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Jewish Journal

Illegal Israelis Lured to Mall Kiosks

by Roberto Loiederman

September 7, 2006 | 8:00 pm

"Keren," an Israeli in her mid-20s, worked last year at what has become a seasonal high-paying job for thousands of young Israelis: selling body lotions, face creams and other such products at shopping mall kiosks throughout the United States in the months leading up to Christmas. According to Keren, who spoke with The Journal on the condition that her real name not be used, most of these Israelis are here on a tourist visa which, according to the law, does not permit them to work in the United States.

Keren got the job while she was still in Israel. "You go online," she says, "and you go into a chatroom and there are messages. Want to work in the U.S.? Want an awesome job before Christmas? And you click on it and you have an e-mail address and a Web site sometimes, and a contact person. So you call that person and they tell you how great the job is, how much money you're going to make in a short time and they schedule a meeting with you [in Israel].

"And then after the meeting, if you're interested in working for this company, they'll make the connection between you and the head of the area in the United States, whether you want to go the East Coast, West Coast, North, South, all over the place. Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas are really big on this. So is Florida. And New York. The people from the company help you with the flight arrangements and everything."

Keren says that she paid her own way, about $1,000 for a round-trip ticket. When she arrived in New York, "there was an interrogation of 45 minutes. U.S. Customs officials already know that lots of Israelis come to work during the months before Christmas. They know we're not normal tourists, so they treat us differently. It's not easy to get in."

But she did get in, then flew to a Southeastern city, where someone from the company picked her up at the airport.

"He took me right to the apartment," Keren says. "There were four of us, all young Israeli women, living in a two-bedroom apartment and each girl paid $500 per month rent to the people that hired us. I arrived, they introduced me to everybody. You get to know everyone at the mall, and it turns out to be a little Israeli community; everybody knows everybody, becoming good friends with them.

Each apartment gets a car. So even though you go on your own, soon you're part of a community and somebody's protecting you all the time. They make sure you have food, you have gas, you have everything you need."

Usually, the companies that employ Israelis sell "either those small pillows that you can heat in the microwave and they're like a massage when you put them on your neck. Or they sell Dead Sea products, the mud, stuff like that.

"The people you work for, they teach you what to do, how to sell the products. You have a set pitch. You memorize it word by word. Even if you know nothing at all about the product, if you do the pitch word by word, people will buy it. The products you sell, you can buy them in Israel for $10. Here in the U.S. people pay $60, $70."

When Keren says this, there's an undertone of condescension toward the naive American shopper, who's willing to fork over big bucks to buy mud and salt from the Dead Sea.

Keren says she made good money. "Sometimes as much as $800 in a day. My friend worked three months, then went back to Israel and paid for four years of college, a car and an apartment. The kind of money you could never make in Israel."

But there's tension all the time. "When you're working at a kiosk, every person who sits nearby for more than a few minutes, you suspect they might be immigration. So you walk away without attracting attention. Any time you see a police car in the loading area, you get nervous. You think there's going to be a raid. Sometimes you get advance warning. Every one of these kiosks has one or two legal employees. They're the ones that remain when they think a raid is about to take place. Every time we were driving and someone was following our car for more than three blocks, we'd get scared.

"A friend of mine told me she was at the mall starting her workday. She and the others were putting on their mall clothing, and they saw a bunch of people coming toward them, not normal customers. It was a raid. So these immigration officials put handcuffs on all the Israelis who were working on tourist visas and took them away. They spent two weeks in prison and then were sent back to Israel."

In an April 2006 article for The Forward, journalist Irin Carmon links this widespread phenomenon -- Israelis on tourist visas working at mall kiosks -- to the "wander year" taken by young Israelis after completing military service. The article suggests that young Israelis -- who feel alienated by their military service and by the tenor of life in Israel, where daily interactions are a struggle -- come to live and work in the United States because they like the relative ease and quiet of life in America. The article implies that the tension of working in the United States illegally is minimal when compared to the tension of living in Israel.

For Keren, the reason that Israelis work at the malls is simple: the money. "When you work at a kiosk during the months before Christmas, you make more than your parents in Israel. Much more. Enough to travel, or go to school. A lot of Israelis go back and forth. They work for two or three months at the mall, then go back to Israel, where they go to school or they work. I have friends that have good jobs in Israel, and they still take a couple of months off to come here and work, and with the money they make they can pay rent for a year. If it was legal, it would be an awesome way to live. But it's not...."

Any other reason why Israelis do this? "I guess Israelis tend to live more on the edge," Keren says. "They never think they'll lose much if they get caught; they always feel there's a way around the system. If you get caught, what's the worst that can happen? A couple of weeks in jail, then you get sent back to Israel. If they take your passport, you go back to Israel and get a new one.

Then you come back to the U.S. with a new passport.

"I mean, it's not like they're going to keep you in a U.S. prison for the rest of your life. A couple of weeks, at most. So the next Christmas the same Israelis are back here, working the kiosks at the mall. No worries, no nothing. It's not that intimidating to them."

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