Monday, August 27, 2007

Room for All (Article #53) 8/23/2007

It has been such a long time since we had an Aliyah related milestone event that I almost didn’t recognize it when it happened. After months of waiting and numerous delays, we finally got a car that fits the whole family.

It sounds spoiled for this to be such a big deal. We probably are a bit spoiled, there is no denying it. After all, there are many many Israeli families (quite a few with more children than ours) who never own a vehicle in their lives, much less a new one. Public transportation here is pretty efficient and most of the country is accessible by bus/train or other forms of transportation.

I even have a neighbor (who walks 10 minutes to work each day) who made a calculation that it doesn’t pay to get a car unless you commute to work no less than 9 one way trips each week. He calculated the costs of hiring a taxi for tiyulim and other trips and computed that it was cheaper. He does have much younger kids than us though. We’ll see what he says when he has 4 kids at different friends houses/trips/shopping who all come home with taxi receipts.

Yet, as I wrote when we first got our long term rental car, we consider the “convenience” of having the car as a necessity.

Ever since we got that rental car, we had been working toward getting a car of our own, especially one that had room for all of us. The rental was a compact car with seating for 5 in which we could sometimes squeeze 6 or 7 and even all 8 of us if the trip was short, but it was definitely unsafe to do so and we found ourselves renting vans for holiday weeks (at a significant cost) or having the 2 older kids travel by bus and meet us at our destination, while the rest of us went by car.

Psychologically if not practically, this deterred us from doing things as a family. A trip to visit my sister as a family was impossible because of the logistical nightmare involved in getting all of us there reasonably. The same with things like going to the Kotel together or going away for Shabbat.

Unfortunately for us (or maybe not), there were many different events that happened to postpone the arrival of the car for quite some time.

After researching various options, we had chosen (mostly because of financial considerations) to buy a Hyundai H1 cargo van last February. It was the cheapest of only 3 options available to us, since there are very few automobiles available in Israel that seat at least 8 and this was the cheapest option. It was also available for delivery within a 2 to 3 week period.

All 3 eight seat options were actually converted cargo vans that are imported as shells. They come with no seats or A/C and in some cases even without windows in the side panels. Why? Well, the import taxes are set based on the value of the imported car and they try to import as stripped down a vehicle as possible in order to reduce the import taxes, adding all the “extras” to the vehicle only once they are physically in the country.

Minivans do exist here, yet (at the time we began to look) there were no longer any minivans with seating configurations for 8 people. Mazda had sold an 8 seat minivan several years ago but had discontinued that design in favor of a 7 seater.

In the process of ordering the van, we became aware of a Metzia (deal) on a 6 month old car that was available from people who had bought the car and returned to the USA shortly thereafter. We were arranging to get that car instead when Goldie first took ill and when we tried to process the paperwork, the appropriate agency was on strike (that seems to happen a lot here).

After Pesach we were about to restart the process when we had to rush off to the US for Goldie’s treatment and surgery and it wasn’t until late May that we found out that the tax free benefits for that specific car were no longer available and we would need to find another solution.

After finding out that there was a 12 month wait for the Hyundai and that Toyota no longer sold the Hiace as an automatic, we were stuck with no options at all, until we heard about the Ssangyong Rodius. Seating 9, this minivan was only introduced to the Israeli market within the last year and was our last hope to get a new car.

We went to order the car right before I went to the USA and a few days after I returned we got the call that it was ready. We got it last week and are busily adjusting ourselves to it.

It isn’t really something that we needed this week per se, since the smaller car fit the family for the summer (since three of the kids have been gone). But this week the world gets back to normal as they begin to arrive home and we become a normal family again.

The summer has been very interesting. The departure of the older kids has actually been tougher for us; we lost our babysitters and primary assistants in the house. We had forgotten what it was like to have only little kids in the house and the kids were more than happy to remind us.

Last week was the end of camp for the kids. They had an awesome time at their camp (Kee Tov) and having the chance to spend time focusing on them was great. I know that it seems a bit early to be ending summer programs, but this is Israel and August is the month of Chofesh (vacations).

The entire country seems to go on vacation during the month of August. It is amazing how many people leave home to travel (a large percentage of them travel to the cooler temperatures of Northern Israel). Shul is half empty all the time and wherever we go (outside tourist attractions) the lines are nowhere near what they would be normally. The only places you see lots of people are at tourist attractions and public transportation, like the trains.

