Monday, July 27, 2009

To the Grandparents (7/16/2009)

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from one of our friends, Chani Schwartz, asking me if I thought it would be a good idea to tackle a sensitive area of aliyah: the difficulties and tensions that arise in families when the children (even those who are grown and have families of their own) decide to make aliyah. She, as a new olah having just gone through the process, had been getting calls from some of her friends who are coming this year. One of the major issues that kept coming up in conversation was the lack of support from their families.

I actually checked the archives and saw that I had written an article a few weeks before we left about how tough it was going to be for Goldie’s family (two of my three siblings were in Israel at that time; we are all here now, so the transition on my side was not as difficult). At that time, we knew that it would mean missing s’machot and other family get-togethers, yet we also hoped that it meant something positive for our family’s growth. We were right on both counts.

I cannot say that our extended family has been universally supportive 100 percent of the time. Yet I know that they also believe in what we have done and that they even have some measure of jealousy for the fact that we can and do live here (some more than others, none more than David). So, for our part, we have not faced the situation where our family was opposed to our coming to Israel.

I invited Chani to be a “guest columnist” and not only give me a semi-vacation (as I got last week as well), but also to provide a different voice from the one you have been hearing these past few years. I still have things to say, but for this week, the floor is Chani’s…

Are Your Children Making Aliyah?
An Aliyah Letter To Grandparents

By Chani Schwartz

The summer is upon us, and aside from thoughts of finishing school, summer camps, and family vacations, there is something else that permeates the air and peppers each conversation: “Did you hear who is making aliyah?” Most everyone in the greater New York–New Jersey area will know of someone taking the giant leap and moving to Israel.

Just under a year ago, my family was the topic of that conversation. On August 12, 2008, my husband Jason and I uprooted our family of then seven children from our comfortable home, stable jobs, and loving community in Teaneck, N.J., to move across the world to Israel.

This summer will welcome a number of new olim from the United States, many of whom will be coming after an arduous and soul-searching process culminating in the decision that aliyah is indeed for them. Many of these olim will be coming with their parents’ blessing, but unfortunately many without. It is those families that have prompted me to write to you today. I have seen far too many families and heard far too many stories of families making aliyah without their parents’ consent.

My husband and I both grew up in Woodmere. We are products of Woodmere of the ’80s and ’90s. I want to direct this article to the parents and grandparents of the children choosing or contemplating aliyah. How will you react when confronted with that fateful call of “Mom, I’m making aliyah”?

Unfortunately, all too often, the parental response is that of dismay. Parents become belligerent and angry, and sometimes even refuse to speak to their children. In response, many exclaim, “How did this happen?” Moms and dads, let me explain it to you: You helped us.

It was you who saved to take us on the ultimate family vacation to Israel, taking pictures by the Kotel, which in turn made it into every bar/bat mitzvah video. It was you who sent us to pro-Israel schools. You were the ones who picked out our clothes when we had to wear blue and white on Yom HaAtzma’ut, and it was you who helped us sing the proper words of HaTikvah when we came home in first grade garbling the stanzas.

Certainly you cannot forget when you took us, rain or shine (often rain), as far back as each of us can remember, to the Israel Day Parade. It was on Fifth Avenue that you pointed out all the schools, the floats, Mayor Koch (if we got there early enough), telling us, “Look, he’s the Mayor of the whole New York City, and he’s Jewish!” and explained why it is so important that we show our support each and every year. Finally, it was you who allowed us our rite of passage to spend a year, sometimes two, studying in Israel, post-high-school. How can we not develop a love for Israel—a sense of entitlement that this is where we belong?

It’s hard to let go at any point in life. Not everyone has the luxury of having his or her children living right next door, but many do. But the question is, are you prepared to stay in the Five Towns the rest of your lives? What happens when you decide to retire and move to Florida? Do we have the right to ask you not to move and enjoy your retirement because we want you to stay nearby? When we do ask, what will you do?

Mom and Dad, you’ve raised us to be independent. You sought for us to be accomplished professionals. You hoped for us to grow up, get married, and have lives of our own. Part of that maturity is making grown-up decisions about what is right for our nuclear family.

Please do not think that we did this to hurt you. We understand what our decision means for you. We are taking away your grandchildren and not allowing you to see them grow on a daily basis. We will no longer have the fluidity to pop over as you or we please, and we are limiting your involvement in the practical raising of our children. Just know that it is a major loss for us as well.

Please consider that we are the ones leaving our family and friends behind. We realize that our children will be some of the few not to have their grandparents front and center for every siddur play and presentation. We are the ones that will not be able to join every family simcha. Yes, these are the choices we made; and yes, these are the consequences we will endure. But know that we make aliyah in the hopes of a better, albeit possibly harder, life for our family.

I am blessed that our decision to make aliyah was met only with support by my parents, who are still living in the Five Towns. That’s not to say there weren’t any tears (on both sides), wisps of regret in voices, and conversations brought to abrupt ends due to lumps in the throat. But to our faces, my parents were the picture of strength, admiration, and support.

They helped in every way possible, and they were there at JFK airport waving the entire time as we passed through the gates to board our plane until they could see us no longer. Having their support meant the world to us. It allowed the stressful process to be just a little easier, knowing we had our parental love and support. For that, I thank G-d…and my parents.

So, if the time comes and you are placed in this position, please be careful with your response. Think what you want behind closed doors, and even voice your concerns once to ensure your children have thought of all the angles. But to your children be supportive and be happy, and you will see how much it is appreciated in return. It makes all the difference.

Shmu the Activist (Article# 120)

Last November, Goldie and I signed a contract to buy a house that (at least on paper) was supposed to be built in the second stage of construction in the new Nofei HaShemesh neighborhood of Bet Shemesh. (Some of you may recognize this as the neighborhood to which Rabbi Rosner and his family made aliyah.) Having been involved in the building of the neighborhood’s new shul since week one, we were very excited to make this commitment and finalize our choice of Bet Shemesh as our family home.

Throughout this process, as you have read, we have had some concerns about the future of the city and our interactions with some of our neighbors. Yet we felt so good about the neighborhood and our children’s adjustment to being in Bet Shemesh that we decided to take the plunge despite our concerns. We were excited about this opportunity and were looking forward, along with several other families, to be a part of a new beginning.

As time went by, we became more and more concerned about the changing of Bet Shemesh as a city. We came to a city that had a large, although minority, chareidi population, but was still known as a welcoming home to both the non-religious and religious Zionist populations. In the interim, we have seen increased tensions across the “fence line” (where we live), the election of a chareidi mayor, and an announcement by the Minister of Housing a few weeks ago that Bet Shemesh is going to be the flagship city for the development of new chareidi housing, with 100,000 new units to be built over the next several years.

As I am sure you can figure out for yourselves, adding 100,000 chareidi families to a city of less than 100,000 residents will significantly alter the city and its face. Should this plan come to fruition, I fear that the Bet Shemesh we came to will no longer exist—and it will become a Bet Shemesh that we are not sure we would want to be a part of.

Once again I feel compelled to comment that, in general, I do not have problems with the chareidi public at large. It is a fringe group of fanatics that cause the trouble. However, this fringe has yet to be reined in by their peers and, quite frankly, in my opinion the fringe sweeps up the general public in their hysteria (as evidenced by the recent rioting in Yerushalayim). It is the fringe who are trying to make our lives miserable, and if the city becomes a chareidi city we fear that it will only increase.

I am sure that this column will once again result in letters to the editor proclaiming outrage at my “chareidi bashing” and decrying the decision to run it in the paper. Many of you identify with the chareidi public and feel that I am being hypercritical of their actions. I disagree.

I do not think that you identify with any of the things these people stand for, not in the least bit. We have gotten letters in our mailbox threatening harm to us and our families because some of us have televisions. We have gotten letters (I will gladly e-mail you a copy if you don’t believe me) telling us that we do not dress properly in the privacy of our own homes and that such immodest dress is offending them when they look into the windows of our houses to which their eyes are “naturally drawn.” The Israeli flags in front of our homes and on our cars disappear overnight and are regularly burned by their children in Lag B’Omer bonfires. The list goes on.

This fringe stands for intolerance of others, for intimidation and bullying of people who have every right to act in the manner of their choice. Yes, we do tend to generalize when we lump all chareidim together—but the good guys need to take action to distinguish themselves from the bad guys, instead of being intimidated by them.

For example, the photo shown here was taken three weeks ago on a Thursday morning. In their never-ending harassment of us, some of the fringe guys decided to take up artwork. A week after spray-painting their “modest dress only” message in two places on the sidewalk next to our home (messages that I painted over the very same day they appeared), these fine neighbors came back and spray-painted 14 different messages of their hatred of our community overnight. On the sidewalks and on the retaining walls it was impossible to not see their message.

What would you say if this had happened on your street?

