Cheri Scheff Levitan is among the first Atlantans to travel recently to Israel after more than 15 months in which the country essentially shut its borders to non-citizens due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, even Israeli citizens struggled to get permission to fly to their country.
But while the doors are beginning to crack open, there is definitely not a huge “welcome sign” for the rest of the world. Israel may be ahead of the majority of countries in getting its citizenry vaccinated and being successful, for the most part, in controlling the virus. But it is definitely hesitant to allow in travelers from around the world who might bring in variants of the virus that could stoke the pandemic again.
Just ask Alex Gandler, deputy consul general of Israel to the Southeastern United States, who one day received a call telling him that – along with his regular duties – he was required to give his permission for every single non-Israeli wanting to travel to Israel. “We weren’t staffed for this,” he said. He noted how he receives dozens of emails a day plus daily phone calls, including on Shabbat, from non-Israelis wanting him to approve their travel to Israel.
These contacts weren’t just from non-Israelis in the seven states covered by the Consulate General of Israel in Atlanta. “One person contacted all nine consulates in the United States,” essentially begging for permission to fly to Israel.
To receive approval and that precious signature from Gandler, Atlantans must meet an extensive list of criteria that are enumerated on the consulate website. Students attending recognized yeshivot are among those who procure approval, as are non-citizens who have a first-degree relative living in Israel. But even those people must jump through several hoops, and Gandler warns that the situation changes constantly.
“Our turnaround time is 10 days, but things change all the time,” he said, and emergency approvals may jump the line.
Although Levitan has two sisters living in Israel, she received her exception to go there in June because she was traveling for business purposes. She is the CEO of Kenes Tours, an Israel-based tour operator. Just weeks ago, the Israeli ministries of tourism and health announced a pilot program that allows tourist groups of five to 30 people to travel to the country, under strict guidelines.
According to Levitan, the group must land together, eat together, along with the bus driver and tour leader. And, of course, they must be vaccinated and get COVID tests before they embark and after they land, along with a test that proves they have antibodies. Until that test comes back positive, they must stay in their hotels, essentially quarantined. Levitan said it took more than 24 hours to get her notification. “Israeli bureaucracy is alive and well,” she said, tongue in cheek.
Under this pilot program, participants “must stay with their group. They can’t visit their uncle,” Gandler warned. “They are banning people from Israel for 10 years and there’s a heavy fine,” he said. He added that he’s surprised how seriously the authorities are enforcing these restrictions.
Because Gandler can’t guarantee anyone his signature, especially within a certain time period, he recommends that prospective travelers buy tickets they can change. “We can’t get to everyone because we deal with life and death emergencies several times a week.
“Israel is trying to protect itself,” he underlines. “COVID traveled by airplane.”
The airplane experience has certainly changed as a result. Delta Air Lines interpreter Isabelle Shavit told the AJT, “today, we are almost back to our full beverage and food service.” Still, Levitan said she had to pre-order her meal. “To get a snack between meals, passengers had to go to the galley for them,” And, Levitan noted, “you can’t even sleep without your mask on.”
Levitan joked that Israel “is not quite ready for prime time,” but there is talk of opening up the country more in August. Gandler said, however, that he hasn’t received that notification and that Israeli hotels are not officially open for tourists yet.
Referring to all the required COVID testing, Gandler explained, “I don’t think this will change for a long time because there are new variants and the vaccination rate in some countries” isn’t that great. “Israel is one of the few countries in which you can walk around without a mask.”
Unquestionably, Gandler looks forward to life after COVID. “Then all this work will get off my shoulders. This is a once-in-a-lifetime situation, a historical moment. Israel is trying to be a tourist destination,” emphasized Gandler, “but we are trying to find a way to make it a safe destination.”