Israel must be the only country in the world that is today welcoming new immigrants.
By David E. Kaplan, Lay of the Land
In a country where its friendly citizens typically love to kiss and warmly embrace, “social distancing” is now the name of the game.
Schools, universities, kindergartens, movie theaters, restaurants, pubs, gyms, parks, libraries, museums and beaches are now off limits.
“All social interactions,” says the Ministry of Health should be conducted on the phone or by other digital means. Pessimistically paraphrasing the iconic line from the 1970 romantic movie ‘Love Story’, Israel’s Prime Minister appeals: “Love is keeping your distance.”
As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to proliferate, each day brings with it new challenges and restrictions for Israeli society. Where one day the restriction is not to meet anywhere where there are NOT more than 10 people present, the next day it is not to meet at all – unless it’s a dire emergency.
Where one day an instruction is an appeal, the next it is a pre-emptory order.
“This is not a game. It’s a matter of life and death,” asserted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his update on Tuesday.
Immigrants still coming
And yet, there is something quite unique about Israel. Despite the dwindling few still entering the country going straight into a mandatory 14-day quarantine, new immigrants (olim) are still arriving at Ben Gurion Airport with Israel absorbing them like returning family.
In the first half of March 2020, 163 immigrants arrived in the country, according to the Jewish Agency’s statistics.
One of them is Craig Evans from Sasolburg in South Africa who came with his wife Meghan and their 9-year-old-son. An older 14-year-old daughter, Jade, was already in Israel, enrolled at the Mosenson School in Hod Hasharon.
The first Craig and Meghan heard that they would have to go directly from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport into quarantine was when they were standing in the departure queue at the A1 gate at Oliver Tambo International Airport.
“There we were, about to board our El Al flight and we received a phone call from the Israel Centre in Joburg informing us and that there would probably be no one in Israel to officially welcome and process us through immigration. We must make our way alone as best we could and then head straight to our apartment and wait for someone to contact us!”
Like the intrepid MI6 agent of “Shaken, but not stirred’ fame, Craig told Lay Of The Land “Yes, obviously we were concerned but there was no turning back. Our minds and our destination were determined. We were going to Israel, and contrary to the warning, we received 5-star treatment.
“They literally welcomed us from the moment we got off the plane in Israel. We were met by the representative from Telfed and the Jewish Agency who stood there holding aloft a sign with our names on and who then guided us through the process of receiving all our necessary documentation – most importantly for Kupat Holim (health care provider).
“We were out of the airport in 30 minutes; and then the rep organized a huge transport vehicle for all our masses of baggage and in less than one hour, we were in our apartment in Netanya.”
So how did it feel for this online marketing man and dance teacher wife to be alone in quarantine in a new country?
“Who’s alone? We have an incredible circle of friends all over the country as well as new friends. Within 40 minutes of arrival, there was a knock on the door from the local South African community to welcome us and bring food. We have been inundated with people contacting us, even if only over the phone or through the narrow gap of the front door.”
Seeing “a silver lining” in the situation, “if it was not for the quarantine, we would never have met so many new people. This would never happen anywhere else in the world.”
Immigration to Israel is a complex process and during a global health crisis even more so. “We are advising people to postpone their immigration, but it’s not so easy,” explains the South African immigrant organization Telfed’s CEO, Dorron Kline.
“People have sold their homes and cars and even so, people want to come and are determined to brave these challenging times. Whatever they decide, Telfed will be there for them,” asserts Dorron.
“Telfed was born in challenging times when it was established in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence and we are at war now against an unseen enemy and we are all ready to meet this challenge.”
Such determination is evident with a young man immigrating next month from South Africa who will be going straight into the IDF.
“Not only is he still determined to enlist during these trying times,” says Dorron, “but he wants to come earlier to Israel to enable him to complete his 14-day quarantine period before his call-up date.”
Only the day before, “We had a 19-year-old young woman from Australia who just made Aliyah, so yes, despite the situation, people are still coming.”
Even with the enormous pressures on Telfed’s staff who are alternating between working from home and the head office in Ra’anana, “we are calling all immigrants who arrived in the last six months from South Africa and Australia to find out how they are coping and if their need any assistance.
“We have also created a special coronavirus platform on our Telfed website where people can online ask for any assistance and others in the community can volunteer to help them. We are connecting those in need with those who can help.”
An example of how successfully the project works, Dorron cites “a new South African immigrant who was in quarantine and who ran out of her medicine. She posted this on the Telfed website and in a few minutes, someone responded and offered to go the pharmacy and bring her the medicine.”
Remotely processing new arrivals
Yael Katsman, Vice President of Public Relations and Communication at Nefesh B’Nefesh – which supports Aliyah from North America and the UK – told The Jerusalem Post earlier in the week that in spite of the coronavirus crisis and despite the restrictive conditions, “Aliyah is continuing. We have a group of 24 olim arriving Thursday who are going to be remotely processed, which is a first.”
The composition of the group are of diverse backgrounds and ages – families, retires and singles and that only a few of the elderly had decided to postpone. And as to the immediate future, Katsman says that in the period leading up to Passover in April, “We are expecting about 60 to 70 olim. At the moment, a very positive indicator is that people who had planned to come are still coming regardless of this new reality.”
One recent arrival is David Bassous who made aliyah over a week ago from Highland Park, N.J. “I didn’t realize how hard quarantine would be,” he admits. “The hardest part being unable to go outside or see the kids and grandchildren.”
However, he figured that Israel “is one of the safest places to be right now because of its proactive policy — one of the strictest in the world.” Nevertheless “I was still shocked when I landed and witnessed Ben-Gurion Airport deserted.”
Still, says Bassous, he’s “so happy to be home after a 2,500-year exile.”
There are a lot of Jews around the world – coronavirus or not – who share his enthusiasm. They can live for a while being two meters apart from the next person, but not being apart from their ancestral homeland.