Monday, March 08, 2010

Economic aliyah surges in Israel as US recession bites

Fed up with the tough job market inside the States, more young American Jews are choosing to wait out the recession in Israel, where the government heavily subsidizes their stay while they intern, learn Hebrew or volunteer. It harks back to the exodus of Argentine Jews to Israel during their meltdown in 2001-2. Reuters reports on this trend:

According to Masa, a group that organizes programs to Israel and is partially funded by the Israeli government, participation is up 50 percent since the fall of 2008. Today, Masa has more than 1,500 Americans working in Israel.

Masa's Aaron Goldberg said interest has been rising since the financial crisis, which gave them the idea for their "Israel: A Better Stimulus Plan" marketing campaign.

"Before the economic crisis, there wasn't that impetus to look beyond the traditional career path," said Goldberg, Masa's director of recruitment. "Now there are less jobs and less internships, so this becomes a great way to add something to your portfolio."

Jews are not the only ones seeking their fortune overseas. According to the Institute for International Education, the number of American students interning overseas has doubled since 2000.

"In tougher times, people are taking a look at how they can develop themselves further," said Paul Lakind, president of The Global Intern, a company in Randolph, New Jersey that arranges internships in Israel, as well as England, China and Italy. [Israel has government funds available for Jewish emigres and invests in Birthright and other feel-good propaganda visits.]

Since its founding, Israel has sought to attract Jewish youth to ensure its survival as a Jewish state [despite high birth rates among Arab Israelis and Palestinians]. But the recession has proven a good marketing tool.

Rachel Wolfson, 22, graduated last May with a degree in government and English but the Dallas resident could only find work selling shoes. To save money, Wolfson moved back in with her parents, but quickly grew frustrated.

"I feel like an undergraduate degree doesn't mean as much as it used to," she said. "And with the economy the way it is, I just decided to leave America."

Through Masa, Wolfson will intern for the political party New Movement-Meretz. The internship is unpaid, but Wolfson hopes the experience will improve her resume.

Her internship costs about $9,000, including air fare, room and board for five months. Masa gives her a $3,000 grant and suggested she have $300-$500 a month for personal expenses.

Unemployment is up in Israel, but the country was mostly spared the economic beating America and many other rich countries took. High-tech and biotech, Israel's top industries, are booming and many global firms now have a presence there, driving demand for college-educated English speakers. There is universal health care and new immigrants get tax breaks.

Although Masa's programs mostly focus on helping Jews get reacquainted with Israel, some other programs are open to non-Jews, especially those between 20-30 years of age.

Most programs are short-term, meant to immerse young adults in a foreign culture while boosting their professional skills. But some participants have decided to stay on after their internships ended, after receiving job offers.

Elliot Lazarus, a 30-year-old architect from Long Island will soon be relocating to Jerusalem with his wife and 5-year-old son, after spending last fall interning at two Jerusalem architectural firms. When he was initially laid off in December 2008, Lazarus was in despair. But with time, he came to think of his job loss as a new beginning.

"Most people can't just walk away from a six figure salary," he said. "I had to be shaken out of my comfort zone."

Unlike most participants, Lazarus is an orthodox Jew who long had a desire to live in Israel. But he says it took the economic crisis to push him over the edge.

On his blog "Recessioning in Jerusalem", he ruminates about his decision and more everyday pursuits, like haggling over the price of a haircut or jogging through the Old City at dusk.

For some, the appeal of Israel is religious. For others it's practical: life is cheaper there. But overwhelmingly, participants say they are surprised by Israel's work culture, which encourages flexibility and a better life-work balance.

"It was never a problem to ask my boss if I could come in late or leave early," recalls 27-year-old Rachael Freedman who interned at a Tel Aviv architecture firm after losing her job in 2008. "It's definitely more relaxed."

Since returning, Freedman has been hired back by her old firm, but Israel also left an indelible mark on her.

"I think about it every day," said Freedman, who considers herself a secular Jew. "I wake up thinking of Israel, at work I think about it, and hope to be there in the nearer future. There is just something about it that feels like home."

1 comment:

Jan said...

Yanks had better be prepared to learn Hebrew quick. Or join the Army like the NY Times reporter's son. There are bumper stickers decrying too much English overheard on Emek Rafaim street. The accents of Bev Hills and Brooklyn often grate on the nerves of Jerusalemites.