Sunday, November 26, 2006

Questions Answered (Article #29) 11/23/2006

Apparently I struck a chord last week in what I didn’t write. Many of you wrote to me asking why I had not said anything about the two main issues of the day; my feelings about the parade/chareidi riots and the security crisis that came about because of Palestinian threats.

I had ignored these issues because for Goldie and I (and our family) these have been almost entirely non events. Although it did have some effect on us at work, the home front was mostly quiet – we live outside of Yerushalayim in what we feel is a very secure location in Central Israel.

What did surprise us were the reports we had heard about the chareidi rioting spreading outside of Yerushalayim. Apparently there were riots in Bnei Brak, Ashdod and yes, even Beit Shemesh. How rioting in Beit Shemesh is going to have an affect on the status of a parade in Yerushalayim is beyond our comprehension.

Two weeks before the parade Goldie called me to tell me that as she drove through Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet (RBS-B) to her ulpan class in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph (RBS-A) she had come upon a bunch of “burned out” dumpsters and a whole bunch of blackened patches of road where there had apparently been some rioting the night before.

As the week developed we began to hear about rocks being thrown at school busses, terrorizing the students on them. These chareidim were ostensibly objecting to a “moral outrage” totally terrifying and terrorizing other peoples children.

Where we live in Beit Shemesh, we are in the corner of our neighborhood and on two sides are directly next door to chareidi neighborhoods. One night, while we slept, our chareidi neighbors tossed some large logs into the street and set them ablaze to disturb traffic. Once traffic had stopped, they then began to stone the cars in the street.

When our across the street neighbors went into the street to try to remove the logs and allow the cars to get by, they had rocks thrown at them as well. When I mentioned that it was probably just teenagers and young adults, one of the neighbors who was there told me that the crowd was actually a bunch of middle aged Chassidim. I just don’t understand how this is acceptable.

Yet, with all of this, the incident that bothered me the most was something that I read about in the Mir Yeshiva in Yerushalayim. I read about this on the website of a prominent Jewish newspaper, that included descriptions of the events that transpired by people who were actually there as well as comments by other readers.

Apparently, Bochrim from the Yeshiva had been participating in rioting in Kikar Shabbat when the police began to chase them (seemingly to arrest them for their violent actions). Realizing they were about to be caught, they fled into the Yeshiva building where they quickly sat down and acted as if they had been sitting and learning for quite some time.

When the police attempted to enter the Beit Midrash, according to the published report I read, the bochrim began to violently throw their shtenders at them, chasing them back in what was described as “defeat”. The report gleefully described how the police had been beaten back and indignantly protested the violation of the Yeshiva by the “secular” police.

The gist of the report and the overwhelming majority of the comments by readers was that the police were totally wrong in attempting to capture/detain the Yeshiva rioters and that the bochrim were totally justified in their violent attempts to injure the police.

I know that many people will disagree with me, but this not only outrages me, it shames me as a religious Jew. I absolutely agree that the parade and its attendees are a disgrace for the city of Yerushalayim. I also feel that had it not been for the Charedim, NO ONE WOULD HAVE EVEN NOTICED THEM AND THEY WOULD NOT HAVE HAD SUCH A PUBLIC PLATFORM FOR THEIR ACTIONS AND OPINIONS.

I am a citizen of the State of Israel. As every other citizen, I have the expectation that the police of Israel (like the police of every other country) will maintain order, safety and security. I expect them to use all the force at their disposal to ensure the safety of all citizens and guests of our country.

The police did not retreat in defeat. In my opinion, they exercised incredible restraint in not taking out their billy clubs and beating the living daylights out of the ruffians who disguised themselves as Bnei Torah. There is no justification for violating the safety and rights of others simply because you object to somebody else’s moral code and behavior.

I am all for Kedushat Eretz Yisrael; I am against people flaunting their lifestyle in the face of the public, especially in Yerushalayim, but I am more embarrassed by the violent, terrorizing behavior of the Chareidim and the tremendous chillul Hashem they have caused. Quite frankly, those people give the entire religious community a bad name and are the cause of a lot of the hatred from the non religious community.

At the same time that we were facing the parade/riot issues, our army erred in firing a shell and destroyed an apartment building in Gaza, killing 19. In response, the arabs promised extremely violent revenge, causing an extreme security alert within Israel.

I’ll admit it, I was nervous. To my thinking, this wasn’t a matter of “if”, it was a matter of “when”. I still think it is a matter of when. As we continue to relax our guard with the passage of time, I believe that most likely (I hope I am wrong) something is going to happen.

Our Yeshiva (in fact many Yeshivot with foreign students) went into “lockdown”. From Thursday afternoon through Saturday night, we did not allow the students to go anywhere outside the building with the exception of the pizza and falafel stores directly across the street. Even when we relaxed the lockdown, they were still banned from malls, as well as Ben Yehuda and other crowded places through the end of the week.

As a family we did not adjust our daily activities in the least bit. Chaim still took the bus to Yerushalayim for his flag football league game. The kids took the busses to and from school as needed. We lived our lives as we have before, and will continue to do so for as long as we can.

We enjoyed another relatively quiet week. Chaim had a better experience academically, and has begun to get settled in as an active participant in making sure that he has a successful high school program. He even mentioned to us that he might not need to go to America this summer, since there is a program in Israel that a lot of his friends will be going to – as long as we give him the cost of the airline ticket to America as spending money.

On Monday I had to go to the mall to buy some stuff for the house and to take a broken ring to get repaired. No matter how long I live here, I know that I will always be recognized as a foreigner. In both the Jewelry store and the hardware store, no matter how many times I asked questions in Hebrew, the responses were always in English.

Goldie was serving leftovers for dinner. So as a bonus, I went to Sbarros (Kosher LeMehadrin) in the mall food court and picked up a dinner to eat on the train (I almost always get a seating section to myself on the train with my own table). How cool is that?

