The hardest part of making aliyah

When I moved to Israel, I anticipated many challenges.  Israeli culture is very different from even American Jewish culture.  The directness, the sometimes harshness of people’s words can really catch an American off guard.  As can the practically non-existent social boundaries.  I knew I’d have to make adjustments to my career and make new friends.  I’d also sorely miss some of my favorite foods and cultures that are omnipresent in the diverse area I grew up in.  I’d be far from my existing support network and would have to build a new one- practically from scratch.  All this in a country I hadn’t visited for 12 years.

But the single hardest part of my journey, by far, was finding a home.  Not a metaphorical home, but an actual house.

Before arriving, I had reserved an AirBnB for a month to give me time to search for an apartment.  Little did I know that even though the woman advertised having air conditioning, she claimed that she was “allergic” to the machine so she wouldn’t turn it on.  As my Sabra friends told me, she was allergic to the electricity bill.  So there I was, a freshly minted Israeli arriving after 15 hours of travel (with only 1 hour of sleep on the plane) and a bedroom at 87 degrees Fahrenheit.  The final straw for this apartment was when I got food poisoning at four in the morning and rather than offering some words of consolation, the host complained about me waking her up.

After having received a refund for the remaining three weeks from AirBnB, I scrambled to find a place.  Still hung up on jet lag, I managed to find a generous lesbian couple who had also made aliyah from the States a year ago.  I slept in their office for a while while I searched for an apartment.  But as I think we all discovered, having three people, a dog, and multiple cats in a small apartment just doesn’t work.  And from the beginning, this was going to be a temporary place.

So I ran around trying to find a new place.  I found a sublet in the middle of the city.  I had a roommate- not ideal, but fine for a temporary stay.  My landlord, on the other hand, stole money from me that required endless hours of mediation and legal threats to be returned.  It’s not worth going into a ton of detail, but let’s just say that that’s one among many examples.

Needless to say, I was tired of hopping around apartments.  I wanted my own place- no roommates, no pets, no thieving landlords.  With a long term lease.  A home.

This is when I really discovered why Israelis protested en masse in 2011.  In particular in Tel Aviv, there is a massive housing shortage.  Most Israelis want to live in the Center of the country but the building hasn’t kept up.  As a result, demand is high and so are the prices.  Although prices are significantly lower in Tel Aviv than in places like Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York (which Israelis should realize- this is not a uniquely Israeli problem), there is a unique competitiveness to the market here.  When you show up to view an apartment, there are often multiple people viewing at the same time.  I can’t think of anything more awkward.  Everyone is trying to woo the all-powerful landlord while somehow pretending to like each other.  It’s super uncomfortable.

Then, the landlord will tell you there’s an extensive waiting list.  And to be honest, there usually is (although of course some lie).  The landlord can ask you any friggin question he wants.  In the U.S., there are extensive rental protections.  Where I lived in Maryland before aliyah, there was even a free service offered by the local government to investigate unscrupulous landlords.  Of course there were still bad apples, but at least there was legal recourse.

Here, the legal system is basically a load of crap.  When it comes to housing, the landlords know they run the show.  I was asked invasive questions about my salary, my family’s salary, my job, my religion, my national origin, my sexuality, my politics, and more.  What Israelis need to understand is that while this is par for the course in Tel Aviv, it is illegal in the U.S. and most civilized countries.  If you have the money and pass a background check, you can legally rent wherever you want in the U.S.

Could I have chosen not to answer these questions?  Sure.  But why would the landlord choose me, then, when she can simply pick someone else from a list of 30 people?  One guy, after grilling me for 30 minutes, ended by saying “you seem like a nice guy, but I have a whole list of people who work for the army and get great bonuses and benefits, so I’m just not sure we’ll choose you.”  With a smile.