We know who the spray-painters are. Their entire community knows who they are. Yet nothing is done about it. Why? If this was something done in your neighborhood and you knew the guy doing it, and his kids were in your child’s school, and he davened in your shul—what would you do? Nothing? I doubt it.

As we cleaned up the graffiti, Goldie and I were accosted by various members of their community. They had complaints about dress, television, and many other issues. We agreed that they had a right to be concerned, but asked what justification they had for the spray-painting behavior. On the whole (with one exception) they agreed that such behavior was inappropriate. I asked them why they don’t do anything to stop such people. No answer.

There was one fellow who answered differently from all the rest. This man came over to me as I was painting over the sidewalk and asked me why I was making such a mess of the sidewalk. Incredulously, I responded that it was not I who had made the mess, it was his friends who had made it and I was just cleaning it up. He responded to me, “Oh no—this message is supposed to be here” and then walked away. Goldie commented to me that she would not have believed that such a thing could be said to my face if she had not personally heard it.

Would you stand idly by under these circumstances?

The latest set of graffiti prompted some attention from City Hall. Some of our city councilmen came to see the graffiti, and in our discussions with them they told us that MK Ariel Atias (Shas), the Minister of Housing and Construction—who had announced the plan to add 100,000 chareidi housing units—would be coming to Bet Shemesh the following week to discuss the plans with the mayor and representatives of the City Council. We decided to protest.

I filed a permit with the police and organized a protest for the morning of the meeting. The plaza in front of City Hall has room for only about 50 people, and we showed up with about 100. Before the protest, the security agent for the minister approached me and told me that the minister is interested in speaking with us before the meeting.

When he arrived, he did indeed come over to the barricades to speak with us. I showed him some pictures of the graffiti and asked him if he had considered what impact his plan would have on the current residents of Bet Shemesh. He responded that we obviously would not solve our problems while standing in the streets and that it was also obvious that there were many groups who have concerns. He then invited me to organize a meeting in his office to discuss the issues—which I did.

He was extremely gracious and open with us. I have to give him credit for that—and for his willingness to meet with us at all after he had publicly announced his intention to do the opposite of what we wanted.

We came with eleven people from various walks of life, and he gave us all as much time as we needed to present our concerns with his building plans, of which there were many. He then engaged in a discussion with us, explaining that he indeed shared many of our concerns, but that as the Minister of Housing and Construction he is responsible for solving the chareidi housing problem and that if we had concrete plans to solve our concerns as well, he would be happy to review them.

In effect, he said, “I feel your pain, but cannot help you.”

While this was happening, we were notified that building permits would not be issued for our own construction project to which we had committed, and that our purchase contracts were going to be revoked. Apparently, the Land Registry Office would not approve the plot subdivision of the project (or so we were told) and there is no clue as to when, if ever, the project will get off the ground.

So, we are again at decision-making time. We love Bet Shemesh. We really do. Our kids are happy here and we have built great friendships and bonds. Yet we are concerned for the future of Bet Shemesh and what will happen if the city indeed becomes a chareidi city—which is not what we signed up for when we moved here. So we have to consider what we will do.

Unlike many of our neighbors, we still have a choice. We do not have any encumbrances here, other than the emotional ones. We may stay and decide that we will deal with whatever comes our way. Or we may move to a city or town that does not face these issues. Wherever we go, we will face some kind of issue. There is no such thing as Utopia. When we lived in the USA we had issues as well, and choosing where to live was a conscious choice about which issues mattered and which didn’t. This is what we are facing here as well; it is no different.

My neighbors have harangued me for “airing our laundry” in public, in fear of my turning people away from Bet Shemesh as a place to live. Yet in my opinion it is not fair for me to continue touting the city as if there are no issues here and duping people into something they are not prepared for. Come to Bet Shemesh—but come fully prepared and with an understanding of the issues we face. I wish I had known some of them before I came here; ultimately we might have made the same decision, but at least it would have been an informed one.

The Next Step (Article# 119) 6/25/2009

I am very excited to share some of our latest news. On July 1, I will be taking on the position of international director of development of Machon Puah: The Puah Institute for Medicine and Fertility in Accordance with Halacha, in Yerushalayim. For those who do not know of Puah, it is an 18-year-old global organization focused on helping Jewish couples become Jewish families. It is a terrific opportunity for me to grow, and as a new oleh (yes, I still consider myself that—more on this topic later), it brings a new stage of growth as an Israeli as well.

As part of the “shidduch process” with Puah, I met several times with different people in the organization. Of their 100+ employees, only a handful speak English, so most of the meetings were held in Hebrew. I am comfortable with Hebrew on a conversational basis, but this was an entirely new level of conversation for me. Furthermore, most of my daily interactions there (as well as written communications in the form of memos, e-mail, etc.) will be conducted in Hebrew. I am a bit intimidated by the challenge of going from a 10–15 percent Hebrew day to a 65+ percent Hebrew day, but I will have no choice.

I am sure that as time goes by, I will look back and wonder what I was so concerned about, but for the time being it is quite an overwhelming challenge. Yet I am sure that it will make my long-term adjustment as an Israeli much easier.

When we came on aliyah, I went to work almost immediately following our arrival (three days later). While it was certainly a great benefit to have a job to go to (many new olim spend months if not a year or more looking for a job), we also missed out on the many things that new olim do in exploring the country and familiarizing themselves with the language and “the Israeli experience.”

I didn’t take ulpan. I didn’t do any touring. I didn’t explore the city I am living in nor get a chance to participate in many of the special events that are geared toward newcomers and helping their acclimation to the country. Some of these opportunities are gone; others can still be seized.

Knowing that my Hebrew language skills are about to undergo an involuntary ulpan experience, I decided to see how I might do some of the other things that I had missed. I therefore decided to take a couple of weeks off before starting at Puah and use that time for myself.

Taking a break is not always the easiest thing to do. With everyone’s school schedules to coordinate and the various family events we have (and are thrilled to be a part of), our calendar becomes full quite easily. Although I have definitely enjoyed a few days here and there with my family (and a three-day holiday with Goldie in London, since I was there on business anyway), this would really be the first extended period of time that I had to do with as I pleased.

So far, my efforts have met with mixed results. Those days for which I have been able to coordinate full-day schedules for myself have been very productive.

I spent a terrific day in Yerushalayim, visiting the Begin Center, a Holocaust museum in the Old City, as well as a couple of archaeological museums in the Old City. At the end of the day, I went to the Kotel for a few minutes (as I get to do whenever I want to, ’cause I live here). I arrived at the Begin Center without a reservation (I had no idea I needed one). An English tour was not scheduled for several hours, so I joined the next Hebrew tour with a special headset to simulcast movie presentations in English for me. Although I definitely needed the headphones for the movies, it was gratifying that I understood the general tour without a problem.

I took Aliza for a special day in Tel Aviv, as well. We started the day in Bet HaTefutzot. In my research about the museum, I found that there was a special discount for new olim. I perked up at the thought of a discount, and when we got to the museum I asked if we still qualified for the discount after being here for three years. The ticket seller asked if I feel like I am new or not. I wasn’t sure and I said, “You know what, just charge me the regular price.” For 10 shekels, the guilt wasn’t worth it.

I then noticed that they had special headphones with an English language option as a tour aid. I turned to Aliza and asked her in English if she wanted to get the headset. The ticket agent looked up and said, “You are still speaking English to each other? You get the discount!”

The museum was very informative, but about two-thirds away from the end, Aliza began to lose patience and we rushed our way through. After enjoying a lunch in the museum coffeehouse (another Israeli treat—kosher food in the shopping malls and other convenient places) we then went to (Aliza’s favorite part) the Diamond Museum.

Although it was not necessarily something I needed to do, I knew that Aliza would get a big treat out of learning how diamonds are mined and made into gemstones. I wasn’t wrong. It isn’t every day that we get to spend time one-on-one with our kids, and this was a great treat.

Yet this isn’t a vacation, and the aforementioned kids and their needs sometimes dictate that I am around the house on certain days (especially at the end of the year with its various parties and graduations), and those days were mind-numbingly horrid.

I spend the better part of most days with Goldie. We work ten feet from each other (although that is now coming to an end), and with all the different things that we are involved with in our family, we are together quite a bit. Which has been pretty good so far.

However, being home alone is clearly not for us. We rearranged bedrooms (letting Batya take Chaim’s empty room) and did other at-home projects, and that kept me busy for a bit, but I learned quite quickly that I will not be retiring when the time comes. It would drive me crazy.

One of the days I stayed home was spent with Moshe, in advance of his “graduation” from preschool for 4-year-olds. Moshe has had a terrific adjustment here. Having brought him at age 1, Goldie made a decision (contrary to what many new olim do) to place him in a Hebrew-speaking gan in order to facilitate his Hebrew skills. It worked.

