Thursday, December 18, 2008

They Just Want to Kill Us (Article# 99B) 12/4/08

As I prepared to leave the USA and ran my last minute errands, I heard the initial reports of terrorist activity in Mumbai, India. Immersed as I was in my own activities, I did not follow the news closely. It was not until I was at minyan that I heard about the attack on the chabad house, and with the confusion and chaos that went on – it was only after I had returned home and was watching CNN a few minutes before Shabbat began that we heard reports of the killing of the people in the chabad house.

Much will be written and said about these tragic events. The Israeli government will certainly use the funerals as a “see what victims we are” platform (they won’t necessarily be wrong). Yet this particular attack, pointed at a “Jewish” target tugs at the heart of the average Israeli in a more personal way than other people. For several reasons.

We are after all, a country that is sadly all too familiar with the sight of a baby screaming for his missing mother or father. We experience such tragedies with a frequency that would not be tolerated in the USA or other major nations. Yet that is a story for another day.

We are also the country upon whom our enemies have drawn a large target and would gleefully obliterate if they could. We know what it means to have people infiltrate our cities and homes and seek to murder and maim. Their goal is not to make a point other than attempting to make us so miserable that we would do anything to appease them. And appeasement hasn’t worked. But that too is for another time.

It is the specific target, a Chabad house, which has struck a cord here. Jews from many countries are certainly familiar with Chabad. Many of those who come from other countries (not Israel) and travel on business or pleasure have come to recognize that they can find a minyan and often a meal in the most remote of places – simply by seeking out the local Chabad house representatives. Israelis, even many secular ones and those who are not observant but still consider themselves to be traditional, identify with the Chabad network as a home away from home as well.

Many Israelis, upon completing their military or national service and before entering University or the workplace, take a months long trip of discovery. They travel to various places worldwide and armed with their backpacks they seek to experience whatever the world has to offer. A vast majority of these youth are not religious and are quite comfortable traveling in the remote countryside.

As they travel and reach major cities, they will invariably find themselves drawn to the local Chabad house where they are always welcomed with a smile and warm greeting. Be it for a minute, a meal or even a Shabbat, Israelis come to Chabad for that brief taste of home, reconnecting with their identity as Jews – religious or not.

To deliberately target such a place (and make no mistake – the Chabad House was deliberately targeted) reminds all of us here in Israel just how much we are hated. It reminds we who live in the Jewish State that no matter where we go in the world and how much kindness we dispense, that our enemies seek nothing less than our total annihilation and obliteration. It sometimes takes a tragedy such as this to remind us, no matter what our backgrounds or beliefs, to reach across boundaries and grieve as one people and one nation for the loss of so many precious lives, Jew and non Jew alike.

I often bemoan the lack of Achdut that is displayed here in Israel. I am disappointed that we can no longer seem to bond together as one Jewish nation with tolerance and love for one another, no matter what our differences. It is unfortunate that it takes such a tragedy to force us to find some common ground.

So today Israel is transfixed by the images and stunned by the savagery. Yet, we also know too familiarly what happens after the cameras turn off and the world is no longer watching. We know what it means to raise orphans. We have consoled countless parents who have buried their children before their time. We have rebuilt and will continue to do so. We understand that we must never allow terrorism to win.

That sense of “I will never let you defeat me” was reflected by Rav Metzger in his eulogy and by Shimon Peres in his, but it was most strikingly demonstrated by Rivkah Holtzberg’s parents’ decision to be the new Directors of the Mumbai Chabad. Their commitment, to continue to do good despite the pain and harm they have suffered, is what our nation is all about.

Support Your Local Library (Article# 99A) 12/4/08

I love the public library system. When we lived in the USA, I took advantage of the library in every city I lived in. I am an avid reader and can (and often do) finish a 300-400 page book in a single Friday night sitting. I even took advantage of the technological advances in Web design, reserving books online and picking them up on my arrival at the library (reducing my average library trip from 40 minutes to 3 minutes).

Since Aliyah I have come to appreciate the USA public library system much more than I had in the past. The library is literally my home away from home when I travel. It is the only place where they offer a place to sit, free internet access (including wireless access so that I can check emails on my laptop) and a ton of peace and quiet – all with zero pressure to buy a coffee or vacate a table for the next patron. You don’t realize what a treat it is to be able to sit and check emails, update yourself with some online news (especially news from home when you are traveling) and get work done until you are traveling and have limited access to the internet.

My favorite library is my home base library, the Hewlett-Woodmere library in Long Island. This was our local library before we made Aliyah and the facility is just awesome. They have a series of private study rooms available for residents and non-residents alike. Whenever I need to check emails, have a skype call chavruta with an alumnus, get information from the Yeshiva’s database or even sit and write my weekly article, I head off to the library, ensconce myself in one of their private rooms for an hour or two and really crank out the work.

It is also a great place to meet people. Almost every time I am there I come across some old friend that I hadn’t seen. It is a great place to reconnect with people and I am quite grateful for the use of it.

Upon our move we discovered that Israel does not have public libraries as such. Libraries may occasionally be funded by a local municipality, but it is the member subscription fees and donations that are the large part of library budgets in Israel. And the budgets aren’t that large.

Our local Bet Shemesh library does not buy books in English, using only books that have been donated to the library to stock its English shelves. The Hebrew language section is definitely larger than the English section, but not by a huge amount. The entire library is housed within one of our community centers and is probably smaller than the school libraries in a couple of your local Yeshivot – but it is what we have and we definitely patronize it (we have 4 memberships for the kids).

Since the resources are limited, there is a limit of how many books (4) each member can have at any time. They also rely a lot upon volunteers (although they have a very professional staff as well who have to be knowledgeable in order to serve their patrons in either of the two main languages they carry books in). On the flipside, without the fully stocked library, our kids have become a lot more computer and internet literate in order to use online resources for school research and other work (their parents have to also be savvy in monitoring internet use as well).

*If you would be interested in donating books to the Bet Shemesh library – feel free to email me and I will forward the offer.*

Throughout my trip, I was asked how the economy of Israel is faring and how badly the US problems have affected us. It is clear to see how difficult things have become in America and it was nice to see the concern for us as well. There is also no doubt that things in Israel will also get worse before they get better.

The dollar’s weakness has hurt all tourist related industries (of which we must include the Yeshiva and Seminary one year programs as a part). The dollar simply buys less and this has hurt budgets. Additionally, at least in the case of charitable organizations, with incomes shrinking or disappearing overseas, we not only get fewer shekels for each dollar donated – we are definitely seeing fewer dollars donated as a whole. There is no question that we are only beginning to see the repercussions from the worldwide recession.

One of the great pleasures of my job is hanging out with our students and alumni. As part of my trips abroad I schedule regular visits to as many college campuses as I can, visiting our alumni in their “natural habitat”. Since each student has his own schedule, I schedule at least 3 hours for each visit to allow for them to come say hi when they do not have a class. So I usually set up shop in the campus kosher cafeteria and let the guys come to me.

By the time Thanksgiving rolled around I was definitely ready to go home. I was amazed at how little traffic I encountered on the way to Newark airport, which was practically empty. I pulled in to the rental car return lot and was trying to figure out what was missing when it hit me, there were no cars there. I think the entire lot had 10 cars in it.

The terminals were also quite deserted. With the exception of the El Al counter, there was almost no one in the airport; getting through security and to the gate was a breeze. Of course, since it was Thanksgiving, most Americans wanting to be in Israel for the week had already flown and the plane was almost totally Israeli.

I was a bit disappointed to be leaving that afternoon. Goldie’s family was having an afternoon get together and it would have been nice to see everyone. Maybe next time. The good part was getting home to the family.

I didn’t end up missing the turkey in the end. Dennis and Rachel Lisbon, our across the street neighbors invited us for a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. Upon hearing that I would be out of the country, they postponed the invitation one day and we enjoyed a Thanksgiving style seuda on Friday night.

PS Thanks for praying for Friday rain. Little league was rained out – only 7 more months of Fridays left to go.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Back in the USA (Article# 98) 11/27/08

I was preparing to attend Daniel Gottlieb’s (son of Mark and Miriam Gottlieb of Neve Daniel – formerly of Cedarhurst) Bar Mitzva celebration last Sunday evening when I chanced to glance at my email. Larry Gordon had sent me a brief note asking, “I see that there's a strike at BG (Ben Gurion Airport).....what’s the impact?” To which I responded, “OH NO!!!!!!!!!”

Earlier in the week I had been a bit concerned about a possible strike. The airport workers union had conducted a slowdown with the threat of a strike, but when they were ordered back to work by the courts, I assumed that it would be weeks before there was any possibility that there could be problems. These things usually run in cycles and we appeared to be weeks away from the next conflagration.

Apparently the union had a different playbook than mine. At about 5:30 in the afternoon (my flight was midnight) the workers staged a wildcat strike, walking off the job. By the time I had gotten Larry’s email an hour later, flights were already delayed and there was general chaos in trying to get information. The only thing I knew for certain was that I no longer needed to plan on leaving early to do some duty free shopping; I was getting ready for a long flight delay.

We enjoyed the Bar Mitzva. Mazal Tov to the Gottlieb family. They live in Neve Daniel which is very close to Efrat. Being at the Bar Mitzva, we saw a bunch of old friends who live in the area and whom we never get to see. With the kids keeping us scheduled for carpools and a lot of our free time spent trying to see family for things like my sister Bluma’s birthday dinner at Papagaio (all you can eat meat!) – we rarely have time for going out and being seen. So it is a special treat to go to an outside of Bet Shemesh event.

