If I Forget Thee, O Tel Aviv

Young Diaspora Jews are increasingly foregoing Jerusalem for the hipper city-by-the-sea, where there's plenty going on to welcome them.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

For young Jews around the world interested in exploring life in Israel, there had traditionally been one central destination: Jerusalem. That was the place where they found other English-speakers like themselves, the best job and learning opportunities, and an obvious connection to their religious and cultural roots.

No longer.

In recent years, Tel Aviv has slowly but surely been replacing Jerusalem as Israel’s main hub for young “internationals.” Not only are many of these foreign-born professionals and students heading west rather than east as soon as they disembark at Ben-Gurion International Airport − they are also being joined in the country’s cultural and business capital by a growing number of former Jerusalem diehards.

For longtime residents of Tel Aviv, the telltale sign of this mass exodus is the increasingly discernible sounds of English in the streets, a phenomenon once associated almost exclusively with Jerusalem and enclaves like Ra’anana. If the locals scratch the surface a bit, they’ll discover some other evidence of an increasingly established English-speaking community: weekly activities, social-networking sites where Tel Aviv tips are shared, and a growing list of haunts, synagogues and neighborhoods where other expats congregate.

Those who ought to are beginning to take note.

“It’s a trend that began about five years ago, but has been getting much stronger in the past two to three years,” says Michael Vole, the director of the young adults unit at the Tel Aviv municipality. “As the numbers grow, it creates an impetus for more and more to come.”

City Hall, he notes, has recently launched several new programs specifically aimed at these young “internationals,” as these non-native-born Israelis and long-term tourists have come to be known. These include an English-language workshop intended to help the entrepreneurs among them realize their start-up dreams.

When the Jewish Agency’s Connect Israel program − which assists young immigrants who come to the country on their own and settle in large cities − set up its pilot project two years ago, the first city chosen was Tel Aviv ‏(only now is it starting a second pilot in Jerusalem‏).

“We definitely identified a need there,” says Amit Treister, who runs the program. “We began noticing that more and more 18- to 35-year-olds were making Tel Aviv their first destination upon arriving in Israel, and it’s a trend that has only been getting stronger.”

The ConnecTLV project currently serves about 1,000 new immigrants in the city, assisting them in finding jobs and housing, and hooking them up with Israeli volunteers who teach them about getting around and making the most of life in the first Hebrew city.

Jay Shultz, who hails from New Jersey but moved there seven years ago, is the founder and director of TLV Internationals, an umbrella organization for several nonprofits that target the growing community of internationals, organizing for its members events as diverse as Shabbat dinners, lectures on local art and off-the-record conversations with government leaders. It’s hard to put an exact figure on the size of this community, but Shultz estimates its number at 10,000, the overwhelming majority of them new immigrants, primarily from English-speaking countries ‏(but also about 3,000 French-speakers‏), young Jews considering aliyah, participants in internship and other volunteer programs, students enrolled in English-language programs, lone soldiers and foreign correspondents and embassy staffers.

“They come because Tel Aviv is a cool city, and it’s where the jobs are,” he says. “But until the past few years, there was no real community of English-speakers in Tel Aviv. It only existed in Jerusalem. What we’re seeing now is that because this community exists in Tel Aviv, hundreds of English-speakers from Jerusalem have been moving here.”

One such transplant is 26-year-old Tess Sevelow, a graduate of Illinois State University, whose first job in the country a few years ago was as an intern at a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem that promotes Jewish-Arab coexistence.

“When I first came here, the only city I wanted to be in was Jerusalem,” she recalls. “But eventually, everything I loved about Jerusalem, like all the tension, I began resenting.” She eventually moved to Tel Aviv, a city she says she loves, “because you don’t have to fit into anyone’s mold.”

Eytan White, a 28-year-old native New Yorker who’s been living in the country for six years, also started out in Jerusalem. “I never had the intention of moving, but all the jobs are in Tel Aviv, and commuting seemed like too much of a nightmare,” he says.

For 25-year-old Aviva Senser, who hails from Michigan, where she studied hotel management, Jerusalem was never an option. “For me, the toss-up was between Tel Aviv and Las Vegas,” she says. “People kept saying to me that if I wanted to work in the hotel industry, I needed to be in Jerusalem. But honestly, I’m a Tel Aviv-type of girl.”

So is Maryland-born Sarah Groner, as she herself attests. “Jerusalem always seemed so small-town to me, while Tel Aviv is so much more ‘big city,’” says the 25 year-old, who moved to Israel without her parents when she was 18. “Also, among English-speakers, it always seemed to me that Jerusalem is the place you went to study and figure things it out, whereas Tel Aviv is where you come to work.”

