On a cold, gray Sunday in mid-December, I watched as a hundred or so people bustled about an aliyah “Mega Fair” in Paramus, N.J. The event was hosted by Nefesh B’Nefesh, or “soul to soul,” a start-up co-founded by two Americans—a rabbi and a businessman—that has become, in the nine short years of its existence, the official organizer of American immigration to Israel. The prospective olim, or people making aliyah, at today’s event wandered from booth to booth, gathering brochures and information packets on container shipping and real estate from eager Israeli trade representatives. If you eavesdropped on their exchanges, you’d find that the two groups seemed more or less evenly matched, their conversations echoing the efficient back-and-forth of a street bartering session.
In a conference room down the hall, Jerusalem-based accountant Philip Stein stood in front of a PowerPoint projection talking taxes. Although presenting to a group of mostly retirement-age couples, Stein was showing a slide that showed a happy young family frolicking on a perfect sandy beach, under a headline announcing their “Ten Year Vacation From Israeli Tax.” The slides that followed outlined the benefits offered by a series of new tax breaks aimed at encouraging olim and expatriate Israelis to come to Israel. In addition to the 10-year tax break on income earned abroad, Stein explained, the new law would also give them breaks on business taxes, exempt them from paying taxes on their pensions, and offer a series of point-based deductions for their first three years in Israel.
The small crowd sitting in front of him seemed to lack the necessary attention span for Stein’s spiel, constantly interrupting with irrelevant questions and uncontrollable cell phone rings. A small, quiet man with a dark blue kippah over his neatly combed sandy brown hair, Stein persisted, trying in his measured way to sell these American Jews on the benefits of a reform aimed at them. At the end of his presentation, he turned to the crowd to make one last appeal: “Israel’s a very exciting place, you’ll meet a lot of exciting people,” he said in perfect Midwestern monotone.
When Philip Stein and his wife made aliyah more than 30 years ago, Israel certainly was a very exciting place. At the time there were virtually no support systems in place to help new immigrants. Raised in Chicago, Stein was a young, newly minted accountant, and no one tracking his professional development would have recommended that he move to Israel. A few days after the Paramus “Mega” event, I asked him what his family thought when he told them he was moving to Israel. “That I was out of my mind,” he responded, grinning.
In its drive to attract professional, “high quality” immigrants, Israel faces the stark reality that Jews in America have relatively little to complain about. The people at these events are not the pioneering kibbutzim of an earlier era, embarking on a mission to build Israeli society from the ground up. The current success of Nefesh B’Nefesh lies in shifting the focus of aliyah from the ideological onto the material, as they aim to eliminate the practical barriers keeping American Jews in the United States. Nefesh seminars and webinars often take on the no-nonsense qualities of a business convention. And if they rarely mention questions of ideology, this is perhaps because, like every confident salesperson, Nefesh’s people are operating under the assumption that you already want what they’ve got.
Perhaps they are right. Since Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded in 2002, the number of North American Jews moving to Israel has doubled, up to nearly 4,000 last year. More than a third of that increase happened between 2008 and 2009, the year the U.S. economy fell through the floor. While the unemployment rate in the United States surged to nearly 10 percent, in Israel it hovered between 6 and 7 percent through 2010, according to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. As a nod to the organization’s success, in 2008 the Jewish Agency, its one-time “rival,” ceded North American aliyah efforts to Nefesh, retaining responsibility only for confirming the eligibility of candidates and paying their airfare.
And with new incentives like the tax reform, which was passed as a part of the “Returning Home for Israel’s 60th” promotion in 2008 and first went into effect in 2010, the Israeli government is actively recognizing that economics can play a pivotal role in the decision to move to Israel. “We wanted to give people the right conditions so that they move to Israel and stay there,” Israeli Minister of Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver said of the motivations behind the reform in an interview with Tablet Magazine. “The government’s decision suggests that there’s a change in attitude. I think Jews belong in Israel, and Israel will do everything to get them back home.”
“It’s expensive to be Jewish in America,” Landver added. Moving to Israel frees American Jews from burdensome day-school tuition and health care costs, for example. And with its focus on overcoming practical obstacles to aliyah, Nefesh B’Nefesh may be benefiting from Israel’s relative economic stability when compared with America, gaining traction with a niche group of quietly passionate people who have long held Israel at the back of their minds. Now, as the economic disparities between the two countries have narrowed, Israel has become a more attractive option, a place where they can fulfill both their emotional and financial life goals. Put another way: “People need numerous reinforcements in their decision to make aliyah,” Nefesh Vice President Danny Oberman told me. “This is one of them.”