We went to an Ulpana open house for Aliza. The Ulpana (Middle/High School) open houses are so much different here than in America. In the US, there are tours of the school, individual presentations (by subject) by the teachers and a very comprehensive look at the curriculum, daily schedule and extra curricular activities.

In Israel, there is essentially a town hall meeting. We are greeted at the door by the Principal, and directed to a meeting room where the major presentation will be made. The principal and two or three selected staff members get up and talk about the philosophy of the school and what they are trying to inculcate into the girls.

Each presentation is almost identical. This could be a result of the fact that we are looking for a certain type of school and are only going to open houses for that type of school.

We hear about how excellent the academics in the school are, BUT how the important thing to them is middot, warmth, character and a sense of chevra. Each school says that they offer the full range of academics and that their graduates can go on to any college, michlelet or program that they wish.

The combination of our poor Ivrit skills and our lack of familiarity with the educational system here makes this decision even more difficult for us. We will definitely work with the Nefesh Bnefesh educational department, but at times it feels like we are just throwing darts and hoping just to hit somewhere on the dartboard.

The same night we went to our first open house, my parents arrived from Chicago. With three children in Israel, they are here visiting for three weeks, including a joint birthday party for my father and Chaya this coming Sunday at our house.

They actually have a very good plan for this visit. Our kids are all in school. Goldie is in ulpan. Similarly their other grandchildren will all be busy. So, instead of hanging out all day waiting for the kids to come home and do homework, they are staying by us over Shabbat and then going to hotels in Yerushalayim or Eilat for the week to have as a home base for touring. They will stop by for a dinner or two, but it makes a lot of sense for them not to have to shlep in and out of Beit Shemesh each day when they go to tour.

The kids were very excited to see them. As the first relatives they actually know to come see us, the kids had a lot of fun showing them our house and pointing out the various neighborhood places (ganim, supermarket, dance class) that are important to them. Of course, there is nothing like a five year old running up to his grandparents and shouting “Hey – where are the presents?!?”

On Thursday Goldie took the kids to get flu shots. Flu shots here are both complicated and simple. The shots are given by a nurse, just like in America. Yet, in order to get them you need to see the doctor so that he can enter a prescription in the computer. You also need to wait by the doctor’s office for a half hour after they give you the shot in order to make sure that you don’t have a bad reaction to the injection.

My parents got a GPS system with their rent a car. It must have been programmed in Chelm. Wherever we drive, it gives us the wrong directions. About the only good thing it does is give us a pinpointed location of where we are at any given time.

On Friday night one of our neighbors (Menachem and Randy Lipkin originally from Highland Park, NJ) made a Shalom Zachor in their home for their first grandson. While they are definitely older than us, they aren’t THAT MUCH older and it freaked me out a little bit.

For the past 5+ years we have hosted a Parshat Hashavua Chabura (study group) in our home on Friday nights – cholent included. Since I didn’t know about the Shalom Zachor until right before Shabbat, we cancelled the Chabura and I brought the cholent with me to the Shalom Zachor, which was a big hit.

Of course, it is inevitable that whenever my parents come to visit, one of the kids have to get sick. This time it is Batya’s turn. She complained of a sore throat on Shabbat so we ran with her to the doctor on Sunday. Sure enough, she has strep. My father also tends to get sick easily, so we are keeping an eye on him to make sure that he didn’t catch it.

They are having a little bit of a difficult time with jet lag, which is unusual for them in this direction. Motzei Shabbat was the worst for them; I don’t think my father slept at all.

The real plus here has been the weather. As hot as it is in Beit Shemesh during the summer, that is as beautiful the weather has been in the fall. We had only one Shabbat with rain. Every other week has been absolutely beautiful; we haven’t even needed to wear a jacket during the day.

Nights are definitely chilly and we may even have to start using the heat at some point soon. But for now we are enjoying the mild climate and continuing to settle in.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Deep Breath (Article #28) 11/16/2006

We have been in Israel four months now, with the last two weeks being the first time we have been on a somewhat “normal” school/work/play schedule. We have gotten to the more “mundane” part of our life here. We go to school/ulpan/work, are involved in the general housekeeping issues (last week I bought some plastic shelving units and we got rid of a whole bunch of boxes), are starting to think about life more than one or two weeks in the future and are almost comfortable with our routine.

This week was finally a week where we did not follow an amazingly deep low feeling with an equally astounding high note. Our concerns/troubles were not magically wiped away and we weren’t giddy with excitement over some amazing development or activity we had participated in.

Since our arrival we had the sense of being on a roller coaster. We would get to amazing heights and then dizzying lows, to be followed by more rushes up the adrenaline escalator. Each time we tackled a problem we felt like there was another one right behind it waiting its turn in the sun.

And now we may finally have reached a major milestone in our acclimation to Israel. Instead of reaching a quick fix short term solution to a problem in order move on to the next problem, we are taking a more long term approach to solving the educational issues facing our boys.

I feel a lack of crisis or pressure in our lives. That isn’t to say that we are any less hectic and harried in our daily routine. From around 6:30 AM until 9 PM or so our house is a frenzy of activity. Carpools, busses, ulpan, work (for both adults), chugim (after school activities), homework (all done in Hebrew with a dictionary in hand), meals, laundry for eight people, cleaning, running to the doctor each time somebody gets sniffles and so on and so on……… our daily routine has only gotten harder since we’ve made Aliyah (although it should ease a little once Goldie finishes Ulpan in February).

What I feel now is more a sense of getting down to the real business of living. Of having a moment’s reflection to consider what things we need to do in order to make things work for each kid (and ourselves) without thinking that each move will irrevocably change their entire future.

Sunday morning saw Mordechai’s return to “equilibrium”. He still had no idea on what the teachers were talking about, but with Goldie’s support he finally found a point where he was less frustrated with being in Gan. The fifteen minutes to half an hour that she spends with him in the Gan go a long way to putting him in a comfort zone.

He knows where everything belongs in the Gan. The Morah’s idea to have Goldie relate the daily schedule to him in English means that he isn’t constantly bewildered and confused when things happen. He has English speaking friends in the Gan and he is able to interact with most of the boys.

