NEW YORK -- The meeting with Shawn Evenhaim, the chairman of the Israeli American Council, an umbrella organization for Israelis in the United States, surprised us. Because of his position, we expected Evenhaim to fiercely defend those who decided to leave Israel, to speak about the low cost of living outside of Israel and against the Israelis who are fighting emigration.
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But Evenhaim, possibly because of the position he has attained, is calm and reconciled. He wants his native country to take advantage of where he lives to help improve its image. During these times ,when emigration from Israel is again in the headlines, Evenhaim wants to send a different message.
“People decide where to live, and I decided to live in the United States,” he says. “I understand the fears in Israel of yerida [emigration], after all no country wants to have emigration. But the nations of the world, including Israel, need to recognize the fact that some of their citizens decide to leave. The question is whether the government wants to cut its ties with them, or not. We’re not asking for anything from Israel, I haven’t asked for aid. I don’t claim we deserve special rights. I say, ‘Come use us.’”
No one knows how many Israelis live in the U.S. today, with estimates ranging from 200,000 to one million. The Israeli government put the number at between 600,000 and 700,000, most in Los Angeles and New York, but this number includes not only Israelis who emigrated but their children. Evenhaim says he has no exact number either, but claims that IAC reaches about 150,000 people.
The Israeli emigrant community in the U.S. has established quite a number of organizations to help them preserve their Israeli identity. The IAC is one of the largest - and richest - of them, with an annual budget of $17.5 million. A year ago it received a significant contribution from billionaire Sheldon Adelson, whose wife Miriam is Israeli and who gave the organization $10 million to enable it to operate all over the U.S. The Adelsons came to the IAC’s event in Los Angeles last year, with 900 former Israelis in attendance, says Evenhaim.
The many activities of the IAC include running a campus program for young Israelis to meet on college campuses and spend six weeks over the summer in Israel. It also helps provide free Hebrew books for children and runs Hebrew-speaking summer camps.
How exactly do you expect your services to be used?
“I never abandoned Israel and never felt that I had done something bad. True, I felt bad that I was far from family and friends. In the first few years I still did reserve duty. I’m still connected to my family and friends in Israel. I don’t think there is a family in Israel today that doesn’t have a relative living outside Israel.
“I understand that in the past they feared that if they kept contact with yordim, that could encourage emigration, but I don’t think there has been a significant growth in yerida from Israel, so the fear isn’t justified. In the past, the common approach was to ignore yordim and there were instructions - so I heard, and I don’t know if it’s correct or not - to avoid contact with Israelis overseas so they won’t feel comfortable with their decision. I think Israel needs to understand that it’s good that people are connected to their home. If there is contact, there is a larger chance that someone will return to Israel than if you cut them off. But in general, this approach is changing. Today there’s a lot more openness on the part of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency towards those living outside of Israel.”
How do you feel about the Milky protest?
“I understand what is happening in Israel and the difficulty that many people are experiencing. I don’t think it is my job to criticize Israel, but I definitely understand the criticism from Israelis on the high cost of living and housing prices. When they ask me whether they should leave Israel, I say it is a personal decision. Look, it was not bad for me in Israel, but it was a different country then. There weren’t the options there are today, for example in employment. I’m not sure that if I was a young Israeli today I would leave. The most important thing is to look at the entirety: Don’t leave just because the price of a Milky or a car are lower overseas. It’s important to study the local figures, such as the cost of education, pension, health insurance. There are a lot of components in this decision.
“In the United States there are no pensions like in Israel, health insurance is complex, a person can work in a company for 30 years and he can be fired immediately. Education is expensive, too. Studying at a public university costs $18,000 a year and a private college $60,000. They say Americans earn more, but the truth is that many Americans saved zero in the past 10 years. The percentage of home owners here is lower than in Israel. The cost of living is rising all the time and wages are being eroded. A couple who wants to rent a normal apartment in Los Angeles will pay $1,600 a month. Health insurance costs $600 to $700 a month. Add to that car expenses and insurance and you reach basic expenses of thousands of dollars a month. In addition, taxes are rising all the time, and a lot of people find it hard here. It is still the land of unlimited opportunities - but for years everything has been becoming harder.”
Evenhaim’s first name was originally Sharon, but he changed it because Sharon is a girl’s name in English. Aged 47, he was born in Kibbutz Lehavim, north of Be’er Sheva, served in the Givati infantry brigade and completed the army with the rank of first lieutenant. His didn’t plan to leave Israel, he says. After the army, he decided to see the world and went to visit his brother in Los Angeles. He intended to return home after a few years, but time passed - 24 years to be exact. He worked with his brother in construction, and then went into the business himself. He managed a construction company and then formed his own firm, California Home Builders, which operates mostly in the Los Angeles area.
Evenhaim became involved in the life of the Israeli community in the U.S. when his oldest son was born. He became even more involved when his three children went to the Kadima Day School, where half the students are former Israelis and the rest are American Jews. “When you have a child, you run into important questions,” he says.
During the Second Lebanon War in 2006, he helped organize a demonstration for Israel, to which a lot of Jews came but no Israelis. It was then that the Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, spoke with a few Israeli businessmen about establishing a networking organization. The IAC began in Los Angeles a year later and gradually expanded to New York, Miami, Boston, Las Vegas and New Jersey.
Evenhaim says that, despite the connection with Adelson, the IAC is nonpolitical and has supporters from both the left and right. Haim Saban is also a supporter, for example.
On the other hand, if things were so bad, you would be back in Israel?
“True. The U.S. is a wonderful country that did a lot for me. The issue of security, for example, is not worrying at all. They may be talking about ISIS but it’s still far from here. The average American is interested mainly in what is happening around him - his home, mortgage, car. In Israel, you have to take an interest in what’s happening to the entire country and what’s happening in the world. An Israeli child knows about what is happening around the world much more than an American child. If it were bad for me here, I would return, but I built businesses and raised a family. And the minute you have children, even though they learned Hebrew, it’s their home.”