Heartbreaking choice to return to Chicago

By Harold Goldmeier, Special to Chicago Jewish News

A recent demographic report is sparking a spate of articles. The data do not capture the pain of separation, but they highlight a drastic national security threat to the future of Israel.

My wife and I can describe the pain first hand but who else cares? Our younger son gave up last month after eight years hoping and struggling to build a life in the Jewish State. He, his wife and our grandchildren returned to live in Chicago. They join the 1.2 to 1.5 million Jewish Israelis already there and growing. Israeli ex-pats publish their Israeli newspapers, online blogs, support their own synagogues, social welfare and Israel advocacy organizations. Our daughter-in-law is in touch with a former-Israeli-women’s network helping her assimilate.

Terrorism, wars and the prospect of sending their children off to the IDF, factored little into the decision. It’s all about the light in the attic, as Shel Silverstein put it, flickering and burning out. The “big fortune” he was warned to bring on aliyah exhausted after studying a year in ulpan learning to speak Hebrew followed by months of unemployment, and moldering underemployment, throughout the eight years. The family stressed out.

Concomitantly, they don’t blame Israel, however, our son remembers the better standard of living and demands for his skills in his hometown. He brought those memories with him. An inspiring single mom, first generation immigrant of Mizrahi descent, the kind about which national activists tell stories and make movies, raised his Israeli-born wife and her siblings in public housing. His wife dreams about the opportunities overseas for her husband and children. They lived modestly in Israel but on the edge of an economic precipice compounded by the proverbial culture clash and frustrations of Israel’s bureaucracy.

Another son of ours and his family thrive in Israel. After some 20 years they have no intentions of moving anywhere else. But it hasn’t been easy. Both sons are poster boys for the consumer debt rising at a rapid pace approaching “out of control,” according to the Bank of Israel supervisor.

Our emigrant son had respectable jobs in Israel, several at the same time to make ends meet, but failed to unshackle himself from Israel’s immersive low wages and pitiable purchasing power. He was told not to put on his resume he is a graduate of Northwestern University fearing to appear too smart and high priced.

“Dad,” he told me when it came time, “I gave it my best shot. I tried to do everything right. I spent a full year in ulpan. I took low paying teaching jobs just to break into the world of work. I made eight good friends, and built a small but close social network. Every one of my friends returned home including the two doctors. I drained my American savings to support us. I have to do what’s best for my family.”

“I was paid a third of the money I made in America. There I worked forty hours a week here 60 or more. No complaints that’s the Israeli system. I just can’t save any money here. I’m just worn out. Exhausted and frustrated….”

“You don’t even realize that those of us who are secular have added expenses more than those in the religious communities like where you live. We pay six or eight times more a month for daycare, because the government doesn’t subsidize us like in designated religious cities. We pay higher arnona (property taxes). I drive twelve years old cars constantly needing repairs, because I don’t have 200,000 shekels for a new one ($56,000). Everything costs me more: food, clothing, restaurants…and I make less money.”

He speaks admiringly about Mizrahi, Russian and Ethiopian immigrants and other Israelis. They come to Israel with nothing, make subsistence salaries, build lives and make do. He worships his brother and sister-in-law living in Israel raising their children with a sense of belonging raising eight kids in a tiny apartment.

Our polymath son is not an ingrate, by nature not a quitter or alone in his decision.  American ex-pats are 1% to 2% of the population living abroad for family, work and retirement. Israel government officials ought to worry that 36% of secular Israelis Jews would move abroad given the opportunity, according to Massa Israel.  I’ve read 30 percent of olim leave after three to five years. Numbers don’t matter to parents and family, but they ought to matter to the government. If the US lowers its corporate tax rate to 15% Israel’s business community will drain away in a country already needing a surgical remix.

Nearly every friend I painfully tell about our emigrant children has a similar story to tell. It’s like having a bad back. We are close to our older son and his family living in Israel, but now we understand what Alice said, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  

Former Chicagoan Harold Goldmeier moved to Israel five and a half years ago. He is a university instructor, public speaker, businessman and consultant.

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