After a couple of hours of posturing, the strike ended and the airport resumed normal operations. In the end, dozens of flights were delayed – but not mine. I almost wish it was cancelled.

I have begun to sit in the window seat. I used to think that the aisle would be more conducive to stretching out and relaxing, but I was never able to get comfortable enough in one to sleep. I find that having the wall to lean against in the window seat facilitates being able to actually sleep.

I had settled into my seat on the plane when a flight attendant approached me with a request for me to switch seats. There was a chareidi passenger who was assigned a middle seat next to (gasp) a woman. Would it e possible for me to switch seats with her so that he would sit down and the plane could take off.

My initial thought was to refuse. I was settled in and comfortable. However, I have sat on a plane that was delayed almost an hour because a single passenger refused to sit down. Not wanting a replay of that, I decided it would be easier to just say yes.

A few minutes after takeoff they turned on the video service and started serving drinks. After some confusion, it became apparent that the video units in my row (and the rows in front and behind me) were totally out. While this was disappointing, the real crushing moment happened when they turned off the lights and we discovered that our individual seat lights weren’t working either. So, without being able to watch or read, we sat in our seats doing nothing (I did manage to get 4 hours of sleep). Suffice it to say that I was quite cranky at the end of the flight.

I always forget how cold it is in the USA. No matter how warm a fall or winter you may be having, it takes me at least 2 days to get used to the temperatures. Of course, coming in the middle of a cold snap doesn’t help. However, by the third day or so, I am back to running around without a coat.

As I mentioned last week, I represented our Yeshiva at the 5 Towns Israel Night (among others) and had a chance to see many old friends while there. This year’s senior class is Chaim’s class; he would have been graduating High School in June had we not moved. I therefore know a lot of the kids and parents from school, shul, little league, etc.

Seeing their sons was quite a shock. Having been away for 2+ years, I had not adjusted my mental picture of them to allow for continued growth and maturity. Even though Chaim has undergone the same growth and I should have anticipated it in his peers, I didn’t make the adjustment. I think it is the same shock I have with the weather. I should know in my mind that it will be cold, but I don’t really adjust to it until I am forced to.

This has been one of the longest stretches that I have been continuously home without a trip overseas. This means that by the time I get to NY several suitcases worth of stuff for us has accumulated (including all the stuff that Goldie and “daughters” ordered online). Goldie emailed me a shopping list of those all important last minute items that I needed to pick up as well.

Bringing in American products is a major part of the Aliyah experience for many. There are those who eschew all trappings of their former lives and fanatically deny themselves those things that are either impossible or ridiculously expensive to get in Israel. We are not one of those families.

I am not talking about luxury goods. A simple brick of American Cheese costs $20+ in Israel (depending on the store and the prevailing exchange rate). We go through a couple of these each month and the extra cost adds up (as does the weight of shlepping these in my suitcase). Crocs brand shoes are more than double the price in Israel and are the norm for footware for the kids. So the ability to “import” your personal goods is a big benefit for the traveling oleh.

The search for “couriers” traveling to Israel and not bringing their full luggage allotment is therefore a serious business in the Anglo communities in Israel. The email lists are full of people asking if “someone” is going to/from a specific place and asking if they can take a “small” package with them.

I have therefore perfected what I call the “commuter pack” suitcase. I pack as little as possible for myself, literally limiting myself to a few changes of clothes and that’s it. I pack my small stack of clothing in my smallest duffel, which I then pack inside a larger duffle or suitcase, so that I only need to check the one bag. For this trip, I even had a second “commuter pack” bag for the brochures/recruitment materials I needed to bring. This meant that I was traveling (outbound) with 4 suitcases.

Real commuters, those guys who go in every week or even every other week HATE to travel with luggage. Most of them prefer to walk onto the plane without having to clear their bags in security and to walk straight out of the airport without having to deal with baggage claim and customs. It is unfair to even think about asking one of these guys to bring a bag, since it really inconveniences them. There are however a minority of these guys who do shlep bags and they are more than happy to help out a neighbor – especially if the package is being dropped off/picked up in the USA without them having to worry about it.

So far, we have been pretty lucky with getting stuff from the USA. I pack the bags to within a half pound of the allowance and whenever the mail or various things back up, my mother in law or brother in law have somehow been able to find someone to take a package for us. When I have a chance, I bring in an extra bag or two and leave the extra suitcases behind for them to use when they find someone willing to take it.

Of course, it goes without saying that we only ask those people we know well to take the bags. Not because we don’t trust them, but because they have to trust us. Security is a major issue when traveling to/from Israel and I only take items from either a close relative (I took my brother’s mail to last week) or people I know very well, unless the item is mail and was sealed in my presence after I have checked the contents. I would never take a bag or package from someone I didn’t know. Nor should you.

While I was gone, Chaim joined thousands of people (including 5TJT Publisher/Editor Larry Gordon) in Chevron for Shabbat Parshat Chayei Sarah also known as Shabbat Chevron for the past several years. He made his own arrangements and had “an awesome time”, or so he says. I might get more information from him when I get home, but doubt it. He is after all a teenager. He has however, become quite passionate and defensive of Israel – a real change for him. Which we take as a great sign.

Mazal Tov to Chana and Dov Bienstock on the Bar Mitzva of their son Eli. I was able to surprise them at the simcha while in the USA and it was a special treat to see all those friends who attended.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Color War (Article# 97) 11/20/08

Well, the Israeli municipal elections are now a thing of the past. Having now experienced the whole process from beginning to end, I cannot believe how utterly sophomoric it is. From the posing and strutting of the candidates as if they are Peacocks looking for a Peahen to the 18th century manner in which votes are cast and tabulated (hanging chads have nothing on us), the democratic process is certainly approached in a much different way in our new home than in our old.

In the days running up to the election, the spin doctoring was at a maximum. “We are poised for victory!” is a cry that each mayoral campaign cried several times. In the last week of the campaign the incumbent mayor (who many wanted to throw out) released a new slogan….”vote for me or Bet Shemesh will become a Chareidi city”, a message clearly designed to frighten the Dati Leumi candidate’s supporters into unifying behind him. Cars with megaphones broadcast electioneering messages through the streets; posters and flyers appeared in mailboxes, on cars and all over the streetpoles and fences. Finally, the big day arrived.

We had been warned to expect a blizzard of campaign materials to hit the streets. Those warnings were insufficient. The streets looked as if it had snowed paper the night before. Papers were strewn EVERYWHERE with instructions on how to vote and for whom. It is apparently something that is commonplace here and is frowned upon by the people, but viewed as an important campaign tactic by the candidates.

In the USA I had once served as a poll volunteer for the NY Democratic Party (sorry). One of the organizations I worked with was supporting a specific local candidate and I had been asked to help on Election Day. I stood at the proscribed spot and very quietly passed out small placards asking for the voters’ support (I think our guy lost that day). This was nothing compared to a Bet Shemesh election worker.

Our daughter Chaya spent practically the entire Election Day electioneering for our candidate (Shalom Lerner) at the polls. Her entire grade was given the day off and assigned to various polling places throughout Bet Shemesh. They were given T-shirts to wear and then spent the day passing out ballot instructions, singing songs and cheers to the passers by as they went in to vote and at the very end, cleaning up some of the mess.

She told me afterward that the entire time it felt as if she was in a camp “Color War” with the various teams each cheering and shouting for attention and support. While there were definitely a few confrontations, on the whole she said that she enjoyed the festive atmosphere and had a tremendously fun time while doing it.

Before I clue you in on the results, I want to share the thought that bothered me throughout the campaigning. “WHY?” I do not understand the motivation behind all the commotion. Is it possible that the candidates believe that people are so stupid that they are going to walk out of their homes on election day, pick a piece of paper up off of the floor and declare “AHA – NOW I know who to vote for”? Or maybe they believe that harassing people and accosting them as they approach the voting area is the best way to snare those sneaky undecided voters?

Maybe they only do it because that is what the other guy is doing. After all, how would it look if the other candidates were having their victory motorcades and my candidate didn’t? Does he think he isn’t going to win? It is almost as if some candidate many years ago did all these things and ended up winning and this led to copycats and more copycats and now, they all do these things because “this is the way things are done.”

Maybe it really works? It just might be that the average Israeli DOES respond to such tactics and this is how elections are one here. I am, after all, still a foreign born oleh, with all my prejudices and attitudes that worked for me in the USA – so who’s to day I am right and they are wrong?

Goldie and I work in Yerushalayim, and we wanted to have the little kids see how voting is done, so we chose to vote at the end of the day. We had been provided with multiple sets of instructions; via email, phone call and paper blizzard on how to make sure our votes count. There are tons of rules.

As I noted last week, municipal elections are conducted on two levels. There is an election for the Mayor (who is usually also number one on his party’s city council list) and an election for parties to sit in the city council. Each voter is handed two envelopes (each one a different color), one for each election and goes into the voting area to vote.

When I say voting area what I mean is either a school desk or a table that has a posterboard 3 fold divider (similar to what your kids use for a display for their science projects in school) on the desk, behind which are the ballots. The ballots (color coded – 1 group for mayor the other for city council) are on the desk in wooden organizers that are clearly built to hold the ballots. The voter takes two papers, one with the name of his choice for mayor on it and the other with the party letter and party name of his choice for the city council, puts the papers in the appropriate envelope, seals the envelope and then drops the envelopes into the ballot box. At the end of the day, they rip open the envelopes and count the votes.

