I have been in Israel for one year and I’ve discovered many things about myself and about the country, the people and life here. To put it in a nutshell, this country is as easy or hard as you make it. And yes, I can hear many olim (immigrants) saying: “Bullshit, this country is difficult no matter what you do or how hard you try.” And perhaps they’re right, in many ways. The language, the culture, finding work, getting to know the way things are done… it is difficult.
But if you come here wearing rose-tinted glasses, expecting things to come easily, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Just like any other country – or even your own – your success or failure, your attitude, and the way you act and react towards things, is up to you. No surprises there. The difference is that Israel wants you here and the various government departments and agencies, olim organisations and even residents do what they can to help you land on your feet.
Here again, I can hear many olim saying: “Once you’ve arrived, you’re on your own. The Jewish Agency and the government do nothing to support you…” Meanwhile, they do more for olim than any other country. But even then, those rose-tinted glasses could be your downfall – expecting too much, not having enough… (money, skills, experience, determination).
1. Don’t come with high expectations. You’ll be disappointed.
I chose to live on a kibbutz in the desert for the first six months of my Absorption process. I chose this option because I thought a kibbutz was a community and would welcome me and other olim into their lives. I thought learning Hebrew would be easier when you were living in a community where everyone spoke Hebrew and would be happy to help you learn.
I thought I’d find a host family that would absorb me into family life and help me adjust to leaving my family behind. There’s a saying I use often: “Thought got out of bed to see if his feet were cold!” I’m not sure where it comes from, and most people don’t understand it, but basically, these “thoughts” of mine made sure I was very disappointed.
It takes time to get to know the people in a community. It takes time for them to get to know you and be willing to welcome you into their homes. When you walk in the street in a city or even a town, you don’t expect everyone who walks past you to say hello. Why should you expect this on a kibbutz? If you don’t speak the language of the majority, how can you assume that they will speak yours?
I made some friends in the first six months on the kibbutz, mostly with the new olim in my group, but there were a few on the kibbutz who welcomed me. The majority of the kibbutzniks only warmed to me once I decided to make the kibbutz my home for another six months. This made me realize that they were tired of new olim (immigrants) and volunteers coming in and out of the kibbutz every six months. Why take the time to get close to people who were going to get up and leave within such a short time.
People have their lives, their families, their friends… Yes, it’s always nice to meet new people, but time is scarce and speaking to new olim in a language that is not your mother-tongue (be it English, French, Spanish or Russian), is hard, exhausting and frustrating. So if you find it difficult to learn Hebrew and speak it with Israelis, you have to remember it’s the same for them!
In many ways, this applies to wherever you choose to live in Israel, whether in a Mercaz Klita (Absorption Centre), a small, developing town or a major metropolis.
So, be patient, be understanding, be accepting, and make the effort to absorb your life into theirs… don’t expect them to fall all over you. But remember – once you’re in, once you’ve been accepted, you have friends for life! I know that when I leave the kibbutz, I’ll always be able to come back to spend time with good friends.
2. Make sure you have money on which to live.
If you’re relying on the six-to-seven-month Sal Klita (Absorption Basket / government subsidy) on which to live and entertain yourself, you’ll be in debt up to your eyebrows before you know it. Life in Israel is expensive, even on a kibbutz. Many don’t seem to realise that the Absorption Basket (monthly subsidy given to olim chadashim – new immigrants – in the first seven months) will not cover all their monthly expenses. It really is a basic subsidy to help you out. It is there to SUPPLEMENT what you bring with you – or what you earn when you get here! Yes, there are people who can get by on it and have, but those people are few and far between.
You will need to start looking for work almost as soon as you arrive – while you’re doing Ulpan (Hebrew classes) and acclimatizing yourself to your new country. Although you need to focus on your Hebrew in the first six months and should avoid working, if possible, you have to prepare yourself for the inevitable – the end of the Ulpan and the end of the Sal Klita. Yes, there are other benefits that kick in after your first year, including a rental subsidy, but again you have to remember that these benefits are there to help you with whatever you have already or are bringing in through work.
You may think I’m crazy bringing all this up. You may think it’s all very obvious and logical. But there are so many olim who come with these thoughts in mind and many end up struggling to such an extent that they have to ask for help from various olim organizations or charities or they go back to their country of origin within the first year because they can’t cope.
Finding work is not easy in a country where there are many people from all over the world who will do almost anything to earn a living… and where you don’t speak the language. Even if you have specific skills or a profession, the competition is great and you will also have to “retrain” yourself in many cases. If you’re an attorney, a doctor or an accountant, for example, you will probably have to write some type of entrance exam – usually in Hebrew – in order to get permission to work in Israel.
So, make sure you have some funds or some type of back-up (family, friends or income from your home country) when you arrive in Israel and until you find work. And once you arrive, make sure you do everything in your power to find work in advance of your having completing your Ulpan so once it’s over, you’re set.
