Uriel Heilman - Commuting the Israel-Diaspora Divide
Commuting the Israel-Diaspora Divide

Commuting the Israel-Diaspora Divide

They're doctors and dentists and lawyers and entrepreneurs. Almost all are family men, and they tend to be in their 40s or 50s.

They arrive late at night-usually Saturdays and Sundays-some in car pools, others via shared cabs, a few on their own. They move quickly through the masses of people at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, skipping the long lines at check-in because they come with no luggage save a laptop bag or briefcase, zipping through passport control using the machines reserved for frequent travelers. They regroup in the elite King David Club, a VIP travelers' club, chatting over glasses of wine and swapping advice about which sleeping pills work best for the long flight across the sea.

Anticipation mounts before they board the plane, when the flight attendants call the names of the frequent fliers with coach seats lucky enough to have scored a free upgrade to first or business class. Once they're on board, the chatter quickly dies down and the men find their optimal sleeping positions for the night over the Atlantic-their last chance for some stress-free quietude before an intense week ahead.

These are Israel's immigrant road warriors-people who have chosen to move with their families to Israel but who, for one reason or another, have held onto their jobs in the Diaspora. Some champion this lifestyle as a model for those whose careers are the only thing that stands in the way of their living the Zionist dream. Others keep their double life a closely guarded secret, preferring not to call too much attention to the exceptions that have been made for them. They don't want to stir resentment among colleagues, upset their bosses, or surprise clients who think they live in-country.

"It's great, which is why I don't tell too many people. I don't want to jinx it," said one such commuter, Stuart, who, like many people interviewed for this story, asked that his full name be kept in confidence. A psychiatrist from the heavily English-speaking, tony Tel Aviv suburb of Ra'anana who works in New York, Stuart has been doing the commute for seven years, ever since he made aliyah with his family from Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"It's more complicated than just falling into it. You have to create it," Stuart said. "This kind of lifestyle is not for everyone. But for me, I love it. I kind of love leaving and love coming home."

Overall, estimates of the number of regular commuters vary widely, but it seems there are at least 150 to 200. In Ra'anana, there are dozens. A handful of women are among the commuters, and there are a few Israelis too, but for the most part the profile is the hard-working, immigrant male from America or Europe. There are a variety of templates for those who commute the Israel-Diaspora divide. Among those who work in London, it's common to spend four days every workweek there and the weekends at home with the family in Israel. For those with U.S. jobs, commuters more typically try to split their time, working two consecutive weeks overseas and spending the remaining part of the month in Israel. Some telecommute when they're in Israel. For others, Israel time is reserved solely for family, and it's only when they deplane at Kennedy or LAX or Heathrow airports that they become work horses again.

Mark Hess has been living this itinerant lifestyle ever since he moved to Israel in 2002, more than two decades after beginning his career as a lawyer. A partner at Fox Rothschild, Hess spends about 10 days every month working out of his Los Angeles office. The rest of the time he tries to do his job from his home in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. That often means starting the workday in Israel in the early afternoon and finishing as late as 3 a.m. He and his wife have seven sons, some of whom have families of their own and live in the United States. Their youngest is in high school in Israel.

"It's definitely difficult," Hess said. "For most of my career, I did virtually no traveling. To go from that to a situation where you're gone almost half of every month definitely puts a strain on the marriage and the relationship with the kids and all that."

Like practically all these commuters, Hess tries to squeeze as much work as possible into his time stateside, meeting clients for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and often putting in 15-hour days at the office. At night, Hess crashes at his mother's house in the L.A. area; many of the trans-Atlantic commuters stay with family when they're back in the United States.

Jordan Alter, 47, a dentist who lives in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh but has a practice in New Jersey, said one of the bonuses of his lifestyle-12 consecutive days in the United States per month-is that he sees his mother, who lives in New Jersey, more than he did before he moved to Israel. The one weekend per month that he's away from his wife and four boys in Israel, ages nine to 22, he spends with his mother and brother in America.

"The first couple of years were a major challenge," Alter said. "As you get settled in and you're in the right community, with the right friends and the right support, it becomes manageable. It's not the perfect way of life, but I don't think anyone has figured out what the perfect way of life is."

The motivation behind this unusual lifestyle choice is two-fold. First, there's the desire to live in Israel. Most of the people who have adopted the commute are religious Zionists who started their careers and families in the Diaspora but came to the realization that they couldn't postpone their dream of living in Israel if they wanted the chance to raise their children in the Jewish state.

