I was 17 when I first came to Israel on a student program for two months on “USY High” in Hod Hasharon. Before my trip, I never really had any particular interest in Israel; I came from a Conservative middle class family and I had planned to go to college locally after high school. My family moved when I was in 11th grade and starting over at that stage was hard. So a trip to Israel in the middle of my school year was mostly just a “getaway.” All of that changed with my two-month stay. I fell in love with the country almost immediately and quickly I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. I was sure that Aliyah would be my plan, eventually.
I returned and let my parents know that I had decided to defer university to spend a year in Israel on “Nativ.” Also a USY program, it included one semester at Hebrew University and then another volunteering on a kibbutz. It was the year of the Gulf War; for me that was an important test, because I knew that if I didn’t want to be anywhere but Israel during a war, I would want to live in Israel no matter what.
I wanted to stay, but there was a lot of pressure back home. My parents insisted I return for university, so we eventually reached a compromise and I came back to attend McGill University in Canada, which was not too far from their home in Boston – but still not “back home” in the US. I thought that the best way I could be an asset in Israel would be using my English language skills, and it would be the best way to be able to compete in the Israeli job market. I hoped to work in public relations and communications, so I studied for my BA in English.
I went to McGill intent on making decisions that would get me back to Israel. I studied four semesters of Hebrew while there, moving up two ulpan levels. I found myself in the only French province in North America studying English and learning Hebrew! I also made sure to become friends with all the Israeli students on campus, and became involved in pro-Israel activism. Aside from the fact this was where my heart was, there was also a strategic component. I knew connections would be important (I didn’t yet realize how important), and I would need them, plus a support system, once I made aliyah.
I left for Israel only four months after my last class at McGill. I was 22, newly religious, and without relatives or many friends in Israel. This was in the days before Nefesh B’Nefesh, and everything went through the consulate and the Jewish Agency. I chose to attend Ulpan Etzion in Baka, Jerusalem, for five months as a soft landing. I worked in the afternoons in a Jerusalem neighborhood at a clothing store to make some side money – and to practice my Hebrew. The clothing store served almost exclusively anglos, and I kept being asked to please speak to the customers in English!
Part of the Ulpan Etzion program was special seminars to help us learn about living in Israel. One of those seminars was about our next steps, looking for employment, and preparing us for job interviews. I left that session full of anxiety about my future in Israel. Despite my hard work at acclimating, I was worried about my ability to find a real job once the Ulpan program ended. I cried to my boyfriend at the time that I didn’t know what would become of me.
He told me that he had just had lunch with the international director of one of the political parties who had advised him that given my Israel activism while in university, I should try to intern for an up-and-coming politician to get some experience and connections. It wouldn’t be a paying job, but it would give me a foot in the door.
“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked him. He said that the Mayor of Jerusalem (who was also an MK) was the best place to start – then started dialing City Hall! When they answered, he asked to speak to the mayor’s office. As the call was being transferred, he handed me the phone….The Assistant for Foreign Relations to the Mayor of Jerusalem – to whom my call had been directed – picked up, and completely on the spot I simply said, “I want to find out about working for the Mayor.”
There was complete silence on the phone for a minute, until finally said with some urgency: “Who told you to call here?!?!”
Well, I figured I should drop the name of the political party head my boyfriend had met with – it was his idea after all, right? Interestingly, that seemed to make sense to her. She suddenly started describing a job to me and I started to realize that she was not talking about an internship! I just went along with it. I came in that Friday dressed up for an interview, and when I arrived, she laughed at my attire. Didn’t I know the municipality is closed on a Friday? She was wearing jeans and sandals, and one of the only people in the entire municipal complex. She asked me a lot of questions , asked me for my resume… and then tore it up! She told me that she thought it might work but I had to let her do all of the talking.
What “might work”? As it turns out, there was a backstory that I wasn’t aware of at the time. The Mayor’s Assistant for Foreign Relations had been working for the mayor for quite some time and wanted to take a leave of absence for six months to go home to her family in Canada, but she didn’t want to give up her “teken” (public tender.) The mayor agreed that if she found someone trustworthy, who was “crazy enough” to take over her job for six months – and she took responsibility for training them before she left – he would allow her to leave without giving up the position.
Well, that’s when I called. I was at the right place, at the right time. It wasn’t very qualified and I didn’t go through normal processes. I just had guts and hoped I would figure out how to do the job before they figured out I didn’t know anything. I hoped that if I could pull it off for six months, I would go and get a “normal” job in a “normal” way with a better resume afterwards.
It was really hard. I cried some days. There was no internet, no google, no online dictionary, no one to ask what words meant without showing everyone how much I didn’t know. No one else in the entire office spoke a word of English except the Mayor himself. If I made a significant mistake, it could potentially end up in the newspaper.
But the bright side was that because I was a temp, the pay was better than a typical City Hall salary. I was just out of college and making more money than my peers. I even left the Ulpan early to start my job. It was incredibly interesting – and exciting. I learned so much. Hebrew, culture, politics, it was my intense acclimation that some others get in the army.