Simple, right? WRONG!!!

The ballots have to each be in PERFECT condition for them to be counted. A ballot that has been folded, torn, bent, written upon or has any other type of damage to it is invalid and therefore thrown out. This leads to a tremendous amount of ballot tampering. A supporter of one candidate enters the voting area to vote. While he is in there, he marks, slightly tears, bends or otherwise disqualifies a stack of the opponent’s ballots – but leaves them in the ballot tray. When the voters come to vote for the opponent, they unwittingly use these invalid ballots and their votes are then disqualified!

You don’t even need fraud. I am not sure if the ballot trays were all the same size. However, I do know that the slot holding the ballots for my choice for mayor was so small that I had a very hard time getting the paper out of the tray without bending it. Had I not known in advance that this was an issue I would certainly have invalidated my own vote.

Of course, by the time the elections are over the accusations of ballot tampering and voter fraud are made by the various supporters. (Finally, something that is the SAME as the USA). Interestingly, I am not aware of the campaigns or candidates themselves making accusations; the gentlemanly way the parties conducted the post election business was a pleasure to see.

Polls are open until 10 PM here, so the counting begins quite late in the day. Only the big cities have exit polling, so even though we knew what was going on in Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv right away, we went to bed without having an idea who won in Bet Shemesh. The whole process seems archaic.

Why is it that Israel, the country that is a major high tech innovator, the place where Instant Messaging was developed, the place where cellphone innovations happen every day, the place where the computing giants ALL have research and development facilities and major investments in product development as well, how is it that this country cannot figure out a way to make computer balloting an easy and efficient way to conduct an election? I just don’t get it – it should NOT be this hard.

So the municipal elections are finally over and now we have new elections to look forward to. We choose new leaders for our country (or maybe the same ones) in a few short months. They will each make passionate pleas for our support in making their vision of Israel’s future come true. I am sure that what we have witnessed so far will be dwarfed by comparison to a National election and am quite eagerly looking forward to seeing it all unfold (GO BIBI!!).

The results? The Chareidi candidate took 52% of the vote to claim an outright victory. Voter turnout was dismal – less than 50% of the residents cared to voice their opinion (turnout Israel wide was below 40% and the Attorney General bemoaned that fact on National TV in the middle of the elections).

I have serious concerns about the new mayor and city council (ultra religious parties won 9 of 19 seats – short of having an absolute majority by only 1 seat and they will definitely find coalition partners). Will they continue to support the growth of our community and our schools? Will we be subject to even more harassment?

While I am happy we “threw the bum out” as he clearly needed to go, I am not sure that this choice is for the good. Only time will tell.

Radio Too (Article# 96) 11/13/08

As the US elections neared, the frenzy over absentee balloting among Americans reached a fever pitch. For months we had been seeing email postings from various people either looking for information or posting information on how to register for absentee ballots. It wasn’t really that difficult to do. There was one form to fill out and mail.

Goldie, being the more organized of the two of us, had signed us up for our NY ballots very early. However, when our ballots had not arrived by September we began to worry that we had made some error on the forms. Especially when we saw some people from other states getting their ballots in the mail. One of the local money changers (Cheerfully Changed) ran a campaign to file for absentee ballots, so we resubmitted our forms and hoped for the best.

Our ballots arrived less than a month before the election and we filled them out and mailed them in just after the chaggim. As we have in the past, Goldie and I voted independently from each other. I refused to disclose my vote and told anyone who asked that I had voted for Ralph Nader. Hey – why not?

Here in Israel, the interest in the American elections was very high. The voting systems are radically different and even the approach and attitudes of the electorate to the entire election process are different. Having not yet experienced a national election here, we can not really compare the two, but we have been able to glean bits and pieces of what to expect come this February.

On the morning of the USA elections I got a call from a PR firm working with Nefesh B’Nefesh. They had gotten a request from Galei Tzahal, one of the Army radio stations (news) for olim with a specific demographic. They wanted to interview new olim who had i) older kids, ii) had been living in America for the last USA Presidential election and iii) had voted by absentee ballot. We agreed to be interviewed and met a soldier/reporter (a very nice Russian immigrant who had emigrated with her family as a child) in our house that evening.

They had asked for the entire family to be available and we spent a very pleasant half hour discussing the USA election process, what Election Day is like in the USA (VERY different from Israel), why we had both voted for McCain (I mean NADER) and what we thought about the historical significance of an Obama presidency. Each kid was offered the chance to speak (when asked what he thought of the elections Mordechai responded, “I am voting for Shalom Lerner” – a candidate in the Bet Shemesh mayoral race) and we had a very nice time.

We were also apparently on the radio the next morning. I got an email from a friend telling me that she was listening to the radio the next morning when she heard “I am sitting with the Katz family from Bet Shemesh” and the next thing she knew, she was hearing our voices. I have not yet heard the report and am trying to get a recording from the station.

Batya (Age 9 – Grade 4) came home one night last week with a special request from her teacher. Her grade had learned the pesukim containing the words of Birchat Kohanim and the teacher wanted me to come speak to the grade about being a Kohain. That night, at a school ceremony we met the teacher and I accepted, assuming that I would come in for 15 minutes a say a few brief words to the girls.

I told her that I was only available on Fridays and she asked me to come in that week. We agreed upon a time and I asked her how long she wanted me to speak for. Her response? FORTY FIVE MINUTES!

I was in shock. A forty five minute speech in front of ninety fourth grade girls? In Hebrew? I began to panic as I wondered how I was going to possibly find enough things to say that had simple concepts so that I could translate them into Hebrew. I can speak Hebrew well enough to get by and be understood, but our kids regularly laugh at my Hebrew and I knew that a technical speech for that long would really be a stretch.

Thankfully I had a few days to prepare. I was able to jot down a few notes and then translate the more difficult words to Hebrew in advance (I use a terrific online Hebrew/English translation website: Milon Morphix). I also decided to ask the girls as many questions as I could along the way, forcing them to speak instead of me.

It was a long forty five minutes, but I got through it. Batya was thrilled to have me do something special for her and I was just as happy to make her proud. As a person who has worked in his sons’ schools over the years, I know that my daughters have always felt that I do not give them as much attention and I seized the opportunity to spend time with Batya in school at a time when the teachers were not giving her a grade.

By the time you read this, the Bet Shemesh municipal elections will be over and I will be packing my bags for a 10 day trip to your side of the ocean. I am usually in the USA earlier in the Fall but I will be representing the Yeshiva this year at several informational programs, including the Israel Night being hosted at Rambam Mesivta for High School Seniors and Parents on November 17th. If you happen to be there, feel free to come by and say hi.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Early and Often? (Article# 95) 11/6/08

As an old Chicago boy, I find politics and elections to be fascinating – especially trying to figure out the “spin” and what the real truth is. Although we have known that municipal elections would be coming in November, my lack of understanding of the Israeli electoral process, combined with my innate curiosity as an American, led me to follow the USA presidential elections much more closely than our local elections.

As I have said in the past, we really don’t like the current mayor. His prime talent is his policy of non-confrontation. He hates any publicity or focus upon Bet Shemesh as anything other than an idyllic town in the Jerusalem region. In order to keep things quiet, he has spent the past several years giving the chareidim of Bet Shemesh anything they wanted – especially once they start to riot.

As we have seen with other forms of terrorism, appeasing your opponent is the best way to encourage them to continue their belligerent behavior. As such, the violent element of the chareidim love nothing better than terrorizing their neighbors here, since they know that it is the most effective way to achieve their goals. (PLEASE NOTE: I am speaking of the very visible minority of the local chareidim who are actually violent and not about the invisible majority of chareidim who do nothing to stop them)

One of our neighbors across the street was spat upon several weeks ago while waiting at a bus stop. Speaking of bus stops, several of them within a few blocks of our house have been graffitied by our local chareidi “artist” who is also quite willing to share his thoughts with us on the sidewalk of our neighborhood as well. The list goes on and on.

Since our current mayor has not stood up to the hooliganism and violence, there has been a major push within our community (the Dati Leumi) to replace him. Additionally, the chareidi community (with its 40,000 Bet Shemesh residents) would love to replace him with a chareidi mayor.

Shalom Lerner, a Dati Leumi deputy mayor, born in Brazil but educated (through High School) in America before moving to Israel announced his candidacy several months ago. Moshe Abutbol, who is on the city council (I don’t think he is a Deputy Mayor – but may be wrong) representing the chareidi faction announced that he is running as well. And then the fun began.

The first visible signs of the campaign are just that, signs. Vinyl signs (there are no lawns here to put a USA style lawn sign on) began to appear on people’s fences and hanging out windows. Some of the signs have pictures of the candidate and some just have a tagline. Apparently, the amount of signs a candidate can display really means something here, it is a show of support and (or so we are told) can actually influence the voters.

On the English language newsgroup, emails began to fly. I support X candidate and here is why you need to support him as well. X candidate is the ONLY choice for Bet Shemesh. Since most of the Anglos want change but not a chareidi mayor, almost all of the English postings have been in support of our local candidate. Interestingly, many of them encourage their readers to go out and encourage our Israeli, Russian and Ethiopian friends to support Shalom Lerner as well.