It is still difficult for him. In the mornings when he arrives he might be the only English speaker in the room, and therefore ends up playing alone until more friends arrive (and thank G-d again for his buddy Chaim Rock who has literally been a rock for Mordechai) which is difficult for us as parents to watch. He sits quietly when there is story time or another verbal activity since he doesn’t understand what they are doing.

So we have a mix of growth with him, and with each passing day and each new vocabulary word he gains a little more confidence that he will be able to handle this bewildering world, which is as it should be. He is finally making small progress which is what his growth curve should be, a series of small victories.

He also started hot lunch in Gan this week. Since food is a major deal, he was thrilled to be getting hot lunch which costs us less than a dollar a day. Since lunch is the main Israeli meal, he gets a meat lunch every day and he loves it.

The girls are also about to see some changes in school. Since the municipality had decided to combine the olim from the various elementary schools into one large centrally located group, Batya and Aliza had been traveling by bus each day to their ulpan program. However, having the boys and girls together in the same facility just didn’t work out, so we got a note in the middle of the week that the girls were being relocated into our girls’ school building.

This change will incredibly ease Goldie’s life. The afternoon switch of school buildings had forced us to put the kids on the city bus to come home (many kids here travel to school on the city bus). We also had no choice but to have the girls miss all of their afternoon classes, since they were no longer physically in their school’s building.

With this change, they will once again be able to take the private school bus (which we have already paid for) home, making a much shorter trip than the city bus. It also allows Aliza to go straight to play practice after school, since she is not needed to accompany Batya on the bus and make sure she gets home safely.

Aliza still wants to drop the ulpan totally, she really feels ready to go out on her own. There is no question that she is doing well in school and that she probably could handle it, but we are still holding off just to make sure.

Aliza is in a funny position. Her school has historically been a grade 1-6 school. In Israel the schools can run 1-6, 1-8, 6-12 or 8-12 depending on the school. So we knew that the school choice for her this year was only for the current year, and that we would have to find Aliza a new school for next year.

As an Olah Chadasha, Aliza has specific hurdles, since her command of the language is not the best. She will be applying to many of the top level schools and may be very challenged by their entrance exams and we have to be very forceful in making sure that the schools all make a note of the fact that she is only living here for four months.

Additionally, her school announced that they are going to open a seventh grade next year in a move to expand the school through grade eight and possibly even High School. We are sure there will undoubtedly pressure put on the girls to consider staying in the school (which Aliza absolutely does not want to do).

Open houses for High School also run differently here. There are special open house days for only the students, for only the parents and for both parents and students. With three major schools on our radar, we expect to be busy with High Schools over the next six weeks or so.

On Monday night we had a meeting of parents for Chaim’s school. This was our second meeting with them in a month and our initial reaction was that our thoughts to make a change were right on target.
We actually believe that the atmosphere is good for him and that if they could deliver what they are promising, it would be perfect for him. The problem is that it is a big if.

After the meeting, we had a private conference with the principal of the school. He outlined a possible plan for us to pursue Chaim’s skipping the Israeli Bagrut exams (think regents) and to move for a High School equivalency degree for him, which when combined with the Israeli psychometric exam or the SAT’s will be what he needs to get into college, which is his ultimate goal.

I am also working with people I know (via the Yeshiva) in the Yeshiva University program to make sure that whatever program we ultimately choose will be acceptable to them, which for now, is Chaim’s first choice for college when he leaves Israel.

The highlight of our week was the monthly dinner I try to have with my brother and sister. Friday was my sister’s birthday, and although we had thought to postpone the dinner a few days, we decided to get together Thursday night in honor of her birthday.

For the first time since we made Aliyah, it has finally gotten too cold to sit outside at night for dinner. The climate here is actually amazing, especially in Beit Shemesh. As hot as it is during the summer (and boy is it hot here during the summer), it is also one of the warmer areas in Central Israel during the winter (one of our neighbors hosted a lovely Shabbat Kiddush this week in honor of the birth of their daughter – outdoors, in the street, in the 70 degree+ weather in mid NOVEMBER) .

I think my idea to set a specific goal of getting together one night each month was right on target. We feel so much busier here (even though we don’t have Israeli TV) and that we only have free time to ourselves after 10 PM or so. Without the mental commitment to actually go out to dinner and see each other every month, I would probably never see my siblings at all, nor would we have a chance to just get out and decompress.

We hosted Miriam Pinsky from Bayswater with a friend for Shabbat. Miriam’s mother worked with me in South Shore and it was our pleasure to have her visit. We feel a little more connected when we are able to host friends or their children, even if it is only for Shabbat.
Although the community here is so welcoming and so loving and nurturing, there is nothing like a small taste of “the old country”.

Two Steps Back (Article #27) 11/9/2006

In life it sometimes seems as if every time you take three steps forward, you take two steps back. This was one of those weeks. If you opened the paper today looking to read about another “fantastic” week, close the paper right now.

The week started of well with a Chicago Bears victory to remain undefeated for the season. I enjoyed watching the game with a group of my friends at Shai and Leslie Goldmeier’s house in Chicago. It has been a long time since I sat around with my buddies for a BBQ and the Bears, and it was a real pleasure.

Since our trip was dual purpose, I spent the rest of the day planning for the next night’s parlor meeting as well as helping Rav Susman (our Rosh Hayeshiva) and Rav Pflanzer (our Menahel Klali) prepare for their recruitment meetings with HS seniors which were to begin Monday morning.

Monday was a tough day for me. I had been away from home for a week, was busy worrying about that evening’s fundraiser and it was also the first Yahrtzeit of my friend Jay Gottlieb. Jay’s tragic death was one of the catalysts for our deciding to pursue Aliyah, and he and his family are regularly on my mind. I had wanted to go to the Kotel to daven for him and not being in Israel on that day was difficult for me.