That first job opened many doors for me. At first, I was trained to do exactly what my predecessor had done – not an iota more or less, no creativity allowed. But after I had been there for six months, she called to announce that she wanted to remain in Canada for an additional six months, which then turned into 18 months! So as time went on, I became more comfortable and started taking on more responsibility and making connections of my own. I met the most amazing people from all over the world and learned a tremendous amount about Israel, Israelis, Israeli politics all while trying to learn how to be an adult in general and how to build a life. There I was, barely 23 years old and receiving gifts and complimentary tickets to events all over the city. It was fascinating, exciting, educational, scary, and stressful. Today they would call it “leaning in,” but at the time I was just trying to prove myself.
The relationships I built with Jews from all over the world that I built while in the mayor’s office were invaluable. After a year and a half of working there my position in the job market was completely different. People knew who I was and knew I had built connections. I received a job offer from the CEO of a non-profit organization who wanted me to work for him as his Associate Director. At first I said no, but eventually it became clear that moving on from City Hall was a good idea. I had actually learned my job well enough at City Hall that it started to feel small instead of hugely challenging! I had trouble being taken seriously as such a young woman in the old-boys’ club of Israeli politics, and I was told the best thing to do would be to leave, work my way up the ladder professionally, and then come back to politics.
So the new position seemed like a new challenge and a good move. My work hours at this new position were intense: I was managing a whole team of people older than me and often worked 50-60 hours a week, but the pay was really good, it was a lot of responsibility and I really believed in the mission. Despite my hesitations that the job was too big for me at age 24, my ambition pushed me to pursue it. It was an intense schedule and lifestyle, but I loved it. I made real money and bought a car because – well, because I had benefits that were going to run out, and I could. My boss was also famous so I knew a lot of people.
I did pay a price; men I dated were intimidated or threatened by my career. In general religious men who were olim and trying to find their own way either didn’t like that I was succeeding that much, or resented the amount I was married to my work. I didn’t really think I could “have it all” and thought that while my career success was a real blessing, I wanted a family. I deliberately decided to start slowing down.
Around the same time, my boss got involved in some political disputes with the board of the organization, and eventually he was fired from his position, with my job a casualty of the crossfire. I couldn’t believe it! 26 years old with a lawyer and career burn-out? How did this happen? I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to find a new job. I hadn’t exactly taken the traditional route up until this point. I took the opportunity to take a step back and try to find a job that was perhaps less exciting but had a healthy work-life balance.
I replied to a job posting in the Jerusalem Post for a regular PR and communications position in an organization that seemed perfect for me. I went for the interview and landed the job. It wasn’t a senior position and it wasn’t so intense. I was working normal hours in a more relaxed, educational environment, with no fancy teams to manage, but very much using my skill set.
I did have more time to focus on a private life, and I met and married my husband, an American divorcee who loved Israel as much as I did. It had only been a short while since I had left my high-profile life, and I still had my contacts all over the Jewish world, but I was happy to have shifted focus to my new husband and adorable stepson. We planned to live in Israel forever.
Unfortunately, shortly after our marriage, my husband’s ex-wife moved back to the US with their son, and after a prolonged court case, we made the difficult decision to move back to the US to help raise him. Leaving Israel was the most difficult, tragic thing I had ever experienced. I didn’t know how I could live outside of Israel. But by that point I had given birth to our first daughter, and I knew it would be an impossible sacrifice to ask my husband to choose between Israel and his son, who I loved as my own. We made the excruciating decision to live in the US for 12 years until he reached the age of 18 and was a legal adult.
It was devastating to give up the professional life I had built for myself in Israel. I went from being a high-profile somebody to an unknown entity in a random out-of-town community in New Jersey. From day one, I knew I’d bring up my family with the reality that our stay in the US was temporary, and that our real home was Israel. Twelve years? There were plenty of eye rolls and skepticism from others that we’d ever really make it back to Israel.
Over the years, we took many steps to keep the reality that “Israel is home” in our children’s minds. My husband spoke to our kids exclusively in Hebrew. All of the movies they were allowed to watch were in Hebrew. We played tapes and CD’s in the car (yes, back in those days) in Hebrew, and in general immersed ourselves in Israeli culture, despite living in a small out of the way suburban town in New Jersey. We did buy a small house there because we knew we’d be there for 12 years, but we never bothered renovating it.
The children knew that we would do a lot of what they asked for “when we get to Israel.” My kids, despite most of whom were born in the US, who only have American relatives, told everyone they were Israelis, because that was how we identified. (In fact, when we finally did make aliyah 12 years later, my kids’ schools couldn’t believe we were new olim and that the kids had never lived in the country before.)
But there was a long road for me to travel professionally before we returned to Israel. I had originally planned to open a consulting firm in the US for Israelis making aliyah, and I told this to the mayor – my former employer – when we left for the US. He agreed to help me get some initial clients. However, G-d had other plans for me because I soon discovered I was expecting twins – when my daughter was only 16 months old! I went from being a single working woman to a mother of four kids – my stepson, my infant daughter, and newborn twins – in what felt like the blink of an eye. So I decided to stop working altogether and take some time off from work to focus on raising our children.
