Homeland Bound: American-Israelis Reflect on Making Aliyah

Man looking out of airport.
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Thinking of making a move to Israel? You’re not alone, as more American Jews applied for or inquired about making aliyah in May of 2020 than in any single previous month during the last 20 years, according to an article by The Forward.

“With applications we’re seeing about a 100% rise in interest in aliyah,” said Yael Katsman, vice president of communications for Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit that assists North American Jews with immigrating to Israel. Describing the upswing in applications as a “dramatic spike,” she emphasized that “if you look at May 2020, for instance, [it] was a record month in … the 18-year history of Nefesh B’Nefesh.”

Katsman suggested the increased interest in moving to Israel might have to do with a change in how people are perceiving their living situations, partly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “A lot of people have had a lot of time now, at home, to kind of recalibrate their plans now,” Katsman said, “and to do a lot of thinking about their priorities, and where they want to be in the long term. And people that thought about making aliyah in the past may not have thought it was possible for them, but COVID shifted a lot of perceptions.”

For instance, Katsman explained, American-based workers who once thought it impossible to do their jobs remotely now see things in a different light. Also, American Jews reluctant to move far away from family members have now spent months becoming accustomed to communicating with loved ones over the phone or the internet. In short, many of the things that previously barred American Jews from seriously considering aliyah have been made moot points by the novel coronavirus.

So, is a move to Israel right for you? The answer depends on what you’re looking for.

Alexander Borschel at Tel Arad, 2017
Alexander Borschel at Tel Arad, 2017. Courtesy of Alexander Borschel

“I was not reaching my full potential in the United States,” said Alexander Borschel, a business developer who made aliyah in 2016, “and I felt that perhaps I could find myself if I began working to help improve the world.”

Born in West Germany to American officers, Borschel spent much of his life in Springfield, Va., though he lived in the Baltimore area during 2015 and was active in Harford Chabad. Joining an Israeli volunteer program in 2015 that focused on Bedouin education reforms, he decided he did not wish to return to the U.S. and went through the aliyah administrative process while staying with his father in Hungary. With a desire to pursue tikkun olam, Borschel has spent his time in Israel teaching English, recruiting for nonprofits, and working in technology development.

Currently living in Beersheva, Borshel noted the hospitality he has consistently received from his Israeli social circle. “You will not starve here, unless you really want to,” he said. “Any day of the week I could message someone and I guarantee I would be invited to a meal.

Alexander Borschel practicing karate in “the deep desert,” 2017
Alexander Borschel practicing karate in “the deep desert,” 2017. Courtesy of Alexander Borschel

“My grandfather just passed, so I got invited to 10 dinners,” Borschel continued. “I didn’t even make a post about it yet. It was very perceptive. They care. They seem like they don’t, but they actually do.”

Borschel also mentioned that the application process went relatively smoothly, estimating it took him three weeks to begin and complete it. Categorizing it as a “painless” process, he explained that reaching out to family connections as well as directly calling the appropriate embassies and agencies kept things running smoothly.

Howard Michaelson and his dog, Sunny
Howard Michaelson and his dog, Sunny. Courtesy of Howard Michaelson

Howard Michaelson, a retired hospital and medical group manager, also remembered having a distinctly trouble-free aliyah process.

“The airport was basically empty,” Michaelson said regarding Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport. “It was unbelievable. We landed and there was no one there.” Upon arriving at the aliyah office, he was processed in 15 minutes, he said, explaining this can normally take three hours.

The reason for this had to do with the timing of Michaelson’s arrival in Israel, he explained. He and his girlfriend, Anita Shulman, landed at 4 p.m. March 9. “At 8 o’clock that evening they imposed corona restrictions,” he said. “So we snuck in. That was pretty crazy, we got in right under the wire.”

Michaelson, who lived for 10 years in Baltimore before emigrating, had long been interested in the idea of making aliyah, but did not quite get around to it until his girlfriend inherited a Herzliya apartment from her father. With living arrangements in place, Michaelson was in a much better position to immigrate to Israel while growing more in touch with his heritage.

“The reason I wanted to move here,” Michaelson said, “was because it was very much my Jewish heritage. I wanted to get closer and immerse myself in that.”

Despite COVID-19 and social distancing, Michelson has been greatly enjoying his time in the holy land.

“I really liked the people, and I like the culture, and the intellect here, and the weather was great,” Michaelson said. He said that Israel has quality food, stunning landscapes, and warm people, but mentioned one caveat: “The way people drive is really horrible,” Michaelson said. “Very dangerous, actually. Automobile accidents and traffic deaths are very high here. It’s very difficult to drive here, coming from America.”

Tobey Finkelstein (second from right), Avrumi Finkelstein (center), and their three children, Chanan Zev, Naava Esther, and Gedaliah Ohr
Tobey Finkelstein (second from right), Avrumi Finkelstein (center), and their three children, Chanan Zev, Naava Esther, and Gedaliah Ohr. Courtesy of Avrumi Finkelstein

For Tobey Finkelstein, a nonprofit fundraiser, and her husband Avrumi, an internet broadcaster, who previously lived in Baltimore together for eight years and attended Congregation Shomrei Emunah, a move to Israel had been a long-term goal since the beginning of their marriage. While it was originally part of their five-year plan, Tobey Finkelstein said, it evolved into more of a 12-year plan.

The decisive catalyst ended up being the maturation of their firstborn child. “As our oldest was getting older, we knew that if we did not do it within a certain age window for him, it was going to be impossible for us to make aliyah as a family,” Tobey Finkelstein said, “because it just becomes so much more difficult for kids to acclimate when they’re older.” As such, they elected to try living in Israel for one year while on tourist visas, as their oldest was entering sixth grade, to see how well the family could acclimate to the change in setting.

During this period, which began in July of 2018, the couple continued to work at their U.S.-based jobs remotely, Tobey Finkelstein said. Once satisfied that they had sufficiently acclimated to life in Israel, they returned to the U.S. to formally make aliyah in August of 2019.

Unlike Borschel or Michaelson, the Finkelsteins described the bureaucratic aspects of making aliyah to be rather challenging, with different departments and administrators giving conflicting information.

At one point, when the family’s tourist visas were expiring, Tobey Finkelstein said she “literally had to go back to the Israeli Ministry of the Interior office eight times to try to renew our visas. And in the end, they only renewed Avrumi’s visa, and they did not not renew my visa or the kids’ visas, tourist visas, the first year.”

Avrumi Finkelstein stated that the application of the rules regarding visas apparently depends on “the mood of the person in the office,” while Tobey Finkelstein summed up her family’s experiences with Israeli bureaucracy as being something of a “crapshoot.”

Currently living in Beit Shemesh, the family’s transition has been eased by the fact that many of their local friends and neighbors are English speakers.

Regarding cultural adjustments, Tobey Finkelstein stated that things can sometimes be more “aggressive” in Israel. “Like when you’re checking out of the grocery store,” she said, “and the cashier tells you, ‘Why’d you come to my lane!? I just opened it up!’ And you’re like, ‘Because you just opened the checkout lane.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, I’m not ready yet!’” She added that she has seen older men physically fight each other over their place in line at stores.

At the same time, she explained there are significant cultural benefits to being a Jew living in Israel, such as the presence of full synagogues in everything from local groceries to Ikeas, and how the entire country essentially stops on the memorial day of Yom HaZikaron.

“The majority of the country here has connections to people who serve and defend the Jewish country for us and every other Jew in the entire world,” Tobey Finkelstein said, “and you get to feel it and be a part of it and stand with everyone else. And that’s really powerful.”

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