My daughter is a new immigrant to Israel. The state has failed to support her during the pandemic
The past two years have been utterly exhausting. Between working from home, supervising children doing Zoom school, sitting through quarantines and more, COVID-19 has unquestionably upended our daily routines. And as the parent of a daughter who immigrated to Israel while the rest of her family remained in the United States, I had to contend with an additional level of pandemic-related stress.
When our daughter made aliyah several years ago, she plunged into the complexities of becoming a citizen and moving to a foreign country with exuberance. As she began her life in Israel, she successfully navigated the bureaucracy on her own, despite being a teenager at the time and facing endless red tape. As parents, knowing that we could visit her regularly — and that she was able to periodically come back to the United States — helped make her move to Israel more bearable.
And then suddenly the rules changed. As an olah (female immigrant to Israel) in her early twenties living by herself nearly 6,000 miles away from her family, our daughter was particularly susceptible to the trauma created by the COVID-19 lockdowns, with zero institutional support from the Israeli government.
The seclusion, without the benefit of having any family nearby, was awful. She had to endure a horrific experience in a government-mandated “quarantine hotel,” where she was confined to a tiny room for two long weeks by herself upon returning to Israel in April 2020 after spending Passover with us in the United States. During intermittent lockdowns, she was completely alone, forced to observe Shabbat and Jewish holidays in total seclusion because she was unable to travel to other people’s homes, nor was she able to host friends as she ordinarily would during those celebratory times.
We entrusted our daughter to the State of Israel. While our beloved Jewish homeland welcomed her with open arms, she was ultimately left alone in her time of need. I certainly understand that Israel’s need to mitigate the virus is imperative, but I believe the unique needs of olim, those who immigrate to Israel, cannot be summarily ignored in the process.
Having to contend with the challenges posed by COVID-19, which included periods of isolation and the ever-changing regulations, on her own, without the benefit of having family nearby and without a support system in place was a trying experience for our daughter. While the rest of our family leaned on one another to get through the pandemic, our daughter in Israel had no one nearby to turn to. She was alone, far away from her family, without the benefit of a social safety net to help her during the pandemic.
When our daughter needed us most, we felt virtually helpless. In 2020, it took several stressful weeks, jumping through multiple hoops and enlisting the help of former Knesset member Dov Lipman for me to obtain permission to visit her. I was eagerly looking forward to a visit with my daughter at the end of Dec. 2021 and was devastated when the borders were closed yet again on Nov. 28, which precluded me from seeing her. But the Israeli Health Ministry reversed course yet again, announcing on Jan. 6 that all travel restrictions on all countries will be lifted at midnight. While I am delighted to hear this news, I believe the whiplash decision-making and the logistical and emotional challenges that come with it could have been avoided for the families of olim.
The extraordinary efforts of Dov Lipman and his organization, Yad L’Olim, which helps olim navigate Israel’s bureaucracy, and other organizations like Amudim, which assists individuals in crisis, helped countless people who felt helpless and hopeless. However, it should not have had to come to that. The voices of olim must be heard amid the COVID-19 regulations, and Jews in the Diaspora who have family members in Israel should not be shut out.
The global Jewish community’s support is paramount to Israel’s survival as a Jewish state. But Israel has work to do to repair its relationship with American Jewry after essentially telling it that it is not welcome in Israel for the time being. Although Israel encourages people to make aliyah and celebrates their arrival with great fanfare, the travel restrictions send a troubling message to olim that addressing their unique needs are not a primary concern for the Israeli government.
Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former member of Knesset and candidate for Chairperson of the Jewish Agency, has been outspoken about the need for olim to be taken more seriously by the government as a critical constituency group that must be heard on important matters.
“I believe that in a 73-years young country of olim, that values and celebrates aliyah — a realization of its vision, mission and values — this must be prioritized and reflected in considerations, factored in as part of decision-making processes, in advance, not in retrospect and in general, not in individual, reactive ‘exceptional’ cases,” Cotler-Wunsh told me when I spoke to her for this piece, noting that a paradigm shift is required. “Nearly two years of COVID-19 challenges underscore the need for the creation of a separate category, with clear and transparent policies and consistent implementation. Families of olim are not just ‘tourists’ or ‘exceptions,’ they are the rule.”
We recently learned that aliyah to Israel increased by 30% in 2021, which includes 4,000 new American olim. While I hope those numbers continue to rise in future years, I believe that now is the time for Israel to reassess its overall approach to how it addresses the needs of olim and their families.
To contact the author, email [email protected].