October 29, 2010
ALIYAH 2000: A Tale of Two Olim
In August I profiled the Berger and Cirt families as part of an article on the growing rate of aliyah to Israel from Los Angeles. On July 26, the first direct LA group aliyah flight of Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency left LAX, a milestone in the history of LA aliyah, demonstrating increased demand in express aliyah service from Los Angeles to Ben Gurion.
I caught up with the Cirt family when I was in Israel last month and also spoke with the Bergers over the phone to see how their adjustment was progressing. They describe two different aliyah experiences, one filled with major frustrations and the other filled with minor frustrations tempered with a wonderful welcome. Ironically, it seems the native Israeli had more trouble adjusting to Israel than the pure-bred Americans.
Steven Cirt always wanted to make aliyah, while his wife Anat, who moved to LA from Israel about nine years ago, warmed-up to the idea mostly for the sake of her family. With an autistic son, she realized her family network in Israel and the education system would better suit the family’s needs.
The Cirts opted not to go on the group charter flights offered by Nefesh Be’Nefesh, the Jerusalem-based organization that works with the Jewish Agency to streamline the aliyah process. In Israel they settled at Anat’s mother’s apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim. While considered an upper-middle class neighborhood, Givatayim consists largely of square apartment buildings squished together. It is a very Israeli city, with hardly any English spoken on the streets.
Anat’s mother lives a few houses down from my grandmother, so I paid the a visit.
This living room of Anat’s mother’s apartment was crowded with boxes, her husband‘s dirt bikes, and tons of laundry, folded and hanging. The kids sleep on mattresses on the floor. It’s clear the feng shui isn’t conducive to relaxation.
“Since we came here we’re just running, running, running,” Anat said, her youngest sleeping next to me on the sofa. “It’s okay. We knew it would be like that, but what about more a welcome?”
The problems began with their flight. Anat originally wanted to fly separately from her husband so he could stay behind and close up LA shop, but at the last minute she found out that, as a “toshav chozer” (returning citizen), she couldn’t get the free flight afforded new immigrants unless they flew as a family. They re-arranged their tickets to come together.
Her major complaints relate to bureaucracy and misinformation. The health insurance benefits outlined before their trip at the aliyah fair in Los Angeles didn’t match what they received upon landing, mostly because as a toshav chozer Anat had financial obligations to National Insurance she was told would be cleared.
“I was so upset,” she said, especially since she expected better treatment to a family of olim. Her heavy-set mother, sitting on the recliner, nods in the background.
The Bergers, on the other hand, who chose to settle in Beit Shemesh, a city known for its high concentration of American olim, describe a very warm welcome. They rented a five bedroom apartment remotely and landed only with their suitcases. Their lift came later.
“The people here are so wonderful,” Avi Berger said. “When we first got here they had already prepared food. They had mattresses for us, tables, chairs. They took care of our meals. We’re in a great community, very nice and giving.”
Each new family to the neighborhood is set up with a “buddy” family to help them navigate Israeli bureaucracy. “They all know what we’ve gone through because they’ve gone through it themselves.“
Sure, Berger said there were frustrations in the beginning: a flat tire and difficultly understanding utilities bills.
“There are moments we say we wished there were things we had that we had in the States,” Avi said. “We miss Target, certain food items that are hard to come buy or prices are exorbitant. There are certain compromises you make to make it work.”
But they didn’t compromise on the most important thing.
“The kids are happy,” Avi said. “They don’t know what they’re doing in school really because they can’t speak the language, but they’re in ulpan [Hebrew language school] and they made lots of friends….They’re playing with the neighbors and other kids and they have a sense of freedom here they didn’t have in the States which is something quite important to them and us as well.”
He added that they eat better (and more), they hardly watch television, and they spend a lot of time playing outdoors.
Unlike the Cirts, the Bergers processed initial paperwork immediately upon landing with the LA group flight and left with the clerk offering them water bottles to battle the scorching heat. The Cirts went independently to the Ministry of Immigration and Absorption to process their aliyah benefits, only to be told to come back after making an appointment. Steven Cirt describes the Russian-Israeli clerk as abrasive and unclear. “It really turned me off,” he said.
Anat is disappointed with the guidance she received from Nefesh B’Nefesh, saying no one called or visited, although, Steven said “we could have taken more advantage of them.”
The Bergers had a different experience. “ From the moment we got off the plane until the cab when we got off [NBN was] there for us,“ Avi said. Nefesh B’Nefesh set up a supermarket tour and other events at their Jerusalem offices.
But there have been some positive highlights for the Cirts. They loved the High Holidays in Israel and witnessing the kids on their bikes on Yom Kippur. Steven, a CNC machinist, has found many people willing to help him find a job. Even the convenient store owner down the street helped him set up an interview at a friend’s company in an industrial park, and Steven’s optimistic he’ll find a job soon. The children are happy in school, especially her autistic son. At the time of the interview, they were looking forward to their move to their rental apartment in Ramat Gan.
“We’re going to make it,” Anat said. “We’ll make it work out.”
Avi and Shani Berger are still working on their Hebrew at ulpan. Once his Hebrew improves, Avi, a media buyer, will look for a job.
“It’s a different way of life here,“ he said. “It’s a hard life, not everything I simple. The amenities are not necessarily here, but if you make those choices and you’re willing to deal with it, it’s a wonderful experience.”