During the Coronavirus crisis, which has limited face-to-face meetings, get-togethers, and social events, Nefesh B’Nefesh has, in just a few short days, managed to transition to almost full on-line operation, enabling it to assist new immigrants who are in need of help and support during this difficult period.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, which works in cooperation with the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, the Jewish Agency and JNF-USA, kicked off its virtual programming on March 15th, with the Virtual Mega Aliyah Fair in the United States, hosting 13 live webinars in one evening, which covered a wide variety of Aliyah topics including, budgeting, healthcare, the Israeli job market, medical licensing and Aliyah planning. The event had 2,500 attendees and paved the way for the organization’s virtual offerings.
Once Nefesh B’Nefesh closed its Israeli offices throughout the country, it transferred its focus in Israel from the physical to the virtual. “There was a huge shift in how to do things,” says Donna Horwitz, head of the community integration division at Nefesh B’Nefesh. “We realized very quickly that we could take advantage of the technology that is out there and create connections through the virtual world.”
With its offices throughout the country shuttered, Nefesh B’Nefesh, which excels in making the physical connections necessary for successful aliyah, quickly rolled out its own virtual assistance program in Israel, ranging from telephone assistance provided by Aliyah advisors working from home, to Facebook Live sessions on how to shop online during the crisis – even offering an online book club in which the organization will conduct virtual meet-ups to discuss books and share ideas through various web-based book reading platforms.
Horwitz explains that new immigrants are confronted with questions that they never imagined they would need to ask of their Aliyah advisors, ranging from the rules of quarantine, to arranging for care of their pets if they are in isolation. With numerous businesses sending employees on unpaid leave, many contact the organization seeking new employment or needing to learn how to file unemployment claims. In recent days, Nefesh B’Nefesh has broadcast virtual employment workshops on Facebook Live, and has posted an updated Coronavirus page on its website, with daily updates in English listing up-to-date information, as well as contacts for psychological assistance, along with numbers of Kupot Holim branches throughout the country. In addition, Nefesh B’Nefesh staffs its hotline five days a week (02-659-5800), which is available to help new immigrants answer difficult questions and resolve knotty bureaucratic issues.
In this period, Nefesh B’Nefesh has even gone beyond the country’s borders to reunite families in Israel. Jonathan and Jane Lyon, 2018 arrivals from Berkeley, California who are living in the northern Israeli town of Ma’alot Tarshiha, turned to Nefesh B’Nefesh when their daughter, Hannah, a student at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, had to leave her dormitory, which closed along with the rest of the university due to the Coronavirus.
Hannah had no place to go, since her parents had sold their home before moving to Israel and wanted to join her parents in Maalot. Unfortunately, the Israeli government was not allowing people without Israeli citizenship into the country, and Hannah, who has not yet changed her status, was not permitted to fly to Israel. In an effort to solve the predicament, Jonathan first called the Foreign Ministry, which then directed him to contact the Interior Ministry. Staff at the Interior Ministry suggested that he speak with the Foreign Ministry again. Lyon then reached out to Samantha Paperin, who coordinates activities for new immigrants in the north of Israel. Paperin put him in touch with Nefesh B’Nefesh’s advocate for Olim, who contacted officials at the Foreign Ministry. “That was the turning point for us,” says Jonathan. “In fact,” he continues, “there were were a lot of others in the exact same predicament as Hannah. Their children are in the US but have nowhere else to go because the Olim parents sold their homes in the USA as part of their Aliyah!”
The Nefesh B’Nefesh Olim advocate spent a full day negotiating with the Interior Ministry to resolve the problem. As a result of the negotiations, the Ministry revised the statue, allowing children of Israeli citizens to enter the country. Lyon then learned that the revision only applied to children, and not to adults, which would again exclude his nineteen year-old daughter. He then contacted Nefesh B’Nefesh once again, who finally succeeded in obtaining the necessary documents to allow Hannah, as well as others who were in a similar situation, to enter the country.
In the swirl of events, Nefesh B’Nefesh had to step in yet again to save the day. When Hannah arrived at JFK airport on Sunday, March 22, and checked in, she was not allowed to board the plane, because her name did not appear on the list provided by El Al. Nefesh B’Nefesh did not give up. After a third round of negotiations, she was allowed on the next day’s flight, and happily landed in Israel on Tuesday, March 24th. “Her luggage is still at JFK,” says her father. “But that’s a relatively small problem. We owe a lot to Nefesh B’Nefesh – and not just for this. They have been a boon for us.”
Other new immigrants have been similarly pleased by the organization’s responsiveness in addressing difficult issues. Elisheva, who made aliyah in 2015 and who works in the high-tech industry in Jerusalem, reached out to Nefesh B’ Nefesh and quickly received critical information on maternity leave and Bituach Leumi (National Insurance Institute) issues, which have changed for her because of the Coronavirus situation. “I was so impressed with how quickly NBN responded to my email, and they made sure I was all set, both by phone and by email with thorough information and patience. At a time like this, nothing is taken for granted!”
Since the crisis began, Nefesh B’Nefesh has devoted additional resources and initiated special programs for lone soldiers and their families. “We have been doing a lot of work, finding out which soldiers are in isolation, and sending them care packages,” says Horwitz. In addition, the organization has conducted virtual programs for lone soldiers in French, Russian and English, and presented a webinar led by IDF commanders to parents of lone soldiers briefing them on the current situation. Nefesh B’Nefesh organized Shabbat meals for National Service volunteers and sent grocery deliveries to lone soldiers. “We are trying to do as much we can while not being physically connected,” says Horwitz.
Beyond providing immediate solutions for those in need, Nefesh B’Nefesh has produced a robust schedule of virtual programming on Zoom, including art seminars, workout classes, Hebrew language assistance, and a language exchange program designed to help improve comprehension for both Hebrew and English. In addition, they have opened up virtual platforms for Olim to present 30-minute virtual workshops in their respective fields. All of these activities, explains Horwitz, are designed to bring people together, if only virtually. “You are sitting in a virtual world,” comments Horwitz, “but you see everyone at home as well. It creates a feeling of connectivity.”
This Passover, in light of the difficulties present in family gatherings, Nefesh B’Nefesh is partnering with White City, to offer a special ‘Seder-in-a-Box’, targeted at new immigrants who, because of the health situation, are isolated and alone for the Seder. Explains Horwitz, “With Pesach coming up, people are worried about being alone at the Seder, as many plans have been disrupted, and if they were planning on flying out or having family fly in – that is generally no longer an option. We wanted to help them cope with this situation.” Available at a special discount for Nefesh B’Nefesh immigrants, the Seder-in-a-Box includes a complete Seder plate with all of the necessary items, English/Hebrew Haggadahs, a box of matzah, fancy plasticware, multiple side dishes and salads, and a gourmet entrée, with pick-up points in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Whether through virtual means or physical assistance when possible, Nefesh B’Nefesh is maintaining its connection with new immigrants, and helping to ensure the successful aliyah of thousands.
All Nefesh B’Nefesh events and programming can be viewed at http://www.nbn.org.il/events
This article was written in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, The Jewish Agency and JNF-USA.