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Latino Life in Israel

The benefits and difficulties for South Americans who retire in Israel.

En español | Clara Bluer sports the narrow glasses she wore in her native Argentina before immigrating to Israel four years ago to be near her children. Now, the 76-year-old retiree lives in a well-kept apartment in Kfar Sava, a suburb north of Tel Aviv. She spends time with her two children, four grandchildren and other Spanish-speaking Jews in the middle-income suburb. But with only a weekly Spanish-language newspaper and just one Spanish-language television channel originating from Spain, she says it’s hard keeping up with the news. “I speak a little Hebrew, but I need to learn a lot more,” she says in Spanish. “It’s very hard at this age.”

While longtime residents from South America retire comfortably on Israel’s general retirement system, Bluer’s life typifies that of many retired Latino recent immigrants—and the problems they face, says Ile Kermel Schiffman, director of a local senior center. Unlike previous generations of South American Jewish immigrants, she says, many are having a hard time learning Hebrew and integrating into Israeli life. As a small minority in Israel’s polyglot society, they tend to be offered few special services.

Older South American Jews  “try to be independent, but they are very dependent on family because they need help with everything,” says Kermel Schiffman, who wrote her master’s thesis on South American seniors in Israel. Bills arrive in Hebrew, as do important government notices. Israel has a universal health care system, but few doctors or emergency personnel speak Spanish. “That can be life threatening,” Kermel Schiffman says.
Kermel Schiffman, a gerontologist, and a handful of Spanish-speaking Israeli social workers  have recently started innovative programs to provide medical and other emergency translations and check up on seniors at home once a week. “We visit them at home to make sure the electricity works and their houses are clean,” says Daniela Shomron, director of the Supportive Community Center in Kfar Sava. “They have the confidence to ask for whatever they need.”

A New Home in Israel
South American Jews started arriving in Israel even before the country’s founding in 1948. Dr. Efraim Zadoff, a historian and expert on South American Jewish history and immigration, says Zionists came to build a homeland for the Jewish people and to live there. Others headed to Israel to flee political persecution or to seek economic betterment.

From the 1950s through the 1980s, South Americans emigrated to Israel mainly from Argentina but also Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. Most were Ashkenazi Jews whose parents had fled Europe earlier in the century. From 1976 to 1983, says Zadoff, Argentines escaped the country’s military dictatorships. Some people “fled without any connection to Israel or Jewish culture,” he says. “Israel was the only place to find haven.” Famous dissidents such as Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman, for example, found refuge in Israel, but later left. “When the dictatorship fell, most went back,” Zadoff explains. A similar pattern emerged for Argentines and Uruguayans fleeing their country’s 2000–01 economic crisis.

But for those South American Jews who stayed and integrated into Israeli society, many say their senior years are better than what they would have faced back home. About 100,000 Israelis and their children are of Latin American origin, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Of those, 22,000 are over age 55.

A Better Retirement
Sixty-year-old Nora Bendersky walks through the Old City of Jerusalem, retracing the steps she took as a teenager on her first visit to Israel in 1967. She still loves the smells and sounds of the Muslim Quarter, where shops sell Middle Eastern delicacies and intricately crafted gold jewelry.

She made aliyah (immigrated to Israel—literally, “ascended”) in 1970 at the age of 20. Like all  new Jewish arrivals, she received economic incentives; hers included a full university scholarship, a heavily subsidized mortgage and reduced taxes. After getting a master’s degree in education, she worked at Hebrew University in Jerusalem counseling foreign students. At age 58 she retired.

“I was tired of working,” she says. “I wanted freedom.” And Bendersky achieved it, thanks to Israel’s retirement system. Her university had a defined benefit pension plan, and she now receives 70 percent of her former salary. Within a few years she’ll also collect the full benefits of a government social security pension.

In Israel men can retire at age 67, women at 64, and receive full benefits. Many institutions and companies still provide defined-benefit programs, where the pension is determined by length of service and salary. But, as in the United States, some employers are now using individual retirement accounts, which cost them less. Hebrew University of Jerusalem employees hired in the past decade, for example, must enroll in IRA-style plans, and the university matches their contributions. The resulting pension is considerably lower than under the old system.

Israel also offers universal health care to all its citizens. A government insurance plan reimburses patients for almost all medical costs. While working, citizens pay a tax of about 5 percent of their gross income, but after retirement their health insurance contributions drop significantly.

Bendersky says she and her domestic partner, a math professor, “are living the same lifestyle” as before her retirement.

Over the years, she has dreamed of returning to Argentina. “It’s always a fantasy you have somewhere in your mind,” she says. But she likes the way of life in Israel and says her life is better than it would be in South America.

Decisions to Make
Older, more recent immigrants from South America face difficult decisions. Kermel Schiffman says many were relatively affluent small business people in Argentina. They might not have a pension from their homeland, and in Israel they receive Israel’s minimum social security payment because they have no work history there.

Kermel Schiffman says many end up with less income in Israel. Their difficulty in learning Hebrew means it’s harder to get a driver’s license and, in any case, “most don’t have enough money to buy a car.”

That’s why the Kfar Sava Supportive Community Center’s services take on even more importance, social workers say. Volunteers visit each of the approximately 250 Spanish-speaking members of the center every week.
Each member’s apartment is equipped with a home alert system. “If you fall, you press a button to ask for an ambulance,” explains Shomron, the center’s director. The ambulance is free and a doctor’s home visit costs about $7. All services are available in Spanish.

Bluer, who volunteers at the program, says, “We receive good medical services and help by communicating with the doctors in Spanish. But people living in other parts of Israel don’t have those services.”

Shomron and Kermel Schiffman hope to extend their programs for Spanish speakers to other cities with significant numbers of older Latinos.

Despite the problems, Bluer says her life is in many ways better in Israel than it would be back home. But best of all, is that she gets to spend her final years with family. “My grandchildren play musical instruments and I go to see them at school,” she says. “I couldn’t do that in Argentina.”

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