Saturday, July 21, 2007

Mitzva Challot (Article #50) 7/19/2007

I wrote several weeks ago about those families who for whatever reason end up going to America after their Aliyah experience didn’t work out for them. These are indeed brave families who were willing to make the hard choice to give up their dream in the hope of providing for the needs of their family, whatever those needs may be. Needs which are of course different for all of us.

When we first talked publicly about the possibility that we would be making Aliyah we heard all about these families. About the uncles, cousins, neighbors or whomever, who had made Aliyah and returned having lost everything and suffered terrible disasters. We heard about all the teenagers who have been “lost” in the difficult transition to Israeli society and how these children’s lives were “ruined” by parents who put them “at risk” in such a thoughtless way.

Yet, we knew that somehow there had to be some people who actually made it work. There had to be people who made Aliyah with teenagers who DIDN’T end up as axe murderers, people who lived a successful life in Israel and might actually have made the right decision.

There is no guarantee in life and we certainly have no clue what lays upon our road ahead. Yet, here we are after a year in Israel and we have happy kids and continue to hope for the best for them here in Israel.

The one who was most set against coming, Chaim, may not be the most thrilled kid in the world, but he is far ahead of where he would have been on his life’s mission than he would have been had we been in NY and (don’t tell him that we know this) he has made a lot of new friends and has grown tremendously in character and maturity this year. We know he is happy with his friends here and that he is adjusting well. And hey – there is no way of knowing what terrible trouble our kids could have gotten into in America as well.

“But the magazines all say” we heard repeatedly, each person telling us of the dangers they had learned of in this weekly or that monthly. Yet life is not lived in the pages of a magazine (although our lives seem to be lived in the pages of this newspaper).

Had life been lived in a magazine we would have given up the first week Goldie was finally diagnosed, when a psychologist from our hospital was quoted in a popular religious weekly as saying that they don’t help lung cancer patients fight their disease, they “prepare them to die.” Goldie was horrified to read those words. Yet, she didn’t give up and we lived our lives and we are here today.

So too, there are so many different influences upon us all. There are so many ways things can go wrong. Yet there are tons of ways things can go right too.

Through the extended kindness of our neighbors and friends in Bet Shemesh, when we first returned from America we went through a period of several weeks where we prepared very few meals for ourselves. Goldie wanted to get right back to doing things for the family, but it was clear that she was not strong enough to put forth the effort to just jump in headfirst.

In a move I will always admire, Daniella Rudoff (who coordinated the meals) refused to stop the meals until I approved it rather than Goldie. In fact, the first time Goldie tried to get them to stop I secretly told Daniella that Goldie wasn’t ready yet.

So it was three or four weeks before Goldie had a chance to prepare any Shabbat meals for our family. I think the first one was the week that Chaim and Aliza were leaving for camp. With all the deliveries of food and baked goods, it was another couple of weeks before we had to actually buy challot on our own.

So we only had a limited opportunity to have what we called the “mitzva challot” of Sderot. For those of you who don’t know, Sderot is the town very close to Gaza that has been constantly shelled by the Arabs for the past couple of years. Since Sderot (at least to the government of Israel) seems to be not important enough to protect from the rockets (not that I would have a clue myself how to protect the town), the rockets rain down on a semi regular basis.

If this were an industrial area or the rockets caused more significant damage we would probably have done something more to clear out the terrorists or build better protection for the people of Sderot. Right now the terrorists have figured out how annoying they can be to us without getting kicked back. (I hope that our tolerance level gets lowered as they need a kick, desperately)

So the people of Sderot have to live in the constant fear that a terrorist will get lucky and have his crude rocket actually hit a person or car with people in it. They have to live with the stress that at any moment yet another threat to their safety and security will come flaming over the horizon to damage their homes, business, schools and community.

As you can guess, many of the residents have fled for “safer” places. Yet, many have remained. They refuse to give in to the terrorists desire to drive us from our homes.

