Last week, when news broke that a new Corona variant called Omicron that may or may not be resistant to the vaccine had emerged in South Africa, I was on vacation with my family in the United States. I hadn’t seen them for over three years, as my parents were forced to cancel two trips to Israel already – once due to health problems and once due to coronavirus restrictions.
Overnight, during what was supposed to be a relaxing Hanukkah vacation, my situation transformed into a nightmare. With Israel’s decision to bar foreigners from entering the country, my ability to get home became much more complicated, killing what remained of my vacation with tension, stress and even despair.
Due to the new variant, my return ticket on Wednesday night, when I was supposed to fly from Chicago to Zurich and from Zurich back to Israel in time for Shabbat, was canceled. However, United Airlines, instead of notifying me about this, put me on a nightmare flight, in which I was to fly from Chicago to New York and from there to Zurich, and to be stranded in Zurich for a day and a half, before returning back to Israel, an hour and a half after Shabbat began. On the previous flight, I was to arrive on Thursday, a full day before Shabbat.
As a woman who keeps the Shabbat, I was infuriated, and my family had to waste hours arguing on the phone with United Airlines. These were hours during which we could have seen the Chicago Aquarium or some other attraction that the city has to offer. In the end, after wasting too much time, United Airlines put me on a direct Chicago-Tel Aviv flight that left one day later, which did not stop over in Europe.
However, even that one barely arrived before Shabbat, thus forcing me to light Shabbat candles and Hanukkah candles in the same sweaty clothes from the flight without showering and without my suitcases unpacked. Additionally, since my flight was postponed by one day, I had to do the Corona test over again, which cost me $103, money that I would not have had to spend if the new variant had not led to the cancelation of my original flight back to Israel. It also ate up time that could have been used for sightseeing as well.
In retrospect, I was one of the lucky ones, as I still managed to get back to Israel with only one day delay despite the fact that Israel was barring foreigners from entering the country. However, due to the new regulations, I was immediately placed in quarantine for three days, thus forcing me to do Shabbat and Hanukkah alone without my husband and children. As my husband and children went to my in-laws, I was stuck by myself, eating leftovers that my in-laws left outside my door. On Saturday night, when they got home, I could only gaze from another room, as the children opened the gifts I brought back from America and ate the latkes I prepared in a different room. I had to see the smiles on their face from afar. I was legally barred from enjoying them up close.
Thus, instead of enjoying Hanukkah with my family in America and with my family here, I was stuck spending the first half worrying I would not make it back to Israel to see my family and the second half separated from my family upon arrival. And for what? I arrived from Chicago, which when I departed had no known cases of the new variant. In fact, when I departed, the US had less cases than Israel had of the new variant.
Nevertheless, even though I had two negative COVID test results, I was placed into quarantine for three days. In fact, I even got a notification from Israeli police when I left home to do the third corona test, which according to the new regulations is an offense punishable by a 2,500 NIS ($790) if not done on the third day. This caused me to waste valuable work time on the phone with the coronavirus officials at the Ministry of Health, explaining my whereabouts and why it was not a violation of my quarantine. Meanwhile, while they went after little me for leaving home to do a Corona test, there are media reports saying that 2,600 travelers missed out on doing their second test on the first day of the regulations.
It should be stressed that getting the third Corona test was much harder than getting the others. While I was able to take an Uber to a private clinic to do the first test and the second I could do at the airport, the third had to be done at a drive-by clinic that closed in the early afternoon. Since I don’t have a driver’s license and it is questionable whether a cab driver would agree to take me there, I had to go there with my father-in-law, who took off work just to drive me there. He confessed that if I did not already have two negative test results, he would not have agreed to do it, as he did not want to be quarantined too. However, it should be added that failure to take the test exactly on day three in the country results in not only a fine, but also a requirement to remain in quarantine for two weeks. Yet, people who don’t drive or people who can’t take off work to do it are penalized all the same.
Sadly, I am not the only one suffering because of these new regulations. According to recent media reports, Yad L’Olim, an organization that seeks to help olim (immigrants) living in Israel, just produced a video of young Jews who were about to give birth and yet were deprived of the right to enjoy this important experience with their relatives because of the new restrictions caused by Omicron. As one immigrant, who is approaching a high-risk birth, related, “I’m here alone. There’s no one to help me. Why can’t my mother, who is fully vaccinated and has all the documents, be with me?”
There is also a Facebook group titled “Reunite Olim with their Families,” which has 15.7 thousand members and numerous sad stories about how the new restrictions are affecting average people. One woman stated, “My husband and I were booked to fly to Israel on December 19. Flights of course were cancelled. I have an elderly mother 93 years old bless her. I really need to get to see her now. I never wanted to speak of failing health, but I now must. She fell recently, has a septic wound and is almost not walking anymore. I haven’t seen her in two years and missed the brief window.”
In the same group, another woman related: “I tried to go to Israel for my granddaughter’s bat mitzvah on December 11th. I was supposed to fly to Israel today. I was refused. The Exceptions Committee does not grant exception for grandparents of bat mitzvah girl. I don’t know why.”
Another woman wrote in that same group: “I haven’t been to Israel for two years and had plans to see my daughter, brother and grandchildren at the end of December. Any chance this will happen? I miss my family.” Still another woman in the group wrote: “My son was supposed to return home on November 30th for a much-needed visit. I have not seen him in two years. He left in Jan. 2020, made Aliyah and was drafted into the army. He has completed advanced training. Covid prevented any travel before. The travel ban came in just two days before I was going to physically hug my boy and it has literally devastated me. Even if he manages to come home later, I will be working. This pandemic has created a mental health pandemic. I am unable to manage a ticket to go there. I need to see my kid!”
It should be added that prior to the existence of the new variant, my aunt, uncle, and parents, who are all fully vaccinated with booster shots, were thinking of coming to Israel to visit us for Passover. During my recent visit to the US, I did not bring my children, as I felt it was too difficult to travel during these crazy COVID times with children. For this reason, I was really looking forward to them coming, as my children by this point barely can remember anyone from my side of the family except for brief Zoom conversations. However, with this new variant, I have no clue if that will happen now.
And with the new American requirements for entry, which demand COVID tests 24 hours in advance of the flight, I have no clue if I can manage to get a COVID test that will be acceptable by Ben-Gurion Airport, should I decide to go back to America to see my family. After all, there is one requirement for acceptance into Ben-Gurion Airport and one for acceptance into the United States, which don’t really match. The humanitarian toll of this pandemic is devastating. My father is now in his 80’s with epilepsy and my aunt can barely walk. This reality is utterly heart-breaking. However, at least I got two and a half weeks alone with my family in America, despite all the difficulties I faced, which is more than many can say.