1024px-December_Charter_FlightIt’s no secret that immigrants to Israel from North America take a financial hit. But as I finished up my U.S. taxes last month (as an Israeli with dual citizenship, I am required to file in both countries), I stopped for a moment to ponder exactly how big that hit has been.

What is the “aliyah premium,” I wondered – the difference between how much I earned in Israel over the past 20 years and what I might have earned had I’d stayed in the U.S.? Did it add up to tens of thousands of dollars over a couple of decades? Hundreds of thousands?

Or is the whole differential a kind of fiction, a “woe is me” story we tell ourselves about why life is so hard in Israel but that might not hold up against the actual data?

I decided to try to crunch the numbers. I read through articles and statistics, spoke with accountants, business journalists and even a day school admissions director. Here’s what I found. Keep in mind I’m not an economist, so any figures I present will be pretty gross generalizations.

Let’s start with mean household income – the average income earned by all breadwinners in a home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American households earn $72,641 on average vs. $56,892 in Israel. The latter figure comes from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics and includes income from all sources – labor, capital, government stipends and familial assistance.

So, data point number one: Israeli households earn a gross amount equal to 78 percent of their American counterparts – that’s a 22 percent “aliyah premium.”

But what about taxes? Surprisingly, the tax rates aren’t that different. The Israeli statistics folks say that same Israeli family pays 18 percent of their earnings for income tax, national insurance and health tax. My Israeli accountant ran the numbers for the same salary and it came out higher – closer to 24 percent. But he advised me up front that he hadn’t calculated the various credits and deductions (number of children, gender, etc.) that inevitably bring the total rate down.

In the U.S., taking the same gross calculation and similarly ignoring all manner of discounts and deductions, the average household income of $72,641 for a married couple filing jointly would be subject to income tax of 17 percent and another 7.65 percent for social security – in another words, almost the same as Israel.

But, as my U.S. tax preparer told me: that too is fraught with complexity. “A family with many children, high medical expenses, that itemizes their deductions or gives a lot of charity could very well wind up paying a lot less.”

Offsetting that to a certain extent are state taxes, although these vary considerably. Some states have no tax at all (Nevada and Florida); most add another 3-5 percent to the tax bill, my tax preparer said.

“You have to be careful gathering data from different sources to make comparisons,” my colleague financial journalist David Rosenberg warned me. The best way, he said, “is to take your data from a single source like the OECD.”

The OECD data tells a much more sobering story. Looking at household net disposable income (which the OCED defines as the money available to a household after taxes for spending on goods or services), Americans wind up with $41,355 on average vs. just $22,105 for Israelis.

Data point number two, then: the “aliyah premium” might be as high as 47 percent.

And that’s not factoring in the higher cost of certain purchases in Israel, such as cars (which carry a 78 percent Israeli tax mark up), gasoline (triple that of much of the U.S.), electronics and many food items (remember the cottage cheese protests). Housing in Israel is famously expensive, but then so is real estate in most major metropolitan areas of the U.S.

“I don’t know if it’s fair to compare the U.S. and Israel from a strictly economic point of view,” says Jacob Richman who operated the popular Computer Jobs in Israel website and email list for 23 years. “There are many social and Jewish aspects to living in Israel that are hard to put a price on.”

Jacob is right, of course: there’s no way to calculate the true value one gets living in a Jewish State, following a Jewish calendar and being part of Jewish history. But my analysis here is strictly about the money.

Nevertheless, there are some mitigating factors that narrow the financial gap.

The cost of private Jewish day school in the U.S. is a huge consideration. I spoke with Yelena Spector, the director of admissions at the Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Chicago. The price per child for tuition maxes out at $18,165 a year for children at her school. Bus fees add another $1,000 plus per child; hot lunches and fundraising drives even more.

If you have three children in day school, “that’s $60,000 coming straight out of your income,” Spector told me. And while some states have vouchers for private education, that’s not on the federal tax level.

As a result, “even ‘well off’ families apply for financial aid,” Spector says. Aid granted varies widely but it’s rare that tuition would drop below $5,000 per child, she added. So, even with a big break, an American Jewish family making that OECD average household income could be paying up to 36 percent of their net for schooling alone.

