When I was fourteen, I was staunchly fiscally conservative.
I came from a family of placard-toting socialist activists (not social, rather socialist, think union rep, a step shy of Teamsters, more like Norma Rae) and the rabble-rouser in me was determined to be financially secure.
I wanted comfort.
I was aiming for rich.
I envisioned an apartment with a bay window, a closet full of black pantsuits, a rolltop desk and a cat. By twenty-two, I lived in San Francisco with a burgeoning career at one of The Big 5, a high-ceilinged, beautifully appointed one bedroom overlooking the cable car, two cats and 16 black pantsuits.
Once I decided that I intended to marry Jewish (time to start dating Jews, which was unprecedented for me) I spent a year on elaborate dinner dates.
And then I met an Israeli.
Born in the USA, he didn’t look like an Israeli, he didn’t sound like an Israeli, but when you fall in love with an Israeli, you have to know that they all come with an unspoken, clandestine caveat. They all return home, eventually.
I did not know that.
It took us about three weeks to determine we were going to face life together. I quit my lucrative job and we headed for Honduras to learn how to scuba dive. (We were in our early 20’s! Why not?) We got married by a rent-a-Rabbi who won’t shame you for not being religious in Jerusalem two years later, and by Elvis in Vegas a month after that.
After five years of living a marvelous DINK lifestyle, one day he came home and said, “הגיע הזמן ללכת הביתה.”
I didn’t speak Hebrew at the time, so I had no idea what that meant, nor was I used to him addressing me in a language which, up until then, I had only used in Hebrew school to distract the Rabbi while subversively throwing leftover bar mitzvah candy at the girl next to me. Many tears later (not a typo – I did mean tears and not years) I learned that it meant, “It’s time to go home.”
$100K/year to $8/hour
I reluctantly landed in Israel with exactly one friend, one sister, and my Hebrew fluency being limited to “the clock is on the wall”.
Worse, my career, which had blossomed into corporate human resources with a limited liability specialty (along with union negotiation – how ironic) was useless in the holy land, since the laws are different and a non-Hebrew speaker with the wrong knowledge had no hope. Obviously, I was pregnant in 10 minutes, since we were ready (and there’s something in the water in Jerusalem, I swear.) And as much as my Jerusalemite husband swore we could live on one high-tech salary (his)… that was simply not the case.
It took me about a year to understand my environment enough to realize that returning to work, even with small babies, was not an option. I had to earn.
The next realization (after I understood that I had to wait 30 minutes for hot water, which was a horrifying shock) was also unfortunate: either I could learn Hebrew or forever be financially handicapped.
ProTip: Go to ulpan. Learn Hebrew. I’m talking flashcards. Do you want to be financially smarter? Suck it up and study. Without it, you’re limited to working in Jerusalem (20% lower salaries than the Tel Aviv area) and you’re cutting out opportunities for networking and financial independence. Learn it – even if you’ll never be fluent. Learn enough to earn opportunities and respect.
I started ulpan in kitah aleph and spent three years in a myriad of ulpanim all over Jerusalem – first full-time, then part-time, since I ran out of patience being perennially broke and had to earn at least something in the meantime. While my husband’s high-tech salary was sufficient for our tiny family’s basics (it was 2004 and his salary almost covered rent on a 2-bedroom in the city, maintenance on a used car, gas, and groceries) we couldn’t go out to eat. Ever. We couldn’t travel (even within Israel) and had trouble bringing gifts to weddings. It wasn’t a way to live. It certainly wasn’t what I expected as a little girl growing up in Wisconsin!
My first job in Israel was as a Virtual Assistant – that’s marketing-speak for an outsourced secretary. I went from $100K/year to $8/hour taking “visionary” calls 6 days/week at 6 am from a narcissistic doctor in Los Angeles who had “lots of business ideas.” I got the feeling that his wife had simply had enough, and encouraged him to “hire someone to bring all his valuable contributions to fruition.” That was me.
I worked part-time, from home, in the evenings and early mornings, in English, while I desperately tried to “graduate” from ulpan. Learning to say, “I’ll take an espresso with milk, to go, no foam, keep the change” took three years.
ProTip: While I had to learn to ingest exotic MiddleEastern cuisine when we first made Aliyah, fried garbanzo beans were not the most distasteful delicacy I came across. I had to gobble my ego, bite by bite. No job was beneath me. My 16-black-pantsuit-flavored pride was hard to swallow, but pivoting in a new country with tiny babies and 50% fluency? B’tei avon (bon appetit). Get ready to wash down that ego with some Nescafe if you’re pivoting in Israel.