I had landlords ask me to pay 6 months rent- up front.  I had landlords ask me to pay rent- in cash.  Leaving me with no paper trail of having paid the rent at all in an almost non-existent legal system.  I was offered one apartment that I’m pretty sure was tied to some sort of mafia.  I was told over and over again that the apartments were quiet- only to find construction projects (both existing and planned- there is a database) all around.

Trying to fix this situation, a new law was passed in the Knesset this past year to provide more rental protections.  What I then encountered were multiple landlords (illegally) inserting clauses into the leases stating that the new law did not apply.  Of course a lease doesn’t supplant the law of the land, but it certainly spoke to what kind of landlord they’d be.  One woman, when I asked her to revise the lease, said “but I’d never hurt anyone!”  And she refused to change it.

At the end of my rope and having seen literally dozens of apartments in person, I turned to the hated real estate agents here.  Real estate agents in Israel are nothing like real estate agents in the U.S.  Here, I don’t hate Arabs, I don’t hate Haredim (these are the usual targets).  No, who I absolutely detest in this country are real estate agents.

I had real estate agents (who I told I wanted a quiet place) try to sell me on illegal apartments inside a carpentry factory.  I had real estate agents tell me a place was too small for me only to call me frantically the next day and say we should go see it because it’s great.

I had a particular apartment I was ready to sign on.  I had had my lawyer review the lease in Hebrew twice.  I had prepared my checks (you have to pre-sign a year’s worth of checks here).  I had prepared my 5000 shekel deposit and my 4000 shekel pre-payment of the last month’s rent in addition to the 4000 shekels for the first month.  In addition to all that, I’d have to pay several thousand shekels to the real estate agent.  But two hours before the lease was supposed to be signed (the day before moving day), the real estate agent told me the landlord wanted to add a clause.  A clause that stated that if I left early, I needed to find a replacement (no problem, this was already in the lease), but also to give up 4000 additional shekels.

Of course I didn’t sign.  Adding a last minute clause is already a huge red flag.  Adding one that would rob me of 4000 shekels if, God forbid, I had a life emergency and needed to find a new renter- now that’s depraved.  The real estate agent yelled at me, a lot.  I told her I had to go.  And she called- I counted- 6 times in 10 minutes and texted over and over.  I wish I could say this was the only time, but I was also berated over the phone by at least two other real estate agents who felt this was somehow acceptable behavior.

The worst part of all of this is that based on the comments I heard from landlords and real estate agents alike, I knew I was being taken advantage of because I was an oleh chadash, a new Israeli.  Even though I have fluent Hebrew.  Nothing about this process is more revolting than that.  I made the sacrifice to make Israel my new home and to see fellow Jews manipulating me made me sick to my stomach.  And exhausted.

Tired of all the games, I decided that I’d look in South Tel Aviv.  It’s cheaper and more importantly, less competitive to find a place.  And when I say South Tel Aviv, I don’t mean the hipsters of Florentin- it’s also a mess to find an apartment there.  And I don’t mean Yafo- it’s in such high demand (and gentrification) that I found it quite hard too.

No, I live where the music is Mizrachi.  Which I love.  Where the streets are filled with diverse refugees from all over the world.  Where there are real, honest-to-God neighborhoods, not some sort of revolving door of young people trying to pay astronomically high rent.  Is my community super queer-friendly and packed with Reform synagogues?  No- although I haven’t gotten to know my neighbors yet and I know Israel can always surprise you.  I do know there are Shas posters nearby, which I find both amusing and frightening.  I’m thrilled that the food is cheap and absolutely delicious.  I even found a sushi place- and the maki rolls cost 9 shekels!  Try finding that in Dizengoff Center!

In the end, I come back to my name, Matah מטע.  It means orchard and I chose it because I’m planting roots to bear fruits, to blossom.  And what I realized is this- I was tired of the “no, no, no, no” I was hearing and wanted to get to the “yes”, like in my cover photo.  More than being in a central location packed with young people, what I needed was a home.  And what I started to realize is that having gone through so much in the States, this wasn’t really a new home so much as a first home.  I needed some soil so I could ease my bark into the ground and find some stability.  After four months here, I just needed a quiet, safe place to come home to at night and sleep.