(That’s not an entirely fair analysis, as such an “average” earning family would probably not be able to afford Jewish day school in the first place, even with generous financial aid.)

Private school exists in Israel, too, but it’s not a necessity in the same way that it is for a family in the U.S., which has decided that Jewish education is a priority. Figure about $100 a month per child per month for books and class trips at a public school in Israel. But even factoring in these Israeli fees, the much higher private school costs for U.S. Jewish education narrows the gap from the OECD’s 47 percent “aliyah premium” to just 27 percent.

What about healthcare? In Israel, universal health coverage is included in that Israeli tax number of between 18-24 percent. Not so in the U.S. where it’s much more complicated

I pretended to be a family of five applying for coverage on a website affiliated with the Affordable Care Act in the U.S. I picked California, which is where I used to live. I plugged in my average household income numbers. The result was a mess of options that makes calculating a single tidy figure a Sisyphean impossibility.

I could pay a few hundred dollars a month and have a reasonable deductible and co-pays for doctor visits and pharmaceuticals, or I could pay much less but have deductibles exceeding $10,000. The number of options – gold, silver, bronze and platinum plans; multiple providers – set my head spinning.

I asked a colleague who heads a non-profit in U.S. what his employees generally pay. He says around $200 a month. Assuming a family will use up at least some of its deductible, that could easily add up to another, say, $5,000 a year – some 12 percent off the OECD household income total.

Many Israeli families buy supplemental health insurance (add another $100 a month at least). Still, even factoring in the Israeli health extras, in this admittedly unscientific analysis, the “aliyah premium” has now been sliced to a mere 15 percent.

Finally, social security might be only 7.65 percent if you’re a salaried employee in the U.S., but if you’re independent, you’re responsible for both the employer and employee amounts. Take off another 7.65 percent and you can see that the “aliyah premium” has nearly evaporated.

Clearly, every family’s situation is going to be different. If you’re a hi-tech worker with no kids and you don’t get sick much, you could probably earn a lot more in the U.S. But, on the other hand, your Israel startup could get bought or go public, leaving you sitting pretty in Tel Aviv.

There’s so much I haven’t included: property and worldwide capital gains are taxed differently (higher in Israel), synagogue dues ($2,000 for a family in the U.S.) are not widely applicable in the Jewish State, summer camp fees in the U.S. are sky high (add another $4,000 per child), life insurance premiums are higher in Israel, as is long term care insurance. Retirement programs and pension saving vary. And this analysis only concerns the U.S. Comparing costs between Israel and Europe is an entirely different tub of hummus.

So, have I lost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in my 20 years here? It doesn’t seem so. My bottom line “aliyah premium” is far more manageable that I anticipated.

Is being a part of this modern Jewish experiment called Israel worth a 7-15 percent hit on income? Everyone has to decide for him or herself, but for me, I’m more than happy to run with those numbers.

I originally crunched the numbers over at The Jerusalem Post. There has been a lot of discussion of this article on Facebook. If you’re not a friend already, just ask!


Meditation intervention

by Brian on April 28, 2016

in Health,Just For Fun

Meditation-retreat-picture“You’ll be staying in Building 3,” explained Danny, as we arrived at Kibbutz Ein Dor, where we were about to spend just under a week at the annual silent Jewish meditation retreat my wife and I have attended for the past several years.

We had gotten to the retreat late this year – our son’s end of high school music recital conflicted with the beginning of the retreat and we couldn’t miss his performance – which meant that by the time we entered the space on Tuesday evening, everyone else was already in silence.

Danny, who as retreat manager could talk, pointed out how to get to the dorms where Jody and I had a private room, where to pick up sheets and towels, and other logistics. Then he added, as nonchalantly as he could, in a slightly choked whisper, which foreshadowed the drama about to unfold, “Oh, by the way, it’s the women’s dorm. Brian, you’ll be the only guy there.”

Well, that was going to be awkward.

But no problem, I’d just explain to my fellow dorm-mates the situation, how because we were the only married couple on the retreat this year, they hadn’t been able to rent an entire separate building just for us, and so it was either me with the women or Jody with the men.

