link On late Saturday nights at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, a handful of regulars on the El Al flight to New York gather and wave to each other in recognition. They make this trans-Atlantic journey every week, returning each Friday morning to be home with their families for Shabbat. They belong to a small but growing subculture of mostly Orthodox American men who have moved with their families to Israel but have kept their jobs in the United States.
The group estimates that some 20 to 30 percent of the more than 16,000 Americans of working age who moved to Israel in the past five years are commuters. In cities like Raanana and Modiin, which are home to large Modern Orthodox American communities, there is a critical mass of such families. Danny Block, 46, a dentist who maintains his practice in Forest Hills, Queens and has done so for the past four years, though he says this is not a permanent situation. “The point is to live in Israel. I’m not doing it because I’m nuts.”
Among the “ultra-commuters,” as Block calls his tribe, are doctors, lawyers, real-estate brokers, school principals, and small-business owners who work all over the country, from Los Angeles to Baltimore.
Even with the relatively high cost of flying and the expense of maintaining two households, the math still adds up in favor of commuting, the families say. Some of the commuters are in frequent-flyer programs and get free trips. Some live with roommates or crash with family members to keep costs down while they are in the United States.
Salaries are significantly lower in Israel. “The joke is whatever you make in the United States, take off a zero,” said David Gichton, 47, an anesthesiologist from Baltimore who made aliyah last summer. Physicians, for example, who make up a significant number of the commuting population, estimate that many of them, particularly specialists, who can command $200,000 to $300,000 salaries in the United States would make about a third of that in Israel. A family doctor earning about $100,000 in the United States could expect about half as much.
“There is a very big support system,” said Esther Morris, 43, and a mother of five living in Raanana, a city near Tel Aviv. “It’s become a lifestyle,” Morris made aliyah in 2004 from Boca Raton, Florida. Her husband, a physician, used to fly back there two weeks of every month. Recently he left his practice and began work as an American company’s medical director, which has allowed him to commute less frequently and spend more time in Israel.
In Hashmonim, a settlement just inside the West Bank, roughly half the families come from the United States and other English-speaking countries. Gigi Tover, who made aliyah six years ago from Los Angeles, figures about a third to even one half of those have a commuting spouse.
Her husband, meantime, “continues with his regular contacts and a salary much higher than the one he would have in Israel. “But I hope this is not the 21st-century version of aliyah. I would love Israel to have the type of economy that can sustain its citizens. I just don’t understand how Israelis live on the average income here.” The median yearly household income is $37,000. In the United States it is just over $50,000.
Like so many similar commuters, Gichton would eventually like to work more locally. “That’s the hope, but the reality of the situation is that you have to pay to put food on the table,” he said.
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