NBN fair in New York pushes aliyah as employment opportunity
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NBN fair in New York pushes aliyah as employment opportunity

Although the US economy is showing signs of recovery, to young professionals saddled with student debt, Israel just may be a pot of gold

Young Jewish professionals participating in Impact Israel in New York. (Mark Von Holden)
Young Jewish professionals participating in Impact Israel in New York. (Mark Von Holden)

NEW YORK — When people ask “Why Israel?” 27-year-old Marc Nash asks them, “Why not?”

Born and raised in Boston, Nash started thinking about making aliyah, or immigrating to Israel, while in high school. He graduated at the top of his class from Union College with a degree in biomedical engineering. A 6-figure salary was guaranteed, he said. However, Nash decided not to even start looking for a job; not even as a Plan B.

“It’s very hard to give up a job offer in the States once you get it,” Nash said. Instead he pushed ahead with the paper work. In 2010 he touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, a newly minted citizen of Israel.

Nash served in the Israel Defense Forces by day, and worked as a project manager in a start-up by night. Today Nash is project manager for a company that represents leading Israeli high-tech companies abroad.

“In Israel it’s about experience and responsibility first, salary second. I have more responsibility than my peers in North America,” Nash said. He adds, however, that his overall compensation package is similar to his peers who live in the US.

Nash was one of six olim, or new immigrants to Israel, to share his experiences of moving to Israel in a day-long conference November 16 in New York called “Impact Israel.” They pitched the idea that young professionals and college graduates should come to Israel for the economic and job opportunities, but stay for the lifestyle and chance to make their mark.

Some of the young Jewish professionals attending Impact Israel in New York. (Mark Von Holden)
Some of the young Jewish professionals attending Impact Israel in New York. (Mark Von Holden)

Of course, it’s daunting to commit to another country, said Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Marc Rosenberg, pre-aliyah director. Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) has been recruiting and facilitating aliyah for North Americans since 2002.

Around 3,800 olim made aliyah from North America in 2013, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh. This year the organization expects a five to six percent increase.  So far, 2014 has seen 3,200 olim from North America.

Pegging aliyah to economic opportunity could be considered somewhat counterintuitive today: the United States continues recovery from the 2008 economic meltdown and job opportunities have increased. Indeed the US economy has had 63 straight months of economic expansion, according to Forbes Magazine. Unemployment has dropped to 5.9% from 10.1% in 2009. It’s expected to drop to 5.4% by summer 2015.

From Austin, TX to Denver, CO and Raleigh, NC and Atlanta, GA American college graduates are finding increased job opportunities in many fields, including technology, manufacturing and health care.

In Israel the economy contracted for the first time since 2009 when gross domestic product shrank 0.4 percent in the July-September period during Operation Protective Edge

In Israel, on the other hand, the economy contracted for the first time since 2009 when gross domestic product shrank 0.4 percent in the July-September period during Operation Protective Edge. This is, however, compared to a 3.2% and 2.2 % increase in GDP from 2014’s first two quarters. Israel’s unemployment rate is around 6.5 percent, up from 6.4 percent in August of 2014, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Still, there is enormous opportunity in Israel, Rosenberg said. It’s just a matter of doing some research.

That’s where conferences like “Impact Israel” come in. More than 300 young Jewish professionals attended Sunday’s event, which was sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, together with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA.

“The hundreds of young New Yorkers who participated in the conference filled us with optimism,” said Erez Halfon, vice chairman of NBN. “Their aliyah insures the future of Israel, its society and security.”

“My goal is not to convince people to make aliyah but to educate them about the opportunity. A lot of people make aliyah and stay six months, maybe a year and then leave,” Nash said. “They didn’t know what to expect and they didn’t know what was available. You need to be educated about the opportunities to make it work.”

For example those making aliyah can take advantage of free job retraining and advanced degrees in Israel. That’s attractive to students graduating from US universities who are saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt.

Nash’s company pays for his gas and his car. He’s got a pension fund and health care. All important when young people are told to start saving for retirement fresh out of college.

