I’m going to try to keep this short, but don’t hold me to that promise.

Maybe it’s intentional, maybe it’s not, but the fact of the matter is that organizations in the Diaspora, like Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, are misleading young Olim.

“As Olim Chadashim, you are entitled to a free higher education.”

This is a direct quote from the Nefesh B’Nefesh website.

Now I didn’t move to Israel to get a free degree, but many of the concerns that I had about the pitfalls of moving to a new country, alone, at the age of 18, were assuaged by the promise of having my higher education paid for.

Planeloads of young men and women make this decision each year. Many of them serve in the army. Some get injured during their service. But almost all of those who moved to Israel before getting a degree experience the rude awakening of dealing with the Student Authority.

The conversation normally plays out something like this:

Oleh: Hi, how do I get the free tuition for my degree?

Student Authority: Oh you mean the scholarship? First fill out these forms and provide us with the necessary paperwork. Then we’ll let you know if you are entitled.

Obviously, this is a oversimplification, but I think the point is clear. Having your tuition covered is not a given right. Always read the terms and conditions.

Screenshot from the Jewish Agency’s website

The image accompanying this piece is a screenshot from the Jewish Agency’s website, which clearly states that the tuition is an entitlement. There are, however, several hidden caveats, which include:

  • Maintaining a certain academic average
  • Not repeating any courses
  • Reapplying for the “scholarship” at the start of each academic year

One Oleh interviewed for this piece stated candidly that “the free degree is great, but the amount of fine print is outrageous… I’m trying to take my studies in Hebrew, but if we fail courses we are punished and don’t get benefits anymore”.

What I find pertinent is the fact that the key piece of paperwork required for the Student Authority to approve your scholarship application, is proof that you have already paid the tuition.

“The whole thing is extremely misleading” another Oleh expressed to me, “they always tell you that your studies will be paid for. They don’t mention up front that you need to do a lot of volunteer hours… and on top of that, they make you pay out of pocket for the tuition and only afterwards do they pay you back”.

There are of course Olim who feel that “if you’re on top of your stuff and take responsibility for knowing the due dates and the process then it goes smoothly”.

But that’s just it. Even though most — but not all — Olim do eventually get the financial assistance that they were promised, the vast majority have to wade through a sea of bureaucracy on a website that is outdated and glitchy.

The Student Authority requires submission of paperwork like proof of enrollment, proof of payment, and a course list before they approve your annual scholarship. I would love to tell you that this process is made easy for Olim, who are busy working to pay tuition in advance while simultaneously studying, but that would be misleading.

My goal here is not to besmirch the name of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency, the Student Authority, or any of the other organizations who work tirelessly to support our country and its citizens.

In simple terms, the purpose of my writing this piece is to ensure that there are no more misunderstandings. That all the provisos and details of the financial assistance offered to Olim Chadashim are made clear prior to Aliyah. That no Oleh is promised a free degree with no strings attached and, at the very least, that those responsible critically review the process involved in actually getting access to whatever financial assistance is available.

I hope this happens. Representatives of organizations like the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh have to be careful of what they say to young, idealistic Olim. Otherwise, we’ll be hearing many more stories like the one this Oleh:

“I was a starry eyed 18-year-old with my whole life before me. They told me ‘just do 6 months of Kibbutz Ulpan and then you get free studies’. Well 3 years later, I was beyond broke and broken”

*NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely my own. The statements made by other Olim, anonymously, are solely their own.