These Israelis Are Stuck Abroad This Passover Because of Coronavirus

Thousands of Israelis abroad will have to rely on virtual seders to see their families back home this year, the coronavirus pandemic making this particular Passover unlike any other night. Here are six of those stories

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Omer Rabin, top right, in a video chat with family members. He will be stuck in New York for Passover.
Omer Rabin, top right, in a video chat with family members. He will be stuck in New York for Passover.Credit: Omer Rabin
shachar peled
Shachar Peled

For thousands of Israelis living overseas, Passover was supposed to be a time of festivities and family reunions back home. Many others were due to head home after vacationing abroad. But the coronavirus upended all of those hopes, leaving planes grounded around the world and many Israelis’ vacations up in the air. Here is how COVID-19 ruined the best-laid plans of seven of them...

Omer Rabin, New York

The managing director of a software company in the travel/hospitality industry, Omer Rabin, 33, was supposed to arrive in Israel from New York at the end of March and stay until the end of the Passover break. He was especially looking forward to spending the seder with his 90-year-old grandmother.

“This was supposed to be a very unique opportunity for me to celebrate both Passover and her 90th birthday,” he tells Haaretz in a video chat. “My grandma’s matza ball soup, named in Hungarian ‘gombotz soup,’ is practically our family mascot. The grandkids’ WhatsApp group is called ‘Team Gombotz.’”

Omer RabinCredit: Omer Rabin

Rabin says it took him a while to cancel the entire trip, in what was “a slow, painful, lingering process.” At first he was hoping to still make it. “I kept telling myself that the world can’t shut down for more than a month and by March 29 – which was my flight date – all will be back in order,” he recalls. “Within days, it became clear that we were heading in a different direction. I then waited until the very last moment to cancel my flight, in the hopes that the airline would cancel it and refund my fees.”

Like many others, he ended up receiving a voucher, unclear when he’ll be able to redeem it.

Rabin is now trying to focus on the half-full glass, like the fact he and his family are all healthy or that his parents are becoming more tech-savvy. “We managed to teach my mom how to operate Zoom so we can have a virtual seder,” he says.

He plans to dial in for the seder night celebrations in Israel when it’s lunchtime in New York. “We might not have matza ball soup, but we will celebrate the holiday of freedom, being thankful for our health – and hoping for actual freedom soon enough.”

Nogah Parsons, Brisbane

Nogah Parsons’ young children haven’t seen their grandparents in two and a half years. Their long flight from Brisbane, eastern Australia, to Tel Aviv for Passover was planned well in advance. “We booked our tickets seven months ago. We always purchase the cheapest tickets available, with no refund options, because we know that, no matter what, we will be on that plane,” she recounts. “We knew nothing could stop us. And then something came along that stopped us.”

Nogah Parsons with her family in Brisbane.Credit: Nogah Parsons

Parsons, 41, her Australian husband Joe and their two children – ages 6 and 9 – were supposed to stay for nearly a month with her family in Israel. But by early March, when they understood the situation wasn’t getting any better, they decided to defer the visit to a later date.

“The moment I canceled the flight, I also deleted the calendar notification so I wouldn’t get that devastating reminder when the time comes,” Parsons, a migration agent, says. “But still, I heard my family’s sigh of relief all the way back to Australia when I told them we weren’t coming. By then, people were isolated in Israel and there was a lot of anxiety, so they realized before I did that it won’t end well if we decide to come.”

One of the bigger concerns related to their eventual return to Australia. Christmas Island is usually where Australia’s illegal immigrants are detained, but since the coronavirus outbreak some Australians returning from overseas trips were forced to spend 14 days there in quarantine. “I feared that upon our return, we either wouldn’t be allowed to enter or would be sent to the island,” Parsons says. “Today, I know it was a good thing we never boarded that flight.”

The time difference and distance make it very difficult to stay in touch, Nogah admits. She is in close contact with her parents and three brothers, but conversations with cousins, nieces and nephews, and sisters-in-law are rare.

“It’s very sad. I really miss being an aunt and I really wanted to see them,” she says. “With all the nieces and nephews we don’t get to see, every year that passes means another year lost.”

Adar and Ben Regev, London

Adar Regev, 34, his husband Ben, 32, and their fluffy dog Newton, 10, are based in London. Both work for software companies in Britain and were planning to visit Israel for two weeks at the beginning of April, while Newton was booked into a boarding kennel.

Adar (left) and Ben Regev with their dog Newton in London.Credit: Adar Regev

Giving up on the visit was more of a process than a sudden realization, they say. “At first we tried coming up with alternative plans to alleviate the disappointment,” Ben says. “We thought we could travel inside the U.K. instead, but then it became obvious that most businesses would be closed. A seder with local friends soon became impossible as well, due to gathering restrictions.”

The main reason the couple visits Israel is to meet their families and friends, “so there wasn’t much point for us to fly all the way to Israel just to stay in isolation,” Adar says. “When the situation deteriorated, we did want to be closer to our family. But by that time there were additional considerations, and we understood it would be safer for them if we stayed in the U.K.,” Ben adds.

The Regevs, who have lived in London for the past five years, plan to keep the tradition going and recreate the flavours of Passover in a virtual seder.