Since the parlor meeting was going to be my first fundraising event with the Yeshiva, I expected to make mistakes. I was worried about a lot of things, but in the end, the real mistake was in not preparing early enough. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do, it was that I felt that there was no time with which to do it.

In the end, we had a pretty decent event. Rav Pflanzer spoke about his experiences as an operations officer in the paratroopers in the recent war in Lebanon. It was a very moving presentation. He really connected with the audience, many of whom came specifically to hear his story.

The turnout was nice, we already outperformed the prior year’s event and assuming that the three or four donors we did not yet speak to end up participating, we will be very close to our goal for the event. Which is more than we really could have hoped for.

Yet, I wasn’t thrilled. I knew that we/I could have done better and needed to take a few lessons from the experience, and I hope that I do.

By Tuesday morning I was exhausted. I never really sleep well in America and this trip was no exception. I had stayed in town a couple of extra days to try and catch up with those people who we had not seen at the parlor meeting and planned to leave town Wed. afternoon.

Late Tuesday morning I got a message from my old secretary at the Yeshiva of South Shore. It seems that they were in a panic about one of the Yeshiva’s volunteers, Larry Gorman. Larry had come to the Yeshiva as a retired CPA looking to give back to the community by donating his services to us.

Although we were initially quite skeptical about his motivation and commitment, over time Larry proved to be one of the most responsible and dependable people in our office. He was truly a great guy who was focused on trying to do good by the Yeshiva. From a couple of hours three days a week, his commitment grew to four or five hours a day, four days a week.

He took control of his duties and became a major part of the team that helped the Yeshiva reinvent itself and its financial identity. His suggestions were always offered with the conviction that he was trying to do what was best for the Yeshiva, and we all knew that even if we didn’t ultimately follow his advice, Larry was a team player and would roll up his sleeves with us to get the job done.

He was always quite organized and very particular that we should all work together as a team. Although he was a volunteer, he took his responsibilities very seriously and would always let us know in advance if he was going to be late or absent. He had been going through a difficult time of late; we knew that his relationship with his “co-workers” at the Yeshiva was a source of strength to him.

So when he missed a Monday morning appointment and didn’t show up for work on Tuesday, the people at the Yeshiva were seriously concerned. By the time I got a call, one of his Yeshiva “co-workers” who is a member of Hatzola had gone to Larry’s house with the police where our worst fears were confirmed. He had tragically passed away at home over the weekend.

This news hit hard. We all loved Larry as part of our family. My kids knew him, since we had given him a ride to some of the Yeshiva simchas that the kids had also attended. Telling Goldie any bad news is tough. Doing it over the phone is worse.

I spent a lot of time on the phone that day, talking to my kids about Larry, talking to Goldie about how tragic this is and talking to the people in the South Shore office who will notice his absence the most. He was a fixture in that office for over five years and it will not be the same without him. His death shocked and saddened our family in Israel and the South Shore family as well; he will be missed.

Having been away from home for over a week, I entered Wednesday looking forward to finally going home. I was totally loaded up with stuff to bring back and ran around like crazy the last morning getting the last couple of meetings out of the way.

(I won’t even mention the speeding ticket that I got in Lincolnwood on my NY driver’s license, for which I will either have to take four hours of internet driving school to have the ticket erased from my record or pay the fine, which is cheaper than the driving school, since the points don’t transfer to my Israeli license anyway)

I headed off to the airport later than planned and was concerned that I might have lost my aisle seat (try being six foot two and not having the aisle to stick your legs in). Of course, the rental car agency overcharged me, so I had to waste fifteen minutes fighting with them about an added charge (I won).

By the time I got to the terminal, I was expecting a long line and a changed seat. Instead I got a short line and a closed ticket counter. Confused, I looked at my itinerary and it dawned on me that my flight was for 18:30 which was 6:30 and not 4:30 as I had thought.

Furthermore, until two days earlier I had been under the impression that the plane flew directly from Chicago to Tel Aviv. It didn’t. Although there was only one check in, the plane stopped in Toronto to pick up more passengers, making the trip even longer than I had thought.

After moving items from one suitcase to another in order to be under the weight limit and checking in, I spent an excruciatingly boring hour and a half on line waiting for the TSA security check and x-ray.

I had originally planned to write about a fascinating group of people from Champaign, Illinois (a small town in Central Illinois) who were on our flight. Broadcasters, listeners and supporters of the Great News radio show were making their fifteenth trip to Israel in the past six years to bring toys and other items to hospitalized children, to volunteer in disadvantaged communities, to paint a mural in Tzfat and to do other volunteer work in Israel.

Their sincerity and the joy they displayed in coming to Israel to help out in any way they could was inspiring. I had planned to describe their efforts in a lot more detail than is contained here, but I was inspired even more by another group on the plane.

We had boarded the plane exactly on time. Everyone was seated and ready to go when the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that there was an instrument problem that needed to be fixed and we would hopefully be moving shortly. So we sat cooped up in the plane at the gate, with the plane door open, waiting for the part to be fixed.

Two hours, one snack bag distribution and two drink distributions later, the part was fixed and we were on our way to Toronto. Since we were late, they decided to clean the plane with the passengers in it and then load the Toronto passengers on as quickly as possible. I think that in the end I spent more than fifteen hours straight on that plane.

While we walked around on the plane in Toronto, stretching our legs and waiting for the cleaning crew to finish up, I introduced myself to a fellow sitting four rows in front of me. He and his wife were traveling with their two little girls. We started playing Jewish Geography, with me telling him that while I was originally from Chicago then NY, we had recently moved to Beit Shemesh.

He then told me that he and his family were making Aliyah on that very flight, moving to Maaleh Adumim. They had tried to go on a Nefesh Bnefesh flight, but the timing didn’t work out for them, so they were going solo. Although I was excited for them, I was also disappointed for them too. The experience of being on a Nefesh Bnefesh flight, where all the passengers are making Aliyah and thrilled to be on the plane, is an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

We continued talking about careers and experiences when he really shocked me, telling me that both he and his wife were Geirim (converted). I was astounded. Not just that they would find Judaism and convert, but that they would find the conviction to take their newfound Jewish identity and make the ultimate move to Israel.

