Reuniting families in Israel - it’s complicated, but doable

Non-Israelis seeking to enter Israel for a variety of reasons have found it especially difficult to keep up to date during this time of ever-changing laws.

THE EMPTY arrival hall at Ben-Gurion Airport on March 11. (photo credit: FLASH90)
THE EMPTY arrival hall at Ben-Gurion Airport on March 11.
(photo credit: FLASH90)
Facing bureaucratic nightmares and last-minute approvals, non-Israelis seeking to enter Israel for a variety of reasons have found it especially difficult to keep up to date during this time of (seemingly) ever-changing laws.

Currently, non-Israelis may be granted entry the Jewish state to visit immediate family members for happy occasions such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and births, and also for funerals.

Even before these stipulations were put in place, current MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh and former MK Dov Lipman – both Anglos – received hundreds of requests from olim and their loved ones, searching for answers to the bureaucratic complexities they were facing.

“While Israel’s overall policy throughout the pandemic has been to prohibit the entry of foreigners, there are a number of exceptions to this rule,” explained Blue and White’s Cotler-Wunsh.

Since becoming an MK in mid-June, the Canadian-raised MK has worked to ensure that the voices of olim are heard in the Knesset in several arenas, including on the subject of entry permits for non-Israeli grandparents who wish to visit their newborn grandchildren (born from March 1, 2020 onward), and parents of lone soldiers and National Service volunteers.

“Prior to the regulation allowing the grandparents of newborns to enter the country, we received spreadsheets with hundreds of signatures from new olot mothers and mothers-to-be requesting that their parents be granted entry,” Cotler-Wunsh told the Magazine.

Indeed, before the regulation was enacted, Peter and Marla Veres said “it was painful” when they found out they wouldn’t be allowed to enter Israel to see their children and grandchildren – including a newborn expected on August 21.

“We were so pleased that Michal Cotler-Wunsh made an addendum to the law that allowed grandparents to enter Israel for the birth of their grandchild during this pandemic,” they said, eventually reaching out to Lipman, who helped them through the process until they received permission to enter Israel and sorted out an “administrative issue” they experienced on the day of their departure.

Similarly, Caryn Karp, a 34-year-old resident of Hod Hasharon, shared her saga of successfully getting her mother to Israel from New Jersey after her daughter was born in early April, thanks to the advocacy of Cotler-Wunsh and Lipman.

“My mom had planned to be here for the birth. She is a teacher, and her planned visit aligned with her spring break,” Karp told the Magazine. “Unfortunately, when Israel closed its borders to noncitizens in March, my mom was forced to cancel her trip. She was heartbroken to know she would not be able to meet her new grandchild. The worst part was we didn’t know when the next opportunity would arise. We looked into getting my daughter her US citizenship and passport so we could travel to the US, but the US Embassy and Consulate were closed to non-emergency appointments.” Several months later, Karp read on Lipman’s Facebook page that the Israeli government had announced a policy change that would allow in non-citizen grandparents to visit a newborn grandchild within 30 days before or after the birth.

“But the policy was not retroactive, so it only applied to births going back to mid-June and forward,” she said. “We tried our luck and applied, hoping maybe there would be exceptions. Unfortunately and understandably, my parents were denied entry.

“I read in an Anglo Facebook group that someone was working with MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh to petition the government of Israel to allow the policy to extend back to the start of the pandemic. I signed the petition but later heard it was rejected,” she recounted.
The petition was never, in fact, rejected.

“On August 18, I saw that Dov Lipman posted an update about the policy allowing in non-citizen grandparents. I was absolutely ecstatic and called my parents. Since they had already applied in July, we had all the paperwork ready to go. My mom looked into the earliest possible flights and emailed the consulate,” said Karp, whose mother received a reply within 24 hours of her email and flew out just three days later to quarantine in Israel for two weeks before meeting her granddaughter.

“Quite honestly, had I not seen Dov’s Facebook post, I don’t know when or how I would have heard about the change in the policy,” emphasized Karp.

Still, both Cotler-Wunsh and Lipman related that despite voices being successfully heard and leading to changes in policy, there are still significant challenges in the approval and entry process.

“Israel rightfully demands all the paperwork to prove the relationships and the simha [joyous occasion], as well as proof of traveler’s insurance that explicitly states that it will cover corona treatment,” explained Lipman, noting that the insurance requirement has proven difficult, as “we have only identified a few companies that provide that statement on the policy,” and “a request won’t even be considered until all the documentation is provided.” Additionally, he noted, “Israel will only grant approval two weeks before a flight... The logic is that rules are always changing, so they don’t want to give approval to people who will then be rejected because they don’t meet the criteria of the new rules. But this means that families must first book their tickets without knowing for sure that they will receive approval on time. This stops many from even trying, and it leads to significant panic for those who do apply, as the travel date arrives and they have not received approval.” Experiencing difficulties, people began to reach out to the English-speaking advocates for help in all three stages – checking if they qualify, guiding them through the bureaucratic process and then making sure they obtain approval before their flight.

