With Family Abroad, These Israelis Find It Hard to Join Post-lockdown Party

As the coronavirus continues to ravage countries like the U.S. and U.K., Israelis are left feeling trapped and helpless – even as life quickly returns to normal at home

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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Tale of two cities: Shoppers in Hatikva Market, Tel Aviv, on May 12, left, and the deserted main drag of Westport, Connecticut, May 5. 2020.
Tale of two cities: Shoppers in Hatikva Market, Tel Aviv, on May 12, left, and the deserted main drag of Westport, Connecticut, May 5. 2020. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum / Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

As coronavirus infection numbers continue to go down, Israel is fully engaged in the process of quickly opening up. Children are being sent back to school, shoppers are returning to malls, surfers to beaches, bodybuilders to gyms – and, with much fanfare, it is now officially safe for extended families to reunite and “hug Grandma and Grandpa.”

There is a spirit of relief and even celebration in the air, even as underlying concerns about a second wave of coronavirus infections persists, and many parts of the local economy continue to suffer.

But for immigrant Israelis and expats with family and friends back in the “Old Country” – including coronavirus hot spots like the United States, Great Britain and France – it has been difficult to join the party.

While they are familiar with being on the receiving end of worry from their relatives during periods of war and terrorism in the Middle East, being on the other side is a much more alien sensation. They aren’t used to feeling so distressed about their loved ones in places they associate with stability and security.

Since the outbreak hit New York City, Elisa Moed, who moved to Israel in 2005, has been deeply concerned about her parents, ages 85 and 96, who live in a senior independent living facility in lower Manhattan with a full-time aide.

Beginning in March, the management company running their facility began sending her updates with a regular count of how many people living around her parents were infected with the virus and how many had died.

Shirley and Vern Leopold, the parents of Elisa Moed.
Shirley and Vern Leopold, the parents of Elisa Moed. Credit: Courtesy

“It was very frightening to watch the numbers go up and up. We felt like they were sitting ducks, even though they were staying in their apartment and being good,” Moed says.

Then, in the middle of Passover holiday in April, her mother fell and broke her shoulder. While she was being treated in the hospital, doctors noticed her oxygen levels were low; she was tested and found positive for the coronavirus. Her daughter’s heart sank as she correctly predicted it would only be “a matter of time” before her father and their aide would test positive as well.

Because her mother was in her mid-eighties, it was decided she would not be put on a ventilator if her condition worsened.

“Frankly, we weren’t very optimistic,” Moed relays. Being unable to help them, she says, was devastating. Whenever her parents had experienced a health crisis in the past, she had “jumped” on a plane to lend a hand.

“I felt absolutely helpless. But more than that, the knowledge that they are alone and very ill, potentially dying – and you’re not able to hold their hand and be there if, God forbid, something happens – is terrifying and frightening. What has been truly awful about this disease is hearing that people have died alone, or only with nurses at their side.”

Miraculously, both of Moed’s parents seem to have recovered. Though still testing positive, neither is suffering from any COVID-19 symptoms. “Still, I don’t know when I can get on a plane and go there and see them, and that’s a terrible feeling,” Moed says. “I’m determined to try to fly in August for my father’s 97th birthday – even if I have to come back and go into quarantine. It will be worth it.”

Stressful time

Even for immigrants who don’t have ailing relatives, the enforced separation from loved ones is stressful, with traditional pilgrimages home impossible for the foreseeable future.

Liza Rosenberg, who immigrated to Israel in 1991, has sent her 14-year-old son Yogev to summer camp in the United States for the past three years. Not only is the Pardes Hanna resident disappointed that he will be missing out, but this year she was planning to join him when camp was over. It would have been her first trip back to the United States since the death of her parents, and not being able to go makes her feel terrible. She says the fact there will be no camp this year, and that she won’t be making the trip, seems “surreal.”

“I was really looking forward to visiting my brother in Atlanta, who I haven’t seen in two years, and we were going to go together to Sarasota, Florida, to visit older relatives who are the same age as my late parents – this was our chance,” she says.

For Jerusalemite Josh Aronson, 33, the coronavirus has not only separated him from his family in Great Britain; it is also standing in the way of true love.

