Return Of The Natives

Return Of The Natives

Yeheskel Davidian of Flatbush is bitter about his decision to emigrate from Israel to the United States 28 years ago and can’t wait to go back.

“It cost me my life,” he said. “Everybody thinks America is the place to make money; it’s not.”

Menachem Grossman of Dix Hills, L.I., became so disenchanted with his homeland that he became an American and gave up his Israeli citizenship.

“I have no interest in living there,” he said, adding that he blamed the Israeli government for cutting short his college education. “Most people there are not polite, they are arrogant and some are connivers; I am not comfortable there.”

A less extreme view is voiced by Abraham Levy of the Mill Basin section of Brooklyn, whose three children have made aliyah and who is planning to join them in a few years.

“My wife is taking it hard,” he said of his children’s move to Israel. “Sooner or later, we’ll be there, too.”

These three widely divergent assessments of Israel come at a time when its Ministry of Absorption, at the behest of Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav, is preparing to ask all overseas Israelis to move back for the country’s 50th birthday — or at least to visit this year.

Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, said that in the last five months his office has made a concerted effort to reach out to the estimated 200,000 Israelis living in the New York area, about 40 percent of those living abroad.

“We’re working to have more cultural events here” geared exclusively for Israelis, said Sisso. “And the consulate has a support group to encourage Israelis to go back. We help them cut through Israeli bureaucracy to make their way home a smooth one.”

Two months ago, Sisso said he participated in a weekend Israeli cultural event at the Concord Hotel in the Catskills that attracted 3,000 Israelis. He said the consulate also had a desk there with information about returning to Israel.

“We are bringing them Israeli culture that [hopefully] makes them homesick,” he said.

Asked if he has seen a major impact on the number of Israelis heeding this pitch, Sisso replied: “We are not sprinters, we are marathon runners. It’s a process; we are working on it.”

A recent high-tech fair here staged by Israeli firms proved very successful, Sisso added. Israel is in need of 3,500 engineers and the firms were looking to hire 60 people. They received two applications for every job.

“When you meet someone from Italy who has lived here 20 years, they will say they are an American,” said Sisso. “When you meet an Israeli who has been here 20 years, they will say they are an Israeli planning to go back just as soon as their son finishes college. Some of them will. We want them to feel they are wanted and not rejected.”

Erasing A StigmaUntil the mid-1980s, many Israelis who emigrated believed they were not respected by their government or by fellow Israelis. That belief was particularly prevalent among those who left during Israel’s unpopular prolonged stay in Lebanon during the early ’80s.

But that stigma vanished for many after 1985 when the government of Israel assumed responsibility for overseas Israelis, taking it away from the Jewish Agency, according to Nadia Prigat, director of the Department of Returning Citizens.

“In 1985, the government came to the conclusion that Israeli citizens had to be treated differently from potential olim [immigrants],” she said. “The government decided to establish direct contact with these people and tried not to push them into a corner or make them feel guilty.”

To do that, Israel asked its consulates to reach out to these former citizens and encourage them to keep in touch.

“They told them they are part of the Israeli people,” said Prigat during an interview in Jerusalem.

The consulates, in partnership with the Ministry of Absorption, then began developing programs to establish ties with Israelis living abroad and explain how they could return home and what changes they might find, such as in health insurance.

Eleven of the 13 consulates in the U.S. and Canada — including New York — also have established a project called Israeli House that sends the Israelis newsletters and provides assistance to those wishing to return. They are told that if they have lived abroad for at least two years, they are entitled to bring with them most of their household items customs free during their first nine months in Israel. Some items are subject to a customs tax, however, such as microwaves, dishwashers, dryers and VCRs.

“The government wants to enable those Israelis who were sent abroad by Israeli companies to bring back the contents of their home,” said Prigat.

The effort to attract Israelis to return picked up momentum in 1992 because of the slumping economy in the United States and a “euphoria [in Israel] over the hopes for peace” and a strong economy, Prigat observed.

As a result, the number of returning Israelis doubled to between 12,000 and 13,000 a year. That figure remained constant through 1995 but has dipped to between 10,000 and 12,000 in the last two years, she noted.

“We find that they are coming back here because of their strong identity to Israel, their deep ties to the country,” said Prigat. “Only 5 percent of those who left said they did so for ideological reasons; the rest left for a variety of different reasons. Some left because of their career or because of family or friends abroad or because of the [lure] of other cultures.

“Some of them are coming back because they want to raise their children as Jews in the Israeli culture and with their larger family here. They also complain that they are losing their Israeli identity abroad, and that starts a serious conflict in their family.”