Except that I couldn’t explain anything – they were in silence, I was in silence and at these kinds of retreats, we generally don’t even make eye contact.

“I’d recommend that you use the shower in the men’s dorm. But it should be OK for you to use the toilet in Building 3,” Danny suggested helpfully.

“Do the women know I’m coming?” I asked. Danny looked away sheepishly, but the answer came quickly as Jody and I wheeled our small suitcases – much too loudly given the general quiet around us – to the dorm. Surprised and uncomfortable glances from a couple of women shot in my direction.

“What is he doing in here?” I imagined them thinking. “Does he not know this is the women’s dorm? Is he some Peeping Tom? Does he think he can just sneak into some woman’s room without us noticing? Maybe he’s not even on the retreat!”

Nope, this was definitely not going to be easy.

I thought about putting up a sign up at the entrance to the dorm explaining my presence, how I didn’t want to make anyone feel threatened or unsafe. But that’s not how communication works at a silent retreat. In the dining room there’s a place to leave private notes – never to other participants – only to the teachers and staff.

The Ein Dor retreat center is a study in contrasts. The meditation room itself was recently renovated and has lovely wooden floors, an abundance of comfortable mats and pillows and soft lighting. The accommodations, on the other hand, haven’t been touched in at least 30 years. They make a Himalayan guesthouse look like a Waldorf Astoria.

Broken windows, cobwebs and every manner of crawling thing, plus peeling paint that at several moments cascaded down from the ceiling onto the floor of our room, were our constant companions. Jody and I – who are strict about keeping social silence on retreat and don’t talk to each other even when we’re alone in our private room – could only share a wry smile.

Not talking can sound like torture but I find it incredibly liberating. I talk to people all the time for my work. It’s awkward at first to sit at the Shabbat table in total silence, but to dispense with the small talk and focus instead on the food (and the cooking of Ayana Lekach, who calls herself a “mindful caterer” is superb) is a practice we would all do well to try from time to time, even on a non-meditation specific Shabbat.

I dutifully showered in the men’s dorm and kept my toilet time in Building 3 to a minimum. Other than the looks I received – or had I just projected my own awkwardness onto the women I was now living with? – I had no way of knowing whether my being there was causing a disturbance. That is, until the afternoon announcement period on our second day there, when one of the retreat leaders spoke up.

“I just want to let you know, in case you haven’t noticed, that Brian is staying in the women’s dorms. He’s not showering there, so don’t worry,” explained Rabbi Jeff Roth, whose Awakened Heart Project co-sponsored the retreat with Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels Israel-based Or HaLev.

Someone must have written a note.

A few hours later, Jeff brought it up again. “And just so you know,” he added, “Brian is not even looking in the women’s showers.”

That, I surmised, was directed as much at me as the other women. I wanted to run away. This was just too embarrassing.

It always takes time – in my experience a good 2-3 days – just to “settle” on a retreat; to get to that point where you’re no longer thinking about what you need to accomplish at work or concerns about the outside world. I was still in that period so I allowed myself to fantasize about sneaking away, taking the bus to Afula and going home to Jerusalem.

But I couldn’t leave Jody a note to tell her that, so I stayed.

The truth is, this was all good “material,” which is exactly what a retreat – and a meditation practice in general – is all about. The real aim in mindfulness is to be able to just “be” with whatever arises, especially uncomfortable thoughts and emotions. It’s not about shutting down feeling or trying to somehow get “quiet.” Indeed, going on retreat is some of the hardest and internally noisy work I’ve ever done. It sounds peaceful but it’s really the opposite.

But the payoff can be huge. If you can accept what comes up (not just on retreat but at any time in your life) rather than resist, if you can sit with the pain – whether physical, emotional or both – without trying to distract yourself through chocolate or TV or sex, the insights can be life altering.

The key is to drop expectations and cede control – you really don’t have any. I was on this particular retreat for a total of 96 hours. I had all of 45 minutes of clarity. But that 45 minutes was breathtaking and I couldn’t have gotten there without the support of my fellow meditators in the hall or the other 95 hours of sitting, walking, eating and sleeping mindfully.

