Monday, April 30, 2007
For more than a year, the readership of this newspaper has been fascinated with the weekly column written by Shmuel Katz about his planning for, and then carrying out, the relocation of his family to Eretz Yisrael.
He caught our attention as he described in great detail the trials and tribulations of the massive task and awesome responsibility of uprooting an entire family from the only home they had ever known and boldly fulfilling the dream that we all have - yet too few see realized - to relocate to our Holy Land.
While the articles over the year have been informative, entertaining, and truly inspiring, nothing could have prepared us for the last installment. In last week's brief but emotionally wrenching article, titled "A Personal Note," Shmuel Katz shared with all of us the shocking and very painful news of his wife's illness and diagnosis (may HaKadosh Baruch Hu send her a refuah sheleimah b'karov).
With so many who shared with me their shock and pain after reading the terrible news, I would like to publish a personal response, on behalf of all their friends, to Reb Shmuel and Goldie.
To even attempt to understand HaKadosh Baruch Hu's Divine plan for each and every one of us is humanly impossible. The Torah tells us that darchei Hashem nistaros - the ways of Hashem are hidden from us. Yet someone recently shared with me a fascinating insight from the Lakewood Mashgiach, HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon, shlita, that was so profound and important that I shared it with more than 150 women who joined for our shul's annual Shabbos HaGadol derashah last month:
There was a young non-religious couple that had one child, a young boy. Though they had successful careers, affluence, and an active social life, they felt that something was still missing in their lives. They attended a Gateways Shabbaton, and then several Discovery seminars, and after much soul-searching decided together to totally change their lifestyle and became shomrei Torah u'mitzvos.
Soon after relocating to an Orthodox community and adopting a Torah way of life, their young son - a beautiful and wonderful child, the source of all their pride and joy - was diagnosed with a terrible, life-threatening illness. Needless to say, they were devastated. They began to question how G-d could do this to them. After all, they totally uprooted their lives for Hashem; was this their reward? They began to question: is this a punishment; is it a test; a challenge? They went to the rav of their shul, who asked them to come with him to the Lakewood mashgiach to hear his insights and response to their heartfelt questions.
After Rav Salomon heard their story, he responded as follows: This is neither a test nor a punishment. There was a decree in Heaven that your child will have to become ill (we are not privy to why), and Hashem, in his infinite love and compassion for you, saw that you were not strong enough to handle this decree - that it would destroy your family and you would fall apart. So Hashem caused you to question your existence and purpose in life, and to search for answers, to find Gateways and Discovery and to become Torah-committed Jews. You would now be filled with bitachon and emunah, fortified and strengthened to face this difficult challenge that is before you. Hashem did not punish you, nor did he test you. He prepared you!
The family was so strengthened and encouraged by these words that not only did they face their challenge, they overflowed with great inner strength to help others. And they would attend family retreats from Chai Lifeline and continue to inspire others, as well.
So many people have asked me: After such a life-changing move to Eretz Yisrael, done with such love and joy for our beloved land, how could this happen? And the penetrating words of the mashgiach reverberate in my mind.
Just maybe HaKadosh Baruch Hu wanted the family to have extra z'chuyyos, and coordinated events so that they would find themselves in Eretz Yisrael - and to do so in such a public way as a way of providing z'chuyyos.
And what z'chuyyos they are! Not only the merit of fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz (settling the land) - which according to many Rishonim is today a mitzvah d'oraysa (see Ramban Bamidbar 3 and in hashmatos to Sefer HaMitzvos No. 4) - but much greater is the mitzvah of inspiring so many other people to find their strength to make aliyah as well. At least two families from my community have told me that without any question, their decision to make aliyah is completely due to Shmuel Katz's ongoing series on the life and challenges of an oleh.
This past Pesach, we spent Yom Tov in St. Petersburg, Florida, where we met so many wonderful people. One young family from Baltimore told me that they are in the final preparations of planning their move to Eretz Yisrael and were inspired to do so by Shmuel Katz's article, which her sister in Woodmere sends to her each week.
