Thursday, April 29, 2010

Turned Tables (4/29/2010)

I promised myself that I wouldn’t do this again. Yet, it is impossible to avoid on a personal level. Living in Israel is incredibly emotional on a regular basis. We experience everything so deeply because it is tied up not only with our daily life, but our religious existence as well.

So I wasn’t going to talk about the teens that harassed my 11-year-old daughter and her friend or the stolen flags or the Yom HaZikaron siren at work. While they were all troubling events that bothered me a lot, I certainly wasn’t going to write about them. It just isn’t worth it.

Each time I do it, I get a bunch of angry e-mails telling me that I am a hateful jerk picking on people who are different than I. Then, a week or so later, I get the angry comments from my neighbors complaining that either i) I have upset their parents/family in the U.S. or ii) I am killing their property values. And I vow to never broach the subject. I make a conscious decision to omit a part of our lives in writing this, a journal of our lives.

However, a recent event changed my mind. It demonstrated to me that we are all victims of our own circumstance and need to do more to extricate ourselves from our prejudices and assumptions. We need to figure out how to make things work in a positive and loving manner because the alternative is not good. And it led me to talk once again about our neighbors in Bet Shemesh.

A few days after Yom HaShoah and before Yom HaZikaron, our daughter Batya was walking home with a friend from their afterschool activity. They were walking down the main street between neighborhoods when about 15 kids from the neighborhood across the street, standing behind a fenced in playground, started shouting at them that it is forbidden to stand in honor of the memorial sirens. While they weren’t threatened at any time, the shouting and yelling followed them all the way down the street and bothered them enough to lead them to tell their parents about it.

A few days later, on Yom HaZikaron, an announcement was made over the PA system at work. It said that at the time of the siren, all workers are to stop working for the duration of the siren.

I was initially puzzled by the announcement. Wasn’t it obvious that people do that? Yet, when I asked, I learned that in the past, there were workers in the building who did not honor the sirens and continued to work during the sirens. This troubled our director so much that he instituted a policy of instructing everyone not to work for that minute.

I just don’t get it. I understand the issues involved. I understand that there are people who are against the existence of the State of Israel. I just don’t understand their lack of appreciation for the people who die on their behalf.

Soldiers die so that they can sit and learn Torah in Eretz Yisrael. Innocents are killed in terror attacks simply because they are Jewish. These are the people we are memorializing and honoring. Simple gratitude means that you should join in as well, regardless of your politics or religious beliefs.

Some will say that these people never asked or wanted a State of Israel nor did they ask for or want the protection and sacrifice of those soldiers. To that I have a simple question. Are you so naïve that you think you would be able to live the life you lead if there was no State of Israel and no Jewish soldiers defending you?

Is it possible that these people think they would be better off living under Arab rule? Do they think they would be allowed to worship freely? Do they think they would not be terrorized, persecuted, harassed, beaten, and killed without restraint? Are they really that simple? If not, then they are obligated to be thankful for the protection and safety being accorded to them no matter who is providing it.

Or, if they really have such deep-seated objections that they cannot find it within themselves to do so, they are definitely welcome to vote with their feet. No one is forcing them to stay here. They are here, as are we, of their own choice and are free to go somewhere where they do not have to live an existence that is objectionable.

It was with this familiar sense of frustration that I heard some upsetting news on the morning of Yom HaAtzmaut. One of my neighbors gleefully called me to tell me that someone had put up a bunch of Magen David signs all over the main street in the charedi area and that I had to go see it for myself.

On my way to a Yom HaAtzmaut event, I was persuaded by my family to go take a look. What I found was not signs. It was spray paint. When my daughter saw it she mentioned that she had seen the group who did it the night before at about 1 a.m. Apparently, a group of teens went singing through the charedi neighborhood at the wee hours of the morning, spray painting the Magen David as a symbol of the Israeli flag all over the neighborhood, on building walls and sidewalks.

Although my initial thought when I heard about “signs” being put up was a sense of satisfaction, I was not pleased once I saw what was actually done. They vandalized the neighborhood, much in the same way that I have (repeatedly) railed against the charedim for vandalizing ours. Spray paint is spray paint and it is not any more “right” just because I agree with the message.

