Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blooming Israel (2/25/2010)

Within the first month of beginning this series, Goldie and I (and Moshe) came to Israel on a pilot trip to check out places to live, interview for jobs, and generally check things out. I remember the articles I wrote about the trip, including the fact that I had suffered terribly from allergies while on that trip.

Israel in the spring is not a place for people with allergies. Everything is in full bloom, and the countryside is a sea of green with patches of colorful flowers all over. It really is quite beautiful and overwhelming when you pause for a moment to take in the surroundings.

When the commute to work is one of lush scenery and the amazing vistas of the hills of Yerushalayim, one cannot help but enjoy the trip. I understand the Israeli wanderlust that leads us to the hiking trails on a regular basis. Who wouldn’t want the joy of an unexpected “postcard-perfect” view from the top of some mountain?

Last Shabbat morning, I walked outside of shul for a minute and was overwhelmed by the beauty and serenity of the day. All was quiet and I could hear the birds singing and feel the warmth of the sun as it shone upon my face. In that moment, I felt transported to my youth as a camper in Moshava in Wisconsin, where I enjoyed waking early to experience that same sense of contentment with the world around me (if only for a few moments).

Those of you who are planning to be here for Pesach are in for a real treat. As I have been commenting upon the last few weeks, this year’s rainfall began nicely and continues to provide much-needed water to our ecosystem. You will definitely see wonderful, flowery scenery while here.

While this has certainly been evident in the rising level of the Kinneret as well as the various aquifers, the result on Israeli flora is incredible. The trees and grasses are all a thick lush green, flowers are blooming all over, and there is just a simple feeling of overwhelming vitality around us.

This lushness is an interesting contrast to the snowbound tundra that I “enjoyed” while I was in the U.S. last week. When you travel 6,000 miles, the last thing you want to experience is lost days of work because of a snowstorm. Yuch.

On the flight home, I sat with a father and his 12-year-old son, who were clearly chassidim from Brooklyn. We had a nice chat and the father mentioned to me that he was going to visit his father’s kever on his 30th yahrzeit. We often see people who come to Israel for such reasons, and this did not surprise me.

At the end of the flight, the father was telling me about the arrangements for the trip. He told me that he had actually been born in Israel and lived there while he was a young boy. Tragically, his father had been killed in a terrorist attack on a bus, and he had moved to the U.S. when his mother remarried.

He then told me something amazing: this trip was being financed by the Israeli government. Although he had only found this out in the last few months, the government has a policy to pay for the airfare and seven days of hotel stay for any child of a terror victim who wants to be in Israel for the yahrzeit of a parent. I had personally never heard of this policy and was both astounded and heartened when he told me about it.

Think about the commitment that reflects. Any child, every yahrzeit, year after year, plus a week’s accommodations in a hotel. The more I think about it, the more I like it; it shows an incredible level of compassion, support, and commitment to the memory of the victims and to the well-being of their families.

As we approach another holiday here, I am looking forward to a new experience. In the past, I had to spend time shuttling back and forth between the yeshiva and my home in dealing with my family and my job and the demands of Purim. This year, I will be able to spend the entire day of Purim with my family and then be in Yerushalayim on Shushan Purim for work—without responsibilities to constantly run back and forth.

I look forward to increased time with my kids, as we visit various checkpoints to bring mishloach manot to soldiers, a project that we undertake as a family each year. We pack up to 50 extra mishloach manot packages for the soldiers, but are often unable to deliver all of them. This year will be different.

I wish all the 5TJT readers a terrific Purim with their families. May we celebrate it together in a rebuilt Yerushalayim. Alternatively, on the off chance we are still in galut, I hope that the merit of all the mitzvot performed on this year’s Purim will enable us all to merit the redemption and celebrate each day in the rebuilt Bet Hamikdash.

Kinneret Update: The Kinneret is currently at –213.14, a rise of 14 cm since the last update (two weeks ago). We are 186 cm above the Black Line (and are almost guaranteed that we will not hit it in summer–fall 2010), only 14 cm short of the Lower Red Line, and 414 cm short of the Upper Red Line. Rain is expected in the North from Thursday straight through Purim (bummer for the kids—awesome for the water). Let it rain, rain, rain!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Economics of Scale (2/11/2010)

I was listening to the radio on the way to work one day this week and was once again struck by how tiny our country is. The topic being discussed was wasteful spending by Knesset members. Apparently it was “discovered” that Knesset members habitually fly in business class on all flights, even short flights to Europe.

