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Stuck abroad with airport shut, flummoxed Israelis scramble for a way back home

Travelers who left for what they thought was a short trip are now winging it and searching for answers on how they can get to Israel, angry at the government for abandoning them

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Illustrative: The nearly-empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, on April 12, 2020. (Flash90)
Illustrative: The nearly-empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, on April 12, 2020. (Flash90)

Navah Turin traveled from Israel to Dubai on January 24 to visit a friend for one week.

Over two weeks later, the single mom remains in the Emirates, away from her teenage twin sons, unable to fly back to Israel due to the government’s decision to ban international passenger flights into the country.

“I’m really upset how the government has handled this,” said Turin “They left their citizens stranded all over the world.”

Turin is one of what appear to be hundreds of Israelis scattered to the four corners of the world who have found themselves unable to return home since Israel’s main international airports shut down on January 25, aiming to prevent the entry of new coronavirus variants that have contributed to the latest spike in case numbers.

The arrival hall at the almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport on January 25, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The airport is slated to remain closed until at least February 20. Until then, people are scrambling to find ways home or at least get some answers from government officials or airlines.

Matt Futterman and his wife traveled to New York on a United Airlines flight on January 16 to see their son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, whom they hadn’t seen in a year. Their plan was to stay for two weeks, but now it looks like it will be more like five.

“At first we were freaked out, but we realized it could have been worse,” said Futterman. “Everything’s an unknown right now, it would just be really nice if someone would answer some questions.”

Some looking for answers have banded together on Facebook groups like Israelis Stuck Abroad 2021, which has hourly posts about whether anyone has tried to cross the Jordanian border by foot and catch a flight out of Jordan (scratch that idea, the border is closed) to whether one must have an approved request for entry from a government panel giving special permission in extreme cases in order to re-enter Israel.

A technician collects nasal swab samples for coronavirus at the coronavirus lab at Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

There are discussions about where to get a valid coronavirus test in London and Germany, and links to a WhatsApp group for people seeking rescue flights from Ukraine. There’s also a petition to sign for the High Court battle over the decision to send returning travelers to quarantine hotels for two weeks, even if they’ve already been vaccinated.

Unlike at the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago, when international travel halted almost completely practically overnight, rescue flights appear to be few and far between. An Israir Airlines flight brought some Israelis back from Dubai and El Al is planning some flights from New York, but no major worldwide operation planned to ingather the exile.

Navah Turin, a single mom from Jerusalem who got stuck in Dubai when Israel closed its airport on January 25, 2021 (Courtesy Navah Turin)

“My friend asked, ‘How is it that Israel isn’t sending a flight to get you?'” said Turin, whose El Al ticket from Dubai is now booked for February 21, nearly a month from the time she left Israel. “If there’s an earthquake in China, a flood somewhere else, Israel is the first plane on the ground. How can they not pick up their own citizens?”

A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said it is not involved at all in dealing with Israelis stuck in foreign countries, which is being handled by the inter-ministerial exceptions panel.

Turin said El Al keeps canceling her flights and she’s been unable to reach anyone at the Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi.

The airline currently offers only automated answers on a WhatsApp group for ticket holders, according to recent travelers.

A spokesman for the airline said Monday that El Al was sending rescue flights to the US, leaving Israel on February 9 at 5:35 p.m. and 11:00 p.m., with three return flights from New York’s JFK Airport on February 11 and February 13.

The tickets will cost $600 and any El Al passenger with a canceled ticket can board those flights without any additional fees, but must register for the flight with the El Al call center or through a travel agent.

All passengers must also have written permission from the inter-ministerial committee and a negative coronavirus test.

The check-in desk for Israel’s flag carrier El-Al at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, January 25, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

As of Sunday, Jenny Bayer Gamulka hadn’t heard anything from El Al, even though she was supposed to fly home on January 31 with her aging mother, who is immigrating to Israel from Manhattan to live near her children, and had a ticket purchased through immigrant aid group Nefesh B’Nefesh.

“I was sitting tight because I trust the government,” said Bayer Gamulka, who lives in Jerusalem.

“It can’t be that my father spent his whole life devoted to rescuing Jews in communities at risk, and the State of Israel won’t accept my mother in 2021,” added Bayer Gamulka, whose father, Abraham Bayer, was a long-time director of international concerns at the National Community Relations Advisory Council, and a catalyst for American Jewry’s activism on behalf of the Jews of the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Syria and Yemen.

“We’re going in the wrong direction,” she said.

Rivky Goldfarb and her husband, Rabbi Shloime Goldfarb, the Chabad rabbi in the northern community of Kfar Vradim, sent their two oldest sons, 15 and 17, to New York for a long weekend to visit some of their extended family, after many months of not seeing one another.

The two teenagers flew on United Airlines on January 21, and now they’re stuck. To make matters worse, the 15-year-old’s US passport has expired during his extended stay, and as a minor, it can only be renewed with a parent present.

“It’s so frustrating, I feel like I have no energy to change anything,” said Goldfarb. “It’s not a tragedy, they’re happy and have shelter, but I’m not sure what will happen.”

The empty arrival hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, on February 3, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Emergency room doctor Aaron Brody was one of the lucky few who actually made it back to Israel, but even after four flights, and several buses and subway rides, he wasn’t sure if he could actually make it home.

Brody landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Friday afternoon after 19 days in the US, where he initially went to work for 10 days at a clinic on a Native American reservation.

At the Airport, Brody was told he would have to spend two weeks at a quarantine hotel because he left for the US on the seventh day following his second vaccine, and not after eight full days.

Aaron Brody took 4 flights, an express bus and a NYC subway to make it home to Israel after his trip to the US got extended because of the Ben Gurion Airport closure, but he still had to argue his way past the quarantine hotel in Israel (Courtesy Aaron Brody)

He argued and got his hospital boss on the phone, who told the airport officials in no uncertain terms that Brody was needed back at work. That’s when they finally capitulated.

“They don’t really give you a chance to argue, and all of a sudden you’re being pushed toward a bus,” he said. “People there had heartrending stories. There was a woman who had come to see her dying mother, and she told them that if she had to go to the quarantine hotel, her mother would be dead by the time she was released.”

Futterman, who is grounded with his wife in a New York City hotel, has also received permission from the inter-ministerial committee to reenter Israel. But flying solo is not an option because of a medical issue that makes it difficult for him to get around on his own. His wife has yet to hear back from the panel.

“I”m kind of resigned to the reality of waiting until February 21, ” said Futterman. “It’s all kind of feeble, like so much of coronavirus policy, but at least I get to see my granddaughter every day.”

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