Sometimes going home is hard.
Enter La’aretz, a new nonprofit organization with the mission to help Israelis and Jews overcome bureaucratic and financial obstacles to immigrating, returning, visiting and traveling to Israel.
“There are a good amount of people that just give up on the idea of moving or returning to Israel, just because they basically have no one to ask or be assisted by,” said Shelly Harel, the organization’s founder and CEO.
Harel is a former employee at the Israeli consulate in New York, where she served as the director of the Israel House. It’s a department of the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the ostensible purpose of which is to provide advice and guidance for those interested in returning to Israel, as well as personal support and counseling in planning the return.
A former chairperson of the National Union of Israeli Students and assistant to the mayor of Tel Aviv, Harel is married to a U.S. citizen whose business keeps her in America.
“I know I’m going to stay here for a few years, but I want to move back to Israel. And I just felt that it’s the right thing to do something for the Israeli community and the Jewish community here,” said Harel. “I came across many cases of returning citizens that are more complicated than the normal process—financial, bureaucratic, legal—and because I was a government employee, I couldn’t really do much about it on a personal level,” said Harel, who became frustrated with the rigid bureaucratic standards in place.
“I always love to help people. I just saw that when I’m not a government official, I can do even more,” she said.
Harel said she’s not trying to replace Nefesh B’Nefesh—the Anglo-focused aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel) facilitator—the Israel House or any government officials, claiming she maintains very good relations with all of them.
“They’re helping me, but I’m here to navigate. If someone has a complicated case, they need a particular person in Israel to solve it. If it’s a financial need, then I have donations to help with plane tickets and moving costs,” said Harel. “People would just not do it without this help.”
Sometimes, it’s an issue as simple as a prospective immigrant sending Harel a WhatsApp with a form required for passport renewal, with questions about the information needed on the form. She often will make sure that those heading to an Israeli consulate have all of the required documentation, so they don’t have to spend precious time and effort returning again.
The day she spoke with JNS, though, Harel helped purchase a plane ticket for an Israeli woman from Florida who was financially abused by the father of her child. She couldn’t leave the country, as the father never provided passports for the kid.
“So, she was stuck here and couldn’t work, because she’s illegal. The man finally gave a passport and approval for her to move back to Israel, but the Israel House couldn’t help her with finances,” said Harel. “So they contacted me.”
In addition to financing flights and moving costs, Harel helped to expedite an appointment for the woman at the Israeli consulate to register the child as an Israeli citizen, which is required for the child to obtain benefits like education and medical insurance.
Right now, La’aretz consists of only Harel and two volunteers, one of whom handles the organization’s social media, with the other handling email and customer relations. While Harel says she will never say no to anyone approaching her, La’aretz has not yet started widespread advertising because of the caseload that already exists.
She said she is seeking donations for two more employees before launching advertising. Right now, funding is coming from friends and family, and from some of the more financially secure families that Harel has assisted. Harel said she will eventually approach the Israeli government for funding, but feels it’s too soon right now, as she focuses on building success stories.
Harel relayed a tale of a Canadian family of 12 who moved to Florida. Five of the 10 children weren’t registered as Israeli citizens, and no one in the family holds American citizenship. One of the parents had made aliyah in the past, while another had already been processed as a returning citizen. And they planned on moving to Israel in two weeks.
“They would have needed to send the [unregistered family members’] birth certificates to Canada to be signed by an apostille, then send it back. That process can take six months,” said Harel.
“I talked to the mother and the next day she flew to Canada for an emergency appointment I scheduled for her in the Canadian consulate to apostille her birth certificate, then scheduled her an appointment in the Israeli consulate in Florida to register her kids.”
The family moved to Israel a week ago.