COVER STORY:Israeli expatriates

Yitzhak Rabin once called them cowards. Others, even less kind, called them traitors.

They were yordim, native Israelis who chose to seek a better life outside of Israel — self-styled expatriates, permanent or temporary exiles.

To move to Israel, or make aliyah, literally means “to ascend.” The opposite is true for yerida, to leave Israel, or, “to descend.”

But times have changed. “I don’t feel a stigma at all,” said Orly Krepner of Sunnyvale. “People [in Israel] are really jealous. They say ‘I wish I could be in your place.'”

If there is a “typical” Israeli family among the upward of 25,000 of them living in Silicon Valley, Orly and husband Shlomi Krepner are a good example. They are in their mid-30s, highly educated and have two children. They worry about how they’re seemingly more American these days than Israeli. They have little to no interaction with the American Jewish community. And, despite the fact that it was the economy in Israel that forced them to come here, they still don’t know if they’re staying.

The economy tends to be the greatest reason propelling Israelis to leave, but the threat of terrorism also may come into play. And considering that Israeli men are required to spend one month a year until middle age in reserve duty, living abroad offers a way out.

Then there are the smaller reasons, like better weather here, fewer traffic fatalities and — though Americans may feel frazzled — the sense that people are less stressed out and just plain nicer to each other here.

“If you have the alternative, [most Israelis would choose] a more peaceful life,” said Gal Oren, a 28-year-old student at San Francisco State University. “Many people wouldn’t admit that.”

He believes “many of the people who are staying [there] are a little patriotic, saying that everyone is fighting and working hard to save it, but I think if given the option, the song changes.”

Oren was about to be transferred here with his high-tech company when it suddenly shut down. He had also applied to SFSU, so he came as a student in 2001. After he graduates, he hopes to find work here with a firm that will sponsor him with a work visa.

It was the opportunities available to him here, more than anything, that motivated his decision. A business major with a minor in holistic health, Oren nonetheless hopes to find a job that will take him to Israel often.

But there are plenty of other reasons not to move back, and for Oren, milium, or reserve duty, is a big one.

Even though his milium would not take him to a dangerous place now, Oren hates the very idea of it. “From a time-management viewpoint, it doesn’t pay to sacrifice a month a year. I was in the air force for four years, but it doesn’t make sense to keep doing this my whole life.”

Ron Gerlitz, on the other hand, feels conflicted. The 31-year-old “refusenik” is taking the opportunity to live here for several years, but he feels somewhat guilty because he thinks he should be doing everything he can to help Israel get out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“I feel very much connected to the forces that are part of this struggle, and feel bad about not being with them in this time,” he said.

The Krepners also feel conflicted, but for other reasons. They came to the Bay Area in 1997 so Orly could study at SFSU. Meanwhile, Shlomi worked for a U.S. high-tech company founded by two Israelis. The couple had a daughter, Gal, before Orly graduated.

They returned to Israel in 2000.

“We wanted to be with our families, and we were feeling like foreigners all the time,” said Orly Krepner. “Especially after our daughter was born, we wanted to go back.”

Shlomi went to work at his company’s branch in Israel, and Orly got a job with a biotech company. They bought a house. But then, hit by the economic slump, Shlomi’s company closed its offices in Israel in May 2002 and offered him his job back in Silicon Valley. “The economic situation was really bad at that point, and a lot of companies were closing down,” she said. “I didn’t make enough to support the family.”

They felt they had little choice but to move back here.

The Krepners are among an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 Israelis living in the Bay Area, primarily in Silicon Valley. That figure, cited by Omer Caspi, vice consul general of Israel in San Francisco, is so inexact because many Israelis remain under the radar.

It’s not particularly difficult for Israelis to remain here. Except for those who overstayed their visas when they were younger, or have criminal records, Israelis can eventually transition from a work visa to becoming a citizen, though “marrying a girlfriend will always expedite the process,” said Hilla Nattiv, an S.F.-based Israeli American immigration lawyer whose clientele is 80 percent Israeli.

And while some do plan on becoming U.S. citizens, many still think of going back. The Krepners’ daughter Gal is now 4, and their second child, Adee, is 1.

“We haven’t bought a house here,” said Orly, who has started her own Web site — — selling Hebrew books. “We have a good life, and don’t complain. The quality of life is higher than in Israel, and you enjoy the quiet and there’s no terror here.”

Even so, she admitted, “it still doesn’t feel like home.”

A poll conducted earlier this year by the Israel Democracy Institute, however, reported that 35 percent of secular young Israelis said they didn’t want to live in Israel.

That figure doesn’t surprise Boaz Nol, the 27-year-old campus shaliach (emissary) at the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation.

“You don’t hear [the term ‘yordim’] anymore, it’s just not relevant,” said Nol, whose job includes helping those beginning the process of moving to Israel. Though Nol emphasized he is here for two years only, he said many of his closest friends live abroad.

“You can even say that there is something good about it in terms of Israel becoming a normal country,” he said, sounding decidedly different from the schlichim — the emissaries of generations before — who were paid for trying to convince every Jew to move to Israel. “The whole world is one small place, and everyone is doing what is good for him.”

Caspi, the vice consul general, said there was no official attitude change at Israeli institutions, but, rather, they have evolved to reflect the current reality. While in the past, Israeli consulates and such made no mention of the Israelis living within their midst, now they tailor specific programs for them. The consulate-run Israeli House, founded 12 years ago in Palo Alto, is a good example — offering Hebrew films, a library of Hebrew books and all kinds of cultural activities in Hebrew.

“We regard Israelis here as a very important community,” Caspi said. “We have a wide spectrum of projects that we do with them, and try to keep them connected to Israel.”

Even those here to stay usually do not assimilate that much.

