I’ve written before about the many challenges of making aliyah, of immigrating to Israel. There are mammoth cultural differences, the hardest apartment search of my life, the air raid sirens (a false alarm, and then a real one), the LGBT Arab-Israeli refugee Jew-on-Jew political conflicts, and for me, healing from 30 years of abuse. I’ve managed to overcome all of these obstacles while moving here alone at the age of 31- not a small task. One that I’m proud to have accomplished and it has changed me as a person and made me realize my true strength.
There’s another challenge I didn’t have to face when I first arrived here but now seems rather daunting: finding a career.
I arrived here with fluent Hebrew (and Arabic and Yiddish) – something that facilitated my social relationships, my integration, my exploration of the country. Something most olim don’t have- but that I invested in learning on my own initiative since I was 13.
This should also help finding a job, but I have to tell you the process is daunting even knowing the national language. I was fortunate enough to arrive to Israel with a job- I’ve been doing digital marketing and public relations freelancing from home for 5 years. And for my first year here, that worked quite well. Due to the time difference between America and Israel, the fact that I was being paid in dollars, and the flexibility of my business, I was able to travel during the day and work at night. Something that helped me build this very blog.
I put a lot of effort into building that business. I got a graduate degree from Georgetown University in communications, something that to this day means I owe the U.S. government $40,000 in student loans. I found clients, I networked, I presented at various conferences and built a reputation.
The problem is that that work is becoming harder for me to find at the moment. Perhaps it’s due to me living halfway across the world- it’s harder to network and find new clients. It’s also cyclical- there tends to be more work leading up to elections. Now that the election is over, there seems to be a lull. I’m still open to doing the work, but part of the risk you take on as a freelancer is that you have to find your own clients. And I’ve been quite adept at it, but I think my geographical distance and the circumstances are making it harder now. It’s hard to find a new client when your only connection is via LinkedIn or email. I don’t live in America now, it’s hard to make those personal connections so crucial to getting your foot in the door.
So I find myself applying for jobs here. It’d mean giving some of the flexibility I’ve enjoyed as a freelancer (or if projects come through, I could continue doing them on the side). But it’d come with the security of a paycheck. Something I need after some fulfilling travels that have left me with a great understanding of self (and some great blog posts) and unfortunately, a smaller bank account.
So I find myself in Israel hopping from friend’s house to hostel to who knows what. I left my apartment before my recent travels so that I could afford to do it. A smart choice (plus my landlord wouldn’t let me sublet). Also, my old neighborhood was quite rough, the poorest part of Tel Aviv, so I wouldn’t want to move back there anyways, as interesting and life-changing an experience as it was.
All the while, I’m applying to jobs and networking. With non-profits that support olim like me. Cold calling, reaching out on LinkedIn, friends of friends of friends. I’ve expanded my career search- everything from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, libraries, archives, museums, the tourist industry, marketing, politics, hi-tech, higher education, language teaching. And I wouldn’t even limit myself to the ones I’ve mentioned (I’ve probably forgotten a few that I’ve applied to).
I’m ready and willing to use my 8 languages, my travel knowledge, my desire to support Israel and the Jewish people, my passion for research and learning, my teaching experience- all of it. Just so I could build a fulfilling career and rebuild my bank account in the only country I really feel is home.
And it’s proving quite tough. I’ve met with headhunters who say I have an amazing resume. I worked for the Obama campaign in 2008, and then later in the Obama Administration. I have 10 years experience working in marketing, community outreach, media relations, blogging, and social media. Most of that time either in the non-profit sector or government, or with public relations firms consulting for them. I have an undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis and a Master’s degree from Georgetown, schools that any American knows are pretty great institutions.
