Israel is becoming a more and more popular place for Jews to live. When I made aliyah (a word that means “ascent” or “Jewish immigration to Israel”) from the U.S. in 1984, the Jewish population stood at around three million; today it has doubled to over six million and is the largest Jewish community in the world. The huge rise comes from both natural growth and immigration. Jews who are already here vote “yes” by having the Western world’s highest fertility rates; many Jews who were living elsewhere have been coming here.
And now it turns out that the rate of yerida (a word that means “descent” or “Jewish emigration from Israel”) is at an all-time low—yes, even in this era of globalization, and with some Israelis loudly complaining about high prices here. The Jerusalem Post reports:
In 2012…the number of émigrés—people who left Israel and stayed abroad for over a year—went down to 15,900, the lowest since the establishment of the state….
Nearly a quarter of them had returned to the country or reported a planned return date as of April 2014.
Most of those who left the country were not born in Israel, and 25 percent of them are not Jewish. Many had moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union since 1990.
And the New York Times adds that
Sergio DellaPergola, a leading [Israeli] demographer, said emigration was actually lower now than at any time in Israel’s 66-year history, and also lower than in comparably developed countries. Far more people left Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, when inflation skyrocketed….
Even so, if you’re considering making aliyah, it’s natural to have fears about taking such a big plunge. I had some of them too; but by now they’re a thing of the distant past.
1. You can learn Hebrew.
I came here at 30 knowing almost no Hebrew and having no particular aptitude for foreign languages. Today, while my Hebrew is not quite at the level where my English is, I speak Hebrew fluently and translate professionally from it into English.
I won’t say it was easy to get from there to here. We started out in an absorption center, and the ulpan (intensive Hebrew course) we took there helped. So did immersing myself in Hebrew TV, radio, newspapers, and conversations as much as possible. And army service—a sink-or-swim situation in terms of language—was especially helpful.
But you don’t need to serve in the army to get proficient in Hebrew; nowadays people who make aliyah at age 30 or older are exempt from serving in any case (so are people younger than that age; see here). Learning a language is a challenge, great exercise for the brain, a great experience of discovering a world, and the best way to connect with a people and their culture. It may take perseverance but is hugely worth it.
Of course, the age at which you make aliyah comes into play. If you move here as a kid and go to Israeli schools, you come out knowing Hebrew. If you move here at 40, or 60, it’s harder. Yes, I know older English-speaking olim (immigrants) who never got too far with Hebrew. But because Israelis—and certainly at places like the bank and the post office—generally know some English, such olim manage with English and a few Hebrew words. Even with the limitation, they’re happy to be here in the Jewish state.
2. You can find a job here.
Israel’s unemployment rates are among the lowest in the Western world. It has a thriving modern economy, particularly strong in hi-tech but outstanding in other fields too.
After our initial half-year in the absorption center in the town of Hadera, we moved to Jerusalem where, through a couple of connections, I found freelance work for one year editing English manuscripts of Hebrew University academics. I then got a job as English-publications editor for a Hebrew University institute, and worked there for twelve years. It was great, dealing with a mix of “Anglo” olim and Israelis, using both English and Hebrew, learning how to translate. In 1998 I went back to freelance life as a writer and translator, and am doing well. Israel, with its universal health-care system, is freelancer-friendly; you pay a reasonable monthly fee and have the exact same access that salaried workers have.
And today there are aids to finding a job here that didn’t exist when I made aliyah. I understand that the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization is very helpful in getting you started. And of course there are all those online resources that didn’t exist in 1984-1986; among other things they make it easy to contact prospective Israeli employers even before aliyah.
The sky’s the limit: some of Israel’s more prominent “Anglo” olim include Nobel laureate Robert Aumann, ambassadors to the U.S. Michael Oren and Ron Dermer, former defense minister Moshe Arens, and former prime minister Golda Meir.
3. You can integrate into the society.
The majority of Israelis are aware that immigrants are the country’s lifeblood and are friendly toward them. My American accent has always evoked positive responses (though I don’t like it when Israelis try to practice their English with me when I want to speak Hebrew!). In my army platoon, a very polyglot group of immigrants and natives, there was great camaraderie.
I will never forget the concern and kindness at my Hebrew University workplace back in 1994 when my mother was in her last days. A couple of them called me when I was in the States and, though they didn’t know my mother, reacted to her death as to a personal tragedy of their own. It was very striking.
Of course, if you come here as an Anglo immigrant and end up mainly in Anglo-immigrant social circles, there’s nothing wrong with that. The phenomenon is common especially among older immigrants of whatever nationality. But—except, in part, for Hebrew—there is no obstacle to your blending with the larger society.
Last summer during the Gaza war, an astounding 20,000 Israelis went to the funeral in Haifa of “lone soldier” Sean Carmeli from South Padre, Texas, and an astounding 30,000 went to the funeral in Jerusalem of “lone soldier” Max Steinberg from Woodland Hills, California.
4. What about the security situation?
That, of course, raises the issue of security.
In some ways Israel’s security situation has dramatically improved. From 1948 to 1973 there were five wars between Israel and Arab states, costing the then very small Israel hundreds and, in a couple of the cases, thousands of lives. Since 1973 there have been no wars with Arab states, and, for now, there are none on the horizon.
There have also been waves of terror attacks in Israel; the last, and worst, was in 2000-2005. Since then there has been a radical drop in terror, though rocket fire from Gaza has been, of course, a problem, and terror activity has increased lately in Jerusalem.
Some even say that, given high crime rates in U.S. cities and Israel’s low crimes rates and safe streets, you’re more secure here. I wouldn’t go that far. Terror, as we saw most recently in Ottawa, threatens the West as a whole; but for Israel, smack in the middle of this violent region, the threat is more immediate and greater.
What it boils down to is not, “Where will I be statistically safer?” but, “Who am I?” Aliyah is an affirmation of Jewish peoplehood. It’s something you do when Jewish ethnicity is no longer enough for you, when you need to put your Jewish belonging front and center. It pays off in having the Land of Israel as your daily ambience, joining a young, vibrant, unique society, and situating yourself at the exhilarating mainstream of Jewish history.
image illustration via shutterstock / ChameleonsEye