Retiring in Israel

The Planning Stage

My first experience in Israel occurred during the summer of 1969.  While Neil Armstrong proclaimed that he had taken a “giant leap for mankind,” I had taken a giant leap for me, spending the summer learning Hebrew on a sizzling Netanya beach.  Returning to Madison, Wisconsin, a hotbed of anti-war activism, was difficult and I had no idea what I wanted to do next except go to college somewhere to avoid going to Vietnam. The end result of that dilemma found me traveling to Israel in August, 1970, living on the as-yet-undeveloped Mount Scopus campus and attending Hebrew University.  

As an 18 year-old lost American, I had no idea why I was in college, let alone what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  The Hebrew University program was horrible. The Israelis had no idea what to do with the mixed-up American peaceniks. I soon decided that I did not want to continue past the first semester of my program, notwithstanding my continuing love of Israel.

While I had no idea how to plan the rest of my life, I still sensed that planning was important. So, rather than planning for a profession, I began planning my retirement. I felt sure that living in Israel was probably not going to work for me during my working years (if, in fact, there ever were going to be working years for me), but planning my retirement in Israel seemed like a great idea.  I would first figure out my retirement and perhaps ultimately determine what to do in between. So, I began planning my move to Israel. I decided it was never too early to start, and I knew that with Israel’s bureaucracy, it could take fifty years to put all the details in place.

With that plan sketched, I returned to my native Wisconsin in January, 1971 and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin. I met the love of my life later that year. By the end of our first date, I decided that I wanted to marry this then 17-year-old girl.  Since I had decided to marry (she, by the way, knew nothing of this plan), we would need to divide the labor. I concluded that I would be in charge of retirement planning and she would be in charge of the rest of my life.

Since my girlfriend, now my wife of 42 years, had never been to Israel. I decided that, inasmuch as we were going to retire there, we should make our first trip together as soon as possible. In one of the worst jobs of parenting in the history of mankind, her parents let me take her through Europe and ultimately Israel, with no plans other than to return for school in the fall.  In summer, 1973, Barbara and I headed out. We had a wonderful time. While I impressed on her the importance of continuing our retirement planning, she suggested that, since I was about to start my senior year in college, I should choose a major and perhaps decide on a career. She told me that the University had counselors who could help me. What a great idea.

That summer, I decided I should either become a rabbi or a lawyer. Since I knew I could never wake up for morning minyan, becoming a rabbi seemed like a bad fit.  So, I focused on law school. I took Barbara’s advice and went to a university counselor who determined that, while I did not have nearly enough credits for a major in any other area, I could graduate as a Hebrew and Semitic studies major.  With Barbara’s help, I now had my career path set.

Having both career and  retirement plans in place, we trekked off to law school for me and graduate school for Barbara.  I earned my law degree and Barbara her MSW. We finally got married and settled down, me as a lawyer and Barbara as a social worker.  We started a family, knowing that Israel would become an essential part of raising our children.

In 1987, with a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old in tow, we headed off for our first family trip to Israel. The 5-year-old began his lifelong love of the country.  We meanwhile learned that a jet-lagged 1-year-old presents challenges that far exceed such 1-year-old’s parents’ ability to cope. As sleep-deprived parents, we spent many hours on the trip discussing the wisdom of introducing a 1-year-old to Israel.  We were now on the path that would culminate in that child making aliyah and his parents fulfilling their plan of retiring to the Jewish homeland.

We continued to make periodic family trips to Israel.  Each of these trips was memorable and our kids developed a true love for the country.

By 1999, our oldest son (he was 5 years old on our first family trip to Israel) had become an 18-year-old planning for college. He chose to take a gap year and spend it in Israel, on Nativ (the Conservative movement’s gap-year program) which included study, touring, college courses and Hebrew language study.  In August, 2000, we excitedly sent James off to Israel. Our excitement waned a bit when, a month later, the Second Intifada began.

While Nativ staff tried to keep nervous parents calm, daily news reports from Israel were not encouraging and we knew that whatever restrictions the program placed on its students would likely be ignored by inquisitive, and in their minds, indestructible, 18 year-olds.

