There is an unsung hero in Israel. A hero who makes many sacrifices to secure the vitality of the Jewish homeland. No, they’re not pro-Israel activists on campus. They’re not lecturers who make a moral case for Israel globally. They’re certainly not Israeli politicians. They’re the little people – people you’ve never heard of, and probably never will.
These heroes give up life’s comforts. They throw themselves into uncertainty, leaving behind what they love, their language. They struggle financially, mentally, physically. These heroes are little discussed because their stories reveal a darker side of Israel, a side that breaks Zionist fantasies of Israel as this Jewish wonderland.
These unsung heroes are olim from Western Countries who live true to their values and undertake the Herculean task of making a life in the land of Israel, thereby building it.
One such hero is LiAmi Lawrence, a personal friend from my hometown of Los Angeles, who knew he couldn’t live estranged from what’s really important to him. A former radio show host and party promoter for Israeli-themed parties back in LA, he is a natural connector and community organizer.
He made aliyah in the summer of August 2014 at the height of Operation Protective Edge. I’ve followed his struggles since he kissed the ground. He found an apartment in Tel Aviv, hoping his savings would last him long enough to find a job. He tried those ever-ubiquitous online casino gaming companies; with a background in radio journalism, he went for a job at a radio station that wanted him to start as a volunteer; he tried a recruitment gig for an “Israel experience” program that paid mostly in commission. It’s typical of Israeli employers to suck whatever they can from their workers with as little pay – or no pay – as possible.
The average Israeli salary is $1,800 (Nis 6,000), less than half the average American salary. Yet the cost of living in Israel’s major cities is almost double that of average cities in the US, thanks in part to oppressive taxes. Groceries, entertainment, cars, electronic appliances – they all cost more – and you wonder how Tel Aviv’s cafes and malls are always full! (Just as one example, an iPhone in Israel costs at least $200 more than in the US.)
Thankfully, LiAmi isn’t really the 9-5 type. He is a revolutionary, big-mouthed, change-the-world type. When we’d speak, he’d lament how he’d gone into debt trying to maintain a small one bedroom in Tel Aviv. He felt that Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates the Aliyah process, didn’t provide tools to help him acclimate. In his integrity and honesty, LiAmi couldn’t board a plane back, a failed “oleh.” He had to put up a fair fight.
So he started a Facebook group called “Keep Olim in Israel,” first as a means to vent. In a matter of weeks, he garnered over thousands of followers. Today it has 25,000 members. LiAmi found his calling and became Executive Director of the new Israeli non-profit: Keep Olim.
As an olah of over 15 years, I know how important an organization like his is. So many olim come high on the euphoria about the ideal of Israel fed to them by trips to Israel and the appreciation that’s easy to feel from abroad. You realize soon that the Israeli system is not the ideal of Jewish care and justice that starry-eyed Zionists have built in their minds. Sometimes, it’s a messy, dysfunctional family, one filled with a lot of love nevertheless.
At times, I get angry how Diaspora Jews pour money into Israel advocacy organizations in the US, but then neglect those people whom such organizations should produce: new Israelis. Those who will settle here, build their lives here, and eventually raise a family that will be much more fluent in the Israeli system than their parents, and hence more amenable to making a difference in Israel, as new leaders – and as soldiers – whose parents grew up on a vision of what a free Israel could and should be.
Alas, while LiAmi has raised over $45,000 in a matter of months, this pales to the budget of some multi-million dollar advocacy organizations, in part because American donors are loath to give to organizations that won’t give an American tax-deduction, such that Israel becomes a comfortable financial net for them. Sometimes I wonder if olim are a threat to Diaspora Jews. They are a rebuke to their comfortable lives in exile; Diaspora Jews would much rather feel heroic as “saviors” of dependent Jews in Israel than parasites on the strength, military protection, and pride that Israel provides them.
LiAmi is a hero and also a success story. He has recently taken for himself a modest salary so that he could pay his rent and get his work done, such as pairing olim with hosts for Passover seder (read the Jpost write-up); running a much-needed mental health and free legal aid program; organizing social events; founding an adopt-an-oleh program; and, in general, advocating for olim when so few do. LiAmi is making waves in other areas as well; as an emerging stand-up comic, and through the sheer force of his personality, he networked with leading comics in Israel to run a series of weekly comedy shows at Dancing Camel, a pioneering Israeli brewery founded by an oleh. We all need outlets to laugh about the difficulties of life in Israel.
So if you really want to support Israel from afar (or from within, if you have the means), then donate to Keep Olim’s crowdfunding campaign. And if your heart is in Israel advocacy, then donate to Israellycool, the finest, most entertaining blog making the case for Israel and bringing down her enemies – run exclusively by volunteers who do this out of passion. No salaries for them. No fancy offices for them. Just the passion that comes from living truly and honestly – in the Land.