Life in the U.S.: A Reality Check for Olim (and others)

Making aliyah is a process, from the decision to make aliyah to the actual move, to learning the ins and outs of how to make a life here, and everything in between.  Spiritually, the blessings of living here are incomparable, but culturally and materially, some things are better, some are not, and some are just different. What I’ve learned along the way is that while we get used to different ways of doing things, we must not idealize what we left behind because we could be wrong. It’s important for American (and all olim) to discuss these issues and get feedback in order to negotiate the aliyah, but a U.S. reality check is important too. “Listening” to what people are opining on various aliyah forums brought this home to me.

Once we opened a file with Nefesh B’Nefesh  (the wonderful organization dedicated to helping North Americans and Brits make aliyah), we subscribed to their  Yahoo! group created for people expecting to make, or who have already made, aliyah under their auspices. This rather lively forum provides an important conversation medium for people planning their homecoming and provides critical support in navigating through Israeli life and culture after one has finally deplaned at Ben Gurion. All sorts of aliyah-related questions are asked and answered on this forum: from what to send in a lift and what to leave behind; information about communities, electrical transformers,  getting the best rates when changing currency, the availability of foods and other products like we used to get “back home” (such as my yellow butter); to finding a good cell phone  provider at a reasonable rate. (We are extremely grateful to Yonatan Ruback at: yonatanruback@gmail.com. An oleh who saw the difficulties family members had getting proper service, Yonatan became a cellphone “broker” and set about helping his family and others get good service at a good price. We could never have gotten the deal on our own (even if we’d had flawless Hebrew) that he was able to get for us, actually saving us hundreds of shekels.)

At times rather extended conversations take place regarding the pros and cons of different aspects of  life in Israel. Earlier in the year the conversation was about the cost of living in Israel, spurred on by the “cottage cheese” boycott and Globes magazine’s articles about the high cost of many products in Israel, which I blogged about here. A recent  toshav chozer (a citizen returning to Israel after many years abroad) to Haifa contributes frequent updates about his varied experiences and concerns. The most recent  debate centered around whether making aliyah is too difficult. The wonderful stories that people contributed about their “only in Israel”  and “WOW” experiences  here, despite any hardships encountered, actually helped one olah convince her mother to make aliyah.

Another topic that is popular on forums for olim is job hunting in Israel. Cultural differences, lack of Hebrew, differences in pay scale,  transferring professional credentials, etc.,  are all issues that have to be be dealt with. Our perception often becomes clouded and we think it would be easier to find something in the States. For some people that is the case, but for many finding a job is a challenge there as well; the unemployment rate has gone up quite precipitously in the U.S. in the last couple of years, while it has remained considerably lower in Israel. A particular job issue raised in various forums is that older olim have a harder time finding work. (It’s supposed to be illegal here, just as it is in the U.S., to ask a prospective employee their age, but many employers in Israel have no compunction about asking age before anything else.)  As a matter of fact, a family friend who’s been here for many years is considering returning to the States because he feels the job opportunities are better for him there, not expecting that age could become an issue. I’ve maintained, however, that age can be just as much an issue for job seekers  in the States as it is here, the only difference being that the “discrimination” is less blatant.  And in fact, I received an email from a friend with whom I’d had just such a conversation:

Caryn, take a look if you can at an article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal (“Oldest boomers in U.S…..) about one of the items you mentioned last Shabbat — the difficulties of older workers in finding employment. It confirms your opinion.

That it does. The complete title of the article written by  E.S. Browning, Oldest Baby Boomers Face Jobs Bust,  is telling.

Older people have more trouble finding new jobs. Among unemployed workers older than 55, more than half have been looking for more than two years, compared with 31% of younger workers, according to the Heldrich Center. Among older workers who found a new job, 72% took a pay cut, often a big one, the Rutgers data show.

