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The pioneers

Jerusalem Post Magazine

Gil Hoffman
(April 23, 2000)

Faced with a dearth of immigrants from affluent Western countries, the Jewish Agency is pitching a mix of hi-tech and ideology that it hopes will attract the cream of Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

David Teten will never drain a swamp or grow a crop, yet he considers himself a pioneer.

The 29-year-old Harvard and Yale graduate, who decided to officially immigrate six months ago after moving here in the summer of 1998, says he left behind a promising job at the hi-tech-focused New York and Silicon Valley-based investment banking firm Bear Stearns “because I wanted to help build up the state – and because I’m somewhat crazy.”

Now the founder and CEO of the successful Internet financial start-up company Goldfire, Teten is part of a growing group of affluent young professionals who decided to leave promising hi-tech careers in America to have a more fulfilling Jewish life – and the same promising hi-tech career – in Israel.

“All of us can earn more money at much lower risk in our countries of origin, so in a sense we are all pioneers,” Teten says. “In the early days, Israel needed pioneers to till the fields. Nowadays it needs people to help build the economy.”

While the possibility of maintaining a comparable standard of living in Israel’s booming hi-tech sector made the decision easier, Teten says he would still be in New York if he did not feel a strong Jewish connection to the country.

Focusing on potential immigrants with Teten’s combination of technology and ideology is part of the Jewish Agency’s new strategy for attracting immigrants from affluent Western countries, according to Leah Golan, who heads the Agency’s Western Aliya Department.

Instead of focusing on ideology alone, potential immigrants are now being told about opportunities for economic advancement in Israel, as well as the traditional sales pitch about the benefits of living in a Jewish state.

Talk of the dangers of antisemitism and assimilation are being abandoned in favor of positive messages of helping the state meet its economic potential.

“People need to be given the message that Israel is not only a place to go in case of an emergency – it’s a place with opportunities and development,” Golan said.

“But at the same time, they need something more. Without ideology, people won’t come even if they have the greatest contract with Intel.”

TO SELL that message, the Agency has started a number of programs that give potential immigrants a taste of what the state has to offer.

In a strategy the Agency calls “aliya in stages,” potential immigrants are brought here through a combination of job fairs, training courses and internship programs that aim to show that aliya can be practical.

More than 200 people have come for two- to six- month subsidized internships sponsored by the Agency in a number of fields. These programs, geared towards university students, give them a chance to break into their professions in Israel.

The Agency also sponsors a seven-month World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program in Arad for college graduates who study Hebrew and learn about Israel while being assisted with job placement.

For those interested in working in hi-tech who make aliya with degrees from North America, the Agency is offering an academic retraining program this summer which offers families a five-month stay at a Ra’anana absorption center where they will study in ulpan and take a course in software quality assurance, technical writing or Microsoft-certified systems engineering.

The program, sponsored by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, guarantees automatic job placement to those who pass the course and help finding a job for those who don’t.

“The programs deal with the reality of Israel and help make starry-eyed ideology into something real,” says Akiva Werber, who runs the Agency’s North American desk and has just returned from recruiting at Israeli hi-tech job fairs in San Francisco, Boston, and New York.

“We’re not staying in the offices anymore and waiting for people to come. We’re saying ‘let’s go get ’em’ and offering opportunities to people who want to make aliya but are afraid to follow through.”

IN AN effort to tackle the shortage of some 3,000 engineers in Israel, the Agency and the Immigration and Absorption Ministry co-sponsor job fairs in many Western countries with companies like Motorola, IBM, and ECI Telecom.

The agencies obtain resumes in advance, so the companies can interview candidates and hire them on the spot.

Teten has also done his share to increase the flow of professionals to Israel, both by recruiting employees for Goldfire from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, and Salomon Brothers, and by founding a program that brings MBA students and recent graduates from America’s top business schools for 10 days of touring, meeting Israeli business leaders and taking classes in Jewish studies.

The aim of the Jewish MBA Jerusalem Fellowships, Teten says, is to give future Jewish leaders a taste of the Israeli employment scene, while at the same time getting them more in touch with their heritage.