Life for them is difficult. Businesses cannot thrive when significant percentages of their customers flee. Obtaining the basic staples of life can become difficult.

The same group with whom our family went to distribute Pesach treats to the chayalim (Israeli soldiers), Standing Together, stood in to make a difference. They arranged for groups throughout Israel, places like Yerushalayim, Modiin and of course Bet Shemesh to purchase items from the shopkeepers of Sderot.

This effort literally kept these merchants in business, benefiting not only the merchants but also their customers who would have nowhere to shop if these stores had closed. A specific focus was the purchase of hundreds if not thousands of challot (loaves of bread) for Shabbat from a bakery in Sderot.

One of our neighbors, Randi Lipkin served as the local organizer for Bet Shemesh. She collected orders and money and opened her house for pickup of challot on Fridays.

When we finally emptied our freezer we could not wait to order these challot for our Shabbat table. That Friday we described to the kids that we were going to have special mitzva challot for the seuda (Shabbat meal). We told them about the plight of the community of Sderot and of the wonderful mitzva we were finally privileged to be a part of.

The kids’ excitement was so uplifting. They were so happy to be a part of something, even if they didn’t totally understand what was going on. Challa has never tasted as good as that Challa. I have to admit that as far as actual taste goes, it was average. But, we could not wait to eat each slice as we really felt the zechut (merit) of helping the people of Sderot, people who live in circumstances I am not sure that I would be willing to tolerate.

The next week’s seuda was made even more meaningful when Mordechai (age 6) turned to me right after Kiddush and asked, “Abba – DO WE HAVE MITZVA CHALLOT AGAIN THIS WEEK?!?” His joy was even greater than that of his parents as we showed him the specially wrapped challot and our pride in him and in the lesson he learned was overwhelming.

In an effort to try to “spread the wealth” so to speak, the challa project has ended and other forms of support are being organized. Goldie hopes this week to go on a special outing to Sderot, to meet the people, distribute support packages (that were purchased with Tzedaka/charity funds spent in Sderot stores) to those in need and do some shopping in the local supermarket.

We spent a day last week at the Bituach Leumi (social security) office. When the notice came in the mail it said, “BE PREPARED TO WAIT.”

That was scary. We are always prepared to wait here. If they were actually telling us to wait, they must really have meant business. They did.

We were there for about six hours and saw four different doctors. They were very nice and extremely kind about offering their advice and referral to “the best doctor” who could help Goldie. Then they told us they would get an answer to us in (maybe) two and a half months.

My Yeshiva went on an overnight tiyul to Ashkelon. Since we have Southern Hemisphere students who attend Yeshiva from February through December, we have an extended summer program for them (as well as those Northern Hemisphere students who elect to stay for a few weeks more). This year we had 22 students for the summer program.

These students are going on a trip to Poland with Bnei Akiva in a few days, to learn about European Jewry and the Holocaust, and will rejoin us a couple of days before the new students from the Northern Hemisphere come in. As part of the closing week of the summer program, we took them on an overnight tiyul (trip).

One of my functions is directing Alumni activities for our former students. In order to get to know the students better and establish a bond with them, I try to go with them on as many tiyulim as possible, this one included.

We had a terrific midnight BBQ (guess who the chef was) and a great time hanging out together till 2 AM when we climbed into our sleeping bags (in the middle of the national park/historical site) to go to sleep. As an American, I of course assumed it would get cold at night, so I brought a flannel sleeping bag. Big mistake.

It was hot. It was humid. The entire place was soaking wet by the morning and I barely slept. We woke to the booms of shelling that was going on in Gaza (check out a map and realize how close we were) and then the sounds of machine gun fire. It might have been live fire exercises at a local army base, but it seemed to us that we were hearing sounds of some fighting at the Gaza crossings.

I did however (as the incredibly overpacked American) bring some shampoo, so I grabbed my bathing suit and went down to the beach. By the shower where you wash off the salt water I took a nice sunrise shower.