If you’re that kind of person, this is that kind of country
On one and a half Jerusalem salaries, we continued to produce spawn and purchased our first home, a dilapidated 60 meter (650 sq. foot) apartment in “the Katamonim”.
It was a far cry from the McMansion of my dreams.
Once we hit three kids, it was time to leave the city. There was just no way we could afford more space in Jerusalem for our growing family. By then, I was running the outsourced secretary company; I got myself promoted from Virtual Assistant to Senior Virtual Assistant to Recruitment Manager to Marketing Manager to Director within five years, which tripled my salary… and that salary was still only $24/hour, 20 hours/week. We still couldn’t make it.
ProTip: In Israel, you can create your own job, title and salary. It takes a while (see next tip) but this is a country full of the type of opportunity that looks like “no one else was doing it so I trained myself how to do it and now I run it.” If you’re that kind of person, this is that kind of country.
It was decision time. We took a loan, renovated our apartment, and sold it for double what we paid. We bought a (ramshackle) house in a moshav 30 minutes from Jerusalem with that same sum, took our little ones, and told ourselves we’d fix up the house over time. It’s been 12 years, and while we’ve saved and splurged for a few upgrades here and there (new paint, a “new” couch – hey, if you haven’t seen it, it’s new to you) the house has undergone zero significant renovations – the funds simply aren’t there.
ProTip: Time works differently in Israel. Everyone is late, and while some processes appear to materialize quickly (defending the nation when under attack, founding technology companies and “making a nice exit”, voting in a new government, and then watching it crumble) most things work slowly. Contractors. Banks. Savings programs. You must expect things – all processes from fixing your dishwasher to saving for a vacation – to take at least twice as long as you expected, and often longer.
Yes, you can be an entrepreneur
When I was on my third maternity leave, I got a phone call informing me that I “had been sold.”
After conjuring some vivid off-color imagery in my head, I eventually understood that the company had been sold with me as its head. I wasn’t even consulted.
I sat down with my husband to consider our options, and he pointed out that since I was already investing 100% in my job (I don’t know any other way to function, thanks, Midwestern values) it seemed a little silly to work this hard for people who were willing to “sell me” without as much as a heads-up. If I was going to work this hard, I may as well work for myself.
“As what?” I asked. “Hang a shingle that says what?” Well, he’s Israeli, and male (so he automatically assumes he can do anything, and, without thinking, extends that privilege to me) so we walked through the job description I had organically grown into, I understood that I didn’t just take this small company and make it profitable; I could take any small company and make it profitable. The role I had defined for myself – how I managed to get myself promoted to the head of the place to begin with – required that I learn digital marketing, profitability analysis, and business development. I had already done the learning. PRESTO – I could be a freelance digital marketer.
If you’re selling services, becoming a freelancer in Israel requires almost zero initial investment. I struck a deal with a friend for website design; a month later, I had a basic site and was considered a business.
ProTip: Although Israelis insist that they handle everything independently (it’s not a culture that asks for help or admits shortcomings) that is simply a big fat lie. Everything here relies on your network. That network is critical to cultivating and here’s why: I bartered with a fellow immigrant to build my website. I did a favor for a client in exchange for financial advice. I asked some successful local immigrant entrepreneurs how to navigate Israeli business culture and they let me program them into my speed dial for a full year, consulting and supporting. Find your people; you’re going to need them.
How to found a successful business in Israel without spending money
Although I’m a marketer and therefore required to tell you to invest beaucoup bucks in marketing, that’s a big fat lie, too.
Over eight years, my digital marketing business grew and changed into a boutique (marketing-speak for small) content marketing agency. I have never paid to advertise. I don’t have an office (not even in my home.) I don’t sponsor content and I don’t earn kickbacks or percentages for referrals. So how did I go from hanging a shingle to employing seven immigrants and managing nearly 20 international clients?
Even with minimal Hebrew, you can contribute. Inevitably, you came to Israel with skills. You have background and experience in something; therefore, you have what to contribute. I’m not talking about volunteering in a soup kitchen; I’m talking about walking a new immigrant (or anyone who is new at anything) through something you’ve already done so they can do it more easily. Or they can do it without embarrassment or shame, or without extra cost, hassle, or nightmare of any flavor.
In my first year in business, I attended every English-language conference I could find that was even marginally adjacent to my business space. I talked to everyone who would talk to me – not about my business (I don’t like self-promotion, it’s uncomfortable) but rather about life here, transitions, getting acclimated, and becoming a parent. I talked about real stuff with real people and made genuine connections. I founded my network.
