Archive | May, 2006

Israel Survival Tips: Part 1 – Health Insurance

28 May

This is the first in a series of posts about surviving in Israel prior to and after making Aliyah. I hope that my experiences with Israeli companies and the beaurocratic system can help make a smoother adjustment for others coming to live in Israel. I’ll start by detailing health insurance for both citizens and non-citizens.

Health insurance: every Israeli citizen is entitled to health insurance. However, just saying the words “bituach leumi” (national insurance) is likely to solicit a groan (or worse) from even the most hardened Israelis. Bituach Leumi is probably Israel’s worst public institution, though I have yet to really deal with the IDF. The beaurocracy is crippling and what little service exists is horrendous. Still, if you can navigate the system, you get pretty good health insurance out of it.

Once you make Aliyah, you’re given an immigrant certificate called a “teudat oleh” and a health insurance form. Using these two documents, you can approach Bituach Leumi to request the necessary status for obtaining health insurance. To do this, visit the branch of BTL that covers your area (in Tel Aviv it’s on Yithak Sadeh, open between 8:30 and 12:00 on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday). Yafo has a different branch. Don’t try going there if you live in Tel Aviv – they won’t help you, as I learned.

Once there, you’ll get in line and eventually see a person who will give you some forms to fill out. These forms will ask you about your work experience and other background details. You submit this form and then BTL “processes” it. For me it took 5 weeks, with me calling them every couple days demanding that they speed up the process. Before you leave the office during this first visit, be sure to ask how long to expect it to take and get a phone number – this will save you hours of wasted time.

Eventually, BTL will send you a form which you can use to take to an HMO (“kupat holim”). This form is golden – bring it to the HMO of your choice along with the original form given to you by the MOIA and your “teudat oleh.” They’ll sign you up. Which HMO you choose is a topic for someone else – I understand that there’s relatively little differences between the HMOs, but perhaps some HMOs are better for certain types of health conditions than others. Macabbi and Clalit seem to be the most common, at least in Tel Aviv.

Next you can expect a letter in the mail from BTL detailing how much you have to pay. Even if you don’t work and have no income, you have to pay at least 140 shekels a month, which can be done directly with your bank (details forthcoming in another survival tip post on Israeli banks). If you work, it will be automatically deducted from your paycheck. If you don’t understand the invoices, don’t worry too much. Get someone to explain it to you, but by law BTL cannot cut off your health insurance if you don’t pay on time.

For those who are not citizens of Israel but still want health coverage, there exist several options. One option is to get private insurance through one of the HMOs (Macabbi, Clalit… they all have a plan). Fact is, as I was so kindly told by a Macabbi employee, that it’s a horrible deal. A 24 year old pays about 400 shekels a month and gets virtually no coverage. A better deal is to get private insurance where you pay by the day – essentially tourist insurance, but it covers everyone regardless of status – from a company called Harel (I think you can sign up through Issta, the student travel agency). It’s a bit more than a dollar a day, but the coverage is good. It works a bit like a PPO in the States – you call in and ask for a doctor that participates in the network and they give you a name and number.

For those with more complicated status questions (“halfies”, “ezrach oleh”, etc.), ask me, I may have a tip or two.

Get insured, you’re entitled.

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Tel Aviv Broke Down

17 May

People stuck in traffic for three hours, all the cellular networks completely down, busses packed beyond capacity, bus drivers being forced to drive routes they've never driven before, hundreds of thousands of people with virtually no security personnel… Tel Aviv broke down last night. And for what? Twenty-eight minutes of French-sponsored fireworks. I loved it. Not the fireworks so much (though they did surpass those of Independence Day), and not the infrastructure break-down, but the scurrying of 300,000 Israelis, in a good mood for once, to and from the beach. The mood was palpable as I walked through the Carmel market as it was shutting down and the small streets of the Yeminite Quarter with hundreds of others all headed in the same direction. Everyone was excited, as if something good was about to happen. It doesn't matter that nothing all that good happened, it was the shared experience which made it worthwhile. After the display, the streets of Tel Aviv were more packed than I've ever seen them and the vibe of a party surpassed that I've seen following any event in any American city.

