By Hillel Kuttler
When the teenaged Klaris Slizak and her family moved from Argentina to Israel 30 years ago, integrating was hard. Few services were available then to assist Klaris, her parents, grandparents, two brothers and a sister-in-law.
“There was no one to direct us,” she said.
That reality has changed. For the past eight years, Klaris has worked for the northern town of Karmiel (population 52,000) as its project director for immigrant absorption.
The job involves assisting all immigrants settling in Karmiel except for Russian speakers, who are serviced by a city-employed staff of four.
In 2016, 250 immigrant families moved to to Karmiel, with a handful coming from North America and England, she said.
Those who do come will find additional support, like the Karmiel English Speakers’ Club, whose facility is open most mornings. The club features a canteen and a library, hosts mahjongg and bridge games and runs monthly entertainment events, such as films, lectures and quiz contests. Another is the English Speakers Residents Association, which holds events in the Conservative Kehilat Hakerem synagogue.
The club, which has 150 members, is “a very friendly bunch,” said its chairperson, Sylvia Walters, who’s lived in Karmiel since making Aliyah from Pennsylvania 30 years ago. “We do whatever we can to make people feel comfortable.”
Many English-speaking Olim live in Karmiel’s Ramat Rabin and Old Center neighborhoods. Ron and Shelley Sommer moved to Ramat Rabin from Queens, New York, in late 2013.
Ron, now 67, said he appreciates a Karmiel official taking him and Shelly to purchase a monthly pass at the bus station, and an absorption ministry official referring them to places to buy kitchenware.
“People couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful. Even if they didn’t know enough English, they’d call [colleagues] to find a person who spoke English. No one was rude or short or unhelpful,” he recalled. “When you come, there are so many uncertainties, so to have people who are helpful makes adjusting so much easier.”
The Sommers participate in many programs organized by the two English-speakers’ groups, including walks and scavenger hunts that end with a meal in someone’s home. They also enjoy attending monthly, Thursday-night performances of the Karmiel Folk Club, composed predominantly of Anglo musicians from the town and surrounding settlements.
“It’s a welcoming community,” Ron said of Karmiel. “We’ve been invited to more Shabbat dinners than you can shake a stick at.”
Valentene Rice said that shortly after making Aliyah from Houston in late 2014 with his wife, Corinne, the couple stepped out to run an errand. They returned to find a message from an American-Oleh couple, inviting them over for dinner and encouraging them to bring lots of questions that the hosts could help answer.
“It was so kind of them,” he said. “It made arriving here a very welcome, pleasant experience.”
The hosts? The Sommers.
The Rices – Valentene is an artist; Corinne is an English teacher and live in the Old Center neighborhood. Now, they reach out to new Olim, too.
Every Friday afternoon, the two drop in at the local immigrant-absorption center. Valentene plays Kabbalat Shabbat songs on his guitar to get the mostly Russia- and Ukraine-raised immigrants in the mood for the Sabbath that will begin a few hours later. The Rices bring their kiddush cups for the children to hold and examine. Corinne teaches women the blessing for lighting Shabbat candles.
“Most people are not familiar with the prayers. They really love it,” Valentene, 52, said. “Even though we don’t speak Russian, they’re very welcoming to us.”