He is a terrific little kid. He speaks both Hebrew and English equally comfortably. He loves to have books of either language read to him, and as the youngest of six is a spoiled brat with a sunny disposition and a patient approach to the world.

His graduation, unlike the ones I attended for my other kids in the U.S., was filled with both mothers and fathers. In America, there was always another father or two in the room. In Israel, it is normal for the majority of fathers to come. Events are run in evenings specifically to encourage the participation of both parents throughout the year.

We really enjoyed this graduation and are excited to see Moshe move up to the next level of preschool. We had a choice of what to do with him for the upcoming year. Preschool has two levels for three years of schooling (ages 4–6). Most kids do two years of the lower level (t’rom chovah), moving up for a single year of the higher level (gan chovah) prior to first grade.

However, both the preschool administration and we feel that Moshe, being one of the oldest kids of his year, is too mature to repeat another year of t’rom preschool, and have decided to move him up a level and have him stay in the gan chovah for two years. We feel that he needs the challenge of moving to the higher level and (giving credit where credit is due) it was really Goldie’s decision to encourage his Hebrew language development that made this a possibility. She made the right call.

I have a meeting scheduled with the Minister of Housing for later this week. It is partly in response to some of the activism I am involved with here in Bet Shemesh and I hope that I can report positive results next week.

Children Move On (Article# 118) 6/18/2009

This is going to be a tough week to write. I had originally intended to discuss changes in my life, both personal and professional. However, my denial of events couldn’t stop time, and our oldest son has left the nest—a change that was expected yet still traumatic.

Chaim boarded a plane on Monday night and headed back to America, this time quite possibly for good. We’ll still see him for vacations and on our trips to the USA, but he is entering college in the fall and has expressed his desire to live his life there. No matter where he ends up, this was our last full-time experience with him being home.

Had we stayed in America, he would of course be coming to Israel this fall with the rest of his American peers. After a year or perhaps two, he would have returned to the USA, and gone to university. Had he chosen a dormitory university, we would have seen him only on Shabbatot and vacations, yet he would still have been based at home until he either took his own apartment or got married.

Here in Israel, his peers are heading to either a year of preparatory college (in advance of university) or straight to the army. They too will come home for furloughs and weekend breaks. They will certainly set up their own lives once they finish their military service, yet the country is so small that it is much easier to maintain that parent/child connection that is so vital to us as parents.

Of course, it is possible that Chaim would have decided to stay in Israel for the long term (as did my sister, who only came back for brief visits after her year in Israel). This is not unheard of, and in a family of six children there is a good chance that this would have happened to us with one of our kids anyway—although perhaps not at 18, and not in this direction (moving from Israel to the USA).

We are actually a bit lucky that he was here for this year at all. His original plan was to go to college following a single year of post-high-school learning. Having earned his high-school degree quite early, he had intended to go to YU at 17, and he only decided to stay for a second year of learning late in the year. He was convinced to stay an additional year partially by his friends but also by the university itself, whose representatives expressed their concern about a 17-year-old’s maturity and ability to handle a rigorous schedule.

I am sure that many of you have already experienced this feeling of pride and sadness and can probably tell me that this is the way things go. Doesn’t make it any easier, though.

He goes with our hopes and dreams, all our wishes and plans for who he will become, the life he will lead and the family he will grow. He leaves having been a superstar in dealing at age 15 with a life-altering move of 6,000 miles to a land he never wanted to live in. He lost his friends and everything that was comfortable in his life, yet he somehow found a new life and a new existence here in Bet Shemesh. An emerging love for Israel was just the icing on the cake.

He has his own dreams and, for the time being, they do not intersect with ours. Despite all the hardship and struggles he went through in coming here, I think he is a much stronger person. He has devoted the past two years to his Torah learning and has become much more of a mentsch than we deserved for him to be. He will follow his own path, and we look forward to continued pride in him wherever he goes and whatever he does.

The departure was traumatic for some and not much of a big deal for others. Moshe, the baby, thinks that Chaim went to “Damerica” for a couple of days and will wonder where he is at the end of the week when he hasn’t come home. Mordechai was much more upset, saying, “I don’t want him to go!” and “If he goes, I go!” Batya was also quite upset. Aliza and Chaya were a little sad, but the tears only began to flow in earnest when Chaim went to say goodbye to Goldie, who did not take things well at all. She refused to go to the airport, because she didn’t think she could handle it, so she said goodbye at the door. With all the crying going on, I myself was able to remain pretty calm about the whole thing. But I definitely felt the passing of time and the realization that we are entering yet another stage in our growth.

My sister Bluma’s son had his own transition this past week, as well. Her third son, my nephew Idan, became a bar mitzvah last Monday and, for the first time ever, my entire family was able to participate in the simcha. In fact, my brother Ozer noted later that it was the first time since my wedding that all the Katzes were in the same room at the same time. There was someone missing for all subsequent s’machot, be it my brother-in-law or Goldie or our kids.

My brother-in-law Arieh is of Tunisian descent, so we had a really Sephardi celebration. Having been through this a couple of times, I am prepared for the constant barrage of candy from the women, the “Kooooolooloolooloolooloolooloo” yodels that serenade each person’s ascent for his aliyah, and even the different cantillations and nigunim. The only thing that makes me crazy is the amount of TIME they spend on davening. Everything is said out loud by the chazzan. Each word. One thing I remind myself at each simcha is that I simply do not have the patience to be a Sephardi.

My brother-in-law has a terrific family. Twelve brothers and sisters, and they really represent all walks of Israeli society, yet they are accepting and loving of one another in a way that is truly inspirational. I have come to know some of them, and their encouragement and support to us, both in making aliyah and in all the trials we have had since coming here, has made us feel so loved.

On Shabbat, my sister’s sisters-in-law all said to her, “You cannot serve or help in any way”; they wanted her to enjoy the simcha without having to worry about the details. It is apparently an unwritten rule in their family that you might need to work like a dog in preparing for the simcha, but once the day arrives everyone else pitches in so you can enjoy.

Goldie had such a terrific time with them that she asked Bluma if it might be possible for her (Goldie) to be adopted into the Uzan family (especially the ones with Temani spouses who were really the most fun of all the siblings) so that she could enjoy them all the more.

Of course, as generally happens, “when it rains it pours.” So, we missed the bar mitzvah of Yehoshua Rosner (Rabbi and Mrs. Rosner’s son), the first bar mitzvah in our shul—although we did get to the Sunday-night party in Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim and got to visit with former Five Towners Gary and Kiki Schickman, Martin and Debbie Rothman, Gary Wallin, and Bonnie Polansky, who we don’t usually see, as well as shul members Mutty and Penina Eichler, Josh and Daniella Rudof, and Jon and Sarah Paley.

We also missed the bar mitzvah of Chaim Jacobs (son of Zvi and Amy) in the USA. I remember Chaim as a teeny tiny kid posing with me as the extra-small and xxx-large models for a Yeshiva of South Shore sweatshirt (he was standing on a table and still only came to my shoulder). We apparently missed my cousin Shua and Devorah Ray’s daughter Kayla’s bat mitzvah in Chicago last month (our invite got sent back in the mail, taking over two months to make the round trip from Chicago to Israel and back; mail service here is spotty at best) as well as the birth of her newest younger sister Libby last week.

Mazal tov to them all. For those who we were able to share in their simcha, we were glad to be there and celebrate together. For the others: Why are you still in America?

Spying out the Land, Again (Article# 117) 6/11/2009

It has been a few weeks, hasn’t it? For reasons that will be clearer next week, I took a mini vacation from writing. However, knowing that this week is Parashas Shelach (in Israel; you chutz la’aretz guys messed things up by having two days of Shavuot and missing the right week to hear Nasso, but it is OK—you will catch up in a couple of weeks), I couldn’t resist the lure of the keyboard.

Last year, in response to Nefesh B’Nefesh’s request that olim send a list of reasons (à la the original meraglim) to come live in Israel, I wrote a column entitled “Spying out the Land” giving the top 10 reasons
to come live in Israel (in correlation to the 10 meraglim who recommended against entering Israel) which I urge you all to reread by visiting However, if those reasons weren’t enough, here are another 10 reasons you should embark on an aliyah adventure of your own.

10. It’s the economy, stupid. Although Israel has struggled along with the rest of the world, most indicators tell us that (gasp) Binyamin Netanyahu’s financial reforms (enacted when he was Minister of Finance in the previous Likud government) put Israel in a strong position to withstand the worst of the crisis. The shekel has proven to be a strong and resilient currency and inflation looks to be as stable as can be expected in these recessionary times. Make no mistake: we are suffering here too with layoffs, pay cuts, and a loss in income and assets, but it isn’t as bad here as it is there (although that is hard to prove to someone who is out of work).

9. Vacationing in Israel is much cheaper. There is a connection to this land that keeps so many of you coming back on a regular basis and/or sending your children here for a visit or even a year. Even with the recently lowered cost of airfare, it still costs several thousand dollars for a family to make the trip here before they even embark on a single day trip.

