Rishon Letzion Reaches Out to English-speakers

Volunteers from the three Anglo organizations will be given access to city facilities once every two weeks to welcome new immigrants and provide logistical support.

Beginning next month, the Rishon Letzion municipality will sponsor a trio of immigrant organizations aimed at facilitating the absorption process for new English-speaking residents.

Volunteers from the three organizations - English Speaking Residents Association; Telfed, the South African Zionist Federation-Israel; and the Rishon Letzion English Speakers Association - will be given access to city facilities once every two weeks to welcome new immigrants and provide logistical support.

"We'll help them get organized, go around to the different departments and get all their paperwork signed," said Janet Kiesari, chairperson of ESRA's Rishon Letzion branch and one of the driving forces behind the initiative.

Kiesari, a longtime resident of the city who was born in England, said that over the years the city has done outreach to Ethiopian and Russian immigrants but mostly ignored new arrivals from English-speaking countries.

"There's been nothing for [Anglo] immigrants who come to Rishon," she said. "No one to greet them, no forms, no English in the ulpan [Hebrew courses]." For years there was not even a map of the city in English, she added.

Kiesari shared her concerns with Mayor Dov Zur at an open house last August. Soon afterward she was invited to meet with the deputy mayor, who embraced the idea of a partnership with ESRA, Telfed and RESA.

"We will help them understand what rights they're entitled to," including discounts on taxes, said Beryl Schmidt, chairperson of Telfed's Rishon Letzion regional committee. Schmidt said non-Hebrew speakers feel especially vulnerable at local banks, where there is little documentation in English.

The joint initiative comes at a time when Rishon Letzion officials are actively trying to lure more English-speakers to the city. Councilman Eli Yablon, for example, has asked Nefesh B'Nefesh to promote the city as a desirable home for immigrants who are dati leumi, or religiously observant, a city spokesperson said.

"At the moment we are checking into the possibility of coordinating with the Jewish Agency to promote the immigration of young people, as well as doctors and nurses," the spokesperson said.

The Anglo population of Rishon Lezion, Israel's fourth largest city with over 230,000 residents, has grown by 1,000 during the last decade, according to government figures, yet still comprises only 1 percent of the city's total population. Last year, approximately 50 new English-speaking immigrants moved there, according to Tal Lipovetski-Tshorny, the director of the local absorption authority.

"The authority applauds their choice of Rishon Letzion as their place of residence and is interested in helping them successfully acclimate and integrate into the life of the city," she wrote in a statement announcing the new initiative.

In addition to providing space for the organizations to meet, the municipality will sponsor social and cultural activities in cooperation with the three groups, Lipovetski-Tshorny wrote.

New immigrants said they welcomed more community support, saying they have relied on friends and family to help them get settled in the city.

"I was quite lucky that I've got a friend in Rishon who spent time showing me around," said Danielle Austin, a new immigrant from London who moved to the city three weeks ago. "My landlord took me through the government offices, so hopefully that's worked out."

Mal Tobias, a filmmaker from London who immigrated to Israel last year, said the municipality "hasn't got a clue" about how to accommodate English-speaking residents. "You go to any of the government buildings in Rishon and you're lucky to see any paperwork or signs in English," he said.

Tobias said the city could also do a better job of marketing itself to Anglo immigrants the way Ra'anana has done in recent years. "They should be pushing Rishon because it's a great city," he said. "You've got the beach, a big shopping center, Superland [amusement park] and things for the kids as well."