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Monday, August 06, 2007

Of diplomas and drivers licenses

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, people who made aliyah were faced with a far more daunting absorption process than those who are stepping off the Nefesh B'Nefesh flights this summer.  Back then, the economy fluctuated between bad and worse... job opportunities were few and far between... and even highly educated immigrants were told to expect to settle for a position far below their former level, or retrain for a new job altogether.

But in spite of the crushing bureaucracy, bleak financial outlook and the almost complete lack of western luxuries, the one thing a newcomer could count on was having his/her documents from the old country accepted at face value.

I remember when I was studying at Hebrew University back in '84, I walked into the License Bureau... handed them my Connecticut driver's license and within minutes walked out with an Israeli license. 

The same was true (for the most part) of anyone who arrived in Israel with a diploma from a recognized institution of higher learning abroad.  You went to the Ministry of Education, showed them your diploma (and maybe your transcripts) and in short order you were registered as an 'Academa'i' (the term for someone who holds a university degree).  That, and the inflated shekel equivalent of fifty cents, wouldn't buy you a cup of coffee... but at least you were an 'akadema'i'.

That's not how things work today.

As cushy as new immigrants may have it with chartered flights, honor guards, dignitaries and malls bursting with every luxury they could want... their foreign driver's licenses aren't worth spit, and their foreign diplomas are looked upon with deep suspicion.

What happened?

The Russians happened.  Specifically, the flood of over a million immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 90s. Now don't get me wrong... at a time when people were wringing their hands about the demographic time-bomb threatening the very Jewish standing of the Jewish state, this wave of new immigrants was a godsend!

Not only that, but unlike many previous waves of immigrations, these were not your typical refugees.  True, many arrived with little but the family heirlooms they could carry in a suitcase.  But as a group, they were better educated and better prepared (not to mention motivated) to enter all levels of the Israeli work force than most who had come before.

However, a few clerical problems began to crop up on the heels of this influx of citizens... with the first hint being the sudden jump in traffic accidents involving these new Israelis.  Obviously each country has its own driving culture... and ours is nothing to brag about.  But that alone couldn't account for the carnage. 

It turned out that while a huge percentage of the FSU immigrants arrived with drivers licenses that were quickly exchanged for Israeli driver's licenses... nobody stopped to think about the fact that private car ownership in most corners of the FSU was fairly low.  This meant that a large number of drivers were having their first experience behind the wheel on the already dangerous Israeli roads. 

On-the-job training may be fine in some fields, but I think you'll agree that driving isn't one of them.

Anyway, the government couldn't very will single out one group for extra scrutiny, so in short order the policy of instantly exchanging foreign driver's licenses for Israeli ones was abolished for everyone.  In its place came a mandatory course of driving classes with a private instructor, followed by a test with an examiner from the Licensing Bureau. 

While not a perfect system (in fact, it was/is fraught with opportunities for abuse and graft), it at least provided a relatively safe on-ramp for new immigrants to join the ranks of the driving Israeli public.

But at the same time, a similar problem was showing up in the Education Ministry.  While the Jews in the FSU were, indeed, disproportionately well educated/trained, a noticeable number of Israel's new citizens seemed to hold identical advanced degrees and doctorates from the same institutions.  The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but many of the FSU's institutions of higher learning remained out of reach of those trying to verify degrees.

I don't want to accuse anyone of fraud... in fact, I know from personal experience that the FSU lost some of the best educated/talented people when they finally let the Jews go.  But as we used to joke in the New York music business after the wave of FSU immigrants also crashed upon the US shores, 'it is highly improbably that all of those who make the claim actually played first chair in the Moscow Symphony'.  Simply put, where verification is tricky, the temptation to embellish one's resume must be very strong.

So, as with the Licensing Bureau, the Ministry of Education adopted a policy of doing a bit more due diligence... and began verifying claims of foreign education/degrees.  Again, this is all fine and good... especially as it was being applied across the board, not just for the FSU immigrants. 

But it created a host of problems for many new immigrants who arrived with perfectly legitimate degrees.   I was one of those who got caught in the machine.

I received my B.A. from Yeshiva University in New York.  But because my YU transcript contained two years worth of credit from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a couple of summers worth of credit from Queens College and a few odd courses from a now-defunct college in California (taken while I was in the navy), the education ministry wanted original transcripts for all the non-YU credits before they would recognize my degree.

