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Reinventing careers in Israel

May 23, 2008. New Jersey Jewish Standard: Abigail Klein Leichman

Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, who made aliyah from Teaneck, is now a tour guide as well as a religious guide.

While many new Israelis choose to commute or telecommute to their diaspora jobs, others make major career changes in order to earn a living in the Middle East.

That’s especially true for pulpit rabbis. In Israeli synagogues, there is virtually no such thing as a full-time synagogue rabbi.

Besides, "There is no shortage of rabbis here," quips former Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County director Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, who moved to Israel with his family in 2003. "As far as being a congregational rabbi in Israel goes, I never even considered it."

Weiss’ first Israeli job, fundraising for a network of Chabad-Lubavitch schools in Israel, lasted two years. He looked into becoming an English teacher, but the starting salary — the equivalent of $1,000 per month — was not enough to support his large family.

Ronda Israel turned a sweet tooth into a thriving business.

Then he saw an ad for a Ministry of Tourism tour-guide course. "It seemed like a perfect fit," he recalls. "I’m a ‘people person’ and I love the country and traveling. I speak in English and the pay is good."

The catch was that he had to give up two years of livelihood while earning the license, which involves 600 classroom hours, more than 100 field trips, lots of reading, and examinations. His father-in-law started him off with enough money for two months of classes, and friends pitched in to tide the Weisses over the remaining time.

Weiss says now that it was all worth it.

"I was the top student of 25 in my course. It was indescribably great," he says. "My classmates were young and old, religious and secular Jews, a woman studying to be a rabbi, and non-Jews as well. We had a great experience together. We shared a love for the land despite our different backgrounds."

More than 1,000 potential emigrés from the New York area attended a daylong Jewish Agency aliyah seminar on April 6, 2008 featuring sessions by Israeli government representatives, as well as employment and financial counselors. Photo by David Karp

He received his license in February, set up a blog (http://israelguide.blogspot.com) and a new e-mail account ([email protected]), and started booking clients immediately.

"We learned that the purpose of a tour guide is to serve as a bridge between the land and the people touring it," says Weiss. "In some ways it’s not really reinventing myself. It fits into what I always did, just in a different form. Being a guide here is almost like having [rabbinic] ordination from the state."

Weiss says he has no regrets about the change of direction. "When you move here, if you’re willing to reinvent yourself — if necessary — you can succeed. You have to have that willingness."

It also helps to have flexibility.

Before moving to Modi’in from Highland Park in July 2000, Ronda Israel was a yeshiva administrator and history teacher. Because she was not fluent in Hebrew, she recognized that her skills wouldn’t translate. But she was ready for a change.

Shai Jaskoll moved from Bergenfield to Israel, where he trains Israelis to use medical equipment. Here he is with his son Hillel.

"I had had enough. I wanted to do something fun where I could use my creative talents," she says. "I had formerly been a graphic designer and audiovisual specialist."

She noticed that Israelis love sweets, and so her chocolate dreams began. "Chocolate is something people choose to buy, so it’s less stressful than selling something you have to convince people to buy," Israel says. "I saw the opportunity to do creative packaging and gift items that people would really enjoy giving and receiving."

After testing her product ideas on friends, Israel went into business before Rosh HaShanah in 2001, with kosher supervision from the local rabbinate. Chocolate Dreams (www.chocolatedreamsco.com) has become a thriving concern.

"I’ve gone from one little niche to dessert catering, working with event planners, going to bazaars and chocolate fairs to sell my products," she says. "People coming from overseas for a simcha [happy occasion] order gift baskets for their guests, chocolate centerpieces, chocolate favors, chocolate hostess gifts. I’m having a great time and meeting wonderful people."

Israel has the added advantage of working at home and setting her own schedule. "I am the proud owner of a huge chocolate tempering machine," she says. "The dining room is my packaging department, the living room is my mailing department, the table in the hallway is my production department. On occasion I hire other people to fill large orders, and sometimes my family pitches in."

