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Long Haul

Some U.S. immigrants to Israel chase both the Zionist dream and an American paycheck

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On late Saturday nights at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, a handful of regulars on the El Al flight to New York gather and wave to each other in recognition. They make this trans-Atlantic journey every week, returning each Friday morning to be home with their families for Shabbat. They belong to a small but growing subculture of mostly Orthodox American men who have moved with their families to Israel but have kept their jobs in the United States.

There are no exact figures on how many recent American immigrants commute, but according to Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that oversees North American aliyah, the trend has risen in recent years. The group estimates that some 20 to 30 percent of the more than 16,000 Americans of working age who moved to Israel in the past five years are commuters. In cities like Raanana and Modiin, which are home to large Modern Orthodox American communities, there is a critical mass of such families.

“For me I don’t think there could have been any other route to aliyah,” said Danny Block, 46, a dentist who maintains his practice in Forest Hills, Queens and has done so for the past four years, though he says this is not a permanent situation. “The point is to live in Israel. I’m not doing it because I’m nuts.”

Among the “ultra-commuters,” as Block calls his tribe, are doctors, lawyers, real-estate brokers, school principals, and small-business owners who work all over the country, from Los Angeles to Baltimore. In their 30s and 40s, most had always planned to make aliyah, feeling an emotional pull to be part of a Jewish state, but got around to moving only after starting families and establishing themselves professionally.

Many of these commuters, though, took steps to pull up stakes and move to Israel only when their children were small, when they foresaw the looming cost of Jewish day-school tuition in the United States; it can reach up to $30,000 a year. In Israel, on the other hand, Jewish education is free, or close to it. A public-school track caters to the Modern Orthodox, providing instruction in both secular and religious studies. Semi-private schools and yeshivas receive some public funding; tuition at such schools costs roughly $1,200 a year.

Even with the relatively high cost of flying and the expense of maintaining two households, the math still adds up in favor of commuting, the families say. Some of the commuters are in frequent-flyer programs and get free trips. Some live with roommates or crash with family members to keep costs down while they are in the United States.

In addition to their financial rationales for moving, these commuting families understood that it would be harder to make aliyah when their children were older and had already established strong social networks. Yet keeping jobs in the States seemed to make sense to them.

Salaries are significantly lower in Israel. “The joke is whatever you make in the United States, take off a zero,” said David Gichton, 47, an anesthesiologist from Baltimore who made aliyah last summer. Physicians, for example, who make up a significant number of the commuting population, estimate that many of them, particularly specialists, who can command $200,000 to $300,000 salaries in the United States would make about a third of that in Israel. A family doctor earning about $100,000 in the United States could expect about half as much.

“Some look at the prospect of starting over again professionally and don’t know whether they can do it,” said Joy Epstein, a social worker who is the clinical supervisor for social services at Nefesh B’Nefesh. Commuters may also be reluctant to give up their work in the States because of the challenge of making their way professionally in a foreign language.

The women in such households seek each other out. There are “commuting wives” groups where participants discuss the challenges of starting new lives in Israel and taking care of their families while their husbands are abroad. Some spend holiday and Shabbat meals together when their spouses are away and trade pieces of advice when they feel overwhelmed by their stints as single moms.

“There is a very big support system,” said Esther Morris, 43, and a mother of five living in Raanana, a city near Tel Aviv. “It’s become a lifestyle,” Morris made aliyah in 2004 from Boca Raton, Florida. Her husband, a physician, used to fly back there two weeks of every month. Recently he left his practice and began work as an American company’s medical director, which has allowed him to commute less frequently and spend more time in Israel.

In Hashmonim, a settlement just inside the West Bank, roughly half the families come from the United States and other English-speaking countries. Gigi Tover, who made aliyah six years ago from Los Angeles, figures about a third to even one half of those have a commuting spouse.

She, like her husband, is an accountant, but she took both a salary cut and position cut when she started working at an Israeli firm while her husband commuted back to California.

Her husband, meantime, “continues with his regular contacts and a salary much higher than the one he would have in Israel. We are doing this not only for economic reasons but also for the sake of his career and job satisfaction,” said Tover. “But I hope this is not the 21st-century version of aliyah. I would love Israel to have the type of economy that can sustain its citizens. I just don’t understand how Israelis live on the average income here.” The median yearly household income is $37,000. In the United States it is just over $50,000.

