Easing adjustment to Israel: One immigrant helping others

When Lara Itzhaki helped her brother plan his aliyah, she had no idea she’d be kick-starting a business plan to help new immigrants

By NATALIE BLENFORD
August 18, 2018 06:28
 lara itzhaki

lara itzhaki. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Making aliyah is not a simple process. Ask any new Israeli citizen what they found most challenging about moving here, and you’ll get a range of angst-ridden answers, from complaints about the endless bureaucracy to monologues about how difficult daily life is when you don’t speak the language (yet).

I know firsthand how tough it can be. After several stints in Israel on a B-1 working visa, I made aliyah nine months ago from London. My flight and Ben-Gurion Airport experience went smoothly enough, but everything changed the next day. Gone were the carefree afternoons of drinking coffee with friends or sitting on the beach. Here instead were a three-month struggle to find an apartment and more emotional challenges than I’ve encountered in years.

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It’s these endless hurdles that inspired Lara Itzhaki, a mother of four from Modi’in, to develop a business dedicated to helping new olim.

Her company, Olim Advisors, holds the hands of would-be olim for six months before, and six months after, they make aliyah.

They help with everything – from advice on what to pack and what to ship, to help in finding a community that suits you. They help olim to find their first homes, set up utility bills and get children registered at the right schools.

The idea first developed in 2015, when Itzhaki’s brother Rafi announced he was making aliyah from America in six weeks’ time and he needed her help.

“I was in the States because my dad was sick,” Itzhaki explains.

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“So my husband, Shimon, basically set up Rafi’s future life for him. This involved finding a home and a car; registering his kids for school and gan [kindergarten]; buying clothes for them; switching utilities to their name; buying schoolbooks. Shimon did everything from A to Z. When they landed, they even had T-shirts waiting for them at home with the emblem of the school on the front. It was unbelievable.”

A year later, Itzhaki’s brother turned to her and asked a pertinent question. “He said: ‘How do people do this if they don’t have you and Shimon to help? We speak Hebrew and still we feel overwhelmed.’” That’s when Olim Advisors was born.

“Nefesh B’Nefesh is great,” says Itzhaki. “They fly you out; they help you at the airport; they help you choose healthcare – it cuts so much red tape. But we felt like people needed more; they needed real hand-holding. A trip to the Aliyah and Integration Ministry can be overwhelming. The Interior Ministry is unclear. Olim know they need to get a biometric teudat zehut [identity card] and Israeli passport, but when are they meant to apply for them? What can or can’t they do before they’ve been here three months? Nothing is clearcut, and everything is changing all the time. People come here with Hebrew that is not on a level that allows them to communicate, so we decided to do something to help.”

In the early days of the idea’s development, Lara and Rafi spoke with Nefesh B’Nefesh.

“They told us clearly that they didn’t think an advisory service would work unless we offered more of a premium service, with bespoke attention,” Itzhaki says. “So we added more services, including schooling. Each Israeli school has its own system, and that’s what I help people to deal with. We actually go into schools with olim, speak to the teachers and make sure their children are placed in the appropriate class, with the appropriate ulpan. The school system can really, really break olim, so it felt important to help with this particular area.”

The business formally launched in the autumn of 2016. Now, almost two years later, Olim Advisors has helped almost 100 olim make the successful transition to Israeli life, says Itzhaki. Most of its clients move to the big Anglo hubs, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ra’anana, Modi’in and Beit Shemesh. But no part of the country is beyond its reach.

THE BUSINESS offers three packages: a pilot trip, which is where Itzhaki meticulously plans for clients a short trip to Israel, taking them to a number of communities, residences for rent and schools, to help them work out which are best for their families; a VIP package, which gives clients 60 hours of support, to be spread out over the course of a year; and an all-inclusive package, which offers clients 80 hours of support, from the day they sign to one year after their aliyah.

While the packages are not cheap, it’s a price some olim are happy to pay.

“To me, once you pay somebody, you don’t feel bad about asking for their help,” says oleh Mark Shinar, who made aliyah from New York with his wife, Lauren, and their four children to Modi’in in August 2017.

