Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More Firsts (11/18/2009)

New olim struggle to reconcile their expectations in life with reality. Each day brings a new realization that things in Israel are incredibly different from what they had grown accustomed to in their former home. As time passes, experience replaces expectation, and we grow more familiar and comfortable with our surroundings.

Understanding that this is a process enables us to cope with all the stress and confusion that reigns in the first few years of life in our new country. With the passage of time, we begin to feel as if we are "settled in" old-timers, with an understanding of how most things work and how to get things done. This is the process of absorption.

Each family has its own unique process of absorption, which is really just the sum of their experiences. As a result, one family may become expert in special-ed. issues, another in building and construction or purchase of a new home, and a third in the workings of the health-care system (I chose these examples because these are three different areas which many new olim will most likely have to deal with at some point and are vastly different from anything they had been used to in their former countries).

With all the challenges that we face in adjusting, there is a natural tendency to look to others for advice, in the hope that we can avoid some of the more difficult lessons. The Bet Shemesh e-mail list has hundreds of postings each day. A vast number of them are "How do I...?" questions, "Here is how to..." answers, or "Does anyone know anything about..." inquiries.

Eventually, after a couple of years, we have even learned some of the answers. So we know how to maneuver through the health-care system and what to expect from the teachers in school. We sometimes even offer advice to the "newbies" in town, sharing some of our experience with them. And we forget that in our fourth year of living here, we are also newbies.

This week, Chaya's school had a parents' (with student) meeting to discuss next year's national service (sherut leumi) and the process of application and acceptance for the various institutions. We knew this was coming and were excited to be starting this next stage together with Chaya. Sherut leumi would be yet another first for us.

We realized that we were no longer behind the curve for this meeting. After all, many of the other girls are the oldest in their families, and thus their parents had also not gone through the process as parents; everything would be new to them as well. And we realized that, now that we understand most of what is happening (in Hebrew) during these (incredibly long) meetings, we are pretty much adjusted and can participate fully in all activities.

Yet, the information was so overwhelming. Having never done any form of national service here, we had no idea how extensive the programs are and how varied the structure and supervision provided. Should she live at home, or with a bunch of strangers in an apartment? Should she be in a large program or a small program? What are her career interests? Does she want career-related experience, or a program that is rich in helping others as more of a one-time experience? There are so many things for her to consider.

There are even strategies designed to optimize one's chances of getting into the program of one's choice, or at least in a chosen field. There was so much information to grasp and assimilate, and it comes during a year of great transition and experience for the girls.

Three days after the meeting, Chaya went to Poland with about 35 other eleventh and twelfth-grade girls in her school for a week of discovery. Thousands of other students from Israel (and the rest of the world) will undertake similar journeys to learn about the thriving Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and their destruction in WWII. They had prepared for the trip for months, and we could clearly see the anticipation building for her.

The day of departure was full of excitement in our house. The night before, I had gone with Mordechai to an Israeli professional-league basketball game in Tel Aviv with four of his friends. He attends an after-school basketball program twice a week. The program is run under the auspices of the Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv team, so Mordechai is considered a youth member of the club and has a photo ID card from them.

Each year, the youth members are invited to come (along with an adult of their choice) to 12 or 13 select games and attend for free. Mordechai went to a game last year, but the timing never worked out for me to participate. This week, the schedule worked out and we took a whole crew to the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv (another first for me).

We had a nice time. Having seen Michael Jordan play in Chicago Stadium and Patrick Ewing in Madison Square Garden, I can assure you that these teams did not come close to the talent level I expected for professionals, nor was the stadium anything to get excited about. Yet the atmosphere was exciting and the kids really enjoyed it. We sat just above a set of fans who apparently attend every game, come with a drum, and sing team songs throughout the game. (They stop only for halftime.)

Maccabi won, so the kids went home happy. I went home tired, having to chase five 8-year-old boys for three hours. That night, I was up till 1 a.m. making phone calls to the U.S. for work, and I had planned on sleeping through 7:15 and going to the office a little late that day.

