Young Israelis go crazy for Berlin

Growing numbers of young Israelis are moving to Berlin, eager to put the shadow of the past behind them. Ruth Michaelson reports on why so many are "meshugge" for the German capital and how they are shaping its culture.

Young Israelis go crazy for Berlin
DJ Aviv (left) with friends at Berlin Meshugge. Photo: Shinji Minegish

It’s 2 am on Saturday in a basement in Berlin’s central Mitte district. Israeli and German flags hang from a low ceiling above a packed, sweaty dance floor throbbing to Israeli pop music.

Behind the decks, young Israeli Aviv Netter, half his face covered in gold glitter, balances astride a chair and the mixing desk, arms outstretched above the crowd. This is “Berlin Meshugge,” a club night that mixes the Tel Aviv party spirit with Berlin’s celebrated gay scene.

“Berlin is the capital of pluralism and liberalism in the world today,” Netter says later.

The DJ and promoter started “Berlin Meshugge” three years ago, spotting a gap in the wide range of themed parties in the capital city. “Meschugge” is a popular Yiddish word for crazy.

“At Meschugge we are performing a great service – bringing some of the Tel Aviv spirit to Berlin,” he says. “It’s better for the image of Israel than anything the embassy might be putting out.”

Now 26, Netter came to Berlin almost five years ago and has witnessed a wave of young Israelis relocating to the city. Like expats from many other countries, they come to fulfill their creative and hedonistic dreams in the famously debauched capital.

According to census data, around 3,000 Israelis are officially living in Berlin. But because German law grants the right of nationality to the children of Holocaust victims, some estimate the true figure could be as high as 15,000.

“Oi Vey, you’re gay”

“I think the Israelis that are coming to Berlin are very Berlin Israelis,” says Netter while sitting at a trendy cafe in the Prenzlauer Berg district, a popular area among his countrymen.

His friend Ady, a DJ who splits his time between Berlin and Israel, speaks up on why the city’s legendary gay scene appeals even to Israelis from relatively liberal places such as Tel Aviv.

“When you come here no one can comment on your sexuality, you are free to explore new things. When you’re at home, even if you live away from your family in your own place, people talk,” he says.

Still Netter calls Tel Aviv the “little sister of Berlin,” and says he hopes to share Israel’s rich culture with with his receptive Berlin following.

“Maybe 20 percent of the people that come to Berlin Meshugge are Israeli. Eighty percent are Germans, completely German,” he explains.

Past meets present

Although the most recent wave of Israeli immigration to Berlin is mainly young people, they are not the first generation to settle in the city after the Second World War. Ilan Weiss, 60, the self-proclaimed “best teller of Jewish jokes of all the German insurance brokers,” has been a Berlin resident since 1990.

“Many ask me how come I live in the Germany of the Nazis, and I say that there are two nations, who can forgive each other or not, like Israel and Germany,” he says. “But people, they do forgive each other very easily. An individual can find a connection and forgive easier than a nation can.”

Weiss has been running a popular newsletter for Israelis living in Berlin for more than 10 years. With a circulation of over 2,000, many of his readers meet once a month to hear speakers and chat in Hebrew.

He also considers himself a bridge between German and Israeli culture, recently publishing a German-language book of Jewish humour entitled Sex am Sabbat? Moderne jüdische Witze, or “Sex on Shabbat? Modern Jewish Jokes.”

Yet unlike many of the younger Israelis flooding to Berlin, Weiss has not sought German nationality.

“I’m a guest in Germany – even though I’ve been living here for 20 years, and I’m comfortable with that,” he says. “I could get a German passport but I’d have to give up my Israeli one, and that’s part of my identity.”

Leaving the ‘promised land’

While many younger Israelis travel to Berlin in search of a good time outside of their homeland, Weiss says that the heavy nationalist streak in Israeli society can make leaving Israel “an act of cowardice…leaving friends behind to continue their war.”

He also avoids mentioning the difficult past between Germany and the Jews.

“I’m tired of being a representative of the Holocaust survivors or of those that were murdered. I don’t bring up the subject unless there’s a very good reason,” he says.

But many of the fresh young Israeli implants in Berlin insist that they don’t consider the political implications of their decision to move, despite remaining hyper-aware of precisely what these are.

Jonathan Naman, a freelance photographer and Berlin resident of four years, says that young Israelis view Germany as friendly thanks to its unwavering support for their homeland on the international stage.

