Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Despite multiple composition courses in college and a career that requires constant writing, there is no way that my meager communication skills can properly convey the experience of obtaining Ann's visa to stay in Israel. Simply put, the English language does not lend itself easily to the kind of graphic description that is necessary to give the reader a feel for what it was like, as language requires words, and words alone cannot express the level of frustration that this experience engendered.

But, I will try.

I recommend not reading this if you are about to go to bed or if you scare easily, as what I'm about to impart might stir even the bravest soul and create a discomfort in your heart that you will not shed lightly.

I got my first taste of the dangers of dealing with the Israeli bureaucracy (בירוקרטיה) when I attended the orientation for new Fulbright Scholars in Washington a few weeks before leaving for Israel. The director of the Israel Fulbright program gave us a stern warning. He said that under no circumstances, and I REPEAT, under no circumstances should you go to the ministry of interior alone. I cannot emphasize that enough, he said. You MUST find the person at your university who is in charge of getting visas for visitors and have them accompany you to the ministry of interior office. Do not DARE attempt to do this alone, he said, and I've never seen anyone more serious in my life.

On our third day in Israel, we dragged the kids to the #27 bus and headed to the Ministry of Interior office (משרד הפנים) on our own. I figured, come on, how bad could it be? I speak Hebrew, and I'm pretty good at talking my way into things and out of situations. Surely it can't be as bad as he said. We were still all jet-lagged and did not think to bring any books or video games for the kids. This would be a quick in and out, and we'd be all set.

Let me back up and explain what we were trying to accomplish. I am a dual citizen of Israel and the US, because I was naturalized as an Israeli when my parents moved to Israel when I was a child. Despite the fact that I was still a child when they returned to the US (and still act like a child very often these days), I am considered an Israeli here. Ann, on the other hand, is a full red blooded American and thus to visit Israel for more than 3 months, she must obtain a visa permitting here to stay here.

So, we get to the Ministry of the Interior, and they are closed for lunch. Furthermore, they don't do visas any more that day. You must return on Sunday or Thursday from 8-12 or on Monday from 2:30 - 5:30, or every other Tuesday from 1:30 - 3:45, and every seventh Wednesday from 10:30 - 10:33 on odd days of the month, except during leap years, and the whole schedule is subject to change without notice. I figured that there was no way we would every be able to return on a day when they were actually giving visas at the right time. But, the next day, we tried again early in the morning. The kids were still waking up when we had been in the waiting room for 20 minutes. Again, we did not think to bring anything for them to do. After about three hours, our number was finally called, and Ann walked up to the counter and stated in English that she was visiting for the year and wanted to extend her 3 month tourist visa that she received upon entering the country. The bureaucrat behind the window at the counter was extremely rude to her and was telling her that she couldn't do it when I interrupted in Hebrew and started making a big deal about being a professor at the university and bringing my family here. I did it Israeli style, raising my voice and gesticulating wildly. This is considered acceptable behavior here, and in fact, is quite necessary in government offices.

The man asked me, "who are you?" in a somewhat threatening tone. I explained who I was and who Ann was, and he asked if Ann was Jewish. I said that she was. He asked me to prove it. Now, if Ann were a guy, I suppose there would be one approach I could take, but given that she is of the fairer gender, I wasn't sure what he meant. So, I said that no woman in America would know how to read Hebrew if she weren't Jewish, so here, test her. See that she can read Hebrew. He said that he need documented proof that she is Jewish. I asked him why it mattered. Couldn't a professor with a non-Jewish wife come to Israel? But anyway, she is Jewish, I said, realizing that I might have over-estimated my skills at talking my way out of situations with that last comment. The bureaucrat (whose name ironically also happens to be Aviel) told me that I needed a certified letter from our rabbi in the States certifying that Ann is Jewish, and that her parents are Jewish and that she is from a Jewish blood line. Otherwise, he said, there is a process they can use to get her a visa that is long and laborious, and can take over two months, and we might not get the visa in time before her 3 months expired, especially with the country about to go into hibernation for a month due to the upcoming high holidays.

