Challenges in making aliyah to northern Israel

northern israelA number of people have been in touch with me in the 2.5 years that I’ve been living in northern Israel to ask about its suitability for new immigrants.

My experience living in northern Israel has in many ways been positive but it would be misleading not mention the realities of living in this area.

Language –  I was fortunate that my Hebrew was pretty decent when I got here and dh also can manage fine in Hebrew.  This is something that most new olim don’t have and it makes their lives much harder.  In the center of the country there are many English speakers and most professionals can communicate in English.  The down side of this is that a person can feel less motivated to learn Hebrew, but the up side is that you can function more smoothly in your day to day life even if you don’t know Hebrew.

This isn’t the case in the north, where the second language of many professionals is likely to be Russian or Arabic.  To me it seems that those without Hebrew are in a difficult situation here.  My mom had a very hard time after her  hip replacement surgeries because of this – the nursing staff didn’t speak English and instead shamed her by repeatedly telling her she should be able to speak Hebrew. This, despite the fact she had only been here a short time and made aliyah at the age of 62!   It can be very emotionally debilitating to be an intelligent and educated person and to feel so totally incompetent on a daily basis due to your inability to express yourself.

Learning a second language as an adult can be very, very hard and for Americans this is particularly hard.  Part of that is that we don’t grow up with a second language, like many Europeans.  Part of this is that our language structure is different than Hebrew – the Russians have a much easier time since their structure is more similar.

Social supports – When you move to northern Israel, you’re unlikely to move a community that will have significant social or emotional supports for you or your children.  That’s because those supports, especially in the beginning, will come from other Anglos who understand what you’re going through.  Israelis for the most part have no clue what’s it’s like to be totally alone here – no friends, no family, often no Hebrew language skills – and while they may be pleasant and kind people, they’ve never needed the supports you’ll need and are unlikely to offer meaningful help.

The north has a growing Anglo population thanks in large part to Nefesh B’Nefesh’s efforts and the financial grants that have encouraged new immigrants to move here.  That population is still very small in just about every area in the north and most of those people are new to the country themselves.  They’re trying to get their lives in order and figure out things for themselves – they aren’t going to have lots of excess emotional time and energy to give you ongoing assistance.

What does it mean to navigate life in a new country without any meaningful social or emotional network?  It’s hard.  Really, really hard.  I look back on all that we went through after we moved here and just about every aspect of our challenges were compounded by our physical isolation and our inability to access the kind of support that immigrants to the center of the country take for granted.  This is huge.  You may not anticipate needing help – I certainly didn’t – but making aliyah is a huge lifestyle change and as positive as it may be, it’s also traumatic in many ways for all members of the family.

It can be very emotionally and socially  isolating to move to this part of the country.  So often I felt totally alone, trying to navigate through situations myself that people in more central areas had lots of support with.  This ranged from typical challenges with job searching and the school system, to more specific issues we had to deal with.  We didn’t have people to speak to when we had a baby with special medical and therapeutic needs and was unable to get something as basic as a good quality breast pump despite reaching out to a local LLL leader and a lactation counselor (this was the cause of insufficient milk supply and why I stopped nursing after 4 months).  The resources just weren’t here and they still aren’t.  All of this would have been hard and even painful no matter where we lived but it didn’t need to be excrutiatingly lonely.

My kids were affected by moving to a community in which the school professionals had minimal experience with new immigrants.  The expectations of them were unrealistic – some of the kids rose to it, some didn’t.  Those who worked incredibly hard to learn the language and integrate at an older age didn’t get credit for the herculean feat they had accomplished because it was taken for granted, and those who were more typical in their response to being a new immigrant were labeled as having psychological or emotional problems.  In an area where there are lots of kids who have moved with their families who have a similar pattern, professionals are aware of what the norms are and kids aren’t as quickly labeled and pathologized.

An advantage to our kid is that they were forced to learn Hebrew and this is something the older kids are grateful for.

Employment – jobs are harder to find in the north and salaries are lower.  Almost every single new immigrant I know who looked for work locally has struggled to find it.  My husband was unusual in finding a job with an Israeli company as quickly as he did. Some people end up with incredibly long commutes to areas where the jobs are.  Those who have done best financially have moved here with a job that they were able to keep even while working from a distance.  (Israelis have also told me that finding jobs in the north is difficult but this is compounded for those new to the country.)  This is a very significant factor that is downplayed to those considering moving to the north.    

Are there people who have moved here and been happy?  Absolutely!  It’s a beautiful area of the country and the cost of living is lower (which is a significant if you have a salary from a different part of the country since it means you can live much more comfortably here).   As with moving anywhere, a person should move here with their eyes wide open and be careful not to dismiss or minimize the points I’m sharing.  Think hard about how to be as supported as you can be in all of the above ways when you move here because that support or lack of it can be the difference between a successful aliyah and a disaster.


6 thoughts on “Challenges in making aliyah to northern Israel

  1. Thank you so much for this information! We’re planning to move to Tzfat mid summer, and I can use all the info I can get. Would you mind emailing me?

    Rivkasmom AT gmail DOT com


  2. When we were in the pre-Aliyah stages, it was made VERY clear to us that it would be harder to live in the North of the country, so much so, that we backtracked and abandoned our Go North plans, only picking them up again in the middle of our pilot trip! We literally changed our itinerary halfway through our pilot trip to go up north and check it out and have our official Go North pre-aliyah meeting “just in case”.

    It has not been easy, and the first two places we lived were so isolating it was miserable. But now we are much more comfortable and happy, and we’ve chosen to settle in Katzrin, where we are finding that there is some support. I actually help other people who can’t understand their bills and kids’ school newsletters, so it would be unfair to say that other new olim are not available to help. Sometimes we are, we just need to be asked…

    1. Ester, I didn’t know you were in Katzrin – just this week someone told me she had moved there and was loving it!

      I’m obviously making generalized statements about what to expect. Olim generally are up to their necks in figuring out their own lives and it’s a mistake to rely on them to help you out in times of crisis. I don’t mean here and there. You may be able to translate bills and other Hebrew language materials for others, which is wonderful, but would you be able to support a family single handedly through serious crisis? If you would, then you’re an extremely unusual person.

      Generally, though, isolated individuals can’t make up for the lack of social support services. And a person who really needs the help is going to be the least likely to ask for help, because they’re drowning and don’t have time to start asking this one for this and that one for that…

      1. Aha. You forgot. You put up a plea on Facebook for help and guess what? people help. I was SOO sick with the flu thru the chagim and random people brought soup and offered help. We actually could manage, but it was so nice to feel cared about.

  3. I’m not saying it’s not hard. It is hard to make aliyah to the north. But it does not HAVE to be as isolating as you say. If you are willing to put yourself out there, often people will come through with help.

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