Israeli brothers fare well when it comes to immigration and employment

Oz and Jonathan Zilberberg
Oz and Jonathan Zilberberg (photo: Christin Davis)

In a one-bedroom condo just off Hollywood’s Sunset Strip, friends and family of the four Zilberberg brothers — immigrants to Los Angeles from their home in Israel — began arriving around 9 p.m. on a Friday. The host, Jonathan Zilberberg, 34, scrambled for a wine opener to start the traditional blessings as the two braided loaves of challah, bread for the Jewish Sabbath, wait under the customary embroidered cover.

As someone turns down The Black Eyed Peas’ most recent single, kippah head coverings are distributed to the men in preparation for prayer. With more men than kippahs, paper towels turned up at the corners suffice.

Conversations in Hebrew converge with those in English, as Oz Zilberberg, 38, gathers everyone at the table. The oldest man in the room, in his mid-40s, leads the prayers before passing a glass of wine to the men, in order of age, and then the women.

The Zilberbergs are among some 17,000 Israeli immigrants reportedly living in Los Angeles County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2009 American Community Survey. The brothers immigrated and established careers before economic decline left 12.5 percent of Californian’s unemployed, as of December 2010, with virtually no variance between the native-born and foreign-born populations.

Each Friday night, the group of about 20 meets in Hollywood for a Shabbat dinner — the beginning of a 24-hour break from work.

Oz Zilberberg

“Shabbat dinners are like a small part of Israel,” Oz Zilberberg says. “It helps us remember where we come from and keeps us together as a tribe.”

The brothers’ father was the only surviving member of his family after the Holocaust; he fled to Israel as a refugee from Yugoslavia in 1947.

“Growing up, our father questioned if there was a God, and asked where he was during the Holocaust,” Oz Zilberberg says. “As adults, we divide religion from religious organizations, but we keep the basics.”

On this particular night, over a catered kosher dinner of fish, beef, rice, potatoes, and hummus, discussion centers on the recent unrest across the Middle East and what instigated much of the citizen uprisings — economics, specifically unemployment.

Recent news reports have covered the protests and promises for jobs and monetary assistance in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, and Iran. The head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, even warned in January that the “Arab soul is broken by poverty, employment, and general recession,” according to the Associated Press.

Israel, as Shabbat dinner attendees note, is following the turbulence closely. It has been spared from the unrest, but has not escaped the pertinent issue of unemployment. In November 2010, the Central Bureau of Statistics reports, the unemployment rate in Israel stood at 6.8 percent, including roughly 216,000 Israelis. Haaretz calls unemployment “Israel’s other existential threat,” second only to its destruction by outside forces.

Oz Zilberberg arrived in Los Angeles in 2001 following 10 years serving in the Israeli Defense Forces, a recent divorce, and a year traveling in South America. One by one, his three brothers immigrated to L.A. as well. Jonathan Zilberberg arrived in late 2001, and the brothers opened a construction company together, California Construction Center, which specializes in home remodeling throughout Southern California.

“Israelis are great businessmen by nature,” says Lian Kimia, who immigrated to Los Angeles from Israel as a child and now works as a project manager for the Israeli Leadership Council (ILC), a non-profit geared toward connecting Israeli Americans with their home culture. The ILC operates 13 programs spanning all ages, including one specifically for young professionals.

“Most have served in the army and come with the mentality that everything is life or death, and that you have to do everything to the best of your ability and bring new ideas and solutions to incorporate into your work ethic. Many Israelis here lead their professional lives the same way.”

Tatyana Kodner, director of Refugee and Immigrant Services at Jewish Vocational Services in L.A., a non-profit that works with agencies and individuals to ensure access to employment and assistance, says finding jobs for refugees and immigrants in a normal labor market is difficult due to competition with the native-born population, but “competing with locals over the past two years has become especially challenging.”

“We now have to try to sell personality and a different set of work ethics in helping people find employment.”

Kodner, an immigrant to California from Russia, fled to the U.S. to escape anti-Semitism in her home country. “The Jewish community has always had to work 10 times harder to earn a place under the sun,” Kodner says. “The history of the Jews is that they have always had to prove themselves.”

A large majority of immigrants from the Middle East start businesses in the U.S., according to Kodner. “Many of these individuals were entrepreneurs at home, and they work to be entrepreneurs here as well.”

Jonathan Zilberberg

With 30 employees, including 10 friends the brothers have “imported” from Israel, California Construction Center maintained a steady stream of customers in 2010 despite the recession, but did close a branch office in San Diego. The Zilberbergs say the economic downturn taught them about resiliency, though they have never shied away from prospects for success.

“In the U.S., people grow up without bad shaping their lives; In Israel, with the threat of attacks and with everyone having to serve in the army, you must live each day like it’s your last,” Oz Zilberberg says. “But [in the U.S.], there’s no reason not to run forward and go as high as you can. For me, it is actually the land of opportunities.”


Christin DavisChristin Davis is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Southern California, and the managing editor for Caring, a magazine focused on social services produced by The Salvation Army.

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great story - well reported