Notwithstanding the various State Department warnings, in January my wife and I came to Israel to visit.  As the son of a Zionist real estate lawyer, James had learned that the best time to buy is when no one else is buying.  Soon after we arrived, he reminded me of how much I always wanted to buy an apartment in Israel, but could not afford to, due to the high prices. Now was the perfect time, he argued.

So, on a visit to Netanya, I happened upon a vacant piece of land with a sign and a phone number on it.  I called the phone number and the next thing I knew, we owned a 1/26th interest in a rubbish-covered sand lot in Netanya, near the beach.  

Amazingly, the apartment got built. My 30 year-old retirement plan was now at a point of no return.  I explained to each of my three sons that our entire family now had an investment interest in Israel that none of us could ever ignore or forget. My sons listened, which always surprised me greatly. While the apartment often sat vacant, pending our retirement, each of the kids loved coming for visits and enjoying kosher restaurants, sunny beaches and a comfortably furnished apartment close to the sea.

As we approached retirement, our middle son, whom you may remember as the 1-year-old with jet lag, had decided to make aliyah. The next thing we knew, he and his girlfriend, now wife, were living in our “perfect” retirement apartment. Our trips to Israel became more frequent and lasted longer. We gradually began spending almost six months each year here, escaping the wicked Wisconsin winters.

In 2016, as I approached my Medicare birthday, I discovered that Medicare does not provide coverage overseas. This led to our decision to fully implement the 46-year-old retirement plan.

Our first call was to Nefesh B’nefesh. Our middle son used Nefesh B’nefesh extensively for help with the aliya process, and raved about their assistance.  We found Daniel’s recommendation to be spot on. Nefesh B’nefesh immediately put us on the right path and kept us there throughout the aliya experience. We sensed that each person who works there truly cares about Israel, as well as about people who are planning aliya.  

As most Jews who live in the Diaspora know, every Jew has a right of return such that all, with few exceptions, are eligible to become citizens of Israel.  A caveat needs to be added to that last statement: The right of return exists for those who survive the process of filling out the myriad forms needed for aliya. Several times I teased my wife that we were going to test the true meaning of the right of return by showing up at Ben Gurion airport without all of those forms.

As usually happens, my wife’s rationality prevailed.  We completed our application and all of the other required forms, we got certified birth certificates, certified marriage certificates, acceptable proof that we are Jewish, and confirmed proof that our dog could either prove her Jewishness or was up-to-date on her rabies shots. (We chose the latter.) We interviewed with our local shaliah. We survived and were told that we would now receive our temporary visas. This last step is the key to being able to finally make reservations for the flight to Israel.

We learned that it is very important to allow ample planning time in order to arrive in Israel when you want to. We made our first call to Nefesh B’nefesh in June and landed in Israel in December.  Five to six months seems adequate, absent an unforeseen circumstance or two. We had some frustrations along the way, but the Nefesh B’nefesh staff was always very cheerful and patient in guiding us through the process and approximating how long each phase would take.

Implementing the Plan

At the same time we were obtaining and completing forms, we began looking into other issues, such as tax consequences of making aliya and which kupat holim (roughly like an HMO) to join to meet our health insurance needs.  Unless you have housing already available, as we did, you will need to focus on where to live when you get here. Nefesh B’nefesh provides webinars covering several important pre-aliya topics, and I encourage you to participate, even though they sometimes raise more questions than they answer.

Since we planned on still spending a few months each year in the United States, we did not sell our house or otherwise close accounts, such as utilities, bank, etc. If you plan on not returning to the United States, you should add additional time to make those arrangements.  

Your living space in Israel will likely be much smaller than what you are used to in the United States.  We have found downsizing (admittedly a chore) to be exactly what we needed. After all, can any of us hear as well as we used to?  In our apartment in Netanya, when I scream “Barbara,” the only thing preventing my wife from hearing me is intent.

