For Israeli ex-pats, the homeland is calling


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.

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


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.

Cantor Glickman Returns to Israel


Cantor Binyamin Glickman, who taught generations of Los Angeles children to love God through music, is returning home to his beloved Jerusalem.

Ask him what he will see from his flat there and the 70-year-old smiles.

“The cemetery of Mount Olive, where grandparents are buried and my [first] wife is buried and I will be buried,” he said.” His view also includes the building that housed the old British Mandate offices, a place he walked by as a child in Palestine.

Glickman is not going back to retire but to direct the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Music. Aside from that, his grandfatherly wisdom is sought.

“‘The family needs you,'” Glickman said, repeating what his grown children have told him. Thirty-five of his 44 grandchildren live in Israel.

Glickman will leave behind a Los Angeles community of Jews he has known and taught since 1960, when he began a 22-year stretch as cantor at Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox shul on Olympic Boulevard in Beverly Hills. He returned to Israel in the early 1980s, but by 2001 he was back in Los Angeles at Congregation Mogen David, the Pico-Robertson Orthodox shul that sits across the street from the Museum of Tolerance.

“Generations of bar mitzvah students were taught by him,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of the rabbinical school at the Academy of Jewish Religion, where Glickman also teaches. “Cantors in shuls in Pico-Robertson were all taught by Cantor Glickman at some point.”

“Everybody loves this guy,” said Cantor Nathan Lam of Bel Air’s Reform synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, and dean of the Jewish academy’s cantorial school. “He’s a special human being. He makes a room feel good. If you’re sick, he’s the guy you want to come and cheer you up.”

On Nov. 30, Glickman’s synagogue will stage a community farewell concert in his honor hosted by longtime TV producer Sol Turtletaub of “Sanford & Son” fame. Glickman sang at Turtletaub’s son’s bar mitzvah — one of thousands of religious events graced by his tenor.

“I have [taught] hundreds of kids who know how to sing, know how to pray,” Glickman said.

Expected to attend are old friends, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who knew Glickman decades ago when both were active in the movement to help Soviet Jews.

Glickman’s late wife also was involved in that movement and demonstrated repeatedly at the Soviet consulate in San Francisco. “Hundreds and hundreds of Jews came out of Russia because of my wife,” he said.

A fifth-generation Jerusalemite, the gregarious Glickman got behind a microphone early. As a boy in Palestine during World War II, he won an audition to sing the jingle that introduced the BBC’s daily Hebrew-language broadcast. After finishing his musical studies in 1955, he conducted choirs before moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

He interrupted his career in Los Angeles to return to Israel to fight in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Glickman left Congregation Beth Jacob in 1982 to live in Israel. During his 10 years there, he set up the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Music and served as director of the separate Jewish music center at the Gush Etzion settlement near Jerusalem. He twice visited Russian Jews in the 1990s and compiled a 1991 Hebrew-Russian songbook.

With his children grown, Glickman returned to the United States in 1992.

Cantors, he said, are paid poorly in Israel, but they can make a living in America.

Glickman worked in Connecticut from 1992 to 2001 as cantor at Congregation Agudath Shalom in Stamford; his wife died in 1994. In 2001, he accepted his position at Mogen David.

Come December, he’ll reside in Israel with his second wife Shifra, 62, who will take Ulpan courses to learn Hebrew.

He is proud of his work with Soviet Jews and proud that he fought for Israel, but his work as a conductor and cantor are what will stay with him.

“I transmitted the Jewish musical experience to a whole generation here,” he said, “to bring them closer to God.”

 

Time to Go Home


 

When my wife and I woke up on the day we made aliyah, we talked and decided that we felt good. Natural. Normal. A little excited. A bit eager. Somewhat tired from some late-night, last-minute packing. Above all, we were ready. It was time to go.

The family dressed in T-shirts that we had made for the day. The white shirts were emblazoned in blue with our Hebrew slogan for the trip: “Bashana Hazot,” which in English means “this year.”

Our shirts were inspired from the central motto of the Jewish people: “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Thanks to some terrific support from friends and family, “Next Year” was now.

We had been staying with my parents, who could not have been more encouraging and supportive, for a last precious drop of a week with them. We will next see them in three months, at our new home, in Israel.

At LAX, our porter saw the boxes we were sending, asked a polite question or two and soon knew that we were moving. Before he left us, he said something very formally in Gaelic, which he translated as: “Have a safe trip home.”

Once at the gate, my 4-year-old saw the El Al plane with the giant Jewish star on the tail. He yelled: “Abba, that’s a Israel plane.” Exactly.

As the plane thundered down the runway, my wife looked a question: “Can you believe this is happening?”

I smiled and shook my head from side to side.