I can’t speak for the rest of the Anglo community and I am sure that there are many people who are not like me, but I don’t have ANY Russian friends, I know ONE Ethiopian family (they daven with us in Rav Rosner’s shul) and I know maybe five or six Israeli families. All of these families have lived in Israel much, much longer than we have and if there were any “voting advice” to be dispensed between us, I would expect that they – knowing the system a lot more than I do – would have better advice for me than I would for them. They know how things work here and probably know who stands a better chance of making a difference for the city and a better life for my family. I don’t really have a clue.

As a voting novice here, I sent an email to the Lerner campaign asking them to kindly send an email with information for the new olim on how to vote and what we are voting for. I am not sure if it was them, but information began to appear. It wasn’t incredibly clear, but I did learn that we are voting for two different things. One vote is for Mayor of the City and the other vote is for City Council.

Similarly to Knesset elections, each party puts out a full list of candidates for City Council. Their list is long enough to cover all the seats on the council (in the unlikely event a single party carries 100% of the vote). After the election, each party is granted seats on the council based on their percentage representation in the City Council election. This explained why some of the parties were running in the elections but did not have a candidate for Mayor (I think there are 5 or 6 actual candidates for Mayor).

As the campaign moved forward, we began to see emails from the Lerner campaign. Each time a poll was conducted or something new happened, the local spin doctor was ready to explain how this was “awesome news for us”. They also warned us “not to believe the other campaigns” who were spreading news that Lerner had joined their ticket in a unity campaign, while at the same time informing us that all communities were welcome to sign on to support the Lerner campaign and be part of the winning team.

I had no idea what this meant, until a few days after the campaign announced that the Gerrer Chassidim had “signed up” with the Lerner campaign and would be “delivering” all their votes that would normally have gone to the chareidi candidate. Apparently responding to several inquiries about having chareidi association with the campaign, an email was sent out explaining that this faction of chareidim were anti violence and that their representative who would be serving as a deputy mayor in the new administration has been involved in such efforts.

“Deputy Mayor?” I thought, “Where did that come from?” Then I realized that it was a simple deal that was cut. They deliver their votes to help win the election and in return they get a seat at the table and a voice in running the city. Finally – something I can actually understand. The next day when I saw that another Dati Leumi party was “negotiating” with the campaign for their official endorsement, I understood that “negotiating” was simply a euphemism for “waiting to see what the best deal they can get is.”

With barely a week to go before the elections, the last ten days have been very busy. The election signs have multiplied. And the disturbances of the peace have also multiplied.

We are used to cars driving by with a megaphone on their roofs blaring some message. These messages are usually chareidi calls to either give tzedaka or attend some event (or perhaps funeral). So the addition of the “elect so and so” announcements isn’t a big deal. It is the “victory motorcade” that has become the supreme annoyance in our house.

Our house is the last house on a “dead end” street. However, on the other side of the fence at the end of the street (bordering our house) is a major street that connects Ramat Bet Shemesh to Bet Shemesh.

One night we were all at home when we suddenly heard a cacophony of car horns blaring. We assumed that there was some horrific accident or perhaps something blocking traffic and rushed to the windows to see what was going on. We saw what appeared to be a parade of cars all covered with campaign signs and driving down the street ever so slowly while honking their horns. Apparently, this type of “victory motorcade” is a regular part of Bet Shemesh politics and, like advertising, is viewed as a great way to publicize the candidate and inform the public that he will indeed prevail during elections.

I just think it is a nuisance and a major disturbance of my right to enjoy my evening in peace. To make matters worse, the parades have begun to take place after bedtime for our youngest boys and have woken them up. If I didn’t already have reason enough to not support the chareidi candidate, his waking up Moshe twice this week and the resulting aggravation he caused Goldie would suffice.

Thankfully, life continues to go on – despite the municipal elections. Last week Goldie and I renewed our “temporary” passports. This travel document is issued to new citizens (who are not eligible for a full passport until they have lived in Israel for at least one year). With the exception of Israeli Border Control, we travel on our US passports, so having a full Israeli passport is no great necessity for us.

We weren’t sure if we should bite the bullet and get the full passport or just renew the documents we had, until we heard the price. Getting a full passport costs over $100. Renewing our current document for another two years? FREE! Not only that, but they renewed them on the spot within 2 minutes of our getting to the service counter at the Ministry of the Interior (Misrad HaPnim).

A few days later we were back at their offices as we reached a major milestone in our Aliyah. Chaya, our oldest daughter, will be turning sixteen at the end of the month, the age at which Israeli youth (of which she is one) get their citizen’s ID card or Teudat Zehut. We got a special form in the mail and brought the form in with a couple of pictures of her (getting the pictures was a whole story in itself – she did not like the first set and paid for a second set of photos – after the hair and makeup were in place) to the Misrad HaPnim offices where they instantly issued her a (free) Teudat Zehut.

I wished her a Mazal Tov and got a funny look in response. Goldie of course cried when we told her that the card was issued (even I was a bit choked up as it was being processed). For us, as American born olim, these kinds of milestones signify another step of achievement for our family’s integration into Israel. For our kids, it is just something that you do when you turn 16; they feel much more a part of society here than we do – I think we will always feel as if we are different and in some ways we always will be.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Yom Tov 5769 (Article# 94) 10/30/08

With all the Yamim Tovim and a family simcha in the middle of them, it has been quite hectic here in the Katz household. We had all been looking forward to the beginning of the Yom Tov season with the arrival of Rosh Hashana and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

I am sure that you are as tired about seeing all the Nofei HaShemesh ads and announcements as are we. However, building anything new is always a source of excitement and beginning a new shul is certainly something to be excited about. With only a few weeks of minyanim under our belts, the new shul had Yamim Noraim davening for the first time and it was a joy to be a part of it.

Having lived in Bet Shemesh for two years now, it was also a bit gratifying to be part of something that had more roots in the 5 Towns than Teaneck (it seems like everyone has a Teaneck association here – especially on our block). With the Rabbi, the Rudoffs, the Paleys, the Eichlers and the Katzes (along with the West Hempsted Weiss’) a big chunk of our core group are former 5 Towners – something which is long overdue.

The response to the shul has also been quite overwhelming. We had anticipated that we would see twenty to thirty people each week, slowly gaining momentum as word got out. Unbelievably, we have not had a week with fewer than 60 people and have gone as high as 100 as well. We even set 110 seats for Rosh Hashana davening, filling 90% of them! The turnouts have been so strong that we are already trying to figure out what we are going to do long term.

Here is reason number 12,432 to move here: MOTZEI ROSH HASHANA garbage pickup. On my way home from cleaning up the shul’s room in the school where we daven I passed a garbage truck picking up the garbage. At 8 PM! Obviously, it is understood that there will be a lot of garbage after a 2 day chag (garbage is picked up several times a week here) and the garbage collectors get a head start on getting things picked up as soon as Yom Tov ends.

Yom Kippur was also quite uplifting. In consideration of Yom Kippur, we change our clocks on Motzei Shabbat Shuva each year herein Israel. With the late start to the chagim in October, this resulted in an extremely early start – and finish to the fast. Since the day was short, we only had a forty five minute break and not a single person felt that anything was shlepped out. Hopefully, as time goes on we will run more smoothly, but there is no substitute for being at “the first minyan” or “the first Rosh HaShana”, etc.

With no time to travel after Yom Kippur in order to make it here for Shabbat, my parents joined us for Yom Kippur (staying through the week after Sukkot) right before Yom Kippur in order to be here for a family simcha on Shabbat. Their arrival marker the beginning of family arrivals and for several weeks Goldie was quite busy with arranging the household, meals and activities for everyone (a job that she did awesomely – as usual).

On Yom Kippur, I had personally woken up with a bit of fever, which would eventually turn into a seventeen day stomach illness (bacterial). On the Shabbat between Yom Kippur and Sukkot my brother Ely and his wife Ilana made a Bar Mitzva for their son Yishai, and I barely made it. I was so sick that I needed 2 IV bags that Motzei Shabbat and really was not well the entire Sukkot.

I am quite thankful therefore that we have teenagers. Yes, they are noisy. Yes, they cost lots of money. No, they never listen. But they can build and decorate a Sukka without Abba’s supervision, which is a priceless thing. Although I did help, Chaim came home from Yeshiva right after the fast and did most of the work putting things together and Chaya charged full speed in leading the kids in decorating the Sukka.

Building a Sukka here is a real change for us. As a kid in Chicago, the fanciest thing you could think of having in a Sukka was HEAT! I remember sitting in the Sukka in a parka, totally freezing my fingers and toes in absolutely horrid conditions. Even in NY, Sukkot was a cool and chilly time of year (October) and jackets and sweaters were the norm – if not heavy coats.

Here in Israel, at least in Bet Shemesh things are so different. We know of a family that has A/C in their Sukka and it is needed. This year, I had expected that getting a mid October start to the chag, we would finally see some normal weather, but that was not to be. We had a fan in our Sukka for the first time (we ate out for lunch the first day of chag and our hosts had at least 6 fans in their Sukka) and we still shvitzed our heads off in there!

Goldie’s brother David and his family came to join us in Bet Shemesh staying in an apartment across the street from us. We consider ourselves very fortunate that they try to come for Sukkot each year, since Goldie and our kids would otherwise see very little of Goldie’s family (I get to see more of them when I travel to the USA several times each year). My siblings all live here in Israel, and I know that Goldie definitely misses her family (especially her parents).