After you have taken these steps, you will be entitled to get a visa to come to Israel. The visa, of course (remember this is Israel), is not a permanent visa, but is one that will get you into the country as an oleh hadash (a new immigrant). Then, during your first few months in Israel you will have to go to the interior ministry (misrad hapnim) to get your permanent visa. One might logically conclude that at the same time you apply for your permanent visa, you also apply for your Israeli passport. I think the concern in Israel is that the interior ministry will run out of work so they want to ensure that new immigrants keep coming back to them. So, after 90 days, you become eligible to return and apply for an Israeli passport.  The good news is that Nefesh B’nefesh is with you all the way, whether by phone or on the internet, where the organization explains exactly what to do. They even made appointments for us so that we did not have to stand in the amazingly long lines that exist at every government office.

But, before we begin thinking about permanent visas, we need to get to Israel. After you receive the temporary visa, Nefesh B’nefesh will help you schedule your free flight to Israel. There are either group flights, generally a couple of times per year, or you can fly pretty much on your own schedule on El Al.  Nefesh B’nefesh has its own transportation department to help with all of your arrangements.

We chose to fly on a ”regular” flight, as opposed to a group flight, and left Montreal on El Al on December 10, arriving in Israel the next day.  Although Nefesh B’nefesh had provided explicit directions for how to proceed to get our temporary Israeli identification cards (teudat zehut), and obtain health insurance with a kupat cholim immediately at the airport, we were nevertheless met by a Nefesh B’nefesh volunteer who walked us through the entire process. It was surprisingly easy and relatively quick, which we greatly appreciated since we were, naturally, exhausted from the trip. Not only that, we were given some money (yes, someone actually gave us money) as part of our sal klita (monetary amounts that are automatically deposited in one’s bank account monthly during the first six months in Israel to help get through the transition period).

After accomplishing what we needed to at the airport, we were shown where to catch a taxi to take us to our apartment in Netanya. The cab ride was also paid for as part of our one-way trip to Israel. We arrived at our apartment, both exhilarated and exhausted.

We had a good night’s sleep and woke up the next morning with a feeling of tremendous excitement. A new chapter of our lives was beginning. While many forms to fill out awaited us, the thought of creating this new life in the land that really is every Jew’s homeland was a feeling that cannot be replicated.

We made our list.  At first, it seemed overwhelming; renting a car, buying food, enrolling in an ulpan (intensive Hebrew language course), finding a doctor, getting a driver’s license all seemed like formidable tasks. But, once we started working on those tasks, I, a 66 year-old man with a farshtunkene (lousy) back that forced me to retire, suddenly felt like the 18 year-old freshman who had begun creating this retirement plan.

Once again, Nefesh B’nefesh’s support proved invaluable. Their website is a bible on how to complete the required steps.  It tells you where you need to go to do most things you will need to accomplish, as well as advising on what documents to bring.

I cannot tell you that the process is efficient. This is Israel. I have yet to experience going to a government office and not having to wait an inordinate amount of time to get help.  My best advice is to just smile, remind yourself that you are retired and this may be the only thing you really need to accomplish today and enjoy, if you can, some of the foolishness of the bureaucracy.

After a little over a year being here, we find ourselves having accomplished a great deal.  Each of our non-aliya kids have visited us and we have created relationships with doctors, accountants, lawyers and even guitar teachers. Barbara and I have each begun volunteer work, which is a great way that new olim are able to give back to their new community.  I’ve even become comfortable with honking at the driver in front of me while sitting at a red light.

Israel is a wonderful country, especially so for Jews. The politics maybe awful, but probably no worse than the United States right now.  We have met people from Russia, Morocco, France, Yemen, Britain and many other places around the world who have relocated not only because of the terrific opportunity and life in Israel, but also to escape anti-Semitism.  Those encounters constantly remind us of the importance of the Jewish state.

At this point, I am giving myself an “A” for the retirement planning I undertook when I was 18. My life here in Israel is meaningful.  My days and weeks are full and satisfying. Having settled in as an oleh hadash, I am working as a volunteer for a social service agency, I am learning Hebrew (still), I am spending invaluable time with my grandson and his parents, and I am living in the Jewish homeland. It doesn’t get any better than that.

About the Author
I am a 67 year old retired attorney who practiced law in Madison, Wisconsin for almost 40 years. My wife and I raised 3 sons, who are now grown. One of those sons made aliyah about 10 years ago. He has blessed us with a grandson who is the most beautiful and gentle grandson that God has ever created (and I checked with my wife to confirm the accuracy of that last statement).
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