Lisa Sanders reveals how one-in-four French Jews making aliyah to Israel are landing in Netanya

Friday morning and Israel’s coastal city of Netanya is buzzing. Shops selling slippers, Dead Sea lotions, leg-warmers and phone gadgets display lurid “New Year trees” for their Russian-speaking clientele. The numerous cafes, bakeries and frozen yogurt outlets wish customers a “joyeuse Hannoukah” – Happy Chanukah in French.

Of the eight thousand new immigrants who arrived from France in 2015, over a quarter came to Netanya, dubbed “Israel’s Riviera”. On this typical Friday morning, a French-speaking woman drops her carrier bags of challahs and baguettes so as to hold an animated conversation with her friend, who leans out of a first floor balcony above her.

IMG_0638Nearby, enjoying the winter sunshine, croissant, cappuccino and cigarette in hand, Eyal Ichai, 24, describes the recent influx of French Olim. “It’s the older people [who] are truly brave,” he says, gesturing at the next table. “They have made Aliyah not once but twice. First from Morocco or Tunisia to France, and now here to Israel. It’s hard for them. Everything’s so expensive.” Ichai is an estate agent. He was born in Israel, lived in France until the age of fifteen and is now supplying apartments to the French newcomers. He takes several calls on his mobile and drains his coffee. He doesn’t advertise, he says. He doesn’t need to. Word of mouth is enough. His clients are all French-speaking and most hope to find an affordable apartment either near the sea or further inland in the new suburb of Kiryat Hasharon, where there are an abundance of kindergartens and schools.

Netanya, (twin city – Nice) has long had strong ties to France’s half a million-strong Jewish community. As well as French synagogues and patisseries, the city boasts countless hairdressing salons offering “Parisian coiffure.” One such belongs to William Manino, 39, who made aliyah seven years ago from Lyon, where he owned a large salon. “I came [to Israel] because I’m crazy about Israel,” he says, while expertly teasing an elderly customer’s locks with the blowdryer. “I used to look over customers’ shoulders while I was cutting their hair, and they’d be reading Paris Match or so on. And I’d see such terrible negative stuff [written] about Israel. And I just had to smile and say nothing and be professional. Now my clients and I are on the same side.”

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In the seven years since his arrival, Manino has seen his business grow. “I have 14 staff working for me now,” he says with pride. “Just like I had in Lyon.”

One of these new employees is Alexia Marciano, 26, who made aliyah last year with her parents and siblings from Sarcelles, a predominantly Muslim Paris suburb. “My aunt, cousins, my friends, are there [in Sarcelles]. It’s very bad. Scary. Next year we hope that the rest of the family is coming.”

Manino has a sister and five brothers still living in Lyon. He says they’re worried they won’t find work in Israel. Back in October, his half-sister, Megan Bedok, 20, arrived on aliyah. Already a trained hairdresser, she’s working in her brother’s salon but dreams of serving in the IDF. “The army’s told her, no, they don’t need her, but she’s insistent, she really wants to go,” Manino says, smiling.

“It’s good for Megan, she’s so young,” Corinne Manino, William’s wife, and the salon’s receptionist, says, in fluent English. “She has to learn Hebrew very well and then she’ll succeed.” For Corinne, the transition to life in Israel has been tough. Back in Lyon, she worked in a company that exported children’s toys. In Israel, she says, the language has been a struggle. The couple have two daughters, aged ten and four. “The school day is far too short here,” she says. “I couldn’t afford to pay for daycare, so I couldn’t continue my career.”

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The Israeli education system, with its complete division into strictly religious or totally secular streams, is one of the things the French Jews find the most challenging. “French Jews are traditional,” explains Fredo Pachter, Netanya’s aliyah coordinator. “They’re traditional but not extreme. You see French women here, wearing jeans or shorts and so on, and you think, ‘this is a secular woman’, but at home they will be lighting Shabbat candles, keeping kosher, and so on. They go to synagogue on Shabbat, and afterwards they go to the beach. And they have no problem with that.”

Pachter admits much more needs to be done to help French Jews feel at home in Israel. The government has been slow to recognise the qualifications of lawyers, doctors and dentists. “Government offices tend to just pass the buck,” Pachter says. “But I’m confident we can resolve this issue.”

The Israeli government has promised the equivalent of £30m for 2016 to help French Olim.

“Life is tough here,” Ishai the estate agent says. “Zionism alone isn’t enough.”

Corinne Manino agrees. “Last December, we took two days’ holiday,” she says. “That was our vacation for the whole year. This year, we’re going to take three whole days off.”

She shrugs, a gesture that is both typically French and Israeli. “I think maybe every Israeli works hard. This is the life, right?”

C’est la vie.