“Material” can come from surprising places. The first time I was on retreat, I was shocked that there were other groups sharing the space – and they weren’t silent, not by a long shot. I was livid, my expectations of a pastoral relaxing environment dashed.

This year, it was even more in your face. A group of young Israelis were staying in an adjacent dorm and holding some kind of sports camp on the grounds. We were doing our best at turning inward; as they set up the goal posts and tossed around the soccer ball, their unambiguous objective was to make as much noise as possible.

Had Danny put me in the women’s dorm davka to create discomfort? Even if it wasn’t on purpose, it certainly served the purpose of generating “material” to work with.

At the end of the retreat, the participants were encouraged to say something about their experience. I talked about my four days in Building 3. Afterward, a woman approached me.

“You were the best male dorm mate we could have asked for,” she said. “Especially because you always put the toilet seat down!”

“Thank you,” I replied, breathing out an attentive sigh of relief. “I did that mindfully, too.”

I first got awkward in Building 3 at The Jerusalem Post.


Seder_Plate_(5607453401)Jewish tradition commands Pesach Seder participants to imagine that they themselves had been enslaved in Egypt and were redeemed through the Exodus.

But what happens if you don’t believe that there were Israelites in Egypt or that the Exodus was a real historical occurrence? What do you do on Seder night if your personal take on the penultimate origin story of the Jewish people is something entirely devoid of the supernatural? How can you stay intellectually authentic while not ditching the entire ceremony?

That’s the dilemma I’ve faced for the past several years as Pesach approaches while my religious skepticism has steadily grown. Just going through the motions of reciting the Haggadah line-by-line, no matter how lively the discussion and delicious the chicken soup, simply doesn’t work for me anymore, not when the words on the page refer to events that most scholars say are probably not true.

Take the Exodus itself. Forget about the “magic” of the story – the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. As Haaretz’s Julia Fridman wrote last year in an essay surveying what we do and don’t know about that time in the Middle East, “one would expect that a large group of people wandering around the desert for 40 years would have left some kind of material evidence. If they did, we haven’t found it.”

What did happen? Academics who study ancient Egypt have plenty of theories. I’m fond of Egyptologist Prof. Donald Redford’s 1987 paper in which he analyzed the 40-year-old excavations at Tel El Dab’a in Egypt and concluded that the Exodus story is more likely a memory of how the Egyptians overthrew and expelled the Hyksos, another ancient Semitic tribe that ruled over the Nile Delta region.

Some of those Hyksos may have subsequently made their way into Canaan, where their dramatic tale fused with the emerging independent identity of a coalition of local farmers and nomadic shepherds. Embellished and modified over centuries, those stories eventually settled into an Israelite oral tradition that formed the basis of the Hebrew bible we know to this day.

But that’s not the point. The problem is that when history, text and commandments clash, it leaves me unsure of how to relate to the Haggadah. I don’t want to say words I don’t believe, but I’m not a hardcore humanist either who wants to change the text to something so convolutedly nuanced as to bear no resemblance to the original.

“You think too much,” my friend Shelley joked. “It’s just one night. Just do what most Israelis do at the Seder – read through the Haggadah quickly and move on to the food. The point is being together with family.”

I received similar advice from San Francisco-based Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller several years ago when my father died and I was having trouble saying the Kaddish. “Your problem is that you know just a little too much Hebrew,” she said. Most of her congregants don’t dwell on the meaning of words they don’t fully understand, “but they appreciate the tradition and act accordingly,” she said.

I don’t think that “just doing it” is the right approach, though. What message does that send to my children about being true to their own beliefs? (See my column, “In Praise of Datlashim,”) Maybe my personal struggle can help them forge their own paths melding tradition with honesty…if not now then when they’re deciding how – or whether – to do a Seder of their own.

There must be a more authentic way of holding down the Passover fort that keeps the framework of the Haggadah while not treating supernatural stories with a reverence they don’t deserve.

So, this year, I’m going to try something new. What is a Seder if not a “structured conversation?” And if there’s anything our family knows how to do, it’s make good conversation.

On Pesach, the Haggadah directs us towards certain topics, which we then discuss. So let’s use the Haggadah as a framework to deliberate not pseudo-history but contemporary personal, political and professional concerns. The conversation itself will be the focus; we might read a line or two from the Haggadah to launch into the topic, but rote reciting of the whole text is out.