He had talked about the sacrifices that they were making, financially and emotionally and how he hoped and planned to restart his academic career in Israel after learning Hebrew. He talked about the fact that his wife’s parents had never seen their grandchildren and how they hoped one day to have them visit from Romania.

I was moved by their simple commitment to the land of Israel. I was impressed by their desire to be in the central location for Jewish life. But perhaps most of all, I admired their courage for doing much more than the typical Olim, they literally turned their backs on their entire upbringing to make the move to Judaism and Israel.

Although we had arrived in Toronto two hours late, the speed of the ground crew and the quick loading of all the Toronto passengers cut our delay to just forty five minutes and we took off, settling in for the long flight to Tel Aviv.

Thankfully, the three Tylenol PM’s that I took got me about 5 hours of sleep so that I would be somewhat rested for what (I did not know) was about to come.

After landing forty minutes late at 5:30, we were taking our belongings from the overhead bins and waiting for the crew to open the door when the pilot came on the intercom to tell us that there might be a small delay in getting our baggage delivered. This turned out to be somewhat of an understatement.

As I walked to passport control, Goldie called me to tell me she was on her way. I warned her that there might be a small delay and that she might want to park. The passage through immigration was very quick, taking five minutes or less. For those people who have never been to Ben Gurion airport before, the baggage hallway is just past the immigration/passport control booths, and as I entered the baggage area it was clear that something was definitely wrong.
There were bags and people everywhere. People were just milling around, and there was a definite sense of anger in the air. Although there are normally hundreds of luggage carts waiting for arriving passengers, there were none to be found in the baggage hall that day.

Suddenly, there was a lot of shouting at the Information Desk, and the people gathered there began to chant “Mizvadot! Mizvadot!” (Baggage, Baggage). After talking to some of the other people in the terminal I began to get an idea of what was happening and I called my sister to confirm.

Apparently, the airport temporary workers went on strike because they were about to lose 120 jobs. Every year the airport cuts back on seasonal employees once the tourist season ends and the union wanted to keep the jobs.

Although there was a court order issued Wednesday to return to work on Thursday (which was overturned Thursday afternoon anyway), the strike continued through Thursday. There was no air conditioning running in the terminal, only limited baggage service and things like the collection of luggage carts from the parking lots were sporadically being taken care of.

My coworkers had flown in on a NY flight that landed a half hour earlier than my flight, and we conferred to discuss what we should do.

Many people had decided to leave the airport and return only once they had confirmed that the luggage had been processed (security allowed passengers to return to the baggage area with passports and boarding passes to prove that they had baggage waiting for them).

Others stayed at the baggage claim to wait for their bags, since they were concerned that someone may take their bags. It wouldn’t have been too hard for anyone to steal bags that night, since there were so many bags all over the floor waiting for people to return to the airport to claim them and nobody was watching over them.

My initial reaction was to wait, but I exited the baggage area (with Ron Baruch who had been on the NY flight) in order to discuss it with Goldie. We were about to leave the airport (planning to return with Ron at midnight to get our bags) when I got a phone call that my flight’s bags had been posted as “about to arrive” in carousel ten.

As I made my way to carousel ten, I noticed that Ron Baruch’s bags were on carousel eight, so I called him and caught him before he left. His wait was about an hour or so.

Assuming that my bags would not be far behind, I made my way to carousel ten to wait for the bags to arrive. Although the NY flight’s bags came out over a two hour period, our flight’s bags had yet to make an appearance.

After two and a half hours, both Goldie and I were losing our patience. The kids were anxious for me to get home and the El Al people kept insisting that our bags had already been distributed. We convinced one agent to come with us to the carousel to see that NO BAGS had come.

That agent became our advocate, eventually convincing the El Al ground staff to send a person to the plane and see where the luggage was. When we got the call that the bags were still on the plane, we realized that it would be quite some time before they arrived, and decided to go home (after three hours of waiting) at 8:30.

At midnight I called to check on the bags and was told that they still had not come out and when I called El Al at 8 AM the next morning, they had no idea if the bags had or hadn’t been distributed yet. After talking to another passenger on the flight, I found out that the bags had only come out after 1:30 AM, a full eight hours after we landed.

Locating the bags at the airport was a treat. Apparently, the bags not claimed immediately, were offloaded randomly, so although the bags had come out of carousel three, I eventually found one bag between the wall and carousel one and the other next to carousel three.

At least I got my bags. The strike lasted at least through Friday, and I cannot imagine what people who arrived on Friday did without their clothing for Shabbat.

We went into Shabbat looking for a little rest, but I had been away for a while and the kids really wanted some attention. Each one has their own concerns and needed to be reassured that we care about them.

So I oohed and ahhed over Chaya’s new braces, talked with Aliza about ulpan, heard about Batya’s library books and just held Moshe in my lap. The hardest kids to deal with were Mordechai and Chaim.

Mordechai just wants to either understand Hebrew or go back to English. Although he is doing better in Gan now that Goldie sits with him for at least 20 minutes in Gan each morning to find out what they will be doing and tell him in English about his upcoming activities. He still doesn’t understand the language, but at least he is beginning to know what they are doing.

He doesn’t realize it, but he is actually doing better than he had when he first got here. He plays with the Hebrew speakers a lot more, and there is Hebrew interspersed with English in his speech. Although we can definitely see improvement, he is still frustrated and the frustration turns into anger.

It is tough to watch. He doesn’t know why he gets angry so quickly, and his frustration/anger/worry has different manifestations. He doesn’t like to sleep alone. He gets very clingy. He is prone to tantrums. The whole process is agonizing both for him and us.

Chaim on the other hand has much more mature and thought out concerns. He is concerned about his future and getting into college. His school opened a tenth grade for the first time this year, and despite repeated promises to improve their staff and program, they just don’t seem to be getting the job done.