This is the only time the kids spend together each year, so we try to arrange to go on tiyulim together so that they can all bond as much as possible. This year we only spent two days on formal “tiyulim”, spending one day touring the Herodian castle outside Efrat, the Gush Etzion winery and then going on the world’s second largest zipline (“Omega”) (the little kids went on a smaller version and climbed a rock wall) and a second day driving ATV’s in the farmland a few miles north of Ranana (and having an awesome time).

Our older kids spent two nights at the Bet Shemesh festival concert. Each year, the city of Bet Shemesh puts on a 3 day festival during Chol HaMoed Sukkot with hikes and tours during the day and 2 nights of open air concerts by multiple performers (Bet Shemesh resident Lenny Solomon of Shlock Rock fame has performed the past few years). The kids have a great time and people come from all over Israel to be a part of it.

The other highlight of the week was a special seudat hoda’ah that we hosted in our Sukka for our family (and one other couple) in celebration of the one year anniversary of Goldie’s first cancer free scan. In anticipation of the Seuda, Mordechai and I had been learning Mishnayot Sukka and he made his very first ever Siyum on the Mishnayot in the Sukka during the Seuda in honor of Goldie.

It was an emotional evening, but it was not only an opportunity for us to thank H-shem for all he did for us in getting Goldie to this point – it was also our chance to thank my parents for dropping everything and moving into our house for two months while Goldie was being treated as well as thank Goldie’s brother David and his wife Marcia for opening their home to us and all their support with the doctors while Goldie underwent treatment.

Shmini Atzeret was a terrific culmination to the chaggim. We decided to encourage the dancing by giving out candies or treats only after each Hakafa. We were unsure what to expect, but in a shul full of kids – the kids really took center stage. The hakafot were entirely focused on the kids participation and it was incredible to see them rise to the occasion. Hakafot took fifteen minutes each and with only one Torah to lain from, davening was a bit stretched. But I think that everyone enjoyed and it was a great start.

After Yom Tov ended, Larry Gordon asked me how many 5 Towns pictures I had collected over Yom Tov. I was very surprised to have to tell him that for the first time I did not see a single family during the vacation. So instead, I will take the opportunity to include a 5 Towners picture that I took a couple of months ago.

In early September, our former neighbors Dovid and Faygie Meisels celebrated the Bar Mitzva of their son Yitzchak at the Kotel. Goldie and I were fortunate to attend and I had a group photo taken of all the former 5 Towners in attendance. I didn’t have an opportunity to wish them Mazal Tov in the paper – but now I have.

With the elections coming up (both the municipal elections in November and the national elections who knows when), I look forward to sharing the electoral process with you over the next several months. We have no idea what to expect, so it should definitely be interesting.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Welcome 5769 (Article# 93) 10/02/08

With an early column deadline this week, I can only hope that everyone had a meaningful Rosh Hashana. As we headed into Rosh Hashana, we have been quite overwhelmed with details. Details at home, details at work, details at shul; everywhere we turn it seems as if there is suddenly so much to do.

About a week ago our central air conditioning failed. You may be wondering why this is a big deal in the end of September? Well, with temps having cooled off to the mid 70s this week in Bet Shemesh it is still quite hot here. We have friends in Efrat who don’t have a/c at all; they claim it is quite comfortable there even in the summer. We could never do that here (I guess there is a reason the city’s name means “House of the Sun”).

We called the repairman who tried replacing the coolant. We were very impressed because he hit the problem within 5 minutes and had the unit working for us only hours before Shabbat was supposed to begin. Little did we know that the cold air would stop about an hour into Shabbat and the kids would all be shvitzed out.

After a return visit, he discovered a leak in our compressor and recommended a total replacement of the compressor. Our landlord understandably asked us to get a second price quote and – we couldn’t. Apparently, there was only one compressor unit for out type of A/C unit available in our part of Israel and our repairman had already reserved it. No other companies could get a quote on a not in stock part.

This is also the time of year that the kids start going to their chugim (after school activities). Most children here participate in them and each year’s opening month of school is filled with parents and kids busy comparing which chugim are opening, evaluating them and then trying to figure out carpool arrangements so the travel is manageable. And of course our never ending baseball season has not even begun yet (this year it will run October – June, that’s right EIGHT MONTHS of weekly practices and games).

One thing that made our lives easier was the great job with the simanim done by a local take out store, Rottenberg’s. With shemitta being such an issue with produce, it has been hard to find all the different vegetables we traditionally eat on Rosh Hashana. We also had a terrible time trying to buy a fish head (the local fish merchants all had a “to get the head you need to buy the whole fish” policy in effect).

We saw a posting on the email list for Bet Shemesh that Rottenberg’s had “all the simanim” for sale and decided to see what they had. It was amazing. They had precooked all the fish heads and were selling them ready to eat. They also had precooked dishes for all the simanim (except for pomegranate) and had dished them out into aluminum muffin trays – one type of vegetable to a section. They prepared a little card with the proper Yehi Ratzon to say for each vegetable and in case of some confusion as to which veggie was which – they had a map on the back of that little card identifying which section of the muffin tray had each specific vegetable.

I wouldn’t say that people are not helpful here. But most things we do here are mainly self serve. Here are the necessary tools – go do it. Pack all your own groceries. Slice you own bread at the supermarket. A major exception is gas – which still has a full service option at all stations. It was very relieving to see one local merchant making the effort to be extremely customer friendly.

The first month of the year has also been tremendously busy at work. Goldie has become the in house accountant for Eretz HaTzvi (the Yeshiva I work in), and the turn of the school year piles on tons of work for her. My schedule is also busy with tiyulim and programs for our newest students as well setting up programs for our newest alumni who have just entered University. So we are constantly running from task to task all September long.

As if that wasn’t enough, we have had an overwhelming turnout to the opening of the new Shul. Shelly Levine, the real estate broker for the new community tells everyone that Rabbi Rosner “is a Rock Star!!” I’m not sure that I would go quite that far, but it is clear that the new shul has struck a nerve. We have had at least 80 people each of the three weeks we have had Shabbat davening and have reservations for 70 for the Yamim Noraim. I am sure that the interest will abate somewhat as the newness wears off, but if it doesn’t we are going to be severely challenged for space.

Since we are just starting up, we are literally winging things by the seat of our pants. I sat with our President last Motzei Shabbat as we set and reset the seats, laying out different seating configurations in order to squeeze out the maximum possible places. There are so many different details to keep track of and it seems like every time we turn around we find something else we didn’t think of.

Hopefully things will calm down and we will fall into some sort of routine (preferably including doing my regular rotation with the Kohanim of my Mishmar in the Bet HaMikdash). However, it almost feels like the first year when we were fresh of the plane. We had no idea what was happening and any loud bang made us duck.

As we now look forward to the end of the Yamim Noraim with Yom Kippur this week, I want to wish all of you a Gmar Chatima Tova. I hope that my words have given you some sense of closeness to being here and hope that it might have helped you consider joining us here, for a vacation, for a year and yes, for a lifetime. If I have offended anyone with my thoughts and ideas, I apologize and hope that this is the year we can all come together and be a part of a reunited Jewish People in a rebuilt land.

Shana Tova!

Fitting In (Article# 92) 9/18/08

A few days before everyone got back to school, my brother Ely invited us to join his family at the Kotel for our nephew Yishai’s Hanachat Tefillin. Although we have attended other family smachot in Israel, this was the first time that we were able to join as a family, which was cool. With all the Katz siblings living in Israel, we can finally enjoy major events as a complete family, kids and all.

We were joined by Joel and Rachel Maryles who were having a Hanachat Tefillin for their son Yair. Joel is also a former Chicagoan who we have known since we were all babies; Joel’s grandfather responded to an advertisement for a shoichet for the Toledo, Ohio community where my grandfather was the Rav of the community (he succeeded his father in law, my great grandfather, as Rav) anf the Katz’s and the Maryles’ have shared a familial bond ever since. So it was a real treat to share our simcha together here in Israel, especially since we had the chance to see the grandparents, Jack (who helped teach me how to daven for the Amud) and Anne Maryles and have them join us for breakfast in celebration of the dual simcha.

Now that school has actually begun, I have found that somehow our lives seem even more hectic than during the summer. Chaim came home from camp and the next day he started yeshiva – in almost 3 months we have had him home for one Shabbat and a Shabbat meal (and brief visits to watch the Bears play). The other kids all have their new school schedules (Mordechai’s school opened a new building and Batya’s school moved into the old boys building) and with “meet the teachers” nights and the arrival of students at work, it has been quite a hectic couple of weeks.

Of course, the arrival of new students means several things to me. First is having to learn a whole slew of new names. While this used to be the thing I dreaded most, this year’s crew has 7 younger brothers which has helped tremendously. I was also much more deeply involved in the registration process which led to more familiarity with the names as well. Another part of bringing in new students is the “orientation” activities and tiyulim we run to help the guys acclimate to the schedule and the surroundings.

Many of these are tiyulim that I will never tire of. Any visit to the old city is a special occasion. Visiting it with newly arrived students in anticipation of a special year of growth in learning is much more so. I have been to the Ir David excavations and water tunnel four times in the past 2 years and it is exciting each time I go. To walk in the places we have learned about in Tana”ch helps establish a true connection and is something that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Hopefully the students will find it interesting as well.

