No Place Like Home: Prompted by Covid-19, Israelis Living Abroad Return to the Motherland
The friends. The family. The public health system. The sense of mutual accountability. Israelis living abroad tell Calcalist why the coronavirus crisis sent them packing and boarding a plane to the old country
Diana Bahur-Nir | 11:46 15.04.2020
Brooklyn, New York to Tel Aviv: "When the system crumbles, it does not matter how good your health insurance is." Anna Osipov (34), Emmanuel Heymann (33), and their daughter Maya (10 months) Anna: As soon as the crisis began, we started comparing the situation in the U.S. to that in Israel. (U.S. President) Donald Trump downplayed it as "just the flu." You went out to the street, and everyone was out having picnics and exercising. But we looked at countries like Italy and Spain, and we realized the U.S. is next in line. I don't have a single friend in New York who was not debating coming back to Israel. The biggest dilemma is financial: you pay rent for your apartment in New York and an apartment in Israel because you cannot go back to your parents and put them at risk .
San Diego, California to Beit Zayit: "We were afraid that if I got sick and went into early labor, we would go bankrupt."Marik Shtern (41), postdoctoral political geography student teaching at the University of California in San Diego, Chaya Gilboa (35), works at Jewish philanthropic organization the Leichtag Foundation, and their children, Michael (6) and Avshalom (3). Marik: Chaya is pregnant and due in June. We had planned to have the baby in the U.S. and return two months later, in August. When the crisis began, we debated coming back earlier and decided to stay. But as things got worse, we realized the dilemma was between coming home on a plane full of viruses while pregnant—or with a two-month-old. Chaya: I wanted to give birth in the U.S., not just to ensure citizenship for the baby, but because the conditions here are great. In the end, what called the shots was the fact that my insurance covers regular birth, but not cesarean or care for a premature baby. We were afraid that if I got sick and needed to go into early labor we would go bankrupt. In Israel, if I were told that I had to go into labor at 34 weeks, I would have said yes to whatever is best for the baby. In the U.S., it means $40,000 in medical bills. The last thing I want is for financial considerations to prevent me from doing what is best for my kids. Marik: Another consideration was that we have no family there, and when Chaya goes into labor, our friends cannot help us with the kids because of the social isolation regulations. Also, we saw how the U.S. was handling the crisis, and increasingly, it looked like a disaster. California reacted early, but we felt less and less safe that the federal authorities know what they are doing. In an emergency, you want to be in a familiar place, where you can deal with whatever is coming. We were afraid that if the social order in the U.S. were undermined, we would not be safe. The moment It became possible for me to teach via Zoom, we bought the tickets for five days later. We packed everything quickly, got rid of everything we purchased there, all the kids' toys. They couldn't say goodbye to their friends at kindergarten, so we said goodbye in the parking lot. Everyone stood by their car, a safe distance apart, we drove by, and the kids said their goodbyes. Michael was so excited; he said, 'help.' The gesture warmed our hearts, but it was also very loaded: a combination of gratitude and profound sorrow. It was very dramatic. I felt as if we were leaving Vietnam on the last plane out before the communist takeover, or like the exodus from Egypt. Chaya: The experience at the airport was scary. I fly a lot for work, and the airports are always busy. This time it was like that scene in Vanilla Sky when Tom Cruise steps out into the empty Times Square. You walk around with a sense of dread. Marik: All the Israelis boarding the plane had protective gear. Nobody talked. People are afraid of each other, and that is contagious. When the flight took off, we felt relieved. We were afraid that upon landing, we would be sent to one of those quarantine hotels, but when we landed, and they took our temperature, we were so happy. Everyone was friendly, the health ministry personnel, and the first responders. We felt at home, a sense of solidarity. Chaya: Because of our deep sense of solidarity, everyone in Israel is in crisis mode. In San Diego, young people are not feeling the emergency. At most, they are annoyed by the fact that cafes are closed and yoga classes canceled. Here, people went shopping for us. People with no income of their own sent us a giant crate of vegetables. We felt a support circle of people around us; it is an amazing sensation. Goa, India to Kfar Vitkin: "It is stressful to search for food in India. In Israel, I don't have to hunt down peppers." Inbar Korem-Yehezkel (33), blogger. Dolev Korem-Yehezkel (35), tech worker, and their kids, Naama (6), Noga (4), Yuval, and Ido (1.5). Inbar: We moved to India because of the cost of living in Israel. In Israel, at least one of us has to work full time, and cannot be involved in raising the kids. Dolev is the one who works, and we had a nanny, which cost half his salary, and essentially replaced him as my partner. We thought India would be cheap, and that we could work remotely. We only got to live there for five months. The last week was the longest of our lives. It all happened so quickly. All of a sudden, they announced a one-day lockdown in Goa. At the end of the lockdown, they extended it by three more days. When these were over, they said it'll actually be 21 days, and they did not allow people time to organize anything. Everything was done in a stupid and inconsistent way. One moment you are allowed to go out, and the next, you can’t. In Israel, things may not be awesome, but at least it is not chaos. At first, they just shut everything down and did not let anyone buy anything. Luckily, we went panic-shopping a day earlier, so we had enough food for a week and a half. The problem is we did not own a car. Typically we relied on rickshaws, and once those went away, we couldn't go and buy food. We are not like the locals who drink tap water, and we weren't sure what would happen to the ‘tourists' water.’ It is not as if you can’t find food, we were not starving, but we had enough of the stress of scouting for food. In Israel, you do not have to hunt down peppers. Apart from food, as people living in a developing country, we had planned to rely on private medicine. Then they announced that both locals and tourists have to use the public health system. So all of a sudden, there was no reliable emergency medicine. We thought: what would happen if someone slammed their nose into a wall, not a crazy notion with four small children. This stressed us out worse than the coronavirus. With all due respect, none of us are high-risk. In Israel, I can rely on emergency medicine, so we bought the tickets two days before we flew out, and we debated the decision all the way to the plane. When we got here, we thought about all the children’s day care centers that are not being used now, so we rented one, and we live here. We sleep on mattresses, but the kitchen here is much better equipped than what we got used to in India, and we have toys. It is genius, in the next pandemic, I'd recommend this to everyone. We hope to go back to India in September. I cannot live there now, because the Indian authorities are mismanaging this crisis, but I cannot live in Israel either, because it is too expensive. The stress here is different.
London to Tel Aviv: “Our friends filled up our refrigerator and bought us the house plants my wife loves.”Dan Ziv (38), tech worker. Married to Aviv and father to seven-year-old Geva. Dan: We went to London for an MBA program. Like all Israelis, we planned to stay for five years tops, but somehow it became eight. I graduated, and then started a tech company with two friends from the program, sold it, and in 2016 joined TouchNote, where I’m the CEO. Early on, we thought the coronavirus crisis would be a matter of a few weeks. London was different from everywhere else in the world. Prime Minister Boris Jonson went so far as to visit hospitals and shake hands with patients and called on the public to carry on their lives as usual. But friends of ours from Italy told us, ‘you have no idea what’s coming.’