Welcome To The 10-Hour Commute


Izhar Shay travels between Israel and the United States so often (every two weeks) he has two cell phones. Rafi Epstein, who flies between the two countries each month or two for a week, used to have two business cards with his different addresses but found "two mail boxes and two fax numbers" too confusing.

Irving Gutman is back and forth to Israel so often from his Dix Hills, L.I., home (every two weeks) that he recognizes many of the El Al flight attendants.

Dr. Leon Waller maintains two medical practices, in New Jersey and Petach Tikvah, just outside of Tel Aviv. One month he is here, the next month he is there.They are just four of the growing number of Israelis and Americans whose jobs compel them to commute between Israel and the United States, a sign of deepening business ties between the two countries and of the increasinglyfrenzied pace of commerce at the start of the 21st century.

"You meet all the heavy commuters, all the high-tech executives, on El Alís 001 flight on Sunday night at Ben-Gurion Airport," said Shay. "You also see them on TWA’s 885 flight to JFK. Some come on Thursday and others Friday evening."

A spokeswoman for El Al said there are dozens of commuters who take El Al’s 1 a.m. flight from Tel Aviv to New York. "It’s called the Red Eye," said Sheryl Stein.

"It gives people a chance to have a full day in Israel and then arrive in New York at 5:30 in the morning. That gives them time to shower and unpack and still be in the office before 9: just like they would if they came from California. And it is an easier flight than California because you are able to get a full night’s sleep, whereas flying from California you get only two or three hours of sleep."

Stein noted that there are some passengers who have been commuting for years and, she insisted, "their bodies have become adjusted. Our most regular frequent flyers travel back and forth about every 10 days. They are in high-tech, the jewelry business and lawyers."

Earlier this year, she noted, about 60 of El Al’s top frequent flyers, known as gold card members, were invited to meet with the airline’s president, Joel Feldschuh, to discuss its service.

And as business ties between the two countries continue to increase, the numbers of commuters between Israel and the U.S. are expected to swell, according to Ron Chaimovski, Israel’s economic minister to North America.

"This is going to happen more and more and become more and more natural," he said. "It reflects the fact that the world is a global village, especially when it comes to business. The Israeli technology and business sectors are so welcomed in the States that Israelis feel at home here and the 10-hour flight is not an obstacle anymore.

"Look at how many benefits you get after 10 hours: you find partners, you find friends and one of the best markets in the world. It’s good for the business of both countries."

For some, the commute is not easy. Gutman said it takes about 15 hours door-to-door to go to Israel, and about 17 hours for the return trip.

The trip is even longer for Epstein, who lives in Sunnyvale, Calif., about 10 miles north of his office in Los Gatos. When traveling to Israel, he leaves at noon Friday on an Air Canada flight from San Francisco. The plane makes a stop in Toronto before proceeding nonstop to Tel Aviv, where it arrives on Saturday afternoon. When returning, he leaves at 1 a.m. Friday and arrives in San Francisco at noon Friday.

For Gutman, 50, the jet-lag is exhausting.

"The first day is rough both ways and I sleep as much as I can," he said. "I get about six or eight hours of sleep on the flight and then go to bed by 8 or 9 the first night. Thanks to the jet lag, that first day goes by very fast. And I’m at work by 7 a.m. the following day. … I’ve been traveling across the world for 28 years and I can tell you that it’s easier when you are younger."

Leon Waller, 49, insists that he no longer is bothered by jet lag. A board-certified internist who was born in the Bronx, he, his wife and three children made aliyah in 1993 from their home in Morris County, N.J., where he had been practicing medicine since 1979. They now live in Jerusalem.

"We made aliyah because my wife and I felt we wanted to raise our kids in Israel," Waller said, noting that their three daughters were 5, 6 and 8 at the time. "We felt our No. 1 priority was that our children grew up as Jews connected to Israel. I don’t believe you can be a Jew unless you are connected to Israel. That does not mean that you have to pick up and make aliyah like we did, but you have to be more connected and too many Jews don’t appreciate the need to be connected."

Since the late ’70s, Waller said he has been doing hair transplant surgery. He started the hair transplant department at the Rabin Medical Center/Beilenson Medical Center in Petach Tikvah. In addition, he continues to be part of a large medical group in New Jersey, where he performs hair transplants and practices internal medicine.

Being in a group, Waller said, afforded him the flexibility to "pick up and go" because other doctors care for his patients while he is in Israel. He said he maintained his practice in New Jersey because it was lucrative and he was uncertain about his income in Israel.

Waller sees other doctors who similarly commute on El Al.

"I see them on the plane all the time," he said. "They too are in [medical] groups, which gives them the flexibility to practice part-time."

He said he maintains an apartment in the city and that when he flies to Israel, he leaves his car with friends on Long Island.

"When I fly back here, I take a cab to their house, pick up the car and go to work," said Waller. "I don’t even bring clothes with me. I come with empty suitcases and fill them with things for the kids."

Rafi Epstein, 40, has gone the opposite route: He’s an Israeli who moved to California in June 1997 with his Israeli bride, Maya, three weeks after their marriage. They have one child, who was born in the U.S. in June 1998. Epstein said he made the move after commuting on a biweekly basis for two years from Israel to the U.S. and realizing that his focus must be on his customers.

"You have to be close to the market and be available," he said.

