Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Brrrrrrrrrrr (Article# 73) 2/14/08

It seems like the bad weather comes to meet me every time I come to the USA. Last time it was an ice storm that cancelled my connecting flight and then nine inches of snow in Chicago. This time we were lucky to have an arctic cold front move in. The same day I was shivering in gloves and a ski cap in NY, my kids went to school without jackets.

To be fair, we had bad weather in Israel too. Yerushalayim even had two straight days of snow (which is very unusual). The temperature was so cold that even in Beit Shemesh we had exposed water pipes (from the solar water heaters) bursting and leaking. So we did have some winter weather.

Israel is the most panic struck place when the winter weather rolls in. None of the cars have anything remotely near “all weather” tires, so there are accidents and skids all over the place. Schools close early so that the kids can be home. Even the Beit Shemesh schools considered closing; there was no snow by us, but the teachers from the Gush area had to dig themselves out to get to school.

Thankfully, we only had Aliza home for the school days. Since I work in Yerushalayim and the roads were all closed, I also stayed home for a couple of days. I have friends who work out of the house – I have no idea how they do it. I had so many distractions it was almost impossible to get anything done.

The night I left for the USA, Mordechai had his Kitta Aleph (First Grade) Siddur presentation. The kids from both first grade classes put on a show, and their Rebbi was terrific as he took the roles of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as the originators of our davening three times each day. Then the Rabbi of the entire community personally presented each kid with his own siddur. Mordechai was so proud.

Having seen many friends in NY I think some of you may be getting the wrong impression about what is going on in our neighborhood. There are certainly tensions between us and our ultra orthodox neighbors. But, it isn’t like they are lurking in the bushes waiting to throw a rock at us as we pass by. Most weeks nothing happens. However, we are trying to work for a time when I can leave off the words “most weeks”.

Last week saw another success at camaraderie. We had a mini crisis (details not important), and instead of throwing stones, writing threatening letters, rioting or some other such actions – they called us. Our Rav got involved and worked out a reasonable solution to the issue and all sides walked away happy – which is the goal, isn’t it?

We are working towards a joint community Melava Malka, a joint women’s tehillim group and other events designed to encourage achdut (unity) in Beit Shemesh. So we have some good progress on this front.

Although Goldie did call me from Israel to tell me that the spray painter was at it again. This time he painted his “modest dress only” message in 3 places. Goldie wasn’t sure who to talk to, but the neighbors did and by the time I called the guys responsible for clean up I found out that the job had already been done. So once again the mess was cleaned up within hours and we hope that this will discourage the guy from coming back, since nobody sees his work anyway.

Our kids got their report cards over the last couple of weeks. We were pretty pleased with the results. Even though they did not know much Hebrew (in most cases – NO Hebrew), they are doing very well academically. Despite the fact that their parents have a hard time helping with some of the homework.

Vocabulary is a major concern. We are an English speaking family. Goldie and I try to speak Hebrew at times, just to keep our skills sharp (and also to get a little nachas in hearing the kids respond in Hebrew). Yet, we have very basic vocabularies and don’t know (or speak) many of the words that Israeli kids hear in their homes as a matter of course. So their vocabularies are not at the same level as their peers.

Looking back, I really don’t know what we expected to see from them as they adjusted. We knew that people have had so many problems coming with older kids on Aliyah. Yet we continued to insist to everyone that there had to be successes as well as failures and were confidently optimistic that our kids would be successful.

Give the kids all the credit though, since it is their hard work that made things happen. Chaya, who is such a different person since we moved, clearly knows more Hebrew than she admits to. Even without bonus points that are awarded to new Olim for the first 10 years they live here – she is well above the passing level in all her courses. Assuming she continues to work hard (ok – and gets the extra help we need to get her because of the language barrier).

We sometimes forget how difficult the past year was for her and the other kids. Ten days ago, I got a call from one of Chaya’s friends at school that Chaya was in the midst of a terrible anxiety attack. A classmate’s father had passed away that morning from lung cancer. When another girl made a comment about the mortality rate of lung cancer Chaya got very distraught.

