After gathering all of my documents and submitting my application for Aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh, I interviewed with The Jewish Agency over Zoom. The meeting went smoothly, and the questions were straightforward, such as where you think you’ll live, what kind of work you do, why you want to make Aliyah, and verifying your Jewish status. Depending on when your expected Aliyah date is, the Jewish Agency will then send you a “Mazal Tov” email approving your eligibility for Aliyah. This Mazal Tov email is valid for one year, after which you must reapply to make Aliyah. My Zoom meeting took place on July 31, and I received my Mazal Tov email on August 10. But because my parents’ (who also had their Zoom meeting on July 31) expected Aliyah date isn’t until November, they didn’t receive their Mazal Tov letter until September 10. A lot of people are making Aliyah now, and the Jewish Agency has to prioritize approvals based on expected Aliyah dates.
After receiving my Mazal Tov email, I sent my documents to the Israeli Consulate in Houston to get an Aliyah visa. The visa is your pass into Israel until you receive your Teudat Zehut (Israeli ID card). The visa is valid for six months before you make Aliyah. It isn’t easy to contact the Houston office. No one answered any emails I had sent, and there was no ability to leave a message over the phone. I ended up having to call about every five minutes hoping someone would answer the phone, and eventually they did. I was nervous about my documents and receiving my visa in time before my flight because Hurricane Laura was slated to hit Houston. Luckily the hurricane’s path shifted eastward, and Houston came out unscathed. I received my visa in the mail on September 2, seven days before my flight. The Consulate is not issuing any visas for students or tourists, so be sure to make clear you are seeking an Aliyah visa (which are still being approved).
Typically after getting my Aliyah visa, I would have had to get a letter from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs approving me to board a plane to Israel. This is a new requirement due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. The letter lists all of the people on your flight who are making Aliyah, along with their passport numbers. It is valid for two weeks after being issued. But because my flight was leaving so soon and I still needed final approval, I received my letter on September 1 (the day before I received my Aliyah visa). Once I was within 24 hours of my flight, I had to fill out a travel declaration form. This form states that I don’t have COVID-19 symptoms and where I plan to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. Since I am single and don’t have any pets, I chose to stay in a hotel provided by the Israeli government.
Going to the airport was as exciting as it was heartbreaking. Finally, I was taking my first steps towards officially becoming Israeli and coming home. But I was leaving my family behind, in what will B”H only be a very short separation. They want to make Aliyah just as badly as I did, and doing so without them was the single most difficult part of making Aliyah. The airports were less crowded than usual, but there were still many people traveling back and forth. I had to present my visa and letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the gate to be allowed to board the plane. Unfortunately because of the pandemic, Nefesh B’Nefesh had to book our flight through United Airlines instead of Israel’s national airline El Al. This was not how I imagined my Aliyah starting, but nonetheless the experience flying with United went very smoothly. People wore their masks except when eating and drinking. The food was kosher and wasn’t terrible, haha. The stewardesses were polite and very helpful.
After landing, we were immediately welcomed by a person holding a sign for olim chadashim, and we traveled as a group to different kiosks getting processed into the country. We were eventually taken to a room, where we were provided water and sandwiches while waiting to get our official paperwork. I received my Teudat Oleh (immigration ID) here, it’s similar to a passport, and your Teudat Zehut number (citizenship ID number) is listed inside. This number is very important and is used for all sorts of things in Israel. It’s a good idea to memorize your Teudat Zehut number. After you are completely processed, you are taken to collect your bags and escorted by the army to your taxi (free of charge) to your quarantine location.