We hiked around ancient Ashkelon, seeing the ramparts of the Roman walls and some of the excavations. After totally wearing ourselves out, we went to the separate beach and enjoyed the sea for a few hours before returning to the Yeshiva. It was a great trip.

These are the things that keep us grounded and hoping for a better future as we continue to recover and move forward in our klitta (absorption). Yes, there are historic sites all over the world. Yes, there are many opportunities for chessed (kindness) worldwide. But this is our home and every time we forget it, we drive by the Kotel or learn about a miracle that happened in the place we were just standing and we are reminded anew how lucky we are to be in the place we can all call home.

PS. This week is color war for Batya and Mordechai in their day camp. Let’s hear it for TEAM LAVAN (white)!!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Getting Back On Track (Article #49) 7/12/2007

It has been a while, hasn’t it? With our doctors appointments and the shortened week last week because of the holiday (at least for you in the USA), I have not really had the opportunity to sit down and write. So much has happened so quickly that it is amazing to me that it has only been five weeks since we came back to Israel.

Out first couple of weeks back were totally taken up with seeing our doctors and conducting even MORE tests to see if anyone could diagnose the reason for Goldie’s continuing eye issues. We really did not do much in the manner of experiences since we were still focused on adjusting (back) to our Israeli lives and getting back on track.

And life goes on whether we are ready for it or not, so we continue to move forward. Goldie had really tried hard to have things set up properly for the kids so that our absence would not ruin their summer. So we had them all signed up for their various programs and we had to start getting the first two (Chaim and Aliza) departees ready for summer camp.

That meant getting them labeled and packed and (this one is the most important) keeping their suitcases under the weight limit for the plane. Goldie had of course considered this even before we moved, leaving certain things at her parents house to be added to duffle bags once in NY. So we really had a good plan going in to make sure they had all that they needed.

I am not sure that we will continue sending the kids for the summer to the USA. There are definitely distinct advantages to it. Firstly, there are very few (if any) full summer programs here, leaving a whole bunch of bored teens with nothing but time on their hands. This is not a recipe for success.

Secondly, they have maintained a lot of their friendships in the USA and we think it is important for them to continue these friendships and renewing the bonds with their friends.

It also helps that both sets of grandparents and a lot of extended family lives in the US. I don’t think they will actually see many of them this year, mostly because our “other” issues have so occupied us that we had no time to plan any visits other than in NY which is their arrival and departure point. The NY relatives though, did get to see them (and they even had the chance to attend a family wedding in NY as well – Mazal Tov to Michael and Irina).

Finally, we think it is important for them to be comfortable in the US. English is a priority for us and we want to make sure that they will truly be prepared for whatever challenges they may face as they get older. So we want them to be comfortable in the US and in dealing with the society there.

Finally, the kids needed a break. Imagine being sixteen, fourteen or eleven and having to deal with the stress of knowing your mother has cancer and that your parents had to drop everything to deal with it. No matter how well they (and my parents) dealt with it, I am sure that it was tough for them and the break will be good for them.

We also had to finalize some details for schooling for next year. Bus contracts. Registrations.

Chaim is registered nowhere. He officially finished his GMAX program, took the GED and will have the equivalent of a High School diploma. However, since he is still sixteen, we want him to wait just a bit before he enters college. We therefore decided to enroll him in a Yeshiva program that allows him to get college credits (he plans on attending Yeshiva University) while he is there.

Unfortunately, we were away dealing with some other issues after Pesach and didn’t have the opportunity to investigate the options. So we are going to have to deal with it as soon as he arrives back from the USA.

In a prior time of our lives doing things at such a last minute would be unacceptable. Here it is the norm. Everything seems to be arranged at the last minute and people are constantly asking us why we want things done so early. Our response is… Hey – we are Americans.

With the exception of Goldie’s inability to drive and run errands, we really began to settle into a (new) routine. The kids had gotten over our fascination with our being home and we asked the neighbors to stop dropping meals off (the entire Bet Shemesh area was unbelievably supportive when it came to meals and helping out) so that she could do things herself and things settled in.