“When I told people I had a German passport, they’d respond with, ‘What the fuck are you still doing in Israel?!’,” says Naman.

His German passport was considered such an asset that in the months before his departure he received four marriage proposals from Israeli women eager to leave the country themselves.

One reason for Berlin’s growing popularity seems to be increased exposure through a growing tourism industry between the two countries. In August 2010 daily Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that “Berlin is booming in the Holy Land,” citing a threefold increase in flights between the city and Israel.

“As generations progress, people are more open, even to Germany,” Naman says. “Some people in Israel still don’t ever want to set foot on German soil, even people my age, but this is just ignorance.”

The contrast between affordable, peaceful Berlin and what Naman calls “ugly Israel” – a country with a “market mentality” where people are “loud, crass and always willing to cut corners” – is also appealing to people like him, he says.

While Israelis argue that the daily grind of security checks and a palpable sense of living in a conflict zone becomes normal, it is unsurprising that this kind of stress would motivate so many of Israel’s youth to seek a more uncomplicated life elsewhere.

“One of the great things about Berlin is that it’s filled with foreigners, which is why it’s so easy to settle here – other foreigners are welcoming and the Germans are used to them,” he says.

Creative cooperation continues

Meanwhile new projects mixing the culture of Israel and Berlin are blooming throughout the city.

“I never thought that I would do radio in Hebrew and German in Berlin,” says Aviv Russ, who runs the bilingual language show Kol Berlin, or “voice of Berlin,” which he began in 2006.

He is enthusiastic about what the future holds, predicting that the Israeli-Berlin culture “will continue to grow, but as a different and alternative community.”

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‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like to work at a Berlin tech startup

Many foreigners dream of finding a job in Germany's growing startup scene. But aside from promises of free pizza, what's the culture like, is the pay good - and do you need to speak German? We spoke to two foreigners working at tech startups in Berlin to find out.

'Lack of diversity is a problem': What it's like to work at a Berlin tech startup

With over €5.1 billion in venture capital fund investments raised last year, the startup industry in Germany’s capital is booming. Startups are the fastest-growing job sector in Berlin, and more than 78,000 people are now employed in the sector.

The sector attracts highly qualified, ambitious people from all over the globe. But what is it really like to work for a Berlin startup?

We spoke to two insiders to find out. Gabriela, 36, is originally from Poland and has been a Business-to-Business Manager in a tech startup in Berlin since October last year. Giuseppe, also 36, is originally from Italy and has been working as a Human Resources Manager in various tech startups for the last seven years. 

Most important question first – do you actually get free pizza and office table tennis?

Giuseppe: These kinds of benefits have become a bit of a cliche that doesn’t really reflect the reality anymore. Yoga, soft drinks, and fruit baskets are nothing special. The real benefits are now to do with remote working and flexible working schedules. 

Gabriela: We haven’t really had many of these kinds of ‘incentives’ because we’ve been mainly working from home since I started. Only in the last month or so we’ve been going to the office at least once a week, and we do get free pizza and drinks once a month when the CEO’s give us their monthly update on how the business is going.

READ ALSO: The German regions attracting startups

Would you say that your work environment is diverse?

Gabriela: My team is a complete mix of people from different European countries. But the number of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people on board is not very high and there is definitely a problem with the lack of female leadership, which the company is trying to address. The CEOs are all white Germans.

Giuseppe: (Lack of) diversity is still a big problem. Most of the CEOs and the highest earners are white – usually German – guys. Women and BAME people tend to occupy lower-paid jobs. It’s a systemic issue – and there is competition among a lot of startups that are trying to show who is more diverse. 

How much German is spoken in your company?

Gabriela: Hardly any. We speak all the time in English with each other and all of our meetings are in English.

Giuseppe: It’s the same with us. I’m hearing German less and less. 

READ ALSO: How easy is it to get an English-speaking job in Germany?

Is there anything then that indicates that the company you’re working for is German?

Gabriela: I think the presence of a strong labour law reminds you that you’re in Germany. In our company, there’s an employees representation group and certain clear rules. You know that you won’t be suddenly dismissed once you’ve passed your probation time.

Giuseppe: Yes, the labour law is what I would point to. It’s not easy to get rid of employees in Germany – there is a more robust framework that affects the environment and culture. 

What is the salary like?

