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The emotional cost of aliya

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With the myriad of practicalities that need to be addressed in the process of making aliya, many often neglect the psychological impact of such a life-changing move. Yet, says counselling psychologist Dr Sarah Berman, dealing with both the practical and emotional impact of moving to Israel is vital to making sure that you thrive in your new reality.

“How we’re feeling emotionally is going to influence our ability to engage with the practical aspects of aliya, and all the practical steps have an impact on our ability to process what’s going on emotionally,” says Berman.

Berman, who herself made aliya from South Africa with her husband and small children two years ago, discussed the psychology of aliya in a webinar hosted by The Israel Centre this week.

“Each phase of aliya had its own process of adjustment, and I had so many questions during each step not just about the practicalities but also about how to process everything because there was just so much happening,” she says.

Before uprooting ourselves and our families, we need to think about what it really means to emigrate – and what goes through our minds when we do so. We must approach making aliya in a conscious and intentional way, says Berman. Though some of us may view change with excitement, others may find it terrifying or feel differently about the move at different periods.

“Aliya or emigration is different to any other major life event because when we experience other stressful events in our lives, it’s usually only one thing that’s changing. If we’re struggling with our job, for example, other areas are generally holding steady, whereas with aliya, you’re lifting yourself up, sending yourself across the world, and plonking yourself down in a completely new place.”

Everything from your job to your house to your community is new and different, and this can result in sensory overload. “So many different areas of your life are changing at the same time, which can make it hard to process and catch your breath,” Berman says. “Even something as simple as buying milk can be a minefield when you’re in an unfamiliar country that speaks a different language. Give yourself time for the unfamiliar to become familiar.”

Culture shock is a common challenge for new olim. “Things you take for granted, the jokes we tell, and slang we use as South Africans, may be misunderstood in a different context,” says Berman. “This can feel a bit jarring, as that’s when you really realise that you’re not in the place that’s always been your home.”

Where we live before emigrating influences our identity. “When making aliya, you need to think about the identity shifts that take place because when you land in Israel, it’s about thinking not only about how you saw yourself in South Africa, but how are you going to be in Israel,” says Berman. “While you’re still the same person, your sense of identity may shift a little.”

How Israeli you want to become is a personal choice and one you need to make room for. This will also have an impact on which community you choose to go into – whether it be a predominantly South African neighbourhood, or a place Israeli citizens call home. You need to consider what will make the move as smooth as possible and give you the outcome you seek.

“Ask what support you needed to navigate change in the past,” Berman advises, “and what structures you might need to put in place now that you’re making aliya.”

When faced with a big life change, it can be easy to fall back on certain defence or coping mechanisms. While these may help us navigate the adjustment, we need to be careful of relying on them too much and ignoring feelings that must be addressed, she says.

Often when we emigrate, we tend to think in extremes, making the country we’re leaving all bad and the place that we’re going to all good. Yet, the reality is more nuanced than that. “We need to work to view both places in terms of their good and bad aspects,” Berman says. “This will help us have more realistic expectations when we get to Israel and properly say goodbye to what we loved about South Africa.”

The emotions you confront are also particular to the life stage you’re in and whether you’re moving alone and with family. Whatever your situation, make space for your feelings and those of others and realise that in a family setting, you may be at different places.

Berman suggests making a list of the reasons for your move, including both push and pull factors. That way, you’ll have something in black and white that you can turn to when navigating choppy waters.

She also advises doing as much research as possible before making the move, and organising practical elements like where you’ll stay when you arrive, and where your kids will go to school. “Make it visual for kids, so they know where they’re going, get people to take photos of shops, parks, even their school, so it starts to become tangible, especially for kids who struggle with abstract concepts.” Make sure you give your kids as much time as possible before the move to handle the range of feelings that come up as the move approaches, she says. Also plan how you’ll all say goodbye to the people and places that you love in South Africa.

“Aliya challenges our sense of stability and predictability, and our core feelings about separation and making our way in the world,” Berman says. “That’s why we need to confront our feelings and find the tools to help make the move as successful as possible, whether it be through connecting with people in the same boat, checking in with trusted friends, or even consulting a therapist.”

As long as you prioritise self-care and embrace your new reality, Israel will soon feel like home.

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