Coming Home From Eretz Yisrael

israel pesach
(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

As the worldwide crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded over the past few weeks, airlines began to ground their planes, and countries began to close their borders. Many of those with children in Eretz Yisrael, whether yeshivah bachurim, seminary students, or young married couples who were scheduled to come home for Pesach, scrambled to make some sense of the pandemonium and decide whether they should bring their children home early for Yom Tov. In the process, many ended up paying high prices for their airline tickets, and/or forfeiting tickets that they had already purchased. Hamodia spoke with parents, couples, and a travel agent, to hear their stories firsthand.

Leah N., a young kollel wife in Eretz Yisrael:

We had scheduled a flight for April 2 on El Al — I had to stay past Rosh Chodesh due to my work schedule. My flight was not canceled; however, several complications arose. First of all, the United States announced that it was not allowing anyone in who is not a United States citizen, and my husband is Canadian. Second, part of the reason that I wanted to go to America for Pesach, besides spending time with my family, was to take my fourth CPA exam, but the CPA exam was canceled. Then the borders were closed, and we realized that if we left Eretz Yisrael, we might not be allowed back in so soon, because we are not Israeli citizens. We did not want to commit to staying in America indefinitely — we want to be in Eretz Yisrael! Furthermore, my husband’s parents are older, and we were not sure if it was safe for us to visit them. My husband discussed it with his Rebbe, and we made the decision to cancel our tickets and stay in Eretz Yisrael for Pesach.

So now, I am preparing to make Pesach for the first time. We are definitely trying to cut corners and buy the least amount possible. I just came back from doing some shopping in a home goods store to buy new pots, and, as they were only letting a limited number of people inside the store at a time, I was waiting in line outside for over an hour. While I was waiting, the police came to make sure that everyone was following protocol, and there was also a security guard standing outside. When I left the store, the line was four times as long!

I am actually excited to be making Pesach. It was difficult to make that decision, but once we did, we are looking forward to it. My parents are very supportive, and my father told me that he thinks I made the right decision.

Yehudis K., a young kollel wife in Eretz Yisrael

We were originally scheduled to come home on Rosh Chodesh Nisan on Air Canada. However, our flight was canceled, and we were given a refund. Our travel agent put a hold on tickets on United, direct to Newark, for Thursday night, Rosh Chodesh Nisan. However, as the situation continued to get worse and worse, my husband’s Rosh Yeshivah, who had originally encouraged everyone to stay in Eretz Yisrael until Rosh Chodesh, told everyone who wanted to leave to do so as soon as possible. Baruch Hashem, we were able to get tickets that left Eretz Yisrael on Motzoei Shabbos, March 21, for a reasonable price.

Mrs. P., mother of a seminary student and a yeshivah bachur

We were not planning to bring our children home for Pesach. I was a bit nervous, because for the first time, I did not have anyone at home to help me make Pesach, but I kept telling myself that I could do it. Obviously, Hashem decided that I needed help!

israel pesach
(Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)

On Thursday morning after Purim, I began to realize that the situation was becoming complicated. I called up the head of my daughter’s seminary and asked if I should bring her home. She replied, “I have no clue what is happening, but if you are nervous, then bring her home.” When my daughter heard that I was considering bringing her home, she burst into tears — she wanted to stay! However, two hours later, the seminary announced that they were closing and sending everyone home. They told me there was a chartered flight being made available for the seminary girls. I was trying to decide what to do, as my daughter had an open return ticket, which we would lose. I called a travel agent for some help, and she sounded completely overwhelmed. (I ended up sending her some food for Shabbos!) After some back and forth, we made the decision to send my daughter on the charter flight. The seminary organized an in-Shabbos, and the girls spent two days crying and packing, but did manage to find time to go to the Kosel. Every teacher from the seminary came and spoke to the girls and said goodbye.

As it turned out, when the girls from my daughter’s seminary got to the airport, their seats were not assigned yet, and she ended up being placed in first class. She says she will never be able to fly economy class again!

Meanwhile, I was nervous about my son, and was very anxious to bring him home. I managed to get him a ticket, but he insisted that he was staying in Eretz Yisrael until Rosh Chodesh. However, he called me up a few days later and said, “Most of the other bachurim are leaving. I can’t daven and I can’t learn because I know you are so worried about me. So if you want me to come home, I will come home.” The travel agent told me that he could not get hold of the airline, but that if my son goes to the airport, he should be able to transfer to a flight that was leaving at 10:00 on Sunday morning (March 22). We received a call from him at 3:30 a.m. Motzoei Shabbos (EDT) saying that he was in the airport, but they would not let him on the plane. We did not know what to do. However, he called us back 15 minutes later and said they were able to put him on a flight leaving 12 hours later, at 10:00 p.m. He made the decision to stay in the airport, even though he was without food, until his flight. Baruch Hashem, he made it home safely, and now they are both helping me clean for Pesach!

Mrs. Y., mother of a seminary student and a yeshivah bachur

My daughter came home on the chartered flight that most of the seminary girls were taking. Very few girls were staying, and her seminary said that most likely, they would not reopen. It is sad, but they do have classes online, via Zoom, and on the phone. She even has some tests to take, but it is not a full schedule. Before the girls left, they quickly put together a graduation to have some sense of closure, but it was not real closure. They were talking about putting together a yearbook, but now the principal says perhaps they will reopen after Pesach.