And that is what I found.  I’m grateful for the help of friends and my lawyer, who supported me emotionally and with advice.  Was it easy?  Absolutely not.  If you’re making aliyah because you think it’s a piece of cake, you should immigrate to Ireland.  Or Belgium.  Or Japan.  Because Israel can be really friggin tough.  Not always for the reasons Sabras think, but it is hard.  I have to admit my faith and my hope were tested repeatedly while finding a home.  And I hope I can find some peace of mind by reconnecting to the Israelis who give me spirit, rather than the people who drained me of it.

On my way home Friday, I heard a song wafting through the air in my new neighborhood.  I recognized the melody.  And as I got closer, I sang along: “lecha dodi likrat kalah, pnei shabbat nekablah.”  The traditional Jewish song for welcoming Shabbat, the Sabbath bride.

I couldn’t help but think that for all the challenges I’ve been through- and the unknown ones that may lie ahead- that I made the right choice.  Because rather than hearing the boom boom boom of the middle of Tel Aviv, I’m hearing the songs of my people.  Prayers I’ve said since childhood.

There may not be a lot of Reform synagogues in South Tel Aviv, but you don’t always need one when your prayers fill the air of the market and you’re singing along.  With your new key in hand.  When you move to a new home, you’re praying with your feet.

Everything is Better in America

Israelis love, love, love to tell me how much better and easier things are in America.  Aside from several seriously well-informed Sabras who understand the challenges of American healthcare, college education, crime, gun violence, public transportation (or lack thereof), and anti-Semitism, a lot of people here just don’t get it.  On the other hand, a lot of Israelis (including some who say America is better, in an act of serious cognitive dissonance) like to tell me how awful the food is, how naive the people are, and how fake everyone is in the U.S.

In the spirit of shedding light and dispelling myths, here’s my take on what’s better in America and what’s better in Israel.

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL

  • America is the most diverse country on the planet.  430 languages are spoken in the U.S.  There are hundreds of Protestant denominations alone- not to mention Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians of all varieties, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, Bahai, Rastafarians, Mormons, and Native American religions.  It’s extremely racially diverse- there are twice as many Asians in the U.S. as there are Israelis in the world.  And seven times as many Latinos.
  • Much more so than in Israel, Americans of different backgrounds work, play, pray, and learn together.  On my high school soccer team, white Christian kids were a minority (and somehow almost all of them were blond!).  Just on one team, off the top of my head 13 years later, we had kids from El Salvador, Korea, Iran, Israel (!), Georgia, Bulgaria, Peru, Cameroon, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Turkey, Russia, and a bunch of Jews.  There were no organized co-existence activities- this was just our normal life!
  • Pluralism.  In the U.S., thanks to the separation of church and state, religion is a personal rather than a legal matter.  This even benefits the Jewish community, where over the course of my life I became friends with Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, and even Haredi Jews.  Are there debates between Jews?  For sure.  But the relationships between communities are much deeper in the U.S. than here and there is far, far less vitriol.
  • Ethnic food.  Yes, thanks to the tens of millions of immigrants from around the world, American food is amazing.  I’m really sorry (not sorry) for my Israeli friend who posted about her office in Denver not providing her with suitable vegetables for breakfast (side note- nowhere I’ve been outside of Israel eats vegetables for breakfast).  But the fact is, American food IS international food because we’re an international society.  Don’t come to America expecting your (albeit delicious) Israeli cheeses, yogurts, and tomatoes for breakfast- that’s not what we do.  But we do have immensely better, fresher, and cheaper Thai, Burmese, Indian (southern and northern), Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican, Salvadoran, Cuban, Laotian, Korean, Nepali, Japanese, etc etc.  Not to mention the best Jewish deli food in the world.  The point is that unlike in Israel, where I grew up, these are not seen as exotic tastes of foreign lands.  They become part of our diet and become American food.  When I spent a summer in Spain, I didn’t miss hamburgers.  I missed Chinese food.

