‘The Amazing New York No Longer Exists’: Laid Low by Coronavirus, the City Loses Its Magic for Israelis

Cramped and crowded in tiny overpriced apartments, with the city shut down as the pandemic rages across the United States, an unexpected president and protesters taking to the streets, many Israeli are returning home for now, or maybe forever

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
New York
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The Galitz family
The Galitz family had moved to New York a year ago, but have now returned to Israel, where they have found work.

NEW YORK – A year ago Roi and Yael Galitz of Givatayim decided to move to New York. Yael, an ear, nose and throat specialist, had been offered a residency in New York University’s Langone Medical Center, and the couple, with their four children, planned to remain in the big city for two or three years. But in March the coronavirus arrived and they have returned to Israel.

“The situation in New York is very depressing,” says Roi, a photographer of exotic sites who owns a photography school in Israel. “The children haven’t had school since March, there are no summer activities and it’s not clear what will happen in September. We lived in a small apartment in Manhattan. Our Brazilian babysitter flew home when the pandemic erupted. She didn’t know, of course, that the pandemic would reach Brazil too, and in a big way. So I’m alone now with the four children, and my wife works in the hospital.”

In New York, Roi started an adventure-tourism company and had booked several trips, but they were all canceled or postponed. The lectures he had started to give about his exotic journeys were canceled.

“I switched to lecturing online, but the fee is a quarter of what you get for a frontal lecture,” he says. Things started going wrong with his wife’s residency too. “She was taking care of coronavirus patients, but her medical research was stalled,” says Galitz.

“And now with the demonstrations and the rioting after the death of George Floyd, it’s getting worse. And if all that isn’t enough, they’re expecting a second wave of the virus due to the failure to observe social distancing and to wear masks at the demonstrations.”

As far as the Galitzes are concerned, the situation in Israel is much better. They have already found jobs: Yael at Kaplan Medical Center in Rehovot and at a private clinic. Roi is planning to restart his business. “In Israel I can go back to organizing my school, which switched to an online format.”

Thousands of Israelis have decamped to the U.S., and New York in particular, in recent years, most of them employees of high-tech companies and professionals. Although most of them say they are coming for a limited time, many didn’t rule out staying for an extended period.

But the coronavirus crisis changed everything. Anyone now flying from the U.S. to Israel on the few flights available will discover them full of returning Israelis. Some are coming until things become clearer, others say they’re returning for good.

Shanie Korabelnik is also back in Israel with her three children, ages 4, 7, and 9 after giving up on New York. Her husband Naftali Cohen, who has a doctorate in mathematics and works in artificial intelligence, remained in their Upper West Side apartment, where he works for a New York firm out of the children’s room.

“We were shut up in our small apartment for three months,” says Korabelnik. “My husband worked from home. I’m doing a doctorate in movement therapy and have to work hard to finish my thesis. With three children hanging around it wasn’t easy. To take a break we would go out every evening for a walk in the park.

“The amazing New York that everyone knows no longer exists. To make things easier we traveled to Pennsylvania for a month, but how much can you travel? It also cost a bundle. I couldn’t stay in New York. The children were climbing the walls. ... The plan is to return to New York at the end of the summer. We’ll see what happens.”

At the end of June, Tal Cohen, who lives in Demarest, New Jersey, an area popular with Israelis, was packing her bags. She, her husband and their two children, 11 and 13, have been living in the United States for 13 years. “Usually we come to Israel in August. This year we’re coming earlier,” she says.

Reut Ronen-Nathanel and her family at Ben-Gurion airport.
Reut Ronen-Nathanel and her family at Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv. Credit: Eran Ben Shushan

Cohen and her husband both worked mainly from home for high-tech companies, and they’ll be doing the same in Israel. “In New Jersey we have a comfortable house, but everything has stopped working and it’s nerve-wracking, so we decided to come earlier,” she says.

Fluid situation

Cohen admits she doesn’t know when the family will return. “Israel began to go back to the routine and everything looked fine. But now there’s an increase in the number of cases. On the other hand, now they’re starting to open the stores in New Jersey. The situation is very fluid. Maybe we’ll stay in Israel longer and maybe not.”

Among the Israelis returning here with the intention of staying put were those having difficulty making it New York. For them, returning to Israel brands them a failure, but the virus creates a more honorable explanation.

Real estate salesman Eliad Benari, who is active in the city’s Israeli community, estimates that about 30 percent of the Israelis are returning to Israel permanently. It’s a number that comes up frequently in conversations with activists in the Israeli high-tech scene in New York.

“It’s become very sad here, with the coronavirus and then the rioting,” says Benari. “Friends are leaving, families are disappearing overnight. I don’t have a single friend left in the city. Anyone who doesn’t return to Israel is leaving the city. I have friends who lived in New York and moved to New Jersey.”

Benari says he has friends who visited Dallas and decided to stay. People are buying apartments and homes outside the city, sight unseen, he says. He also knows Israelis who went to Israel for the summer because they didn’t want to pay rent and decided that if they stay in Israel, they’ll hire someone to send them their things.

