'Einstein' visa paves way for new CEO of York JCC
Dani Fessler described the hiring process for his new role as CEO of the York Jewish Community Center as a courtship, of sorts.
“It started as a love story,” Fessler said, sitting in his new, brightly decorated office at the JCC in late March. He was finishing up his second week on the job — and his second week in the country.
Fessler admitted that when the position was first presented to him a year ago by a New York City headhunting firm, he wasn’t interested. But after a video interview in March 2017 and an in-person visit in May 2017, he had fallen in love with the job, and the York JCC staff had fallen in love with him.
Fessler came to York Township to lead the JCC from Israel to replace its former CEO, who left in mid-2016. Fessler planned to arrive in January of this year, but he was at the mercy of the bureaucracy during his immigration process.
Ultimately, through the counsel of immigration lawyer Steve Koehler with York-based law firm Stock and Leader, Fessler gained permanent residency in the U.S. under a visa category reserved for a few accomplished individuals who can prove “extraordinary ability” in their fields.
It is known as the Einstein visa, but is technically called an EB-1. The EB-1 visa is the “first preference” category out of five levels for employment-based U.S. visas, aka EB-1 through EB-5, as determined by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The EB-1 is itself split into three tiers, the top one being for those with “extraordinary ability,” according to the immigration services website. It lists awards like Oscars, Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals as proof of extraordinary ability.
Roughly 2,500 new EB-1 visas were awarded in fiscal 2016, plus 2,000 more for recipients’ spouses and children, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics. Another 40,445 EB-1 visas went that year to immigrants whose visa applications were moved up the preference ladder after being stalled in other categories. Overall, more than 1 million legal immigrants arrive in the U.S. each year in a wide range of visa categories.
Koehler could recall only one other client — a physician — who moved to Central Pennsylvania on an EB-1 visa.
When Koehler, who was hired by the JCC to handle the immigration process, learned of Fessler’s accomplished background, he decided to pursue an Einstein visa, as it provides the clearest path to permanent residency.
Unlike temporary work visas like the H1-B, which expire after a certain amount of time, EBs grant permanent U.S. residency to recipients and their spouses and children.
Fessler and Koehler filed the visa application — a packet nearly two inches thick — at the end of August 2017 and received approval on Sept. 6.
But that wasn’t the end of the process, Koehler said. Despite letters of recommendation from a number of local elected officials in Central Pennsylvania, nearly six months passed before the next milestone was reached: Fessler’s interview at the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem on Feb. 21.
Two weeks later, he received his immigration documents and made final plans for his move to York.
Extraordinary track record
Although he hasn’t won a Pulitzer or a Nobel, Fessler did meet four out of 10 of the “extraordinary ability” criteria set by the federal immigration service, Koehler said. Fessler received a number of national and international awards; he has served on boards and committees of various institutions and agencies; he has written numerous scholarly articles; and he had a critical role in leading “distinguished organizations.”
Fessler worked at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, Israel for the past 30 years, leading the school of 2,500 students from toddlers to 12th grade for the past 20. He also oversaw Leo Baeck’s nine community centers throughout the city, which served 25,000 households and had a staff of 600 with a $20 million annual budget, Fessler said.
Plus, he taught at the Gordon Academic College of Education and University of Haifa and served as president of his local JCC and in the Ministry of Culture and Sport in Israel.
So what attracts potential “Einstein” immigrants to the U.S.?
“Principally, they are coming to the United States because the United States offers them a better opportunity to make an impact on their field than their home country does,” said William Stock, an attorney with Philadelphia-based Klasko Immigration Law Partners LLP.
Another perk of the EB-1 visa, and other EB visa categories, is that petitioners do not need a labor certification, essentially meaning they do not need an offer of employment to apply for a visa.
The labor certification process under the U.S. Department of Labor adds a whole other layer of bureaucracy, Koehler said, where an employer must prove there are no domestic employees for the open position.
“We’re talking about people with extraordinary abilities, so that’s why they have it a little easier, because you’ve got to have that incredible background to be awarded that status,” Koehler said.
Although Fessler had a job offer in hand during his visa application process, he was free from the constraints of securing a labor certification, Stock said. Still, Einstein visa holders do have to be pursuing their field of study, either through a job search, schooling or research, Stock added.
Despite political tensions surrounding both legal and illegal immigration, both Koehler and Stock agreed that the benefits of having EB-1 immigrants in a community largely outweigh the downsides.
“What the immigration process ought to do is encourage the best and the brightest, and that’s exactly what this visa does. It makes it possible for folks like Dani to come here and provide us the benefit of his incredible background and skills...I don’t think there’s much disagreement about that aspect of immigration,” Koehler said.
For the community
Having an “Einstein” visa holder as a leader in the York community is exciting, said Crystal Kimball, development director at the York JCC.
“He’s inspiring ... He believes in people. He wants to talk to you. He wants to know what your goals are. And he really cares about everyone. And he wants to know your opinion,” Kimball said. Fessler’s extensive fundraising background will help her do her job better, she said.
Plus, the fact that his immigration process was drawn out longer than anticipated built up plenty of hype around his arrival. Now that Fessler is here, the community is excited to meet him, and the JCC staff is energized by his ideas. He has already made plans for a new cafe, gallery and garden at the center.
Fessler believes his international perspective and his Jewish values will ultimately help him do his job better. Aside from connections around the world and country that will help the JCC raise money, he is driven to help whoever needs it in the community. The York JCC’s membership is 90 percent non-Jews, and Fessler embraces that diversity while also hoping to connect the center more deeply with its Jewish roots.
For Fessler, “Einstein” status isn’t as important as the work he moved here to do. The visa did, however, give him the option to be assigned a Social Security number. At the end of his second week of work, Fessler was waiting for his Social Security card to arrive in the mail so he could buy a car, open a bank account and settle into his new York Township apartment and greater York community.
Although his significant other and three grown children remain in Israel — they might come over, but no plans have been made — Fessler isn’t worried about the distance. Working in another country was on his bucket list, and he is making it happen.
About the York JCC
The York Jewish Community Center serves over 9,000 members from around York County, according to Melissa Plotkin, director of community engagement and diversity at the JCC. The nonprofit community center offers a wide range of programming and welcomes people of all backgrounds. It is located at 2000 Hollywood Drive in York Township.