Sunday, December 16, 2007

When Yoni Comes Marching Home Again (Article# 66) 11/29/2007

Last Sunday my nephew Yonatan entered the army. He is the first Katz (even though, as my sister’s son, he is actually named Uzan) to serve in the Israeli military. We had known this was coming for quite some time; for the last two years, he has been consumed with a focus on which unit he would try out for and what capacity his service would take.

He initially wanted to be in the Shayetet (similar to the Navy Seals) program. This super-secret unit is involved in the most difficult and dangerous missions. In fact, a year and a half ago, during the Lebanon war, I had asked Yonatan what the Shayetet was doing during the war. His reply: “Shmuel, neither you nor I will ever know.” It was only weeks later that we found out that the unit that had tried to land at night near Beirut in Lebanese army uniforms and vehicles had been Shayetet.

After months of personal training and preparation and after passing numerous intelligence and psychological aptitude tests, he went for the final five days of extreme physical testing designed to weed out the weaker candidates. Of the hundreds of qualifying teens, he was one of 17 who actually made it through the testing. Only 15 of them were actually taken and he was one of those who were left off.

There is no question he was disappointed. We were all very proud of him and pointed out to him that he had passed everything they could throw at him and made it through. Whatever criteria they were looking for—perhaps they wanted another Arabic-speaking soldier or some other random need—it was through no fault of his own that he didn’t get in.

He got a call from Chail Ha’Avir (the Air Force). They wanted him to try out for their pilot training course. The only person who was against it was Yonatan himself. We were all excited at the possibility of a lifelong career as a pilot and how it could set him up for life. He felt destined for an elite combat unit and refused to compromise his goals. We had to give him credit for sincerity and focus.

After careful research and investigation, he set his sights upon another specialized combat unit. And he got in. If I told you exactly which unit he is in, I’d have to kill you. Apparently it is supposed to be confidential. All I know is that they are a unit that specializes in jungle warfare.

When my sister told me this I asked her what jungles we have in Israel that we need to train for. She told me that there are actually jungles in Lebanon and Syria and that is what we are training for. It was only later that I realized my naiveté. Of course we would train to fight on enemy territory—if we have a choice we would always prefer to bring the fight to them to having it within our own borders. The only person who expressed any concern about his upcoming enlistment was my sister. She dreaded the day of enlistment and didn’t want to even think about what it would mean. The rest of us just laughed it off as the natural worries of a mother.

As I wrote last week, Goldie and I decided to give him a gift (a pocketknife was recommended by a friend) and made a special effort to give it to him (along with a handwritten personal note of love and support) in person in order to wish him well and say goodbye. So we saw him just a few days before enlistment.

At dinner that same night, both Goldie and I (and our brother-in-law Arieh) saw the ease with which my sister Bluma came to tears when the subject was mentioned and, while we could see the reason for her concern, I think we all seemed to feel less of a concern than she. After all, thousands of teens enter the army each year and the overwhelmingly vast majority return home safely.

Goldie and I decided not to speak with my sister about him from Sunday on. We figured that bringing up the subject would needlessly cause her more worry, and that if she wanted to talk to us about it, she would take the initiative (she—like her brother—is not known for her reticent and reserved nature). We put the whole subject to the back of our minds.

On Monday evening, the day after Yonatan went in to the army, we got a message from her to call back. When I called she spoke to me about some mundane item, and then, when it was obvious that I wasn’t going to ask about Yonatan, she said, “Well, since you asked, I’ll tell you how it went!” (I told you she wasn’t shy.)

She told me how traumatic it was to see his name flash up on the screen, telling them to bring him to the bus that would take him to begin processing and billeting. It was a difficult moment for her and she had a hard time even pointing out to everyone else that his name had been called. She said goodbye to him and let my brother-in-law take him to the bus. When he came back she asked him if everything had gone OK and he said no, as the realization that his son was now entering the army hit him. He later told me himself how tough it was for him to let go of his son and how surprised he was at the depth of his distress and concern.

It wasn’t until a couple of days had passed that he could even talk about it, and even then he was not able to articulate what he was feeling. After the phone call, Goldie and I started making some simple calculations and realized that with the birth of our latest nephew a couple of weeks ago, there would be a Katz (or Uzan) in the army almost continuously for the next 20-plus years. Sure, there are a couple of six-month breaks thrown in there, but it was an incredibly sobering thought.

Not every one will be in a combat unit. But every one of them, for every single day that he wears that uniform, will have an additional target painted on his back for our enemies. For the next 20 years and more (as we begin to consider grandchildren for all of us) we will face the almost daily concern about a loved one’s well-being. Until this first one actually went in, it hadn’t hit home for us.

When we were in the U.S., and even for our first few months here, those boys doing the fighting and the dying were an abstract concept—someone else’s kids, but certainly not ours. Every time we thought of them, we thought of them with a sincere concern, but definitely a sense of detachment and safety that it couldn’t possibly be us.

Even in making aliyah, it was very hard to look so far down the road to Mordechai’s military service (which he is very excited to consider whenever he sees a chayal). He is six years old; the military is twelve years away! Twelve years doesn’t seem so far away anymore.

I look ahead to that time when it will be Goldie and I taking our precious son to the enlistment base and I see how hard it was for my sister and brother-in-law, people who have lived through this in their personal lives (my brother-in-law just ended his military reserves obligations in the past few years). If they—who have lived through this themselves—had such a hard time facing their son’s enlistment, how can Goldie and I even hope to cope?

How can I possibly consider letting my precious treasures—these children who are more dear to me than anything—how can I possibly think of letting them be put in harm’s way?

My Mordechai, who is so sincere, who lives just to spend time playing with his Abba first and his friends second, who delights in the pure joy of learning something he didn’t know, whose empathy for others is overwhelming and whose dedication and devotion to his friends is unlimited—how can I think of letting him do this?

My Moshe, the boy of a million expressions (every one of them cute), whose “Heblish” is a language all its own, whose loving trust in others can melt the coldest of hearts, who can disarm the most angry adult with his soft quizzical smile—from where will I get the strength to support him when it is his turn to serve?

Each and every parent goes through this turmoil in some way or another. Without these young men, there would be no army and no protection. To extend Golda Meir’s thought to the next step, I think this is part of the rage we have for our enemies, that they force us to sacrifice some of these treasures for the sake of us all.

I was corresponding with Larry Gordon, the editor/publisher of the Five Towns Jewish Times, while I was speaking with my sister on the phone that night. I told him what was going on and he replied, “You must be very proud.”

Proud is how I felt the week before the enlistment; here was my nephew preparing to do his duty for the country in which he lives. He approached it with such devotion and dedication that I could not help but be proud. Now? Of course I still feel pride in him and in his desire to stand and be counted. Yet now that he is actually in the army, I am also filled with no small amount of horror that he and all the rest of our young men have to be there to defend us from our enemies.

I cringe at the thought that some of them may not come home to their parents, and I cannot help but imagine (now that my own children and nephews are actually subject to military obligations) how incredibly painful and devastating it will be for their families.

I suddenly understand a lot more of the bravado of the men, especially the young men, for whom showing fear may mean the difference between seeing their families again or not. I understand just a bit more clearly the mother’s agony each time her son leaves her to return to his unit and his base. And I realize why it is that Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) is such an emotionally charged day here in Israel—after all, so many people at least know of someone who has lost a family member in battle, and every one of our families knows that it can happen to us in the blink of an eye.

I understand how hard it is to say things like “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” when the flip side of that argument means condemning someone’s son to death at the hands of his captors when there is even a glimmer of possibility that he can be returned alive. In some cases it is only the promise that no soldier will be left behind that keeps hopes alive.

Mostly, I understand how little control over our lives we actually have. I see how many of the things we do to support these young men is done by rote, and how important it is to support them with every means at hand. So I ask you to do your part, as well.

There are thousands of young men and women who are actively putting their lives on the line for the safety and security of every man, woman, and child who either lives in or visits our holy country. No matter who you are, from the yeshiva student whose service is done in the beis midrash to the most non-religious, secular-oriented person, each and every one of us benefits from the blanket of security provided by these stalwart youths. Tourists. Students. Business owners. Housewives. Mothers. Fathers. Sisters and brothers. Grandfathers and Grandmothers.

So the next time you are in shul, no matter what your politics, maybe offer a small tefillah for him and his peers. If your shul says a Mi Shebeirach for the chayalim, perhaps listen a bit more attentively and say Amen with feeling and meaning.

Last week this tefillah may have been an abstract concept for you. This week, if you think of nothing else, maybe think of my nephew who is this very moment drilling and preparing to put himself in harm’s way so that we can all enjoy the kedushah, beauty, and splendor that is Israel.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Welcome Tourists (Article #65) 11/22/2007

With the approach of the American holidays, we had been anticipating visits from several of our friends and relatives. The week began with a visit from our friend Bina Zaiman from Far Rockaway. Her husband Eric had visited Israel a year ago for a family simcha and this was Bina’s turn.

I didn’t actually get to see her, but Goldie, Naomi Schwartz and Ranana Wolf (all current Beit Shemeshites and former Far Rockawayans) got together with her for brunch and had a nice time visiting with her.

It is strange to think about in retrospect. All of these women grew up in the same neighborhood and were often part of the same youth groups and activities together. Now, with the exception of the Zaiman’s we are all here in Beit Shemesh.

On Monday night we went to Ramat Gan to take my sister out for her birthday. With all the craziness in our lives, we hadn’t gotten together (socially) with her and her husband for quite some time and it was nice to spend time with them.

We actually got there much earlier than they had expected. The following Sunday my nephew was scheduled to enter the army, enlisting into an elite combat unit. We have no idea what the protocol is when a relative enters the army, but Goldie wanted to give him a gift before he went in that would show that we support him and are thinking of him.

I had asked several of the people at the Yeshiva when one of the Madrichim (dorm counselors) mentioned that the first thing he bought himself on his first leave was a pocketknife. So we got him a pocketknife, wrote him a nice note to go with it and got to their house early to give it to him.

It wasn’t that big of a deal to us either way, and he was in a rush so we didn’t really have a chance to speak with him, but apparently we did the right thing. He called me the next day to thank us and made a specific point of mentioning how surprised he was that we would know i) that a gift is appropriate if you are so motivated and ii) that a pocketknife is a great gift. I told him that Goldie has great instincts.

