The State of Israel was built by generations of new immigrants embracing the Zionist dream, and on Tuesday, the country will finally commemorate its olim, old and new, for the first time in 68 years.
For the occasion, The Jerusalem Post spoke to recent olim and asked them to share their aliya experiences.
Sara Castelnuovo made aliya five months ago from Rome, Italy.
She is currently doing National Service, serving as an EMT with Magen David Adom.
“I grew up in Rome and come from a Zionist family and community, so I always heard how great life was in Israel,” she said.
Castelnuovo said she found Israel “amazing” when she first visited seven years ago and had wanted to make aliya.
“In addition to my Zionism, I considered how hard is to be a Jew in the Diaspora,” she said. “People don’t really get what it means to completely stop any single action during Shabbat or eating only at kosher places. You always feel like you have to give an explanation, and at the end you don’t feel like living your Jewish life 100%.”
So, at the age of 20, Castelnuovo left her family behind and decided to make the move.
“It is not that I wanted to leave Italy, it is that I wanted to come to Israel,” she said.
When asked if rising antisemitism in Europe has played any factor in her decision, Castelnuovo said she is no stranger to the phenomenon, citing a list of examples she and her friends encountered.
“Walking around some areas of the city you can read on the walls insults like ‘death to the Jews’ or can see swastikas,” she said. “A couple years ago there were posters all over the city with a list of shops owned by Jews asking for people not to buy from them.”
“It’s also really difficult because people don’t understand that being a Jew and being an Israeli or a Zionist are two different things,” she added. “So, for example, during Operation Protective Edge  we had hard times.”
Leaving all that behind, Castelnuovo said she is excited to begin her new life in Israel. As for her future plans, she said she is “planning to stay here for sure” and wants to study after she completes National Service.
“I’m quite sure I’ll stay even after university,” Castelnuovo said. “I want to make sure people understand that as hard as it is to make aliya, to feel Israeli even if people keep asking where your accent is from, to be alone in such a different country, it is totally worth it.”
Chavie Rothschild, 19, from Baltimore, Maryland, shared a similar experience.
“I’m from a very Zionist community and a very Zionist household,” she told the Post
Rothschild said she decided to make aliya after high school when she learned about Israel and started asked the question: “Why don’t we live in Israel?” “After high school I couldn’t really justify starting my life anywhere other than Israel,” she said.
Rothschild made aliya through Nefesh B’Nefesh. Even though she is “still in the beginning,” she “loves it,” she said.
“It was a bit overwhelming at first, especially the whole cultural shock,” she said. “But the more I got immersed in Israeli society, the more I found that things I thought were pushy or rude actually comes from a place of genuine concern and a sense of caring.”
Rothschild said the most difficult part of her aliya experience has been leaving her family behind.
“My support system is very big, especially at my age and for most of my friends,” she said. “When it comes to complicated questions, you ask your parents. But now I can’t because everything is in a different language.”
Still, she is determined to make her aliya experience a successful one and aims to bring her family to Israel as well. “I’m working on it,” she joked.
“I intend to spend the rest of my life here,” she said. “You can never tell where life will take you, but that’s the point.”
While Castelnuovo and Rothschild recounted truly positive aliya experiences, this is unfortunately not the case for everyone.
Liami Lawrence, who moved to Israel two years ago from Los Angeles, is the cofounder of Keep Olim, a nonprofit organizations that seeks to help olim who are experiencing difficulties adjusting to life in Israel.
He created the nonprofit based on his less-than-positive aliya experience.
Lawrence first came to Israel in the 1980s to study at Tel Aviv University, where he said he first “fell in love with the country.” Since that time he has visited Israel on and off until he finally decided to make the move a permanent one.
After only nine months in Israel, Lawrence struggled to find a job that wasn’t in the binary-options and foreign-exchange field and decided to return to the US.
Before packing his bags he created a Facebook group, “Keep Olim in Israel,” and posted thoughts about the hardships he faced during his aliya – “mostly to scream,” he said.
“Within five days over 3,000 people joined the group,” he said. “It was the most incredible thing. It was very raw, and people were screaming and shouting and talking about everything having to do with their aliya.”
Lawrence quickly realized that he was not alone and that there was a real need to help people with their post-aliya adjustment.
“After a week and a half we said: ‘Why not make this a positive group,’” he said, and the movement was born.
Today, the Facebook group has nearly 30,000 members.
“This group is for post-aliya and is meant to empower olim,” he said.
The group’s dominant language is English, but there are thousands of members from non-English- speaking countries, including Europe, South America and Russia.
According to Lawrence, who keeps a running list of all his friends who have left Israel (currently 75 people), the main reasons why olim leave are because they can’t find jobs, are lonely, miss their families and cannot surmount the language barrier.
“A lot of olim struggle to feel at home in Israel,” he said. “Israelis are the friendliest people, but it starts with a sense of belonging, and a lot of olim lack that sense of belonging once they get here.”
Drawing upon his personal experience, Lawrence said that in Los Angeles he felt “very Israeli,” having worked as an event planner for Israelis abroad and as a spokesman for the local Israeli Consulate. “When I came to Israel I suddenly stopped feeling Israeli and started to feel American,” he said.
Among the assistance offered, Keep Olim includes a program matching new olim with Israeli families for the holidays, offering free legal aid to any oleh who has been in Israel for a year or less, get-togethers for lonely olim and courses in a variety of areas, including assistance in finding employment.
“In Israel you have to reinvent yourself, and that is what we are trying to teach olim,” he said.
“What worked in Paris or in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires doesn’t necessarily fit in Israel,” and that is what this movement aims to impart.
Lawrence said if he has one message to share with olim it would be: “Don’t give up.”
“Is it a struggle to be here? Absolutely, but don’t give up the struggle, fight for your right to be here and to succeed here – that is what Keep Olim is all about,” he said.
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