Feeling at home in Israel is easy at AACI’s Jerusalem branch
August 7, 2012 | Atara Beck - Israel Correspondent
At the Jerusalem branch of AACI (from the left): Rafi Poch, program co-ordinator; Carole Kremer, director of operations and communications; Josie Arbel, director of absorption services, and Executive Director David London. (Photo Atara Beck)
JERUSALEM – Visiting the new and spacious premises of the Jerusalem branch of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), a Torontonian would immediately feel at home even before entering.
Above the front door, in bold letters, the name of the branch: Dr. Max & Gianna Glassman Family Center.
The Glassmans are Toronto-based philanthropists who spend several months a year in Israel and have donated generously to many Jewish and non-Jewish causes. Among other community activities, Dr. Glassman is vice-president of B’nai Brith Canada and benefactor to its Senior Outreach Centre.
AACI is the main organization here for English-speaking immigrants. In recent years, its membership has expanded to include not only North Americans, but also olim from South Africa, India, the UK and other Anglophone communities.
Established 61 years ago, AACI is one of Israel’s oldest institutions. It “started as a grassroots organization of people sharing what they know from their own professions and experience,” explained Josie Arbel, director of absorption services, who also hails from Toronto. “Many people came with questions such as how to get a nursing license renewed. They shared what they knew and AACI developed over the years into a service organization that helps with aliyah and klita (absorption). We are also a community centre for English speakers.”
“We deliver in a very personal way,” she continued. “We don’t just refer people to websites. Our strength is [that] it’s very customized and one-on-one, individualized. There’s a daily hotline, so you know you could reach a person. Our strength is the personal – accurate information and good advice.
“There’s so much basic information online now. It’s good to double-check, because you could get the wrong information,” she advised. “Our business is to keep on top of all the information and the changes in regulations and rules.”
The staff provides “encouragement” as well. “When people are challenged by the new culture, it could be overwhelming,” she said. “We deal with everything and anything.
“For many years, AACI administered mortgages to people who otherwise couldn’t get into the market for a first home with funds dedicated by UIA Canada,” Arbel said. “Over the years, as the system in Israel changed radically, changes had to be made [here]. Three years ago the funds were repurposed for the AACI-UIA Scholarship Fund for Canadian-Israeli students.”
According to David London, AACI executive director, “we have a holistic approach to counseling, not a one-line email answer. It’s sitting down with them, talking to them.”
London, an outgoing Florida native, showed the Jewish Tribune around the centre, pointing to the new multi-purpose room, which hosts cultural and educational programs and events and includes state-or-the-art, environment-friendly equipment.
Several Ulpan classes take place daily, where audio-visual equipment and a more intimate setting make the experience unique among other Hebrew-language courses, London said.
Lectures serving a religiously diverse membership range from topics such as Know Your Rights to the weekly Torah portion.
In recent years, AACI has partnered with other groups. For instance, the Jerusalem branch has a permanent lending library in partnership with AMIT, an organization that focuses on helping youth reach their potential.
Also on the premises is an AACI library for the visually impaired and homebound with prepaid delivery. Volunteers call the members regularly.
Jerusalem Program Co-ordinator Rafi Poch – yet another Torontonian – runs the new AACI J-Town playhouse.
“We try to tackle the idea of a cultural centre in a number of ways,” he said. “As opposed to just having events for people to attend, we also host classes and workshops to help people create their own productions.”
The variety of activities includes an annual musical geared specifically to teens and young adults and holiday-themed programs in recognition of Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July and Canada Day, “making people feel at home, celebrating the culture they came from even though they live here,” Poch said.
Another interesting initiative is AACI’s collaboration with the Jerusalem Post, organizing a series of English-language debates in different cities before Israeli elections with representatives from different parties. Recently, they organized, together with ivoteIsrael, American-election debates highlighting the positions of the Republicans and Democrats.
Kosher, friendly, English-speaking travel with AACI, both within and outside of the country, has also become popular.
Other AACI branches are in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Haifa and Be’er Sheva, although Jerusalem’s is the largest.