On Thursday the whole family (except Chaim who was learning in Yeshiva) were treated to a visit from our friends and former neighbors in Woodmere, Gabe and Anat Levi and their kids, who are also here for a family simcha. They had arranged to meet us in Yerushalayim’s Malcha mall, literally a couple hours after they landed.

As expected, the kids took about half an hour to warm up to each other again, but they enjoyed renewing acquaintances. We had dinner with them in the food court, and we enjoyed their delight in being able to eat at almost every restaurant in the mall. Each kid got to choose what he wanted from the restaurant he wanted and we sat together enjoying each other’s company for a couple of hours. We don’t do it often enough.

We had been looking forward to last Shabbat for a couple of weeks. Although our Yeshiva has an “in Shabbat” every three to four weeks, a couple of times each year we take the entire Yeshiva out for Shabbat. Last year I had missed both Shabbatonim, once on a trip to America for work and the other time while Goldie was being treated in NY.

As a family, we had not really “gotten away” together for more than a day trip since last Channuka, when we spent a few days at the Dead Sea. Although we had had a tumultuous few months, with all the pressures of getting back to health, dealing with the many facets of life that we had fallen so behind in and catching up with all the accumulated work – we have felt it impossible to take off any more time than was necessary to deal with Goldie’s treatment.

When this Shabbaton, to be held at a hotel in Zichron Yaakov, was scheduled, I asked Goldie if she wanted to come along with all the kids and she was enthusiastic about the opportunity. The kids were also tremendously upbeat about going and so on Friday afternoon we skipped little league practice to head north to Zichron Yaakov.

We had a very nice time. Parts of my responsibilities include directing the alumni activities of the Yeshiva and it makes my life so much easier when I have a personal bond with the alumni before they leave the Yeshiva. I try to go on all the tiyulim (field trips) and be with the guys as much as possible, but there can be no replacement for the bonds we forge during informal times, especially when they have the opportunity to also interact with my family and see that I am just another regular guy.

My younger kids had 70 older brothers to play with during the meals and were honored and enthralled by all the attention. The older kids were amused in watching the younger kids ham it up for the students and when one of them asked Chaim to sit at a students table for lunch, he quickly accepted and made himself at home.

The program engaged my kids and the walking tour of Zichron Yaakov that I took with Aliza was a chance to give her some special time of her own (as the middle child who is very self sufficient she is often ignored in favor of her more high maintenance siblings). As we drove home on Saturday night, the entire family agreed that they had a wonderful time and cannot wait to repeat the experience.

Oh yeah – and Goldie had a week off of cooking and preparing.

As we drove home I also talked my way out of a traffic ticket. I have found that the “stupid American who doesn’t speak Hebrew well” act is not very effective when dealing with the average Israeli. When I am asked if I prefer to speak in English I reply that I am an Israeli and Israelis speak Hebrew. I have found that displaying an attitude of trying hard to fit in and not ask for special accommodations is very disarming to Israelis, since they cannot personally conceive of how anyone would voluntarily leave their birth country and come to live in a place that they feel is a very tough place to survive in.

When faced with someone who is visibly trying hard to fit in, most Israelis are impressed and disarmed and react with a visceral paternal/maternal instinct to protect and assist us. It is fascinating how a small gesture like trying to speak Hebrew can be disarming to the people of such a macho and aggressive country.

The fact that much of the country are also either immigrants or the children/grandchildren of immigrants and understand what immigrants go through to make things work here also helps.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Katz Family Protests (Article # 64) 11/15/2007

On Sunday I headed back to work, dreading the inevitable pile of work that had accumulated in my absence. My work life is a little like a never ending sprint. I am always a couple of weeks behind in something or other and when I catch up – that is exactly when I disappear on an overseas trip for a week or more.

On my way into the office, I stopped at the YU building in Yerushalayim to meet with the Dean of Admissions regarding both Yeshiva business and getting Chaim enrolled for the September semester.

It is tough to think that we will be sending a 17 year old off to college (as a sophomore no less – having earned a full year’s credit this year). Next year he was supposed to be entering twelfth grade, not college, and then there would have been a year in Israel to follow.

I think that one of our regrets is the shortening of Chaim’s youth. He’s missed a lot of the High School experience by being in Israel and essentially skipping 2 grades. He has probably also missed out on refining some of his skills at that level, such as writing and math, that he might need later on in life.

Chaim is of course ecstatic at how things have turned out. He was always a motivated student and excelled as he went through school. He had mapped out his life’s goals in fourth grade and approached them with a great focus and commitment.

Getting into college early has encouraged him to do even more. He is talking about getting two graduate degrees (one in law and one in business) since he has the extra time (and since he thinks I am paying anyway). He has no concerns about his age or inexperience being a problem, just another issue that will fade with time.

It is a good attitude but we are worried that his confidence will become overconfidence. Not much we can do but try to keep him grounded and hope and pray.

Monday evening was looked forward to by our whole family. In response to recent hooliganism by our “friendly neighborhood Chassidic chareidim” (one woman was slapped around for not moving to the back of the bus and sitting in the “men’s section”, others are spit upon as they walk through the Chassidic neighborhood and the construction site for the new home of Mordechai’s school was graffitied), the Religious Zionist leaders in city hall called for a nonviolent demonstration of those opposed to acts of violence.

Although I write about them (hooligan chareidim) on occasion, the city of Beit Shemesh is in the news on a rapidly increasing basis. You might have even read about the hooligans in a recent front page article in the NY Times.

The biggest problem is that these people plopped themselves down in a neighborhood right in between the mixed Yeshivish/Religious Zionist neighborhood in RBSA and the Religious Zionist and (further away) non religious parts of Beit Shemesh. There is simply no way for them to shut themselves in or for us to avoid them.

They also have a huge chip on their shoulders because they cannot live in Bnei Brak, Meah Shearim or even Ashdod. So instead, they have to prove to (themselves and) the rest of the country how religious they can be by being cretins and violent hooligans intent on causing physical harm to those who stand in their path.

The whole story is a lot more involved (politically) than what I am describing, but I am sure you don’t really want a detailed description of the giant chess game the chareidim (and our community) are conducting in order to influence the politicians in Beit Shemesh to accede to their wishes.

The intrigue is amazing. Mordechai’s school built mobile classrooms (literally in the middle of the night) on a site (located between the chareidi and dati leumi neighborhoods) that was designated for school construction so that they could have a “claim” on the site. They were subsequently awarded the site and now the chareidim are all atwitter that it was done.

So they defaced the building sign with spray paint. It’s what you or I would do, right?

Their objections run the gamut: from “the land was stolen from us” to “their teachers do not adhere to the level of tzniut (modesty) we require in our neighborhood.” Yet their tactics always remain the same. Violence or threats.

So we went to a protest, along with 1,500 or so of our neighbors. It wasn’t far for us to go since it was just outside our backyard (literally). The local Rav spoke, the Deputy Mayor spoke, a representative of the school spoke as well as a couple of people whose function at the demonstration I didn’t hear.

Since it was specifically sold as our way of showing the city government that we could also turn out large numbers of people (and with elections only a year away, the politicians are necessarily concerned about the elections and getting voters) and that we were not apathetic to the violence and buffoonery that has been going on, the event should be considered a success. We had a nice amount of people, everyone behaved and we made our point (we hope).

We had a Bar Mitzva to go to that night as well and we felt bad for the hosts. They had scheduled the event to take place at the exact same time as the demonstration. Of course, when they scheduled the Bar Mitzva, they had no idea that there would be a demonstration, but we were sure that many people would be coming late to the simcha and hoped that it would not be too discouraging.

Goldie wasn’t feeling well that night (I got sick myself 2 days later) and didn’t really want to go. However, I knew that the hosts, new Olim (immigrants) themselves – would appreciate each and every guest so I kinda forced her to go.

We pulled up to the address on the invitation (the house) and it seemed eerily quiet. There wasn’t a single car parked in the street and no noise at all coming from the house. I was sure that Goldie had gotten the address wrong and that we should have gone to the shul; Goldie was just as adamant that we should just get out of the car and enter the house.

So we called our house and had the kids check the invitation. Sure enough, Goldie was right and the Bar Mitzva was at the house. As she was about to hang up I said, “Ask them what day.” She paused and then started to laugh.


I went on a tiyul (tour) with the Yeshiva on Wednesday. Basically a walking tour of ancient shuls of the Jewish Quarter as well as “the” windmill and the house of Rav Kook.

I get more of a kick being with the students than I do on the actual tour, since I really enjoy spending time with them out of the Yeshiva’s walls. The longer I work with them, the more comfortable I am getting with the students and I have also seen that it was a lot easier to get excited about seeing the alumni now that I know some of the from their time in Yeshiva.

This was also a great week for bonding with students since 3 of our Rabbis are in the USA on recruiting tours nationwide. With the short handed staff we each pitch in and shoulder more of the workload, increasing our interaction with the guys.

I traveled back ten years on Friday as I rejuvenated my little league coaching career with the start of Batya’s little league. I had coached Chaim in little league for 6 years in the USA and I could not say no when Goldie asked me to do the same for Batya.

Mordechai also wanted to play (as he would have had we been in the USA) but the little league in Israel goes by age – not grade – and he is 3 months short. Of course, I play with him on the side and he is definitely better than 60% of my existing team, he is dying to play and it is killing me that he can’t play. But that’s life.

Lately, by the time Shabbat rolls around I am beginning to feel quite exhausted. It didn’t used to be this way, but with the 6 day school week and my late hours working with overseas people, I can’t seem to get enough sleep. It really makes me appreciate having Shabbat as a time out from the busy week.

A Change of Pace (Article# 63) 11/8/2007

I should be used to typing at 40,000 feet already. Unfortunately, I am standing while doing so, since the aisle arm rests on Continental planes do not lift up and I am too big to sit with the laptop actually on the top of my lap – there is no room.

I was prepared to skip a week this week as there is not much eventful in spending a week working in NY. I saw some of our alumni on campus (which I think is the most enjoyable part of my job). I met some of their parents as well and generally did what I do.

I got to see many of my friends and had the enjoyment of meeting new people whom I had not known before and have become friends through these articles. Your concern for our family and for Goldie was definitely felt and appreciated.

On Thursday, with nothing left to do but mail an envelope with some deposits in it, I headed off to the airport nice and early to check in. I am a little neurotic about getting to the airport early. It actually results in my luggage being close to the last to come out of the plane – but makes me feel comfortable.

