How to make a Successful Aliyah to Israel
By Gavriel Ben Tzvi
If you are saying that the title of this article indicates that the author is biting off more than he could chew, you may be right. The success of Aliyah or immigration to Israel is a complex matter, and is dependent on many and varied factors.
One factor is the level of religiosity. There is more chance of a successful Aliyah for someone who comes from a background of belief that includes the conviction that the land of Israel is given to Jews as a birthright, has at least a reading knowledge of Hebrew and is joining friends, family or a known communal group.
Another factor is coming from a personal or familiar background that believes in Aliyah such as those from a Jewish youth movement (now mostly a defunct factor), from a family of "Yordim" (Israelis who live abroad), or from cultural Zionists.
Taking all the above into account, however, there are still some points of advice that are relevant to a successful Aliyah that could be vital to everyone from all backgrounds.
One serious factor is the mastery of the Hebrew language. Although today there are educated Olim (immigrants to Israel) who are working in virtual jobs which require English, they may not forever be the exceptions to this rule. Outsourcing to Israel may become politically incorrect at any time. Those who are now working at these jobs should also work at improving their Hebrew skills. There are bi-lingual lexicons in many fields that could be used to bring up their Hebrew vocabularies to fit the needs of a comparable job in Hebrew.
Hebrew is the language of Israel, the work language, the cultural and social language of all but small pockets of Israelis. The first adage that I proposes is: Do not trust the Ulpan (the institution that teaches new immigrants Hebrew) system! The Ulpan system has failed many English speakers, and it is this failure that is the cause of much frustration and alienation. The Ulpan system works best for those who have a reading and grammatical knowledge of Hebrew such as a good day school or Yeshiva education and can help to transfer that reading knowledge to a speaking base. However, those who come cold with the trust that they will be passively turned into Hebrew speakers by the Ulpan system may experience difficulty in learning how to speak Hebrew.
Why? Hebrew is a language based on verbs; English is a noun based language. In Hebrew there is a verb that describes an action, in English you have a combination of words to describe this same action. Hebrew separates objects into genders even for inanimate objects, as does French, German, etc. Hebrew has a form for changing words when they are subjects or objects, just as does Russian. All of these factors create a problem for the native English speaker.
"So," you ask, "what is the solution to learn Hebrew?" Well, there are a few possible solutions. The one factor that unites all solutions is preparation. If you are thinking of Aliyah, then three years before you intend to go, (at least) get yourself some Hebrew teaching videos and audio tapes and lots of Hebrew song CD's and at least three beginning "Ulpan Alef" level textbooks. (Let me recommend Hebrew at Your Easea text that starts in America and takes the main characters to Israel while teaching the language) Then buy the Alkalai Dictionarythe best English Hebrew, Hebrew English Dictionary in print.
Why the plethora of books and tapes? To speak a language you have to be able to correctly identify and differentiate the sounds of that language. Speaking Hebrew with a pronounced English accent not only will identify you forever as an "anglo-saxon", but will prevent your ear from immediately understanding the Hebrew spoken to you. So the first step is just to listen to Hebrew, sung or spoken, in the background. Give this job to your right brain. This is the 'baby stage', as a baby picks up its first language by being in a language sea or soup. Let this Hebrew soup surround you, and then start to imitate it.
Put on a Hebrew accent in English. This is not a joke, I've used this with my students and it helps. First of all it breaks the ice, it takes the language out of the stressful academic context and makes it yours. Play with the language, with its sounds, its rhythm. Have some fun with it.
Once you can hear a word and maybe identify a few words, then take the simplest audio and the simplest video tapes/CD's and start learning the language as a spoken language by imitating the phrases.
Learning to read and write is another thing altogether, and it depends on you whether you should do both the audio learning and the reading at the same time. Most children speak a language four to five years before they learn to read it. There is at least one transliterated Hebrew dictionary and this could be your basic dictionary at this point.
One more point about Hebrew. Learn it phrase by phrase and sentence by sentence. Never try to make up your own sentences word by word until you are finished with your first course or level. If you have ever heard or read an Israeli doing the reverse, using Hebrew grammar in English, you should realize that you would sound just as funny as he did. (I've heard wonderful examples of this, but my mother's Israeli friend's blooper was my favoriteshe wanted to say "No, thank you I'm full" when offered a second helping but instead she said "No, I am fed up.")
Another helpful project: If you can afford it, take a pilot trip to Israel. If you can stay a year, say after you have mastered the 'Ulpan Alef' level of simple sentences on most required subjects, then stay a year in someplace where you are not around other English speakers all the time. Your kids, if you have them, will first sink, then swim. You will experience living in Israel, the prices of things, the way of life and thought, etc. Then when you return to America or England, you will know what you want to take with you and what you could happily leave behind, and you will be going with your eyes open.
