How can newcomers to Israel find help to acclimate and adjust?

Part II in our look at the realities faced by potential immigrants.

 NEW JOURNEY: Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (with Benny Gantz at her right) welcomes Ukranian war refugees, at Ben-Gurion Airport last year. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
NEW JOURNEY: Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata (with Benny Gantz at her right) welcomes Ukranian war refugees, at Ben-Gurion Airport last year.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

My thoughts drift to the tragic choice made by the newcomer mentioned in Part I of this series: A young woman chose to end her life, to the great shock of her workmates. 

No one had realized that she was under great emotional strain. First of all, I know nothing of the background of that situation. However, just like newcomers have a luggage allotment, there is also a need to thoroughly consider the emotional baggage that they bring.

Changing countries is life-changing but not necessarily in a good way. It adds a lot of stress to whatever normal stresses that the person had before they get off the plane. If they have difficulty adapting on their home turf, it will not become easier by shaking up everything familiar.

There are those who might like the idea of a new start, a fresh slate. This is all good. However, changing countries is not a magic pill. The problems that are in one’s life do not disappear when walking on the tarmac on this side of the ocean; they may increase in complexity.

Yes, Israel has a wonderful socialized healthcare system. There are people whose lives will be greatly improved by having access to it. I, for one, while being a bit fuzzy on what socialized medicine meant, having only dealt at that point in my life with campus health services, am very grateful to have the Israeli panoply of health services available to me, with the bumps as well. But there are gaps, and, like any bureaucracy, it requires the skill to navigate.

Under #wishfulthinking, sometimes parents of one-year students themselves may neglect to fully inform a school of the actual medical or emotional state of the student, or the student may want to hide it and take themselves off their medication. Similarly, new immigrants, in the name of a new start, may make poor judgment calls along the same line. Aliyah is not the time to take such chances. Emotionally fragile newcomers and immigrants need more support than ever and are ill-advised to start off on shakier footing.

 ISRAEL BOASTS an excellent socialized healthcare system – but there are gaps. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90) ISRAEL BOASTS an excellent socialized healthcare system – but there are gaps. (credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Luck, personality, plus initiative

Sometimes it is a matter of luck and knowing yourself well enough to let your natural assets lead you into good situations. That was the case for Tova Gazala, originally Janet Sporn, who grew up in the Bronx, New York. She originally came alone on a one-year program to Jerusalem in 1971. During that time, she needed to go through a medical procedure and intuitively knew that she would encounter more empathetic caregivers if she asked to be put in a pediatric ward.

Her instincts were right on the money. Not only did the staff take good care of her, but the parents of a nine-year-old boy who was also a patient liked her very much, and post-treatment they continued to take her under the family wing, inviting her over to their home. Essentially, she became part of their family. “A sense of family is so important in Israel, especially when the language might still be deficient or there are cultural gaps to cross,” Gazala said, who later married an Israeli pediatrician.

Gazala completed her MSW and worked extensively in Israel as a family and couples therapist, a juvenile probation officer and trauma therapist. Additionally, she lived on Kibbutz Kissufim in the South and treated many Gush Katif evacuees for post-traumatic stress disorder. Gazala says, “Many suffered from relocation trauma and so much more because there was also ideology involved.”

Gazala explains, “Trauma occurs when the body and mind perceive that they have had too much tension – too much, too fast and too soon.” She continues, “Frustration and anger can cause aggression, which can be hard to release, either toward the outside or even directed to oneself.”

It is important to be aware of your own resources, says Gazala. The intake questionnaires in the years she made aliyah included not only questions on the physical state of health but, in the hands of an astute interviewer, could also uncover a broader view of the health of an applicant, touching on possible emotional issues.

Beyond health, they would ask if you had relatives in Israel who would keep an eye on the potential immigrant, taking some aspect of responsibility for the newcomer. They would also ask about the newcomer’s immediate plans for becoming employed, get some picture of their level of financial ability and whether the candidate had some cushion to smooth the rougher spots.

Becoming included in a family circle was critical to Gazala. She considers it a carry-over from the kibbutz ideology and social construct to set up volunteers, students, and newcomers with an arranged adopted family.

