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AACI Aliyah Conversations for Olim in the Absorption Process
Insights into Israeli Life and Culture through Song
You are invited to join AACI for our informal Aliyah conversations with olim to discuss the challenges—the highs and lows—you’ve been facing in Israel. Join us on Monday, June 6, at 7:45 p.m., at Merkaz Klitah Ye’elim to hear special guest Hector Marrero who will present a workshop on “Learning Israeli Culture and Language through Song.” Find out how some of the nationally known songs are key to understanding life and language in Israel. Please RSVP to AACI Counselor Miriam Green at firstname.lastname@example.org. The sessions are geared towards olim within their first 5 years in the country, but we’re happy to make exceptions. We’ll meet at Merkaz Klitah Ye’elim on Rehov Ye’elim in Shechunah Hey, Beer Sheva. Entrance through the parking lot behind the “Gesher.” There is now a ramp for wheelchair access to Merkaz Klitah Ye’elim. Take the no. 9 bus!
A new AACI initiative introduces English-speaking olim to Beersheba to the finer points of living in this country.
Eighteen months ago, something new and exciting started to happen down south. “For the first time ever, Beersheba began enjoying a large influx of English-speaking new immigrants,” says Miriam Green, Southern Branch counselor for the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI).
Since 1948, Beersheba has served as “immigrant city” for tens of thousands of newcomers, but very few hailed from English-speaking countries.
“The change was amazing,” Green says. “I’d love to say the English-speakers were coming because we’re such a welcoming city and the word has gotten out. But realistically there might be several other explanations, including our local economy. It’s still easier to buy a house here than in the center of the country. Then, too, our schools – first grade through university – are great. There are lots of reasons why they may be coming, but whatever they are, for the first time, Englishspeaking olim are flocking in.”
Green, whose job involves helping new immigrants adjust to life in Israel, saw a common pattern among the newcomers.
“Many seemed to be suffering culture shock,” she smiles, noting that condition is hardly unusual.
“We all go through it, it’s common, but many of these newcomers were all expressing the same concerns and asking the same questions,” she continues. “I started to think about it.
One of the things AACI likes to do is connect people. Since we had a relatively small group of veteran immigrants from English-speaking countries, maybe we should put them together with the new immigrants to help the newbies through those first months. The older olim could help the newcomers see the bigger picture in the aliya experience. The new olim could gain practical advice about Beersheba in general, and seek help and advice for any specific issues they might have.”
AACI’s “rant and rave” sessions were born. New immigrants – up to five years was suggested, but in fact anyone was welcome – were invited, as was the English-speaking community as a whole.
“The idea was to let the newcomers ask any questions they had, seek advice on anything, whether it was where the best place to buy groceries was, how best to find a job, or tips on how to master Hebrew,” she says. “Whatever issues anyone needed help dealing with, we were ready to offer our own experiences.”
Aviva Weisel-Eichler, a long-term immigrant from Connecticut, was invited to chair the sessions, which started with a no-format agenda. She was just asked to make sure everyone had a chance to express themselves.
“I was delighted to do it,” Weisel-Eichler says. “It was a giant information-swapping fest – it sounded like a great idea to me. That first session – held a year ago, in a meeting room at the absorption center – attracted about 30 new immigrants. It was a very mixed group – all ages, backgrounds and professions. They came from the US, Canada, England, South Africa and Australia, but also included English-speakers from non- English-speaking countries.
A name change was needed, Weisel-Eichler said.
“I know they were called ‘Rant and Rave’ sessions at first, but I have to tell you, there wasn’t much ‘ranting and raving’ going on. No one did much ranting. It was all pretty positive,” she recalls. “Afterward, everyone was excited about how well it went. The new olim were grateful that we’d brought them together with the more senior immigrants. Everyone, new and old, seemed to enjoy the interchange.”
The second session a month later was a little more organized, Weisel-Eichler notes. “We had a discussion topic, ‘Dealing with Bituah Leumi’ [the National Insurance Institute]. That, too, went very well. But after that, the number of attendees started to drop off. Maybe they’d had their questions answered and they’d moved on.
“We started to offer something a little more structured, inviting a speaker who could offer specific expertise. A subsequent session featured Alan Cohen, a former Bank Hapoalim manager formerly from London, who talked about banking in Israel, explaining how the system worked and inviting questions. After that, we featured a speaker from Tnuat Or, an organization devoted to the development of the Negev. The number of attendees began to grow again.”