North American millennials are chiefly concerned about professional and educational possibilities in Israel, said NBN’s Rosenberg.

‘A spark of ideology is great, but in the end it’s a very practical decision. We stress the need for planning because we don’t want people to be surprised’

“A spark of ideology is great, but in the end it’s a very practical decision. We stress the need for planning because we don’t want people to be surprised,” Rosenberg said.

For example, Rosenberg said he’s met prospective olim who think they will come to Israel, join the IDF and serve as a combat medic. They envision a big welcome. Instead, they will likely get the big brush off because they don’t know enough Hebrew and didn’t realize that in most cases the army sends people where the army needs people.

To avoid disappointment and discouragement Rosenberg counsels prospective olim to learn how to transfer different skill sets and academic degrees.

For example, lawyers with corporate, contractual, international law or intellectual property experience will have an easier time finding jobs in an Israeli law firms than those with backgrounds in litigation, insurance defense, or criminal, family, and personal injury law, according to NBN. Doctors trained as specialists abroad are usually able to become licensed and find positions in Israel.

And North American accountants are often able to find jobs in Israel even without taking the Israeli CPA exam. The large international accounting firms in Israel look for certified accountants from abroad, and some Israeli companies hire CPAs, as well.

Engineers, particularly electronic and hardware engineers, will likely find a positive market, with jobs available throughout the country.

80% of olim find employment within the first six months

According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, 80% of olim find employment within the first six months. Of course, the jobs may not be in the field they studied.

Take 27-year-old Emily Bernstein.

The Florida transplant graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Florida. She’d spent time in Israel during her junior years of both high school and college. It wasn’t until her year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, however, that she decided to make aliyah.

Bernstein didn’t draft into the IDF. Instead she decided to pursue her Master’s degree in Israel. It was a way to immerse herself in Hebrew, integrate into the country and make friends, she said. She earned her MA in conflict resolution.

Bernstein doesn’t directly use her degree in her job. Instead she is an Investor Relations Associate at as Jerusalem Venture Partners, an international venture capital firm.

‘You have to be willing to think outside the box and realize that career paths aren’t straight’

“Israel is a place of innovation, a place for people to push the limits of what they can do,” she said. “You have to be willing to think outside the box and realize that career paths aren’t straight. Israel really is the star-up nation and you have to be creative and learn to find alternative solutions.”

If the 2008 economic crash taught young professionals and college graduates anything it was there are no guarantees when it comes to job security and that flexibility is essential, Rosenberg said.

“Young people are realizing the old economy is less guaranteed than it used to be. Rules are bendable and negotiable,” said Rosenberg who grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ and made aliyah when he was 25. “Israel is a skill based society because in a desert you have to be creative.”

Attracting people to Israel is one thing, keeping them there is another matter entirely. For those who made aliyah in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a 50-50 chance they’d leave after three years, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Now the retention rate is just above 90%, Rosenberg said.

The ability to forge a sense of community and put down roots after moving to Israel is often what separates those who make it from those who don’t, Rosenberg said. Many will leave if they feel their professional opportunities are shrinking, that life is too expensive or too difficult, or, if they haven’t made deep connections.

As such Nefesh B’Nefesh doesn’t track retention rates until three years post-aliyah.

‘The third year seems to be the tipping point for those who stay and those who go’

“The third year seems to be the tipping point for those who stay and those who go,” Rosenberg said. “Something seems to happen in the third year, they meet someone, and they get engaged or married. They put down roots.”

Bernstein made it a priority to make connections when she first arrived in Jerusalem.

“I went on what I call a lot of coffee dates. I drank so much coffee! I’d meet with people and turn those connections into sustainable relationships, and ways to be involved in the larger community,” Bernstein said. She volunteered on a mayoral campaign in Jerusalem and spent time working for a nonprofit.

The idea is future olim will make an impact in Israel, but that Israel will impact them as well, Bernstein said, adding that she thinks about this daily.

“It’s always in the back of my head,” Bernstein said. “When you receive so much from a country, you just want to see the place succeed.”

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