Although we have been very open with the kids and have encouraged them to ask questions and understand everything that we have faced, you can never tell when something will trigger a memory or concern. Thankfully, we were tipped off by that concerned friend. I was able to go meet Chaya at school to talk with her and comfort her.

I had written a few weeks ago that we knew a family making Aliyah this summer, but that the news of their Aliyah was not yet public. I can now share with you the terrific news that my youngest brother and his family will be joining us in Israel as Israelis. Although things are still up in the air, it even looks like they will start off living in Beit Shemesh.

They had originally been considering other communities, but we know so much about Beit Shemesh and its preschools and services, etc., that we were able to hook them up with most of what they needed in schools and it makes for a much softer landing this way. Also, who wouldn’t want to move somewhere that there will be built in babysitting for your kids.

Our kids were brimming with excitement when they heard the news. These are an uncle and aunt that they have known all their lives, but cousins that they really do not know much, never having lived in the same community. The older kids are excited to have some cousins to help take care of (my brother has one boy and twin girls) and the younger ones have some cousins to play with.

As the last Katz to move to Israel, Ozer’s Aliyah also completes an astounding feat. Had anyone told me ten years ago that my entire family would be living in Israel I would have laughed aloud. Now, it is about to be reality. I think it is time for Religious Zionists of Chicago to honor my parents as Zionists of the Year or something like that!

Strangely, his wife Jenny is also the final one of her sisters to make Aliyah as well. So they really complete the family on both sides. I guess her parents (the Benn’s) should have a similar honor in the Silver Spring community as well.

Of course, since their oldest child is entering Pre1a (or Kindergarten, whatever you call the year before Grade 1), they are making Aliyah in a totally different stage of life than we are in. He will probably even have to do some form of military service in the reserves, most likely as a driver or some other support staff. So it will be interesting to see what they go through and contrast it to our experience in making Aliyah.

Hopefully when he comes to us in March on his pilot trip it won’t be nearly as cold as my visit to him this week (12 degrees in Chicago – not celcius).

Very Fresh Paint (Article# 72) 2/7/08

On Monday, I got a frantic call from Goldie. As Mordechai was getting out of the car, he accidentally slammed the door on his finger. He was howling in pain and she was going to head to the doctor. To make a long story short (which is unusual for me), instead of a broken bone he had a sprain and bruise and had to wear a splint until Shabbat.

We hosted the neighborhood meeting in our house on Wednesday night. We weren’t sure how many people to expect, since we had only sent out the first email invitations out on Sunday. 120+ people showed.

Apparently, the threat of violence against our neighbors simply because they have a television struck a chord. There was a lot of talk about needing to do something to combat the violence that has sprung up. A lot of rhetoric too. The pacifist kept insisting that we should somehow make friends with the rock throwers and letter writers. But the important thing to us was that people cared enough to show up for a meeting with just 3 days notice.

We were able to talk through many issues that people didn’t even know existed and put together a bigger picture of how the Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet (RBSB) militant group (as opposed to the rest of RBSB) is positioning themselves to further develop their neighborhood and influence.

We broke into subcommittees and asked people to get the word out that manpower was needed for further meetings (like the one to be held with the Mayor and Chief of Police the following Monday) and other activities. It was an impressive showing, especially since almost 50% of those there immediately volunteered for subcommittees.

A couple of nights later Chaim came down to the kitchen laughing. “You won’t believe this,” he said. “I was playing a video game with Mordechai (his 6 year old brother) watching me. I made a move in the game that he did not like and he started yelling at me IN HEBREW!” How cool is that? Of course, Chaim didn’t understand a word.

On Thursday the Yeshiva went on a tiyul (trip) to the Gush and Chevron. It was an incredible day for everyone. We saw a physical representation of the various laws of Shemitta, visited a winery, stopped at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion and then toured the building in Chevron (among other sites there) that is at the heart of the current controversy there.

