Thursday, May 27, 2010

Getting Ready for Another Move (5/27/2010)

Shavuot is the only chag that I really think is not as deep here in comparison to chutz la’aretz. While I am no fan of having two days of yom tov, on Shavuot it feels as if we have less than a half day of true yom tov. That is, it feels that way for those who stay up for the whole night.

There is a strong school of thought here that people should not really stay up all night. The argument is that we should learn for a couple of hours and then go to sleep for five or six hours, returning to shul for davening. This would allow us to be refreshed and attentive for davening, while at the same time maintaining the practice to study Torah the night of the chag. I have a couple of friends who do this—they say that it adds to the value of their davening, and they are much more comfortable this way.

I was not ready to change, though. With the exception of that strange sense that I missed the chag (because it ended before I had a chance to really experience it), we had a terrific chag. Mordechai (age 9) was my chavruta for the evening. This was his first “all-nighter” and no matter how many of his friends went home, he was determined to stick out the whole night. And he did.

I had joked with him that he would fall asleep during Megillat Rut. I was wrong. He fell asleep waiting for us to start the Megilla. His older sister Batya made it all the way to laining before she too fell asleep in her chair. So at the end of davening I had the treat of waking them up and trying to get them moving toward their actual beds.

Shavuot marks the stretch run to the end of the year here. Not only for the schoolchildren who are looking forward to summer, but also for the thousands of your kids who have been here for a year (or two) of learning in yeshivot and seminaries. It is fascinating to see them rushing from place to place, trying to squeeze every last ounce out of the time that remains for them to stay here.

For the first time since our aliyah, all of our kids will be in Israel for the summer. (Chaya may go for a brief two-week trip before she enters into national service for the year—but that doesn’t count.) Aliza and Batya will be going to Israeli sleep-away camps. (For Batya, this will be her first sleep-away experience.) Mordechai, desperate to go himself, begged us to falsify the registration forms and claim that he is a year older. He argued that he is bigger than most kids a year older than him, so why shouldn’t he go? Sigh

This will be the first Shabbat in a couple of months that all of us will be in the same country. Yet, true to form, we will not all be together. Our shul arranged a weekend in Kiryat Arba/Chevron, and we will be taking the three younger kids with us to participate in the Shabbaton.

I was of two minds in considering whether to go for Shabbat. Although there is a famous psak that states that kohanim can go into the Mearah, I personally refrain from it. There is a difference of opinion, and although I cannot set the standards for others (my father in fact, holds by this psak), on a personal level, I am loathe to err in this matter.

We decided to participate when we discovered that the group is davening by the Mearah only on Friday night, so I would not be missing too much.

The older kids, who will not be joining us, have all spent Shabbat in Chevron already. They have gone with their friends, sleeping in empty school classrooms on Shabbat Parashat Chayei Sarah along with thousands of other Jews. So for them, this is less of an experience. Plus, they get to spend a Shabbat with their friends.

It is also good that we will all be together to help prepare and pack for our forthcoming move. We are still not sure where we are going to end up (we will hopefully clear this up in the next week or two), but we know we have to be out by August. So having Chaim home will certainly be a help.

We are trying to get him registered to drive our car. For the first four years that we own our car (purchased with aliyah tax reduction credits), Goldie and I are the only drivers automatically allowed to drive it. As our kids get their licenses to drive, we have to go to the tax offices and get a special release to add them as drivers to the car. Without this release, they are driving illegally. Not only can they get ticketed, our insurance could refuse payment on claims resulting from a kid driving the car without the release.

Chaim, not being Israeli, adds a new dimension to the situation. He has a New York driver’s license, is not an Israeli, and yet is still our son and should be allowed to drive our family car. We called our insurance agent to find out how to register Chaim, and he told us that we should actually get him an Israeli license first. Apparently, since he is our son and comes to visit several times each year for an extended period of time, it is possible that the authorities could rule that he is obligated to get an Israeli license as a non-citizen.

Getting the license requires that he get an eye test, submit a doctor’s certification that he is healthy enough to drive, take two driving lessons from a licensed instructor, and then pass a driving test. It will take a couple of weeks to do. Once he has his license, we will then register him with the tax authorities as an approved driver of our car.

Conveniently, Israel offers something called youth insurance. In it, you register the car and the driver with the company, and they give you an hourly (or maybe daily) rate. When the driver is going to take the car, you call in and activate the insurance. Once he is finished with it, you call in and deactivate it. Since insurance for teens is so expensive here, this allows us to minimize the cost.

With Chaya getting ready to take the driving test as well (it is a much longer process for her to get her license, with a requirement for nearly 30 private lessons with a driving instructor), this will come in very handy. Hopefully, having a couple of drivers who can run the occasional errand or carpool will be beneficial.

We just hope that the process will be as easy in practice as it was in planning. We confirmed some of it at the Customs Authority this week. We originally went to their office to get a permit to buy a refrigerator with aliyah tax credits. However, even though we were told that we had four years to use the refrigerator purchase rights, it turned out that it is only available for three years. So we will pay a few hundred shekels more than we originally planned to. What can you do?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

We are all Jews (5/13/2009)

One of the most striking changes we faced in coming on aliyah was getting used to the diversity of the people. That is not to say that our American neighborhood was not filled with people from various ethnicities; it was. We were one part of the mosaic of the neighborhood. Yet, as Jews, we had an affinity for other Jews in the area, since we had a common sense of being different. We shared a common bond in that we were Jews, and different from the majority of the country.