But at 6:00 a.m., Aliza woke me to tell me that Chaya was on the phone at the airport, crying hysterically. The school staff had told her to bring only her Israeli travel papers and not her U.S. passport. Unfortunately, that was bad advice. The travel papers only allow exit and entrance from Israel, and are free for the first five years after aliyah. The theory is that immigrants will still have their passports from their country of origin. Amazingly, the system saves us money by not requiring us to get a passport until year six of aliyah.

In order to get into Poland, she needed her U.S. passport. So I quickly ran to the car and flew to the airport to get her the passport on time (39 minutes from phone call to delivery). She made her flight and is now somewhere in Poland. We will not be able to speak with her until she returns, but they were kind enough to give us the fax numbers of the hotels she will be in, and we are trying to fax her a daily letter. It will be interesting to see her reaction to the trip.

We are beginning to ramp up for the holidays here. No, we don't have turkeys, dried corn, elves, soldiers, or some big fat guy in a red suit displayed everywhere. We do have chanukiyot, chocolate coins, and sufganiot wherever we go. I guess it is a cultural thing, but I am reminded each year that we live in the land of the Jews and for the Jews.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We are all Israelis (11/11/2009)

Last motzaei Shabbat, Goldie and I were privileged to host the "Meet the New Members" melaveh malkah for our shul. As a new shul in the community, our growth has been astonishing. We have grown from an average of 15 to 20 bar-mitzvah-age men per week to somewhere near 65 on average, with many more on the chagim. With the summer's influx of new olim behind us, it was a perfect time to have a "get to know you better" event-the first one for our shul.

For Goldie and me, volunteering to host it was a no-brainer. Our house is being sold, and we know that the new owners will want us out by the end of next summer. We have, admittedly, a large house with an oversized backyard (which we are renting at excellent terms) and we have no idea where we will be next year. So we decided to take advantage of what we had while we still had it.

Of course, being scheduled for November 7, we had a bit of concern about the weather. Sadly, there was no rain and we were able to have the entire event in our backyard. Having reached the mid 80s on Shabbat afternoon, the temperature was still hovering in the low 70s by evening and was quite comfortable.

Since the first meeting to organize the shul, we have tried to make everything in the shul as Hebrew-friendly as possible. While there are weekday shiurim in the rabbi's home and one Shabbat afternoon shiur in English, almost everything we do is done either exclusively in Hebrew or in both languages. Announcements, flyers, e-mails, the drasha during davening - no matter how tough it is, we translate everything.

That effort has paid off. The shul was founded and is almost entirely run by a bunch of English-speaking olim who are all in Israel for less than five years, Yet, somewhere around 20 percent of those who regularly daven with us and consider themselves members of the shul are native to Israel (plus one incredible Ethiopian family). Hebrew is their mother tongue.

We have been extremely conscious of trying to include the natives in shul activities and events, but it is hard to run a meeting when some of the people don't understand what is going on either because they don't understand Hebrew or they don't understand English. We were hoping that the Israeli born would turn out for the event, but it wasn't a sure thing. We even made a special point of calling them to let them know that everything would be in Hebrew.

Thankfully, the turnout was incredible. Over 90 percent of the families who daven by us at least twice a month showed up - Hebrew speakers as well as English speakers. Almost 70 people enjoyed a couple of interactive games and just a couple of hours under the Bet Shemesh night sky, enjoying each other's company.

In leading up to the event, and in consideration of the fact that they knew Goldie was just arriving from a trip to the U.S. days earlier, our neighbors Avi and Tania Fraenkel, who also daven in our shul, invited us for Friday night dinner. This was a huge help.

The Fraenkels made aliyah from London, and the meal was really a great experience for us. Tania's cousin, James ,was a student at Eretz HaTzvi my first year there. We actually learned together on a weekly basis for a while. He is in Moscow for a semester, and I hope to resume learning with him when he gets back to the UK.

One of the great things about living in an Anglo community is our common language and comfort of dealing with each other. Still, we are occasionally reminded that the world is a pretty big place with different ways to do things.

