AUSTRALIANS who were aboard a hastily arranged El Al rescue flight from Israel to Melbourne last week – the first ever direct flight to the Victorian capital by the Israeli airline – have told The AJN of the moment they had to make a snap decision whether to stay or leave the Jewish State, and the relief and gratitude they felt when they landed on Australian soil.
Last Tuesday the Australian embassy in Israel announced it had made final arrangements for the special flight to go ahead, and on Wednesday morning, Israeli time, it confirmed the flight would take off from Ben Gurion Airport at 5pm that afternoon.
The AJN understands there were 10 Australian passengers, the journey took 16 hours and 24 minutes, and less than seven hours after touching down in Melbourne, the plane took off again bound for Tel Aviv, returning 280 stranded Israelis home.
The return journey of 17 hours and 44 minutes was the longest ever undertaken by the airline.
The plane’s crew of 11 flight attendants and eight pilots never left the aircraft during the 40-hour operation, which the Israel Hayom newspaper described as “the most challenging in the airline’s history”.
All passengers on both flights were required to start a 14-day quarantine period, in Melbourne at the Crown Hotel, and in Israel in designated accommodation facilities.
Speaking to The AJN on the phone last Friday from her room at the Crown, 72-year-old Melburnian Irene Port reflected that considering what she had been through recently, it wasn’t a difficult decision to purchase a ticket for the flight, even though it cost her more than $4000.
“I’ve done the right thing, and while I’m extremely sad about the terrible situation going on around the world, I’m extremely grateful that I’m back in Australia.”
Port travelled to Tel Aviv last month to visit her son David and his children, following a stay in London to see her niece, and “wasn’t in Israel even a week when the coronavirus situation in Israel started imploding”.
Remarkably, the 14-day quarantine period she has now begun is the second fortnight of self-isolation she has had to observe within the last month, “but this time it is in the Crown, so I have a lovely view, and kosher meals”.
“In Tel Aviv, I went to a shule service where one man was believed to have recently come into contact with somebody with COVID-19, so my son arranged for me to stay by myself in a house in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
“My doctor in Melbourne phoned me about this special flight as soon as he heard of it, and the Australian embassy in Israel helped me get in touch with El Al to secure a ticket.
“My son drove me to Ben Gurion Airport, which was eerily empty … there were 10 of us [passengers] and about 20 security people.”
Fellow passenger Hadar Elisha was only two months into a one-year Bnei Akiva MTA-Masa Israel program, based in Jerusalem, when she had to suddenly decide to stay or reserve a flight ticket.
The 2019 Beth Rivkah College VCE graduate told The AJN via a phone hook-up from her room at the Crown, “My parents were getting worried, and rang me from Melbourne when it was 7am in Israel [on April 1] – they said you need to decide now if you want to be on the El Al flight because it leaves this afternoon – so it was a really last-minute thing.
“It was a very good feeling to board that plane, and while it is disappointing to have cut my year in Israel so short, I made lots of friendships and I’ll still take home great memories.”
A third passenger staying in quarantine at the Crown, Sydney teenager Lara Rutstein, told The AJN she also had to make “a very quick decision”.
The 2019 Emanuel School HSC graduate and 2017 Maccabiah Games Australian girls’ football team member had begun a five-month Aardvark Israel program based in Tel Aviv in mid-January, and was enjoying “happy days” with her new friends.
— Daniel Weil (@Daniel_Weil) April 2, 2020
“Our program was adapted to suit the strict restrictions following the shutdown, and I have to give a lot of credit to the program’s organisers for that,” she said.
“But while my thought process was that I would hold on to the hope of staying on, I realised I had to make a decision that was not only about myself, but the impact on my family.
“My parents rang me [on March 31] to say you have less than 24 hours before the [El Al] flight departs, so it’s really a now or never kind of choice.
“I know everyone in my family is happy I’m home, and I know it is the right thing.”