Now that we’ve been living on our own for a while (two months), many people who meet us are asking the same question: was it a good idea to start out our lives in Israel living in a Merkaz Klitah? Was it good for our family?
First, some basic terminology. A Merkaz Klitah is literally an “absorption centre,” essentially a building run by the Jewish Agency with apartments that are subsidized well below market rates for new olim.
Who can stay in a MK?
The Jewish Agency has certain criteria that determine whether you stay in a MK: I think at least one spouse has to be Jewish, and in general, you must be under 50 at the time of your arrival (beat that bullet by less than 3 weeks, as Akiva had his 50th birthday our third week in Israel). Nobody mentioned that criterion to us, so it may not apply to all of them.
Staying in a MK does NOT depend on your pre-aliyah income, as far as I know, or on how much money you have to spend. However, different merkazei klitah (the plural) have different rules governing how long you’ll be allowed to spend there, and that may also vary by circumstances.
So the first step, if you want to stay in a Merkaz Klitah, is to get friendly with your aliyah shaliach. Because they’re run by the Jewish Agency, they have nothing to do with Nefesh b’Nefesh; in fact, we got the impression that NbN was actually slightly trying to discourage us from our plan to go straight into a MK.
(I’m not sure if this is true or not – it was just an impression!)
We mentioned that we wanted an MK and that we had seen the one in Raanana on our pilot trip. We were very impressed by the multinational makeup of the one we saw in Raanana – but as it turned out, most of the centres in the north are not like that. Up here, they are mainly Russian, with some other eastern Europeans thrown in for good measure.
Thinking about this retroactively, I believe it’s important to ask, if you’re looking at staying in any Merkaz Klitah, is “who else is going to be living there?”
Not out of any reasons of racism, but to make sure you go in with reasonable expectations about the types of bonds you’ll be able to form with your fellow olim living there.
Friendships for life?
Some people have the idea that you will be all buddy-buddy with the other olim in the MK. I’ve even read this – people forge lifelong friendships in a Merkaz Klitah that they carry with them for the rest of their lives in Israel.
Based on our experience, I’d say it really depends. If you happen to find a bunch of likeminded Anglo olim, maybe. Or if you are a gifted social person who can transcend language barriers, again, maybe.
For us, it was very difficult, though we did make some Spanish-speaking friends from Mexico, which was nice. But it’s still awkward having them for meals.
I’ll sum up the rest of my thoughts into Pros and Cons, keeping in mind that this is how these things worked out for OUR family. Your family’s (or your own, if you’re single) experiences could be very, very different.
- Simple arrival: hop in your free sherut from the airport and your apartment will be set up for you when you arrive.
- No complicated paperwork: you don’t need a bank account, cheques, or even a teudat zehut to move in (yay!). (It took us over two weeks to get teudot zehut, during which time we couldn’t open a bank account or order cheques; renting an apartment would have been difficult, if not impossible.)
- No buying appliances: rental apartments here generally don’t come with appliances. The MK included a fridge, 2-burner stove and a kettle – enough to get us started.
- Utilities – from Day One. We had gas, water, electricity and everything, all turned on from Day One. I cannot tell you how nice that was, having wrangled with those utilities a bit now on our own.
- Assistance if needed: we had a “klitah counsellor,” Valentina, who spoke English, Russian and Hebrew, who guided us through opening bank accounts, setting up our kupat cholim (health clinic), and the kids’ school registrations.
- Short commute to ulpan: most of the time, the local ulpan is right in the Merkaz Klitah. If you don’t need ulpan, or want a specialized or advanced non-local ulpan, this would be less of a benefit.
- Services for kids: depending on the demographics of your MK, they may provide services like homework help for children.
- Social life: besides meeting other olim in the hallways, many MKs offer seasonal social events, like Chanukah parties and celebrations for other chagim.
- The feeling of being “institutionalized.” You don’t feel independent – because you’re not. This can be good (someone comes and changes the lightbulbs when they get stuck), or bad (four washing machines for several hundred people).
- Delaying the inevitable. Sooner or later, you will have to move out and get an apartment. Hopefully, your MK stay delays it long enough that you have more Hebrew when that time comes.
- Not breaking the ice. There were two categories of other olim in the MK we stayed in: black and white. Sorry, but it’s true. The Ethiopian community were longterm residents – most had been there a few years or more. They are also a very close-knit community; it was hard to tell where families began and ended (and perhaps irrelevant). Since they had their whole social life there around them, they really don’t have much to do with the “levanim” (white people) who come through on a short-term basis. As for the others – apart from some other Canadians, I think the gap, religiously, language-wise, and in other ways, was just too broad for us to even think about crossing. And since we were all moving on in a fairly short time – I think everybody also figures why bother.
- Having to move again. Five or six months is about the longest any MK will let you stay… and that’s just about the same amount of time it takes to get yourself and your kids settled comfortably. If you hate moving, think a few times about whether you want to incur a second move within your first year here.
- Bringing your lift? If you arrange for your lift to come to the MK, you will have to pay to move it all again to your “final” home. We decided not to – so we stored our possessions for a few months back in Toronto, then had them shipped in time to arrive around when we estimated we’d be moving into an apartment. For us, this worked out perfectly, but think about whether you prefer to pay twice or do without your STUFF for what can be a very long time.
- Neighbourhood. If you choose a Merkaz Klitah, you won’t necessarily have a ton of choice about what kind of neighbourhood you’ll be living in. We were hoping to live somewhere we could fit in religiously – sadly, there isn’t a big religious community in Kiryat Yam, so we had a bit of a longer walk to shul than usual for a few months. You may not have much choice even about what city you move to, depending on availability.
Are you thinking about a Merkaz Klitah? Did you stay in one and have something you’d like to add? Share your thoughts and experiences to make this post as helpful as possible to others!