The truth is, until I got married I was always a last minute guy. I wasn’t late, but always managed to be barely on time and never early. So I guess this is Goldie’s influence on me. Among other things.

As I drove, I passed a couple of mailboxes and could have easily stopped to mail the envelope. But I decided not to bother, since I usually just put my mail in a mailbox in the airport while I wait for the flight. Bad move.

Apparently, Newark airport removed all their mailboxes within the last few months for security reasons. There isn’t a single mailbox anywhere in the airport, not even at the New Jersey Transit station (I know because I rode the monorail there to check.

So I was stuck. I needed to mail the envelope, but had turned in my car and had no way (other than hopping into a cab) to get to a mailbox.

I decided to wait by the departure lanes outside the terminal and ask someone dropping off a friend or relative for my flight to mail the envelope on their way home. A flight to Israel had to have a few religious Jews on it and I figured I would be safe getting one of them to take the job.

A couple of minutes had passed when a large van pulled up with a chassidish chareidi family from Bnei Brak (this is going to be a good chareidi story for a change) who were returning from a trip to the USA. I immediately asked the driver if he could do me the favor of mailing the envelope and he took it right away and seemed happy to do so.

As I watched the family begin to unload themselves (they were a total of seven people), the father saw me speaking in English to the driver and asked me if I had a minute to help him check the family in since he only spoke Yiddish and Hebrew. He pulled me over to the side and told me that he might have some overweight luggage and I should not be helpful in translating that part, since he didn’t want to pay penalties on them.

I walked them to the check in counter and (I am quite proud to say) translated the entire dialogue between them and the ticket agent. Everything was progressing smoothly until we got to the luggage.

The agent asked if there was any bag more than fifty pounds and the father said (through me) “of course not, we’ll be fine.”

The first bag we put up on the scale (out of fourteen bags) weighed in at eighty eight pounds.

The ticket agent began to laugh. Not only was the bag tremendously overweight, but the airline wouldn’t accept anything over seventy pounds and even that would have a fifty dollar penalty. They would have to move things from bag to bag.

Picture this. Five little kids (none of them over ten years old) are busy roaming around the check in area while their father argues (through me) that if they would only multiply fifty pounds by the fourteen bags, he is sure that the total weight will come in below the allowed limit.

Which didn’t work.

He turned to me and said, “but they let me do that in Israel when I came here.”

I replied that he had probably bought a lot of stuff to take back to Israel and the bags were not likely to have been as heavy on the way to the USA as they were for the return trip.

He was stunned to hear me say it, “But I didn’t buy anything in the USA, this is exactly what I came with.”

The agent recommended that we try to redistribute the weight and be prepared to pay some penalties, since at least five bags were overweight.

I had all the kids bring the bags to an unused scale and it turned comical. I began to weigh bags and then we started opening suitcases to move stuff around. I had to laugh.

I am not sure about you, but I had never before seen someone who travels from Israel to America and back with brand new towels that still have price tags on them from Bed Bath and Beyond, without somehow buying them in the USA.

There was candy. There were rugs. Coats. A brand new dustbuster still in its’ box. There were boxes that were unlabeled but clearly were new purchases. For a family who had bought nothing, they sure had a ton of new stuff.

Then they dug deeper for the heavy items………like canned goods? There were cans of vegetables and tuna fish that they had brought with them and were bringing back home. When I asked why they were taking Israeli products with them back home, he answered that he had already paid for them – why just give them away? To which I had no response.

So we spent at least 45 minutes moving stuff from one bag to another and then carefully weighing each bag to make sure that it was at the legal limit without going over. There is no way to describe the frenzy of activity. The agent even helped us out by allowing up to fifty four pounds per bag instead of the usual fifty.

We crammed those suitcases so full I was amazed they didn’t pop open right there in the airport. Yet we somehow managed to get every suitcase at or under fifty four pounds and got them all checked in without paying a dollar in penalties.

They were so grateful to me for really being active in translating and also coordinating the redistribution of luggage. The father asked for my address in Israel and I refused to give it to him telling him that instead of doing something for me he should please give something to tzedaka (charity).

He persisted, telling me that he wasn’t going to give me money and I insisted that it was my pleasure to help. He said, “OK – you are Shmuel Katz from Beit Shemesh right?” And I said, “No – I am Ephraim Levin” and we both laughed.

Then he did something that impressed me to no end. He pulled me to the side and whispered to me that I should please cooperate because it is a very important lesson FOR HIS CHILDREN to see that one must express thanks to someone for helping you when you need it.

I couldn’t argue the point. Whether it is simply a letter of thanks or some flowers for Shabbat, he was right. It was an excellent opportunity to teach his children a valuable lesson. So I cooperated.

(He just stopped by my seat on the plane for a brief chat and saw me working on the computer. When I told him what I was doing he asked me to email the 5 Towns Jewish Times website to him so that someone can translate the article for him. When you read this Mendel, please don’t send flowers – I don’t want anything beyond a simple note that allows you to show your children how to say thanks.)

I could end the story right here and it would be just that, a nice story. To me, that’s not enough.

I have written these articles for over a year and a half now and one thing I have seen is that there is definitely someone above directing traffic down here. From our housing crisis to Goldie’s illness and treatment, when push came to shove the things that had to happen, did happen.

This too was no mere coincidence. I could have mailed that envelope at any time. I had multiple opportunities to do so that very same day! But I didn’t. So I needed someone to be there to take the envelope and mail it for me.

My new friend needed help getting checked in and handling his luggage. There is no question in my mind that without my advocating to the agents and my active assistance in repacking the luggage, that he would have paid penalties and had a lot of aggravation with the luggage.

Yet there is even more. He just mentioned to me that four pieces of his luggage weren’t even for him. People asked if he could bring things back for them (one person sent a chest full of frozen whitefish) and he accepted.

So there we were. Me with an envelope for the Yeshiva and him doing chessed (acts of kindness) for some of his friends and neighbors. He (and by extension the neighbors too) needed me to be there and I needed his driver to be there. As we have seen repeatedly throughout the past couple of years, when there is a true need, the one above somehow makes things happen.

Although I only saw her for a few minutes on Thursday, Chaya asked for permission to have an “out Shabbat” instead of being with the family. When she asked us to let her go with a group of friends to Chevron for Shabbat, we couldn’t refuse her request.

About 30 girls rented their own bus, brought their own food and arranged to sleep in a school building in Kiryat Arba in order to join the thousands of Jews who come to Chevron on Shabbat of Parshat Chayei Sarah.

We were a little nervous about her being there; in the past there have been violent flare-ups associated with this Shabbat, but we could not let our concerns override our commitment to the city and people of Chevron.

She had an awesome time. They walked to the Maarat Hamachpela (Burial Cave of the Patriarchs) several times, they enjoyed the hospitality of the Chevron community and they experienced something unique and uplifting.

They were invited to (but were too late to attend) the Oneg on Friday night, and enjoyed the Kiddush and Seudah Shlishit that were hosted for all the guests by the community.

Moshe’s playgroup teacher grew up in the neighboring community of Kiryat Arba and her father is a Gabbai (sexton) of the Avraham Avinu shul in Chevron. While the girls were in Chevron, Chaya met up with this teacher’s daughter (who goes to the same school as Chaya) who brought Chamin (cholent) from her grandmother’s house for the girls to enjoy.

Chaya has made a very central connection with the land and people of Israel. There is no doubt in my mind that a major part of her happiness here is the fact that she is so openly able to be Jewish and display her love for Israel. Needless to say, she came home glowing with an inner joy from the experience.

I know that many of you attend this Shabbat gathering every year and salute you for your support as well.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Missing Home (Article# 62) 11/1/2007

What can I say? By the time you read this I will have returned home and am enjoying being in nicer weather and being with my family. As usual, it is always nice to see people and have a chance to keep in touch with our friends, but it is definitely a tough thing on the family to be out for eleven days at a time.

I saw that Danny Block is now moving to modify his travel plans and wish him a refuah shleimah (complete recovery) from his P.E. episode. Thankfully, I do not have to travel as frequently as him and only end up missing 5 or 6 shabbatot a year. Even so, having to be away over the weekend is definitely the hardest part.

If the cost weren’t so prohibitive, I would even be willing to travel back and forth on Thursday and the following Sunday for each trip. While the flight is definitely long and boring, it would definitely be worth it in terms of being home to be with the kids on the only free day they have all week.

Because of the extended “time out for health” we had to take in the middle of the year, I had to essentially restart everything I was doing at work from scratch when I finally got back to working full time. I had also missed a lot of work and it took me quite some time to catch up on all the “office work” that had piled up, so much so that it wasn’t until just after the chagim that I felt comfortable that I was close to up to date.

So I am only just now getting back into a regular work routine and building a certain necessary momentum to setting up my overseas trips. I don’t know how people who travel every single week do it, I find myself missing a lot of the weekly interaction with the kids, seeing them (and sometimes, although rarely helping them) do their homework, helping Goldie get them ready for school and just dealing with their daily activities.

I know it is tough on Goldie as well. As I have said before, we have each traveled to the USA for at least a week for business purposes – so we both know what it is like to be the person left behind to be in a one parent house. It is lonely and depressing. Especially when in your mind’s eye (even though you know it to be untrue) you imagine that the other person is having a grand time partying the day away with no family responsibilities.

Life went on in the Katz household. My family went to my nephew’s Brit Milah without me. They spent Shabbat together and Goldie had to resort to a three hour visit to the park to distract the little ones and keep them busy.

Aliza and Batya stared doing youth groups this year. They have meetings one night a week and Shabbat afternoon. Of course, since they each wanted to be with their friends they are in two different organizations who meet at the exact same times in totally different neighborhoods.

They are each putting on shows as part of the opening month of the youth groups, and both girls will be performing (in their respective shows). The shows will be at the same time and somehow Goldie has to choose which child’s show to attend (poor Aliza – she is older and has been in many more productions than Batya and I am sure that she is gonna get the short end of the stick this time).

So Goldie had some respite for a little while from having all the kids around, but I am sure she will tell you that it is the little boys who are the hardest to keep busy and cope with.

I will be home for Shabbat this week and am looking forward to sleeping in my own bed. My next trip will probably be to London (for Shabbat of course) but it will be for less than a week total which should be easier to deal with. It will mark my first non USA trip (I hope to go to South Africa or Australia later this year) and I am looking forward to that as well.

