Ronen and Leah Hillel were happy in their home in North Woodmere, L.I. Ronen Hillel was working as the manager of a mortgage bank and the oldest of their six children were attending Jewish day schools.
“When times were great in New York and the money was there, the party was going on and we were living a comfortable life,” Hillel said. “But when the recession hit, things became a lot more difficult.”
Hillel, 37, quit his job — the company went out of business a year later — and he began his own mortgage brokerage business with his brother and a friend. But it was a struggle to make ends meet.
“Last year, for the first time, we needed financial aid” for the children’s schooling, Hillel said. “Without the help, the schools would have cost $58,000, a figure some people believe is a very good salary.”
Making aliyah had been “something we’d been planning forever,” he said, and the recession proved to be the catalyst the family needed to make the move.
“The choice was either starting the business over or seeing this as a way to move and start a life here [in Israel],” Hillel said. “I’m glad to say that if anything positive came out of the recession, this was it — the move to Israel.”
Hillel and his family are not alone. An increasing number of the record 4,000 Jews from North America and Britain who are expected to make aliyah this year are doing so because of the recession, according to Yael Katsman, a spokeswoman for Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that helps Jews make aliyah.
The organization, which is dedicated to revitalizing immigration to Israel by streamlining the application process and providing financial and job assistance, said the number of immigrants this year would represent a 25 percent increase over last year’s figure.
“The economy is acting as an accelerator for aliyah plans,” Katsman explained. “In the past, aliyah was for many a long-term plan. People with student loans would try to work them off first and build up a nest egg before they came. Now, they have decided to speed up their plans because it might take longer than they had thought to build up savings. And they realize they have the same chance [to save money] in Israel.”
“If you have young people just finishing college and starting a career, it may have been more attractive to start their careers in the U.S.,” Katsman added. “But now, people are rethinking that approach.”
Miriam Gable, a 26-year-old single who moved to Israel July 6 from her apartment on the Upper East Side, said that although she left behind a job as an analyst in the health care industry, the impact of the recession was palpable.
“The mood was very down,” she said. “I know friends who were laid off from prominent banks, and there was a depressing aura that put things in perspective for me. It made me stop and take a step back. I realized that New York wasn’t the ideal long-term place for me.”
Gable, who grew up in a fervently Orthodox home in upstate Monsey, attended all-girl schools until she went to Cornell University for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. After graduation she worked for two years as an analyst, gaining “phenomenal experience.”
“There came a point where I felt I needed a transition,” she said. “The economy isn’t very good and it made me take a step back and evaluate my goals and aspirations. … I always wanted to live in Israel. My grandfather was born in Israel and I always felt this is where my roots were. My parents came here over the years for the holidays, and I’m now living in their apartment in Jerusalem.”
In May, Gable spent four weeks in Israel with her parents, doing research and making contacts and working with Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency to see what could be done to speed-up her absorption process and find a job.
Gable added that she has many relatives in Israel who have made the transition easier for her.
That was also the case with the Hillel family. Leah Hillel, 39, said she is finding it all “very exciting” since she and her family moved to Israel July 7. But she said that were it not for her husband’s “many family members here, we would not have been able to” settle in as easily.
“As hard as it is to do, I can’t imagine how difficult it is without having family here to help you,” she said.
Nisan Gertz said he and his wife Gilan have “quite a few cousins” to provide family support when they make the move of a lifetime with their five children Aug. 3 from their home in Passaic, N.J.
“My wife and I have always thought about it — dreamed about it — but we were doing well in our respective fields and increasing our salaries,” Nisan Gertz, 38, said. “But our expenses kept getting higher and higher and we got caught up on a treadmill — never able to catch up” or have money left to invest.
With the oldest of their children, who range in age from 3 to 14, entering high school this year and their youngest starting school, Gertz said he found his school tuition bill “insane.” He calculated that had he put all his children through private Jewish schools here, the price tag would have been $875,000. In Israel, he expects to pay $4,000 annually for all his kids’ schooling.
“Given that the cost of living is going up, especially in a religious home, and the prospects for higher salaries are going down given the cuts across the board, this was the right time” to move, he explained.
Gertz, who leads a practice that does program management for health care institutions, said his wife is a clinical social worker. He said that when he arrives in Israel, he would have to start looking for a job. His wife plans to look for one after first making sure the children have acclimated to their new surroundings.
“We are both fairly competent in our professional development and comfortable that we’ll get work,” Gertz said. “We have both studied in Israel and are fluent in conversational Hebrew. We plan to go to an ulpan to get professional Hebrew skills.”
Katsman noted that Nefesh B’Nefesh’s record when it comes to assisting families and helping them to find jobs has also served to spur immigration. She said 98 percent of those who made aliyah since Nefesh B’Nefesh began operating in 2002 have remained in Israel, and that 94 percent of households have at least one family member working of those seeking employment.
Hillel said he arrived two weeks ago and quickly set up his Internet connection and phone lines with the help of an uncle who lives in Israel so that he could resume working at his mortgage brokerage business.
“It’s been a near seamless transition,” he said, adding that it costs him $20 a year for each of two phone lines with local U.S. phone numbers.
Hillel, whose parents are Israeli and whose family speaks Hebrew, said he is renting a home in Israel after being unable to sell their home on Long Island.
“I owe more than it’s worth,” he said, adding that his brother is now living there and paying the mortgage.
Asked about the cost of living in Israel, Hillel said the seven-bedroom private house with a yard he is renting costs $1,250 a month.
“The quality of life goes up and the cost of living goes down,” he said, adding that his supermarket bill is considerably less.
“A huge watermelon that costs $6 at Costco we bought in the supermarket here for $2,” Hillel said. “Fruits and vegetables are much less expensive here. They sell peaches here by the bucket. But you get things when they are in season — Israel does not import from Mexico.”
Next week: A group of area singles is making the move together.