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Israel is open – but should we go?

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Israel has finally dropped South Africa from its red list as COVID-19 numbers surge in the Jewish state while the Omicron wave in South Africa begins to subside. But just because the gates are open, should we be going to Israel, especially with infection rates going through the roof?

“There was obviously tremendous excitement that people who are vaccinated can now travel to Israel without going through any bureaucratic hoops,” says former Knesset minister and current olim advocate Dov Lipman. His organisation assists olim to adapt to life in Israel and cope with its bureaucracy. It has been at the forefront of helping olim and their families navigate Israel’s changing travel restrictions during the pandemic.

“However, among the reasons why this change was made is because of the degree to which the variant is spreading in Israel,” Lipman says. “It reached a point where keeping the doors closed just didn’t make sense. So people have to understand that they’re coming into a country where people are getting corona[virus] regularly. Our statistics last week showed that 10% of those arriving in Israel from overseas were testing positive.

“Yad L’Olim is getting regular messages from people saying, ‘Help, I tested positive at the airport’, or ‘I’m visiting, didn’t feel well, and tested positive’, or ‘I tested positive on my test before my flight home’,” he says. “As much as we want to help everyone, once someone tests positive in Israel, there is an automatic quarantine of 10 days [the government may reduce it to seven days]. The authorities are very strict about this. There is also the possibility that the authorities will mandate that you do this quarantine in a hotel at your own expense if you don’t have your own apartment. You need to know this risk before you come to Israel.

“Anyone coming in has to be aware of the very real possibility that they could test positive on their arrival or while they are here,” he says. “And if that happens, they have to do full quarantine before they can leave. As an organisation, we’re recommending that people consider travelling to Israel only if there’s a need. If there’s a family simcha, or a tragic situation, something that cannot be put off. That’s what I recommend.”

For those concerned that this is just a small window of opportunity and that the borders may be closed again, Lipman says he doesn’t think this the case. “I do believe that we will be able to maintain the open skies moving forward. At Yad L’Olim we are working hard with members of Knesset to create a plan now and for the future so that the gates remain open, especially for olim and their families and those that have a special reason to come to Israel.”

He also wants to remind people that “any Israeli can leave the country if they choose to, and that might also be an option for those looking to unite with their families”.

Johannesburg-based travel agent Shana Chrysler says that travelling to and from Israel right now can be complicated. “I cannot tell you how many people are testing positive and having to change at the last minute,” she says. “A family of seven had to cancel this morning [11 January] who were coming for a wedding here [in South Africa]. We had more clients tonight [11 January] cancel due to COVID-19 results – passengers cannot come home if they test positive. South Africa requires a negative PCR test to return. I now have clients stuck in Turkey.”

According to Israeli media, Israel has now begun authorising at-home antigen test kits, seeking to relieve the strain at overcrowded testing centres, and restricting PCR testing only to at-risk individuals. But the switch to home tests has also led to stores running out. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is reportedly looking to bring in 50 million tests within 10 days. The government is also planning to add 40 new testing centres, bringing the total nationwide to 300.

Since Omicron and the travel bans hit the world late last year, “Yad L’Olim has been busy literally 24 hours a day”, says Lipman. “This includes answering people’s questions about the new rules, guiding people especially when they test positive here in Israel, and advocating for expanding the rules. We have especially advocated for allowing those who have recovered [from COVID-19] to enter Israel, especially if they have a special reason to come.

“On the ground in Israel, people know that that the virus is spreading very quickly,” he says. “They are choosing to stay out of public environments as much as possible. I wouldn’t say that people are functioning in fear because the number of serious cases and deaths isn’t at a place where it’s causing that fear, but people are certainly being cautious.”

But other olim told the SA Jewish Report that Israelis are tired of the rules and many don’t wear masks or use sanitiser in public. And while Lipman cautions against going to the country, many said they thought it was fine to visit Israel. Says Josh Buchalter (24) in Tel Aviv, “The Omicron wave really seems like annual winter flu, for 20-35 year olds at least. I haven’t really spoken to anyone outside of that bracket.

“My girlfriend tested positive and I tested negative. We live together, so it made no sense that I was negative. But either way, our symptoms were really like flu and nothing else. For one to two days we were clearly sick, sneezing a lot. But we rested, and by the third day, we were much better. By the fourth or fifth day we were 100% fine.

“Although it’s a personal decision, my opinion is that if someone is double vaccinated and not a high-risk individual, there’s nothing to fear,” he says. “Besides the 15-degree weather, everything in Israel is sababa (cool)!”