I know that I should be happy for the train company on the revenues and profits that they gain through all the people who seem to be on the trains, but it is quite frankly making me crazy. I am used to a quiet and relaxing ride and instead I have full trains with a trillion wild kids making tons of noise and peering over my shoulder at the computer as I write (they all want to know what movies I have on the computer).

School has started (for chareidim) or will soon start (for most of the other kids). In religious circles, the schools (which normally open September 1) will open about a week early because the chagim (holidays) come so early in the year. Of course, the schools didn’t actually tell us this information until earlier this month and many people, including our daughter Aliza, had to change their travel plans to make sure they were back home in time for school.

This is one of the things I don’t think I will ever get used to. The last minute way things are done here. After all, it isn’t as if they didn’t know what the calendar would be. A little bit of planning and we would all have had plenty of advance warning. But that seems to be too much to ask here.

I for one am looking forward to the return of the school year and everything (including my quiet train ride) getting back to normal.

Arrivals and Departures (Article #52) 8/16/2007

Throughout the year we have been getting feedback from friends and strangers alike. Mostly encouraging, many of those who contact us have told us of their dreams to come to Israel or of the journey their sons and daughters had in making Aliyah.

About a week after the news broke that we were making Aliyah, we got a call from Kiki Schickman, asking us about our decision to make Aliyah and how we were going to deal with kids/work/life, etc.

She explained that they had also been thinking of making Aliyah and she wanted to hear about our thought process. However, she was also calling as the mother of Mordechai’s best friend in the whole world – Gaby.

Mordechai and Gaby had been practically inseparable since 2 year old nursery. Elana Fertig, South Shore’s Preschool Director once called me to tell me that she had come across Gaby and Mordechai crying in the hallway. She asked them what was the matter and Gaby told her that he had fallen down and hurt himself. She turned to Mordechai and asked if he had also fallen down?

“No” he told her.

“Then why are you crying?” she asked.

His response?

“Because Gaby fell down and hurt himself.”

They were each others primary playmate and we always knew that they felt comfortable with one another and really had a strong bond of friendship – even at 5 years old.

One of Mordechai’s biggest issues with Aliyah was in leaving Gaby behind. He really missed having his best friend, especially when he had to deal with adjusting to new friends in a foreign country and a foreign language. So we were very excited to hear that the Schickmans were similarly minded.

Mordechai missed Gaby more than I can describe. Even though he made new friends and has shown great resilience in what has been an incredibly tough adjustment to a new culture, he still maintained a steadfast loyal bond with Gaby. He even called his new best friend here – “my best friend in Israel” with an understanding that Gaby would always be his best friend.

The Schickmans visited in December on what would turn out to be their pilot trip as they made the decision to make Aliyah this summer – moving to Efrat. When the news came out, the countdown began, as Mordechai looked forward to reuniting with Gaby.

As the countdown got nearer, the excitement grew, until we finally got to July 31, the date of the Schickman family’s Aliyah. We got up very early to get to the airport on time and were among the many friends and family members who greeted the new Olim. (Ironically, the family of Chaim Rock – Mordechai’s best friend in Israel, or now, Bet Shemesh also attended the welcoming ceremonies simply because they wanted to experience the ceremonies and greet the new olim).

While at the airport we bumped into the Schwatzblatt family, in Israel celebrating a Bar Mitzva and coincidently to welcome Mindy’s brother and his family (the Lustigs) who were arriving on that flight. (Another family also arrived from the 5 Towns on that flight – the Krauss family from Woodmere – Mazal Tov to them).

Having been on the “other side” of the fence when we arrived on our own Nefesh Bnefesh flight, I was intrigued by the excitement level clearly present in the terminal as we waited for the flight. The greeters were clearly pumped to be there to welcome the new olim and the atmosphere was electric.

When the plane arrived, we quickly headed outside to be there when the busses brought the olim to the terminal. As we waited, a busload of Ethiopian olim came by and the entire crowd erupted in cheers for them as well. I don’t know if they thought we were there especially for them or not, but they responded to us, waving and smiling as they passed by.

As the busloads of olim arrived from the plane, there was cheering, singing, hugging, dancing – just a sense of frenzied celebration and pandemonium. We spotted the Schickman’s coming off the third busload and the kids quickly ran over to welcome them.

They had a whole crew of people there to greet them (us, the Rudoffs, Brodericks and some other friends I didn’t recognize) and we all made our way to the welcoming ceremonies together.

