Feeling at home in Jerusalem

The capital is celebrating its large immigrant population with its annual Oleh Week.

Abateh Barihon (photo credit: Courtesy)
Abateh Barihon
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Masha Novikov knows what it’s like to make a new start. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem and the person responsible for immigrant absorption issues in the capital moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union in 1989, close to the start of the mass aliya wave from that part of the world.
“You suddenly feel like a small child who doesn’t know the ropes,” she says. “Maybe it was a bit easier for the Russians, but olim who come from Western countries probably find it difficult to get used to the Israeli mentality.”
Having successfully navigated her first years here and now comfortably ensconced in the municipality, Novikov says she is doing her utmost to help newcomers find their feet in Jerusalem. A major part of that endeavor is the annual Oleh Week, which will take place for the second year running, between November 13-22.
Novikov says that Jerusalem is not only the country’s capital, it also heads the oleh absorption league.
“We take in more olim than any other city in the country,” she declares. “Each year around 2,500 olim come to live in Jerusalem. Haifa is second, and takes in around 1,400 olim a year, so we are by far the leader in the field.”
The deputy mayor says that part of making olim feel at home is to allow them to express the cultural baggage they brought with them and to make them more visible to the Sabras and the longer-standing residents. That is clear from the Oleh Week program, which kicks off on November 13 with an awards ceremony for outstanding immigrant seventh graders from schools around the city, which will take place at the municipality in Safra Square.
Anglo olim have a voice in next week’s program, which, Novikov says, is also a reflection of the number of olim from North America and Britain who have settled in Jerusalem in recent years.
“In the past year, most of the olim who have come to Jerusalem were from the US and Canada, with some from the UK, and olim from the former Soviet Union in second place,” she notes.
Naturally, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel has a prominent slot in the program, and on November 19, an exhibition of works of art by olim from North America will open at the AACI’s Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center.
Some of the artists will be on hand to answer questions about the exhibits. The next day, the same venue will host an a cappella performance by the young KOLture Shock group, with a repertoire of songs from North America and Israel.
There will be more evidence of Anglo aliya in the documentary screenings that will be hosted by the Jerusalem Cinematheque between November 15-17, with a November 15 showing of a 52-minute film, made last year, titled 804 South African Volunteers in Israel’s War of Independence.
Other community-oriented documentaries on the program include Israel Without War, about olim from Ukraine; You’ll Never Be an Israeli, sponsored by the Bulgarian Olim Association and the Jewish Agency; and 100 Years of the Bukharan District.
There are also some suitably themed feature films in the Cinematheque lineup, including Arik Kaplon’s 1999 drama Yana’s Friends, about how new olim from Russia managed in Tel Aviv during the First Gulf War, and Haya O Lo Haya (Did It Really Happen?) by Lina and Slava Chaplin, based on the true love story between poet Alexander Penn and actress Hana Rubina. There will also be an animation workshop for kids and parents.
The Ethiopian community celebrates the Sigd holiday around this time of year. Oleh Week will mark the event by hosting a traditional ceremony at the Sherover Promenade in East Talpiyot, and there will be some heavyweight musical entertainment courtesy of jazz saxophonist and vocalist Abateh Barihon and high-energy reggae act Zevulun Dub System.
The French part of the program features a cultural gathering and conference of the CNEF (National Center for French-speaking Students in Israel) at the Cinematheque on November 20, with information stands, addresses and shows, and Oleh Week will close with a cultural evening for French-speakers at the Gerard Bechar Center with an awards ceremony and a musical spot by veteran crooner Haim Moshe.
In addition to next week’s lineup, Novikov says that the municipality works throughout the year to support Jerusalem’s olim.
“There are absorption coordinators located around the city to help address problems of the various communities.
Of course, we place the coordinators according to the predominant mother tongue of the olim in the particular areas. That is something that is unique to Jerusalem.”
Novikov feels it is important to help olim on their home turf.
“As much as people talk about the work done at the Immigrant Absorption Ministry – and that is very valuable – you have to meet olim where they live. You have to get to grips with the problems and considerations of each neighborhood, and that’s what we aim to achieve through our coordinators. They often need to know basic things, like where the local bank is, or what buses access the area or where the nearest branch of their health fund is. This works very well.”
Of course, as any oleh knows, feeling at home here is very often a matter of being able to communicate efficiently, so the ulpan operated by the municipality comes in handy.
“Jerusalem also has a unique municipal ulpan at the Gerard Behar Center,” she notes. “It is run by teachers who are on the municipality staff.”
Culture and education also come into the absorption equation.
“We support all sorts of cultural activities throughout the year, like the annual Globus Jazz Festival, which is happening soon, and we try to ensure that olim have books to read in their own language, in special sections in libraries located around the city,” continues Novikov, adding that she is particularly proud of a local repository for Russian books.
“Jerusalem has had a Russian library for over 15 years. Today it is located at the Shukanyon and it is the largest library of Russian books in the Middle East.”
While the municipality’s cultural endeavors are welcome, we all know that Jerusalem has plenty of pressing issues to handle, even without the concerns of newcomers from around the world.
“We do our best to cater for everyone,” says Novikov. “Things don’t go smoothly all the time, but one of the aims of Oleh Week is to show Jerusalemites what olim have done and are doing for the city. It is an important stage and I believe it brings olim and veteran Israelis closer together.”
For more information about Oleh Week events: (02) 621- 1777 and (02) 629-5308 and www.jerusalem.muni/il