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.