I am not sure who raised the issue to the public, but one report claimed that if they flew coach instead of business for shorter flights, the savings could be up to 400,000 shekels. Mentally doing the math, I realized that this is currently something in the neighborhood of $110,000.

While I realize that every last penny counts, which was something the commentators spoke about, the amounts made me wonder. Was it possible that the difference in cost was so small? I was prepared to hear half a million dollars at least—how could it be such a low amount?

I realized that a comparison to the U.S. government was unfair. Even a comparison to the State of New York would be unfair. To really understand things, we would need to find an area with fewer people and less land.

So I imagined a city—perhaps New York or L.A. We are talking about several million people and a bunch of government workers. Then I thought, “What if New York City had a similar report, that the city would save 100 grand on flights of four hours or less—would that be newsworthy?” I think it probably would.

Then I thought about one of those cities having to maintain a high-tech modern military. It is always a bit staggering to realize that a lot of the differences in culture and approach arise from the fact that the “worlds” really are so vastly different.

Those of you who are regular readers are wondering, “He was listening to the radio in Hebrew?” I know! I was also amazed.

I was flipping through the stations and there was no music to listen to. I stopped at one of the talk stations to hear the traffic report and didn’t bother to switch the station when the chatter came on. I figured that I would listen for as long as I got the gist of what was being discussed.

I almost switched it in the first minute. I understood that they were talking about something that a Knesset member had spoken about, and that they thought he was a hypocrite. Apparently, he himself had done whatever it was they were talking about only a few weeks earlier.

I kept listening to the discussion and the same few words kept coming up, words that I didn’t understand and were clearly central to the story. It was so frustrating. I understood almost everything, but without the one or two key words, I had no clue what was going on.

Unexpectedly, the announcer said two words in English—“Business Class”—and it was like he suddenly illuminated the whole story. I instantly connected all the dots and followed the entire discussion.

After a break, they moved to another story. It had something to do with Iran and a concern about their percentages. In Israel, the word for “percentages” is often used when discussing interest or penalty fees. So I was racking my brains trying to figure out why in the world Iran’s interest rates or financial system was of any concern to us. They brought some professor on the air—and, amazingly, they asked him the very same question!

In the middle of his answer, he used the word “plutonium,” and I immediately understood two things. First, they were talking about Iran’s nuclear-weapons capabilities, which is a major concern. Second, the discussion was too difficult for me to follow, and I switched stations.

For the second time in three weeks, the bulk of this column was written on a U.S.-bound flight. Puah’s annual dinner will be on Tuesday evening, February 16, at the Manhattan Beach Jewish Center in Brooklyn. I invite all my readers to please join us there and learn about some of what I have written about. It is an amazing organization that literally helps in the birth of over 1,500 babies each year worldwide.

As I sat down on the plane (window seat with no one seated in the middle seat), I commented to the woman sitting on the aisle about being lucky that no one was going to be in the middle seat. In the course of a two-minute conversation, I mentioned that I live in Bet Shemesh.

We both turned to settling in for the flight. After a minute or so, out of nowhere, she turned to me and asked, “Are you the guy who has been writing all the articles in the paper?”

I couldn’t believe it! We had spoken for no more than two minutes, I hadn’t even told her my name, yet she somehow knew who I was. She recognized me from pictures in the paper and made the connection when I said that I live in Bet Shemesh.

Of course, I am always tired and ready for sleep when I get to the plane, and my brain was not working right, so I forgot to get her name. I like to include names in these stories not just to add a little bit of a more personal connection, but also to give all the friends and relatives of the person something to kibbitz with them about in shul.

So to the lady in 47H, who works at Manhattan Day School, has two of three children living in Israel, whose husband (Shlomo) is Israeli and works in computers (I think), I am in awe of your ability to correctly identify me.

Kinneret update: The rains continued to fall last week, and we added 8.5 cm to the Kinneret for the week. The current level is –213.28, which is 172 cm above the Black Line, 28 cm below the Lower Red Line, and 428 cm below the Upper Red Line. Although it was cold and rainy in recent weeks, the current forecast calls for very little rain, and a heat wave, with temps passing 90 for two of the days. We are still in the rainy season, though, and we need more. Let it rain, rain, rain!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Misconceptions (2/4/2010)

Last week, I was privileged to participate in the shalom zachor of my newest nephew, born in the U.S. to Goldie’s sister and her husband, Debra and Sruli Ehrenberg (Mazal tov!). As I have said in the past, we miss a lot of smachot being so far away (including his brit milah, which will happen after press time, so I don’t know the name yet), and it is terrific when circumstances allow us to be together.

