For many Jews, making aliyah can be a difficult experience. In addition to the day-to-day challenges of finding a job, adjusting to a new society, and navigating Israel’s notorious bureaucracy – all in a foreign language – olim (immigrants) often struggle due to the lack of family, friends, and the support network that they would have had “back home,” and feel isolated and alone. This is where the Shishi Shabbat Yisraeli initiative steps in to help.
Founded by Linda Pardes Friedburg, an immigrant from New Jersey, Shishi Shabbat specializes in aiding olim from former Soviet countries and takes a unique and innovative approach to empowering and strengthening this vulnerable segment of Israel’s population.
“We began in 2010 after I saw one too many Russian-speaking olim who had come to Israel and had forgotten why he or she was brought here – either by the Jewish Agency or all these other programs that are short term – where they come, and receive a lot of Zionistic experiences, learn a little Hebrew, and then the moment the program is over they make aliyah… and find themselves alone here,” Pardes Friedburg said.
One of the biggest problems faced by new immigrants is the lack of a community and a place where olim “can meet people who are like-minded and continue to develop [as people], and remember why they made aliyah,” she said.
“It just hurt my heart to see so many people who just forgot their connection here.”
Accordingly, the goal of the organization is for young immigrants to feel good about being in Israel, to feel needed and accepted, and to be part of a warm community.
Helping Russian-speaking immigrants acclimate to Israel
One way that Shishi Shabbat does this is through organized events, where they take the new olim on hikes and to lectures; and olim-empowerment and professional-empowerment courses. Furthermore, the organization provides participants with a beautiful cultural program where three times a month they go to Israeli art galleries, performances, movies, theaters, and such to get to know – through a Russian-speaking lens – the cultural history of Israel.
Shishi Shabbat holds retreats over Friday and Shabbat (hence the name), where participants go to a kibbutz or moshav for a weekend of new immigrant-related activities and community building.
“Those are the deepest most intense and impactful experiences,” said Pardes Friedburg, who adds with pride that a number of participants even met their future husband or wife at these events.
A Shabbat retreat earlier this month at Kibbutz Almog near the Dead Sea combined groups of new olim and refugees from the war in Ukraine with veteran olim who have been in Israel for years.
It focused on young families, offered olim the chance to meet and make friends with other families in similar positions, learn from one another how to handle various aspects of life in Israel, such as the Israeli bureaucracy, and even get tips on how to navigate sending their children to Israeli schools for the first time.
The retreat provided a wide range of relevant experiences for new immigrants, from family bonding activities and challah baking to lectures with specialized psychologists, aimed at helping them cope with the challenges of being young parents in a new and unfamiliar country. But one thing that remained constant is that whether listening to the shofar being blown before Rosh Hashanah or sharing their personal Aliyah story with the group, almost every oleh there had a smile on their face the whole time.
A young couple on the program, doctors Evgenia and Leonid Martinov, who made aliyah to Beersheba from Moscow last year, said they felt that the Shishi Shabbat program is vital for them, both personally and professionally.
“The program helps new olim to meet each other, to meet other people [in addition to] olim, and to do networking which is so vital in this country,” Leonid said. Another benefit of the program, he added, is that it enables olim to “know more about tradition, because not all the Jews who make aliyah were integrated into their traditions, or were integrated in different levels. In Israel, it’s very important, even if you are not religious, to know the basis of society here. To understand more clearly what is going on, who all these different people, are and what they want. That’s the main profit for us from this organization – integrating into and understanding Israeli society, and also the networking.”
“It is very important for me to love Israel because this is where I live now, this is where my daughter lives…” Evgenia added with a big smile on her face, already speaking in Hebrew after only a year in Israel.
To help olim like Evgenia quickly master Hebrew, Shishi Shabbat also organizes local Hebrew speaking clubs in cities with large olim populations.
“They do trips; Hebrew-speaking clubs; clubs with boardgames; a lot of things… They even have webinars [explaining] how to buy a car in Israel, what Bituach Leumi (National Insurance) is, the banking system…” Leonid concluded.
As the program wound to an end on Saturday night, the group held a heartfelt and song-filled Havdalah (end-of-Shabbat) ceremony, beckoning in the new week. Before everyone left the synagogue and headed home, Pardes Friedburg invited the olim to sit in a circle for a moment, to reflect on the weekend. While the children played in the background, their parents, many of them refugees from the war in Ukraine, slowly began to open up, one after the other sharing how this weekend had helped them to better understand Israeli society, connected them to their Jewish roots, provided them with tools to navigate being a parent in Israel, and finally given them a sense of community and belonging in their new home.
The weekend ended and the participants headed home, back to their lives as olim where they’ll have to deal with all the challenges that come with that title. Yet after seeing how this weekend impacted them, and with more events like this to look forward to and a whole new community of fellow olim supporting them, the odds of them succeeding here seem pretty high. One can’t help but think that that’s exactly what Zionism, in this day and age, is supposed to look like.
For more information: in English, en.shishi.co.il; in Russian: shishi.co.il
The writer was a guest of the organization.