At one point, in Kfar Etzion, we were pointed out the building that houses the High School of Rav Shteinzaltz. Little did we know that less than twelve hours later, that very school was to be the target of a terrorist attack. It was quite shocking to hear the news and realize that we had walked by the very same spot – albeit with armed escort.

On Friday morning I got an email from one of the guys who was at the meeting in my house earlier in the week that the chareidim from across the street had spray painted the sidewalk outside our block. Our street is a dead end, but only because it sits about two to three feet above the street it would normally intersect near my house and is about twenty feet below the level of the street perpendicular.

In order to make it easier for pedestrians, there are stairs from our street to the adjacent streets and it was the sidewalk just outside those stairs that were spray painted with a message “Modest dress required when passing this way”.

Not that I am against modest dress, but this graffiti set me off.

I called a few fellows from the block and together we scrubbed the paint off the bricks by one set of stairs, and then we went out and bought some spray paint matching the color of the sidewalk by the other stairs and covered that message over as well.

While we were working, several of the Chareidim came by and one of our guys stopped to talk to
each one. Some of them knew what was going on and others didn’t. In the end, he spoke with one fellow who said that he wanted to set up a meeting with one of their Rabbis to try and diffuse the tension. So we’ll see, some good might come of it.

Meanwhile, more and more neighbors keep moving in, so it is exciting here on Rechov Gad. Of course, it isn’t that much of a treat when their moving boxes and packing paper are strewn all over the block – but what can you do?


I missed my deadline last week, so I can update you on a lot more that happened since then.
We met with the guys from across the street. Well, not me personally – but one of my neighbors and our Rav. I cannot argue with the results. Not only was the threatening letter withdrawn, but a personal apology was made – twice! We have a dialogue between us that no one thought possible.

There will still be flare-ups, and this meeting only solved (at least for now) one of the issues. There are many others yet to be covered. But dialogue is dialogue, and you cannot belittle how much better things feel in the neighborhood right now. And they also claim that spray painting is not their tactics – so we still have the spray painter to deal with.

We also had a town hall meeting with the Mayor and Police Chief. The crowd was over four hundred angry people – mostly anglos (American, English, Australian and South African with a Canadian here and there), and they were there to protest the violence that the police were letting happen as well as the mayor giving certain plots of land for some of the biggest of the troublemakers to make a school just outside our neighborhood.

It was clear that the mayor never expected so many people, nor the level of anger they had over the continuing situation. I even had one native Israeli tell me that it was the largest “political” meeting EVER in Bet Shemesh. And they got the point – even though they weren’t as forthcoming at the meeting that they could have been.

Yet, they agreed to meet with us on a regular basis (the Police Chief has already held his first meeting) and based on the newspapers that have come out in the last week, it seems as if all sides are finally looking to talk to each other and work together where they can find common ground. Which is a good thing.

The speed with which things came to a head and action started being taken took me by surprise. Especially when the “veterans” said that nothing could be done at all. Yes, we still have issues to face that will become heated, but then again – I would rather be fighting this argument than one concerning who runs the school board.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Keeping Busy (Article# 71) 1/24/08

First off, I want to wish a Mazal Tov to Nachi, Larry and Esta Gordon on Nachi’s Bar Mitzva. I have said it before; joining friends at the Kotel for the celebration of such a simcha is truly a treat. I know that Larry wrote about his trip to Sderot and am sure this week’s edition will have much more about his trip, but one thing really stuck out to me.

I was chatting with Larry at the Seudah after davening, which was held in a simcha hall overlooking the Kotel plaza. As we were talking, I glanced out the window and noticed a troop of Chayalim (soldiers) walking by. I pointed them out to Larry and said, “Now there is something you don’t see in Cedarhurst!”

Larry turned to me and said, “I should bring them something to eat” – grabbed Nachi and a tray of muffins and went out the front door to share a bit of his simcha with some passing strangers. What a lesson to teach your son on the day he becomes a Bar Mitzva!