The morning of our tiyul to Ir David, I traveled by train to the Yeshiva. Although I would normally work on the computer on the train, since I was going on the tiyul, I had only my knapsack and a drink. To occupy my time on the train, I took one of the free daily newspapers that are distributed at the station and prepared to enjoy reading the ads (since I never understand the paper).

However, an article about the Yerushalayim mayoral elections caught my eye and before I knew it, I had both read it AND (to my amazement) understood it. It was really amazing and somewhat relieving to see tangible evidence that my Hebrew skills were improving. I tried to read other articles and I would guess that I was able to understand more than half of them. I still can’t understand the news on the radio (they speak too quickly) but progress is progress.

Unless you have been on vacation in Alaska all year, you probably know that we have had some famous 5 Towns olim this year. Well, this past Shabbat we had the inaugural minyan for Bet Shemesh’s newest shul (we still haven’t decided on a name yet). We had been anticipating the opening for weeks and once Rabbi Rosner moved into his house we had a big push to get started. Since we plan on eventually buying a home in the new neighborhood, Goldie and I decided early on that we would be joining the new shul once the Rosners arrived and minyanim started.

Former 5 Towner Joshua Rudoff had arranged shiurim and was instrumental in getting everyone together. I was able to help make the connection with the administration of Mordechai’s school (which is right next door to the new neighborhood) and we suddenly had a home (at least for Shabbat and Chaggim). We put out the word that there would be davening and silently prayed that we would get at least 20 people (so it wouldn’t be a total disaster) and tried to cover all bases in making arrangements.

There were definitely hiccups (like finding out the room we were supposed to be in had no A/C) but we got everything set and showed up Friday night. And were overwhelmed. We had something like 30 men on Friday night (it was a standing room only crowd) and before we went home we decided to add more chairs in case more people showed up the next morning.

On Friday night the Rudoff’s hosted an Oneg Shabbat for the shul at their home, which also had a couple dozen people (I left early – so there may even have been more). So we were confident that we would see an OK turnout the next morning and were pretty happy about it.

Shabbat morning we were once again overwhelmed. I would guess that in the end we had something like 100 people davening with us (men, women and children) – the crowd was worse than standing room only – we had people setting up chairs in the hallway. It was great to see so many people come to see what the buzz was about and to meet several of our Hebrew speaking Israeli neighbors who were thrilled to finally have a minyan close to their homes.

Rabbi Rosner spoke in a very understandable Hebrew and made sure to intersperse it with a small amount of English translation to make sure that even the new Olim had a chance to understand him. The whole experience was simply terrific, and definitely uplifting to the people who worked to organize everything. As part of the Shabbat, Goldie and I sponsored a simple Kiddush after davening and it was a bit embarrassing but also quite exhilarating when we realized that so many people had turned up for the minyan that we would not have enough food.

It was a long time coming, but I think that finally we might be seeing some progress toward making the long term acclimation to our surroundings. The language is much less of a barrier than it used to be and in many ways we have adjusted our expectations to better fit the Israeli system and psychology. We will always be different, extremely different from the majority of Israelis. Yet somehow we are definitely becoming more like them.

Summer's End (Article# 91) 9/04/08

Larry Gordon mentioned that this week’s 5TJT is his “Back to School” issue and no one is happier that school is back in session than Goldie and I. The last few weeks have been unbelievably busy with kids and gearing up for a new year. Since we have been crazily running around, enjoying a week with the kids and getting ready for the new school year, I haven’t had the opportunity to complete an article.

It is amazing to see how many people go away for some sort of break in the last two weeks of August each year. Hotels fill up, buses and trains are absolutely jam packed with people. Hiking trails are flooded with people, the beaches fill up and there are kids everywhere you turn.

Many people take time off this week (I know it was a major factor for us) simply because their children would be home and bored out of their minds. With the majority of summer activities wound down, there aren’t many choices to keep them occupied. So we (along with the rest of our office, which closed for a week) took advantage of the time to squeeze in some family time with the kids.

We decided to take the kids on a series of day trips, experiencing parts of Israel that we knew where there, but are not really able to enjoy during the rest of the year. Each day was programmed in advance and we really tried to make it fun.

We started the week of with a day at Superland in Rishon L’Tziyon. Think Adventureland in Farmingdale – but larger by about 60%. As is our norm, we arrived 20 minutes before opening in order to beat the crowds (which began to thicken at about 2 PM, but never materialized to the magnitude that we had anticipated in advance). Chaya, Batya and Mordechai had all been to Superland, so they had an idea of exactly what rides they wanted to go on, and it was a pretty good day (especially when you consider that by using points off my credit card the admission tickets cost us absolutely NOTHING).

There were a couple of things that really stuck out to us as different from the US (aside from everything being in Hebrew). The first was the atmosphere of the park. It was very relaxed and casual. The management sets plastic chairs for the customers to enjoy throughout the park, and people bring their ice chests full of food (we did), pick out a spot and enjoy a leisurely time relaxing.

We were also struck by the fact that we had finally found somewhere we couldn’t eat. The park, being open on Shabbat could certainly not earn Kosher supervision and none of the food stands had anything to eat. We had brought our own food and snacks, but it was strange to not be able to eat there. We had forgotten what it was like.

On Channuka we had gone to the Cholon Children’s Museum and experienced their “Dialogue in the Dark” exhibit, touring the totally dark exhibit with our blind guide and getting a better understanding of what the world is like for the blind (if only for a limited time and in a limited way). We had enjoyed the day so much that we decided to return to the museum on Monday for their “Invitation to Silence” exhibit, conducted totally in silence with a deaf guide (well, at least I did it with Batya and Chaya – Goldie went on a kids tour with Mordechai and Moshe).

While it was definitely less of an overwhelming experience, we were definitely intrigued by the entire exhibit (which is conducted while wearing sound eliminating headphones) and took a lot out of it. I highly recommend it. I am also very impressed by the way that the Cholon museum divides its’ tours by age group. While it is certainly a bit inconvenient to split the family up, each group is able to take much more out of their day because their tour is specifically geared to them. This keeps the “This is so boring” comments to a minimum.

The circus came to Bet Shemesh this year. Setting up a couple of tents and a ticket booth in an empty dirt parking lot, all Bet Shemesh was talking about the circus, how to get cheap tickets, if the show was appropriate, was the night a good value, etc. Once again using points to get a discount, Goldie took Chaya, Batya and Mordechai along with my brother’s wife Jenny and their son Nachi to the circus Monday night while Ozer and I watched the preschoolers.

I had actually planned to write for the paper that night, but as I sat down to the keyboard I got a call from Aliza that I certainly was not waiting for. Apparently she had fallen and sprained her ankle at camp. As she was on the way to NY for a week long visit with her grandparents, we arranged for her to be seen by a doctor in NY (turned out to be a tiny fracture). It was very frustrating to try and deal with such problems from 6,000 miles away, but big kudos to Goldie’s parents who really came through in getting the appointments and arrangements squared away.

On Tuesday we went to Park HaYarkon in Tel Aviv. Park HaYarkon is a huge park with a lake, lots of different play areas, amusement and water parks across the street, a couple of mini zoos and a whole bunch of other attractions. Our kids played on the huge wooden jungle gyms they had and we rented a golf cart for a tour of the park. After a couple hours of fun, we headed off to the beach to get some relief from the amazing heat.

Our little kids had never been to the beach so this was definitely exciting for them. They had a great time getting wet and splashing in the waves, but the highlight for them was building in the sand. They literally spent hours with their bucket and shovel and the discovery of a complete seashell was a major event.

On a previous trip to Tel Aviv we had discovered a mehadrin Chinese restaurant a block off the beach and we treated the kids to a nice dinner there. The owner of the restaurant used to own a business in the 5 Towns and had recognized me on our previous visit (and also made sure to come by and say hi again this time). I am not sure how he arranged it, but the kids were entertained by the blackout that hit halfway through dinner and having to eat our dinner (literally) by candlelight.

My brother’s arrived on Wednesday. I had forgotten how much stuff can be crammed into the shipping container and could hear in their voices how overwhelming the task of unpacking seemed. As a renter, knowing that I am probably going to have to move again at some point in the next couple of years, it scares me a bit.

By Wednesday we were also pretty tired. My other brother Ely had just returned from “summering” in the USA with his family, so we decided to pick up his kids and take everyone for bowling, dinner and a movie. We stopped for dinner at the new mall in Modiin, eating in their food court. What a great time! Once again surrounded by kosher restaurants (all except the McDonalds), we let the kids choose where and what they wanted and ended up with a whole smorgasbord of food (we had to split the table into the milk side and the meat side).

On Thursday we were ready for another full day and took our nephew Nachi with us to explore Yerushalayim. We had planned to see a “puppet” (more like paper doll) performance in the Train Theater as well as take a trip in the Time Elevator before going to the Malha Mall for a free live show by a popular children’s entertainer. What we didn’t plan for was the crowds.

We got into the puppet show without too much of a problem. However, when we headed to the Time Elevator before lunch to buy tickets for later in the day, they were all sold out. This was a definite disappointment and left us scrambling for something to do with the kids for a couple of hours. Capitalizing on the fact that we were close to Ben Yehuda, we took them window shopping and people watching while picking up a couple of odds and ends. We completed the day with a kids show and dinner at the Malha Mall food court.