I know that in a few short weeks we will begin to see many of our friends as they head to Israel for their Thanksgiving or winter break vacations. We hope to see you there.

Still on Strike (Article# 61) 10/25/2007

Finally. A quiet week. Mostly.

The Jr. High/High School teachers union is still on strike. Our older girls both continue to have modified schedules. Chaya again had a complete day off last week, and a second day where she only had one class the entire day (her math teacher was ill and she was scheduled for a double math class that day).

She is incredibly bored. For a kid who always loved snow days or any excuse not to go to school, even she has come to the realization that she cannot simply sit and do nothing all day. She has finished all her homework (even long term projects) and is going crazy with nothing to do.

Aliza also has shortened days. One day she decided not to wait for the regular bus home and instead went with one of her girlfriends to the mall where she met up with another two friends and they enjoyed a few hours together. Since the train station is at the mall, I met them for the train ride home and Goldie was able to pick us all up.

My nephew is much worse off. His school is totally closed and he has been sitting on his hands all day. He told my sister last week that he can’t take it anymore – he is looking for some kind of job to help pass the time. He has also done all of his homework and it is a shame when you consider that this is being carried out nationwide for 600,000+ kids.

Of course, the schools both still felt comfortable in charging my credit card for the monthly tuition fees. I will eventually call to ask them about it, but I am sure what they will tell me is that the money they charge me (very little in truth - $350/month for both kids – much, much less for Batya and Mordechai) does not go to pay teachers; it is for the extras that the government doesn’t pay for. These extras continue to be provided, or so they will claim.

Being immigrants, we have no idea what is extra and what is normal, so of course we will have no response to this.

It’s kind of like our bank statement. It comes every month, just like in the USA. Unfortunately, unlike the USA – we have no clue what this bank statement actually says. Review the credit card charges on the statement? No way! Too hard.

The only way we can figure anything out (and this holds true for most of our bills) is to look at each transaction on the website. Since there is much more detail provided on the website, Goldie is able to piece together what is what. Most of the time.

I had thought that we were unique in this regard. However, last Shabbat we hosted Ilan and Ahuva Prager on Friday night (their oldest son is one of Mordechai’s good friends from school and they live right across the street from us). Ilan served in the army and has excellent Hebrew. Yet, when the subject of understanding the credit card bill came up, they also admitted that they don’t even bother to try understanding it anymore.

So we set up automatic billpay from the bank with each utility and places like the kids schools and we hope and pray that there isn’t an error made in the computation of the charges.

The other kids are more or less finally settled in their “after the chagim (holidays)” schedule. School is a full day now (except for the early dismissal day – Tuesday). After school activities have all started and are moving forward full swing.

In a normal year, the fact that things only kick off after the chagim would seem silly to us, but not as crucial – since this is the way they do things here. With the strike, things are obviously different for the older girls.

On Erev Shabbat Goldie and I had a kind of weird day – existentially. We started off the morning with a Brit Milah (circumcision) for the son of one of our neighbors, the Yashar’s. It was their first son and third child and was a very nice simcha.

We went from there to the unveiling at the grave of Chaia Broderick’s father Mendel A”H, who passed away just before Sukkot and was buried in the Beit Shemesh cemetery on Erev Sukkot.

With all that has happened with the chagim and our own personal simchot, we have not really been there for Chaia these past few weeks and I know that it bothers Goldie. Chaia has been one of Goldie’s friends since 7th grade, and the only saving grace is that Chaia’s mother has been with her until this week and they have been a mutual support group since Sukkot.

As a Kohein, I stand outside at funerals, and due to the unique design of cemeteries in Israel, I can usually walk along the main road up to the entrance of the individual section of the cemetery where the burial takes place and then I watch the burial from afar.

After this Kevurah (burial), one of the members of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) walked over to me as I stood 100 feet away in the middle of the road and pointed out that the section of the cemetery he was buried in had no other graves in it and I really could enter that section as long as I avoided any graves.

I was a little freaked out when first thinking about it, but by the time the unveiling came by I was OK and it was a unique thing to be at anything in a cemetery.

I am sure it was difficult for Chaia and her mother, especially since her mother was due to leave a few days later.

The other big news for the week was the birth of another nephew whose Brit Milah I am going to miss. My brother Ely and his wife Ilana had a boy on Erev Shabbat. I am going to be in the USA for the last two weeks of October (I am writing this on the plane), so I will miss the 5th Brit Milah of an Israeli nephew and the 6th one on my side (my brother Ozer made one on the second day of Pesach one year and we couldn’t make it).

When we got the call, my brother told Goldie that he had to put together a Shalom Zachor party in the next 5-6 hours and that nothing had been prepared. We had actually bought something for a local Beit Shemesh Shalom Zachor for that evening and Goldie packed some homemade cookies up and added it to what we had in hand and sent me (and 3 kids) off (30 – 40 minute drive) to Chashmonaim to deliver it to my brother.

When we got there, his mother in law told us that they had decided to merge the Shalom Zachor in with a shul oneg that was happening that night and that they didn’t need anything. Not only that, but all the kids were sleeping or out, so we didn’t even get to wish Mazal Tov to anybody (well – ok we did see the Savta {Grandmother}).

However, we get the brownie points for having driven out AND we got to give the Sladowsky’s (yes – originally from Far Rockaway) something for the Shalom Zachor of their first grandson (they had a granddaughter a couple of weeks ago) as well. We did leave the cookies behind as a treat for the kids, so we are heroes all around.

This Shabbat also marked the second week in a row without the street being obstructed by our Chareidi neighbors. They still came out to yell “Shaaaaabbboooooossssss”, but there were much fewer of them this week and they didn’t really stick it out. Hopefully in the coming weeks things will continue to return to normal. We will still hear them shouting at cars as they pass, but it will be mostly little kids shouting accompanied only by those adults who happen to be around. I can’t believe I just called that “normal”.

As I mentioned, I am now experiencing the least enjoyable part of my job. I wouldn’t want to give up traveling and having the opportunity to see relatives occasionally. Yet, being away for extended trips is definitely a downer. It is Shabbat that is the worst to deal with. I am away for about 7 of them a year and that is a lot of time – especially for the little kids.

After one attempt, we discarded the idea of being away for more that one Shabbat at a time, it was just too much for us. Ironically, that was the trip that coincided with the onset of Goldie’s vision problems and subsequent medical issues.

So we are back to the eleven day/one Shabbat trip. If I have a chance to see you while I am in, it was great seeing you. If not, I am sorry I missed you – maybe we will catch up with each other next time.

Bruchim Habaim (part 2): The Charedim have arrived (Article# 60) 10/18/2007

By the time we had gotten to Shmini Ateret/Simchat Torah (which I will refer to only as Shmini Atzeret since it is one day here), we were exhausted. Having arranged tours for our extended family and driven all up and down the country to keep everyone busy, we were ready for Yom Tov to start up again.

As I got out of the shower a few minutes before shul was scheduled to start, I glanced out the window and saw one of the Chassidish Charedim from across the way leaving his apartment building shlepping a couple of huge sacks. As I watched, he proceeded to go into the street and place several large rocks right in the middle of the street on both sides of the road (it is a divided roadway with some trees/bushes in the median).

I live almost literally at the corner of my neighborhood. Both sides of this specific corner are bordered by Charedi neighborhoods. Specifically, they are bordered by Chassidim. These neighborhoods are known as Nachala Umenucha and Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet (RBSB).

Some of you may have heard of Ramat Beit Shemesh. You may even know people who live there. This is not that part. Our friends who live in Ramat Beit Shemesh live in Aleph, a very Yeshivish section that is all the way at the top of a hill. The Bet neighborhood lies on the side of the hill as you make your way down to Beit Shemesh proper.

I remind you; Chareidim, especially Chassidim are very different in the USA. When Goldie was sick in the hospital, Satmar Bikur Cholim was unbelievably helpful to us, making sure we had food daily, getting us a fridge for Shabbat and stopping by every day with a smile and encouragement.

Even before then, while they certainly kept to themselves and are more insular as a community, in the USA we always felt that the Chassidim were never hostile to us, since we were all Jews (with the exception of the disgusting Neturei Karta).

However, here in Israel there is a definite animosity between many (not all) Chareidim and the rest of the public. As I am sure you know, they riot when they are upset at something (the Yerushalayim gay parade, non segregated public buses, even the horrible act of municipal workers taking down their “dress modestly” sign is enough to make the more radical of the Chareidim froth at the mouth).

I am not saying that any of these things are good or bad in and of themselves. I am just pointing out that these are things that cause the Chareidim, specifically the RBSB Chareidim to become violent animals.

I should also say that with the exception of the fact that there is a specific street in the Nachala Umenucha neighborhood in which men and women are required to walk on separate sides of the street, the Nachala Umenucha Chareidim are generally much less hot headed than their neighbors uphill. If there is a conflagration in the Nachala Umenucha side, it is generally spillover from RBSB and I would guess that it is probably people from RBSB as well.

Whether it is the drive to prove themselves as equally radical as the Meah Shearim or Bnei Brak Chareidim (especially since they cannot live there due to space/economic factors), or the drive for simple political power or some other reason, the radicals of RBSB are at the fore in protesting anything they can.

All told, if it wasn’t for RBSB, we would probably have a much quieter existence.

Many will comment that it is only a small few who cause the entire ruckus. My response would be twofold. First, come see who many people comprise “a few” when it comes to the rioting. There is a reason the police have to come out in force.

Secondly, even if it is a choice few individuals, it is the rest of the community’s obligation to stand up and stop them from such inappropriate behavior.

I would hope that if one of my neighbors would start throwing rocks at school buses or would start walking over to women and spitting on them and calling them "a pejorative for prostitute", that me and my neighbors would have the courage and conviction to stop him immediately with whatever force necessary. Regardless of whether or not I was bothered by the same thing he was, it is my obligation to stop someone from acting in a manner harmful to others.

I invite those who assume that the “Chiloni” (non religious) police force invent excuses to fight with Charedim to come live here and see who are the main instigators.

There is no question that the police are happy to bash heads by the Chareidim, think for a second why that is. In many instances the police and the Chilonim are also guilty (and are instigators themselves) when these fights occur. Yet, in my experience, the majority of confrontations are caused by the Chareidim, whether their issues are right or wrong.

Why all this preamble?