I asked what it is, exactly, about the articles that inspired her. She explained that most of the fear and anxiety of aliyah is the fear of the unknown: How will the children adjust to the language, the school schedules, etc., etc.? Here they would read each and every week the trials and tribulations of the Katz family detailing their successes and challenges. She realized "if they could do it, so can we." She concluded that as she finalizes her plans, no less than five other families of their friends and relatives are planning to follow their lead.
What unbelievable z'chuyyos. To not only build Eretz Yisrael with your own sacrifice, but to inspire a multitude of others to do the same. In the words of the mashgiach, HaKadosh Baruch Hu has prepared for you so many z'chuyyos which will no doubt be a vehicle for a complete refuah and speedy recovery.
And even to many of us who unfortunately are unable at this time to follow the Katz family's lead, it has instilled in us a greater yearning for Eretz Yisrael, which is almost as important.
My friend and colleague, Rav Yaakov Feitman, once shared a story about a chassid who sent a letter to his rebbe, the Rebbe of Zhikov (Rabbi Yehuda Horowitz), who lived in Eretz Yisrael. He wrote that though he had to leave Eretz Yisrael years earlier because of parnasah, he yearns to return to Eretz Yisrael. The Rebbe wrote back and said, "It's better that you live outside Eretz Yisrael and long for the land, than to live in the land and long for chutz la'aretz." He concluded, "If the time should come, chas v'shalom, that you no longer yearn for Eretz Yisrael, then you must return immediately."
For many of us who are unable to currently join the Katz family in Eretz Yisrael, maybe our yearning for Eretz Yisrael is lacking, as well. The articles that depict the Katz family's aliyah experience has made it into our homes and into our hearts, and hopefully our yearning has returned. For that alone, we owe them a great sense of hakaras ha'tov, and may the z'chuyyos of all the enhanced kavod and ahavas Eretz Yisrael be a z'chus for Goldie to return to her home and family in perfect health.
We are in the month of Iyar. Many are aware that Iyar forms an acronym of "Ani Hashem rof'echa" ("I am Hashem, your Healer"), but are not sure why this month is associated with refuah. The Bnei Yissaschar (Chodesh Iyar, Maamar 1-3) explains that it is because the mon in the desert began to fall in the month of Iyar. The mon was called the lechem avirim, because it became totally absorbed into the body and cured anyone of any illness that he or she may have had, and so this month became a segulah for all forms of refuah.
Our personal response to Shmuel and Goldie Katz is that in the merit of all their wonderful z'chuyyos of building Eretz Yisrael with their bodies and their hearts, and in the z'chus of the month of Iyar, may they be zocheh to a complete refuah and continue to inspire the rest of us with their love and devotion to Eretz Yisrael, until 120 years. In the meanwhile, we ask all our readers to please daven in the z'chus of Golda Susya bas Shoshana for a refuah sheleimah.
Friday, April 20, 2007
I wrote those words last week with joy in my heart and a satisfaction that we have really found a sense of home and belonging in our move here. Three days later, our lives were forever changed.
On Wednesday morning, we got a call from the doctor to come in so that Goldie could be scheduled for some more tests. When we arrived, the doctor sat us down to deliver the news that they had finally identified what they believe is the source of her problems.
A scan ordered by her neurologist had discovered an abnormal cluster of cells, and her biopsy results showed a malignant tumor.
We are obviously terrified at what may come and are investigating all avenues of treatment, both here and internationally. We pray to Hashem that he deliver a cure to us and that we should have the merit of continuing our lives together here in Israel.
We do not regret our move in any way. This illness had been developing before we packed our first box or suitcase and is clearly part of Hashem's grand plan for us.
We look forward to spending many more years here in the land that is truly home for each and every one of us. We debated the merits of so publicly disclosing her illness, but Goldie turned to me on Sunday morning and said, "Thousands of people read the paper, and each one of them is a person who can daven for me."
So I ask each and every one of you to include Golda Susya bat Shoshana in your prayers. Please add her name to your Tehillim lists and your Mi Shebeirach lists and ask Hashem to grant her a full and complete recovery.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
We had the most beautiful weather; it might have even been a little on the hot side, but we'll take it. The weather here has been kind of funny, we've alternated between chilly and boiling hot for a couple of weeks with a little bit of rain thrown in every once in a while, although we don't expect much in the way of rain from now on.