Gazala was aware that among her own resources was her ability to make friends easily and that she had come to Israel already equipped with Hebrew that she had learned in high school. She was already familiar with the cultural and religious basics of the society; she was familiar with Shabbat and holiday norms. Beyond innate character traits and education, Gazala believes in taking action to help new olim adjust.

When finding herself in unfamiliar surroundings, such as recently moving into a new neighborhood, Gazala still pulls from her strength of personality and doesn’t expect others to seek her out but initiates social interaction by breaking the ice and starting conversations, inviting people to her home, creating a new social circle. Joining exercise groups, special interests like Israeli dance, singing groups or community center activities are also good ways to familiarize yourself with the new ’hood.

Gazala suggests screening potential olim for those weaker in social skills and giving them special consideration. They may need a mutual support network, perhaps a tailored program to help them make the transition into Israeli life. By providing a net in anticipation of glitches that often arise, these situations can be eased before they become major problems, she says.

Other factors also change the equation in our times. Gazala notes, “There is less pure Zionism. These days, changing countries may boil down to factors involving what is cadai (in one’s interest) that is included in the basket of services available to the oleh/ah, and also that urban living is, by definition, less intimate.”

“There is less pure Zionism. These days, changing countries may boil down to factors involving what is cadai (in one’s interest) that is included in the basket of services available to the oleh/ah, and also that urban living is, by definition, less intimate.”

Tovah Gazala

However, the factors that are considered in making the choice are also not simple matters of shekels and agorot. Some factors are counterintuitive and may not even be understood for their importance until an accumulation of years has adjusted the prism through which they view the picture.

Social adjustment

Think about it. New immigrants get off the plane, and they know nothing. Little in their former lives will prepare them for the new reality. Everything is different: personal space norms, the socially acceptable way to behave, make requests, argue, ask directions, be polite and have shared etiquette or lack thereof, not to mention having a shared sense of humor, one of the hardest cultural bridges to cross.

Some people are out for new experiences and, undoubtedly, they will be found. Having no street smarts in a new environment may lead to unpleasant situations. If an aunt or a cousin offers names of people to be in touch with, hold on to those phone numbers and email addresses and use them for help in asking basic adjustment questions of someone – anyone – during the settling-in stage.

Though social media is the new cyber welcome wagon, there is a lot of conflicting advice and insulting behavior that may not be so helpful. And for the veteran immigrants – and that might mean someone who came only months or years earlier – be welcoming, invite, help and, perhaps most importantly, listen. Empathy goes a long way.

Exploring religious identity while getting acclimated, it is best to consider program offerings carefully. Everyone and every organization has a different approach. Some may be welcome, others less so. It is advisable to get a sense of the outlook of different programs. Like picking a college, it is no less important to check out who and what you are dealing with. When people are lonely, they are especially vulnerable to outreach groups representing a great variety of religions or styles with many wonderful programs, while others prey on the lonely of the world like anywhere else.

Not for nothing does Jerusalem have its own mental illness condition: Jerusalem Syndrome. For some, the powerful spiritual road they travel affects them so profoundly that they take on the persona of sages, prophets or saviors. During my 35 years of living in the Old City, I have seen this repeatedly.

Israelis generally are warm and friendly people. This is especially so if you meet them when they are living abroad. Though I am certainly generalizing, Israelis on their home turf have full lives, jobs and a hevre (social group). A hevre is a very loose social construct of a lifetime of accumulated friends. They are the gang they stay in touch with from kindergarten through the army, travel, university, work. And then, when coupling up, the group doubles with the new partners.

They are mostly not looking for new friends. After all, this is a small country and nearly everyone they have ever known lives within a few hours’ drive. Very much in contrast to the lives most Americans have left behind, where distant moves for education or work have people widely separated from close friends and family, who are rarely seen in person; and these days, but for social media, they are hardly seen at all.

Consider the immigrant, new and awkward, with little ability to communicate, let alone show his or her best self, who becomes increasingly isolated and may cling to the laptop for cyber comfort. This is not a great recipe for acclimating. It is also hard to figure out how to find a niche and how to build up a replacement family in the form of new friends. Having no new roots may become a formula for deepening loneliness.