Epstein said the company he founded, NetFormx, of which he is president and CEO, develops and sells business-to-business solutions for the networking industry. The core technology of the company was developed at its offices in Bnei Brak, just outside of Tel Aviv. There are 40 employees there. The firm’s headquarters, technical support, marketing and sales force is based in Los Gatos, Calif. There are 30 employees there.

"The first two years I didn’t have an office in the U.S.," said Epstein. "I learned a lot about the U.S. as a business tourist, but very little about living here."

When they moved here, he and his wife arrived with two suitcases each (they shipped the rest of their belongings), rented an apartment and a car, and spent the next few weeks deciding on which coast to settle. Locating the business in New York or Boston would have been easier because the time difference with Israel is only seven hours (rather than 10 on the West Coast) and ití’ a shorter commute to Israel (rather than 22 to 24 hours). But Epstein said they opted for Silicon Valley because of the close proximity to "our strategic partners, which are the leading networking equipment manufacturers, like Cisco, 3Com and Nortel Networks."

The next hurdle was getting himself established in the U.S.

"You may be a millionaire in Israel, but in the U.S. you have no credit and therefore you are unable to get a credit card," said Epstein. "You are also unable to lease a car or get your phone connected because you have no credit. So I ended up having to put $5,000 into a savings account that was blocked and used as collateral so I could get a credit card. And because I couldnít lease a car, I had to buy one. I also had to repeat my driving test, both written and behind the wheel. And after driving 20 years, I failed my first driving test. My wife failed, too. We both got it the second time."

On the plus side, the weather in California is similar to that of Israel, although less humid, Epstein observed."Life in general is very good," he said. "The only thing we miss are our family and friends. But my wife and I go back [for a vacation] twice a year around the holidays."

When he returns to Israel for business, which is now for one week every month or two, he stays in a hotel near his office and rents a car. And he also makes sure to catch up on what he misses most in California: high-quality Middle Eastern food.

Irving Gutman, who became president of Scan Master Systems Inc. in Tel Aviv last August, said he might not have taken the job were it in a different country. "I love Israel and I know the country," he said. "I used to travel there [for another job] six times a year."

He said his company (an ultrasonic, non-destructive testing company that looks for flaws or cracks in airplane engine parts, critical refinery parts and in welds in cars) also has its sales and service headquarters for North America in Nashua, N. H. There are other offices all over the globe. Gutman said that when he is not spending two weeks in Israel, he is visiting those offices.

"I’m not home except on weekends," he said.

After staying in hotels in Israel, Gutman said he moved into a furnished apartment in November to cut down on expenses and to give him a place to leave his clothes. But he eats every meal out.

His wife, Bertha, a teacher and artist, said the fact that he is away from home for only one weekend a month makes the job tolerable for her.

"We’re married 27 years and he has always traveled, but he’s been here on weekends," she said. "So I’m finding this adjustment a little more challenging. But I like the perks: the Judaica and other things he brings home.

"Even though he’s far away, I don’t feel that he’s in a foreign country; it’s like he’s home. There is Shabbat and he can get kosher food there; I feel good about it. … And it’s good for our marriage because I look forward to him coming home."

Bertha Gutman added: "It was always my dream to have a retirement home in Israel rather than in Florida, so maybe this job will be the bridge to that dream."

Izhar Shay, 36, is founder and CEO of Business Layers in Upper Saddle River, N.J., which develops software for Internet business-to-business applications. He said he plans to move to the U.S. this summer from his home in Kadima, just north of Tel Aviv. For three years he’s been making the trip back and forth to Israel.

"I live in a hotel in the U.S. and one night a week in planes," he said. "I go a lot to California and usually stop for a day in New York. I spend two weeks here and two weeks in Israel, sometimes one week. It’s kind of hard to tell where I live. Somebody once told me that home is where the mortgage is."

Shay said he will fly to New York on a 1 a.m. Monday flight after working all day on Sunday in Israel. He works on the plane using his laptop and a spare battery, catches a three- or four-hour nap, and arrives in New York Monday morning. He rents a car and spends Monday working.

"I’ve gotten used to the jet lag, to living being tired," he said.Every two weeks, Shay said he returns to the airport Monday night for a flight to San Francisco. He arrives at 10 p.m. and spends Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday meeting with investors and business partners. At 10:30 p.m. Thursday, he catches the Red Eye to New York and arrives at 6 a.m. Friday, where he spends another full day at work.

"Am I tired?" he asked rhetorically. "Yes."

On Friday night, he is back at Kennedy Airport for a 10:30 flight to Israel, which arrives at 4 a.m. Saturday.

"I’m back to work Sunday after a day with the wife and [three] kids," he said.Traveling so much makes it tricky when deciding what to wear.

"I have to adapt to three weather conditions," he said. "The West Coast is warmer and nice. New York is colder and has uglier weather.

"The West Coast is also mostly informal. You have to adapt to what people there wear. In New York, it’s a suit and tie. In Israel, it’s a T-shirt and sandals or sneakers. On the West Coast, it’s Dockers and nice shirts: no suits or ties."

Conducting business from Israel with people in the U.S. means that a day of work in Israel generally doesn’t end until 1 a.m. because of the time difference.

"For a certain period of time, this schedule is fine," Shay said. "I’m working for the business, but this is a family effort and I like the challenge and the professional accomplishments.

"It’s an expensive effort and hopefully we’ll end up with a big company. And when we move to the States, there will be less commuting to Israel, but I’ll still have to go back and forth to California and to Israel once every six weeks."