Aliyah in the Time of Coronavirus: Meet the Immigrants Who Moved to Israel During a Pandemic

Israel may have effectively shuttered for two months and required all arrivals to self-isolate for 14 days, but that didn’t stop these people from making aliyah. Next step? Furnishing the apartment

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Clockwise from top left: David and Karen Weinstein; Aviva and Tzvi Karoly, and their two young children; the Niskins; and Dorin Tarashandegan.
Clockwise from top left: David and Karen Weinstein; Aviva and Tzvi Karoly, and their two young children; Giannina and Sergio Niskin, with their grandkids; and Dorin Tarashandegan.Credit: Courtesy
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

David and Karen Weinstein were visiting their pregnant daughter in Israel last summer when they decided it was time for the big move.

“We’d been saying for years it would be nice to live in Israel, but inertia and procrastination would always kick in,” recounts David, previously of New York’s Jamaica Estates. “This time, all the stars seemed to be lined up.”

Aviva and Tzvi Karoly had been dreaming of aliyah since they were teenagers. By the time their first child was born, the couple resolved to set a deadline. “We told ourselves that by the time our son entered first grade, we wanted to be living in Israel,” says Aviva, previously of Riverdale, New York.

Sergio and Giannina Niskin had talked for years of leaving Brazil. When their youngest child finally left their home in São Paulo, Sergio recounts, there were no excuses left. “We had one kid in Toronto, one in New York and one in Israel,” he says. “We asked ourselves, ‘Where should we go?’ Canada was too cold. New York was too expensive. So here we are.”

They came from different places and made the move at different stages of life. But what all these immigrants have in common is that, of all times, they fulfilled their aliyah dreams in the midst of a pandemic.

Even in the best of times, relocation can be stressful – particularly when it involves moving to another country where a different language is spoken and different cultural norms prevail. Now try to imagine moving when a global health crisis mandates total isolation for 14 days upon arrival, and when even basic undertakings like buying a refrigerator or opening a bank account are impossible.

Obviously, given the choice these immigrants would have preferred to move during normal times. Still, they could have delayed their trip until the crisis was over or the worst was behind them. They chose not to.

Although it has slowed to a trickle, immigration to Israel has continued throughout the pandemic. Not from every country, because many closed their borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And in those places where airlines continue to operate, flights have been few and far between (Israel’s national carrier, El Al, grounded its planes at the end of March).

With offices closed in many places, completing the paperwork also presented great challenges for the would-be immigrants. Yet hundreds have landed in Israel in recent months from a host of countries, including the United States, Russia, Ukraine, Ethiopia and Brazil.

A group of immigrants at Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, after arriving from New York, May 5, 2020.Credit: Yonit Schiller

Unpacking, bureaucracy

Dorin Tarashandegan, 24, arrived on a flight with her parents on March 23, just as Israel went into lockdown. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Tarashandegan says their plan to move to Israel had been in the works for years. “Basically, our entire family lives in Israel and we’d visit every summer,” Tarashandegan relays. After her sister made aliyah six years ago, Dorin and her parents decided they would all follow suit as soon as she graduated college.

Spending the first two weeks in quarantine (“We couldn’t even take out the trash”) in an apartment in the coastal city of Netanya was not as awful as she had anticipated. “I honestly thought I’d hate it, but after spending so many months packing and planning this big move, it was actually really nice to just relax for that period,” she says.

Her biggest difficulty at the moment is Hebrew. “Once things ease up, my plan is to enroll in an ulpan,” she says, referring to intensive Hebrew-language classes. “But right now I’m still unpacking and dealing with the bureaucracy.”

It has not been the best of times to start making new friends, but Tarashandegan says she’s confident that will happen soon. “Everyone is so friendly here,” she notes.

Among the reasons Sergio and Giannina Niskin chose Ra’anana as their new home was that they already had a married daughter with two children living in this Tel Aviv suburb. But it would be at least a month after they arrived before they could see them all in person. “We did do our Passover seder together, but on Zoom,” says Sergio, 74.

A civil engineer, Sergio ran a bakery in São Paulo for 30 years and says he had been planning his exit for much of that time. “I was never satisfied with the situation in Brazil,” he says. “The income inequality in the country made me very uncomfortable, and I knew it wasn’t sustainable. My wife wasn’t ready to leave for a long time, but I started putting the idea in my children’s heads.”

After his daughter moved to Ra’anana two years ago, Sergio says, he and his wife started finalizing their plans to leave Brazil.

It wasn’t easy getting out, he recounts. The Niskins were part of a group of 31 Brazilians whose aliyah was organized by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews – an organization increasingly involved in facilitating immigration to Israel in recent years. “We were supposed to arrive in Israel at the end of March, but the date of our flight was changed several times,” Sergio relays. “The flight was moved up a few days, and we were basically given one day’s notice to get ourselves ready to leave. A day after we boarded our flight, the airport [in Brazil] was closed.”

The only way for them to get Israel at that point was to change planes in Istanbul.

The Niskins had taken a trip to Israel in January to rent an apartment near their daughter. Not anticipating the outbreak of a pandemic, they didn’t bother furnishing it. “Except for our bed, a refrigerator, a stove and our computers, it’s pretty empty,” Sergio says.

He has no regrets about the move, though. “If there’s one thing I regret, it’s that I didn’t leave Brazil earlier,” he says.

Warm welcome

A few days before they were scheduled to fly to Israel on March 19, Aviva and Tzvi Karoly received a call from Nefesh B’Nefesh – the organization that handles immigration from North America on behalf of the Israel government – asking whether they might prefer to delay their flight. After all, the adjustment was bound to be difficult, with most of the country on lockdown at that point. But the Karolys said they were determined to move ahead with their plans.

“There’s never a perfect time for aliyah,” says Aviva, 35.

When the couple and their two children arrived at their apartment in Modi’in, they found boxes of food and other staples piled up outside their door. It was a gift from their new neighbors.

Summing up her feelings two months later, Aviva says: “We feel very safe here, and we feel very embraced. We’ve been truly fortunate because the community has been so wonderful. If there’s one thing that’s really difficult, though, it’s leaving our families behind in New York during a health crisis like this.”

A lawyer by training, Aviva says she plans to begin looking for a job in Israel advocacy. Fortunately, she adds, her husband, a mechanical engineer, will continue working for the same company that employed him in the United States. “At least we still have one salary coming in,” she says.

The Weinsteins, meanwhile, contacted Nefesh B’Nefesh to begin the application process for aliyah as soon as they returned to New York last year. Originally, they planned to arrive in early February, just in time for the tree-planting holiday of Tu Bishvat. “Then, we ran into all sorts of bureaucratic issues that forced us to delay our flight,” David recounts. “So we started shooting for Purim, but once again things got delayed.”

After Purim, with both Israel and New York shutting down, David was getting concerned that they might have to delay their plans indefinitely. “I’d call Nefesh B’Nefesh every day asking if our flight would still take off,” he says. “Now I know that if we hadn’t been approved for aliyah by then, we wouldn’t have been able to come when we did.”

He and his wife Karen never considered postponing their trip. “I knew Israel had the advantage of being three weeks ahead of the curve in dealing with the coronavirus,” he says. “Now that I see what happened in New York, it was probably even a month ahead.”

A gemologist by training, David, 66, plans to continue working in his profession. He and Karen have already purchased an apartment in Ra’anana and now, with the lockdown lifted, they are starting to acquaint themselves with their new surroundings.

“We now have our favorite falafel place and our favorite shawarma place,” he reports. “And I’ve also met some nice guys davening here in the parking lot.”

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