To get the letter certified, we were told by the lesser Aviel, we need to go to the Jewish agency on Hashmonai Rd with the letter from the rabbi, a marriage document showing that we had a Jewish wedding, and any other documented proof that we can produce that she is Jewish, and after they certify the letter, come back, and she can get her visa. As we were standing around absorbing this, a nice young woman standing next to me said, "Don't do it." It was like the opposite of a Nike commercial. Don't do what, I asked? Don't go to that Jewish agency. I waited there for hours, and in the end I never got the letter. Here's what you do. I found this woman named Debbie who works at a special agency in Jerusalem that stamps these letters for you, and she will do it with no questions asked. Here's her cell number. I felt like I had just received the secret code to an underground society for breaking through the Israeli bureaucracy. I asked her how much Debbie charges, and she said it was free.

Armed with this secret phone number, I felt less intimidated by the lesser Aviel, who reappeared and told me that there may be a faster way we can do this, but it will cost us a lot of money. He said for 355 shekels each, he can get me the visas for Ann and the kids, but he said it was a lot of money, and we're better off getting the documents he suggested. I quickly calculated that this is about $340 US. I couldn't tell if it was a bribe he was asking for or just some kind of process that is expedited with money, but I jumped on it and said that I would pay it in cash and be done with this. He then asked me if we were moving to Israel permanently, and I felt it was a trick question. I said that we were here for a year, and then we would see. It was the best I could come up with at the time, and at this point, I was certain that I am the worst in the world at thinking on my feet and talking my way out of tricky situations. He came back about 20 minutes later with his boss (we were closing in on 4 hours at the ministry of interior) and said that there was a problem. Since I am an Israeli, my kids are Israeli too. So, they cannot be issued visas. In order to leave Israel, they need to be registered as Israeli citizens, which can be done at some crazy limited hours, and for that we need their original birth certificates and American passports. Furthermore, Ann cannot get a visa extension without proving she is Jewish, which can only be done by a signed, certified letter from the office of the controllers of who is Jewish.

We left the ministry of interior dejected with our tails between our legs, having accomplished absolutely nothing, except for setting various flags in some internal Israeli database that will prevent my children from being able to leave this country without 20 more hours of bureaucracy. The way the ministers behave, it's as though they are on reverse-commission, where their salary increases with every application they deny. The booming voice of the director of the Fulbright Israel program echoed in my head. Do not dare go to the ministry of interior alone. Do not dare go to the ministry of interior alone. Oy, why can't I listen?!?

I called this secret Debbie woman, and although she was not available, the person who answered said that she could help. All I needed to do was get a letter from the Rabbi in the US, and take it to their office in Jerusalem, and they would stamp it. I asked if they had an office in Tel Aviv, and they said that they did, but they did not know the address. I asked what their organization was called, and she said it was the Jewish Agency for Israel. Oy, a special trip to Jerusalem to get a letter certified to prove that Ann is Jewish. I felt like I was living in bizzaro land.

When I got home, I wrote to my Rabbi and asked for the letter, describing in great detail the extent to which it had to state that Ann was Jewish. I also sent an email to the person renting our house with detailed instructions of how to dig through boxes and files in our basement to find original birth certificates for the kids, marriage certificates in Hebrew and English for me and Ann, and to send these to us as quickly as possible. Happily, we received a letter that made Ann sound more Jewish than Abraham and the official documents in the mail a few days later. We have the best renters!

Once I was armed with the documents, I wrote to my host at Tel Aviv University (TAU) asking if he can introduce me to someone that can help with the visa issue. He pointed me to his secretary who told me that all I had to do was bring in our passports, and she would take care of it. I was very happy and excited and told Ann that our troubles were over. We now had פרותקציה! (which is a Hebrew term for someone who has a powerful person backing them) I brought in the passports, and she scanned them and sent them to some other office at TAU. That afternoon, the secretary calls to tell me that the issue of our visas is a bit more complicated, and that I need to speak to this woman Hava at the main university office for visas. Well, I was not thrilled that I had more to do, but at least I had finally reached the person who was going to make all this go away. Now Hava does not work on Tuesdays, and given that this was a Monday afternoon, Hava suggested that I come see her on Wednesday.

