Peer group for young adults tackles 'realities of aliyah'
As an independent organization, 'Olimbo' hopes to provide a safe environment for immigrants to speak openly and freely.
When Melanie Wolfson, a 30-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, searched for a peer group for English-speaking immigrants, her quest did produce results - though nothing close to what she had in mind. "I didn't find one that was suitable for me," said Wolfson, a native of London, who discovered groups for senior citizens; fee-based "therapy" groups led by psychologists; and even a support group for English-speaking gays and lesbians. "So I thought the only thing I can do is start one up. I had a feeling I wasn't the only one who felt the need for a group like this."
Wolfson's group - "Olimbo" - a clever contraction of the Hebrew word for immigrants ("olim") and "limbo" - is squarely setting its sights on new or recent arrivals still transitioning to their new lives and country. "I believe it's important to portray a more realistic side of aliyah," said Wolfson, who holds a master's degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics. "Not every day is extremely happy or full of excitement and joy about being in Israel. There are ups and downs. One has to be realistic."
Haaretz contacted four leading Israeli organizations that traditionally offer programming and counseling to the English-speaking immigrant community. In written statements, each of the groups - the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI ); Telfed - The South African Zionist Federation; United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA ); and Nefesh B'Nefesh - confirmed that they do not offer a Tel Aviv-based peer support group for the 20- to 40-year-old set, or at least one that meets regularly. "AACI is always open to creating or cooperating with initiatives which respond to needs in the English-speaking community and/or which serve our members," wrote Josie Arbel, AACI's director of absorption services. "We wish this initiative much success."
But Wolfson - who attended a short-term group sponsored by the UJIA shortly after her aliyah in 2007 - insists Olimbo will remain independent. She expressed the concern that some immigrants, as recipients of financial and other support from the aforementioned organizations, might think twice about speaking openly and freely in official forums.
According to Wolfson, nine English-speaking immigrants in the 20-45 age range attended Olimbo's inaugural event last month at the city's "Mazeh 9" building. The group's second event last week drew the same number of people, she said. Each of the meetings is centered on a theme, with several trigger questions. Topics, posted on the group's Facebook page, have included: "How to feel comfortable in your own skin in Israel" and "Is aliyah comparison the thief of joy or positive motivation?" The subject of the group's third meeting, scheduled for July 30, has been tentatively titled "Taking the plunge - Transitioning from 'new immigrant' to active member of Israeli society: How, When and Why?"
"Some people said, 'I get homesick, sometimes,' and others said, 'I miss my mom,'" Wolfson said of the feedback she received at one of the meetings. "It felt good that people were able to say that." A Haaretz reporter who asked to cover the meeting was told he could not attend out of respect for the privacy of the group's participants.
Michal Richtman, a 28-year-old native of Zurich, Switzerland, who immigrated to Israel in 2007, attended Olimbo's second meeting. Having recently completed a master's degree in conflict resolution and mediation at Tel Aviv University, she said she is already sensing the differences between what she calls the "bubble" of the university campus and the day-to-day grind.
"I haven't really been in touch with many Israelis since I've been here," said Richtman, who works together with Wolfson at a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv. "It's a reality check to see what it's really like to be an Israeli. There are cultural differences that you can feel, especially in your everyday life."
That revelation might seem surprising coming from Richtman, whose mother is Israeli, who speaks Hebrew fluently, and who professes to have "Israeli chutzpah."
"It's one thing to come here as a tourist and have fun in the summers and to do a program in the university, and it's another thing to have a routine life, to go to work every day and be around people who are tsabarim," said Richtman, employing the Hebrew word for native Israelis. "The most interesting part of this will be meeting other people who live here who want to build a life. It's important to talk to other people, to learn why they came, how they feel, how they overcome certain issues."