“The bureaucracy is expanding to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.” —Oscar Wilde
It’s been a little while since my last post, and the primary reason for that is that I needed some time to let my blood pressure come back down. I don’t think that any aliyah blog can be complete without a discussion of Israeli bureaucracy, an infuriating necessity of the move. Over the years, I have become a pretty calm and patient person in bureaucratic situations out of necessity, sweating the small stuff is bad for your quality of life. This has been a true test, though.
When I was 20 years old, while studying abroad in Scotland, I was offered an opportunity to travel to Israel with the Jewish student federation in the UK, and I knew better than to turn down a chance to go. One small problem — I didn’t bring my Israeli passport with me to Scotland, not knowing that i’d need it. No big deal, I thought, I am an American. So, I travelled to Israel with my American Passport, and all was well until Border Patrol. “Orly?” the woman asked me, “that is an Israeli name.” I nodded. Then she said “You were born in Israel, where is your Israeli passport?” I replied that it was in America with my parents. This is when my kind security guard informed me of my 2 options : I can either get a new travel document, or I can stay in Israel and serve in the Army. No travel document, no leaving. So, this was obviously problematic. Fast forward to me spending an entire day of my short trip waiting at Misrad Hapnim for a Teudat Maavar.
That day taught me an important lesson, and one that I didn’t really understand from the days of my childhood when my parents helped me with everything: Israeli bureaucracy sucks. My lesson was reinforced when I attempted to get a new Israeli Passport before my Israel vacation this summer. Of course the consulate is open all of 3 hours a day, and my trip was planned fairly late in the game, so getting there on a work day to deal with my passport was a challenge. My Teudat Maavar from the past came back to haunt me because my parents didn’t know where it was and I had to report it lost and go back to the consulate 3 or 4 times. Every day I e-mailed and called about the status of my Passport. On the last possible day, I was told to come in, and on that day I got yet another Teudat Maavar (good for 2 years) instead of a Passport (good for 10 years). Why, you may ask? Well, there were some computer problems in the office in Israel.
I knew that making aliyah would involve a lot of bureaucratic shenanigans, and I tried to mentally prepare. Most of these things I will only have to do once. So, a few hours of discomfort for a lifetime in Israel is worth it. Really, though, there is no way to prepare for this hot, hot mess.
First there is the aliyah approval process. The Israeli government, through the Jewish Agency, offers incentives to people making aliyah. “Aliyah” is a hebrew word for “ascent”, and a Jewish person moving from somewhere in the diaspora to Israel is making aliyah, and is referred to as an “oleh.”There are 3 different aliyah classifications: 1)An oleh chadash has never lived in Israel and receives the most rights; 2)A katin chozer lived in Israel at some point but left before the age of 14, and receives almost the same package of rights; 3) A toshav chozer is someone who lived in Israel as an adult, left for a prolonged period of time, and is now returning.
I want to preface this with the fact that I am incredibly grateful for all of the wonderful benefits I get — financial benefits, reduced taxes, a free education. If it weren’t for these incentives I could not have made this move, moving 5,000 miles is costly. However, if anyone reading this is considering coming back, I think it’s important to understand the process. Being a katin chozer means jumping through a whole lot of additional hoops to prove that you have not lived in Israel since the age of 14.
An organization called Nefesh B’ Nefesh (NBN) is an invaluable tool in making aliyah. Aside from the fact that they may provide additional financial incentives, and that they provide support services while you’re here, they have streamlined the paperwork process. They have an application checklist and you simply e-mail them the items on that list and they make sure it gets to the right place. Ultimately, it is the Jewish Agency that approves your aliyah, but at least NBN is there to make sure the paperwork doesn’t get lost. I started my application process less than a month before my move, and so I hit the ground running, e-mailing document after document. There were a LOT of e-mails. In addition to copies of all of my passports from the age of 14 to today, they needed all of my parents passports from 1996-2000. Fun.