A listserv begun at Stanford University for Israeli students has grown to more than 1,000 Bay Area Israelis, most of them non-students. They regularly share information on a wide range of topics — from the cheapest way to call Israel, to prenatal yoga classes in Hebrew, to where to find an Israeli caterer. They often throw parties and social events, just among themselves.

Some are trying to change that.

Orli Rinat came here with husband Zack (or Tzachi, depending on whom he’s talking to) 14 years ago, so he could work in the high-tech industry. They not only belong to a synagogue — which is rare for Israeli families — but she is active with the S.F.-based JCF and American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Rinat knows she’s an exception.

Getting involved in the Jewish community “is what Israelis need to do,” she said. “They’re enjoying the benefits from the Jewish community and, if they live here, they should be part of it and contribute to it.” Many choose not to get involved because no matter how long they are here, they still think of themselves as temporary residents.

“I think the problem with Israelis here is that they feel very Israeli but they don’t feel so Jewish,” said Rinat. “And their kids then don’t feel so Jewish but they’re not Israeli because they didn’t grow up there. So they’re left empty with no heritage.”

The question of how to raise children seems to be one of the greatest concerns. Israeli parents who took their Jewish education for granted are suddenly faced with having to choose between a Jewish education — which many cannot afford — and public school for their children. But at the same time, they don’t want to join a synagogue. One solution has been for emigres to offer b’nai mitzvah programs similar to experiences offered in Israel. (Some Israeli parents hope that their children will move back to Israel when they are 18.)

Rinat has several friends who have been here as long as she has, and are volunteering to form HaGesherHaIsraeli, “The Israeli Bridge” ( The aim is to help get the Israeli community more organized and more involved with the greater Jewish community.

Shlomi Ravid, executive director of the Israel Center of the S.F.-based JCF — also an Israeli who is here temporarily — is involved, too. He has made outreach to the Israeli community a priority, and is in the process of conducting focus groups in Silicon Valley to find out exactly what residents’ needs are.

Eventually, the new organization hopes to be able to offer cultural activities to Israelis and help them connect with each other, provide information for the newer arrivals, and organize more activities for both Israelis and the Jewish community. A kick-off party with the new consul general, David Akov, is planned for Saturday, Oct. 23.

The Hagesherhaisraeli newsletter is in Hebrew and English, perhaps in a nod to the importance of becoming less insular to the greater Jewish community.

Nevertheless, the gap between the two remains difficult to bridge.

“It’s really hard to be friends with American Jews,” said Krepner. “Although we share the same religion, that’s about it.”

Michal Cohen offers other reasons why the cultural divide between Israelis and non-Jewish Americans can be so great.

“Lots of American people I meet are not well-traveled,” she said. “I can’t have a close friendship with someone who doesn’t know where the Middle East is, or asks me if I speak Jewish.”

Cohen was transferred here by her high-tech company in 2000, and stayed to get a master’s degree at San Jose State University. The 32-year-old is undecided about going back, noting, “The economy is a bigger factor than the political situation.”

While she misses weekly dinners with her family and the close network of friends she’s had since childhood, she finds the Bay Area particularly appealing. “In San Francisco, especially, people judge you not because of where you came from or who you are, but as a person, and that’s totally different.”

In Israel, she said, people have a need for labels, “and maybe after awhile, they start getting to know you as a person.”

Looking at the Israelis working in high-tech here, it’s easy to see that those who have left Israel are among its best and brightest. This has a negative impact on the country, according to Nol, because they are the ones who truly have the potential to create social change.

But, he added, the same circumstances causing some to leave are motivating others to take action and try to change things.

Gerlitz, the Israeli refusenik who lives with his wife, Nurit Niv, and infant daughter in Palo Alto, describes himself as deeply conflicted over his decision to live here, even though the family has a 2005 return date.

Gerlitz served six years in the Israel Defense Forces, in the navy. After graduating from Hebrew University, he got a job with a Jerusalem-based company that moved him to Silicon Valley in September 2002.

Before that, he said, “We didn’t think at all about living outside Israel.”

At the start of the second intifada, Gerlitz signed onto the list of reservists who refused to serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip out of moral conviction.

Gerlitz initially felt that he shouldn’t leave Israel. However, after talking it over with his wife, he realized “things will not end in the two or three years I’m out of Israel. When I’m back, there will still be things I can fight for.”

He has been active with the few refuseniks who live in the Bay Area, believing he has a unique vantage point from which to speak to American Jews. But ultimately, he feels he can do more in Israel, and that’s why he wants to go back.

He wonders if he’s making the right decision for his 8-month old daughter, Noga, an American citizen. “It’s very difficult for me to give answers to myself. I have answers why I want to live there, but why should she live in an environment so full of violence and hate, why not leave her here in a place that is protected from that?”

There’s a chance she could be a victim of terrorism, but “the more important issue,” he said, is “are we going to raise her in a society that does such bad things to others? She would become responsible for that.”

Krepner, still vacillating, expressed regret that if her family stays here, her children will not know their relatives in Israel that well. After twice making the long journey to California, Krepner’s mother said she will never do it again. And when the Krepners hadn’t been back to Israel in two years, Gal didn’t remember her grandmother at all.

And then there’s that problem of religious education; since it is not taught in the public schools, many Israelis send their children to an after-school program or have them privately taught to keep up their Hebrew.

The Krepners speak only Hebrew to their daughters. But Gal now speaks more English than Hebrew at home. “There are some words she only knows in English, and that bothers me,” said Krepner.

The Bay Area, she said, “doesn’t feel like home for us, but we’re first-generation immigrants, so maybe it will never happen. What we’re afraid of, is that after 15 or 20 years here, Israel will be different than what we remember. When we go ‘home,’ Israel won’t feel like home to us either, and then it’s like you lose your home.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."