Tel Aviv Is Almost All That Glitters for Wannabe Israelis

With its Mediterranean lifestyle, vibrant nightlife and opportunities at cool new startups, the city is the No. 1 go-to place for new immigrants.

Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv, September 17, 2016.
Moti Milrod

Meet Daniel Rubin, in many ways the new face of immigration to Israel.

Originally from Los Angeles, Rubin, 27, moved to Israel a decade ago to study at a Jerusalem yeshiva. In the following years he served in the Israel Defense Forces and bounced back and forth between Israel and the U.S. for college and work.

But last month, he and his wife made aliyah. They settled in Tel Aviv so he could found a startup and they could enjoy the coastal city’s Mediterranean lifestyle. The couple was among about 3,000 new immigrants who made this city home in 2016, helping Tel Aviv earn the title of the “aliyah capital” of Israel for the third straight year.

“Tel Aviv is young, Tel Aviv is fun, Tel Aviv is exciting,” said Rubin. “And I’m from L.A., so I love the beach.”

Rubin’s story reflects recent trends in aliyah. As the wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union has ebbed since the 1990s, immigration has reached historic lows. Among those who have continued coming, a greater ratio have been from Western countries, and they have been more likely to choose to launch their Israel experience in big cities. Tel Aviv, the nation’s cultural capital, is now the favorite destination.

“Israel rescued millions of people from disadvantaged societies in Muslim countries and Eastern Europe,” explained Prof. Sergio DellaPergola, a preeminent scholar of Jewish demography and migration. “But today, Diaspora Jews are overwhelmingly free people, mostly employed and mostly urban. There are no more rural Jews, no more persecuted Jews in ghettos, and therefore the whole migration balance is totally different. Aliyah is voluntary and based on Israel’s capability to offer employment and a good life.”

In the 19th and 20th centuries, Russian pogroms, European anti-Semitism and Nazi persecution helped populate pre-state and early Israel. Its Jewish ranks swelled with consecutive floods of people fleeing the Middle East from the 1950s, Ethiopia from the 1970s and former Soviet Union countries from the 1990s.

Daniel Rubin.
Noi Arkobi/JTA

In recent years, anti-Semitism in France and the war in Ukraine have contributed to another uptick in aliyah, with Russian immigration hitting a 10-year high in 2016. But the general trend since the early 1990s is downward. Immigration from the former Soviet Union has largely run its course – after bringing almost a million newcomers to Israel – and overall, numbers have reached lows only seen before in the 1980s, according to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Meanwhile, immigration to Israel from Western countries – mostly Europe and the United States – has remained relatively steady. Therefore, new arrivals from those places now account for a much larger proportion of the total, and they apparently prefer big Israeli cities.

Since 1989, no city has attracted more than 4 percent of new immigrants, with Tel Aviv – the second most-populous city, with about half as many residents as Jerusalem – getting just 3 percent. But in 2016, Tel Aviv was the destination for 12 percent of new immigrants. The next three most popular cities were Jerusalem (10 percent), Netanya (9 percent) and Haifa (8 percent), according to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

In interviews with about a dozen people who had recently made aliyah to Tel Aviv or were considering doing so, the city’s startup scene and liberal, cosmopolitan lifestyle were cited as the biggest draws.

After a year in Jerusalem, Rubin and his wife, Talia, 23, moved to Tel Aviv. They loved Jerusalem, Rubin explained, and its modern Orthodox community. But only in Tel Aviv could he launch The Pub Hub, his startup that turns bars into co-working spaces during the daytime. He opened the first location in December on Rothschild Boulevard, the city’s most happening thoroughfare.

“The vibe here – the energy and the opportunities – you just can’t find anywhere else,” he said.

Biz, buzz and bars

A café on the popular Rothschild Boulevard.
David Bachar

Tel Aviv is the financial and business center of Israel, which has weathered the global recession better than many countries. Israel’s economy has grown by an average of nearly 4 percent annually over the past 13 years, and unemployment has fallen almost to 5 percent.

Much credit goes to the startups. According to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, the city is home to about 1,450 of the country’s 5,000 early-stage companies, which is more than one startup for every 300 residents – the highest ratio of any city in the world. Many of those startups look to reach the international market, providing plenty of jobs for native English speakers.

Groups that seek to attract young people to Israel have recognized the opportunity. Birthright Israel, which brings young Jews to visit the country free of charge, started an entrepreneurship program last year in Tel Aviv called Excel Ventures. And Nefesh B’Nefesh, the aliyah-services provider, said it is opening a new office in the city within weeks to cater to the growing number of American, Canadian and British immigrants.

What those interviewed seemed to most appreciate was Tel Aviv’s lifestyle – the cafes, the nightlife and the beaches, plus the prevalence of English speakers. The city boasts 1,748 cafes, bars and nightclubs – one for every 230 residents – along with some 1,500 restaurants, according to the municipality.

Uri Gafni, an official for Birthright’s Excel, summed up the situation thus: “Tel Aviv embodies many of the things these young professionals are looking for when they come to Israel – they want the nightlife and the bars and the beach, and this delicate balance between lifestyle and work in an environment that is liberal and open to a variety of people from all over the world.”

“I think it’s easier for secular Jews around the world to relate to Tel Aviv than to Jerusalem. It’s much sexier for Jews to hang out in Tel Aviv, where they can finish the day and go drink a beer on Rothschild,” added Gafni.

Although Tel Aviv is said to attract a secular crowd, a growing number of Orthodox Jews like Rubin are coming to the city, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh officials. Seventeen percent of those they helped make aliyah in the past two years were Orthodox, the agency’s numbers show – similar to the community’s representation in all of the country.

Tel Aviv’s municipality has made a number of investments aimed at improving quality of life in recent years, such as introducing bike sharing, renovating the central Dizengoff Square to make it more pedestrian friendly, and creating open-air markets. At the same time, it has branded Tel Aviv as a “world city,” perhaps most effectively with Pride Week, which attracted more than 200,000 revelers and a handful of American celebrities in 2016.

A downside of all this choice, from an aliyah perspective, is that people can also choose to leave. According to DellaPergola, many immigrants to Tel Aviv return to their home countries at some point, or to move back and forth. Even those who build a life in Israel often get priced out of the city, where already high housing prices leaped 13 percent last summer as compared to 2015. The internal migration rate from Tel Aviv to other parts of the country is among the highest of any city in Israel, the professor noted.

The good news for Tel Aviv, he said, is that those who leave have in recent decades been replaced by new generations eager for their turn at life in the big city.