"I think the reward of being able to live in Israel and have the family there and the kids grow up in Israel is worth the sacrifice," Hess said. "I had wanted to live in Israel probably since I visited Israel as a teenager."

Then there's the need-or desire-to keep the foreign job and salary. In this rarefied community of senior business executives, accomplished attorneys, and respected physicians, some of whom have built their U.S. businesses or practices from scratch, working in the Israeli professional world is almost unfathomable.

"It's strictly economics," said one emergency room doctor who flies to America for shift work, doing almost a month's work of shifts in 10 or 11 days. "If I could find something that even comes close, I would stay in Israel in a heartbeat.

"That's the unfortunate side of it," said the doctor, who asked that his name be withheld. "It makes me want to tear my hair out to think that Israel is still so backward that these people couldn't be put to work with competitive salaries. They make ridiculous salary offers in Israel. That's why the whole commuting exists."

For large, religious families, moving to Israel also saves on day school tuition costs and health insurance premiums. In Israel, both are practically free.

It's not just the money. Lawyers who have worked hard to achieve partner status in America come to Israel and get offered jobs as early-career associates. Doctors and dentists who want to work in Israel have to take time off to study for qualifying exams in a language they haven't mastered, then work in Hebrew. Some simply immigrate too late in life to start over in a new job in Israel.

"A lot of professionals that come from New York are not treated with respect," said one investment banker who asked not to be identified. "I don't think the Israelis in my field are so professional or knowledgeable, but they think they are. In one interview I had here in Israel, I was lectured by someone who didn't know what he was talking about. I don't think that was an outlier; I think that is a theme."

Ilan Preiss, a cosmetic dentist originally from London and father of three who has been doing the commute for two years, said that had he wanted to take a job in Israel when he first made aliyah, he would have had to take off a considerable amount of time to study for Israeli qualifying exams.

But at 35, Preiss is younger than most of the commuters, and he said he plans eventually to make his career in Israel. Though he makes about 40 round trips to London every year, he's already taken his Israeli exams and is now trying to build up his practice in Israel.

Despite the hardship, Preiss says it's worth it. "I had a desire to live in Israel and still lead a certain quality of life. I wasn't willing to compromise on either," he said.

These commuters' children may quickly become Israeli-going to Israeli schools, speaking Hebrew, and getting inducted into the Israel Defense Forces-but their families tend to live clustered in expatriate enclaves in places like Beit Shemesh, Ra'anana, Modi'in, and Jerusalem where English is the lingua franca. Some purposely avoid becoming Israeli citizens for tax or other bureaucratic reasons.

Some, like Preiss, who works three or four days per week in London, say their family life has benefited because they're better able to focus on family when at home in Israel.

"I get to spend more quality time with the family than I did when I was in London because I don't work Friday, Shabbat, Sunday, and Monday," Preiss said. "I usually have a free day with my wife on Sunday, because it's not a working day in England. So from one side it's very positive. But when things happen during the week and I'm not here, it's more pressure on my wife."

For some families, the strain is almost overwhelming. There are missed burst pipes and kids' plays, trans-Atlantic arguments and moments of intimacy that don't translate well by telephone.

"Lots of things happen in life that you're not there to experience, and that certainly creates friction and tension," said Geoff Rochwarger, CEO of IDT Energy, an electric and gas supplier.

Rochwarger has five children, the oldest of whom was about nine when the family made aliyah. Rochwarger is away every second week, but he makes sure always to make it home for Shabbat. Though he's lived in Israel for only five years, he's been a commuter for about 15.

He missed the time his eldest daughter left Israel for Austria to play in a softball game for Israel's national girls' team. He's trying to give bar mitzvah lessons to his son, whose celebration will be on Chanukah, but his frequent absences make the Torah study difficult.

"Telephone calls or e-mails or Facebook don't really do it," said Rochwarger, who acknowledged that talk about the possibility of quitting the commuting life comes up often. "Sometimes my wife initiates the conversation; sometimes I do," he said. "When the husband commutes, the strain on the children and the wife is very difficult."

Divorce is rare but not unheard of among the commuters. More commonly, the commute doesn't work, and the family moves back to the United States. In a few cases, the primary breadwinner takes a job in Israel.

One New York lawyer who did the commute for a year when his family was on sabbatical in Israel said he came to love the travel itself.