One Israeli who works at home for a high-tech services firm got relief from his landlady. “I’m sure that you’re working at home now and it’s crowded for you with your wife and children,” she told him. “I have another apartment building that’s standing empty, and I don’t believe that I’ll be able to rent it out in the near future. If you like, you’re invited to use the second apartment as an office.”

The Israeli enthusiastically accepted the offer, but for others there’s no such option. “Many Israelis are feeling very pressured: Their bank account is shrinking and they’re stuck with the high rent. Apartments in New York are small, it’s not easy to work that way for two months, especially if you have a family and children. Everything is crowded and intense,” Benari says.

Afraid of visa problems

The exodus might be larger except that many Israelis are afraid to return home, even for a visit, since President Donald Trump signed a presidential order last month temporarily suspending many types of work visas. That includes the H-1B, temporary worker visa widely used by tech firms.

“Although they have work visas, they’re afraid that with the frequent changes in the immigration laws, they would have a problem coming back to the U.S. They would like to return to Israel for the summer, but they don’t want to take the risk,” says Benari.

There are an estimated 1,200 startups and high-tech companies in the U.S. registered as Israeli or under Israeli ownership. Most of them are concentrated on the West Coast, including Silicon Valley, and around New York (about 400) and Boston (about 200). Experts say the number will drop by 30 percent or even 50 percent due to the pandemic. Moreover, because venture capital funds have dried up, the number of Israeli startups immigrating to the United States is expected to drop sharply.

Reut Ronen-Nathanel, who has been living in New York with her family for the past eight years, is an expert on relocation. But she also returned to Israel recently with her four children, while her husband, Tal Zvi Nathanel, the entrepreneur behind the Showfields complex, which helps online brands move into brick-and-mortar retail, will stay in New York.

The pandemic closed the complex, and the company has laid off a lot of staff and moved into the digital world. Nathanel contracted the virus and recovered, and then came the protests.

A New York police cruiser that was set on fire.
A New York police cruiser that was set on fire in the unrest following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.Credit: Jeenah Moon/Reuters

“On the first night we were really saved,” he says. “Our store was left untouched, but others in the area were damaged. The next day we protected the store with wooden planks and we brought an artist to paint them. Now we’re working on opening the second store in Miami. I’m planning to come to visit Israel soon, but I’ll return to New York. My work is here.”

Nathanel will remain in Israel for a few weeks; his wife and children will stay for one to three months, depending on the situation. Ronen-Nathanel says many in the Israeli high-tech community in New York want to return to Israel temporarily or permanently. She believes many will return to the model that was common until a few years ago: The partner responsible for the children lives in Israel and the one who works in New York travels back and forth.

She says that not everyone can return to Israel and keep their job. Companies such as Amazon and Google require employees to get a special permit to work from Israel. Women who have recently given birth can’t return because their child doesn’t have a passport, and it’s very hard to get one due to coronavirus restrictions.

Anywhere but the city

Alon Elroy, CEO of the New York-based events management platform Bizzabo, says he and his family have been on the road since the outbreak of the pandemic. “The advantages of New York don’t exist today,” he says. “We went for five weeks to the Poconos, in Pennsylvania. We returned to the city and we’re going to Israel soon.”

Noa Kolp, who is head of the technology and startup team at Israel Discount Bank in New York, admits that in many areas the Israeli high-tech community is bleeding. “At present we’re seeing three groups of companies: Companies harmed by the crisis, which are downsizing activity and laying off employees; companies that are sitting on the fence and waiting to see how things develop; and also quite a few companies that are continuing to advance, grow and recruit,” she says.

“The crisis created opportunities for them that they didn’t have in the past, or from the start they had an outstanding and relevant product or service for which there’s a large market. I see certain areas that are really flourishing at this time, such as cybersecurity in the areas of medicine and drugs, startups that are involved in remote medicine, education tech, remote employee recruitment, human resources and other things.”

Even as other Israelis flee, there are others who left the city with the outbreak of the virus and now are returning. Yotam Reuveni, 27, is one of them. He arrived in New York about a year ago but when the pandemic began, returned home to Arad.

“I left New York because I felt that here the situation is far worse than in Israel,” says Reuveni, a strategic adviser to public bodies and banks, and as a subcontractor for companies such as Deloitte and MidCityLabs.

“The local authorities weren’t prepared,” he says. “I realized that it was going to be bad here and that there was no point in living in an urban environment. I decided to go back to my family and come back to New York when the situation became clearer. In Arad there were only 19 [coronavirus] cases. I was in the desert and I felt safe. Afterwards I spent a few weeks in Tel Aviv. It was fun there.”

Now Reuveni is back in New York. “I’m here not because I want to be, but due to rules that require me to be in the U.S., because I work on projects with the local authorities. The New York of today is not the most fun place in the world, but my work demands it. Still, I’m continuing to enjoy myself here. Life goes on,” he says. “It was hard during the period of the demonstrations. Now everything has calmed down. Slowly but surely New York is regaining its magic. The city is slowly waking up.”

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