What Happens When Your Birthright Group Flies Out of Israel Without You

Arrivals / Departures: A visitor from Argentina stuck at Ben-Gurion Airport learns to appreciate WiFi; an Israeli leaves his children behind for a job in California.

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Ivan Abtlevaya at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Ivan Abtlevaya at Ben-Gurion Airport. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Ivan Abtlevaya, 20, lives in Argentina, flying to Buenos Aires

Hello, can I ask how you spent your time in Israel?

Freaking out. I’m stuck. I got here 55 minutes before the plane left and they wouldn’t check in my bags. I was late because I came by bus and there was an accident. I called the airport but no one answered. I wanted Iberia to give me a new ticket and I’d pay a fine. I’ve been trying since yesterday to talk with someone from Iberia, but their office didn’t open until 3 A.M. today. And when I got there at 3 A.M. they said they couldn’t help me, because I was on a group flight. They wanted me to pay full price for a new ticket, but I don’t have the money. Of course, money could solve the problem instantly. I don’t know what to do. I hope it’ll work out.

What group did you come with?


And did you call them?

Yes, and they told me I would have to prove there was an accident. How? I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t even know what bus I came on. And besides, from whom? Should I call the police? It wasn’t a big deal, just a minor accident. I don’t know what I’m waiting for.

What are you waiting for, actually?

I have a good friend here in Israel, and she is trying to help me. I can’t stay here anymore. I was supposed to be back at school today – I’m an architecture student. I finish tomorrow and I’m supposed to be there for the ceremony, but I’m stuck. (Speaks into his cell phone.) I leave my friend voice messages on WhatsApp. At least there’s WiFi here in the airport. Do you maybe have a phone? I’ll ask her to call me on your phone, so we can have a normal conversation.

Tomer (the photographer): Here, ’bro.

Unbelievable. In what world is it logical that the Iberia office opens at 3 A.M.?

How much does a ticket cost?

The cheapest one-way fare is $1,400. I can’t afford that.

And you got to the airport before the flight?

Fifty-five minutes before departure, and they told me there were no security people anymore. How could they say there’s no security? This is Israel, the leading security country.

What did your parents say?

A lot of things. (Punching in message on cellphone.) I’m just sending them an email now.

How long since you saw them?

I’ve been here since January 24. After Birthright I traveled alone all over Europe and then came back here. (Tomer’s phone rings.) Si, si! *&$##@#$! (Speaking on the phone.)

Is this your first time in Israel?

Second time. I was here when I was 15. My family is Jewish, thank God. I worked as a secretary in a small hospital and saved up to come here. Before I left I resigned, because one of my bosses was my mother and I had a lot of problems with her. Oy, this is a weird ending to my long trip.

Did you travel alone?

It’s only when you’re alone that you can truly encounter yourself and other people. It was a smart decision. Yesterday I started to write a story about this trip, which began, “The trip is over.” But it looks like it’s continuing.

Read us a little.

“I was on a trip for 37 days. I tried to live the moment, to stop time, to make it flow within me. Every moment can be something special, I want there to be a way for me to remember, to experience it again and again. Unwinding, being happy, thinking in a pure state. The loneliness engraved moments and memories within me, but the loneliness is almost fictitious.” I wrote in somewhat high language, it’s hard to translate. Generally, when I share my happiness with people, it becomes real for me. And in the end, people imbued the journey I undertook with value. Their stories made my story more complex and richer. But now I just want to go home.

Yoram Hamiel at Ben-Gurion Airport. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Yoram Hamiel, 46, lives in Kfar Yona, arriving from Los Angeles

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Israel?

Moving to the United States. Relocating.


No, as it happens. I’m with Johnson & Johnson. Everyone here knows their beauty products and cosmetics, but that is only a small part of the company. Forty percent is medication and medical equipment, and I work in a medical equipment company – an Israeli startup that was sold to them in 1997.

You’ve been working there since then?

Yes. I came full circle. I was in sales, director of clinical development, and now I’m going to be marketing director for the product in Irvine, California, a large city east of Los Angeles with a relatively large Israeli population.

What’s the product?

The company is called Biosense Webster. We do three-dimensional cardiac mapping, which is both typographic and electrical. It’s done by small-scale invasive imaging, using a catheter with sensors. It’s useful for checking an irregular heartbeat, one that’s too fast or too slow. This isn’t my first relocation; I relocated to Canada in 2004, also for the same job.


At the time it was with my family, my wife and my first son – the second son was born there. I remember we landed in Toronto on January 30. They had this dirty snow, like you get at the end of winter. 

What was it like to live there?

It was good. My older son remembers it as a positive experience – the trip opened him up to the world – and the younger son got a passport. But we had to come back, mainly because the children were growing up without the rest of the family. We returned in 2007, and it was ironic, because coming back wasn’t any easier than moving there. We had to get acclimatized here, too. At first we stayed with my parents, then got a home of our own – complicated logistics. My son was entering the second grade but only spoke English. It wasn’t easy.

Are you apprehensive about moving again?

I’m apprehensive, naturally, but it’s the right step. It’s important to me mainly for financial reasons. In both cases when I relocated it was my decision – not because anyone told me I had to. I have mixed feelings, because I’m happy for the opportunity and I am looking forward to the future. But my children, who are now 16 and 10, are staying here in Israel. The move is for just three years and the kids will come to visit at Passover, and I’ll come to visit them. My parents were immigrants in Israel, and today I see them differently – it’s not easy to transfer your whole life.

Where are your parents from originally?

That’s a story in itself. Each of the past three generations of my family has moved to a new continent. The origins are in Poland and Germany. After World War II my grandparents moved to Uruguay. My parents immigrated to Israel in the 1960s, and we were born here. My sister married an American and lives in Los Angeles. That’s three of the six continents. It’s our fate, I guess. But there were some hard times. I came for a holiday exactly during the Second Lebanon War, with all the pressure and the breaking news, and when I got back to Toronto it was completely detached from where I’d been 24 hours earlier. After Israel, it feels like everything is sterile there.

Well, it also has its advantages.

But despite how Western we may think we are, life there is different, you even speak differently with the bank teller. In Canada I learned that it’s impossible to get things by turning over tables; they just shut down the counter. You have to stay pleasant and explain things calmly. I tried to keep that up in Israel, and I was happy to discover that it works here, too.