So you want to make aliyah and move to Israel..
I first came to Israel in 1987 with the Alexander Muss High School In Israel. We called it HSI. It is a two month program for high school students. They had two campuses in those days - mine was in Hod Hasharon. Great experience. Then in 1988-1989 I was at the Pardess Chana Agricultural School American Program. What a year! With both of those programs, we travelled the country and often had classes in places like Jerusalem and Masada.
After high school, I made aliyah and was in the army for three years - most of which in the IDF Spokesman's Unit. I've lived in Ginot Shomron, Ariel, Ramat Gan, Jerusalem, Kibbutz Ruhama, Eilat and Arad. I've seen many friends move to Israel over the years. Many of them have moved back and many are still here. We all get to Israel with a strong Zionist ideology and the challenge is to keep it while dealing with day-to-day life. I hope this page will help those of you considering a move to the Holy Land!
Every aliyah is different. If you're right out of high school, its a lot easier. You join the army and will learn Hebrew and Israeli culture a lot faster than olim ("new immigrants") in their 30's.
First things first! Don't expect to get much done during the high holidays. Whatever you don't get done - with government offices and business - by the end of August may not happen until October. I've seen friends wait and wait on meetings and things they needed during this period.
There are lots of organizations - like Nefesh B'Nefesh - which help Americans and Europeans make aliyah. I did it on my own and was younger but its worth looking up how they can help. Some people need the help and others will want to pay for their own ticket to Israel. When I moved to Israel in the late 80's, the biggest thing on my mind was bringing things that Israel didn't have then. Today, just about the only thing not in Israel is Taco Bell! Until the early 2000's, even a simple stereo or cd player was packed with taxes here so it was important to bring them over. Cars are still expensive in Israel but if you live in the city or a small town, you'll be fine without a car your first few years here.
The 80's are over. Skip the pre-aliyah shopping spree and save your money for your first few years in Israel. Most rented apartments come with a refrigerator, used washing machines are cheap and you don't need a dryer in the Middle East. Duracell batteries are much cheaper in the US, but most of us use rechargeables these days. Buy a good set of rechargeable batteries and a charger when you get here.
Israel has excellent public transportation. Until the mid-2000's, there were two bus companies (Egged and Dan) and an often unused train system. No longer. The bus companies have been privatized and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon updated the trains during his administration. Trains run as far south as Dimona and the stations are modern and easily accessible.
I lived in the Negev from 2003 - 2010. Many of the tips here will help those looking to live in the Negev.
Ok, now tell me the part my aliyah representative isn't telling me!
Every silver lining has a touch of grey. (10 points if you know who sang that!) Eilat has its share of issues. As the most remote city in Israel, anyone wanting to disappear for a while heads down to Eilat. In fact, the mayor of Eilat has complained to the courts that judges often send defendants and other "bad elements" to Eilat. During the summer, Eilat is full of young Israelis - most of whom come to have a fun time and not bother anyone.
And then there are the development towns. Sderot, Netivot, Dimona and others were founded in the 1950's to expand the population of Israel's periphery and ease the pressure on Tel Aviv and the center of the country. Israel's population grew exponentially in its first years. Today these towns are still struggling to build an economic base. They're not nearly as crime-ridden and dangerous as their American and European counterparts but its not kibbutz life either. Unemployment is usually higher than in the rest of Israel and social workers have their hands full. Intel and other hi-tech companies have opened research & development parks in the northern Negev and this is slowly improving things.
What about financial stuff?
Your American credit card will work 99% of the time here. The only time I've had a problem is when paying for flight tickets via Israeli travel agencies - they often charge a small percentage that they're charged by the credit card company. But that doesn't happen at the supermarket or in any other day to day shopping.
Once in a while, the communication between the ATM's here and the US is down. This happens once or twice a year at most and usually for only a few hours. But it happens. When it does, just try an hour or two later and it'll usually be fine. Once in a blue moon it means waiting overnight. I've learned to take out cash for important things a few days early and keep my life relaxed.
Its easy to open an Israeli bank account and you'll probably need one to get checks as that's how most Israelis pay rent. If you have an active American bank account with a debit or credit card, you may want to open an account with the Israel Post Office Bank. If the only thing you need from a local bank is 12 checks a year to pay rent, the Post Office Bank is the way to go. They won't offer you all the complex services that you don't need and best of all, there's no way to "go into the minus" as Israelis call it. All you have to do is deposit money every month a few days before your rent is due and you're set.
Israelis love debit cards that let you pay things in payments! When I pay by credit card at the supermarket, I'm asked how many payments I want it in. You can only pay for things on your US debit card in one payment but an Israeli debit card will allow you to pay for food in 2-6 payments. A wise man once said, Pay For Food In One Payment!
Pay in cash! Most Israeli cities let you pay your arnona (municipal taxes) on the phone with your credit card. I did this for years with no problems. One time, I paid via the automatic phone system and assumed it was done. A month later, I get a letter in the mail saying they didn't charge my card at that time and did it now (a month had passed). The city told me that because of the high holidays ("Because of The High Holidays" should be the title of a book of excuses!) their billing department was slow. The way I look at things, they should've called me to ask my permission to use my card a month later. Since then, I pay everything - electricity, water and municipal taxes - in person at their offices and the post office. I have the time.