“I didn’t want to make aliyah with a family and be a burden on my friends and family here; I didn’t want to be a whiny American,” he explains.

“I have nothing but wonderful praise for Nefesh B’Nefesh,” he says. “They have one job: to get you here. What Lara was able to offer was a closing of the gap between getting us here and getting us functioning here.

“We signed up for her VIP package, and she was super-responsive. She found us our house by keeping an eye on Yad2 before we arrived. There were six or seven people in line before us, but she guided me on what to say and do to make sure the landlord rented to me. She connected me with the people we bought our washer, dryer and refrigerator from. We don’t have one government office horror story; we never spent seven hours waiting in a line; we had no wasted days, because Lara booked all our appointments for us.

“I’m a relatively competent person, but having her on hand to deal with the nonsense was wonderful. She and the company genuinely care about people; it feels like they’re social workers who can really make a difference.”

And Itzhaki really does want to make a difference.

“I came back to Israel from America in 2010 because I really wanted my children to live here; I believe in the values of Israel,” she says.

“I want people to come here, but I want it to be easier for them. The basics need to be easier. Olim should be able to go into a bank and know someone there will speak English, or at least that the ATM is going to be in English, Arabic, Russian as well as Hebrew. People shouldn’t have to spend days and days trying to get an appointment at the Interior Ministry, or hours on the phone trying to set up their Internet because the company doesn’t have one English-speaking representative on their staff. Yes, olim need to learn Hebrew, but we have to make things easier for them at the very beginning, before they’ve had the chance to attend ulpan.”

Temirah Rosenberg made aliyah to Hashmonaim a year ago with her husband, Benjamin, and the younger two of their four children. She signed up to Olim Advisors’ VIP package and has never looked back.

“If it wasn’t for Lara, we’d probably still be sitting at the bank, trying to figure out what to do!It was all very overwhelming. But Lara came with us to all our appointments, which really helped.”

Having Olim Advisors on speed dial has also given Rosenberg a much-needed confidence boost.

“Just knowing that if I need help, there’s someone there who has got my back – that’s been incredible,” she explains. “I’ve asked Lara everything, from what meat to use for cholent to a bunch of ridiculous things. But she answers them all with the same level of detail and care.”

A classic example came when Rosenberg arrived at her local health fund center. “I remember being at Maccabi [Health Services] – there were three signs with different hours on it. I sent her a picture and asked ‘When am I meant to be here!?’ Lara answered me immediately and cleared everything up.”

With summer in full swing, Itzhaki is in the middle of her busiest time of year.

“In summer, Nefesh B’Nefesh organizes group flights; this month, I have 10 families that I am working with arriving on four different dates, from three different locations: New York, New York Midwest, and England.

Four families arrived this week, and more come on August 20 and 22. It’s a lot of people, but I was excited to meet them all; it’s the personal aspect that I love the most,” she says.

When clients land, Olim Advisors gives them a night to recover, and then they head out to get things done.

“If people are comfortable with it, we head to the bank the next day; to the Aliyah and Integration Ministry; we make sure they’re not paying the previous tenants’ bills.

If they’re landing on a Monday, we have a conference call before they land to make sure that the Internet technician will be at their property the next day. Change can be difficult, but I want people to come here and have the easiest possible process. It’s Israel, and it needs to be different,” she says.

WHEN I finally got the keys to my Tel Aviv apartment in March, Itzhaki was my first visitor, arriving before I even had a bed. She called me and asked, “What do you need?” and came armed with milk, coffee and biscuits.

She helped me communicate with the handyman, and we stood on my small balcony and drank tea together.

She was so caring, it made me feel that despite doing this alone, things might (finally) be OK.

Before Itzhaki jumped back into her car to pick up her kids from school, or to answer some of her many emails, I asked her what would be her No. 1 tip for a successful aliyah.

“Firstly, you need to think positive,” she says. “Stay away from negative Facebook groups where people complain about everything. Then you need to learn Hebrew. Whatever Hebrew you have, you need to keep using it as much as you can. Don’t waste time caring what anyone says, just keep using it. It will all get easier, once you can express yourself more clearly, just like you did before you came home.”

For more information: www.olimadvisors.com

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