For Israeli Camp Counselors in U.s., New Visa Measures Mean Headaches

When Meirav Ezer decided she wanted to teach art for a second summer at the Reform movement’s Kutz Camp in upstate New York, the 31-year old Israeli art student had to wait four months to get her visa.

The extensive process, which included an interview at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, where she was drilled about her motives, delayed her departure and forced her to miss the first few days of camp orientation.

When she finally arrived at Newark International Airport, she was detained for 40 minutes for a final identity check.

“I felt very frustrated,” Ezer said in a telephone interview this week from the camp in Warwick, N.Y.

“It really surprised me, all this process I need to do and to deal with, and all this waiting,” she said, noting that last year it had been much simpler.

Ezer’s experience reflects the new regulations the U.S. State Department has added to its visa program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The regulations, which apply to all Israelis and other foreign nationals who require visas to enter the United States, have, at times, flummoxed and frustrated Israelis coming to work in American Jewish summer camps and the Jewish professionals responsible for getting them here.

To bolster national security in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the State Department first beefed up the visa process with additional forms.

But beginning earlier this year, there was a complete overhaul. The Department of Homeland Security instituted a new computerized database, a more elaborate visa application process and, often, an in-person interview.

Now, beginning Aug. 1, all foreign nationals requesting an American visa will require a face-to-face interview with an American consular officer in their home country.

Twenty-seven countries — mostly European — are exempt from the requirements because their citizens can travel to America without a visa for tourism or general business.

Israel does not meet the requirements for what is known as the visa-waiver program, according to Kelly Shannon, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

In order to qualify, a country must have a visa refusal rate of less than 3 percent for foreign nationals applying for a U.S. visa in their country for the previous fiscal year.

In addition, the country must have reciprocal visa-free travel for U.S. citizens traveling to that country for general business and tourism and a high-security passport program that protects against fraud.

While there is understanding about the need for tougher security measures, some believe Israelis should not be subject to the newest stringent measures.

The issue has already been taken up by at least one member of Congress.

“We should make every effort to remove unnecessary barriers and delays for those Israeli citizens who are in the process of getting visas to travel to the United States.”

Schakowsky has not yet received a response from Powell, but the congresswoman intends to raise the issue with other members of Congress and the administration, according to her press secretary, Nadeam Elshami.

For the camping community, the new restrictions will further slow a process that is “already taking a tremendous amount of time,” said Ariella Feldman, North American service director for the summer shlichim, or emissary, program of the Jewish Agency for Israel, which coordinates the process of bringing Israeli staff to most North American Jewish summer camps.

Despite the restrictions, Feldman enrolled nearly 1,400 Israeli shlichim at 185 North American camps this summer, up from 1,250 the previous year, and about 1,100 in 2001. The bulk of them are in the United States.

A handful of Israelis were unable to obtain visas in time to come to camp this year, but it could be worse in the future, say camping officials.

“If the U.S. government continues with this policy” in the future, said Paul Reichenbach, director of camping for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, “it could be a disaster for Jewish camps, which depend upon a significant number of Israelis” to play a practical and educational role in representing Israel at Jewish camps across North America.

In addition to the time factor, the new requirements are costly — more than doubling the price for American camps to bring Israeli counselors.

Visas, which last year cost $55 apiece, jumped to $120, Feldman said.

It was a “much more lengthy and arduous process all the way around,” said Charlene Wendell, a consultant on camping services for the Jewish Community Centers Association.

The association was the sponsoring agency for 800 Israelis for its summer camps and other Jewish camps this year.

The National Ramah Commission and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations are also sponsoring agencies, which means they fill out the initial paperwork and visa applications for the Israelis seeking entry.

Still, Wendell accepts and understands the security concerns that have complicated her job.

“I don’t want anybody coming into the country who’s not eligible,” she said.

For the Jewish Agency, which helps facilitate the process on the Israeli end, the new provisions cost additional staff and time. And, in a few cases, the price of re-booking flights.

Despite the new regulations, American Jewish camps and Israeli summer staff seem undeterred.

Camps “feel that bringing Israel to camp is an essential part of their program,” said Feldman.

For Ezer, the Israeli staffer at Kutz, being at camp was worth the trouble to get there.

“It’s a great experience to be with Americans,” she said.

She said she felt she had made a powerful contribution to the camp’s Israel Day on Sunday.

“I was really surprised that so many people feel like Israel is kind of a home for them,” Ezer said, adding that she sees a place to talk to them about her culture and her identity as a Jew living in Israel.

The bottom line is that more careful planning will be needed, according to Ramie Arian, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

“The reality is, if we’re aware of it, and we pay attention to it, and you don’t let yourself get late, then it’s fine. It’s just the last-minute stuff is much harder or impossible,” he said.

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