Some U.S. immigrants to Israel chase both the Zionist dream and an American paycheck
On late Saturday nights at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, a handful of regulars on the El Al flight to New York gather and wave to each other in recognition. They make this trans-Atlantic journey every week, returning each Friday morning to be home with their families for Shabbat. They belong to a small but growing subculture of mostly Orthodox American men who have moved with their families to Israel but have kept their jobs in the United States.
There are no exact figures on how many recent American immigrants commute, but according to Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that oversees North American aliyah, the trend has risen in recent years. The group estimates that some 20 to 30 percent of the more than 16,000 Americans of working age who moved to Israel in the past five years are commuters. In cities like Raanana and Modiin, which are home to large Modern Orthodox American communities, there is a critical mass of such families.
“For me I don’t think there could have been any other route to aliyah,” said Danny Block, 46, a dentist who maintains his practice in Forest Hills, Queens and has done so for the past four years, though he says this is not a permanent situation. “The point is to live in Israel. I’m not doing it because I’m nuts.”
Among the “ultra-commuters,” as Block calls his tribe, are doctors, lawyers, real-estate brokers, school principals, and small-business owners who work all over the country, from Los Angeles to Baltimore. In their 30s and 40s, most had always planned to make aliyah, feeling an emotional pull to be part of a Jewish state, but got around to moving only after starting families and establishing themselves professionally.
Many of these commuters, though, took steps to pull up stakes and move to Israel only when their children were small, when they foresaw the looming cost of Jewish day-school tuition in the United States; it can reach up to $30,000 a year. In Israel, on the other hand, Jewish education is free, or close to it. A public-school track caters to the Modern Orthodox, providing instruction in both secular and religious studies. Semi-private schools and yeshivas receive some public funding; tuition at such schools costs roughly $1,200 a year.
Even with the relatively high cost of flying and the expense of maintaining two households, the math still adds up in favor of commuting, the families say. Some of the commuters are in frequent-flyer programs and get free trips. Some live with roommates or crash with family members to keep costs down while they are in the United States.
In addition to their financial rationales for moving, these commuting families understood that it would be harder to make aliyah when their children were older and had already established strong social networks. Yet keeping jobs in the States seemed to make sense to them.
Salaries are significantly lower in Israel. “The joke is whatever you make in the United States, take off a zero,” said David Gichton, 47, an anesthesiologist from Baltimore who made aliyah last summer. Physicians, for example, who make up a significant number of the commuting population, estimate that many of them, particularly specialists, who can command $200,000 to $300,000 salaries in the United States would make about a third of that in Israel. A family doctor earning about $100,000 in the United States could expect about half as much.
“Some look at the prospect of starting over again professionally and don’t know whether they can do it,” said Joy Epstein, a social worker who is the clinical supervisor for social services at Nefesh B’Nefesh. Commuters may also be reluctant to give up their work in the States because of the challenge of making their way professionally in a foreign language.
The women in such households seek each other out. There are “commuting wives” groups where participants discuss the challenges of starting new lives in Israel and taking care of their families while their husbands are abroad. Some spend holiday and Shabbat meals together when their spouses are away and trade pieces of advice when they feel overwhelmed by their stints as single moms.
“There is a very big support system,” said Esther Morris, 43, and a mother of five living in Raanana, a city near Tel Aviv. “It’s become a lifestyle,” Morris made aliyah in 2004 from Boca Raton, Florida. Her husband, a physician, used to fly back there two weeks of every month. Recently he left his practice and began work as an American company’s medical director, which has allowed him to commute less frequently and spend more time in Israel.
In Hashmonim, a settlement just inside the West Bank, roughly half the families come from the United States and other English-speaking countries. Gigi Tover, who made aliyah six years ago from Los Angeles, figures about a third to even one half of those have a commuting spouse.
She, like her husband, is an accountant, but she took both a salary cut and position cut when she started working at an Israeli firm while her husband commuted back to California.
Her husband, meantime, “continues with his regular contacts and a salary much higher than the one he would have in Israel. We are doing this not only for economic reasons but also for the sake of his career and job satisfaction,” said Tover. “But I hope this is not the 21st-century version of aliyah. I would love Israel to have the type of economy that can sustain its citizens. I just don’t understand how Israelis live on the average income here.” The median yearly household income is $37,000. In the United States it is just over $50,000.
The Tovers have six children, who range in age from 7 to 23, and the prospect of a free Jewish education in Israel was a relief. “Day school was a big consideration, of course,” as was the cost of college education, which averages $3,000 a year in Israel. But the Tovers also considered “the plain values of living here,” she said, referring to what she sees as the “superficial values that pervade American Jewry.”
But despite the strain of travel and intermittent parental absence, many commuting families speak of the unexpected benefits for of their situation. When the commuting parent is home, he is often not working at all and is therefore more available to his children and wife. “When I’m home I’m with the kids all afternoon, which was not the case when we lived in the United States,” said David Gichton, who has four sons and commutes to Baltimore one week a month.
Like so many similar commuters, Gichton would eventually like to work more locally. “That’s the hope, but the reality of the situation is that you have to pay to put food on the table,” he said.
Dina Kraft is journalist based in Tel Avivl. She contributes to the New York Times, the JTA, and the Sunday Telegraph and blogs on Israeli politics and culture for the Faster Times.