Forget me not

More Western olim are coming to Jerusalem. But where does that leave the Russians?

1167467812740 (photo credit: Sarah Levin)
(photo credit: Sarah Levin)
For centuries, aliya was closely connected to Jerusalem. During the early years of the Zionist movement, the pioneering aspects of modern aliya changed the aims somewhat, but Jerusalem was still the dream of many olim. With its reunification after the Six Day War, the city has become even more attractive, and for the past three decades, Jerusalem is the aspiration of most olim, whether they come from Russia, Ethiopia or Western countries. But dreams are one thing and reality is another. According to Dr. Maya Choshen, a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, Jerusalem is indeed the first choice of most immigrants, but once they arrive in Israel, many cannot fulfill that dream. Expensive housing and lack of job opportunities force them to relocate, and an increasing number eventually establish themselves in other cities, mostly in the center of the country. Several surveys by the institute reveal that security concerns are secondary to the two reasons mentioned above and the request for quality educational opportunities, also lacking in the city. However, there is another factor preventing many new immigrants from settling permanently in Jerusalem, namely the shifting demographics of the olim themselves. In recent years immigration from North America and Europe has increased; according to the Jerusalem Institute, in 2005 the numbers of olim from Western countries to the city was higher than those coming from Russia for the first time. This has led many to complain that the specific needs of the Russian olim are not being met. "We have [Western] families who already know where they will dwell and where their children will study, months before they arrive here," says Pini Glinkevitch, head of the Absorption Authority of the city's Welfare Department. "We have created a special network to facilitate their registration. We surround them, we reach out to all their needs, and we see results on the ground." But Glinkevitch admits that this is the case for Westerners: Olim from Russia, even though their numbers are decreasing, face different problems. For Russian immigrant activist Alex Tantzer, this lies at the core of the problem. "There are fewer and fewer olim from Russia and those who are already here in Jerusalem or still come here are aged and sometimes sick, so their chances of finding good jobs are very slim. Their general feeling is that now that more olim are coming from rich Western countries like France, Britain and America, nobody needs them here, and they have become more of a burden for the municipality." According to Glinkevitch, "Every oleh is welcomed here and the municipality, together with the Ministry of Absorption, the Jewish Agency and all the olim associations are doing their utmost to help them." Avi Zana, head of the AMI project to encourage and promote aliya from France, shares Tantzer's pessimistic views. "Our organization helps the olim from France. We prepare them before their aliya, we provide them with information regarding their possibilities for success here and we stay in close contact to help them once they are here. We also work with the municipality, but we do have a feeling that things could be much better organized and the bureaucracy is complicated. The fact is, too many of the olim from France are encountering heavy problems here, and as a result, there is less of a tendency to stay in Jerusalem." Zana added that the profile of a large percentage of the French olim explains the reasons for their difficult absorption into Israeli society. "A large number of them are not suited to the demands of life in Israel, professionally and economically. Often they are religious people who have no profession and thus they are not ready. Many of them, despite all our efforts, will eventually join the ranks of the Welfare Department. Among those who have professional options, many will establish themselves outside Jerusalem where they have better chances to get a job, although Jerusalem would always be still their first choice." The French have AMI, and North Americans have Nefesh B'Nefesh, whose efforts have been crucial in the increase in English speaking aliya, but the Russian community does not have a similar, well-funded organization to facilitate their aliya, so most of the burden falls on the Absorption Ministry and, in Jerusalem, on the city's Absorption Authority. City council member Lydia Bilitzky, herself an olah from Russia, says that it is an issue of attitude: "If the municipality does not consider the olim [and especially the olim from Russia] as a problem as they claim, why is the Absorption Authority part of the Welfare Department? Why from the very beginning does it convey a message that says: Olim equal problems, dependence and the like. After all, absorption is more connected to social issues than to welfare, or at least it should be considered that way. I think that it is a subconscious attitude that says a lot." For Glinkevitch the situation is rather simple. "Roughly, we have three different origins of olim: From Western countries like the USA, Britain and France, which is today almost exclusively what we call a 'community aliya,' the olim from Russia, which include young couples but also lots of older people and single parent families with all the relevant problems, and the olim from Ethiopia, who form a different group with specific needs and who are encountering lots of serious problems, not only financial ones." He says that he is working closely with all the olim in the city, paying attention to their specific needs: "The olim from Ethiopia have very different needs and problems which are far beyond the municipality's means. A large part of them are not exactly olim according to the rules of the state, meaning they are here for more than 10 years, and many of them reach Jerusalem long after they arrived in Israel, and after they spent years in absorption centers elsewhere. Lately we have started to make connections between the Ethiopian community and the administration, especially in the field of education, but it is too early to estimate the achievements." Glinkevitch admits that the "community aliya," also