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The Newest Israelis: Recent Immigrants Reflect on Their Choices and Lives in Israel

From Chile, Russia, and the United States, four families that recently immigrated to Israel tell Davar what they left behind and what they found here | "Each person has to choose which country's problems to take. We want Israel’s problems"

משפחת רויטמן (צילום: כדיה לוי)
The Roitman family moved to Israel from Santiago, Chile. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
By David Tversky

In Chile they experienced antisemitism, in Moscow, they faced political oppression, and in the United States they “survived Trump.” For these new immigrants to Israel, the difficulties of learning a new language and facing a low standard of living are worth it, balanced out by the sense of security for their children, the community of the kibbutz, the view, and the Jewish society.

“Twenty percent of the people we meet tell us, 'Why the hell did you come? We're just trying to leave,'" said Zvi Feifel, who immigrated from Chicago, "but 80% say, 'Yes, life here is hard, but we wouldn't want to be anywhere else.’”

From September 2022 through September 2023, 63,956 people made aliyah to Israel, the Hebrew word for Jewish immigration to the state. The largest number came from Russia with 47,561 immigrants. Ukraine followed with 3,280, and the United States ranked third, with 2,395 new immigrants. The following is the immigration stories of four families.

From Santiago to Modi’in

Dalit (33) and Vigal Roitman (34) immigrated from Santiago, Chile, with their children Amitai (6) and Shira (5). Since the end of 2022 they have been living in Modi'in.

"Chile has become much more politically unstable," Yigal Roitman explained of the family's decision to move to Israel. "Before the coronavirus, there was an acute social crisis. The president is very pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, and there are very antisemitic leadership forces that receive a lot of support. Many Jews started thinking about what to do."

Dalit added that "for me, it was the desire to be in Israel, to raise children in a Jewish country. Not to be different from the environment."

Yigal elaborated that Chile has high assimilation rates, with 50% of Jews marrying non-Jews. He and Dalit were concerned for their children’s ability to maintain a strong Jewish identity, since Santiago’s religious Jewish community is made up of only about 300 families.

But life in Israel has its own challenges.

"It's hard for children,” Dalit said. “They don't understand what is wanted of them. My daughter said to me: 'How do I say I need to go to the bathroom?' Nobody speaks Spanish.”

Yigal added, "When you live in a place for 30 years, you know the social network, the slang, the culture. I was always the one who gave advice, who helped, the person who was called to fix everything—an important person in the community. And here you are in a new place and don't know the language. But I see the last year as self-learning. As a journey."

The family also had to acclimate to a dramatic change in their standard of living. In Chile, the Roitmans enjoyed luxuries such as a housekeeper, two cars, and family vacations. Now, living in the expensive city of Modi’in on Yigal’s single salary from remote work in Santiago, the budget is significantly tighter. Even though they are concerned by the sudden lack of financial security, the family is happier than they had presumed.

“We thought that when we arrived we would lose things and be less happy, but that is not the case,” Yigal said. “There is more freedom here. … In Chile, the streets are dangerous. Here the children can take public transit alone and you don't have to worry about them all the time. That doesn’t exist in Chile. You don't need two cars here because the distances are shorter. You can do everything right here in the neighborhood: shopping, sports, or see a doctor."

Whilst struggling to adjust to the short weekend, Yigal appreciates that Israelis prioritize quality family time, and how men take a more active role in their children’s upbringing. Whereas in Santiago the Roitmans employed a nanny, here they feel they have enough meaningful time to be with their children.

The Roitman family. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
The Roitman family. (Photo: Kadia Levy)

The Roitmans arrived in Israel just in time to witness the significant political crisis of the judicial reforms. However, Dalit said they are not deterred.

"We are coming from such a severe economic-political crisis that this is not comparable,” she explained. “I am only worried about the security issue, the attacks, and the fact that my children will have to go to war. Right now I am mostly repressing these worries. What is difficult for me and what I hate about the current situation is that Jews are fighting Jews.”