ERETZ YISRAEL YAFFA – THE BEAUTIFUL LAND OF ISRAEL

  • Healthcare – I’ve already written a blog about this which I recommend reading.  Israeli health spending per capita is $2910 and in the U.S. it’s $9403.  The number one reason for bankruptcy in the U.S. is medical expenses.  Just two years ago, I had to spend $20,000 on medical care in one year- in addition to the $500/month I spent on medical and dental insurance.  Israel’s healthcare system is ranked 4th for efficiency- the U.S. is ranked 46th.  My friend Dave is battling a brain tumor and has to raise $68,000 for treatment, something unthinkable in Israel.  Please consider donating (and stop whining about Israel’s healthcare).
  • College education – in the U.S., college education ranges from about $9410-$32,410 a year.  And that doesn’t include thousands more dollars for housing or food.  Some schools like Bates are charging over $60,000.  The better the school, the better the job prospects.  Israeli tuition is about…$3000 a year.  Pretty sweet.
  • Fresh produce – yes I just touted American food, which is amazing.  Truth be told, the fruits and veggies here are better.  Perhaps because Israel is small and doesn’t ship grapes from California to New York, the produce is super fresh and extremely tasty.  Other than farmers markets, fruit in America tastes watery.  In Israel, it is full of flavor, inexpensive, and delicious.
  • Weather – this depends on where you are in the U.S. (I’m looking at you beautiful San Diego), but at least compared to D.C., the weather in Israel is much nicer.  Yes it can get very hot, but there is a beach.  There are beautiful rural places to escape to with nice breezes.  When there is three feet of snow on the ground during a D.C. blizzard, Tel Aviv is 60 degrees Fahrenheit on a February day.
  • Caring for one another – this might surprise Israelis, but I find Israelis to be much more willing to trust one another and to help one another than Americans.  I regularly see people step up and help people who are sick, lost, in need of a place to stay, etc- even if they’ve never met them.  These are things that would usually be met with suspicion in America, but here are totally normal.  If you have nowhere to go on Friday night for Shabbat, just tell someone and you’ll be eating a warm meal before you can remember their name.
  • Judaism – yes, the U.S. is pluralistic with a much bigger Reform community than Israel, but the fact remains that the entire country here is a synagogue.  When I walked down the street today, my friend and I heard a shofar.  There is biblical graffiti everywhere- done by hipsters.  My favorite Israeli dancing songs play on juice bar stereos.  All of my holidays are government holidays.  I can go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the morning and a gay Orthodox Torah study in Tel Aviv at night.  There is also unparalleled Jewish cultural diversity (and food!) here- with Jews from dozens of countries represented.  My identity is validated over and over and over again even in ways Sabras don’t recognize.  Here, I am normal.

We won’t even get into the economics of things, because while Israelis decry how much more Americans make, the fact is things are a bit more complicated.  The average Israeli household earns a net income of $56,892 a year.  In the U.S., the figure is $55,775.  For sure, there’s variation by region and industry, and there are different tax burdens.  But the point is- not all Americans are rich (most aren’t) and especially when you consider that significant sectors within Haredi and Arab societies here don’t work, there’s not as much of a gap between Americans and Israelis as some people here think.

In the end, I’m not writing this blog to declare victory or to engage in endless debate.  That feels a waste.  There are beautiful things in America and beautiful things here.  And shitty things in both places.  And I could give many more examples of both.

I chose to be here not because it would be easy, although in some ways it is easier than America.  I made aliyah because it would be meaningful, it would be validating, and it would be inspiring.  In short, because I think it’ll make me happy.  Much like this famous scene from Monty Python, let’s not bicker about who’s right.  Let’s just respect each other’s choices, including mine to become an Israeli.  Because in the end, I’m not asking for your approval or your advice.  I’m here.

