Some American Jews sit out recession in Israel

NEW YORK Mon Mar 8, 2010 2:38pm EST

1 of 2. American Jews participating in a World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) programme attend a Hebrew lesson in Jerusalem November 11, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Baz Ratner

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Fed up with the tough job market, some young American Jews are choosing to wait out the recession in Israel, where the government heavily subsidizes their stay while they intern, learn Hebrew or volunteer.

According to Masa, a group that organizes programs to Israel and is partially funded by the Israeli government, participation is up 50 percent since the fall of 2008. Today, Masa has more than 1,500 Americans working in Israel.

Masa's Aaron Goldberg said interest has been rising since the financial crisis, which gave them the idea for their "Israel: A Better Stimulus Plan" marketing campaign.

"Before the economic crisis, there wasn't that impetus to look beyond the traditional career path," said Goldberg, Masa's director of recruitment. "Now there are less jobs and less internships, so this becomes a great way to add something to your portfolio."

Jews are not the only ones seeking their fortune overseas. According to the Institute for International Education, the number of American students interning overseas has doubled since 2000 to more than 13,000 in 2008.

"In tougher times, people are taking a look at how they can develop themselves further," said Paul Lakind, president of The Global Intern, a company in Randolph, New Jersey that arranges internships in Israel, as well as England, China and Italy.

Since its founding, Israel has sought to attract Jewish youth to ensure its survival as a Jewish state. But the recession has proven a good marketing tool.

Rachel Wolfson, 22, graduated last May with a degree in government and English but the Dallas resident could only find work selling shoes. To save money, Wolfson moved back in with her parents, but quickly grew frustrated.

"I feel like an undergraduate degree doesn't mean as much as it used to," she said. "And with the economy the way it is, I just decided to leave America."

Through Masa, Wolfson will intern for the political party New Movement-Meretz. The internship is unpaid, but Wolfson hopes the experience will improve her resume.

Her internship costs about $9,000, including air fare, room and board for five months. Masa gives her a $3,000 grant and suggested she have $300-$500 a month for personal expenses.

ISRAEL SPARED WORST OF ECONOMIC WOES

Unemployment is up in Israel, but the country was spared the economic beating America and many other rich countries took. High-tech and biotech, Israel's top industries, are booming and many global firms now have a presence there, driving demand for college-educated English speakers.

Although Masa's programs mostly focus on helping Jews get reacquainted with Israel, other programs are open to non-Jews, especially those between 20-30 years of age.

Most programs are short-term, meant to immerse young adults in a foreign culture while boosting their professional skills. But some participants have decided to stay on after their internships ended, after receiving job offers.

Elliot Lazarus, a 30-year-old architect from Long Island will soon be relocating to Jerusalem with his wife and 5-year-old son, after spending last fall interning at two Jerusalem architectural firms. When he was initially laid off in December 2008, Lazarus was in despair. But with time, he came to think of his job loss as a new beginning.

"Most people can't just walk away from a six figure salary," he said. "I had to be shaken out of my comfort zone."

Unlike most participants, Lazarus is an orthodox Jews who long had a desire to live in Israel. But he says it took the economic crisis to push him over the edge.

On his blog "Recessioning in Jerusalem" (recessioninginjerusalem.blogspot.com), he ruminates about his decision and more everyday pursuits, like haggling over the price of a haircut or jogging through the Old City at dusk.

For some, the appeal of Israel is religious. For others it's practical: life is cheaper there. But overwhelmingly, participants say they are surprised by Israel's work culture, which encourages flexibility and a better life-work balance.

"It was never a problem to ask my boss if I could come in late or leave early," recalls 27-year-old Rachael Freedman who interned at a Tel Aviv architecture firm after losing her job in 2008. "It's definitely more relaxed."

Since returning, Freedman has been hired back by her old firm, but Israel also left an indelible mark on her.

"I think about it every day," said Freedman, who considers herself a secular Jew. "I wake up thinking of Israel, at work I think about it, and hope to be there in the nearer future. There is just something about it that feels like home."

(Editing by Mark Egan and Alan Elsner)

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