Well, that street right outside our house is a major thoroughfare from one part of Beit Shemesh to another. As such, there are (regrettably) cars that pass by a few times an hour, driven by the non religious people in the city.

It is also a major thoroughfare used by Magen David Edom (the ambulance corp.) as they drive through the area. These ambulances are used on Shabbat to get (mostly non-Jewish) medical personnel to the emergency Shabbat medical clinics for the different HMO’s that open on a rotating basis as well as (and most importantly) transporting emergencies to the hospital.

In RBSB, it has become customary to place garbage, rocks, wood and dumpsters in the street to block the flow of traffic and make it impossible for Shabbat “desecrators” to drive through the Chareidi neighborhoods. Apparently, this neighbor at the extreme border of RBSB decided that he wanted to extend this practice to the street in between our house and his.

I was shocked. Maybe even a little offended. I was mostly concerned that people (or ambulances) would come flying down the street in the middle of the night unknowingly, and that these obstacles would cause a potentially harmful accident (in fact – that very night an ambulance DID pass by with lights flashing).

So I did what I thought was appropriate. I waited a few minutes till I knew the guy would be in Shul, and then I went outside, took each one of the rocks and threw them over the fence into the valley right next to this chassid’s building and out of harms way.

Afterward, when discussing this with some of my neighbors I heard universal agreement with what I had done but many of them warned me that if caught, these chareidim would make my life impossible. So don’t snitch on me.

I even asked the Rav about the permissibility of removing these obstacles on Shabbat if I felt that they might cause a danger to people who might not see them in the middle of the night and get into an accident. He also advised me not to do anything in fear of retribution should I get caught “in the act”.

Shmini Atzeret meanwhile, waits for no man – be he me or a chareidi. In the USA, Simchat Torah was always special in our house, being not only a special chag but also our daughter Aliza’s birthday. Twelve years ago we had calmly walked out of the YI of Far Rockaway during the fourth hakafa (dance) at night and made our way to the delivery room to have her.

Here in Israel of course, her birthday falls out on the day after chag, since we now hold one day as Israeli’s. With Aliza’s Bat Mitzva falling out within a day and a couple of conflicts with Bar Mitzvas within the neighborhood on the following Shabbat, we decided to sponsor the Shul’s Kiddush on Shmini Atzeret after the Hakafot.

As a side note, last week I discussed the issue regarding holding one or two days of Chag when in Israel. In response to those who have emailed regarding the issue, I wish to note that Rav Bina did not issue a blanket psak (ruling) that people from outside of Israel should hold only one day of chag when in Israel; in fact, I am specifically aware that he generally holds that people should hold two days of chag in such a circumstance.

As was done in this case, I always recommend consulting your own Rav for decisions regarding your personal situation. I also ask that under no circumstances should you rely upon anything that I have written (be it regarding Chagim, Shmitta, Kashrut or any halachic issue) to have any halachic authority and use it as grounds to do/not do something. It is simply a personal statement of my opinion/impressions of issues as I have understood them when presented to me. I regret any confusion.

The simcha of Aliza’s Bat Mitzva was the reason (besides simply wanting to see us) that our relatives had all trekked to Beit Shemesh for the chagim, and we were pleased to have finally gotten the opportunity to begin the celebration for her.

One of the differences in being here as opposed to the USA is the Kohanim going up for Birkat Kohanim in the chazzan’s repetition of the Shemona Esreh (Amida). Our Rav is incredibly particular about Birkat Kohanim and issued a statement that Kohanim cannot drink alcoholic beverages at the annual Shminin Atzeret Kiddush so that they can still go up for Birkat Kohanim.

As the host of the Kiddush in honor of my daughter’s upcoming Bat Mitzva I got special permission from him to join with those wishing Goldie and I a L’Chaim in honor of Aliza.

On Erev Shabbat following the chagim, I looked out my window a few minutes before Shabbat and lo and behold – there was that Charedi again, pulling his sacks with large stones and (this time) lumber to place all across the roadway.

I agonized over what to do, alternating between concern for my personal safety as per the advice of the Rav of the shul and several friends and my outrage that a person could so wantonly endanger others. Outrage won.

I went to shul and got one of my friends and together we walked around the block (so that they couldn’t identify where we lived if they did notice us) and threw all the junk into the valley. It took me a couple of tries to get somebody who would come with; several of my neighbors were too scared to be a part.

When I told that Rav that I just couldn’t stand by idly he told me that if I am going to persist in doing this, I am obligated to i) not get caught – if there is even a chance that I could get caught then I shouldn’t try, and ii) not go alone – I must have someone to watch my back and let me know if I am about to get into some trouble.

On a positive note, as word began to spread (hey – we all know that shuls are a great resource to spread news) of my activities, several of my neighbors approached me that Shabbat with offers to join me in “rock patrol” if I needed a hand. One of them even called the police that week to tip them off what was going on and the police promised him that they would make a visit to the building during the week, going apartment to apartment to impress upon the residents not to continue with the obstructions. I don’t know if they followed through on the promise, but considering what happened the following week - they may have.

Aliza’s Bat Mitzva party was on the following Sunday night in the social hall of our shul. We had sponsored the Kiddush on Shmini Atzeret to share our simcha with the community; this party was for relatives and Aliza’s friends.

As opposed to Chaim and Chaya before her, Aliza took a very active role in planning her party with specific requests and instructions. In addition to her speech, she had me prepare a video slideshow (which can be seen on youtube) for the party as well.

My brother hired a keyboardist and personally sang for us and also arranged for us to have an Israeli English speaking mentalist put on a brief show. All in all, Aliza and her friends enjoyed the event, which cost us much less than a similar one would have cost in NY.

Aliza’s friends were terrific. They were very caught up in the ruach (spirit) and their energy was clearly evident. Even Chaya’s friends, several of whom came as guests, were unbelievably exuberant and energetic.

With the exception of Chaim (who has no patience for sisters), the kids all enjoyed themselves. Moshe was fantastic, dancing to the songs and trying to sing along with his uncle. Mordechai had such a good time that he officially requested Uncle Ely for his Bar Mitzva, although he did comment to me on the side that there seemed to be a lot of girls in the room and he would prefer “if there will be more boys” at his Bar Mitzva.

Batya had one of her friends join us and gloried in the attentions of her family and all of Aliza’s and Chaya’s girlfriends who fussed over her (she had her hair especially done earlier in the day). Even Chaya, who is constantly fighting with Aliza had a great time and you could see how honestly happy she was for her sister.

After the party, began the recovery. Goldie’s parents left on Tuesday morning; they are scheduled to return to Israel for Pesach. My parents went to my sister at the same time and left the country a couple of days later.

For those of you who know Goldie you will understand what I mean when I say that Goldie was so relieved to get the house back in normal order after all the company, that she started work at around 10 AM and had everything back to normal by the time I came home that night (well, all except my office which is still messy).

Since it has been a few weeks since I last wrote about a potential strike in this country, the second largest middle and high school teachers union in Israel decided to make life fun for 600,000 students and declared a strike on Wednesday. There are now many closed schools and many more of them are running in abridged schedules with early closings and some unintended days off.

Both of our older girls are affected by the strike. They end school early and have Fridays off. Chaya even has random weekdays off, as the principal juggles rotating each class into an off day to free up some of the teachers to cover classes of the striking staff.

The disgusting thing is that there is already a deal that was negotiated by the larger union last year. The head of the smaller union, miffed that he was left out of the negotiations of the deal and angry at what he determined was a bad deal, decided to strike anyway because he wants a better deal.

Unfortunately for him (and the 600,000 students), the finance people simply cannot offer more because they would then have to deal with the much larger unions anger at having gotten the short end of the stick.

So we have what is common here in Israel. A standoff. The posturing and stare downs are so common here. In this case it is also incredibly stupid and might last for months.

I feel terrible for my sister whose son’s school is totally on strike. He is about to start his third week of extra vacation with no end in sight.

On Wednesday we also got a call from an old friend. Judy and Lenny Simon from Chicago had been friends of ours when we first got married and lived in Chicago for a year. They made Aliyah several years ago and are currently living in Beit El.

Last month we attended a Bar Mitzva of another family that lives in Beit El. As Goldie and I were leaving the Bar Mitzva, Judy Simon chased us down to say hi and reconnect.

As we talked, Judy asked if she could interview Aliza for a radio show for kids that she hosts on Arutz 7 radio. Geared toward English speaking kids from outside Israel, she wanted to have Aliza talk for a few minutes with her about her experience in making Aliyah.

Judy was calling to schedule the interview with Aliza which took place a couple of days later. To hear the interview, go to, Aliza appears about halfway through the show.

(Point of Fact: No we were not planning Aliyah for years as Aliza claims in the interview and we did hire tutors to help her adjust in school for the first year)

By the time Shabbat came around I was ready for a break. And got one.

I had been expecting my chareidi neighbor to once again block the street with his rocks and stuff and was pleasantly surprised to see that he didn’t show. I am not sure if he gave up because he saw that the stuff was disappearing or because the cops came by and scared him (if that is possible).

That night I went to a Shalom Zachor. Goldie told me that after I left the house, two groups of Chassidim came to stand on the sidewalk about 100 feet from each other across the street from our house.

They stood there without talking to each other or maybe speaking Divrei Torah (a small discourse about the Torah). When a car would come driving by, the were galvanized to action, screaming “SHAAAAAAAABOOOOOOOSSSSSS, SHAAAAAAAAABOOOOOOOSSSSSS” at the top of their lungs for about 30 seconds. Then they would stop and wait for the next car.

This went on for over an hour until they finally went home. According to Goldie, not a single driver suddenly stopped driving his/her car and tearfully emerged with a sudden commitment to keeping the Torah.

The next day as I discussed it with somebody from the “rock patrol”, he commented that it seemed to him as if these Chassidim would eventually win. Puzzled, I asked him what he meant.

“I mean that they will probably intimidate people into not driving by on Shabbat.”

I thought about that and then told him that I couldn’t care any less about that. Quite frankly, it wouldn’t bother me if cars stop driving by on Shabbat. All I cared about was stopping a potentially dangerous situation from happening. At this point they can yell and scream all they want.

Yelling and screaming never injured any one. It is a mitzva for me to protect others from harm and to prevent some one from harming others and I felt the obligation to stand up and stop such things from happening. They are acting like fools and doing things that I think are stupid, but that isn’t my problem.