Avi is a terrific guy. He davened for us on the Yamim Noraim this year and blew shofar last year. I find him to be incredibly straightforward and totally unpretentious (I was sure pretentiousness was an English characteristic - but he must have missed out on that one). Yet, he is incredibly English in his performance of ritual and the ceremony surrounding them.

Kiddush was an event. Zemirot were not just sung, they were intoned. The entire meal was approached with a certain dignity that we weren't used to. We enjoyed ourselves tremendously. Yet, I was struck by how differently we approach things based upon the culture into which we were born.

We have been trying to figure out what we are going to do for the Katz family's more permanent home in Israel. Obviously, the more settled in we get in Bet Shemesh, the harder it would be for us to make a move. So, in response to the question I get most often, "Where are you going to live?," I would guess that for now, we are leaning towards Bet Shemesh.

It has been pretty quiet of late. There has been a lot of political maneuvering regarding the construction of new neighborhoods and which segment of society will be invited to live in them. Yet, if we decide to move, and it is into the heart of the neighborhood, I think we will be much more insulated from the day to day issues we currently deal with. Our kids may choose to live elsewhere, but we will probably be ok for at least 10 years. How much longer than that can you plan?

Of course, things can always heat up at a moment's notice. I think that even you in the Five Towns have witnessed some of what we experience here last week with a special visit to your community. I have been quoted already on this issue (even though I didn't realize my comments were being made for publication) and I am sure Larry Gordon will have much to say. All I will add is that you had to deal with figuring out where you stood for a single Shabbos. We live this every day.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Eema Come Home (11/4/2009)

Before I say anything else: It rained! I don't mean for a few minutes or even half an hour. This was a real soaking rain that lasted for a couple of days and hopefully is only the start of things to come. We hit the low level of the year in the Kinneret, and now we need to have an outstanding rain season to get things back on track (we probably need two or three of them in a row).

As I wrote before the chagim, my new travel schedule will definitely take some adjusting to. I feel as if I am on an endless treadmill of running from trip to trip, and I am still not where I need to be in redefining my work schedule and routine to maximize productivity. I can foresee a time when I am much closer to my goal than I am today, which is encouraging; I am nowhere near there yet.

I haven't really had a chance to share our Sukkot experiences. Unbelievably (at least to me), I have been so busy moving from thing to thing that three weeks ago seems like three months ago, and I can't even remember what we did. We went jeeping (again), on a terrific hike with our shul, to a spectacular sound-and-light show at the David's Citadel Museum, and to the Latrun Tank Base. Yet, it is really a blur to me.

On the day before my trip, I was in a pretty serious car accident. Thank G-d there were no injuries (except to the cars). It was a scary moment, and I am still amazed that no one was hurt. The car was in the repair shop for two weeks, and I have to salute Goldie for dealing with it while I was in the USA so that the car was ready when I got back.

Right before I left, I wrote that the mayor of Bet Shemesh would be making a personal visit to the Five Towns. Although I was in Boston that evening and could not be there, I was wondering what those people who participated in the meeting thought about his visit. Please drop me a line.

As I mentioned, I was in the USA for almost two weeks. Against my previously stated policy, I spent two Shabbatot away from home. This was a planned deviation that allowed me to participate in our niece Tova Kreinberg's wedding to Yitzy Klapper. After ten days of a work trip, Goldie, Chaya, and Moshe flew in on Friday and we had the chance to spend a nice Shabbat together and visit with family.

We had a terrific time at the wedding. From the first day that we talked about making aliyah, the biggest drawback of the decision was missing family events. We've missed bar and bat mitzvah celebrations and a couple of weddings. It is tough to know that we voluntarily chose to exclude ourselves from these events. So it is very special and meaningful to us when we can be there for a simcha. And the simcha was awesome-very lebbidik and just a tremendous night.