Another financial tip is with Israeli phone, cable and Internet companies. They love signing customers to three year deals. Its a sign of weakness when a big corporation is afraid you'll leave and wants to lock you in for a third of a decade. We did this with Hot, Israel's cable-phone-Internet conglomerate. One day, we asked to freeze it for a month that we'd be overseas and they wanted a photocopy of the flight tickets and our passport proving we left the country. That's what Americans call The Nanny State. I am not going to show my cable company an exit stamp from my passport. That will be a consideration when it comes time to renew the deal. Hot's competitor, Yes, didn't ask for this when we flew to Florida. I'd rather pay more to Yes than have to photocopy personal documents.
You're better off paying more per month and reserving the right to go shopping for a better deal. Same goes with cellphones. I have an old cellphone that I fill up with pre-paid card a few times a year. Even if I'm paying more per call, the cellphone company doesn't have my credit card and I'm not locked into a three year deal.
While I'm at it, I'm not a big fan of cellphones. Sure, we all need one. I don't give mine out to everyone. When asked, I say, "I work at home. When I leave the house for errands or a walk, I don't want to be bothered by anyone but family or business partners." Israelis are shocked to hear someone actually limit his use of technology outside the house! Why pick up a phone only to say you'll call them back in an hour?! Technology is so cool. But so is an undisturbed walk!
Learning Hebrew is your key to becoming Israeli.
I live in Israel since 1988 and have seen many olim (immigrants) from English speaking countries come and go. Of all the groups that come to Israel, it seems to be only Americans (and I am one!) who are capable of living in Israel for years without learning Hebrew. Even before the hi-tech wave of the 90's, most Israelis spoke English.
Communicating with Israelis - your new friends - in Hebrew is so important. Being able to listen to the radio, read the newspaper and enjoy the culture on its own turf connects you in ways you can't quantify. Friends who live in Israel for over 3 years and don't know Hebrew are prime candidates to eventually leave. It takes a lot of effort to live here 3-5 years and not know more than 100 words of Hebrew, but American olim do it like no others.
Since 2004, Israel's economy is booming. The one story the media is missing is the increased wealth in Israel. There's not much you can't get here these days. When I moved here in the late 80's, we were lucky to have M&M's. Today, malls are filled with first class fashion labels and you won't meet too many people without a computer, high speed Internet and at least one cellphone.
But not every job will do the job! Teaching is a good example. The education system is in bad need of reform. Teachers' colleges accept every candidate and as a result, teaching has become the "default option" for Israelis with no other options. The joke here is that men without much to do join the police and women become teachers. Its not nice, but there's something to it. You can't support a household - even a single person one - on a teacher's salary. I've seen friends come here and ignore that last part. Idealism is wonderful, but it won't pay the bills.
Another typical issue Americans and English speakers face is living in places surrounded by other English speakers. You can spend your entire life in Raanana, the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv and surround yourself with American friends. Five years later, you don't speak Hebrew, don't connect well with Israelis and you're on a flight back to California, Florida or New York. When I moved here, I was a teenager, so learning the language and integrating myself was a lot easier than it would have been in my 30's. But that's no excuse for those of you planning to move here after age 18!
I'm glad I didn't live in one of the "American ghettos" in Israel for my first years. When I finally did live in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I had been in Israel for over 10 years. I can't tell you how many Americans I saw come and go during that period. We all had a great time - but only a few Americans that I knew then are still here. They're the ones who learned Hebrew, have more Israeli friends than American friends and were realistic about how to find a job.
Americans come to Israel full of idealism - I still have it, otherwise I wouldn't be here. But idealism and naivety are two different things.
Where should I consider living in Israel?
Let's split Israel into three parts. North, South and Center. The Center refers to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya, Raanana, Hod Hasharon, Kfar Saba, Modiin and even Gush Etzion (which is just south of Jerusalem). This is what Israelis refer to as the 02 (Jerusalem), 03 (Tel Aviv) and 09 (Sharon area) area codes. Also known as The Coastal Strip Plus Jerusalem..
This is where most of the population lives. The advantages of living in the center for an oleh hadash are obvious - most jobs are somewhere in the center. Its a 45 minute ride (without traffic) from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It takes 25-40 minutes to get from the Sharon area (Hod Hasharon, Raanana, Kfar Saba) to Tel Aviv. If you're single and or into going out - you won't want to miss Tel Aviv's nightlife. We live in the South and visit Tel Aviv for cultural events - like when we saw Blood, Sweat & Tears and The Harlem Globetrotters in 2008.
You can easily get around without a car in the Center - especially if you are single or don't have kids. If you will be entering Tel Aviv in the morning and leaving in the evening, it may not be worth taking a car to work. Even so, a car is great for weekends and short trips. If you're on a tight budget, consider roughing it your first few years here without a car. Daily buses and a few taxis a month is a lot cheaper than buying and maintaining a car in Israel. Israel has an improving train system. The ride is a lot more relaxing than a rush hour bus ride!
