Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Welcome 5770 (9/23/2009)

The Yamim Nora'im are a time when we have to atone for the errors we have made, a time when each person asks forgiveness from those he has harmed, whether or not the damage was intentional.

Each year I wish a warm welcome to the many olim who have made the move to Israel and joined us in the aliyah adventure. I even try to list the Five Towns/Long Island families that I know by name. Last year, in listing the families, I omitted one family who joined our shul with their move to Israel. I left them off the list because they were on a "trial year" and did not arrive as olim.

Last Thursday, at our hachnassat sefer Torah (more on this later), I was reminded about this family and my commitment to include them in this year's list if they made aliyah. And I forgot to do so in my article a couple of weeks ago.

So I am especially pleased to wish a special mazal tov to Aaron and Aliza Miller and their family upon their aliyah this summer. Formerly from West Hempstead, they joined us last year and have been such an integral part of our shul and community, I had simply forgotten that they were on a trial and only made the move permanent as of this summer.

As with many other chagim or events, our approach to Rosh Hashanah is quite different here in Israel. In addition to its status as the New Year and the almost universal recognition of it as such among all walks of Jews here, it is also the only guaranteed two-day holiday in Israel and is looked at with a sense of unusual anticipation.

Our preparations are unique as well. For instance, consider the simanim that we eat on the first night with dinner. These are fairly easy to get in the U.S. All you have to do is head to the local supermarket and pick up fresh samples of any of the vegetables on the list. Leeks, carrots, beets, black-eyed peas, squash, etc. They are all available almost continually throughout the year.

That is not the case here. As I have written before, in Israel, if a fruit or vegetable is not in season, it is not available. The only way to get something out of season is to buy it frozen or canned. Some of them (like black-eyed peas this year) sometimes cannot be found at all, and we do without.

We also have huge competition here between supermarkets, all clamoring for a piece of the very lucrative two-day holiday grocery bill. I remember this as a practice around Pesach in the U.S. With a purchase above a set amount, you were entitled to five pounds of matzah for free, which makes sense and is tied in to the holiday very nicely.

Here in Israel, the promotions were also tied in to the holiday. Goldie got two free bags of apples (great for dipping in honey) as well as a honey cake from various shopping trips to Supersol in Bet Shemesh. I think they were also offering free honey as an option, but we had bought our honey at a 50 percent discount the week before in a different sale. Another store gave us a four-pack of Pepsi Max (no connection to Rosh Hashanah, but still free).

Rosh Hashanah is also a major school milestone here. The week after Rosh Hashanah is the preferred time for back-to-school night in all the schools (we had four of them this week). It marks the time that the learning is turned up a notch and is the final preparation for the major academic period that begins after Sukkot and runs through Pesach.

It also marked a major milestone for our shul. Having completed our first year as a kehillah, one of our members, Rabbi Menachem Alfasi (a native-born Israeli who serves as a rabbi in the IDF) and his family presented the shul with our first sefer Torah. It was completed only days before Rosh Hashanah, so on Thursday night, the last night of the year, we held a gala hachnassat sefer Torah in the shul.

The final letters of the sefer were written at Rabbi Rosner's home, and almost everyone who attended was able to add this special mitzvah to their account that night (even the policemen who came to secure the route for the procession to the shul were invited in and honored with the writing of a letter and joined in the singing and dancing on the way to the shul).

The sofer was very patient and allowed the children to watch as he wrote each letter (at the event, Goldie commented to me that our shul has a tremendous number of children).

We danced to the shul and enjoyed a terrific reception there, with divrei Torah from several rabbanim and a tremendous sense of togetherness. As we grow and more people move to the neighborhood and come to the shul, we have an increasingly greater sense of belonging to something that has great potential. We just need to further develop the land and make more housing available for our families.

On that note, I have to add that things have been quite settled lately. While there are occasional demonstrations from one group or another, there has been a pretty good sense of quiet and patience in the neighborhood.