My son, who was learning in the Mir, was scheduled to come home this week, with a flight through Portugal, which was canceled a while ago. We were scrambling to find a new flight, while bachurim kept on leaving from the yeshivah. Baruch Hashem, he got a cheap ticket through Turkey, and although I was holding my breath until he landed, he arrived home safely on Sunday evening.

Chaya E., a kollel wife in Eretz Yisrael

We were planning to fly out on Rosh Chodesh Nisan, and until recently, we were optimistic that we would still be able to go. However, a few realizations caused us to change our plans. First, even if we would be able to get on a flight, we realized that it would not be safe to go to my parents’ house, as they are close to 70, and who knows what germs we would pick up on the flight. Second, the Rabbanim in my home town stated that anyone coming in from Eretz Yisrael has to quarantine for two weeks, which would not be easy with two small children. So slowly, it started sinking in that we would be staying. The first step of acceptance was when we ordered matzah. Then the next step was ordering meat and chicken. I can’t go to other relatives here in Eretz Yisrael, because we keep two days Yom Tov, and I don’t want to bother anyone to accommodate us. So I guess we are making Pesach.

Mr. Dovid Sachs, a travel agent in Baltimore, on his experiences over the past few weeks

Before Purim, a few parents had heard news that made them want to book tickets to bring their children home early. But mostly, on Purim, people were still in the mode of cute corona costumes. However, everything changed very quickly over the next few days. By Shushan Purim, the first wave of hecticness began, as people began calling me to ask what they should do. At that point, the seminaries told the girls to stay through Pesach, since, if they left, they might not be able to come back. However, shortly thereafter, Eretz Yisrael announced quarantines for those traveling through Europe. Subsequently, the European airlines announced that they did not want to fly their planes if arrivals in Eretz Yisrael would be quarantined, and they canceled all flights.

At that point, the frenzy started, as those holding tickets on flights with European stopovers wanted to rebook. However, the seminaries were still saying that the girls should stay. Nevertheless, many wanted to leave anyway, and there was a wave of people who bought tickets, or changed tickets, before Shabbos (Parashas Ki Sisa). Some people were able to change existing tickets, and some, especially those who had reservations on canceled European flights, bought new tickets. Those tickets that were purchased within 24 to 48 hours of the flight were often very expensive.

At first, the European airlines were refunding fares for flights that were canceled, but later on, they began dropping the refunds, and only offered a credit for a future date.

There were various approaches for those purchasing new tickets. There were very tempting one-way tickets available through Turkey or Russia for very cheap prices, in the $400 to $500 range, with two suitcases allowed, and many people did take advantage of those offers. The direct flights, including United and El Al, were not offering reasonable one-way tickets — for example, some offered a one-way ticket for $1,800 and a round trip for $1,000. Obviously, it made more sense to book the round trip, with a return for after Pesach, and whatever happens happens.

Over Shabbos, things changed even more. On Motzoei Shabbos, Delta Airlines decided that they were not flying anymore. All of the seminaries that had previously advised their students to stay made an about-face. They realized that the situation was worsening and announced that they were closing. At that point, many parents became extremely anxious to figure out how to get their children home.

People called me with their dilemmas, asking for my advice. Some were considering booking seats on the charter flights that were organized for the seminary students, but the tickets were very expensive — at prices that no one would pay under normal circumstances. “What would you do with your child? Based on your experience, what do you think will happen?” I kept repeating, “I am not a Navi. This is totally unprecedented. There is no experience here. It never happened before and it will probably never happen again.” I simply discussed the pros and cons, and told them “You can spend a lot of money and know that you have the seat now, or you can wait a few days, and pay less, but I can’t guarantee that the airports will remain open. You have to make your own decision.” These are the words that kept coming out of my mouth.

On Sunday, March 15, I literally worked 24 hours, trying to make appropriate arrangements for each customer. I was on a mission to help my clients find regularly priced tickets, while allowing them to travel directly to Washington instead of JFK.

israel pesach
(Moshe Shai/Flash90/File)

Currently (as of March 25), United reduced their schedule to two times a day to Newark, and three times a week to Washington (Dulles). El Al is still flying once or twice a day to New York, but has canceled all other cities. These planes are flying empty to Eretz Yisrael and are completely full on the way back, something which is also unprecedented.

Throughout all this, Forbes Magazine reported an interesting twist ― travel agents, who were becoming obsolete, suddenly became very valuable. Those trying to change their tickets could not get through to the airlines and therefore reached out to travel agents to help them out. Many travel agents developed lists of those trying to get tickets and would contact these customers as soon as they saw an empty seat become available.

Now, many airlines announced a new policy of freezing tickets. This means that they are not refunding tickets, even if the flight was canceled. Customers have to wait until all of this is over, and then reschedule. If you still want a refund, you have to wait until the end of 2020. This practice is unheard of, but I assume they are doing this to avoid going into bankruptcy.

As for myself, there is no business going on right now. When the phone does ring, it is usually someone who is canceling hotel reservations or flights that were previously booked.

So not only am I not earning money, I have to give back money from things that I sold before. Although it is devastating, we know that Hashem runs the world, and we are just going along for the ride.