KEEP OLIM IN ISRAEL founder Liami Lawrence (center), with olim Vladi Groover (left) and Mike Fisch, attend a friend’s Seder in Herzliya on Friday, two of more than 100 olim whom the organization matched with host families for the holiday..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On a night when Jewish families around the world get together for a traditional Passover Seder, the holiday can be a difficult time of year for lone olim. This year, however, the newest oleh organization on the block sought to change that with its “No Oleh Alone” Passover placement initiative.
Thanks to the nonprofit organization Keep Olim in Israel, over 100 olim of all ages, locations and backgrounds were matched with host families for the holiday.
Behind it all was founder Liami Lawrence. The olim he placed were varied, ranging from olim in their 20s, to a Russian family that just made aliya last Tuesday, to an 87-year-old Russian Holocaust survivor, who was put in touch through her social worker. He took special care to match people with those of similar ages, backgrounds and native languages as much as possible.
“The whole point was to match people who they could become friends with, because so many olim are alone,” he told The Jerusalem Post
Unsurprisingly, after the holiday Lawrence’s inbox on Facebook was flooded with messages of thanks from guests and hosts alike.
Among them was Martina Paletova, a recent immigrant from the Czech Republic who didn’t even think she would get to have a Seder this year. Studying to be a nurse at Tel Aviv University, she was working the night shift at the hospice she works at in Jerusalem. However, she reached out to Lawrence and he found her the perfect option: a young family with a small child whose home was a 15-minute walk from the hospital. She arrived right on time for her 11 PM shift and was even able to bring some cheer to her patients with delicious home-cooked food from the holiday meal.
“It’s amazing because these people that didn’t even know me invited me. It was fantastic,” Paletova gushed. “We all complain but this was something really good.”
Another one of the participants matched with a family even may have found a long-lost cousin thanks to the Passover match.
“One of my friends took in a couple of olim and one of them had a unique last name,” Lawrence said. “She told the guest ‘My next-door neighbor has the same name.’” The Passover guest and neighbor started talking and found out they are indeed relatives.
His own story is what inspired Lawrence to start the nonprofit, even though he himself is a new immigrant.
He made aliya in September 2014, but after almost a year in the country was without a job and seemingly without a future.
That was when he was inspired by a friend to start KOI as a Facebook group.
Within days, the group had hundreds of members, complaining in their native tongues about the challenges of making aliya. He decided to do something about it. Less than a year later, the group now has close to 25,000 members and, since becoming a nonprofit organization in September, it provides a growing list of services to olim. Among them is a Bikur Holim group, where members visit sick olim in the hospital and bring them food.
Involved in the group is Tzvika Graiver, a lawyer who provides free legal services for immigrants who have been in the country for less than a year.
The group’s next big projects include an “Adopt An Oleh” program that will match up olim with Israelis, as well as a series of self-help support groups on varying topics.
Another significant initiative that Lawrence said the group hopes to launch is a mental health initiative that will provide individual therapists for olim in their native language and at half the cost.
KOI will pay the remaining half and are in the process of raising money to do this.
He said that this program is crucial since according to him, a third of people who commit suicide in Israel are olim. Of those who seek out help, he said, they often have to wait months for a therapist in their native language from their health providers.
“The Jewish Agency has been responsible for olim for 70 years and never thought about mental health or any of the programs we’re doing. It’s inconceivable,” he said.
When asked how he was able to do so much in such a short span of time, he didn’t bat a lash. “I’m not a rocket scientist,” said Lawrence.
“I’m just a simple guy.”