Sweetening the Deal
Israel provides Americans making aliyah with financial incentives and logistical support in a bid to make immigration not just an ideological choice but a material one as well
For now, because her youngest child is still in elementary school, the most important aspect for Debbie and her husband is finding a good school in a part of the country the family can afford. But she’s also held on to a few of her more fanciful ambitions, like opening up her dream restaurant. “I really don’t want to have to work in an office if I don’t have to.” And in any case, she tells me, if it doesn’t work out, the United States will still be here. “There’s always the possibility of going back,” she offers.
When I first spot Meir, a tall, thin man in his mid-50s, he is sitting in Philip Stein’s tax seminar, straight-backed and fully focused. After the presentation, he approaches Stein, waiting in line to ask him questions. Several hours later, he’s still here, attending a final seminar on aliyah eligibility. Meanwhile I meander through the halls, waiting for the session to end and admiring a set of life-size cardboard cutouts showing groups of olim enthusiastically disembarking at Ben Gurion. “Building Israel one person at a time,” proclaims the print above their heads. At the end of the hallway, the bloc of sparsely decorated offices reminds me of a television set.
“I don’t expect it’s going to happen,” Meir answers when I ask if he anticipates making aliyah in the near future. His seminar over, we sit in an empty room downstairs as the last of the event attendees file out to the flat, suburban parking lot. As we talk, a janitor wheels a garbage bin in and begins stacking chairs, silently fanning open the partition separating Conference Room B from Conference Room C. Outside, the sun has set, and the view from the windows is a somber winter gray.
“I was one of these people who thought I was going to go after college,” Meir says, explaining that he first became passionate about Israel as a teenager in Chicago day school. His feelings only intensified when he went to study in Israel after high school for a year, ultimately staying to study in yeshiva for another two. But then he came back for college, got married, started a career as a software engineer, bought a house in upstate New York, and had five children. “So, here I am now, 55; it hasn’t happened, and I’ve still got kids in high school.”
Meir’s speech has an almost despondent, confessional quality. I sense that the thought of the distance between him and his imagined homeland is physically painful to him. “And then over the last couple years is the economic situation,” he adds. “I still have a job, but it’s tenuous, you never know how long it’s going to last. If my employer decided, ta ta, nice knowing you, that would change things.”
Meir tells me that he came to today’s event hoping that the new tax benefits might provide him with a safe way to move to Israel while hanging on to his job. With disappointment in his voice, he informs me that the benefits would not affect him. As Stein explained in his seminar, any income earned while on Israeli soil is still eligible for taxation by the Israeli government. “It’s nice to know that Israel is not going to be taking it twice,” he says, somewhat dismissively.
Like Debbie Rapps, Meir’s primary motivations for moving to Israel are religious. “Always have been, always will be,” he tells me. “I believe as an Orthodox Jew that Israel is the place to be.” Two of his children have lived in Israel, and his 18-year-old daughter is there now, studying in seminary in Jerusalem, which he pronounces “Yerushalayim.” When he speaks of his children’s time in Israel, his face lights up with the same kind of soft-spoken, bookish eagerness he displays when boasting of having had one of the earliest Yahoo! email accounts.
Meir insists he’ll make the move to Israel once he hits retirement age and his kids are independent, mentioning with excitement that he’d like to be the Israeli anchor for the rest of his family. If his children were to make aliyah before him, on the other hand, that would also encourage him to go. But his wife isn’t as enthusiastic, and in recent years he has been softening, too. “My wife wants to move to Florida, and I’ve started to say OK for the first time. I hate winters in New York,” he says from under a dark green parka draped over a blue hooded sweatshirt. “But if I were to get up and go it would not be to Florida,” he says, before we both leave the warm, cycled air and fluorescent lights of Nefesh’s sleek, modern building and head back into the chill of the northeastern evening.
A few weeks later, I sit amidst a wide circle of couples, listening as they reiterate Meir’s particular blend of passion and trepidation. We are in the living room of a suburban home in nearby West Orange, a small New Jersey township peppered with strip mall outcroppings, where the low, ranch-style houses continue to advertise the 1970s suburban dream of two-car garages and half-acre plots dotted with fir trees. The couples here are almost all middle-aged, and based on attire—men in kippot, women in skirts—mostly Modern Orthodox.
Tammy Braverman, the Nefesh B’Nefesh representative leading the event, explains that she made aliyah from upstate New York with her family in 2007. Braverman wears tight green cargo pants and a white cardigan sweater, and her quietly confident demeanor, well-coiffed brown hair, and perfectly made-up face give her the air of a college career counselor or a professional Oprah guest. The thing she misses most about America, she tells us, holding a small paper cup, is Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.
“What would help you make aliyah next week?” she asks from her seat in front of a window cluttered with family photos that looks out onto a dreamy suburban yard. As she turns to the couples, one by one they detail the things holding them back: Along with employment, the women speak of wanting a sense of community; the men mention only their jobs. In a round of aliyah trivia, Braverman confirms their fears: The No. 1 reason for not making aliyah, she says, in answer to a question printed on a square piece of laminated paper, is concern about employment and finances. Soon the group starts peppering her with questions of their own: “While in ulpan, how do you make money?” they ask, and “What’s the retirement age in Israel?” and “What’s the cost for importing a car?”
After covering the primary benefits olim have learned to expect—like the sal klita, a government “absorption basket” that provides financial assistance during the first year of aliyah—Braverman mentions newer incentives, like Nefesh’s “Go North” program, along with more arcane issues, like the recent tax reforms. “I’m going to gloss over these,” she says sheepishly, admitting that tax law is not her area of expertise before outlining the basics of the law. As she finishes up, the audience is silent. “Talk to an accountant,” she concludes cheerfully, and the group moves on to other topics.
As I head back to New York after listening to these couples explain their anxieties about finding a way to live in Israel while maintaining their basic standard of living, I think back to Paramus, and to Meir, who continues to wait for just the right alignment of circumstances so he can confidently make the biggest move of his life. I’m not sure that moment will ever come for him. It strikes me that while those in the aliyah business speak of the so-called “push” and “pull” factors motivating aliyah as if the two were almost interchangeable, they are in fact on fundamentally uneven footing. The push factors faced by a Jew in Ethiopia (or Russia, or Western Europe) are evident to the most superficial observers, but the pull factors drawing Jews from America may be more difficult to calibrate. And as prospective olim wait for the perfect time to go, present-day circumstances have brought the scales into such balance that even the smallest upset on either side could change everything. After all, as the impassioned Jews of New Jersey and New York and Chicago and L.A. will tell you, Israel is still the dream, but we have it pretty good here, too—for now.
Ryann Liebenthal is a writer living in New York.
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