People told us we were crazy. Not just our parents, but family, friends, colleagues — even our Jewish Agency aliya counselors. Leaving good jobs in New York to practice law in Israel, they suggested, was an unlikely path to professional satisfaction.
We were newlywed lawyers, working ridiculously long hours at Manhattan firms with dreams of raising a family in Israel. Call us clueless. Back in the early 90s there were intermittent Scud attacks, threats of poisonous gas and a string of nefarious wars. Tourists saw danger and canceled their package tours. We saw adventure and enrolled in a Hebrew ulpan. Cliff told friends one Friday night dinner that by our second anniversary, we’d be buying our challahs in Jerusalem. They were skeptical.
So the clock started ticking. We bought the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot on Fridays at the subway newsstand on 72nd Street. We talked to friends, collected professional contacts and scheduled a pilot trip to survey the Israeli law firm scene as a first anniversary present to ourselves. Our prime contact was an Israeli lawyer named David, who was living in New York City while he studied for a PhD at NYU Law School. He gave us a list of friends at leading law firms and we were off.
Setting up meetings wasn’t hard. With David‘s friends as an entree, they introduced us to their senior partners, who agreed to talk to the naïve Zionists for half an hour. On our pilot trip we spent two weeks running around the country meeting lawyers … some were helpful and others much less so. One lawyer announced that he had nothing to offer us as soon as we entered his tiny, cluttered office in our New York suits, explaining that we probably wouldn’t be interested anyway. He spent the rest of the time trying to convince us to move to Raanana (but in the end he concluded that we weren’t appropriate there either). Countless other firms were more interested in hearing where else we were interviewing, and disparaging the lawyers in those firms. In most of our meetings, the Israeli partner who received our resume had no idea what they would do with English speaking lawyers, other than put them in a corner and have them translate Israeli documents for foreign clients.
Of course there were positive meetings too. In those days, before Nefesh b’Nefesh and legal recruitment companies, the late Paul Baris (z”l), a senior partner in a large Tel Aviv firm who had moved to Israel from New York, was the de facto first stop for every potential American Oleh. He talked about the local market and actually interviewed Cliff about his experience and told about the work in his firm. Cliff also got a serious interview after we visited the sukkah of an Israeli rabbi politician, who was a friend of the family. Despite it being 7 pm and freezing cold in the sukkah, the rabbi called his “good friend”, a senior partner in a leading firm, and told him that he had to interview Cliff. The next day Cliff was in their office meeting a few of the partners, talking about the possibility of working there.
Exhausted and exhilarated after our trip, we returned to New York with no job offers. But we were optimistic that, while learning Hebrew and learning Israeli law would be a challenge, in the end we could make that switch to really become part of the Israeli law scene. Now we needed someone to make an offer and give us our first chance.
Weeks went by without a word. Then I got a call from a firm where I had volunteered during the summer after my first year of law school. They offered to hire me as a stagiaire (a mandatory internship before you can be licensed to practice law) for a fraction of what I was earning in New York. I said sure! Six weeks later, Cliff got a call and was told the partner who interviewed him had just discovered his resume lost on his desk in a stack of papers. Cliff was offered the same salary I took and also said yes. Our aliyah was on track. We both had jobs beginning October 1, paying a sum total of $3,000 per month. Not a lot by Manhattan standards, but enough to cover our immediate expenses.
Aliyah, here we come!
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Minna Ferziger Felig is a lawyer and business professional and a co-founder of the legal recruitment agency Machshavot Smartjob.