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Jewish Journal

For Israeli ex-pats, the homeland is calling

by Ayala Or-el

May 15, 2008 | 6:00 pm

Roy and Merav Lobel with their son Harel

Merav and Roy Lobel are going back to Israel. Since the birth of their baby boy, now eight months old, they have longed to be with their families. Each time they've hung up the phone after a call to Israel, they've felt as if part of their heart was still there.

Guilty feelings about living so far from home had always been there, but it escalated once Harel was born.

"Both of our families came here for the birth of our son, and after they left I felt such emptiness," said Merav Lobel, 30, a teacher at a Jewish day school in the San Fernando Valley. "While we do have a good circle of friends who are very supportive, it can't replace our family in Israel."

Merav and Roy have lived in the United States seven and six years, respectively, and while they've had a good life and good jobs in the United States, they are planning to return to Israel this month. They admit that they are going to miss their friends, the comfort and the seemingly peaceful life in America, but they are happy to replace it with the chaos of life in Israel.

"Only in Israel you feel that you truly belong, that this is your country. America sells you an illusion. But in Israel you have substance," Lobel said.

The American dream that brings many Israelis to this country doesn't always come true. More Israelis than ever before are making aliyah (immigration to Israel) after spending 10 years or less in the United States, and those who help Israelis move back say they have seen a growth in the trend as the economy declines.

Roughly 19,000 Israelis leave their native country each year, but the number returning has increased from about 2,600 in 2000 to more than 4,000 last year, according to Israel's Absorption Ministry.

While specific numbers of Israelis emigrating from Los Angeles were not available, Shani Kamara, director of the L.A. consulate's Israeli House office, which aids returning citizens, says the number of Israelis seeking to return this year has grown significantly.

"There is an increase of 44 percent in the number of returning citizens from all around the world to Israel. New York and Los Angeles have the most returning citizens," she said.

Israel's Absorption Ministry's new initiative, Returning Home on Israel's 60th, is targeting an estimated 700,000 expatriate Israelis worldwide with tax breaks to make the move easier. Local Israelis planning to return trace their incentive for moving to missing family, wanting to raise children in Israel and suffering due to the downturn in the U.S. economy. For some, economic hardship highlights the lack of support in the United States and reminds them of the family they've left behind.

Arik Hezroni the owner of Dynamic L.A., an international moving company in Los Angeles, says that business is brisk these days with the rise of aliyah. While some have made their fortune in the United States and want to return to enjoy the fruits of the labor in Israel, he says most are simply losing their jobs and homes and have no fallback position.

"Many Israelis in Los Angeles are working in real estate and construction," Hezroni said. "Some of them had lost their homes to the banks, some lost their jobs and decided that if they have to struggle financially then they are better off struggling in Israel and having the support of their families, rather than stay here and struggle alone."

Some are so desperate they cannot afford the airfare back to Israel and call the Israeli consulate hoping to get a free ticket home, according to a consulate official who asked not to be identified. Others cut their losses, sell whatever they have left and return to Israel with little to show for their time in this country. Berni Eger is one of them.

Eger came to Los Angeles three years ago hoping to work construction, make some money and get some distance from personal problems in Israel.

"I just got divorced, and I wanted to start a new page somewhere. Los Angeles seemed like the right place. Somebody had offered me a job, and it was a good opportunity to come here," he said.

Eger's boss stopped paying him recently after construction work dried up.

"I know it was hard for him, as well, but as much as I sympathized with his situation, I couldn't go on living on nothing. There were times I hardly had enough to buy food, and at that point my boss took a check from his daughter's checking account and gave it to me. I felt so embarrassed for him and for myself. I think that was the breaking point, when I knew it's time to leave," he said.

For others, the decision to make aliyah is based entirely on a desire to raise children in Israel. Orly Hillel is trading economic stability in the United States for uncertainty in Israel.

"It was a good opportunity for us to come here and experience life in the States," said Hillel, who moved to Los Angeles five years ago with her husband, Yossi, and three children -- currently ages 15, 12 and 9 -- after winning a green card lottery. "But now it's time to go back home while the kids are still young.

Hillel says that while they are financially secure in Los Angeles, there's some uncertainty about what awaits them upon their return to Israel. And yet she's sure her family will manage.

"We were alone here, and there is no price for loneliness. Even though we do have friends here, they don't come in the place of a family; they don't come in place of feeling like you belong, that this is your country and this is where you should live," she said.

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