There is no mitzvah for me to stop people from being stupid.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bruchim Habaim (part 1): Hachnassat Orchim (Article #59) 10/11/2007

Wow. What an overwhelming couple of weeks we have had. I almost regret having the week off from writing as it came during a very busy time and now there is so much to say I don’t know where to begin.

With Aliza’s Bat Mitzva scheduled for the Sunday after Sukkot, both my parents and Goldie’s (as well as Goldie’s brother David and his family) made arrangements to come to Israel for the Chag. At one point (Shabbat Chol Hamoed) we had 19 people sleeping in the house (including Goldie’s niece Sarah who is spending the year here), and to spice things up added a guest (one of the students from my Yeshiva) for a meal.

With a European style oven that is more the size of a toaster than an oven, Goldie was forced to begin preparing for Yom Tov many weeks in advance and freezing everything so that she could have time to enjoy all our family who were joining us. She also had to plan the various chol hamoed activities to keep all the tourists (as well as some of the locals - us) busy.

Two days before the beginning of Sukkot, my father in law and I went to Ramat Beit Shemesh to buy lulavim. Since it was a little last minute, the pickings were a little slim, but the prices were very attractive. I got four “A minus” grade sets of lulavim & etrogim (including the hadassim & aravot) for about $35 each complete set. No – that is not a typo.

Had I planned a little earlier, I could have saved three or four dollars each set by ordering through the Rosh Yeshiva’s son. But I had no idea he was in the business and will have to save him for next year. He told me that the main sellers in Yerushalayim have two prices, one for Americans and a second for Israelis, since the Americans are used to paying more and are ready to pay the price.

We had a confusion of practices in our house for the actual Yom Tov. My father holds 2 days of chag when in Israel, as per the psak (ruling) of his uncle, R’ Moshe Feinstein. Our niece also held 2 days, which made a three day chag for three of our guests. Goldie’s parents and brother (who was in Yerushalayim for the first day of Sukkot), following a personal psak, hold 1 day of chag.

All the chagim are special here. There are all the guests who show up and make the shul a little more crowded. There is the atmosphere of the whole country who are all enjoying (even the non-religious) a little break from the routine. Most of all, there is the connection we have to Israel and just feeling incredibly Jewish without any sense of being an outsider or being odd from the rest of your neighbors.

Sukkot was hot. I mean really hot. I had promised myself to leave off one of the walls and only build another one halfway so that we could have a cross breeze, but didn’t follow through on my plan. So we sat in the heat and roasted for the day meals (although there were really only two holiday meals to sit through – the chol hamoed day meals were either quickly finished or totally skipped in favor of a big dinner when it cooled down).

On Friday, since there wasn’t time to organize a major tiyul (trip) for the entire group (especially since a bunch of them were home keeping Yom Tov), Goldie and I took the three oldest kids to the USA consulate in Yerushalayim to renew their passports.

My cousin and his family were staying in Yerushalayim for Sukkot and we had prearranged that I would get a lunch delivery to him. Unfortunately, the delivery service decided to take the day off, so we spent a bit of time coordinating the order and then my father in law kindly volunteered to bring it over himself.

I had gone through the passport renewal process a couple of weeks earlier so we were prepared for an hour+ long ordeal of waiting in line. However, I now know that a Friday second day of chag that coincided with Ramadan is the best time to go to the consulate. The place was totally empty.

All the American Jews were either keeping chag for a second day or enjoying their vacation and all the Arabs were heading off to prayers. Since the consulate is located on the fringe of an Arab neighborhood near Shaar Shechem (the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem), there were tons of them pouring into and through that area on their way to their prayers in the old city.

It was a little strange to be the minority. We had to park a mile from the consulate because of all the traffic and closed roads and walk among the throngs of Arabs making their way in. I was more concerned about the car getting stolen or broken into (which is very ordinary throughout Yerushalayim) than anything else.

When we got to the consulate I was concerned that it had closed unexpectedly. There was no line at all.

We got through security and were waiting our turn for processing within 5 minutes of arrival, and were totally done in about 20 minutes time. We were literally number two in line and the major delay was our having to go upstairs to pay the courier service for delivery of the passports when they arrive.

I understand that in the USA it takes several months to process passport requests. We get ours in 2 to 3 weeks.

On Shabbat there was some concern that it might actually rain (it DID drizzle on Erev Chag for about 3 minutes) and with meals of 19 and 20, Goldie was very nervous about fitting everyone in the house. We ended up just having more heat.

On Sunday the real fun began as we finally started to go on tiyulim (trip) with the family. While the Grandparents went on their own trips, the rest of us went to an area just past the resort area of the Dead Sea where we took an ATV tour. We were joined by my Uncle Shimmie from Chicago as well as the Halpern family of Far Rockaway who were in Israel for Sukkot and had reserved to be in the same tour.

Most of the teenagers and almost all the adults had a chance to drive, some of the teenagers were scolded for drag racing and everyone had an awesome time. We got to see a mountain literally made of salt and stone that is pushing up from the ground at a rate of 4 to 5 feet a year. We had a chance to taste the mountain walls, it literally tasted like salt.

We then separated from the group and went to the Dead Sea for a refreshing float. In the end, only Aliza and Mordechai joined me in the water. Everyone else was scared to aggravate a cut or sore. Aliza left after a couple of minutes but Mordechai and I enjoyed a nice soak.

I was again amazed at how soft your skin gets after exposure to the Dead Sea waters. As we left the water, we noticed big chunks of salt at the bottom. We took 7 or 8 of them home with us as souveniers and I am trying to encourage Goldie to chop them up and use it to soak in at home.

As we drove to pick up some drinks, I commented to Goldie how I wished there was a Succah handy for us to eat in when we drove by the Chabad of the Dead Sea’s Succah. Those guys are everywhere!

Of course, there were no kosher pizza stores around, and we learned right then to pack a dinner for the men too – since you never know if there is going to be a Succah around or not.

The next day we headed to Zichron Yaakov to learn about the Chilazon (snail) that is supposed to be the source of Techelet (blue dye used by some to color Tzitzit strings). My brother joined us with his family as well all of Goldie’s relatives and we learned a lot about the chemistry and history of these specific snails.

We then headed to the beach to go snorkeling and see if we could find any of them. Our group only found about 12 of them; they are much more numerous when you go out further into the Mediterranean Sea and at greater depths.

We concluded the tour by actually participating in preparation of the techelet dye, as well as watching the effects of the sun on the dye and the transformation from green to deep blue – which was amazing.

Following the tour, we capitalized on our experience the day before and enjoyed a dinner prepared by Goldie in the Succah on the grounds of the museum we were visiting. It was a nice relaxed meal and certainly made the trip home much more comfortable without 6 kids screaming “I AM STARVING” at the top of their lungs.

Our final tour day was back in Zichron Yaakov for two tours. First, we (us and all the “out of town” relatives) toured the Carmel wine factory there and got to see how they make their wines. We learned about the aging process and how they decide what wines to produce in a given year.

Our tour concluded with a wine tasting session (in the factory Succah of course) where we got to sample a bunch of different sweet and dry wines. We all enjoyed that, even the kids who convinced the guide to let them have small tastes. (They each also got their own bottle of Grape Juice).

After that tour we went down the beach toward Netanya for some beachside horseback riding. My sister joined us for that.

Turns out that the horses are not full size horses and since I am a more than full size guy, I couldn’t ride. So everyone went without me, leaving me with the Bubbies and the Zaides as well as the little kids.

As part of our deal with the stable, the little kids got free pony rides. Since there weren’t too many people around, the handlers put the kids on the pony and then let me lead the pony around the parking lot for a few turns. It was a hidden treat for me to experience the kids’ joy in riding the pony.

Unlike our previous chagim, we did not see too many people that we knew from the USA. A few people here and there - the Halperns at jeeping, the Gottesmans from Chicago at the techelet tour – but for the most part we deliberately avoided places like Ir David or the Kotel tunnel tours and tried to do things that were a little off the beaten track.

We had all experienced most of the major tourist attractions (although I will eventually give in and take my kids to the chol hamoed Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel at some point) and decided to try and find some of the things that most people wouldn’t think of doing. I think we were mostly successful.

By the time Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah (remember – only one day for both) arrived, we were ready to begin celebrating Aliza’s Bat Mitzva. But that is a story for next week in The Chareidim are here: Bruchim Habaim part 2.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Even the Land Needs a Break (Article #58) 9/25/2007

On Motzei Shabbat Teshuva, I joined with some of our students for one of my all time favorite activities in Israel. We got together with Standing Together and brought pizza and drinks to chayalim (soldiers) at security checkpoints. Nothing makes me feel prouder to be here than in demonstrating support for the young men and women who keep me and my family safe.

I know that the students enjoyed it too. Although they had been to a MAGA”V (Border Police) training base a few weeks earlier, that tiyul (field trip/hike) had been to plant trees on the base and also to learn about MAGA”V. This evening was totally voluntary and on their own time.

So this was an opportunity for them to really connect one on one with the chayalim with no agenda other than to say thanks to them. Of course they enjoyed the pizza and the soda, but it means so much more to them that these young Americans, Canadians and South Africans came out on a chilly night to do something that most foreigners don’t do. Say thanks.

One of the chayalim pulled me aside as we left to thank me for bringing the guys. I responded that it was we who owed him our thanks for standing a post on cold nights. His response? “It is people like this that give me the strength to sit out on those cold nights.”

Can’t beat that, can you?

With the coming of the new year came a new wrinkle to our always confused lives. This year is a Shmitta (sabbatical) year in the land of Israel, where farmers are forbidden from the Torah from raising produce in order to give the land a recharge. Since this only applies in Israel, other than avoiding Jaffa oranges every seven years, we have never really had to deal with the issues involved with keeping Shmitta.

Of course, as with everything else in Israel, there are the inevitable politics involved as well. There are many machinations used to allow for Kosher produce in the Shmitta year which range from simply importing goods from outside the country or buying produce from Arabs, to selling the land to non-Jews and then working their land for them (this procedure is frowned upon by many Poskim).

Further complicating the matter is my desire not to give business to Arab farmers if I can at all avoid it. The general Chareidi public has no problem with this, but the National Religious Public generally do. So I don’t want to buy from the Chareidi endorsed products (which I would normally have no problem with) either.