If you can't afford a long stay, try at least for a two week whirlwind tour and get an idea of the geographic differences of the country. (For us, the Galilee is the only place to live, for others only Tel Aviv, or only Jerusalem, or only Eilat or only a Moshav, etc).
If coming first is not an option, get yourself some picture oriented touring books and get an idea of the look of the country. Israel is the meeting place of many types of plants and animals; it may be the only place on earth where desert animals and plants bump into Mediterranean, African and Asian animals and plants. You can water ski on the Kinneret and two hours later snow ski on the Hermon or photograph hundred of bird and plant varieties in a north-south motor trip in this small country of ours.
Another factor that you must consider is your job qualifications. If you are young and just starting your education, and you are serious about Aliyah, it might be wise to come to Israel for your college level and professional education (some of it can be done here in English also) so that you have the job skills needed here to survive. If you are older, you might have to modify your skills, take additional training or find a different field altogether. It's best to find out sooner, rather than later. A doctor needs to know Hebrew and possibly has to pass Israeli examinations. Lawyers definitely have to learn Israeli law and pass the bar examinations here. Hi-Tech people can often get along in just English, but they have a better chance of job security knowing some Hebrew as well, besides needing Hebrew to function as a neighbor, citizen and a PTA member, a soldier or a consumer.
The army is much less threatening than it was forty or fifty years ago, since any male over 22 has only to do partial service ('Shlav Bet'). Recently they are setting up programs for qualified soldiers from America, England and France, etc., to do hi-tech jobs at officer levels. Check with the Israeli Embassy if you want the latest information about these programs.
Another help is to read the Israeli newspapers. HaAretz, a somewhat left of center New York Times wannabe, has a good English edition; Yidiot Achronot, (Ynet) which was always a centrist tabloid, has a fairly exact copy of their Hebrew paper in English, The Jerusalem Post has its internet addition and Arutz Sheva has a different edition in English than its Hebrew Edition, but it will give you a different, more right-centered modern orthodox view of the news and lots of news you cannot get anywhere else. The Debka file has an English edition, and is worth reading, especially if you are army age. These newspapers on the internet will give you varied opinions and points of view that are going around in the minds and conversations of Israelis.
You can use some of them for Hebrew progress by reading the English article and then the Hebrew article and pick up vocabulary in this relatively painless way. A way for children to pick up Hebrew is to get Hebrew speaking versions of familiar fairy tales, and the Harry Potter CD versions in Hebrew are excellent for this purpose for both children and adults. Where else would you learn how to say 'potion' in Hebrew (Shee-koo-ee) or werewolf (adam-ze-ev)?
If you are coming to Israel to retire (it is still much cheaper to live here on a retirees income, with the exception of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv) then you want to come to an English speaking enclave. The Association of Americans and Canadians, and Tehila, or the equivalent organization from England, can help you in this matter. They are usually found in the Jewish Agency offices, sharing the space and augmenting the help given there. It would be a good idea to join one or more of these organizations before you arrive, and to participate in their Aliyah groups. If you know fellow sufferers from your former home, this will help you vent and joke your way during the first three crucial years of Aliyah.
Not only Jerusalem and the coastal cities have English speaking 'colonies' but Tzfat has a large English speaking population with a lot of retirees. Even if you only come here to retire, any and all Hebrew that you learn will be its own reward, for you will feel more at home in the whole country that way. A knowledge of Yiddish and French could also be useful to you, although most Israelis speak a very basic English. Shopkeepers in large cities will most likely function in their capacities quite well in English; banks have their English speakers, government websites have their English translations. You can retire here without much Hebrew and still get along, since there is an English speaking infrastructure based on the many years of English speaking Aliyah (did you know that possibly the majority of Kibbutzim were originally founded by English speakers).
One more hint: heating and air-conditioning are relatively more expensive here. It's a good idea to have warm winter clothes and to have lots of cottons, and ramie or linen for the summers, since if you dress for the season you can keep your heating and cooling bills way down.
One more pointchildren who come here before they are teenagers become Israelis very quickly. Those who come as teenagers may decide to hold on to their former cultural identity, or they may decide to become very Israeli. Let this be their choice, children have to grow up fast here, they need to be accepted into a strong peer group and it does not matter if their group prefers English or Hebrew, as long as your child has a support system in High School and the army, or in Sherut Leumi, or in a Yeshiva, he or she will be able to make the transition to what ever level of cultural "Israelihood" that is good for them. They are facing a stronger peer pressure than in America, and your main criteria should be: is this a positive or negative group? Not whether the group is too American or too Israeli.
In summation, preparation is the key for a successful Aliyah. Bruchim Ha Ba-imwelcome home.
from the December 2007 Chanukah Edition of the Jewish Magazine