What will it take to keep new immigrants in Israel?

Upstart group KeepOlim says there’s not enough being done to help newcomers settle in; ‘Something’s gotta change,’ says founder LiAmi Lawrence

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

Hundreds of well-wishers welcome 218 new immigrants from North American who flew to Israel on a Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered flight, July 19, 2016. (Shahar Azran)
Hundreds of well-wishers welcome 218 new immigrants from North American who flew to Israel on a Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered flight, July 19, 2016. (Shahar Azran)

Each year when summer arrives, so do groups of new immigrants who land in Israel for the start of a new chapter in their lives.

At celebrations hosted by immigration organization Nefesh B’Nefesh at Ben Gurion Airport, olim, or immigrants, from the US and elsewhere are ceremoniously greeted by politicians while staff members hurriedly process their identity cards as they slurp down iced coffee slushies.

Yet all the fanfare ends abruptly once they leave the airport, says LiAmi Lawrence, a self-­appointed ambassador for immigrants to Israel and the head of KeepOlim, a group he founded last year to help troubled newcomers stay in Israel.

“The groups,” say Lawrence, referring to Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, “do a wonderful job bringing us here, and then we get dropped off like a hot potato and it’s sink or swim on our own.”

At least that’s the way Lawrence sees it.

1500 people attend a ceremony welcoming 218 new immigrants from North America who flew to Israel on a Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered flight, July 19, 2016. (Shahar Azran)
Some 1,500 people attend a ceremony welcoming 218 new immigrants from North America who flew to Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh chartered flight, July 19, 2016. (Shahar Azran)


Aliyah has changed significantly since the 1950s, when waves of immigrants from Arab countries came to Israel, or the early 1990s when Israel absorbed about a million from the former Soviet Union, followed by Ethiopian Jews escaping civil war and poverty in Africa.

For North Americans, immigration shifted when Nefesh B’Nefesh was established in 2002 by toilet paper industrialist Tony Gelbart and Yehoshua Fass, then the assistant rabbi of Gelbart’s Florida synagogue. The two wanted to increase immigration from the US and make it more efficient, without the bureaucracy of the Jewish Agency, the organization that had been handling all Israel immigration since the establishment of the State of Israel

“Nefesh B’Nefesh does aliyah as an experience,” says a Jewish Agency official who has since retired from the organization. “Get your materials on the plane, get your phone, become citizens while you’re still in the air. The identity cards come out while you dance and make merry at the airport terminal.”

By 2007, a full­-blown competition had grown between Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency over how best to handle immigration to Israel. At that point, the two organizations sat down to create a mediated agreement that divided up the work as well as the funds used to handle the process.

As part of the arrangement, Nefesh B’Nefesh became the primary body responsible for marketing and promoting immigration to Israel for Jews from the US, Canada and the United Kingdom, while the Jewish Agency was tasked with handling all other countries and taking responsibility for the bureaucratic process.

LiAmi Lawrence, the founder of KeepOlim, believes that more could be done for new immigrants Courtesy LiAmi Lawrence)
LiAmi Lawrence, the founder of KeepOlim, believes that more can be done for new immigrants (Courtesy)

But what hasn’t happened in the years since Nefesh B’Nefesh was established is the creation of a full-fledged support system for immigrants once they’ve landed, claims Lawrence.

As a result, he says, people leave, and in larger numbers than Nefesh B’Nefesh or the Jewish Agency wants to admit.

“Nefesh B’Nefesh says 7% of the people leave, the Jewish Agency says 12%,” says Lawrence. “Both of them will say they don’t know exactly, and I say bullshit — here are 62 people who just left.”

The 62 people Lawrence refers to are immigrants active on the KeepOlim Facebook page or on the Secret Tel Aviv or Secret Jerusalem Facebook pages. Lawrence makes it his business to follow those postings because he feels it offers a more realistic sense of what’s really happening with immigration to Israel.

How to succeed in the Holy Land

Perhaps the real problem with aliyah in 2016, opines Lawrence, is that it’s easier to move here but harder to succeed than ever before. He cites the high cost of living, the difficulty in finding a well-paying job, and other challenges, such as learning Hebrew and establishing a network of close friends and family. There are certain immigrant groups, particularly singles, who end up struggling because they don’t have families and don’t live in the communities where many families end up, he explains.

Post-immigration work is a process that begins before Nefesh B’Nefesh immigrants land in Israel, says Zev Gershinsky, executive vice president of the organization. It starts with employment services, choosing the right community to live in, bureaucracy and financial planning.

Handing out new identity cards to French immigrants in July 2014 Hadas Parush/Flash 90)
Handing out new identity cards to French immigrants in July 2014 (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

The six-person Nefesh B’Nefesh employment team sends out around 1,000 resumes each week, posts hundreds of jobs and runs about 15 well-attended programs each month on taxes, health care, insurance and other basic life skills.

The organization’s aid can run the gamut from making a well-placed phone call to the director of an Absorption Ministry branch to helping a new immigrant explore a different career path to guiding immigrant children in decisions about schools or the army.

“We try to problem solve people’s lives,” says Rachel Berger, who heads the Nefesh B’Nefesh employment team.