A new development is opening up in Ramat Bet Shemesh Gimmel, which will be equally divided (designated housing use) by all segments of Bet Shemesh society-non-religious, religious-Zionist, and chareidi. The equal division will provide for the maintenance of the demographic status quo for the time being, which is really the main goal (of my community at least).

As a matter of fact, a further all-chareidi development was put on hold because an ancient burial ground was discovered at the site and the Antiquities Department has to spend several years examining it. So for now, we are hopeful that we will continue to build bridges with the neighbors and continue to coexist without the complications that have cropped up from time to time.

On a personal level, we still have to figure out what we will be doing long-term. Our lease ends next summer and we already know that we will need to move out. We hope that the development we had originally committed to will be somehow resurrected, so that we can remain in the place where we have developed roots. That remains to be seen.

It rained here on the second day of Rosh Hashanah (which was probably not so good for the grape growers, but great for the rest of us). Mordechai ran out to dance in the rain in the middle of davening. Hopefully, this was a sign of a good and healthy rainy season-something which we need. The Kinneret Lake is at -214.195, still 85 centimeters above the dreaded Black Line (which it looks like we will thankfully not reach this year).

I wish you and your families all a g'mar chatimah tovah-may we all have an easy and meaningful fast as we watch the Kohein Gadol perform the Yom Kippur avodah in the rebuilt Beit HaMikdash.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Haramat Kosot (9/16/2009)

It is once again a few days before the Yom HaDin. As we all do, I too have striven to look back upon the past year and reflect about who I am, where I am, and what I could have done better (which is almost everything). As we all do, I need to ask one and all for forgiveness if I offended or upset them.

I view the mission of these articles as a vehicle for the encouragement of aliyah and the in-gathering of the Jewish people to Israel. Although there are certainly difficulties, and you have read about a lot of them, the general body of work is intended to demonstrate to you, the reader, that anyone can make the move here. If we can make it here, with all the trials and tribulations we have gone through, certainly you can too.

People often ask me why I write about the underbelly of life here if I want people to come on aliyah. My goal is to share the good AND the bad in order to present you with a fair picture of what life is like. I want every Jew to join us here, but I want you to do it willingly, with a full heart and totally prepared for what you will face. I think it would be unfair and dishonest of me to attempt to "fool" you with a totally rosy picture.

I believe this is especially important in regard to Bet Shemesh and the issues the city faces as it grows and develops. I often write that the views I express come from my personal experience as a result of my living right on the border of two neighborhoods. I also add that I do not think these events should, on their own, dissuade people from coming to Bet Shemesh in particular, just that the information should be part of a reasoned process.

We had neighbors right next to our house in Woodmere that I didn't care for, people who made life difficult (especially on Shabbat). They would make tons of noise and had their teenagers running amok at all hours, disrupting our kids' sleep. I had to call the police several times about them. Yet, on the whole, our Woodmere community was terrific, and we were glad to have settled in the neighborhood and on our block.

The same applies to our lives here in Israel. Do some of the charedim make me crazy? Yes! Are they all nut jobs? NO! Are they enough of a reason to keep you away? Maybe-but that is something you need to investigate for yourself. The point is that there is no perfect place to live, here or there. I would much rather have my imperfection than yours. Because I still have the Kotel, the kedushah of Eretz Yisrael, and I am getting the mitzvah of living in the land, among other things.

So please, do not take offense; I do not mean to offend, only to inform and encourage. After all, there is so much that we have to offer.

I experienced a new phenomenon (for me) this year at work. I got to work last Sunday, and there was a note on the bulletin board informing the staff that there would be a "Haramat Kossot" (literally a "lifting of cups") at 1 p.m. that afternoon. Having no idea what that meant, I joined the entire staff in one of the meeting rooms at the appropriate time.

In what is an annual get together, Rav Menachem Burstein, the head of the Machon, shared a brief d'var Torah and then spoke to us about the accomplishments of the prior year and his hopes for the coming year. He reminded us that we are in the chessed business and that as much as it is a job for us, we work with couples who are suffering great emotional distress and that we need to keep our compassion first in our hearts.