The incident had slipped my mind when I heard something new. There was apparently a confrontation. Either the spray painters happened upon a group of people from the neighborhood or their antics roused them. In either case, the vandals were attacked by pipe wielding young men and hurt, badly. A couple of them are still hospitalized.

When I heard this, I was also told that there is a group organizing to protest and to file a police report against those who hurt them. I was stunned. Here was a group of teens who were involved in vandalism and we are supposed to make them a cause célèbre to the community? I can understand their parents saying, “Hey, they spray painted and you put them in the hospital—the reaction was too strong.” But I don’t think the community can legitimately defend vandals.

And I realized that instead of ignoring the issue, I had a few things to say.

The first is that we were wrong here. If I can accuse the “other side” of wrongdoing, I have to admit guilt. We wronged our neighbors on this one and they have every right to be offended. The same way that we are offended when they spray paint on our property.

Secondly, I am concerned, not for my city, but for my country. The split between charedi and everyone else is getting worse, not better. It hasn’t flared up lately, but I don’t think that makes a difference. Every few days there is a story about a minor incident somewhere. I worry.

I worry about the fact that we cannot seem to get over our hatred toward one another and the feeling of superiority that exists between different segments of the Jewish population. I worry about the fact that the dividing lines are getting too strong to breach. I worry that instead of reaching out to each other to bridge gaps, we are pushing away from each other to make them.

Finally, I have realized that both sides are teaching a horrible lesson to the next generation. When nine-year-old Mordechai comments to Goldie when they are getting out of the car to go to the doctor in a charedi neighborhood, “Eema, take in the flags; we don’t want them stolen again,” I realize that he may have learned the correct practical lesson, but the wrong moral one.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Variations on a Theme (4/22/2010)

The first article I wrote about making aliyah was about our motivations for moving as well as an explanation of how I had overcome my fears of being in Israel and sending our kids to the army. A close friend had passed away in a senseless accident, and I realized that we do not control when or how our time is up. So I asked myself, “Wouldn’t I rather be in Israel?”

Last Shabbat, Goldie and I hosted one of my coworkers and his family in our house for Shabbat. He was being tried out as a rav for one of the local shuls. They have a son Mordechai’s age, and the two boys really got along well together.

After Shabbat, when it came time for them to leave, Mordechai was distraught. He cried uncontrollably and would not be comforted. Realizing that this may be related to his friend Andrew’s leaving Israel, I tried to distract him by mentioning that we would be having two sirens on Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day).

He asked why we have the sirens, and my answer led into a discussion of the way we celebrate Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaAtzmaut. I explained to him that we want to remember the Shoah and those killed not simply because they were Jews who were killed in a kiddush HaShem, but also because their deaths helped create an environment where the world would help create a Jewish State.

We then spoke about our obligation to honor the memories of all those killed in terrorist attacks and in defense of our country, and how their sacrifice is what enables us all to live in safety. And I added that only once we have honored those who paid for us to reach this point can we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut.

He confessed (as he has in the past) that he is scared to go into the army. He asked me how we could come to Israel, if doing so could put him in danger. I reassured him that he could choose to not be in a combat unit if he wanted. Then I asked him if he believed that Hashem was in charge of the amount of time we have on this world.

He answered yes. I then asked him if it is possible, by running away to a different place, to get away from Hashem and avoid his decisions. He answered no.

“Okay,” I told him, “I have one more question. We aren’t allowed to put ourselves in danger for no reason, but if it is time for someone to die, do you think it is better to die in America or in a holy land?”

He looked at me for a moment, nodded his head, and went off to bed, his tears forgotten and his worries a bit soothed. My nine-year-old and I had a very serious conversation and a terrific meeting of the minds. I was very proud of his ability to maturely consider what I had told him.

The very next night, we participated in a terrific Yom HaZikaron event in Jerusalem run by the Tuesday Night in Jerusalem show. This is a weekly show that I believe can be seen online via and is broadcast on cable and DirecTV. Although it was not Tuesday night, they hosted what promised to be a very meaningful event. It was also all in English, which was a bonus for us.

The event opened with a brief speech and then the memorial sirens. This was followed by a men’s choir performing a version of “Vehi She’amda,” and then the program began. Rabbi Stewart Weiss, whom I had known when I was a counselor at Camp Moshava in Wild Rose, Wisconsin, was introduced as the father of Ari Weiss, z’l, a soldier who was killed in combat. Rabbi Weiss spoke movingly about Ari and the loss their family felt, but I was astonished by the following story he told.

