Missing: government support for olim

I often joke by calling myself the “Poster Child for the Jewish Agency for Israel.” Coming from a “typical” New York secular, Jewish family, I decided that Israel, namely Tel Aviv, was home; so I made aliya in October of 2011. I didn’t make this decision without a lot of thought and experience: I first came to Israel with Taglit in 2008; did Ulpan for a summer at Hebrew University; participated in a Masa post-graduate program for five months after graduating college; and served as a madricha for Taglit twice. As discussed in Alan Hoffman’s recent Op-Ed in Haaretz, “A better approach to aliyah,” all of those Jewish Agency programs worked on me.

Last Friday, a special Knesset committee held a hearing on the state of Jewish immigrants and services. It really caught my attention, enough to distract me from studying for my graduate school finals. This committee couldn’t have met at a better time. Over the past couple of months, the Government and the Jewish Agency For Israel have drastically defunded and eliminated parts of the aliya “basket” we were promised. Yet, as olim, we were never informed of these changes, and without these services, we are losing a lot.

These eliminated services began with JAFI’s plan to end education grants for olim earlier this year. This is said to be the final academic year for olim to receive either full or partial subsidy towards their education in Israel. It was not a major headline story and was disturbing news to friends of mine, who had already made aliya, served in the army, and are now working to save up to be able to go to graduate school here. For them, and the thousands of olim who planned on continuing their education in Israel, future plans are dissolving. Thousands of immigrants might also be forced to drop out of school if the cuts go forward.

Earlier this week, JAFI stated it would end its part of funding for free ulpan for olim, as of March 2012, asking the government to absorb the full cost. Olim were promised free ulpan classes, which can be started up to 18 months after aliya. Nothing has been widely publicized on the matter. Kadima MK Shamalov-Berkovich said it perfectly when she asked why JAFI should be putting so much effort into cultivating Jewish identity abroad, if immigrants are not able to adjust when they arrive in Israel? She went on to say that the Israeli Government needs to invest more in the olim that are here now so we can learn Hebrew and not return to our home countries disappointed because we never had a real chance to acculturate in Israel.

JAFI has done an amazing job in bringing more young Jews to Israel than ever; they have done their part — they got us to make aliya. The government now needs to shoulder more of the burden to help olim assimilate into Israeli culture. The government has the responsibility to step up and plug the holes left when JAFI pulls its funding of programs that many olim need to transform themselves into productive Israelis. Why work so hard to bring olim to Israel and then not help us stay?

These aren’t the only struggles olim deal with when they make aliya. Describing the Misrad Ha’Klita – or Ministry of Absorption — one night after dinner with my visiting parents left everyone laughing at the complications, although at the time of my frustrating visits, I didn’t think it was quite this funny. The Ministry is dedicated to bringing in Jews from all over the world, yet Hebrew and Russian are the only languages spoken there. Nobody speaks English, Spanish, French, German, etc. Even my “aliya councilor” doesn’t speak English! How am I supposed to call and ask him questions if we cannot communicate without an elaborate pantomime? I have actually made my Ukrainian friend from university promise he will accompany me to the Misrad Ha’Klita the next time I have to go so he can speak in Russian with the employees on my behalf.

As someone who made aliya from the United States, I feel incredibly lucky to have Nefesh B’Nefesh to help me run the bureaucratic maze that is aliya. Yet many olim don’t have this luxury. The entire governmental system needs to be reorganized to support olim who come from the Diaspora, who do not have access to organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh, to help them along the way. The Misrad Ha’Klita, an entire ministry designated to the intake of olim, was organized to support the massive absorption of Russian-speaking immigrants into Israel, yet it has not been updated and currently remains inaccessible to the new olim coming from English-speaking countries, Western Europe, and South America. When applying for a te’udat ma’avar or passport, the only forms (on paper, and the ENTIRE website) available are in Hebrew or Arabic. Thankfully the Interior Ministry officials speak English, but what about olim who can’t speak English?

Next week will be my six-month anniversary of making aliya, and I do not, and have not regretted the decision. The past six months have been the happiest of my life. Yes, life has been hard living without my family or lifelong friends, in a foreign country — even though I speak enough of the language to get by on my own. But all that aside, I have never been more proud to be a Jew, and ultimately an Israeli. I just hope that the government and JAFI decide to show us the same respect by giving olim the tools necessary to become integrated into the society we love, allowing us to make a life here for ourselves, our families, our children, and the future of the Israeli nation.

About the Author
Lena Glaser is an American-Israeli who currently lives in New York City. She received her MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies from IDC Herzliya, and her BA in Religion and Peace & Justice Studies from Wellesley College. She currently works for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.