Help! How can I get to Israel for my child's wedding amid COVID-19?

Yad L'Olim, a non-profit organization started by former MK Dov Lipman, helps immigrants navigate government bureaucracy – like flying to Israel in the middle of a pandemic.

 Former MK Dov Lipman answers messages for help on his ever-present iPhone before appearing at a Knesset hearing.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former MK Dov Lipman answers messages for help on his ever-present iPhone before appearing at a Knesset hearing.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The messages flood Dov Lipman’s social media apps non-stop, 24/7, from around the world.

“Urgent. We made aliyah two years ago and have not seen our parents for that long. My parents have a flight tomorrow and have not received their approval to enter Israel yet. What do we do? Please help!”

“I lived in Brazil, which is a red country but am due to give birth next week. I need my mother by my side. How do we contact the exceptions committee?”

The former MK, who tries to answer each request as quickly as he can, is a two-fisted typist, fingers flying over his iPhone11. But there’s never enough time. It just never ends.

“I wake up at 5:30 a.m. to answer questions and requests for help that have come in overnight from overseas,” he tells The Jerusalem Report over coffee at a café on Derech Bethlehem. “After morning prayers and 45 minutes of Torah study with a friend, I sit down to work.”

 Some of the many posts to the Facebook group ‘Reuniting Olim With Their Families’ by grateful family members of Israelis who were able to come for celebrations. (credit: Courtesy) Some of the many posts to the Facebook group ‘Reuniting Olim With Their Families’ by grateful family members of Israelis who were able to come for celebrations. (credit: Courtesy)

It doesn’t matter where he finds himself, it’s a portable job – he needs only his cell and laptop. As we speak, he is working through a set rotation on his iPhone checking for messages: first he reads through WhatsApp, then Facebook Messenger, then messages on his Facebook page, and then his emails. By the time he finishes answering these four apps, the cycle begins again and does not stop until he goes to sleep at midnight.

“My grandfather passed away in Russia. I need to fly there tonight to make it in time for the funeral. Does anyone have any connections with the government to help get me permission to fly there even though Russia is a red country?”

So it goes, Lipman’s routine for the past 20 months. He never planned for it, it just happened organically after corona exploded. Once countries started closing down airports worldwide, people with emergency exceptions needed help navigating Israel’s system.

And what a system.

It was broken, to be ever so kind, with one ministry not knowing what another was doing. The fragmented system saw the Health and Foreign ministries issuing different sets of rules on the same topic, a consulate in one city handling paperwork differently from how it was being done in another city – in the same country! – and oh yes, every two weeks a new set of rules was issued for entering Israel. No surprise: some ministries were informed of the new rules, some weren’t. Chaos ensued.

Then there was the problem of the rules themselves. Travelers were not trying to circumvent the guidelines; they were simply trying to follow them. But it was impossible, with constant changes coming from whoever oversaw entry into Israel on any given week. Responsibility for the confusion was passed off – because no one wanted to touch the third rail – from one ministry to the next, from the Interior Ministry to the Transportation Ministry to the Regional Cooperation Ministry, all within three weeks. The chaos became unmanageable.

“Help! I am in the airport in Turkey and they are not allowing me to board my plane. They are saying my approval to enter Israel is not real. Am I going to be stuck here? Can anything be done?”

 Some of the many posts to the Facebook group ‘Reuniting Olim With Their Families’ by grateful family members of Israelis who were able to come for celebrations. (credit: Courtesy) Some of the many posts to the Facebook group ‘Reuniting Olim With Their Families’ by grateful family members of Israelis who were able to come for celebrations. (credit: Courtesy)

No one was better placed to steer through the confusing, ever-changing bureaucratic minefield than Lipman. As are all former Knesset members, he is granted special privileges inside the Knesset, such as being allowed to speak at any committee hearing. Lipman knows not only how the committees work, but how the government system operates. He knows to whom and how to apply to the exceptions committee over this case or that, how to find a way through or around the red tape.

“When I was elected to the Knesset [in 2013], I planned to focus on the integration of haredim into Israeli society alongside religion and state issues,” says the Silver Spring, Maryland, native. “That’s what brought me into community work to begin with.

“But right after the election, I was bombarded with English-speaking olim who saw me as their representative in the Knesset. They turned to my office for assistance with a wide range of bureaucratic and other aliyah-related challenges.”

Lipman, 50, modeled his workplace on the one with which he was most familiar as a youngster: a US congressman getting acquainted with his back-home constituents at a downtown storefront.

