New address: Israel – More and more Bay Area Jews are making aliyah

The Greenbaum family is busy purging.

Dov and Sabrina Greenbaum of Oakland are rummaging through all their stuff and clutter — and tossing much of it out — as they undertake a leap of faith: They and their three young children are making aliyah. They move to Israel next month.

“We’re excited but apprehensive,” says Dov, 33. “We think it’s the right move for our kids.”

This isn’t the first time the Greenbaums, who are Orthodox, considered living in Israel. Two years ago they almost gave it a shot, but both agree the timing wasn’t right, and they stayed put in Oakland.

But, Sabrina adds, “In the back of our minds we knew eventually the right time would come.”

The Greenbaums are part of a small but growing number of young Bay Area Jewish families and singles making aliyah, following a trend seen across North America.

Nir Wittenberg, 33, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Pacific Northwest regional director for aliyah, is one of eight such emissaries in the country. He says the number of Bay Area olim (the Hebrew term for Jews making aliyah) is up.

Last year, the San Francisco office processed 147 olim. Six months into 2010, he’s already exceeded 150. “I don’t know what the reasons are,” Wittenberg says, “but I do see an increase this year.”

The Jewish Agency is not the only outfit helping Jews move to Israel. Israeli-based organization Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded in 2002 with the goal of increasing aliyah from North America. In eight years, the agency has processed 25,000 olim.

The organization offers plenty of incentives: a free flight to Israel (a one-way ticket, of course), relocation advice, career counseling, free Hebrew language classes, health care and help with a metric ton of forms.

Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption sweetens the deal with cash payouts to olim — $4,000 per adult, $2,000 per child –– as well as free education through college and even huge reductions on property taxes.

Rabbi Andrew Shapiro Katz and his wife, Emily.

Since 2008, Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency have been working together to bring in more olim. In the first year of the partnership, the number of people making aliyah from North America jumped by 15 percent. Last year, the numbers rose again, by 17 percent, as 3,800 North Americans made aliyah, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh data. And the trend continued in the first quarter of 2010: Immigration to Israel from North America was up 20 percent over 2009.

Over the past quarter century, an average of between 3,000 and 5,000 North Americans per year have made aliyah (which translates literally from Hebrew to “ascension” or “going up.”) The peak year was 1971, with more than 8,000 Jews emigrating.

Danny Oberman, executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, said that “interest remains very strong.” He pointed to website activity as one measure, up 62.9 percent in April compared to the same month a year ago.

“We have seen an increasing number of singles graduating, seeking employment, and finding employment in Israel, as well as young families who are looking for a cheaper way of life,” Oberman said. “This is the first time in history that the Israeli economy is in better shape than North America and the U.K.”

Some credit for the uptick can be attributed to a historic change in Israeli policy. In 2007, the government there reversed a 55-year-old pledge not to support aliyah in the West, a rule that was in place to allay any suspicions of dual loyalties on the part of American Jews.

Despite that policy, between 1948 and 2000, some 100,000 American Jews made aliyah. Now, it’s officially OK for Israel to encourage immigration.

Nefesh B’Nefesh certainly did its homework. Not only did the agency streamline the application process (it’s all online now), it identified the four major obstacles potential olim cite in making the decision to move –– financial worries, employment concerns, social integration and Israeli red tape — and strategies to overcome them.

Security concerns are not among the chief worries of prospective olim, as most have spent time in Israel and experienced a country that is safe and secure.

The vast majority of olim are young, under the age of 35. Accordingly, the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh have created departments to cater to the niche market of young singles and families with young children.

“I get many students and young adults who feel they have an option in Israel and they want to try it,” Wittenberg says. “Most people tell me they don’t really find themselves here and they want to try to do it in Israel because they know that they can.”

Some of these young olim have religious motivations for moving, some social, entrepreneurial or economic. But all are going into it with eyes wide open. They know the adjustment won’t be easy.

“We’re nervous about the bureaucracy,” Sabrina Greenbaum says. “I don’t think we’ll find a school as good as Oakland Hebrew Day School. Our Hebrew is not perfect, to say the least.”

Red tape is old hat for Rabbi Andrew and Emily Shapiro Katz, who will move to Israel with their two young children in July. Both Jewish educators, the husband and wife tried making aliyah a decade ago, but ended up shuttling between Israel and the United States for career reasons. The last few years they have lived in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The rabbi, 38, has been serving as assistant head of school for student life and Jewish learning at the Jewish Community High School.

This time, the move to Israel is for good.

Dov and Sabrina Greenbaum with (from left) Liana, Remi and Eitan. photo/courtesy dov greenbaum

Their motivation had a lot to do with quality of life. As the couple looked to a future including home ownership, Jewish day schools and gratifying careers, they doubted that could happen to their satisfaction while surviving in pricey San Francisco on two teachers’ salaries.

“With all of that,” Andrew says, “the message is that now is the time to go back. If we have to make a big change in our lives, now is the time to make it.”

Wittenberg came to San Francisco a year ago for a three-year tour of duty, to help people like the Greenbaums and the Shapiro Katzes.

He defines his job as providing assistance and making sure “they know what they are doing, that it’s not just a solution to a problem they might have, but something they thought through. There are people who try to use the system to escape issues they might have.”

That means he plays multiple roles, from career counselor to travel agent to psychotherapist.

Wittenberg remembers one applicant who described a dream in which he saw himself in the Promised Land. That dream was his sole motivation to emigrate. “It’s not like I say don’t make aliyah,” he says, “but first visit Israel. See if you like it.”

The application process includes extensive interviews, as well as a letter from someone like a rabbi to make certain the applicant indeed qualifies as Jewish according to Israel’s Law of Return.

