JERUSALEM (Reuters Life!) - Jewish American math teacher Goldie Burdetsky never expected to find herself working the front desk of a hotel in southern Israel alongside management interns young enough to be her children.
“I mean, for God’s sakes, I have a master’s degree in education,” said the 55-year-old New Yorker. “I expected to be able to find a teaching job in the U.S. without any problems. But I couldn’t.”
Burdetsky decided to escape the dire economic situation back home, by coming to Israel on a program that offers Jews free housing, Hebrew classes, training, and work experience — all of which translate into temporary financial respite.
As the unemployment rate in the U.S. climbed to a 26-year high of 10.2 percent last month, growing numbers of young and adult American Jews were arriving in Israel to inexpensively “wait out” the economic lull.
In an attempt to lure diaspora Jews to make Israel their permanent home, the Israeli government and Jewish organizations offer a multitude of scholarships and travel grants, allowing many to spend up to six months in Israel almost for free.
The key aim is to safeguard a Jewish majority in a country where Arab citizens make up 20 percent of the population. In 2008, some 15,400 Jews immigrated to Israel, of whom 3,200 came from North America.
MASA, which means journey in Hebrew, oversees 160 such programs. It has seen the number of participants double and even quadruple this year, especially among those aged 21 to 30.
Participation in Burdetsky’s hotel management internship scheme jumped from 10 last year to 55 this year.
The World Union of Jewish Students Israel Hadassah, a post-university experience program, recorded a 100 percent increase in registrations, with 100 participants scheduled for the second half of 2009, compared with 50 all of last year.
“With the economy the way it is in North America, more and more Jewish college graduates who can’t find a job are deciding to delay their careers and come to Israel for a while,” said WUJS Israel director Mike Mitchell.
Yahel Segev, marketing director of MASA, said the increase reflects the success of the organization’s marketing strategy.
Its ‘Better Stimulus Plan’ campaign, inspired by the U.S. government’s post-crash economic stimulus package, offers grants to North American Jews for career development in Israel.
“With the Israel stimulus grant we are trying to convince them that while the situation is bad in America, they can spend time in Israel,” Segev said.
For decades Jewish organizations have sent Jews from around the world to Israel for free, or at a very low cost, with hopes of boosting immigration or at least building ties to Israel.
Matt Bennett, a 25-year-old from Vineland, New Jersey, is currently attending the same program as Burdetsky. He says he is unsure whether he will stay on after it ends.
“They’re funding these programs to attract more Jews to come,” Bennett said. “Will I immigrate? For now I’m just going to say that if it’s going to help me and advance my career, I’ll take it while I can. That’s what I’m doing.”
Segev of MASA said the programs aim to reconnect Jews to their Jewish roots, but that’s not all.
“We’re very happy about every single person who immigrates after completing a MASA program,” she acknowledges.
Adam Hecht, 25, from Los Angeles, said he probably would not be immigrating to Israel after his five months here.
“I’m American. I doubt I will come to identify with Israelis over the next couple of months,” he said. “Except maybe, that is, I could immigrate ... if I find my future wife here.”
Editing by Douglas Hamilton and Paul Casciato