At the conclusion of my family’s seder on Monday night, when we say “Next year in Jerusalem,” we won’t really mean it. That’s hard for me to admit, after 14 years of living in the holy city, but it’s true.
Last summer, my wife and I and our two young boys made the painful decision to leave Israel and move back to our native United States. It wasn’t the wars and terrorism that drove us away. It wasn’t the petty politics and social strife that made us pack our bags, either. Failure to integrate with the rest of Israel was not our bugaboo. We loved our work, our neighborhood, our city, our country – but we had to leave them behind. We simply couldn’t afford them anymore.
No one promised us a rose garden when we left America’s golden shores. We hadn’t grown up with luxury, and we didn’t expect to be pampered in Israel either. We started at the ground floor, so to speak, and worked our way up… until there wasn’t any more “up” left. We had middle class jobs with middle class incomes, but they paled in comparison to the expenses we had to incur.
For years we tried to prevent the inevitable, taking on side jobs and opening businesses to try to keep up with crushing daycare payments and rents that spiraled out of control. Our sensible plan to save for a rainy day became a fantasy as we fought to get out of overdraft. Finally, faced with stagnant incomes and runaway costs, we looked into possibilities beyond the sea… and found an opportunity that we couldn’t afford to ignore.
Before we moved to Israel, we never would have imagined living there. Then, once we settled in Jerusalem, we never imagined leaving it. Yet here we are, in the suburbs of Detroit, a place we are surprised to call home. What an exodus it has been! One year ago, we paid through the nose to rent a small, rundown, three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of a nondescript Jerusalem building, with no hope of ever being able to buy a place of our own; now, we’re buying a detached house that’s twice the size and a third of the price, with a huge tree-lined lawn where our boys can play. Whereas we once had not even one car, we now have two. Our cupboards and closets are full of high-quality products.
I know, I know. There’s more to life than material wealth. Certainly, there are things about our lives in Israel that no Diaspora community can provide: the joys and comforts of living as part of a Jewish majority, the sense of purpose that comes with building the first Jewish commonwealth in the Holy Land in 2,000 years, etc. But those warm and fuzzy feelings aren’t enough. We came to Israel to live a good life, and to provide a good life for our children. In the end, though, we were making bricks without straw.
We are not alone, of course: Struggling young, well-educated families like ours are legion in Israel. They are not free, but rather slaves to their debts. And that will remain the case as long as misguided bureaucracy makes homes in Israel take almost twice as long to pay for than they do abroad; as long as crushing taxes make cars in Israel cost nearly twice as much as they do abroad; as long as centralization and monopolies keep the prices of vital consumer goods and services artificially inflated, etc.
Radically changing this situation so that a higher standard of living is affordable to most Israelis is the great “Let my people go!” mission of our time. I hope my family merits to see it… but I’m not so naïve as to bank on it. Next year in Jerusalem? It would take a miracle.