She is always finding new products and new ways to package her goodies, but one thing remains the same: "I put an Israeli flag on everything that goes out," she says. "I want people to know where it comes from."

For Shai Jaskoll, perseverance and timing were just as important as willingness and flexibility.

Jaskoll, a paramedic, first moved to Israel with his family in 1998, but returned to Bergenfield in 2001. He spent the next few years managing the emergency communication center at Newark’s UMDNJ-University Hospital and training emergency medical technicians in Paramus and in Manhattan.

While living in Israel, he’d made contact with a medical equipment manufacturer called Ardon. By 2007, Ardon was looking to expand its training and sales staff, and Jaskoll was just the guy for the job. With that, the family was ready to take another stab at living in the Holy Land.

"Like most everyone who makes aliyah, I had lots of questions about how things would work out and I knew I needed to have employment set up prior to returning," says Jaskoll. "I did not change my career so much as redirect it slightly."

Though his job is rewarding, it is not without challenges: most of the training must be given in Hebrew, "which is not my first language."

He travels around the country teaching customers how to use Ardon’s cardiac defibrillators and medical monitoring equipment. "These machines are common in America but they’re just starting to take off here," he says. "There is a proposed law in the Knesset to require public locations such as malls, pools, gyms, and community sports centers to purchase defibrillators, and to have personnel trained to use them."

Many government offices and sports teams are purchasing them, and that keeps this father of three young children busy.

Already, his efforts have paid off in the currency of saved lives. On March 19, a Maccabi Haifa soccer referee collapsed during a televised veterans tournament match. The team’s physician and coaches, who had recently been trained by Jaskoll, used their new defibrillator to restart the man’s heart even before emergency services arrived on the field.

And after training and certifying six American students at a girls’ seminary in Jerusalem in life-saving techniques, Jaskoll received an e-mail from one of the students telling him that she had done the Heimlich maneuver on a 5-year-old for whom she was babysitting. "He was choking on a jawbreaker and by using the skills I had taught her, she was able to get the candy dislodged," says Jaskoll.

Ben Mansheim is another former New Jersey resident who has "redirected" his career.

Originally an information technology project manager at Newark-based IDT Corp., Mansheim got another IT administrative position at IDT’s Israeli office when he and his family made aliyah in 2005 from Passaic. Soon he felt ready to branch out, but while his lack of Hebrew fluency was not a problem at IDT, it was sure to be a detriment in a Hebrew-speaking work environment.

"I knew it would be hard for me to get into project management here," he says. Instead, he took a friend’s advice and trained to be a technical writer. This is a popular field in Israel, because its many software developers need all product documentation to be written in excellent English for the global market.

"As a technical writer, my English skills would be highly valued, and the [pool of candidates] is smaller than for administrators, since everyone coming out of the army is looking to get into high tech," Mansheim says. "Writing has great growth opportunity."

He worked as a freelance contractor for several outsourcing companies for about a year. A six-month stint at Check Point Software Technologies in Tel Aviv led to a full-time position there, which he started last week.

Mansheim, who lives with his wife, Sari, and four children in Yad Binyamin, says technical writing feels "totally different" from what he had done previously.

"In management, the goal is to identify the needs of the client and manage the resources to get the project done from start to finish. Technical writing involves meeting with the developers of the product and understanding how the product works, so that you can write up what people will need to use the product," he explains.

The bulk of his assignments deal with network security software, with which he was thoroughly familiar in his previous work. "I can be a particularly good resource to the company," says Mansheim. "Most of their writers have always been writers, whereas I have been an actual software user."

In the meantime, Sari Mansheim just opened an internal medicine/women’s health clinic in the family’s home. She did not have to change her profession, but she did have to wade through the bureaucracy involved in transferring her credentials to another country.

"It’s taken her this long to end up in a comparable position to what she had in America," says her husband. "She was working in kupot [health clinics] and hospitals; she did a bunch of different things. Now she’s professionally back to where she wants to be."

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