While Zahava's BFA from Wash U was approved within weeks of our making aliyah, I was forced to set out on a four year quest to track down original transcripts.  I wrote letters and sent faxes.  I talked with registrars, archivists.  Remember, my studies spanned a decade, three states, two countries... during a period before computers were routinely used to archive information.

Each time I unearthed a bit more of my educational past, the Education Ministry filed it away and sent me a form letter stating that I would still not be considered a university graduate until ALL of the missing documentation was in their hands.

Ironically, the now-defunct college in California was among the easiest nut to crack.  They had turned their records over to another academic institution which had computerized them all in the first wave of this trend.

The Hebrew University was a tough nut, since they had long since placed my records in an archive that was visited so infrequently that nobody with whom I spoke was even sure where it was.  Finally, after showing them multiple copies of registered letters I'd sent to Hebrew U, the Education Ministry waived this particular requirement based on the fact that it wasn't a foreign University.

Queens college was the last hurdle, and several attempts at making contact with the Registrar's office proved beyond my capability.  Finally, a few months ago I managed to reach a helpful clerk who told me what forms to fill out and how much money to send for a transcript.

I finally received the long-awaited letter from Queens College and tore it open with joy.

Inside was another envelope covered with stamps and seals that indicated that my official transcript was enclosed... along with dire warnings that it could not be opened except by the Israeli Ministry of Education.  Anyone else opening it would render it invalid. 

Along with this envelope was a form letter stating that since I had failed to enclose the required fee, my request for a transcript had been denied.


I sat at my dining-room table looking from the letter to the sealed transcript envelope... wondering which one was lying to me.  Finally, I decided that I needed to talk with someone at Queens College and placed a call to the Registrar's office. 

A woman on the other end of the phone asked me to read her the contents of the letter and the words stamped on the inner envelope several times.  After putting me on hold for about ten minutes (thank you Jajah!) she finally came back to tell me she had no idea whether my transcript was in the sealed envelope, and helpfully suggested that I open it up to see.

I didn't want to sound ungrateful for her help, and had taken great pains to affect the proper level of obsequiousness when addressing her... but I had to point out the obvious; that if I opened the transcript envelope, it would no longer be acceptable to the Education Ministry (assuming they were in there at all, that is).

She agreed, but said that there was no other way.

I then pointed out (with deep, subservient humility) that since the confusion had been caused by Queens College, perhaps the best course of action would be for them to send out another transcript.  After all, I didn't want to take another day off from work, only to have some government clerk open the envelope in front of me... and find someone else's transcript.

Unfortunately, this was beyond the scope of her mandate and she said that I would have to send in another check if I wanted another transcript.


I finally decided to take the risk and took a morning off from work to visit the Education Ministry offices in Jerusalem with the mystery envelope.  I arrived two hours before they actually opened to ensure I would be first in line... and sat down in a chair next to the office where foreign transcripts are reviewed.

When the appointed time arrived, a harried-looking clerk showed up, opened the office and promptly closed and locked the door behind her.  Those of us who were waiting outside listened at the door as the clerk chatted loudly on the phone with someone with whom she was clearly in a physical relationship.

After another fifteen minutes had passed, I knocked softly on the door.  The clerk wound up her conversation with a bunch of 'no... I love you more'-s, before admitting me to the inner sanctum.

When I was seated in front of her, she asked what I was there for.  I pulled out the sealed envelope with a flourish and placed it on the desk between us.  She looked at it briefly and said, "the computer's are down.  You can leave it with me and I'll process it when the server comes back up."  She had the same tone of voice my kids use when they tell me they'll clean up their rooms... later.

I stammered something about, "Aren't you going to at least open it up?", but she was having none of it.  She waved me out of the office and invited the next person in to hear the bad news about the computers.

I drove to work wondering whether she would actually go back and enter my information when the computers came back, or whether she would simply dump the pile of paperwork she's collected during the morning and start fresh when the servers were working again?

And most worrying... what would she find when she opened the mystery envelope?  Was it my transcript in there... or had they mistakenly sent someone else's transcript?

The days and weeks crawled by, and every day I went to the mailbox hoping to find some word... but nothing came.  Then yesterday Zahava called me at work to tell me that I'd gotten a letter from the Education Ministry... and did I want her to open it?

