Forging ahead. New olim Svetlana Gotlieb and Dan Desforges met in Ashkelon and are now engaged to be married.
Israelis love aliya but they don't like new immigrants" is an age-old statement that pokes fun at society's delight in bringing massive numbers of new immigrants to Israel and then doing little to help them integrate into society.
At Home Together (Bayit B'yahad) aims to change this.
Established in 2003 as a joint project of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the Union of Local Authorities, and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, this national project matches new olim with veteran olim and native Israeli families in communities throughout the country.
Israeli families "adopt" newcomers during their first two years in Israel. In this way, new immigrants are given a critical social network - a gateway to jobs and acculturation. At the same time, volunteer families are personally enriched by giving back to their community.
"The message of immigrant absorption touches all Israelis, and we can give them the opportunity to be part of making this national priority successful on both an individual and a national level," says Ariela Vol-Laniado, director of At Home Together.
"Through mentoring or regularly volunteering, we can nurture one-to-one relationships, foster understanding, and empower the new immigrants and the veteran Israelis."
At Home Together pairs new immigrant and veteran families based on individual suitability, interests, common background, language, and age of their children. Many times a veteran olim family is matched with a new immigrant family from their native country. Through understanding where the new olim have come from, speaking their language, and knowing their cultural norms, they are better suited to help them acculturate into life in Israel.
Rabbi Eliahu Touitou, his wife Ariela, and their five children made aliya from Paris in 2003. They moved to the thriving suburban community of Modi'in, where they were matched up with a veteran French family, the Fadidas.
"The Fadidas have been wonderfully supportive, generous, and kind," says Touitou. "They helped us to find the appropriate educational venues for our children, to meet other people in the community, and to generally help us overcome the initial challenges of aliya."
After two years in Israel, the Touitous are now planning to volunteer for At Home Together to give to other new immigrants the kind of support that they had received.
At Home Together coordinators operate the program in communities throughout Israel. They first match the new immigrant and veteran families. Successful matching increases the chances of a long-lasting and natural connection between the families. The new immigrant and veteran Israel family are then linked through a personal or group meeting, which includes professional guidance, to coordinate expectations and define the boundaries of the link. The definition of boundaries is done in accordance with the wishes of the participants, at their own pace.
Lando and Luciana Vaskas, a newlywed couple from Argentina, met their At Home Together family when they were invited by Ashdod's mayor Zvi Tzilker to join him and his family at their Pessah Seder within the framework of the Jewish Agency's B'yahad B'seder program in which Israeli families, including public figures, host new immigrants for the Seder.
There, the Vaskas met Tzilker's son Eyal and his wife Meira. Luciana and Meira are both potters, and the four young people formed a special connection. The Tzilkers joined At Home Together and are helping the Vaskas through the initial challenges of aliya.
"We see this as the beginning of a genuine, long-term friendship," says Meira.
The adopting families assist newcomers in learning about schools for their children, finding housing and employment, and engaging in cultural and social opportunities. They also help deal with bureaucratic challenges and smooth the aliya process.
Within the framework of At Home Together, the paired families participate in a variety of recreational, social, cultural, and enrichment activities. These activities serve as a basis for facilitating continuous and direct contact between the participants.
Says Arieh Azoulay, co-chair of the Jewish Agency's Immigration and Absorption Committee, "Mobilizing volunteers to work with or mentor immigrants is the crux of better absorption. Government institutions can streamline bureaucracy and assist in absorption, but it is the individual Israelis who make it happen."
In June, At Home Together launched a wide-scale campaign to heighten public awareness and mobilize the volunteer spirit. Options for volunteering are based on two tracks: meeting with immigrants a number of hours a week for specific activities or mentoring families for an all-encompassing social interaction. Volunteers can adopt new immigrant families, individuals, and soldiers and students who are here on their own.
Svetlana Gotlieb from Yekaterinburg, Russia, met and fell in love with Dan Desforges, a new oleh from France whom she had gotten to know at the Barnea absorption center in Ashkelon. Now engaged to be married, the young couple has been adopted by Ruchani and Sharon Almaliach, a veteran Ashkelon family.
"Ruchani and Sharon are like real family to us. They invite us to celebrate the holidays with them, they worry about us and advise us on so many things that are new in Israel. We feel so much a part of the community because of them," says Svetlana.
In addition to mobilizing Israeli volunteers, At Home Together has established a public council that has attracted key players in Israeli society. Ofra Strauss, chair of the Strauss-Elite Group; Anastasia Michaeli, a popular TV journalist; basketball pioneer Tal Brody; and Yehoram Gaon, a household name in entertainment, are some of the people who have come on board to expand the project's capabilities and horizons.
At Home Together has brought together close to 5,000 veteran Israelis and new immigrants, and the numbers continue to grow. The program is open to anyone who wants to volunteer.
Says Larry Joseph, chair of the Subcommittee on Olim Associations, "The thing that has amazed me over the past two decades is the change in the concept of volunteering in Israel. People have come out of the woodwork, and volunteerism is becoming the norm. Not only that, but it is a grassroots movement, coming from the average citizen. The response to the At Home Together program is indicative of this evolution."
At Home Together creates an extended family in Israel for olim, accelerating the speed of absorption while smoothing out the hurdles that confront them. At the same time, the program is mobilizing Israeli citizens as volunteers and strengthening the social fabric of Israeli society.
To participate in At Home Together, call 1-800-22-13-14
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