How might this work? I’ll pick a few themes from the Haggadah, 3-4 at the most, preferably with memorable images or tastes like plagues or horseradish, then lead a (hopefully) meaningful, modern dialog around them.

Here are some examples: Instead of a rabbinical analysis heavy on medieval commentary on why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, we could explore what are the biggest challenges plaguing us in the world today… or plaguing participants in their personal growth (if they’re comfortable sharing). When we point to the shank bone on the Seder plate, we can discuss ethical treatment of animals and everything from growing veganism in Israel to a future of “cultured chicken” (meat grown in a test tube – better for the planet and more kosher than Soylent Green).

The rabbis long ago identified matzah as a symbol for anti-hubris, lacking the leavening that causes the ego to rise inside us. So, let’s go around the table and each talk about times when our own egos have overtaken our better judgment. Or pick an example from politics. It’s going to come up at some point, so this would be as good a time as any to talk Trump or bash Bibi.

How about climate change and the grim specter of growing food shortages as a result? The Haggadah has a trigger for that too in the section on Ha Lachma Anya, the bread of the poor, the bread of affliction. Maybe this would be a good time to talk about social justice. Has capitalism gone too far? Do people of privilege bear personal responsibility for the widening spread of poverty?

The Magid may be long, but it’s a trigger worthy of at least a shorter discussion: the importance of storytelling as a means for preserving family or national history. Are we living lives that generate the kinds of stories we want to transmit? Are there family feuds that will seem petty in the years to come? (Lavan and Jacob could be the prompt here.)

Hallel – traditionally giving praise to God – is an ideal opportunity to do a gratitude circle. We always try to bring some token of mindfulness into any family gathering.

There are so many more topics worthy of discussion that the scaffolding of the Haggadah can prompt: the role of gender, the place of religion, the lure of travel, the value of aliyah and service to your country, the use and mis-use of power.

And we won’t forget to drink our four cups of wine and sing. Yes, even some of the traditional songs with the words that I don’t believe in. Because music has its own power to transcend; to create bonds and memories. And what’s a Seder anyway without belting out a good Dayenu! (But maybe before that, we’ll say something about what we’ve had enough of in our lives or things that we’d like to overcome.)

I’ll need to drop any attachments I might have as to how it will all play out. Just let it flow, whether the Seder lasts one hour or three.

Will it work? I’m already bracing for my kids rolling their eyes. I haven’t decided if I should tell them what I’m planning to do in advance (so they can prepare), or let it be a surprise and evolve organically. (Well, if they’re reading this column, I guess I’ve blown that already.)

But I’m feeling excited. Rather than dreading the cognitive dissonance that comes when we temporarily shelve our critical thinking selves when confronting the supernatural stories of the Seder, my Pesach for Non Believers could be the start of something truly new, “an experience that evokes our hearts and souls,” as Rabbi Aryeh Ben David of the educational institute Akeya says, referring to what he calls the true purpose of the Seder.

And isn’t that how traditions are really made?

I first proposed my Seder for Non-Believers at The Jerusalem Post.


Donald TrumpYes, you read that right. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally come around. Republican presidential contender Donald Trump has won me over. And come November, if he’s still in the race (and if this election year has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is mandated from heaven), he’ll have my vote. He says he’s the most pro-Israel candidate and I believe him.

Why shouldn’t I? At last week’s AIPAC Policy Conference, he uttered all the right things, pushed all the right buttons. In less than 30 minutes, he won over many if not most of the 18,000 attendees who gave him one standing ovation after another, to growing and enthusiastic applause. AIPAC was worried the audience might protest Trump, that they’d walk out or boo or demonstrate. If anyone did, they were in the minority, drowned out by a seeming sea of support.

If AIPAC – which was supposed to be Trump’s toughest room – can fall in love with the guy, who am I to argue?

“I’m a newcomer to politics but not to backing the Jewish State,” Trump proclaimed. “I’m a lifelong supporter and true friend of Israel. When I’m president, [I will] totally dismantle Iran’s global terror network. I’ll move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem, [to] send a clear signal that there is no daylight between America and our most reliable ally. The days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end.”

