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Aliyah During The Pandemic: Ever More Challenging

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

The following was written by Dr. Zev Ganz, Ph.D. The clinical supervisor of the new Kav L’Noar/Lamerchav mental health clinic in Ramat Beit Shemesh and appeared in the October issue of the Connections Magazine.

This summer thousands of Olim Chadashim from around the world arrived in Israel despite a worldwide pandemic and the ongoing reality of lockdowns, quarantines, and school closures. Aliyah is challenging even under normal conditions; how much more so during these unprecedented times? Each person’s experience of immigration to Israel varies across cultural, religious, and socioeconomic lines, to name just a few, and therefore describing universal impacts is impossible. However, the underlying challenge of aliyah has a common psychological foundation of leaving a place of familiarity and accommodating to a completely new setting. The Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this underlying challenge, making the process of aliyah significantly more difficult for individuals and families attempting to adapt to Israeli culture. In the following paragraphs I will attempt to describe how many of us in the mental health field conceptualize the challenge of aliyah, how we understand the pandemic’s impact on this process, and how families and communities can provide support.

Human beings crave familiarity—and with good reason. The challenges of day to day living are quite difficult: paying bills, doing the laundry, answering emails, etc. all require attention, mental and physical effort, and perseverance. When we generally know what to expect from the environment, and feel competent in understanding and responding to our surroundings, we can then focus our efforts on the mundane toil of living. For adults, but especially for children, consistency provides the ambient background setting to the functionality of living. But the absence of that familiarity changes the nature of how we tackle these every day challenges.

Imagine sitting down to play a game of chess. For many this is an enjoyable endeavor that requires some amount of attention, but that is nevertheless mostly devoid of stress. Now picture playing a match in which the movements of the pieces change at varying intervals of times. Typically, the pawns move like pawns are supposed to, but sometimes they move like rooks and at other times like queens. Suddenly, playing this game turns from enjoyable to stressful because the moves are no longer natural—each one requires an unusual amount of concentration and forethought.

Immigration to a foreign country and culture introduces a similar conundrum. The culture in which one develops provides the prism through which a person views the world and a fluency—both linguistic and cultural—naturally develops. Familiarity with one’s surroundings makes the “rules of the game” second nature so that minimal mental energy needs to be expended on mundane matters. The implications of moving away from that familiarity are significant in that the ordinary background noise of life can no longer be ignored, and massive emotional energy must be expended in dealing with these challenges.

Olim from Anglo backgrounds often complain about customer service here in Israel (though it has thankfully improved somewhat over the years!). It is interesting to consider why this is such a big deal—sure it can be annoying, but the amount of anguish we expend seems exaggerated. However, viewed from the lens of familiarity, the rougher social mores of Israeli society are actually quite meaningful. They represent a fundamental shift in an underlying way of being that most Anglos have taken for granted, and in this way they signal that the ground underneath our feet has shifted.

Normally, our natural instinct when things seem alien is to turn to the areas of familiarity that do exist, and for those olim who move together with their families, utilizing familial support in this time of change would be normal and healthy (indeed, the words family and familiar have a common Latin root). However, the process of aliyah often changes families in elemental ways, undermining the existing systems of hierarchy and the balance of proximity and distance. A classic example consists of parents who, unfamiliar with Hebrew, turn to their children who are quickly becoming fluent to help them understand bills arriving in the mail and answering calls from the bank. These seemingly isolated occurrences have deep resonance in terms of family structure, and consequently impact the support that families might provide.

It is here that community plays a crucial role in the successful acclimation to life in Israel and it is also here where Coronavirus has had a major negative impact. As individuals and families struggle to accommodate to a foreign culture, the larger community can play an invaluable role in ensuring that they do not struggle alone and in creating a structure that can restore some of the lost familiarity so crucial for day to day life. Small gestures like cooking a meal or inviting kids for a play date represent the beginnings of a restoration of lost support, and facilitate the establishment of consistency in day to day life.

The pandemic and consequent social distancing has impacted how communities can provide support. As shuls close, the opportunities for social connection are occluded. Invitations for meals cannot be extended as before. Children either have limited, minimal, or no face to face exposure with peers due to school closures. These realities, which represent real hardship even for native families, can be catastrophic for children, adults and families trying to acclimate to a new country. As such, it is incumbent on us as a community to make extra efforts to provide the support that is so necessary despite the limitations of these difficult times.

As part of our community’s response to this crisis I am proud to be the clinical supervisor at the recently opened Kav L’Noar/Lamerchav mental health clinic. Our staff of experienced and talented therapists—all of whom are olim or the children of olim—understand the difficulties of aliyah and are committed to restoring the intrinsic healing capacities of individuals and families. Moreover, because the cost of therapy is covered by the kupot cholim (an initiative that is completely novel to our community) our clients can receive the help they need without worrying about financial implications—which is of crucial importance in these economically unstable times. We welcome the opportunity to serve our community and play a role in helping people manage during these difficult times.

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