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Jewish Journal

Non-Jews move to Israel for a Sabra —  Then what?

by Merissa Nathan Gerson

November 10, 2010 | 1:26 am

“It is false advertising,” complains an American woman in Tel Aviv. “They give this illusion of a traveling people. But then they all come back to Israel.” She is referring to Israeli men, like her boyfriend, who travel the world and in the process discover non-Jewish, non-Israeli romantic partners to seduce into moving to Israel.

This non-Jewish woman met her Israeli Jewish boyfriend on a sailboat in Arlington, Va. After things became serious between them, he wanted to be in Israel, so she joined him. “It is such a big decision to move here. I can’t imagine feeling this way about moving to Spain,” she says. “I am seeing if I am going to marry him, and if so, if I want Israel. I am just trying to see what this life would be like.”

Three-fourths of the students — ranging in age from 20 to 55, most in their mid- to late 20s — in the Hebrew ulpan (fast language-learning course) I recently attended in Tel Aviv were non-Jews in serious relationships with Jewish Israeli men. They were here learning Hebrew with the hope of staying, starting a life and becoming some version of Israeli. Most were not interested in converting to Judaism, and all had met their significant others outside of the Middle East.

There was the French woman who met her Israeli boyfriend in Australia, and the German woman who met hers in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Dale, who is Canadian, met his Israeli girlfriend in the Himalayas, in Nepal.

As he told it, he had left his job and sold his house in Toronto for a year of around-the-world travel, “a free bird.”

“In Nepal,” he said, “I had just crossed the pass of the Annapurna Circuit in the Himalayas. When I came down to the first town, she was just standing there smiling at me.”

They never separated after that. She was a medical student with a stable life in Israel, so he moved to be with her.

Moving across the world might seem well and good, and then questions of marriage, citizenship and religious affiliation come up. I listened to Dale, the Canadian, discuss marriage in Israel with Vanessa, who came here from Sao Paulo, Brazil, after meeting her Israeli boyfriend, Yaniv, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“If we got married, we would have to leave the country because I won’t be converting,” Dale said. “But we don’t believe we need to get married.”

“Easier for you,” Vanessa said. “Your girlfriend is Jewish, so you know your family is Jewish. The Jewish thing bothers [me]. As a non-Jew in a Jewish country, I have no rights. If I have kids, divorce, leave the country — I can have many problems. This is my biggest worry.”

“Yeah,” Dale spelled out, “If you have kids in the first six years of residency, you need him to establish permanent residency.”

“I am scared,” Vanessa replied. “I hate religion. It is horrible. It is a reason to make differences and all bad things. I don’t want to convert, but I consider it for my kids — to make stability.”

As I talked to my fellow ulpan students, the question of conversion came up repeatedly. Some were oblivious — for example, a Californian who met his Israeli girlfriend in Redwood City because both practiced aikido. When asked about the Jewish factor, he answered, “Well, neither of us are particularly religious.” It was as if the fact that he was in Israel and enrolled in intensive Hebrew-language classes had nothing to do with Judaism.

For some, conversion was a non-issue, like the Thai woman, Lukka Pu, who met her Israeli future husband at a mall in Bangkok. She is flying her boyfriend and his parents to Thailand for the wedding, and then the couple plans to live in Israel. For others still, conversion was a point of excitement, contention and disdain.

“Nothing is perfect,” Vanessa said. “My relationship with this boyfriend is very good — but often there is this shadow thing over my head. The other day, I told him I would do the conversion — thinking about kids and stuff. And then it was hurting me — this is so against my soul, my beliefs.”

“In the end, is that stability worth it if it is against your core beliefs?” Dale asks. “For us, love is the religion. Love is what we are here for. For us, it is the love of another, for them it is the love of God. We are both of the belief that you should wake up every morning and know that you have someone and want to be with them forever. You don’t need a piece of paper to tell you that.”

The woman from Virginia saw things differently. “My boyfriend is a sailor. The first week we dated, he said, ‘It’s kind of important to me that you be Jewish’ — and I shrugged it off.”

Still, she moved to Israel to be with him. “I’ve never been called a Christian, a Muslim, anything,” she said. Initially, she thought, “So who cares if you call me a Jew? Why should I care if the label changes, if Jew is added to my title? And then I came to Israel and saw that being Jewish and converting is a whole lot more than I could ever imagine. It’s such a big deal.”

Arlene, a Filipino, met her Israeli man in the Philippines. “He was traveling, a photo-journalist. He likes to talk. His life was open at once to me,” she said.

“So you fell in love?” I asked.

“Yeah, more or less. It was the right age, the right time. We married two years ago in a civil wedding in the Philippines because we weren’t sure where we would live.

“I don’t plan to convert,” she added. “I am not a practicing Catholic, but I don’t plan to be a practicing Jew either.”

A Chilean woman and an Israeli man met on a tour in Patagonia, where she was the guide. They have been dating for six years, and for five of those years they divided their time equally between Chile and Israel. She has now moved to Israel, and because she is not Jewish, they plan to marry in a nonreligious ceremony in Cyprus. She plans to convert later. “In the future, when we have a family, I am going to change my religion, because I want my children to be Jewish,” she said.

The women in the class gushed about the strong family values of Israeli men. This made up for a lot. The woman from Virginia explained, “I think people come to Israel for the community, versus the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. Where in the world are they going to experience Shabbat like this? I understand why they feel at home here. To live here requires so much love for this place. You either have it or you don’t.”

Tel Aviv somehow won them over, against the odds. And although they complain about Israel’s laws, Judaism, what they see as Israelis’ rudeness and lack of manners, the climate and terrorism, in the end, they are still here, sometimes after several years. As Vanessa, the Brazilian, put it, “I enjoy life in Tel Aviv very much. I love life here.” l


Vanessa came to Israel from Sao Paulo, Brazil, after meeting her Israeli boyfriend, Yaniv, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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