While it is now clear when someone says he or she is a Lone Soldier, that he/she is outside of his/her family and social circles, it is less clear when someone is in preliminary job hunting or studying Hebrew. And the culture shock that a Lone Soldier takes on is quite overwhelming. Some of them are out of their depth in their service, in a social extreme that is challenging to the Hebrew-speaking locals. Multiply this by the need to manage all their errands, shopping, cooking, laundry and otherwise fend for themselves, unlike locals with family to buffer them, maybe even spoil them a bit. The IDF is no American college campus where all that is expected is a passing grade without being responsible for a rifle, showing up at base on time or doing the hard work that is expected of them.

This is part of the spiral when living the dream can become living the nightmare. Learning the ropes of finding a rental apartment or finding suitable roommates is difficult under the best of circumstances. Job-hunting without proficient Hebrew can turn a gleaming American CV into a crumpled page in the reject pile. The jobs new immigrants have to resort to may be low-paying and low-esteem positions. Some immigrants well along in their aliyah may still have salaries lower than during their high school days in their native country with pocket-money jobs.

Israel is not known for its high remuneration in salaries. Other than in hi-tech these days, it remains difficult to make ends meet. There are non-monetary compensations that keep many people here happily, and Israelis repeatedly score with high happiness quotients in polls. But that doesn’t pay the bills. Throw into the soup the beaming faces of friends on Facebook with comparatively luxurious lives, and that only adds to the downward spiral. Sprinkle a drop of shame and unwillingness to burden parents with the reality of their situation, stir in some Jewish guilt and a dollop of embarrassment, and voila, there is the perfect recipe for depression and perhaps other mental instability.

Furthermore, during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only were tourists cut off from visiting Israel, but immigrants were heavily affected as well. Regulations did not allow their families from abroad to enter, at least during early lockdowns, which eventually were eased, permitting first-degree relatives in. These hardships fell more heavily on olim than on veteran Israelis, whose extended family abroad held Israeli passports and could enter. Normally, having family be distant is difficult, but immigrants who had not yet developed their own circles of friends felt that strain more severely.

 OLIM MAY need assistance in bolstering their social skills. (credit: Joshua Earle/Unsplash) OLIM MAY need assistance in bolstering their social skills. (credit: Joshua Earle/Unsplash)

Getting help

I am not painting a pretty picture. People wrongly presume that Western aliyah comprises independently wealthy and highly successful people who can do everything on their own. It is an inaccurately skewed picture.

Americans, Canadians, and those from the West nonetheless need to know how to get help when needed. Culturally, Americans do not have an expectation that there are services waiting for them. Most were rarely in need of social workers and support systems in the lives they left. Losing their bearings through the total change of immigrating may shift the ground for many. Perhaps for the first time, they experienced going from being the giver to becoming the recipient.

The reality can be much different than the bleak list of issues that I have raised here. I was blessed with a fascinating early adjustment period and made a small coterie of lifelong friends who became like family. We have shepherded each other through an unforeseeable range of life challenges and even more celebrations.

Now with a long view, I am satisfied that we managed to raise (cue to kids: cringe now) incredible bilingual children and am proud of their achievements and values, as diverse as they are people. While not the greatest planner, it all turned out better than I could have imagined, had I had the ability to see this far ahead. My first trip has stayed pretty amazing.

Don’t ask me if it was hard, ask me if it was worth it. ❖

Help on the way

TO THE dismay of some, the nuts and bolts of making aliyah is less about spiritual awakening and Zionist identity, and often more about learning to work a new system. Perhaps these key sites may somewhat simplify the maze of services and organizations available as people explore their interest in living in Israel.

Taking a first step from abroad. This is a one-stop aliyah 24-hour hotline. Using toll-free numbers from 39 countries, email or through a web app, it provides services in six languages: Hebrew, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Russian.

This website has more than 20 different classifications of benefits for immigrants and returning Israelis, such as integration into specific fields, financial and tax planning before immigrating and business help for start-ups. Whether you have suffered from the Chernobyl disaster, are a World War II vet or have a property claim in Iran, find it here.

General information for new olim in Hebrew, English, French, Russian, Portuguese and Spanish.

