With economy crashing, Greek Jews eye aliyah
A growing number of Jews see no future in Greece and are opting to make Israel their home
Makis Levis calls himself "the crazy one" in his family. Rather than sit around and blame the government for the collapse of the Greek economy and, along with it, his business, he decided to do something: A year-and-a-half ago he moved from Athens to Tel Aviv.
"It had nothing to do with Zionism," insists Levis, 37, who has meanwhile partnered up with an Israeli start-up specializing in energy conservation. "My company in Greece specialized in information technology, so I figured this was a chance for me to expand. Since I don't like flying, moving to the United States wasn't an option for me."
Eftichia Kosti, who hails from the small town of Chalkida outside of Athens, had been unemployed for a year-and-a-half before she also reached the conclusion that the economic situation in Greece was hopeless. Four months ago, the 32-year-old graphic designer packed her bags and moved to Petah Tikva where her brother and his family have already been living for 11 years.
For her, though, ideology did play a role. "I didn't grow up in a religious family, but tradition was very important," she says. "When we recited the phrase 'Next year in Jerusalem,' we really meant it."
For a growing number of Greek Jews, who have lost their jobs and seen the value of their assets shrink with each passing day, setting up base on the other side of the Mediterranean has suddenly become an attractive option.
"When you don't have a job or a future, Israel starts looking like a second home," as Levis puts it.
Sabby Mionis, a prominent Greek-Jewish financier who immigrated to Israel in 2006, has taken it upon himself to facilitate the process of aliyah, dishing out of his own pocket NIS 2,500 shekels a month for an entire year to any Greek Jew who moves to Israel. He says he has received many inquiries these days from other Greek Jews contemplating aliyah.
Of Greece's 4,000-strong Jewish community, Mionis believes that the pool of potential immigrants is about 800 - primarily those in the 18-35 age bracket. "My guess is that within the next few years, we'll see a couple hundred of them come to Israel," predicts Mionis, who among his other functions, also sits on the executive board of the United Israel Appeal.
Mionis says the rise of the ultra right-wing political party Golden Dawn is not a key factor for those Greek Jews considering aliyah. "There's always been underlying anti-Semitism in Greece," he says. "But the Jews in Greece don't feel they're in physical danger."
According to Ministry of Immigrant Absorption figures, the number of new immigrants from Greece who arrived in Israel since 2010 is 25. In addition, 38 Israelis who had been residing in Greece for at least six years came back and were recognized as "returning Israelis," qualifying as such for special government benefits.
Shai Felber, the deputy director-general for community services at the Jewish Agency, reports that 15 Jewish families in Greece have recently notified the organization of their interest in moving to Israel. "We're not talking about thousands here, but compared to what we had in the past from Greece, this is a big jump," he says.
To accommodate this surge in interest, Felber says that the Jewish Agency is planning to send a full-time emissary to Greece for the first time. In addition, the agency will set up ulpans in Greece this fall to teach Hebrew, in an effort to address what is perhaps the biggest obstacle to aliyah for many Greek Jews - lack of knowledge of the language.
Judging from the experience of 28-year-old Harry Economu, who moved to Israel in 2011, the rest of the adjustment process tends to be relatively easy for Greeks, compared with immigrants from other countries. "The weather and food are pretty much the same. The Israelis aren't polite, but neither are the Greeks. We're kind of aggressive - you're pretty aggressive, and everything moves pretty fast here. So except for the language, it's kind of like being in the same place."
Economu, who currently works part time for a Greek-language social media site while he attends Hebrew ulpan, decided to move to Israel after he was laid off from his job at an investment bank in London. "I was offered another job in Greece at the time, but I decided that I didn't want to stay there."
Another benefit of moving to Israel, says Economu, is that it's not that far from his family. "Flights are cheap, and in two hours you're home."