And there’s that voice I keep hearing… the olim who disagree and say it’s not that simple. Yes, I know how hard it is to find work, especially in the field in which you’re used to working. But you have to exhaust all your options. Use everyone you know, network in every situation, ask people in your field for help and advice – not necessarily for a job – as people love giving advice to new olim.
When I first arrived, I read an article about an American oleh who had been in Israel for a while and was in the public relations field. I emailed him to ask for help and suggestions on how to get into the media field based on his experience and expertise and he was only too happy to meet with me and pass on his knowledge.
You can also attend employment workshops, seminars on how to produce an “Israeli CV”, how to conduct yourself in an interview, whatever will help you to get that job. Some will cost you, but many of them are free.
There are various organizations that will assist you in these areas, but don’t rely on them only. As with most countries, there are Internet job websites, the usual classified ads in the newspapers, recruitment companies and more, but very often, it’s all about networking and who you know. Word of mouth – or the “Bush Telegraph”, as we call it in Africa – can be a great way to find what you need.
I have been lucky with work. The saying: “It’s not what you know, but who” is often true in Israel, and my having produced a magazine for the Jewish Agency in South Africa meant I made connections before I arrived. The fact that I don’t speak Hebrew hasn’t (for the most part) hindered my finding work as an English-speaking journalist/editor – but much of my work has been through the Jewish Agency. Having said that, I know that not speaking Hebrew has meant I haven’t had as many opportunities as I could have had.
3. Ulpan – learning Hebrew
Before I arrived in Israel, I was determined to make the most of my six-month ulpan and learn Hebrew “come hell or high water”, as the saying goes. I had every intention to focus on the language as I knew my success in this country depended on it. However, I didn’t plan for my house not to be sold and my need to find work urgently. The stress that went with worrying about making my monthly bond payments and trying to sort out problems from half way around the world, as well as job hunting and emailing my CV around the country on a daily basis – and the fact that I find it hard to focus at the best of times – meant that my Hebrew suffered.
Working on the Maccabiah (Maccabi Games) so soon after I arrived was an amazing experience, one I could not turn down, but it meant I missed many classes right at the beginning. Taking photos and writing articles for the Jewish Agency were fun and exciting, but in my travelling to and from the kibbutz, Hebrew took a back seat. And in between work and attempting to catch up on Hebrew homework, there was the job hunting and trying to adjust to a new country, new people, loneliness and the desert.
Forget work for a moment… the result is that I miss out on every day, basic conversations in daily life and in social situations. I think, if I had to do it all over, I’d find work on the kibbutz in the kindergarden and let the children teach me what I need to know. Hindsight is 20-20 vision and besides, my circumstances at the time didn’t allow for me to do volunteer work!!
So, focusing on Hebrew is probably the most important thing you can do for yourself when you arrive in Israel – and even before, if you have the opportunity. Most people plan their Aliyah well in advance. They know more or less where they want to live, they know what they want to do, they know with whom they’re making Aliyah, they know what they’re going to bring with them and how – BUT VERY, VERY FEW PEOPLE START TO LEARN HEBREW BEFORE THEY ARRIVE!!! This would give you a huge advantage on your arrival.
Many olim think they’ll come to Israel and be speaking the language after their six-month ulpan. IT DOESN’T HAPPEN! Yes, there are people who have amazing abilities with languages, and many manage to have a basic conversation and can get around after this learning experience, but it is not enough.
And if you have to earn a living almost as soon as you arrive, taking the time to learn the language falls by the wayside. Living in a country where you don’t understand the language is not only frustrating because you don’t understand the people around you or you can’t watch a good Israeli movie on TV – it’s frustrating because all your correspondence from the banks, your Kupat Cholim (Health Fund), your cellphone company, among others, is in Hebrew. All the phone operators at the call centers are Hebrew-speakers and many don’t speak your language. Many of the shopkeepers and security guards and bus drivers and train conductors won’t speak your language.
Even though English is widely spoken and is compulsory to learn at school, it doesn’t mean everybody speaks or understands it. You have to remember, Israel is a country filled with immigrants from every country in the world. There are about seven million people in Israel. About one and a half million are Arabs (Arabic and Hebrew), about one and a half million are Russian or from the FSU (Russian and Hebrew – if they’ve been here long enough), and the rest are Israelis (Sabras – people born here – or olim, whether recent or long-term) who speak Hebrew and/or either French or Spanish or English or Dutch or German or Polish or any one of a hundred languages.
The common denominator is obviously Hebrew, and while you may be able to get by with English depending on where you live – as many have done in this country for many, many years – you’ll be at a serious disadvantage.
So, my suggestion is that you start learning Hebrew in your home country AS SOON AS you make the decision to move to Israel. However, if you are unable to do this, make sure you have enough money, time and other resources to focus on your Ulpan for the first six to 12 months (your first two ulpanim are usually provided free by the government).
These are just some of the things I’ve thought about since I’ve been here. Many may disagree – and have – and at times, I even disagree with myself, but for the most part, I stand by what I’ve said and I hope you find some food for thought in these words.