It seems as if I have been on an every other week schedule the last few weeks. I think part of it may be that our continual adjustment to life here makes for boring reading. We run our daily routine, kids go to school and “coast” through the week – if that is ever possible.

Yes, we are busy – but boring busy. Of course, then there are weeks when it seems that there aren’t enough keys on the keyboard to type all I have to share.

Our niece Tova visited us (ok – really the country) for her winter break. She had been here on a second year at Shaalvim for girls when we arrived and was at our house often as we settled in. So it was nice to have her “home” again. I know she loves being here and hopes one day to live here.

Since it was winter break season, the Yeshiva was enjoying a “recharge” visit from over 30 of our alumni. The winter visits are a highlight of the year and I had the opportunity to share another highlight with them – my monthly pizza run to the military checkpoints.

It was a freezing night (quite a few hot water heating solar panels had burst pipes that night in Bet Shemesh – not a place usually known for its’ cold climate). The excitement the Chayalim displayed when we showed up was invigorating, especially when they heard that the students with me had taken a night from their personal vacation to stop by and say thanks.

That night I also lost my cellphone and all the phone numbers stored in my contact list. How frustrating. Larry Gordon was trying to coordinate my joining his family at Sderot, and I didn’t realize the phone was gone and I missed the trip. Very disappointing.

I spoke two days later at the Nefesh Bnefesh (NBN) one year anniversary dinner for Olim (immigrants) who made Aliyah in 2006. I got a call two days before the dinner from Dudy Stark, who handles their PR and was arranging the program. I know Dudy from Chicago and I have repeatedly told him that I would be glad to do anything for NBN.

There were two Olim on the program and I spoke first. I had about 10 minutes to synopsize everything you have read in 20 months. It is always overwhelming to reflect and realize just how much we have gone through in the 18 months we are here.

While I understand that our experiences were a little more trying than the average Oleh, I also know several families who have, unfortunately had it worse than us. Yet, I reminded everyone that no matter what the challenges we all faced, when they were happening, each and every person felt as if they were as difficult as can be and that each person in the room deserved recognition for facing their own personal challenges. There are some families who did not make the one year milestone and we have to be grateful that we did.

Sometime during the week, the houses across the street from us got their initial certificate of occupancy and on Friday, Mark and Yosefa Kraus (formerly of Woodmere) finally moved into their home (even though they did not have electricity). Several of the neighbors have moved in and it is nice to no longer live on an island.


Our OTHER neighbors are getting noisy again. Our rock throwing, woman beating (when she wouldn’t move to the back of the bus), “SHABBIIIIIIIIS” yelling brethren from across the street. I know I am supposed to love all Jews, but they make it really hard.

One of our new neighbors, Rachel and Dennis Lisbon, moved in about 6 weeks ago. We have gotten friendly and Goldie speaks with Rachel almost daily. Their windows face the apartments across the street that are the beginning of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet (RBSB) – yeah the apartments where the guys who put the boulders in the street on Friday afternoon to stop traffic and endanger lives on Shabbat, live.

They have actually given up on that. After the third time I picked up the boulders and heaved them over the fence into a valley, they stopped bothering to try getting them out onto the street. Small victories.

Although there haven’t been any major violent incidents since the Chareidim slapped around the woman who wouldn’t move to the “women’s section” of a public bus – the tensions in the neighborhood are clearly evident.

Yes, Mordechai’s school campus had dead fish dumped in the classroom trailers over the Channuka break in protest of his school being in a location that the Chareidim want for their schools. I do not call that “violent.”

Anyway, the Lisbons windows face these buildings, but they are so far away that it is difficult to see from one to the next unless you are trying hard. With binoculars.

Within a week of their moving in, they got a very nice letter left in their mailbox. In it, one of their across the street neighbors told them that it is assur (forbidden) to have a TV and asked that for the sake of the children who can see the TV from across the street and have it contaminate them that the Lisbons should please get rid of the TV.

