By Noam Mirvis
For most, moving to Israel is the realization of a dream. After years of hoping and planning, making aliyah and taking root in the Jewish State is a joyous and exultant experience. Still, the big move is not without its challenges, and many new immigrants become frustrated while attempting to navigate Israeli bureaucracy, secure a job, and find the perfect neighborhood to call home.
The opportunities for gainful employment are virtually endless in the “Start-Up Nation,” and there is no shortage of wonderful places to live, but cultural differences and the language barrier can stifle even the most enthusiastic and motivated immigrants to Israel. That’s why many olim are choosing to volunteer for worthwhile nonprofit organizations during their first few months in the country to soften their landing. While supporting causes they believe in, these new immigrants are also able to interact with Israelis in a meaningful way, practice their Hebrew, and shake off their new-country jitters.
When Rachel Fishbein, 20, arrived from Woodmere, New York, she immediately sought out just such an experience. Having worked with children with special needs as a teenager, Fishbein was interested in finding a similar opportunity in Israel, preferably one that would help ease her absorption. After learning about ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities, Fishbein couldn’t wait to get started.
“As soon as I walked into the ALEH center, I felt right at home. It was like I was instantly part of a community,” said Fishbein, who has been volunteering in the early-intervention division at ALEH’s residential and rehabilitative center in Jerusalem for over a year. “Working with young children is ideal for new olim because the children are more forgiving of your mistakes. I’m learning so much about myself and solidifying my Hebrew every day.”
A passionate Zionist, Fishbein always knew that she would make aliyah, as she felt that “Israel is the home for all Jews.” This truth is wonderfully evident at ALEH, where “every child is made to feel like they are a part of the Jewish people and a citizen of Israel, regardless of the severity of their disabilities,” she explained.
Dr. Louisa Susman, director of the early intervention division, says that the children have benefited tremendously from the contributions of volunteers like Fishbein, though it’s unclear who actually gains more from the experience.
“Volunteering with ALEH is an easy way to get to know the country and provides new immigrants with a slow adaptive process in a warm, familial setting,” said Dr. Susman, who is a native of Englewood, New Jersey. “The language barrier is also not as harsh because we work with very young children up to age three who speak English and very basic Hebrew. We try to make it an easy experience for the volunteers, and they know that if they ever need any kind of help or advice, we are always readily available to talk to them and provide guidance.”
When Ayelet Mor, 24, made aliyah from Cheshire, Connecticut, in September 2018, she was informed that she was too old to enlist in the IDF. Still, the University of Colorado graduate was determined to find a way to serve her new country and immerse herself into Israeli culture and society before starting her coursework for a master’s degree in social work. Mor found that volunteering at ALEH was the perfect way to expand her social circles.
“It’s definitely a great way to make aliyah. The ability to establish connections and build a network has helped tremendously with the immersion process,” said Mor. “I have become very friendly with the Israeli girls my own age who are national-service volunteers at ALEH. They see me as just another Israeli, which I find refreshing and encouraging.”
Mor is also inspired daily by the individual care provided to the residents, all of whom have severe complex disabilities, noting that the tenderness and professionalism displayed by the ALEH staff will stay with her as she pursues her dream of becoming a family therapist.
“I admire the staff so much. They are so patient and completely selfless. I am always in awe. They don’t do this work for fame or riches—they come to work every day because they really care about every single individual. They truly see the potential of every child and give them all a chance to shine, to show the world what they have to offer.”
Chaim Schryer, 20, a native of Manchester, UK, first encountered ALEH while touring Jerusalem in search of the right gap-year program a few months before his high school graduation. Ensnared in traffic at the entrance to the city, Schryer noticed that the sea of cars was surprisingly quiet, waiting patiently for a large procession to cross over the Chords Bridge. When his cab finally inched closer, Schryer saw that hundreds of people decked out in bright-green t-shirts were dancing and singing together with children with disabilities, all sporting the “most incredible smiles” he had ever seen.
Schryer later found out that it was ALEH’s annual march to “bridge the gap” and encourage the integration and acceptance of Israel’s disability community within Israeli society, and he decided that he needed to become a part of the ALEH family. Now, more than two years later, Schryer says that volunteering at ALEH was not only the most important element of his gap-year but the most influential experience of his life.
“When I saw the pure joy on the faces of the volunteers and the children, I knew that I had to get involved. And when I found out the deeper meaning behind the event, I was certain that I had found my new Israeli family,” said Schryer, who volunteered for ALEH while attending a yeshiva program in Jerusalem. “With an eye on making aliyah, I took the opportunity to not just get involved but throw myself right into the heart of the operation, always offering to take on as much responsibility as they would allow.”
Over the course of two years, Schryer visited ALEH every week to play with the children and assist them during their special-education classes and activities. He also attended every in-house Shabbaton and made sure that there was always someone on hand to make Havdallah for the ALEH residents on Saturday nights, often opting to take on the responsibility himself. When he decided to make Israel his permanent home halfway through his second year in yeshiva, ALEH stepped in to make the process as smooth as possible, helping him fill out forms, setting him up with host families for Shabbat, and providing him with opportunities to learn Hebrew at a high level.
“To me, ALEH represents the very best of Israel. ALEH welcomes all children regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, and the staff and volunteers leave their differences and political views at the door to work together to help the children grow and develop,” said Schryer with a smile. “Everyone is welcome here. Everyone is loved. This is the real Israel, and I feel so fortunate to have kick-started my new life here.”