Life After Aliyah: What Does It Take to Make It in Israel?

Trials, tribulations and tips for immigrants to acclimate to a new life in Israel. First thing to keep in mind: Don't cry when a bureaucrat is mean to you.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

Her father, Jill Ben-Dor recalls, once took note that her refrigerator was always stocked with Israeli products, while her sister’s was perpetually filled with American brands. It struck him as unusual since her sister had been living in Israel longer.

Many years later, Ben-Dor wondered whether her father’s observation might provide the key to explaining why she stuck it out, while all the other members of her family, her sister included, eventually packed up and moved back to the United States.

“My father and sisters had this tendency to think, no matter where they were, that the grass was always greener somewhere else,” notes Ben-Dor, 53, who heads the department of donor and associate affairs at Ben-Gurion University and lives in Be'er Sheva's affluent southern suburb of Meitar.

“I, on the other hand, made a conscious decision that this is where I am, and this is home. If I’m going to be here, I’m going to be Israeli all the way. I’m going to eat Israeli products, read books and newspapers in Hebrew, watch the news on TV in Hebrew and live like an Israeli.”

Ben-Dor, married to a native-born Israeli and the mother of three grown sons, will be marking her 30th anniversary in the country this October. Her conscious effort to go local and resist the temptation among immigrants to draw comparisons with the places they came from goes a long way, she believes, toward explaining her successful integration into Israeli society.

Accurate figures on aliyah retention rates from English-speaking countries are hard to come by since many immigrants who leave Israel do so quietly without reporting their decision to the authorities.

Chaim Waxman, a retired professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University, has published extensively on aliyah from the United States and even made the move himself, relocating to Jerusalem full time seven years ago.

His and other research shows that retention rates were lower before the 1990s, rose dramatically that decade, and dropped off in the early 2000s.

"Until the 1990s, about 38 percent of Americans who came on aliyah went back within three to five years,” says Waxman. “The main reasons at the time were being away from family they missed and the Israeli bureaucracy.”

The rate dropped to 10 percent in the 1990s – “before there was even Nefesh B’Nefesh,” notes Waxman, referring to the organization that handles immigration from North America and Britain on behalf of the government. “One of the factors was that by then many people already had family members here and they were following brothers and sisters who had already come," Waxman says. "Also there was more cultural pluralism in Israel by then, and you didn’t have to learn Hebrew right away or become Israeli right away, as you did in the past.”

Another factor was a significant reduction in the bureaucracy encountered by new immigrants, Waxman says. “My estimate is that about 20 percent go back today,” he says.

The factors behind higher rates of return have also changed. “Based on my impressions, the main reasons are the higher cost of housing, the deterioration in the school systems here, religious friction among different streams of Orthodoxy, and the fact that many of the immigrants coming today, for example those who come after participating in Birthright, are less ideologically motivated," Waxman says. "They come more for personal reasons.”

It's different for men and women

The ability to maintain a sense of continuity after the move is often what separates those who make it in Israel from those who don’t, notes Sophie Walsh, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Bar-Ilan University who has studied immigration from English-speaking countries closely.

“When you make a move like this, you lose part of yourself,” she says. “It often involves giving up careers, salary, status, family and friends. The better you are able to hold on to a similar career, maintain a comparable status and rebuild your social networks, the more you feel like you’re staying yourself and the easier it is.”

According to the research, social and professional factors carry different weight for women and men. “For women the ability to build close relationships after the move is often the most critical thing, while for men it’s generally about maintaining their professional status and financial success,” Walsh says.

Like others who advise new immigrants, Neil Gillman says the character trait that often distinguishes those who succeed is flexibility. “We’re talking about knowing how to move on after that first unpleasant encounter at the bank, about being able to embrace differences and accepting that it is what it is,” says Gillman, who oversees immigration from English-speaking countries at the Jewish Agency.

Resilience is also crucial, maintains Walsh. “The ability to get up after you’ve fallen down is critical because there are so many blows along the way,” she says.

Wendy Serlin, who 20 years ago moved to Israel with her family from Silver Springs, Maryland, was among the first Americans to make Beit Shemesh their home base. A social worker by training, she has also worked with organizations over the years that support and counsel English-speaking immigrants.