The letter was followed by a personal visit. And another letter.

On Saturday night, I was dropping my niece at the airport when I got a call about an emergency meeting with the Deputy Mayor (a frum guy from our neighborhood) about safety in the neighborhood and specifically on our street. It seems that the Lisbons got another letter from their pen pal.

In it, the same plea was made for them to please get rid of their TV. However, at the end of the letter there was something new. The letter closed by saying, “we won’t be responsible for anything that happens to you or your belongings if you do not heed this warning.” I guess that is the Chareidi way of saying welcome to the neighborhood.

I don’t think that these people are the majority. I understand that they are a very vocal and violent minority. The majority of the Chareidim in RBSB are probably wonderful people simply looking (like you and me) to make a nice life for themselves and their families. Yet I maintain that they need reign in their peers.

So we had a meeting with the Deputy Mayor. We will have another meeting in our house this week – open to the public. And we will unfortunately have to band together as a group to take steps to try to halt the threats and the violence.

As with any crisis/confrontation, there are people who are trying to make inroads in stopping the violence. On both sides.

One of them is a Chassid by the name of Tuvya Stern who was been working to stop the violence. He was denounced and threatened by them as well. Sadly, earlier this week he was ambushed by them and beaten so severely as a reward for his efforts that he had to be taken to the hospital.

He was released and will certainly recover. Yet the disgusting manner in which these “people” act towards their own neighbors is appalling. Even worse is the fact that almost no one in his community will stand up for him.

His friends called for a protest against the violence. They put out handbills publicizing the demonstration in which they said that people need to take a stand so that they can say “Our hands did not spill this blood.” Calls were made to the papers (who did not show) and loudspeakers blared the details of the protest from the roofs of roving cars.

I got a call from one of the other guys on our committee that the Deputy Mayor wanted us to join in the protest demonstration and show our solidarity with the Chareidim who were involved in the protest. We thought it was a good idea, as did apparently ten to twelve of our neighbors.

What a disappointment. If our group was ten to twelve people, I would guess that there were no more than twenty five Chareidim who bothered to show up. That’s it. Their friend got beat up by a bunch of jerks and they couldn’t show up to support him.

Apparently they are afraid. Supposedly Tuvya’s direct neighbors wanted to come but didn’t because they themselves were too afraid of being put on the “hit list.” More passing cars slowed down so that the drivers could see who was attending the demonstration than there were people at the protest.

I mentioned to my friends that this sad excuse for support for a fellow Jew was only going to embolden the hoodlums. After all, the turnout clearly showed who is in charge in the community AND how much they are feared. Sad.

Two ironical things were pointed out to me at the protest.

First, someone pointed to an apartment right in the middle of RBSB and said, “look there – somebody has a TV!” And he was right. I wonder why that guy doesn’t get hate mail.

Secondly, the Chief of Police personally attended (I got to meet him). Ironically, this man (who I don’t think is religious) who was publicly called a Nazi by these same Chareidim just a few weeks ago could only ask why there needed to be a demonstration at all? Why can’t we all just sit down and talk things out, he asked.

If only it was so easy.

Instead, I had to sit my kids down and warn them against talking to any Chareidim without an adult present. I had to tell them to run away, and when my six year old asked why I had to tell him that we aren’t sure but that some of them might be trying to hurt him. So he should run away and find an adult.

This is what I needed to teach him this week? We had to have an entire discussion about potential violence since these people have demonstrated that they are crazy and will do anything. Even to a six year old.

The one thing that I miss from America (or anywhere outside of Israel) is the shared sense of being different that all Jews share. No matter the level of your observance, in America you are still different from the gentiles and that makes for a certain level of tolerance for one another that we do not have here. Instead, we have an incredible level of hatred for each other.

If we cannot get along with each other, is it a wonder that we cannot deal with the world and face our enemies squarely and decisively?