Discovering a need

South-African-born Kevin Nafte, vice-consul at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv, was among the first to identify the trend. Three years ago, he set up the now-defunct social-networking site Telalivit ‏(which continues to function as a Facebook page‏) to serve English-speakers in the greater Tel Aviv area.

“So many English-speakers were starting to come to Tel Aviv at the time that I realized there was a need for something like this,” he recalls. “Young people were beginning to discover that it’s a young vibrant city, that they could find whatever they were looking for here, that it has an amazing nightlife, and that there are lots of English-speaking jobs here.” Since then, he notes, an entire infrastructure of services has sprouted up to serve this community, whose membership he also puts at 10,000-15,000, but “probably more toward the lower end.”

Adding to the city’s allure, no doubt, have been the accolades showered on it by the likes of The New York Times, which crowned Tel Aviv “the capital of Mediterranean cool”; the Lonely Planet travel-guide publishing company, which ranked it No. 3 among the top 10 cities to visit in 2011; GayCities.com and American Airlines, which named it the world’s best gay travel destination that same year; and more recently, the research group Startup Genome, which hailed it as the second best place on earth ‏(after Silicon Valley‏) to launch a start-up.

A key factor behind the city’s emergence as an international hub, some observers say, has been the success of Taglit-Birthright, the 13-year-old program that offers young Jews around the world free 10-day trips to Israel. Although precise numbers are not available, according to community activists, a significant share of Tel Aviv’s new English-speaking residents are alumni of Birthright who return to the country via other internship or volunteer programs, and then simply stay on − often getting hired for pay at the same organizations that initially took them on.

Since Birthright’s main constituency is unaffiliated Jews who have never visited Israel before, Jerusalem, the nation’s religious capital, is not as big a draw for them as it was for immigrants and potential immigrants of previous generations, who typically had stronger Jewish connections. The fact that its population has grown increasingly poor and more Orthodox has only reduced Jerusalem’s appeal among secular Israelis as well.

Also feeding the trend are children of Israelis living abroad, who, by contrast, likely grew up with a very strong connection to the country thanks to one or both of their parents. It’s not surprising, then, that many members of this “international” community have Hebrew names, though they don’t necessarily speak the language.

Religious newcomers, too

According to figures gathered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the nonprofit organization that provides services to new immigrants coming from the United States, Canada and Great Britain, the number of young singles moving to Jerusalem from these countries in the past two years slightly outnumbers the number of such people who opt for Tel Aviv, but the rate of increase in the latter group is higher.

“Tel Aviv has come a long way from the old stereotypes,” says Marc Rosenberg, who heads Nefesh B’Nefesh’s recently established division for young professionals. “It used to be very difficult for ‘Anglos’ to penetrate the Tel Aviv bubble, and if you were religious, it simply wasn’t an option. Today, that simply isn’t the case. What we’re seeing is that Tel Avivians have become more open to Anglos, and Anglos are more ready to integrate.”

Among the single immigrants who immigrate here through Nefesh B’Nefesh, says Rosenberg, about one-third are Birthright alumni and another third have at least one Israeli parent. What is bringing many of them here, he adds, is the combination of a weak job market and the rising cost of university tuition in the United States. “These factors are drawing a bumper crop of young people to Israel,” he notes.

Indeed, what Tel Aviv offers young Jews today − something not widely available 15 years ago − are opportunities to work and to study in English. The local high-tech boom, centered in this metropolitan area, has created numerous jobs in marketing, sales and communications that require fluent English. Moreover, two major local institutions of higher learning − Tel Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya − offer a growing number of full-degree programs in English, at both undergraduate and graduate levels, in addition to the traditional year-abroad options.

Masa, an organization run jointly by the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency, offers dozens of post-college-age internship and community-service programs here to young Jewish adults from around the world. Avi Rubel, the director of Masa’s North America office, says the clear preference among participants is for programs based in Tel Aviv.

“We have 2,500 participants in our programs right now, and close to 1,800 of them are based in Tel Aviv,” he explains. “There’s a huge interest in Tel Aviv, and part of the reason is its reputation for being a young cosmopolitan city where things are happening.”

One such Masa program participant, Danielle Longo, who spent a year volunteering in a Rishon Letzion school before getting hired at a school in Tel Aviv full-time, describes it this way: “I’d never been to Israel before, so I looked at a map with my sister, and she said to me, ‘You obviously want to be in Tel Aviv.’”

A man enjoys the beach in Tel Aviv. Credit: BauBau
Illustration by Amos Biderman

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