The problem is jobs in Israel seem to be mostly about who you know. In a country where, much to my delight, there is a strong sense of community, this can make it quite hard for a newcomer to break in. I’ve met many people here who are still best friends with their crew…from kindergarten. That’s not an exaggeration. People serve together in the military- a difficult experience but one which brings lifelong connections, and jobs. Sabras have family here, and they look out for each other. It’s part of the reason the government won’t recognize French and Russian academic qualifications. It’d put these highly educated immigrants in their appropriate fields, while competing against native-born Israelis in those same industries. Which is why protektzia, or “connections”, reigns supreme. It’s like having legacy at an Ivy League school- it protects insiders from generation after generation. And it leaves quite a number of Russian physicists and French lawyers working as grocery store clerks or in late-night telemarketing.
Just to give you a full sense of the picture, understand that the cost of living in Israel is also extremely high. Tel Aviv was recently rated the world’s 9th most expensive city. Even if you don’t live in the city proper, the cost of housing, groceries, and other goods is disproportionately high to people’s salaries. We’re hardly the only country to confront a wealth gap- Spain has a youth unemployment rate of 34%. Capital around the world is becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people– while most struggle. The problem is Israel’s cost of living index is higher than all other developed countries except for ultra-wealthy Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Australia and New Zealand. So that while Geneva is more expensive than Tel Aviv, its residents earn more than twice as much as the average Tel Avivi, with 48% more purchasing power, as you can see in the graphics below from Numbeo.com:
The hefty cost of living and minuscule salaries (especially in any industry outside of the famed Israeli high tech scene), is what drove 500,000 Israelis to the streets in the largest social protest in the country’s history.
Allow me to quantify this for you. Recently, I was in the process of interviewing for a non-profit job at a well-respected NGO. Knowing my full qualifications (and despite trying to negotiate, as a good Israeli does), the full-time job’s salary was fixed at 7,000 shekels a month- before tax obligations. In Tel Aviv. That’s $1,870 a month. When I last lived in Tel Aviv, in the poorest neighborhood where literally prostitutes walked the streets, I paid 3,600 shekels a month for a one bedroom apartment. About 3.7 shekels per dollar, so about a thousand bucks. For Tel Aviv, this is an absolute steal. I’ve seen one bedroom apartments advertised for 4,000-7,000 shekels- and above. You could end up living with two roommates in the city center and still pay 3,000 shekels. Something I’d rather not do at my age. Or you could live further outside the city and perhaps save some money on rent, but then spend your money commuting and watch your social life shrink. In a country where public transit doesn’t run from Friday night to Saturday night and Sunday is a working day, your weekend (i.e. the time you have to see friends) takes on new importance. Where you live is where you’ll socialize, so unless you’re willing to buy a car (the car tax here is around 100%- 5 times higher than Europe), you need to live near your friends. And let’s just say the young gay Reform Jews (and people who befriend them) aren’t usually living in the sticks where the housing is cheaper, like in most countries. While new immigrants do get some breaks on the financial challenges, you start to see just how difficult it is to make a living here.
So to return to the calculations, let’s say I was able to find a similarly priced apartment to my last one. That would leave $870 a month- to furnish the apartment, pay municipal property taxes, pay for your cell phone, pay for food, pay for transportation, pay for medical expenses, pay for life. Oh yeah, and presumably have fun and maybe save a buck or two. And that doesn’t include paying income taxes. It’s worth noting the tax burden in Israel is significant. There’s a debate about just how high, but this site rates it as one of the 15 highest in the world. Higher than the U.S. While the tremendous socialized healthcare system defers some tremendous costs I had to bear in the U.S., it does become a question of just what exactly is the trade off here. And whether it’s worth it.
After this interview process and despite most of my background being in cause-based non-profit work, I immediately expanded my scope to the for-profit sector. The salaries are higher. I’ve met with headhunters and am applying diligently. The higher salaries still pale in comparison with the States, especially as an oleh. Someone with my background might be expected to find a job in the for-profit sector for somewhere around 10,000-15,000 shekels a month. With 10 years experience, fluent Hebrew, native English, and a Master’s degree. At the very high end, that comes out to $48,084 a year- pre-tax. Consider that I’m 32 years old, would like to start a family, and that the average cost of an Israeli home is $415,000. In Tel Aviv, it’s $582,442. The average. If you can manage to find it and beat out the sabras waiting in line with decades of family connections. The latest statistics resulted in the following headline: “Buying a Home Will Cost an Average Israeli 146 Monthly Salaries“. Chew on that for a while. As difficult as my situation is, it’s hard to even comprehend how Israelis living in or near poverty make it work here. A lot of them, unfortunately, don’t.
