Olim who came back to U.S. describe challenges of aliyah
Melody Coven had wanted to make aliyah ever since she was 15 and studying for a semester in Israel.
“For me it was very ideological,” said Coven, a 2008 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School. “I wanted to be one of the writers of Jewish history.”
In 2013, at the age of 23 and just two weeks after her wedding, she and her new husband, Avi, got on a plane headed to Tel Aviv. The couple had won the $10,000 grand prize in the Nefesh B’Nefesh Wedding Gift Challenge to help them start things off right when they arrived in Israel, after competing with 24 other North American couples in the social media-based aliyah contest.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization dedicated to easing the process of aliyah, helped the couple once they arrived in Israel, too, including sending out copies of their resumes to potential employers.
But once they arrived, the Covens realized that what would be considered stellar credentials in the United States meant virtually nothing in Israel.
“Avi went to the Kelley School of Business [at Indiana University],” Coven said. The program is consistently ranked as one of the best in the country. “But people in Israel didn’t know what that meant. He didn’t have the army, and though he had work experience in real estate, that didn’t translate.”
While her husband did find employment relatively quickly, the job was not ideal.
“He was working 4 p.m. to midnight, working for a U.S. company selling translation services,” Coven said.
While Coven was able to work on her master’s degree and had an internship, the biggest challenge, she said, was “making a living.”
“In order to make a living, we had to make sacrifices we weren’t comfortable with,” Coven said. “Avi had to work long hours. He got a job in high tech, and the hours he had to work were beyond anything I had ever seen. And the salaries don’t match the cost of living. He was making what someone in the nonprofit world in the U.S. would make at the entry level.”
The couple also struggled to find community. While many Jews in the United States find community at a synagogue, the paradigm is different in Israel. The Covens did eventually connect on a social level, but it took some time.
The language barrier was another obstacle, Coven said.
After three and a half years, the Covens, now with a daughter in tow, moved back to the United States, to Skokie, Ill.
“We came to the conclusion together,” Coven said. “It was what our family needed. We both didn’t want that to be the answer, but it was clearly the case.
“Avi and I both feel we wouldn’t have done anything differently,” Coven continued. “We are better people for the experience. And it helped clarify our priorities, like the desire for a support system and having our daughter be around family.”
The Covens are far from alone in finding aliyah a challenge. A 2015 article in The Jerusalem Post, quoting a study by Gvahim, a nongovernmental organization, reported that about 40 percent of recent immigrants to Israel “consider returning to their countries of origin.” Sixty percent of the olim who were polled said that “the primary barrier to employment in Israel is a lack of knowledge regarding the Israeli job market, with an additional 28% citing language difficulties.”
Anecdotally, many people who make aliyah from the United States ultimately leave Israel, although it is hard to pinpoint precise statistics. And many people simply do not want to talk about it. Several individuals contacted by the Chronicle for this story declined to be interviewed as to why they came back from the Jewish state.
Nefesh B’Nefesh claims that since its founding in 2002, it has increased the retention rate of olim from 60 percent to more than 90 percent.
“We have a comprehensive system that we use to keep up with all our olim and through this can ascertain their status,” said Yael Katsman, director of PR and communications at Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Rachel Benaim, who moved to Israel on a journalist visa with the intention to stay permanently, is skeptical.
“There is no way to measure that, because people don’t give up their Israeli citizenship,” she said, adding that she knows many individuals who made aliyah but who returned home after finding the challenges too difficult.
Benaim, 24, grew up in Boca Raton, Fla., and was raised Orthodox. Following high school, she spent a year studying in a seminary in Israel. She wanted to stay in Israel when she completed her seminary year, but her parents insisted she come back to the U.S. to earn her undergraduate and graduate degrees.
“I had always wanted to make aliyah, going back to the sixth grade, when I spent a month there with my family,” Benaim said.
After finishing her master’s in journalism at Columbia University, Benaim was ready to make the commitment to live in the Jewish state. It was the summer of 2014, and during Operation Protective Edge, that Benaim decided she wanted to write from Israel to ensure that people in the Jewish community would be exposed to a nuanced reporting of a “complex situation.”
Benaim headed back to Israel in August 2015 and found work at the breaking news desk at Haaretz, working shifts with difficult hours.
She was only there for eight months.
“I cracked very quickly,” Benaim recalled. “I said, ‘This place is not for me.’
“It was incredibly difficult to exist in a place that necessitated me to don my aggressive cap whenever I had to do anything — be it going to the store or the bank or renting a car,” she said. “I’m not sure that is everyone’s experience, but it was most certainly mine.”
Bureaucratic red tape, combined with a difficult work schedule contributed to her finding “it impossible to get anything done.”
“It was incredibly frustrating,” she said. “And it was impossible to survive on the salary I was earning. It was less than I was making as an intern before I earned my master’s degree in New York. All my money went to rent. And the taxes are astronomical.”
Benaim is grateful, she said, that she did not have any serious health issues while she was there, because she never could set up her health insurance, even though she was paying for it through her taxes.
“I’m happy to be back,” she said, “but I’m really sad it didn’t work out.”
Meira Kreuter, 30, who moved to Israel immediately after she graduated from college, related similar challenges.
Originally from South Florida, Kreuter “fell in love with Israel” as an 18-year-old on a Birthright trip. During the five and half years she was in college, she found ways to travel back to Israel 17 times, staffing Birthright trips and getting fellowships.
“I knew I just needed to be there and make aliyah,” Kreuter said.
She moved to Israel in 2009 and formally made aliyah two years later, working for Birthright.
By 2013, she decided to move back to the United States.
“It was a really hard decision,” she said. “Ever since I was 18, Israel was my home. But unless you’re in high tech, it’s really hard to have a career. That was the only reason [I came back]. If you’re not in high tech, it’s hard to earn enough to live comfortably.”
Living in Israel was “a struggle every day,” said Kreuter, who now works for Masa Israel in Florida. “I’m happy I have more of a career in America, but personally, I was happier in Israel.”
She said she has not yet given up on the dream and hopes to one day move back to the Jewish state.
“I love the comforts of American life, but Israel is the place I want to be,” she said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.