"Um, YES I WANT YOU TO OPEN IT!!!", was all I remember screaming into the phone.  I guess I didn't realize how wound up this four-year odyssey had gotten me.

I sat in my office in Beer Sheva listening to an envelope being sloooowly torn open in Efrat... and waited.  Finally, after what seemed like a month, Zahava said, "Congratulations honey... it's says 'ishur'...you're officially a college graduate!" 

I was so overjoyed at the news that I put aside my plans to spitefully tell Zahava that the reason I was able to renew my driver's license from the 80s in seconds while she'd had to take driving lessons and a test, was because she was the kind of person who made people wait those extra two seconds for important news. 

Yeah... I decided not to press my luck.  After all, it wouldn't be very smart to piss off someone who was holding a valuable document in her hands.  :-)

Posted by David Bogner on August 6, 2007 | Permalink


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Well spoke.

My own diploma was fairly easy to transfer back in 1992. And my driver's license as well.

Considering the number of traffic fatalities we still have, I think they're still doing something wrong.


Posted by: Yehuda Berlinger | Aug 6, 2007 1:23:31 PM

At least you didn't have any Yeshiva credits...

We went through this crazy process 7 years ago -- I too had a YU diploma with credits from several institutions that needed to be tracked down and paid for. Unfortunately, nothing I did would get them to accept the 36 credits I got over 2 years of Yeshiva study.

At the time we decided that since my job does not require a degree, it wasn't worth fighting about or even losing sleep over.

Over the last few years I heard rumors of other people in the same boat who were fighting the system, but I never cared enough to follow up on it.

Posted by: wogo | Aug 6, 2007 1:31:33 PM

Yep. Cause this is a much better way to be spiteful?!

Posted by: zahava | Aug 6, 2007 1:56:01 PM

Wow, I thought my problems were a pain. I had AP (Advanced Placement) credits worth about a year (and then I was in undergrad for 3 years) and so the lovely Ministry of Education didn't want to accept that I had a BA ... all the while I was getting a masters degree at The Hebrew University (ironic!). In the end, I basically had to get the U.S. Dept of Education and the AP Program on the Israeli government. .... Put it this way, I want to frame my ishur more than my diploma, as the ishur was harder to obtain!

All the while though, they won't verify anyone's Ph.D.

They really could verify that all US diplomas come - in the end - from a place accepted by the US Department of Education instead of playing these games, though.

And, oy, but since you work for a state agency, does this mean that you've been paid as if you only have a high school degree all these years?

Posted by: amechad | Aug 6, 2007 2:32:09 PM

Yehuda Berlinger... I'm guessing the road deaths can be blamed more on the local driving culture than on anything imported from abroad.

wogo... I would still recommend going for it if I were you. You never know what opportunities may come up in the future... and if (G-d forbid) you ever find yourself out of work, it would be a shame to only get unemployment benefits as if you were a HS graduate.

zahava... Not spiteful Honey... just thought I'd mention that while I was waiting on the phone for you to open and read the document, I lost the last of my hair. :-)

amechad... Unfortunately, there are several different accrediting bodies even within the US and all are definitely on the same level of reliability. They would be unwise to accept them all, so they make everyone dance when it comes time to verify a diploma. Oh, and as to my company... since they did a background security check on me that required them to interview some of my elementary school teachers, I think they were willing to accept my college diploma. :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 6, 2007 2:40:07 PM

Ach, David - thanks for putting some balm on my (old) wounds. There was that wonderful mix of a) deja vu and b) glee, seeing as it happens again to somebody else.

One remark, though - something in the build up of the story sounds a bit wrong - it happened to me sometime in 1980, and I came from SU - not FSU...

Posted by: SnoopyTheGoon | Aug 6, 2007 3:18:12 PM

I also just got my "Eishur" certificates in the mail and was so proud!!! I must tell you though, the lady in the little office who approved them all didn't want to open the official sealed transcript, but instead took the opened one and looked it over (along with the copies of everything that I had to shlepp 3 blocks away to go get after I had waited for an hour!)

Isn't bureaucracy fun???

Posted by: EmahS | Aug 6, 2007 3:32:48 PM

I'm currently in the midst of being given the run-around by the Ministry of Interior (on Rechov Shlomtzion). I've so far wasted two days on them, and still have not accomplished what I need.