We have plans and backup plans about his academic career, yet he is so concerned about his lack of progress this year that it is a source of extreme distress to him. We are also concerned, but at the same time we are also quite pleased. After all, how many kids would complain to their parents about the fact that “they are doing nothing in school”.

He wants to do well so badly that we can hear the emotion in his voice when we talk about it, and we cannot act fast enough to please him. So, we will spend the next ten days looking for another school for him and trying to make it work out for this year before we have to go to a backup plan.

I guess we should actually consider ourselves lucky. Out of six kids, we are having issues with only two, and we think they are solvable problems. While we know and appreciate this fact intellectually, it didn’t help us sleep any better Friday or Saturday nights.

We hosted the Cederbaums for lunch on Shabbat. They are here on a pilot trip for what may be their summer 2007 aliyah and wanted to check out our neighborhood. With kids currently enrolled in the schools that they are considering for their kids, we were thrilled to share our thoughts and experiences with them.

It was kind of weird talking to them, since we had such a difficult week to deal with. We were so tired and worried about the kids and how they are doing that it was a real effort to get ourselves keyed up for them. It was a good thing that they came, since it gave us the need to pick ourselves up and refocus.

Hopefully, the difficult weeks will disappear and we will continue to have positive growth for our children and ourselves.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Traveling Jew (Article #26) 11/2/2006

We are entering into one of the busiest times of the year for Yeshivot like ours. Each November, recruiting season begins with three weeks of “Israel nights” in the various Yeshiva High Schools across the US. Each Yeshiva has to send representatives to the various High Schools to address the students and parents, telling them something about their Yeshiva and why it is a good choice for them for the upcoming year.

One of my responsibilities is to coordinate our PR efforts, including the publication of our recruitment brochure. In consultation with our administration, I radically redesigned the brochure, opting for a less complex design with more pictures of happy, learning students.

We almost didn’t have the brochure ready on time. The Yeshiva’s graphic artist is my boss’ wife, and I was supposed to work with her on this project during the summer. Unfortunately, he was in the army during the summer, and I felt that it was inappropriate for me to intrude upon her life while she was worrying about her husband.

By the time things settled down, we were late in producing a proof and had to really scramble in order to get the brochure printed in time for recruitment. We actually had the brochures printed in the US and shipped to a few locations since we had very little time available.

Additionally, our Yeshiva scheduled our first major fundraising event (Chicago parlor meeting) for the last week in October. This will be my first major event with the Yeshiva and I am approaching it with some trepidation.

In order to properly prepare for the fundraiser, I made plans to travel to Chicago early in the week. I needed time to make sure that all the preparations were moving forward as needed and to set up some private meetings with our larger donors.

Of course, since I was taking the Rosh HaYeshiva and the Menahel Klali with me for the parlor meeting, the fact that several staff members were also preparing to leave on recruiting trips made our absences all the more difficult for the Yeshiva. While there are always substitutes available to give shiurim, sometimes the lack of available “hands” makes everyday activities more difficult.

I spent the beginning of the week getting ready for my Monday night flight. Preparing lists, packing materials and putting together the least amount of clothing I could, so that there would be room to bring back stuff for the kids. Good thing I did that.

My flight in was much better than the prior one. I definitely prefer the night flight. Everyone is much quieter and you have a chance to sleep (although I gotta find out about sleeping pills because I can only catch 2-3 hours). Arriving in Newark was much, much better than JFK, the process was so much smoother.

There are 3 things that would improve my outbound flights. They are really matters of convenience more than anything. The first is getting to the Gold status of El Al. It will be close for me, since I calculate that I will be within a round trip of getting there by the end of my first twelve months in the program.

However, the Gold status comes with some big perks. I doubt I will get upgraded, but it is a definite possibility. The perks I am looking for are the special check-in counters. Instead of having to wait in line, Gold and higher members of El Al get their own special ticket counters, where the lines move much quicker.

Gold members also get a larger weight allowance. While this wouldn’t really affect me on the way out of Israel, my return trips become much more productive when I have the opportunity to bring more stuff home.

Another thing I am looking forward to is qualifying for electronic immigration control in Israel. Israeli citizens have an option to file their passport information and handprints with the border police. Then, each time they enter and leave the country they can bypass the passport control lines and, using their handprints, electronically register their entries and exits from Israel.

Unfortunately, this option is only available to Israeli passport holders, of which I am NOT one. I know this sounds a little silly since I am an Israeli citizen, but I cannot get an Israeli passport until I have been an Israeli citizen for a full year. Until then, I travel on something called a Teudat Ma’avar (traveling certificate).

The Tuedat Ma’avar is something that is used only by Olim. The Teudat Ma’avar looks just like a passport. Essentially, it is a document that is only used for the Israeli border control; for entry and exit into other countries, the Oleh has to use his passport from the country he came from.

The flight went pretty well, the only glitch was using my cellphone. The flight crew of El Al constantly reminded us in flight that cellphones cannot be used until the cabin doors open. So, as I got off the plane, I whipped out my phone to call Goldie and let her know I had arrived safely.

Apparently, cellphones cannot be used until after luggage is retrieved and you pass through customs. When I got to the immigration officer he said to me, “Sir go back behind the white line and when you approach my station I will have to fine you $1,000 if I see you talking on the cellphone.”

In my subsequent discussion with him, I discovered that they always seem to have cellphone issues with El Al passengers, and when I told him that the flight crew gave us erroneous information, we both realized why. Although I am not sure exactly why this rule is in effect, after all what can we do with a cellphone between the time we get off the plane and the time we get through customs – I wish the US officials would notify the airline what the policy is so that people could avoid trouble.

I had scheduled a ten hour stopover in NY, in order to have meetings with some potential donors. Since I would be in NY, Goldie’s mother took the opportunity to “fill my suitcases”, which she did. By the time I got to the airport to check in my bags, I was glad that I had packed lightly, since my bags came in only one pound below the airline’s weight limit.