Yigal added, "In Chile, in recent years, they simply burned down the country. In Santiago, thirty-five metro stations burned completely in one night, entire buildings of tenants, and insurance companies refused to compensate. We have no position regarding what is happening here because we are too new and do not understand the source of the debate, but it's nice that I finally care about what's happening where I live, and I don't have to be a third party in some country, where you're only affected, but you don't care."

Dalit said she feels privileged to be in Israel, where Jewish children of many different ethnicities can play together in the local park.

“I am sure that Israelis have many reasons to argue against the state; it is not a perfect country, but it’s pretty good,” she said.

“Here every Jew can be whoever he wants, whatever he wants, and that's fine,” Yigal added. “This is the difference between Israel and any other place. I hope for my family that everyone will find their own way to be a Jew and fight the evil urge to fight other Jews for how they live their Jewish lives."

From Moscow to Kfar Ruppin

Leonid Lugbin moved to Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin from Moscow. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
Leonid Lugbin moved to Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin from Moscow. (Photo: Kadia Levy)

Leonid Lugbin (37) moved to Israel with his wife and two children from Moscow as part of "Bayit Rishon B’Moledet," a program of the Jewish Agency and the Kibbutz Movement. Since February, the family has been living in Kfar Ruppin, a kibbutz in northern Israel.

"We started thinking about Aliyah during 2020," Lugbin told Davar. “The situation in Russia has worsened greatly in terms of political freedom. We were especially concerned about the future of our children. When conscription for the Russian army began, we went to Uzbekistan. We debated whether to try to get to Germany or the United States, which are suitable for us in terms of the future of our careers. But even when we were still in Russia it became clear to us that Israel is the country that best accepts new immigrants."

The Lugbin family chose to begin their new life in Israel on a kibbutz, since it provided a supportive education system for their children and allowed Leonid to study Hebrew for free. He also noted that they found warm and welcoming new relationships on the kibbutz much more easily than they would have in a big city.

Their daughter also enjoys more freedom on the Kibbutz. “Our girl likes school,” Lugbin said. “She enjoys it a lot and she has friends. The neighbors in the kibbutz help her learn Hebrew. In Moscow, the thought never crossed my mind of allowing her to walk alone in the street, because it is very dangerous. Here she moves around freely and I am calm."

Leonid Lugbin. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
Leonid Lugbin. (Photo: Kadia Levy)

The isolation of the kibbutz is a challenge. Leonid drives an hour and a half to Haifa each day for work, and the nearest city to the kibbutz, Beit She’an, is very religious and does not provide well for the Lugbin’s secular lifestyle. But Lugbin said he is used to living in a peripheral town in Russia, and they have made friends from Hebrew classes who live in a nearby kibbutz.

The family is considering staying on the kibbutz, as they enjoy the supportive communal environment and have been invited to stay for at least a year.

Lugbin is slowly adjusting to the political reality in Israel. “We arrived at the end of February and after a few days I read an article about an event that took place in the Knesset with shouting and drama, which at first I perceived as unusual and significant, but after a few more days I realized that these sort of events occur here on a daily basis,” he said.

"Shortly after we arrived, I saw on Telegram that about 200,000 people participated in the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and the police arrested 40 demonstrators and several police officers were injured. In Russia, a demonstration of this magnitude would have ended with hundreds of people arrested who would have been imprisoned for years … I stand in solidarity with the protest in Israel, but you can't even begin to compare the situation there with here,” he explained.

From Seattle to Karmiel

Joel Rothschild moved to Israel from Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
Joel Rothschild moved to Israel from Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Kadia Levy)

Joel Rothschild (42), who uses they/them pronouns, made Aliyah to Israel with their daughter Lior (4) from Seattle in the US. They have been living in Karmiel since April this year.

"Aliyah was a very long process for me," Joel Rothschild told Davar. "There wasn't a specific moment when a decision was made. It has to do with the decision to leave the religious community I was in, which was also homophobic and capitalist. I didn't grow up in Seattle, but in a small town. Around us was a camp of neo-Nazis who harassed Jews in my city. It was scary. Jewish life and Jewish identity were important to me, and it was difficult to maintain them there."