In Israel this is not the case. Yes, there are non-Jews here. However, depending on where you live, you might not see a non-Jew for days or weeks at a time. So we are all the same, so to speak. Yet, in many ways our community is still divided by “ethnicity.” There are Anglos, charedim, Sephardim, chilonim, Russians, Ethiopians, and others. And that is just our little corner of Bet Shemesh.

We tend to daven in separate shuls (Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, charedi, etc.) and socialize within our individual group. That is not to say that you cannot find a mix of people, or that we do not socialize across “ethnic” lines. We do. It is just hard to do so. With so many cultural differences, it is often hard to relate to a neighbor who grew up in a radically different culture than the one you grew up in.

Our children will not feel the same sense of separation that we do. Not only will they have much less of a language barrier, but they will have grown up in the “cholent pot” known as their schools.

In our children’s classes, there are children from all sorts of backgrounds. They play and study together. They make friendships and bond, regardless of the color of their skin or the background of their parents. And we love it.

I remember what I thought of Ethiopians when I first came here. They were different, not like me. They might be nice people, but since we were different, I didn’t need to really concern myself with them other than as part of society. I wasn’t thinking of having any friends in their community; they were too different from me. I’ll admit it.

And they are different. They dress differently and behave differently. Yet, this is one of the best lessons I learned in Israel (Gabe Levi, this is for you): A Jew really is just a Jew. Pull back all the layers, and he is still my brother. For an intolerant guy like me, that is a big statement.

We paid lip service to this idea when we first came. It took time and exposure to our neighbors for us to really get it. Yet, once we became more comfortable with ourselves as Israelis and began to really communicate with other people, the sense of commonality was incredibly enhanced.

Unfortunately, economic conditions perpetuate our differences. The Ethiopian community, for instance, is by and large a poor community. They came to Israel with nothing, and others are extremely prejudiced against them. In Bet Shemesh, one of the poorer Ethiopian housing projects is right next door to an Anglo community, with private houses and seeming abundance wherever they turn. This creates a sense of distrust between neighbors and a jealousy that can even turn violent.

I don’t have the answer to these problems and how we can help raise their standard of living. Yet I have an example. I have a friend and neighbor who I absolutely love, who is the epitome of what can be good here in Israel. His name is Amir Avraham.

Amir came to Israel in the 1970s, with the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants. He went to school and excelled. He wanted to be a lawyer, but his father told him that there was plenty of time for law school; first he had to study Torah.

He learned in the Gush and eventually changed his goal. Today, Amir Avraham is a teacher of Torah to children in a yeshiva elementary school. He and his wife Tamar are really outstanding people. We have a few (very few) non-Anglo friends, and they are two of them.

Amir davens in our shul. His sons go to school with mine, and all the children play together outside shul while their parents are inside. My kids are so comfortable with his that the fact that their skin color is different is really immaterial. They just don’t care. What makes Amir so incredible is his background.

His father doesn’t read Hebrew. He couldn’t help him with his homework or study with him, and I am sure at some point it is hard for them to relate. Amir has become part of another world. Yet the respect and honor he clearly shows his father is amazing. He constantly credits his father for putting him on the correct path.

Amir gives of his time to teach within the Ethiopian community. He doesn’t just lead by example. He arranges activities and educational opportunities. His gentle manner and sincerity are a striking contrast to the stereotype against which he is cast.

His son Etiel, a recent bar mitzvah, made a siyum on erev Pesach on all of Mishnah. He did a significant amount of the learning, including many meforshim, on his own. Clearly, the apple did not fall far from the tree.

Goldie and I were privileged to attend Etiel’s bar mitzvah celebration last week. Aside from the standard speeches by the rabbi, the father of the bar mitzvah, and the bar mitzvah boy himself, there was one more speech. Amir introduced the person who first taught him Gemara. He spoke of him with reverence and clear gratitude. It was clear to me that Amir maintains a special place in his heart for the person who introduced him to a new world.

Of course, after the speeches came the dancing. This was something I had been looking forward to for weeks. After all, ethnic Ethiopian dancing!! The first dance surprised me. It was regular music and the standard dancing. I even went over to Amir and said, “I know how to do this; where is the Ethiopian culture for me to experience?” He looked at me and smiled, telling me to be patient.

Eventually, at the end of the dance, they played a single Ethiopian song. It took a while, but the men eventually came to the dance floor and we got a taste of the music and the dance. Interestingly, Goldie told me that as soon as the music changed, the Ethiopian women who were not dancing (at least half of them) all rushed to the dance floor and participated.

After a break, the dancing began again. As you can see in the online video (shmub.mp4 at I had an amazing time trying it. In the video, Amir joins in the dancing (he is the shorter guy with the beard). We were so excited to experience some of their background and upbringing, and it was a tremendously fun night for us.

In the past, I have bemoaned the lack of achdut here in Israel. We allow the things that make us different to become so divisive that it becomes difficult to coexist. I am proud that there are still some things to bring us together.

I want to wish all my readers a terrific day of Shavuot together with me in Yerushalayim. I look forward to participating in bringing the korbanot of the chag. It will truly be an honor to share the first chag in our rebuilt Bet HaMikdash together. If this is delayed for some reason, enjoy the chag anyway. And remember, L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim hab’nuyah.