On making aliya

Kyle was, like most if not all young Israelis, drafted into the armed services.

New Olim Israeli flags celebration zionist 390 (photo credit: Elle Yahalom)
New Olim Israeli flags celebration zionist 390
(photo credit: Elle Yahalom)
The State of Israel is hurtling toward retirement age, having turned 64 this past April, and the numbers of new migrants being absorbed has declined dramatically since the exodus which followed the vanishing of the Soviet Union. But year upon year, thousands of young people continue to make aliya, in order to take advantage of all a nation with a dynamic economy and cultural scene has to offer: to attend university; to learn Hebrew; to work on a kibbutz; to join the army; to begin life anew.
This may sound like a cliché, but the statistics show it to be a truism – there is a clear generational bulge among new olim, between the ages of 18 and 30, and they journey to Israel from around the world. The newest Ulpan (a five-month intensive Hebrew course) here has just commenced, and its attendees hail from the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Hungary and others.
Kyle (pseudonym) made aliya in April of last year from South Africa, aged only 19, following his in brother’s footsteps. Though Jewish by the Law of Return on his father’s side, he was in fact raised Christian, his father having converted from Judaism some years prior to marriage. His paternal lineage extends back to Europe: to Poland, Lithuania and Russia.
When his brother wished to move to Israel, he was required to prove this heritage by of way photographs of the graves of family members who had perished in the Shoah.
In making the leap, Kyle felt both the pull of Israel and, to a certain degree, the push out of South Africa. In a nation where 50 percent of citizens live below the poverty line, “a girl is more likely to be raped than finish [secondary] school,” he noted, citing a report in Time published in March on the issue of “corrective rape.”
ALMOST 20 years since the first universal elections there, South Africa struggles with chronically high unemployment (presently at 23.9%) and a low GDP per capita of only $11,000 per annum, in addition to, as Kyle noted, systemic problems with crime and government corruption.
Contrast this with Israel, where the economy is growing at just under 5% a year, unemployment is below 6%, and the GDP per capita stands at $31,000 p/a, and the journey from South Africa to the Promised Land is made to seem all the more understandable.
Less than a month after arriving in Israel, Kyle moved to the kibbutz in order to participate in an Ulpan, going from knowing nothing bar “shalom” and “toda” to passing kitah “bet” ( class for advanced beginners) with a score of 95%.
Though the aim of the Ulpan is to impart a “working knowledge of conversational Hebrew” and “the ability to read simplified texts and newspapers,” it was not until he worked for six months on the kibbutz at the end of the course that Kyle says he “gained confidence” in his Hebrew, learning a lot by speaking it daily among people whose English by no means fluent.
In achieving this, Kyle accomplished, it seems, more than most. A 2007 report found that 60% of those who take the Ulpan course over the age of 30 are unable to read write and speak Hebrew fluently, hindering efforts to find employment and absorption into the wider community.
Kyle, on the other hand, labelled the kibbutz Ulpan in particular a “fantastic experience,” citing the opportunity for him and the other participants to mix and integrate with olim and volunteers he would never have encountered under normal circumstances – one tremendous advantage of the kibbutz system.
FOLLOWING THE Ulpan and his spell working full-time in the great outdoors, Kyle was, like most if not all young Israelis, drafted into the armed services. Having excelled in the initial physical, psychological and intelligence examinations, he is at present participating in an additional three-month Hebrew course within the IDF, before having the pick of units and roles on account of his aptitude.
As such, he will not necessarily have to serve in a combat role; nonetheless, Kyle expressed no qualms regarding the prospect of having to operate in the West Bank, or participating, in a manner of speaking, in the ongoing occupation there.
Initially, the thought of military service was a kind of disincentive when it came to making aliya, based on the supposition that that time in the life cycle might be better spent elsewhere (South Africa has no policy of enforced conscription). But with the passage of time, Kyle says he “changed his mindset.”
On the one hand, he realized the importance of military service not only to the nation, but also to those who had already been through it.
“The most common question I was asked in my time here [on the kibbutz],” he stated, “was, ‘What do you want to do in the army?’” Yet his mentality was also altered by the other people he met, both at the Ulpan, and who are serving in the armed forces. Particularly, among those of his own age (20 at this point), he witnessed an uplifting passion for service to one’s adopted homeland, some having even made aliya specifically to join what Kyle called (and many would agree might be) “one of the best armed forces in the world.”
So even as Israel ages, and grapples with all the messy problems that come with that, it appears it will always be refreshed by the vivacity and vitality of its younger migrants.
The writer is a freelance writer whose work has featured in The Atlantic, The Forward and The Jewish Chronicle. He is based in Kibbutz Ein Hashofet.