Ariella Bernstein
Ariella Bernstein
Forever an Israeli Immigrant

It Takes a Village – Or A WhatsApp Group

Photo Credit: Ariella Bernstein

Chances are that phone is filled with WhatsApp groups. But I am pretty sure that you don’t think of it as a lifeline.

About a month ago, I joined two WhatsApp groups that have literally have kept me up into the wee hours of the morning.  I swear, its not an addiction. I can wake up to hundreds of messages and I feel bad if I haven’t answered them, so I stay up until 2:00 AM answering what I can.

Because if I don’t, there are about 500 people in these groups who rightfully feel unmoored, and exhausted, by the ever changing rules designed to grant them permission to see their children and grandchildren in Israel.

About 500 parents of Israeli citizens who live in Chicago and New Jersey joined a WhatsApp group started by Maureen Ash at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis a year ago. Why Chicago and New Jersey? Because Maureen is from Chicago and currently lives in New Jersey. So no real reason but she saw a need in her communities. The groups were smaller way back when COVID made its appearance in March 2020. But when the rules kept on changing, and the restrictions were increasingly unclear, more people joined these groups.

“The anxiety level really hit the roof in January 2021 when Ben Gurion Airport was completely closed and people could not visit their children, and their children couldn’t get our of Israel either,” Maureen told me.  And there seemed to be no end in sight.

Turns out there was an “end” in sight, but not an easy one to navigate. On April 7, the government issued new regulations that centered on proving one’s first degree relationship to an Israeli citizen.  And that’s when the WhatsApp group exploded in hundreds of questions on how to work within the new rules and secure permission to visit.

No sense in reviewing all the steps you have to take to get all of this done, particularly since the rules can change tomorrow. Suffice it to say that the documentation process is lengthy and cumbersome for anyone trying to secure their entry to Israel. One can try to get it done through a local Israeli consulate office, or have a first degree Israeli relative secure permission in Israel at the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority branches, known colloquially as Misrad Hapnim (which is more accurately translated as Ministry of Interior that handles a myriad of other issues.)  We have found the Misrad Hapnim route the most successful one, albeit not always a sure thing.

I never met Maureen in my life, but she and I started communicating a few times a day, trying to help these parents get through the process. I devoured the Hebrew press to set the record straight so that there is no misunderstanding from the English press reports. Facebook groups popped up in no time, like Reunite Olim With Their Families, which developed a 2000-plus following in just a few weeks, and of course the ever-helpful former Member of Knesset Dov Lipman who has worked tirelessly to get these new rules passed to begin with. You can send him a message anytime on his Facebook page to get his advice.

But the parents in Chicago and New Jersey have questions that even these Facebook groups can’t answer. How to ensure that one’s local health insurance has the right COVID-19 insurance coverage? How to get an apostilled birth certificate which is a unique process in every state? Where one can secure a PCR-acceptable test in certain cities that includes proper identification of the traveler?  Can you make do without an apostilled birth certificate – and yes, you can, if your first degree relative applies for the permit in Israel at Misrad Hapnim. Where can one secure serological tests in the United States that are accepted in Israel? And countless more.

Maureen answers the US-based questions, and I handle the Israeli side. As I was writing this post, there was a change in one of the forms needed to enter Israel – and I immediately stopped everything to send a new link to the WhatsApp groups. It seems that some of the forms are now available on the Traffic Light (Ramzor) app, which is a new concept to those who don’t live in Israel.

I feel like 500 people depend on me now and I can’t sleep. I have fielded calls from parents desperate for some clarity. I have offered to accompany people to Misrad Hapnim because I know how to yell, and if needed, cry. My husband can’t sleep from the all the WhatsApp notifications.

The worst part is the lack of consistency in how the requests are handled by Misrad Hapnim. As with all things in Israel, it depends on who you encounter when you walk into that government office and how willing they are to help you. Word has gotten out that it is easier to get permission to enter Israel if the first degree relative Israeli citizen does the leg work in Israel, taking all of the required forms to Misrad Hapnim. We’ve gathered intel on which Misrad Hapnim branches work better, and are more helpful in securing permission for families to travel to Israel. But it doesn’t always work and it is frustrating for parents overseas and their children.

To give you a sense of how desperate Israelis are to see their families, it broke out in violence in Herzliya’s Misrad Hapnim office this week. One parent from New Jersey reported that her son stood on line at 7:00 AM. By 8:00 AM, there more than 40 people on line waiting to see a representative to get their parents’ permission to enter the country. There was screaming, fighting, and chaos. It became so aggressive that it led to violence and security guards had to be called. About half of the people on line got frustrated enough and left without the requisite approval. But those who stayed were eventually seen in about two hours and secured the approval if their documents met the standards.

Maureen and I hear heart wrenching stories every day. We take calls from people we don’t know. We try to keep up, but I am not sure we are succeeding.  It takes a village to help 500 people who see WhatsApp as their lifeline.

And I can’t sleep at night trying to stay on top of it all.

About the Author
Ariella Bernstein lives in Jerusalem with her husband Avi Losice. Ariella and Avi are co-authors of the book Aliya: Home, Hope, Reality about the emotional impact of Aliyah on families we leave behind, and how to navigate these long distance relationships. Together with their children, they are an adopted family to olim and their home is open to anyone who needs one. Ariella made Aliyah in 2009, she works in investor relations, and volunteers in Jerusalem’s tech sector ecosystem as a mentor to start-ups.
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