Among the children of Israelis raised in the U.S. who are considering making aliyah is Lorenn Peer, who will graduate this year from the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art in Queens.

Peer, 17, said that upon graduation she plans to fly to Israel and join the army. She has dual American-Israeli citizenship.

“I was born here but I lived there from 1987 to 1993,” she said. “I’m not sure if I will stay after the army; I’ll see how I adjust. I’m sure I will love it and if I do, I will go to college there. … I’m very patriotic and Zionistic.”

Peer said she, her parents and three younger brothers — one who was born in Israel — “are an Israeli family. We always talk Hebrew and I consider myself an Israeli even though I was born here. It’s my home; I feel I belong there and it’s where I want to be.”

She said her parents plan to remain here, as do many of those who decided to immigrate to the United States. One of those is the Long Islander Grossman, who was born in Israel in 1940 and came to the United States in 1956 to finish the last year of high school.

“My parents thought I would have a better chance of getting a better education here,” he said. “I finished my fourth year of high school in Manhattan at Yeshiva University’s Talmudical Academy and then went to Yeshiva University.

“But after my first year of college, the Israeli government forced me to return to Israel to serve in the Israeli armed forces. And this is my qualm with them: I was willing to sign papers saying I would return to Israel after I finished four years of college or had my master’s; they said they would not accept that.”

Grossman returned to Israel in 1958, served his two-year hitch in the army and returned to New York in 1961 to finish college. But the disruption in his education was too great and instead of completing college, Grossman became a licensed Hebrew school teacher. After teaching at synagogues in New Jersey, an uncle introduced him to the optical field and in 1965 he became a licensed optician.

He noted that another Israeli with him at Yeshiva University who was planning to attend medical school refused to answer the army call-up.

“Until this day he cannot set foot in Israel because if he did, they may arrest him,” said Grossman. “He has to meet his parents in Europe.”

Grossman said he surrendered his Israeli citizenship in the early 1980s because “I did not see any benefit to having dual citizenship, and [Israeli citizenship] was only a nuisance for me.

“Whenever I went to Israel, I had to travel on an Israeli passport and I had 30 days to get an army deferment [from reserve duty]. To do that, I had to shlep to an army camp, wasting a whole day to get it.”

Grossman said he did not come to the U.S. to “make millions of dollars. I came because there was more opportunity for me to make more of my life. I don’t know what I would have become in Israel.”

American Dreams And RealitiesDavidian, on the other hand, came to the U.S. when he was 25 and single. “I’m a contractor and the first couple of years were easy for me here,” the Brooklynite recalled. “But then I got married and had kids and it got harder. To keep the kids in a Jewish community and in good schools cost me $35,000 every year.

“That’s a lot of money and it’s why my wife decided to move from here to Israel with the kids nine months ago. There they are happy, the government of Israel helped get them an apartment, the school doesn’t cost anything, medical insurance costs little and there’s plenty of work there. If I put in the hours of work there that I put in here, I’d be a millionaire.”

Davidian said he “feels sorry” for the time he has spent here. “I missed out on a lot of years, believe me. I lost a lot. I was wrong. Sometimes you read the blueprints wrong.”

The owner of Hezy Construction in Brooklyn, Davidian said he plans to finish his work here and then move back to Israel to rejoin his wife, three daughters and son.

Meanwhile, Levy, 54, of Mill Basin, has a totally different view of Israel. Born in Turkey, his family took him there when he was 5. He decided to move to the United States when he was 21, leaving his family behind.

He and his wife raised three children here, each of whom married and then made aliyah — the first eight years ago, the second three years ago and the third just eight months ago. Levy and his wife, Eileen, have seven grandchildren.

“I guess they all fell in love with the State of Israel,” said Levy. “I did not influence any of them. … My kids did not feel Israeli. When I came to the U.S., I wanted to learn English and we spoke English at home. They learned Hebrew at Yeshivah of Flatbush.

“My son, who made aliyah eight months ago, had been there only once before, just after high school. … My wife is taking it hard but I’m not. I left my parents in Israel and came to the U.S. So in a way, I’m happy. I have three children in one state who live a half-hour from each other and they are happy. Sooner or later, we’ll be there, too.”

But first, said Levy, he intends to run for the New York City Council. And, he said, before he does make aliyah, he has to find a job in Israel. “I’m not worried about making money, I just want to pay the bills. My kids knew it was hard making a living there, but they decided it would be better there for their children. My son said he does not want his children to have what he experienced here,” Levy said.

“It is not easy growing up in New York if you want to marry another Jew. They all want their children raised in a Jewish atmosphere. And children in Israel have more confidence, discipline and control of themselves. American children are more childish than Israelis.”

read more: