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Israelis: Here Physically, There Mentally

May 14, 2009 By:
Daphna Berman, JE Feature
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Avi Ohana of the South Street branch of City Blue, an Israeli-owned clothing chain Photo by Daphna Berman

Viktor Fadlon attended Shabbat services every Friday night in his native Israel, but in the nearly three years since he moved to Philadelphia, the 25-year-old says that he's been to synagogue just once.

"I haven't connected to the Jewish community," he admitted recently, taking a break from his job as manager of a Center City pizzeria and bar. "I work on Friday nights, and I'm just busy."

Fadlon -- one of the estimated 30,000 Israelis in Greater Philadelphia -- is not alone. Though he's been involved in organizing communal events for Israelis in the area, he says that he has yet to reach out, or be contacted, by members of Philadelphia's organized Jewish community.

He doesn't even know what the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is, despite the fact that its offices are just blocks from his place of employment.

"Maybe when I have a family, I'll be more connected," he said, not really convincing even himself.

Indeed, community leaders acknowledge that they have been slow in connecting to people like Fadlon. But that may change with the launch later this month of HaKesher HaIsraeli -- "the Israeli connection" -- a Federation-backed group that is looking to bridge the gap between the two communities.

"We hope to create a strong network of Americans and Israelis working together," said Jeri Zimmerman, director of the Federation's Center for Israel and Overseas, which is facilitating the launch. Though smaller groups and individuals have tried to bridge the gap between the two communities in years past, the effort to begin this month is the first attempt on behalf of the organized Jewish community and Federation to deal with the problem head on, noted Zimmerman.

But she -- and the team of Israeli volunteers that she is working with -- may face an uphill battle as they attempt to bring the two groups together via fundraising, and cultural and social events.

As Roe Sorasky, who immigrated to the United States eight years ago, put it: "The Jewish community has tried to get us involved, but it won't work. The mentalities are just too different."

As Diverse as Israel Itself
Like Israel itself, the local Israeli community is quite diverse. Students, shop owners, scientists, musicians, teachers and academics make up its ranks -- and religious observance crosses the spectrum as well.

Geographically, the community is spread out, with large concentrations in Northeast Philadelphia and in Cherry Hill, N.J.

Some Israelis, like Noa Babyof, a 27-year-old singer and songwriter who's hoping to find musical success in America, have been here for just a few months; others, like Haviv David, the owner of Mama's Falafel, a popular Center City eatery, have been here for decades. He worked as a car mechanic, a taxi driver and other jobs before opening his restaurant on 20th Street.

Avi Ohana, a 36-year-old who has tattoos across his arms, has been in Philadelphia for 11 years and tried -- unsuccessfully -- to return to Israel.

"Every year, I say, 'OK, this has been fun, but it's time to go back,' " he acknowledged. "Two years ago, I finally returned to Israel, but I didn't last for more than five months. The economic stress, the security situation -- it got to me. I've become accustomed to the American lifestyle."

Indeed, many Israelis are in Ohana's same situation.

As one Israeli store owner who has been here for more than a decade explained, "We all live out of our suitcases. Every Israeli I know wants to go back."

Many Israelis in Philadelphia say that they appreciate overtures, however delayed, on behalf of the local American Jewish community. But they note that cultural differences may be impossible to bridge. When Fadlon, the pizzeria manager, went to services, for example, he didn't connect with the synagogue because the prayers were Ashkenazi in style and, like many Israelis who reside here, he is Sephardi -- a sentiment that was echoed in a number of interviews.

Israelis also mention that the American Jewish community's formal structure remains unappealing to them.

"When I do go to synagogue, I go to an Israeli synagogue in Cherry Hill," explained Dror, who did not want his last name used; he's a former Jerusalemite who owns a local construction company. "At American synagogues, you need a reservation. With Israelis, it's warm and casual, and I feel more comfortable."

"Americans and Israelis are like meat and milk," added Avi Yosef, who owns a jewelry store on Market Street. "They just don't go together."

Yosef, for example, sends his children to the JCC preschool in Cherry Hill. All of his Israeli friends send their children to Jewish day schools as well, he says, but his social circle still consists exclusively of Israelis, rather than the other Jewish parents at the school.

Israelis who send their children to public schools report a similar situation. "I just don't connect to the American mentality," said Liat Binyamin, whose two sons attend Radnor Elementary School on the Main Line.

Walk along Market Street east of City Hall or South Street on the single digit blocks, and Israeli stores are seemingly everywhere. They have discreet mezuzahs on their doorways, and though electronic stores were once the norm, now jewelry and clothing stores dominate the landscape. In some, Israeli radio wafts through the air; in others, cigarette smoke is thick. In short, it feels a lot like Israel.

"I have a brother on Market and a brother-in-law on South," Yosef said proudly. "We are everywhere."

Exact figures are also hard to come by. The estimate of 30,000 Israelis in the region is based on the Federation's 1996/97 population study of Jewish Philadelphia, but no organization, including the local Israeli consulate, has updated numbers.

Sharona Durry, who left Israel for Philadelphia some 20 years ago, is one of the pioneers in trying to bridge the gap between Israelis and American Jews in the area. She founded PhillyIsrael (formerly PhillyIsraelim) in 2005 to foster cultural ties between the two communities, and though she says that there has been some success, "there is still a disconnect between the two groups."

"Israelis don't like being affiliated with any organization," she said. "When they do get involved, it's with other Israelis. What we're trying to do is get the Israeli community to open up."

Her aim is for groups like hers to show the Israeli community that they have more in common with American Jews than they suspect: "I am hoping the Israelis" see that the Jewish community "has an interest in Israel. But Israelis have to learn about the American Jewish community first."

Federation recently helped sponsor an event with legendary Israeli actress Gila Almagor as part of the the city's Israel Film Festival, but turnout was low. When the Jewish community organized its pro-Israel rally in January supporting Israel's military offensive in Gaza, the Israeli presence was also minimal.

'Anything for Israel'
"If someone would have told us a time and place, we would have been there," said Avi, a 31-year-old former Jerusalemite who didn't want his last name used. "We would do anything for Israel, but people have to notify us first."

Meanwhile, Federation officials are hoping for a significant Israeli turnout at the Jewish community's Independence Day event on Sunday at Penn's Landing, which heralds the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv as well.

HaKesher HaIsraeli will be launched two weeks later, on May 31, at North Bowl Lounge 'n' Lanes, an Israeli-owned bowling alley. Some 450 Israelis are expected to attend, with proceeds from the evening benefiting charities in Israel.

Volunteers insist, however, that it is not simply a fundraising tool, and that the organization also encourages community involvement in all forms -- financial and otherwise.

 

Feeling the Pinch, They Look for All Opportunities

For many young Israelis, working in the United States after the army has long been a rite of passage. In past years, men and women in their early 20s have poured into Israeli-owned stores across the city, working for brief periods to finance their travels across the globe.

But Philadelphia as a popular way station, it seems, is quickly becoming a thing of the past, as Israeli store owners across the city are slashing costs in an effort to weather the economic downturn.

"We used to get new people every week, but we don't take new Israelis anymore," said Avi Ohana, manager of the South Street branch of City Blue, an Israeli-owned clothing chain. "People would stay and work for six months after the army, and then go travel in South America. But in our store, we are down to four employees from 12. Stores are struggling, and since Israelis are more expensive than locals, store owners aren't hiring Israelis anymore."

"This will be a bad year," he added, "and people are just trying to survive."

The Israeli community is hardly immune to the current crisis. With jobs cut, the housing market in shambles and consumers tightening their collective belts, the Israeli community here -- and across the United States -- has been hit hard.

At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, a record number of Israelis -- 21 -- is currently enrolled in the first-year class of the school's prestigious MBA program. But while a Wharton pedigree was once an assured ticket to career success, current students, as well as soon-to-be-graduates, are scrambling to find summer internships and full-time jobs.

"In a regular year, I would now be deciding between different offers," said one graduating Israeli student who is still looking for a full-time position. "People on campus are definitely stressed."

Like most people interviewed, this student didn't want to be identified for fear that it would negatively affect his chances of finding employment.

It's a Costly Venture
For many Israeli students, the stress of an unsuccessful job search has been compounded by the high costs of a Wharton MBA, which, combined with living costs, can run $150,000 over two years. University officials have offered students the possibility of an August graduation date to afford internationals more time for the job search; that would allow them a few more weeks before their visas expire and they're forced to return home. Israeli students, like other internationals in the same situation, fear that if they don't secure a position soon, they may be forced to return to Israel saddled in debt.

Yoni Greifman, co-president of the Wharton Israel Club, said that the crisis has also forced his classmates to look past traditional avenues like investment banking or consulting. "The economic situation has forced many students to compromise," he said, "and instead of pursuing their first choice, they are now looking to their second, third or fourth choice."

Dozens of Israeli-owned stores line South Street, but the crowds have thinned along the popular thoroughfare.

"When I got to Philadelphia three years ago, the streets were packed, and you couldn't find parking. It's much quieter now," said Moran Davidovich, 24, who works in a jewelry store.

She says that three of her friends have already returned to Israel.

"A lot of stores are starting to fire their employees, and if people are unemployed and looking for a job, they would rather be in Israel," she said.

Meanwhile, the housing crunch has also affected many Israelis here, standing in the way of a new Israeli government campaign to lure expatriates back home. The Absorption Ministry now offers returning Israelis tax and other fiscal incentives, as well as help finding jobs.

"One of the major obstacles is for Israelis to sell their real estate before departing to Israel," explained Ayelet Palti, former Philadelphia coordinator at the Israeli consulate's Israel House, which assists returning Israelis. "Many get stuck with property without being able to cash it out, and they often find themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea." 

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