On the evening of July 11, nearly 400 Anglo immigrants to Tel Aviv, hailing from countries including the United States, Britain, Australia and South Africa, trudged through the city’s thick humidity and into the Barbara Frye pub on Frishman Street, a classed-up sort of dive bar just off of the famous shopping drag of Dizengoff.
They weren’t there to drink, although beer and cocktails were flowing from the big, friendly bar. They were there for the launch of Kol Oleh, a grassroots political movement devoted to putting political power into the hands of Israeli immigrants.
Call it the “teach a man to fish” syndrome. With more than 15,000 English-speaking immigrants now living in Tel Aviv — a city that, despite its big name, is really just a tiny, skyscraper-studded beach town of just over 400,000 residents and 20 square miles — Kol Oleh founder Guy Seemann decided it was time that newcomers to Tel Aviv took ownership of their stake in the city, rather than relying on others to do it for them.
“The city needs to be shown that olim bring a lot to the table,” Seemann, using the Hebrew term for immigrants to Israel, told The Times of Israel just before the launch. “Kol Oleh wants to make Tel Aviv an example for the rest of the country when it comes to successful klita,” or immigrant absorption.
Statistics vary on Israel’s retention rate of its English-speaking immigrant population, which it woos to the country with attractive benefit packages, free Hebrew lessons, housing and job-search assistance, and a variety of tax write-offs. After a few years, however, those benefits wane or cease altogether, and many English-speaking olim — especially the younger, college-educated types who flock to the major cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and then often find themselves unable to compete in a job market that doesn’t value their skills — end up throwing in the proverbial towel and heading back home. Some experts put the numbers of young olim who give up within three years of their aliyah date — instead making yeridah, or leaving Israel — to be as high as 50 percent.
Such statistics are totally unacceptable, says Seemann, who thinks that the best way to keep olim in the country is to help empower them to change things. And he appears to have struck a nerve: After his first jam-packed event this past summer, Kol Oleh hosted several more events, including the first-ever English-language candidates’ debate in advance of Tel Aviv’s mayoral and city council elections on Oct. 22. That debate turned into a series, with immigrants from across the city snapping up tickets for the chance to speak out and ask their politicians policy questions — in their native languages.
Seemann, it seems, was not alone in deciding that 2013 is the year of the empowered oleh in Tel Aviv. One immigrant embraced that initiative so strongly that he didn’t just learn about the election; he ran in it.
Jonathan Javor’s chances of securing a spot on the Tel Aviv City Council were slim at best. He held the No. 8 spot on the party list of Tel Aviv 1, also known as the mayor’s party. Javor knew that it would take a landslide for his party to win enough seats on Oct. 22 for there to be room for him to join them in the municipal government. (The Israeli electoral system, notoriously multiparty and complex, awards party leaders with a number of seats based on their tallied votes, and candidates for each party’s council are allotted numbers in their order for those seats). But Javor, who was born in London and immigrated to Israel with his parents at the age of 11, says his goal was not so much to win this electoral round as it was to secure Anglos a voice and a platform in the Israeli government.
Javor’s parents settled on a kibbutz in the north of Israel when they first arrived in the country, and Jonathan, who didn’t speak Hebrew, says he was basically left to flounder until he figured out how to integrate into the culture.
“There was nothing for us,” he says of the kibbutz environment, which didn’t have any programs set up to help immigrants. “It was grunt and bear it. It was, throw Jonathan in the deep end and watch him sink or swim. And a lot of times, I would come into class, put my bag down and just leave because there was no point in being there.”
Javor did ultimately catch on. He learned Hebrew and managed, with some difficulty, to finish high school and graduate. But he knew that his chances for a solid college education would be limited in his adopted country, so he returned to England for several years, completing both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree before returning to Israel. When he did come back, he headed straight to Tel Aviv, the city that he now never plans to leave.
Here in the White City, he struck up a friendship with Jay Shultz, a New Jersey native who fervently believes that every Jew should live in Israel, and that Tel Aviv is Israel’s greatest asset. Build up Israel’s cultural capital into a thriving, affordable and manageable city for Westerners, Shultz says, and they will come.
In 2006, Shultz founded TLV Internationals, a nonprofit umbrella organization offering a plethora of events and classes designed to do just that.
Javor began working with him, forging a truly grassroots movement that resonated with the dissatisfied olim who had come to Tel Aviv with stars in their eyes and now found themselves disillusioned by the bureaucratic and economic hurdles that can represent modern Israeli life.
Under the banner of TLV Internationals, Shultz, working with a small support staff and using funds from his own private business ventures, created English-speaking Friday night dinners for hundreds of people (“White City Shabbat”); hosted outings to art galas, theater and dance (The Tel Aviv Arts Council); and started a program similar to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, where young Anglo professionals are paired with lonely Holocaust survivors for an exchange of friendship and empathy (Adopt-a-Safta). TLV Internationals also hosts the incredibly popular Tel Aviv International Salon events, which include sponsored wine tastings from a Golan Heights winery and sold-out lectures with visiting celebrities and high-ranking Israeli politicians. Recent events included a sidesplitting evening with celebrity sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer; a talk with Kadima leader Tzipi Livni; and a reading by author and political wife-of-the-moment, Lihi Lapid (she is married to Yesh Atid founder Yair Lapid).
“I believe in this community. I believe in what it’s capable of, in giving people the tools to go succeed,” Javor, who is fresh-faced and affable, says over coffee at Café Xoho, a hallmark of Tel Aviv Anglo life just off of Ben Yehuda Street near Gordon Beach. “You know, when Jay started with TLV Internationals, there really wasn’t anything going on in English. And we took those ideals, and now we’re doing dinners for 200 people.”
Javor, who spent several years working in the Knesset as an aide to former MK Otniel Schneller, had been stumping for several weeks when we spoke in October, so it was hard to separate the genuine passion from the campaign slogans in his speech. Nevertheless, his platform — he was handpicked by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to serve as the token “Anglo” in a broader re-election campaign that sought to play upon Huldai’s strengths in revitalizing the city — resonated with those English speakers, this reporter included, who believe life could be better here.
“I can’t run away from the fact that I am an Anglo candidate,” he says when asked if he thought he could garner votes from the average Israeli. “But just the fact that we have an Anglo candidate, a Western oleh candidate — it’s the first time that this young oleh community is getting recognition. We are being recognized as a valued community.”
He takes a sip of his coffee and gives one of his megawatt grins. “We are small, it’s peanuts. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet. But we’re being valued because we’re seen as wanting to contribute. We want to contribute — and we want to do more.”
Postscript: Tel Aviv elections, despite the rallying of Anglo troops, were an embarrassment in terms of voter turnout. Poll numbers were sluggish across the nation, with national voter turnout around 30 percent, but Tel Avivians trailed even those dismal numbers with a turnout of around 21 percent. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, backed by the Tel Aviv 1 party, did win re-election, and he secured five city council seats. That means Javor did not make it into the government this time, but he did manage to align himself with a winner — a good sign for the next round of elections in five years.
Debra Kamin is the Israel correspondent for Inside. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.