Many years and three additional kids later, a friend from NJ who made aliyah herself contacted me about a part-time job; an Israeli nonprofit she worked with was looking to hire a contact in the US, and she thought I’d be a good fit. I began working for them part-time and enjoyed it. Not so long after, one of my colleagues at that organization left to take a job in a seminary, and when they also needed a contact in the US, she called me about that too. Both positions were from home and part time so it made for a good transition back to work and helped me remain connected to Israel. Both jobs found me through connections; I hadn’t gone looking.
Meanwhile my husband, Barak, who worked in IT for IBM in Israel – telecommuting before that was even a term – found a job working in Pharma companies in New Jersey. It was boring, but it was stable. This was useful because when we finally made aliyah, he was able to keep his job and US pay, at least for the first year. I quit my jobs prior to making aliyah; my family needed me to focus on the challenge of helping six kids aged four to twelve who thought they were “so Israeli” adjust to the reality that they still had a lot to learn.
I knew I wanted to go back to work in Israel eventually because I missed my career, my earlier life. I knew that the kids would have an easier time with me working in Israel than they could while we were in the US, since in suburbia they had very little independence. Eventually the company my husband was working for closed his department, but by that point I was working again part time. The seminary I had represented in the US had never really found a replacement for me, and they were willing to have me work for them despite living in Israel, but my salary wasn’t enough to cover all of our needs. We had some money saved up, but things were very tight financially. We had left our house unsold in the US and we were still renting, something we would do for the next nine years.
Barak had worked for the SAT Princeton Review prior to entering the IT world. Through the local job search he encountered a lot of ageism in the Israeli tech scene, so he decided to go back to being an SAT tutor while looking for a new IT position. He would teach students via zoom throughout the world before zoom and distance learning became a thing. It became clear that there was enough market demand and he loved what he was doing so much that he decided to just stick to tutoring full time. Soon he established himself as a sought-after tutor who provided real results, and today he has waiting lists of students interested in working with him. Plus, he loves what he does.
After our family had settled enough, it was time for me to look for a real job. I met with some headhunters, and shortly thereafter received a phone call from an old colleague back from my days at city hall. “You made aliyah and are looking for work and didn’t call me first?” she wanted to know. Needless to say, I got a nice job in the public relations department in a nonprofit organization. I was thankful that basically each time I was ready and looking for work, Hashem sent a great job my way, usually through connections I had made in the industry.
Eventually, I decided I was ready to open my own consulting firm. I found my initial clients once again through personal connections. My work took me to meet interesting people and work for all types of organizations, and the experiences and friends I gathered throughout my career really stood me in good stead.
Just one month ago, I was offered and began working at a full-time position with Aish Global, as the Director of Communication and Public Affairs. I absolutely love my work and see how every position I have held until now has provided me with the skills and experience I’ve needed to be successful at my job.
After all these years of renting, this summer we have finally managed to purchase our own home in our community in Neve Daniel! It took 27 years of saving and waiting to get to this point, and we are beyond thrilled to finally own our own home in Israel.
I have several messages with which I want to leave your readers. The first is to plan strategically. From day one, I was strategic in planning how I could succeed long-term in Israel. From the degree I chose to pursue to the friends I made, every step of the way was thought out with my goal of making aliyah.
My second piece of advice is to be proactive about making friends, not only with your peers, but with families and mentors who can be there for you so far from home and give you the perspective and advice to help you grow and succeed. When I first came here as single, I tried to make connections with families for Shabbat so I would have that strong support system, since I knew how important it was for a successful aliyah.
Next, embrace your inner Israeli chutzpah. While I happened to be at the right place at the right time with that first job in City Hall, it was my determination – guts, chutzpah, call it what you will – that enabled me to have that first phone call and carry through with the interview. Israel is a tiny pond. It’s so much easier to gain access to anyone here than abroad, so use that to your advantage.
Finally, a piece of practical advice: Make it easy for people to help you. We are a loving, giving nation and people genuinely want to help you out. There is plenty of room for free advice, free mentoring and more, but make it easy for people to say yes. For example, rather than calling someone to say “Can we meet for coffee sometime so I can pick your brain for job advice?” send a message with a clear description of what you hope to ask them and why you want to meet them and suggest specific dates and times that might work. Ask if coffee right in their area is better or if they prefer a zoom call. That makes it much easier for the person at the other end to say yes; you have spared them the work of logistics, timing and travel.
People already working successfully in this country are amazingly open to guidance and advice. Many will happily give you time to get started in a career here, but they are also busy. So be brave and just ask, but do it wisely so that you can get a lot of yeses. Never underestimate the power of personal relationships in this country and when you land that amazing job, remember to make time for the olim who contact you and ask for the same thing. B’hatzlacha!
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I just LOVE these kinds of stories! They let new immigrants know that crazy things can & will happen. There’s NEVER a dull moment in JERUSALEM!!! NEVER!