Relocation to Startup Nation: Why Diaspora Tekkies Are Flocking to Israel

Israel is waking up to the potential of its reputation as a high-tech powerhouse to attract young Jews from abroad seeking to gain work experience, found a startup, work on their tans and maybe find a life partner too.

Debbie Zimelman / Gvahim

Meet Jesse Sultanik, CEO and cofounder of the Israeli startup YEEZ.it. He read Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s “Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” as a college student in Colorado. The book, a best-seller in many countries, introduced him to the Israeli innovation scene across the sea and changed his life. Sultanik grew up in a Zionist home; one of his grandfathers held senior office in the World Zionist Organization. Israel was always important to him, and despite not having a background in engineering or technology he was enchanted by the link between Israel and innovation.

After graduating, in 2010, Sultanik came to Israel for a short study program, where he met his future wife. From there, the road to aliyah was a short one.

Sultanik is part of a growing number of young Jews from around the world who, attracted to Israel’s status as “startup nation” — a concept popularized by the book of the same name and the well-publicized exits of many successful Israeli tech companies — come to live here for a time or even permanently. With the rise of global anti-Semitism and high unemployment levels in Europe, Israel’s lively startup scene has become a strong attraction despite the security concerns, which have only grown stronger over the past month. If in the 1960s and ‘70s young Diaspora Jews came to pick oranges on kibbutzim, many of their counterparts today dream of joining the startups on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard.

In the past year, many young Jews from abroad have flocked to Israel’s tech sector, drawn to the atmosphere of innovation and the rising standard of living. So what is it that makes a newly-minted graduate from a prestigious college overseas, who could find a terrific job closer to home, leave everything and come to Israel, which is not only far away but is also plagued by the occasional war?

“There are countless places to work, a good social life and the beach helps too,” says Michael Eisenberg, a founder and partner of the Aleph venture capital firm who immigrated to Israel around 20 years ago. “Jewish young people have a Jewish future in this country. There’s a 55-percent rate of assimilation in the United States, and the numbers speak for themselves. It’s cool to be in Tel Aviv. It’s an amazing city, and even more amazing for young people. It’s safe, innovative, creative, and the young people’s skills are even more in the forefront there.” Hundreds of people have attended Eisenberg’s events for English-speaking immigrants to Israel in the past five years.

In addition, Israel offers unique technological opportunities that are related to the security situation, such as the development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system. These challenges, which are Israel’s answer to Silicon Valley, are a big draw for young people. Organizations including the Tel Aviv municipality, the Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency recognize the potential, and have begun using the startup-nation brand to attract a new target group to Israel.

As for push factors, they include economic stagnation at home, particularly in Europe where unemployment rates for young people are very high. Israel, in contrast, weathered the 2008 global financial crisis admirably. “Israel kept on developing while the rest of the world was looking for jobs and felt very badly in the United States and Europe — wealthy countries with no job opportunities for young people. The unemployment rate in Israel’s technological field is zero percent, and salaries are high,” says Oren Toledano, head of Israel Tech Challenge, a program in Israel that connects “Jewish students and young professionals with tools and networks meant to enrich or launch their careers in the computer science industry,” according to the organization’s website.

Make me a match

In private, many of the young people who come here and the Israelis they meet say a big motivation is the possibility of meeting a Jewish partner. Over 35 percent of new immigrants to Israel in the past five years were in the 18 to 34 age group, according to a Jewish Agency analysis of Central Bureau of Statistics figures. The figures refer only to first-time new immigrants, not to returning Israelis. In all, 5,900 people in this age group immigrated to Israel between 2006 and 2012. Many came from France, from which a massive wave of immigration is anticipated in the near future.

Israel Tech Challenge offers recent college graduates and young professionals from abroad three tracks.

Tech Challenge Experience, a 12-day trip that “offers top programming students and young professionals the perfect combination of technology, Israel experience, and fun,” according to the website, could be called Birthright for geeks. It’s geared toward 20- to 30-year-olds who are working in companies such as Facebook or Google or studying programming in countries such as the United States, France, Argentina, Brazil and Switzerland.

Instead of visiting the Western Wall, Masada and Mount Herzl, the group spends a day touring Tel Aviv startups, Haifa’s Technion and CyberSpark, the national cyber complex in Be’er Sheva. They go to bars with local techies and visit the R&D centers of multinational companies. They also get to “do high-tech” in hackathons. The latest delegation, which visited Israel about two weeks ago when Operation Protective Edge was at its height, developed solutions for a smart city, sometimes from inside bomb shelters as rocket sirens sounded.

