‘handball in the Desert’: Olim Bring Dreams, Skills from France

After taking the women’s handball team in the multi-ethnic Parisian suburb of Bondy to the top, Lionel Levi had only one way to go — straight down. His success as a coach and sports association official was chronicled in the French press and in an article in Newsweek. But that aroused the jealousy of local Socialist Party officials, including the mayor of Bondy, who fired Levi.

Now, as Levi, 47, sat at a beachfront café in Netanya with his wife Annie, 39, and a small group of recent French immigrants to Israel, he said he won’t live in France again.

Unlike most olim, or immigrants, Levy came to Israel with a specific project in mind: He wanted to establish a girl’s handball association.

“This is my passion,” he said.

“Sports for young people is a luxury in Israel,” he said, but he thinks Israelis could benefit from it. Sports “can teach them respect, discipline and tolerance.”

The Levis and their two daughters made aliyah last July as part of a group organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel. All moved to Netanya, which is a center for French-speaking olim. An Absorption Ministry employee is assigned to help ease their transition to life in Israel.

“Having the group we made aliyah with as friends has been important, because even though we were happy to leave, it still was not so easy,” Annie Levi said.

“Here we all face the same major problems, learning the language and finding work,” she said. “Only our six-year-old learned quickly. In six months, she was speaking fluent Hebrew.”

The little girl laughed and said in French, “Me, I speak Hebrew better than you all.”

“She is our translator,” Annie Levi said. “In France, we all felt Jewish. Here, we all feel very French.”

The new immigrants study Hebrew in an Ulpan program, most of which is paid for by JAFI.

The Levis live in a 1,440-square-foot apartment in a new seven-story building; the agency pays 40 percent of their $800-a-month rent. The apartment’s large balconies offer views of the Mediterranean, and high-rises are under construction in every direction.

The Levis have been surprised by the pace of Israeli life.

Israelis “live for today like there’s no tomorrow,” Annie Levi said. “At first it was very tough to let our 13-year-old daughter hang out with her friends in the kikar,” the central square, “but young people do that here. It’s not dangerous, and their parents trust them. In Bondy, only the kids going bad hang out like that.”

Professionally, Lionel Levi has been happy with the speed at which decisions are made. He presented his project and met with many local officials.

Still, “there were moments of doubt,” he said. “Not doubts like ‘What am I doing here?’ but more like ‘Can I make this work?’ After all, handball is unknown here. But at the agency in Paris they told me, ‘Go for it, don’t give up. We’re backing you.’ You’ve got to believe.”

Levi’s one temporary contract with a local sports association ended, and he couldn’t interest anyone in handball. The Absorption Ministry suggested that he focus on activities for new immigrants, but Levi was interested only in handball.

Then the ministry offered him a full-time job establishing a women’s handball association, to be based in Netanya and cover the country. Eventually, it could be a model for a countrywide league.

At the café, as the wind whipped sand around speakers blasting techno music onto the beach, Levy thought about his experiences as an immigrant.

“When you keep the faith, things do happen,” he said. “The agency kept pushing me, and I didn’t give up. In Paris, the agency had been pushing me to go look at the Negev area. After we get things going here, I could do that. We could play handball in the desert.”

Though most French olim have not been as lucky as the Levis, they still hope for a big break.

Daniel Mayal, 35, was an accountant in Joinville le Pont, a quiet suburb of Paris, but hasn’t yet found work in Netanya, where he lives with his wife and two children.

“I am optimistic, baruch haShem,” he said. “I had a good life in France, but I wanted a life based on the rhythm of my religion. For example, Pesach in Israel is like Christmas in France. Offices are closed. It feels like a holiday. The seder is real. We are here.”

Mayal said absorption officials were proposing training programs to help immigrants from France find work.

“I am practical and humble,” he said. “I have no dreams of glory here, but I trust the Israelis. And as an accountant, I can say we are living within our budget.”

Other French immigrants have made what is called chetzi-chetzi — or half and half — aliyah.

Olivier and Elise Mouret and their three children left a village near Paris for Netanya. While Elise Mouret goes to Hebrew classes and the children are in school, her husband still works 15 days a month as an industrial mechanic in France.

“We lived well in France,” Olivier Mouret said. “It’s a wonderful country, but our children have no future there. We believe that immigration from North Africa is making the country poorer. It is a difficult subject. Of course, there are good North Africans, but there are too many examples of very bad situations that the French don’t know how to deal with, so they ignore them. For myself, I cannot give up my job. It’s the only one I have.”

The Mourets’ children go to public religious schools in Israel, and Elise Mouret is looking for work as a medical secretary.

“I can’t work yet because I don’t speak the language well enough,” she said. “The agency added extra hours for classes, and it’s a good thing. The more the better. We need it.”

One of the friends brings up the idea of using handball to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Why not propose a project to the Peres Center for Peace? They could get Arab and Jewish youth on the court together to learn about respect and tolerance.

Lionel Levi looked around at his friends on the beach.

“I never thought of that,” he said, “but why not? I told you, I feel something big is going to happen. Go back to live in France? No way.”

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