In our third week home, it was time to run yet again to the airport, this time to take Chaim and Aliza to their flight. It was tough to say goodbye to them. We had been away for six weeks, together again for only three and it was time for them to leave us for almost ten. From April 15 to August 28 we would only have three weeks with them.

We were a little nervous about the departure. We were especially concerned with Chaim and his non Israeli status traveling with his sister who is Israeli and also underage to travel alone. Thankfully, everything went without an incident except for Aliza’s complaint that the flight was boring. We get to do this again with Chaya in a few weeks, hooray.

After they left we got ready for another exciting event, the opening of the Israeli professional baseball league. Although we did not go to the league’s opening game, we went to the home opener for the Bet Shemesh Blue Sox and boy did we have fun.

Goldie saw two of every pitch (so at least one of them was bound to be a strike, right?) and the kids (we took Batya and Mordechai) had no clue what was going on, but the spirit of the crowd and the general atmosphere was awesome. Hatikva before the first pitch. We didn’t have to worry about finding the “kosher” concession. There was even a minyan for Mincha announced over the PA in the 5th inning and it was really cool to be there.

As opposed to the USA, our $10 seats (bought for $7) put us in the first and second rows, right behind home plate. The players all made themselves available to talk to the fans after the game and really made the experience a positive one for the little kids.

There is also a sense of Israeli surrealism too. The “official” baseballs got caught up in Meches (customs) and weren’t available for the first few games, so they had to run out and buy a whole bunch of baseballs. We have season tickets, but instead of having them all in our hands before the season, we just ask for them at the ticket booth when we (or our guests) arrive for that day’s game. Most annoyingly, the schedule is constantly changed, so we have to check the website for updates on when/where/if games are being played.

I actually had a nostalgic touch of the “old country” from my youth when the game was shortened an inning due to darkness. It seems that the lights don’t shine into the outfield (most night games are with little leaguers who don’t hit that far) and they had to reschedule the starting time of games to accommodate for this. Of course, Bet Shemesh won (they are currently 10-1 and in first place) in a tight game and we look forward to going to many more games.

Actually, I did go to a second game later in that week. I took Chaya and a couple of her friends to a game one night. Chaya (who is not a baseball fan) and her friends (who are) had such a great time. The crowd is less than 1,000 which makes for a more intimate setting and allows the kids to really have a lot of fun.

Our kids finished their school year. Mordechai’s “graduation” was Yerushalayim themed and really had a message for the kids. Originally, the invitation said “Mothers Only”. However, Mordechai told the teachers he thought that it wasn’t fair and another boy also complained and they changed their minds. So I got to go too.

It was short – only slightly over an hour (some preschool graduations here run 2 hours+) and we enjoyed it immensely. The other kids also had various end of the year parties and events. Thankfully, most of them were “kids only”.

We hosted Jessica Adelsberg and her friend Karen Abromowitz (who are here volunteering for the summer in a foster care summer camp) last Shabbat. Jessica lived across the street from us in Woodmere and apparently reported back to her parents (Howard and Robin Adelsberg) about the Shabbat and how Israeli Mordechai is. Amazing when you remember that as late as mid November he told us that “Whenever I hear Hebrew I get nauseous.”

Then, about 2 weeks ago we had another significant development. Finally throwing their hands up in frustration at identifying the cause for Goldie’s double vision, the doctors recommended that we get corrective lenses to help. Goldie had been fitted for the glasses and we finally got them.

What a difference. Although she still had the medical problem, the lenses almost completely correct the double vision. She can drive (this is actually a huge development) and run errands like a normal person. This in turn freed me from a lot of the added responsibilities and allows me to devote more of my time to the portion of my work that I had neglected during the period of her illness.

I take the train again. I am sure I have written about how much I love the relaxation the train gives me. I work on the train and it is normally the time I take to write the article each week (another reason that they have been so sporadic).