This year, Aliza Nerenberg made aliyah with her children, who spent the summer in Miami.

“We did not have Israeli passports issued right away, but because we had several documents – including a te’udat oleh [immigrant certificate] and a te’udat yetzia [exit certificate], I naturally assumed it would be easy to go in and out. But boy was I wrong,” she told the Magazine.

After calling the Israeli Embassy “in a frantic panic,” she was told that her children would not make their flight back to Israel. Lipman, who “was on the phone endlessly for days with the embassy in Miami as well as the Interior Ministry here in Israel,” helped them get emergency passports for the children, who were able to return safely to Israel.

Edison, New Jersey native Leslie Rosenberg, who applied to enter Israel before her lone soldier daughter’s wedding on August 21, submitted a 40-page application showing “an already purchased plane ticket; proof from the rabbinate that a wedding was taking place; copies of te’udot zehut [identity cards] for my daughter, her fiancé and my husband (an Israeli); my daughter’s birth certificate proving I was truly her mother; proof of health insurance covering COVID; etc.” Rosenberg was crushed when she was turned down because her ticket to Israel was more than one month before the wedding.

“I had actually done that intentionally because I was afraid if I didn’t get to Israel quickly, the regulations could change again and I’d get locked out of Israel and the simha,” she recalled.

“I was told I needed to pull out any connections I could make,” she said, and eventually contacted Lipman through her event planner. “He was told that as long as I changed my flight to within 30 days of the wedding, I would in fact be permitted entry. I reapplied and literally cried out of relief when I opened the email saying I was approved.” “I am in touch with consulates to see what documents people are missing, to make sure their requests are sent to the Foreign Ministry by the consulate, and then with the Foreign Ministry to push them to grant approvals – especially when it is down to the wire,” confirmed Lipman.

“With the changing regulations, it was like planning a new wedding every week,” noted Rosenberg. “I continue to be so incredibly grateful for Dov’s intervention and know he truly would help anyone else in my situation... I have since returned from this truly magical simha. My heart goes out to the brides, grooms and their parents who were not able to be together for their weddings.” Though each situation is different, down-to-the-wire decisions seem to be the norm.

It also seems as though the consulates are open to allowing for other humanitarian exceptions on a case-by-case basis, perhaps particularly if an advocate who understands governmental systems is involved.

Rachel Raice’s 23-year-old son, left virtually homeless in New York City before his already planned trip to visit his mother in Israel for Passover, was told prior to his flight by the Israeli Consulate that he would be denied entrance, as he was not a citizen. With the help of Lipman and Ronen Fuxman, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s government advocacy adviser, they worked to get his approval, which he received only two to three hours before his scheduled flight.

While in Israel, he was introduced to a young woman, whom he began to date. By the time he had to return to the US, the two were engaged. Though he arrived in Israel “with just a backpack,” said Raice, her son left with a fiancée, and has since packed up his things in New York and returned to Israel, where he intends to eventually immigrate.

According to Lipman, “I explained to them [Israeli officials] how his family was here and it would be months not seeing each other... Some consulates were open to it. Others were not. I failed to get similar allowances from other ones.”

ADDRESSING THE challenges that remain, Cotler-Wunsh related, “Israeli embassies and consulates, which are responsible for assessing and providing the travel entry permits, are very overburdened, making the process quite long and stressful for all parties. The successes are such that now many more people are able to enter, yet the challenges remain, including travel permits being provided very close to travel time.” Lipman similarly emphasized, “The people who work at the consulates and the Foreign Ministry are incredibly dedicated. They want to help everyone. But they are inundated with hundreds upon hundreds of requests per day with limited manpower. This leads to people receiving their approvals very close to their flights or not receiving them.” Still, Cotler-Wunsh and Lipman continue to receive countless emails and Facebook messages expressing gratitude, and also asking for their help.

“I am thankful that I am in a position to help people and want all people to know they can reach out to me for information and assistance to enable them to celebrate happy occasions with their families in Israel,” said Lipman.

“It is imperative that we maintain an open dialogue with our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora, always and especially during this time of COVID-19, to understand the challenges and how we can support each other,” maintained Cotler-Wunsh, reminding citizens of the importance of “knowing our rights and what the current COVID-19 restrictions are,” as well as being in contact with Knesset representatives when gaps in policy may arise.

Representatives of the Health and Interior ministries were contacted for comment but did not respond.