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.

Getting Educated (Article# 87) 7/11/08

We have just completed the time of year that strikes fear into the hearts and minds of teenagers all over Israel. June brings the bagrut examinations and sets off a frenzy of studying and worrying. As this was the first year we experienced bagrut, it was a strange and new experience for us.

The bagrut standard tests are the method by which the Israeli ministry of education certifies that students have achieved the appropriate level of proficiency in a specific subject. Similarly to Regents examinations in New York, the student’s high school graduation/diploma is based upon successful completion of a minimum number of bagrut examinations. The comparison ends there.

Israeli students pick a major course of study in high school, and each course of study has certain core requirements. In all other subjects (similar to the U.S.) there are minimum core requirements that must be taken for each student to get a state-issued diploma. Beyond the core requirements, each school has elective courses (but not for the student) that bring each student’s total bagrut credit level to the minimum required to graduate. The scope of courses is totally dependent on the size of the school as well as the interest expressed by the students.

Students take these exams in grades 10 through 12, in all subjects (religious and secular). The grade they get is not based solely upon the standardized tests; their coursework throughout the year as well as a series of final exams that they take in the weeks approaching the bagrut are also average in. So the kids run around really pressured for the last couple of months of school.

Chaya took her first bagruyot this year and it was fascinating to see how she totally stopped her social life in order to study. On Yom HaAtzma’ut, Yom Yerushalayim, and Lag BaOmer, she decided not to go out with friends, in order to study. It was nice to see, since we entered the year concerned about her ability to study and pass the tests in Hebrew, but she really showed tremendous growth in the way she prepared.

The best news came when they announced a change in testing for new olim. Starting this year, olim can choose to take their bagruyot in their native tongue, which really makes it easier for them. Surprisingly, Chaya took the history and math exams in Hebrew. She was concerned that otherwise she would not understand all the terms—which she had learned throughout the year in Hebrew—and decided to stick with what was familiar. She thinks she did well (as do her teachers and principal), and we are quite proud of her progress.

The other kids all seem to be continuing their good adjustment to the Israeli education system, as well. Aliza had a rough go while adjusting to junior high in the beginning of the year, but we got an excellent letter from her teacher complimenting her progress. As one of only four English speakers in her class, she uses Hebrew all the time. Batya goes to a special enrichment course (using art to introduce concepts in Jewish identity), but the real “wow” achievement of the year belongs to Mordechai.

Mordechai completed first grade early last week. If you remember, Mordechai had a very tough adjustment to Israel and Hebrew in our first few months. Just a year and a half ago, he would regularly come home to tell us, “If I hear another word of Hebrew, I am going to throw up!” He adjusted and really gets along quite well in school now—so well, that on the last day of school, he was one of two boys in his class to be called up on stage in front of the whole school to receive a special award of excellence that is awarded to two students from each class at the end of the term.

I am constantly amazed at the resiliency of the kids and overwhelmed that they really can get it. Their strength and the way they have truly acclimated to our new country has definitely encouraged and supported Goldie and me in facing the various struggles we have gone through.

Last month, Goldie’s nephew Avrohom Dovid became a bar mitzvah. The timing (and airfares) weren’t optimum and we could not attend. I know that Goldie was disappointed in not being able to join her sister and brother in law, Esther and Daniel Yormark and the rest of her family as they gathered to share a major milestone. I think (and have previously written) that not being able to experience a family or friend’s simcha is one of the hardest adjustments we have to make.

As the member of our family who does travel regularly to the USA, I certainly get more opportunity to share in these events than Goldie (even though I missed this one). It is definitely harder on her and I know the distance from her siblings wears on her, especially since mine are so close by. It helps that her brother David comes to Israel several times a year and that his family comes for Sukkot.

We also missed my parents being co honorees at their shul dinner in Chicago with my brother Ozer and his wife Jenny (or at least most of us did – Chaim attended as the Israeli representative). My parents were recognized for many years of service to KINS while my brother’s honor was partly a thank you for service to the shul as a leader of the young adults minyan – but also a sort of farewell as their family makes Aliyah.

Since we were not going to be there, we made a small 3 minute video of some of the children and all of the grandchildren wishing a mazal tov. With the wonders of email and technology, I was able to get the video footage, edit it and send it out all at the last minute; it wasn’t perfect and not everyone had a chance to really get recorded – but I think it went over pretty well and was a chance for us to “be there” even if not physically.

We did however, finally have a chance to participate in a family simcha here this week. While it was the bar mitzvah of my cousins Tzvi and Tybi Ray’s son Binyomin and not from Goldie’s side, it was still nice to be a part of the celebration that would normally have taken place in the US (I think there will still be an event this fall). I am close with several of my cousins and we try to be a part of each other’s lives, so it was nice to see them and their families and for my kids to be a part of it as well.