At this point in time, foreigners can enter Israel with no permit provided they are vaccinated with a second or third dose within 180 days of their visit. They must be 14 days from the vaccination date. If more than 180 days have passed since the traveller’s booster (the third dose), Israel will honour it until the end of February 2022.

There’s no automatic allowance for unvaccinated children of any age. If you need to travel with children, you can try to get a permit, but these will be granted only in extreme emergencies.

To enter Israel, you must complete the pre-flight form within 48 hours of your flight. You must get a negative PCR test within 72 hours of departure to Israel or a negative lab-based antigen test within 24 hours of departure. You are exempted from this requirement if you fit the criteria for entry and you have a positive PCR test to show from between 11 days and three months before your flight.

The quarantine period exists until you receive your negative PCR test back from Ben Gurion, or after 24 hours, whichever comes first.

“Recently recovered COVID-19 patients may continue to test positive upon arrival at Ben Gurion,” notes Lipman. “If this happens, please be aware that you must apply for release from quarantine, and it can take time and effort to secure that release.”

To get updates on Israel’s changing travel restrictions, visit yadlolim.org/corona-update

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“We could do much more together,” Israeli ambassador tells Ramaphosa

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Israel’s new ambassador to South Africa, Eliav Belotsercovsky, rubbed elbows with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa when he presented his credentials to him on Tuesday, 25 January, at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guest House in Tshwane.

Ramaphosa was courteous and smiling as Belotsercovsky told him about how the relationship between their countries could improve and how Israel could help South Africa.

“We believe there’s tremendous potential in us working together,” the Israeli ambassador told Ramaphosa. “Together, we can share dreams and together, we can fulfil them.”

Belotsercovsky said that South Africa was a shining example of a peaceful and dignified transition under the enlightened and courageous leadership of Nelson Mandela. He said the country’s democratic transformation took place with an independent judicial system and a free press.

But most importantly, he said, it was achieved through dialogue and “Israel is looking forward to upgrading our bilateral dialogue. There’s so much we can do together in the future in science and technology, education and training, food security, and climate change.”

He used the example of South African and Israeli scientists working together to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak as an example of successful co-operation.

Israel’s government is based on “a rainbow coalition” Belotsercovsky said, which represents an excellent example of partnership between religious and secular Jews and Arabs, people of European and African origins, politicians and technocrats, all united in the task of fulfilling the dreams of the next generation.

He went on to tell the president about the phenomenal ways Israel is already using its technology and knowhow to work successfully in South Africa, and said he hoped there was much more they could do together.

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Legal amendment puts Lithuanian citizenship in reach

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Thousands of Litvak Jews around the world stand a much better chance at getting Lithuanian citizenship based on ancestry since the law was amended last week.

A bill to amend Lithuania’s Law on Citizenship was unanimously passed in Lithuania’s Seimas (parliament) last Thursday, 20 January. It will have far-reaching positive implications for future applicants, many of whom had unsuccessfully tried and lost hope of obtaining citizenship.

This follows a year of extensive lobbying efforts from many quarters. It involved various iterations of a draft bill which was revised and redrafted several times, according to those involved, leading to last week’s vote, in which 110 members of parliament from across Lithuania’s political spectrum supported the bill.

Lithuanian Ambassador to South Africa Dainius Junevičius said the bill clarified that anyone who was a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania before 15 June 1940 was eligible for reinstatement of their citizenship on condition that there were no decisions adopted on their loss of citizenship.

This is a huge relief to many whose applications were rejected by the Lithuanian migration department, some pending indefinitely with others being placed on hold.

The application jam stemmed from a Lithuanian Supreme Court decision a few years ago which opened the law up for interpretation, making it much tougher, and which dramatically slowed down applications, causing enormous frustration.

In addition to what was always accepted as sufficient proof of Lithuanian citizenship, applicants were also required to provide proof that their Lithuanian immigrant ancestors actively sought to maintain their Lithuanian citizenship once in South Africa (or their new country of residence) until 15 June 1940.

This was a dramatic departure from the original position, which never required proof that citizenship was actively maintained after leaving Lithuania.

“This was a major obstacle for applicants as in almost all cases, no such proof exists. It also had far-reaching implications for all future citizenship applications,” said Lithuanian emigration consultant Nida Degutienė from Next Steps. Her company assists South Africans and others to obtain Lithuanian citizenship by helping to source the required documentation for reinstatement of their citizenship. She told the SA Jewish Report many of her clients’ applications had been declined by the migration department because of this.

In some cases where families had applied at different times using the same source documents, some had been granted citizenship, while others had been rejected.

However, this will soon change, said an elated Degutienė, who believes last week’s vote will pave the way forward for many South African Jews to successfully apply for citizenship.