As I was walking out the door at the end of the night, one of our friends walked out with me and we started to discuss aliyah in general, my family in particular, and his thoughts on the possibility of making aliyah with his family. He commented that it is a well-known fact that making aliyah with older kids (I define this as a teenager, even though his oldest is either 10 or 11) is a big mistake. Older kids ALWAYS have problems integrating into Israeli society, and they all end up becoming teens “at risk” and rebelling against religion and their parents.

This was not the first time I have heard these “facts” about aliyah. Although I have not personally seen it, Mishpacha magazine supposedly ran an article a couple of years ago telling parents that anyone who even considered moving to Israel with older kids was making a terrible error. (If I am misrepresenting the article, I apologize). Both friends and relatives questioned our decision to make aliyah at the time, citing this “fact” as a major reason we should reconsider our plans to move.

While I would certainly agree that there have been instances where children have indeed had horrible experiences in making aliyah, I must disagree with this as a general principle. I think that the common knowledge here is hugely mistaken, mostly because of perceptions.

When 5TJT publisher Larry Gordon proposed that I write this column, he was very clear in his goal. He told me that almost everyone knows at least one family that has made aliyah, and we all know what happens up to the moment our friend or neighbor gets on the plane. Thereafter, we only get snippets of news, hear about smachot or the opposite, and that’s it.

I believe that it is this syndrome that has led to the reputation of aliyah as a teen destroyer. Who are the teens that you in America or even your relatives in Israel are most likely to hear news about? Those teens who are troubled or causing trouble. When a kid is getting great grades and fitting in, this is not noteworthy, and therefore you rarely hear about it. After all, who ever heard of a crisis of kids fitting in?

It is only those teens who fail in school, can’t make friends, start abusing substances (heaven forbid), or doing other “wrong” things that you hear about. They are in crisis and that is certainly a tragedy, but I do not think that they are a majority or even a large minority. They are just more visible and therefore easily tagged as “the problem with making aliyah with teens.”

I know of many families, people whom I daven with every week and people whom we have met since making aliyah who have teens who have thrived in Israel. Yes, I also know families whose teens have gone the opposite way. However, I think that we all miss an important factor when talking about teens: There is no guarantee that this would not have happened in the U.S.A. had the family not come on aliyah.

As I recall, the “teens at risk” crisis exists in the U.S.A. as well. There are schools, organizations, and professional careers all focused on dealing with this crisis. They conduct lectures and workshops, and there is a literal frenzy of activity surrounding the serious mission of dealing with this issue and these kids, almost all of whom have not made aliyah. (It is inevitable that some of them are kids who have returned from a failed aliyah). I am sure you have seen them around town. I have.

Any one of the kids in crisis here in Israel could just as easily have been a kid in crisis in the U.S.A.

I firmly believe that success for a teen here is attributable to the same things that success for a teen there are. Good parenting, good planning, good friends, and a whole lot of luck (or siyata d’Shmaya). I know many terrific parents who did everything “right” and still have kids in crisis. I also know many not-so-great parents whose kids are also in crisis. Crisis does not differentiate between them—it finds the kids no matter who their parents are.

I would venture that if someone were to do a real study (and not just a simple poll of opinions) he would find that those kids whose parents did not have a plan for them when making aliyah, and adapt their plan as circumstances warrant, are the kids with a higher than average amount of problems. For those children, aliyah provides additional stresses and challenges that they are not prepared to cope with.

So I guess my message is this: Do not allow the fact that you have teens dissuade you from planning aliyah. Many, many families with teens have come and thrived, and you can too. Teens here have incredible freedom and independence. They thrive as a group and can be incredibly supportive as a social peer group. Your children will thank you for making them a part of it, if you come for the right reasons and you are honest enough to craft a realistic plan for them.

However, if you are considering aliyah not because you want to be here but because you think a “fresh start” would help your kids, your marriage, or your family unit as a whole, I would advise against it. Aliyah is hard work with huge challenges. Using it as an escape plan is unrealistic and will probably lead to more difficulties. Deal with your problems first and then come.

Kineret Update: The strike is over! They started releasing the updates on a daily basis again. As of February 2, the Kineret is 213.365 centimeters below sea level. This constitutes a rise of one full meter since the low point of the year. This is also the largest rise by this time (the end of January) in over five years!