After an initial moment of shyness, Mordechai and Gaby were at each others sides the entire time, sharing in this special moment together. It was just an amazing experience.

Mordechai actually thinks that Efrat (where the Schickman’s now live) is just past Nofei Aviv (a neighborhood just a small 10 minute walk from our home) and that he and Gaby will hook up regularly. So the realization that Gaby is still at least a 20 minute drive away still hasn’t sunk in. It will.

That afternoon I headed back to the airport to fly to America for the Yeshiva. Unable to travel for the last half year due to Goldie’s illness, the fact that she was now doing well enough to allow me to leave for 10 days was a tremendous step forward in her recovery. The glasses have allowed her to do everything, drive, shop, whatever she wants to do. So the double vision has gone from a crippling problem to a major issue that we can deal with for right now.

There is no question that making the trip was a little scary, especially because the last trip was when the health issues began to come up. Yet, it was a relief to try to get back on track and resume life as originally scheduled.

I was quite flattered on both ends of the trip by the El Al security personnel and ticket agents. They actually spoke to me in Hebrew without even thinking of speaking English to me (OK – one of them asked me “Hebrew or English”). This was a big first.

I am not sure what made me recognizable this time as someone who lives in Israel and speaks Hebrew well enough to converse with them, but it was quite a complement. I know it sounds silly, but that little bit of recognition really made a difference.

The trip was productive (even though I still feel like I am not fully back) and it was great to see so many of our friends and visit with the family when we aren’t having to deal with doctors and tests. I got to go see the kids on visitor’s day in camp (they are having a good summer) and even had the chance to work as well.

A highlight of the trip was getting together with around 20 of our Alumni for a tailgate party and Mets game. It was great to see the guys again and catch up on how they have been doing since Yeshiva ended in June. Being responsible for keeping in touch with the Alumni is probably the best part of my job. I get to keep track with them and see them regularly and it makes saying goodbye to them at the end of the year a little easier.

The trip was very therapeutic for me.

Goldie has been doing very well since the surgery. She really has a very positive attitude and has been very strong. I on the other hand had not been doing as well.

Following the incredibly emotional journey we had gone through, I had a very difficult time in settling down to normalcy. I was so focused on taking care of Goldie and on being totally positive and encouraging for her that when we came home I crashed. There is no question that I was depressed and couldn’t seem to lift myself out of the funk I was in.

I kept thinking that time would help things get easier, but it was very tough. I even mentioned to Larry Gordon (editor of this paper) how I noticed that my articles were getting a little preachy as I talked about other issues (like Sderot) instead of having to think about what we had just been through as a family.

Getting back on track (even a little bit) allowed me to put some distance and normalcy between the past and the present and gave me the chance to get back to the person I am. I know that I will never be the same as I was before Goldie’s illness. But we adjust and will establish a new level of normalcy and will move forward from there.

While we certainly hope for an eventful and productive year, hopefully the events of the second year of Aliyah will be a little less harrying and traumatic.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Mourning the Destruction (Article #51) 8/2/2007

As planned, Goldie joined a group who went to tour, but most importantly to support, the people of the city of Sderot. As you must be aware, the city of Sderot has been the target of unending Kassam rocket attacks from the Gaza area. Without any strategic assets (industrial, military, etc.) to protect or significant casualties absorbed, the government’s attitude has been to publicly decry the attacks yet not take a strong stand in defending against them.

I must admit that I myself have no idea how we could greater defend the people and the area. The army does target launchers and terrorists when it can identify them and it is certainly difficult to capture/attack fighters who wear no uniforms and blend in with the populace. However, from a layman’s point of view and in the opinions of many people on the street, there should be more done – even if we can’t say precisely what it is.

No matter how you approach the problem, the facts are that the town of Sderot bears the brunt of the rocket attacks. While rarely deadly, the neverending rocket firings have traumatized the city and its residents, forcing them into a “bunker mentality” type of existence. I cannot personally imagine being strong enough to live under the same conditions as those who remain n Sderot. We are therefore honored to participate in programs such as the challa program that helps support the bakery there.

Goldie especially feels an obligation to do as much as we can for the people who are under attack simply because they are convenient and they are Jews. When the opportunity arose to go to Sderot and see things firsthand while supporting the people there, she jumped at it – although with comcern in the back of her mind.