In the year since those first sessions, invited speakers have covered any number of topics, some requested by the newcomers, others by professionals who volunteered to come and share their expertise. Even the name applied to the group meetings evolved: “Rant and Rave” gave way to the less colorful – but probably more accurate – “Conversations with Olim.”
TWO RECENT speakers drew especially large crowds – not just of new olim, either, but of immigrants of several years’ standing.
In March, David Brock, senior lecturer in business management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a 2001 immigrant from New Zealand, came to offer some tips on learning Hebrew.
“That was one of our best sessions,” Green says. “A primary concern for all new immigrants is learning Hebrew, and David offered some great ideas.”
One of Brock’s suggestions came from his own experience: As a new lecturer at BGU, he had to learn Hebrew quickly, so he contacted a retired gentleman, another scholar, who enjoyed visitors. The two would just get together to talk – in Hebrew – twice a week.
According to Brock, both benefited from the activity.
Following Brock’s presentation, several newbies offered additional advice of their own: “Repeat phrases until you know them by heart,” “Read short paragraphs from newspapers over and over again,” “Listen to the radio,” “Watch children’s television,” and “Borrow easy-to-read books – or better yet, borrow someone’s first-grader.”
In April, another top-ranked professional, Zvi Ophir, presented a workshop on “Reading Israeli Body Language: Rude Gestures and Other Cultural Differences.” Ophir, who presents his body-language workshops for business groups, teachers and the IDF, also teaches English at Yeshiva High School in Sussiya and Dimona, having made aliya from England with his family 41 years ago. Using film clips, photos and drawings, Ophir kept the audience both laughing and learning.
One of his drawings represented the quintessentially Israeli hand signal: all five fingers closed together, pointing upward.
“What does this mean?” Ophir asked. Only a few guessed: “In Israel, it means ‘Be patient.
Take it easy. Give me a minute.’” But make that same gesture in Italy, someone pointed out, and you might find yourself going home in a wheelchair.
Using the now-famous photo of US President Barack Obama talking on the telephone to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with his feet on the desk, soles to the camera, Ophir discussed the sensitivity of Middle Easterners to being shown the sole of another’s shoe.
“Keep your feet on the floor,” he suggested. “Don’t cross your legs so that the sole of your shoe shows if you’re sitting with an Arab.”
Looking at the group assembled to hear his talk, Ophir says, he could tell from their facial expressions, and where and how they sat in the meeting room, that the new immigrants were appreciating the presentation.
“They were very interested, many were leaning forward a little, which betrays strong interest,” he recalls. “It was a great session – fully interactive. It wasn’t a lecture. There was something going on between us, bouncing back and forth. We were learning from each other.”
“I’ve been to almost every ‘Conversation’ session,” says Hector Marrero, a sociologist who made aliya from Mexico four years ago. “They’ve all been helpful and interesting. The how-to-learn-Hebrew session was maybe the best… I just hope the sessions will continue.”
Not only will the sessions continue, says Green, but future topics are sure to keep people coming.
“Martin Stone, a veteran immigrant from London, will be making a presentation on how to read your bills and invoices. Another session will focus on what adult education is available in Beersheba. Finding employment is always a hot topic for new olim, and we’ll also have a session on nonprofessional jobs that might be an option. For newcomers who don’t have much Hebrew yet, a job such as working in a hotel might offer a chance to earn some income and learn Hebrew at the same time,” she notes.
Learning Hebrew should be viewed as a long-term process, Green adds. To put it into perspective, she tells of a conversation she had with a very new immigrant from Florida, one who’s been struggling with the language.
“At the end of one of the ‘Conversations’ sessions, this mother came up to me and said, ‘I just want you to know that today my son had the best day of his entire life,’” she remembers.
When Green asked what had happened, the mother said, “My son is in sixth grade. He doesn’t have any Hebrew yet, but today, after school, he went out with a group of his new Hebrew-speaking classmates. They ate pizza, they rode their bikes all over the city and played together until after dark, when he came home all by himself. I’ve never seen him so happy.
“You see, back in Florida, he had to stay in the house or the backyard. There was no way we could allow him to be outside playing like that with friends, riding their bikes all over, unsupervised. Kids don’t have that kind of freedom where we lived before,” she explained.
“So here’s how I see it,” the mother continued. “We’ll all struggle to learn Hebrew. But it doesn’t matter how long it takes, because we’re sold on this country. Already my son is flourishing here – what can be more important than that?”