Aliyah Up Amid COVID Fears

By LILA SARICK

Applications from North Americans seeking to move to Israel are at a record high, driven in part by fears about COVID and increasingly tight borders.

In May, 814 applications to make aliyah were submitted to Nefesh B’ Nefesh, a nonprofit agency that facilitates immigration from North America. That was twice as many as the 424 applications at the same time last year.

Canada also saw an increase in applications, with 111 applications submitted over two months, from April until the end of May 2020, compared with 70 applications submitted during the same time in 2019.

“May 2020 was the largest ever amount of applications received in our 18-year history,” Yael Katsman, director of communications for Nefesh B’Nefesh, told the CJR.

“The whole pandemic has made some priorities shift. All of a sudden people realize they can work remotely and they can be in touch with their family on Zoom.”

In one case, an applicant had been trying to convince her company that she could work remotely. Now, with many employees working from home, her ability to work from Israel seems more feasible, Katsman said.

As the virus spread rapidly around the world this spring, Israel was quick to close its borders to everyone but its citizens. For Brenda Zalter-Minden, who lives in Burlington, Ont., that was enough to convince her to submit her application. She had planned to be in Israel to visit her daughter and help her with her three young children over the Passover holiday.

Brenda Zalter-Minden and her grandchildren

“I couldn’t get there. That just really rattled me,” she said. “I feel stuck. I never want to feel like I can’t get to my grandchildren and of course, my daughter, again.”

Her daughter is taking her final nursing exams in September, and Zalter-Minden said she hopes to be there in August to help with child care so her daughter can study. But for now her plans are up in the air.

“I’m trying to get all my paperwork in order, but it’s taking an extremely long time,” she said.

As part of the application process, she has sent all of her personal identity documents – birth certificate, wedding and divorce papers and her and her husband’s passports – to the Jewish Agency, where they need to be certified and then forwarded to the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa

“They were all sent with registered mail,” Zalter-Minden said. “I haven’t heard from them that they’ve received it. I’m a little concerned.”

She has phoned the Jewish Agency often, but said very rarely reaches a person there or has a message returned.

Zalter-Minden, who is semi-retired and worked as an organizational development consultant before the pandemic saw her speaking engagements cancelled, said she hopes to get to Israel either as soon as her immigration status is confirmed, or when the country reopens to visitors.

While some airlines are resuming flights to Israel gradually, currently, only citizens and those coming on aliyah are permitted into the country, Katsman said. On the week of June 9, a flight carrying 50 olim landed in Israel, she said.

“It’s a hard thing to pack yourself up and sell your property and get ready,” especially in the midst of a pandemic, Katsman said.

She predicted that the real bump in aliyah will come in 2021.

David Rotfleisch, a Toronto tax lawyer, had planned to be living in Israel by Rosh Hashanah this year, but he admits that it’s looking unlikely. His decision to make aliyah was not motivated by COVID, but by what he interprets as divine providence.

David Rotfleisch
David Rotfleisch

Last December, he won a raffle for what he thought was an apartment in Jerusalem. It wasn’t exactly that, but he did win a sizeable amount of money to buy a home in Israel.

“I’m religious. To me, this is a direct communication from HaShem that I should be making aliyah and living in Israel,” Rotfleisch said.

He went to Israel to look for an apartment earlier this year, leaving just before the country went into lockdown. He hasn’t been able to return to continue house hunting, and has no idea when it will be safe to fly again.

Rotfleisch, who is self-employed, has been working remotely for years. “I’m just as employed in Israel as I am in Toronto,” he said. But with his paperwork delayed by the temporary closing of the Israeli Embassy, and health concerns about travelling, he is uncertain when he will have the chance to return to Israel.