Disrupted by Coronavirus: We Had to Fly Home With a Newborn in the Middle of a Pandemic

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: People whose trips were cut short and had to fly home in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic

Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein
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Shira Natan Sasson, Liron Natan, Miron Sasson, and Uri Natan Sasson.
Shira Natan Sasson, Liron Natan, Miron Sasson, and Uri Natan Sasson.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein

Shira Natan Sasson, 3; Liron Natan, 49; Miron Sasson, 44; and Uri Natan Sasson,1 month old; live in Tel Aviv, arriving from Portland, Oregon

Hi, can I ask where you’re coming back from with that tiny baby?

Weekend banner.

Liron: From Portland, where Uri was born exactly one month ago today. Shira was also born there, three years ago.

Miron: We saw that the coronavirus thing was getting worse, and we were afraid there would be no more flights back. So, after a month and a half of living in isolation in Portland, we are returning to the same role at home.

Was it the same surrogate mother in the previous birth?

Liron: No. We and the first surrogate mother really wanted to continue together to the next baby, but she became pregnant with her own child, so we looked for someone else.

When did you meet the current surrogate mother for the first time?

A month and a half ago. We met her at the airport, just like we met you now.

Miron: It’s a bit insane. You land in a foreign, distant country, and in that foreign, distant land you are in the most intimate situation in the world. You meet someone that before you met only on Skype, and they’re carrying your child. We met with the surrogate mother and her family, and suddenly you see a woman with a ninth-month tummy. We spoke before on Skype, but there is suddenly a disparity, it’s bewildering.

Liron: There is also an inner connection that’s hard to explain. You know and feel that this is the woman you spoke with for the past year and a half, that your baby is inside her, and as soon as you meet, there’s a tremendous hug and great joy.

Miron: We recorded songs in our voices for [to be played for] the embryos, so they would hear our language and maybe get to know the voices a little.

Did you have anyone to teach you about this whole experience?

Liron: We are religiously Orthodox and members of Kehilat Yachad [in Tel Aviv], a synagogue; the community is mostly straight but there are also LGBT couples. It’s very liberal, but still within the bounds of Orthodoxy. There are couples in the community who’ve been through the process before us and showed us the way. Shira has a friend who’s two months older. Her fathers filled us in on everything they went through and counseled us.

What was the hardest part?

Miron: You’re promised that everything will go like clockwork and that there are insane success rates, but in reality we had an attempt that didn’t succeed, twins who didn’t develop.

Liron: The first time, they said the birth would be in the “vicinity of May.” We learned that it might be in the vicinity of May, but no one is promising in which year.

Miron: There are a great many stages that aren’t connected to each other and aren’t coordinated, so it’s hard to know what’s happening. There’s an organization that locates the surrogate mother, there’s a fertility clinic, and from a certain stage it’s the American health system, which is a private system, and all at insane costs. Whatever you don’t manage by yourself, simply won’t happen. It’s a different approach to health services, and if you want to bring in your own approach, you have to explain all the time and remind them and manage things. Even with the birth, [if you want to be present,] you can’t just arrive, you have to coordinate it in advance. We didn’t know that, but in the first pregnancy we clarified everything and found out things as we went along.

Such as what?

Liron: Before the pregnancy with Shira there was a pregnancy that started to develop but wasn’t successful, and there was no one to do the D&C. The surrogate mother’s doctor disappeared, and we had to understand how it works, who deals with it, to understand the terminology, nothing happens by itself, but it all was by remote control.

And when Shira was born, it was clear you would have another child?

Liron: Yes. We understood that she needed a sister or a brother, and also that we wanted to raise a real family.

Miron: It’s pretty wild to be at the end of all this, we’ve been in the process for five years. Now we’re back – into quarantine, true, but back. We can start to build our life, to try to create something normal and regular.

Avi Schneider.
Avi Schneider.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Avi Schneider, 23, lives in Coral Springs, Florida; flying to Miami

Hi, what’s your name?

Avi.

You don’t look like an Avi.

Right. My parents are very Zionist, so they gave me an Israeli name. My brothers are named Eitan – not Ethan – and Oren. I’m going back to my family now.

What did you do in Israel?

I was supposed to go to Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem. There are a lot of Jews in the university I went to in the United States, and one of the rabbis suggested that I attend the yeshiva. I said to myself that it was too good an opportunity for a trip to pass up. But as soon as I got to the yeshiva I realized that I’d made a mistake.

How so?

I’m not religious, and suddenly you have to wear black pants and a white shirt, and you’re not allowed to touch women. Not for me. I escaped after four days and found Kibbutz Ketura, where I was a volunteer. Now I’m going back after seven months. It’ll be strange to see trees again after all that time in the desert.

What did you do there?

I worked in the kitchen, in the hotel and a little in gardening. It was amazing. It’s a bummer that I have to leave, I’d intended to stay at least another month.

Was the kibbutz the way you imagined it?

Not quite. It was founded by Americans, so there was a feeling of home. It’s hard to learn Hebrew when everyone is speaking English. I also thought I’d be working outside all day, but in the end I was under an air conditioner most of the time. Turns out I arrived at the end of the date-picking season, so they didn’t need people for that. But it was fun working in the dining room, because that way I met everyone. It’s a special kibbutz of very educated people, everyone has a master’s degree at least, and the kibbutz also pays for doctoral studies.

What do people do in the evening in a kibbutz in the Arava desert?

You hang out with whoever you can; there are places to chill. The truth is that it’s hard to be single on a kibbutz in the middle of the desert, with the nearest city a 40-minute drive away. You get to know everyone very fast. So Tinder isn’t really an option.

How has the coronavirus affected life in Ketura?

The kibbutz was badly hit. They had to shut down the hotel, because no one was coming. The dining room was shut down – you can only go in, take a meal and leave. The Arava Institute [of environmental studies] on the kibbutz had to cancel all its classes and workshops, and shift to online teaching. Many kibbutz employees from Eilat were fired. Teachers don’t have work, either, and the kids are looking for things to do.

Was this your first time in Israel?

Sixth. I have family here, and I was a counselor in the Birthright program. I plan to make aliyah, it’s just a matter of time. I always wanted to, even before my first visit here.

Then why are you going back to Florida?

The borders are closing because of the epidemic, and I have a job and a family there. I want to make aliyah after I turn 24, so I won’t have to enlist.

What sort of work do you do?

I’m a teacher. I teach history and social sciences from the sixth to the 12th grades.

Give me an example of what you teach.

For example, Holocaust studies.

Holocaust studies?

I teach children about the Holocaust, make it accessible to them, without too many graphic details, of course. Naturally, the Jewish students devote themselves to the subject more – but it’s Florida, so there are a lot of them. The Holocaust is connected to my wanting to live in Israel.

In what way?

It’s hard to be a Jew, even in Florida. In different countries I see swastika graffiti on synagogues, mezuzahs ripped from doorposts, I once had coins thrown at me on the way to the synagogue. There were a lot of Jews in Europe, too, and nevertheless what happened, happened. It’s hard to be in a place that is not your people’s.

Were you afraid that you wouldn’t be able to get home?

Very much so, but I think that Florida is taking the coronavirus more lightly than Israel. I have a connecting flight in Amsterdam, so I’ll see what’s happening there. My great fear is of getting stuck there. Being stuck in Israel is one thing, but what would I do there?

Tinder?

Right! At least Tinder really works there. I need to see if people are still meeting.