Coronavirus: Aliyah on hold for Americans due to airport shutdown

Nefesh B'Nefesh: Despite the hardships it's brought, the decision is understandable.

Ariela Yomtovian and her family, waiting to move to Israel. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ariela Yomtovian and her family, waiting to move to Israel.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – The closing of Ben-Gurion Airport has left the roughly 150 Americans who planned to make Israel their home this month feeling frustrated and in some cases even homeless.
“We scheduled our aliyah date to coincide with the end of our lease,” said Ariela Yomtovian, who spoke to The Jerusalem Post, as movers were packing up her Berkley, California, house. Yomtovian, 31, planned to take a January 27 flight to Israel with her husband, Aryeh Canter, 30, and their 17-month-old daughter. “Now we need to figure out where to live until we can come to Israel.”
“It was right after Shabbat. I was giving our daughter a bath and Aryeh came up to me and says, ‘You’re never going to guess what happened.’ And I couldn’t believe it,” Yomtovian recalled. “We were literally supposed to get on the plane on Wednesday. We had our sublet ready in Jerusalem. I had organized all of our meals for the post-flight quarantine.”
Yomtovian said her family tried to calculate each move in their aliyah process, but no foresight could have predicted the drastic airport closure. Her first reaction to the news was “a state of shock.”  
“We tried to do everything responsibly,” she said. “We waited until my husband had a job secured, which is hard to do from America. We’ve overcome so many obstacles in this process. We really played our cards right. And then this came up. It’s just another crazy part of the story.”
Yomtovian compared her struggle to the current Torah portion – the Jewish exodus from Egypt.  
“That’s what this feels like. We want to leave and we can’t,” she said. “But hopefully for us it won’t take 40 years.”
“Our life is just balagan right now,” Canter added, using the Hebrew word for chaos. “I understand that there’s a pandemic, but they should make an exception for olim [immigrants]. I’m going to be homeless. My family doesn’t have health insurance. Have a little compassion, let the olim fly in.”  
Despite the hardships it’s brought, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that facilitates aliyah to Israel, said the decision is understandable.
“We obviously are pained by the sudden freeze in aliyah flights with the closing of Ben-Gurion Airport, but understand the necessity of this action in light of the increased spread of new strains of COVID-19. We hope and pray that these actions will be effective and that the incoming flights will resume shortly,” Fass said.
Others disagree entirely with the closure. Andrew Liebman, a 26-year-old living in New York City, was scheduled to make aliyah on January 26. He’s rebooked on a February 3 flight. Like Yomtovian and Canter, Liebman is unsure of where he’ll live as he awaits the rescheduled flight.  
“In terms of effectiveness, the decision seems really silly,” he said. “People who are flying into Israel are not staying in their quarantines. They’re breaking the law and spreading the virus. I don’t understand how a week or two of not flying into the airport is addressing the actual issue. Theoretically, if you allow people to fly into the airport but enforce quarantine, then the virus won’t spread.”
Liebman, who plans to live in Tel Aviv, said he learned about the shut down from an Instagram post a friend sent him.
“I was surprised,” he said. “For the entire pandemic, Israel has taken serious measures to prevent the spread of the virus, but has not shut down the airport. Then the day they decide to do it is days before my flight.”
Liebman is a freelance filmmaker planning to create a documentary on his aliyah experience. “This will definitely be documented as part of the logistical process,” he said. “I plan to capture it all.”