Aliyah commuters
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Aliyah commuters

Six thousand miles is a heck of a commute.

But for many American immigrants to Israel, the long trek is the only way to stay employed in the field and salary level to which they’re accustomed, while simultaneously realizing their dream of living in the Jewish state.

"Most go back and forth because it’s very hard to make a living," said Cilla Hirschkorn of Fair Lawn, whose daughter, Rinat Ross, comes back to North Jersey every five or six weeks for a 10-day stretch to practice dentistry. The former Teaneck resident stays with her parents, leaving her husband and four children in Modiin, a largely English-speaking community between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

"Of the ’00 members in my daughter’s shul in Modiin, I don’t think even one is working in Israel, except if they’re working over the Internet for a United States company," said Hirschkorn.

While European immigrants to Israel more commonly have kept their jobs on the continent, the phenomenon is a little newer for former American residents because the trip is at least twice as long. But the option is becoming more attractive.

"Telecommuting and commuting have increased significantly in the past few years," confirmed Daniella Slasky, director of employment for Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that facilitates aliyah.

"I would estimate that approximately ‘0 percent of olim [immigrants] retain their previous job after making aliyah. While the obvious disadvantage is the effect it can have on the family, it can be a tool to help facilitate aliyah and make the transition, at least from a financial perspective, more smooth."

Most of the trans-Atlantic commuters are physicians, lawyers, accountants, computer specialists, and other high-tech professionals who have more job opportunities and earning potential in the United States, wrote Chaim Waxman, Rutgers University professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies, in the winter ‘005 issue of the Orthodox Union magazine Jewish Action.

Waxman, himself a new oleh and now a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem, said many physicians choose to keep their old jobs because otherwise they have to obtain an Israeli medical license, which requires exams and an unpaid internship — a process that can take months.

In addition, doctors’ salaries traditionally have been much lower in Israel than in the United States, although a personnel shortage is driving them higher lately, said "Dr. Stern," an endocrinologist who moved to Israel with his family from North Jersey more than a year ago. But he still chooses to commute.

"I’m so well established here; I have a good practice economically and for me to start from scratch would be frightening," said Stern, who did not want to be identified because neither his staff nor his patients know he made aliyah.

"I feel that if patients know you’ve moved to another country some would panic and slowly leave to go to other doctors," he explained.

Stern has a new cadre of professional acquaintances — other physicians he’s gotten to know on the weekly plane trip. "I didn’t realize how easy it was going to be," he said. "In general I’ve been a bad flyer and can’t sleep on a plane but it’s amazing how it’s mind over matter, with a little help from [the insomnia medication] Ambien. You really get used to it, especially since there’s a whole group doing it."

In a telephone interview, Waxman said the commuter phenomenon seems to be increasing. "In the last plane-load of Nefesh B’Nefesh arrivals, it seemed many of them were contemplating commuting," the sociologist noted.

He added that frequent commuters may feel they’re not "real" olim. "But I have no evidence to indicate they are any less Israeli than American olim who don’t commute," he said, noting that many American olim working in Israel nevertheless don’t speak Hebrew fluently and have a limited knowledge of general society and culture because their social circle includes mostly other Americans.

"Trans-nationalism is what characterizes modern society," Waxman said. "You have Israelis who go to the United States for a period of time as well. Commuting from Israel to Europe is much more common and nobody questions the integration or loyalty of those immigrants."

Stern admitted that being in America half of every week does make him feel less Israeli than the rest of his family, but he feels it is worth the sacrifice. "I’m surprised how doable it is," he said.

"Personally, I would encourage the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh to spread the word that commuting is feasible," said Waxman, "even if you want to call it part-time aliyah. I suspect some of the [recent] increase in aliyah is partly because of the awareness that one does have options."

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