Tuesday, November 27, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally. A quiet week. Mostly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why all this preamble?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judy was calling to schedule the interview with Aliza which took place a couple of days later. To hear the interview, go to http://msmedia.a7.org:82/arutz7/shows/mk/kids071014.mp3, Aliza appears about halfway through the show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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