Hundreds of Israelis have been moving to Canada since Oct. 7—and a Hebrew website has been here to help

When Michal Harel and her family moved to Canada from Israel in April of 2019, they had a hard time getting settled. Between learning English, finding a home, acquiring work permits, and of course navigating the more restrained social norms in Canada, Harel and her husband, Avital Epstein, struggled to get their new life in order.

But eventually, they started to find a rhythm in their new home.

In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Harel began receiving calls and messages from family and friends who were curious about making a similar move. They asked about all of the things that her family had struggled with. And as she and her husband fielded those requests, more Israelis sought out their advice.

“It was really hard to talk to all of them because the stories are just so terrible. They were talking to me about their friends, their families, what happened to them on Oct. 7, and it was really hard. So after, I think it was a week of talking to so many people, I told my husband, can you please help me and build a website so we can just write all the information, put it on the website, and then I can just send these links to people and it will help them,” Harel said.

Epstein made that website, and they called it Ovrim to Canada, which means moving in Hebrew. The website quickly became a hit in Israel. It was shared on WhatsApp groups and made national news.

The website got over 200,000 visitors shortly after it launched. As more Israelis come to Canada, Harel is hoping the Canadian Jewish community will take notice of her initiative and offer their help in settling all the Israeli newcomers.

The website features contacts, services and advice that the Harels wish they had when they first arrived in the country. It lists professionals like immigration consultants and realtors that the couple can vouch for. It dispenses advice on little areas of societal difference that people don’t think of right away—like how to make a Canadian CV—obtain a driver’s license or navigate the banking system. 

Ovrim to Canada was also how many Israelis first learned about the temporary measures for Israeli nationals and Palestinian passport holders, which allows people affected by the conflict to come to Canada and request a three-year work visa. The program, which was originally set to expire June 12, was recently extended until July 31, 2025.

In part because of the program, hundreds of Israelis have come to stay long-term in Canada since Oct. 7, the largest wave of Israelis in recent memory, Jewish Immigrant Aid Services Toronto (JIAS), an organization that helps newcomers settle in Canada reports. The agency says they have already helped 785 Israelis settle since the war began. If the pace of almost 100 Israeli clients a month holds steady, they could help settle a further 1,000 Israeli clients before the program ends next year (although that number is a rough estimate).

R, who did not wish to use his full name until his work permit is confirmed, is a 26-year-old recent immigrant to Canada who found out about the visa program from Ovrim. After Oct. 7 he decided to leave Israel and came to Canada in March. R also used the website’s list of professionals to find an immigration consultant and real estate agent, and is very grateful for their assistance.

“They’ve been helping me a lot… the site itself, I could not recommend enough. There are plenty of sources. There’s plenty of alternatives to Ovrim if you ever would need them. But the way Ovrim does it–it’s all for free just to help people move–is what really bought me. There’s people that would either try to get something out of you or get you to pay. Ovrim just does it for the sake of doing it,” he said.

He has known that he wanted to move away from Israel his whole life. He grew up in the south of the country, within 70 kilometres of Gaza, and has long been tired of the constant rocket fire and warfare that defined his life. He has been set on Canada as his destination since 2016. Unlike the news that comes back to Israel from other expat communities, including in the United States and Europe, R says there are “no negative stereotypes about the Canadian ones.”

“The way we usually view people in Canada is we see them as these long- distance cousins that really like to support us. We see them as the kind people who have moved to a country that obviously has a much higher standard of living than Israel. That I can attest to personally: since moving here, my quality of life has significantly improved. And I’m still very much in the stage of settling in compared to where I was,” he said. “We notice [the Israelis who move to Canada] don’t come back.”

One of the main differences that R mentioned between Canada and other places is that it is much more welcoming to immigrants. Although he understands his personal experiences in Toronto are not representative of the entire country, or even the entire city necessarily, he feels much more comfortable expressing his Israeli identity here than when he has traveled to Europe in the past, where he would not feel comfortable speaking Hebrew in public.