We were a little nervous going into the Pesach season. In America, we were familiar with the hashgachot (kosher supervision) and products and had developed (almost) a routine in what we needed to buy and in what quantities. However, and this is an issue we have struggled with since arriving here, there are so many different hashgachot here that we really have to focus each and every time we go grocery shopping to make sure that we buy products that we would actually eat. Often, the same exact product with the same exact package comes with two different hashgachot and you need to be sure you buy the right one (milk is a very good example).
Yet, for Pesach there is another level of confusion added to the mix. Specifically, kitniyot.
In the US, where the majority of consumers follow the traditions of the Ashkenazim and do not eat kitniyot, finding a product that is kosher for Pesach AND contains kitniyot is the exception. If you go to the average store and buy Kosher for Pesach products – you can rest assured that they do not have kitnoyot at all.
Here in Israel, we have the exact opposite circumstance. The majority of the population here follows the Sephardic traditions and eat products that contain kitniyot. Hence, every supermarket carries a preponderance of items that are listed as Kosher for Passover and yet we could not buy or eat them.
So we had to be extremely careful about what we bought and make sure that it was appropriate for us. Often, if a products label did not clearly state that it did or didn't have kitniyot, we decided to just skip it, since we weren't sure if it was acceptable for us or not.
So, there was almost no Pesach cereal to be had (hey – they eat CORNFLAKES), lollipops were a big deal (and I am the candy man so I really had to find some), mayonnaise was a tough find, there was no coffee whitener at all and pareve margarine was a total dream, just to name a few items. We had been warned about these issues, so we were approaching the whole issue cautiously.
Then, one of our neighbors mentioned to us that they went to a specific store in Yerushalayim, which carried many American products for Pesach. They specifically shopped there so that they could not only have an easier time dealing with the hashgachot and kitniyot issues, but also because they were able to find many of the products they were familiar with and make the whole experience a little simpler.
We decided to follow their lead and are very glad that we did. Mayonnaise? Gefen (from America). Gefilte fish? Meal Mart. Cereal? Crispy O's (Yeah – they taste horrible here too, but we had to give the kids something).
They still had some kitniyot stuff there (imagine – Kosher for Pesach Chummus), but for the most part we were able to avoid most of the aggravation of shopping for Pesach Israeli style.
Cleaning for Pesach was also a little different. We had never had granite counter tops before, which was a real treat. Our oven here does NOT self clean (what a pain). However, we have only been living in this house for about eight months, and we are the first people to live here, so it was pretty easy as a whole.
Here's another benefit of living in Israel – food prices do not automatically rise for Pesach. Imported items are of course as expensive as they would normally be year round. However, basic items keep the same prices. So our meats, dairy and grocery items like ketchup and jelly (well, we bought Kedem Concord Grape jelly – so it was a little more) were the same price for Pesach as they are year round. The only thing that was more expensive was the shankbone for the Seder plate. In the US, they always gave it to us for free, but here we had to buy it.
Another good adjustment we had to make was in the amount of things we needed for the Seder. After all, we only needed enough for one where in the past we had two. So we bought less wine and grape juice, less matzot, less romaine lettuce, less of a lot of things. We even bought less meats and prepared less food, since we only had six meals (two on the first day, two on Shabbat Chol Hamoed and two on the last day) instead of the ten we used to have.
We did have to buy some new appliances. Our food processor and blender we used with a converter. But our hot water urn and microwave weren't compatible, so we bought the cheapest ones we could lay our hands on (we only use them one week a year) and added them to our Pesach boxes.
We were really in a groove heading into Pesach, when of course the usual happened. We all got sick.
It is so normal for us that we took it pretty much in stride. It made us alter our preparation schedule a little and do some things at the last minute, but everything was done on time and we were ready when our company showed up and the Chag started.
People had commented to us that they were surprised that we had decided to host guests. After all, Goldie still isn't driving and we have other pressures that we were dealing with.
At the end of the calendar year in the US, the newspapers run story after story about the fact that people often get depressed during “the holiday season” and I never understood why. Until this year.
