Ben Snyder, Yael Meoded and daughter Ellie moved to Israel from San Francisco in September.
Ben Snyder, Yael Meoded and daughter Ellie moved to Israel from San Francisco in September.

Pandemic delays but doesn’t deter families from fresh start in Israel

Alex and Inna Goldshteyn have been thinking about immigrating to Israel for three years. The San Francisco couple took two test trips and intended to move last winter, but that plan was disrupted — first by the coronavirus pandemic, then by the birth of their third child. Now they are counting the days until all of their documents are in order and they can board their aliyah flight to Israel.

“Even with this pandemic, we just feel like it’s now or never,” said Inna, a creator of e-learning videos. “If we wait any longer than we need to, then there will be something else that gets in the way. Things are so weird anyway — in San Francisco, the Bay Area, the world — that part of me feels this is a good chance to do something equally crazy.”

Her husband, Alex, an accountant, was more blunt: “We’re waiting on the baby’s passport, and then we’re getting the hell out of here.”

The Goldshteyns are not alone. An organization that helps North American Jews make aliyah — literally “going up,” or in this case moving to the Land of Israel — saw a surge in applications over the summer. From mid-March through mid-September, 576 Californians applied, nearly 2½ times more than the 244 who applied in the same period last year, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh spokesperson Yael Katzman. She noted that 162 have actually moved to Israel, similar to the number who did so during the same period in 2019. All of them, she said, had been planning to make aliyah before the pandemic.

“We will need to see over the next couple of months into 2021 if the trend will change and grow further,” she said.

The process of applying for and obtaining an immigrant visa, uprooting one’s life and moving to the other side of the globe is stressful enough under normal circumstances, especially when children are involved. But what about during a global pandemic?

J. spoke with five Bay Area families that either made aliyah this year, are in the process or have had to postpone their moves. They described months-long ordeals navigating an already complex application process that was further complicated by the pandemic and its impact, including understaffed or closed government offices in both the U.S. and Israel. Some bemoaned deviations from the typical aliyah experience, such as not being able to have going-away parties with family and friends in the U.S. (for health reasons) nor welcoming ceremonies in Israel, and being forced to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

Yet despite the many hoops they had to jump through — and that some are still jumping through — all said they are eager to start their new lives in the Holy Land.

For the Goldshteyns, who belong to Congregation Adath Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in San Francisco, the decision to leave the Bay Area and their relatives was difficult but the right one for them, they said.

“In San Francisco, if you’re a young religious couple, you feel kind of out of the ordinary, whereas in Israel it’s not an unusual thing,” Alex, 35, said. “You feel like you’re not the weird one out.”

The Goldshteyn family of San Francisco will soon be Israel-bound. (Photo/Scott Lasky Photography)
The Goldshteyn family of San Francisco will soon be Israel-bound. (Photo/Scott Lasky Photography)

He noted that the aliyah process has taken much longer than he expected because both he and his wife were born in the former Soviet Union. The Jewish Agency, a nonprofit focused on Israel-diaspora relations and immigration, required them to come up with numerous documents, including birth and marriage certificates for their parents and grandparents, to prove they are, in fact, Jewish.

“Nefesh B’Nefesh doesn’t tell you it’s coming until you hit the brick wall,” he said. “Had I known about it two years ago, I might have been a little more on top of the ball getting my information ready.”

The Goldshteyns expect to leave by the end of October and plan to rent a place in an English-speaking community in Tel Mond, north of Tel Aviv. Inna, 31, said she is excited for her two older children to start school and make new friends. Most of all, she said, “I’m looking forward to having a regular life.”

Jonathan Jaffe has always had a love affair with Israel, so much so that he and his family spent several months in Israel as “long-term tourists” in 2014 and 2015.

This year, he took an even bigger step and is now living in Tel Aviv with his wife, ReCheng, an artist. The former Berkeley residents became olim, or new immigrants to Israel, in August.

Of the pandemic, he said, “All it did was slow down a decision that was already made.”

One push factor for him, he said, was what he deemed a deteriorating quality of life in the Bay Area, such as the rampant materialism he saw all around him. Another was what he described as a general atmosphere of “illiberalism” in the United States.

