services are beefed up, Dison said, many North American immigrants "will find it difficult if not impossible to stay."

Josh Muskat is one of them. Last month, the 27-year-old expert in financial planning, who has lived in Jerusalem for five years, boarded a plane in Tel Aviv and moved, probably permanently, to New York. His wife joined him earlier this month, along with their two children.

"For me, the decision to leave was based first and foremost on the financial instability," said Muskat, who already has been hired by a U.S. firm. "We have a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old whom I need to support. I didn't feel I could do that here in Israel. Even so, the decision to move is a very, very difficult one."

Muskat's yerida will not even be officially registered by the government. But the plane that brought Debe Freidson, a 26-year-old social worker, to Israel this summer — along with more than 300 other North American immigrants — was greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a dozen reporters and hundreds of flag-waving friends, family and strangers.

Muskat and Freidson's divergent experiences reflect a little-known paradox: While the Israeli government, the Jewish Agency and certain private organizations are doing whatever they can to woo Jews from the West, those same bodies provide almost no support when these immigrants can't make a go of it five, 10, even 20 years after immigrating.

On the aliyah side, Dison said, the government has started providing all new immigrants, including North Americans, the basket of services once reserved for newcomers from countries in distress.

Conversely, its new tax law, which will require across-the-board reporting of foreign income, will hurt veteran immigrants — their tax planning did not take into account those unexpected changes — more than those making aliyah today.

Surveying the activity around her at the aliyah fair, Rivka Ben-Ari, a long-time AACI counselor, reflected on the exodus of what she termed "some real Zionists."

"The economic slowdown has been a huge strain on many veteran olim," Ben-Ari said. "People who were always employed, who always earned enough to support their families and considered themselves success stories, have been laid off and can't find another job. Unemployment benefits run out within a short time."

In an effort to help its unemployed members return to the work force, AACI runs workshops to help veteran olim, many of them formerly employed in high-tech or tourism, update their resumes and perfect their job-interviewing skills in Hebrew. It has also upgraded its job listings. But budget cuts have forced AACI to slash many of its services.

Yehuda Weinraub, a Jewish Agency spokesman, said "the agency has had to cut allocations across the board as a result of decreased revenues."

Many of the contributions have been earmarked solely to the Emergency Campaign launched in response to the intifada rather than for general use, he noted.

One government official who deals with immigration said he understood the plight of some North American immigrants, "but frankly their situation is much better than, say, the majority of Ethiopian immigrants."

Nefesh B'Nefesh sponsored this summer's wave of North American immigrants, but it has no immediate plans to assist veteran immigrants.

"We're just two individuals who founded this organization and as much as we'd like to, we can't do it all," said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the director and co-founder.

As it is, Fass said, CSM, a company founded in Israel last year by a handful of Nefesh B'Nefesh immigrants, is currently employing 350 English-speaking immigrants, most of them veterans. "If we have a job on our desk, we offer it to them," Fass said.

Asked how his organization can encourage Jews to make aliyah when so many veteran immigrants feel it necessary to leave, Fass said, "To deprive Israel of this stream of olim from anywhere in the globe would be disastrous.

"If we were bringing individuals here and they were all struggling and living on welfare, it would be a legitimate question. The fact is, of the families and individuals we brought over last year, 93 percent are employed. They're not just surviving; they're success stories."

Veteran immigrants who happened to be at the AACI job fair said the event was somewhat bittersweet.

Watching the new immigrants receive information — in English — from the real estate agents, bankers and HMO reps who had set up shop for the afternoon, one woman in her 40s intoned, "I've been here almost 20 years and I've never found a bank clerk who was happy to speak to me in English. And when I made aliyah I had to spend a full day at the Interior Ministry to get my ID card. These olim did the paperwork on the plane and will be getting the cards today, three days later!"

Seated under a shady tree in AACI's large front garden, Debe Freidson said she was grateful to Nefesh B'Nefesh for accelerating her aliyah.

"I still would have come, but it would have taken me another six months to earn enough money," said the bubbly social worker, who will soon start studying Hebrew full time. "I've been thinking about making aliyah for about 15 years and I finally decided that it was now or never."

Freidson, who is single, said that she had been to Israel nine times before making aliyah. Thanks to these visits, she said, she had few illusions.

"I know that being a tourist in Israel is so different from being a citizen. I'm trying to budget my money, trying to live like an Israeli. I'm taking buses rather than cabs and not eating out a lot in restaurants."

Aliyah, she said, "was something I needed to do. Every time I come here I feel good. I don't know what it is, exactly. The Jewishness? The feeling of belonging? I know I want to raise my family here."

Muskat and his wife, Bracha Rutner, also dreamed of raising their family in Israel.

"We got married and after the last sheva brachot [blessing] got on a plane," said Muskat in an interview just days before his departure.

Following a year spent in a yeshiva, Muskat landed a six-month job at Bloomberg News, where he worked as a junior reporter. When that position ended, he found work relatively quickly as a business plan developer in the high- tech market. Five months later, he lost his job because of the economic bust. Two months later he found another job in the same field and five months after that again lost his job because of the weak market.

"It was last hired, first fired," he said, almost apologetically.

Less than two months later, Muskat found a similar position and retained that job for 18 months. He has been unemployed since then.

"I'm very disillusioned," said Bracha of her five years in Israel. "There is a joke that says, the best way to cure a case of Zionism is to make aliyah. Unfortunately for me, this happened. Some of our friends are leaving. Every day you see a moving sale on Janglo. It's makes me really sad."