Israel is seeing a spike in aliyah (immigration to Israel) this year, with a higher number of people interested in moving to the Jewish state compared to previous years. But with COVID-19 wreaking havoc across the world, it has become more difficult to get through the process and once in the Jewish state, whole families are required to sequester in a hotel for two weeks. Welcome to aliyah in 2020!
According to Yael Katsman, vice president of public relations and communications at Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization that promotes and facilitates aliyah to Israel, “aliyah is continuing, and we are seeing a massive spike in interest in the number of applications.”
Katsman noted that compared to previous years, this August there was a more than 200 percent increase in applications. The top three states from which people seek to make aliyah are New York, California and New Jersey.
“We’ve had almost 1,000 people coming in this summer,” she told JNS.
“Israel’s gates are open to olim [new immigrants]. It’s just a question of getting the paperwork in order,” she added.
And herein lies the problem.
The global coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on bureaucratic systems since offices are shut and workers are staying home. This means that the process to make aliyah, which requires no shortage of paperwork, signatures and stamps, has essentially slowed to a crawl.
Coupled with that 200 percent increase in applications, and potential immigrants are looking at a major system backup.
To make matters worse, Israel requires an apostille—a form of authentication issued to documents for use in countries that participate in the Hague Convention of 1961—for documents such as birth certificates, personal status documentation, adoption papers and criminal background checks.
While there are companies that provide services helping individuals with getting documents authenticated with apostilles, a large part of the problem is that they must be issued by a federal office in America—offices not working to full capacity.
“It’s a process,” said Katsman. “There is various documentation that you need, which is part of the standard process of making aliyah. The processing is taking somewhat longer because of the pandemic.”
“We are doing the best we can to help process everyone,” she said.
Helping new immigrants acclimate to home and school
Knesset member Michal Cotler-Wunsh of the Blue and White Party told JNS that with regard to apostilles, “the specific holdup comes from an important effort on Israel’s part to ensure those that are making aliyah are not known offenders in their countries of origin who are attempting to move to Israel.”
“The problem is also primarily affecting individuals making aliyah from the U.S., where the apostille must come from Washington, and due to COVID-19, this office is functioning on extremely limited capacity, leading to the delays in the aliyah process,” she said.
But she understands that some solution must still be found if the coronavirus isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and people need a way to expedite the process.
“Given the imperative to protect all its citizens, Israel cannot simply ease the apostille restriction; however, we are looking into creative solutions to ameliorate the backlog in the system due to COVID-19,” said Cotler-Wunsh. “These include looking at bilateral efforts between the U.S. and Israeli governments to streamline the apostille process, or allowing individuals to move to Israel on visas and finish the aliyah process while already in the country.”
Once the aliyah process is complete, olim must isolate for two weeks after landing in Israel. What was once a day of immense joy and emotion has become a dreaded period that lacks the celebratory atmosphere that usually greets new arrivals.
But Cotler-Wunsh, a member of the Knesset Immigration and Integration Committee, said she has made efforts in this area as well in order to help olim acclimate to their new reality.
Indeed, on Sept. 1, the first day of school, she visited those being released from their two-week quarantine in hotels to welcome them and to speak to the new students joining classrooms around Israel for the first time.
“The Jewish Agency, the IDF’s Home Front Command unit, and the hotel staff are playing such an important role in supporting olim during this unique and challenging” time, she said, adding that “it was important that I speak to each of them about the support they need and my responsibility as a voice for olim in the Knesset.”