By Larry Gordon

In the past, all you had to do was buy an airline ticket, go to the airport, wait around a little, board the plane, and then about ten hours later you were in Israel. Perhaps only now can we begin to appreciate the simplicity of what has since become an arduous and complex process.

Over last summer, one of the pressing matters related to international travel was how students enrolled to attend yeshivas and seminaries would get into the country—or if they would be allowed entry at all. At the end of a long negotiating process between a coalition of schools and the Israeli government, a deal was struck that allowed just about every foreign student who wanted to study in Israel to enter the country.

Now, eight months later, there is buzz about what to do with the yeshiva and seminary students who are off for the entire month of Nissan which includes, of course, the yom tov of Pesach.

While the number of people being infected in both Israel and the U.S. is dropping dramatically, circumstances have shown that these ebbs in the numbers are a prelude to a spike in the numbers if we become too lax. And that is something that the government of Israel is determined not to have repeated.

Zvi Gluck, the founder and director of Amudim, and his staff have worked relentlessly and sometimes around the clock dealing with individual cases, of both Israeli and U.S. citizens, who had to travel between countries for an emergency or family- or business-related issues.

On the matter of U.S. students being able to come home for Pesach and then return to yeshiva or seminary after yom tov, Gluck cautions, “If you are coming back from Israel for yom tov, at this point you are not going to be allowed to return to Israel.” Of course, the situation can change at any time and the Israel Health Ministry and the coronavirus czar have said that the policy on travel will be updated on March 6. So, depending on the situation in the country, the policies can be revised in any number of directions. It is unlikely, however, that there will be any significant or dramatic change at this point.

To date, Israel has reported that more than 60% of the country has been vaccinated, but it is still early in the process and there is still too much that is unknown. Mr. Gluck, who is in constant touch with a number of ministries in Israel as well as relevant agencies here in New York, says that one of the current concerns in Israel is that there are more people under the age of 45 years old on ventilators in Israeli hospitals than any time during the last year.

While people are still able to get permission, provided they give ample notice, to enter Israel for a wedding, bris, or other simchas, the flip side of that coin—burials in Israel—has been a bit more challenging. These days, with safety measures in place, there are about eight flights a week leaving for Tel Aviv from the New York area. El Al is flying a few flights per week, with Delta and United adding a few flights to Israel as well.

At this point, when someone who had arranged for burial in Israel passes away, all three of those carriers are transporting those people to Israel and allowing immediate family members to accompany the niftar. According to Zvi Gluck, as of now, only immediate family is allowed, which means children, but no spouses or grandchildren. Additionally, he says, those accompanying the deceased for burial are allowed to be in Israel for no more than 24 hours.

As we go to press, the conventional wisdom is to allow your children who are in yeshiva or seminary to remain in Israel through the upcoming holiday. Of course, you can bring them home, but unless there is a change in government policy, those students will not be allowed back into Israel to finish the year.

That policy is quite puzzling. Back in August and September, when there were no vaccines yet to speak of, over 20,000 students—many from the U.S.—were allowed into Israel. Now the infection rate is down and the majority of the population is vaccinated. Perhaps Israel just does not want the headache that comes along with allowing students back in, this time for only about six weeks until the school year ends.

According to Gluck, conditions for travel to Israel will improve, but at this juncture no one knows how long it will take. It could take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and that depends on the efficacy of the vaccine and other statistics related to the spread of the virus.

He adds that last week’s discovery of a group traveling on El Al from New York to Israel with forged paperwork was damaging for people who have an authentic and pressing need to travel to Israel. Gluck says that over the past ten months when someone presented themselves as having an emergency or an imperative need to go to Israel, the claim was taken at face value. Now, he says, in the aftermath of last week’s fiasco, all claims need to be investigated before people are given permission to enter the country.

Dr. Michael Klein has a dental office in Cedarhurst, and since he made aliyah about a decade ago, he has been traveling twice a month from his home outside Jerusalem to treat his patients here in the Five Towns. As you can imagine, that intriguing but otherwise unassuming plan has been turned on its head. He still attempts to travel in and out of New York every month but, he says, each time that he applies to leave Israel or return home he finds that he has to deal with a new set of rules and regulations that are constantly changing.

As a medical practitioner, he was able to receive the vaccine back in October. Even though he was inoculated, on one of his trips back home to Israel he was taken to a quarantine hotel to begin the 14 days in isolation. It took him two days to demonstrate that he had received the vaccine and that he did not have to quarantine, and they eventually let him go home.

This week, Israel announced that they were loosening some of the international travel restrictions for Israeli citizens. The plan is to broaden that policy and hopefully open the country to tourists, with some restrictions, over the next month or so.

How this is going to impact on the American student population studying in Israel remains to be seen.

Moti Verses works for Hilton Hotels in Israel. He says that he expects the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem to reopen on Sunday, March 7. Sheldon Ritz, the general manager of the iconic King David Hotel, says the hotel will be reopening on March 18. I asked Moti who the hotel guests were going to be if tourists are not allowed in, and he could only respond that as of a few days ago Ben Gurion Airport is officially closed.

While travel to Israel for Pesach is unlikely, Israel has entered into agreements last week with both Cyprus and Greece, announcing that those countries will accept documentation from Israel that indicates that a traveler has either received a vaccine or has been tested and is virus-free. According to the Israeli press, over 300,000 Israelis are expected to spend Pesach in Cyprus.

That leaves us with the parental decision about what to do with the 18- and 19-year-olds who have been in Israel since August or September and were looking forward to a few weeks at home over yom tov and then planning to return to Israel to finish the educational year. But this is a year unlike any other that preceded it. Rabbi Reuven Taragin of Yeshivat HaKotel says that they are working under the assumption that travel will be severely restricted and that students who want to complete the year in Israel should not go back home for the month of Nissan.

Last week, the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem sent a letter to parents advising them to allow their children to stay in Israel over Pesach. While some are planning on coming back to the U.S. for the chag, they are being urged to make alternative plans here in the States in the event that they can’t return to Israel for the next z’man.

The hope is that matters will improve and travel limits will be loosened and that we will be able to travel to Israel the way we once did, but we cannot count on that happening at this point in time. Someday, things will improve and we will once again be able to move around freely. Let’s pray that day arrives soon.

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