The highlight of any bar mitzvah for me is davening together and sharing in the actual first shachrit of the bar mitzvah boy. This time it was a 7 AM minyan at the Kotel, which meant a 5:40 departure by bus from Bet Shemesh – but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Yes, the party the night before was lovely and he really delivered the goods in making his speech, but being there for the first time Binyomin was called to the Torah – and doing it at the holiest site on earth is an experience that cannot be duplicated. That is the real milestone and that is what the celebration was all about (and the fact that it was only a bus ride and not a plane ride away makes a whole world of difference as well).

We have several friends making their own simcha this year; we will surely miss most – if not all of them. While it is disappointing not to be there and we wish we could be, we are grateful for the times we do get to be with you here and look forward to the time when all of our family is here and we no longer have to miss anything.

We are also looking forward to July 22, the day when my brother Ozer and his wife Jenny bring their family to join us (literally) here in Israel. We are at less than two weeks to go and the excitement in our household is building every day (special thanks to Mordechai who asks us at least three times daily how many days are left until they get here).

Spying Out The Land (Article# 86) 6/19/08

It has been a couple of weeks since I had a chance to sit down and gather my thoughts. Although I could write about Yom Yerushalayim and Shavuot, both of which we enjoyed for the first time in Israel (having been in America last year at those times), this week Nefesh B'nefesh sent an email out to all of their olim with a specific request that is very time sensitive.

This week's parsha teaches us about the meraglim (spies) who were sent to spy out by the Jewish people from the desert into the land of Israel to reconnoiter and gather information to be used for tactical purposes in the conquering of the land. As we all know, they came back with a glowing report about the land itself and concluded their report with the very telling word, “BUT.....” and dissuaded the Jews from wanting to enter the land based on the difficulties they perceived in being able to conquer and occupy the land. Because of their sin, our people waited a generation before finally gaining entrance to our land.

When talking about the Katz family and our personal assent to Israel as a home, there is no question that we too have faced incredible hardships and challenges in coming to Israel. Lest anyone err and feel dissuaded from coming to live here by hearing our story, I decided to give you the top ten reasons you should come join us in Israel – one for each of the meraglim who stood in our collective way all those years ago.

10. Medical Coverage. Prescription drugs cost us around $4 each prescription. Our HMO has three pharmacies in town, so we get (literally) the best possible pricing they can offer. This is part of the universal medical coverage that is available to every citizen and even non citizens who pay for coverage (like we do for Chaim) at a very low cost per month. Have a fever and need to see the doctor? Just pop in, they will squeeze you in (to the chagrin of the people waiting for regular appointments). Need to see a specialist? That is around $7 – the same goes for an MRI or other diagnostic scan. Did I mention that the basic premiums are covered in your payroll taxes?

Of course, there are extra premiums for more comprehensive plans (we have it) as well as additional insurance that allows for coverage for treatment out of the country for serious illnesses if desired (we are trying to get it). For very sick people, all the waiting for appointments and bureaucracy can be a challenge. But, all in all, for basic medical needs and regular day to day living – you can't beat universal coverage.

9. Climate. Come to Bet Shemesh and snow will be a thing of your past. Yes, it definitely does get hot here and some days are really scorching – but the worst of the weather is usually a bunch of rain or a very cold wind. Pack your sunscreen and come get a really nice tan.

8. One Day of Yom Tov/More Chol Hamoed. Hey – this one is a no brainer. The only chance we have for a 3 day Yom Tov is Rosh Hashana, everything else is almost always a one day affair. It definitely took some getting used to the first few chagim, but I cannot imagine ever going back to having 2 seders or Shmini Atzeret and THEN Simchat Torah on separate days. The only drawback in having the extra day of chol hamoed is having to plan an additional day trip to keep the kids busy (and pay for it too). We also get to count the omer the way it is supposed to be counted, from the first night of chol hamoed.

Another great part of Yom Tov is the fact that EVERYONE is celebrating with you. Instead of the kids asking to see the x-mas light lawn displays, we walk around and admire chanukiyot (Menoras). The storekeeper will wish you chag sameach before a Yom Tov and you never have to figure out how many vacation days you lose because of Yom Tov.

