US envoy learns up close about haredi travel problems

Haredi Traveler's Service Office attempts to foster greater understanding among US consul workers in Israel.

Haredi 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Haredi 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
How do you explain to a skeptical non-Jewish consul worker that you have been chosen to be the sandak (godfather) at your grandson's circumcision and you need a travel visa fast? How do you get through US customs with a box of handmade matzot in time for Pessah? How do you prove to a passport agent that you are a father of 12 who enjoys subsidized housing and a close-knit neighborhood and have no intention of becoming an illegal alien in the US? And how do you do all this when your first language is Yiddish? The Haredi Traveler's Service Office, in an attempt to foster greater understanding among US consul workers in Israel for the special needs of Israel's haredi community, invited US Ambassador to Israel Richard H. Jones to tour Mea She'arim on Monday. At the end of the tour, which included a visit to a matza bakery and a haredi housing complex, Jones was introduced to Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, the nonagenarian preeminent spiritual leader of haredi Judaism, at his modest home in Jerusalem. Elyashiv expressed his appreciation to the US for its ongoing support for Israel, calling the superpower a "Kingdom of loving-kindness." Jones in turn expressed his country's commitment to Israel's security. The tour and meeting were arranged by Matisiyahu Cheshin, known in ultra-Orthodox circles as the "haredi ambassador." Cheshin heads the traveler's service office, which helps arrange last-minute travel visas and also deals with customs difficulties encountered by haredim traveling to the US and other countries with matzot, the four species used during the Sukkot holiday or other religious items. Many haredim in Israel, the US and other countries feel there is a cultural gap that prevents consul workers from understanding their religious customs and needs. Cheshin explained to Jones that many Mea She'arim residents live in special rent-controlled housing in which residents pay "key money," a large deposit that gives them the right to remain in the flat indefinitely. A low monthly rent of around $30 is charged. However, residents lose their rights to the apartment if they leave it vacant for over half a year. "If consul workers were aware that haredim who live in special housing projects lose their rights after a vacancy of six months, they would understand that there is a strong incentive for these haredim to come home after their visit abroad," Cheshin said. Jones said he learned a lot, and expressed his appreciation for Cheshin's tour for consulate workers. Jones explained that the consulate has "very strict and clear-cut visa laws that require that the consul issuing the visa have an assurance that the person will return from the country to which he or she travels. "We do not want people telling us that they are coming for business and tourism when, in fact, they are attempting to immigrate. It's good that Rabbi Cheshin is giving us a better understanding of how the community works," he said.