Of course, since I had only slept three hours on the plane from Israel, and I had spent the entire day running around NY and was extremely tired, it only made sense that my flight to Chicago would be delayed two hours. By the time we got on the plane I was totally exhausted and once we were in the air, I fell asleep until ten minutes before landing.

Leaving Israel is weird. There are so many mental adjustments I have to make. There is no Bircat Kohanim each day. The day seems so much more rushed in America. But the biggest adjustment has to be the change in temperature. It is so cold in America. Each time I come here I am astounded at the differences between our climates.

Meanwhile, as you would expect, my absence from the house was a perfect opportunity for things to go wrong. By the time I got to America two kids had strep throat and the hot water heaters stopped working. Of course, by Friday it started to rain heavily and there were three leaks in the house (expected when you have new construction) as well as a ton of mud for the kids to play in since our grass has not yet been planted.

Chaya (age 13) needed to have a tooth pulled, and will be going for new braces next week. It seems like we will never be free from braces; Chaim’s braces were removed just last week after three years.

The kids of course knew that I was gone and they tried to push Goldie as hard as they could. They assume that she is too busy and lonely to notice that they are trying to take advantage of her. I feel bad, because this makes my trips that much harder for her to handle.

It is during these trips that the inevitable homesickness for America hits one of the kids. This time it was Mordechai’s turn, coming home crying that he doesn’t want to go to school in Hebrew, he wants to be in America and play with his best friend Gabey – IN ENGLISH! While that moment passed, and he went to school and got back to normal, these things do pop up from time to time, and we will most likely be dealing with them for the next few months.

She also has a much harder time sleeping with me out of the house. She says that she feels unsafe without me there. It is flattering to me to hear it, but I hate how tired she sounds when I talk to her.

We expected things to be like this. After all, I specifically looked for a job that had a major travel component, so that I could visit our family and friends on a regular basis. Yet, I wish there was a way I could make it easier for her.

On the other hand, having the ability to buy certain things we could not possibly get in Israel is a definite benefit. Despite the overwhelming amount of stuff my mother in law got us, I still needed to get some (more) paper blinds, and some toiletries that are not sold in Israel (somebody should import those blinds – they would make a killing).

I spent a very nice Shabbat with my cousins in Chicago. Thankfully, my family is very supportive of our Aliyah and we enjoy spending time together. I know that one of the only things our kids express about wanting to come to NY or Chicago is so that they can see all their cousins.

On Motzei Shabbat I had the opportunity to visit with Steven Kirshner, one of my oldest friends from Chicago. Steve was in Chicago visiting his family, and although he lives no more than a half hour drive away from us in Israel, this was the first time we had seen each other since we made Aliyah.

Steve works on the other side of Yerushalayim from our Yeshiva, and since we have been so overwhelmingly busy trying to not be busy, we have had very little time to actually get away from the house to visit people since we moved. Every night is a school night, and just when things look like they are about to calm down, I go on a ten day trip overseas.

Hopefully, this will be my last trip until we change the calendar. Goldie is scheduled to be in NY (for an accounting audit with the school she worked for in America) for a week in December, so we will still have some topsy turvy time next month, but we are hoping that by Channuka, even the overseas trips will cease being a novelty and we will finally have our lives at an even keel.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Child’s Joy (Article #25) 10/26/2006

One of the hardest issues for us to deal with has been adjusting to spoken Hebrew. While my coworkers all speak English (at varying levels of proficiency), our suppliers and the myriad of people I interact with at work are mostly Hebrew speakers only. Goldie is constantly dealing with repairmen (new construction always needs fine tuning repairs), school teachers and administrators, and all the many people needed to keep our lives in order. Yet, we manage.

I can converse in Hebrew somewhat comfortably, and when I don’t understand something I am not at all shy about mentioning it and asking for a definition. I try to read the newspaper here at least once or twice a week (in Hebrew) and hope that eventually I will understand the news on the radio over time (they speak so quickly).

Goldie understands Hebrew and can converse, but is also taking Ulpan to gain a comfort level with speaking the language and broaden her vocabulary. She tries very hard and can always call my sister or sister in law if she really gets stuck on a word.

The kids however, have a much more difficult time of it. The older ones are at least mature enough to understand that these things take time. So they approach school with an understanding that they might not understand everything that is said. In the short term, this is great – but for the long term they will have less internal motivation to figure out the “gobbledygook” (Chaim’s word).

The younger ones are simply angry about the language issues. All they understand is that they have no clue, that everyone else seems to know what to do and what is going on and they just sit there. It was extremely difficult at first, since nobody wants to even do anything about it until after the holidays and Ulpan only started right before the chagim.

Yet, we are beginning to see differences in the kids. Moshe comes home from Gan and will respond to questions in either Hebrew or English. As the youngest child he will have the least adjustment to deal with. He is just learning to speak English and will have the easiest time picking up Hebrew since he is already using those skills in learning English.

Mordechai recognizes words now and has really made a conscious effort to incorporate them into his daily routine. He has made some friends at his Gan (one boy in particular, Chaim Rock who lives across the street from us is with Mordechai all the time) that he interacts with and has begun to get an idea of what the Morah wants from him. Sometimes.

Of course, this past week he had to have a regression since he has been out of school for so long because of the chagim. The truth is, that while we enjoyed the chagim and the time we got to spend together – the change in routine and having to reestablish the routine has definitely been difficult for us.

The toughest adjustment has been Batya’s. In second grade and with a real thirst to learn, she was initially very excited to be coming to Israel and learn a new language. She approached the summer camp experience with a tremendous attitude and had a terrific time. She took a special ulpan before school began and was raring to go on the first day of school. But it just didn’t happen for her.

She began to hate school. She dreaded going to the bus and came home frustrated and angry. Even with all of that she never gave up.

Then, a couple of days after Yom Kippur she had a major breakthrough in school. They were making Sukkah decorations and Batya went up to the Morah and asked for another piece of orange paper – in Hebrew!