Well, I’m ready to be treated like a first-class citizen again, to be welcomed into the warm embrace of a Trump White House. Do I agree with everything he says? Certainly not. His views on Muslims and Mexicans are abhorrent.

But on Israel, the only issue that should matter to any self-respecting Zionist – and especially to immigrants to the Holy Land like us who still can vote in the U.S. elections – well, whom are you going to pick? Hillary Clinton, who accepts emails from that fanatical BDS supporter Max Blumenthal, who once had the gall to say that Israel displays a “lack of empathy” towards the Palestinians? Nope, check me into the Trump Tower and send me up some room service pronto, please.

Trump’s meteoric rise isn’t all that surprising. He’s the quintessential outsider and Americans love their outsider candidates. The idea that someone who is not a Washington crony can turn the country around is a trope that’s won the vote repeatedly over the past 150 years, ever since Abraham Lincoln emphasized his working class roots as “The Railsplitter” candidate in 1860. Ulysses S. Grant’s campaign in 1872 portrayed him as a rough and tumble tanner and his running mate Henry Wilson as a shoemaker, hardly Beltway regulars.

More recently, the U.S. saw outsider peanut farmer Jimmy Carter beat insider (and Nixon pardoner) Gerald Ford, only to be unseated by another outsider, Ronald Reagan. As the first African American president, Barak Obama could certainly claim the mantle of the outsider par excellence. Even Hillary Clinton, who may have spent more years in Washington than the other candidates combined, portrays herself as a fresh face from far away. After all, as she told CBS News’ Face the Nation, “I cannot imagine anyone being more of an outsider than the first woman president.”

Outsider popularity is not limited just to the U.S. Even in Israel, where despite the fact that Benjamin Netanyahu has been in power for ten years now and you’d think we davka love our insiders, we repeatedly flirt if not go steady with the outsiders who come knocking at the door. Think: Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid in 2013, Moshe Kahlon and his Kulanu party in 2015 or Yitzhak Mordechai’s Center party all the way back in 1999.

We desperately want to believe that someone new and untainted, a genuine independent and free thinker, will be able to shake things up and fix our problems. Israel and the Palestinians have been at each other’s throats for so long, maybe a fresh approach is required. How about hiring a professional negotiator who can knock our sparring leaders’ heads together like it’s a real estate deal or a reality show? Oh, that’s the president? Even better. Bibi and Abbas can’t deliver? “You’re fired!”

I see it in my personal life, too. I have this recurring fantasy that one day I’ll lose all my clients at the same time. Faced with no income and mounting bills, I’ll be forced to think out of the box, to reinvent myself into something entirely new that will finally bring me the fabulous wealth and well being I’ve sought for so long.

Maybe that would work in politics as well, or so the thinking goes. We’ve already sunk so low that only an oxygen deprived descent to the very bottom of the geopolitical ocean can rouse us out of the numbing complacency that has sapped us of our ability to dream of a better future – a Trump future.

Chemi Shalev thinks a Trump presidency could even have unintended benefits for Israel. Writing in Haaretz, Shalev presents an alternative future where a Trump win in November leads to a mass exodus of liberal Jews from the U.S. They first try to move to Canada but are stymied when they learn that becoming a citizen takes at least four years.

They turn instead to Israel where Shalev envisions 50,000 American Jews eventually immigrating under the Law of Return, settling mainly in the center of the country where they “breathe new life into Israel’s moribund left” and go about “rebuilding liberal NGOs and government watchdogs,” ultimately influencing the 2019 elections and overthrowing the Likud.

Shalev’s narrative may not come to be, but can there be any doubt that Trump will be good for Israel and tough on terror? And if anyone can kick Assad out of Syria, force ISIS to its knees and compel the Iranians to repaint their missiles with the lyrics to a song from Dana International, it will be the Donald.

Look, I’m still realistic – a Trump presidency may not be as glorious as I hope, but it certainly can’t be as bad as the doomsayers pontificate.