Europe is much closer too. When you are looking for that additional treat, the flights are incredibly cheap at times. Some of the deals require very little notice, but if you are flexible you can take advantage of great pricing. For instance, airfare for a weeklong trip to Italy was priced at $188 this week with similar deals for Hungary, Spain, and a host of other European destinations.

8. Gentile neighbors are a thing of the past. Unless you live in a major urban area or are specifically looking to be in a mixed-religion community, your family will not have that much to do with people not like you. Yes, I may rail on about some of the chareidim in Bet Shemesh (not all of them; only an acknowledged minority) but they are still Jews and they are still more like me than most of my former neighbors from Woodmere. I may not like/approve of their actions, but we are all one nation.

There is very little chilul Shabbat in our neighborhood—maybe 12-20 cars each week and even the most irreligious people have a basic “Jewish education” including Tanach and Jewish history. Bet Shemesh is a hamlet of sorts, as is Chashmonaim, Efrat, Neve Daniel, etc., but a main attraction of all these small communities, which seem to be Anglo magnets (aside from the English), is their existential Jewishness.

7. The food. I have always been a fan of Israeli food, enjoying falafel and shwarma as much as the next guy. Or at least I thought I did. When I began to eat “Israeli food” in Israel, I realized what a poor imitation I had in the U.S. No insult to the “Israeli” places in the U.S., but I rarely eat in them when I am on a trip to the U.S. Once you go authentic, you can’t go back to the imitation.

Even non “Israeli” foods are great here. There are a host of wonderful kosher restaurants overseas (that means over there), but you cannot experience the great range of options we do unless you live in a major metropolitan area. Even then, the sheer population advantage of kosher consumers we enjoy here allows for a much broader spectrum of choices and opportunities for a great meal.

Theme restaurants are kosher. Where else in the world can you enjoy the experience of eating a delicious kosher meal in total darkness, served by blind waiters? How about enjoying a meal from one of our several all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse chains? Pizza Hut? Sbarro’s? We even have a (mehadrin) kosher KFC (I think their coating is way too salty)!

6. Fitting in. This is both a positive and a negative. Here in Israel, there are so many communities that there is somewhere for everyone, no matter what their religious practices and/or political leanings are. There are like-minded people for almost everyone, which makes for a comfortable existence and life.

However, this also provides a natural breeding ground for disagreements and antagonism. Since we Israelis share a common bond as Jews, we have to look harder than you do to find the things that make us different. Our distaste for those who do not share the same beliefs/values is much stronger than we experienced in the U.S. (I am guilty as well) and emboldens people to do things they never would consider doing outside of Israel. This is reflected in the fact that in some (social) ways, you in galut enjoy more achdut than we do (a fact I have lamented often).

On the whole, being part of a united community vastly outweighs the negatives but I have to be honest and this point cuts both ways.

5. Leining the “right” parshiyot. We are technically all in galut. You are just in the furthest galut, being outside of Israel. Last year I talked about having only one day of yom tov for the chagim, but this year another funny quirk popped up—the last day of a yom tov fell out on Shabbat.

We celebrated one day of Shavuot as always (with Megillat Rut, Akdamot, and Yizkor all done on the same day—beginning at 4:30 a.m. after Tikkun Leil Shavuot). The next day, although flowing naturally from Shavuot, was a regular Shabbat for us and we read Parashat Nasso. You (as noted above) still had that day as Shavuot and read a special yom tov leining, delaying Nasso until the next week (when we read Bha’alotcha). Through July you will be a week behind us (you catch up with a double parashah on Matot-Masei). I am not in any way saying your way is wrong but wouldn’t it be better to do it the way it was originally intended to be?

4. The shopkeepers. We try to shop “Jewish” whenever we can in order to support other Jews. While it is almost impossible to totally avoid buying non-Jewish/Arab products (for instance, the overwhelming majority of cucumbers here are grown on Arab farms), we want to benefit the Jewish shopkeepers as much as possible.

While this is relatively easy to do in Bet Shemesh, it becomes harder in major cities. Almost all Jewish shopkeepers are aggressive and incredibly knowledgeable and helpful (as opposed to civil servants or those who work in service industries like bank tellers). They understand that their eagerness to please and their help in identifying just the right product leads to loyal customers and more business.

We have a couple of local “variety” type stores in Bet Shemesh about 200 feet from each other. One is more for hardware and the other is more for housewares. They are owned by a father and son and you could not find friendlier and more helpful people.

One of the main reasons we like them (aside from their good natured friendliness) are the little things that they do and know. We recently bought some coffee glasses in the housewares store and as Goldie peeled the labels off, she commented on how easily they came off. The owner responded that he stocks a specific brand of glasses and price tags in order to make it easier to peel the labels off prior to dunking them in the mikvah. That is service.

We patronize a local appetizing store owned by really nice Gerrer Chassidim. The owner greets us personally every time we walk into the store and makes sure to wish us a Gut Shabbos before we leave. At the shuk in Machane Yehuda, a storekeeper once told me that I could not shop in his store for Pesach products because his ingredients were kitniyot and I am Ashkenazi.

They might all be out to make a buck (or shekel as the case may be), but they are super friendly and their recognition of halachah and the value we place on halachah (even if the shopkeeper himself is not religious) is comforting.

3. Tuition, tuition, tuition. This is the only repeat from last year. I should really repeat my points about the holiness of the land, doing mitzvot in Israel, being in the land of the Tanach, or any of the other ones dealing with the fact that Jews belong in the land that was given to us and that it is the holiest place for us to be and enhances our every action (both good and bad).

However, as a regular reader of the Five Towns Jewish Times this past year, I have seen a recurrent theme in its pages: “The Tuition Crisis” and “The Cost Of A Jewish Education.” The costs are incredibly high and I am amazed that in this time of recession it is still possible to pay up to $30,000 to send a single child for a year to high school. What are you people thinking?

I may earn less and pay higher taxes, but the benefits in health care and education are incredible. I pay less than a 5 digit dollar figure to send all 5 kids to school, and there are so many schools to choose from here.

None of our schools have building funds, dinners, or any of the other fees and taxes that your yeshiva has been hitting you with. We are therefore less tied in to a specific school and it is not a big deal to send kids to different schools, allowing you to send each kid to the school that is best for him/her as an individual instead of them all being lumped into the same building for convenience/cost.

2. Davening. There are many wonderful shuls and chazzanim outside of Israel. However, most of the people in those shuls don’t fully understand the words they are saying. Hebrew is a foreign language to them. Even people who have studied the davening and can literally translate them don’t fully appreciate what they are saying.

Almost all of davening (all of Tehillim) is poetry written by David HaMelech. Most of us cannot fully appreciate Italian, Greek, or Latin poetry, even when it is translated to English because we lack the fluency to understand the nuances that make the poetry especially beautiful and meaningful. The same holds true for davening.

Israeli born Jews do not have such a handicap. Even immigrants stack up better than foreign Jews because they are forced to be somewhat fluent in order to conduct their everyday lives. Most of us know where the accents are supposed to be and pause at the correct moment. Singing a tefillah that you understand (especially as a group) is unbelievable.

1. Write your own Chronicles. I have enjoyed tremendous support from the overwhelming majority of my readers. Larry Gordon’s vision of enabling the average reader to visualize the aliyah process and connect a little more closely with Israel turned out to be prophetic in a way. Your support has seen us through many of the trials and tribulations we have faced and comforted us when we needed it most.

Yet, it is practically impossible to please everyone. I have heard it all: “Katz is too religious,” “Katz isn’t religious enough,” “How could you have done that in public” and of course, my all-time favorite “Katz is a jerk for beating up on the chareidim because we identify with them.”

Firstly, you only think you identify with them. I complain about those who do things that no one in the Five Towns would even dream of doing and behave in such an immoral way that it is impossible to defend them. I have repeatedly said that I understand that the majority of the chareidi public are nice people and want to live their lives the same way I do—without interference from outsiders. My complaint to them is that they (by their silence) enable the worst elements in their community to terrorize us all.

Yet no matter how many times I say this, there are always a handful of people who think I am an agent of evil and have no “right” to say (in a column that is supposed to be a journal of my personal experiences and thoughts in making aliyah) anything negative about this minority of people who have tried to enforce their standards on me and my neighbors. So please, come prove me wrong.

I would eagerly look forward to reading about your experiences and hearing your opinions, since you too will have made the sacrifice of uprooting your family and committing yourself to the future of our country and our nation. Having walked a mile in each other’s shoes, I have a suspicion that you might not be as critical of me as you are now. Or you might be. We’ll never know until you move in.

