Making aliya is not always a bed of roses

Some recent olim are heading back to their countries of origin. They tell of their difficulties in coming to Israel, raising tough questions about what can be done to improve life here.

A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
A YOUNG immigrant from Ethiopia waits upon his arrival at Ben-Gurion in 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Israel was built on the waves of immigration even before it became a state, and still encourages aliya. Representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel are placed around the world, and photos of new olim arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport make regular appearances in Israeli newspapers.
However, it seems that after the initial joy of aliya wears off, many of the olim from English-speaking countries – such as the US, UK and Canada – fail to adapt to Israeli life and end up moving back to their countries of origin.
“My suitcases are already packed,” says Gil, who is in his 30s and has been living in Israel for three years. “I’ve given up. I’m lucky that I came on my own, which will make it a little easier to go back to the US and find a job. Of course, I’ve blown through a huge amount of money trying to make it work here, but at least I can still leave. There are families that can’t.”
Gil, who grew up in a secular but Zionist home, had visited Israel a few times before he made aliya at the age of 30.
“The Israeli government is always saying that Israel is home, but in reality it’s very hard to integrate here nowadays,” says Gil. “At some point, my distress levels were so high that I decided to give up. I prefer to live and not to die, despite my love for Israel.”
Gil is not alone. Comedian Liami Lawrence, who made aliya from Los Angeles three years ago, founded a Facebook group called KeepOlim, which has 35,000 members.
“KeepOlim is mostly made up of English-speakers, but we also have members from other places around the world,” says Lawrence. “Posts are written in English, but people from all different nationalities attend our events.”
Lawrence started the organization with the goal of helping other olim in any way possible. Many of the posts bring up very difficult subjects, such as how hard it is to find a job and deal with bureaucracy in Hebrew.
“More than 170 of my friends have left Israel over the last two years,” says Lawrence. Most of them hailed from wealthy countries, were educated, and had careers. They had a much harder time dealing with day-to-day struggles than they imagined.
Lawrence says that at one point after making aliya, he completely ran out of money. “In Los Angeles, I worked in media, and so people told me I’d have no trouble finding work in Israel. But that didn’t happen, and things got so bad at one point that I found myself eating at my neighbor’s, and my parents had to bail me out. That’s when I got the idea to create the KeepOlim Facebook group. I don’t regret one moment that I made aliya, and I think I found my calling helping other people have a successful aliya.”
“We visited Israel many times before making aliya, and we loved it here,” says Keith, who made aliya six years ago. “We came from the UK with some savings and a desire to build our home here, but it hasn’t really worked out the way we thought it would. Everywhere we went – the bank, the health fund, the mobile phone company – we were asked to sign contracts written in Hebrew. Each time we were told verbally that the contract was good. Only months later did we find out what was actually written in the small print, and that we owed huge amounts of money. Our bank charged us fees for things we had not agreed to without asking us. We felt like everywhere we turned, people were trying to screw us over since we didn’t speak the language.”
In the meantime, Keith’s daughter has returned to the UK, but he and the rest of his family do not have the resources to pick up and move back there. Moreover, due to debt, Keith is prohibited from leaving Israel.
“My wife and I regret that we made aliya, but we can’t go back home at the moment. We were told that Israel wants olim, but when we got here, we felt very alone. I would recommend to people who are considering making aliya to make sure they have much more money than they think they’ll need, and to know that life here is very different than what they’re used to.”
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, from the establishment of the state until 2016, 3.2 million people made aliya, 43% of them after 1990. In 2016, 26,000 new immigrants moved to Israel, 7% fewer than in 2015. Of all the people who made aliya in 2016, 57% came from the former Soviet Union (mostly Russia and Ukraine), 17% from France, and 11% from the US. According to statistics from the Aliya and Integration Ministry, 29,000 people made aliya last year. The number of Canadians was higher than the previous year, but the numbers from the US and UK were lower.