In order to accommodate people like me, a new organization was formed called Otzar HaAretz. Essentially, they identify products that use halachically approved growth measures (hydroponics, growth above and not in the ground, sale of land to Beit Din with consumers paying only the labor costs {known as Otzar Beit Din} or as a last resort non Jewish grown) to provide produce for the Shmitta year.

They even identify which produce comes from what source, so that the consumer can choose which rulings he wishes to follow.

Additionally, there are stringent requirements on how to dispose of peels, pits, seeds and other waste which incredibly complicate our lives as well (imagine having to save orange peels and seeds all day until you get to your special Shmitta garbage can). Gravies, soups, fruitcake and orange juice are all examples of things that care needs to be taken in their disposal.

Unfortunately, there are so many different rules and so many varying opinions on what is and isn’t acceptable, that it is dizzying to try to keep track of them. I am definitely concerned that we are going to make mistakes just because we didn’t know what the right thing to do was.

Then there are things like flowers for Shabbat/Chaggim or having a garden in your backyard. There was a frenzy of summer planting this year, to make sure things got done on time.

This process doesn’t even end by Rosh Hashana. Produce started on Rosh Hashana because the produce goes by when it is harvested. However, fruits, whose Shmitta status is based upon when the tree begins to flower (after Rosh Hashana) and THEN develop fruit begin to have Shmitta issues around mid winter and we will need to be careful about them until Pesach a year and a half from now.

One thing that makes me feel a little less stupid about Shmitta is that Israelis who have lived here their whole lives are entirely confused as well.

We will be making a Bat Mitzva celebration for our daughter Aliza immediately following Sukkot. Accordingly, various relatives will be visiting us for the Chag. So, even though we are a one day Yom Tov family, we will be making three sets of three day Yom Tovs this year in order to accommodate the foreigners. All while busy explaining the various Shmitta laws to them.

If you will be in Beit Shemesh for Simchat Torah (ours, not that extra day you guys add on), we invite you to come join Goldie and I in Rabbi David’s shul as we host the Kiddush that day in honor of Aliza.

May you all enjoy a wonderful Chag and may we all enjoy the next one together here in Israel.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Welcome 5768 (Article # 57) 9/20/2007

Although it seemed like 5767 lasted for three or four years instead of the usual 12 months, the last few weeks of the year seemed to really fly by. With the arrival of our new students, the beginning of the school year for our kids (and 4 out of 6 going to new schools) and the preparations for the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays) and Sukkot, there suddenly weren’t enough hours in the day to get things done.

On Erev Rosh Hashana the Yeshiva went to the Kotel for Selichot at midnight. The entire plaza was filled with people and was definitely a sight to see. The Sephardi minyanim were especially fascinating as they sang various responses and songs with one voice – as loud as they possibly could.

I had originally thought it would be a great experience, but was too overwhelmed by the sounds and sights to really get into it. There were too many people shouting for us to hear our Chazzan, and I didn’t feel as inspired as I thought I would be.

I had privately told a couple of people that I was a little worried about getting motivated for Davening on Rosh Hashana this year. Although you would think that having gone through such trials personally during the year that I would be especially charged, I actually found a lack of feeling as it approached.

We had gone through our own personal Yom HaDin (Day of Judgement) back in the months of April and May and have been so engulfed with Davening for health and recovery (which continues) that I felt almost drained by the time Rosh Hashana arrived. I’d been davening for a good result every day – not just Rosh Hashana, and felt that there was nothing left in my emotional tank. Plus, the enormity of what we have been through is still sifting down to us as we settle down.

Further complicating things for me was the lack of our oldest son Chaim by my side for the first time (he was in Yeshiva – 10 minutes away). Chaim has davened at my side on Chagim (Holidays) and most Shabbatot for the past ten years. With the next 3 siblings being girls, it will be another year or two before Mordechai is old enough to take Chaim’s place.

Chaim did join us (with 2 other guys from Yeshiva each meal) for two meals on Yom Tov, so we did get to see him. However, I definitely missed him in shul and I know Goldie missed him as well. I guess this is preparation for when he goes to college. *Sigh*

For the first day of Rosh Hashana I was definitely right about my davening. I tried to concentrate and immerse myself in the davening, but I just felt a little detached. Which is tough when davening starts at 7 AM and ends at 1:30 PM with no break (OK – so I came 20 minutes late – I was still there for hours).

I wrote an email to a couple of friends about the second day of Yom Tov. Here is an excerpt.

I sat in Shul on Friday during laining, and I watched one neighbor walk over to 2 other fellows in shul and make a comment to them and see their interaction and interpersonal reactions and I started to cry. No way around admitting it.…when I saw the easy comfort those fellows had with each other it really hit home for me how much I miss you. It is not easy to find friends with whom you can say anything or hear them say anything to you and know that they are OK with you. It is even harder to have friends with whom a 5 minute discussion becomes a "Oh my, I told the wife I was going to be home an hour and a half ago" and then still stay shmoozing on the for another 20 minutes anyway. So I started to cry because I simply missed my friends and the …. life I had with them. With all the different things that happened to us, even though we had the support and concern of our whole neighborhood, when it was 8:45 PM on a Friday night and everyone was asleep I had no one to talk to and tell them (about) the week ….. I had nobody I could say 2 words or maybe even just raise an eyebrow to in the middle of Lecha Dodi and have them KNOW exactly what joke I was making. It isn't often that we remember to tell our friends how much they mean and have meant to us, and I wanted to just tell you how much I miss being there with you. On a separate note, once the floodgates opened I was a basket case for the rest of shul and I might have to replace the pages from Unesaneh Tokef (Mussaf day two) in my machzor since they were totally covered in tears. So, thank you for that too. Thank you for …. breaking the ice for me and allowing me to channel some of my feelings into tefilla.

Even though things have begun to get better and better for us as we continue to adjust and settle in, sometimes I am reminded just how difficult this transition has been. To restart your whole life at 40 is not always the easiest thing in the world, no matter how happy the kids may be or how much better we have settled in as time passes.

I know I’ve said this before, but we still do (and hopefully always will) love and miss our many friends (and family) back in the USA. For us (as opposed to many olim from countries such as Russia or Ethiopia), Aliyah was not running away – it was running towards. So, I am not saying that I want to be in America or that we aren’t happy with where we are. Even so, just because we’re not looking to go back at this time doesn’t mean that I can’t miss the friends and life we left behind. I do.

Have a Gmar Chatima Tova!

Monday, September 17, 2007

Turning the Calendar Again (Article #56) 9/11/2007

On Motzei Shabbat (Sat. night) last week, Goldie co-chaired a “Welcome to our Community” event for our shul. Essentially, the shul runs an annual event where the new olim get to meet the members of the shul and vice versa.

We had a lot of fun meeting many of our neighbors at this same event last year, and when she was asked to help coordinate the evening, Goldie readily agreed. The women put together a “human bingo” game where each square represented a characteristic and the participants had to go around the room trying to find someone to match the characteristic.

While competitive people like me worry about winning (we didn’t), it is a great way to “break the ice” and find out a lot about each other.

On Monday night, Goldie and I went to 7th Grade Parents Night at Chorev for Aliza. We were struck by two major things that night.

The first thing hit us at the end of the night. We had listened to both the Principal and then Aliza’s teacher tell us all about the upcoming year and some of the things we should expect. We had filled out the contact forms and gotten the various handouts from the teacher. We were getting our things ready to leave when a woman in front of us turned to us and said. “OK – did they say anything I needed to know?”


Yes, this is getting to be a recurring theme. But I just can’t get over how much better it is to understand 65% of what you are hearing instead of 20%. Plus, since we have lived through “the toughest year”, we also knew enough not to sweat it if we missed anything.

The second thing hit us at the mall. We hadn’t eaten dinner, so we stopped by the Malcha Mall to grab a bite at the food court.

As we rode the escalator Goldie noticed a huge sign put up by the mall, wishing all the shoppers a Happy and Sweet New Year. She turned to me and said, “You know, a year ago I would have been all excited about seeing this sign. Now, I take it as the way things are supposed to be.”

I think she meant it as a little bit of a loss for us, that somehow we don’t have the same wide eyed enthusiasm for Israel that we might have had a year ago.

I, however, took it much differently. I thought, isn’t it great that we can live in a place where we can take such things for granted as the natural course of events.

On Tuesday, I joined the students of the Yeshiva on a tiyul (field trip) to Ir David, the site archeologists believe was the castle of King David. As part of that tiyul, we hiked through Chizkiyahu’s water tunnel.

This was my third time on this specific tiyul in the last 14 months. I don’t think this is a tiyul that one can get tired of.

Aside from being an active archeological site where the tour changes each time a new part of the site is opened for public viewing (3 times at the site – 3 different tours for me), the water tunnels are tremendously cool (no other way to say it) and being there with the Yeshiva guys is just tremendous.

After Ir David, we went for Mincha to the Kotel, and concluded the day with a brief tour of the Old City of Jerusalem. Although I am repeating myself, once again I was struck at how great it is that I can say that I just jumped on the bus in the morning, visited King David’s castle, walked through water tunnels that have been existent almost since the founding of Jerusalem, davened at the Kotel and toured the Old City of Jerusalem and returned HOME for dinner.

On Shabbat we co-sponsored an annual Kiddush thrown by the members of the Shul who had made Aliyah the prior year and were celebrating their one year anniversary. I remembered being at the same Kiddush last year in our first week after moving into the neighborhood. It seems a lot more than one year ago.

This week marks the completion of our first full calendar year here in Israel. As things stand, it looks like the year will end without the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash and a rebuilt Jerusalem.

Thinking back to last year, there was obviously no way we could have had a glimmer of thought as to what we should have been davening for and what H-shem had in store for us. Yet somehow he got us through to be in what we hope is a good place for us and our family.

We have grown, as a group and as individuals.

On behalf of Goldie and myself, Chaim, Chaya, Aliza, Batya, Mordechai and Moshe, our family wishes you and your families a Shana Tova Umetuka (Sweet New Year). May we be privileged to celebrate the coming of the next new year together in our Holy Land and rebuilt Holy City of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What a Difference a Year Makes (Article #55) 9/6/2007

It is often startling when you are able to actually see the contrast between whom you were at one point in your life and who you have become. One short year ago, we were totally out of our environment and trying to adjust to our new surroundings.

While we are still “wet behind the ears” new olim, and will be considered such for quite some time, Goldie and I are both amazed at how different our lives are from last year. In many ways.