In my second year in business, I started speaking on panels at those same conferences. For free. I arranged babysitters, shlepped to Tel Aviv, and paid for parking. I shared my knowledge – how to get established tax-wise in two countries and avoid pitfalls, how to promote a business on social media without sounding like a jackass, how to manage lead magnet conversions, drip campaigns and marketing analytics, and how to tell your story. I expanded my network.
By my third year in business, I was established enough to give my clients referrals for the work they requested that was outside my core competency, and after establishing my network of other professionals, I had experts to refer them to. Everybody won. In addition, I started offering support to others not only in person but also online. There are plenty of English-language Facebook groups to join and contribute to: Israeli Women’s Entrepreneur Network, Ima Kadima, Freelance Writers in Israel, and countless others for each profession (lawyers, medical professionals, academics).
When you first arrive in Israel, you ask your professional questions in these places. Once you’ve established yourself, start answering them.
Now that I’m nearly a decade into entrepreneurship, I mentor other women – some are pivoting from one career to another, some are new here and trying to establish themselves, and some are working their way up to management. Each person I meet with is a prospective client, potential partner, or possible friend. If I can’t help you, I will find the person who can. That’s how I consistently contribute, and that’s how I’ve built both my business and my life here.
So, have you “made it” yet?
According to the standard I conjured when I was sixteen? No.
No giant house, no pantsuits, no pedicures, way more kids than I ever imagined.
But, by 40, my priorities changed. Since I run my own business, the more I work, the more I earn. When I founded the business, I worked my rear end off – so much so, in fact, that my family nearly fell apart. Because my husband puts in 50-60 hours/week, and we have four active kids (now teenaged on down to kindergarten), I learned the hard way that when I work over 30 hours weekly, balls start dropping. Glass balls.
Was “making it” worth broken glass balls?
It was a critical determination that one might call “adulting”.
ProTip: Here, they say “או או or “גם וגם”. It literally translates to “or, or” or “also and also”. Conceptually, though – it means “you can have this or that” or “you can have this AND that”. Here, almost always, you’re facing the former rather than the latter. It’s either, or. You can have sanity or disposable income. Choose your priorities ruthlessly, because it’s או או.
I scaled back and watched my income drop. I panicked as checks started to bounce. One high-tech salary and one part-time entrepreneur salary, while covering the mortgage, groceries, and perennially rising gas for one old and battered Mom-van, was not stretching to summer camp, the high school trip to Poland, math tutors or braces.
We negotiated with the bank (this is Israel, “no” means it’s the beginning of a negotiation, which although likely not great for consent culture, works wonders when you’ve established a relationship with your banker.) I consulted with my CFO who, up until then, was handling my taxes and collections. He is an immigrant, a father, and someone who has earned my respect. His wisdom dictated expansion, automation, and delegation. The goal became “earn enough to not have to think about refused credit cards at the grocery store, and receive low-grade tranquility in exchange.” I embraced my new goal.
I hired three writers, doubled my monthly payment to my CFO, and expanded his team’s responsibilities to include onboarding all new clients, administration for every paycheck and freelancer salary, profitability analysis, cash flow – you name it – if he could do it, he owned it. I automated and delegated everything I could, electing to invest in protecting my own time.
Yes, my expenses rose. Significantly. Over the next year, I doubled my staff again and now employ eight immigrants who work 100% from home, in English, on their own schedules.
Now I cap my work at 20 hours/week. I only take phone calls before 2 pm when my youngest comes home from kindergarten. My clients don’t like my limited availability, but they deal. I still get on the phone with West Coast clients at 6 am Israel time, but I no longer take calls in my evenings. I earn enough for low-grade tranquility, and that’s golden for me.
My salary has grown, and while I still only earn ⅓ of what my husband does, he works nearly 60 hours/week and I work less than 20, which means we’ve found our sweet spot.
Here’s what’s sweet:
- I am present for my children, both physically and emotionally.
- We are saving for their weddings and for retirement; not tons, but enough that I’m not up at night worrying about it.
- When my husband returns from work (often 9 pm) I am not on work calls and we can have an actual conversation.
Here’s what I had to embrace to feel I am making it in Israel:
- Luxury, as I once knew it, is possible here, but not worth what I have to sacrifice to get it.
- Working less and having less is more satisfying than working more and earning more.
- I will never go out for $200 worth of sushi again, ever.
- I can redefine myself, my career, and my priorities every 5 minutes if I want to; everyone else does.
Living financially smarter in Israel is possible. “Making it” is possible; just make sure your definition of “making it” matches your priorities.
Define them first.
Then live well.