The Tovers have six children, who range in age from 7 to 23, and the prospect of a free Jewish education in Israel was a relief. “Day school was a big consideration, of course,” as was the cost of college education, which averages $3,000 a year in Israel. But the Tovers also considered “the plain values of living here,” she said, referring to what she sees as the “superficial values that pervade American Jewry.”

But despite the strain of travel and intermittent parental absence, many commuting families speak of the unexpected benefits for of their situation. When the commuting parent is home, he is often not working at all and is therefore more available to his children and wife. “When I’m home I’m with the kids all afternoon, which was not the case when we lived in the United States,” said David Gichton, who has four sons and commutes to Baltimore one week a month.

Like so many similar commuters, Gichton would eventually like to work more locally. “That’s the hope, but the reality of the situation is that you have to pay to put food on the table,” he said.

Dina Kraft is journalist based in Tel Avivl. She contributes to the New York Times, the JTA, and the Sunday Telegraph and blogs on Israeli politics and culture for the Faster Times.

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esthermiriam says:

Article appears to establish huge savings in education at all levels:
what are other comparisons and cost/benefits (housing? transport? medical? taxes? other?) that would help explain to the accountant how Israelis live on the salaries they do. Or to your readers, do that matter.

Barb Karney says:

We lived in Israel w/3 kids for 5 years, knew commuters. Anyone thinking of aliyah w/commuting should know: Watch out for your marriage. And yes, education is incredibly cheaper but not up to U.S. day school standards. There’s overall lack of resources. You’ll pay for tutoring and “gray education” — enrichment courses that are standard in U.S.day schools. One distinct plus: medical care. Search out good drs. as you would here. Last: an annual income in Israel of the equivalent of $60,000 – $70,000? Why commute? If you can buy your home outright or small mortgage, that’s a very good income for family of 5 – 6.

ChanahYael says:

Esthermiriam brings up solid questions. What about housing, trasportation, medical benefits, tazes, and other inherent expeses? How do average israelis (native and olim) balance the coffers to live? I would truly like to know. – – – – I am a wife, grandmother, and Professional Registered Nurse. My husband and I have often discussed how we could possibly live in Israel then have funds to fly back to visit my grandchildren. Being over age 50, we have no concerns about supporting a family other than the two of us in Israel and we have already paid off much off our debt. – – – – Another RN friend (my age) made aliyah with her husband about 3 years ago; within 15 months, they returned to the United States for purely economic reasons. She reports difficulty with the Nursing license exam there as the entire written exam is in Modern Hebrew. He remained unemployed the entire time. Both report that being over age 50 makes learning a new language, with proficiency for the professional sector, very difficult. She reports her mean income dropped by more than 50% there; however, in the United States, she was a top wage earning Nurse Practitioner. While they loved the idea of living in HaEretz, economic feasibility was out of the question if they were to retain income sustainable for later retirement plans. Both cite fear that retirement income would be a major concern despite Israeli socialized healthcare and elder stipends. Unfortunately, they are not alone in the number of people who make aliyah in good faith only to return saddened and dejected they were not able to stay.

ChanahYael says:

Esthermiriam brings up solid questions. What about housing, transportation, medical benefits, taxes, and other inherent expenses? How do average Israelis (native and olim) balance the coffers to live? I would truly like to know. – – – – I am a wife, grandmother, and Professional Registered Nurse. My husband and I have often discussed how we could possibly live in Israel then have funds to fly back to visit my grandchildren. Being over age 50, we have no concerns about supporting a family other than the two of us in Israel and we have already paid off much off our debt. – – – – Another RN friend (my age) made aliyah with her husband about 3 years ago; within 15 months, they returned to the United States for purely economic reasons. She reports difficulty with the Nursing license exam there as the entire written exam is in Modern Hebrew. He remained unemployed the entire time. Both report that being over age 50 makes learning a new language, with proficiency for the professional sector, very difficult. She reports her mean income dropped by more than 50% there; however, in the United States, she was a top wage earning Nurse Practitioner. While they loved the idea of living in HaEretz, economic feasibility was out of the question if they were to retain income sustainable for later retirement. Both cite fear that retirement income would be a major concern despite Israeli socialized healthcare and elder stipends. Unfortunately, they are not alone in the number of people who make aliyah in good faith only to return saddened and dejected they were not able to stay.