Stein sits across from me just a few days before Christmas in the lobby of the Upper West Side hotel he booked for the last leg of his cross-country tour with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which had invited him as an expert speaker at events from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Chicago and now New Jersey. A small man with an open, friendly face, he hardly seems to me the kind of hardy, passionate Zionist who would leave his life behind and strike out for unknown horizons. Instead, he is the sort of man who always keeps at least one pen tucked neatly into the breast pocket of his collared shirt.
But Zionist passion was in fact the source of his decision. His young wife had just returned from a year in Israel, and when she insisted they make aliyah, Stein promised to give it a year. “I had the aliyah experience pre-Nefesh B’Nefesh, and when I came you were really on your own,” he tells me. At the time, in the late 1970s, Israel was still a volatile and underdeveloped nation, and Stein’s main client prospects—a group of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contractors stationed at a base in the Negev—were transitory at best. But the two of them stayed, and slowly, through the economic trials of the 1980s, he built up a clientele of Americans and returning Israelis. With the birth of his five daughters, he and his wife put down roots in Israel, and now, as his company website boasts, he runs the “largest U.S. accounting firm in Israel.”
As a tax-man, Stein naturally speaks in highly pragmatic terms. Israel has changed, he says, listing the benefits. Income disparities are not as great as they used to be. And with the medical expenses retirees face in America, they might actually profit from the move. “When I meet people, they’re talking about the practical side. I don’t see the zealousness,” he says, without any sense of pioneering self-righteousness. “It’s sort of post-ideology. They’re just seeing a nice lifestyle.”
Many of Stein’s clients are Israeli expats residing in the States. Because they are tuned in to Israeli TV and news sources and are saddened by the idea of watching their children grow up outside of Israel, they may be most receptive to many of the government’s latest economic incentives. The new tax reform, for example, extends to returning Israelis many benefits previously reserved for olim. The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption website for the new law loudly trumpets this fact, with sparkling, Saturday-morning-cartoon-styled rainbows shooting from the headline. The ensuing description is so ecstatic it almost descends into absurdity, describing the reforms as “a genuine revolution, one that for the first time combines Zionist and ethical principles with financial viability.”
“The desire to make aliyah has been there forever,” Debbie Rapps tells me at the Paramus fair expo in Conference Room A. With her dark-rimmed glasses and gently sarcastic sense of humor, she seems like the kind of cool mom everybody wanted to have in junior high school. “I definitely have the passion,” she tells me. “I need the means,” she adds, as she politely shoos away a representative from Meuhedet Insurance. Stein has just arrived and is arranging his business cards on a back table.
Several days after the Paramus event, Debbie and I meet to talk in the cafeteria at Stern, the women’s college at Yeshiva University, where she occasionally works proctoring exams to students. When we both get stuck at the register without any cash, she casually asks the other students in line if they have extra meal plan points they’d be willing to donate, and one girl wordlessly passes her card up to the cashier. As we talk, Debbie stops periodically to exchange small talk with students she knows, asking about their parents and where they plan to go over their winter breaks. She comes across as incredibly friendly, I notice, while maintaining an honest, tell-it-like-it is attitude.
“Israel was always at the forefront of everything I’ve ever done,” she says, explaining that making aliyah is something she has dreamt of for more than 20 years. Because she was recently laid off from her job in public relations, there are several factors she must take into consideration when planning the move. The first is her five children (three boys and two girls). Her three older children are already in Israel, but the younger two—aged 16 and 7—are still in Jewish day schools. The tuition she and her husband pay is a major expense, and cutting that expense is a big draw to Israel.
And then there’s the job question. Her husband is a kosher food broker, but because of Debbie’s lay-off, they are limited financially. For the moment, she tells me, she is “freelancing” and occasionally driving into Stern from her home in Teaneck, N.J. “We’re basically very practical, cautious people. So, we’re still here.”
While hardly naive about the difficulties of living in Israel, Debbie is enthusiastic about the country’s status as a “start-up nation,” referring to authors Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s 2009 paean to Israel’s entrepreneurial achievements. She has been impressed by what she’s seen at the Nefesh B’Nefesh seminars and has looked into incentives like the Go North program, a $10 million project that provides extensive financial assistance for people to move to less-developed areas of northern Israel. In particular, the program provides a family grant of up to $25,000 and up to $16,000 in vehicle subsidies. She praises Nefesh B’Nefesh for cutting through Israel’s notorious bureaucracy. “There are certainly more options,” she says, mentioning the convenience of Nefesh’s online jobs bank. “It’s a very American organization.”
Continue reading: the “push” and “pull” factors, missing America, and “building Israel one person at a time.” Or view as a single page.
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.
Ryann Liebenthal is a freelance writer and assistant editor at Harper’s Magazine.