7. The Food Court at Many Malls. I know it sounds funny, but think about being able to shop in the mall and then walk into the food court and grab a nice lunch or dinner. The Malha Mall has so many Kosher restaurants that we just pick a side (meat or dairy) and let the kids choose which meal from which restaurant. It isn't just the mall. Last year Goldie and I were walking around Manhattan and could only find one kosher bagel shop within a 7 block area. Kosher food is everywhere here – especially in the supermarkets. Speaking about the supermarkets, that leads me to...

6. No Price Gouging for Pesach/Holidays. You know what I mean. The amazing ability of all of the grocery stores to suddenly raise their prices for meats, dairy products and just about everything else to jump as soon as they convert to Pesach. I understand how they have to pass some of the costs of kashering for Pesach to the consumer. I also get the fact that the sheer volume of business being done here makes it cheaper to do per customer. But, the prices here don't rise at all for Pesach. I think some of it is because the major meat/poultry/dairy producers make sure that their products are Kosher for Pesach year round – but why can't they do that at the mall.

5. Tuition? HAHAHAHAHA. How much do you pay for High School? I am paying something like $175 a month AND THAT IS FULL TUITION! We have to pay more for tutors because our kids have some catching up to do still, but even if you double it – we are still way ahead of the game. Did I mention that we are going to pay something like $400 for a FULL YEAR of preschool for Moshe next year? It is less than a block away and a huge bargain.

4. Living in the Land of the Tanach. Wherever we go we pass something that has a deep connection to Jewish history. Day trips are full of fascinating historical information and it is even engaging to the kids, who are much more versed in Tanach than their American counterparts. Why? Simple. The Tanach is in their native tongue and therefore requires much less translation and/or explanation than has to be given to an English speaking student. Our Yeshiva has a requirement that students bring a tanach with them on most tiyulim because there is so much to learn and relate to here.

3. Being a Jew in the Land of the Jews. We have Birchat Kohanim every day. This year we observe Shemitta. The list has no end. The simplest of mitzvot takes on extra meaning when you do it here in Israel. You also feel like you belong here, since people are all like you. You know what I mean, you feel it whenever you are here.

2. The Freedom and Independence the Children Enjoy. We had heard about it, but there is no way to truly understand what I am talking about until you are here and experiencing it. The children are so free and independent. They do so much on their own and for themselves. Shabbat Chevron? Chaya and her friends made their own arrangements to go. Yom Yerushalayim or Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations in Yerushalayim? Chaim just grabbed a bus for an all night great time. Lag B'Omer? All the kids went to their own bonfires and had a great time.

They wander the block playing with friends and we feel totally safe even though we have no idea where they are. They are also quite responsible for one another and everyone makes sure to watch over kids – even when they aren't their own.

1. Yerushalayim and Other Holy Places. I was in a cab last week and glanced out the window and HOLY COW – there was the Kotel. It never ceases to amaze me how the sites holiest to us are a car/bus/taxi ride away from the house. Not a plane ride. When we feel the whim, we just head down to the Kotel for a more meaningful davening. Last Tisha B'Av, as I headed to shul for davening, a neighbor pulled up and offered me to join him forming a minyan to daven at the kotel. How cool is that?

The sunrise minyan at the Kotel is unbelievable. As the sun rises and everyone gets to Shemona Esreh, a sudden silence descends upon the plaza and it is very moving. You can literally hear the birds chirp. Although I don't go as often as I should, the fact that I CAN go whenever I want is one of the highlights of being here.

Also, even though we miss many simchas being here, the fact that we get to join many friends who make their simcha here at places like the Kotel or Maarat HaMachpela is truly astounding. These holy places are so linked to who we are and what we live for that there is no substitute

Bonfires (Article# 85) 6/5/08

Lag B’omer is a big deal here in Israel. The entire country becomes a huge bonfire with almost everyone participating, religious and non-religious alike. That is part of the thrill of living here, knowing that almost the entire country has a similar heritage and, believers or not, they identify with that heritage in significant ways.

Wood, a precious commodity even during the year, becomes a highly sought after item in the weeks following Pesach. Since the teens and pre-teens all want their own Medura (bonfire) for their group of twelve to thirty (sometimes more) participants, they all go rampaging for any scrap of wood that they can find. Piles of wood begin to appear in backyards and driveways (in some houses more than one pile appears – depending on how many kids they have and how they split the booty).

Unfortunately, they are sometimes a little too zealous in their search and take things like succa panels or tabletops that had been stored outside without realizing that those items were actually someone’s property. The mall and supermarket garbage areas are also regularly raided for the wooden pallets that are used in the shipping of goods. A quick fourteen year old can reduce a wooden pallet to a nice pile of firewood in about 5 minutes with a sharp hatchet. Some people go to the woods (which surround Bet Shemesh on all sides) looking for fallen trees or deadwood to use.

