Sunday, February 18, 2007

On the Road Again (Article #39) 2/8/2007

After a travel free couple of months that saw our family begin to settle into a routine and continue our adjustment to living on a foreign land, it was time to pack my bags again for a trip overseas. With responsibilities for fundraising and public relations as well as coordination of alumni activities, my job requires regular travel overseas. This was something I had specifically looked for when interviewing, yet it can be difficult on Goldie and the kids.

This will be a unique trip. As everyone knows, I am a huge Chicago Bears fan and the Bears had qualified for the Superbowl the prior week. My brother Ozer who is a Chicago Bears season ticket holder, won a raffle for the right to purchase two seats to the game and had offered me the chance to go to the game with him.

My initial reaction was to let him sell the ticket for a major profit, but when my father said that if I don’t go to the game he would be going in my place and my brother wasn’t going to have a chance to sell the extra ticket in any case, I decided to go to the game. (Sorry to disappoint you Dad – again). Had I not been already planning a trip to the USA, there is no way I would have considered going to the game, but it worked out and I had a once in a lifetime opportunity that I could not turn down.

Of course, this made me a hero with not only the American students in our Yeshiva, but also with the teenage population of Beit Shemesh (at least the Americans). Chaim was incredibly disappointed not to be going (he offered to pay for his flight in) but is still incredibly excited that “his team” is in the championships. Ironically, the last time the Bears were in the Superbowl I was in Israel as well, as a post High School student studying in Yeshiva for the year.

Regular readers will know that I continue to lose respect for the Charedi population the longer we live in Israel. My flight to America was delayed for almost an hour because of several Chassidim who were making a huge ruckus over having to sit next to women. Although the El Al cabin crew tried to make accommodations for them, there was always a problem – either because it was too close to a group of teenage girls or in middle seats instead of aisle seats.

Toward the end, there were increasing calls from the other passengers to have these passengers either sit in the seats assigned to them or thrown off the plane so that we could finally be on our way. It got very ugly and thanks to an incredibly patient El Al crew, the seating crisis was eventually worked out and we took off for NY.

For those who are not up on what is happening in Israeli society, there is a battle going on regarding the busses in Beit Shemesh. The Charedi population in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet or “RBSB” (located between our neighborhood in Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph) object to the fact that the public busses are not segregated by gender. They actually have a private Charedi bus line that is segregated, yet they still want to have the Egged busses segregated as well.

In order to make their point, they have decided (as usual) to be as violently disruptive to the public as they possibly can get. This means that they will a) throw stones at every bus that drives through their neighborhood and b) turn over the garbage dumpsters in the middle of the street so that the busses can not even get through.

I don’t even know why they HAVE garbage dumpsters. After all, a few months ago they set fire to their dumpsters in protest of the parade happening in Yerushalayim. That the city replaced all the burned out dumpsters is outrageous. Perhaps if there were consequences to their offensive behavior (like having to pay to replace all the damaged municipal property of having no garbage dumpsters) they would behave like actual people.

Yet, we foolishly paid for them to have new dumpsters to dump into the middle of the road as part of their ongoing hooliganism. So I guess some of the problem is our fault, as enablers.

The victims of course are none other than the regular religious public. Our children (both from Beit Shemesh and Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph) have to take the public (and school) busses through the Charedi areas. With either no busses running because they cannot get through the streets or the kids being terrorized by mobs of Chassidim throwing stones at their busses, these kids have a terrible experience on their way to/from school.

You may think that I am being unduly harsh to the Chassidim/Charedi public. In fact, some of you may even identify closely with members of those communities. In truth, most of the Charedim/Chassidim are normal decent people and it is really only the fringe that is causing the trouble.

However, it is the main group’s lack of action in reigning in these psychopaths that leads me to fault the entire community. If one of my neighbors was throwing rocks at cars or trying to burn a dumpster in protest, I would hope that I and my neighbors would do our utmost to stop him and make sure that he does not cause harm to others. The general Charedi public’s inaction condemns them (in my opinion) as equally guilty with those who are actually causing the direct harm.