Like all flights to Israel, this one lasted a long time, but it did not end until I filled out the Israeli visa entry forms. Under reason for visit, I wrote, “Aliyah.” Under planned departure date, I wrote, “None.”

As we approached Israel, we dropped through a storm. Our 4-year-old saw a rainbow. I held my wife’s hand.

When we crossed over the Tel Aviv coastline, I experienced a flurry of emotions, which were magnified by a sense that this return was final.

I felt a great, humbling appreciation that I was now doing what so many of my ancestors had wished to do for thousands of years. I thought of the millions of Jews who had prayed to God for the existence of a Jewish state in Israel. I was grateful for the sacrifices of the early Zionists, who took sand and mosquitoes and made milk and honey. I considered the multitudes of people, both in America and around the world, who have prayed and worked for Israel’s safety. I recalled all of our friends and family who wished us the absolute best. And, I understood that the thoughts, prayers, dreams and hopes of all those people, going back all those years, were with us, right at that moment, right at that single point in our lives. It was overwhelming.

When our plane landed, my wife and I said the “Shecheyanu” blessing, and thanked God for allowing us to reach this day.

As we entered the terminal, we were met by a smiling official from the Ministry of Interior, who was holding a big blue and white welcome sign, and a volunteer who had previously made aliyah from the United States.

At the airport office of the Ministry of Interior, the kids got candy, flags and pins, and the parents got a new-immigrant identity card called a Teudat Oleh. My cousins brought us not one, but two cakes welcoming us to Israel and drove us to our new home.

As we left the airport, some 26 hours after our day had begun, our boys tried to imitate Hebrew. They laughed as they babbled together: “Cha-cha-cha, cha-moosh, cha-cha-cha.”

They sounded just great.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter lives in Rehovot, Israel.

 

The Headache of Resolutions


Blame it on the Mesopotamians. About 4,000 or 5,000 years
ago, they came up with the meshuggeneh idea of New Year’s resolutions.

And what was their most common pledge? To return borrowed
farm equipment. “That would be a pickax or a sickle,” says Danny, 12, who
studied the Mesopotamians last year in his ancient civilization class.

But today we can’t simply return some borrowed tool, toy or
casserole dish. No, we North Americans feel compelled to annually reinvent
ourselves as perfect physical, intellectual and emotional beings. We feel
compelled to promise to shape up, to learn Aramaic or read the 100 top
English-language novels, to be more patient.

And so, as soon as the ball drops in Times Square, we plunk
hundreds of dollars down at Weight Watchers and 24 Hour Fitness. We enroll in
university extension classes and buy “Ulysses” and “The Great Gatsby.”

But less than a week later, up to 90 percent of us have
reverted to our formerly overindulgent, ignorant and short-fused ways. Why do
we even bother making resolutions?

“Relentless optimism,” Jeremy, 14, suggests.

“Self-deception,” Gabe, 16, says.

“Social pressure,” Zack, 19, adds.

“Why do we diet?” my husband, Larry, asks rhetorically,
knowing that it’s human nature to want to improve oneself.

And it’s human nature to want to divide time into manageable
and meaningful segments, marked with appropriate rituals.

And that’s what New Year’s Eve is — a symbolic milepost, a
fresh start, another chance that this year, magically and mysteriously, our
resolutions will stick. But there’s nothing magical about Jan. 1. In fact, the
Mesopotamians, like the ancient Jews, celebrated the New Year in the spring, to
coincide with the rebirth of the land. That’s why they almost unanimously
resolved to return borrowed farm equipment, which was needed for planting the
new crops.

And there’s nothing magical about change. As Judaism teaches
us, we’re all continuously engaged in a bitter, millennia-old battle between
yetzer hatov, the good inclination, and yetzer harah, the bad inclination.

Spiritually, we know that change doesn’t happen without
prolonged and painful soul-searching. For us Jews, that happens during the High
Holidays, with the process beginning a month earlier, on the first of Elul.
During this time, we are commanded to confront the people we have harmed or
injured during the previous year.

We must formally and sincerely apologize, make concrete
amends and refrain from repeating the behavior. We must also contend with the
promises we have broken between God and ourselves. We are held accountable for
our actions, or inactions, which determine nothing less than “who shall live
and who shall die.”

Psychologically and experientially, we know that change
doesn’t happen until we hit the proverbial rock bottom –  until life slams us
up against a brick wall or brings us abruptly and humbly to our knees, forcing
us to confront our demons and wrongful deeds, our addictions and afflictions.

New Year’s Eve is the only secular holiday, save our
birthdays, that specifically marks the passage of time.

Perhaps it’s that intimation of mortality, combined with the
knowledge that once again we’ve made no one’s year-end Top 10 list, that
triggers our desire to revamp ourselves.

And in our fast-track society, where everything is open 24/7
or only one click away, we want that transformation to be instantaneous and
painless, like those diet advertisements that promise permanent and immediate
weight loss with no exercise.

