These Immigrants Are Bringing a Taste of Home to Israel

Gourmet French cheese and self-serve New York-style frozen yogurt: Young immigrants to Israel turn staples of their former lives into business opportunities.

Cheese at a French market.
Nikolay Dimitrov, Dreamstime

You can take the Jew out of France, but you can’t take France out of the Jew.

That became profoundly evident to Ruben Sarfati, a relatively recent newcomer to Israel, every time he took a trip back to Paris to visit friends and family. “Inevitably, I’d be bombarded with requests from other French friends living in Israel begging me to bring back their favorite cheeses, chocolates and other delicacies,” the 23-year-old relays.

“As I asked around, I discovered I wasn’t the only one having this experience. French Jews living in Israel desperately miss many of the food products back home, and you simply can’t take a trip back to France without having to bring back a bag full of goodies for everyone.”

This realization gave Sarfati an idea for his soon-to-be-launched business: an online French gourmet shop that targets the thousands of immigrants from France who have relocated to Israel in recent years.

Coming from the United States, 26-year-old Beth Finkelman found that her new life in Jerusalem was perfect except for one thing: There was nowhere to get the self-serve frozen yogurt she had grown addicted to in New York. True, frozen yogurt shops come a dime-a-dozen in Israel, but in all her crisscrossing of the country, she had not found one based on the DIY model popularized in the U.S. that offers endless options for flavors and toppings, and charges by the ounce.

Immigrant entrepreneurs
Debbie Zimelman

“While living in New York, after finishing the army, my partner and I always used to discuss what we miss most about life in Israel and that inevitably led us to thinking about what we’d miss most about America when we moved back to Israel,” she recounts. “No question that it was self-serve frozen yogurt.”

And so, early next year Finkelman plans to open the first of what she hopes will be a chain of self-serve frozen yogurt shops in Israel.

Sarfati and Finkelman were among 15 participants in a brand new business mentorship program designed for immigrants who presented their ideas at a graduation ceremony in Tel Aviv this week. An accelerator that focuses on small, low-tech businesses, TheNest is the latest initiative of Gvahim, a non-profit that helps highly skilled new immigrants find their place in the Israeli job market. TheHive, another mentoring program sponsored by Gvahim that has been running for several years, focuses on high-tech startups.

Some of the graduates, like Sarfati and Finkelman, began their search for a viable business idea with a simple question: What do I or my fellow immigrant friends miss most about home?

Through his initial market research, Sarfati discovered that while a handful of stores in Israel carry some of the French gourmet products he and his friends crave, they are few and far between, as well as very pricey. “You tend to find these stores in places like Netanya, where there are big clusters of French-speaking Jews,” he notes. “But what do you do if you live in Jerusalem and you happen to be dying for some St. Michel biscuits?”

MyShouk (https://www.myshouk.com/), his online store set to open next month, will carry only kosher French products, says Sarfati, and offer free deliveries within a day at what he says will be competitive prices.

Finkelman says she plans to open her first branch of Ivy Yogurt in Jerusalem, confident she will have a captive market there. “There are so many gap-year students and Anglo expats in Jerusalem,” she explains. Asked to explain the origin of the name, she says: “Both my partner and I dropped out of Columbia University, which is an Ivy League school, so it just kind of stuck. But also, ivy is something that grows upwards, and that represents what we are.”

Ideas for other new businesses presented by Gvahim graduates sprung not out of food cravings, but rather out of the daily struggles the participants had encountered as newcomers to Israel. Such, for example, was the case of Giordana Grego, a 36-year-old immigrant from Italy. BalaBoosta (the Yiddish term for an admired homemaker), her new property management and concierge business, will target a relatively new demographic in Israel: affluent, retired Europeans, many of them following in the footsteps of children who have already moved to Israel, and a large number of whom live only part-time in the country.

Property management businesses are not new to Israel. Grego says her startup, planned for launch this week, will distinguish itself by offering more than the standard package of services. “Besides making sure the apartment is clean and everything is in working order when these people arrive at their home in Israel, we will make sure they get picked up at the airport and that their refrigerator is full of groceries,” she says.

The concierge services she plans to provide will also go beyond reservations at hard-to-book restaurants.

“The idea is to sit down with our clients and find out their needs,” she says. “What kind of doctors, lawyers and accountants they need. A personal trainer who fits their needs. A subscription to the philharmonic if that’s what interests them. Anything that provides a solution to the lifestyle they want to lead when they’re in Israel.”

Her target clientele, she says, is aged 55 and up. “Younger people know how to figure out these things by themselves,” says Grego, who moved to Israel 12 years ago. “The type of people we anticipate will come to us are baby-boomers who are used to a high standard of living and need a bit of help reestablishing themselves in Israel.”

It was while working in investor relations at an Israeli financial company that Grego says she discovered this need. “Many of my clients, who were new immigrants themselves, would call me to see if I could help them sort out their problems,” she recounts.

A new survey conducted by Gvahim, a subsidiary of the Rashi Foundation, found that among new immigrants who have set up small businesses in Israel, a key challenge is creating networks. “One of our main purposes, therefore, is to introduce these immigrants to experts and entrepreneurs in their field,” said Patricia Lahy-Engel, director of entrepreneurship programs at Gvahim.