We have been able to start going out again. We attended a wedding and a Bar Mitzva (both from my side of the family) and Goldie was able to stay awhile without the disorientation that had plagued her in open places.

We passed our one year anniversary as Israelis. Although we aren’t in a celebratory mood, I wanted to mark the occasion (and hope to do so in a bigger way in the future once we are readjusted and totally on track). So I bought some rugelach for the Talmidim in the Yeshiva and had a small celebration with them.

Getting her back to herself has allowed us to regain a semblance of “normal” life. Although we still have certain issues (such as rebuilding Goldie’s stamina – she tires very easily) and physical hurdles to overcome, we keep getting closer and closer.

That’s not to say that everything is terrific. This has been a trying time for us and I for one have not recovered from the emotional strain. I know that I am having issues in dealing with my continuing concern of Goldie and the kids. It is definitely hard to be cheerful and maintain a positive outlook.

We had a problem with a car we had planned to buy. We had been working on getting it since before Pesach. Apparently, the sellers weren’t aware that even if I was an oleh with tax exemptions, that they would still have to pay the taxes on the vehicle since they had left the country before their own tax exemptions had “vested”. So now we have to go direct to the dealer and pay a little more for a car.

There was actually a night or two when we really felt that the world was still crashing down on us that I know I thought about throwing in the towel. But that time passed and we are still cautiously optimistic. I say cautiously only because of the trials we have faced these past few months and the effect it has had on us. Optimistic because when all is said and done we are still here and making it work.

Life Goes One (Article #48) 6/21/2007

Over the last couple of weeks we have had many people ask us, either in person, by phone or via email…..”So – are things returning to normal?”

Normal? I don’t think there is such a thing as normal anymore. No matter what we do from now on, our lives are forever changed and I cannot imagine being able to return to the same “place” we were before Goldie first got ill and certainly before we found out about her tumor.

However, we are certainly trying as hard as we can to regain a sense of routine, where we have a regular pattern of life that we follow. In many ways, leaving the kids in Israel with my parents set the table for this process, since they had only slight modifications to their routine and were (for the most part) able to sleep in their beds in night, eat at their normal table, attend their regular school and continue the routines they had developed over the past several months.

This made the adjustment for them a lot less stressful and difficult. Sure they missed us, but they saw us on the webcam all the time, spoke to us on the phone and were reassured that we were doing everything possible to take care of the medical issues and return home.

My parents had to return to America within the week after our return, so the timing of Goldie’s release worked out very well. We didn’t tell the kids exactly which day we would be back. We were concerned it would upset their lives too much and if there was a problem that the disappointment would be too much for them.

Our arrival was therefore a big event. We arrived in the late morning, so we were able to welcome each kid home as they arrived and spend a couple of minutes with them alone, instead of having them all clamoring for our attention at once.

We unpacked and had some time to have with the kids and tried to settle down and settle in. We hadn’t slept much on the plane (despite taking sleeping pills) and were exhausted. And couldn’t sleep.

It was really bad. I think we slept something like 6 hours in 3 days. We had spent 6 weeks out of the house and were just not comfortable. Plus, after having forced ourselves through the incredible stress and worry of the prior two months, we finally tried to let go of all the tension and tried to relax and all the tension, nerves and worry didn’t want to let go of us.

So we walked around exhausted all the time. We spent a lot of time getting new medical records to doctors and confirming various monitoring plans and protocols. We tried to catch up on the mountain of bills and other obligations that had been ignored during our absence. I went to work for a few hours one week. The next week more like 60%. Now, unless I have to go to a doctor with her, I am mostly able to be in the office or working out of the house as I need.

We began to do regular things.

I went one night last week to watch Chaim’s flag football team in the second round of the playoffs. By his own estimation, his team was 4th best in the entire league and true to expectation they lost to the team they felt was just ahead of them. He had an awesome experience with the flag football and was not disappointed in the least. Having formed the team, gotten them a sponsor and captained it through the season, this was a tremendous growth experience for him in responsibility and follow through and we were very impressed by the manner in which he did it and stuck to it for the entire season.