"Once you habituate to it, you get on a plane for 10 to 12 hours, your Blackberry stops, your phone stops, it's very calm, very relaxing," said the lawyer, who asked not to be identified. "I actually began to look forward to the travel time. You did what you wanted to do. Nobody could call you, nobody could reach you. You had enough time to work, eat, relax, and sleep. It was great."

There is a real sense of fraternity among those who do the commute, they say. "For some people, it's actually been a way of reconnecting with friends and peers from college and high school who have found that they, too, made aliyah," Rochwarger said. "There's an e-mail that goes out on a weekly basis to try to organize car pools or share cabs to the airport."

At the airport itself, there's a whole ritual, from the nods and waves at check-in to the schmoozing in the club lounge to the science of figuring out which seats are the best on the plane.

Picture George Clooney in "Up in the Air"-except these elite-level fliers wear yarmulkes and have gaggles of kids back home.

Once the nighttime flight begins, it's all about one thing: sleep.

"The people who commute and are working in the States and are not with their families look to squeeze every second they can in terms of working," Rochwarger said. "That flight to the States is the last opportunity for a sound, long sleep before the marathon begins: the workweek in the United States."

SIDEBAR: Telecommuting the Divide

Not everyone who wants to live in Israel but draw an American salary has to get on a plane to do so. There's a growing community of immigrants to Israel-and native-born Israelis-who telecommute to jobs overseas. They are enabled by technologies developed over the last couple of decades that give employees the tools they need to work far away from the office.

There are teachers who use Skype, the Internet telephone service, to video chat and to instruct Hebrew school classes in far-flung communities in the United States. There are lawyers who do the same work in their bedroom that they used to do in the boardrooms of skyscrapers in Midtown Manhattan. There are radiologists who review digitized CAT scans, MRIs, and X-rays from patients in hospitals across the United States. Nearly all have U.S. phone numbers that ring in Israel, thanks to voice-over IP technology.

One former telecommuting lawyer called his experience the "Teaneck Zionist dream," after the heavily Jewish upscale New Jersey suburb where passions for both Zionism and material luxuries run strong. "I was living the Teaneck Zionist dream, working on a fat American salary and living in Israel," he said. "It was great."

When Orit and Jan Wimpfheimer-now the parents of eight-planned their move to Israel a decade ago, they thought they'd both transition into Israeli jobs. But each ended up creating outsourcing careers in Israel. Jan, a lawyer who switched over to an Israeli law firm when he first moved to Israel, now works for Outside Counsel Solutions, a U.S. law firm that has lawyers in Jerusalem and New York who provide U.S. legal services.

For Orit, a radiologist, the move to Israel coincided with the development of technology that enabled the transmission of images of sufficiently high resolution so that a radiologist looking at a computer screen could detect cancerous tumors. In the old days, only an actual film would do.

Orit tried out the technology, tested hospitals, and launched a business. Today, she, her partner, and a handful of part-time, U.S. board-certified radiologists living in Israel work the overnight shift for more than a dozen U.S. hospitals-which means their shifts start at 6 a.m. Israel time.

"My telecommuting has very much enhanced my family time," said Orit, whose eight children range in age from 18 to two-and-a-half months. She was interviewed by phone while bathing her newborn baby. Multitasking comes with the job, she said.

"I love working from home. I love working in close proximity to my children and still being a very respected physician at the same time," she said. "What I had to sacrifice was being in a hospital setting with conferences, interacting with colleagues. I work pretty much on my own in my house. There's a little interaction on the telephone, but it's not the same as peer-to-peer. But the benefits far outweigh the negatives."

For telecommuters, the time difference can be a blessing and a curse.

"It's midnight and I just finished my client calls," said David Borowich, who started out in Israel a year ago working for a specialty finance company called the RAI Group. "Every night, four nights in a row, you can't go out, you can't meet friends, you don't have dinner with your family. You're working from 4 p.m. till midnight or as late as 2 a.m."

Robert Harow, 40, who telecommutes to America for the biotech company Zoticon Bioventures, said he tries to stagger his workday so he can see his four kids, clearing a gap in the evening for time with the family before resuming work late into the night. He says it's worth it.

"I wanted to live in Israel. My kids speak Hebrew, they live with different values and in a different culture than in the States," Harow said. "And I was able to achieve that goal with a nest egg that I can try to continue to try and build in Israel."

© Uriel Heilman 2010. All rights reserved.