Out of Exile: Meet the Israeli Ex-pats Who Are Heading Home Again

A New York convention for expatriates who are considering moving back from 'exile' draws hundreds of people whose hearts are in the East, while their bodies are on the East Coast.

Dan Keinan

NEW YORK – “Israel: For All the Reasons in the World,” trumpets a huge banner that greets the approximately 500 Israelis who have showed up for the annual convention for “returning residents” sponsored by Israel’s Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

At the Crowne Plaza on Broadway, spitting distance from Times Square and the theater district, you can catch the best show in town: The hundreds of Israelis gathered on the hotel’s second floor, people who have left the country and are now debating whether to return. Meanwhile, one floor up, more than 1,200 American Jews have assembled to hear talks on “The Advantages of Aliyah” and “Tax and Customs Benefits for Olim,” organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency.

In talking with the Israelis considering going back, the words that come up most often are “loneliness,” “family” and “homesickness.” For their part, the prospective American olim talk enthusiastically about “Zionism,” “vocation” and “self-fulfillment.”

Immigrant Absorption Ministry data show that in the past decade, 76,155 Israelis and their children have come back as “returning residents,” including more than 5,000 academics and more than 7,000 others who work in medicine or other health fields. Conversations held with dozens of Israelis paint a complex picture of this new wave of old-new Israelis, those who left their home for many years and have now decided that their homeland awaits them.

The convention took place on Sunday, March 15, two days before the Israeli election, but the date had been set long before, and Ella Saban, director of the Absorption Ministry’s returning-Israelis department, says domestic politics do not play a part in the decision to move back to Israel.

At 11 A.M. those who are contemplating moving back, and others who are already registered as returning residents – legally defined as Israeli citizens age 17 and older, who have lived abroad for at least two years consecutively – assemble in the lobby to the sounds of the Hebrew song “Kama Tov She’bata Habayita” (“How Good That You’re Coming Home”) and other songs intended to pull the right heartstrings.

The refreshments are minimal – hot drinks and sweets, strategically located near various information booths: the National Insurance Institute, employment counseling services, a program for returning academics, and programs for teens such as Gar’in Tzabar, which helps children of Israelis who grew up in America to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces as lone soldiers.

The longest line is at the customs booth, where an Absorption Ministry representative is patiently explaining the customs benefits the state offers returning residents. The customs exemption applies to just two shipments of “household objects,” so the official manning the booth finds himself answering an endless stream of questions along the lines of, “Is a walker considered a ‘household object’?” or “How many laptops am I allowed to bring?”

Growing old in Philly

Avi Ashkenazi. Photo by Dan Keinan

“I left Israel in 2001 to do a fellowship in neurology in New Hampshire,” says Avi Ashkenazi, 53, a neurologist who has lived in Philadelphia for more than a decade. “I came here after a residency at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem and I got onto a good professional path relatively quickly here – first as a doctor and later as an academic, too. Now I have to decide whether I want to settle here for good and grow old in a Philadelphia suburb, or go back to Israel.”

What are the main factors influencing your decision?

“First of all, I have a 14-year-old son in Israel, and I’d like to be closer to him. Besides that, life in Philadelphia isn’t always so easy. My neighborhood is meant for families and I’m living there alone now. Yes, the quality of life is good, but it’s not necessarily the kind of life that suits me. Professionally, too, I feel like I’m in a place that’s not challenging enough. In America there are lots of issues connected to obtaining a medical license: Every state has its own rules and it’s not easy to move from one hospital to another.

“But the main reason is loneliness: I miss my sister and my childhood friends in Israel. My parents, who live in Herzliya, are now in their 80s, and that’s another very significant reason for me to return.”

Were you in Israel during Operation Protective Edge, last summer?

“Yes, I arrived just as the rockets were falling, but I have to say that this didn’t influence my decision. War in Israel is nothing new. I served in the IDF and I was in Lebanon. I’m familiar with this situation. Every place has its difficulties. At least in Israel, the difficulties are familiar to me.”

The things mentioned by Ashkenazi – loneliness versus family, professional development, and the security situation – feature prominently in practically every conversation with other attendees.

The majority of attendees at the convention appear to be in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and middle to upper middle class. Some left Israel just a few years ago for studies or professional advancement; others have been living in America for more than two decades. Most of those interviewed said that they had stable jobs and a pretty good life in New York, Washington or Philadelphia. So, a return to Israel would be out of choice and not necessity.

“Almost everyone returns eventually,” Yael Sherry, director of Habayit Hayisraeli (“Israeli House,” one of 13 Absorption Ministry-run, community cultural centers around the world) in New York, and one of the conference organizers, says with a smile.