The tiyul was organized by Standing Together, an organization that’s goals are to support our soldiers and reach out to Israelis under attack. The participants were brought to Sderot to see what was going on there, but also to shop in Sderot stores (providing them with much needed revenue in in light of the exodus of many of their customers from the city) and show the people of Sderot that someone cares about them.

She convinced our daughter Chaya to go with her, even though Chaya was very worried about her safety and was not that enthused about the trip in general.

When they got to Sderot, they were given a quick drill in what to do in the event of a rocket attack. Things like, “Stay low” or “just knock on any door and they will let you into their bomb shelter”. The direction of Gaza was pointed out and they were told to keep a building between themselves and the rockets and to stay low in case they couldn’t get to a shelter.

This definitely spooked Goldie, who called me to tell me how the danger of the situation really hit home at that moment. Although she quickly adjusted, that moment’s and understanding of how real the situation was really hit home for her.

They toured a Gan (preschool) where the kids indoor area is a bomb shelter so that they can maintain their regular schedule throughout the day, went shopping in some local stores, visited a home that had been hit a couple of days earlier by a rocket (the residents of the house had ignored 2 prior air raid sirens but decided to go to the shelter only for the 3rd one and were in the shelter for a mere few seconds when the rocket crashed into their home), had lunch in a local Yeshiva and heard about the conditions from the Rosh Yeshiva and then returned home with a brief stop back at the damaged home, where a Standing Together representative presented the owners with a cash gift that the bus passengers had quickly put together in sympathy and concern.

Goldie was definitely glad that she went and had the chance to do what she could. Chaya’s reaction was the most gratifying. After spending the day in Sderot, she turned to Goldie on the bus and said, “Thank you for making me go today-- what a meaningful day”

Less than a week later we mourned a different destruction with the coming of Tisha B’Av. The Friday before the fast we had gone to the Kotel as a family. Batya had mentioned that it had been a long time since we had gone to the Kotel, and we decided that if it was important enough for her to mention it, it was important enough for us to go.

Similar to last year, I was somewhat awestruck by the fact that we are now living what we only imagined in years past. We were able to walk along the site of the Bet HaMikdash and see the physical evidence of the destruction by the Romans. We could internalize and (in a very limited way) actually visualize a very tiny fraction of what we are now lacking.

I resolved to go to the Kotel for Mincha (afternoon prayers) on Erev Tisha B’Av (the day before Tisha B’Av), so that I could be at the Kotel as near to Tisha B’Av as possible and put myself in the right frame of mind for the fast and its’ tefillot (prayers). Although it was a very hot day (it seems as if the entire summer has been a very hot day), I followed through on my plan and returned home.

That night, as I made my way to Shul for davening, I passed a van driven by Gedalia Borvick who was apparently picking up a couple of our neighbors to go to the Kotel for davening. When they asked, "We have room for one more - want to join us at the Kotel for Eichah?"

“Want to? Of course”, I responded.

I cannot tell you how unbelievable it is to be in our holy city on a day such as Tisha B'av. A day in which we remind ourselves that we have been put into exile partly because we could not get along with each other is the same day in which we set aside our differences and gently, join with other Jews without reservation. Sfardim, Chassidim, Yeshivalite, Modern people - EVERYONE came together in a single night to mourn our collective loss.

We got there an hour after the normal davening time, yet people continued to come to the Kotel. it was hard to find a spot for us all to sit together and the sounds of Eicha and Kinnot from the sephardic nusach (cantillations) to chassidish to our own ashkenazi filled our ears as we made our way into the plaza. We made our own minyan and davened together, reading Eicha for ourselves and then said the kinnot nice and slowly, THERE IN THE EXACT SPOT WHERE THE DESTRUCTIONS TOOK PLACE!! How could I not be awed and overwhelmed.

I felt a true connection to H-shem and knew that it is him in his great kindness that delivered the perfect ride at the perfect time for me to benefit from such an experience. I was reminded that this is a major part of why we are here. Because we can visit the Kotel whenever we want.

The next day when I added the special tefilla of Nachem in my davening, imagine how much more meaningful such an experience was when I was just there! “Please H-shem rebuild our holy city and the Bet Hamikdash!”

I was actually a little concerned afterward. I worried that I should not have “enjoyed” myself so much on a day in which we are supposed to feel the deepest mourning for what we have lost. I can only hope that the “pleasure” I had in being able to so personally feel the destruction was interpreted as my way of having the proper mindframe and attitude for the day.