Dr. David Berger (www.drdavidberger.com) earned a PhD in Clinical Psychology from St. John’s University and received Rabbinic Ordination from RIETS (YU). He moved to Israel in 2010 and currently works as a registered psychologist in private practice in Tel Aviv.
We hope Aliyah will inspire the joy of a long-awaited homecoming. But although Israel truly is our home, it is a country most of us have never lived in before. We may feel nostalgic about the smell of fresh falafel on Ben Yehudah or the sight of Masada at sunrise, but does that really prepare us for misadventures at the post office, supermarket, or mechanic?
Being Olim means that we are immigrants, and the psychological research on immigrants reveals a phenomenon called ‘acculturative stress.’ Even though we chose to be here, we nevertheless face a range of challenges that are perfectly normal for anyone entering a new culture, and some that are unique to life in Israel. As a result, it is completely normal if the joy of making Aliyah sometimes gives way to less joyful feelings.
Another reason why life after Aliyah isn’t always filled with joy is because, after all, we’re human and we naturally feel a range of emotions. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll touch on the four core emotions: joy, anger, fear and sadness. We arrived in Israel with these four emotions packed not in our suitcases but in our hearts, and all of them accompany us as we transition to life after Aliyah.
We all know the experience of being viewed as the “other” in our countries of origin. Being Jewish fundamentally made us different. Perhaps we expected that in Israel we would finally feel like we belonged. Unfortunately, integrating into Israeli culture isn’t always so simple.
Depending on their country or city or origin, many Olim are not accustomed to the aggressiveness that is part of Israeli culture. Everyone who has lived in Israel for some time has a story of being cut in line, yelled at by a customer service representative, and so on. In Israel, this general aggressiveness is compounded by a desperate desire not to be a freiyer (slang for someone who is taken advantage of). Israelis may go to great lengths to avoid being a freiyer. Occasionally that means taking advantage of others, and some see Olim as easy targets. If you’re angry at being treated this way, it may help to know that you’re definitely not alone. Even native Israelis who choose to wait their turn and follow the rules get upset when other Israelis don’t.
In addition, it’s always helpful to validate your feelings instead of repressing or judging them. As a psychologist, a common theme of my work is that repressing emotions forces them to build up until they cause us harm, while judging emotions injects them with a corrosive dose of self-criticism. There’s an inherent healing power in simply acknowledging and validating what you feel.
Practically, there are two ways to deal with aggressive behavior. One is to learn to accept it. Unfortunately, you can’t force others to change. That’s true when dealing with family members, colleagues, and random pushy people. If that’s how they are, then there’s ultimately nothing you can do to stop them from being that way.
Alternatively, you can try to push back, assert your boundaries, and insist on your rights. The question is how much time, money, and energy it’s worth to push back. There’s no easy answer, and it’s frustrating that Olim are so often faced with the question. Whatever approach you choose, at least know that your anger is valid and shared by Olim far and wide.
War and Peace of Mind
The history of our young country tells us that every few years there’s likely to be a significant security disruption. For Olim who serve in the IDF, this may serve to heighten one’s sense of mission in contributing to Israel’s defense, but can also understandably raise the stress involved in one’s post-Aliyah transition.
The first experience of responding to a siren or being near the scene of an attack is frightening and surreal, but Olim don’t always receive support from native Israelis. Many native Israelis don’t allow themselves to show fear and don’t respond compassionately when Olim do. They also sometimes don’t follow explicit instructions for what to do during a missile warning. It’s not unusual to witness people on the streets who, instead of looking for cover as a siren blares and missile roars overhead, take out their smart phones and try to record the missile in flight. This apparent nonchalance among the general population can make Olim feel ashamed of being afraid despite the objective scariness of being attacked with explosive projectiles or targeted by street level terror.
Although some may shrug off the danger, it’s normal to experience this permeating awareness of danger as generalized anxiety or elevated stress. A number of interventions can be helpful in coping with this anxiety if it becomes extreme, but at minimum it may be reassuring to know that these feelings are normal, common, and valid. Simply put, wars and terror attacks are scary.
The Social Network
Another facet of life after Aliyah involves managing relationships with family and friends, both those in one’s country of origin and those here in Israel. The transition is usually hardest at the beginning, when we most acutely feel distant from those we’ve left behind and those we’re getting to know here. Loneliness is a common feature of acculturative stress, and it’s normal to feel the sadness of social isolation no matter whether one made Aliyah alone or with a family.
Modern technology makes it far easier than it used to be to keep in touch with loved ones abroad, but Facetime and WhatsApp don’t necessarily provide a true feeling of closeness. As with any long-distance relationship, staying meaningfully connected requires an investment of time and energy on both sides.
Of course, your desire to stay connected with family and friends overseas may depend on how much they support your decision to make Aliyah. If you’re lucky, everyone has your back, but it’s possible that even people who love you don’t support your decision to move. Considering that they haven’t made Aliyah (yet) there’s a decent chance they don’t agree with your reasons for coming here. To prove otherwise, you may be inclined to paint a perfectly rosy portrait of life post-Aliyah and gloss over any challenges you might be facing.
That’s a shame, because living anywhere has ups and downs, and certainly Israel is no different. It’s normal to have second thoughts, and it’s even OK to move back if life here just isn’t working out. If your friends and family are genuinely supportive they’ll respond to your struggles with compassion. If they’re more likely to be critical, then it falls to you to find that compassion within yourself or turn to friends and family in Israel for support.
Indeed, one of the pleasant surprises of Aliyah can be building relationships with distant or little-known relatives. For those who don’t already have family in Israel, perhaps there is comfort in knowing that you are the trailblazing aunt or cousin who will be here to soften the landing for a future relative.
When it comes to meeting new people, it’s much like being the new kid in school. Making new friends, both fellow Olim and native Israelis, involves going out of your comfort zone and being proactive. Go to events where you’re likely to meet like-minded people. Instead of waiting for someone to invite you to a meal, invite them first. Reach out to old friends or acquaintances who made Aliyah before you. A simple message about how you recently made Aliyah and would like to reconnect should be enough to break the ice. Sure, it takes courage to put yourself out there, but it also took courage to make Aliyah in the first place.
A Lifelong Journey
For each of us, our official Aliyah date marks the beginning of a lifelong journey that continues to this day. Like any journey, there are better days and worse days, triumphs and setbacks, laughter and tears. There are joyful moments and some challenging times as well because we are, after all, still human. But we are also Olim, members of a special club defined by hope and courage – the hope that we can thrive in Israel, and the courage to make it our home.