“We have been collecting recipes and sharing them with the rest of the family in a dedicated WhatsApp group,” Ben explains, though he worries some ingredients will be out of stock by the time Passover arrives. And despite being well versed in large family video calls by now, Adar suspects they won’t be able to get through the entire Haggadah this way. “The poor sound quality, lack of technical support for our parents and the young nephews competing for digital attention would make a full virtual seder a challenge,” he says.

Noa Jaskier, Paris

Noa Jaskier, 34, works in the banking sector and has been living in Paris for the past year with her French husband and their young daughter. “My daughter was born here in Paris late last year, and so this would have been the first time the extended family got to meet her,” she says. “We have been looking forward to this trip for a while, to celebrate the holiday in Israel. But we did take comfort in the fact that at least this way, we are all acting in the safest way by staying home.”

Noa Jaskier seen in a video chat from Paris.Credit: Nomi Shavit

Jaskier’s husband is a French citizen, and they weren’t sure he would be allowed into Israel after it announced last month that only Israelis will be able to enter, even if nonnationals could prove the ability to self-quarantine. So heading to Israel after the lockdown began “was never really an option we considered,” she says.

They plan to spend seder night quarantined at home. Like many others, social media and online conference calls have become part of the routine. “We are speaking to the family in Israel daily; we have a family WhatsApp chat where we share a lot of updates and pictures,” Noa says. “My 90-year-old grandmother has become a WhatsApp pro, and it is great to have her participate and lead the family banter. She shares the best memes with us, which is fantastic,” Jaskier says.

Jonathan Fisher, San Francisco

This time last year, Stanford doctoral candidate Jonathan Fisher, 35, was leading an itrek visit to Israel. The program, which introduces U.S. graduate students to unfamiliar sides of Israel, was, he says, a great success and he was supposed to shepherd another week-long student visit again this year – extending it by two weeks in order to celebrate Passover with his family.

Jonathan Fisher in San Francisco.Credit: Jonathan Fisher

“This year we were twice the number of students, 45, whom we encouraged to buy tickets, book hotels and join us on this journey – only to cancel it completely after realizing we would be spending it in isolation, both in Israel and the United States,” he says.

He is especially disappointed over the long hours of work, the marketing of the trip to dozens of students and the funds invested – all now lost. Still, he believes the decision to cancel was the right one.

On a personal level, Fisher’s newest nephew was born last month and he was eagerly looking forward to see his family, whom he hasn’t visited in a year. “When my mother heard I was coming, she practically renovated the house, cleaned everything, made plans with many people to come see me,” he smiles. “She was naturally disappointed when things changed, but understood the situation and just wishes her children good health.”

Rotem Hershkovitz, Melbourne

Rotem Hershkovitz, 30, was planning nothing more than a big trip Down Under. The timing was perfect: She had just quit her job in late January, she would make it to her cousin’s wedding in Melbourne and fly back to Israel on March 9. But then her Cathay Pacific flight – booked for a layover in Hong Kong – was canceled.

Rotem Hershkovitz video chatting with her father, Prof. Rami Hershkovitz. Rotem will be celebrating Passover in Melbourne. Credit: Rotem Hershkovitz

“Then another flight I booked for early April was also canceled,” she says, and by the time she considered taking a third flight back home, the coronavirus situation in Israel had deteriorated.

“It was insane, I found myself stuck in Australia,” she says, although she admits there are far worse places to be marooned. “Frankly, I have very few concerns – perhaps only that my Tel Aviv flat stands empty while I still pay rent,” she sighs. In Melbourne, she is hosted by her distant relatives, who suddenly became much closer than ever before.

Though El Al operated two rescue flights from Australia – one from Perth on the west coast and the other last week directly from Melbourne in southeastern Australia – Hershkovitz says the flights were extremely expensive, costing almost 10,000 shekels ($2,750) for a one-way ticket, and after much deliberation she decided it would actually be safer to stay put.

“Something inside me was telling me it’s too dangerous, going through a long journey in airports and planes during this pandemic,” she explains. “Also, reading the news – which reflected the chaos in Israel and growing number of infections and restrictions – I realized it would be better to stay here, where I can still go out to exercise and go to the beach.”

Hershkovitz’s father, Prof. Rami Hershkovitz, heads an internal medicine unit in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital. “At first he implored me to return home,” she recalls, “but then he realized it would be better for me to wait it out in Australia,” she says, adding that she misses her parents dearly.

This Passover will be especially somber for the Hershkovitzes, whose other son is in Austin, Texas. “This means my father will constantly be in the hospital and mom will be completely alone at home, and it’s difficult – I can’t stop thinking about it,” Rotem says.

Joining a virtual seder will also be challenging given the vast time difference between Australia and the United States (15 hours). Instead, she plans to celebrate the Passover feast with the three relatives who are hosting her and two more cousins who are expected to join, though that would violate the ruling in Victoria that restricts gatherings to no more than two people except for members of the immediate household.

“We’re hoping they will come by, but there have been concerns that the neighbors might notice we are six.” And though shortages of toilet rolls also continue to cause anxiety, “we have plenty of matzot and matza balls to spare,” she laughs.

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