They were sitting shiva when a woman came to visit them. She was no one they knew, and it was the only time they ever met her. She told them that she had lived her entire life in Israel until her son turned 16. At that time, she and her husband decided to leave Israel for fear of having their son go to the army.

They moved to California and lived there quite happily. Their son reached the age of driving. With his driver’s license came a car (as with all his friends) and that is when tragedy struck. Her son was killed in a car crash.

“I am jealous of you,” she told Rabbi Weiss, “because my son died a meaningless death in California, while your son died defending our land and people with a kiddush Hashem.”

I was astonished to hear the very words and concepts that I had been trying to share with Mordechai repeated. And proud that I was not the only person with that thought.

There was much more to the evening. We heard from Doron Almog, a retired Major General who has fought in many wars and was the first Israeli soldier to leave a plane in the Entebbe rescue mission. He had lost a brother in combat and had the option to leave combat himself, and he described his commitment to fighting for Israel to us.

The evening closed with another performance by the men’s choir. They first sang our national anthem, Hatikva, in which the audience joined them in song. Then to conclude the show they sang an Israeli song called “Al Kol Eileh.”

This song speaks of many things and their contrasts. You may be familiar with an English version of this song, but it is not a literal translation and loses a lot of the meaning. It is a song beseeching Hashem to watch over and protect us no matter what, and a prayer for us to always return to our good land.

The choir’s soloist opened the song, his voice sounding clear and strong throughout the theater. When it came to the chorus, the rest of the choir as well as the entire crowd joined in. It was a very powerful expression, one in which we all felt linked by the beautiful words of the song.

Each stanza continued thus, with the soloist singing the words alone and all of us joining in for the chorus. The song and the event closed with the entire crowd singing the chorus in Hebrew:

Over all these things, over all these things,

Hashem the good, please protect,

Over the honey and over the thorn,

Over the bitter and over the sweet.

Do not uproot that which has been planted.

Do not forget the hope.

Bring me back and I shall return

To the good land.

For olim, this sentiment and longing to come home to Israel has great meaning. And I leave you this week with this question: What are you waiting for?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Pesach 5770 (4/15/2010)

I approach yom tov each year with a sense of anticipation, tinged with concern. I love the chaggim, especially since we made aliyah. I love the fact that we are forced to spend time together as a family and that we have an excuse to interact in positive ways in preparing for each chag. It might be building a sukkah, preparing for the Seder, or even making a cheesecake—whatever the activity, it all adds to the yom tov aura.

Pesach, with all its various preparations, really takes the anticipation to another level. There are so many different ways to make the holiday meaningful. I used to think that we had a specific formula for how to approach Pesach and that it was important to perform everything the same way each year. Israel has changed that, as well. While we cling to certain family traditions, we have made our own traditions, interjecting a bit of the culture in which we now live into our lives.

With only six yom tov meals to prepare, Goldie has also relaxed in her approach. We have a shopping routine (going to CheaperKol in Kanfei Nesharim to buy the American products before rosh chodesh in order to avoid the huge crowds), a cleaning routine, and even a cooking routine. Goldie is incredibly organized, so we switched the kitchen nine days before Pesach to allow her time to cook without being pressured.

As I mentioned last week, we kicked off the Pesach season as a family by visiting an army base near Arad. It really was awesome. The soldiers are so appreciative of everything we do, when really it should be the other way around. I tried to take the time to chat with as many of them as I could. At one point, one of them turned to me and said, “Hey, wait a second—didn’t we sit together on my flight to Israel in November?”

He was right. We did. I remembered him. It was so incredible to be a part of their lives, if only for a minute. Especially because of the incredible warmth and love they showed to my kids. My kids love soldiers. They are of course fascinated by all the equipment (I watched Mordechai peer through a night scope, and it scared me). Yet they are also fascinated by the people. They look up to them and feel pride that they can interact with them.

I also like the fact that the more they interact with them, the more the kids realize that they are regular people, no different from them. They have important responsibilities, but they are still normal people and they laugh and cry just like the rest of us. When we got to eat in the mess hall and the food was noodles, I thought Moshe was going to pass out in wonder: “I like spaghetti!”