The program fits Teten’s belief that having a hi-tech scene in Israel is helpful, but what really will increase Western aliya is increasing Jewish knowledge and pride.

“Israel’s hi-tech explosion facilitates aliya by making the country wealthier and by providing excellent professional opportunities, but Israel still has a long way to go before it is as wealthy and convenient a place to live as the USA,” Teten says.

“Even if tomorrow Israel were as wealthy as Hong Kong, most Jews still would not make aliya, because they lack a connection to Israel.”

Teten’s theory is backed by Agency statistics, which indicate that the peak years of aliya from the West were the early 1970s when Jewish pride swelled worldwide after the Six Day War.

Aliya from North America reached a record 8,122 in 1971, compared with only 1,809 Americans and Canadians who made the jump in 1998 and 1,507 in 1999, indicating that aliya is based more on ideology than on a high standard of living.

Agency officials explain the recent low figures of Western aliya by pointing out that they do not include those who change their status after arriving under the aliya-in-stages plan. Counting those olim would increase the numbers by 700 in 1998 and 600 in 1999, Golan said, while admitting that “we’re still not meeting our potential.”

DAVID Reubner, the former CEO of ECI Telecom, Israel’s largest telecommunications company, immigrated from North America in 1969 and started the company in 1970. He was one of the first to come because of the combination of ideology and hi-tech.

Reubner believes the same formula that brought him can be used as a catalyst for bringing aliya numbers back up. He believes the fact that the Israeli hi-tech industry is one of the leading in the world can be used to help people who already have the ideology to make the decision to come.

“Without ideology, it’s difficult to attract olim, but there are people who would like to come for ideological reasons who worry about their careers. Those are the people we should try to get to come,” Reubner says.

“The dream of every young engineer is using a start-up company to become a millionaire. Israel can compete in that.”

The dream is to attract more and more young, technical-minded English-speakers to Israel every year, hi-tech industry insiders say, although no exact statistics are available.

Avi Operman, a 24-year-old Yeshiva University graduate from New York who works as an analyst at Giza Group, a Tel Aviv-based venture capital fund and investment bank, said the native Israelis at Giza jokingly refer to the disproportionate number of young English-speaking kippa-wearers prominent in the hi-tech scene as “the kippa-net.”

“Every month more come in, because it’s a chance to come here and make this place livable for people with Western standards,” Operman said.

Israeli entrepreneur Yossi Vardi, founder of the Internet company Mirabilis (ICQ), which was sold to America Online for $407 million in 1998, recently told The Jerusalem Post that he believes Western immigrants – “especially young kippa-wearers from the US who live in Jerusalem” – control Israeli hi-tech.

Operman, who fits most of Vardi’s categories but lives in Givat Shmuel, denied this. “We stick out, but I don’t feel we control it. The good ol’ boy network still runs things in Israel,” he says.

“The hi-tech scene is really a nice synthesis of Israelis who know the country and Americans who know the American way of conducting business.”

KNESSET Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Committee chair MK Naomi Blumenthal said at a recent committee meeting that Israel should make a goal of absorbing a million immigrants from North America.

“If Zionism doesn’t pull enough people,” she says, “then the quality of life Jewishly and culturally should. Upper-middle-class life here is much better because it’s more interesting, dynamic and substantive.”

Immigration and Absorption Minister Yael (Yuli) Tamir said Israel needs to become “a more open and pluralistic industrialized society” to attract a significant increase in aliya from affluent countries.

“In order to bring in immigrants, you need to reform the society, to change the atmosphere and make it more attractive,” Tamir said.

“Rather than show Jewish Agency movies [that idealize the state], Israel needs to appeal to the potential immigrants with the reality. I am eager to prove to them that there is a comparable quality of life in Israel, not measured only in how much you earn but in a more involved, welcoming society.”

Regarding hi-tech, Tamir said: “I hope young people in Silicon Valley will see Israel as an option. We need to be aware that, at the end of the day, these are the people who can contribute and help us push Israeli society forward into the 21st century.”

That kind of statement is music to the ears of people like David Teten, who moved here to do just that.

“There’s a kind of pioneer spirit,” Teten said. “Americans feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Imagine how much Israel could improve if a quarter million Americans came.”