He reminded us to remember the couples we work with in our davening on the Yamim Nora'im, and he wished us a terrific year. The executive director, Rav Meir Bitton, also said a few words about always being careful in how we phrase things and in remembering that a Jew is a Jew, no matter what.

There was a table with refreshments, including apples with honey (apparently, unlike matzah, this is something we can enjoy time and again in preparation for Rosh Hashanah) honey cake, and a host of other snacks and drinks. We then spent a few minutes (no more than 15) together, something we rarely do as a staff. I thought it was a very nice way to encourage a sense of camaraderie and share mutual wishes of goodwill between coworkers.

That night I shared the experience with another Anglo, I don't remember whom. Their response? This is normal; everyone does it in Israel. It is especially prevalent in the army, where camaraderie and a concern for the well-being of your neighbor takes on extra meaning.

I was amazed. Such a simple gesture, and it is so genuine and well-meaning. It wasn't a big holiday party or dinner. Just a simple heartfelt brachah from one person to the next. And it happens all over.

At the supermarket, "Shanah Tovah."

From the taxi and bus drivers, "Shanah Tova."

From the teachers in school, "Shanah Tovah."

From the mailman, garbagemen, most of the people you encounter, "Shanah Tovah."

And from the Katz family to you, "Shanah Tovah."

I remember a drasha I heard a few years ago. It was a year like this year in which Rosh Hashanah's first day fell on Shabbat. I davened that year at Anshei Chessed in Woodmere. Rabbi Simcha Lefkowitz shared a thought about the loss of the sounds of the shofar standing in our defense and that the years in which this happened generally turn out to be dark years for the Jews (if I got the message wrong, I apologize to Rabbi Lefkowitz). He encouraged the kehillah to think about this and to concentrate with extra fervor for only good things in the coming year.

I cannot even begin to imagine applying this to our current existence. The world has spent a year hearing about the greed of the Jew that has reinforced the stereotypical image of our people as willing to steal from charities and the innocent. Here in the Holy Land we stand (as we always seem to be) at the edge of terrible options. Our enemies want to chop us to bits to destroy us. Even our friends want to chop us into little pieces to make life easier for them.

People are concerned about jobs, health, safety, and security. And we have no shofar to blast open the doors of heaven for our prayers. We must do anything within our power to add an extra dimension to our davening and secure the needs of our land and its people. I hope and pray that we get to blow shofar as part of the regular avodah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in the Beit HaMikdash, with the coming of Mashiach. If not, l'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim ha'bnuya.

I wish you and your family a truly meaningful Rosh Hashanah with inspired tefillah and a positive outcome. May you be zocheh to be awarded the things that are best for you (which in most cases should include joining Am Yisrael here in the land that was given to us).

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Summer is Done (9/9/2009)

Each summer I get the same concerned e-mail from Larry Gordon. "Shmuel," he asks, "where have you gone?" What can I say? The summer is a slow time of year for us. Many of our friends disappear on vacations. Even our kids head off for camp. So there isn't much to report, and I don't write as much. Hopefully we will now be back to regular life until the next big vacation.

I don't remember being this relieved for school to arrive when we lived in the U.S. School starts earlier here (September 1) and ends later (the last week of June), so you would think the summer break would be easier to handle. Yet, with no camp programs that run eight or nine weeks, the last month is a killer. With kids all over the place with nothing to do, and my first U.S. trip for my new job with Puah, August was a terribly hard month for Goldie.

She had to balance keeping the kids busy and involved with running the household and having to do everything all alone (in truth, she does everything even when I am there, but it is different when she is alone). I, on the other hand, took a couple of days off to do some fun stuff, flew to the U.S. for 10 days, and then came home to another couple of days off with the kids.

We went to the Bloomfield Science Museum (lots of fun, but needs maintenance on the exhibits), an amusement park, the beach, shopping, playing-everything we could to keep busy. Although there is nothing like being here in Israel, I sometimes miss the wealth of fun, educational, or cultural activities that we used to enjoy in New York. There are so many more things to do to keep little kids occupied-probably because there are so many more people there.

