Cigarette in one hand, venti coffee in the other, Levana Gavriel clamped a cell- phone between her shoulder and her ear.
“Yes, I’m leaving,” she said in Hebrew to her friend on the other end. “I’m giving up.”
On a chilly winter morning, the Israeli ex-pat who made Los Angeles her home for the past six years sat bundled in a thick jacket at a Starbucks in Valley Village. Several days earlier, she had packed up all her belongings, vacated her apartment in Tarzana and moved in temporarily with her eldest son. After six years in the States, Gavriel, 53, had just bought a one-way ticket back to Israel.
The current economic crisis wiped her out, she said, leaving her no other choice than to return home — a decision thousands of Israelis in Los Angeles are now facing. According to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry in Israel, the number of Israelis returning has spiked by 58 percent from the same time last year. The ministry estimates that more than 9,000 citizens returned in 2008, compared to approximately 5,000 in 2007.
“A week ago, I had hope,” said the divorced mother of three grown children, one of whom is also moving back to Israel this month. “I had a feeling that something would pop up. Now, I have no hope. I am completely hopeless.”
For the past couple of years, Gavriel was earning a solid living as a property manager in Los Angeles. She handled the maintenance, administrative tasks and rent collection of various apartment complexes, and at one point was a supervisor for 600 apartment units. Then, an attempt to start her own property management company failed, and job opportunities began to dry up as the economy took a downturn.
A friend offered her a job managing a building in Dallas, and, eager for work, she moved to Texas. But, without any family or friends and a much smaller Israeli community there, the loneliness was too terrible to bear, and after only a few months she returned to Los Angeles.
Gavriel said she reached out to all her contacts and used every resource she could think of. A member of Moadon Israeli, a social organization for Israelis in Los Angeles, she had built up a strong network of friends and business associates. Still, the 400 resumés she sent out failed to generate a single job lead.
Recently, Gavriel took a job cleaning an apartment complex in Reseda. That’s when the extent of her downfall hit her.
“I thought to myself — with all my degrees and experience owning my own businesses, this is what I’ve been reduced to?” she said. “I didn’t come to America to clean buildings. The next day I called my son and told him I’m going back home.”
Within the past three or four months, the Israeli Consulate has seen a dramatic increase in calls from Israelis desperate to return home immediately.
“We’ve received a tsunami of calls,” said Israeli Consul General Yaakov Dayan, who reported that some callers are looking to expedite the required paperwork, while others are requesting economic assistance for their way back — the most desperate are pleading for help in buying plane tickets.
The consulate attempted to speed up the procedure as much as possible and can now process returnees in approximately 10 days, but according to Dayan, there is no special emergency aid available for those affected by the recession.
“As far as I know, there is no funding from Israel for this kind of assistance,” said Dayan, who took over the position of consul general in Los Angeles a year ago and has witnessed the effect the economic downturn has had on the local Israeli population.
The Israeli government does not help Israelis who are living in the United States; it does not provide social services outside of its borders, explains the diplomat. Once in Israel, however, a broad array of services is available to those who need it.
The Israel House in Los Angeles, an arm of the Immigration Absorption Ministry, serves the Israeli community in Los Angeles and guides ex-pats through the return process. Shani Kamara, the diplomat who runs the program, has been fielding about 75 calls per day for the past several months — and said she can barely keep up.
Those seeking help these days differ from the normal stream of callers: Usually it’s retirees wanting to spend the remainder of their lives in Israel or young men who, after a few years, haven’t found the fantasyland they’d expected in America. Today’s callers are of every stripe, Kamara said: families with young children, newlywed couples just beginning to build a life, longtime residents, as well as very recent immigrants to the United States.
The stories they tell are sad ones: One man with five children had been evicted from his house for failure to pay his mortgage; he was mired in debt and worried the Israeli government would make it difficult for him to bring his non-Jewish wife and children to Israel. Other families had been forced to split up — the family went back to share crowded space with relatives in Israel while the husband stayed behind to try to sell a devalued home. Another man had a thriving high-end carpentry business for 30 years, but after several months of no work couldn’t pay his mortgage and lost his house.
Kamara believes the Israeli community is among those particularly affected by the economic crisis. A significant number are self-employed, she said, and many work in construction, home improvement, electricity, air conditioning and real estate — fields that have been hardest hit.
“They got a big boom,” Kamara said of the Israeli community in Los Angeles. “So many are calling saying, ‘I want to go back home now, next week.’” The urgency of the calls is another significant difference from those Kamara used to field several months ago. Whereas ex-pats used to start the return process — which includes paperwork to qualify for benefits such as tax breaks and reduced airfare on El Al — on average six months before their move, current callers are seeking to complete it within a week.
Kamara often directs callers in extreme cases to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
But Jewish Family Service, a Federation agency, said it can’t help much either in terms of getting Israelis back to their homeland: “There is no pot of money to start handing out El Al tickets,” said Susie Forer Dehrey, associate executive director of JFS. However, the agency does provide a safety net of services like the SOVA food pantry, Jewish Vocational Service, counseling centers and legal assistance in collaboration with the House of Justice. “The problem is that most Israelis don’t even think to turn to JFS for help,” Dehrey said.