After I submitted all of my documents, I made an appointment to meet with a shaliach, or representative, of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem. I was armed with all of the documents I submitted, walked in with a smile, and figured, how bad could this be? The meeting was quite pleasant. As part of the process I needed proof of my Judaism, and my rabbi at home was away on vacation. So I had a copy of my mother’s Israeli identification card which clearly states that she is Jewish, and that I am her daughter. So, that should do it, Judaism is matrilineal, right? My shaliach says, “I’m not sure we can accept this.” Okay…
I leave the Jewish Agency and proceed to get a little lost in Jerusalem, walk into a store for some retail therapy, and my cell phone rings. “Hello, we just met and I realized that we forgot to talk about some other things we’re going to need,” my shaliach said. He proceeds to tell me that they need my High School transcripts, my parents’ tax returns from the years of 1996-2000, and a letter from their employer during those years. I was flabbergasted. I told him that he had copies of all of my entry and exit stamps, and all of my parents’ entry and exist stamps for all of the years he needed — there is no way we could have lived in Israel without being in Israel– and that this was “overkill.” He replied, “do you want me to tell the Israeli government that this is ‘overkill’?” and I could feel the sneer on his face through my cellphone. I explained to him that I could not live in America without income, paying Boston rents, for several weeks while I waited for my High School and my rabbi and the Social Security Administration to dig up ancient documents. There is no reason why anyone would keep tax returns more than 7 years. I got no sympathy, but in the end I was able to get in touch with the right person at the Jewish Agency through a connection, who told me that passport copies sufficed and got my aliyah approved quickly so I could book my flight. My approval came and my (free!) flight was booked about a week before I left for Israel and after I had shipped out all of my belongings, so it was a relief to say the very least.
So why did I ship my things out before my aliyah was approved? Because where there’s a will, there’s a way, and no matter how incredibly hair-pullingly frustrating this process is, it will work out. When I want to do something, I do it and there is no stopping me. My biggest challenges were still ahead of me, though.
Once in Israel I had a number of governmental offices to go to in order to get documents I needed. This was made more difficult by the fact that I arrived right before The Holidays in Israel. In America, around Christmas and New Year’s, even if they’re at work no one is really working. The month between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot is the same here in Israel, and perhaps even worse. Almost every week was a 3 day work week, and when you add to that the short hours of many governmental offices, and the fact that they are maybe open 3 days a week and perhaps not receiving the public all 3 of those days, and maybe open 3 hours a day, well it’s hard to do anything over the holidays. I was able to go to the first 2 offices I needed to go to during The Holidays, so that was an accomplishment, and it was not fun but it did not end in tears or in me wanting to get on a plane back home.
My third destination was Bituach Leumi, the office I needed to go to in order to set up my nationalized healthcare. Bare in mind that I had already been in Israel a month, and for someone with prescriptions that need to be filled, that’s already an issue. I had been warned that Bituach Leumi was terrible, but nothing could have prepared me for what was ahead. I arrived and made my way through 2 rounds of security. Security really doesn’t bother me like it does some people — whatever it takes to keep us all safe is worth it to me. Israel excels at keeping its citizens secure in the worst of situations, and so when people whine about having to get to the airport an hour early for a flight from the US to Israel, I cannot sympathize.
So, I walk into the office and find myself in a line. A line in Israel is not like a line in America, or a queue in the UK. A line here is a group of people in a random formation pushing and jostling each other and trying to make eyes at whoever is in charge so they can get out of there ASAP. I am not going to be one of those pushy assholes who will push a little old lady out of the way to be seen first (although sometimes it’s a little old lady doing the pushing). It’s just not worth it. However, you do need to go into these situations with war paint on and enforce, or otherwise you’ll find everyone cutting in front of you. You have to tell them how it is. Don’t count on whoever it is you are waiting to see to care who got there first either, they could care less, so it is your job to make sure that you are seen or you could spend an entire day in the blob of people, waiting.
The first line was to tell me which line to wait in. So, I receive a number and go to the appropriate line. I’m number 171 and they’re on number 53 or something so it’s going to be a long day. Everyone is asking each other what number they are for enforcement purposes. You should always know who is before you and who is after you. Otherwise, it will be a free-for-all. After about an hour and a half it is my turn. The woman behind the counter hands me a pile of papers and tells me to go home and fill them out. “Can’t I fill them out here?” I ask. No, she said, I need to go home. So helllll no, I sit down and start working on things but the paperwork is in Hebrew and I don’t understand all of it. So I go back to the first blob of people by the door, get another number, and meet with a woman who very kindly helps me fill out the paperwork. She needs copies of a couple of documents, so I go to the coin operated copy machine in the back, wait for the man in front of me that isn’t smart or patient enough to us a copy machine and keeps kicking it while sweating profusely. Once he gives up and tells me it’s broken I make my copies and bring them up to the woman up front. She says it looks good, submit it, and in about a month they would process it. This is where I start unravelling. A MONTH? So you are telling me I am going without any kind of medical coverage for 2.5 months, when I was entitled to it immediately upon arrival? So she has no idea what to tell me, but tells me that the woman in another line can help me. She gives me a number — I’m number 462 and they’re on 342. This is great. I go up to the hot security guard and ask him if my turn is going to be today and i’m pretty sure he laughs at me and not with me. Fine. Then, through divine intervention some guy who had gotten in the wrong line gives me his number, and it’s my turn! Finally, my luck is turning around, right? I go up to the woman at the desk who calls my number, and she tells me she can’t help me. But there is someone who can! Here, take another number and go upstairs to this room and wait in line there, they will help you. I’m feeling a little defeated but at this point i’ve invested several hours and there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I go up the elevator to the second floor of the building and find the room where my “line” is. It is an empty room and there is no line, I have been given a number to wait at an empty room.