We had a babysitter of sorts, Ariella Gluckstadt, one of the “camp mothers” who is assigned (I hope I get this right) to be a “mommy” to the soldiers under her care as they go through training. I am not sure, but I think this is something they do only for the “lone soldiers” who have come on aliyah without any other family and have no one to turn to when they are down or alone. She was terrific.

She engaged the kids and showed them whatever they wanted to see. She kept us company and introduced soldiers to the kids and really made friends with them. I am sure that she was chosen for her job by virtue of her great personality and friendliness. Which goes to show you that sometimes even the Israeli army can actually be smart. (A special shout-out to her uncle, Sandy Herskowitz. You have a terrific niece!)

The next day we went matzah-baking—another totally awesome activity. We came with mostly family members, with a couple of neighbor teens joining in. We were in the bakery for over three hours and went home with plenty of matzot. I can confidently say that there is nothing quite as exciting as making a brachah and eating the matzot you made for the Seder and all of yom tov. It was doubly special because we were able to get a time slot when Chaim could join us, having arrived the night before.

The Seder was nice. My brother Ely and his family joined us from Chashmonaim. The kids had a terrific time and we added a new wrinkle this year—a Ten Plagues kit. I try to personally engage the kids in telling the story of the Seder. I saw an ad this year on the Bet Shemesh e-mail list offering something I thought was unique.

The kit came with stuffed animals representing a lot of the plagues, as well as a glove with boils on it and other visual representations of the various plagues. It was a nice way to elicit discussion and excitement from the kids just when their interest was beginning to wane.

Chol ha’moed was nice. We spent a lot of time with the kids, highlighted by a trip to raft on the Jordan River. Goldie and I had done the exact same trip a couple of summers ago. I remember commenting on how low the water levels were at the time and expressing concern about the water situation. I think it may even have been the beginning of my obsession with the water levels here.

In any case, I remarked to the workers at the rafting place that the water seemed much higher this year. They laughed at me. I couldn’t understand why, as I remembered the water being much lower. They agreed that it had been lower, but added that this level, while an improvement, is nothing like what it should be.

We also went to the Ben & Jerry’s retail outlet in Modiin. That was really cool. They had a nice big sign on the wall stating that everything for sale was Kosher for Pesach and kitniyot free. They had a limited selection, but the flavor I was amused to see was the “matzalate” or something like that. Chunks of fried matzah in the ice cream. That’s something you don’t see in America.

Unfortunately, we did not get to eat the Korban Pesach this year; hopefully we will next year.

After Pesach ended, we did something we had never done before—placed an order for gas masks. Apparently, the government does not want to get caught having to mass distribute them in case of a war. So they give them out. Every few years they all expire, so you need to turn them in and then get a new one. Since we had never gotten them, when they issued the statement that they could be replaced, Goldie called and made an appointment to get them.

Rather than picking them up ourselves, we paid $6 for home delivery, which is pretty good. So now we have seven boxes of sealed gas masks in the house, which we hope to never use. I was concerned about it initially, but this is just another facet of who we are. Not that we need another reminder.

Of course, the reminders continue through the next couple of weeks. Yom HaShoah was earlier this week and Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzma’ut will be next week, so we will have plenty of reminders of who we are and how we got here. I only hope that no one steals the flags from my car this year.

Kinneret update. I am continually amazed by how good the rainfall was this year. There was much more snow than I thought, and the runoff of water from the melting snow has really impacted the water levels. Without any rainfall, and in a time of hot temperatures, the Kinneret level jumped some more. Since my last update (the week before Pesach) the Kinneret has risen 10 cm, to –212.66, but looks to have finally peaked. We need another few years like this, but we are much better off than we thought we would be. Baruch Hashem.

Friday, April 09, 2010

May He Bless the Soldiers (4/9/2010)

On the Wednesday before Pesach, I took four of our kids to present gifts to 140 chayalim bodedim (immigrant soldiers who have no family in Israel) serving in basic training for combat. My regular readers know that this type of activity is a special thrill for my family.

