(September 24) When LiAmi Lawrence traveled to Tiberias on September 14th to give 25 of the city’s B’nei Menashe families vouchers for 200 shekels, it was just another day for him. As co-founder and director of an NGO named KeepOlim, helping new immigrants to Israel is his full-time job. And full means full. Not infrequently, he told our Newsletter this week, he puts in 14 hours or more a day at it.
“KeepOlim” may strike one as no less an unusual name for an organization than “LiAmi Lawrence” is for a person. “When I founded the organization after coming to live in Israel in 2014,” the American-born-and-raised Lawrence explained, “I wanted to give it the English name of ‘The Keep Olim in Israel Movement.’ But when I went to the amutot [NGOs] registration office, I was told that at least half the words in an amuta’s name had to be Hebrew ones. A woman in the office who wanted to help suggested that I shorten the name to ‘Keep Olim.’ After all, she said, olim is the Hebrew word for immigrants, so that would bring us to the fifty percent mark. I accepted her suggestion and made KeepOlim one word.”
And “LiAmi Lawrence,” the first half of which translates as “My-people-is-mine?” How did that come to be?
“That was after an earlier stay in Israel in the early 1990s,” was the answer. “I lived in Tel Aviv for several years and ran a successful nightclub there, but in the end I went back to America and moved to Los Angeles. Lawrence was my given name, but I wanted to be an actor, and when I registered with the Screen Actors Guild in 1994, I thought LiAmi Lawrence would make a good film name. Since I didn’t want two names, one for films and one for my private life, I decided to use LiAmi for both.”
But we are getting ahead of – or more precisely, behind – our story. Two weeks ago, KeepOlim acquired 24,000 shekels worth of vouchers, 120 of them altogether, for the purchase of food and other items. “Our plan,” Liami says, “was to distribute them among lone soldiers from the ex-Soviet Union who have no families here.” However, when this became known to Jessica Thangjom, a KeepOlim Board Member who is married to Degel Menashe’s projects manager Yitzhak Thangjom, she suggested to LiAmi that some of the vouchers be given to recent B’nei Menashe immigrants.
“I thought of Tiberias,” Jessica told us, “because there’s a group of olim there from Manipur who arrived in 2018, with the latest batch of B’nei Menashe to come to Israel.” She contacted Aharon Chongloi, a B’nei Menashe communal leader in the town. “I told Jessica,” Chongloi related to our Newsletter over the telephone, “that the 2018 group was being looked after by Shavei Israel, which brought them to Tiberias. But there was an older group of B’nei Menashe olim in the city, dating to 2015, that Shavei was no longer taking responsibility for. Nobody was. It numbered 37 families and it, too, was in economically difficult circumstances
because of the corona pandemic. We decided to give the vouchers to it.”
The problem was that KeepOlim had only 25 vouchers left. “We had to make difficult choices,” Chongloi says. “All 37 families were deserving. But some were worse off than others – some had more children, or had wage earners who had lost their jobs – and we picked the 25 neediest. The other families were understanding. We told them ‘Next time!’ and we hope that there will be one.”
There may well be. It’s the kind of thing KeepOlim does. The organization was founded in 2014, when LiAmi Lawrence tried settling in Israel for a second time. In Los Angeles, after a checkered career that included bit parts in Hollywood movies, modeling, working as a personal coach and trainer, and serving as director of media for the city’s Israeli consulate, he was interviewed one day for a new job. “One of the questions the interviewer asked me,” LiAmi said, “was ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ I thought: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to be here. I’d rather be on a beach in Israel.’ Soon afterwards, I made Aliyah again.”
The possibility of moving back to Israel had always been at the back of LiAmi’s mind. Born in Oklahoma, he spent his childhood first in New York City and then in New Jersey and Massachusetts. “I didn’t have much of a formal Jewish education,” he says, “but I did have a bar- mitzvah. My real Jewish education was being beaten up in the high school that I went to for being practically the only Jew. There was even a teacher who refused to let me sit in his class because he said I didn’t believe in Jesus.” At Rider College in New Jersey, from which LiAmi received his B.A., he was president of the local Hillel chapter, which, he says, had the reputation of being under his leadership “the coolest club on campus.” His organizational abilities were apparent even then.
But when LiAmi returned to Israel in 2014, now close to 50, his abilities couldn’t land him a job. “Nobody would hire me,” he recalls. “Soon I was broke. I didn’t have money for food. I would have starved if not for kind neighbors who brought me meals. I didn’t have money to pay the rent. I told my landlord I was going back to America. He said, “No you’re not! This is your home and you’re staying!” Instead of evicting me, he gave me a pass on the rent.” If others could do this for him, LiAmi thought, he could do this for others.
It wasn’t just LiAmi. “I met lots of olim who were in the same situation,” he says. “Some were more desperate than I was. Some had no jobs, some had no friends and no support group, some couldn’t manage to learn Hebrew. I watched them leave the country and go back to where they had come from, one by one. No one was helping them. They had no one to turn to. One day I posted a Facebook blog expressing my anger and frustration at the situation. To my amazement, it received 3,000 responses in three days. Three weeks later, there were 8,500. I had an Israeli friend, Tsvika Graiver, a young lawyer. He said, ‘Let’s start an amuta.’ If no one else was helping, we would.”
That’s what KeepOlim tries to do. Although it operates on a small budget that comes from private contributions, it offers new immigrants a wide range of services, such as free contract reviews for olim buying apartments or entering into other agreements, free or low-cost psychological counseling and therapy, job hunting, and so on, all provided by volunteers who are often professionals in their fields. LiAmi believes that were it not for KeepOlim, many new immigrants would have left Israel long ago.
“Let’s face it,” he says. “No one wants to admit it, but the Aliyah dropout rate is appalling. Although I don’t have exact statistics, and the official figures are much lower, my own estimate is that over fifty percent of the Americans who make Aliyah go back in the end to America and fifty percent of the French to France. A third of the Russians and Ukrainians leave, too. They just can’t manage to make it here. Some literally depart in the middle of the night because they’re embarrassed or ashamed to be leaving and their hearts are broken at have given up a lifelong dream.”
It’s not, LiAmi says, that other countries are easy for immigrants, either. “But other countries,” he goes on, “don’t recruit immigrants. They don’t make them promises and fail to keep them. Olim to Israel are told all the time, ‘Come! Don’t worry! You’ll have work, you’ll have affordable housing, you’ll have everything you need,’ only to find it isn’t true. They feel cheated and doubly disappointed, I don’t try to convince any of them to stay in Israel. But if someone tells me that they want to stay, I do everything I can to help. Tell me you’re leaving for lack of a job, I’ll try to find you a job. Tell me it’s for emotional reasons, I’ll find you counseling. Tell me you’re hungry, I’ll find you food. We’re fighting this battle in the trenches.”
The B’nei Menashe, LiAmi observes, are in a different category, partly because their strong religious faith buoys them up and partly because, coming from a poor and relatively underdeveloped region of the world, they do not have the expectations that Western immigrants do. Nor have they have a Western economy to return to. Almost none have voluntarily left Israel to date.
And yet, LiAmi says, B’nei Menashe who have computers and smartphones know about KeepOlim and many have turned to it over the years. “They may not leave the country but they’re not being prepared to succeed in it, either,” he observes. “They come, and they go through conversion courses and convert, and they’re given Hebrew lessons – so far, so good. But no one is preparing them for the job market in Israel. No one is teaching them a trade or line of work to enable them to get ahead. And they could get ahead. I’ve talked with many of them. They’re smart people. They just need the training they’re not getting. They need to be helped not less but more than other olim.”