Vaccine rollout inspires Jews to move to Israel and Israelis to return

Israel is looking more attractive than ever as a place to live.

The COVID-19 vaccine given to medical staff at Ichilov Hospital on December 20. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The COVID-19 vaccine given to medical staff at Ichilov Hospital on December 20.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The coronavirus crisis has accomplished what decades of government ad campaigns did not do — it has brought hundreds of thousands of Israelis back from abroad and made the country more enticing as a home for American Jews.
As of July, more than 190,000 Israelis had returned to Israel from abroad, including more than 6,000 who had been away from the country for over half a year, according to data released by the Foreign Ministry. Many of those who returned early in the pandemic had been Israelis working in China, where the effects of the virus were first felt. Israeli embassies and consulates abroad have issued approximately 10,000 travel documents, including issuing new passports (often for children of Israelis born abroad who had not been in Israel yet) and renewing and extending passports for Israelis planning to come back since the beginning of the pandemic.
While Israel has had its challenges handling the pandemic, it still has a notably lower mortality rate from the disease than many countries around the world where Israelis tend to live, notably the US, which has had over 1,000 deaths per every million of the population, as opposed to Israel, with 370 deaths per million. Areas where many Israelis live, including such cities as New York, have been hit particularly hard. For example, there have been over 7,700 deaths in the borough of Brooklyn alone since the pandemic began, many of them in the Jewish community.  
And now, with the vaccination campaign in Israel bringing the Pfizer vaccine to more than one million Israelis in less than two weeks, Israel is looking more attractive than ever as a place to live, both to Israelis who have been living abroad and American Jews who are thinking of moving to Israel.
“We have no idea when we are getting vaccinated,” said Manhattanite Shira Dicker, a freelance writer and public-relations consultant. Although she is 60, her husband is 71 and they have private insurance, “We just don’t know.” She was recently approached by someone she calls a “nominal friend,” with a suggestion about “how we could jump the line” for getting vaccinated, an offer she calls “sleazy” but which she sees as a sign of the times, following the ParCare fraudulent vaccine scandal in New York.
Dicker’s sister, Adina Feldman, is a well-known singer in Israel, and Dicker and her family have spent three years in Israel at different times, so although they do not have Israeli citizenship, “Making aliyah has always been a steady thought.”
She has many friends who are seriously thinking about moving to Israel and some who are actually making the move now, she said, although ultimately she decided it was not practical for her family right now.
But since the pandemic began, Dicker said, “I was consumed with the belief, that was borne out , that Israel was the safest place to be during the pandemic.” She and her family were particularly impressed by how Israel handled the first wave and lockdown and now the vaccine rollout.
“I’m not blind to the behavior of some Israelis during the pandemic, who weren’t following the rules,” she said. But seeing her friends in Israel getting vaccinated and comparing Israel’s vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world, to the management of the crisis in the US, she said, “I’m seeing my friends getting vaccinated in Israel and I feel like the kid who got a pair of socks on Hanukkah and the kids across the street got a puppy.”
If Dicker and her family were to arrive in Israel as new immigrants, they would immediately be admitted to one of the country’s four health funds. For returning residents, the process is more complicated. Israeli citizens who have lived abroad for years and have not kept up with their Israeli social security payments, as many have not, must pay NIS 12,000 and then may join the health funds when they return, according to a spokesperson one of the health funds.
A journalist in Sao Paolo who was born in Brazil and has Israeli citizenship through his Israeli/French father has looked into coming to Israel to get vaccinated, as have some of his Israeli friends living abroad. His “main drive” to move back to Israel right now would be “the fact that Israel is using the Pfizer jab,” since he thinks that Brazil, which he feels is “botching” its vaccine rollout, is more likely to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, which he cannot take for health reasons.
One of the reasons that Aliya Slepkov-Dror, an Israeli who has worked in the Jewish non-profit world in Los Angeles for 15 years, moved back to Israel last summer with her and her husband, Pini Dror, who works in tourism, was the coronavirus.
“We always knew we wanted to come back,” she said. But the events of this year gave them the push they needed to make the move, notably the Los Angeles Black Lives Matter protests, which took place right on their doorstep — “We woke up to a war scene “ — as well as the coronavirus.
While she and her husband aren’t worried for themselves, the thought that their parents might become ill with coronavirus was sobering. “The pandemic has taught us that life is precious and anything can happen,” she said.