Are there certain things that returning residents have in common? Is there a specific profile?

Ella Saban: “Everyone has his own story. The Israeli in New York is not the same as the Israeli in Los Angeles, and a father of four is not the same as a young single guy who just finished his doctorate. There’s no typical profile of the returning resident. Generally, in Boston, New York and the big cities, we mainly deal with academics, and in Los Angeles there are more small-business owners and self-employed people.

“I’ve also been seeing something else: Israelis in their 70s or 80s who’ve decided to go home because they want to live out the last part of their lives in Israel. In the last few years, the ministry has assisted several dozen Israelis over age 75 return to Israel each year.”

In Israel, the derogatory term yordim (those who “go down” by leaving Israel) has yet to disappear from use. But there’s no longer any trace of “the fallout of weaklings” – Yitzhak Rabin’s phrase, used in a 1976 Israel Independence Day interview. The attitude of government ministries toward returning residents has changed substantially.

Saban explains: “In 2007, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon asked people to stop referring to Israelis abroad as yordim, and to relate to them as part of the Diaspora.”

An Absorption Ministry spokesperson says that millions of shekels have been budgeted for handling returning residents “because the ministry views Israelis who live abroad as a ... national asset that can strengthen the country. In recent years, the ministry has been investing a lot of resources to help ease their return. The ministry has also launched two campaigns to encourage Israelis living abroad to return: The first was in 2010 and cost about a million shekels [roughly $270,000 then]. The second campaign, in 2011, involved an investment of NIS 2,850,000. The data show that the campaigns had a positive influence on the number of Israelis who chose to return to Israel.”

The PR campaign in the months preceding the current convention was also quite aggressive – Israelis living abroad who surfed Hebrew websites couldn’t escape a slew of ads calling on them to “come home.” The advertising campaign also included Facebook groups and a brief video titled “Deep Down – We’re Always Israelis.”

These campaigns join a host of other initiatives, chiefly the establishment of the government-sponsored Israel National Brain Gain Program and Center for Absorption in Science, both aimed at helping scientists find work in their fields.

“The numbers grew significantly after the first campaign in 2010,” says Saban. “And it definitely also has to do with the recession in the United States. From 2005-2008, a little under 5,000 Israelis returned each year, but in 2010-2011, nearly 10,000 returned each year – a record number for the Absorption Ministry.”

Saban, who is in charge of contact with the 13 Israeli Houses worldwide, adds that the fear of anti-Semitism is a much more important factor in Europe. “According to the current figures, the number of Israelis wishing to return from Europe has tripled since last year. In America, anti-Semitism doesn’t play much of a role.”

Ella Saban, left, with Yael Sherry. Photo by Dan Keinan

Puzzling out the red tape

At around 2 P.M., the attendees fill the lecture hall to hear a talk by representatives of the National Insurance Institute. The questions posed by members of the audience give an indication of how varied the population of returning residents is, and what their different needs are.

At a discussion on customs benefits, one young woman with a baby in a carrier asked whether same-sex couples are also eligible to receive the benefits, even though the law refers to “husband and wife.” At a session about income tax benefits, one woman asked if some of the benefits could be transferred to her non-Jewish spouse. In both instances, the speakers replied that Israel does not discriminate against single-sex or mixed couples, but that the benefits apply solely to the person who is legally considered a “returning resident.”

To cater to young families at the convention, children and toddlers are invited to watch a play and take part in other activities while their parents try to puzzle out all the bureaucratic implications of moving back to Israel. Ziv Shulman, 37, and his wife Sivan, 36, who brought along their two young children, moved to the U.S. four years ago when Ziv came to Rockefeller University to do a post-doctoral fellowship in molecular immunology.

“I was recently offered a position at the Weizmann Institute, so we’ve decided to go back and to live in Rehovot,” he says. “From the start, we came here with an open mind. We had a baby and we weren’t sure how long we wanted to stay. We basically decided to go wherever I would find work.”

Do you plan to stay in Israel?

Sivan: “In principle, yes, but if Israel continues moving in a nationalist direction and becomes a place where it’s impossible to live, we won’t stay at any cost. When we went to visit last July there was talk about rockets being able to hit the airport, so the security situation definitely concerns us.”

“But the economic situation is a lot more worrisome,” interjects Ziv. “Sending the kids to the IDF is not easy either, but I’m prepared to fight for my country. On the other hand, I’m not willing to be a sucker and feel like I’m defending my country and contributing to it, while my tax money is used to fund groups that don’t deserve it.”

