Voices of New Israeli Immigrants: 'My Name Is Sinai, and I'm Looking for a Job'

For newcomers, it's hard to find work in Israel, even with great foreign credentials. Worried newcomers are learning from seasoned veterans how to crack the Israeli labor market.

Immigrating to Israel is, for many Diaspora Jews, the fulfillment of a dream. It is also, no matter how one feels about homelands or gatherings of exiles − a challenge. There is Hebrew to be learned, housing to be found, friends to be made, and the driving “culture” to be navigated, just for starters. And then of course, there is the question of employment.

“I made aliyah from Chicago and I design websites,” begins a young man in jeans named Jamie, standing up to introduce himself at the start of an evening for new immigrants and professional mentors held in Tel Aviv recently.

“I am from France and have a master’s degree in information system management,” says a young woman named Emmanuelle, managing to speak, haltingly, in newly learned Hebrew.

An older gentleman in a suit named Sinai stands up next: “I was born in Iran and moved to France at 16,” he tells those gathered. “I have 25 years experience as an information system project manager ... and I am looking for a job.”

For new immigrants such as Jamie, Emmanuel and Sinai, with impressive academic diplomas in hand, or with high-level work experience under their belts, the professional challenges of Israel are different from, say, those who arrive direct from the Gondar region in Ethiopia and can’t read or write. Or, equally, from those who come on the tail, say, of their Taglit-Birthright tour and are happy to get by waiting tables in Tel Aviv’s hipster Florentine neighborhood.

Michael Bensadoun, for example, immigrated to Israel 11 years ago with a suitcase full of degrees: A BA and an MA in public administration from Paris’ prestigious “Sciences Po,” and another MA in international affairs from Colombia University in New York. But in Israel, says the Casablanca-born Bensadoun, “... no one knew who I was or what I was, or where I was coming from.”

Unaccustomed to the pushiness of Israelis, less well versed in the networking skills of his American immigrant counterparts, and with no close family in the country to lean on, Bensadoun, 34, who went on to get a Ph.D in political science from Bar-Ilan University, said finding the right job was a struggle. Looking around him, he found he was far from alone in his frustrations.

Of the 17,000 or so annual new immigrants to Israel, Bensadoun says some 3,000 have higher academic degrees − but, despite being motivated, many find it hard to find jobs commensurate with their level of qualifications, professional experience and career goals. “There is great potential brain gain among new immigrants − but it’s not being tapped,” he says. “And a lot of us end up leaving because we can’t find proper work.”

Bensadoun decided to address the problem by starting − in conjunction with the Rashi Foundation − a small nonprofit organization to help this particular sector of immigrants. They called it the “Grandes Ecoles project,” as it was intended, initially, for graduates of the top French institutions. That was 2006. By 2009, the project had opened up to non-French immigrants too, and was re-named “Gvahim,” which means “Heights,” in Hebrew − in reference to the places Bensadoun hoped these immigrants would reach.

Today, Gvahim, led by Bensadoun and supported by several philanthropic organizations, has 12 staffers and helps about 200 so-called “highly skilled” immigrants a year gain the training, networking skills, placement tools and connections they need to secure the sort of jobs they want.

An increasingly key component of the program, which is otherwise based on “know-how” seminars, involves setting up the new immigrants with mentors. Such mentors, all of whom volunteer their time, help guide the newcomers through the Israeli employment landscape, offering advice and sharing connections.

“Welcome to the new shining stars of Gvahim!” reads the white board sign outside the elevator on the 26th floor of the Electra building in Tel Aviv, home to Google, which offered to host the most recent gathering. After small talk and snacks, the 25 mentees, one after the other, stand up to present themselves.
Alejandro from Mexico has a second degree in aeronautical engineering.

Adrianne from Argentina speaks four languages, has an MBA in business administration, and 20 years experience in development of energy and gas markets in South America. And Tatyana spent 10 years as a corporate lawyer in Russia. She has written what she wants to say on a piece of paper and reads slowly, her hands slightly shaky, her voice nervous.

All of them, like each and everyone here, are looking for jobs. And then it’s the turn of the mentors:

“My name is Barry and I made aliya in 1988,” begins a marketing manager at a communications company. “If there is any way I can help with contacts please get in touch,” he says, giving out his cell phone number and email.

“I came to this country 16 years ago and I walked the path many of you are embarking on now,” says another, Richard, who works for Coca Cola and offers some ideas about getting into “old industry” in the country.

“I am in sales and marketing,” says Dror. “And we are hiring like madmen. If you think you are appropriate, let me know. We have 22 positions open on our website.”

“I have been in Israel for 40 years, most of that time in high-tech,” says Naftali, who still speaks with a strong Australian accent. “Let me know what sorts of positions you are aiming for.”

“I am in software development,” says Philippe, who calls the newcomers “assets,” and assures them that “it’s all about matching. Israeli companies are actually starving to find people who know foreign cultures and languages,” he tells them.

The advice the mentors pass along, together with their personal contact information, is varied, ranging from specific to general to plain old encouraging: “Be persistent,” they advise. “Speak Hebrew,” they suggest. “Be ready to rethink your title,” say some. “Know how much money you can ask for,” they tell them. “And don’t give up. Convince yourselves that you will find the right place,” they repeat like a mantra.

“The drive needs to come from you,” concludes a mentor named Chaim, who has worked in the defense industry for more than 40 years. Elad, a group leader at Intel, who soon offers to go through people’s CVs with them, nods his head: “You have to treat finding a job as a full-time job for now,” he says. “But we are all here to help. We want you to feel welcome.”

Daniel Bar-On