(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs will prioritize the status of absorption centers throughout the country, despite funding hardships brought on by the global financial crisis, committee head Lea Shemtov (Israel Beiteinu) told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
"Our committee will recommend to the government that absorption centers must remain the first destination for every oleh," Shemtov said during a visit of committee members to two centers in the North.
"Throughout my visit today, I've become more and more convinced that this is the best place for new immigrants to live, to find work and to begin their process of integrating into Israeli society," she said, "and I will work to keep it that way."
Shemtov and committee member Avraham Michaeli (Shas) visited absorption centers in Kiryat Yam and Carmiel, as the two met with the centers' workers and immigrants who are currently living there.
They were treated to an authentic Ethiopian meal accompanied by traditional dances and music.
"I plan on bringing the minister [Sofa Landver] here and showing her why these centers shouldn't be closed down or used for other purposes," said Shemtov, whose entourage was briefed on the numerous projects the absorption centers initiate to help the new immigrants integrate into Israeli society. "Because that would be such a shame."
But absorption centers, the majority of which are administered by The Jewish Agency, have faced a series of challenges in recent years. The dollar's decline in 2008 hit the Jewish Agency hard, as many of their donations come from abroad, and the global financial crisis has added fuel to the fire, making funding the centers more difficult.
However, agency sources said on Sunday, the financial crisis has boosted aliya, as the economic situation in many countries continues to deteriorate.
"Just last year the number of new immigrants from South Africa doubled, from 200 to 400, and the previous decline of aliya from the former Soviet Union seems to be reversing," an agency official said.
But without the proper funding, he explained, there is concern over how well the agency will be able to accommodate the new olim.
"Still, we're making do," he continued. "And that was what the committee members were exploring today - ways to improve the system and make it even more effective, because we're planning on these high numbers of aliya to continue growing."
In that vein, Eli Cohen, director of the Jewish Agency's Aliya and Absorption Division told the Post that his office had allocated some $4.5 million for general repair work in the absorption centers, and that last year they were able to distribute $8m. to 1,000 families.
"It came out to be around NIS 23-30,000 for each family," Cohen said. "That money helped pay their rent, buy groceries and so on."
However, he explained, the agency's philosophy does not revolve around money alone.
"We have an ethical responsibility to continue facilitating aliya," Cohen said. "But you can't just look at it in dollars and shekels.
"The point of aliya is for these people to become integrated in society and independent, it's not to keep handing out money. But the fact is, and we're we're happy to say it, that aliya works, and we know how to make it work well."