Tzvika Graiver (left) and LiAmi Lawrence awaiting olim at Ben-Gurion Airport
Organization’s aim is to keep immigrants from leaving Israel
The first Hebrew sentence I learned in my absorption center classroom when I came to Israel in 1976 was “All beginnings are hard.” For me, they actually weren’t all that hard: although I didn’t know Hebrew, my husband had a job and a rental apartment that went with it, and our children, at ages 4 and 2, were young enough to adjust easily. We sailed through our first months in Israel and although I have had some doubts down the line, we are still here.
But many other olim aren’t that fortunate. Many beginnings in Israel are not just hard, but a soul-destroying struggle. That is what LiAmi Lawrence discovered when he came to Israel five years ago from California.
LiAmi, (who legally changed his name to a Hebrew one 30 years ago) is a cool guy, likeable and sincere, and fit enough to make his colorful background as a personal trainer and male stripper, among other jobs, utterly believable. In Israel, he has also worked as a comedian.
“I came on aliyah,” he says, “because I had experienced anti-Semitism and because I was devoted to Israel. I spent time here with a youth group, at Tel Aviv University, and visited many times as a tourist. I waited twenty years to come here on aliyah and at the age of 50, I knew it was now or never.”
“I was brain-washed into loving Israel” he jokes.
But it wasn’t easy. “At one point, I couldn’t find a job. I had no money and got sick. My neighbors brought me food. After nine months, I decided to go back to the US, but then a friend persuaded me to create a Facebook group called the ‘Keep Olim in Israel Movement’, which was later shortened to ‘KeepOlim’. I was astonished when 3,000 people joined within days, and within two weeks 8,000 had signed up.”
LiAmi was joined by Tzvika Graiver, an immigrant lawyer, who insisted that the group do more than just kvetch. Empower olim, he said. That was the way to accomplish something. The group became a nonprofit organization, which today has some 42,000 members.
Clearly, LiAmi had struck a chord. Government agencies spend a lot of money bringing olim to Israel, but not enough, it appears, to keep them here. There are thousands of olim in Israel who are in difficulties and need help as well as companionship. But I wondered why the already established groups dedicated to helping olim, such as AACI, Telfed, Nefesh B’Nefesh and so on, don’t fill the gap? Why is this group different?
The answer, says LiAmi, is that “each of those organizations caters to a certain group. They do their own thing. We do advocacy, programs, and services for everybody – olim from 100 countries, old, young, left-wingers, settlers, religious, secular, even the whole Bnei Menashe community from India. A third of the group is Russian or Ukrainian. There is power in numbers. Our only rule is no politics.”
The organization helps by offering olim what they need to stay here, explains LiAmi. There is the “Adopt an Oleh” program, which matches up olim with locals similar in language and interests; a legal aid program by volunteer lawyers, who help olim negotiating contracts, leases, etc; free resumé writing; KeepOlim University, which runs courses such as “Be the Leader in Your Life – Transforming Your Life in Israel”, to inspire and motivate olim; social programs of all types and for all ages around the country; visiting the sick (bikur cholim); advocacy in the Knesset; and a Lone Soldiers Unit. There is also a program to match olim with host families for the Jewish holidays, so they won’t spend the chagim alone.
“Fixing people up with a place to spend holidays is important. We’ve matched up 1,300 people so far. Many of them are Russians and some have never done anything Jewish in their lives.
“I know people who are homeless. No one cares if you run out of money, but we do. We have gotten twelve olim off the streets and into homes. We’ve saved people’s lives. We have answered over 150 suicidal calls from distressed olim. There are a lot of sad stories. Here’s one. A fellow from Bulgaria, who is half Jewish, volunteered for the IDF. Because he doesn’t look Jewish, he was called a Nazi by some of the soldiers. He left. So instead of an Israeli, we have someone who hates Israel.”
Mental health is often an issue with olim, who can suffer from depression due to the many stressful pressures. ERAN, the hot line, can offer help only in Hebrew and Arabic, but KeepOlim has a pilot project which involves a hotline with people who can speak to olim in three languages, and is hoping to expand to six languages. Lone soldiers are particularly vulnerable – there have been thirteen cases of overdoses in the last three years. A third of suicides in Israel last year involved olim.
One of the accomplishments that LiAmi is proud of is successfully lobbying to change the driver’s license requirements. Previously, olim, even those who had been driving for years, had to retake their driver’s license examination. This meant huge expenses in fees to driving instructors. Now, the process is easier and overseas licenses of olim are recognized.
The group not only encourages its members to take, but also to give. Olim, for example, donated supplies to help victims of the Haifa and Zichron Yaakov fires.
Still, in spite of its accomplishments, the organization is struggling to find financial backing for its mission. “We have no rich sponsors and no government support. The Jewish Agency isn’t interested. We’re a grassroots organization. We welcome any support. We need donations.”
The group has a comprehensive and informative website:
Keepolim.org and is also on Facebook:
Keep Olim in Israel Movement