So for us, there was really no other consideration. Once her parents couldn't come and we realized we would be alone (my brother had already committed to be in a hotel and my sister's husband is Sephardi and we can't eat the same food), we knew that we had to have company no matter what.
I cannot remember a time that I didn't know Steve Kirshner. Our families have been friends for as long as I can remember and as teenagers through the time he made Aliyah in the mid-90's, we spent a lot of time together (even after I was married).
I came to Israel to be at his wedding to Amy, and for those who remember, Goldie and I were privileged to attend the Brit Mila of their youngest son which coincided with both Yom HaAtzmaut as well as our pilot trip to Israel last year. Although we now live 20 miles apart (instead of 6,000), we still rarely get together, so we were thrilled when they accepted our invitation to join us for the Seder.
We are not known for our long lasting Sedarim, so it was a little bit of a surprise when we finished a bit after 2 AM, which is an hour or more longer than usual for us. However, the kids had a great time and it wasn't like we had to hold anything back and save it for the next night anyway.
Our kids got along very well and kept themselves occupied (and out of our way) for most of the day and before we knew it, Yom Tov was over. It was definitely strange to count Sefirat HaOmer day One at the minyan in the parking lot AFTER Yom Tov and not at the Seder as usual.
People have asked us if it was strange to only have one Seder and one day of chag. It really wasn't. I think that the fact that everyone else here only has one of each made us feel as if we fit in. It would have been strange to have a second seder.
We took advantage of the terrific weather on the first day of Chol HaMoed and took the kids to a jeep/ATV place just outside Bet Shemesh. We had a chance to drive through a rock quarry, vineyards, the woods and had spectacular views from the top of a mountain. After the ride, we sat at a scenic overlook and enjoyed a picnic lunch (matzo and just about anything) before heading home. It was an awesome day that we all enjoyed.
The next morning we headed to Teveria for the Bar Mitzva of Goldie's first cousin, Chaim Sinensky. His family had come to Israel for Pesach and we joined them for davening and his Siyum Mishnayot in their hotel. Goldie's grandmother was also there and her sisters, who left Russia in 1990 and now live in the Maalot and Acco areas and their families joined us as well.
After breakfast in the hotel, Goldie's aunt and uncle had arranged a day of touring for the whole family (and friends). Our first stop was Tzfat, where we visited the shul's of the Ari HaKodesh and Rav Yosef Karo and also toured the artists market. We then headed to a local ranch, where we went horseback riding for an hour through the mountains near Tzfat. Even the little kids had a chance to ride a pony in the corral while the adults were on “the trail.”
By Erev Shabbat we were very tired, so we essentially took the day off and relaxed.
Two weeks ago I wrote about an organization called Standing Together and their Pesach project of distributing chocolate and other treats to the chayalim (Israeli soldiers) who are standing guard at various checkpoints.
The people of Standing Together actually deliver pizzas, felafel, coffee and other items to the soldiers throughout the year. They have a specially outfitted trailer that they use to bring hot food and our wishes of support directly to the chayalim who are putting themselves in danger in order to ensure our security from terrorists.
We had actually taken it upon ourselves to distribute mishloach manot to the chayalim on Purim, and when we were asked to volunteer with Standing Together, we jumped at the opportunity.
So we headed off on the last day of Chol HaMoed to meet the Standing Together trailer at a checkpoint, and try to visit as many chayalim as possible, offering them our thanks for leaving their families (most of these chayalim are actually reservists) to stand their posts – especially while the rest of us were busy with our various Chol HaMoed entertainment activities.
Words fail me. There is no way to describe the emotions and bond we felt in interacting with the chayalim. Without fail, when we wished them a Chag Sameach and said thank you to them, they not only expressed their appreciation for our coming to visit them – but also their feeling that no thanks was needed since they are “just doing their job.”
We must have seen 100+ soldiers at the various checkpoints (plus a couple of jeeps that we flagged down while driving on the highway between checkpoints) and there was not a single one who did not give us and our children a big smile, a loud wish of “Chag Sameach” and a real sense of appreciation for what we were doing for them. And all this when WE were trying to say thanks to THEM and not the other way around.
