‘We’re All in This Together’


Jerusalem — From now until the end of June, Adena Mark, an event planner, has at least 15 functions on her work calendar.

How many of these events will actually take place as scheduled will depend on the coronavirus and the measures Israel is taking to thwart it.   

On Monday, the government announced that all Israelis entering Israel must immediately go into home quarantine for 14 days, and that all non-Israeli visitors must do the same — exactly where is unknown — from March 12 onward.

This decision, which some are hailing and others are calling massive overkill, is already having a profound effect not only on Israel’s tourism industry but on countless other sectors.

“Most of my bar and bat mitzvah clients come from overseas, and most of the brides and grooms either live overseas or many of their close relatives do,” Mark said.

“I technically have a bar mitzvah in April, but the family is arriving on April 3 and the party is on April 5, so they will need to be quarantined.”

She expects that event to be cancelled.

Although Mark’s other clients haven’t cancelled or postponed their events, “everyone is asking about refund and postponement policies and until when they have to decide. I’m taking it day to day and recommending they do the same,” she said.

Fifty-eight Israelis were infected by the virus as of March 10, and more than 100,000 have been told to quarantine themselves at home. Some may have come in contact with an infected person at work, or frequented the same store or restaurant; others simply flew to Israel and are therefore considered at risk.

Despite Israel’s decision to essentially shut its borders, or perhaps thanks to it, daily life is going on more or less as usual. Events that could attract more than 2,000 people (such as the Jerusalem marathon and municipal Purim celebrations) have been banned, but smaller events, such as local Purim festivals and parties, mostly went on as planned.

Shopping malls, restaurants and movie theaters were packed with families enjoying the Purim vacation. Shoppers seemed to be buying more than the usual amount of food and cleaning supplies, but that might be because Passover is just around the corner. 

Even so, the virus, coupled with Israel’s global quarantine, is causing a jarring sense of uncertainty.

Many Israeli yeshivas, seminaries and other gap year programs have warned their participants that if they leave Israel before Passover they may not be able to return to their programs due to quarantine considerations and flight availability.

It’s not even clear how many airlines will be flying to Israel in the coming days and weeks.

“Nothing like this has ever hit the tourism industry in Israel. Not intifadas, not wars, not 9/11, nothing,” Mark Feldman, CEO of the Ziontours travel agency, told The Jewish Week.

Even during wars, some airlines flew to Israel, Feldman said.

Now, due to the quarantine, many European airlines are cancelling, and “it appears most American carriers will stop flying here as well.”

The reason: airlines aren’t prepared for their crews to be quarantined. The moment the crew spends the night in Israel (standard for long flights) they won’t be permitted to leave, Feldman emphasized.

Israelis and tourists who fly into Ben Gurion Airport are forbidden to use public transportation or a shared taxi from the airport, according to government regulations. All incoming travelers must either be picked up from the airport by a private car or a taxi.

Kobi Ableman, a Jerusalem tour guide, was scheduled to be guiding 23 days during the next five weeks.

“Just five weeks ago I was turning down offers because I was already booked. Any locals looking for a tour for any place in the country?” Ableman asked friends on Facebook.

Ester Silber-Schachter and her husband, Michael, are also feeling the strain.

The Safed Puzzle Room, the Safed-themed escape room in northern Israel they opened 18 months ago, has experienced a wave of cancellations from overseas tourists and tour groups over the next six weeks — including Passover.

“Last week we had bookings every day and we haven’t had a single booking this week,” Silber-Schachter said. “This is our income and we pay rent for the space we’re using. … We’re trying to stay positive that tourists will come back, but it’s scary because this would soon be our [high-volume] business season.

The travel disruptions are also affecting Israelis who travel abroad for work.

Fern Reiss, founder of JewishSpeakersBureau.com, said that 70 percent of the bureau’s 100 speakers are based in Israel, while most of its speaking venues are in the U.S. and Canada.

“That makes them just about inaccessible at this point. “We’re being walloped with cancellations.”

Reiss said that the speaking tours were scheduled months in advance.

“We have authors just starting book tours, text scholars who only travel once a year before or after Passover, speakers with families who are counting on this income.”

In hopes of salvaging the situation, the bureau is making the speakers available via video at JewFlicks.com.

Others are trying to be creative as well. Airbnb owners whose clients have cancelled are offering their rental units to those who need to be in 14-days quarantine.

Mark, the event planner, is trying to stay hopeful.

“I’m taking a wait-and-see attitude. Right now there is no reason to cancel an event scheduled weeks from now.”

She said that her vendors, whether venues, photographers or musicians, are going out of their way to accommodate people whose happy occasions are being derailed by the coronavirus.

“The feeling is, we’re all in this together,” Mark said.