At least that’s what I tell myself until I bolt up in bed in the middle of the night and a flood of Trump’s misogynist and racist rants rains down on me, threatening to drown my waking consciousness in its own own vile apologies until I repent, Democratic ballot clutched firmly in hand, and turn away with assured finality from this hateful outsider who wooed me with empty promises that change – any change – is always for the better.

I first punk’d Trump on The Jerusalem Post website.

Picture credit


Jewish_calendar,_showing_Adar_II_between_1927_and_1948.jpegI interview people for a living. Many of the articles I write are for publications outside of Israel. For those conversations, I don’t usually identify myself as living in Jerusalem – I want the person I’m speaking with to be the focus of the article, not me. I have a U.S. phone number, so there’s no clue on the Caller ID either.

But sometimes, it’s unavoidable, especially when I’m trying to schedule an interview with someone in California, where the ten-hour difference makes timing tricky. Which is how I wound up hearing this at the beginning of a phone interview I conducted last week.

“So, how did you end up in Israel?” asked Todd, an executive to whom I was speaking about his latest soon-to-be killer app.

Now, I’m not one to shy away from questions about my connection to Israel. But these days, with BDS exploding all over the news and anti-Semitism unmistakably resurgent, the answer to that question isn’t so simple. It’s hard enough when you’ve gotten to know someone in person, but I had nothing on Todd; it was our first time talking and the first thing he asked.

Was his inquiry benign; just curious small talk? Or would I be representing the entire Jewish people with my response? I needed to choose my words carefully.

I went for the simplest, shortest reply. “I’m a Zionist,” I told Todd. And then I immediately started second-guessing myself.

My answer was true – that is how I ended up here – but I wasn’t sure how that term is perceived these days in a post-politically correct America where “ism’s” of all types are passé at best. To someone harboring even the vaguest uninformed negative preconceptions, Zionism might very well be a grotesque variant of nationalism or racism or fascism, which are all definitely beyond the pale of polite society. For better or worse, Zionism has over the years picked up connotations that are just as likely to provoke as to provide comfort and support.

I know – and you, dear reader, know – that they’re not the same, but I’m not sure I could make the same assumption about Todd.

Has the time come, I wondered, to retire the automatic use of the word Zionist when explaining our connection to this place?

“No way,” my friend Batya barked back when I shared my dilemma with her. “You can’t let other people limit what you say. You need to own the term.”

I’m not so sure, though. Sometimes a rebranding is in order.

Amotz Asa-El wrote in The Jerusalem Post earlier this year about the crisis Conservative Judaism is going through. “The once dominant Conservative Movement, whose following has plunged since 1990 from nearly 1.5 million to less than a million…is [now] thinking with public-relations experts of changing its name. Asa-El suggested the new moniker of “Traditionalist Judaism,” in part because it’s accurate but also because “it will sound both compelling and urgent,” wiping the slate clean from the stigma of its mass exodus of adherents.

In an attempt at, if not fully rebranding Zionism, then at least re-crafting the “Why Israel?” elevator pitch with people we don’t yet know, I asked a group of friends, all immigrants from North America, the same question I’d received from Todd. How would they respond? Naturally, as a group of Jews, I got four different answers.

“It’s a great place to raise kids,” said Ruth. “Israel is such a child centered country.”

“This is home,” said Ariel. “It just feels right.”

“To have sex,” blurted out Sarah.

Our heads swiveled, Exorcist-like, in her direction. “Well, it was more to get away from my parents. I felt I couldn’t really be myself on the same continent,” she clarified and we nodded in uncomfortable understanding.

“I came for a job,” I said, which was also true, although I had proactively sought it out. “Maybe I could sing Israel’s praises about being the Startup Nation.”

Not if Rabbi Dov Lipman has anything to say about it. In an article discussing why Israel’s hasbara – its public diplomacy – has failed so miserably, the former Yesh Atid MK and Jerusalem Post columnist cites a recent poll conducted in the U.S. that found that “only 7 percent of respondents are drawn to support a country because it is ‘modern,’ a mere 6 percent are impressed if a country is ‘innovative,’ and a country which is ‘creative’ means something special to just 4 percent.”

“We have been bombarding the world touting Israel’s groundbreaking technology, Lipman concludes. “We have tried to win support by promoting the Startup Nation with its drip irrigation, solar energy, cellular phone technology and Waze. But that isn’t working.”

