Like many in the small enclave of observant Jews living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Cheryl Nayowitz’s life was comfortable. She shared an apartment with three small children and her husband Eyal, a financial analyst. She taught yoga classes and could walk to her part-time job as a Jewish educator at New York University. Her children attended school at a nearby yeshiva.
But everything changed after the sudden loss of her father, Sheldon Jay Bausk, about a year and a half ago. “You just realize life is short. If you want to do things, you have to do them. Nobody knows how and when they’re going to die,” said Nayowitz.
It motivated her to act on a plan she’d had since she was teenager: to live in Israel. This year, instead of celebrating Rosh Hashanah on the Lower East Side, the Nayowitz family will celebrate in their new home in Yad Binyamin, Israel, a community of about 800 families located 15 miles from the coastal city of Ashdod.
The Nayowitz family is part of a growing number of Jews from the New York metropolitan area who are moving to Israel, or making “aliyah,” a Hebrew word that translates as “ascent.” Last year, 1,479 Jews from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut immigrated to Israel, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that sponsors flights and helps Jewish immigrants settle in Israel. This is a significant increase from 2004, when Nefesh B’Nefesh assisted 441 Jews from the area who were moving to Israel.
Even as the reality of armed conflict with Iran seems more plausible and countries across the Middle East continue to face turmoil, more people are moving to Israel. According to recent statistics released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, 16,892 immigrants arrived in Israel last year, up about 1.5 percent from the previous year. Another recent study from the Hebrew University found that although the Jewish population in the world has grown, the Jewish population outside Israel has decreased for the first time this year. The study attributed the decline to immigration to Israel and intermarriage with non-Jews.
Throughout much of the country’s history, waves of immigrants fled to Israel under duress or because they had nowhere else to go. European Jews arrived in Israel in the late ’40s and ’50s after the Holocaust and many Jews from the Middle East and North Africa were expelled from their home countries in the ’50s and ’60s. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left the former Soviet Union from the ’70s to ’90s after new trade treaties allowed them to obtain exit visas. In the early 1990s, the Israeli government sponsored the airlift of the entire ancient Jewish community in Ethiopia.
By comparison, immigration from North America, where Jews have been integrated into mainstream society for generations, has traditionally been modest.
Why leave now?
Jamie Geller is a television producer turned cookbook author who used to live in Monsey, in Rockland County, N.Y. Just as the popularity of her “Joy of Kosher” show and website seemed to be reaching new heights, she moved to Israel with her husband Nachum and her five children on Aug. 13.
“It was a spiritual decision, not a professional one,” said Geller, who was not raised as an observant Jew but became more devout later in life. She said she’s been thinking of moving to Israel for years in order to be close to the Jewish spiritual homeland.
“It was never the right time until we made it the right time. We kept deferring the decision,” she said.
Geller has documented her entire immigration process with an online video series called “The Joy of Aliyah.” She said that she’s confident she can manage her business, the Kosher Media Network, from a home office in Israel but plans to return to the U.S. for business meetings every two to three months.
For others, the decision to move is not motivated by faith. Sharon Udasin, 27, grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey and moved to Jerusalem in 2010, for distinctly non-spiritual reasons. Udasin maintained a blog about her trip entitled “Sacred and Insane.” Udasin now works as an English-language reporter for The Jerusalem Post.
Why “Sacred And Insane?” Udasin answered in a post on her blog from August, 2010. “Well, because Jerusalem is sacred, and most would agree that a secular immigrant moving to Jerusalem is just plain insane.”
Learning to Live with Less
Cheryl Nayowitz says that before leaving, friends warned her that life in Israel would be difficult compared to the U.S. Her husband Eyal, a financial analyst, has had several job interviews since arriving in Israel but remains unemployed. Cheryl, on the other hand, found part-time work researching art for an online company.
She says that friends have told her that a middle class family in Israel can sustain itself on about 15,000 to 20,000 Shekels per month, about the equivalent of $50,000 to $60,000 per year. But in Israel, where the average income is equivalent to about $30,000 per year, making that kind of money can be difficult.
For Jamie Geller, the transition has been even more drastic. She traded in a 3,400-square-foot Rockland County home, a half-acre of property and a state-of-the-art kitchen for a house in Ramat Beit Shemesh, about 19 miles west of Jerusalem, that she estimates to be about half the size. Her backyard is a barely bigger than an average one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan.
But hopefully learning to live with less won’t overshadow the families’ first High Holy Day season in Israel. Geller is looking forward to celebrating her first Rosh Hashanah with her extended family there. (She said she has over 50 second cousins living in Israel.) And the Nayowitz family will share festive meals with their new neighbors in Yad Binyamin.
But Geller, whose career revolves around food, has discovered that she won’t be able to enjoy some of her favorite food items in Israel.
“I’m starting a revolution,” she said. “There’s no Greek yogurt and I want to bring it here.”
The September episode of MetroFocus premieres Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. on WLIW, Sept. 20 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN, and Sept. 25 at 10 p.m. on NJ TV.