“Less than a year ago, I was telling a story of a ridiculous court ruling which was applied to an unlucky Litvak family whose application for Lithuanian citizenship was rejected. Now I’m so happy to announce that the law has been amended, and this particular family, as many more, will be free to receive their passports.”

Degutienė and many others including politicians and lawyers in Lithuania and members of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies campaigned tirelessly for the amendment.

“I was really frustrated about the grey zone in the citizenship legislation which was used by Lithuanian institutions to create rules and obstacles that made many South African Litvaks ineligible for a Lithuanian passport,” said Degutienė. “The only way to solve this impossible situation was to change the law as any other solution would have been too temporary, and we would have had to depend on court procedures which are lengthy and costly.”

She said it had been a tough road.

“Not many colleagues or competitors believed I would succeed, but now as you see, if you put all your heart and effort into something, sooner or later it results in positive developments.”

Said Junevičius, “As we welcome this move by the Republic of Lithuania, removing many barriers to apply for the reinstatement of Lithuanian citizenship, we anticipate deepening connection with ancestral land and fully expect an exponential growth in economic relations and tourism.”

The director of AccessEU, Nicole Marcus, said this week, “AccessEU looks forward to overturning the negative decisions and restoring our 100% success record. Over the years, we’ve experienced changes to the requirements and process, at times becoming very difficult if not near impossible, and at other times easing somewhat. We urge everyone who is eligible to use this opportunity to apply for Lithuanian citizenship before any new interpretations might close the doors once again.”

Before the bill becomes law, Lithuania’s president will need to sign the bill into effect, and this is expected to happen soon.

Once enacted into law, the effect of this amendment will be to remove the requirement that one’s Lithuanian ancestor must have actively maintained their Lithuanian citizenship until 14 June 1940. That requirement was strictly enforced by the migration department since December 2020 following the Supreme Court decision in November 2020, when an application for citizenship with no supporting Lithuanian documentation was brought, causing serious ramifications for many other applicants.

Many applicants were refused citizenship on the basis that their Lithuanian ancestor had naturalised prior to 15 June 1940. Now the prospects of success for those applicants have been revived.

According to insiders, many hundreds of applications are believed to have been waiting for years for a decision following various procedural and then interpretative changes. Hundreds of applications which are currently held in suspense pending queries from Lithuania’s migration department which had been almost impossible to satisfy will now need to be reconsidered.

The migration department will probably take some time to work through the backlog, and applicants shouldn’t expect immediate results. They should keep in mind that the change in the law doesn’t mean that every applicant will be successful as each application will depend on its own supporting documentation which varies from one family to the next, insiders say.

Applicants are still required to prove that their Lithuanian ancestor left Lithuania after 16 February 1918 (the Republic of Lithuania’s initial date of independence) and must still prove with Lithuanian documentation that they held Lithuanian citizenship and departed from Lithuania.

One of the questions still being asked is whether those whose ancestors arrived in South Africa prior to 1918 will be able to apply for a passport.

“The answer is no,” said Degutienė. “This law does not extend the right of applying to those who emigrated earlier than the State of Lithuania was established, and it’s unlikely this will ever change.”

Degutienė said the amendment wouldn’t have been made possible without the help of Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dalia Asanavičiūtė. “Without her persistence and resilience against huge pressure from the migration department and opposition, and her deep understanding and respect for Jews, this change would never have been possible.”

Junevičius said the amendment was a very positive development, and would probably ensure the success of many pending and future applications.

He encouraged prospective passport holders to show an interest in Lithuania, saying that amongst other things, the country offered a broad range of international study programmes taught in English in its 19 universities and 22 colleges at a highly competitive price.

Nearly 8 000 students from 127 countries in the world including South Africa and Israel studied in Lithuania in the 2020 to 2021 academic year, Junevičius said. “The reasons to choose Lithuania as your study destination are multiple, but the main ones are high quality world-class education for an affordable price in an attractive European country.”

As for business opportunities, Junevičius said that for the past 20 years, Lithuania had been the fastest growing economy in the European Union in terms of gross domestic product per capita, with a “highly favourable business environment” with top rankings and ratings.

“Things here get done quicker and better because the doers – from students and engineers to the go-to advisors at Invest Lithuania – are agile, ambitious, and driven by big ideas. And when it comes to big ideas, we don’t dabble, we explore, from gene and cell therapy to the latest in machine learning.”

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Hostage crisis hits close to home for Cape Town rabbi

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It was the middle of the night when Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation’s (Temple Israel’s) Rabbi Greg Alexander (Rabbi Greg) heard that a fellow faith leader was being held hostage in a Texas shul on Saturday, 15 January.