“I came because of the calendar,” said Moshe, finally. “Living in Israel means we share the same holidays – the Jewish holidays, that is. Shavuot, not the 4th of July; Rosh Hashana, not Labor Day.”

Moshe’s take resonated with me. Holidays, perhaps more than anything else, define a nation. Yes there are important shared values like democracy and decency, and the moral and legal truths emblazoned in a country’s constitution. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s not the money, the language or the food of a country as much as the flow of the weeks and months; the punctuation that the holidays provide, that creates a structure for belonging, for cohesion and peoplehood.

And for the Jewish nation, the most important “holiday” of them all is the one that recurs week after week without fail: Shabbat, the Jewish people’s greatest invention. This is not a religious argument. Shabbat in Israel is a day of distinction, no matter whether you’re deep in prayer in the most ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Bnei Brak, sipping a latte in Tel Aviv or out for a tiyul and a barbeque.

The streets simply feel different on Shabbat and holidays in Israel. There’s a sense that work is far away on this day, even for the most secular Israeli. Indeed, when I worked in the center of the country, though virtually everyone at my company was non-observant, there was never an expectation that you had to come in on Shabbat. Work emails slowed to a trickle. Shabbat was a day for play; a day of being mindful.

How important is the calendar? Hebrew University professor Rachel Elior explains that when the Pharisees were fighting for supremacy over the Saducees some 2,000 years ago, they introduced a new calendar. The priests held by a solar calendar; the rabbis promoted a lunar one. The two calendars were completely out of sync. Yom Kippur on one calendar would never fall on the same date as Yom Kippur on the other. Only one side could – and ultimately did – win.

If you have a connection to the holidays of the Jews, then, there’s no better place – no, there’s no other place at all – where you can live according to the Jewish national calendar than right here. It’s what, despite the deep rifts in Israeli society, has forged us into a single state and keeps us together.

So, here’s my modest proposal: the next time someone asks me how I ended up in Israel, maybe I won’t invoke Zionism with all its baggage, justified or not. This does not in any way diminish my own feelings of Zionism – I will say it loud and strong to the appropriate groups. But to the Todds on the phone who I encounter from time to time, maybe I’ll respond instead, “Because I’m a proud Jewish Calendarist.”

I took my first stab at rebranding Zionism at The Jerusalem Post.


Secular in City

March 16, 2016

Yaniv doesn’t like Jerusalem. “It’s nothing personal,” he said nonchalantly between demonstrative slurps of my wife Jody’s famous chicken soup, as he joined us at the Shabbat table a few weeks back “I just don’t feel welcome here – in the city that, is,” he added, looking sheepishly at Jody. “It’s just so…you know…religious.” There’s […]

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The Little Bakery that Could

February 25, 2016

When the German Colony branch of Jerusalem’s Pe’er Bakery closed down last year after 43 years of operation, fans of its signature sweet whole wheat challah let out a collective kvetch: where would we go for challah now on Fridays? But Pe’er’s challah is back in the neighborhood, albeit at another establishment – the Coney […]

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Co-opting intersectionality: how to beat BDS on campus

February 18, 2016

The drama continues at Oberlin College. Last month in The Jerusalem Post, I wrote about growing anti-Semitism and BDS support at my alma mater. Now, the Facebook group “Oberlin Students and Alumni Against Anti-Semitism” has published an open letter with more than 200 signatures describing the toxic climate on campus for pro-Israel students and calling […]

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Rekindling the romance in a love-lost marriage

February 2, 2016

I’m not sure when it happened or even when I realized it. But something had shifted. After 20 years, we both had changed so much. Everyone and everything does of course. Why would I expect that we’d be exactly the same as when we first got together? We evolve, we grow; hopefully together. But in […]

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Anti-Israel sentiment is PC at Oberlin College

January 18, 2016

Oy, what has happened at my alma mater? Oberlin College was in the news in December when its students declared that the campus dining department was guilty of a litany of offenses, in particular “cultural appropriation.” Trigger warning here: if you are uncomfortable with young people acting ridiculously, stop reading now. Still with me? OK, […]

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