Breaking the Language Barrier
How mastering Hebrew helped a newcomer call Israel home
By: Gina Geva
My name is Gina, I’m 39 years old, and in 2005 I made Aliyah on a whim. I had never heard, let alone spoken Hebrew before moving to Israel. The rapid-fire Hebrew conversations going on around me, at the airport, were a culture shock on my first day of arrival as an Israeli citizen. I immediately realized that I would need to learn Hebrew and overcome my language barrier if I wanted the shock to diminish and feel a sense of belonging in Israel. Once I got started and was able to read signs and order from a simple menu, my life significantly improved. There was a glimmer of hope that I might fit in this new land.
Although English is taught in schools throughout Israel, the reality is that the further you travel away from the center of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the less likely you are to find people who understand and/or speak more than just a basic level of broken English. After all, Hebrew is the official language and while most Israelis will be entertained by the novelty of your foreign tongue, don’t expect them to carry on long conversations. I soon found myself apprehensive about communicating with locals and wished that I had gotten an earlier start.
My struggle with Hebrew was amplified when I began house hunting and found an amazing deal for a private residence, which was finally within my budget. Located in the peripheral town of Emek Israel, it is, no doubt, one of the most beautiful places in the country. However, when it came to day-to-day activities such as grocery shopping, asking for directions, and paying bills, communication played a crucial role and my inability to speak Hebrew presented additional challenges. It wasn't enough for me to simply gaze at the beautiful sunsets each evening on my porch, though that was always fun. I soon realized that I needed to learn Hebrew quickly if I wanted to integrate into this beautiful community and finally be able to call Israel home. Once I was able to speak the language, it allowed me to communicate with people more easily and made it less intimidating to make friends and build relationships. It allowed me to navigate my way around the country, read signs and street names, and understand local customs and traditions.
Finding a job in Israel was another hurdle I needed to overcome, as most jobs require a basic knowledge of Hebrew. Even if you manage to find one that doesn't, it is tough to navigate the workplace without knowing the language. Additionally, some job opportunities in Israel are not publicly advertised, and networking plays a crucial role in finding employment. As they say, “It’s not what you know that counts but whom you know.” I realized that without a basic knowledge of Hebrew, I would struggle to build the necessary professional relationships which were crucial to my success in the Israeli job market, especially since I wanted to climb the corporate ladder.
I firmly believe the strongest barrier I managed to break through after learning Hebrew was the cultural barrier. Israeli culture is diverse and rich with a variety of slang terms that one cannot fully appreciate without having some proficiency in the language. Today, I can proudly say that I have overcome these hurdles and cannot stress enough the importance of learning Hebrew, even before making Aliyah. If you plan to live in Israel long or short-term and want to integrate into Israeli society, learning Hebrew is essential. For all of you who are still sitting on the sidelines waiting to get started. I say, "Kadimah (go for it)!" Do yourself a favor and start now!