For you, will returning to Israel mark an improvement or decline in quality of life?

“In terms of education, it’ll definitely be a decline,” says Sivan. “Our son goes to a preschool in New York where there are three teachers for 10 kids, and in Israel he’ll be in a preschool with three teachers for 28 kids, and that’s considered good. But on the other hand, in Israel we have our family and other support systems, so it’s more complicated than that.”

While a couple of hundred people are filling the lecture halls, Asher Zlotnick is answering questions at the Gar’in Tzabar booth. “The program began in 1991 with 18 youths who grew up in Israeli families in the U.S. and decided that the American path of high school-college-career wasn’t for them. They made aliyah and lived for a year on a kibbutz and then enlisted in the IDF,” he says.

“Now the groups include hundreds of ‘lone soldiers’ [soldiers with no immediate family members in Israel] who get a support framework and a social framework through our activity. In 2014, we had 400 participants, and 80 percent of them are now serving in combat units.”

Are they aware that they could get hurt or killed, like Sean Carmeli and Max Steinberg, the lone soldiers who were killed in last year’s Gaza war?

“Yes, but it’s their decision. We don’t recruit anyone. We just help anyone who’s already made the decision to enlist and to serve, by offering them much more support. Besides the social support, we also have a program called Ulpan Makdim, which helps them learn Hebrew before their enlistment.”

How many of them choose to remain in Israel after the army?

“In recent years, about 60 percent have been staying in Israel and going on to pursue higher education there. I thought of staying after my army service to study at Tel Aviv University, but then I was accepted at Columbia University and decided to come back to the States,” he says.

Zlotnick cuts short the interview so he can speak with a couple who are parents of teenagers.

‘Powerful loneliness’

Not far away, in the ever-growing line by the customs booth, I find Adi Lederman and Amnon Maltz, who moved to New York six years ago.

“I finished my doctorate in economics at NYU and found a job at the University of Haifa, so we decided to go back,” Maltz explains. “There’s something about family and friends, and the feeling of home, that’s drawing us back, and we have two young sons who were born here.”

Lederman, a social worker, says she’s still in denial about returning. “People often say that the kids acclimate faster than the parents, and I’m hoping that’s what will happen,” she says. “It’s a very hard decision. It’s a fundamental question of where it’s better to raise your kids today. For us, the answer is in Israel, but we know a lot of people for whom the answer is absolutely the United States. We have a lot of Israeli friends who know for certain that they’re never moving back. But the loneliness here can be very powerful, and at the end of the day, I don’t really feel at home here. I’m not part of the American culture – and I’m not sure I want to assimilate into it.”

What will you miss the most?

Maltz: “The excellent education, and also the courtesy and privacy. We live on the Upper West Side [of Manhattan], and the quality of life is really high there.”

Could the outcome of the election influence your decision at all?

“Like I said, I’m in denial,” Lederman jokes. “The kids have U.S. citizenship and I have European citizenship, and Amnon works in academia, so if there’s really no choice, I guess we could emigrate again.”

Besides family ties, some people are motivated by a sense of mission. Oren Heiman, a lawyer, moved to New York 16 years ago to pursue a career. Six years ago, he met an Israeli woman named Tal. They married and their daughter Liri was born not long ago. Heiman is chairman of Mo’etza Mekomit, an umbrella organization of the Israeli community in New York.

“The time has come for me to do the things I’m always preaching,” he says. “My original plan was to return to Israel after 20 years in America, but Tal’s had enough so we decided to do it in the 18th year of my stay here. Liri was born at Ichilov Hospital, as we planned: We wanted her to be Israeli from birth.”

Tal, standing beside him, adds: “It’s a lot easier to make a living here. I’m an economist at a local branch of a British investment bank. On the other hand, in Israel there are a lot more chances to make a difference. A smaller place has its advantages.”

Adds Oren: “The business and environmental culture in Israel really worries me. There’s not enough openness, consciousness about offering service, or pluralism. I see it as a mission to bring with me ideas that could bring about change in these areas – how to accept others, how to conduct a political debate. We talk about tikkun olam [making the world a better place] and wanting to help the earthquake victims in Haiti, but it’s not always applied in Israel. I want to be involved in public service and not just look after my own interests.”

Is it possible you’ll come back to Israel for a year or two and then leave again?

Oren: “I’m not ruling anything out. Immigration isn’t a linear thing, it’s a circular thing. If you look at the numbers, there’s a more-or-less balanced turnover between people leaving and people returning. I recently helped launch a site called The Eighth Million. One of its aims is to get members of Knesset to sign a declaration stating that the Israeli diaspora is a strategic asset, and to stop the usage of the derogatory term yordim.