The flight was mostly uneventful. As I continue to fly back and forth, I am beginning to get more comfortable with my preparations for the flight. No more getting to the plane more than three hours before departure time. I prefer the day flight for reasons like packing my Talis and Tefillin instead of shlepping them in my carry on and trying to keep close to regular sleep patterns.

My first stop was to visit my father in law as he recuperated from a minor surgical procedure. I know that Goldie was regretting her decision not to come see him and it made her feel comforted somewhat to get a first hand report from me. It is hard to judge which things are important enough to warrant a ticket to the US (plus all the arrangements for our kids) and which we can let slide and we might have missed one here.

After a night’s catching up on some sleep I headed off to Boston on the shuttle. In my last trip, I found myself marked for special security screening on my domestic flights. I didn’t think anything of it initially, since I assumed that most people get screened. However, I ended up being screened both ways on my Boston flights and it has become obvious that the USA thinks that I must be some kind of security threat.

I understand what is happening. I fly in from the Middle East. Since the US is firmly concerned about potential violations of civil liberties, the security forces cannot profile certain racial groups (such as say…Arabs) as potential security risks. However, they also cannot let these people pass through security without significant additional screening for explosives and other hazardous items.

Accordingly, they try to isolate some common fact that these potential terrorists have and then screen every person who fits that profile instead of just their target group. Therefore, as not only a resident of a Middle Eastern country but also someone who has flown from the Middle East to the US in recent days, my file raises a significant flag in their computers and I get screened.

I personally think this is an incredible waste of time and resources. After all, I am not only Jewish, I am also American AND Israeli. I am everything these people hate and want to destroy. This is what you select for security screening? What a joke!

My trip this time serves a dual purpose. As always, I am responsible for a certain amount of fundraising activities in the US and this visit will allow me to meet with people personally to tell them about the Yeshiva and our programs. However, I am also the Director of Alumni and (with our Roshei Yeshiva in town to interview twelfth grade students as applicants for the upcoming academic year) we are having our first Alumni USA Shabbat, on the Yeshiva University campus.

We recently had a terrific visit by fifteen of our alumni who took their winter break time to return and rejoin the Yeshiva if only for a brief period. One of the special things about our Yeshiva is that the guys are entitled to a free plane ticket back to the Yeshiva once during their college years, and are always welcome to join us at any time in the future as well.

The Shabbaton and additional shiurim that our Rabbeim will conduct on various college campuses for our alumni throughout the year are other ways that we can continue to strengthen our connection with our alumni, who we consider to always be a part of our family.

Keeping in touch also allows us to see how they are doing and try to reinforce their commitment to making Torah a part of their lives every day no matter where they are or what they may be doing.

I missed Tu B’Shvat in Israel to be at the Shabbaton. I did bring in some special Israeli dried fruits with me (don’t tell customs) so that I could enjoy them. Goldie told me that the kids all made special Tu B’Shvat projects to bring home and that people told her it was a shame that our first Tu B’Shvat fell out on Shabbat and that we should look forward to a lot more in future years.

As part of her week, Goldie went with two of her girlfriends (and former 5 Towners) Chaia Broderick and Naomi Schwartz on a tiyul to a home directly outside of Kever Rachel to plant trees on the grounds. They were very excited to go, and were really looking forward to taking advantage of being Israeli and contributing to the continued development of our land.

As it turns out, this land was purchased recently by a group of Americans who want to turn the main house into a simcha hall and continue Jewish development in the area around Kever Rachel. Unfortunately, for reasons they would not disclose (they claimed it was for undefined “security concerns”), the army would not let the participants to go outside of the house to do any planting. They had to be satisfied with a tour of the house and a ceremonial planting of a potted tree which will eventually be moved to the outside when they are allowed to plant on the grounds.