The problem has been building for decades: Inflation-adjusted, middle-class incomes have stagnated in parallel with a free-spending culture of indebtedness that has left many Americans with too little saved. Over the same time, many U.S. companies cut pensions and shifted to less-generous retirement-savings plans such as 401(k) accounts that have stagnated or diminished in the market tumult of past years.

Older families aren’t just failing to save, they are increasingly draining accounts that were supposed to help finance retirement.

The English edition of Mishpacha Magazine (Issue #389, pg. 32) recently made mention of this issue as well in their Business & Technology section:

Flex-Pay>> Fortune advises job applicants over 50 to preempt age issues. Turn age into an asset by emphasizing experience; describe your flexible management style to deflect fears that you’re too set in your ways; cite experience working successfully with a younger boss to allay that common concern. And by this stage in your life, it is often wise to keep in mind that it sometimes pays to be flexible about pay.

It’s not that financial concerns aren’t real, and the blatant discrimination is definitely troubling but I think as Americans (I don’t know about other Anglos) we tend to aggrandize what we had/have in the U.S. and we magnify the challenges we encounter in Israel, as well. The reality in the U.S., as outlined in these articles, is far different from what many of us have been led to believe and maybe not that much different than it is here in Israel. (Unless of course you’re the president or prime minister – then, for some reason, it doesn’t matter how old you are.)

The discussions we have are important in helping us acclimate to a new situation. However, it’s important to remember that no matter where we are, there will always be some challenges for us to deal with; if it’s not one thing, then it’ll be another.  In many respects, the situation in the U.S. is no longer the one we actually left behind — nor some rosy one we’ve painted in our imaginations.  Having made the effort to pack up our belongings and move halfway around the globe for a more fulfilling and meaningful life, it’s important to do a reality check and not let false perceptions sour our experiences. The sooner we recognize this, the easier it will be to accommodate a new reality and find creative ways of overcoming these challenges. Just ask Yonatan.

(Conversely, if you are contemplating aliyah, life in Israel has much to offer that could never be had in the U.S., or any other country for that matter. It’s important to recognize that the dismal picture often painted in the media about this country is not the reality. To live in Israel you don’t need rose-colored glasses; in many ways life here really is rosier. Come and do your own reality check.)
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27 responses to “Life in the U.S.: A Reality Check for Olim (and others)

  1. It’s refreshing to hear such a well-grounded take. Too many olim come, struggle (it *is* hard to move to a new country) and complain how hard the struggle is. While some complaints are justified, some problems aren’t Israel-specific and jobs for the ‘mature’ crowd is one of them- that issue comes up everywhere in the world.

    The advice you quoted from Fortune is good. I’ll just add that older job seekers should aim to show interviewers that they’re not too old, and one way to do that is to make an effort to *regularly* use the same technologies young people use such as social networks. It doesn’t mean you need to be a Facebook maven but you should grasp the technologies well enough to actually enjoy using them and benefiting from them like everyone else. Take that hiring obstacle away.

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    • That’s actually great advice. Many people may not realize the importance of being able to use these tools, especially if it wasn’t required of them previously. Thanks for pointing that out.

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  2. Very well-written and very timely for me too. Thanks!

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  3. Bat-Zion Benjaminson

    Do you think age discrimination does not exist in Israel? Maybe it is worse! But Israel is still a far better place to live.

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    • I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear enough. When I said that older olim have a harder time finding jobs in Israel and that people are asked their age here, I was specifically referring to age discrimination. What I pointed out, however, was that age discrimination exists in the United States as well. So, if anyone thinks that the grass is greener, in this respect, in the U.S., they should realize that the same challenges exist there as well. And, with a higher unemployment rate, too!

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  4. I have been in Israel four months. I live in Haifa. I came here from New York City. I am not saying that the journey these past four months has been easy, and there are times when it has been very stressful and lonely, but at no time have I even thought about not being here. It is different from the US and some people will have to adjust more than others. I think the reason one comes to Israel is important whether religious and/or Zionistic because that is what will be the basis for sustaining you through the difficult times – and there will be difficult times. But I love Israel. When I landed on September 1, I knew it was the right decision because it felt like a weight had been lifted. That is something I have not even one molecule of doubt about.