Initially, the teacher wasn’t sure what Batya wanted, so she asked her to repeat it, just to make sure. When she realized that Batya had successfully communicated with her in Hebrew she immediately gave her a huge hug and stopped the whole class from what they were doing. In front of the whole class she praised Batya and all the girls clapped for her and were so excited for her.

I cannot describe how powerful Batya’s excitement and pleasure was. She was so extremely proud of herself and was also so encouraged to keep trying harder and harder to learn more (and how great was that Morah’s response, what a terrific way to stimulate Batya’s desire to continue learning).

Although she knows that she will miss half of her day in school, she is suddenly so motivated to go to Ulpan and continue developing her Hebrew skills. Her joy is contagious and has trickled both down and up to the other kids who see her happiness and want to achieve it for themselves.

Batya’s homework is also the hardest for us (Goldie) to keep up with. As a second grader, most of the reading and writing she is doing has to do with developing vocabulary and the introduction of new words. Since our vocabularies are only good enough for us to get by in conversations, we (Goldie) have to sit with her and use our Oxford Hebrew/English dictionary in order to figure out what is going on. And then, once we have given up, we call my sister.

Interestingly, Aliza has almost the exact opposite feelings than Batya toward Ulpan. As one of the most advanced Hebrew speakers in her Ulpan level, she feels as if she is gaining nothing from Ulpan and is missing too much academic learning by being in Ulpan that she is ready to quit Ulpan and just attend the regular class. She took a test right before the chagim to see if she can skip out of the class.

Our week started out with everyone off of school. Moshe had Gan on Sunday – but he was the only one. While Chaim had the whole week off, the rest of the kids were back in school on Monday. We had expected the week to see the beginning of full school days, as we were promised would happen “Acharei HaChaggim” (after the Chaggim). However, the funding apparently has not yet come through, so they are still working on an abbreviated school schedule.

Getting into sync definitely took the whole week. On Tuesday night Goldie took the older two girls to Yerushalayim for a women’s concert. It was a belated birthday present for Aliza who had hinted that she wanted to go to that show for weeks. Goldie drove into Yerushalayim with Chaia Broderick and was very nervous about driving on her own.

We reviewed exactly where everything was and the trip went as planned. She got in and out of Yerushalayim quite easily and had no problems parking for the show. She did comment how much colder it was in Yerushalayim than in Beit Shemesh.

My sister mentioned something to me about the weather as well. She lives in a suburb of Tel Aviv and asked me if the rain was getting to me yet. I was surprised at the question.

Last Sunday, the day after we davened Teffilat Geshem (prayer for rain), I was at the train station waiting for the morning train to Yerushalayim when it began to drizzle for the first time since we arrived in Israel. I was astounded at the fact that it was literally the day after we had davened for rain.

Within minutes, the drizzle turned into a torrential downpour. By the time the train arrived, it had settled into a steady rain.

Leaving the station that day, I noticed that the train seemed to be going slower than usual. A couple of miles into the ride, the train stopped and lost all power. After a couple of minutes, the conductor got onto the PA system and announced that the rain had disabled the train and that we would be returning to Beit Shemesh where we could catch specially hired buses to get us to the city.

Think about it, the rain disabled the train. Only in Israel.

I took advantage of the rail problems by calling in to the office to tell them the trains were out and that I would be working from home that day.

However, since that day we have not had a single drop of rain. Which is why my sister’s call took me by surprise. Why would she be asking me about the rain, when clearly none was falling. Apparently, even though Tel Aviv is 45 minutes away, the weather is totally different there and they had rain every day all week.

There is a phrase in the US, “don’t accept any wooden nickels”, referring to not accepting counterfeit currency. I had to take a taxi to our attorney’s office on Wednesday afternoon, and handed him a 100 shekel bill to pay a 30 shekel fare. He handed me a 50 shekel bill, a 20 shekel bill and a 10 shekel coin.

He placed the 50 shekel bill in the center, most likely because he knew what was giving me. When I walked into the attorney’s office, I mentioned to him how strange the bill felt to me. He laughed and gave me some papers I was waiting for.

That evening I went to the train station and stopped at the supermarket to by a drink for the ride home. I knew I was in trouble when the cashier asked me, “what is this?”

She called the store manager over and he gave me a big speech about how he is really supposed to call the police to report me for passing a phony bill, but since I don’t appear to be the counterfeiter he would give me a pass. He then spent 10 minutes teaching me how to spot a phony bill, and exactly why the 50 shekel bill I had presented was no good.

Thankfully, 50 shekels is equal to about $1.20 (actually it is around $12), so the lesson wasn’t as expensive a lesson as it could have been. I have the bill posted on the wall in my office to remind me that there is always a lesson to be learned somewhere.

On Shabbat our block held its own Kiddush. We live on Rechov Gad in the Sheinfeld neighborhood. One side of the block is townhouses full of apartments. Our side of the block is private (2 family) semi attached homes.

There is a real sense of chevra (community) here on the block. We even have our own Yahoo Groups mailing list. On Wednesday, we got an email from the list about the 3rd annual block Kiddush which would be taking place Shabbat Beresheet.

Back in the USA it was always a dream of mine to have a block party with the neighbors. I envisioned closing the block to traffic and having a BBQ with maybe some entertainment for the kids.

That is not what we had here. However, we did have a lot of fun and were given an opportunity to meet several nice families whom we had not yet met. Everyone brought a drink (no – not alcoholic, we are apparently a dry block) as well as something to eat (cake, cookies, kugel) and their kids.

It was set up in the middle of the street and really provided a pleasant opportunity for many of us to meet each other for the first time.

Special Mazal Tov to Josh and Daniella Rudoff (currently of Beit Shemesh and formerly of Cedarhurst) upon the birth of their son. May they be Zocheh L’gadlo L’Brito Bizmano, L’Torah, L’Chuppah, U’Lmaasim Tovim. I had an awesome time at the Shalom Zachor, which really rocked – thankfully it was not “dry”.