A cautionary international postal tale
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A cautionary international postal tale

Here’s what happened when Sandra Steuer Cohen tried to do a good deed.

“My son Ami had his bar mitzvah last year and I wanted him to do a mitzvah project,” said the Teaneck single mother. “I said, ‘Let’s collect Beanie Babies – because they’re relatively light – and send them to hospitalized kids in Israel.”

Steuer Cohen’s daughter lives in the Galilee city of Afula (“a mixed and poor area,” as she described it) and her three children were born at the Emek Medical Center there. Steuer Cohen approached Larry Rich, the hospital’s Detroit-born director of development, to share her idea.

She and Ami put up posters and e-mailed or Facebooked everyone they knew. “Ami ended up with 800 Beanie Babies, most in original packaging. Some families sent full boxes. One woman donated her entire collection,” Steuer Cohen said.

Knowing it would be difficult to find enough vacationers willing to shlep the beanbag dolls to Israel, Steuer Cohen shelled out $700 in postage to ship the eight large boxes she and Ami packed just before Rosh HaShanah.

Having lived in Israel for 20 years, she understood that new merchandise can be subject to heavy customs fees, so she removed original packaging from those items that were unused. “I marked the cartons ‘For donation only, no value,’ in case they thought someone wanted to resell them.”

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Ami Cohen helped collect these toys for Israeli children. Sandra Steuer Cohen

Rich thanked Steuer Cohen for the three boxes of Beanie Babies he received.

“I asked him to let me know when the rest of the boxes arrived,” said Steuer Cohen. “But they never did.”

Customs authorities at the Haifa port ordered the Afula post office to hold the remaining five cartons until the medical center paid about $200 worth of fees.

Rich figured he could remedy the situation fairly easily.

“I wrote a few letters to the Tax and Customs Authority – you can’t call them, there’s only a fax number – explaining that these are used toys with no resale value, collected as a donation for a hospital, and asking them to release them immediately.”

His local post office manager filled out a special form requesting that the customs authorities allow the hospital to have the boxes without charge. But she was ordered to send them back to Haifa.

“A couple of weeks ago, I got an asinine call from Customs saying they will not release them without payment,” said Rich. “I told them we’re not paying a penny and that they should be ashamed of themselves; they are an embarrassment to our country.”

Steuer Cohen approached a representative at the Israeli Consulate in New York; Rich reached Amos Elad, director of development for the Jewish Agency in Israel. Ultimately, neither was able to help.

Elad told The Jewish Standard he was not sure what the problem was. “I’m not really familiar with the rules, but I don’t think they’re doing this out of spite.”

According to the English Website of the Israel Tax Authority, people sending used items to Israel “must tell the Customs official that the product is used. The Customs official will determine the value of the product based on its condition.”

On Wednesday, a Haifa customs official who identified himself as “Koby” responded to a fax from The Jewish Standard confirming that two of the cartons recently had been sent back to Steuer Cohen, postage due, and that one was back at the Afula post office. Lacking tracking numbers for the remaining two boxes, the Standard was unable to ascertain their location.

Koby said the law recognizes no such category as “no value.” Because of the potential for mail fraud, customs inspectors check if the contents are deemed to be as described. “These inspections cost money,” he said.

A large amount of like items from a single sender, he added, is considered a commercial import and is subject to import taxes.

He told of an American grandfather who sent 150 helmet flashlights for his grandson’s military unit. The young soldier’s mother had to pay the tax due before receiving them from customs.

“You have to pay taxes to release anything sent through the mail that is determined to value over $50, or over $200 if you bring it through the airport,” said Koby. “It makes no difference if it is new or old or for a tzedakah [charity]. We understand that this is frustrating, but we have to abide by the rules.”

Koby could not explain why three cartons had gone directly to the medical center, or why one was sent back to Afula rather than Teaneck.

Rich is angry and embarrassed. “Sending them back is idiocy at its best and Israel at its silliest,” he said. “This is a farce, and it’s a slap in the face from Israel to a wonderful person who went to considerable trouble and expense.”

He advised other would-be contributors to avoid the postal route.

“People should be aware they are likely to be subjected to additional customs fees in Israel in addition to exorbitant U.S. postal fees,” he said. “I recommend if they’re visiting, that’s the ideal time to bring donations if their luggage allowance permits. Personal delivery is the surest way to get things here.”

Even simpler, he continued, is a monetary donation. “I have a sophisticated setup through our Website for anybody wanting to donate for any purpose,” he said.

The hospital’s Emek 4 Kids program supports a range of pediatric services at the 500-bed medical center, including its special school for hospitalized children. “If you use our Internet donation page www.emekdonations.org you’ll get full recognition, a tax receipt, and no hassle,” he said.

Steuer Cohen has a message for the Israeli Tax and Customs Authority: “I want them to know I’m on top of this and am not giving up,” she said.

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