They did, however, enjoy a “Tu B’Shvat Seudah” (the first for Goldie and Chaia) while on the tiyul, as part of the tour/program that was coordinated for them.

So while they were disappointed and a little upset that they could not have been informed in advance about the restrictions – they still had a terrific time and I am sure they will continue to look for other opportunities to be a part of our new homeland.

Cholim Chadashim (Article #38) 2/1/2007

I have written several times about how we are constantly getting sick here. One of the theories is that as new immigrants, we have not been exposed to the viruses that are common in Israel and therefore have little or no immunities developed for the normal Israeli bugs. In fact, this phenomenon is so common here that my sister in law called me to tell me the name they give to families like us which is (if you haven't figured it out from the title of this article) ”cholim chadashim” (new sick people) instead of ”olim chadashim” (new immigrants).

I have finally also been hit by the bugs. Over the last few weeks I have had a nagging sore throat and it has really worn me down. So in answer to the many, “WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ALIYAH CHRONICLES” emails I got, I wasn't feeling well.

Over the last few months, as we have settled in to our new lives, we have faced many challenges and obstacles. Some of them have been more difficult to deal with than others and may still not be solved. Many of them seemed to trivial or too critical to be detailed in these pages or may not have made “the cut” on weeks when I had other things to write about that seemed more important.
However, we reached a crucial point in our Aliyah last week. On Wednesday afternoon, Goldie was talking with my parents and she admitted that she had nothing to do. She was all caught up in school work (ulpan), regular work, housework, meals and everything else on her busy schedule. This is the first time since we arrived that she has felt this way and is another sign that we are finally settling into a routine.

That isn't to say that it was an idyllic week. We had sewage backing up from the second floor plumbing pipes and are still dealing with an ongoing moisture/mold problem on the main floor. We have leaks in the roof (which would be worse if we were getting rain – the lack of which is reaching severe proportions here) and several other unfinished items in the house. Yet, we are still hopeful that the landlord will eventually get on board and take care of these items in a responsible manner.

With different coughs and colds and viruses, the health issues are also nagging irritants, causing (Goldie primarily) missed ulpan and/or work hours that need to be made up.

There are other concerns, such as where to put the kids in school next year (although we did settle a couple of issues here as well in the last two weeks). We are trying to balance the kids desires to go to summer camp in America to see there friends with our desires to actually have money to pay for all those round trip tickets. Of course, for the adults Hebrew is still a primary issue, with Goldie surpassing me in understanding Hebrew (she goes to a weekly shiur conducted in Hebrew and listens to the news all the time) but me being the better communicator (can’t understand the news but can have a conversation with anyone).

Yet overall, we seem to have finally hit our stride. I could bore you with details after details about the kids’ successes. Chaim is happy in school and has accepted his new social setting. Chaya is doing better in school than we ever thought possible. Aliza is deciding if she wants to go to school closer to home or one of the better academically acclaimed religious schools in Yerushalayim (Chorev). Batya gets angry when she can’t finish her homework and is extremely conscientious about it – and has dramatically caught up to her class in math skills in recent weeks. Mordechai speaks Hebrew AT HOME to us OFTEN and rushes to be the first kid in his Gan several times a week in his eagerness to be there. Moshe is of course Moshe, almost 2 years old and wondering why we get so excited when he intersperses Hebrew in his English since he does not yet recognize that they are different languages, just different words.

But why bother. You have undoubtedly read about their struggles and successes in past weeks and do not need a lengthy recap.

We have found a flow to life here and when Goldie’s ulpan schedule eases up further at the end of this term, might actually have more than a moment or two of breathing room in which to relax and reflect (although writing the chronicles has been excellent for reflection).

This should make for more boring articles, since we will face fewer and fewer crisis as time goes on. Yet this is as it should be. No one can live a frenetically paced life like we had been over an extended period of time. In fact, I am sure that the stress of daily living is a major contributing factor to the “cholim chadashim” syndrome.