I am a total advocate for everyone to come here and add to the mosaic that is the population of our homeland. In another few years we will have 50%+ of the Jewish people resident in Israel for the first time in thousands of years. Mitzvot specific to Israel will become obligatory from the Torah then. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?

On a separate note, mazal tov to Goldie’s brother David and his wife Marcia on the engagement of their daughter Tova to Yitzy Klapper of Hillcrest. We are very close with David and Marcia (and especially Tova who was in seminary in Israel when we initially made aliyah). We owe tremendous appreciation to them for all they have done for us over the years. They have always been staunch supporters of our aliyah, when other relatives were not, and we feel a special bond with them. Hopefully Yitzy and Tova’s aliyah plans will come true.

The Meaning of Service (Article# 116) 5/14/2009

Although I have already written about our Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) experiences last week, my sister related a story about my nephew to me late last week that I want to share.

As you know, my nephew Yonatan is currently in the middle of his military service. Although his assignments change regularly, he is currently stationed either in Gaza or at the Gaza border, and you can understand that his parents and family are quite concerned for his well-being.

He comes home for Shabbat every few weeks and is occasionally given a couple of days off during the week as well. As it happened, he came home for an overnight visit the night of Yom HaZikaron and then had to leave quite early the next morning to what my sister thought was a routine company memorial assembly. It was only days later that he told her where he had gone.

Each year on Yom HaZikaron, the active members of the unit are assigned (in pairs) to visit the graves of the soldiers from that division who had been killed in action. They are given a biography of the soldier as well as family member information so that they can greet the family members (who almost always visit the graves on Yom HaZikaron) and offer their personal support or condolences.

I think the soldier whose grave they were assigned had been killed in the Yom Kippur war. That means that every year for 35+ years, two (different) soldiers have visited the grave to support and comfort the family. I do not know whether this policy holds true for every company in every division of our military or only for the company in which my soldier serves, but it says something about the value we place upon our servicemen and women and the sacrifice that some of them make.

Later in the week I got a copy of an e-mail that was sent by one of my relatives to his parents in the USA. He has been on his “gap year” in a yeshiva and had decided (with his parents approval) to stay for a second year as well. However, he does not feel that even this second year will be enough to quench the thirst within him, and he sent them the following e-mail:

Being a Jew, a son of the Avos and Imahos, one carries responsibility and the history of his nation with him. Being the Am Segulah (Chosen Nation) entails many things, one of which is that from the beginning of time till the end of time we will always be around.

We have seen Pharaohs come and go, Bavel come and go, Greece and the Romans come and go, Persia come and go. We have withstood the Crusades, blood libels, pogroms, and myriads of massacres. We have seen the sheker of Christianity, since its origin, lead to untold deaths of our people and of course the most recent, the terrors of the Shoah.

Yet throughout all these catastrophes, the horror of each of which it is impossible to relate to, there is one common denominator—“Am Yisrael Chai.

Yes, of course on the individual level hundreds of thousands of millions of Jews died, but nationally we are here and flourishing.

For over 2,000 years since the Churban Bayis Sheini the Jews have been ripping their hearts apart in tears to return to Eretz Yisrael. Every single day a Jew prays to return to Israel, to rebuild Yerushalayim, and for Kibutz Galuyos—at least three times a day. Those 2,000 years of prayers started to be openly answered in 1948.

In 1948, the geulah started to openly unfold. The people exiled for 2,000 years returned to their homeland. What an unbelievable event. One can’t put into words the awesomeness of that event.

The world watched the Jew wander the earth for centuries. The Jew was beaten many times along the away, was near death at points, but the Jew never forgot where he was going. The Jew was walking with a “guide” (G-d) who promised him that he will make it back to his homeland against all odds. The Jew made many stops along the way, but whenever he got too settled and comfortable in one area, the Guide would remind him, at a cost, that he must not forget where he came from and to where he is going.

In 1948 the Jew made it home, and in 1948 the history of the Jew and the history of the world started wrapping itself up. In 2009, sixty-one years later, we can see history wrapping itself up and we hear the footsteps of Moshiach.

From the prophecies to the midrashim we can see their fulfillment in front of our eyes. I walk in the Rova and see the fulfillment of Zechariah’s vision of children playing in the streets of Yerushalayim.

I see the fulfillment of what the navi said, that when the Jews are exiled Israel will not bear its fruit; all one has to do now is to open the window of his home in Israel to see the beautiful forests and gardens.

With all the midrashim about B’nei Yishmael and other hundreds of sources, could it be more obvious that we are only moments away from the ultimate Geulah?

That being said, one must ask himself: “What role do I want to take in this wrapping up of history?” A Jew can no longer only think individually. He must think for the K’lal, for Am Yisrael. Now more than ever, one must gear his life on the question of: “What could I do for K’lal Yisrael now?”

A Jew can’t be self-centered and just care about what is best for him. That’s not the way a Jew thinks. At a time when there is the opportunity to live in Israel again, when there is more Torah learning in Israel than ever, where there is a Jewish army for the first time since Bayis Sheini, individuals must start thinking as one united nation. There is no space for the selfish in the Jewish Nation.

It is mind boggling that Hashem gave us Eretz Yisrael and there are still millions of Jews in the galus. What do they think about when they say the words “U’veneih Yerushalayim” in davening three times a day, or sing “L’shanah haba’ah” at the Seder?

“Next year in Yerushalayim—as long as we could stay comfortable and get rid of those rude Israelis.”

“We are too comfortable here in galus; it’s too hard to move to Israel.”

What small thinking. In Jewish history, have the Jews ever stayed in one place for too long? A true Jew, by definition, yearns to live in Eretz Yisrael. People in the galus are too comfortable for geulah.

What a z’chus to live during such a time. The questions I ask myself are: “What role do I want to play in the geulah?” “What have I done for K’lal Yisrael?”

The answer for that is—nothing yet. Yes, of course I am at a young age where there is only so much one can do for a nation, but I am at a pivotal point in my life where I can choose the path I take for the rest of my life, until my death.

So here is the question: “What will I do for K’lal Yisrael?” Hopefully many things bs”d, but one thing I can do now (as in the next few years) is join the Jewish army.

I want to take part in protecting and fighting for Am Yisrael, the same way Yehoshua’s army and the Chash­monaim did in our past. I wish with all my being to join Tzahal. I yearn with every inch of my body to fight for my country, my people, and my heritage.

What’s the difference between me and a Dudik Perez from Haifa? Is my blood any redder? I desire with my whole heart to join my brothers and fight right beside them. I feel it is my duty. They are Jewish and so am I.

What a great message and an inspiration. I do not know that this young man will end up following this dream and serving in the army; this decision is more than a year away. However, I do know that his sentiment and his emotion represent what I believe that we need more of.

This past Shabbat we had the privilege of joining our dear friends and former neighbors Gabe and Anat Levi for the celebration of the Bar Mitzvah of their son David in Yerushalayim. We are always thrilled to join our friends for their smachot here.

This simcha was additionally special. Gabe and Anat went out of their way repeatedly during Goldie’s illness to give us guidance, comfort, and support. They would kill me if I went into further detail, but I am grateful to have the opportunity to publicly thank Gabe and Anat for their kindness and support and wish them and their family a huge Mazal Tov.

Showing Our True Colors (Article# 115) 5/7/2009

Getting back to normal life is always a bit of a change. When Pesach vacation ends, the kids have been off for more than two weeks and the schools generally wind down their activities in the last couple of months of the year here anyway. It is strange actually. Serious learning is mostly done “between the holidays,” with the time before Sukkot and after Pesach seemingly run at something like two-thirds or half speed. Yet, even with a shorter time period of more intensive learning than we had in the USA, they cover the Judaic subjects and even some secular subjects (specifically math) so much more comprehensively.

I think it all stems from less time being focused on the Judaic subjects. Hebrew is natural, so they spend less time translating and can cover a lot more ground in less time, freeing time for other subjects. I also think it is an outgrowth of the way (at least in our children's schools) many of the “home room” teachers stay with their class for two-year stretches (Mordechai’s morah has seen him through both first and second grades) and their familiarity with the students (and vice versa) make the second year much more productive. Of course, that is only my opinion and by many means of measurement we (as a country) are woefully behind, so…

In any case, as opposed to the frustrations of the pre-chagim fall term when no learning is done, this is a very busy time of year for the kids. Packed into these few weeks are sefirat ha’omer, several national holidays, and then finally Shavuot—so there is a lot for them to do, even if it means less focus on core subjects.

Yom HaShoah is the beginning of a week of special days, ending with Yom HaAtzma’ut, for the entire country. In anticipation of the festive week, Goldie and I went out and bought a couple of huge Israeli flags to display outside our house (we also bought four flags to fly outside our car windows). It is the season for such things, and our old flag was kind of tattered, so we knew we needed a replacement.