That night, the Yeshiva had a siyum for the end of the year for Northern Hemisphere students. Although some of them will stay for the summer z’man of learning, most of them will be returning/have returned to their homes for the summer before leaving for university or (in some cases) a second year of study in Yeshiva in Israel.

Saying goodbye to these students was vastly different to my prior experiences with day school and high school graduates. The Yeshiva is much smaller than those schools were and with a more mature student body it was much easier to interact with them and get close to them regardless of the shorter duration (only one or two years) spent with us.

As the Director of Alumni, I will actually get to keep up with them for the rest of their lives. Yet, it is still difficult to see them go and have to totally reset my mental expectations so that the next group can be viewed on their own merits rather than in contrast to this one.

On Wednesday, Goldie came with me to Jerusalem for the day. She went shopping in the morning at the Malcha mall for some presents. One of the things that she loved about it was the ability to once again sit in the food court and have lots of kosher food available that WASN’T ice cream!

After lunch she took a bus to my office and later that afternoon we headed off to the Kotel. That was the real reason for the trip. Goldie mentioned that she “felt like going to the Kotel” and since it is a drive away (not a transcontinental flight) it was easy enough to arrange for her to get there.

It had been a while for us, and it was (as expected) quite emotional for us. We also bumped into a few kids who were making their last visit before returning home (how sad) to the US or other places.

Before leaving the city, we went to see the massive book fair in the old train station just off of Derech Chevron Street in Jerusalem.

Every year, the country of Israel celebrates “Book Week” for a week at the beginning of the summer/end of the spring. Bookstores announce major sales and offer large discounts during that time and many major cities conduct major book fairs for their residents.

Admission is free and most of the bookstores and publishers as well as newspapers and magazines (soliciting new subscribers) offer their books/seforim to the public at hugely discounted prices.

We decided to see what it was all about. While it was certainly interesting and we definitely bought some things (including a new children’s magazine subscription so that they could further expand their vocabularies), it was also a little depressing for us (me) to realize that we/I didn’t understand anything that was there.

As I walked from stall to stall, I had very limited understanding what the books were about, even what types of books they were (fiction, non-fiction, etc.). It is jarring to see that even though we have progressed so far from where we started, that we still have many obstacles to tackle. Hopefully it will get a little easier as time goes by.

Sadly, we have also heard of a few families who will be taking their leave of us in the next few weeks. Families from various parts of the world who had come to Israel as we did, looking forward to new lives, new growth and new experiences. For whatever reasons they couldn’t make it work for them and now they go back to try to regain their former lives.

This is also a fact of life. Not everyone is successful in their adjustments and in adapting. Sometimes there are health issues that need to be addressed. Other families may have children whose educational needs cannot be met here. Still others may not feel comfortable in the society or (for commuting fathers) in the fact that Dad is constantly away from home.

Financial issues loom large here in Israel. Many families feel stress at budget time and making what we consider a decent living is certainly no picnic, especially for those who have high expectations. There are really too many reasons to count, yet the bottom line is that every year there is a percentage of people who, for whatever reasons they have, made the decision to go back.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with it. The law of averages means that some people don’t make it. Selfishly I can say that I am glad that (at least today) we fit in the other part of the equation and are continuing to adjust and settle in with the hope that we will stop talking about adjusting and fitting in and just talk about living.

As a matter of fact, those people who are going back might even be more courageous than we who stay. After all, there will be those people who will say that they “failed” or “weren’t tough enough to deal with the hardships”. They are going to have to go through the trauma of relocating thousands of miles again, buying a new house (if they sold theirs), adjusting to another new school situation and adjusting to their new environment.

So they are making a very courageous choice in doing what they think is best for themselves and their families and not caring about anything else. We wish them all the best and that they truly find the solution to their problems and that they should have the zchut (merit) of rejoining us as soon as they can (along with all of you).