We are 163.5 centimeters above the Black Line (the level at which all pumping from the Kineret must stop or cause irreparable harm to the Lake). We are 36.5 centimeters below the Lower Red Line (the level at which there are elevated amounts of contaminants—bacteria—in the water). We are 436.5 centimeters below the Upper Red line (or full), and the levels continue to rise. We will almost certainly be above the Lower Red Line by the end of the season, and we hope and pray for much, much more.

In two months, enough water went into the Kineret to equal the entire desalination industry in Israel’s annual output. Assuming usage patterns similar to last year, when combined with the opening of the new desalination plant last month, we can be fairly confident that we will not risk hitting the Black Line in 2010. We still need to gain 150-180 centimeters in water levels to get past the point where we will avoid returning below the Lower Red Line in 2010. Usage rates will continue to increase along with our population, so this is still a major long-term problem. But we are further away from a severe water tragedy, which is cause to be thankful.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Company Policy (2/1/2010)

Finally. After all my kvetching, we finally seem to be having a normal winter. It rains on and off for several days in a row before returning to sunny and warm. I saw an article in the Jerusalem Post that announced that all the streams in northern Israel are flowing fully for the first time in seven years!

We had floods in the south (I also read that in three days last week they got half their normal annual rainfall, and that the southern reservoirs and aquifers are already full). It is truly satisfying to realize that we will probably have less stress about rain this year. Which is a relative statement.

Here is a benefit that I hadn’t known about. When the streams are flowing, the streambeds are flushed of all the accumulated waste and other materials that build up over time. In many places, this process, which is essential for the ecology of the area, has not happened for several years. It also provides a healthier chemical balance to the reservoirs and aquifers, which may have had higher concentrations of bacteria and other contaminants as their water levels lowered.

Even if we have above-average rainfall this year, we will still be in a critical situation as far as our water reserves are concerned. We will still need a couple more good years to get to a point that would be considered normal. And of course, I still cannot report the actual results of all the rain on the water supply. The water workers are still on strike and refuse to measure the water levels.

I know that it seems like I am in a “water rut” and cannot get off the subject. For people who do not live here, I don’t think it’s possible to explain how visceral the water issue becomes and how exuberant people can get over a couple of weeks of rain.

Winter also brings new and exciting experiences in Chaya’s search for a sherut leumi (national service) program for next year. Many of her old friends are busy evaluating seminaries and other programs to participate in next year; for many it will be their first experience in Israel.

Sherut leumi is run by the army (*ed note: it is actually run by private non-profits FOR the army) and is surprisingly well organized. In order to qualify, Chaya had to appear before a rabbi from the Jerusalem rabbanut and affirm that she is religious and is utilizing her option for national service. (Aliza has been talking about doing actual army service in a religious unit—don’t ask.) She then filed her approval for the program with the army. Throughout 12th grade, her school has had seminars and workshops to prepare the girls for the sherut leumi year.

Should they live at home, or in an apartment? (Many of the programs maintain apartments for the girls or shared apartments with girls from several programs). What part of the country should they be in? Are they looking for experience that may lead to a career, or just a positive experience in helping others before they begin developing a career track? And many other issues.

At some point, the girls register their details on the sherut leumi website, including a picture and other biographical information. I think that the schools also enter information (including recommendations) via the site.

Then comes the big day—when the girls can register to interview for the various openings. The more popular programs fill up quickly, so the girls are all at their computers, searching, identifying, and registering. The program coordinators sometimes reject specific applications, resulting in open slots for their programs, so it pays to keep checking. Otherwise, a personal site visit (usually as part of a group) is scheduled.

Chaya went on her first site visit/interview last week. Thank goodness it is finally over. Getting that first one done is such a relief, since it removes uncertainty about what to do and expect.

Chaya has decided that she wants to work with the elderly. She has visited senior centers as part of her school activities and she enjoys the interaction. Since this is not one of the more sought-after jobs, the competition is much less fierce and she will likely get to choose from several positions offered to her. (Aliza—if she doesn’t go to the army—has announced her desire to work with orphans or foster children, very competitive tracks.)

Chaya came back from the interview very excited. She is pretty definite that she does not want that specific job, but they liked her enough to ask her back to interview for a different job in the organization. And she is refining her concept of what she is looking for.

This is all very nerve-racking for her parents. Neither of us has any experience with this, and we are both incredibly anxious that things work for her. Knowing that she wants to live away from home causes us even more anxiety.