Last year one of our community representatives got a call from our across-the-street neighbors instructing us to take down the flags, which were offensive to them. This year, knowing we needed to replace our existing flag, I bought two seven-by-five flags and prominently displayed them. I also took orders for some of my neighbors, and we all were quite happy to hang the flags as visibly as possible.

Our kids asked us why we bought four flags for the car when we only displayed two of them. Unfortunately, that night they got their answer. (Warning: Rabbi Ginzberg should kindly skip ahead to the paragraph beginning “As I noted…”)

Mordechai had stabbed himself in the hand with a knife while cutting an orange, and I took him to the local night clinic belonging to our health plan, which is situated in Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet (a.k.a. Chareidi-land) to be checked by the on-call pediatrician. We were there for no more than 15 minutes and returned to the car to find that both of our flags had been broken off the windows, with just the plastic bases remaining.

Boy was I angry!

After quite vocally shouting that somebody owed me ten shekels for my stolen property, I got into the car and began to back out of my parking spot to leave when I was suddenly inspired. I slammed on my brakes and jumped out of the driver’s seat. Reaching into the back seat, I grabbed my two spare flags and proceeded to quite loudly inform the (very few) people watching that I WIN—and that I will ALWAYS display the flag, no matter how much they hate it.

I still have one of the plastic bases in the car window. I keep it there as a badge of honor. I want everyone to know what the hoodlums do and to be reminded that we do not give in to thuggery.

Of course, this year brought a new twist to the disgusting displays of our anti-Israeli brethren: black flags. Put up as an obvious rebuke of our Israeli flags, they are an obnoxious statement by people who clearly have no hakarat ha’tov. Thankfully, I only saw three of them this year (although one was directly across the street from our house).

As I noted last year, I personally feel that the close proximity of both Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron to Yom HaAtzma’ut adds to the celebration and is incredibly meaningful, especially for the children. Even the littlest of them are taught to respect the memories of the fallen on both memorial days; and understanding the Shoah’s role in leading to the creation of the State of Israel is a major part of the spring curriculum here. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the 12th-grade students here have a trip to Poland (similar to the “March of the Living”) as their school-sponsored class trip.

A week later, on Yom HaZikaron, I took Batya (10) and Mordechai (8) to the Bet Shemesh municipal memorial service for the residents of Bet Shemesh who perished either in service to the country or in terrorist attacks. It was an incredibly moving ceremony and I never cease to be amazed at the tremendous respect that servicemen and servicewomen get in this country.

The memorial opened with the sounding of the air-raid sirens. Even though I knew it would happen, the sudden silence as a few thousand people stood in unison for the siren was breathtaking. The MC truly captured the essence of the day in his opening remarks, as he spoke about the losses the families and the country as a whole have suffered: Children and grandchildren never to be born. Husbands and wives never to meet. Generations of people taken away in the ultimate sacrifice to the safety and security of our country and our people.

After his brief remarks, they presented a slide show on large screens erected for the day. Every person’s picture was displayed as a narrator informed us of their birth dates and death dates as well as the war or terrorist attack in which the person perished. I didn’t think the kids were paying attention until both kids commented together, “Abba, a lot of people died in the Six Day War.”

After the slide show, a memorial torch (similar to an eternal flame) was lit adjacent to the permanent war memorial we had assembled in front of. A “Keil Malei Rachamim” was sung and then all the male relatives of the victims came up to the stage to recite Kaddish in unison in memory of their loved ones.

We left toward the end (the kids were getting antsy) after the singing of HaTikvah. I can honestly say that I really felt a part of Bet Shemesh that night. This city is so cosmopolitan, and we (admittedly) live in a very insular Anglo neighborhood. Even though some of our other neighbors (the ones I don’t like—you know who they are) hung up their black flags and totally disrespected the sacrifices of those who risk everything for the protection of every Israeli, everyone else united in a very positive way, and it was awesome!

In Batya’s school, the fourth grade puts on the Yom HaZikaron presentation for the entire school, and Goldie and I attended. I thought it would be sappy, but was again impressed by the serious tone and approach the girls took in putting on the dramatic performance.

That afternoon we went as a family to a local shul’s memorial assembly and transition into Yom HaAtzma’ut. They had a special Maariv davening, and when we finished we capped off the night by walking down to the local amphitheater to enjoy the municipal fireworks.

The next day we had a Katz family extravaganza. My sister (who decided to be a homebody) didn’t come, but everyone else went for a hike through the mountains here to a cave known as the Batcave (insert joke here) and a natural rock slide (the kids loved it). After the hike we were all joined by Bubbee and Zaidy at our house for a special Yom HaAtzma’ut BBQ.

It is truly a great time of year to be an Israeli and to live here in our land. As time goes by and we become more familiar with the language and the practices of our adopted country, we feel more and more comfortable in calling this place home. It is an amazing place of contradictions and dispute—but it is still the only place for Jews like you and me to live.

A special Mazal Tov to our good friends and fellow olim Dani and Tzippy Lieberman (who have appeared in these pages before) on the bar mitzvah of Avrumi, their bechor (firstborn). As Avrumi’s bar mitzvah teacher, I was especially pleased to participate in the celebration, and we look forward to sharing many more s’machot together.

Chagim U'zmanim L'sasson (Article# 114) 4/23/2009

I hope you enjoyed your Pesach. I know that in some places it was quite cold leading into the chag, and I do not know what possesses you to remain in the frozen galut when you can enjoy the beautiful sunny spring and summer here in Israel.

Some terrific things about preparing for Pesach in Israel as opposed to other places: The vendors in Machane Yehuda telling me not to buy one of their products because it is kitniyot and therefore not for me; no price gouging (many items are cheaper or in larger-size packages than normal in anticipation of the Pesach buying frenzy); almost every brand of soda pop is available kosher-for-Pesach; and the list goes on.

I think one of the best benefits is that all the major supermarkets in Bet Shemesh (think Foodtown or A&P) sell their chametz and cover the shelves of chametzdik products, so you can shop almost anywhere here without concern, both during and after Pesach.

One thing that I found to be strangely missing…free Haggadot. We used to get a couple of them free with grocery orders every year, and they were perfect for sending with the kids to school so that they could mark them up and make notes in them. Yet, there were none this year, and we ran out of the ones we had kept in storage from prior years. We might even have to buy a couple of extras next year.

As with most of you, our celebration started a bit early, with birkat ha’chamah. With myriad shiurim and handouts, there was plenty of opportunity to learn about this mitzvah and how we have come to calculate the proper time for its recitation. I personally have some chavrutot with some of our alumni in the USA (online via Skype) and used Mordechai’s second-grade handout as a terrific source for them; it was written in simple Hebrew and covered the material comprehensively.

Our celebration in Bet Shemesh actually began a bit earlier that we had originally planned. The chareidi neighborhoods had erected a large grandstand with a sound system, and they ran a sound check (with music) at 10:30 p.m. the night before (Tuesday). Since we were davening at 6 a.m. the next morning, most of the neighborhood was already in bed trying to sleep, and this was a bit disturbing. Or at least so we thought…up until 5:30 a.m. Wednesday morning.

Apparently, one of the people running the chareidi mass gathering decided that too many people did not own their own alarm clocks and that it was his job to wake up the neighborhood. Which he did. Quite loudly. We were waking up then anyway, but I am sure that anyone who had planned on sleeping in and coming to the berachah and then going to daven afterward was not so thrilled.

I have to give the chareidim credit. Our neighborhood’s shuls all posted their own davening and birkat ha’chamah times and invited “the community” to join with each shul and say the berachah as a large group. None of them actually made an effort to join together. In contrast, the chareidi mass gathering was just that—thousands of people all together in one spot. (I understand that there were large gatherings at the Kotel and in multiple sites around the country that were very inspiring as well.)

If we could somehow get a bit of their achdut in that type of thing and give them a bit of our achdut in other areas, wouldn’t the world be a much better place?

We had originally scheduled our birkat ha’chamah to be at 6:45 a.m., but the sun had not yet come out from behind the mountains to our east by then, so we had a siyum bechorim and then went outside to birkat ha’chamah. It was really very beautiful. The families of our shul, headed by people mostly in their thirties and forties, have a lot of young children.

Inspired by a local fellow who had made an audiotape of himself at the last birkat ha’chamah (among other things on the tape, we hear his mother predicting that she would be dancing at the next birkat ha’chamah; sadly, she passed away five years ago), I decided to make a video of the entire thing. As I shot it, I could not help but wonder who among those in attendance will not be with us to make the berachah the next time around. Who will lose parents, spouses, or even children (we do live in a country where our youth are unfortunate victims of violent wars)? I know that this wasn’t the intent of the rabbis when they instituted this berachah, but I felt very much as if we were saying U’Netaneh Tokef instead of birkat ha’chamah and that it was Yom Kippur instead of Erev Pesach.