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    • David, I particularly like what you said about olim needing to keep focused on their reason for making aliyah, because that is what will sustain them through the tough times. Very, very true. I know I’ve thought, more than once, about why we came and how I feel living here, reminding myself how much more comfortable I feel inside of me now than I ever felt in any of the various communities I lived in the States. And, of course, I keep remembering how Hashem arranged everything for us so that we could make aliyah, to begin with.

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    • Mazel tov on your aliya, David-Joe

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  5. This was an excellent post. I would like to add one more thing to this: ATTITUDE. A person’s attitude has a LOT to do with how well they adjust (or not) to new situations. An attitude that essentially drops many expectations, is more tolerant and accepting, and one that acknowledges that life is a reflection of what one shows the world will help IMMENSELY in the pursuit of a life in Israel. Smile, laugh, and speak positively. It works.

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  6. Hi Caryn,

    Well written as always. I agree with Rachel. Attitude is everything. There are definitely some challenges here that I don’t think I would face in the United States, but the blessing of waking up every morning and saying ” B”H- I just woke up in Jerusalem” is simply worth it.

    A friend recently told me that she said that when Moshiach comes, everyone will be on the same footing. I am not surprised by the articles that you posted saying that life is just as tough in the US as it is in Israel ( and in some ways, more so).

    I think that what makes Israel different is that chessed and helping others is just part of our culture. You wrote this post and even the first few comments are two bits of advice from people who live here in Israel and someone else saying “Thank you for helping me”. It’s good to know that you can depend on others here when you truly need them here. ( Apologies to all of those folks who do tons of chessed and live outside of Israel- I know you are there!) Tizku l’mitzvot :)

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  7. Marna, your post resonates with me. I have noted too that in Israel the same person who might cut you off on the road would give you the shirt off his back in a heartbeat. In the States there is a huge premium placed on “niceties” such as etiquette, politeness, and patience. In Israel, people are less polite, etiquette is less of a value and people are also less patient. But when an opportunity to perform a chesed presents itself, EVERYONE (chilonim and dati’im alike) RUNS to do it! I That is what so warms my heart about Israel. (And yes, I know there are plenty of chesed doers in ch”l!)

    However, as for life being “tough” in Israel — well, I do not see it that way. I see life as being “less convenient”. In the States we have gotten so used to life being so very convenient that when life is NOT convenient it appears to be tough. But make no mistake about it — life in Israel is not tough — not anymore. The only real tough part of life here is that Israel is constantly having to fight for her validity and survival – against many odds. Tough is when our people are brutally murdered. Tough is when we are at odds with one another. But day to day life in Israel is simply inconvenient in many ways.

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    • Rachel, what you mentioned about people cutting you off and then giving you the shirt off their back, I’ve heard more than once. It does, however, takes a while adjusting to a culture that in some ways is the opposite of what we’ve gotten used to in the States, especially if you’re not expecting it!

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  8. Well, Caryn, I think the key phrase in your response is “…especially if you’re not expecting it!”

    Expectations. Get rid of ‘em. Before you come on aliyah. It will make life so much easier. And that is a GOOD thing! :-)

    (And yes, I know, easier said than done. But it is an “active” thing, not a passive thing. In other words, just like repeating affirmations to oneself to bolster one’s self esteem or confidence, one must constantly exhort oneself to not have expectations. Take a deep breath…)

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    • Rachel, I agree. It really does depend on not having expectations, as hard as that may be. I’ve since learned that America does not have a monopoly on the “right (or only) way of doing things” and if you can “go with the flow” things will be much easier all around. It also means, that we may have to find creative solutions for dealing with certain situations, like the cell phone issue I mentioned in this post, or in finding a job when you can’t get what you had before. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

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  9. I want to point you to an article online where the reactions actually mainly surround the ulpan. Read this article from the J-Post and the comments. http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=251952

    I really do believe that the greatest obstacle to immigration from English speaking countries is the language. The ulpan system is inefficient. I finished the ulpan this week and people really cannot converse. To the degree that I can, it is because of Hebrew I had prior to aliyah and the little I have picked up where I work.