“The point of that word is to cut us off from the group, even though we’re really all one group. The decision to return isn’t necessarily the last word. We live in a global age and there are different kinds of life opportunities. If there are reasons to come back again, or just not to stay, we might move again.”

Living the dream

At 4 P.M., most of the potential returning residents have left the convention and Shana Karkovsky, recruitment manager for the Israel National Brain Gain Program, is speaking to a near-empty hall. Meanwhile, at the aliyah convention on the floor above, things are heating up: Each of the 1,200 participants has been invited to place a slip of paper in a white box, and now seven airline tickets to Israel, donated by El Al, are about to be raffled off. You could cut the tension with a knife. As they wait for the drawing to begin, the prospective immigrants visit the various booths offering tips on employment and real estate.

At one booth, a middle-aged woman is sitting beside a huge picture of a pastoral scene featuring a lake surrounded by green fields. The caption reads: “Modi’in: The Center of Israel.” She pulls out a map and shows an older American couple where the city is located, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “It’s right in the center,” she says. “It’s the city of the future.”

They don’t seem quite convinced, but they do pick up a brochure that says in Hebrew, “Modi’in: People Building a City.” An emcee begins to pull names out of the box and each time he calls out a name, the crowd erupts in applause. When the raffle is over, the crowd of hundreds quickly scatters, leaving the floor strewn with blue Nefesh B’Nefesh bags emblazoned with the slogan “Aliyah: Live the Dream.”

Reversing the brain drain

At the start of the decade, the Israeli Council for Higher Education introduced its multiyear (2010-2016) reform plan with much fanfare. The stated goal: to fight the brain drain and help people with college degrees who’ve left Israel to return and find work in academia and industry.

“We’re not too fond of the term ‘brain drain,’” says Shana Karkovsky, one of the program’s administrators with a smile. “That term usually refers to PhD researchers who are looking for positions in academia, and we also work a lot with people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees who want to work in industry. Also, the word ‘brain’ is a little cold. We work with people, not brains.”

The Israel National Brain Gain Program was launched in June 2013 and allotted funding for five years, partly in response to an Israel Central Bureau of Statistics report that, in 2011, 22,154 Israeli college graduates (3.6 percent of the total number of people who obtained degrees between 1985 and 2010) were living abroad. The funding is jointly provided by the Chief Scientist’s Office, the Absorption Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the Council for Higher Education, and the Ministry of Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee. In its first year, the program helped 294 Israeli researchers to return, but only 160 found work.

“In the two years we’ve been running the program, we’ve received thousands of inquiries,” says Karkovsky. “There are people who’ve done some very impressive things abroad, but for all sorts of reasons they have trouble finding work in Israel. The more educated and experienced they are, the harder it is for them to find work that will satisfy them professionally and meet their salary expectations. Many of them have been away for years, so they’re a bit out of the loop in terms of positions that are opening up. The program’s aim is to find out what the industry’s needs are and to connect employers with academics.”

In Israel, there’s a sense that the brain drain is actually on the rise.

“Our figures tell a different story. A special bureau of statistics report for the program done in October 2013 showed a decrease in the number of Israeli academics living abroad between 2008 and 2011: In 2008, there were 22,000 Israelis had been living abroad for more than three years. In 2011, this number was down to a little under 20,000. So there’s no increase.”

There’s an ongoing debate concerning the shrinking budgets and tenure track positions in the humanities. Does your program try to assist in these areas too?

“If the applicants have a PhD, we’ll try to find them a position in academia, but if there’s no practical application for it in the labor market, it’s definitely a problem. We mainly work with scientists and researchers with background in the exact sciences. Our goal is to identify obstacles and problems, and to propose ways for improvement. We’re trying to identify trends. For instance, we know that it’s very hard for biologists to go back, because there aren’t enough jobs in industry for people with doctorates in the field, so there’s a gap between supply and demand.

“Generally speaking, we try to work with as many potential employers as possible – universities, colleges, research institutes – and compile a list of all the available positions. In the last two years, in wake of the Trajtenberg report, the Planning and Budgeting Committee has increased the number of positions. But like I said, our focus is to try to help researches who haven’t found a position in academia to get into industry.”

How do you convince Israeli researchers to return?

“The program doesn’t try to convince anyone to return to Israel. Our job is to map out the obstacles that are preventing academics who wish to return from finding work. Ultimately, it’s a very personal decision that everyone makes for himself. We’re not running a PR campaign. What we do is collect all the information in order to make it easier for someone who’s already made the decision to return.”