We Got Rosner! (Article# 70) 1/10/08

I am sure that this is probably not new news in the 5 Towns anymore, but it is always nice to hear that other people are doing the same crazy things we are doing. I was therefore thrilled when Josh Rudoff came over to me in shul about two weeks ago to tell me that Rabbi Rosner (of the Island Avenue Shul in Woodmere) and his wife and family are making Aliyah this summer to Beit Shemesh.

Although he will be teaching at Reishit which is officially our competition at Eretz HaTzvi, it is nice to see more 5 Towns people here. I feel sometimes like we live in a suburb of Teaneck (including us, there are 3 families on our block who are NOT from Teaneck – and one of them is from Highland Park, NJ, which must be almost as bad).

We also heard an (unconfirmed) rumor that they are trying to get him to be the Rav of a new community in Beit Shemesh which is about to open up. With very few choices for housing, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place in figuring out what to do, and this new neighborhood might be an option. Maybe.

The problem is all real estate. The market in Israel is not the same as that in the USA, especially in the neighborhood in which we are currently renting our home. While renting is relatively inexpensive in Israel, purchasing homes in our neighborhood is getting prohibitively expensive for us. The houses are also (in our opinion) a tight squeeze for us (admittedly) spoiled Americans.

Our children don’t even want to consider moving to the less expensive side of Beit Shemesh since they don’t know anyone who lives there. While that wouldn’t normally faze us, it is hard as parents to consider putting our kids through another traumatic move so close to the one we made 18 short months ago. So we are kind of stuck with limited options in location.

Another compounding factor is the unbelievable decline of the US dollar. Having fallen from 4.7 shekels to a new low of 3.7 shekels since we have been here, the selling price of new homes is unbelievably high now. Combined with the weak real estate market in the USA, new Olim are beginning to have fewer and fewer options in what they can afford after selling their homes in the USA.

All these factors combine to make our choices very difficult in figuring out where we want to buy a house. We have spoken with several of our neighbors and we all feel like we are in the same boat. We’ll see what happens as time goes on.

We got other Aliyah news in the past couple of weeks, but the people in question have not yet gone fully public with the news, so I cannot share it here. Yet each time we hear of another family on the way, we feel excited for them AND us and know that it will help make our adjustment a little easier and our journey a bit less arduous.

There has been a lot of talk lately about giving away parts of Israel and parts of Yerushalayim to our neighbors here. Apparently, George Bush is so excited at the prospect of establishing a legacy for himself that he will be paying us a visit in a few days (although his visit will be almost over when this is published) to try and force the issue, no matter what the cost for the parties involved.

Earlier this week I went with about twenty of our students to a rally outside the old city walls. The organizers had originally intended to make a human chain around the walls, demonstrating that we are unified in maintaining a single city of Yerushalayim and that we should not give away even a foot of land. However, they had not really done a great job of preparation and we only covered one side of the city.

Yet, I was not disappointed. I remember watching CNN’s coverage when we “withdrew” the residents of Gaza in the Gaza “disengagement”. I remember seeing their anguish and pain and thinking how awful it must be for them to see their homes and community demolished and given away in the name of peace. I remember hearing how this process would free our army to react to terrorist threats from Gaza and how it would encourage continued negotiations and progress toward peace.

Yet, today the town of Sderot and even Ashkelon are bombarded with rocket fire if not daily then several times daily. Gaza is the launching pad and home ground for terrorists galore and the signs are all there that there is nothing that our army can do right now to stop this bombardment. So I guess the “disengagement” plan is most probably a major flop.

I remember hearing about the brave people who went to Gaza in support of the residents and who had to be forcibly removed from the homes and shuls of those communities. And I also remember thinking how much I wished I could be on of those people.

So for an hour (just before the rain hit) today, I wore my gold ribbon (commemorative of Jerusalem – the City of Gold ) and I stood with a couple thousand other people in the middle of a busy workday and showed my support to not giving away any of our land.

I hope again that you will join me and the thousands like me who pray that our leaders gain the insight to understand what a grave error it would be to consider giving away even more land in a bid for peace.