Posted by: Reb Chaim HaQoton | Aug 6, 2007 3:35:08 PM

Very nice.

But why does the govm't need to verify your education? As far as I know, I'm not registered as a diplomate with the US Govm't, and neither were you? Isn't that something for your employer to sort out?

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Aug 6, 2007 5:27:05 PM

Ahh, Queens College . . that bastion of red tape. Well known for making the simplest task into a nightmare. I once needed to take a credit over the limit, plus I had a 10 minute overlap in courses. Miraculously, I pulled off both feats.

Thankfully when I went, you could at least register for classes via a(n admittedly convolute and error-fraught) telephone system. Nowadays I guess it must all be done online.

When my sister-in-law went, you had to stand on lines for hours only to get to the front and hear that all of your selectioned courses and all of your backups were full, and that' if you needed a minute to find something else, the back of the line was thattaway.

We'll see what we go through when the time comes - I think officially any of my outside credits were lumped my BA Queens College transcript and master's one from St. John's RaggedyDad's degrees may be even simpler to transfer.

Congrats, Grad! I'm glad you persisted!

Posted by: RaggedyMom | Aug 6, 2007 6:11:17 PM

I want to know too. What difference did it make to the government what your degree was or wasn't?

And I know it's evil to admit, but I also feel a little resentful to the Nefesh B'Nefesh -assisted groups. My first greeting on getting off the plane was being yelled at by the airport aliyah office because they had to wait because my plane was late.

Posted by: sara | Aug 6, 2007 7:14:04 PM

The joys of bureaucracy.

Posted by: Jack | Aug 6, 2007 8:18:02 PM

The reception at the airport was nice and I loved it. However after that it was a rough landing. Between the Sojnut and NBN they managed to mess up everything they could. I still have no israeli documents with which to open a bank account, sign up for health insurance, get my lift (coming in next week) released from customs, sign my daughter up for school, and several other things.
I hope things improve soon and wish the next batch of olim the best.

Posted by: Esther Miriam | Aug 6, 2007 8:27:24 PM

Finally! Glad to hear it! Enjoy your new "elevated" status :)

Posted by: tnspr569 | Aug 7, 2007 2:23:26 AM

Well, if I ever need a copy of my Dutch diplomas, I'm in a heap of trouble.

The Dutch invented red tape, and are masters at delay, impede, obfuscate, and non-cooperate.
They also, of course, mis-spelled my name on every single document.

According to one diploma, I'm surnamed El-Barnabar. It doesn't resemble my actual surname, and I have no idea what drugs the clerical person who did that was on. Suffice to say that here in the States, that diploma is worth diddly.

Posted by: Back of the Hill | Aug 7, 2007 4:13:09 AM

Yikes. Glad it all got sorted out. I had to keep reminding myself that you didn't mean FSU to mean Florida State University, but it was a funny picture of college frat boys landing in Israel ;-).

Posted by: AnnieD | Aug 7, 2007 4:56:27 AM

So timely a post for me, as tomorrow morning I will call Brooklyn College to have a sealed transcript sent to me ASAP. I'll probably spend all morning on the phone. Hopefully I will get it before our aliya flight on 9/3. My friends who made aliya 15 years ago tell me, "you may have Nefesh B'Nefesh, but we just had to blink and got our driver's license...."

Posted by: Baila | Aug 7, 2007 6:21:42 AM

SnoopyTheGoon... Maybe you were just 'lucky'. :-)

EmahS... If I had gotten an unsealed copy that would have taken some of the stress off. :-)

Reb Chaim HaQoton... Welcome to the machine.

Doctor Bean... There are several reasons. First and foremost is the huge number of immigrants. Employers usually require the government verified certificate with any diploma or advanced degree so they know it is genuine. Also, unemployment benefits are computed by what level of education you have. Lastly, two people doing the exact same job for the same company can have very different pay scales based on their education.

RaggedyMom... Thanks. Glad to hear I'm not alone (misery loves company). :-)

sara... See my reply to doctor bean. As to your welcome... that is a much more genuine Israeli welcome than we NBNers got. :-)

Jack... True, true.

Esther Miriam... In fairness, I doubt they tried to mess everything up. Sometimes someone falls through the cracks due to something as stupid as a mis-typed passport number or misspelled name and it takes ages to sort it out. Hopefully someone is working to help make things right.

tnspr569... Thanks.