As I have mentioned many times, Goldie is incredibly organized, and we had almost nothing to do on Erev Pesach when we got home. We seized the opportunity to get in some pre-Seder naps for everyone, which would be helpful in an average year, and certainly one in which we woke up for 6 a.m. davening.

With 17 at our Seder, we had a packed house. Having one Seder means that there is just one chance for all of the kids to share whatever divrei Torah they have prepared, so the Seder can run a bit slowly. (On the flip side, it also means that there is only one day of Yom Tov, with much less cooking required.)

We enjoy the Seder every year, no matter the speed. Each year also brings a new revelation of some growth for one or another of the kids. This year it was Mordechai (age 8, grade 2) who made a major transition from last year, a transition that was totally enabled by the fact that we live in Israel.

In the past, he followed the story of the Seder and was definitely a participant. However, this year he read the entire Haggadah with us, word for word. The best part? He understands it—it is almost all in Hebrew, a language that is first nature to him (he prefers reading Hebrew over English). When I realized what was happening, I made sure to read the Haggadah slower than normal and found myself inflecting as I read the words. (Apparently, my Hebrew is better as well, and I too gained a new understanding of what I had read by rote for so many years.) He was so excited to “get it” and also to finally stay awake through the end of the Seder for the singing of Nirtzah songs, which he had learned in school. The littler kids were also a part of the singing, but it was clear that they were totally exhausted and out of it, while he essentially had his first “complete” Seder experience (the naps sure helped).

Interestingly, Pesach morning was cloudy and even rainy at times. Although it is a bit late in the year to be thinking of rain, it rained several times over Pesach, mostly in the very early morning, which was very nice. We were apparently very lucky with the weather we had on Erev Yom Tov, since it allowed us to say birkat ha’chamah on time.

We shared the chag with both sets of grandparents once again, which always enhances any celebration for the children. (My parents will be here for three months and are renting an apartment two blocks from us, while Goldie’s parents will leave a few days after Pesach.) Being away from the larger family-oriented events and celebrations is the major downside of being here, so we try to maximize each visit.

Day two of Pesach was Erev Shabbat (and still yom tov for my parents, who keep two days of chag) so we did not have enough time to really do a major tiyul. We were invited to join our neighbors the Greenzweigs (originally from Fair Lawn, N.J.—SECOND aliyah in 2006) on a hike in the mountains around Bet Shemesh, something we normally do not do. Since it was a short day, we split into two groups.

The first group (Goldie, her parents, and Aliza) went shopping in the Modiin mall. The second group (Chaya, Batya, Mordechai, Moshe, and I) joined David Greenzweig and their son Itamar (age 5, and Moshe’s good buddy) for a hike down Nachal Dolev (no, not the street—the actual valley). Chaim made his own group and dumped us all to go play paintball.

Goldie dropped us off at the top of a mountain and we actually did the hike in reverse. Much better than the normal way, which is practically all uphill. With all the kids (and me, who am not much of a hiker), we didn’t think we would make it uphill as a group.

Although hikes are not a normal part of our Israeli experience, it is a major part of Israeli life and something we definitely miss out on. The kids’ major class trips are generally hikes up some mountain or another, and vacation times find many, many, many Israelis camping and hiking throughout Israel. It is a cheap and time-exhaustive way of spending the day—and the scenery isn’t bad, either.

Our hike was very nice. The kids all got into the spirit, and even little Moshe didn’t complain too much about having to walk almost four miles through the mountains. The highlight for the kids was trying to find the trail markers as we went along and singing their Pesach songs (a great way to distract a four-year-old). I could get used to an occasional family hike, but I doubt Goldie will agree (not her thing).

Shabbat chol ha’moed saw the beginning of some real heat (it continued to heat up each day, reaching the 90s on the last day of chol ha’moed before cooling off to the 60s the last day of Pesach). We had some yeshiva guys over, one who kept two days and three who kept one day. I feel bad for all the two-day people. Not only did they have to sit around, basically alone (my sister drove in from Ramat Gan to visit with my parents that morning) for the second day, but they had a three-day yom tov (something incredibly rare for Israelis, although it will happen this Rosh Hashanah).

On Sunday we went to the Bullet Museum, located beneath a kibbutz near Rechovot, where the Haganah secretly manufactured over two million bullets in preparation for the War of Independence. We were astounded by the incredible planning and commitment of the people involved. We then went to a local mall for some bowling to complete the day.

The next day we went to Tel Aviv. I took Moshe to the park while the rest of the family enjoyed the Palmach Museum (I wrote about this museum a few weeks ago) and they joined us at Park HaYarkon, Israel’s largest park, for a few hours in the sun. We had lunch in the park and the kids played in some of the many playgrounds there. A good time was had by all.

The rest of Pesach was uneventful. With only one day of chag at the end, we were done on Wednesday night and the only major decision was: do we continue the after-Pesach conversion to chametz pizza run, or not? (We did, and got the fourth and fifth pies they made.)

Thankfully, this late in the year rain is continuing, with several post-Pesach days of rain in Teveria—exactly where we need it most. The Kineret is now at –213.29, only 29 cm below the lower red line. If the weather holds and Somebody Upstairs is kind to us, the conservation efforts already in place (two weeks ago, the Water Authority banned all watering of grass for the entire summer) will keep us from reaching the dreaded black line, and we can all pray that next year’s rainy season begins early, is very heavy, and brings an end to the current water crisis.

As I was preparing to send this column, I noticed a comment on the 5TJT website on my pre-Pesach column about baking our own Ashkenazi shemurah matzot in which I said that the matzot we had baked were nowhere near what the matzot were like in Egypt…

“Thought you’d be interested in hearing about the matzah shemurah that we eat at our Seder. It is special ‘Sephardicmatzah: very thick and has a soggy cardboard texture (and taste). Apparently, this is closer to what our ancestors actually ate when fleeing from Egypt—it has a lot more water in it than the “regular” Ashkenaz kind, and a lot less flour/wheat. It tastes awful and is very hard to chew (kinda’ like gnawing on the sole of your shoe). Would you like me to send you some?”—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous: No thanks!

Matzot, Matzot Everywhere (Article# 113) 4/7/2009

Welcome to the annual [spring] Pesach cleaning frenzy! As I am sure happens in most Jewish households, sometime around Chanukah Goldie looked up and exclaimed, “Pesach is only three and a half months away!” And thus began the countdown.

I have to give her credit. She has mellowed the past couple of years and has really been quite relaxed about a process that used to drive her nuts each and every year. Yes, she still obsesses, but with older kids to help and a simpler life here (and I really believe that is a factor—smaller houses and less storage space makes the cleanup a lot easier), she is very calm about it. Of course, the single-day Yom Tov and lone Seder also help.

I was actually speaking to a friend of mine, a former Chicagoan who has lived here many years and is very “Israeli” in attitude, earlier today. She commented to me that her husband had requested that they switch their kitchen to Pesach a day early this year so that he could cook for the Seder two days before Pesach and not on Erev Pesach as they usually do. She added that she was confused why Goldie and I had gone Pesach shopping two full weeks before Pesach—why the rush?

I guess we still have some America in us.

This is why we still do most of our shopping in an Anglo-friendly store (as my sister-in-law found out after she bought the kitniyot mayonnaise—“Kosher L’Pesach” on the label in Israel does not quite mean what it does in the USA); and why we over-obsess about buying wine, matzot, and other items; and why we plan our Chol Ha’moed activities as far in advance as possible (another no-no for the Israeli-born).

Another part of our new Pesach preparation schedule is the baking of our own handmade matzot. Our kids enjoy it, and this year I put together the entire chaburah, so it was almost all friends of ours (and my brother), which added to the enjoyment and general atmosphere. Our mashgiach commented that it was a pleasure for him to work with us, because we had “character.” I didn’t ask.

I graduated this year from putting the matzot into the oven to taking them out. This is much harder than it appears. If you leave them in too long, they burn and everyone complains that they are very burnt-looking (and -tasting—although they taste so bad that I don’t quite understand the taste complaints). If you take them out too quick, they look nice, but are doughy and chametz. I discovered that by slightly lowering the oven temperature I could get them fully baked inside without burning the outside (yes, I asked the mashgiach first; it was more his suggestion).

When all was said and done, we ended up with over 200 kosher matzot (I checked last year’s column and was quite amused to read how “proud” I was then to have gotten 160+). Of course, there was a scramble in dividing them over who would get which ones—but I let Goldie and the kids handle it.

I am simply excited (and looking forward) to have matzot at the Seder that we all had a hand in baking. We will make berachot on them and it is just a very powerful addition to the experience, at least for me. Even if they taste like cardboard and are nowhere near what the matzot in Egypt were like (they were probably more like pita than anything else).

As we approach another major chag, I would like to extend best wishes to all our friends worldwide and to you, dear reader, for a chag kasher v’sameiach and a truly wonderful and meaningful Seder. Hopefully it will be together as one nation in Yerushalayim—eating the Korban Pesach we will have offered in the rebuilt Beit HaMikdash. If not, L’shanah ha’baah biYerushalayim ha’b’nuyah!