Last year we were struggling with getting the kids ready for school and trying to figure out where to find things in the grocery store. We’d go to parent meetings where we didn’t understand a word and feel totally overwhelmed with buying school supplies or signing up for hot lunch.

The weeks between camp and school were a frenzied time where we tried to get the kids out from underfoot for a few moments while i) we moved into the “backup” rented house, ii) we arranged for our lift to (finally) arrive in Israel via Greece (remember that?), iii) Chaim arrived from summer camp, iv) we got frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t find anything in the stores we thought they would be in and v) we dealt with my boss having an unscheduled all expenses paid government provided tour of Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon (supervising major building renovations and opening up the new school year for our students).

The country was at war and refugees from Northern communities under fire were living in school buildings and peoples houses. It was a scary and stressful time.

It feels like a different world to us today (and it is). Instead of frantic scrambling to prepare for school, Goldie did most of the shopping months ago and only bought two or three of “the wrong” things by mistake. Instead of being involved with settling in and getting our stuff, we were involved with planning a Bat Mitzva (1 month to go) and taking the kids on tiyulim (trips).

It is still often scary, but our understanding and acceptance that this is the cost we pay for the zchut (benefit) of living in our homeland. We still worry about our kids and our country, but it is less with a sense of awe and more with a sense of acceptance.

Part of our adjustment and klitta (absorption into Israeli society) is the fact that we are getting a small glimmer of what to expect in most situations (and if you are a regular reader of this column you know that we have faced quite a few). So we were very prepared for school and expected to have a half month of August where there was nothing for the kids to do in Beit Shemesh.

Armed with this knowledge, Goldie and Chaia Broderick planned a series of interesting “touristy” day trips to keep the kids occupied. With most of our big kids away at camp, they were able to focus on places that were good for the little kids.

They spent a very nice day at the biblical zoo in Yerushalayim. In the USA we had been members of the zoo in NY, going 3 or 4 times a year at the minimum. While the bigger kids weren’t so into the zoo, the little kids always loved it and we took to going on those Sundays when the bigger kids were away at camp.

They also went to a place called Eretz Bereishit. Located close to Maalei Adumim, it is designed to give you an understanding of what life may have been like during biblical times.

They start with a small play of the times of Avraham, Sarah and Eliezer. Then everyone dresses up in periodic costumes and "eliezer" leads you on a camel ride to the tent of Avraham to do Hachanasat Orchim (welcoming guests). There is a small play in the tent after which they served some dried fruits and nuts with water and tea. There was also a workshop in making pita.

Rounding out the days with some shopping and trips to play centers, the kids (and their mother) always had something to do to keep from going stir crazy before the start of the school year.

One benefit of living here is that school starts much earlier (and tuition costs are much lower). With the early start for the Chagim (holidays) this year, most of the religious schools started a week earlier than normal, and we had all our kids in school by Sunday, September 2.

For those who have been with us for a while, I am sure you will remember how horrific our first few days (days? months!) were last year. Mordechai was terrified of going and it was agonizing to watch how it affected his entire day. Batya understood 2 words. The whole house was filled with anxious and confused kids.

Well, all except for Moshe who was too little to know what was going on anyway and will be spending a second year in his Israeli Gan (preschool), speaking and understanding Hebrew like an Israeli.

In truth, I had forgotten how horrible it was for them and had to reread last year’s paper to remind myself. I can happily report that much has changed since that time.

Mordechai (who moved up to Kitta Aleph - 1st grade) has been so excited to be going to school to learn how to read that we have had trouble containing his exuberance. Every day we ask him how school was that day. So far the answer has been, “SUPER GOOD!”

Batya, who switched schools has also been burstingly happy. She is in a class with very few English speakers and we were concerned that she might feel out of place. She is having the time of her life, even complaining that the work is too easy for her (until she gets to Math). She sometimes walks home with a neighbor and they often stop to get a stick of gum or some other treat.

There is no “school bus” for Batya, so she takes a special city bus home. The city runs a few special lines just for the students of the various schools. They run only once in each direction and if you miss the buss you are stuck. We are amazed at how responsible she has become in making sure that she has her ticket, knows where to go, can walk home (25 minutes) at an age where we really sheltered her older siblings and would never have let them walk home from school by themselves.

Aliza who had an “I don’t care that I don’t speak Hebrew” attitude a year ago is now in an extremely challenging academic school, with a class with 4 English speakers and is also doing well. She was placed in a different class than 90% of the Beit Shemesh students and had considered switching classes, but found out that her homeroom teacher is the best in the grade and is actually the Head of the Grade for all the 7th grade classes. So she decided to stick with that class and tells us that she really doesn’t care about the English or the fact that she didn’t know anyone when she walked in the door. Her only complaint? She doesn’t have a full length mirror in which to check herself out. GIRLS!

Chaya has reinvented herself over the summer. She has always been bright, but had never been a very diligent student and we were (and continue to be) worried about her achieving an Israeli HS diploma. Yet, something clicked for her in 9th grade and she decided to take things more seriously.

Her principal challenged her to do a ton of summer homework to be better prepared for the year and she buckled down and got it done, putting her in a much better position to start the year than she would have been. She loves her school and the girls her age and asked us to increase the hours she gets homework help to make sure that she gets it all done.

Even though academically she has and will struggle because of the language barrier, I would say that socially and emotionally Chaya has had the best adjustment of the kids. The school she is in put zero pressure on her last year, preferring that she find herself within the social group first and then slowly upped the level.

Chaim walked into the year fearful that he would not be able to attend college because he would have zero options without a HS diploma. He went from disaster to disaster in his school and was very concerned for his own future. Yet, in the end, the GMAX program was a gift to us and he is now learning full time at Yesodei HaTorah, a 15 minute walk from home.

I know it has only been one year, and that tomorrow the ceiling can come crashing down upon us (as it has in so many ways this past year). Yet, we came on Aliyah hearing how awful it would be for our kids (especially the teenagers) and we (hopefully) have well adjusted and happy kids. We have a long way to go with them, but I think they are definitely on a good path for success and that is all we can hope for, no?

While all this was going on, I still had work to go to as well. The zman (semester) started well, and on Wednesday we went to visit a basic training base of the Border Police. We had gotten Rabbinic approval to plant non fruit bearing trees on the base, and we joined together with the soldiers in basic training on the base in planting about 100 trees there.

With the Shmitta year about to open, this was literally the last chance for us to participate in anything of this sort, so we seized the opportunity. It was a very nice way to start the year off and I think the guys all enjoyed having the chance to do something for Israel right off the bat.

We had a chance to meet some of the soldiers and had a special meeting with recent Olim soldiers. They spoke to the guys about their reasons for coming to Israel as well as their reasons for serving in the army and specifically the Border Police. We also saw a marksmanship demonstration and some security exercises.

On Thursday, Goldie and I were privileged to join the Begun family as they celebrated the Bar Mitzva of three of their sons in Chevron. Goldie and I were very excited when we got the invitation; a chance to celebrate a simcha with people from “the old country” is indeed a cause for celebration. The invitation came with an additional invitation to join them on their special bus from Jerusalem.

We were conflicted about what to do regarding transportation. Going with the bus would have put us on their full day in Chevron schedule. We would also have had to get to Yerushalayim very early and were concerned about how we would get there on time after getting all the kids out to their various schools in the morning (6 kids = 6 different schools).

Last year, for the August 1 issue of the paper, I wrote the following about a trip we took to Chevron and the Mearat Hamachpela (burial ground of the patriarchs) in our first month here……“we were initially concerned about traveling into such a hot zone, even though we had arranged to travel via armored car….. Although my brother in law questioned our need to get a bulletproof vehicle for our trip, since we really did not even get a nasty glance, I must admit that we felt more comfortable having the vehicle.”

Last year we refused to go without a bulletproof van. One year later? We drove our own (brand new) car through various Arab villages to Qiryat Arba (Jewish community on the outskirts of Chevron). Since we had no idea how to get to the Meara, we used the advice of my boss Benny Pflanzer and picked up some Israeli hitchhikers who’d know the way to the Jewish section of Chevron. Wouldn’t want to make a wrong turn there – no matter how much security was around.

Bulletproof van? Come on.

We did think twice about driving there, but felt very confident that we would be safe with no problems. The truth is, and sometimes we fail to recognize this, the vast majority of the Arabs want to fight as little as we do. I am not saying that we should set aside precautions. What I am saying is that they generally do work.

So we drove ourselves and the drive was uneventful. Deciding to drive actually worked in our favor as Chaim’s Rosh Yeshiva made a Brit Milah (circumcision) for his newborn son that morning that we were consequently able to attend.

The Begun family had joined with Chabad of the 5 Towns in their annual trip to Israel, and the participants glowed as they told us about the various places they had been, especially in their dedication of a rec. center for a Golani brigade. I am sure that there is a major review of the trip elsewhere in the 5TJT.

It had been a year since we had last been in Chevron. We had a few minutes to ourselves before the Seudat Mitzva for the Bar Mitzva boys and we stumbled upon the site of some recent news.

We had read about a building that some of the residents of the Jewish Community of Chevron had bought and moved into only to have their right to live there challenged by Arabs claiming to own the building. Ultimately, the Army evicted the Jews from the building and we came across the results.

We could see the places where the walls were literally ripped from the building so that no one should be able to live there. It was sad to see yet another place where our bitter struggle, both against ourselves and against our enemies is brought so harshly into reality.

I don’t know who owned the building or who was right or wrong. I just wish that neither side felt so persecuted against that they feel forced to take extreme measures to try to gain what they want. While I definitely sympathize much more closely with the Jewish people of Chevron than any other side, their rhetoric often shocks me.

The Begun simcha was terrific. It is hard to match our country for emotional religious impact. Being called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah in the spot where our patriarchs are buried, being the newest link in a chain that spans generations from those who were the first Jews to us who are the current Jews, what could be more moving?

Arriving late (after attending the morning Brit Mila), we hooked up with the group just after davening. It was nice to see the Wolowick’s and those of the group who we knew from the 5 Towns as well as meeting new people who had never been to Israel and were experiencing it for the first time.

Seeing such a motivated group who came in from the USA and hearing how charged they were by their experience in Israel was very uplifting and encouraging to us. As one of the people said to us, “Israel is a great place to visit – it must be a better place to live!”