Tech Challenge Interns is a 10-week program for engineering and computer-science students at leading foreign universities. Melissa Weintraub, an informatics student with a concentration in social computing at the University of Michigan, is doing a summer internship in analysis at Paypal Israel in Tel Aviv through the program. Another 15 students have summer internships at Israeli tech firms and startups including Check Point Software Technologies, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and BillGuard. They are staying in apartments in Sheinkin Towers, in central Tel Aviv, rented for them by the Jewish Agency. Weintraub says one of her motivations for choosing an internship in Israel was to check out the possibility of immigrating one day. Although she will be returning to Michigan at the end of the summer, she says she may return.

That is precisely the goal of the Jewish Agency’s tech-sector programs: to attract young Jews to Israel, and not necessarily for aliyah. “At one time, people spoke of aliyah as something final and threatening. Today we know that people all over the world relocate all the time,” says Toledano, who is responsible for finding partners at universities and Jewish groups that focus on technology, such as Jewglers, a group of Jewish “Googlers,” as the tech behemoth’s employees call themselves. Another goal is the formation of an international network of Jewish technology workers — one that already exists, albeit informally, since many of Silicon Valley’s senior figures are Jewish. “These young people usually have a tech-related identity,” Toledano says. “We use the trip to Israel to create a meaningful Jewish experience for them.”

The Jewish Agency’s goal is to bring 100 young Jews to Israel each year for technology programs, most of them short, and eventually to raise that number to 300. The first year-long program kicks off in October. Focusing on the areas of cyber security and big data, it includes a five-month internship at local tech firms.

The short program, which costs participants $3,000 dollars, not including airfare, is funded by private Israeli donors. The internship-only program costs about the same and is funded by foreign donors. The year program receives funding from Masa Israel, which has partnered with the Jewish Agency and the Prime Minister’s Office to encourage young Jews from abroad to come to Israel for a semester or a year. It also receives funding from Startup Nation Central, a nonprofit founded by the authors of “Start-Up Nation.”

‘They kept coding in the bomb shelter’

After young Jews immigrate to Israel, there are organizations to help plug them into the local high-tech and entrepreneurial scene. One of the best-known is Gvahim, which each year gives assistance to around 5,000 new immigrants, most of whom are college graduates or have worked in the tech field. Gvahim runs the startup accelerator TheHive, whose target audience is new immigrants, returning Israelis and other would-be tech entrepreneurs.

“A country of immigrants is a country of entrepreneurs. That’s one of the reasons we’re the startup nation,” says TheHive’s director, Patricia Lahy-Engel, who came to Israel from France. So far, 59 startups, each founded by a new immigrant or returning Israeli, have participated in four cycles of the program in Tel Aviv and Ashdod.

The security situation in Israel in recent weeks is a reminder that Tel Aviv is not Silicon Valley. The “wartime routine” has challenged the prospective immigrants’ positive impression of Israel as the sun-washed startup nation. “There was a question about what we would do with the people who had come here at the start of the war, but there were almost no cancellations,” Toledano says. “During the hackathon, they kept on coding in the bomb shelters when there were sirens outside. They were amazed to see how the Israelis, and Israeli high-tech, kept on functioning. We were a little afraid that it would give them a skewed impression of Israel. The goal is to show them that normal life is possible. In the end, we received admiration and appreciation for what happens in Israel.”

In the Internet economy, fluency in foreign languages is a plus; services can be provided to the entire world from Israel. That gives new immigrants or techies from abroad who come to Israel for a limited period of time an edge in landing jobs or internships at local tech companies in areas such as languages, marketing or business development, even as they contribute to the Israeli economy (by paying taxes, renting apartments or exporting goods and services). Toledano stresses that foreign tech workers will never replace their Israeli counterparts. Instead, they are filling positions that require skills that are in short supply here.

The option of joining startup nation on a permanent basis is open only to people who are defined as Jews in the Law of Return, and that has drawn criticism. “Many non-Jews would like to be interns in Israel, work or establish a startup, and we can’t absorb them because of a problem with visas,” says Lahy-Engel. “This is an enormous momentum for a country that people are interested in and attracted to. Israel is isolated and closed-in. To increase the exchange of knowledge, there needs to be an exchange of people who will come to work in teams here for a time, become familiar with the mentality and go back to their own countries. It will only be good for Israel. From a PR standpoint, it makes people who had once been hostile to Israel or unwilling to hear about it change their minds.”

Debbie Zimelman / Gvahim