Back to Politics (Article# 112) 4/2/2009

As I write this, the new government is (finally) preparing itself to be sworn in. It will be called a “centrist” government by some, a “traitorous” government by others. And almost everyone will be unhappy with it in some shape or form.

The Right will be infuriated that Bibi chose Labor to be a part of the government and that he “suddenly” flip-flopped on the two-state solution. The Left will be aghast at the “defection” of Barak and his “desire” for power (remaining as defense minister) after committing to be a part of the opposition almost immediately after the balloting closed. And those somewhere in between will simply be upset.

I see things a bit differently.

As I have said in the past, we have to look through the same window that each of these people is looking through in order to understand their motives. We also have to understand that the prime motivating factor for each of these people is their desire to be the Prime Minister of the State of Israel.

Yes, they want to serve their country. Yes, they want their party to lead. Yes, they believe in the platform of their party. But those are only secondary concerns. The politicians have shown time and again that they will do anything they can to be “the guy” (or “the gal”). And they do.

Start with Tzipi Livni. Her party won more seats than any other in the Knesset, yet she is relegated to second-tier status in the race for the ultimate prize. However, she has seen how successfully Bibi Netanyahu ran the opposition the past several years, seizing every opportunity to say “See? I told you so!” without actually having to govern. She understands that her best bet at power comes not by being a part of the current government (no matter if that would be best for Israel or not—a point I am not currently debating), but by being a vocal member of the opposition and hoping that in the next election the disaffected voters—those who vote against the status quo no matter what—will flock to her banner.

Then comes Ehud Barak. When it initially looked like Kadima would try to make a power-sharing agreement, he was overjoyed to be in the opposition. Instead of Livni, he would be the vocal head of the opposition, leading all the disenfranchised to the Labor Party. Having lost their voters to the currently popular Kadima, this was the best way for Barak to rebuild his party to be a factor in the next elections.

Yet it was not to be. Livni and Kadima’s refusal to be a part of the government made Labor and Barak the midgets of the opposition. He/they would not be the leader of the opposition, and any “I told you so” moment would go to the credit of Kadima and not Labor. Many pundits were predicting that this might actually be the end of the Labor Party for this very reason, and Barak, both personally and as leader of the party, could not allow this to happen.

It was therefore inevitable that he would make a deal with Likud. Although it is not nearly as effective as being the leader of the opposition, there is still the opportunity for him to claim an “elder statesman” title, simply by inferring that they are truly the princes of the Left because “We did what we did for the sake of the country” in an effort to (i) moderate the voice of the government, (ii) serve the country, and (iii) further the peace process and at the same time make Kadima look as if they are solely interested in petty politics.

Of course, Kadima will spin this as the ultimate act of betrayal by Barak and Labor. In fact, the (incredibly Left-leaning) media has had an immediate and nonstop paroxysm of rage at this betrayal, acting as if this doesn’t happen all the time. (Interestingly, I read a fascinating article about the media’s adoration of Sharon’s betrayal of the Right in the Gush Katif pullout and the formation of Kadima, and how the media portrayed that group of betrayers as heroes and visionaries for doing almost exactly what Barak is doing.)

Finally, we get to Bibi Netanyahu. Through various miscues and the nearness of the Gaza war to the elections, both Yisrael Beiteinu and Kadima picked up seats at Likud’s expense. He ended up as the leader of the second-largest party, yet the only party leader who had a reasonable chance at actually forming a government. He also has a memory.

In his last incarnation as prime minister, and leader of the largest party, he was too arrogant in setting his policies and ignoring the opposition/minority partners in his government. His single-minded focus on doing things as he saw fit and his decision to give away large swaths of the West Bank are a big part of what led his backers to abandon him and both dissolve his government and later vote his party out of power.

He understands that his best chance at continuing his reign at the head of the government is to try to make the government one of all the people—at least as many of them as he can. He also understands that by aligning himself with a Leftist party, he will blunt some of the criticism that would normally come from that end of the spectrum. He was dying to make a deal with someone from the Left in order to portray himself as a bridge builder and consensus maker.

I have no idea what kind of leader Ehud Barak was as prime minister. I do know that the war he ran in Gaza as defense minister appeared to be totally different from the one that Peretz ran in Lebanon against Hezbollah. It appeared to be more focused, with attainable goals (whether or not we attained them is again a different discussion), and was fiercely supported by a majority of the country. And the body count was low (thank G-d). This certainly makes him an attractive addition to the government.

So whose gambles will pay off and whose are more risky? Well, Livni’s gamble to be part of the opposition will work if Bibi falters. So she is putting her fate in his hands, hoping that he will fail. If he is successful, she is sunk—as will be her party. They, who have very little social platform other than as claimants to the political middle, will have been exposed to the public as the party whose policies were simply wrong (and I certainly pray for that day).

Barak’s gamble is much more risky than Livni’s and also has a much greater payoff. If Netanyahu is a failure and Livni rises to power, he is done. He threw his lot in with Likud while at the same time betraying the Left, and I cannot imagine how he and Labor can show themselves to be the heroes of the Left in such a situation.

If, however, Bibi is successful in running the government and Barak can be credited for helping “moderate” the voice and approach of the government, then he can try to lay claim to a role as a responsible and patriotic member of the Left who did what he needed to do in a time of crisis and is the best choice to lead the Left out of the doldrums. He may not win the majority of seats in a subsequent election, but having gotten out of the shadow of Kadima and Livni, he and Labor at least have a shot at becoming the leaders of the Left again—if everything falls into place perfectly.

At this point, though, the big winner is Bibi. He can work both sides of the aisle now with Labor in his pocket, and no matter what happens he can certainly claim that he is the man who put together a more wide-ranging coalition than anyone else in the Knesset could possibly have. He can blame failures on the far Right and the Left and, should he fail, he still has a chance to ask the voters to give him a clear mandate so that he does not have to be beholden to the smaller parties and their interest groups in order to govern.

Bibi is a smart guy (hey—they all have to have some brains in order to have gotten where they are). After all the Kadima posturing, he was able to appear willing to meet with them and partner with them without really having to worry about their joining him, since he knew they couldn’t sign on the dotted line. He was able to moderate the power of the Right a bit with bringing in Labor, and he got Ehud Barak as defense minister, which he clearly seems to be thrilled with.

While the outcomes of, and apparent differences between, the two wars we have lived through may have been circumstantial, I personally believe that Barak is a better option as defense minister than most, and that he will actually lead the military well. I also think that having Livni outside the government is the biggest gain we have had in this entire election, so I am not terribly disappointed on those counts.

My disappointments? The biggest one is Bibi’s concession to consider the two-state plan. However, I am also a big enough boy to understand David Rotem’s (MK of Yisrael Beiteinu—see last week’s column) point that a two-state solution is almost inevitable now, and that we have to figure some way of it not being the end of our part of it. But I am not in favor of the two-state solution!

I know that many people will find the prior two statements to be impossible to reconcile. I really am not in favor of this solution. I will demonstrate against it, rally against it—whatever I can possibly do (within halachah) to stop it from happening. Yet, I recognize that these efforts are most likely going to be futile. It kills me, but it is sadly true.

So whom do I want to be in charge of either trying to get out of such a solution or at the very least trying to protect my country’s safety and security in the face of such a disaster? Tzipi Livni? Are you joking?

She (and the Left) want to give away the store—anything and everything—just to have the world like us and treat us as moral and humane members of the world society. Their blind desire for any deal at all is reckless and irresponsible, and there is no way I would want to see them in charge.

Am I thrilled with the back-and-forth Bibi and what will be his inevitable capitulation to the peaceniks in order to extricate himself from what he perceives as the death grip of the fanatical far-right-wing parties? Would I prefer that he stick to what got him here? Yes. But it will not be.

We have instead a government of compromise. A government that will be afraid to give away both too much and too little. A government that came to power because of the failure of the Gaza-style diplomacy of unilateral withdrawal, and that I really hope understands that safety and security are not purchased through gestures, but rather through responsible planning and responsible actions.

Yes, I know I ignored Yisrael Beiteinu. They got a lot of what they wanted, and it is hard to tell if they will continue to be major players or if, like Meretz, they will end up returning to minor-party status in the future.

Of course, I have lived here all of two years and nine months. I readily admit that my understanding is very likely to be limited and there is a strong likelihood that I am so totally misreading things that it is scary. Only time will tell. On all counts.

After rising 5 centimeters this week, the Kineret Lake is at –213.41, 41 centimeters below the lower red line. There is no rain in the forecast, and I am afraid we might have reached the end of the rain for this year. Hopefully, as the snow in the northern mountains melts, we will at least pass the lower red line. It will certainly be close.