    But while we are taught structure, which is good and lots of vocabulary, it falls far short. There is absolutely no time spent on speaking.

    And olim are led to believe that the ulpan will “teach them Hebrew”. It does not. It teaches some Hebrew.

    And in all honesty, aside from being able to read the labels when going shopping – completely ignored by the ulpan, really it is conversing that is by far the most important as well as where a person goes to live but that is another issue.

    There are real issues for immigrants that are not addressed at all by anyone and it can make the difference between staying and leaving and definitely the quality of a person’s life in Israel because Israel is not the most friendly society and if you cannot speak Hebrew you will remain an outsider.

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    • David-Joe, you make some very valid points. People do expect to really learn to converse in Hebrew in an Ulpan. (There are those expectations again!) However, as good or bad as the Ulpan experience goes, I do believe that Anglos have a much harder time learning (or wanting to?) learn the language. I’m not sure why that is, except for the fact that we can get around in English, for the most part. But, definitely in terms of getting a job (older oleh or not) and really understanding what’s going on around us, this is a real issue. Does anyone want to commission a study to look into this?

      I’m not sure, however, that people who really want to be here leave because of the language, since Anglos can and do manage to get by here. I have heard, however, from some who’ve been here for quite a number of years, that they wish they made more of an attempt to learn it properly when they first came. And, as with any country, not speaking the language definitely puts one at a disadvantage; I’m not sure that Israel has a monopoly on that. I guess the effort has to be mostly our own. And like everything that has to do with aliyah – it takes time.

      Incidentally, Nefesh B’Nefesh has just started with industry/profession specific online ulpans for people who are about to make aliyah, so that they’re ahead of the game when they get here. What a great idea.

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  10. When I was 17 I came to Israel for a “Shana B’Aretz”. During that year, I participated in an ulpan. It was a Kibbutz Ulpan. It was an EXCELLENT ulpan by dint of several factors:
    1. the teacher was excellent
    2. the students were mixed — from many different countries
    3. we were in an insular community — the kibbutz — that was very small. Everyone knew who we were, why were there and they all had an investment in our learning Hebrew.

    I came away from that not only speaking Hebrew, but also THINKING in Hebrew. BTW: I wear hearing aids and am severely to profoundly deaf. I have about 80% – 90% hearing LOSS. But I learned a foreign language — much to the surprise of many people.

    I made aliyah in August. I participated for a while in an ulpan. Again, I had an excellent teacher. The class was somewhat mixed (Americans, Brits, S. Africans, Japanese, French, Spanish) but not quite as mixed as my ulpan 30 years ago. I feel I learned a lot in the short time I participated. I had to stop attending, much to my chagrin — because I need to work. Had I not needed to work and had the luxury of ONLY attending ulpan, and thus having the time and energy to do all the homework, I would have learned even more.

    You are making generalizations about ulpan that I think are incorrect. It may be that the particular ulpan you had the misfortune to participate in was not a good one. You may not have had a good teacher. You may not have been with a good mix of students. Perhaps too, you need to re-assess your own involvement with learning the language.

    There will be good ulpanim and bad ulpanim. Teachers, student mix, location, personal situations, personal ability to learn, are all factors.