“Despite the current state that we’re in, where obviously, world news has set its eyes on the Middle East for the time being, I’m still able to walk around and tell people where I’m from. I’m still able to say, ‘yeah, I came here from Israel,’ and I don’t get, like, mean stares. I don’t get hate,” he said. “Even if I speak Hebrew on the streets, I feel safe.”

Ran and Ilana Zehavi, an Israeli couple who moved to Canada with their one-year-old daughter in November, have also been eyeing Canada for years. Like R., the Zehavis lived in the south of Israel and were inundated with constant rocket fire and war. Although Ran had never paid much attention to politics, he and Ilana felt like the country was going in a “bad direction” with the political division of the last few years. And then Oct. 7 happened.

Ran’s sister lives in Toronto, which helped influence their decision. But they also like Canada because it is welcoming to all people, unlike Israel.

Ilana and Ran Zehavi and their daughter, Israelis who recently moved to Canada. (Supplied photo)

“Canada accepts all the people. You know, you don’t have to be Jewish. You don’t have to be nothing. Just be a person, a good person and come to work and that’s it. That’s enough. That’s different from Israel. In Israel, you have to be Jewish to get an ID. We don’t like this idea,” Ran said.

As for why they prefer Canada to the United States, “it feels like it’s okay to be an immigrant here in Canada. They accept, they hug you if you’re an immigrant. They give you a space to start your life,” Ilana said.

Ran says their experience since moving to Canada has been “wonderful.” He even enjoyed his first winter, although he knows it wasn’t a particularly cold one. He is working at the JCC as a music teacher and his wife is still working remotely for an office based in Israel.

They already feel at home in their neighbourhood, and have made many close friends. They also received help from JIAS, including through gift cards, books and informational Zoom meetings about making the transition from Israel to Canada.

The couple actually planned to move to Canada in 2020, but COVID derailed those plans. So they stayed in Israel for a few more years, and when their daughter was newly born the timing didn’t seem quite right. But after Oct. 7, a day on which many of their friends and co-workers were killed, they didn’t want to wait any longer.

“Then the war started. And it’s not the war. People came to our homes, destroyed our lives, killed our loved ones. It was like someone stopped your heart,” Ilana said. “It was an opportunity for us because we were planning on moving to Canada. Try something else, not settle [with] what life gave you… And when the war started, we understood now it’s our chance, because we will have to rebuild our lives anyway.”

The Zehavis are not alone in wanting to rebuild their lives here. Initiatives like Ovrim to Canada and organizations like JIAS Toronto are working hard to meet the needs of newcomers.

“We’ve seen this wave between the Ukraine crisis and then the post-Oct. 7th Israel crisis. We really haven’t seen a wave of Jewish immigrants all come in the span of a few months. It was much more sort of like a steady trickle,” said Naomi Kramer, program manager and volunteer manager for JIAS Toronto.

“It’s overwhelming as an agency to deal with a wave of people all coming at once. And people coming post a traumatic event, right? They’re nervous, they might have different expectations of what life is like in Canada or how easy it will be to settle here. So it can be really challenging to support newcomers in that transition.”

For that reason, both Ovrim to Canada and JIAS Toronto are asking members of local Jewish communities to play a part in helping Israeli newcomers get settled in. There is a contact section on the Ovrim to Canada website for those who want to get in touch. They can also reach out to JIAS or other Jewish social services agencies, or through more informal means like Facebook and WhatsApp groups. There are also opportunities to volunteer and make donations.

Or, as Kramer says, those who want to help can take a chance on someone new.

“Give newcomers opportunities if you have rental units, if you’re hiring for positions. Newcomers don’t have local landlord references. They don’t have a guarantor for an apartment. Take a risk and rent an apartment to a newcomer.”

“If you run a company and you’re hiring people, take a chance on a newcomer who doesn’t have local references, doesn’t have Canadian work experience but has skills and abilities and drive.

“Give newcomers a chance because it usually pays off.”