The day after the wedding, I headed back home. This would be a milestone trip for me. In July, we had been contacted by a couple who were making aliyah and had been undergoing IVF treatments in New York. They wanted to know if we could serve as couriers for them once they opened a file in Israel with their HMO and hospital. Machon Puah provides such services on a regular basis, and I was asked to bring six embryos with me back to Israel.

As a person in fundraising and public relations, I rarely get to play an active role in helping couples. I generally meet the couples after they have finished being serviced by Puah. While it is exciting and inspiring to hear their stories and how incredibly they have been impacted by the Puah rabbis, I am a step removed from the process. So I was looking forward to doing something tangible in helping things happen for a burgeoning family.

The security people at the airport were superb. Even though they had been notified that I was coming in advance, they were very diligent in questioning me and verifying my papers. El Al staffers took me to the TSA checkpoint, where they too were waiting for me (having also been notified in advance). The TSA people seemed to have a clear protocol for how to process me, and they did everything by the book, which I appreciated. Once through that checkpoint, I was cleared to wander the terminal before boarding.

If you ever want to get a bunch of really funny looks in the airport, try walking through it with a frozen storage tank for human embryos. The tank is solid steel, about two feet tall, and most closely resembles the back half of a torpedo. I had it strapped to my wheeled carry-on, and I am sure that people must have thought it was some kind of bomb.

The flight crew of El Al was also terrific. As soon as I walked on the plane, they exclaimed, "The embryo guy is here!" They showed me an area for storing the tank and made sure it was protected from being jarred during the flight. They seemed as excited as I was to be a part of helping this couple. As I was exiting the plane, they had the tank waiting for me at the door.

My luggage arrived after less than 10 minutes of waiting. I assume this was in the merit of the mitzvah I was involved with, because I have never had such a quick exit from the terminal. As I waited to meet the couple, I felt my anticipation building. I had not done Birchat Kohanim in two weeks, and as I stood there I thought about the bracha and how it is used for birchat ha'banim, and that the kohein's bracha is infused with a blessing of fertility and health as a major part.

I took a look at the tank and realized that in my hands I was holding the potential family of a couple. I know it sounds corny, but I closed my eyes and said the words of Birchat Kohanim upon the tank in a personal prayer for the successful birth of these potential people. The entire process (especially meeting the couple) is something I will never forget, and it reminded me how important our work is.

As much as I loved that we were together with Goldie's family for the simcha, not having her home for an extra week was a killer. By the time she comes home (the day after this was written), we will have seen each other for 4 days out of 21. I have friends who have those kinds of trips, and I do not envy them.

Goldie is incredibly organized. She had a list of everything I needed to do, step by step. And the list was perfect. Nothing missing, everything taken care of. We just don't run well as a family when she isn't around. The kids' lives so revolve around her being here that it was just weird for them and hard to adjust to, no matter how much they love me.

If there is one thing I learned on my most recent trip to America, it is that people are still reading this column. Wherever we went, we heard, "I would ask how you are doing-but I already know!"

We were asked about our house-buying plans (we still aren't sure what we are going to do and if we are staying in Bet Shemesh), my ratcheted-up travel schedule (yes, it does look like ten trips each year), and a whole host of other questions about things we have experienced these past three-plus years. Living 6,000 miles away from the readers of this column, it is difficult to know if anyone out there is still reading. Thanks for making us a part of your lives.

In the "another simcha I missed by making aliyah" department, mazal tov to Mark and Barbara Silber and their extended families on Jonathan's bar mitzvah last week. As someone that I spoke to nearly every day in the USA, Mark is one of those friends who I think I will always miss.

Finally, I want to wish a special mazal tov to Goldie's brother David and his wife Marcia (who have done so much for our family in more ways than I can list) on Tova and Yitzy's wedding, as well as to my in-laws and family and the entire Leff family. Many of you may know that Marcia's mother, Judi Leff, a'h, left this world only days after she attended the wedding. I consider myself lucky to have been able to wish her a mazal tov in person. I knew Judi my entire adult life. She was a wonderful person and an exemplary mother and grandmother who will be sorely missed.