Native and new Israelis try to bridge the immigrant gap

Community organization Jerusalem Village endeavors to find common ground for native Israelis and new immigrants, even with differences in culture and language

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

A montage of Jerusalem Village activities, with Yonatan Malich in the upper lefthand corner (photo credit: Hadas Glazer/Courtesy Jerusalem Village)
A montage of Jerusalem Village activities, with Yonatan Malich in the upper lefthand corner (photo credit: Hadas Glazer/Courtesy Jerusalem Village)

According to some Sabras, there’s one very basic reason why native Israelis and new immigrants rarely bond while navigating life in the Middle East.

“They’re not cool, and you have to speak Hebrew slowly to them,” said Yonatan Malich.

Malich, a curly-haired philosophy student with a wide smile that appears frequently, wasn’t being entirely serious. But he wasn’t completely joking, either. Before moving to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv to study at Hebrew University, he admittedly didn’t know many immigrants. But his personal interest in social entrepreneurship got him involved in a new program, Jerusalem Village, which is aimed at creating connections between young newcomers and Jerusalem’s existing young adult communities. Getting involved made him realize there is something to be gained from breaching the Israeli-immigrant divide.

“Jerusalem is unique; you hear at least five different languages on the bus, in the cafe,” he said. “And then, through something like this, you see what immigrants can bring to the table, it’s like a whole view of the world.”

A toast with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)
A toast with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)

Malich is referring to a recent Tuesday night gathering of Meurvavim, The Jerusalem Mix — the think-tank side of Jerusalem Village — and a joint project of the Jewish Agency, Jerusalem Municipality, Ginot Ha’ir Community Council and New Spirit. Fifteen young Jerusalemites, men and women in their early to late twenties, religious and secular, native-born Israelis and immigrants, were holding the second in a series of meetings about what kinds of projects they want to initiate for the city, figuring out the elements necessary in professional project development. Guided by Hidalgo, a two-person team that provides consulting services to social organizations, and with participation based on a careful interview and application process, it precludes casual participation, cautioned Malich, who has become a Community Building Coordinator at Jerusalem Village.

“This is about entrepreneurship, founding and establishing something,” he said.

It’s just one aspect of Jerusalem Village, which wants its community of immigrants and native Israelis to work together to position Jerusalem as a Jewish, pluralistic, and cosmopolitan community, said Lisa Barkan, the organization’s founder and director, and once a new immigrant herself.

“We’re a place to network, network, network,” said Barkan. “People have found entire new lives from these interactions. It’s a game changer because of the shift in platform. We mix larger events and smaller events, creating different dynamics. And that’s what we’re looking to change — the game of how olim find their place in the city so that they stay, and how Israelis welcome and see olim as a contributing factor in the well-being of this city.”

At a Jerusalem Mix session (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)
At a Jerusalem Mix session (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)

Two of the coordinators at the core of Jerusalem Village are Talya Levin and Anarina Heymann, both immigrants — Levin from the US and Heymann from South Africa — although Levin, who handles outreach, is a volunteer, while Heymann, the marketing and communications manager, is on staff. Despite their professional involvement, their passion for the project is personal.

For Levin, who’s been in Israel for six years, she wanted to be able to walk down the street and see people she knows, not just other English speakers. Jerusalem, she said, really is a village. Heymann, who worked as an aliyah coordinator in South Africa, has often felt that the greatest barrier to real connections between native and immigrant Israelis is language.

“You move to a new country and you’re all about surviving and you go to what you know, which is other people who speak your language,” she said. “But you also can open up quickly to what’s out there and when you’re ready to do that, you need to have somebody” — hopefully Jerusalem Village — “that will be there to say this is what we have.”

What the organization has is a plethora of groupings and activities, all aimed at gently forcing the two populations together. Starting with the communal Shabbat dinners for close to 200 people that always sell out, and the more intimate Shabbat dinners held at peoples’ homes, there is also the previously mentioned Jerusalem Mix; Hebrew-speaking activities revolving around photography, urban gardening, cooking, and training for the Jerusalem Marathon; and the Coffee Campaign, a kind of friendship speed-dating that pairs a native Israeli with a new Israeli at a local coffee shop.

Learning to cook together (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)
Learning to cook together (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)

At the start of the organization, Barkan held a series of focus groups to figure out which activities made the most sense. While Jerusalem immigrants are often observant Jews and seek Shabbat dinner opportunities, many of the native Israeli student-types may not be religious, or they may head home to their families for Shabbat.

For those reasons, the communal dinners are popular, said Levin, and there is a tremendous mix of both nationalities and observance levels. At the same time, the more natural reticence of Israelis who may not have felt as comfortable at the communal dinners brought about the intimate Shabbat dinners. An Israeli and immigrant are paired together, each inviting five people while Barkan and her crew add a few newcomers as well. The dinner may be held at a non-kosher home, so Jerusalem Village created a traveling kosher kitchen that includes a catering consultant who works with the hosting pair to create a menu. The pair then cook all day Friday while the guests contribute a store-bought item to the dinner as well as something to discuss at dinner.

The selection of 'chugim', activities available within Jerusalem Village (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)
The selection of ‘chugim’, activities available within Jerusalem Village (Courtesy Jerusalem Village)

“This is how we change the game, by doing what’s never been done before,” commented Barkan. “It’s a different way to do Shabbat if you’re not religious, but it doesn’t feel overly religious for those who don’t usually do Shabbat. It’s allowing you a way out of your bubble, but in an atmosphere that offers a certain comfort level for all.”

Jerusalem Village also aims to connect its people to existing organizations and programs, whether with student group New Spirit or Jerusalemites, the social organization and political party.

“You’re a student, you made aliyah, you’re a little bit lost and you come to us and wish you could intern or something and we’ll put you in touch with our friends at other organizations,” said Heymann, referring to Barkan’s knack for finding other organizations with whom to partner.”It’s not just about us and our dinners and cool events. We’re the safe space and comfort zone and then we make the bridge.”

The Jerusalem Mix, which is currently just one group of 15 people, initially had 60 applicants interested in committing to the year-long project, pointed out Barkan. In many ways, it’s the ultimate example of how Jerusalem Village wants to operate, bringing ‘real’ Israelis, as Levin jokingly referred to native-born Sabras, and immigrants together to design a project that helps cross barriers and solve problems in the city.

“There’s a lot going on in this city and the olim should be a part of it,” said Levin. “There’s a perfect storm of activism right now, the city is really dynamic and that’s exactly why we complement what’s going on. Olim should be pushing it and leading it.”

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