In the spring of 2015, just nine months after he made aliyah, LiAmi Lawrence was ready to give up on Israel. He’d tried to find work, only to be told repeatedly by employers that at 50, he was “too old.” He’d also had complications from a hernia operation and struggled to find proper treatment in the unfamiliar Israeli health-care system. Frustrated, he turned to Facebook to vent. Within hours, he received dozens of replies from fellow olim—people who’ve made aliyah—echoing his frustrations.
Sensing a need for a forum for people in similar situations, he started a Facebook group called Keep Olim in Israel, which today has over 34,000 members. Next, Lawrence and his friend Tzvika Graiver, a native Israeli, started the nonprofit KeepOlim, which aims to support olim so that they don’t leave, as Lawrence almost did.
Even though Israel now officially celebrates new arrivals with Aliyah Day, which falls this year on Oct. 27, being a new immigrant to Israel isn’t easy. There is a range of agencies aimed at helping olim settle in, assisting with everything from work to language skills to apartment searches. Such support is essential, said Lawrence: “If you don’t help olim, they’ll leave,” and the country will miss out on contributions they could have made. “Israel was built on olim,” he said. “We improve the country.”
One of the biggest obstacles olim face is finding a job, especially one that pays enough to finance the high cost of living. Even when olim find decent-paying jobs, they are often underemployed, said Josie Arbel, director of absorption services at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. “Some jobs don’t offer a career path and don’t utilize their skills,” she said. “They tell me, ‘I didn’t make aliyah to work in a call center.’”
David Smajda, an actor, musician, and comedian who moved to Israel from Paris three years ago, has managed to find meaningful work, but it took much more initiative than it had in France. “If I want to be in a movie, I have to write the movie,” he said.
The language barrier is another issue—many olim arrive in Israel knowing little or no Hebrew. “People who thought of themselves as intelligent and articulate find they’re not in a foreign language,” said Arbel. “It’s very frustrating to feel reduced.”
Being unfamiliar with the language and culture leads some olim to be exploited. Smajda remembers when he discovered he was paying much more for his first apartment than his peers were. “[The landlord] saw the French guy coming” and took advantage of his status as a clueless immigrant, he realized.
Many olim have few friends or family in Israel to support them through these hardships, said Rachel Berger, director of post-aliyah and employment at Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that provides programs and services to support olim from North America and the U.K. “You have to build a community,” she said. “You’re starting your life anew.” Loneliness and isolation are among the top complaints Lawrence hears from olim.
A study of North American olim by Nefesh B’Nefesh found all these factors affect outcomes for new immigrants. Those who settled in strong English-speaking communities were more likely to stay in Israel long-term, as were married couples, those with proficient Hebrew, and those with professional skills, said Adina Schwartz, the organization’s manager of education and research.
Several agencies provide services and programs designed to ease the transition of making aliyah. Nefesh B’Nefesh maintains a job bank on its website with hundreds of positions, many of them English-language, said Berger. She has worked with so many olim over the years, she said, that she has also developed an informal network of contacts, allowing her to connect job-seeking olim with others in the same field.
Agencies also provide resources to protect olim from exploitation and inform them of their rights. Nefesh B’Nefesh employs lawyers who review Hebrew contracts for olim. The organization Kol Z’chut (“All Rights”) has a portal on its website specifically for olim, which provides information on financial assistance for new immigrants, as well as rights and benefits in housing, education, health care, and employment. Immigrants may not be aware of some of the benefits they’re entitled to, said Chief Content Editor Sharon Hornstein.
Berger also described Nefesh B’Nefesh programs that help olim build community, including Friday night dinners and a “hub” in Tel Aviv, where olim can come during the day to socialize and network. “People tell me, ‘Without the hub, I would be by myself in my apartment,’” she said. Berger hopes Nefesh B’Nefesh will expand its housing services and streamline the process for helping olim find decent, affordable apartments. The agency also plans to hire more lawyers to review contracts for olim, she said.
Olim are also entitled to a number of benefits that are intended make post-aliyah life a bit easier. Avi Mayer, international spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, described the “absorption basket” for new olim, which includes rent assistance and other benefits to ease the financial strain of aliyah, including tuition and income-tax reductions. To immerse olim in the Hebrew language, intensive ulpan courses are offered five days a week for several hours a day. Olim can choose the style of class that best fits their needs and lifestyle, said Mayer; for example, Ulpan Etzion allows young olim to live together as they learn Hebrew.
“Israel affords way more benefits to new immigrants than any other country,” said Mayer. “We’ll do whatever we can to ease the process, but a lot falls on the individual to be proactive.”