In a bit of poetic justice, that law is a mirror image of Nazi Germany’s notorious Nuremberg Laws, which claimed anyone with a single Jewish grandparent qualified as Jewish. Israeli law states the same.

“Everyone who makes aliyah needs to see a shaliach [emissary] in person,” Wittenberg adds. “We talk about everything, their background, what they are doing in their lives. I get to know these persons.”

One person he got to know is Joe Levy, 29, a Miami-born high-tech executive who lived in San Francisco for the last four years while working his way up the ladder of a successful startup. Since the beginning of this month, he has been calling Israel home.

Levy had traveled to Israel often, from his teen years into his mid-20s, and always felt a deep attachment to the country. Levy says a desire for new business opportunities drove his decision more than anything else.

“I realized Tel Aviv is the bastion of [high-tech] startups outside Silicon Valley,” he says. “I want to do something on my own, and I think Israel has a very supportive network to do that. Every Israeli I talked to said, ‘Let’s have coffee when you get here.’ It’s definitely not a religious basis for moving.”

Levy says the immigration application process went more smoothly than he expected, thanks to assistance from the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh. “I like that I did 90 percent of the application process online,” he notes. “It was easier than opening a bank account.”

David Agam, 26, a young single living in Daly City, has been pondering aliyah for three years. He says if he doesn’t “do this soon, I’ll never do it.”

Agam, whose father is Israeli,  grew up with a deep appreciation for Israeli culture. Having been accepted in a master’s program in the politics of conflict at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for next fall, Agram believes he can contribute to Israeli society once he takes the aliyah plunge.

Until then, the San Francisco State University student has received help from Wittenberg’s agency.

“When I met with the [Jewish Agency] shaliach to process my aliyah last fall, he referred me to a new program called the Campus Aliyah Fellowship,” Agam says. “It gets student representatives on campus to provide information to other aliyah-minded students.”

The Greenbaums have left their student days behind. As a young family, they typify the majority of olim Wittenberg signs up. The couple moved to the Bay Area in 2004 so Dov, a native of Canada, could attend Boalt Law School.

Dov grew up in the Toronto area with an extensive Jewish day school education, one that, as Dov describes it, “was very pro-Israel, with living in Israel as an ideology and a place we belong.”

He collected Israeli stamps as a kid and traveled to Israel so often with his family, they never needed guides. Today his parents own homes there. Some of his siblings have lived in Jerusalem for years.

His wife, Sabrina, a Long Island, N.Y., native, is a product of Orthodox Jewish day schools, and she lived in  Jerusalem during her gap year between high school and college. She, too, has a sister living in Jerusalem.

As far as their preparation for the move, both give high marks to the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh. Dov says the latter really helped with the laborious immigration and absorption documentation Israel requires.

“They get our visas, and as soon as we land we get our documentation,” Dov says. “Israel is pro-immigration. They do whatever it takes to make you Israeli. They give you money. What other country pays you to show up?”

Having immigrated to Israel before, Andrew Shapiro Katz knows that his family might not qualify for all the same benefits as first-time olim, such as the free airline flight.

“I’m going through this rigmarole with [the Jewish Agency] about whether we are new immigrants,” Andrew says. “We’re worrying about benefits, like a mortgage. There will be a period of using our savings to get by.”

They’re ready for it.

Andrew, a Cleveland native, started visiting Israel as a teen. After graduating from Stanford University, he moved to Jerusalem to attend the Conservative yeshiva. After three years there, he wanted to make aliyah.

In 2001, he enrolled in the Pardes Institute to become a rabbi and a certified Jewish educator. That’s when he met his future wife, Emily, who was completing her master’s degree in Bible and writing for the Jerusalem Post.

The couple lived and worked in Jewish education in Atlanta for two years, then moved to San Francisco in 2005, where they became active with the Mission Minyan.

“We’re very community-oriented people,” he says. “Life is really good here. We love the Mission Minyan, we love our community, I love JCHS, and we certainly love the area. But we always said we would eventually go back to Israel.”

The couple intends to settle in Beersheva, in Israel’s Negev Desert, to build what he calls a “pluralistic Jewish community” there.

“We want to be pioneers in a certain way, and feel the experience we had coming to San Francisco and helping build a community,” Andrew says. “We wanted to utilize that experience, and not move to Jerusalem where there are a thousand people just like us. We wanted the challenge of building a place in Israel that doesn’t exist.”

Meanwhile, he says he will hedge his bets and apply to an MBA program at nearby Ben-Gurion University.

The Greenbaums have some worries about their own assimilation into Israeli culture, but not for their three children. “Our kids will be seen as Israelis,” Dov Greenbaum says. “We’re hoping the kids get the best of both cultures.”

As for practicing Judaism in Israel, they note that not all Orthodox Jews are created equal. Unlike some others, the Greenbaums strongly support the State of Israel and the Israeli military. They sometimes wonder how they will fit in religiously.

“I wear a velvet kippah,” Dov says, “and in Israel that’s a loaded statement, meaning I’m haredi or ultra-Orthodox or against the army. People have very visceral reactions to that, whereas here no one really cares. It’s something we’re not looking forward to.”

Stress comes with the territory, but Wittenberg has noticed the joys of aliyah tend to override all the anxiety.

“Many people tell me there is feeling when they go to Israel that this [country] is theirs,” he says. “For me it’s very interesting to listen to someone says he’s leaving [the Bay Area], this amazing place, and still he sees Israel as his home.”

Sam Cross of the Jerusalem Post contributed to this report.

cover photo illustration/ cathleen maclearie

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.