So, after maybe 3 hours, waiting in 3 different lines, and then being sent to an EMPTY ROOM, I have admitted defeat. I submit my documents, call NBN who say they will try to speed things up, potentially cry a little, and get back on the slowest bus on history (the 9 bus — if you live in TLV, avoid this bus, it makes the B Train in Boston look like the Acela).
A couple of days later, I have to go to the offices of my shipping company in a town called Yakum where there is a kibbutz and an office park. I make the trek to the bus station, take the bus over, and follow the walking directions I was given. Which lead me to a pond. Awesome. I call them, get some more terrible directions, and eventually make it to the office. Now, after walking an extra 40 minutes on a day that is hot as balls in a place with no shade whatsoever, I was not a happy camper when I got to the office. I signed one piece of paper, talked with a guy for a few minutes, and that was it. Also awesome. I’m leaving and suddenly I am offered a ride back. They keep saying to me “why didn’t you ask, we would have given you a ride here?” I called 4 times on the way there while this woman kept giving me wrong directions, but these guys aren’t to blame for that so I bit my tongue. They were actually really nice. On a really shitty day of bureaucracy, busses, shared cabs, blood, sweat, and tears, a nice person can really make a difference.
Two days later, it is Thursday, the last day of the workweek in Israel. I receive 2 phone calls in a row. First is from Bituach Leumi, who is expediting my file thanks to a connection there, telling me that the paperwork I filled out was wrong and I needed to come back. Yay. The next is from my shipping company telling me that despite the fact that I asked if I needed to go to Meches (customs) by myself maybe 5 times and they kept answering no, I needed to go to Meches by myself. My shipment is here, waiting at the port to be released, and so this needs to be done ASAP so I can get my bed. It probably won’t shock you that sleeping on an air mattress for a month and a half is not pleasant. My back hates me and right now it’s mutual. I am also sick of sitting on my floor.
So that brings us to today, Sunday, the first day of the Israeli workweek. This was the day that threatened to destroy my spirit. First, I took a bus to Bituach Leumi and finished up my paperwork there. Then, I walked a ways to get a shared cab, to take me to the bus station I needed. I waited at the bus station for half an hour, got on the bus, and started my trek to the Meches office in Rishon since there isn’t one in TLV. A long ride later I get there and the place is a ghost town. There are numbers so I take one, but other than the security guard at the door the place is empty. I sit there for about 10 minutes worrying until a woman walks by and I ask her what to do. She tells me to go knock on one of the doors, which I do and I am let in to be told that they are having lunch. I completely understand that people need to eat lunch, I do. However, if your office is only going to be open until 2pm, I don’t understand everyone taking lunch at the same time at 12:30. I am finally seen and the woman tells me I basically need to provide all of the paperwork I provided to the Jewish Agency all over again. I need to go get a letter from the army saying that I don’t need to serve that none of the other offices needed because I am too old to serve so it’s self-explanatory. She gives me clearance as a toshav chozer instead of a katin chozer so I can at least receive my shipment, but I will have to schlep out to Rishon again if I want to receive all of my rights. An Israeli breakfast and an iced espresso later I gathered the strength to get on my 4th bus of the day and go back to Tel Aviv and walk home and collapse in my glorious air conditioning.
So, sorry if this was a little complainy-pants, but the last couple of weeks have been wearing me down. Today, at the Meches office, was the first day I said to myself “hell I should just get on a plane and go back to Boston where things are simpler.” I think that it is really unfortunate that instead of it being easy to acclimate here, it is a horrible experience. However, it’s worth it in the long run. One day soon I will have real big girl bed, sofas, my bike, and I will be living the good life. Until then it’s all about perseverance and maybe the occasional glass of wine or three after a day like this.