As New York Tightens Coronavirus Restrictions, Israeli Parents Vow to Avoid Pandemic Panic

What’s it like being thousands of miles from home during an unprecedented health scare? Haaretz speaks with four Israeli families in N.Y.C. to find out

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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A man walking past Wall Street in New York, March 16, 2020.
A man walking past the Wall Street Stock Exchange in New York, March 16, 2020.Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

Israeli-born mom of four Michal Yanai Yoran usually tries to limit her children’s usage of tablets and other screens. In the past few days, though, technology has been essential to their daily routines. 

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to upturn life around the world, New York City has also made dramatic steps to curb the spread of the disease. Residents have been asked to practice social distancing, bars and restaurants are restricted to takeouts and deliveries only, and some 1,800 public schools have closed, joining many private ones that had already sent students home for at least four weeks.

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Yanai Yoran’s children, aged between 4 and 10, have been taking their classes and extracurricular activities online via video chat over the past few days. “They now have their Tae Kwon Do, their martial arts, online,” the 37-year-old mom tells Haaretz in a phone interview. 

“My daughter has ballet online, so she looks at the screen and does what they do, and my son receives physical therapy,” she adds. “You really find out that a lot of the stuff can be done virtually.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio began asking New Yorkers to practice social distancing last week, Yanai Yoran and her husband, Elad Yoran, who is also Israeli-born but grew up in the United States, decided to leave their Upper West Side home and head out of town to Westchester County, where they are staying in a house with family.

One of the Yanai Yoran children listening to a lesson on a laptop, New York, March 2020.Credit: Courtesy of Michal Yanai Yoran

“We’re pretty isolated unless we go to somebody’s house in a car, but because we’re isolated, [the children] are free to go outside,” Yanai Yoran says. ”If you have that option, that’s great.”

‘It’s not a snow day’

Despite the urgency the authorities have tried to convey, residents say they felt many New Yorkers were not responding appropriately to the pandemic, at least over the weekend.

“When we were in the city this weekend and looked at the playground, we saw it was completely full. It was a beautiful Sunday; it didn’t feel like the new reality was sinking in,” Yanai Yoran relays. “It’s not a snow day; it’s not a sick day; it’s not a birthday. This is a serious thing.

“Whoever is not taking it seriously is in one group, and then whoever is taking it seriously is in another group. You kind of find your group and stay with that group,” she says.

Another Israeli mom living in Manhattan, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Haaretz she feels people in New York “don’t really understand the gravity of the situation.

“They said schools are closed, so the parks are full, they’re doing playdates. People don’t understand what is happening – maybe in a few days they will,” says the woman, who has four sons. “But there is no leadership either, so people are not really realizing.”

One of the Yanai Yoran children listening to a lesson on a tablet, New York, March 2020.Credit: Courtesy of Michal Yanai Yoran

She adds that while the city’s response has been somewhat satisfactory, she is far less impressed by President Donald Trump. “Watching him is embarrassing,” she says. “He is saying things that are not true, and then the TV anchors have to call it out. He is shaking hands with everyone,” referring to the now-infamous coronavirus press conference last week where the president ignored one of the most basic requirements of social distancing.

The main issue, she believes, is people’s distrust of politicians and even news organizations. “Trump said ‘Do not stock up on food,’ so the first thing people did was empty the shelves – because they don’t trust him,” she says. She adds that you panic “when you feel like you don’t have a leader to follow and you can’t trust anyone.”

To panic or not to panic? 

Kobi Cohen, 43, another Israeli living in Manhattan and a father of two teenage boys, agrees that lack of trust in the government’s ability to function during the crisis is driving the panic.

With rumors of lockdowns circulating, images of long lines at city stores have become a regular feature on social media. “I went to Trader Joe’s and Costco and the shelves were emptied in a hysterical way,” Cohen says in a phone interview from his office, which he is still going to.

“People bought 10 packs of toilet paper because it’s well known that toilet paper can be cooked and you can make soup with it,” he adds sarcastically.

Cohen believes the public is being “stressed out” instead of being calmed down, and they should be “encouraged to keep some normalcy.”

A shuttered eatery in New York, March 15, 2020. Credit: Yuki Iwamura/AP

“I have to say that, personally, I believe more in the British thesis that at the end of the day, the coronavirus is going to affect most of society,” he says. “The only thing that’s really different is that the Western world doesn’t have a treatment for it – and that’s why the Western world is panicking.” (Cohen was speaking before the United Kingdom seemingly softened its “herd immunity” approach on Monday and encouraged people to avoid all nonessential contact with others.)

Beyond the political aspect, misinformation is also a factor spreading what Cohen believes is unjustified anxiety.

“You can’t tell anymore which source is reliable,” he says. “There are so many reports of one thing and the contrary that the question is not who is believable and who isn’t – it’s what do you believe?”

Overall, Cohen says he refuses to subscribe to the generally fearful climate. “I know I’m in the minority thinking this, but for me canceling schools is a mistake,” he says. “What’s next? What are the kids going to do? They’ll be on their computers all day? People can’t not work. There is no social safety net here in the United States.

“I understand the recommendation not to gather in groups and the basic hygiene stuff, which is crazy to me that it even has to be said in the 21st century,” Cohen adds.

The mom of four boys is also endeavoring to remain calm in the face of the crisis. “What can I do? How is it going to help me if I start panicking? It’s not going to help me,” she says.