As I mentioned, I made my first work-related trip to the U.S. for Puah, my new employer. It was more of a "get to know you" trip than anything else, giving me the opportunity to meet the Puah USA staff and some of our supporters. I am amazed at some of the things Puah is doing in fertility and health issues and the incredible technologies that are involved in helping people have children.

As a benefit of the timing of the trip, I was able to take Chaim up to YU on the first day of orientation. He has been looking forward to this day since grade 4. I know it sounds like a cliché, but it was so much harder for me to drop him off than it was for him to take his leave of us. As any parent knows, while our pride in him has no bounds, our fears and concerns for him can be overwhelming.

We wonder if we made the right decisions for him in life. Schooling. Camps. Friends. Activities. And we had the extra worries about our aliyah and its impact on his life. Let's face it: he only really had one year of high school. He has a diploma and certainly did well on his SAT, but he hasn't written anything or been responsible to study and hand in homework for over three years. So we wonder if we hurt his career potential by making this move.

We personally know some families who have been successful in leaving a child or two behind in the U.S. to graduate with their friends. While we never really considered it as an option for us, it is certainly something we could have done to make sure he was better prepared for college. So we worry.

We also realize that our being 6,000 miles away means that he has essentially moved out. I know I covered this earlier this year, but it is definitely on our minds. Goldie had a terrific minute when he mentioned to her earlier this year that he is now open to the possibility of living in Israel long-term. He even mentioned a couple of yishuvim he would be happy in. So we still have hope on that front.

We are also quite excited with the arrival of several new olim families over the summer. Our shul is getting more crowded and we are getting close to a nexus point for the city, one in which the decision will be made about which direction the city will follow in the future. The municipality can show its equal commitment to the non-chareidi public by encouraging more of us to move here and by continuing to fund services to our schools and shuls. Hopefully they will choose this path.

Although there are many other families who have come on aliyah, I want to wish a special welcome to Dan and Audrey Rosenstein, who joined us from West Hempstead with their family, and to Donny and Ellie Fein, who came from Cedarhurst and have moved to Ramat Shilo (very close to our good friends Doni and Tzippy Lieberman, who often appear in these pages).

Water Update

My regular readers know that I have become quite fanatical about the falling levels of the Kinneret Lake. To refresh your memory, since our aliyah, the rainfalls in Israel have been well below average. Up till this year, consumption had been on the rise, leading to dramatically low levels in the Kinneret, our main source of water.

There are three significant water levels mentioned when measuring the Kinneret. The high water level of the Kinneret is 208.8 meters below sea level. At this level, the lake overflows and the floodgates of the Deganya Dam near Teveria are opened to allow the waters to flow into the Jordan River. This is called the upper red line.

The lower red line is 213 meters below sea level. At this level, the amount of unhealthy contaminants found in the water rises above safe levels. We are currently below that level, and have been so since around July 9, 2008. The next significant level of the Kinneret is the black line, at 215 meters below sea level. At -215, the water pumps of the Kinneret become exposed to the air and must be shut down, eliminating the Kinneret (which provides 40 percent of our total water supply) as a water source.

The good news is that the conservation efforts of the water authority here have had tremendous results. Last month they announced that summer water consumption in July had dropped 13.5 percent from last year's level. So the country is getting the message. As a result of this, in my estimation we will come incredibly close to the black line this year, but will not pass it (depending on when the rains begin to fall).

As of last Thursday (September 3), the Kinneret was 214.04 meters below sea level. Last year on the same date it was 213.72 meters below sea level. The lowest level last year was 214.43 meters below sea level, a drop of an additional 85 centimeters from the September 3 level. Assuming that the conservation efforts totally fail for the remainder of the year and we use the same amount of water as we used last year, the Kinneret should fall to 214.89, a mere 11 centimeters above the dreaded black line. An important 11 centimeters.

At that point, we all need to pray for rain-and I mean pray hard. There are desalination plants being built to help relieve the stress on the system, but they won't be ready for another couple of years, and we could have real problems before then.