New Services Aim to 'Hand-hold' Immigrants in Modi'in

City official on actively courting newcomers: 'We don't wait around for olim to call us.'

A string of new services in Modi'in are aiming to attract new immigrants from English-speaking countries to the city. Among them are an intensive Hebrew course for children, personal business consultations for South Africans in the year leading up to immigration and the extension of the "community absorption" program to immigrants from North America and Australia in addition to the South Africans it already accommodates. A mix of agencies is responsible for initiatives, some cooperating for the first time.

"We don't wait around for them to contact us, we contact potential immigrants from English-speaking countries," says Joanna Maissel, whose half-time post of assisting Anglo immigrants to the city was created by the municipality last June. "We promote the city directly by contacting shlichim [Jewish Agency emissaries] in English-speaking countries and being in touch with Nefesh B'Nefesh, the AACI [Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel] and the UJIA [its British counterpart]. We think we've got a lot of offer."

In the caravan next door to Maissel's office sits Cherie Albucher, who coordinates the "klitah kehilatit" [community absorption] program, which offers extra benefits and support to those eligible to sign up. Since August, the program - run by the Absorption Ministry, in conjunction with the city, the Jewish Agency and Telfed [the South African Zionist Federation] - has only been open to couples from South Africa aged 25-55. From May, it will be extended to couples from North America and Australia in this age group. Benefits include an additional 200 hours of Hebrew classes on top of the 500 currently granted to all new immigrants, extra rental subsidies and professional retraining services, plus special social and cultural activities.

When Albucher traveled to South Africa to promote the program last November, she says that many potential immigrants she met were considering starting or relocating businesses in Israel. On her return she helped set up a new arrangement with MATI - a country-wide network of business development centers - allowing South Africans to receive ongoing business advice in the year prior to their move to Israel. "There are lots of questions about national insurance and Israeli laws on private insurance and shipping taxes," says Albucher.

Helping prospective immigrants transfer their businesses is vital if immigration from South Africa is to increase, says Dorron Kline, director of project development at Telfed, which helped broker the arrangement with MATI. "Employment is probably the cardinal factor that keeps people from making aliyah - along with speaking Hebrew." Kline says that a high percentage of South African Jews own their own businesses because the government's affirmative action policies have made it increasingly difficult for white men there to find jobs. The new service will be advertised in the South African Jewish press later this month.

Another new facility for immigrants in Modi'in is the intensive Hebrew course, or ulpan, provided for children by the Education Ministry and the city. The city's first five-month course for elementary school students was launched in November. City officials are hopeful that the next course, due to start in September, will be open to older children, too. "It's a huge advantage on the old system," says Maissel. "Before they were entitled to an hour and a half a week in their schools or had to travel to Baka [in Jerusalem] for an intensive ulpan. Now they'll be getting 16 hours a week."

According to Nefesh B'Nefesh's Michele Kaplan-Green, who provides support to new immigrants in Modi'in from North America and Britain, the city's "terrific" location between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (with a train line set to open next year) and its "strong, vibrant, welcoming community" of native English-speakers make a winning combination for both immigrants with young families and, increasingly, retirees. But some of the immigrants she is in contact with have gripes about the city. "There's a lack of local public transportation and immigrants still feel the need for more cultural opportunities and more entertainment," she says, adding, "but I think these things will come with time."

No one is willing to give more than a very rough estimate of how many of Modi'in's 70,000-strong population are native English-speakers - "four thousand-plus" is the most committal. What is clear, however, is that many newcomers are opting to live in the heavily Anglo neighborhood of Buchman Darom and also, more recently, in Kaiser. Ten new immigrant families are recorded by the municipality as having moved straight to the city in 2004. That number rose to 19 in 2005 and 30 in 2006. Nefesh B'Nefesh figures are slightly higher; Kaplan-Green reports that close to 100 American and British families have moved to the city since the organization began assisting immigrants in 2002, with 35 recorded in 2006. Estimates for 2007, when all the new services will be up and running, are higher still.

Kaplan-Green describes aliyah to Modi'in as "largely successful." She adds: "Success breeds success. The positive environment in Modi'in creates a welcoming community for potential immigrants. And there's a lot more hand-holding than there used to be, both from organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh and municipal services, plus from immigrants who've come from previous years."

All the professionals involved point to ongoing personal support both pre- and post-aliyah as a key addition to services for immigrants. "We take potential immigrants on tours of the different neighborhoods and to see the schools," says Maissel. "Now people make aliyah much more prepared."