The pull factors were the laid-back lifestyle in Tel Aviv, which he called “one of the best cities in the world,” and his ability to secure a job as head of security at an Israeli insurance company. “I’m 52 right now, and I have a much stronger interest in lifestyle and personal relationships than in financial success and career success,” he said.

But what about his 16-year-old daughter? Avi said she has “mixed feelings” about leaving her friends behind. “This is a really big change,” she said, “but at the same time I think I’ll learn a lot from it.” Avi’s flight plans were separate from her parents, as she was to quarantine at a boarding school that offers intensive Hebrew-language classes for new immigrants.

Asked prior to departure if she was worried about moving during a pandemic, she said, “I’m actually kind of happy to get out of America right now because I feel like we’re not handling it well.”

Ellen Deker, the Jewish Agency’s aliyah coordinator for the Western United States, says she had a very hectic summer, conducting interviews with an average of 15 families per week — all via Zoom, for the first time ever. “I’m far busier than I have ever been,” she said.

Typically, when the L.A.-based Deker asks people why they want to move to Israel, they tell her they feel that Israel is their true home, or that they are worried about the rise of antisemitism in the U.S. Nowadays, though, she is hearing reasons related to the pandemic. “Some of them have been working remotely and they realized they can do it from Israel, too, so it pushed up their timeline,” she said.

But new requirements and delays have created a “perfect storm” for these potential immigrants, Deker said.

Since May 1, every adult making aliyah from North America or the United Kingdom has had to get a criminal background check from every country in which they have lived as a teen or adult. In the U.S., the checks are conducted by the FBI and can take four to six weeks, Deker said.

The issuing of U.S. and Israeli passports has also been slowed due to the pandemic, creating further delays for many.

In the chaos of the bigger world and our personal worlds, aliyah emerged as a really attractive next step for us as a family.

On top of that, candidates’ legal documents must be authenticated through a process called “apostille” in the states where the documents were issued, which can take several weeks.

“Everything’s taking longer,” she said, “but we’ve muddled through it and people are actually making aliyah.”

One family that muddled through — and successfully moved from Palo Alto to Tel Aviv in August — are Or and Ariele Hershkovits, along with their two young daughters, one who attended kindergarten at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School last year.

The Hershkovits family started the aliyah process in March after Or, a mathematician who has done postdoctoral work at Stanford University, accepted a lecturer position at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They expected to receive their visas and arrive in Israel with more than enough time to complete their quarantine and settle into their new apartment before their first-grader started school on Sept. 1.

But they ran into difficulties because of their different statuses: Or, 35, was born in Israel and is considered a returning citizen, and Ariele, 36, is a new immigrant, while their daughters have a different status because they were born to an Israeli parent but had never lived in the country.

“It’s kind of like a relay race, with a lot of different organizations and offices involved, and they’re all giving different information,” Ariele said about the process, describing it as “crazy making” and “alienating.”

In addition to having to prove she is Jewish (which took letters from three different rabbis), she said she had to produce documents showing that she actually gave birth to her children because they were never registered in Israel as required by law.

“We were sending the most personal, intimate documents — ultrasound pictures with my name on them, emails between me and my genetic counselor — to bureaucrats, desperate for them to believe us,” she said.

It wasn’t until Or posted about their saga on Facebook in July that they received the guidance they needed. The post was shared widely, and Knesset members as well as the minister of tourism personally reached out to Or.

“It’s not the way we would have preferred to do it,” he said, noting that the process he went through to become a U.S. citizen was more straightforward, if more time-consuming and expensive.

After all that, Ariele received a letter from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs granting her permission to enter the country on the day of their flight. (Non-Israelis, with exceptions for students and a few groups, generally have not been allowed to enter Israel since March 18. The country entered a second lockdown due to Covid-19 on Sept. 18, then further tightened restrictions the following week as cases continued to soar.)

Now that they are situated, Ariele said she is just starting to process the emotional weight of the move. “I don’t know when I’m going to be able to see my family as long as Israel is not allowing non-citizens to enter,” she said. “And as long as there’s a two-week quarantine, that makes it effectively impossible for anyone who has a job to come visit, and it makes it effectively impossible for me to go back and visit.”

