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February 8, 2007

Israeli official woos expats -- you <I>can</I> go home again

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/israeli_official_woos_expats_you_can_go_home_again_20070209

Angie and Amir Geffen with their son hope to return to Israel by Passover. Photo courtesy Angie Gefen

Angie and Amir Geffen with their son hope to return to Israel by Passover. Photo courtesy Angie Gefen

The message from the high Israeli official addressing more than 100 Israeli expatriates at Stephen S. Wise Temple was simple and direct.

"We want you to come back."

Catchy slogans are one thing, translating them into reality is vastly more complex, Zeev Boim admitted.

Boim is Israel's minister of immigration absorption, and he was in Los Angeles with a backup team of government and private industry representatives as part of a concerted campaign that touched down in seven U.S. and Canadian cities.

In the early decades of the Jewish state, Israelis abandoning the homeland were scorned as weaklings, traitors and "yordim," those "going down" from the peaks of Israel to the depth of the Diaspora.

Ostracism didn't work in stemming the outflow, and for some time the Israeli government has been wooing, rather than denigrating, the growing number of Israelis abroad. Boim's North American tour, toward the end of last year, represented Israel's strongest signal yet of its earnest intent to welcome its departed sons and daughters back into the family fold.

For any campaign, it is useful to know the size of your target audience, but pinning down the number of Israeli expatriates in any given country or city is the despair of demographers. Do you count only native Israelis or include those who, for example, went from Russia to Israel, became citizens but then moved on to Europe or the United States? And what about the American-born children and grandchildren of Israelis?

During an interview at the Israeli consulate, Boim offered a relatively straightforward criterion: All holders of Israeli passports, including those with dual citizenship, are considered Israelis.

Boim, who should know, estimated that there are 700,000 to 1 million Israeli expats in the world, of whom some 600,000 are in North America, including 150,000 to 200,000 in the Los Angeles area. Some local Israelis maintain there are as many as 300,000 of their compatriots in Los Angeles, which would represent more than half of all Jews here.

More realistically, Boim's ministry has given out considerably lower figures than the boss, and local demographer Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) insisted that the count is completely out of line, with only 26,000 Israelis in the Los Angeles area.

Whatever the number, Boim argued that the key to luring back expats lies in providing decent jobs, and that Israel's strong economy, especially in the high-tech sector, is in a position to offer such employment.

In each of the cities Boim visited and after his pep talk, seriously interested expats could talk to specialists from his ministry and private industry about jobs, establishing businesses, housing, government assistance and liaison with local Israeli consulates.

Although the expats, classified as "returning residents," would not receive as much government aid as new immigrants, Boim held out inducements in the form of tax relief, cutting bureaucratic red tape and even deferment from mandatory military service. Additional sweeteners are reserved for those willing to settle in the underpopulated Galilee and Negev regions.

The "come back home" push aims for long-range, not immediate, results, Boim said. He cited the return of some 6,000 expats in 2005 as a promising sign. On the flip side, however, around 8,000 to 9,000 Israelis left for overseas residence during the same year.

A large majority of those attending the Los Angeles meeting with Boim came on a look-see basis, but about 10 percent stayed to talk about the nuts and bolts of returning home.

Among them was Angie Geffen, the American-born daughter of Israeli parents, who traveled from Scottsdale, Ariz., with her husband, Amir, an Israeli electrical engineer.

Contacted a week after the meeting, she was bubbling over with enthusiasm, praising the excellent organization and helpfulness of Boim's support staff. She said the meeting had saved her weeks of research.

"We'll move in a couple of months," she said confidently.

During a follow-up call two months later, Geffen had come down from her high. She complained about protracted disputes with Israeli housing authorities about obtaining land and shelter for her and 32 other families in a Galilee community.

She, her husband and their young son still hope to leave for Israel before Passover, "but we will have to rethink our finances," she said.

Another participant was "Ehud," a 31-year-old teacher at a Jewish day school here, who left Israel as a child and asked that his real name not be used. Ehud said he was impressed by Boim's talk but not by a 10-minute follow-up interview with one of the minister's assistants.

"When I talked about available job opportunities in Israel, I was told, 'We'll try to find you something when you get there,'" Ehud said. When he pressed the matter, the interviewer told him, "We don't start the process until you get there."

Ehud still wants to marry and start a family in Israel, but he might first visit on his own to check out the job situation.

