For Pnina Shichor, raised in the predominantly Jewish Beverly-Fairfax district of Los Angeles, the churches of Orange County were much like the banks in her husband's native Israel.
There seemed to be one on every block.
As an American Jew, Pnina sometimes felt uncomfortable with the largely Christian topography of Orange County, her home since 1975. Yet her Israeli husband, David, seemed oblivious.
Indeed, for David Shichor and the 1,000 to 1,500 relatively upscale Israelis who have made their homes here, any initial misgivings over the county's reputation as deep-rooted Christian and conservative are minor.
"I really do like it here," says David Shichor, a criminologist at Cal State San Bernardino. Orange County, he says, is about as close to God's country as an Israeli can get without actually living in the Holy Land.
Having grown up as Jewish citizens in a predominantly Jewish country, most Israelis do not share the traumas that have afflicted their counterparts in the diaspora.
What matters to most of them is that Orange County boasts a quality of life they believe is superior to that of Los Angeles, where the bulk of Israelis in Southern California have settled. But unlike their countrymen who live in the next county to the north, these Israelis are not immigrants in the classic sense. Most, because of their educations and professional skills, "made it" from the moment they first took up residence in Orange County. They didn't need to live in close proximity to other Israelis while adjusting to their new circumstances and learning the ropes. It was enough to find the best place to live.
What they were looking for was somewhere to settle back and live out the American Dream: Orange County, which offers a standard of living light years beyond what even those of their class could expect in Israel.
Shmuel Ben-Shmuel came to Anaheim Hills a year ago after securing his doctorate in aerospace engineering at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Ben-Shmuel, 50, resumed his studies in the United States after a number of years working for Israel Aircraft Industries. But in Israel, he says, he could never have matched the material gains he has accrued here, after only one year in the space transportation division of Rockwell International. Wages are considerably higher in the United States, and taxes--income tax, valued-added tax and customs duties--are dramatically lower.
Moreover, America offers, on the whole, far lower housing and consumer costs. Even Orange County, with some of the highest housing prices in the country, offers Israeli newcomers more building for the buck than is available in most Israeli cities. It also offers mortgages that would be difficult to obtain and impossible to sustain on Israeli wages.
Today Ben-Shmuel, who was born in Bulgaria and arrived in Israel when he was 11, owns a roomy two-story house that only a wealthy industrialist might afford in Israel--a house, says his wife, Geula, valued at about $300,000 in today's superheated market. He and Geula, a Hebrew teacher of Yemenite descent, drive cars that back home would have cost triple what they cost here. And there is money for their three children's university tuition and for periodic trips back to visit family and friends.
"It's not fair to compare this life style to what is available in Israel, considering its situation," says Ben-Shmuel. "Let's (compare it instead to) Los Angeles. Orange County is less crowded, the crime rate is lower, and the public school system is better."
There was a time, Ben-Shmuel says, when he felt uneasy over having left Israel, even though he was encouraged to get at least one of his degrees from an American university for the sake of his future job prospects in Israel. Most Israeli emigres spend their lives wrestling with the Angst that comes from departing a country in which immigration and perseverance remain paramount virtues.
Even those who, like Ben-Shmuel, never really thought at first that they were leaving for good find it hard to shake the societal and self-afflicted stigma of yerida, in Israel a pejorative term for emigration, which for many remains emotionally akin to desertion.
Eytan Bentzur, Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, calls yerida "a mark of Cain" that he hopes will remained stamped on the foreheads of each of the 150,000 to 200,000 Israelis living in Southern California. It is Bentzur's contention that these Israelis have sold their birthrights and those of their children--the ability to live dignified lives as Jews in a sovereign Jewish state--for insubstantial and ultimately worthless lives engaged in California dreaming.
"They are lost and miserable here, and they know it," said Bentzur, now winding up his two-year term.