(August 16, 2019 / JNS) For most, moving to Israel is the realization of a dream. After years of hoping and planning, making aliyah and taking root in the Jewish state is a joyous and exultant experience. Still, the big move is not without its challenges, and many new immigrants become frustrated while attempting to navigate Israeli bureaucracy, secure a job and find the right neighborhood to call home.
Cultural differences and the language barrier can stifle even the most motivated new immigrants. That’s why many olim are choosing to volunteer for nonprofit organizations during their first few months in the country to soften their landing. While supporting causes they believe in, they are also able to interact with Israelis in a meaningful way, practice their Hebrew and get acclimated to a new environment.
When Rachel Fishbein, 20, arrived from Woodmere, N.Y., she sought out just such an experience. Having worked with children with special needs as a teenager, Fishbein was interested in finding a similar opportunity in Israel, preferably one that would help ease her absorption. After learning about ALEH, Israel’s network of care for children with severe complex disabilities, she said she couldn’t wait to get started.
“As soon as I walked in, I felt right at home. It was like I was instantly part of a community,” said Fishbein, who has been volunteering in the early intervention division at ALEH’s residential and rehabilitative center in Jerusalem for more than a year. “Working with young children is ideal because the children are more forgiving of your mistakes. I’m learning so much about myself and solidifying my Hebrew every day.”
Dr. Louisa Susman, director of the early intervention division, says that the children have benefited tremendously from the contributions of volunteers like Fishbein, though it’s unclear who actually gains more from the experience.
“Volunteering is an easy way to get to know the country and provides new immigrants with a slow adaptive process in a warm, familial setting,” said Susman, a native of Englewood, N.J. “The language barrier is also not as harsh because we work with very young children up to age 3, who speak English and very basic Hebrew. We try to make it an easy experience for the volunteers, and they know that if they ever need any kind of help or advice, we are always readily available to talk to them and provide guidance.”
‘The potential of every child’
When Ayelet Mor, 24, moved to Israel from Cheshire, Conn., in September 2018, she was informed that she was too old to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces. Still, the University of Colorado graduate was determined to find a way to serve her new country before starting her coursework for a master’s degree in social work. Mor found that volunteering at ALEH was the perfect way to expand her social circles.
“The ability to establish connections and build a network has helped tremendously with the immersion process,” she said. “I have become very friendly with the Israeli girls my own age who are National Service Volunteers at ALEH. They see me as just another Israeli, which I find refreshing and encouraging.”
Mor is also inspired daily by the individual care provided to the residents, all of whom have severe complex disabilities, noting that the tenderness and professionalism displayed by staff members will stay with her as she pursues her dream of becoming a family therapist.
“I admire the staff so much. They are so patient and completely selfless. I am always in awe,” she said. “They don’t do this work for fame or riches; they come to work every day because they really care about every single individual. They truly see the potential of every child and give them all a chance to shine, to show the world what they have to offer.”
‘This is the real Israel’
Chaim Schryer, 20, a native of Manchester, England, first encountered ALEH while touring Jerusalem in search of the right gap-year program a few months before his high school graduation. Ensnared in traffic at the entrance to the city, he noticed that the sea of cars was surprisingly quiet, waiting patiently for a large procession to cross over the Chords Bridge. When his cab finally inched closer, Schryer saw that hundreds of people decked out in bright green T-shirts where dancing and singing together with children with disabilities, all sporting the “most incredible smiles” he had ever seen.
He later found out that it was ALEH’s annual march to “bridge the gap,” and encourage the integration and acceptance of Israel’s disability community within Israeli society, and he decided that he needed to become a part of that circle. Now, more than two years later, Schryer says that volunteering at ALEH was not only the most important element of his gap-year, but the most influential experience of his life.
“When I saw the pure joy on the faces of the volunteers and the children, I knew that I had to get involved. And when I found out the deeper meaning behind the event, I was certain that I had found my new Israeli family,” said Schryer, who volunteered while attending a yeshivah program in Jerusalem. “With an eye on making aliyah, I took the opportunity to not just get involved, but to throw myself right into the heart of the operation, always offering to take on as much responsibility as they would allow.”
Over the course of two years, he visited every week to play with the children and assist them during their special-education classes and activities. He also attended every in-house Shabbaton and made sure that there was always someone on hand to make Havdalah for the residents on Saturday nights, often opting to take on the responsibility himself. When he decided to make Israel his permanent home halfway through his second year in yeshivah, ALEH stepped in to make the process as smooth as possible, helping him fill out forms, setting him up with host families for Shabbat and providing him with opportunities to learn Hebrew at a high level.
“To me, ALEH represents the very best of Israel. It welcomes all children regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, and the staff and volunteer leave their differences and political views at the door to work together to help the children grow and develop,” said Schryer. “Everyone is welcome here. Everyone is loved. This is the real Israel, and I feel so fortunate to have kick-started my new life here.”
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