So given that the plans for the fireworks themselves were so carefully laid – launching 5 tons of pyrotechnics from a boat 400 meters out to sea requires some preparation and permits, I presume – how is it that the public transportatation, private transportation, security, and cellular infrastructure all broke down? I suspect that the turnout was significantly higher than expected because, for all her faults, Israel typically does a good job of ensuring security. The cell networks going down was surprising – at equally large events on Rabin Square (the rally featuring Bill Clinton last fall, Independence Day fireworks, etc.), cell service remained uninterrupted. As for the traffic problem, Israeli highways are parking lots almost twice a day – just not quite as bad. Tel Aviv was apparently taken off guard, so I won't fault the city for its lack of preparation. Stil, as an American, I've got to ask the question: can you imagine something like that every happening anywhere in America? When PG&E failed to provide power to 120,000 SF residents for a couple hours, then mayor-elect Gavin Newsom vowed to hold those responsible accountable and prevent the problem from occuring again. In contrast, I can't even find a single news article mentioning the interruption in cellular telephone service last night (the traffic jams have been mentioned).

Welcome to Israel – expect a lot from your compatriots' ability to have a good time and expect little from your country's ability to support unexpectadly large gatherings. I think I can live with that.

Jacob’s Ladder

14 May

Opportunities for seeing good live American music in Israel are few and far between. The Jacob's Ladder Folk Festival commemorated it's 30th anniversay this past weekend just north of Tiberias on the Sea of Galillee. The crowd was mostly Anglo-Saxon families, yet my friends (a British immigrant, four Israelis, and an 11-month-old baby) and I fit in just fine. The camping, weather, and vibes were all good. The music left a lot to be desired, though I guess if I were a middle-aged American expat living in Israel for the last twenty years, I would have been more satisfied. It was good to get outside and hear some bluegrass as well as escape the Israeli reality into a bizarre Anglo-Saxon world. I didn't know something like this existed in Israel and I was happy to find it. If it weren't for the random kibbutznik yelling at us about random people peeing in his yard, it'd be hard to know I was still in Israel.

Now all we need is an Israeli equivalent of Sasquatch or PMF and we'll be all set.

Israeli Fireworks

3 May

Over the past six months, I've come to enjoy and better understand life in Israel. While I still have mixed feelings, I've at least developed a life for myself here which I like living. As an American living in Israel, I have a different take than that of the millions of immigrants who come here from countries that are far worse off than Israel itself. The difference is that I come from a country where the standard of living is higher than in Israel, if only marginally, and where you truly feel like you're in the developed world, where the "system" kind of works, at least for the average middle class white guy.

Yesterday's Independence Day fireworks in downtown Tel Aviv symbolized some of Israel's problems, at least as seen through the eyes of a well-to-do American 20-something year-old. Though the display went on for at least 15 minutes and seemed to thoroughly impress the crowd, the fireworks themselves were nothing special to me – loud little blasts of one or two colors, but no complicated timing, no special effects, no expensive fireworks. While Israel is arguably a first world nation with regards to its "system" (fireworks permits, safety personnel, police, committees, and planning are all necessary in Israel), the resulting display was less impressive than the Gandhi Day fireworks I witnessed in Udaipur, India, where I'm sure no permits were obtained, caution was thrown to the wind, and random teenagers set off the fireworks, running away shrieking with pleasure. So why is it that a first-world nation can't even pull off a third-world display of fireworks?

It may seem like a stretch to say that the unimpressive nature of the fireworks display is symptomatic of Israel's tendency to straddle the first and third worlds, it's inability to become a first-rate developed nation. And I may sound like a rich, spoiled American knocking the display in the first place (hell, maybe I am). But, coming from a country like America, where 4th of July fireworks are incredible, even in small towns, it's easy to draw the conclusion that Israel offers the worst of the first world without offering the best of the third.

Where that leaves us, I have no idea. But I see it all the time in Israel. A wonderful country with tons of potential, but it seems to be struggling with how to get through that last part of development and become a first-world nation. At the end of the day, I feel good about complaining about Israel – it's how I do my part to improve this place. My own form of Zionism.

Maybe in Carmit they'll have good fireworks.