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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Making the dream a reality (part II of a series)

So where were we yesterday? Ah yes, it was the evening of September 11th 2001… and even as Zahava and I stood on our front porch looking at the newly installed American flag hanging there (along with the other new flags fluttering from porches all along our street), we'd already decided to begin the process, in earnest, of creating a new life for ourselves and our children under 'our' flag… the blue and white flag of the State of Israel.

But how, exactly, does one begin that process? What is the starting point for such an enormous undertaking?

Sure, making the decision to actually begin is cathartic, to say the least. But figuring out where to begin is terrifying in its complexity. Thankfully some friends, to whom we'd confided our decision to make aliyah, told us about an organization called Nefesh B'Nefesh that had recently been established to assist Americans with the process of making Aliyah.

At first I was a bit suspicious. These Nefesh B'Nefesh people had to have some sort of angle or ulterior motive since the Jewish Agency was already doing exactly the same thing.

Or so I thought.

After doing a bit of research, it became apparent that the two organizations – one an official part of the government's mandate to bring and absorb immigrants, and the other a privately funded/managed group unencumbered by preconceptions or bureaucratic oversight – actually complemented one another quite nicely.

The Jewish Agency offices, with their network of hard-working 'Shlichim' (emissaries), still provided the necessary governmental mechanism for processing requests for 'Oleh' (immigrant) visas under Israel's Law of Return.

For its part, Nefesh B' Nefesh had taken upon itself the task of providing a manageable road map for potential Olim to follow… essentially providing an orderly framework within which we could fast-track our Aliyah plans. And most importantly, the NBN staff was made up of Anglo Olim who had already been through the process of relocating to Israel.

Looking back, I can't state strongly enough how important this last point turned out to be.

There is a genre of 'war story' common to almost all western immigrants to Israel, known as 'Things my 'Shaliach' never told me'. Some, whose Aliyah experiences may have been bumpier than the norm, might even amend that to 'Lies my Shaliach told me.'.

In fairness, nearly all the typical problems associated with acclimating to an entirely new culture seem to have been unceremoniously dumped at the feet of the Jewish Agency with the rationale that, had they done a better job of preparing their charges, the process of being absorbed into Israeli society would have been much less painful.

It's hard to argue with that assessment, but as Nefesh B' Nefesh's founders understood all too well, if the Jewish Agency's emissaries were perceived as unhelpful by the foreigners they were supposed to have been helping to become Israeli… it was mostly because the majority of the Shlichim had never had to experience that transition themselves.

Think about it… Israelis who have known no other culture but their own were being sent abroad by their government and asked to help foreign Jews make the necessary preparations to uproot themselves and start over in a new and alien culture. These well-meaning Shlichim couldn't begin to understand the myriad and complex needs and fears bottled up inside each and every potential Oleh/Olah.

I know from my early conversations with representatives of the Jewish agency that most detailed questions about conditions, rights and accommodations in Israel were met with the standard line: "Smoch aliai… al tidag… atah tireh, yehiyeh b'seder" ('Trust me… don't worry… you'll see, it'll be fine').

I have to tell you that from these short Hebrew phrases have sprung some of the worst nightmares for new Olim.

There is an old saying that 'Israelis are masters at extricating themselves from situations that any normal people wouldn't allow themselves to get into in the first place.' This is a back-handed salute to the typical Israeli's ability to think tactically in the face of a near-complete cultural inability to think strategically.

Most western Olim are hard-wired differently. We are taught from an early age not to take unnecessary risks… to anticipate obstacles and avoid them… to prepare contingency plans, and where possible to select not just the shortest route between two points… but also the most logical.

Questions related to employment, education, living accommodations, health insurance, banking, and even specifics about which (and what type of) appliances to bring, were perceived as completely nonsensical to the typical Shaliach Aliyah since they knew from experience that the answers depended on far too many unknown variables to even venture a guess.

In their defense, these Shlichim couldn't fathom a nice way to explain to a typical American that 50% of their success or failure in achieving any given milestone along their Aliyah route might depend on what sort of day a particular 'Pakid' (clerk/functionary) was having when their number came up. So when faced with such ridiculously specific question about events that would be taking place months, or even years, in the future… they simply fell back on the tried and true 'You'll see…It'll be fine'… knowing that this too had an accuracy rate of approximately 50%.