Back of the Hill... Luckily, in the US you have the luxury of not needing verification of your credentials very often.

AnnieD... That was a funny mental image. Thanks for the giggle.

Baila... Be prepared for them not being able to help you on the phone. Just saying... :-)

Posted by: treppenwitz | Aug 7, 2007 8:59:22 AM

First, congratulations! My shaliach in Manhatten gave me the wrong information regarding American passports and my family(3 kids and a cat included) had to leave the airport and go to a hotel for the night to fix the problem in the passport office and then go back to the airport the next day. El Al was very helpful getting us the hotel accommodation near the main passport office and booking us immediately for the next day. When we arrived we found that the shaliach also did not give us the correct papers for us to receive status as "mishpachat olim", so that was another 3 hours of red tape at the airport in Israel. Coincidentally, there was another family with the same problem who had used the same shaliach! After getting settled, I was one of the lucky ones who had to take lessons and a test in order to change my license. After driving for about 2 minutes, the tester told me "okay, you know how to drive" and that was it. Honestly, with all the hassle, it was worth it. I still wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

Posted by: Madelyn | Aug 7, 2007 9:53:37 AM

Esther Miriam: We did this last year....and Israelis will help you around the hurdles. I got my teudat olah, my teudat zahut a couple of weeks later, signed up for health insurance....but somehow, my son wasn't listed with me on my TZ (a second trip to Misrad Hapnim straightened it out) nor could we get him onto Bituach Leumi because somehow his number wasn't in the system.....the office manager at Meuhedet fixed it "unofficially" but just going into the computer and adding him...sort of a Gordion Knot approach to bureaucracy here....Israelis for the most part will try to help you if you display patience, a smile and abysmal ignorance of Hebrew and The System....

Posted by: aliyah06 | Aug 7, 2007 11:41:37 AM

Wow. Those are horrible reasons. Mandated payscales based on education means that I'll hire the least educated person who can do the job. Unemployment insurace (if we even accept it as a good idea) should be based on the wages of one's last job.

Perhaps Nefesh b' Nefesh should hand out books by Milton Friedman. Actually, if Israel wanted to educate Israelis about capitalism, it would just have a government program that did it.

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Aug 7, 2007 4:18:36 PM

Doctor Bean -

You're right, but that's why more and more voices in Israel are educating the public and advocating policies in favor of the free market.

Two big names:

Israeli Center for Social and Economic Progress (ICSEP) @ http://www.icsep.org.il

Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies (JIMS) @ http://www.jims-israel.org (disclosure: I am going to be working for them in a few weeks)

as well as Shalem Center (translated Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom & Sowell's Basic Economics into Hebrew) and others.

Join us! :-)

Posted by: amechad | Aug 7, 2007 10:44:26 PM


Strong work! Israel needs you!

If by "join us" you mean philosophically, then consider me joined. If you mean financially, let me know where to send a donation. If you mean physically by making aliyah, then you're dreaming. (But I appreciate it.)

Posted by: Doctor Bean | Aug 8, 2007 8:50:24 AM

In norway, you can trade in your drivers license within the first year of residency and obtain a norwegian one. Of course, they don't tell anyone this, i found out by luck...
A friend who never thought her move here would be permanent never took the steps to get a norwegian license and now has to renew her FL license every 8 years and her int'l license every two years. To get the norwegian license, she would have to go through the same process as a new driver with the same costs, well in excess of $3,000... beurocracy...what would we do withouy it??? ;-)

Posted by: nrg | Aug 8, 2007 12:02:18 PM

To: Wogo and others in a similar situation - I have become something of an expert in solving these degree issues vis a vis the Ministry of Education. If you would like help, please write to me at [email protected]

Posted by: Natan | Aug 10, 2007 7:49:08 AM

Can somebody help me please ,I need to get my transcripts/diploma from Ort Leibowitz Nethanya from 1995.I have tried calling but the nrs I called were eighter no longer in service or was someone else's phn nr , I tried a couple of search engines to find out more info and somehow I got to your blog . Please if anyone has any type on info feel free to call me at 312 505 2401 or email me back at [email protected] or post here with any info .Thank you :)


Posted by: Rada | Oct 6, 2007 10:14:49 AM

As far as I know the level of education in Russia is very high.

Posted by: Diploma Owner | Feb 18, 2008 8:17:46 PM

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