MaxS says:

As someone who made aliyah I can tell you that from a material standpoint you’ll definitely be taking a step down. But somehow millions of us here in Israel manage to survive and even prosper

chava says:

I am American-Israeli and have several family members/friends who have been commuting for a decade or more. The income is good, as are visits with free time, but the cost of a marriage and the emotional bonds with your children is what you have to reckon with. I have seen several marriages that have disintegrated due to the strain, and certainly the children have stilted relationships with their absentee dads.

judah says:

It is a shame that olim do not understand how the Israeli economy works. In professional fields, there are significant employer contributions to 401K like-plans (keren hishtalmut, bituach minhalim). The employee and employer contribute money to an account for six years and at the seventh year, the employee gets the money, tax free (approx. 100,000-200,000 NIS – $25-50K). Some companies offer stock options so that every six months, you find yourself with an extra 50,000 NIS. This is how Israelis buy cars (approx. 100,000N IS for sedan), furniture (astonishingly expensive), travel (cheaper), etc. The truth is that most professional Israeli families I know are doing much better than their American counterparts: significantly more savings, more benefits, more liquid cash, more vacation time, etc.

This article is especially interesting in light of recent articles about the high price of Jewish living in America.

I just don’t buy this “partial” aliyah. It’s not really aliyah at all. It is living as an American ex-pat in another country. I made aliyah in 1976; was employed in my profession of certified nurse midwife within 9 days, and haven’t looked back. Yes, I make roughly a quarter of what I would make in the US; yes, a lot of costs are higher; yes, you have to live your life in a different language and in a different way than you did in the Old Country.–but that’s what you committed yourself to when you decided to become an Israeli. The same people who commute tend to live in neighborhoods filled with other Americans, and their homes are little “Fortress Americas” and often simply don’t make any effort to assimilate into Israeli society. And what picture do their kids get? That they’d be a lot better off in America than struggling in Israel.

DE Teodoru says:

Hey, back-and-forth olims on reversible aliyah, stop burdening Israel with your pseudo-Zionism. In 2002 Sharon said that any Jew who does not permanently settle in Israel by 2020 WILL LOSE HIS JEWISH SOUL. Leave Israel to the Sabras and Palestine to the Palestinians and watch Israel, smaller to be sure, get a lot bigger as an influence and leader in the Middle East.

In an Israeli poem a grieving old man every day sits on a bench by his son’s grave, a fallen Israeli War Hero, and cries. From the grave the son cries out: DON’T CRY FOR YOURSELF, FATHER. CRY FOR ME AS I LIE HERE UNDER THE DARK, COLD AND DAMP GROUND BURIED WITH ALL MY DREAMS NOW NOTHING BECAUSE I *HAD* TO DIE FOR YOUR IDEOLOGIES.

Like 75% of all Jews, for whom it’s GREAT PLACE TO VISIT BUT NOT TO LIVE, pick your homeland. Sabras with no other homeland are dying or living without future other than war to make you feel like “mensch” pretending to live there. AZURE, tells in editorial: “LOSING OUR MINDS,” that as soon as Israelis get a degree they leave for the West for a future. They could have made careers leading the Arabs, their cousins, into modernity, so could be home for weekends. Instead they defend your “vacation” settlements, your Fire Island on the Mediterranean to give you mensch-hood in absentia, dying fighting Arabs for your settlements while you make good in NYC. It’s shameful that Israel’s ambassador to the US has double passports, American one just in case? Where’s your dignity and your compassion for Israeli who only want peace, security and a future for their kids instead of being your “mensch-hood” surrogates. Stay home and let them make peace with the Arabs. Stop being the ever back&forth wondering Jew.

Rina says:

DE Teodoru says: ” In 2002 Sharon said that any Jew who does not permanently settle in Israel by 2020 WILL LOSE HIS JEWISH SOUL.”

Wow, glad to know the 2020 deadline for the salvation of all Yiddishe neshamot! And that Prophet Sharon was on the case. Good grief.

Very interesting article.

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Long Haul

Some U.S. immigrants to Israel chase both the Zionist dream and an American paycheck

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