Two or three days before Lag B’omer the chareidim begin to build their bonfires. This is one area in which they are expert. Most of our bonfires are pretty small, with an occasional group looking to show how “cool” they are by making a larger tepee style bonfire. Not for the chareidim.

They make HUGE bonfires. They use logs and set up very impressive wood tepees that are placed in very open areas. They need to be in open areas, since the resulting fire is incredible. I am talking about flames shooting higher than the roof of five story apartment buildings, fire so hot and intense that anyone closer than twenty or twenty five feet away can get burned by the heat. They also have special tefillot that they say at the bonfires – for them Lag B’omer is a major event.

Although we did not go to Meiron, the celebrations at Meiron are a top attraction, with over 200,000 people attending this year. This year, with Lag B’omer coming on Friday, the celebration stretched through Shabbat as Meiron and neighboring Tzfat were filled with people taking advantage of the long weekend. It was (reportedly) a highly uplifting experience, one that I know many of our students truly enjoyed.

Our personal Lag B’omer celebration was also a lot of fun. Last year, Lag B’omer came out on Saturday night – the week before Goldie’s surgery. Having not seen the kids for three weeks, and knowing that it would be another few weeks before I had the opportunity to see them again, I decided to fly to Israel for the weekend to visit them and thus had the chance to experience Lag B’omer personally and enjoy the kids. I sent Goldie pictures of them – but it wasn’t the same and she was very excited to be here in person this year.

Our block has a special kids’ medura which is organized by Yossi Bienenstock and Jon Duker, a couple of our neighbors. This year, with the completion of the construction across the block from us and the removal of all the building materials from the street in front of our house, we were asked if it could be held at the dead end right in front of our house and we readily agreed.

The bonfire (as always) was a huge hit. Having the kids enjoy it together as a group really enhanced the experience for them. With over 100 kids joining in, it was an active, cheerful, excited and awestruck group. There were marshmallows on skewers to be toasted on the fire, hot dogs for grilling, s’mores being made – one family even brought and baked their own potatoes! It was heartwarming to see so many mothers and fathers bring and share the treats so freely with all the kids. Batya, Mordechai and Moshe were enthralled, and it was more special to them because they were with their friends. Of course the marshmallows and hot dogs helped (Moshe must have eaten 50 marshmallows).

The demographics of our block are very interesting. Most of the families are very young, with a bunch of little kids. I would say that 70% of the children who live on our block are grade 4 or lower. There is also, like us, a group of middle aged parents with older kids and teens – but we are definitely the significant minority. At times, and this was one of them, we feel like we (the minority group) could be the grandparents of these kids (in one case this actually applies). I guess we all grow up some time.

Our older kids each did their own thing. Chaim decided (for some unknown reason) that Efrat was the place to be and went with a friend to Yerushalayim and then Efrat for an all night medura there. He came home early the next morning, tired but telling us he had a great time.

Chaya has Bargruyot exams coming up. These are similar to regents exams and she needs to pass them in order to qualify for a diploma. She has worked very hard this year, focusing all her efforts to being successful within the Israeli educational system in her school so that she can stay in the school she is currently attending rather than have to go to a GED school. She really loves the school and her friends there.

With the exams only a couple weeks away, she decided to skip the bonfires altogether in favor of studying and spent the night babysitting one of our neighbor’s children and studying. We tried to push her to go to a bonfire for the sake of the experience, but she stuck to her decision and we appreciated the maturity it took for her to remain so committed to her academics, coming out to the little kids’ bonfire for only 5 minutes just to say hi – and help roast a couple marshmallows.

Aliza was invited to join a group a couple of blocks from our house. I’m not sure just how many kids were there, but what made our minds rest easier was that several parents rotated supervision of the group, making sure things did not get out of hand (a group of twelve and thirteen year olds with fire – scary).

The firetrucks are out in full force all night, putting out the fires that were set in the middle of dry grass and spread too far or had just simply gotten out of hand. I am sure that the firemen are the one group who aren’t really thrilled on Lag B’omer here, having to run around all night, but I haven’t heard of any major incidents which is a good thing.

By Friday, the whole country smells like smoke. In fact, all the community email lists were filled (pre Lag B’omer) with reminders to KEEP YOUR WINDOWS CLOSED. I can tell you first hand that an open window makes for a smelly house. Last year, we missed one bathroom window and the fire smell lasted for a week or so. We were therefore very careful this year to make sure all the windows were closed.

As a child, Lag B’omer was always the bow and arrow holiday; I am not sure why. Here, I didn’t notice even the slightest allusion to them. Yet another difference from our old culture to our new one.