The main thing causing her and her husband some concern is the possibility of having to stop working and not having a source of income for a while.

“Things are really fluid,” she says. “But again, what can I do? There is nothing I can do. Everyone is in this situation, so there is going to have to be a solution in the end.”

Israel on my mind

There are an estimated 100,000 Israeli expats in New York, with many outlets connecting them to the homeland: from Facebook groups and apps, to organizations dedicated to bridging the gap between the United States and Israel.

But when Dana Sinay, 44, moved to New York six years ago with her husband and then 10-month-old daughter, she wanted to start something else. She began communicating with other Israeli moms online and soon helped build a private Facebook group called MaManhattan. It now has more than 2,600 members, with an engagement rate of over 90 percent.

Dana Sinay in Manhattan. Credit: Aviya Halpern

“It’s a very big support system,” Sinay sums up.

Over the past few weeks, the group’s Facebook page has been full of posts and questions about how to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak. News from Israel is a big part of its activity, too.

“We are always exposed to what is going on in Israel,” she says. “It creates a sort of dissonance, because we are worried about what is going on in Israel; we are worried about our parents, our friends.”

The timing of the outbreak has already affected many group members. “So many visits got canceled: Parents were supposed to come here; people were supposed to go visit Israel. People planned their Passover vacation a while ago,” says Sinay, referring to next month’s holiday, which is traditionally the biggest in the Jewish calendar.

In addition, Sinay says, “There is a constant feeling that what is happening in Israel is going to happen here too,” and that New York is a few steps behind. She is referring to the extreme measures being taken by the Israeli authorities to try to slow the spread of the disease, including limiting public gatherings to no more than 10 people.

To make sure moms are kept informed and ca stay calm, Sinay and her work partner Aviya Halpern have started a campaign with the hashtag #MamasBeatCorona, inviting members to post things that can support the community at this time.

“For example, one mom is a yoga teacher and she posted a video with breathing exercises to reduce stress. Another mom who is a trainer posted exercises for pregnant women to do; someone else posted things to do with kids; someone else posted about how to do homeschooling.”

A preschool lesson on a computer at the Yanai Yoran household in New York, March 2020.Credit: Courtesy of Michal Yanai Yoran

Sinay says the thought of leaving the United States to go to Israel during the crisis is also being discussed at length.

“It’s a difficult situation, because some people do have to work,” she says. “Each person does what is best for them, and with social responsibility.”

Sinay says she does have one message for parents in her group: “Please listen to us and take care of yourselves; don’t go walking around.”

Cohen says that while he and his wife considered sending their boys to Israel on vacation, they ultimately decided against it because of the chances of the kids infecting their more vulnerable grandparents, who would be hosting them.

“Because of the distance and the nature of this, we’re more worried about our parents. But on the other hand, from what they hear of what is happening here, they are more worried about us,” Cohen says.

The mother of four adds that while she is not considering going to Israel, she feels as if she is “pretty much the only one.”

She explains: “In all the online groups I’m a member of, lots of people are thinking of going to Israel, or leaving the city and going to a more isolated place. But we’re not going anywhere. This is our home.”

Yanai Yoran says her family originally thought of visiting family in Israel, but ultimately decided not to. “Things moved so quickly in Israel with shutting down and making everyone go into self-isolation when they land – and then what would happen when we want to come home?” she asks, referring to Israel’s recent decision to make all visitors home quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Also, she adds, “It would be more of a distraction for the kids, because then they’d think they were on vacation. How would they learn online like they’re doing right now?”

Maintaining a routine

For Yanai Yoran, keeping her kids focused and on a schedule that comes close to their usual one is important. At home, the day starts with writing the date on a white board and establishing tasks. “They have one class, then recess, then another class, and then lunch, and we’re making it as similar as possible,” she explains.

“We’re doing virtual playdates too,” she adds. “It’s really important, just so they don’t go crazy on their own. Even though they’re playing with toys on the computer or on the iPad with their friends, at least they’re interacting so they don’t start losing that sense of normalcy.”

A woman wearing a mask as she walks over the normally crowded Brooklyn Bridge, New YorkCredit: Mark Lennihan/AP

Yanai Yoran and her husband usually work, but both have been at home in recent days. Despite the drastic change in their lifestyle and the uncertainty of the situation, she says that being at home has its advantages.

“It’s nice in a way to get this time with the kids, and get this time without having the responsibility that we normally do,” she says. “Cooking for them is fun now. It used to be a chore, but now we have time to do that. And the nice thing is that because the whole world has stopped, the outside expectations are no longer relevant.”

Sinay is also trying to keep a sense of routine for her daughter – who is in first grade – by organizing at-home learning activities. “I’m trying to explain to her that there’s this virus,” she says. “But I explain to her that we’re in control and are trying to create a routine. I’m trying to give her tools to deal with the situation.”

With two boys in junior high school, Cohen is extremely skeptical of online learning. “Good luck with that! In my experience as an adult, with all due respect to modernity, there is no replacement for in-person interaction,” he says.

“And really, most people I know, when they’re on a conference call they do something else: They knit, they make lunch, they freeze the image or turn the camera off,” he says. “So you don’t really have control over what the kids are doing. And kids, because they are kids, are harder to keep in focus.”

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