We spent the last week of the summer getting ready for school and the new Yeshiva year. Here in Israel, with no “Labor Day” weekend, schools regularly open on September 1 and the “last minute” nature of Israelis means that many many people are out and about buying their school books and supplies at the same time. The government does not provide free text books, so we definitely spend a lot of money each year (6 kids means a lot of books to buy), but we will still gladly pay for them when we consider how much less our tuition bills are.

September also brings thousands of new teens for their “Year in Israel” experience. Being in the “Yeshiva” business, the end of the summer means that we get to meet and greet a new group of students who will be spending a year of their lives with us.

Each group brings with them a certain sense of uncertainty. As a veteran of Elementary and High School education, I am used to having the students around for 8-12 years and getting to know both them and their parents. Working with High School graduates who come for no more than two years is very different from what I had been used to.

If your son or daughter has joined us here in Israel for the year, we hope that they have a terrific year of growth and enjoyment.

Special Mazal Tovs go out to our neighbors Dr. Mark and Yosefa Kraus on the marriage last week of their daughter Tziona and to Larry and Esta Gordon on the birth last week of their grandson.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Welcome: Part III (Article# 90) 8/14/08

For those of you who have wondered where I have been these past few weeks, I had a ten day business trip to the USA and had written – but not gotten the articles in by deadline time. Some of the following is a bit old, but....

Somehow, we seem to have made the Nefesh Bnefesh welcoming ceremony for new olim an annual event for us. As new olim two years ago, we were overwhelmed by the support and raw joy we were showered with upon our arrival. I do not think that we will ever enjoy a flight to Israel as much as we enjoyed that flight.

Last year, we joined the crowd and welcomed former 5 towners Kiki and Gary Schickman, whose son Gabey was our son Mordechai's best friend through preschool. Seeing the ceremony as greeters instead of participants gave us a totally different perspective. It was great being there and I would definitely recommend that everyone, even if for some crazy reason you do not move to Israel, everyone should attend a welcoming ceremony at least once just to witness the emotion and outpouring of love displayed.

This summer the countdown began quite early. On a trip to Chicago last winter, my youngest brother Ozer and his wife Jenny told me that after several years of planning, they were going to finally be making Aliyah this summer. The news was hush hush at first, but eventually it went public and the excitement began to build. Especially at the Katz house.

I have an older sister and younger brother already living here, so these are not our only relatives in Israel. However, my brother will be living right down the block from us and that really fired the kids up. The oldest ones are looking forward to babysitting and helping out, while the younger ones are thrilled to finally have “local” cousins (we live on a block with tons of young families and many of them have local relatives).

No matter what the reason, the countdown began quite early on and the kids never tired of asking how many more weeks and days were left to the big day. My brother came to town for a pilot trip in the Spring, and helping him find a place to live and identify the right schools and preschool for his kids gave us a small role in the process as well.

It is hard to be that older brother sometimes. I found myself wanting to have him follow in my footsteps and make similar decisions that we made. Schools. Doctors. City to live in. I think part of that desire comes from a need to have someone else affirm our decisions as sound and appropriate choices. We all have similar feelings about the schools our kids go to or perhaps the shul we are members of. I think it is a major part in why olim are so passionate about their choice and in encouraging others to follow our lead.

We woke up nice and early to get to the airport before 7 AM as recommended by NBN. It was a good thing we did; the plane landed a half hour early. They made some changes to the program and ceremony. Most of them were slight changes that didn't really make a big difference one way or another (ok – I have to admit the kids enjoyed the iced coffee machine). However, the most significant change is one you can all be a part of.

Using the wonders of technology, rather than sit around waiting for the olim to make their way from the plane to the ceremony building, NBN had set up large screen televisions and were broadcasting the entire welcome live to the entire world. For us in the airport it helped build anticipation. We saw pictures of the departure from NY and then watched the landing and taxiing of the plane. We got to see the disembarking of the first few passengers (and heard a tremendously heartwarming story of the oldest oleh on the plane, a woman who had been turned back from making Aliyah aboard the Exodus – only to fulfill her dream so many years later). And of course, we headed out to greet the olim as they got off the airport buses just outside the welcome terminal.

However, we were not alone. Through the internet, my parents were able to watch the same scenes. They had been at JFK saying goodbye the day before and after arriving back home in Chicago they logged on the computer and there we were. Live and on camera, they got to see some of us as we waited and then my brother as he arrived. They got to watch the entire welcome and share in the moment – even though they were so far away. There is no doubt that seeing how they are embraced here helped ease some of the pain in letting go.

They got to watch the reunion of a man they had met at the airport who was going to live with his daughter who has lived here for 30+ years. We were just across the aisle as he walked through the crowd and was halted by a scream of “ABBA!” and mobbed by his daughter and family. Goldie and I could not help but think of the same moment happening in our lives as we wait in the hope that our parents (especially her father who has dreamed of living in Israel his entire adult life) will join us here.

After the ceremony, which is becoming shorter each year, we headed home and welcomed them once again as they arrived from the airport. For the next several weeks they will be living with us, waiting for their container to arrive from the USA. Because of the tremendous increase in exports, they had their shipment delayed a couple weeks and aren't sure when their things will arrive. While many families arrive here alone and sleep on air mattresses and use toaster ovens until their belongings arrive – we are happy to provide them with a softer landing.

It is interesting to watch as they open bank accounts, choose cellphone plans and express their befuddlement at how the world works here. We remember being in those shoes not too long ago and watching this young family adapt and assimilate, we are constantly reminded how far we have come in just two short years.

I was actually supposed to leave for a trip to the USA on the same day that Ozer and Jenny arrived here. At the last minute I was able to put off my departure a week to help Goldie with the arrival and help everyone adjust to their new routine. I was in Chicago and New York for 10 days and there is one thing that I can say with certainty, “THERE WAS NOT ANY SNOW WHILE I WAS THERE THIS TIME!!!”

As is usual, I was sick the day before my trip. I think I may be developing an allergic reaction to being outside of Israel (and I only say that half jokingly). With a full schedule of alumni events and meeting scheduled, I popped a few antibiotic pills and headed off (via Delta's new service to Atlanta – which I hated) to experience the galut in its fullness once again.

Although it was an eventful trip, I really only want to share a single thought that came to me while I was here. It is something that many people had tried to impress upon me before I made Aliyah but I hadn't really understood until I experienced it myself. It is how severely we Jews of Israel lack the sense of Achdut that used to be one of the showcase attributes of our country.

In the days of old (25- 60 years ago) we did not fight as much among ourselves. Chareidi, religious zionist, non religious – no matter what your religious beliefs were, we all stood together. Our national sense of gratitude at simply being alive gave us a shared sense of purpose that allowed us to coexist in harmony (at least for the most part). That sense of peaceful coexistence is something that we seem to have lost, yet you here in galut seem to have retained.

I am not saying that everyone in Israel always got along nor that there are no divisions between Jews in the diaspora. Clearly there are disagreements and hard feelings all around and there have always been such. However, you are able to set aside your differences much more easily than we are and still get along and care about each other.

This hit home on Erev Shabbat as my niece and I shared a few hours together picking up our American “supplies” off of my kids' shopping list. We had stopped at a local Teaneck restaurant to have a salad lunch and I could not help but wonder at the broad range of “religiosity” of the clientèle and the fact that they all seemed to know each other and get along. It didn't matter how modestly one or the other was dressed (or not) or what Yeshiva their kids go to or what shul they daven in, the diaspora communities – in their isolation from the sense of being a Jew that we enjoy in Israel maintain a much stronger sense of “loving your brother” than we do in Israel.

It is clearly a product of our no longer being outcasts or different from the mainstream society in which we live. Here in Israel, we belong. We are mainstream society. And we take it for granted.

You, on the other hand, have been and always will be viewed as different, no matter how welcoming your hosts are or how deeply you integrate into the society. Their holidays will still never be yours (no matter how much your holidays are “recognized” by society) and their values will always be different. This displacement gives diaspora Jews a common sense of unity; no matter how different you may be from each other – you are still more closely related to each other than you are to the general public. For that, I envy you. I believe that it is that sense of communal love that is our worst deficiency and our greatest danger.

I wasn't thrilled to schedule travel during the 9 days, but I traveled TO Israel and planned to either I) be working in the Bet Hamikdash as a practicing Kohein or II) davening in the Kotel plaza and reading a chapter of Eicha there on Tisha B'Av. While I ended up doing option II, being here affords me the opportunity to do so. I read Eicha at the Kotel last year and it helped me internalize the true loss we suffered, since I was literally sitting within 100 feet of the site of the destroyed Bet Hamikdash.

Last year there were literally thousands of people there when we arrived and the crush was somewhat impressive. This year, we managed to arrive about 45 minutes after the end of Shabbat and before most people. It was still an awe inspiring experience. After 2,000 years it is so hard to relate to the loss we suffered, but being on the site and mentally forming some kind of picture of what may have once been has added to my Tisha B'Av spiritual connection. If there is a future Tisha B'Av before Mashiach comes, I recommend the experience.

Although I do not look forward to having another opportunity to do so ever again and would prefer to see a rebuilt Bet Hamikdash, I am committed to continuing to be at Har Habayit every year – preferably to be in the Bet HaMikdash.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Tears (Article# 89) 7/25/08

In anticipation of having a full house with my brother’s arrival, Goldie and I took a last minute vacation to Teveria. We had been talking about getting away for several weeks, but could not really settle on a specific day to go. At the last second (literally at 10:30 AM) we got a super discount on one of the Israeli last minute travel sites and we hit the road by 11:15 for a 2 night getaway.