We had more “we missed you moments” as well. Goldie’s father had a “routine” medical procedure done. She was assured that it was routine and that she did not need to come in special to be there. Yet, there were some complications with an infection and for a week’s time she was especially anxious to not having gone and having to rely on second hand reports on what was going on as well as the guilt at not being there to support her parents and help care for her father. He is (thankfully) recovering well and we expect no further issues, yet it is incredibly difficult to handle items like these from so far away. Especially if you start second guessing your travel decisions and wondering if you really should have flown in for a week.

Aliza had her premier in a major dramatic production. After months of practice, she will be in seven performances of “We’ve got Annie” (loosely based on the Broadway hit Annie!) and will eventually have performed for 7,000+ people. Although it is a women’s only production, I have heard great reviews and we are very proud of all her dedication and hard work in not only getting to every rehearsal and practice but in maintaining her schoolwork and other activities at the same time.

Both grandmothers sent her lovely bouquets and congratulatory notes on opening night. She was thrilled to get them as well as other gifts from her family and friends (more flowers and a mug filled with treats). Yet, we know that she would have gladly done without the gifts if it meant that her grandmothers would have been there, and we have to add it to the list of missed events. (OK – so they are making a DVD of the show, but it still isn’t the same).

We made a decision on Mordechai’s schooling (finally). After thinking about it long and hard, we just saw little warmth in the school that we send the girls to and decided to send him to another school closer to our house – Orot Banim. He is currently in their gan (preschool) and we are thrilled with his development there and the warmth and caring they displayed in dealing with his transition to a foreign country and a foreign language at age 5.

We have also made a (90% certain) decision to move Batya to the girls division of Orot. She has very few school friends who live in our area (1) and is constantly frustrated (as are we) by the nonsensical, unfeeling way that they approach the enforcement of their dress code and other rules. We were overwhelmed with how approachable and warm the staff of the (new) girl’s school was when we visited it and have heard many of our neighbors singing its praises.

That is not to say that we are disappointed with Batya’s school experience now. She has certainly learned a tremendous amount and having ulpan in her school building made it very easy for her to integrate ulpan with the rest of her schedule. The other schools all had to bus their kids to Batya’s school for ulpan, wreaking havoc upon their academic schedules and programs. Yet, moving forward we feel that this is probably the best choice for us.

A note on the switch. Both schools are religious schools and in truth we thought we would identify with the more Charedi school when we first arrived since they reminded us more of the schools our children attended when we were in the USA. However, we can definitely see that a new principle (brought into the school last year) has determined to make the school much more charedi (in parent body) than it had been in the past and we feel that their current goals no longer match our ideals. It is a shame since that school had been recognized as an excellent choice for American Olim in our neighborhood and they clearly no longer want us.

The contrast is so clear with some of the other schools. Chaya (who was always a disinterested student at best) has found a peer group and support system which is incredibly nurturing. The school has gone out of its way to tailor a special academic program for her, exempting her from certain electives so that she can focus on her core HS diploma requirements. They have gone all out to make her successful and her classmates have been terrific. For example, last week, Leah Fingerer (daughter of Suri and Elozar) spent hours with Chaya preparing her for a Navi test that she would never have been able to get through on her own, infusing Chaya with a sense of confidence that she had the capability to deal with school and home work.

I think this sense of pulling together is very strong in Beit Shemesh. Many of our neighbors (a significant majority) are olim and understand the issues we face. They remember how it was for them when they arrived and are incredibly supportive and sympathetic.

We ourselves had Shabbat guests for dinner this past week who were on a pilot trip from Canada. They will be coming to Israel this summer or fall and it was a no brainer that we would happily host them for a meal when we got the call. It was our treat to finally pay forward the kindness that all the strangers (now our friends and neighbors) showed us when we arrived here.