Josh Aronson pictured with his girlfriend.
Josh Aronson pictured with his girlfriend.Credit: Courtesy

Aronson grew up in an ultra-Orthodox family in Manchester, where his parents and 13 siblings still live. One of his siblings, and several aunts and uncles, had been ill with COVID-19, although “thank God they are better now,” he says.

Although he has lived in Israel for the past 15 years, Aronson travels back to England frequently for work and to see his family. Last year, on a visit home, he went on a blind date with a girl. “It was literally love at first sight, and has only gotten better,” he says.

In February, he recalls, “I was sitting on the plane on the way back to Israel and said to myself that I knew this was the girl I was going to marry.” He set plans in motion to propose to her on his next trip to Britain, over Passover – a trip foiled by the pandemic.

Though his intended is aware of his plans, he says, they are not yet formally engaged. “No way am I going to propose over Zoom,” he says, emphatically.

He is anxious for “things to get better so I can fly out.” In the meantime, he says, he feels “very worried and stressed all the time about what is happening over there. I keep telling both my girlfriend and my parents not to go out. But they are very social and extroverted, and don’t always listen. So I tell them to wear masks.”

‘Less confidence’

Orli Robinson Jacobs, a therapist who has lived in Israel for 30 years, says she feels grateful that her 88-year-old mother Rachel, a widow who lives alone, “is listening to me and staying at home, not wandering around” in the coronavirus hot spot of Silver Spring, Maryland.

Jacobs and her sister live near each other in Ra’anana (a third sister lives in Austin, Texas). The three sisters visit their mother frequently, and she still flies to Israel regularly. For her mother’s last birthday, they celebrated by meeting in Spain – but all that traveling is on hold indefinitely.

Orli Robinson Jacobs, second from left, with her sisters and mother.
Orli Robinson Jacobs, second from left, with her sisters and mother.Credit: Courtesy

Even though her mother is doing well, Jacobs says, “I definitely am reaching out more than I usually do. I speak to my mother on a daily basis. Three months ago, we stayed in touch – but I wasn’t calling her every day.”

Jacobs has gone back to work, both in schools and her reopened private clinic where she treats children and adolescents. Many of her young clients come from families who moved to Israel from France, Italy and South America, as well as English-speaking countries. “I feel like I have to give therapy to the parents as much as the children these days,” she say. “Many of them are upset and feel helpless about their elderly parents in European countries.”

She is acutely aware of how different the situation is in the United States right now and asks herself how she can support her family there: “Just like when the missiles are falling here I get calls from them to see if everything is OK, now I keep checking in on them.”

Because she is a therapist, Jacobs adds, “it’s my instinct to keep a finger on the pulse of their mental health – and on that of my friends, too. I definitely sense there’s more anxiety there than there is here. Maybe it’s because they are feeling less confidence in the ability of their leaders to handle the pandemic.”

Ghost town

Martin Somers’ household is keeping track of the coronavirus situation across four continents. He immigrated from South Africa and his wife Michel from Argentina. They met and married in Israel 30 years ago.

Her extended family is in lockdown in Buenos Aires. Most of his, including his 80-year-old mother, is quarantined in Johannesburg. His brother is an “overworked and exhausted” physician in Boston, working in a COVID-19 intensive care ward.

Martin Somers and his wife.
Martin Somers and his wife.Credit: Courtesy

Compounding his worries is the state of the manufacturing business he owns. For the past 20 years, he has built the company, which manufactures measuring and calibrating machines for industry. But business has slowed to a crawl as his overseas clients have shut businesses down and he has needed to lay off employees.

Somers began to feel the crisis in January when business was disrupted in China and has watched it spread since then. “It’s been like a cloud that keeps darkening country after country and market after market,” he says.

Normally, this is the time of the year he would be flying around the world, doing business and attending shows and conventions. But “nobody is even thinking about traveling until the end of summer,” he notes.

He has returned to his work, but his office building feels like a ghost town, he says: “People have not come back – especially the offices of the small startups are empty.”

Caring deeply about family and business overseas definitely makes Somers “more stressed out than a typical Israeli,” he admits. “Israelis were very worried at the beginning. Now they seem much more relaxed and happy that the country is opening up. But people like me, who aren’t focused on what the mall down the street looks like but what is happening in Johannesburg, Detroit, Moscow, India – we’re still very worried.”

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