So when Zahava and I initially contacted Nefesh B'Nefesh and found ourselves speaking with people who could draw upon their own aliyah experiences, as well as native knowledge of the real and perceived hurdles facing American Olim… well, everything suddenly felt like it was getting off on the right foot.

I can't place enough emphasis on the importance of those first baby steps down the long road that ultimately brought us home.

To be continued.

[By now the cat is out of the bag in terms of where this series is heading:

Nefesh B'Nefesh is sponsoring the First International Jewish Blogger Convention in Jerusalem. The conference itself will be held on the evening of Wednesday, August 20th and will include an opportunity to meet and greet fellow bloggers, timely and (hopefully) useful panel discussions… and of course good food (hey, we're Jews, right?)

However, the day before the convention, yet another Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight full of American Olim will be landing in Israel. And on board that plane will be several Jbloggers (myself included) who will be providing their readers with a unique, inside perspective of the aliyah experience.

Those who would like to attend the Jblogger Convention (in person or participate online) must register in advance. Everything you need to know is here.

Looking forward to seeing everyone there.]

Posted by David Bogner on July 22, 2008 | Permalink

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Must I be a blogger to attend the the convention? Martin & I are coming to Israel on the 18 August (third visit since June 08)and as he retires in 11 months time and we are considering coming home for good ( or whatever )- we are interested.

Posted by: Yaffa Glass | Jul 22, 2008 5:46:42 PM

Eldad once noticed, in the philological exegesis he loved so much, that the Hebrew word for "Progress" means, paradoxically, "towards the old" and literally, "towards the east." Meaning, that the Jewish people's destiny is to return to Israel, and there to renew its days as of old.

Posted by: Rami | Jul 22, 2008 6:20:21 PM

Hi David...David and I have friends you'll be on that flight...I'm going to tell them to look out for you, and maybe you could say hi to them and help them chill out a bit!

Posted by: Lisa Z. | Jul 22, 2008 6:21:34 PM

Eldad once noticed, in the philological exegesis he loved so much, that the Hebrew word for "Progress" means, paradoxically, "towards the old" and literally, "towards the east." Meaning, that the Jewish people's destiny is to return to Israel, and there to renew its days as of old.

Posted by: Rami | Jul 22, 2008 6:21:45 PM

cool... my sister-in-law and her crew will be on that flight -- maybe i'll see you at the airport!

Posted by: nikki | Jul 22, 2008 7:40:13 PM

Drat, I'm teaching a class on the 20th, so can't participate, even though webcam. I look forward to reading all about what I missed from all you bloggers!

In the meanwhile, David, I'm enjoying your writeup. Are you in cahoots with my brother-in-law who is constantly trying to get me to move to Israel? :-)

Posted by: JDMDad | Jul 22, 2008 8:07:35 PM

I'm signing up!

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Jul 22, 2008 8:46:24 PM

Rami - that is a cool insight. What is the Hebrew word you are referring to?

Posted by: Noa | Jul 22, 2008 10:42:30 PM

I'm reading this and totally re-living the whole experience - thanks. Happy anniversary to both of our families - 5 years ago today!

Posted by: yonah | Jul 23, 2008 12:08:17 AM

I have a bunch of Olim on that flight (mind you, I have a bunch of Olim on every flight!)

It's a great experience - I look forward to reading about it.

Neil
Jewish Agency Aliyah Shaliach, former Oleh Chadash

Posted by: Gilly | Jul 23, 2008 12:34:11 AM

Noa - the word is Kidma. From the root KDM or kedem which is east. In another form, kadum it means "ancient". Isn't linguistics cool?

Posted by: QuietusLeo | Jul 23, 2008 8:07:03 AM

the word is Kidma. From the root KDM or kedem

that's because that's the direction in which the sun is percieved as rising

In 1916 with the founding of the "Jewish Legions" (Royal Fusiliers battallions 38, 39 and 40) in other words the first time in almost 1800 years that Jews bore arms in a Jewish framework - the symbol they adopted was a menorah and the hebrew word Kadima

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Legion
There's also a right-of -centre political party....