On Wednesday, I went to see Hava, who was very nice and friendly. She told me that it took her four years to develop an inside connection at the ministry of interior. All I had to do was take this letter that she was producing for me, and follow these 12 items on a special checklist she had, and Ann would be given an A-4 visa. I said that I had heard that what Ann needed was to extend her tourist visa, and Hava told me that this is where I had gone wrong. Also, Hava said that the kids are Israeli, and we would have to get them registered as citizens and Israeli passports. I asked Hava if she could come with us because after all the Fulbright people had told us not to dare go to the ministry of interior without being accompanied by someone from the university. Hava responded with a lecture about the Fulbright people and their expectations, and that I was a grown up and could go there on my own. She gave me instructions for finding her mole within the department of interior, and she even called her up and set an appointment for us for Sunday morning. It looked like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel after all.

Sunday morning, I woke up with a mixture of dread and excitement. Would the story really end today? Would Ann get her A-4 visa, and would the kids become real Israelis with passports? Ann and I walked Elana and Benny to school. Tamara wasn't feeling that well, so she didn't go to school and we dragged her along to the ministry of interior. We made it through security and headed down the hall to room #13 to meet with our secret bureaucrat. We were greeted with what I'll describe as latent hostility. I felt she was looking for a reason to make us miserable. She quickly found one. As soon as I explained who we were, she went on a tirade about Hava and the university people misunderstanding all of their procedures. She told me that Ann is not eligible for an A-4 visa because I am an Israeli. I did not follow the logic there, nor did I care to. What we needed to do was go to the other room (where Aviel works at the window) and take a number and get an extended tourist visa. Something primal ignited inside me, and I felt I was going to lose it. With forced calmness I said through gritted teeth that we had tried that road, and that I thought the connection with the university might lead to a better path, but that going through that window was not going to get us what we needed. So, she led me to the window and got into a heated discussion with Aviel about us. In the end, the lesser Aviel turned to me and asked why I'm complicating everyone's life. He told me what I needed to do last time and even got his boss involved. Do I have the letter from the rabbi? Yes? Okay, is it certified? No?!? Well, go to the ministry of controlling who is Jewish and get it certified. I said that I heard that this is a terrible, lengthy process, and he said (more like yelled) are you kidding? It's 5 minutes. Walk over there, it's around the corner, and you can get it certified, in 20 minutes you are back here, and your wife gets her 12 month tourist visa. It's easy!

My heart sank. Maybe we should just take a vacation outside of Israel every 2 1/2 months. Cypress can be nice. Maybe Italy? If we leave Israel and come back, then Ann gets a new 3 month visa each time. Of course, we'd have to leave the kids behind because they are not allowed out of the country without Isareli passports, but by the time we've been here 2 1/2 months, they should be able to fend for themselves, no? Okay, so we headed to the ministry of controlling who is Jewish. As Tamara was under the weather, rather than walk, I grabbed a cab. When I told the driver where we were going, he said, "it's right around the corner, why don't you just walk?" I told him that I was paying him, and that he should take me to that address because that's where I want to go, and I don't want to walk! I started to appreciate why Israelis are so impatient and yell all the time. If they have to deal with offices like the ministry of interior on a regular basis, that's justifiable cause for losing one's mind. We got to the address, and there is a sign outside the door. I can't believe my eyes. It is the Jewish Agency for Israel. The same secret society that Debbie from Jerusalem belongs to, and it's a 5 minute walk away. As Elana would say, OMG!!!

We go in, and they are very friendly. Very, very friendly, only there's one problem. The woman who certifies the letter from the synagogue is at a Rosh Hashana preparation party in Jerusalem and won't be back until Tuesday. But, if we leave the letter with them and copies of the letter from the university and copies of our marriage documents, they will stamp it and give it back to us on Tuesday, and we can get the visa after that.

We decided that since we were in the neighborhood, we would return to the ministry of interior and register the kids as Israelis and try to get their passports, at least Tamara's, since she was with us. We made the 5 minute walk back, and got a number and waited in line. It only took about 2 hours, but we eventually got the kids registered. That is, until the woman helping us asked if we had any proof that Ann is Jewish. I said I had a letter from the synagogue. She asked if it was certified. I said that it was in the process of being certified. So, she asks to see it. The problem is, that we left it at the Jewish Agency for Israel. Oh, okay, then I can start the process but I have to leave the kids' religion as "pending examination" because I need to see that the mother is Jewish before they can be considered Jewish. Fine. She said that once we get the certified letter and give it to Aviel in the other office, we should tell him to give her the letter so she can update the database that the kids are Jewish. In the meantime, we registered the kids successfully and applied for Tamara's passport, which would be ready for pickup in 2 days.