KeepOlim’s founders insist these programs aren’t doing enough. While it’s true Israel provides more services for immigrants than other countries do, Lawrence said, no other country so actively seeks out and encourages potential immigrants. And unlike in the earlier years of aliyah, when many olim came to Israel to escape persecution and poverty, Diaspora Jews today generally lead comfortable, easy lives, Lawrence added. Making aliyah entails sacrifice. Given that, he said, “these people need more if you want to keep them.”
Statistics on retention are hard to find. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics website includes detailed statistics on olim—including the number who arrived in 2016, by country of origin—but little about the number who leave; the bureau’s statistics do offer some insight, though, indicating that, among olim who immigrated from 2005-15, the percentage who left Israel for prolonged periods (defined as at least a year) increased to 22 percent in 2015 from 14 percent in 2010. Mayer said the Jewish Agency has “no way of tracking retention.” Berger said Nefesh b’Nefesh reports a 90 percent retention rate for olim, a figure the group calculated by tracking olim over time. “If people leave, they always contact us,” she said.
That figure doesn’t represent retention of olim overall, said Lawrence. For one thing, it includes only olim from North America and the United Kingdom, he said, who constitute less than 20 percent of all olim. Even among olim from those countries, Nefesh b’Nefesh is not getting an accurate picture of who leaves, said Lawrence. Although olim are supposed to notify the relevant agencies if they leave, they often don’t, he said. Some people feel embarrassed that their aliyah attempt didn’t succeed, he said, and prefer to leave quietly. Lawrence maintains his own, admittedly anecdotal, statistics in a list he started when he made aliyah in 2014. Every time he learns of an oleh leaving Israel, he adds that person’s name to the list. Currently, it has 146 names, he said.
Ken Yahav, who moved to Israel from the U.S. at age 40, is one example. Born and raised in Israel until his teens, was excited to move back, but he soon became disillusioned by the lack of opportunity. He managed to land a string of jobs, but had to put over half his monthly income toward rent for a “crappy apartment.” He saw few opportunities for advancement. “I didn’t see myself making the kind of money that would allow me to live the lifestyle I wanted—and I didn’t want a lavish lifestyle,” he said. “You think to yourself, ‘When will this get better?’” Yahav wasn’t willing to wait and find out. After two-and-a-half years in Israel, he packed up and returned to the U.S. in December 2015.
Hoping to change this pattern, KeepOlim approaches the post-aliyah experience differently, its founders said. For instance, said Graiver, while many agencies serve olim only from specific regions, KeepOlim serves all olim, giving them a more powerful voice. Graiver recently used this voice to lobby Knesset on a major issue for olim: converting driver’s licenses. Until August 2017, olim were required take a driving test, which often meant waiting months until a test date was available (unless they had enough money to bribe a driving instructor—a common practice in Israel, Graiver said). Now, olim can simply convert their foreign licenses if they’ve been valid for at least five years.
Rather than dealing with the entire process of aliyah, KeepOlim focuses on supporting newcomers after they arrive in Israel. For example, immigrants often wait months to see a therapist covered by insurance, and that person is unlikely to speak their native language. To address this problem, KeepOlim has identified about 70 therapists around the country who speak a variety of languages and are willing to provide therapy at a heavily discounted rate. KeepOlim plans to further subsidize the sessions to keep costs low.
Many of KeepOlim’s other programs grew out of Lawrence’s trials as a new immigrant. To combat feelings of isolation and helplessness, KeepOlim offers “Adopt an Oleh,” which matches each oleh with an Israeli buddy who can take her out for a beer or accompany her to the bank—whatever she needs, said Lawrence. Similarly, “No Oleh Alone” pairs olim with a host for holiday meals; this Rosh Hashanah, they managed to find hosts for about 120 olim all over the country. Both programs consider gender, age, and even interests when finding matches. “We want you to stay friends with this person,” Graiver said.
To help olim reinvent themselves for the tough Israeli job market, they launched a series of motivational courses called KeepOlim University. Students are told, “It doesn’t matter what you were in America—now you’re in Israel. If you want to work, no one is going to be handing you a job on a silver platter,” Lawrence said.
Graiver is especially excited about one of KeepOlim’s newest projects: a union for olim, which will monitor service providers to protect new arrivals from fraud and exploitation and will give olim who are service providers or small-business owners a platform to market themselves.
As for Lawrence, things are looking up. He ekes out a living running KeepOlim and working as a standup comedian, he is in decent health, and he has many friends to pick him up when he’s feeling down. He no longer thinks about leaving Israel. “This is where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “It’s not an easy life, but it’s a fulfilling life.”
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Jennifer Richler is a freelance writer living in Bloomington, Indiana.