Why are people immigrating to Israel amid coronavirus pandemic?

ALIYAH AFFAIRS: Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 2,000 people have made aliyah.

GEORGE AND DOROTHY Loewenstein: In Israel, I know we’ll have the support of family. (photo credit: Courtesy)
GEORGE AND DOROTHY Loewenstein: In Israel, I know we’ll have the support of family.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
NEW YORK – Beginning in March, as most people hunkered down in their homes with no end in sight, a growing number of American Jews decided it was time to make aliyah, make Israel their home.
“Israel feels more like home and like family, and when things feel scary and dangerous, I’d rather be there than here,” said Elijah Lippie, a 24-year-old aerospace engineer living in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He plans to join the Israel Air Force following his imminent move.
“I had been thinking about aliyah my entire life. My dad always wanted to do it, but never did. The pandemic and political turmoil have helped me be more solid in making that decision. But it has also slowed the process because my family doesn’t want me to leave yet.”
Lippie isn’t alone.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 2,000 people have made aliyah, according to Nefesh B’ Nefesh, a nonprofit organization that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel and serves as a liaison between American Jews, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Israeli government.
Yael Katsman, a Nefesh B’Nefesh spokesperson, told The Jerusalem Post the pandemic has made people pause and reevaluate their lives.
“Leaving one’s familiar community is always a difficult decision. However, following the restrictions from the coronavirus, many potential olim [immigrants] have come to the realization that ‘community’ is a broader concept than previously believed, one which doesn’t require them to be in the same physical and geographical spaces as their core community. The worldwide Jewish community has become more accessible and closer to everyone,” Katsman said.
Immigrating can be difficult under the best of circumstances. It’s a process full of documents, moving, finding housing and employment. A pandemic makes each of these tasks more challenging. Yet since the beginning of COVID-19, there has been a huge uptick in aliyah interest that has translated into actual applications being submitted.
Despite the process being held up due to office closures, quarantines and canceled flights, Nefesh B’ Nefesh said 5,593 people have submitted aliyah applications between April-October 2020, a 250% increase from the number of applications during the same months the previous year.
The greatest increase in immigrant applications came from New York, New Jersey, California, Florida and Maryland.
“As to employment, the pandemic has created new precedents in the workplace,” Katsman continued. “Working remotely has become possible. This new open job market allows potential olim the opportunity for creativity and flexibility, and the freedom to reassess their future careers with Israel as a viable option.”
Olim reached for comment noted that the surge reflected a growing anxiety among some American Jews about their future in a country divided over a pandemic, and rife with social unrest and partisan politics.
“Jewish people get nervous whenever there is political unrest. But it was a total coincidence that I left America on Election Day,” said Rachel Mehl, a 29-year-old pediatric nurse from Long Island, New York.
As coronavirus tore through New York City in March and April, Mehl worked at Mt. Sinai Hospital. Eventually, she burned out.
“COVID started and everything changed for me. The reasons to stay in America weren’t really there anymore, aside from family and friends,” said Mehl.
“After working as a nurse during coronavirus in New York, I really needed a change of job,” Mehl continued. “Socially, coronavirus changed everything, too. Most of my friends left the city [temporarily] or permanently.
“I figured, if I was going to move, I should move to Israel. I knew the pandemic was in Israel also, obviously, but it just seemed like this would be the right timing,” said Mehl, who remains undecided whether she will transfer her nursing license to Israel, or embark on a new career path. She arrived in Israel on November 3, and began a mandatory two-week quarantine process in her Tel Aviv apartment.
“The quarantine is definitely a challenge. It’s a mind game,” Mehl told the Post. “If I moved during a regular time, I would have tons of distractions and things that would make me feel welcome in a time where I am missing my family I just left.”
FOR GEORGE LOEWENSTEIN, the draw of aliyah is being closer to family, which he noted is particularly incentivizing during the pandemic.
Loewenstein is an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor. Born in Germany, he and his parents were among the roughly 700 families who found refuge in the Philippines under Japanese occupation. He came to the United States in 1946, and currently resides in West Palm Beach, FL, with his wife, Dorothy.
The couple is slated to make aliyah on December 22, joining their nine grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren who already live in Israel.
“We want to be a part of their lives. We want to be at the brises [circumcision ceremonies] and bar mitzvahs and weddings. I’d like them to know me. I don’t think my great-grandchildren even know who I am,” he said.
Loewenstein noted that in Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Park, his footprints are engraved in a monument dedicated to World War II Philippine humanitarianism.
For years, his grandchildren have asked, “Grandpa, your footprints are here already, when is the rest of you coming?”
“Now it’s finally time,” Loewenstein said. “In Florida, we haven’t been social at all since the pandemic started. The only place we’ve gone is the grocery store. I’m a senior citizen and a diabetic so that’s already two strikes against me,” he continued.
“In Israel, I know we’ll have the support of family. They can go shopping for us and leave the food at the door. Here, we have no relatives. When you get to a certain age, you’d like to know you have some support from the younger generation. So there’s a lot of incentive to spend whatever years Hashem is going to give us in Israel.
“I’d like to mesh into Israeli society. I know there are some Holocaust survivor groups there I plan to join,” he continued. “And I won’t have to drive 30 minutes anymore to the closest kosher restaurant.”
He also plans to take Hebrew classes.
“Language is going to be a problem. I am bilingual, I still speak fluent German. I took Japanese under the occupation. But at 86, it’s tough to learn a new language. I’m going to give it my best effort.”
Loewenstein began the application process in 2019. Would he have started it had he known coronavirus would interfere?
“I don’t know if I would have,” he said. “But I certainly started it a long time ago and I just continued.”
The pandemic has both validated the decision to make aliyah, and also added extra hurdles.
The Jewish Agency for Israel requires that immigrants to Israel provide numerous documents including birth certificates for parents or other supporting documents to prove they are, indeed, Jewish, and therefore have an automatic right to citizenship.
“My birth certificate is in Germany. I had to get a copy of it and have the German government attest that it was, in fact, valid,” Lowenstein said. He added that it was easier for his wife, who was born in New Jersey.
“With the virus, it all took more time than it would,” he continued. “We were dealing with Florida, New Jersey and Germany. People weren’t going to work. Government offices weren’t being staffed.”
The Loewensteins received their visas at the beginning of November. All that remains to do is pack.
“Things are moving rapidly now. It’s getting exciting. Just another few weeks to go,” he said. Mehl mentioned similar obstacles.
“When I started thinking about aliyah in early spring, and looking into what forms I needed, every office in New York was closed indefinitely,” she said. “I ended up having to mail every single document to each office and wait for it to come back before mailing it to the next office. I’ve heard from people who made aliyah in the past that their process was very different.”
In the end, Mehl’s plans were delayed by two months. “I wanted to come in September. No one would have been able to predict that was definitely not going to happen. But I wasn’t that far off,” she said.
“It all sounds super crazy,” Mehl continued. “Who wants to move to another country during a pandemic? But in my mind it just makes sense. The pandemic gave me the push to do it.”