By Renee Ghert-Zand
When Aaron Feinblatt moved to Israel in late February 2020, just as the first signs of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak were emerging, only one person wore a mask on his aliyah flight.
Feinblatt had no idea that masks would soon become the norm for him and everyone else, nor how COVID-19 would affect the first year in his new home.
“I got here two weeks before the country completely shut down,” he said. “With all the lockdowns and restrictions in the last year, I feel like I have been physically here but my aliyah hasn’t yet happened.”
Yet the 29-year-old lawyer from Philadelphia has no regrets about arriving when he did.
“I am thrilled to be here,” Feinblatt said. “I’m healthy and I have a job with an Israeli start-up and I live a 10-minute walk from the beach in Tel Aviv. I would have pushed through and come here even if my aliyah date had been during the pandemic and not before it.”
Rather than diminishing interest in immigrating to Israel, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have fueled it. A total of 7,965 aliyah applications from North America were submitted in 2020, double that of the previous year. Over the first three months of 2021, the number of immigrants arriving in Israel from North America was up 30% over the same period a year ago.
“We’ve seen unprecedented interest since spring 2020,” said Marc Rosenberg, vice president for Diaspora partnerships at Nefesh B’Nefesh, which manages aliyah applications from North America and assists with immigration in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA.
“Past national or international events sparked inquiries and applications, but never like this,” he added.
A few factors are driving the increase, immigration officials theorize.
The pandemic has spurred people to reconsider their life priorities, giving greater urgency to the dream of living in Israel. The shift to remote work has enabled a growing number of people who want to move to Israel without giving up their U.S. careers to do so. The difficulty of travel and Israel’s ban on non-citizen entry (with some exceptions) is prompting some Americans who were frequent visitors to Israel, particularly retirees with grandchildren there, to relocate permanently.
And Israel’s early success combating the coronavirus and efficient rollout of vaccinations encouraged some of those already considering aliyah.
“I figured that the risk of contracting the disease seemed the same in both countries, but in Israel I would be able to be immediately vaccinated,” said Ariana Gordon, 33, who made aliyah recently from Los Angeles.
After Gordon lost her job at a California gym due to COVID closures, she realized it was time to act on her longstanding aliyah wish. She initiated her application late last June and put her graduate degree in computer science to use by beginning a remote internship with Israel Tech Challenge. Now she lives in Tel Aviv.
The pandemic also prompted educator Ilanna Price to make the move. Price, 27, was living in New York while the rest of her family had moved to Israel over the past decade.
“I had a life in the U.S., and things were going well. But then with COVID I was stuck at home and the ability to do my job was severely limited,” Price said. “The situation gave me the extra push to finish up my aliyah application.”
Price moved to Israel in October. She lives in the trendy Florentine neighborhood in south Tel Aviv and works as a kindergarten teacher.
Making aliyah during the COVID-era has not been easy. The pandemic slowed the processing of necessary paperwork on both sides of the Atlantic. Israel’s government limited the operations of the country’s main airport for several weeks more than once, frustrating the scheduling of immigration flights. When Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport was shuttered in January during a third national lockdown, Gordon’s aliyah flight was canceled and she found herself stranded in the United States after having given up her apartment and car.
“I got my aliyah visa in late January and my original flight was scheduled for Feb. 1, but Israel wasn’t letting in any flights,” Gordon said. “I was rebooked five more times, and finally made it to Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight that arrived March 1.”
Due to the delays, Gordon had to redo some costly paperwork, including import documentation for her dog, and underwent three COVID tests at her own expense.
“It was a real emotional roller coaster,” Gordon said. “I tried not to get my hopes up each time, but I couldn’t help it because I wanted to be in Israel so badly.”
For Rachel and Yosef Gross, a couple who immigrated to Israel in February 2020, the challenge of aliyah during the COVID era came after arrival.
“My dad was sick with cancer in Chicago and I thought I would be able to go back to visit him regularly,” Rachel Gross said. “But then COVID happened. He passed away in early February 2021 and I couldn’t get there.”
Yet she says she has no misgivings about moving to Jerusalem. Rachel, 28, has a full-time job as a graphic designer with an Israeli start-up. Yosef, 27, works in digital marketing and music management, and is also pursuing a graduate degree in environmental studies at Tel Aviv University. The couple is expecting their first child later this year.
“It’s always been our dream to be in Israel, and we are blessed to be here,” Yosef said.
“It would have been worse for us if we had gotten trapped in the U.S. because of COVID,” Rachel added.
With most of Israel’s adult population vaccinated, new COVID cases at their lowest levels in months and the country largely reopened, Feinblatt says he’s looking forward to doing the things he’d planned to do a year ago. Primarily he wants to make the social connections he missed out on before starting work.
“I had been looking forward to integrating, being out and about, learning and practicing Hebrew, and meeting people,” Feinblatt said.
Looking back on her own experience, Price said that when she completed her aliyah application last summer, she figured it could be the worst time or the best time to make aliyah – she just wasn’t sure which.
“The truth is that I probably would have continued to put off aliyah if it hadn’t been for COVID,” Price said. “I’m glad I took the step to do it.”
This article was sponsored by and produced in partnership with Nefesh B’Nefesh, which in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah, The Jewish Agency, KKL and JNF-USA is minimizing the professional, logistical and social obstacles of aliyah, and has brought over 65,000 olim from North America and the United Kingdom for nearly two decades. This article was produced by JTA’s native content team.