The two-week stay at the Dan Panorama hotel in Tel Aviv (AKA, the quarantine hotel) was actually pretty nice. Especially when you consider the room was free, and you are provided three meals a day. It is operated by the army, who calls every day to check up on you and ask if you are showing any symptoms. You are not allowed to leave your room, even to step out into the hallway. Hotel staff brought my meals and hung them on the door handle outside my room. You could also call down to the front desk to receive more water bottles, cups, and coffee at any time. Fresh linen was delivered twice a week, and they took my trash whenever I put the bags outside my room. The beach view from my balcony was spectacular, with watching the sunsets being my favorite part of the day. I would often pass the time by video chatting with loved ones or reading books. The only negative aspect of the experience was the number of times people would throw extra bread (from their meals) from their balconies down to the pigeons below. They would be super aggressive and even kill each other over the bread. It was so bad the hotel had to send a mass text to everyone forbidding them to throw bread (though people still did it). It happened that while I was in bidud (quarantine), Rosh Hashana came and went. The hotel provided us with apples and honey, pomegranate seeds, and honey cake to celebrate the new year. We also got to hear the shofar from our balconies, courtesy of the IDF!
My boyfriend made Aliyah on the same day, so we got out of quarantine at the same time on September 24. He is from The Netherlands, and because of the borders being closed, we hadn’t seen each other in person since February. We rode in the free taxi together from Dan Panorama to Jerusalem. We had ten suitcases total, with two backpacks. The driver missed the turn onto our street; rather than turning around, he dropped us off 300 meters from our destination. We had to take turns with the luggage because there was so much, haha. After all of the heavy lifting, we decided to treat ourselves to some burgers outside of a nearby restaurant. We were enjoying being able to talk face-to-face again and being in each other’s presence when suddenly my brother ran into us with a group of his friends. I love Israel!
After getting a bite to eat, we cleaned up a bit and went for a walk in the romantic Wohl Rose Garden. We arrived at a hill with a beautiful view overlooking Jerusalem just before sunset. My boyfriend got down on one knee, and suddenly we were engaged! We had waited so long to be together again, and now we’ll spend the rest of our lives with each other.
It’s eerie being back in Jerusalem during a pandemic, even more so during a seger (lockdown). We are not supposed to travel beyond one kilometer (with some exceptions), most businesses are closed, and you have to wear a mask. Grocery stores and pharmacies are open. Restaurants are for take-out and deliveries only. Most of Shuk Mahane Yehuda is closed. You have to have your temperature taken before entering some places such as the shuk, the bank, or government offices. Fewer buses are running, and they stop earlier in the day. Jerusalemites seem to be doing a lot better with wearing masks than Israelis in other cities such as Tel Aviv. It was even possible for us to go to shul during Shabbat and the chagim. Chabad of Rechavia has an outdoor shaded minyan, with everyone wearing masks and seating faced far enough apart to limit any spread of the virus.
Despite all of the changes, life goes on here in Israel. People still take buses and the light rail. Musicians still play in the street, and dogs are still being walked. It’s not the Jerusalem I expected to make Aliyah to, but it is still the Jerusalem of my dreams. It became even more of a dream when we traveled to a grocery store on Emek Refaim to get this delicious Dutch peanut butter, and the store was filled with American products! There is so much I love about Israel, but one thing I can’t stand are Israeli pickles. So when I saw these on the shelf, I responded with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm: running over to my fiancé and jumping up and down while dragging him over to the aisle showing him the miracle that is Vlasic pickles in Israel.
Following Yom Kippur on September 29, we went to the Misrad Hapnim (Ministry of Interior) office in Jerusalem. Nefesh B’Nefesh advised us not to schedule an appointment because the seger the office was officially “closed.” But they had worked out with the Misrad Hapnim that olim chadashim could come to get their temporary Teudat Zehut, which we are required to get as soon as possible after making Aliyah. We pressed the button, and a security guard asked us in Hebrew why we were there. We told him we were there to get our Teudat Zehut, and he said they were closed. Another couple came up behind us and rang the bell again. Again, the security guard said they were closed. By this time a large group of people was forming behind us, and finally a woman came out flanked by two security guards. She yelled to everyone that they were closed and then asked a couple why they were there. Upon hearing their reason, she sent them away and told them to come back when they were open. We got her attention by desperately waving our Teudat Oleh in front of us, and said we are olim chadashim and need to get our Teudat Zehut. She let us through, and after going through security and having our temperature taken, we made our way upstairs to the offices. This goes to show that in Israel you must be persistent to get things done, and no does not always mean no when it comes to Israelis. We presented our documents and passport photos, took another photo for our permanent Teudat Zehut (to be sent by mail), and walked out with our temporary Teudat Zehut (good for three months). The entire process took about an hour.