So the reality is this: in my own country, I feel I’m a wandering Jew. Going from place to place, trying to find affordable AirBnBs and sofas to crash on as I fire away resumes. A process that can take some time in any country, so I remind myself to put my head down, network, and apply apply apply. And I’m incredibly grateful to my friends who are helping me along the way. My friend Rotem who let me crash at her apartment for a week and a half while she was abroad. The wonderful cashier at the market who, when his credit card machine wasn’t working, just let me bring him the money two days later. And so many others. The level of trust here can be truly heart-warming.
Nobody said immigrating would be easy, and I’m grateful I even have a country to move to. It’s not easy to be a Jew anywhere now, as the terrorist attack in Pittsburgh showed- and as the rapidly increasing anti-Semitic violence in Europe reminds us. There are good reasons Israel exists and why people like me come here despite all the challenges. It’s a country with a lot of warmth, a spirit of survival, a generosity, a frankness that is refreshing. Landscapes that totally melt the heart. And more possibilities of finding a Jewish partner than anywhere else in the world.
The problem becomes when the great things about this country start to obscure your other life goals. Building a family, financial stability, and feeling fulfilled in your career. Olim here often have to take jobs unrelated to their careers and are limited in our upward mobility by the Israeli “good ol boys” network. I understand every change requires sacrifice, but I want to like what I do. And I’m not fortunate enough to have parents to buy me a home. Which is the main reason Israelis manage to get one in the first place- and why many olim don’t experience economic advancement here.
In the meantime, my search continues. I believe in the idea of Israel and I like a lot about life here, which is why frankly I blog about it all the time. Haters gonna hate, but the Jewish people deserve a homeland and I’ll defend that idea till the day I die. The sometimes boorish economic policies of our government or the monopolies that stand in the way of our progress are in no way a critique of our right to be here. Indeed, it is Israeli workers who bear the brunt of the economic inequality here- and that doesn’t make us any less Israeli. It makes us more. Sadly, these are problems many other workers face around the world. That we much find solution for. So please don’t consider this post an opportunity to hate Israel, because it’s not. What I’m sharing is a critique of how we should make this place better so people like me can succeed here. A hope that we can build a vision for how we want to live here with fairness and opportunity.
I’m open to a lot of different careers and I want to feel fulfilled in what I do, even if it’s different than my first choice or second choice or even third choice. If you know of great opportunities, reach out to me, I’d be happy to chat and appreciate you keeping your eyes peeled.
The greatest irony of my aliyah process is that I discovered my passion is Israel, but that its very soil may be too poor for my roots to dig in. To establish themselves, to build a solid foundation, to grow and flourish.
What I won’t accept is the situation my friend found himself in recently. A couple years older than me, a fellow American oleh, he interviewed at an English tutoring company. Obviously, it’s his native language so he’s got a pretty good handle on it. The salary: 30 shekels an hour. 8 bucks. And the worst part about this story is he didn’t even get the job. As he bravely tries to raise a family in the land of his ancestors and pursue his dreams.
Im tirtzu eyn zo agadah. The famous Zionist saying suggests that if we will it, it is not a dream. I agree. The dream becomes a hope, a goal, an aspiration, something you wish to achieve. It’s a hope I’ve pursued since I was 13 years old learning Hebrew in the house of an Israeli woman in Washington. The problem is that hope sometimes clashes with harsh reality. With circumstances out of your control.
Do you continue to tell yourself that anything is possible? Or do you look at your diminishing bank account, the salaries, the limited opportunities for advancement, and the $140,000 it costs to have a child here as a gay man and think:
My heart is in the east, but my wallet- and future- may be elsewhere.