Ariele, a lawyer, said things got even tougher after the second lockdown, which started just before the High Holidays.

“Our daughter in [first grade] just started to get adjusted to going to school again, and in a new country with a new language and culture. It’s really disruptive. Looking for a job will be harder and, of course, working will be harder with the kids at home. Again. But, now and for the last six months, we’re trying to find the silver lining — pancakes for breakfast on weekdays!”

Berkeley resident Jeff Morgan was planning to apply for Israeli citizenship in March while in the country on business. The co-owner of Covenant Winery in Berkeley with his wife, Jodie, he opened a winery in Israel in 2013 and spends part of each year in the country.

Jeff Morgan, co-owner of Berkeley's Covenant Winery, opened Covenant Israel in 2013.
Jeff Morgan, co-owner of Berkeley’s Covenant Winery, opened Covenant Israel in 2013.

But the pandemic forced him to cancel that March trip, and now his papers (which he had filled out on an earlier business trip to Israel in January) are sitting on his desk in Tel Aviv, and his FBI background check has expired. So he finds himself stuck “in limbo” in California.

“I’m very frustrated,” he said.

One major problem is the two-week quarantine, which he can’t do during the harvest season. “I have to be in the vineyards, in the winery, in the streets with my clients. I can’t run my businesses from a computer.”

Morgan, 66, said his immigration plans were inspired by his 28-year-old daughter, Zoë, who made aliyah several years ago and runs Covenant Israel.

“I don’t really want to be an American Jew. That was an accident,” said Morgan, a member of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox shul in Berkeley. “I want to be an Israeli. It’s going to happen.”

But not without complications, apparently. “When your life is a little complicated like ours, there isn’t a clear path forward,” he said.

Jodie, 61, isn’t quite ready to become a dual citizen, although she says she is open to it at some point, and the couple has no plans to give up their Berkeley home.

She said she is researching tax implications for the businesses if both were to make aliyah. “I think Jeff is emotionally and spiritually in a different place from me,” she said, “but I support that.”

Ben Snyder, 34, and Yael Meoded, 37, met through the Burning Man community, married in 2018 and built a happy life together in San Francisco. A baby arrived in early 2020.

Then the pandemic hit, and Snyder was laid off from his job at a Silicon Valley Israeli startup. He and Meoded, who was born in Tel Aviv and worked for the Bay Area-based Israel Economic Mission to the West Coast, had been planning to visit Meoded’s family in Israel over the summer.

But after the borders were closed to tourists, another option presented itself.

“In the chaos of the bigger world and our personal worlds, [aliyah] emerged as a really attractive next step for us as a family,” Snyder said.

They assembled their documents quickly and completed the process within about three months.

“I think some of what made it easier was that we had both been at home and were able to really keep track of things,” he explained, adding that he found a very helpful Facebook group run by Nefesh B’Nefesh called “Making Aliyah This Year.”

Snyder and Meoded had hoped to hold a socially distant going-away picnic with friends in Golden Gate Park, but smoke-laden skies made that impossible. After some unexpected flight changes, they left from SFO on Sept. 13 and quarantined at an Airbnb in Herzliya. The place has a big yard and a pool, which they said was a nice change from the weeks they spent stuck inside their cramped San Francisco apartment with baby daughter Ellie, who is now 8 months old.

Snyder, who had his bar mitzvah at Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, had visited Israel only once before moving there. His plan is to begin a master’s program in environmental studies at Tel Aviv University as Meoded searches for a job.

Although she is harshly critical of the current Israeli government, Meoded said she is “excited for us, as a bicultural family, to find our place in Israel.”

“It’s a wonderful place to raise a family. It’s a very pro-family country. There are so many kids,” she added.

After spending almost six years in San Francisco, she said she will miss the culture of openness, where “you can be who you are with zero judgment.”

Like other recent 2020 olim, Snyder and Meoded have experienced numerous challenges and surprises during the pandemic, as well as an opportunity for a new beginning.

“This year has shown that adaptability and improvisation are the new skills du jour,” Snyder said.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv.