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Aliyah under lockdown – the good, the bad, and the ugly



Making aliyah in normal circumstances is challenging, but under lockdown, it has become even more so. Yet, there are some surprising benefits to doing it during a pandemic, as long as you know exactly what to expect.

Liat Amar Arran, the director of Israel Centre South Africa, says, “In the past four flights of olim, a day or two days before the flight, something has changed. So, people deciding to make aliyah under these circumstances are under a lot of stress. There’s a lot of chaos and uncertainty until the last minute. We are trying to support people, but we are also telling them that those who can’t deal with high levels of stress shouldn’t make aliyah at this time.

“Under lockdown, it’s much harder to integrate, build relationships, meet people, and invite new olim for coffee or Shabbat dinner. In terms of jobs, it’s tough. The unemployment rate in Israel is high, and people are losing jobs, so it’s much harder for olim.

“Our staff is working hard behind the scenes. Before COVID-19, the system was running smoothly. Now, every oleh needs so many levels of confirmation and documentation. In addition, Israelis are scared of the South African variant [of the virus], and restrictions on South Africans are high.”

Philip Stodel and his wife, Michele, from Cape Town arrived in Israel on the aliyah flight of 25 to 26 January 2021, possibly the last before Israel’s total closure of its airport.

“Our decision to make aliyah was made in May 2019, but the pandemic delayed our plans,” Stodel says. “We agreed on transfer in mid-January, but that decision and so many others was made based on a series of unknowns. The aliyah department couldn’t tell us if and when the next flights would be. We just had to be ready to respond, to take the next flight offered.”

The final journey was also full of unknowns. “It was only late on Sunday night [24 January] that we got the final confirmation that the flight could go ahead. Can you imagine the stress, emotion, and inconvenience had we been grounded?”

They managed because they were staying with family so they could mobilise quickly, are retired, and have no children at school. “However, due to the pending changes about the handling of retirement annuities from March this year, it was important for me to have emigrated and become an Israeli citizen prior to 1 March. Had this not happened, the financial impact could have been huge,” Stodel says.

“There were positive aspects too. Lockdown gave us the space to de-clutter our house. We’re now in mandatory government quarantine for 10 days, and being confined to a hotel room is giving me the perfect opportunity to catch up on admin without the distractions had we entered society immediately.”

Michelle Michelow, who made aliyah with her husband and two children on 30 November, says the toughest part of making the move during the pandemic is that her sons, 13 and 15, haven’t been able to go to school and get into a routine. “They’ve only had two days of normal school, so it’s been hard.”

Other than that, she and her family have had a very positive experience. “We’ve been talking about making aliyah for years. Lockdown was an accelerator for us. I had been looking for a ‘sign’, and that was it. There was a lot of anxiety about having no flight date, and a lot of paperwork that had to be filled in specifically because of the pandemic. Some paperwork could be filled in only a few hours before we flew, which was stressful.

“But since we’ve been here, everything has been fine. In fact, all I can say is ‘thank G-d for quarantine’. Even if there was no pandemic, I think every new oleh should have two weeks where they can’t move. It gives you time to process everything. You have time to ‘touch base’, make appointments, assess the job market, and unpack. We had to make appointments for everything, so there were no long queues or balagan [chaos].”

They found jobs easily and are both working from home. “You can find a job quickly if you don’t expect it to be the exact same thing you had in South Africa. For example, there’s a huge demand for English speakers in telemarketing. Another positive for us has been the simplicity of life here. It feels more manageable. You walk to the shops – I even send the kids to the shops at night – and there’s no schlepping.”

They haven’t felt lonely. “We knew a lot of South Africans living here, and there is a big sense of community.” Finally, they are thrilled to have already both received their first COVID-19 vaccination shots. “When I was thinking about making aliyah, someone said ‘don’t think about it, just do it’ and it’s the same advice I would give.”

In contrast, Marco Albeldas, in his 30s, has battled under the pandemic. “I made aliyah in January 2020. It’s been a nightmare,” he says. “The pandemic closed all small businesses down. I haven’t been able to find work apart from teaching surfing. My biggest issue is that everything is set up in a way that benefits Israelis. It’s like Israelis are worried that we will take jobs from them.”

Dorron Kline, the chief executive of Telfed, says that since the first lockdown in 2020, more than 400 South Africans have made aliyah, including 65 this year.

Regarding aliyah and klita (absorption), under lockdown, there are a number of challenges. “The government offices are closed, and their staff work from home. Therefore, everything takes a lot longer to organise. Not everyone finds it easy to stay in a hotel room for 10 days. You may struggle to make appointments. Some olim have lost their jobs.’”

Telfed tries to assist as much as it can. “We provide pre-aliyah counselling, especially in klita, aliyah benefits, employment, and housing. We connect prospective olim with regional volunteers, giving information about different areas in Israel. Our social worker provides essential information for families with members who have special needs. Students require information on Telfed scholarships. Once olim arrive, we bring welcome packages and advise how to proceed with life after quarantine.”

He says there have been positive aspects to making aliyah under the pandemic. “South African olim all arrive together on group flights. It makes contact with them much more manageable, and they support each other.”

For anyone thinking about aliyah during the pandemic, he says, “One needs to come with more patience and more funds. The earlier one makes contact with Telfed, the better.”

Says Amar Arran, “Aliyah is a personal decision. The pandemic is forcing us all to question what’s important. For those thinking of aliyah, it may have pushed them to ask, ‘Why not now?’”

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