He’s worked as an underwear model, a stripper, a bartender, a bouncer, an actor, a radio talk show host, a party planner, a media consultant and a personal trainer for the rich and famous. But only now does LiAmi Lawrence believe he’s found his true calling in life.
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Last month, just when he was about to pack his bags and give up yet again on life in Israel, Lawrence decided that rather than leave, this time he was going to create a movement to help people like himself stay.
“Now my friends are calling me the messiah of the olim,” says the American-born stand-up comedian (yes, that’s his latest gig), using the Hebrew term for new immigrants.
The movement he created is called “Keep Olim in Israel,” and in less than a month it’s drawn over 9,000 members to its Facebook group. Lawrence estimates that 65 percent of them are from English-speaking countries, and the rest from the former Soviet Union, France and South America. Regardless of their origins, he says, they all share two big problems: poor job prospects and loneliness.
The goal of his new movement (which is about to become a registered non-profit), as he sees it, is to provide them with tools to overcome these major obstacles. Its true test of success, of course – and he understands this, too – will be measured in whether it can achieve these goals, and not in the number of fans it garners on social media.
This Saturday night, “Keep Olim in Israel” will have its official launching event – a big social mixer at a popular Tel Aviv club.
Many organizations and institutions are involved in the business of helping new immigrants adjust to life in Israel, as Lawrence is aware. But rather than discuss what’s right and wrong with the competition, he prefers to focus on his own big plans.
“This is definitely not about bitching or asking the government for handouts,” he insists. “It’s about empowering olim by giving them access to things like better Hebrew-language programs and mental-health counseling, and by creating special support systems for them. In other words, no more cookie-cutter solutions.”
According to official Israeli government figures, only about 5-10 percent of new immigrants ultimately pack up and return to their home countries. Lawrence doesn’t believe the success rate is that high. “In the past few months alone, I’ve had 12 of my friends go back,” he says. “Just from personal experience, I’d say the return rate is more like 50-60 percent. All those immigrants from France who pose with the prime minister at the airport ... I’m in touch with many of them after they’ve returned to Paris because they can’t hack it here.”
Lawrence officially immigrated to Israel 10 months ago, but he’s no stranger to the country. He made his first trip to Israel as a college student back in the 1980s and has been going back and forth ever since, often on extended visits, but until now only on a tourist visa.
Born on an army base in Oklahoma to an unaffiliated Jewish family, he spent most of his childhood on the east coast of the United States. His first introduction to Israel was on a student exchange program at Tel Aviv University where, as he puts it, “I fell in love with the country.”
It was during one of his extended stays, in the early 1990s, that Lawrence began modeling underwear to help pay the rent, and as he recalls, “I got drunk one night, someone told me to take off my clothes, and that’s basically how I brought the male striptease business to Israel.”
The male strip club he operated in Tel Aviv at the time was also known for special events it held for soldiers on leave, among them a weekly wet-t-shirt night and erotic-banana-eating contests.
Back in those days, he was still known by his given name, Lawrence Strasberg. (“I’m a distant cousin of Lee Strasberg, so acting must run in the family.”) But when he left Israel for Los Angeles about 20 years ago, he took on the Hebrew name LiAmi (“my nation belongs to me”) to express his ongoing connection to the country.
In Los Angeles he was also known as “Mr. Sababa” – a titled inspired by his Israeli-themed event planning company of the same name. In addition to hosting two Jewish talk show programs on a local radio station, he served as media director at the Israeli consulate in the city and worked for a non-profit committed to helping teenage drug addicts. When that non-profit closed shop and after his brief marriage to an Israeli woman ended, Lawrence figured “if not now, then when?” and bought a one-way ticket to Israel.
He does not want his age published, so best to say that based on his appearance, it would not be easy to guess. He wears a big gold “Chai” around his neck, two gold hoops in his left ear and a touch of gel in the hair to keep it shiny and upright.
Coming back to Israel hasn’t been easy for him. Lawrence has been out of work most of the time, living from hand to mouth and from one stand-up comedy gig to the next. The best job opportunity he was able to find through any of the immigrant aid agencies operating in Israel was as an extra on a film shoot.
“When I told a friend I had decided to leave Israel, he started crying,” recounts Lawrence. That same friend promptly created a Facebook page to rally the masses behind Lawrence and get him to stay in the country. But Lawrence, who had far more experience in social media than this friend, realized that despite the good intentions, this friend was going about it in all the wrong way. Lawrence subsequently took over the campaign – and that is how a movement was born.
The initiative appears to have struck a raw nerve, and based on the responses, Lawrence says he’s beginning to dream big. “I can definitely see us starting a political party out of this,” he says, “one that would cross the usual right-left divisions.” (Incidentally, he voted for the centrist Kulanu party in the last election).
So is he still thinking of leaving the country?
“I guess not,” he responds.