Although the shocking event was unfolding across the oceans, it hit hard as he realised he knew the rabbi being held hostage.

“Suddenly the world felt small again. It took a moment to register that this was happening,” says Rabbi Greg. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and his congregants escaped around the same time that an elite FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) hostage rescue team breached the Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, after an 11-hour standoff. The hostage-taker, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed.

“My wife, student rabbi Andi, and I met Rabbi Charlie in 2001 when we lived in Jerusalem,” recalls Rabbi Greg. “Andi and Rabbi Charlie’s wife, Adena, studied together at the liberal Bet Midrash on King David Street. Rabbi Charlie was a rabbinical student. We spent some Shabbatot together, and stayed in touch when they went back to the United States and we moved to London.

“We met them at the height of the Second Intifada when there were bombings in Jerusalem,” he says. “It was a time of fear and uncertainty then, and I can’t imagine what it must have felt like now to be in that synagogue, or for her watching and waiting…”

“We haven’t seen Charlie or Adena for nearly 20 years even though we have followed each other online, and have gone in similar directions in our rabbinic work,” he says. “They are such amazing people, and are working every day for a better world. It’s so important to know in talking about this attack that of the many social-justice causes he initiated, his synagogue has specifically reached out to local Muslim communities and hosted them for Ramadan.” Temple Israel has done the same.

As the hostage crisis unfolded during an online Shabbat service, Rabbi Greg was alerted to the news a million miles away in time and place, late on Saturday night (South African time).

“We found out while Rabbi Charlie was still being held with the other hostages in the synagogue. The network of progressive rabbis around the world were all sharing what little information they could find, and we watched with horror to see what would unfold. Many people davened for their safe release. Of course, you immediately think of your own shul, wondering if it could happen to you. We are blessed in South Africa not to have experienced the levels of antisemitic violence we have seen in Europe or America, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen here. Please G-d it won’t, ever.”

At times like this, “his synagogue could be any synagogue”, he says. “When something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.” In fact, when Rabbi Greg posted on Facebook that he was praying for the safety of Cytron-Walker, a local Chabad rabbi commented on his post, “We are all praying for their safe release. Please G-d we will hear good news soon.”

Rabbi Greg says Cytron-Walker is “the definition of a good guy – a mensch of the first order. He’s kind, generous, and quick with a smile. As a rabbi, he has always emphasised peace work, social justice, and interfaith work. Everyone has commented on how calm and unflappable he was throughout the crisis.”

He says this isn’t the time to lose hope in connecting with other communities. “We will continue to reach out to our interfaith partners to build bridges of understanding in our local community.”

Asked if he ever imagined something like this happening in the shul of a fellow rabbi, Rabbi Greg says, “I’m well aware of how incidents of unapologetic Jew-hatred have increased in the world in the past decade. Ten years ago, nobody thought we would be living through this kind of violence and verbal attacks, but it’s now sadly commonplace.”

In fact, after the deadly Pittsburgh attack in which 11 Jews were murdered in the Tree of Life Synagogue on 27 October 2018, Cytron-Walker wrote to people from other communities who had supported his congregation by expressing their grief.

“When I heard about the deadly attack in the middle of our Sabbath service, the feeling was all too familiar,” he wrote at the time. “The emptiness and the pain, the anger and the helplessness. Too many times in Jewish history we faced tragedy without love or support. Too many times to count, we were left to pick up the pieces of tragedy and destruction. Believe me, the love and support matters. It’s something we all should be able to expect of each other. Thank you for helping us through these dark times. Thank you for standing together. When it comes to hatred and violence, we must all stand together.”

In the aftermath of his own ordeal, he once again thanked others for their support. “I’m thankful and filled with appreciation for all the vigils, prayers, love, and support, all the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all the security training that helped save us. I’m grateful for my family. I’m grateful for the CBI [Congregation Beth Israel] community, the Jewish community, the human community. I’m grateful that we made it out. I’m grateful to be alive.”

His words echo that of a psalm which Rabbi Greg says is one to remember at this time. “Psalm 116: 7-11 from the full Hallel in Rabbi Edward Feld’s beautiful translation in Siddur Lev Shalem reads: “‘Be at ease,’ I said to myself, ‘for Hashem has done this for you.’ You have saved me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I shall walk in G-d’s presence in the land of the living.”

“I hope Rabbi Charlie and the congregants taken hostage can ease their hearts with Hallel psalms,” Rabbi Greg says. “There’s nothing like tehillim for articulating how it feels to be freed from terrible danger.”

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