What keeps Israelis in the Diaspora, and what draws them back home? The individual answers and motivations differ, but talks with expats yield some common themes: The big draw in coming to the United States is almost always economic opportunity. The big pull to return is the sense of social intimacy and togetherness few expats can find elsewhere, and the worry that their children and grandchildren will lose their feeling of Israeli connectedness.

Ravit Markus is an independent producer who dreamed of going to Hollywood while a film student at Tel Aviv University.

Since arriving here more than two years ago, she has produced some well-received documentaries, most recently, "Yiddish Theater: A Love Story," in collaboration with fellow expat, director Dan Katzir, and she is now turning her hand to a romantic comedy.

Now in her late 20s, Markus considers herself quite typical of the local expats, both in their ambitions and conflicts. "Life is exciting in Los Angeles, and the film industry presents a fascinating challenge," she said. "What I miss most about Israel are the love and warmth of family and friends, walking around everywhere, amidst other people.

"In Los Angeles, you are physically detached from other people, and even more detached emotionally; you really don't have deep friendships," she said. "The upside is that you have your private space, people don't constantly pry into your business. But, then, sometimes you feel alone."

The ideal career for Markus, as for director Katzir, would be a dual track, working in both the American and Israeli film industries.

"I would like to be bicontinental, to work both in Hollywood and in my native country, like many European and Mexican directors do," Katzir said.

Rivka Dori is among the veteran expats in Los Angeles, having arrived in 1966 with her future husband, who came for a college education.

As a longtime teacher -- Dori is director of the joint Hebrew studies program at HUC-JIR and USC -- and community activist, she is especially focused on the second generation of American-born Israelis, including her own adult children.

The second generation, she believes, "is neither here nor there, not Israeli and not American."

Dori established an after-school program for "Heritage Learners," second-generation youngsters of high school age, to expose them to Hebrew as it is spoken today and to Israel's culture.

Her students, she said, face a dilemma in defining their identities. They are exposed to all the pressures and attractions of American teen life, while their parents try to indoctrinate them with a feeling of loyalty and belonging to Israel -- up to a point.

"When the youngsters absorb their parents' lesson and one day tell them that they want to join the Israeli army, the parents are usually horrified," Dori said.

Few expats are involved in the social life and causes of their American Jewish peers, and, if pressed, they are likely to define themselves as "Israeli Jews in America."

Dori doubts that many of them will follow Boim's exhortation to resettle in Israel and believes that when the members of the third generation grow up, "they will be less conflicted and more Americanized."

Avner Hofstein has a special perspective on the expats. An experienced reporter for Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest daily, he has been on assignment as the paper's West Coast correspondent for the past four years; he is also an occasional contributor to The Jewish Journal.

Israelis here, as in their native country, are full of contradictions, Hofstein observed.

They have bought fully into the materialistic life of America, while trying to recreate the Israeli neighborhoods and milieu they knew in the 1970s and '80s. "Especially in the Valley, Israelis have their own cafes, markets, dances and social and business networks," he said.

"They pop into each others' homes unannounced and are very much into each others' business," Hofstein added. "On the one hand, they tend to be hawkish and super-Israeli patriots, on the other hand, they are highly critical of Israeli society, perhaps to justify their own departure.

"There are no Israeli ghettos in Los Angeles, but you have a sense of closed communities, with their own networks of professional and business services, and few American friends," he said.

The Council of Israeli Communities (CIC) is the closest to a central expat organization in Los Angeles, with a membership of about 5,000, according to its president, Moshe Salem. Founded in 2001 to speak up for the State of Israel and its policies, CIC now focuses mainly on strengthening relations with the people and culture of the home country.

A sure sign that the Israeli community is coming of age is that academic researchers are beginning to pay attention to it. Through the Israel American Study Initiative (IASI), a group of UCLA scholars and librarians is trying to collect and analyze the chronicles and documents that tell the history and development of the community.

IASI tracks Israeli culture and life in the United States in its BAMA magazine and the Web site, www.IsraelisinAmerica.org.

"We are studying the Israeli community for itself and from three perspectives," said Jonathan Friedlander, assistant director of the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies. "The role of Israelis within the larger Jewish community; within the Middle Eastern community of Arabs, Armenians and Iranians, and their impact on the entire Los Angeles ethnic mosaic."

Writing in BAMA, professor David N. Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, notes one crucial contribution of Israeli expats, alongside Jewish immigrants from Iran and Russia. Without them, writes Myers, "The Los Angeles Jewish community would either have hit the wall demographically or be in decline."

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