In Israel, Older Olim Face Ageism Hurdles


Jerusalem — When Mike Diamond immigrated to Israel from South Africa a year and a half ago he didn’t expect a job to fall in his lap. But even though he was prepared for some rejection, Diamond was still shocked by the reception he received from recruiters and potential employers.

“I spoke to a lot of people, to employment agencies,” Diamond, who held a high-level position in a pharmaceutical company back in Cape Town, said of his Israeli job search.

“They all told me the same thing: that I had two strikes against me. My age and the language.”

Diamond was 58 at the time and although he once spent five years living on a kibbutz, “I can talk in Hebrew [only] about cows and tractors,” he said with a laugh. “That wouldn’t matter if I was working for an international company where fluent English is an asset, but no one even gave me a chance. After four employment agencies I gave up.”

Unable to find a job as an executive, Diamond, who lives in the upscale city of Ra’anana, north of Tel Aviv, now cleans houses for a living.

“I wasn’t about to sit on my backside. I’m a marathon runner, I’m physically fit,” Diamond said, “I have a queue of 20 to 30 clients and I’m looking to start a small house-cleaning company utilizing the services of other immigrants. All I need is some investment money.”

A few weeks ago, Diamond launched a lively discussion about job hunting and age discrimination over the age of 50 on an English-language user list called Job Networking in Israel.

The responses, from new and veteran immigrants and a handful of native Israelis, revealed just how difficult it can be for older unemployed Israelis, especially immigrants with less-than-stellar Hebrew, to find satisfying, decent-paying employment.

The discussion was both enlightening and potentially worrisome, given the many 40- and 50-somethings from around the world who are expected to make aliyah this summer with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency and other aliyah organizations.

Benny Fefferman, head of the planning and economy division of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, said that new immigrants enter a job market already saturated with young, eager workers.

“We know it’s harder for older workers, who are competing with younger university graduates who are willing to work for less money,” Fefferman, 61, told The Jewish Week. “There’s a bias against employing older workers, who employers believe aren’t as flexible or creative as younger people. Sure discrimination is against the law, but that doesn’t stop employers from doing it.”

The ministry has a department that deals with complaints of ageism.

Fefferman said statistics showing that just 5.4 percent of men aged 45 to 54 were unemployed in 2008 (compared with 11.9 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds, and 4.3 percent for those over 55) could be misleading.

“That the number isn’t higher is due to the fact that many older people give up on finding work. They lack the tools to search for work,” Fefferman said.

Add to this the fact that the Israeli job market cannot keep up with the number of potential workers (an additional 2 percent every year, compared to 0.5 percent in the U.S.), “and it becomes difficult, especially for older workers,” Fefferman acknowledged.

Fefferman advises potential olim to study the Israeli job market before moving to Israel and to learn as much Hebrew as possible.

That’s also the advice of Rachel Berger, director of employment at Nefesh B’Nefesh, who said that “90 to 95 percent” of the people who immigrate with her organization are employed a year after they arrive in Israel.

While the intensive career counseling and networking opportunities provided by NBN are vital to the immigrants’ job search, Berger said, so too is the adventurous spirit most olim bring with them to Israel.

“If you decide to make aliyah, you’re saying you’re willing to take a chance and go out of your comfort zone because you believe you have the ability to make this work.”

Yet even the most optimistic, hardworking immigrants sometimes find it very difficult to find a job, especially if they’re over 45 or 50.

“If there’s a 25-year-old and a 55-year-old who are equally skilled, the employer may go with the older one’s experience. On the other hand, the employer often doesn’t want to pay for that experience. But it’s skills and Hebrew, more than age, that usually determine the outcome,” Berger said.

That hasn’t been the case for Uri Hirsch, a licensed English teacher who was denied employment solely due to his age. He is an energetic 70-year-old.

Recalling his long job search, which started three years ago when he returned to Israel after a long absence, Hirsch said, “There was a shortage of teachers. I was qualified. I lived close to the schools looking for teachers. But they refused to hire me. Some supervisor at the Ministry of Education told me the cutoff age is 67.

Although Hirsch now has three part-time jobs, including one as a private English teacher, it irks him that “there are instances where kids aren’t learning English in school because there is no English teacher. And here I am, available.”

Ron Machol, a job recruiter, who also serves as an adviser at Israemploy, an online job listing, is convinced that there is no more ageism in Israel than there is in the U.S.

“I don’t mean to minimize the challenges in making aliyah and finding work … but my experience tells me they are not insurmountable.”

Hana Levi-Julian, a psychotherapist in Jerusalem, said Nefesh B’Nefesh “does a good job” of warning potential olim of ageism in the Israeli workplace, but that some immigrants to Israel are nonetheless “unprepared” for the challenge of finding a job over 40 or 50.

“They’re stunned to discover the salaries they thought would meet the needs of their family can be as low as 25 percent of what they were making back home, yet their expenses are almost the same.” Levi-Julian said.

Devora Renert, an attractive, vivacious immigrant from Manhattan, has spent the past year improving her Hebrew, to the point that she is confident that she will find a job soon. What frustrates her is the lack of cultural and singles events geared toward people over 40.

“I was planning on going to a Fourth of July barbecue until I noticed at the end it was for people in their 20s and 30s,” Renert said, stroking her dog, Cheetah, in her Jerusalem living room. “It made me feel excluded.”

Renert wishes that the Jewish organizations that pride themselves on outreach would reach out to people like her — idealistic immigrants who came to Israel out of love and a desire to contribute to society.

“We’re people who made the major decision to give up our homes and lives to move to Israel. All we want are opportunities to meet each other,” Renert said.

Even with the challenges, older olim say they do not regret their decision to move to Israel.