Passport to Bureaucracy

With a screech of the brakes, the car pulled up to the government compound. Two security agents swarmed about, checking for bombs underneath the vehicle. The trunk was opened and carefully examined. Next, the hood was raised, and the men took a glimpse at the engine and battery, making sure that nothing looked suspect. Finally, the car was waved through, and its passengers made their way to the secure section of the building.

Was it Bibi and his entourage arriving at the Knesset? A foreign dignitary arriving to present his credentials to the President? Perhaps the U.S. Secretary of State was swooping in on a secret peace mission to the Middle East.

It was far more serious. It was…a visit to the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem to renew a passport.

Renewing a passport in this Internet age of Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram should be trivial. One would think that it shouldn’t involve more than completing an on-line form, scanning a picture, and pressing a button to upload the finished document to a government server. But if your child is under sixteen, it is indeed, a serious matter. Read along as the story unfolds.

Tuesday, June 14, 8:00 P.M.

I locate the website of the Jerusalem United States Consular site and read the instructions for renewing my 15-year-old daughter’s passport. If one’s child is under sixteen years of age, the passport must be renewed in person, with both parents in attendance. I print the forms, fill them out, and obtain an on-line reservation at the Consulate for Tuesday, June 21, at 9:15 AM. All seems in order.

Wednesday, June 15, 11:30 AM.

Photographs which meet the strict standards of the U.S. Government are taken at a local Bet Shemesh photography studio. I remind my daughter not to smile too broadly. The Consulate says that only “normal, unexaggerated smiles are acceptable.” No funny stuff.

Sunday, June 19, 9:00 P.M.

The first obstacle presents itself. My wife informs me that she will be unable to accompany us to the Consulate. Both parents must accompany the minor to obtain the new passport…unless U.S. State Department Form DS3053 is filled out and officially notarized.

At 10:00 pm that night, on the way back from Hebrew Book Week in Jerusalem, we contact a good friend who happens to be a notary. We return to Bet Shemesh, and stop at his home. He prints the form, slaps on the official stamp, and adorns it with a lovely red ribbon. We’re all set. I hope.

Tuesday, June 21, 7:00 A.M.

Passport Day dawns bright and early. I shuffle through the papers over and over, making sure that I have the current passports, the correct photographs, my daughter’s birth certificate, and the vital form DS3053, which allows my wife to opt out. I am sweating profusely, because in my heart of hearts, I know that something will go wrong. We’re out the door at 8:00, and Waze says we’ll be there by 9:05, in plenty of time for our appointment.

Traffic builds in Bet Shemesh. Children are crossing the street on their way to school. Isn’t the school year over?! We finally make our way past the intersection, and we are now scheduled to arrive at 9:10. We pick up a few minutes, but then we arrive at the tunnel road from Gush Etzion. It’s a parking lot, with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Waze says 9:15. My daughter tells me not to be nervous. I’m terrified.

Tuesday, June 21, 9:17 A.M.

We’ve arrived and we’re only three minutes late! The car passes the rigorous security check, and we make our way to the entrance. I nervously hand our sheaf of documents through the window for pre-screening, and after five minutes we’re in. Until we reach the x-ray scanners.

Travelers leaving Israel are often pleasantly surprised by the relaxed, low-key approach of the security personnel at Ben Gurion when placing their belongings on the x-ray scanners. No, you don’t have to take off your belt. Yes, you may leave your watch on your wrist, and you may keep your shoes on. Today’s encounter with security at the consulate makes us feel like we are truly on US soil. No phones may be taken inside. No laptops, iPads, or anything electronic. It takes me three tries through the scanner until I am finally waved through. And I continue to sweat.

Tuesday, June 21, 9:45 A.M.

We’re inside the main room, and we receive a number. Our number is called, and we are told to go to window number 5. Together with my daughter and son, I walk over, and hand the clerk all of the necessary documents. She looks them over, and tells me to go to window number 6 for payment. Three hundred and twenty-five dollars later (I was renewing my own passport, my son’s, and my daughter’s) I am rerouted to yet another station, where I pay another tidy sum to arrange for courier delivery of the passports to our home. We are then told to sit and wait, yet again, until our name is called.

Am I hallucinating, or is it possible that US logistics experts have studied the Israeli bureaucracy of yesteryear, in order to arrange for a system whereby the customer must go to three separate stations, deal with three different clerks, and still not be finished? And is it possible that Israeli offices have become more efficient than American ones?

After engaging with my children for 10 or 15 minutes — one advantage of being phoneless — our name is ominously called for the final time. We return to window 5, where we encounter a fourth clerk — who informs us, with genuine regret, that our 15-year-old’s passport application is flawed, and has been rejected. My fears, it turns out, were well grounded. I screwed up. I had forgotten to include a photocopy of my wife’s ID, and even more grievously, I had neglected to write my daughter’s name at the top of the notarized form. ‘Why can’t I fill it in now?’, I ask sheepishly, knowing the answer even before she replies. “That’s because the notarization had to be done with her name already on the sheet”, she answers.  Ah, the wonders of bureaucracy.

I receive my final instructions from the clerk. I must take the form back to the notary, in order to be re-notarized, ribbon and all. And, I need to provide a copy of my wife’s ID. But there is some small consolation. I can actually mail it in. And, best of all, I have an extra red ribbon. I think I’ll tie it around my finger next time as a reminder to sign everything beforehand.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Rosenbaum is the vice-president of Davka Corporation (www.davka.com) one of the world's leading developers of Jewish educational software. He has lived in Israel since 1996, and writes extensively about Jewish life in Israel for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and other publications.
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