“I grew up in a country where many of the Jews are not open about their identity, as a result of what their families went through during the Shoah, but my family was very involved in the local Jewish community. I went to a Jewish school and joined a Jewish youth group. I knew that I wanted to marry a Jew, and so I decided to make aliya,” says Emma, who has already returned to her country of origin in Europe.
“I have a master’s degree and I speak English and also decent Hebrew, but still my aliya was a complete disaster. Even though it’s not so nice to be identified in my country of origin as a Jew, in some ways it’s even worse to be considered an oleh hadash [new immigrant] in Israel. People would comment about my accent, ask me if I’m Jewish, and show distrust that I completed university studies – it was awful,” Emma continues.
“Maybe if I had moved to a different foreign country, I would not have been so insulted, but Israel was supposed to be the home of all the Jews. Why would the Jewish Agency invest so much money to get people to make aliya, if they were going to treat them so poorly upon arrival? I didn’t know who to turn to, except friends of mine who also made aliya, and how much can you be a burden on friends?”
According to official statistics published by the ministry, 10% to 12% of immigrants end up returning to their country of origin. Lawrence, however, claims that in reality the numbers are much higher.
“According to my estimates, about 25% of olim end up leaving,” he says. “No one picks up the phone to call the Jewish Agency when they leave, and so I think their statistics are inaccurate. If all the aliya agencies were doing their jobs, there wouldn’t be any homeless or hungry olim.”
Lawrence teamed up with Tzvika Gravier, a lawyer by profession, and the two of them established a project called No Oleh Alone, which helps match up olim and veteran Israelis for Seder night and Rosh Hashana meals. In a few months, they plan to inaugurate a support group and a multilingual hotline for olim who find themselves in mental distress.
“In addition to the hardships of looking for a job and dealing with bureaucracy, the biggest problem olim face is loneliness,” Lawrence says.
“Kids get a great education in Israel, and the medical treatment is also fantastic. And yet, life is still really hard here,” says Lauren, who made aliya from the US over a decade ago, and has since gotten married and had children. “But if you’re over 40 when you come, it’s pretty hard to find a job. This is a young person’s world, and rental prices are also sky high. These are problems that all Israelis face, but everything is just harder for olim.
“I don’t regret making aliya, but when people over 40 tell me they’re considering coming, I tell them it’s pretty hard to find a job. On the other hand, Israel is a much better place to raise your kids, and the educational system is excellent. If the government could provide rent-controlled housing, both veteran Israelis and olim would benefit from this.”
Response from the Jewish Agency:
“Jewish Agency emissaries are instructed to provide professional and accurate information about the absorption process in Israel, including housing, employment and educational opportunities. They accompany individuals during their initial period after making aliya, even though this is officially the responsibility of the Aliya and Integration Ministry.
“The Jewish Agency offers job counseling and provides Hebrew-language ulpan courses to help olim adjust to life in Israel. The ministry operates mental health and support centers, which offer help in a variety of languages.
“Regarding the number of olim who eventually return to their country of origin, our statistics show the rate is 10%. It is unclear to us where the figure of 25% was taken from, or what period of time this refers to. Estimates based on random sampling cannot be used as a basis for discussion.”
Response from the Aliya and Integration Ministry:
“The Aliya and Integration Ministry encourages aliya and expands its activity from year to year. It cooperates with KeepOlim and has held working meetings with the NPO. KeepOlim operates an interface that olim can use to receive help. The percentage of olim who leave Israel is a complicated figure to measure, in part by the question of how many years someone needs to live abroad before they are added to the statistics. Many olim continue to work overseas and travel for extended periods.
“The ministry actively participates in Israel’s national suicide prevention program led by the Health Ministry and offers aid to the various immigrant populations. The ministry has been involved in discussions with the National Council for the Prevention of Suicide, and is leading a subcommittee creating strategies to reduce suicide rates among immigrants. The subcommittee has submitted its recommendations to the director-general of the Health Ministry.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner