“Nefesh B’ Nefesh claims that it is seven percent and the Jewish Agency claims that it is 12 percent, but I’m saying that it’s more than 40 percent,” says Liami Lawrence, a Californian immigrant and the founder of the Keep Olim in Israel movement, referring to the rate at which new immigrants from the west give up and return to their countries of origin.
A stand-up comic and former male stripper from Beverly Hills, Lawrence, whose first name means ‘I am for my nation’ in Hebrew, founded the movement, now more than 20,000 strong on Facebook, as a way of connecting newcomers to Israel with one another as a sort of 21st century mutual support group.
Having seen dozens of friends and acquaintances give up on Israel over the last few years, Lawrence decided to take the movement in a new direction, applying for non-profit status and now attempting to raise $100,000 on the Jewish crowdfunding site Jewcer.
Dozens of olim, as well as native Israeli figures, listed reasons for living in Israel in Lawrence’s video on his campaign page, citing such motivating factors as “family, Zionism, home, tradition, duty, destiny, truth, passion, love and mitzva.”
Meanwhile, celebrities such as Israeli comedian Shahar Hason and American-Israeli Broadway actor Mike Burstyn chimed in, stating that they “support olim.”
“So much money and resources are spent on bringing olim (immigrants) to Israel, but not enough is done to keep them here,” he wrote on his appeals page.
“Sadly, many olim leave Israel, mainly due to lack of services and support to help them successfully integrate into Israeli society. Olim face overwhelming challenges, including lack of jobs and support, loneliness, and difficulty learning Hebrew.
Keep Olim was founded by olim to provide critical services and programs to empower, inspire, and support the newcomers during post-aliya life in Israel.”
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, Lawrence, who aims to raise the target of $100,000 in two months, said that he believes that such funding would allow him to continue building up nascent programs such as an oleh legal aid fund, matchmaking service for pairing newcomers with families that speak their language and even low-cost mental health services for those driven to despair by the challenges of making the move here, as well as a service for visiting sick immigrants in the hospital with nobody to visit them.
“Do you know how many suicidal or completely depressed olim I spoke to on the phone?” he asked, explaining that for many single olim without family or a supporting social structure, life can get pretty bleak.
Lawrence said that many Israelis are more concerned with making their paycheck stretch until the end of the month and view western immigrants as “a bunch of spoiled brats” whose departure would not be a tragedy.
Legal advice is also a necessity because “every oleh gets screwed here with contracts” that they cannot read.
There are two types of aliya, he continued, differentiating between those who move with young families to communities such as Beit Shemesh and Modiin and those who come alone and single to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem without knowing anyone.
It is the second group that he seems primarily to be targeting.
“Olim complain about lack of jobs, loneliness and Hebrew. If you don’t speak Hebrew and don’t have places to go for holidays and you don’t have friends or money or a job, it is hard.The amount of olim that go back is huge, especially from the West.”
Asked why a new group was needed when organizations such as Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel exist, he replied that there are immigrants from around the world, and that such organizations only service aliya from the United States, Canada and England.
“I wanted to emphasize we are for all olim,” he said. “Israel is not doing enough, and we [have to] step in and do for ourselves. All this money is spent on bringing us here but not on creating [retention] programs.”
Asked about his short-term goals, Lawrence replied that the “immediate [objective] is mental health counseling and support groups” as well as expanding his budding legal advice service and the creation of a new buddy program.
“We want to start an adopt an- oleh program – when you come off the plane you have a big brother or sister to help each other.”