“We held ‘open office hours’ on Sundays, and olim filled the schedule to meet with me in my Knesset office, where we discussed their challenges and struggles. I would then meet with my staff to strategize on how to assist those whom we could help, and work to change government policies.”

When Lipman left the Knesset in 2015, immigrants still turned to him for assistance. At the time, the average was a few requests a day.

 Lipman addresses a Knesset committee imploring MKs to modify the rules for non-citizens trying to come to Israel. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Lipman addresses a Knesset committee imploring MKs to modify the rules for non-citizens trying to come to Israel. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Then corona hit the fan in March 2020, and when Ben-Gurion Airport closed, the American-born Israeli became the natural address for Anglos stranded abroad: he spoke their language and had friends and contacts in high places. Lipman began working with and imploring authorities to help secure the travel of stuck Anglos, easing their entry and reuniting families – sometimes after weeks being stranded abroad.

“Good morning. I had my files checked and both were okay. My parents’ flight is on Thursday, I’ve still heard nothing. I’d usually wait, but it’s really important to get them here. I recently got engaged. My partner lost his mom last year, and now his dad is sick. I just want him to meet my parents, and maybe give him some hope.”

Word began to spread that no one knew how to work the system better than blockade-runner Lipman, and his inbox quickly went from a few messages a day to dozens, and then hundreds, not just from Anglo nations but from everywhere – he lost count at 22 countries. English and Hebrew are the languages Lipman knows, so when Spanish and French come in, he turns to Google Translate.

The number of olim and Jews around the world asking for help with government bureaucracy also increased, which led Lipman to establish Yad L’Olim (yadlolim.org), an NGO officially recognized by the State of Israel. Its website now serves as a platform for all immigrants, their families, and anyone seeking help with corona-related travel issues, as well as Israeli government bureaucracy.

Sometimes it’s also the unexpected parts of life: when 45 people were crushed to death in the Meron tragedy in April, many families from abroad sought quick approvals to attend funerals. Lipman spent the morning after the disaster securing expedited approvals for nearly 40 of them. That afternoon at Abu Kabir, Israel’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, he assisted English-speaking family members identifying loved ones who perished in the tragedy.

 A grandfather greets  his grandchildren  whom he hadn’t  seen for two years.  (credit: Courtesy) A grandfather greets his grandchildren whom he hadn’t seen for two years. (credit: Courtesy)

The demand for government change in policy drove Lipman to organize a protest outside the Knesset, which led to the development of a Facebook group called “Reunite Olim with their Families” that today has 15,000 active followers, all found by word of mouth.

For Anglo Jews with family, friends or businesses in Israel, the “Reunite Olim” page became the go-to social media station for Anglos worldwide, the central hub for information and advice they so desperately needed. The one constant refrain: “Contact Dov Lipman.” Some added: “Tag Dov so he will know to look for your message.”

A walking corona database, Lipman knows by heart the rules and regulations in Israel and many other countries, such as which ones are providing a third booster shot and which aren’t. As soon as a request comes in, it’s immediately clear to him: either the case won’t be a problem, it is going to be difficult, or it is going to be impossible. 

Whereas once he was batting .300 in his success rate, Lipman says, he’s now up to .750. The starting point always depends on the basic criteria:

1) Are you an Israeli citizen?

2) Are you a first-degree relative?


3) Have you been vaccinated within the last six months?

4) Are you recovered from corona? When and where?

5) Are all the forms filled out correctly?

6) What’s the humanitarian need?

Lipman is so plugged in – he talks almost daily with authorities inside the Health Ministry, as well as with officials at the Interior and Foreign ministries – that he’s usually the first to know the updated rules. He posts them on his Facebook and Instagram platforms, emails them to his ever-growing database, and then explains the intricacies to journalists calling for clarification.

Despite establishing the website and Facebook group where a team answers daily messages, the emergencies that pop up has gotten to the point where Lipman doesn’t have time to drive himself anywhere – minutes become critical when someone is stranded at the gate with a plane about to take off, or at Ben-Gurion being denied entry. So Lipman drafted his wife, Dena, to become the driver while he works the phone. She has witnessed his successes up close, but also his failures.

 A father hugs his lone-soldier daughter for the first time in 20 months. (credit: Courtesy) A father hugs his lone-soldier daughter for the first time in 20 months. (credit: Courtesy)

“I would go to sleep and see him dealing with a crisis,” she says. “I will never forget the night when I wished him good luck; and when he came to sleep at 4 a.m., he looked at me sadly and said, ‘I failed, they sent her back to South Africa.’”