Pre-corona times, we would have had to make an appointment and wait all day to be seen. It is not uncommon to devote an entire day to get anything done. Misrad Hapnim, Misrad HaKlita, bank appointments, each used to take hours and hours to finish. In a weird way, COVID-19 streamlined the Aliyah process making it a lot faster, smoother, and cheaper than ever before!
This was especially true at the bank. We knew we had to have a bank account before going to the Misrad HaKlita (Ministry of Immigrant Absorption) so that the Sal Klita payments could be deposited directly into our accounts. Being American, I had to find a bank that would take me as a customer because the USA taxes its citizens even when they live abroad, making me a more complicated case. I had heard Bank Hapoalim was one of Israel’s biggest banks, so we decided my odds of being accepted were higher with them. We went there and discovered the next available appointments were 2.5 weeks later. We scheduled the meetings but decided this was too long of a wait, and in the meantime we looked for another bank. We found that Discount Bank had an English website, and they had an appointment available the next day! So in the end, we became customers of Discount. Because of the pandemic, they limited the amount of time we could be in the bank to 10 minutes/person (and everyone had their temperature taken). What would normally be a rather lengthy approval process took about 20 minutes (not including waiting for about an hour). Not too shabby, I’d say!
Immediately after opening a bank account, we went to Misrad HaKlita. I had called to schedule an appointment while waiting at the bank, and they said no appointment was needed. Just come after opening a bank account so that they could set up the Sal Klita payments right away. We walked in, went through security (yet again having our temperature taken), and sat in Iyat’s office. She set up our Sal Klita payments, provided a list of ulpans for us to contact, and printed out a list of benefits we are entitled to as olim chadashim. We were in and out within twenty minutes! So to recap: We went to Misrad Hapnim, opened a bank account, and visited Misrad HaKlita all within two days. Impossible to do before the pandemic.
On October 1, we traveled to Eli in the Shomron to view an apartment we found on yad2 (website only available in Israel). It’s beautiful and extremely affordable- the rent per month is less than just one of our Sal Klita payments!!! It’s in a gorgeous area, so green and well-maintained. The community is mostly Dati Leumi and very warm and friendly. After viewing the apartment, we met with a few friends of my fiancé who live there. One of them drove us around, showing off all that Yishuv Eli has to offer. It has a post office, two health clinics (Maccabi and Clalit), a supermarket, smaller shops, a couple of restaurants, lots of security, and good schools for children. There is even a mechina (pre-army preparatory yeshiva) for young men. After seeing everything, we decided to go back to the apartment and signed a contract with our landlord (who is also a rabbi and printed a 1-page contract with 10 lines we were able to understand with Google Translate). I normally wouldn’t sign a rental contract without hiring a lawyer to look it over (and still HIGHLY recommend using a lawyer on Israel). Still, between our landlord being a rabbi, my fiancé’s friend who understands Hebrew approving it, reading it ourselves using Google Translate. It was such a simple and short contract, we felt safe enough signing it. Time will tell if this was a good decision or not, haha.
So this concludes my first three weeks as an Israeli! Needless to say, a lot has happened. In the coming weeks, I will need to change my address at Misrad Hapnim, sign up for supplemental insurance with my kupat cholim (I chose Maccabi), move into our apartment, find jobs, and plan a wedding! We will be getting married on December 15. As you’ve probably figured out by now, we don’t waste any time, haha. Looking forward to sharing endless adventures in Israel, and I’m so incredibly thankful to be home.