    Thirty years ago I quickly understood that if I wanted to really learn Hebrew, I would have to speak it — even if I spoke it badly. It would be the only way to learn. I did. Today, I do not speak as well as I did then, but I speak well enough that when I speak to native Hebrew speakers, they respond to me in Hebrew…

    One gets what one puts into it…

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  11. I found this discussion fascinating. After 20 years in Israel, I still struggle with my limited Hebrew because I live and work mainly within the Anglo community. After ulpan, the best way to learn – actually speak – Hebrew is to find someone to speak to! Years ago I was friendly with a woman from Russia and since Hebrew was the only language in which we could converse together, we did. We laughed over our mistakes and learned to understand each other.

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  12. I agree wholeheartedly with David-Joe and Rachel about the importance of at least some basic fluency in Hebrew in order to be content here. I also spent a year on a kibbutz program, in my late teens, that included a half-day ulpan for several of those months. Granted that I may have more of a gift for languages than some people, but it was only by speaking Hebrew with the kibbutznikim, at every opportunity, that like Rachel I ended the year also THINKING in Hebrew. Israelis told me at the time that my Hebrew sounded almost flawless — there must have been some truth in that, because they rarely answered me any more in English! (By contrast, many other participants in the program (and ulpan) did not make the necessary effort, and suffered accordingly.)

    However, that was nearly 40 years ago, and I did not have much opportunity to use it in the intervening years while living in North America. I came here with my family expecting that my fluency would return fairly quickly, but I’ve had to work harder at it than I expected — partly because I do live amongst a large Anglo community, and partly because I’m 40 years older. The ulpan that I attended in Ashdod for a few months that specialized and was focused in helping olim find work certainly helped, but the contemporary lexicon has expanded so much, quite apart from employment-related situations, that I sometimes feel that I should attend an additional ulpan at the Intermediate level, just to gain more familiarity with current expressions and nuances (and expertise in reading food package labels — excellent point, David-Joe).

    And again, it’s not just about having the vocabulary — it’s about using it regularly and allowing oneself to be corrected by the experts. Growing up in English Canada, I had studied French in school for 7 years straight, followed by 2 widely-separated years of French courses at university. I had a huge vocabulary, yet it wasn’t until after spending a year studying in a French university, speaking it almost exclusively every day in class and with French friends, that I actually became fluent — including thinking and dreaming — in the language.

    All that said, anyone reading these comments who is contemplating aliyah should not — must not! — let a paucity of Hebrew knowledge deter them from coming. Its lack is an obstacle easily overcome.

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  13. I came on Aliyah from NY, USA in 1981, at the age of 22 w about $1000 in my pocket. I never looked back. The only thing I can add here is that living in Israel is the only way that a Jewish person can reach their most inner self and their potential. Interestingly enough, it doesnt matter if the individual is Orthodox or in some other way connected to Jews/Judaism. Its just that way, innate.
    It is something that every Jewish person needs to do.
    Fantastic blog here, very refreshing.

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  14. This is a very nice and practical blog. I first came to Israel for a visit from Australia in 1974 for a 2 month period. Then in 1979 I returned to graduate school here. 32 years later I am still here, married a local, we had 6 kids and have recently started marrying them off. I did not run away from anything in Australia much like the US aliyah experience but came for idealistic and spiritual reasons. I don’t think I have ever looked back. But I did leave behind my friends and some family which was difficult. I must say that one can make it work here just like Philip says. I came with nothing and some how have managed quite well over the years. With the prices of real estate here I have no idea how we managed but opportunities exist here and if you keep your ear to the ground here just like the US or Australia the opportunity will come. The advice to remember why you came while more helpful for those that came a bit later in life is good advice but being ready for the opportunity that occasionally becomes available is always good advice. Israel is a place for all those wanting to share their lives with other Jews in a Jewish place. G-d willing more Jews from the world will keep coming and if we keep welcoming them Hashem will help us all.

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  15. Thank you for your tip about http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nefeshbnefesh/, my web site for divrei Torah will soon link to it.
    My web site for divrei Torah is:
    http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DerechEmet/

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  16. Pingback: Blog roll « devoramakesaliyah

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