known as aliya by choice, results in the most successful absorption. These are the olim who are least likely to become a social and economic burden on the administration and the municipality. "Israeli society is a small one, every one knows each other - either from school, the army or from family ties. When you're born here or raised here, it's easy to get along; you will always meet in one administration or another someone you know or who knows your family. Think of the olim: They do not have this kind of social network to help them. That is why community aliya is the best formula, with the best chance of success," he explains, adding that he currently has the names of 73 more families from the USA and Britain who are planning aliya in this framework. "They are all religious, they all come of their own free choice and I know they will make it, because they have a community that is awaiting them here and will surround and support them." "The formula of community aliya does not exist in the Russian community. Of course they help each other and give support, but it cannot be compared to aliya from the West," admits one of the absorption coordinators employed by the municipality. "Most of them [the olim from the West] have professions, if they are religious they might even know some Hebrew, a large number of them arrive with some financial support, and they might have family here or maybe they have already visited Israel a few times before. "Compare that to the situation of an oleh from Russia: No language, no money and no knowledge of Judaism and local traditions. If we're talking about a young couple, maybe they can make it. But if it is an older couple, even if they manage from an economic point of view, they will never really feel Israeli. In a way, though they made the choice to live here, they will always be Russian immigrants, because for them, it is too difficult, too late. And these people need a lot of help and attention, which they do not always get." "Help and attention is exactly what the municipality, and more specifically Glinkevitch, won't give to the olim from Russia," complains Roman Gurevitch, himself a veteran oleh from Russia and an active member of opposition leader Nir Barkat's list, Jerusalem Will Succeed, on the city council. Gurevitch, who maintains that he himself feels "totally Israeli and part of Israeli society," came to the public's attention recently when he led a loud protest at a city council meeting, claiming that the mayor and his administration were acting against the olim from Russia. At that meeting, Bilitzky, also from Barkat's list, called on Mayor Uri Lupolianski to pay more attention to the needs of Russian olim, and asserted that Glinkevitch and the Absorption Authority are a major part of the problem. Her list of claims was long and detailed, but mostly focused on what Gurevitch and his followers see as steps taken to narrow their oleh rights, more specifically around the activities of the Olim Community House on Jaffa Road, a gathering place for many Russian immigrants. This downtown social center, created by the municipality about 10 years ago, is managed by a city employee, Larissa Yanovsky. While Yanovsky is considered by her peers and the olim as an energetic and involved manager, and although she is very careful to engage olim from different origins in the center's activities, Glinkevitch has a feeling that she has turned the place into a "Russian compound." "Yanovsky is a highly capable person and I do appreciate many of her achievements," says Glinkevitch, obviously reluctant to talk about what he calls an "internal issue," but admits that since he was appointed to the job last year, he has tried to promote "a different vision, shared by the head of the department to which the authority belongs - the Welfare Department - and I intend to apply my views, although I would never harm anyone, especially not an oleh." "What lies behind Glinkevitch's attitude to Yanovsky and the community center," says Gurevitch, "is his view of what it is to be an oleh." According to Gurevitch, the head of the Absorption Authority announced recently that an immigrant is no longer considered an "oleh" after 10 years in the country. "For these people, who are mostly older immigrants who are not fluent in Hebrew, the Community House is like a shelter. Here they can speak their language, read the papers and books they can understand, meet people like them and feel a little bit less like strangers, and this is what he wants to take away from them." Glinkevitch sounds genuinely hurt by Gurevitch's accusations: "I came to meet the olim, and I told them the laws. I said nothing about banning people from the community center who have been in Israel for more than 10 years. I never had such intentions. But I do think that this place is intended to serve all olim. I know that there are some olim associations working there besides ones for the Russian olim. But when I checked them out, it turned out they are mostly non-recognized associations. What can I do if the Ministry of Absorption and the Jewish Agency can fund and support only recognized olim associations? My proposition was that they should unite with the official associations and my intention was to empower them. Gurevitch decided that I am against the Russian olim and to turn it into a personal issue." He continues: "We had a meeting with the city council member in charge of the aliya portfolio, David Hadari. He heard all sides and proposed some solutions, and I believe things are going to improve." Hadari himself said that he was convinced that the Absorption Authority was doing its best to facilitate things for the olim, but added immediately that the Olim Community House couldn't go on acting as a "Russian club," and that things should be done according to the rules. For some, waiting for the municipality to act to improve conditions is not enough. Aliya activist Alex Tantzer has worked hard for months to obtain special reduced rates on the entrance fee to the swimming pool in Neveh Ya'acov, a neighborhood with a large number of older Russian olim with modest incomes. Last week, he finally obtained the discount. Tantzer was very satisfied by his achievement but emphasized that it was only due to his activity, and not an initiative of the Absorption Authority.