  • www.gov.il/BlobFolder/generalpage/health_27042020_tuota/he/health_en_2607.PDF

A registration form for health fund (kupat cholim) HMO health services.

The necessary steps for obtaining an Israeli driver’s license.

The same issue as presented by Nefesh B’Nefesh.

A nonprofit organization established by American immigrant and former MK Dov Lipman to help untangle bureaucratic quandaries.

Hanna Falgarova is Yad L’Olim’s new absorption advisor for Ukrainian olim. She was born in Donetsk, Ukraine, from where she escaped during the war in 2014. She made aliyah in 2020.

This includes the original AACI initiative, The Shira Pransky Project. This organization educates and assists immigrants in Israel to understand and access their healthcare rights, benefits and medical care. They have guidance for many subjects, such as infertility, pregnancy, special needs children, cancer patients and knowing your rights. Moreover, they answer questions (in a timely fashion in English) and much more. This much-needed effort is useful at multiple points in every immigrant’s life in Israel.

English-Speaking Residents Association, which calls itself the largest volunteer-based English-speaking community in Israel.

Klita (“absorption” in Hebrew) is the umbrella website for French-speaking immigrants.

Olei is the Organization for Latin America, Spain and Portugal in Israel serving the Spanish-speaking immigrant community.

This is a compilation of nearly 700 articles on rights in Israel from cradle to grave and everything in between. Rights for immigrants, employment rights, rights pertaining to healthcare, disability, pension, the elderly and many special categories of benefits are included.

The Americans and Canadians in Israel nonprofit was established almost at Israel’s beginning, in 1951. It serves English-speaking immigrants by providing a panoply of services, free counseling, and cultural and social offerings and creates community among recent arrivals and long-term residents.

  • aaci.org.il/aaci-jerusalem 

Jerusalem location for AACI. They also advocate and lobby for immigrant communities.

  • www.nbn.org.il

Founded in 2002, Nefesh b’Nefesh is dedicated to helping people succeed at making aliyah. Their website, in English and in Hebrew for returning residents, has helpful guidance on every step of the process of changing countries, with a digest of relevant issues.

  • www.hob-israel.com

H.O.B. is the Association of British Immigrants (a nonprofit), which stands for Hitachdut olei Britannia in Israel.

This is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to post-aliyah help for olim from all over the world who are facing difficulties and is designed to bridge gaps. Some of what they do includes providing low-cost, quality individual mental health counseling, the Keep#Olim Feeds Olim Food Program, a Lone & Olim Soldiers’ Unit, Oleh Alone For The Holidays program, the Bikkur Cholim project (Caring for the Sick) and olim advocacy campaigns.

  • lonesoldiercenter.com

In memory of Michael Levin, the Lone Soldier Center (LSC) is mindful that Israel is a very small country and that Israeli soldiers are only a bus ride away from their own bed and a home-cooked meal made by loving hands, not to mention a functional washer/dryer. This is not necessarily obvious to those who come to volunteer for the Israeli army from abroad; they lack a similar support system in Israel. The LSC steps in to provide warm meals and a real community for lone soldiers and help them integrate into Israeli society.

  • www.telfed.org.il

South African Zionist Federation and for Australian olim has quite a useful website, with lists of FAQs, a job board and a link to https://www.paylab.com/il/salaryinfo for the range of salaried positions in Israel. The South Africans notch things up more, offering centrally located rental apartments for new olim, scholarships for those of South African descent (the site is also in Hebrew), free pre– and post–aliyah social service counseling and more.

What can you do?

  • aaci.org.il/volunteers-sought-for-buddy-system-to-assist-new-senior-anglo-olim

A buddy system to help recently arrived Anglo senior olim to meet the challenges of resettling and adapting to Israeli life.

Emergency help for Ukraine and volunteers to help in the absorption of new arrivals to Israel:

  • www.aaci.org.il
  • www.esra.org.il
  • www.telfed.org.il

To read part I: www.jpost.com/aliyah/article-720125

The writer is an artist and will be presenting her new limited edition medical memoir, Life-Tumbled Shards, at the In Print Art Book Fair on Jan. 11-13 at Jerusalem’s Hansen House.