Based on her experiences, people who have a tougher time adjusting tend to thrive on planning and order in their lives, she says.

“A lot of people come from America where they’re used to deciding a year ahead what they’re going to be doing the following summer and what camps their kids will be going to,” notes the mother of five. “It just doesn’t work like that here. If you want to make a go of it in Israel, you have to know how to flow.”

The other trait critical for success is thick skin, adds Serlin. “You have to let some of the hardness of native Israelis roll off you and not burst into tears every time they say something offensive,” she says.

Looking back at her own immigration experience, integrating into Israeli society would probably have been smoother had she not ended up in an English-speaking enclave, she says. “I would have liked to have had more Israelis around, but if the choice is between being in an Anglo community in Israel or being in New York, I think this is still better.”

Skype helps, too

A successful immigration experience, the experts maintain, often depends on how old new immigrants are when they make the move. “The younger you are, the easier it is,” says Dorron Kline, the deputy director of Telfed, the Israeli arm of the South African Zionist Federation. “I always recommend the sooner the better. Going to university here, the army experience – those are all formative experiences that help in acclimatization.”

Coming as a single person or as a parent also makes a huge difference, immigration counselors say. Families have built-in support systems that single people do not; on the other hand, singles aren't pressured by the responsibility of providing for others. Since they have only themselves to account for, singles also have an easier time leaving if things don’t work out.

A key factor behind the overall trend of higher aliyah retention rates is that new immigrants today have much greater access to information, Gillman adds.

“Being well-prepared and having realistic expectations are the key to a successful aliyah experience, and the two go hand in hand," he says. "There’s a tremendous amount of information out there now on the Internet and through Facebook groups. We even have people who set their kids up with Israeli buddies on Skype before they make the move to make the transition easier.”

Strong religious convictions, notes Kline, can also be an asset during difficult times. “Because of their strong ideological bent, religious people often seem to stand up to the challenges of aliyah better,” he says.

Rivkah Lambert, who moved to Ma’aleh Adumim two years ago from Baltimore with two grown children, finds it particularly challenging making the adjustment as a middle-aged woman.

“Because my Hebrew skills are still weak, there’s this constant low-level tension every time I need to communicate with Israelis,” she says. Lambert, who writes a blog about her immigration experiences, says one of her most popular entries was about the challenges of finding garbage bags suitable for the size of Israeli trash bins.

But that, she notes, is the price she pays for the privilege of living in Israel. “The more I live here, the more I see that the truest Torah life can only be lived here, and the more I’m convinced that spiritually there’s no better place for a Jewish person to live,” she says.

In many ways, immigrants from English-speaking countries face a new set of challenges these days. Decades ago, the move to Israel almost inevitably entailed a dramatic drop in a person or family’s standard of living. There were months to wait before receiving a phone line, basic products were sometimes unavailable at the supermarket, and don't forget the notorious Israeli bureaucracy. Much of that has changed as Israel has gained a foothold in the global economy.

Making a living has also become somewhat easier, with online work and telecommuting increasingly popular options for new immigrants today. “Gone are the days when you used to have to resign from your job in order to move to Israel,” notes Gillman. “People are now bringing their income with them.”

Defining success in aliyah can be tricky, says Josie Arbel, director of absorption services and programming at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. For some, it means nothing more than scraping together a living and putting food on the table, while for others, it means effecting change in Israeli society. “It’s a lot about the goals you set for yourself,” she says.

As Gillman notes, the distinction between success and failure isn't so clear cut anymore. “These days people have footholds in lots of place,” he says. “They go to one place, have a great time and move on after two or three years. Years ago that would have been considered a case of failure. Today it no longer is."

Based on his personal experience and extensive research, Waxman says the following is a tried-and-true formula for successful aliyah:

Spending time in Israel before you decided when you want to come on aliyah.

Loving Jews.

Loving Jewish history.

Having family and friends in Israel.

Having a good sense of humor.

Making a commitment to stay once you’ve come on aliyah.

Having skills that are marketable and a source of income.

Speaking Hebrew helps.

A group of retirees who made aliyah shortly after landing in Israel with Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, center, co-founder of Nefesh B'Nefesh, and Effie Stenzler, right, the world chairman of JNF.Credit: Courtesy Nefesh B\'Nefesh

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