Daily Grind

Helena Skibinski, an inspiring Swedish olah living in Tel Aviv explains how she adapted to challenges in her new Israeli life.

Helena Skibinski exchanged the cold propriety of Sweden for this country’s hectic warmth in October 2009. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the differences between her home town, Gothenburg, and her adopted place of residence, Tel Aviv, she loves Israel and has every intention of staying.
Anti-Semitism is unfortunately widespread in Sweden and she has friends who were attacked for wearing a Magen David. Pro-Israel Swedes are always being asked to defend their position.
“I have always stood up for Israel – I feel it is my homeland – but Sweden is a very homogeneous society and you are not encouraged to be different,” she says. “And it’s not safe. The synagogues and schools are guarded and the Jewish Community Center has bullet-proof glass. It’s not always comfortable to be a Jew in Sweden.”

Skibinski was born to parents who came to Sweden from Poland in the 1960s. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s in ecology and marine biology, all from Uppsala University. Growing up she was always involved in the Jewish community, working with youth movements and student associations. She loved to travel and had a particular attraction to Latin America, where she spent a year, after graduating, in Costa Rica. But Israel always held a special place in her heart and she knew she would come here one day.
“I did my thesis in the Marine Laboratory in Eilat in 2004,” she says. “Even before that I had fallen in love with Israel and that’s when I knew I wanted to settle here.”
She went straight to her sister, who lives in Haifa with her sabra husband and children, and stayed for two weeks until she was able to start ulpan.
She had been here in the summer before her aliya, and had already arranged a job for when she returned.
“I went back to Sweden and called the Jewish Agency, asking for an ulpan which started in October. It worked out well as Ulpan Etzion, which is in Haifa, is geared to young single academics. I moved in and began studying Hebrew and working at the same time.”

With ulpan, work and a base at her sister’s, she felt she was off to a good start even though it was far from easy. The job was working for a consultancy firm which helped researchers and companies get grants from the European Commission, and her scientific background was helpful. She worked from home, using Skype, and discovered that her colleagues were from all over the country.
“It was very hard at the beginning,” she recalls. “I studied in the ulpan from 8 a.m. till 1 p.m. Then I did two hours of homework. Only after that I was able to start work. I hardly had any time to go out with friends or visit my family, and it almost felt as though I wasn’t living in Israel.”
Once the ulpan finished, she decided to move to Tel Aviv and looked around for accommodation.
“I had been staying with a friend, but I really wanted a place on my own. I loved the area I was in, Keren Hatemanim, the Yemenite quarter near the Carmel market, and I loved the specific house I was in at the time, so I put up notices with a ‘what have I got to lose?’ feeling and within a few days the landlord called and said there might be an apartment becoming available. Within a day I’d seen it, a bedroom with a loft, and signed the contract.”
Helena has still not found work in her field but continues to hunt for the ideal job. While she would like to find work connected to her biology degrees, she would prefer to work with people rather than in a lab. And since she has to support herself, she found work in an arts and crafts shop in Neveh Tzedek at the renovated railway station there. “I’ve been working since the day I arrived in Israel,” she says.
While family and friends have all been wonderfully supportive, she finds that the Gvahim organization gives practical help which is invaluable. The nonprofit, which was started originally for French immigrants, now helps young academics realize their professional ambitions and provides a strong social anchor to help in a successful aliya.
“They help you to prepare for job interviews and write a resume the way you are supposed to do it here,” explains Skibinski. “They also have a network of connections with companies and have group meetings which provide a lot of help and support as well as practical advice.”
Anther helpful organization has been the UJIA in Tel Aviv, which takes care of Scandinavian interests here and was able to advise on immigrant rights.
Although she is not Orthodox, she does observe certain things and says she values many aspects of her Judaism very highly.
“I am put off by people who get so into religion that they only follow the rules and forget about the values behind them,” she says.
“I love the life here, it’s so spontaneous and there is always something going on, whether it’s concerts or going to the beach or just hanging out with friends.
“In Sweden, if you want to make a social arrangement you have to plan it weeks in advance but here you live according to how you feel at the moment. It certainly makes a change.”