Posted by: asher | Jul 23, 2008 2:43:42 PM

At least in my time the perception of a shaliah was somebody who had protektzia and got a well-paying job, abroad and stayed there long enough to get a load of tax-exemptions when he deigned to return

Posted by: asher | Jul 23, 2008 2:47:00 PM

Something I noticed when I watch an animated earth globe spin. :-)

Posted by: Rami | Jul 23, 2008 7:40:02 PM

I signed up, and think it will be so much fun!

Now how do I sign up for the flight??? :D

Posted by: Baila | Jul 23, 2008 10:57:14 PM

Yaffa Glass... I'll vouch for you. Go ahead and register.

Rami... Deep

Lisa Z.... No problem. I'll wear something off the shoulder so they'll recognize me. :-)

nikki... FINALLY!

JDMDad... Cahoots is such a strong word. :-)

QuietusLeo ... Cool. It will be great to see you again!

yonah... I'm so going to be able to enjoy this flight. The last one we were so stressed about the whole move that we didn't get to enjoy it. This is going to be a huge do-over. Except I hope I don't have Olmert and Peres waiting at the bottom of the stairs this time. :-)

Gilly... Any chance you'll be coming up to New York to see the flight off? It would be great to see you again. BTW, you are proof that the Jewish Agency is trying to work past some of the issues I mentioned.

asher... There are some of those too, but they rarely come back. :-)

Baila ... Should be a blast. See you there.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 24, 2008 12:08:28 AM

Ahhh....yiyeh b'seder. Israel's version of "Serenity Now."

Posted by: Benji Lovitt | Jul 24, 2008 6:24:53 AM

Does (or has) NBN or the Jewish Agency given out surveys or questionaires to the Olim regarding their worries, struggles, conflicts, issues, as well as the positive accomplishments that affect them initially and over a span of time and adjustment. If not, perhaps it's time to do so. Rather than guessing or assuming they could actually have documented data.

Posted by: jaime | Jul 24, 2008 6:38:17 AM

Benji Lovitt ... Yeah, that's pretty apt. Kind of like telling kids 'Lo Kara Klum' when they fall down and skin their knee.

jaime... Hahahahahahahahahahah! Stop it, you're killing me! :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 24, 2008 8:02:04 AM

am i the *only* commenter you haven't met face to face?
:-)

Posted by: nikki | Jul 24, 2008 9:09:39 AM

Much as I'd love to be up in New York to see my Olim off I can't justify doing so - firstly my NY colleagues are more than capable, secondly if I do it then Miami and Chicago will want to as well! Had I been able to come see people off if would have been the first flight of the summer when I had 40 Olim on the flight.

FYI, the basic requirements for Shlichut Aliyah is a University Degree, 10 years residency in Israel and national service. For those going to English speaking countries, high level English is required. The Miami Shaliach also needs fluent Spanish. Of course, fluent Hebrew is a requirement (fortunately for me, good looks are not ;))

We went through interviews (my wife included who is not a Shlicha), a psychometric testing day at an institute down in Tel Aviv and 2 days of interactive testing. That whittled us down to a smaller group who went through a pre-course Shlichim which met every week for about 8 weeks with people being rejected along the way. None of this was paid - the people who were involved really wanted to be Shlichim At the end of that there was a Michraz for each position. People who had been through 3 months of testing were turned down at that stage.

The people who came out on Shlichut to the US at the same time as I did were not Jewish Agency people but every day Israelis who really want to be involved in this most important Zionist mission. The one exception, taking up a senior position had previously had a successful Shlichut elsewhere in the US. The message which was given throughout the process was - we're not interested in cronyism any more.

The team we have in the States are all good people. None of us is perfect but we all do our very best to promote Aliyah, to be Ambassadors for Israel and to make sure that those who are making Aliyah are equipped for success.

Shabbat shalom,

Gilly / Neil

Posted by: Gilly | Jul 25, 2008 6:58:13 PM

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