Putting immigrants front and center

New initiatives in Tel Aviv are trying to address today’s olim, what they need and how to help them succeed.

A new city initiative to aid Western immigrants. (photo credit: Courtesy, Tel Aviv municipality)
A new city initiative to aid Western immigrants.
(photo credit: Courtesy, Tel Aviv municipality)
Relocating to a new city always has its challenges, but when you’re moving to an entirely different country with a different language, social norms and way of life, you can almost be certain it’s going to take some adjustment.
After the excitement of almost year round beach time wears off and the new immigrant has had as many cups of cafe hafuch at the endless coffee shops their wallet can afford, basic necessities will probably be at the forefront of their mind.
With high numbers of Western olim (mainly from North America, France and Spanish-speaking countries) settling in Tel Aviv, organizations have sprung up throughout the city to aid Western immigrants with integration into Israeli society.
Statistics released by the Tel Aviv Municipality show that over half of the 15,000 olim who settled there between 2002 and 2012 were from Western countries.
But without programs to help integrate this group, experts across many sectors worry they will not stay in Israel. Instead, immigrants often end up returning to their home countries – a very high probability in the first five years after making aliya.
While some olim leave because they are unable to replicate the lifestyle they had in their home countries, there may be something else to it as well.
Though Tel Aviv has made headway in recent years with programs like improved recycling, bicycle lanes and community gardens, may local olim say there is still a large gap when it comes to basic necessities like housing, jobs in their field and a strong social network.
A predominantly young city, the majority of Tel Aviv residents are under 40, drawn to the hip nature of the mostly secular city, with plenty of art, music and entertainment seven days a week. But with extremely high rent and difficult government bureaucracy, one of the main complaints from Western olim is the lack of help from organizations to integrate into Israeli society. Daniel Roth, who made aliya from Los Angeles and now lives in Tel Aviv, says: “There are people from the Jewish Agency who contact you and may help with questions, they may do something for you if they can. But from my experience, you are usually on your own.”
Roth works as a bartender at Mike’s Place, an American-style bar that sits opposite the beach in central Tel Aviv. Drawing a large expat community every night of the week, many of the bartenders and waitresses get by in only English – bringing up another problem that many Anglo olim say they face in Israel: language acquisition.
EVEN THOUGH programs like MASA are often great opportunities to introduce teenagers and young adults to Israel, the idealized view that participants see has been criticized by olim as a very narrow view of what life is actually like in Israel.
However, prior to packing bags and boarding a plane with a one-way ticket to Ben-Gurion Airport, the majority of immigrants work with a variety of organizations, both private and Israeli, that are aimed at helping them through all stages of the immigration process.
Assuming olim begin the aliya process while in their home country, Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that streamlines the application process for the Jewish Agency, works side-by-side with other outlets to offer financial resources, Internet databases on myriad topics, and job and resumé workshops.
Alex Gutman, originally from New York City, is about to celebrate his fourth “aliyaversary” this December. He says that Nefesh B’Nefesh has a big job on its shoulders.
“I think they do a pretty good job,” he says. After three years, he is still receiving calls from companies who received his resumé from the NBN website. However, Gutman, who works in marketing and PR, wonders about the Go North campaign, since it is hard enough to find the right job in Tel Aviv. “I don’t understand how they can tell people to go North when it’s hard enough surviving in the Center,” he says. “Maybe it’s just for people with a lot of assets who can afford it.”
Roth, for his part, answers a quick “no” when asked if NBN was helpful once he landed. “Once you’re in Israel, there is not really any help,” he says, adding that the majority of assistance he has found in Tel Aviv has been from family members and through connections he has made on his own.
Kol Oleh, an organization that recently opened its doors to aid olim in the Tel Aviv area, is run by 25-year-old Israeli-born Guy Seemann, who was raised in New Jersey. Seemann got the idea for his grassroots organization after working in Haiti last year.
He explains that he wants to smooth the path of new immigrants, and help them attain social integration, improve the existing infrastructure, and essentially, he explains, grant olim “the ability to really become an integrated part of Israeli society.”
Pointing to government organizations like the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and the Jewish Agency, Seemann says there has been a big change since the 1960s and 1970s, and the organizations that are supposed to aid in aliya have not been updated in decades.
“The needs of olim used to be very different.
Nowadays, people are coming in with multiple degrees and lots of years in experience in different fields. They are not just coming in for Zionist or Jewish reasons, even though that has something to do with it,” he says.
To help counter the lack of preparation, organizations like Kol Oleh are focused on getting new olim on track toward cementing a future in Israel. Because many olim are not working in their field, Seemann says government organizations are not efficiently and successfully preparing people for life in Israel.
“One of the big losses for Israel is that olim are not capitalized or utilized in any way, shape or form,” Seemann explains. “They are kept on the outside of the system in many respects – socially, professionally and academically, to a certain extent.”
Aside from the job front, there is a big push among the newly formed groups, including Kol Oleh, to integrate olim in all sectors of life: From making sure that government forms and political messages are available in native languages, to helping olim network with other people in their field, to finding vital social groups in which olim may take part.
ConnectTLV is another program that is linking olim with job searches, professional networks and overall absorption into Israeli society. The Tel Aviv International Salon, while not specifically aimed at integrating olim, is a great resource for the Anglo community, which brings together English-speakers for art events, wine tastings and presentations by prominent members of Israeli society.
Also working to bridge absorption gaps is a new initiative created by the Tel Aviv Municipality, which is working with Western olim on a variety of issues.
Partnering with the Jewish Agency and ConnectTLV, the initiative offers housing services, cultural events and importantly, access to information.
Eytan Schwartz, senior adviser to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, says, “Traditionally, olim services were geared toward Russian-speaking immigrants and the Ethiopian community. It was clear that this new group required a different approach, as they face different challenges.”
Almost everyone agrees that diligently working to integrate olim into Israeli society is a win-win prospect, given the heavy reliance on foreignborn residents. The majority of olim who were interviewed were very interested in finding support in Tel Aviv, but were unaware of where to turn.
Since launching just over a week ago, Schwartz says the program has garnered a lot of attention.
“The response is amazing. This is an extremely important service that we are giving to a community that has a great impact on this city.”
Indeed, in addition to contacting the city via email and Facebook, people have already come in for face-to-face sessions.
The city’s new integration program will be primarily housed at Mazeh 9, the Municipal Center for Young Adults.
So while moving will always have inherent issues, Tel Aviv is working to arm Western olim with what they need to make it in Israel: be it housing, a sustainable job or a social network that will make them feel, well, at home.