Engaging and Enriching Older Immigrants to Israel

Photo courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh
Photo courtesy Nefesh B’Nefesh

By Sharon Mann

Congregations are always thinking of new ways to attract and interest younger members. While this is, of course, essential, it is perhaps just as important for congregations to consider what they are doing to engage and enrich older members who want to remain connected as they deal with circumstances that arise later in life.

At my congregation, Kehillat Emet VeShalom (the only synagogue in Nahariya, Israel, affiliated with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism), we’ve been dealing with a unique version of this scenario. Looking at our community, we asked ourselves: What happens to olim who make aliyah at an advanced age? Many of these olim live on low, fixed incomes and have difficulty learning Hebrew well. Our congregation saw that these challenges limited new residents’ ability to take part in Israeli society and that, despite the passage of time, they continued to struggle with difficulties adjusting to life in Israel.

Between 2002 and 2003, a large wave of older immigrants from Argentina settled in Nahariya. Our congregation stepped up to the challenge of working with these olim, as well as with veteran immigrants, to provide them with support and the opportunity to participate in Jewish social and educational programs that they otherwise could not afford or understand. We’ve also embraced new and veteran English-speaking immigrants from across the religious spectrum.

Emet VeShalom’s senior immigrants project arose naturally out of our view that tikkun olam is an integral part of our mission. Our desire to fill the gap in community services for older olim came at an exciting time – just as a connection was being established between the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey (“the Federation”) and the city of Nahariya as part of Partnership2Gether. This initiative links communities in Israel to cities in North America through dynamic relationships; in addition to the partnership program, the Federation supports diverse programs in Israel that fulfill needs in local communities, which is initially what led to interest in Emet VeShalom’s activities. Since 2005, with the Federation’s support, we have helped older olim lead fuller lives and participate in a cohesive and involved community.

Israel’s many Jewish cultural aspects have, in many cases, rendered the services usually provided by a typical Diaspora Jewish community center largely unnecessary. However, this structure has also eliminated the social function and framework that such centers typically offer, which would help support senior immigrants. Emet VeShalom’s supportive community program fills this gap in local services so that older olim can live a satisfying and well-rounded life here in Israel.

In our community, seniors, whether members of the congregation or not, have the chance to learn and socialize in a stimulating yet relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. They are enriched by supportive, emotional, Jewish cultural and educational programs – in their mother tongue (Spanish and English) – that are generally not available through other venues. Trips, lectures, and workshops are geared toward helping these olim gain a greater understanding and awareness of Israeli life, culture, geography, and the history of Israel in general and the Western Galilee in particular.

We also offer educational programming on issues that are relevant to them, such as the loss of spouse or partner, caring for loved ones, facing health issues, and dealing with war and natural disasters. We hold special programs designed for our multilingual multicultural community on Israeli national holidays, including Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaAtzmaut. Finally, our older adults actively participate in tikkun olam projects that benefit individuals in other disadvantaged sectors of society; this participation further enhances their self-esteem and connection to the community.

Through all these opportunities and more, the senior olim in Nahariya have flourished.

Of course, combining and addressing differences in language and culture is a challenge that requires tolerance and significant effort. But we feel it is worth it to overcome these differences so that everyone can have the chance to socialize, learn, and grow – all as part of a unified community.

Everyone deserves to feel that their lives are filled with purpose and meaning. Regularly engaging in a variety of meaningful activities at Emet VeShalom provides older immigrants with a vibrant connection to their Jewish identity, Israeli culture, and life in Israel. Beyond that, our efforts at community building help to bridge cultural gaps among the various groups that call Nahariya their home, enabling all residents to join together in a vibrant pluralistic community and share the best Israel has to offer.

As people begin to live longer and healthier lives, ask yourself: What is your congregation doing to adapt to the changing needs and interests of the older members in your midst?

Sharon Mann made aliyah more than 20 years ago and lives in Nahariya, Israel. She is an active member of Kehillat Emet VeShalom, where she is on the Women of Reform Judaism Steering Committee and volunteers as International Contact Liaison.

Cross-posted on RJ.org