When their daughter Lior was born, Rothschild became more convinced of their duty to provide her with a safe and holistic Jewish life. They began to speak to her in Hebrew, and slowly solidified their plan to move to Israel

“My father was angry that I decided to immigrate to Israel because of his fear of the government. But I did not immigrate to Bibi Netanyahu's country or to Otzma Yehudit,” the extremist right wing party in the Knesset, Rothschild said. “I made Aliyah to the State of Israel, which is a huge long-term project. For me, there is no more significant moment to be part of the public than during difficult times. I think that the traditional background that I received attracts me to the efforts to build connections between the secular and the traditional and religious."

Joel Rotshchild. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
Joel Rotshchild. (Photo: Kadia Levy)

Rothschild does not see the current political crisis in Israel as an isolated, parochial problem. Their experiences in Trump’s America convinced them that the global environment is poisoned, politically speaking.

They feel more hope for the future in Israel than they did in the US. “I think that what is different in Israel is that we have common values, have a common identity, and with them we can face the challenges,” they said. “Liberals in the United States don't have that."

Still, leaving the US has not been easy.

"I miss my relatives and some close friends,” Rothschild said. “I miss the co-op stores. They were established in North America in the 1970s and have a certain atmosphere and smell. I grew up with them. My dad used to take me to buy organic vegetables and products by weight. I also miss the forests of North America, although Israeli nature also has its own charm."

From Chicago to Modi’in

The Feifel family, originally from Chicago. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
The Feifel family, originally from Chicago. (Photo: Kadia Levy)

Tzvi (35) and Metuka (34) Feifel immigrated from Chicago, Illinois, with the help of the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization. Since May, they have been living with their children Noa (5) and Rafi (3) in Modi'in.

"We wanted to make aliyah straight after we got married 12 years ago, but we only succeeded now,” Metuka told Davar. “In the seminary I attended, we traveled a lot in Israel, and that made me fall in love with it. In the United States, I worked in non-profit management, but here I want to finally fulfill a years-long dream and become a tour guide."

Tzvi already had Israeli citizenship from his parent’s immigration to Israel before they returned to the United States. He wanted to immigrate to Israel from a young age but was held back by his student debt.

“In 2018 we finally said: 'In five years our oldest girl will start kindergarten in Israel, no matter what.’ And now it's happening,” Tzvi said.

Since moving to Israel, Tzvi’s salary has dropped by 50%. In Chicago, the family lived the American dream with a house, a yard, and a car. But Zvi said he no longer wishes to view his standard of living through the lens of corporate America.

“I look out the window and see the Judean Mountains and feel different,” he said. “If I calculate everything we save by not sending our children to private Jewish education, because there is an excellent public Jewish education here—the expenses balance out. Money is great, but it is not the reason to choose one thing or another."

Metuka added, “Each person has to choose which country’s problems to take. We want Israel’s problems.”

The Feifel family. (Photo: Kadia Levy)
The Feifel family. (Photo: Kadia Levy)

Metuka said the greatest challenges in their new life have to do with Hebrew. Navigating basic services like health insurance often require the kind of language that isn’t necessarily picked up in ulpan, state-provided Hebrew lessons.

Other differences between life in Israel and life in the US have been challenging as well. “I found it strange that the owner of the apartment we are renting took the ceiling lamps with him,” Tzvi said. “You would never encounter such behavior in the United States."

"Here, I see a very young country, 75 years in total, which is still in the process of intense self-discovery," Tzvi said. "I see people marching in the streets, passionately shouting 'democracy.’ It shows me that there is a large community of people here who fight for their values. It is a beautiful thing, and very different from how our lives looked in the US."

The "Nefesh B’Nefesh" organization works in cooperation with the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, the Jewish Agency, KKL-JNF, and JNF USA.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Hannah Blount. 

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