Two days later, and Ann and I awake and exchange nervous looks. What adventures will the ministry of interior have for us today? Would the Jewish Agency for Israel have the stamped letter? Would Ann finally get her visa? By this point the kids are walking themselves to school, so Ann and I take a bus downtown to the city hall. My aim is to obtain a parking sticker, which will allow us to park cheaply in designated spots in Tel Aviv and gives a 50% discount in municipal parking lots. The sticker gives you free parking at many beaches as well. The story of my dealings with the city bureaucracy for this sticker rivals the visa story, only on a smaller scale. I'm going to spare you the details because it's really not that interesting, and because recalling the experience might drive me to tears. While we were in the middle of one of the less pleasant stages of my discussions with the city bureaucrats, I received a call from the Jewish Agency saying that we should hurry up and go there to pick up Ann's certified document stating she was Jewish because the ministry of interior closes at noon, in one hour, and it won't open again for five days due to Rosh Hashana. I had come far enough along getting my parking sticker, that I did not want to leave, so Ann went out on her own, grabbed a cab and went to the Jewish Agency. When she arrived there, the woman asked her for her papers. The problem, Ann explained, was that we had left the papers with them. She was bracing for another Israel bureaucracy moment, but the woman found the papers. But, nothing was prepared, and the clock was ticking. Ann explained the urgency, and the Jewish Agency woman went to work, trying to prepare the certified document in time.

At 11:40 I finally got my parking sticker, and I jumped in a cab and called Ann. My call came in as she was walking briskly (in 95 degree weather) from the Jewish Agency back to the ministry of interior, carrying certified proof of her religious identity. I arrived at the ministry offices a few minutes after Ann, who was dutifully filling out the B-2 visa form. How we ended up with a B-2, I have no idea. By now, we had filled out forms for every permutation of letters and numbers in the English and Hebrew alphabets, and Ann had become quite adept at it. The lesser Aviel seemed very pleased with Ann and much friendlier, and she believed it was because he was finally convinced she was Jewish. While Ann filled out forms, I made copies of everything, and set out in search of the woman who had registered the kids as Israeli, so that I could remove the "pending verification" from their Jewish identities. I did not see her, so I got in the line for passport retrieval and 20 minutes later, I had Tamara's Israeli passport in my hand, and Ann had completed the paperwork for her visa. Sadly, a line had formed in front of her, and she was waiting to speak with Aviel again. I went back in search of the woman who could mark my kids as Jewish, and this time I found her. She remembered me, and dutifully pulled out their charts, pecked away at her computer and declared that Israel now officially considered my three children as Jewish. With that proclamation, any doubt I had been harboring about the religion of my children went out the window. Now all that is left to do is to bring Benny and Elana in and to apply for their Israeli passports. This can be done on Mondays and Wednesdays from 2:30 - 5:30 pm.

Aviel accepted all of the paperwork from Ann, issued her visa, affixed it to the passport and started cracking jokes with me. At that moment, I really loved the guy. I reached under the glass divide and offered my hand, which he shook warmly. We were best of friends, after all, we had done battle together and both came out victorious. As we were leaving, I heard the faint sound of Aviel telling the next guy in line that his paperwork was all wrong, that he had to go to the whatever office and get certified this or that because… I glanced back at the poor soul, and while I felt sorry for him, I couldn't help but feel that in approximately one month, when he gets it all straightened out, he will feel as good as I feel at this moment, and he will share a special moment with Aviel. I was the graduating senior looking at the poor, naive incoming freshman with nostalgia; the seasoned war veteran witnessing the fresh new recruit, still wet behind the ears.

Finally, Ann has her B-2 visa, good until September of 2011, with re-entry privileges, and the kids are all registered as Jewish Israelis. This chapter ended today at 1:15 pm, exactly 3 weeks from our arrival in the Jewish homeland. I love this country, and I think it's a great place to visit. But if you are not Israeli, and you want to come for more than 3 months, you will probably have to deal with the ministry of interior. And, I don't envy you one bit!