Estimates of the number of Israelis in Los Angeles vary widely. Los Angeles-based demographer Pini Herman in a 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey estimated the number to be 30,000. The Israeli Consulate claims 250,000. Israelis are known to be independent and unaffiliated and often disconnected from the rest of the Jewish community.
Israelis are skeptical that Jewish organizations here understand them or their needs, said Shoham Nicolet, executive director of the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), a group that is working toward strengthening and uniting the Israeli community and integrating it into the larger Jewish community in Los Angeles.
In a recent meeting with fellow ex-patriot entrepreneur activists to discuss the idea of an Israeli desk at The Federation that would be directly responsible for their population’s needs, Nicolet voiced the ILC’s stance on the current financial crisis.
“Our main concern is to make sure that this situation doesn’t have a significant impact on Israelis’ connection to Israel, specifically the children,” he said. The ILC is not set up as a charity, Nicolet said, and its funds are not intended to assist people in dire straits. Rather, its purpose is to help Israelis who live here maintain their identity and connection to Israel through a variety of programs and initiatives.
So who will help Israelis here?
Dayan, who looks at the current situation as an opportunity for Israel to reabsorb the brain drain of young entrepreneurs who left the country in favor of Los Angeles, pointed out that the State of Israel offers a generous benefit package to returning citizens — crisis or no crisis — which is something that few other countries provide.
One-time benefits, listed on the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption Web site, include discounts on one-way El Al flights to Israel, excess baggage at no cost, assistance in job placement, unemployment benefits for the first few months, partial education subsidies, business start-up loans and a host of other services administered once ex-pats arrive in Israel.
Throughout 2008, the Israeli government advertised increased subsidies in a campaign called, “Returning Home for Israel’s 60th.” The efforts included a first-of-its-kind exemption from taxes and reporting of assets and income from sources abroad for a 10-year period — a significant benefit for those who leave successful businesses behind, but not much of a salve for the current crop of Israelis with not much more than the clothes on their backs.
“Some may say that the Israel-at-60 promotion is partly responsible for this year’s increase of Israelis going home,” said Kamara, “but the reality is that the financial crisis has had the largest impact by far.”
Yet some believe they deserve more from their country.
“I have people asking me, ‘Is that all I get?’ when I list the benefits they’re eligible for,” Kamara said. “It’s not a massive aid package, but at least it’s something to get them started back home.”
“Eh, it’s all bulls___,” said one Israeli who advertised a car for sale in Shavua Israeli, a Hebrew-language newspaper in Los Angeles. In the ad, he clearly stated his reason for selling the car, “leregel chazara la aretz,” in preparation to return to Israel, a phrase seen more and more frequently in Israeli newspapers these days.
A single guy in his early 30s, who asked that his name not be used, had turned to the consulate but was disappointed at what was offered.
Having worked various jobs in his five-year stay in Los Angeles, including stints in moving, electricity and most recently as a truck driver, he had decided to call it quits.
He attributes his decision more to homesickness and a desire to be close to family, but admitted that if the economic situation were not so dismal, he probably would have stayed in the United States longer to save up money.
As things turned out, he is returning to Israel without much to show for his five years away from home, an outcome particularly bitter for Israelis who reluctantly leave family and friends behind for the sole purpose of earning money in the United States to bring back to Israel.
Ex-patriot Israelis almost always talk about moving back to Israel eventually. Moving to the United States is generally seen as a temporary means to a more financially secure life back home.
“You can have everything here, but nothing here,” the 30-something Israeli truck driver said. “There’s no family, no community, no meaning to life here. It may not be simple in Israel, but it’s home.”
But home isn’t particularly enticing either since he doesn’t know what he will do once he returns to Haifa. “Ma she’hiyeh, hiyeh,” whatever will be, will be, he said.
Gavriel, the property manager, once owned a successful life-coaching school in Holon, but is also returning to dim prospects of employment.
“I’m going back against my will,” she said, chain-smoking between sips of coffee. “I love it here in Los Angeles. Life is calmer, quieter. American people are polite; they say ‘Good Morning’ and they mind their business. Not like in Israel, where I once went to the supermarket with flip-flops and a woman sneered at me, ‘Where do you think you are? Eilat?’”
But Gavriel, who came from a wealthy family, was married to a very rich man and once made a more than comfortable living for herself, has now, in middle age, run out of resources, energy and self-confidence.
“I’m not usually this muznachat,” she said, using the Hebrew word for neglected in appearance. “I’m normally very active and positive. I’ve just gotten to a situation where you can’t go any lower.”
Penniless and jobless, at least in Israel, Gavriel will be with family — her daughter who is studying law and her younger son, who was living in Los Angeles until recently.
“For Israelis who have nothing left, it’s better to be in Israel with their families, their own language, their own culture,” Kamara of the Israel House said. “It’s easier to be poor at home.”