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Aliyah Preparation: Adolescents and Aliyah--The Dilemma

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Author: Eli Birnbaum

As any parent who has survived his or her children's adolescence knows, it is a time when a parent must hold his or her breath and pray to get through the period in one piece, with some self- respect, sanity, and, hopefully, hair, intact. 

Moving, no matter the destination, exacerbates tensions and feelings of inadequacy in any adolescent. "Who will be my friends, where will I stand socially, how will I be viewed by my peers?" These and other similar worries are legitimate concerns not only of children, put parents as well. Such feelings can come about simply by moving to a new school district; imagine what happens when moving halfway across the world. Coming on aliyah with an adolescent can either be a constructive or a destructive experience. Even under the best circumstances, picking up and moving to Israel is never an easy decision.

In order to see what can be done to minimize the negative effects on families, we first must focus on at the main points of conflict.

LANGUAGE: Feelings of self worth plummet and frustration increases depending on the individual's grasp of a foreign language. Even for adults, it can be difficult to maintain one's self image when one suddenly finds one's self at the literacy level of a six year-old. An adolescent's self image is not as resilient as ours hopefully is.

RELATIONSHIPS: Most adolescents see themselves somewhere within a social hierarchy which, for better or worse, they are accustomed to. It is an age when close friendships and shared secrets in late night "bull" sessions (or whatever they're called today), are important factors in the development of the child's ideas, goals, and values. Each child sees himself in terms of other people's perceptions. Coming on aliyah means the breaking of friendships and becoming "low man on the totem pole." This contributes to a lowering of self-esteemand often a reluctance to socialize. If not approached correctly, it can lead to introversion and the "I don't need anyone" syndrome.

EDUCATION: The obvious problems with the child's schooling (language, culture shock, etc.), are compounded by the fact that from the 10th grade on, the focus of the Israeli school system is on the matriculation exams ("bagrut"). While new immigrants are afforded some leniencies, for the most part, schools are unable to offer more than some token assistance. Most students are told: "Just sit and listen, you'll pick it up soon enough."

This approach, although on one level providing the opportunity to integrate into the class, more often than not leads to enforced boredom, frustration at not being able to understand the material, and a host of defense mechanisms.

ARMY: There is little doubt that Israeli society focuses around army service. It is the "great leveler," the tool by which people from different segments of Israeli society are thrown together and forced to function (hopefully) as a cohesive unit.

Children grow up watching their fathers go off to reserve duty, and watching their older brothers prepare to join elite units. The question of what one will do in the army becomes more and more real with each passing year of high school. For most Israeli youth, the fact of having to do the army is already accepted and dealt with by the time they are actually drafted.

Children arriving in their teens are deprived of these preparatory experiences, and often see army service as an unwanted intrusion in their lives. Resentment might grow as the young new immigrant watches his friendsback home starting university, while he has three of probably the most grueling years imaginable staring him straight in the face.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES: In my experience, this is one of the prime reasons for lack of American integration into Israeli society - different values, different sense of humor, and the Israeli perception of the stereotype American. There is also the difference between the American emphasis on individuality as opposed to the Israeli emphasis on conformity both socially and with regard to studies. It makes it a lot easier for olim to integrate when they relax some of their "Americanisms" and take on more Israeli patterns of behavior.

Any one, or a combination, of the above problems might lead to statements like: "Why did you do this to me? Why didn't you ask me?" Often these accusations are made even if the teen was consulted in the decision making process. Aliyah then can become a flash point of conflict, leading to increasing tensions and struggles within the family.

Are there any answers? Yes.

First, if at all possible, make aliyah when your children are young. The ideal age is pre-school, although up until age ten, there are usually fewer problems. If you do not fall into this category, the following suggestions may prove helpful:

  • Plan early. Try to visit within a year of your aliyah with your children. Make sure to visit the area in which you hope to live (if possible, rent an apartment there). Take lots of walks.
  • Try to join a group of people with children around the same age and make aliyah together. Prior to your aliyah, make sure to spend lots of time together, getting to know one another and establishing a sense of community.
  • If you know of other families that are already settled in Israel, consider living in close proximity to them. Small communities with a high percentage of olim, such as settlements in the Galilee, or Judea and Samaria,often offer more support than major cities, although sometimes you can find similar support in certain neighborhoods with a high percentage of English-speaking olim (i.e. Jerusalem or Raanana). Check it out before you come.
  • Absorption centers are often effective in providing a relatively easy way to begin the process of settling down, especially if you are arriving with another family. One major disadvantage to starting out in an absorption center is that it is one more temporary stop to make (you will probably move within six months).
  • Make sure to involve older children in the decision making process. Try to study Hebrew together. Let them participate in some of the logistical planning for the trip. Find out what they want to bring: It might seem like a waste of space to bring your fifteen year-old daughter's doll collection she hasn't touched for five years. Everyone needs some sort of "anchor," something familiar that reminds one of home, of things as they were. By the way, we need it too; did you ever think about that lounge chair? Or lamp? Or child?
  • Look for a school with a relatively high percentage of English-speaking students.
  • Studying Hebrew, as a family, while still abroad is a way for a family to prepare psychologically (even if it might not be the most effective way to learn the language). If possible, try combining Hebrew lessons with going out for pizza.
  • For a teenager in 11th or 12th grade, you can look into the possibility of taking the SAT's here and attaining an American high school diploma instead of doing the Bagrut. This depends on the school here in Israel and their school from the US. Again, this is not the rule, it is the exception, but know that it is a possibility to be checked out.

What about the unspeakable? Leaving a child behind.

Of all the difficult decisions, this is certainly the most wrenching. Much depends on the age and maturity of the child, as well as the family's financial situation.

All of us want what is best, but as all parents have learned, just being a parent is not always enough to know what is really best. We second guess ourselves with countless "what-if's." Will he feel rejected? Who will she turn to if something is bothering her? Who will look after her?

These are all very real concerns.

Let's try to break the question down. If your child has only one year left of high school, maybe they should remain abroad and not have to hassle with the Israeli school system. There is an additional advantage that if your child wishes later to do the Atudah-Bet program in the army, then he must have completed high school abroad. This program allows one to do army after university and often in one's profession (see FAQ sheet for details).

Can the child's rights be saved if she doesn't come with me? If your child enters Israel one full year before or after your arrival then she will be considered an independent individual and will receive rights, according to her needs.

This is important if you have older children who are on post-high schoolprograms in Israel. As long as they entered a full year before or after you they will be considered independent. This is true regardless of their status. Therefore, if you are planning aliyah and have children 18 or over who want to come with you, you may consider having them arrive at least one year before or after in order to insure that they receive their own rights. If that is not possible, they will be considered "b'nai olim" and have slightly fewer rights. This applies up until age 25.

What if one's child simply refuses to come? This is the worst scenario possible. To be honest, there is no one answer. Your child may have so many fears, that they are simply overwhelming.

This is not some sort of temper-tantrum; these are very real problems. Recognizing this fact may be the key to dealing with the problem. The more self assured and confident the child feels, the more willing he will be to change his mind.

The bottom line is that I don't believe in threats, either overt or subtle. It often backfires and endangers the very fabric of the family. If you're faced with such a dilemma, try sending them here on their own (as a tourist) to a high school program for overseas students. If that isn't possible, try a "contractual" set-up, whereby you and your child discuss each other's "demands" and/or needs and work out some mutually acceptable agreement.

Once you and your adolescent(s) are here, you will find that there are now teen groups for new olim (run by olim organizations) which provide a forum in which teens can meet people their own age, make friends, and share problems and concerns with one another.

One such program is called NESTO (New English-Speaking Teen Olim). NESTO is a youth group for observant teenage olim, a place to meet other teenagers of common background who share similar experiences through fun social and educational activities. There are counselors available to guide and help the olim through their difficulties.

In addition, they provide tutorial classes and individual tutoring in specific subjects and extra-curricular activities including sports and drama and discussion groups. NESTO endeavors to make the teenagers happy and positive in Israel and to help integrate them into Israeli society. NESTO is run through the NCSY/OU Israel Center in Jerusalem.

For more information, call the Israel Center at 02-538-4206.

In conclusion, there is no question that coming on aliyah with adolescents adds an additional twist to the complications already inherent in aliyah. But, as in most other family situations, it can be a time of growth and learning, or a time of tension and destruction. Much of the responsibility for the result is in our own hands.

The key will be to keep the channels of communication open at all times. Hopefully it will be a time for a family to pull together into a stronger, more loving unit.

Is it worth it? Absolutely.

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