It wasn't the chocolate bars, the potato chips or the soda. It was the smiles of the kids and the letters we delivered from schoolchildren in the US. It was the understanding that we knew exactly what they were giving up in order to protect us and that we were willing to come out and say thank you. That made all the difference in the world.
As we drove home with the kids still bursting with excitement and pleasure from the experience, Goldie commented to me that she would love to go out every week and do the same thing. No matter how many times we go out to support pur chayalim, I hope that each time I have the same excitement and emotion as I had that Sunday.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Last week I got an email from the editor of the 5 Towns Jewish Times asking why I hadn't written an article for the week. I admit I myself was perplexed why it seemed that I had no time anymore – not just for writing, but for other work that I had been accustomed to getting done on the computer like our Yeshiva's monthly newsletter.
Then it hit me. With Goldie's inability to drive, I have been driving to work every day. It saves time (about a half hour each way) and also gives me the freedom to run errands for the family during the day and also on my way home. With all the groceries and sundry our family of eight goes through on an average week, there are a lot of errands to run (and a lot of things are actually cheaper in Jerusalem).
So I haven't taken the train. I have waxed poetic in these pages about how much I enjoy the train. It relaxes me and gives me an hour and a half each day of solitude and serenity (no cellphone signal for a large portion of the trip). The scenery is great. Yet the biggest difference is in my work.
I had taken to doing most of my writing on the train. With my headphones on listening to either the Sameach Music Podcast or the various ESPN radio and WGN radio podcasts I subscribe to (for free) I sat on the train and wrote. Emails. Articles. Newsletters. General correspondence for the Yeshiva. I sat with my laptop and really made the most of that time (OK – so I occasionally watched a movie or video on the laptop, so what).
I hadn't realized how fundamentally different our lives have been for the last few months. We have (once the initial shock and panic wore off) begun to adjust to our new circumstances. We have been told that although the vision problems are not representative of a major health issue, it could take up to six months for her symptoms to abate. Basically, although they continue to test and monitor her on a regular basis, we just have to wait it out (like a virus).
So we have adjusted the way we get things done and have reapportioned our responsibilities accordingly.
Sometimes I get frustrated because I have to do the running around. Other times she is at her wits end because she feels confined and limited in what she can do. Yet, we are (thankfully) managing, and the kids have been great at helping out as well.
Israeli schools go on what they call their "Tiyul Shnati" (annual trip) in this season. Depending on the grade level, they go to various places of interest (mostly hiking in a riverbed or up a mountain) and stay one or two nights in a youth hostel or dormitory of a Yeshiva that is on vacation. Aliza had a tiyul shnati this year in the Northern Negev, with an overnight stay in Yerucham (a Yeshiva town in the middle of nowhere).
She has really acclimated to being here. She is our second best Hebrew speaker (Batya is amazingly the best of the bunch – she reads Israeli fiction in Hebrew on her grade level in 2 nd Grade) and is exuberant about everything she does. She got into the three middle/high schools she applied for and is really doing quite well.
Chaya was supposed to have gone on her tiyul at the end of the week, but a forecast of heavy rains in the northern regions of the country caused the school to cancel the trip. Not a happy day in our house.
The day after Aliza got back, Goldie and Aliza together joined Mordechai for his birthday party in Gan. Happy Sixth Birthday Mordechai. We had a joint party with "Akiva," another new Oleh whose birthday was also that week.
Discounting the fact that it was in Hebrew, the party was uniquely Israeli (Aliza who is reading this as I write says that is was "so much cuter than in America") with special crowns for the birthday boys, games, a cake, drinks and so on. They make a special table for the boys, with thrones for them and special chairs for their mothers. There is music and dancing and the party lasts for well over an hour.
Although we had heard it before, Goldie was amazed to see how well Mordechai is getting on with his Hebrew. The Gannenet (Morah) would tell him what they were going to do and then say to him, "Now tell Akiva in English." He really is the translator for some of the kids! Pretty good for a kid who got nauseous every time he heard Hebrew.
The day after his party, we had a nasty stomach virus (that has apparently hit a lot of Beit Shemesh) begin its run through the family. In Mordechai's case it was so severe that he woke up dehydrated and needed two IV bags at the doctor's office to make sure he was ok. They actually thought he might have had appendicitis.
