Photo Credit: Jewish Press

One of our first accomplishments as olim was opening an Israeli bank account. Without an Israeli bank account, you can’t apply for an Israeli credit card, order items online (as most websites will only accept Israeli cards), or even pay rent (as most leases require post-dated Israeli checks).

Without a bank account, olim also can’t receive their monthly sal klita payments (financial grants given by the Israeli government to new olim), which are usually used to help subsidize settling-in expenses that quickly pile up.

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Naturally, then, the bank is usually one of the first trips an oleh makes after arriving in Israel. The coronavirus quarantine and lockdown, however, prevented us from doing that.

Thankfully, with the help of our wonderful olim coordinator at the Modi’in Absorption Department and the advocacy of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a local bank branch agreed to allow us to begin opening an account remotely. A bank representative emailed us various forms and instructed us to return them by email. Upon completion of our bidud, we would only have to appear at the bank and sign some final documents to open our account.

While it has been a long time since I’ve opened a bank account in America, I don’t remember the paperwork being all that complicated. In Israel, though, it’s a whole different story. From what I could understand, the bank wanted every detail of our financial history and what we expected it to be in the future.

Among the questions were ones regarding how many deposits we expected to make and where the money would be coming from. The bank also wanted to know about our expected withdrawals and how much money we might overdraw from an account. (In Israel, it’s an accepted practice to overdraw from a bank account – the bank essentially treats the overdrawn amount as a loan and charges interest until it’s repaid.)

Unsure how to proceed with the complicated paperwork, I contacted Lara Itzhaki of Olim Advisors for help. (Olim Advisors is a fantastic company that helps guide people through the aliyah process, both before and after their move.) While Lara had seen countless bank account applications – as she often helps clients open bank accounts – even she laughed at the chutzpah of some of the questions.

One by one, though, she translated them and helped me supply whatever information was absolutely necessary. Before I knew it, our paperwork was completed and we were told to report to the bank at the end of our bidud to complete the process.

When we finally completed our bidud, the bank opened up especially for us. Gloved and masked, my husband and I signed the remaining paperwork. The bank representative informed us that only one more thing was necessary to activate our account: a deposit of 20 shekel.

However, things are never as simple as that. The bank’s staff was limited due to the coronavirus lockdown and the particular employees staffing the office at that time were not authorized to accept cash deposits. So we would have to find someone with an Israeli bank account to wire transfer us the amount.

Once again, we turned to our friends for help. I sent a WhatsApp message to friends that went something like this:

“Hi friend! We are trying to open a bank account but are being told that it can only be activated if we receive a transfer of money from another Israeli bank account. Would you mind sending us 20 shekel? We will of course pay you back once we can! Strange as this request sounds, this is a real text and not a spamming scam message!”

One Israeli friend quickly responded that while it was bizarre, it certainly sounded like Israel. She happily transferred us the money and we, at long last, had an active Israeli bank account.

I wish I could say it has been smooth sailing since then, but the banking system here is more complicated than I can do justice to here. There are all sorts of fees – fees for every withdrawal with a debit card, fees for every time you pay with a check, even fees for every time a deposit is made to your account!

In our experience, the customer service is generally unhelpful and – surprisingly – you may incur an extra fee for using it! I highly recommend that any prospective oleh read Smarter Israeli Banking by Rifka Lebowitz so that you will at least have a basic understanding of the system and how to best advocate for yourself.

While the banking system is not oleh-, or person-friendly, it’s an essential to life in Israel. We are now able to live like other Israelis, complete with debit cards, credit cards, and checkbooks. Now, if only I could find employment so I can practice making more deposits than withdrawals!

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Aviva Karoly made aliyah to Israel with her husband and two children on March 19, with Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel, and JNF-USA. She can be reached at myaliyah2020@gmail.com.