Our shul had even participated by having the children draw pictures for the soldiers, complete with messages of support. For families of olim like ours, whose head of the household was already too old to serve in the military when they made aliyah and will have no true sense of what is involved, this is the only way to participate in helping the troops. We have never stood a post or manned a checkpoint. We can only imagine the hardships these young men and women face. So we try to make things a bit nicer for them and help ease their day-to-day lives.

Unbeknownst to me, the commander of the base decided to make a formal ceremony out of the presentation. They put out some light refreshments (for soldiers who had just trained in the field for four days, this was a special treat) and then assembled everyone for a formal presentation. The commander said some nice things to the troops and then asked me to say a few words.

I told the soldiers how proud of them we were and that our presence (and presents) were not something we needed thanks for but were rather an expression of our thanks to them. I told them how we are only giving from our money, which pales in comparison to what they bring to the table. I thanked them for their dedication and commitment to our country and in putting themselves and their lives (literally) on the line for our safety.

We greeted each soldier personally and even shared dinner with them in the mess hall (my kids loved it). It was inspiring and humbling to be a part of making their lives more comfortable and pleasant.

As we were still flying from that high, I got a call from my sister on motzaei Shabbat. She asked how we were and then told us that she had a terrible Shabbat with my oldest nephew, Yonatan.

For those of you who don’t know, my nephew Yonatan is in the final months of his service in a combat unit. I have shared a couple of stories of his in this column such as his draft day and the time he got a care package from a stranger in the USA. He has seen action in Gaza, identified and detained a terrorist carrying a bomb at a checkpoint in the West Bank, and carries our pride with him wherever he goes.

For my sister and brother-in-law, it has been a draining few years. They share in his fierce pride at all his accomplishments and are overwhelmed by his determination to do his best for the country. Yet, they are also gravely concerned about his safety, knowing all too well the risks that he faces and the possibility—shared by all families with children in the military—that he could be injured (or worse) in action.

My nephew had been taking a special course over the past few weeks. I am not sure what he needed to learn. I think it was some kind of new equipment that he needed to operate. So, for a few short weeks, he was off the front lines and spending weekends at home with his family.

On Friday, erev Shabbat HaGadol, he was at home (having completed the training course). He was due to rejoin his unit on Sunday. They were about to come off the line themselves, having almost completed a rotation in Gaza. One of his buddies from his platoon had even posted a note on his Facebook page saying, “LAST SHABBAT IN GAZA!”

That soldier never made it to Shabbat.

That afternoon, in an exchange of fire with terrorists at the border, two soldiers were killed in action with a third severely wounded. Maj. Eliraz Peretz, one of the two dead soldiers, was the commander of their regiment, a man whose brother Uriel had been killed in Lebanon a decade earlier. At his funeral, his distraught mother wondered what she was supposed to do on Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers); which son should she visit first? Which life, tragically cut short in service to his country, should she honor above the other? What a horrific concern for a mother. Especially since two other sons continue to serve.

The other fatality was my nephew Yonatan’s platoon-mate, Ilan Sviatkovsky, an immigrant from Uzbekistan—one of eleven buddies he had done almost his entire military service with. Yonatan is devastated.

He rushed to join the platoon immediately before Shabbat. He helped bury his friend. The senselessness is overwhelming. Why should a 21-year-old have to face such heavy issues?

He helped bury his friend. At 21.

Hearing this, I thought back to the young soldiers I had met a few days earlier. I cannot imagine how stressful it must be for them to hear of soldiers, such as themselves, being killed in action. Yet here they are, 6,000 miles or more away from their families, ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. They are training to defend us to the death. And they do.

I don’t know what it means, and I don’t know when it will end. The only thing I do know is how proud we are of them and how important our soldiers and our country are to us.

I had intended to write a column about our terrific Pesach and chol ha’moed. It isn’t within me to do so. Instead I ask that you take a moment to honor the memories of Maj. Eliraz Peretz and Ilan Sviatkovsky, yehei zichram baruch. Mourn for their loss. Feel for a mother who has lost a second son and for her daughter-in-law and the four grandchildren (one of whom is a 2-month-old infant) whose husband and father will never again walk through their front door.

Grieve for an immigrant family who has lost a son and brother in defense of their adopted homeland. Share the pain of 11 young men who have lost a brother-in-arms. They almost made it to the finish line when they lost one of their own. Yet they go on, knowing that his sacrifice and their loss is what makes us who we are.