Gabriela: I think it’s competitive. My company does salary benchmarking every summer to see what the standard is across the industry and adjusts its pay accordingly.

Giuseppe: Salaries have gone up a lot in the last few years and you could even say they are booming now. A ‘normal’ engineer can expect to earn at least €85,000 per year, and if you are in a serious leadership position, you can expect to earn up to €180,000.

READ ALSO: Do internationals face discrimination in the workplace

A woman working from home throws money in the air. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

Would you say that it’s a high-pressure environment to work in?

Gabriela: For me, there isn’t the kind of pressure that if you don’t perform you won’t get the money you should be getting. Instead, my company is trying to get you to think that your own success is intertwined with the success of the company. There are good incentives to work hard and we have also a certain amount of shares in the company, so if it does well we benefit too.

Giuseppe: I personally feel pressure, but I love what I do, so for me it’s fine. But I have seen a lot of cases of people burning out – especially young people. I think because there are a lot of young managers, who get into leadership roles without having the tools or strength to resist the pressure.

How do you find the work-life balance? 

Giuseppe: I feel like I’m working all the time, but again, that’s because I love my job and I want to, it’s not necessarily the expectation, it’s not like in the US. In Berlin tech startups, there is a tendency to slow down around 6pm.

Gabriela: For me, the work-life balance compared to previous jobs is very good. Telecommuting is great, there are flexible starting times and last-minute holiday requests are usually approved. I think it’s very good for people with children and more complex schedules. 

How many days holiday do you get?

Gabriela: We get 28 days holiday per year.

Giuseppe: We get between 23 and 30 days holiday per year, depending on how long you’ve been working in the company.

What are the career progression opportunities like?

Gabriela: Very dynamic. For myself, I don’t see a clear career path at the moment, but I see a lot of movement happening and people moving to different roles. There is a feeling of being in a constant state of change. 

Giuseppe: If you join a startup at the right time, you can very easily become a manager very quickly.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to boost your career chances in Germany

What was different about working for a Berlin start-up than you expected?

Gabriela: I thought that working from home would be easier, because I hadn’t done that much before, but I find it much harder to be engaged than I expected. I think a lot of startups (in Berlin) are struggling now to find the right balance between the competing interests of their employees – some of whom want to be fully remote and others who want to come more regularly to the office.

Giuseppe: Before I started working for tech startups I had this romantic image that they were all led by geniuses with big ideas who started in their garages. But in reality, I’ve found this emotional, big-dreaming side to be lacking. There are a lot of people who work for startups who just see it like any other job.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard.

A work team exchanging ideas with notes on a whiteboard. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

What are the best things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Giuseppe: You can make an impact with what you do, to build a product and say it’s mine. There is also creativity and freshness in the team dynamics. I was deeply unhappy in the years I spent working for big corporations because I didn’t know what the goal was. In startups, the objectives are clear.

Gabriela: You can grow with the company, and there are a lot of positions opening all the time, and it’s very common for startups to promote internal talent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The German regions attracting startups

What are the worst things about working for a Berlin tech start-up?

Gabriela: Sometimes it can be hard to keep up with the pace of change. It sometimes feels like we are constantly onboarding new people or people are changing roles and there is a slightly chaotic feel to things. The buzzword “agility” is used and abused, and sometimes means staff is expected to go along with anything and everything.

Giuseppe: In the tech start-up world here there seem to be a lot of people who get into the top jobs because they speak a lot, not necessarily because they are the most competent. There is a lot of networking and self-promotion required to push yourself forward. It’s also not a good environment for people who don’t like change, because things change a lot. 

Do you think Berlin is a good place for foreigners to work?

Gabriela: Yes, definitely. You have a lot of choice when it comes to places to work – so it’s unlikely you’ll have to stick at a job which
you don’t like. It’s also a big help for foreigners that most startups in Berlin don’t require German language skills.

Giuseppe: Definitely. For me, the mix of cultures and ideas in the workplace is really inspiring and motivating. And, of course, the city of Berlin itself is full of cultural events and has a great night life – so it’s a great place to live for when you want to detach from work too.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking about joining a tech start-up in Berlin?

Giuseppe: Try to develop an entrepreneurial mindset instead of an employee mindset as soon as possible. Always look for opportunities, don’t take things personally, don’t think about what happened yesterday, and focus on the now. 

Gabriela: Be open-minded and be prepared for change.