But the Federal Trade Commission, much to my husband’s
delight, is clamping down on those bogus advertisements. And it’s our turn to
clamp down on this bogus ritual. Let’s institute truth in advertising and call
New Year’s resolutions by their real name: New Year’s wishes. An opportunity to
dream, to fantasize, to visualize a “before” and after” us. A shot at the
self-improvement lottery, with, like the California SuperLotto Plus, a one in
more than 41 million chance of winning.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have many more habits
I’m willing to break. Over the years, I’ve quit smoking, worked myself down to
my pre-pregnancy weight, given up caffeine and Diet Coke and changed my
sedentary ways. (Of course, nobody’s asking if I want to give up carpool
driving, grocery shopping, bill paying and serving as the family’s human PalmPilot.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m saving my serious repenting
for the High Holidays, where substance and sublimity trump slapdash
superficiality.

Still, given the expectation of a New Year, however
arbitrary and inauthentic, and given the grim state of the world, I think some
frivolous resolutions, or wishes, are not out of order.

Personally, for 2004, I’d like to eat more vanilla ice
cream, occasionally oversleep, read some trashy novels and spend more time
needlepointing and, as my kids constantly urge, “chilling.”

But not, I assure you, before returning the pickax that’s
been sitting in the garage.  


Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

Russia Returns 16 Long-Sought Books


The Lubavitch movement is celebrating the transfer of 16 more religious books to a Lubavitch-run synagogue in Moscow. But it is unclear when — and indeed, if — the balance of the thousands of books that make up the “Schneerson Library” will come into the ultra-Orthodox group’s hands.

Earlier this month, a group of Lubavitch Jews gathered in a downtown Moscow synagogue to welcome the 16 books that were returned to the movement from the Russian State Library, formerly known as the Lenin Library, where the collection has been held for the last 80 years.

With the 16 volumes returned this month, the count of books from the collection released by Russia this year increased to 30. Fourteen books were returned earlier this year in two batches.

A few years after the Russian Revolution, the books — estimates range from 4,000 to 12,000 volumes — were seized from the fifth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, as part of a crackdown on religion.

Excitement, singing and clapping filled the room as West Coast Chabad director Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, who described the transfer as “the fulfillment of 80 years of imprisonment,” carried the pile of antique books into the Bronnaya Synagogue’s main hall. Long tables were put together and covered with tallitot (prayer shawls), before the books were laid out.

Cunin opened the front page of the thickest volume in the pile. “It’s Gemarrah,” he announced, referring to a volume of Talmudic texts. Another book turned out to be a 200-year-old prayer book of the first Lubavitcher rebbe, and Cunin recited his evening prayer over the newly found treasure.

The return of the books came after more than a decade of efforts. Agudas Chasidei Chabad-Lubavitch, a group affiliated with the Lubavitch movement, was established in 1990 with the goal of achieving the release of the Schneerson collection.

It took appeals by three U.S. administrations, all 100 U.S. senators, heads of state from various nations and Jewish leaders from around the world “to get these 16 volumes,” said the Los Angeles-based Cunin, who has been spearheading the Lubavitch effort to get the books returned. More directly, a gesture from the Bush administration apparently made the return possible.

At a ceremony in Moscow earlier this month, the United States returned to Russia an archive of the Smolensk Regional Committee of the Communist Party. At the end of World War II, the U.S. armed forces came into possession of the archive, looted by the Nazis when they occupied Russia during World War II. To show its appreciation for the archive, Russia agreed to return part of the Schneerson library. A senior Russian State Library official in charge of the Schneerson collection said the library was asked “to expedite the return” of some books to Lubavitch when the United States indicated it was ready to give back the Smolensk archive.

“These books are now the property of Chabad,” said Meri Trifonenko, head of the Russian State Library’s Oriental Center, where the collection is stored.

Rabbi Berel Lazar, leader of the Lubavitch movement in the former Soviet Union and one of Russia’s two chief rabbis, confirmed that the books will be transferred to the library at Moscow’s Marina Roscha Synagogue and Community Center, the movement’s main facility in Russia.

As part of the arrangement, the books must stay in Russia for now. A decision on the matter by the Russian Ministry of Culture could allow the Lubavitch movement to transfer the books to Brooklyn, location of the group’s international headquarters. However, it is unclear whether all parts of the Lubavitch movement want the books taken out of Russia.

The State Library’s Trifonenko said no more books have been marked for transfer to Chabad in the near future. She said that only those books from the Schneerson collection that have duplicates in the State Library’s main collection were transferred to Chabad.

Lubavitch officials said they hope the Russians will follow up on the return of the books. Cunin indicated that Chabad will continue its practice of appealing to the U.S. leadership to press Russia on the matter.

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