While we're on transportation, there have always been service taxis (shared taxis) between the big cities. They fill up and go - usually 10 or so passengers in a van. In Tel Aviv, they're right outside the entrance to the bus station - hard to miss. They even run on Saturdays between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and and probably other cities as well. Yes, you may wait a bit longer on a Saturday for the "monit sherut" to fill up - but its the only public transportation on a Saturday afternoon. The Jerusalem shared taxi leaves from Zion Square which makes it more practical than taking a bus to the bus station and then a bus or walk to Zion Square.
For those who need to live in the center but want a bit of the country life, there are kibbutzim and moshavim in the center. Most are in the Sharon and Jerusalem areas. In the Sharon area just outside of Netanya are small communities which offer you quick access to Road 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway). These days, every moshav and kibbutz welcome newcomers and will rent you a nice place for a very reasonable rate. On all four sides of Jerusalem, can you find small communities which are minutes from the center of Jerusalem.
The rule of thumb is simple - The further you are from the center of the country and the smaller your community is, the bigger the apartment/townhouse/home you will be able to afford.
The North of Israel is the second best place to live as far as jobs go. Most of the North's economy is based around Haifa. Many Israelis work in Haifa and live in one of the dozens of small towns, moshavim and kibbutzim in the area. Haifa and the environs have developed quite a hi-tech economy. The quality of life in the north is high. Excellent air, green all around you and lots of places to visit on your free time.
Road 6 is making it easier to live in the North and South and work in the Center. This one highway is having a big impact in Israel. In the past, a drive from Haifa to Beersheva meant going through Tel Aviv or around it on slower roads. Every few months, Road 6 extents further north and south.
Israel's South - The Negev - covers 60% of the land of Israel but has less than 10% of the population. The biggest cities are Beersheva and Eilat. Ashkelon can be considered part of the South as it is minutes from the Negev. Beersheva is a growing metropolis of just under 200,000. Every time we visit Beersheva, we notice more buildings going up. The city is spreading itself further into Israel's Negev desert. Tel Aviv obviously has a bigger economy than Beersheva, but Beersheva is no longer the sleepy desert town it once was. Apartments are a lot cheaper than in the Center. Its a 90 minute bus ride to Tel Aviv - much less in a car thanks to Road 6. On the east side of Beersheva is a "Big" mall where residents of Beersheva and the area have a level and variety of shopping like never before.
There are many small towns, moshavim and kibbutzim within a one hour drive of Beersheva. If its desert country you seek, you can live in a townhouse on a moshav. It won't be easy without a car, but its possible if you're willing to take occasional taxis. When we lived on Kibbutz Ruhama, we took a weekly round trip taxi (35 shekels each way) to Sderot to go shopping - sometimes to Beersheva. You can rent a small apartment anywhere in the Negev for $300-$400 a month.
If you don't want to live in Beersheva (which is big enough to have traffic) but want a city, there is Arad. Arad is 45 minutes east of Beersheva. In 2008, Arad's population was 27,000. There is a mall and enough stores to cover what you need a few times over. When you crave a movie or restaurant (we have a few in Arad), you go to Beersheva. A four bedroom townhouse in Arad can go for 1,700-2,000 shekels ($425-$500) a month. Apartments can be rented for a lot less. Residents of Arad work in Arad, Beersheva or the Dead Sea. It is a two hour bus ride to Tel Aviv, 90 minutes by car.
The South is the most challenging area to live in Israel. There is a smaller population and economic base. The continued expansion of Beersheva is a good thing. The quality of life in the Negev is high - you can get a big place for a low price and have a fantastic view and a strong community around you. But there are less jobs. The North and South are especially a good choice for those who work at home or only need to be in the Center a few days a week.
We moved to the Negev in 2003 for a few reasons. The Zionist reason lies in the Negev's small population. This is where people with (hopefully) ideals and abilities are needed most in Israel. We moved to the Negev because of its relative emptiness and newness. Whatever we can do here, we are doing it in a community in the Negev which needs us more than any big city. Our little contribution in our day to day means more here.
And then there's the Negev Quality of Life. Arad and the Negev are known for having the best air in Israel. The lifestyle is more laid back than in a big city. We walk to the store and gym and enjoy the view along the way. Cars drive slowly, people aren't in a rush. From most homes and apartments, you have a desert vista which is a great backdrop to the music you listen to. We have more space than we would have in the Center. Its a lot easier to work at home. Its a lot easier to work on hobbies and other projects when you have space and quiet.
Find yourself a place and lifestyle that's good for you and enjoy living in Israel!
Aliyah Links - Jewish Agency / Nefesh B'Nefesh / Or Movement
If you're interested in Israel, visit my other related pages...
Israel Culture in Israel
Hadera Arad Eilat The Negev Kibbutz Ruhama The Israel Trail Jerusalem in the Snow Jerusalem during Passover 2009