Lipman can’t take his laptop everywhere but he can take his phone, so the first thing he does when he attends celebratory events like weddings is apologize to those at his table for not being social. Then he buries his face in the four apps and continues answering questions and requests.

Yad L’Olim has four paid staff members and four volunteers to answer questions and steer incoming requests in the right direction, but Lipman needs to double the staff not just to deal with corona traveling issues, but with all immigrant issues requiring government intervention.

“Please God, the corona traveling situation will soon stabilize,” Lipman says. “But the individual and communal challenges faced by immigrants, their families and global Jewry when dealing with Israeli bureaucracy and government ministries are ongoing. Yad L’Olim is here to be a guide and voice to address those issues.”

Invariably after Lipman facilitates entry for this or that stranger, the grateful person has a friend who needs similar help, and Lipman receives the referral.

“David told me to contact you. Thank you for all the help you provide. Is there any way I can get to Israel for my child’s wedding?”

Everyone posts their story on the chatty Facebook group, about the problems they had and the way in which Yad L’Olim fixed them. Days later, posts show pictures of family reunions, of weddings, of bar mitzvahs, offering glowing thanks to Lipman and his team – even creating memes – for enabling those reunions to take place. He regularly gets invited to weddings and bar mitzvahs, and people send fruit baskets, cakes and flowers to his house.

“I say to them, ‘It’s really not necessary,’” Lipman shrugs. “They say, ‘No, it is.’ So I say OK. At least my family benefits.”

Some have called Lipman the “corona rebbe,” master of running the Covid blockade, for his ability to finagle the system to get past stumbling blocks. Lipman shakes his head.

“I don’t finagle the system, I work the system,” Lipman says. “My job is to enable the system to work. That’s the job. There is a system, and it’s not working: people who follow all the rules are not getting approved, people who deserve humanitarian exceptions are not getting them, and we just make it work.”

When the corona rules changed for November 1 and the government announced that Israel was re-opening to tourists, things got worse. The online Health Ministry forms weren’t working, airports and airlines were not notified about the rule changes, and Lipman and his team had no choice but to work round the clock.

“I had to stay awake all night more than once,” says Lipman, “because people were stranded in airports all over the world. The new rules closed the door on many people entering the country, since outside of the European Union, the only people who could enter were those vaccinated within six months.”

This led to a flurry of activity as Lipman acted to change the guidelines – first to get humanitarian exceptions extended to include family members coming to Israel for celebratory occasions, and then beyond.

As a first step, Lipman pressured the Knesset two weeks ago to hold hearings on changing policy to enable family members to celebrate births and weddings together. He is pleased that MK Gilad Kariv, chairman of the Knesset Law and Constitution Committee, took the issue seriously.

“The truth is,” says Lipman, “every MK and minister who I speak with agrees with my points, but many fear that challenging the Health Ministry makes it appear that they don’t care about health concerns. I believe you can implement measures to protect public health while opening the borders more – especially to help olim and their families.”

Lipman’s relationship with the government cuts both ways, with ministries, embassies and consulates leaning on the ex-MK for assistance. Indeed, two consulates, one in the US and one in South Africa, instructed applicants to consult with Lipman to help facilitate their case.

While Yad L’Olim could easily make it as a profit-making, full-fledged company instead of an amuta (non-profit), Lipman doesn’t want it.

“I feel that what makes it special, and needed, is that anybody can turn to us and we’re not charging for it,” he says. “Yes, after we help them, we ask them for a donation, but I don’t want to be a business.”

Meanwhile, the thousands of families that Lipman has helped continue to express their gratitude for bringing loved ones together.

“Thank you to Yad L’Olim and especially Dov Lipman for all your help and support in getting our family in to Israel for our daughter’ wedding… The amazing work you do is extremely appreciated.”

As the country transitions out of corona restrictions, Lipman intends to focus on government relations – working for specific legislation and policy changes to help the growing immigrant community.

“I hope I can do this for the rest of my life,” he says looking up from his screen. “It is the greatest pleasure and honor to wake up daily knowing that I can work to help make life easier for olim, their families and Jews around the world, and hopefully, attract even more olim to Israel.”

Then he buries his face back into his phone, and the sequence of answering messages begins again. 

The writer has been covering Dov Lipman’s career since he was elected to the Knesset in 2013, and considers him a friend.