When we lived in the USA vacations were a lot easier to plan but a lot harder to go on. I understood all the tourist information and was able to schedule an itinerary with ease. Even selecting a hotel was easy. We would drive around at the end of the day and see what looked interesting and call the Hotel Chain’s 800 number for a deal.

On the flip side, food and davening were major problems. Minyanim were not to be found outside the major urban areas and we had to be very careful about bringing enough food in case we couldn’t find the basic staples (I remember one year it took me almost an hour to find milk with hashgocha in Orlando, Florida). Finding a kosher restaurant meant an automatic night out – just for the novelty of seeing the restaurant in Hartford, CT or Norfolk, VA.

Planning our Israeli vacation was almost the exact opposite. A minyan was no problem and we had all the kosher food we could possibly eat (breakfast in the hotel dining room was included in the price – how cool is that). But all the travel websites (especially the last minute ones with all the best prices) are in Hebrew and I just couldn’t make heads or tails of them. I did eventually figure things out (and got almost 50% off the rate), but it took hours and hours of work to get the job done.

The first night we were there, we took a walk along the “boardwalk” and strolled around the center of town before having dinner. After dinner, as we made our way to the hotel, we came upon some live entertainment. Several Breslover Chassidim were set up on a street corner, peddling CDs, amulets and books while their van blasted (at full volume) the latest Breslover hits while at least 3 or 4 chassidim danced to the music (there was never less than one guy dancing maniacally on the roof of the van).

If you have never seen these guys, you don’t know what you are missing. They engage the crowd and try to spread their “joy” with the public. Invariably, one or two of the onlookers are motivated to join in the dancing, to the amusement of all. I think we sat and watched the show for something like 45 minutes.

The next day we slept late and then enjoyed the hotel dining room breakfast. At the meal we met the Rabhan family from Great Neck who were visiting for the summer. It turns out that I was in college with him way back in the late 80’s. It is always interesting to bump into people from the old country.

We then headed out for some rafting on the Jordan River. The waters were mostly tame (except for one 4 foot drop or so where I thought Goldie was going to pop a vocal cord from the volume of her screaming), but we really had a blast. We tried to drift with the current as much as we could, to enjoy the sun, peace and quiet.

After an early movie and late dinner, we again enjoyed a good night’s sleep and a long, lazy breakfast in the dining room. We were preparing to check out before heading out for a jeeping or boat trip when we turned on the TV to see what was going on. We knew the prisoner exchange was scheduled for that morning, but seeing it in reality really hit hard.

On the television, one of the first images we saw was a grand stage being set up somewhere near Beirut, where a massive celebration was going to be held later in the day. There was a huge banner on which (in English) there was the following message:

“Israel sheds tears of pain while Lebanon sheds tears of joy”

How disgusting. A country is in euphoric ecstasy at the release of a sick deranged criminal. They exult in the fact that they tortured 2 families for 2 full years, never admitting that their loved ones were dead, just so that they could exact the last ounce of pleasure from seeing our pain.

In fact, the initial reports were that Hizbolla was claiming that the soldiers were captured alive and that “whatever happened, happened” in an apparent effort to claim that it was the arabs who executed them after the fact. It was only the next day that the truth came out. Both soldiers were killed in the initial attack.

It is easy to say that we don’t negotiate with terrorists and thugs. When the person whose life might be saved is your husband, son, father, friend or neighbor that very lofty ideal falls by the wayside. The failure here was not the fact that we negotiated with terrorists. The failure was that we had to negotiate with them.

The neighborhood is not afraid of us anymore. They talk openly of kidnapping more soldiers so that they can squeeze even more from us. Our intelligence service seems powerless to detect these attacks and certainly from identifying the location of the captives so that we can mount rescue operations. Our government seems so overwhelmingly focused on maintaining power that it has lost focus on actually governing and in doing what is best for Israel rather than what is best for the political life of its elected officials. And our Prime Minister is still trying to figure out how to claim his frequent flyer miles his family accrued while possibly traveling at the expense of Israeli organizations.

We came here to be a part of Israeli society and to live in the Land of our Fathers, the Land that was divinely promised to us and our children. We wanted to live openly as Jews in the land of the Jews, actually fitting into the culture rather than carving a place for ourselves within someone else’s culture.

The entire family has benefited from our move here. We have happy kids who are excelling in school and in life. This has not changed. Yet, I am so disillusioned about Israeli politics that I am not really that concerned about who wins the next election. He (it better not be the only she who has a chance) is going to sell out anyway and we will be constantly on the defensive, both physically and psychologically unable to get away from the constant desire to have the rest of the world love us for who we are.

My brother arrives on his Nefesh Bnefesh flight this week. Attending his arrival will mark the third straight year we have been at an NBN arrival, always and inspiring and uplifting event. Hopefully, this new group will be part of our metamorphosis into a new Israel, an Israel that can once again stand as proud as we used to stand, safe and secure in the knowledge that we are a mighty and feared nation.

I want to wish the Israel Association of Baseball team good luck in the International “For the Love of the Game” baseball invitational being held in Freeport, PA this week. We look forward to hearing great things about their ambassadorial experience, especially from player Ephraim Schwartz, son of Chanoch and Naomi Schwartz – formerly of the 5 Towns.

NBA Ref Ehud Olmert (Article# 88) 7/18/08

I have been asked several times why I avoid writing about the current Israeli political issues. After all, politics is such a major part of Israeli society and what happens in the political arena has a huge impact on our day to day lives. A backroom deal here or there and viola – our child support payments go up (every family gets paid for having children in the household until the kids turn 18). A coalition building deal may bring thousands of shekels toward after school programming one day and cancel the program a few weeks later.

There are demonstrations and counter demonstrations galore and trying to publicize politician corruption seems to be a major part of the jobs of the police and Attorney General.

In truth, part of the reason I don’t talk much about politics is the fact that I still don’t really understand the system here too well. I have no idea how to register to vote, nor how the political primaries (if they even exist) operate for the various parties. I am sure that Nefesh B’nefesh will eventually (at a date closer to the actual elections) issue a primer to all the new immigrants on what/how/when/where, but until then I remain clueless.

I did actually do some research in how to form a political party and register it in the elections for the Knesset. It is not so hard to do; all it really takes is a bit of money and 100 people to join the party. I have a name for the party – Olim Chadashim (new immigrants) and believe that the agenda of making Israel more user friendly (less bureaucracy) as well as a little more responsive to the needs of immigrants AFTER they arrive and not just recruiting them heavily would be an interesting approach and attractive to foreign born citizens.

According to the information I found online, it appears that about 72,000 votes was enough to win the minimum of three seats the smallest parties in the Knesset are awarded. Nefesh B’nefesh just brought its’ 15,000th immigrant to Israel last week and considering Aliyah that has come from various corners of the world, it would not be unheard of (even though it is extremely unlikely) for something like that to happen. At the very least, it would be a wonderful civics experience and be an incredible chance to bring the Israeli election process to life for the thousands of us who really have no clue how everything runs.

Of course, the $15,000 filing fee would be a bit of an issue, as would having to campaign and really develop a platform on all the major issues (especially considering the aforementioned lack of clear understanding of how everything really works). However, if anyone is really interested in helping to solve the first hurdle (in a legal manner – I would prefer not being investigated for corruption), I am willing to give it a go and work on the other issues.

I am also somewhat confused about what happens when people who spend their entire lives saying things like, “we will never give away land” or “Jerusalem undivided” seem to suddenly change their minds when they are sitting in the seats of power. It is almost as if once they become the leader of the country they are given certain information that none of us have that leads them to change their minds. I have no clue what it could possibly be, but the list of politicians who were elected saying “we will not negotiate with terrorist” and end up doing just that is endless.

Another reason I don’t like commenting on politicians is that I really think they are all corrupt in one way or another. If so, the fact that one of them steals better than another is not really worthy of comment. Yet, with the latest round of corruption news (and spin) I can’t hold back.

After all, it is not often that a Head of State’s position is threatened because he followed the lead of a few NBA referees (no – not the one who gambled). For those of you who aren’t up to speed on this, several NBA referees downgraded their first class tickets to coach, pocketed the price difference and failed to report the money as income on their tax returns. At least one of them was convicted and served house arrest.

The similarities are striking. The politician is always claiming that the legislators beneath him play in a foul manner, lying about him and his policies and using the media for personal gain. NBA refs? Their job is calling fouls and trying to keep players in line.

The politician constantly flip flops on the issues and basically says whatever the people he is currently speaking to want to hear. NBA refs? Well, there must be a reason the common belief is that the home team seems to get the benefit of the doubt from them.

Of course, when the NBA ref makes a mistake at his job, the worst thing that happens is not very significant overall. A politician can make a mistake that costs lives and endangers a nation. So I think I am less comfortable knowing that the politician is willing to stick it to the people where personal gain is concerned than I am about an NBA official cheating on his taxes.

I am obviously engaging in a little bit of absurdity in suggesting that the two are comparable. If an NBA official cheats in one area – the concern is that he will cheat in others. That might not be a concern by the politician. There might even be an argument to be made that we need smart and crafty people to serve as our leaders so that they can use their “less than honest” talents for the benefit of our country.

Then again, some of those NBA officials are now out of jobs – so perhaps there IS a correlation to be made here after all.