TEL AVIV (JTA) — When Oded Salomy and his family first left Israel for the United States, they planned to move back after a few years of career building. But life was good, and it quickly became easy to delay the return home.
Then the economic crisis hit, giving them an extra nudge to go back to Israel.
Now celebrating his first Independence Day in Israel in five years, Salomy marvels at the relative ease of the transition from suburban New Jersey to suburban Tel Aviv.
“I feel great here," he said. "I definitely feel it was the right move both for me as a person and as a family.
“The most surprising aspect of the series of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day is my children’s reaction to it. I hear them talking about Herzl and Hitler, learning about it at school and hear their conversations about it as 4- and 7-year-olds.”
The Salomy family is among a growing number of Israeli families living abroad who, motivated by new economic realities and ties to family, friends and country, are making the journey back home.
As many as 1 million Israelis live overseas, according to varying estimates, but the Israeli government over the years exerted little official effort to woo them back. That changed recently when the Absorption Ministry adopted a new campaign to offer returning Israelis tax and other financial incentives, as well as assistance finding jobs.
Last year, the number of returning Israelis rose to 11,000 from a recent annual average of 4,500, according to the ministry. In the past six months, as the global economic situation has deteriorated, interest in moving to Israel has skyrocketed, officials say — not just among Israelis abroad but potential immigrants, too.
Among those returning are highly educated Israelis who have gained valuable work and academic experience abroad.
“I hope because of the campaign tens of thousands of Israelis will find their way back to Israel,” Erez Halfon, director general of the Absorption Ministry, told JTA. “I think it’s important to them, and the government needs to encourage it because I’m sure in 10 years we will see their importance, how the economy and security situation will be improved because of their return.”
Before launching its campaign, the ministry researched some of the main reasons Israelis abroad hesitate to return.
Among the major stumbling blocks the ministry removed were penalties for failing to pay National Insurance payments (akin to Social Security payments in the United States) while abroad. The ministry also provides extra Hebrew education for the children of returning Israelis, offers business loans and provides a tax exemption for two years on all income earned abroad.
While Israel has been affected by the economic crisis, it has felt the blow less severely than the United States.
Salomy, 41, had founded a transportation technology start-up while in America — an interactive touch-screen system for the backseats of taxi cabs in New York City. Despite finding initial success, it became clear the company would have to raise tens of millions of additional dollars to stay competitive.
“Then the markets started falling apart and commitments crumbled, and with the pinch it became clear people were tightening up and the company was not going to be able to support me and my family any longer,” he said.
A lawyer by training, Salomy had to take temporary consulting jobs to stay afloat. His and his wife’s thoughts soon focused on their deferred plan to return to Israel.
“The deteriorating economy was not as bad then as it is now, but it was still pretty bad and it pushed us to make a pivotal life decision,” he said. “We told ourselves that if we want to move, we should move now.”
There were also “pull” factors: Salomy’s children were getting older, and he wanted them to grow up in Israel — a sentiment many returning Israelis echo.
“The decision was not for a better life, but wanting to come back as the kids got bigger,” said Ruti Efroni, who returned to Israel last summer after five years in Washington. “They had even stopped speaking Hebrew to each other, and we wanted to come back to our families.”
When it comes to finding work, recruiters suggest that those who intend to return should move back first and then seek employment. Otherwise, the recruiters warn, the job seekers are not taken as seriously by prospective employers.
That’s what Salomy did after two “scouting” trips to Israel, where he had dozens of interviews and meetings. Soon after returning last summer, he found a job as a director of corporate development for Modu, a manufacturer of light mobile phones.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that oversees North American aliyah, attributes the 100 percent jump in the number of inquiries to their call center in recent months to the economic crisis.
“Israel has been on their agenda,” said Danny Oberman, executive vice president of Israel operations for the group. “They are looking towards summer camps and paying for next year’s education for their kids, saying, ‘OK, the bonuses I got two years ago are not going to happen; it’s a new landscape.”
Ronan Hillel, a 37-year-old father of six from Long Island, N.Y., has moved up his aliyah plans to June because of the economy. Until recently he was a mortgage banker, working in a field that has dried up in the United States and doesn’t exist in Israel.
But Hillel, the son of Israelis, is optimistic. He’s planning to switch careers in Israel to the food industry.
“We’ll do anything we can in the beginning," he said, "and we’ll see where life takes us.”