Israeli socialized healthcare

Israel has many beautiful things: a gorgeous seashore, delicious Middle Eastern food, a sense of empowerment for the Jewish people, a multicultural society, and much more.  It also has its share of challenges- low salaries (relative to the U.S.), endless bureaucracy, regional conflict, and so much more.

I’d like to focus right now, though, on one of the best aspects of living in Israel: socialized healthcare.  In Israel, everyone, by law, has health insurance.  It is provided through one of several government-approved plans.  Approximately 4-5% of your salary is deducted automatically, on a progressive scale, and you simply have health insurance.  If you want the super-duper supplemental insurance which covers things like massages and acupuncture (yes, you read that right American friends), it costs…$32 a month!  There are no deductibles, no pre-existing conditions, and no premiums.

To an Israeli, this might hardly seem noteworthy.  But allow me to explain how healthcare works in America.  When I lived in the U.S., I was self-employed.  I paid $500 a month simply to have health insurance.  There are literally millions of Americans who have no insurance at all- which could result in emergency room visits costing many thousands of dollars if they get sick.  People literally go bankrupt in the U.S. because of healthcare costs- they could even lose their home.  In addition to my $500/month premium, I also had to pay what’s called a “deductible”.   A deductible is the amount of money you personally have to pay before the insurance company starts paying anything for your treatments.  Since my plan was very high-quality (by American standards), my deductible was fairly low: $1200 for in-network (doctors that worked with my insurance company) and $2000 for out-of-network (doctors that didn’t work with my insurance company but might be the best ones for what I need).  That means that, before the insurance company will even pay one cent for your treatment, you may have to pay as much as $3200 in addition to your monthly $500 fee.  Even after you “hit your deductible” (meaning you’ve paid these amounts), the insurance company only covers part of your treatment and you or your doctor have to submit paperwork to the insurance company each time, which may decide they don’t feel they should pay for your treatment.  Sometimes, they’ll only tell you what they’ll cover after you go to the doctor.  And sometimes, the insurance companies will not cover your treatment.  Please re-read that Israeli friends- sometimes, even with health insurance, you will not get any payments from the company.  In short, this is like playing Russian roulette and it can be very, very, very expensive.  I’ve had years where, including medicines, doctor’s appointments, and insurance payments, I’ve paid $15,000 for healthcare- or more.  Just for that one year.

So now perhaps you can see why I’m in awe of the Israeli healthcare system.  Today, I went to get my healthcare card.  It took all of 20 minutes.  There is an app I can use to schedule my appointments.  All medical records are digitized (oh yeah, Israeli friends- you often literally have to send pieces of paper between your doctors in the U.S. because there is no centralized healthcare system).  I’m only beginning to learn the system, but I can already say that it is leaps and bounds ahead of what we have in the U.S.

There are a lot of things Israel can learn from the U.S.  This is something Americans can learn from Israelis.  Socialized healthcare works.  It is not a theory, it is a fact.  At a time when the American government is cruelly trying to dismantle Obamacare (which in and of itself it not even that great of a system, but was at least in the right direction) and kick millions of people off insurance, Israel guarantees all of its residents healthcare.  Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian.  Rich and poor.  Young and old.

Healthcare is one of the reasons I made aliyah.  Some things are easier in the U.S. than Israel, but healthcare is absolutely, without a doubt, not one of them.  I was tired of my hard-earned money going to greedy insurance companies and wondering when or if my medical conditions would be treated.  I’ve made a long list of doctors I’m going to go see and I can’t wait.  I’m also going to get a lot of massages because they’re awesome and are a huge stress relief.

Health is life.  Without it, you can’t do anything.  I’m glad and grateful I live in a place that values it.  And I pray that the American government learns from its ally what it means to take care of your people’s health.