I am not sure how long the process takes (I admit I was playing games on my phone during the amazingly long and boring parents’ orientation), but at some point soon offers will be made and the girls will choose. And the parents will cry when they see (i) how big their little girl is, (ii) how far they have come in such a short time, and (iii) that it really is happening.

I haven’t shared any “only in Israel” moments in a while (the water authority being on strike doesn’t count). A few weeks before we made aliyah, Yehuda Daphna commented to me, “I would warn you to be careful about Israelis. You need to push there to get what you want.” He added, “But I am not worried about you; you know how to push,” which I think was a compliment. I was reminded of this comment several times in the last week.

In America, when someone would say, “Our policy is . . .” it would mean that the actual company policy was about to be stated and would be adhered to. In Israel, not so much. I don’t mean to say that that is necessarily bad, just that the cultural signals are different.

I visited the doctor last week. Nothing major. He decided to prescribe some sleeping pills for when I travel; I have tremendous difficulty getting a full night’s sleep away from home and I will be traveling for three out of the next four weeks (yes, I am writing this on my cell phone at 30,000 feet—baruch Hashem for the QWERTY keypad).

When I filled the first prescription at the kupat cholim (HMO) pharmacy, the pharmacist told me that I needed to replace my membership card, since the magnetic strip wasn’t working properly. This card is part of the incredibly well-computerized system. Every time I do anything in the kupah — see a doctor, get a shot, buy medicine, get a blood test, or whatever — they swipe my card and everything is automatically entered into my file. My doctor sees everything and can monitor everything from his computer.

The card is therefore your lifeline to services, and if it isn’t working, it is a real pain. If you lose your card, they charge you for the replacement. I think it costs $8 to replace. However, if the card isn’t working (they are really cheap and sometimes they peel or otherwise stop working), the replacement is supposed to be free.

On my next visit to the medical building, I stopped at the receptionist to order a new card. She took a look at the card and told me that they would be charging me for the new card, since I obviously rubbed out the magnetic strip by not keeping it in a safe place. And she said the magic words, “It is company policy.”

I objected and asked her for a pair of scissors. She asked me why I needed the scissors, and I told her that I was going to cut the card in half, since the last time my card needed replacing was when it split in half—and that time it was free. She repeated that the damage was obviously my fault and there was no way they should be responsible for my negligence.

So I took every single one of my credit, debit, ID, and membership cards out of my wallet—anything with a magnetic stripe on it. I showed her how all the other cards were fine and pointed out that only my kupah card was affected. I said that I shouldn’t be held responsible for the fact that they use cheap cards.

She thought about that for a second, she turned to the other receptionist, and they both nodded their heads and said OK. She pushed a few buttons on her keyboard and poof—my free replacement card was ordered. No need to call someone for an override or get the supervisor to approve. She had the ability to do it the entire time.

This morning, as I did online check-in, I wanted to move from a middle seat to a window (I like to sleep against the wall). For some reason the computer wouldn’t register the change, so I called El Al. The agent assured me that once I was in check-in, she could not process my record and I would need to complete the process myself. I explained that I did not want her to process my check-in, only to move my seat. She kept telling me that they do not have access to check-in. After a couple of go-rounds, she suddenly said, “Hold on; let me see what I can do.” After two minutes on hold, she came back and asked me what seat I wanted. Another 90 seconds, and voilà—I had my seat!

Culturally, we have learned that “It is company policy” or “I am not authorized” or even sometimes a simple “no” are just attempts at getting you to go away. If you accept the denial, they can move on to the next person. It isn’t laziness; it is simply the first line of defense. When we really don’t care too much about the outcome, we accept the “no” and go on to something else. Yet persistence often does work. People do want to help; they just need to know that it is important to you.

Some people think screaming or belligerence works. Often it does. But I prefer to be firm yet polite. (Usually.) I think that the other person appreciates the lack of screaming, and I find that even if I don’t get what I want, I am usually less upset than if I had lost my temper.

After I had finished writing this column, the flight attendants came by and asked if I would fill out a customer survey. She then gave me the Hebrew version to fill out. I still get a kick out of the fact that they have an innate sense that — as American as I think I appear—they can communicate with me just as easily in Hebrew.

For the second time in four years, I will be in the USA for Tu B’Shvat. The first time, I brought Israeli fruits to eat. This time I forgot. Let’s hope that next year’s fruits will be the fruits of terumah that I (as a kohein) will have been given in a rebuilt Eretz Yisrael.