There are, however, explains Lawrence, too many people who come to Israel unable to handle the challenges and ill-prepared for what it means to settle successfully in a foreign country.

“Something’s gotta change,” he stresses. “We all have the same problem and they have failed us. The people that brought us have failed us post-aliyah.”

A group of retirees gathers after arriving in Israel in August, part of an aliya trip organized by Nefesh B'Nefesh. (Photo credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh via JTA)
A group of retirees gathers after arriving in Israel in August, part of an aliya trip organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh. (Nefesh B’Nefesh via JTA)

New immigrants with problems often turn to the absorption organizations when they have an issue.

“We often find them when something screwed up,” says Josie Arbel, director of absorption services and programming for AACI, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel. “When they get a letter from the National Insurance Institute or the IDF draft board, and they don’t know how to handle it, it breaks my heart.”

Lawrence was having his own aliyah meltdown when he founded KeepOlim last year. The 52-year-old public relations specialist was someone who had spent a lot time in Israel. He had returned to Israel after some 20 years in Los Angeles, coming back because it’s where he wanted to live, but found it was harder now that he was older, single and looking for work.

Times got even harder when Lawrence became ill, and, lacking enough financial security and knowledge of the health system, ended up floundering for months before finding the right doctor to steer him back to health.

It was during that time that he started the KeepOlim Facebook page and within hours discovered a community of immigrants who felt the way he did about the challenges of immigration. According to Lawrence, too many people end up in Israel because they’re at a turning point in their lives, and like him, lack a sufficient network of friends and family, good Hebrew and a profession that can work here.

“They may come here because they love Israel, but a lot of people come here ‘lost,’ he says. “Israel may not be the panacea for their issues in life, and it’s not easy when you don’t have the language, don’t have family or friends and you’re fresh off the boat and come here to start anew but quickly fall. You don’t have a job, or the language, Mom and Dad aren’t here, and that’s when problems happen.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh is currently conducting a study with Hebrew University to evaluate who doesn’t succeed in aliyah, and why.

“We want to understand and whether it’s something we can fix,” says Gershinsky.

Lingua franca

Learning Hebrew is particularly difficult for many English speakers, who often expect that everyone will speak English in Israel.

“You can’t learn Hebrew for six hours and then go find a job and have a spouse and kids,” Lawrence says. “We need different kinds of ulpans [intensive Hebrew courses]. People want to have an improv ulpan, or in smaller groups, at night, at different hours.”

What makes KeepOlim unusual in the arena of immigrant services is its access to the broad spectrum of immigrants to Israel, not just English speakers but the entire gamut, notes the AACI’s Arbel.

A new immigrant signing up for Hebrew classes at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, in 2012 (Oren Nahshon/Flash 90)
A new immigrant signing up for Hebrew classes at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, in 2012 (Oren Nahshon/Flash 90)


“One of the biggest changes of absorption is to what extent people expect help from the government,” Arbel says. “They want to do bureaucratic things correctly, but they don’t expect the government to get them a job.”

Indeed, part of immigrants’ problem is figuring out who can help them with their issues. It’s really a navigational challenge, she says. “You have to figure out who’s the person who’s better at advising you, whether in your industry, or with your landlord. You can shout into cyberspace, and the answer you’ll get is as good as who’s out there that day.”

The type of person is also a factor in the likelihood of success for a new immigrant, she continues. For example, young singles who move to Tel Aviv are not very idealistic.

“They’re not going to a kibbutz or commune to struggle together,” she says. “Neither are the older singles. They come because life’s not so great, they want to look for meaning and Israel could fill some need.”

The move to Tel Aviv for new, young immigrants has created a new host of issues, agrees Lawrence.

It’s a great city for singles, and the municipality and other organizations have created activities and a hub for immigrants. But it’s also an expensive place to live, and that’s one of the reasons that so many have migrated toward the illegal binary forex industry, where they can make relatively high salaries.

“You’ve got 26-year-olds making NIS 20,000 ($5,200) a month, it warps their minds,” says Lawrence. “You don’t feel too good about yourself — and if you take it away from him, you think he’s really gonna stay in Israel?”

Lawrence says more infrastructure needs to be provided for immigrants in order to encourage them to stay. He’s begun with several initiatives, and has more ideas for the future, including better job programming, a national job bank, courses to help people find their professional passions, self-­help classes, and workshops and mentoring for the Israeli job market.

He also brought former Knesset member Dov Lipman on board to lobby in the Knesset for more immigrant aid.

Lawrence and Dov Lipman, the former, one-term MK who will be lobbying for new immigrants in the Knesset (Courtesy LiAmi Lawrence)
LiAmi Lawrence, left, with former MK Dov Lipman, who will lobby for new immigrants in the Knesset (Courtesy)

According to Lipman, there’s more collective power of immigrants than ever before, and he doesn’t believe that anyone in the Knesset is aware that Israel is losing immigrants because of the challenges they have.

Still, Israel is not the first choice for most people, says Lawrence. The more well-to-do Jews from Argentina and Brazil prefer to go to the US and Spain, and French Jews often head to Montreal and the US.

“We’re getting people because they don’t want to be where they are,” says Lawrence. “Just think how many more we’d get if they’d stay here and flourish, and that’s not what’s happening.”

Most Popular
read more: