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The Aliyah Process: What You Need To Know

What is Aliyah?

Aliyah is an anglicised version of the Hebrew word ‘עֲלִיָּה’. It literally means ascent. Making aliyah has become the standard term for the process of emigrating to Israel. Under the Law of Return, every Jew has an automatic right to Israeli Citizenship - regardless of their current nationality or religious outlook. The aliyah process is designed to be straightforward, user-friendly and welcoming, but, as with most things Israeli, the reality can sometimes be a little more complex.

The first thing to understand is that making aliyah isn’t simply an event - it really is a process! For many, that process of integration and adaptation continues for years. We’ll take a closer look at the process of aliyah in this blog post. We’ll identify some of the common issues facing immigrants, highlight some of the benefits, and offer some useful tips for a quick and pain free aliya. 

Quick Aliyah Glossary

Aliyah or making aliya - Immigrating to Israel

Oleh/Olah - a man/woman who has made aliyah

Oleh Hadash/Olah Hadasha - a recent immigrant who is still finding their feet

Teudat Zehut - A compulsory state issued Israeli ID card

Teudat Oleh - A booklet issued by the Misrad HaKlita (Immigrant Absorption Office)

Law of Return - A 1950 law that guarantees the right of all Jews to make aliyah

Why do people make Aliyah?

People make Aliyah for all kinds of reasons, but the bottom line is that all of them are looking for a better life for themselves and their families. It’s the concept of what constitutes a better life that varies. Some Olim are motivated by straightforward Zionism - they believe firmly in the Jewish State and want to live in it. These highly motivated Olim see the Jewish State as a work in progress and wish to contribute to it on a lifelong basis.This idealistic motive can be a very powerful driving force, particularly if it means accepting tough compromises and lifestyle changes along the way.  Active Zionists can be secular or religious and come from every conceivable background. What unites them is their willingness to make a life changing journey - sometimes across the planet - and build a new life in Israel. 

Other Olim are driven by more pragmatic concerns. Israel is very much a land of opportunity with a thriving start-up and high tech culture. Life isn’t always easy, but there are plenty of potential rewards for hard work and initiative. A good education is an achievable reality, rather than just a dream, and the country is a democracy built on the rule of law. For all the security problems that Israel still faces, life here is comparatively safe. Health care is advanced and readily accessible, and there is a Western infrastructure. For some Olim, a move to Israel means an immediate (and sometimes dramatic) improvement in their personal security and quality of life.

Sometimes, individuals will make aliyah in response to live events, their home situation, or the desire to make a fresh start. If you’ve reached a certain age and are generally dissatisfied with your life, are newly divorced, or profoundly restless, the challenge of aliyah can become a powerful draw. For many Olim - especially people who make aliyah alone - there is a palpable sense of adventure and a new beginning. Aliyah is ‘Life Part Two’ and every day brings new challenges, new experiences and plenty of surprises. If you’re young enough to serve in the IDF, your aliyah may well become a genuine adventure. 

Quality of life - or at least perceived quality of life - is also a motivating factor for potential Olim Hadashim. Israel has a sunny Mediteranean climate with mild winters. Eight or nine months of sunshine a year is a huge magnet for sun lovers. If you grew up experiencing snowbound northern winters, months of rain, or perpetual grey skies, Israeli weather can seem like a dream come true! Add to that the wonderful local food, beaches, national parks and beauty spots that are only a short drive away, and you have at least some of the ingredients for a good life. 

What’s the first step of making Aliyah?

Making aliyah can seem like a bureaucratic and administrative marathon, conducted in a strange country where you don’t speak the language and don’t understand the mentality. However, the first step in making aliyah has nothing to do with registering online, making applications, or filling in forms. The first step is trying to understand exactly what you are getting yourself into...

The bottom line with aliyah is that you are going to uproot your life and move to another country. If that isn’t immediately scary; you’re either exceptionally resilient, or not thinking things through! If you have substantial roots in your own community, including a professional career, a home and other assets, it just becomes scarier. If you have children who are old enough to understand the implications of a life changing move, the thought of aliyah can rapidly become stressful!

OK, maybe it’s not quite that frightening...but there are plenty of issues that do generate anxiety and family tension. If you can anticipate these issues and plan around them, you’re already a big step ahead. If you already have family or close friends in Israel you’re in a better position to understand what aliyah actually involves. The same applies if you already visited Israel. 

Aliyah - what you need to understand

  • If you grew up outside Israel, you are moving to a foreign country. Although most of the population is Jewish, don’t assume that their concept of being Jewish is the same as yours. There is ultimately a sense of shared values and a wider national community, but it’s complicated and it takes time to get the nuances and find your niche. 
  • Israel is not America/Canada/Britain/Australia/Anywhere else. It’s Israel and there is an Israeli way of doing things; their mentality, their laws, their regulations and bureaucracy. They’re not interested in how it was done wherever you came from. The onus is on you to adjust - fast. 
  • Most Israelis love speaking English - to the point where it will frustrate your attempts to learn Hebrew. But the language of officialdom and bureaucracy remains Hebrew. Unless you want to be as helpless as a child, and have to ask for help everytime you need to read a bill or fill out a form, you’ll need to learn Hebrew. One exception is TCS that offers full customer service and billing in English, with native English speaking staff.
  • You’re making a complete fresh start in life:That means everything. You’ll need a place to live, a job, a bank account, a cell phone, internet, landline and TV, a car and Israeli driver’s license, a new social life, schools for your kids, health insurance, a doctor and dentist… basically every routine and mundane aspect of modern life that you previously took for granted is now missing. Expect your first month or two in Israel to be a never ending round of bureaucracy and personal administration. If you’re a bureauphobe, you’ll need a lot of personal resolve and some help from kind Israelis (fortunately there’s no shortage of kind Israelis).
  • Aliyah can be tough on kids. For some children, moving to Israel becomes one of life’s great adventures. They adjust fast, pick up Hebrew almost intuitively and make lots of new friends. For others, the process can be tough. They’ve essentially been uprooted from their entire world - local culture, home town, extended family, school and peer group - and transplanted to a foreign country. Expect the possibility of anxiety, resentment and adjustment reactions. Be open about the move and talk about it as a family. Don’t deny or gloss over difficulties, but do focus on the positives. 
  • Every Israeli is a trained soldier - at least in theory anyway. The reality is that many Israeli citizens don’t serve in the IDF. You might have to, and your kids will almost certainly be drafted. If you’re male and under 32, or female and under 20, expect a letter from the IDF ‘inviting’ you to attend a pre-recruitment interview. If you’re not military minded, this can be stressful, especially if you’re still focussed on adjusting to the everyday aspects of life. On the plus side, the army may teach you Hebrew, will give you the opportunity to learn about yourself, and will generally be a shortcut to integration in Israeli society. 
  • Whatever else happens along the way, you’re going to become an Israeli. That is a culture shock and a 24/7 adjustment that will last for years - possibly for the rest of your life. The good news is that it’s also a lot of fun and will present you with some wonderful opportunities and amazing experiences. Nothing can really prepare you for the process of actually becoming an Israeli - it’s better just to get on with it!

What is the Actual Process of Making Aliyah?

If you’re thinking about making aliyah, the best thing you can do is to visit the Nefesh B’Nefesh website. They have a wealth of up to date aliyah resources and practical advice for potential Olim. Nefesh B’Nefesh will help you to negotiate the bureaucracy in a systematic way. The organisation will also make sure that you’re aware of all the potential benefits that Olim Hadashim can claim from the state during their initial aliyah and subsequent adjustment period. 

Getting Started: Typically, your aliyah begins with an initial application. You need to begin this at least half a year before you plan to make aliyah. You will be asked to provide apostilled copies of a variety of documents, these are required to establish your identity, status as a Jew, and standing in the community. 

Getting Approval: The next step is a formal interview with an Aliyah Shaliach or local representative of the Jewish Agency. You’ll be asked to bring the original versions of the documents that you already copied. 

Your Aliyah Visa: If there are no hitches, your request will be approved by the Jewish Agency. Your passport will be stamped with an Aliya Visa (valid for 6 months) and you’ll be offered a free one way flight to Israel. You’ll be issued with a Teudat Zehut (national ID card) and other documentation when you land at Ben Gurion airport and will officially be an Israeli. They’ll even throw in a free taxi ride to your new address.

What are the Aliyah Benefits?

There are two kinds of aliyah benefits - the official government benefits that are provided to ease the process of aliyah and your integration into society - and the wider benefits that accompany a successful aliyah. It’s usually the wider and less tangible benefits that motivate the majority of Olim Hadashim. These are essentially subjective, and vary from person to person, but there are plenty of common themes:

  • The satisfaction of living in a Jewish state and contributing to its growth and security.
  • The pleasure of living in a society that is generally safe and has relatively low crime rates.
  • Sunny weather and a Mediterranean lifestyle with delicious food and drink.
  • Raising children in a society that is still highly family orientated and child friendly.

Although many adult Olim perhaps never entirely integrate into Israeli society, their children usually do. They eventually thrive in Israeli schools and go on to serve in the army. No parent wants their child to fight in a war, but many Olim are pleased that their children will serve in the IDF. They’re happy that their kids will at least get the perceived benefits of military service. They hope - perhaps privately - that their children will emerge from the experience more mature, disciplined, self-reliant, adaptable and resilient than their peers ‘back home’. There will also be the satisfaction of making a meaningful contribution to society at an age when kids in North America and Europe are basically still children.

The material benefits of making aliyah vary according to your personal status and circumstances, and are subject to change. There is an old saying that every little helps, and the government gives little enough! 

The package of benefits offered by the state is designed to ease your transition into Israeli society and provide a temporary buffer. Probably the single most useful - and least used - benefit is free language tuition in the form of an Ulpan. If you’re serious about staying in Israel and making a go of it, six months of intensive language study may be the best investment you make as an Oleh Hadash. 

Other benefits currently include: 

  • Sal Klita (absorption basket) or a range of benefits paid directly into your bank account for a fixed time period. 
  • Rent subsidy and arnona (property tax) discount.
  • Temporary tax breaks onIsraeli and foreign income tax and Israeli purchase tax.
  • Cash allowance - bring up to NIS 50,000 to Israel in cash without a declaration.
  • Initial help with a mortgage.
  • Free basic medical care for 12 months. 
  • Subsidised daycare for children.
  • Help with university tuition fees and a free ulpan.
  • Breaks on customs duties when you import your belongings and car.
  • Free flight to Israel and a free taxi from the airport to your new address.

The government benefits for Olim Hadashim aren’t a game changer, but they do help. You’ll need to be proactive when it comes to obtaining them - and budget for the day when they expire. 

Making aliyah is a life changing decision. It takes courage, commitment, resilience - and a sense of humor. You’ll get plenty of help along the way; much of it spontaneous and unexpected, and frequently from complete strangers; because that’s the Israeli way. 

If you’re willing to persevere, choose the right place to live, and develop a tolerant attitude towards surprises, making aliyah could be the single best decision that you ever make!

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