That night, in a routine follow up with her private doctor, we were pleased to see that one of Goldie's symptoms seemed to show slight improvement. While we were warned not to read too much into it, we still were encouraged. The doctor, apparently feeling that we had too much free time on our hands, scheduled her for yet another barrage of tests.
The next week was another series of medical tests and follow ups. We went to the hospital for a check up with the head of the department (who was Goldie's attending physician when she was in the hospital as well). Interestingly, he did not notice the improvement that her private doctor had seen, but instead noted a strengthening of her eye muscles which should (hopefully) eventually result in the return of her normal vision.
Chaya went on her rescheduled tiyul shnati to Northern Israel and the Galil. Chaya is not necessarily the most outdoorsy of our kids, so we were interested to see how she would respond to the trip.
Her first day went well, with Kayaking down what she termed a "dirty, smelly little river" (we have no idea which one) and then to visit the kever of Rav Meir Baal Haness. The next day Goldie got a phone call from her while she was in the middle of a six and a half hour hike. Her only words? "I HATE NATURE!"
However, she did have a really terrific time. It really wasn't what she was doing, since she didn't like what she was doing. But she and her friends had a really great time bonding together.
Chaim started his own team in the Israeli Flag Football League. He had been on a team that was disbanding and wanted to make sure he would play the second season, so he decided to make his own team. He contacted all the players for the team, and since a couple of his classmates were playing on the team, he went to the Director of his program and asked if they would sponsor his team.
So he is the captain of the GMAX team in the High School division of the football league. It is amazing to see his growth. Aside from the growth that you would normally expect from a teenager, the culture here really expects a lot of independence and responsibility from our youth and Chaim has really taken to that message.
Even the younger kids are much freer here than they would have been in America. We have an eight and six year old taking our two year old a few blocks to Gan on their own. They walk to the supermarket (about half a mile) by themselves to go to after school activities and routinely disappear on Shabbat afternoon to be with their friends who live throughout the neighborhood. We often don't see them for hours at a time as they wander in packs from house to house.
I had been looking forward to going to our first Israeli wedding. On Wednesday night of last week, we thought we were going to get our chance. We attended the wedding of Elisheva Lipkin, the daughter of Menachem and Randi Lipkin (they have appeared here before), our neighbors from down the block. We were really very excited to go to our first Israeli wedding, albeit in Bnei Brak.
Well, we still have more waiting to do. The wedding was awesome, but we could've been in Brooklyn. Very American. Not that Israeli means bad, but we could tell that this was an American wedding from the minute we walked in. It was a lot of fun (especially when the band started playing "Mission Impossible" and then moved on to various cartoon themes) and a nice break from the ordinary.
For the Shabbat Sheva Brachot we hosted the Chatan's uncle and aunt, Shimmy and Shirley Storch. As soon as I heard their names I realized that they were Eli Storch's parents (Eli is a Rebbi in DRS and he and Yaffa lived a block away from us in Woodmere where he was a regular in the Motzei Shabbat Maariv Minyanim in my basement). Right before Shabbat, as the Storch's called America to wish Shabbat Shalom to the Woodmere contingent, we had a chance to say Hi, which was nice.
Interestingly, the Chatan's sister Miriam is a student in TMM, the high school that Chaya would have attended in Far Rockaway and where almost all of her friends go to high school. So, even though they had never met, they had a chance over Shabbat to "catch up" on what is going on in America.
As Pesach is fast approaching and we are all preparing for the chag, I want to wish all of you a wonderful Pesach. May you share it with family and friends and may we have the zchut to have you join us here in our Holy Land next year for Pesach in a rebuilt Jerusalem, sharing the Korban Pesach (Passover Sacrifice) at our Seder in the time of the ultimate redemption.
And in the off chance that we are still in galut (exile), you should still be here.
For those of you who will be in Israel over Pesach, our family will be participating in a special program delivering Pesach goodies to the soldiers who put their lives in jeopardy every day to ensure our safety. This program is run under the auspices of STANDING TOGETHER in conjunction with FRIENDS OF THE IDF. To join us or for more information on how to support this effort, please visit www.stogether.org or email Miriam Gottlieb at firstname.lastname@example.org