Thursday, June 24, 2010

No Pomp and Circumstance? (6/24/2010)

I had anticipated writing an article this week about the events surrounding the community of Emanuel. I have seen so many opinions and assumptions on this issue, which quite frankly has disgusted me. I was ready to wade right in, with some choice words of my own but I am so tired of the whole thing that I will only make one comment.

Since I believe that both sides are arrogantly manipulating their constituents in order to make a political point and that both sides are guilty of misinformation, I am outraged at the manner in which they have sidetracked my country into a circus. Neither side is “right” and both should be ashamed of themselves. I have no faith that anyone involved is being truthful, and it is a disgrace.

Thankfully, this space primarily serves as a journal of our experiences here in Israel as olim and this was a very special week for us. After four years of high school here, our oldest daughter, Chaya, graduated with outstanding grades.

The graduation ceremony was incredibly different from anything we would have expected in the U.S. We arrived at 8:00 p.m. and went home at midnight. Even though it had been almost 110 degrees earlier in the day, I was quite thankful that it was an outdoor ceremony. Even with A/C, an indoor room full of people on such a hot day would have been impossible to sit in. There were no caps or gowns, no pomp and circumstance, no processions, and very little formality. Although the mayor did attend and say some nice things.

The mayor had something like five graduations that night. He showed up late and subsequently the graduation started an hour after the scheduled time. The mayor spoke. The head of the school system spoke. The head rav of the school spoke. The principal spoke. A city councilman (whose daughter was graduating) spoke. The head of the parents’ council spoke. A student spoke. There was no valedictorian or academic address. Most of the speeches consisted of divrei Torah and personal messages or charges to the girls.

A major part of the graduation was the awarding of diplomas. Each girl was called up, a Mishna quote was given over (hopefully a quote that reflected upon the character of the girl), and then a personal message was read to each girl. She then hugged the principal, the assistant principal, the homeroom teacher, and the guidance counselor. Then she posed for a picture. With 52 girls in the grade this took well over an hour.

We were incredibly proud that Chaya was able to reach this milestone. It was such an accomplishment on her part that the principal made special mention of her at the graduation. Then, in a video about the students, she also said, “Chaya Katz literally did the impossible!”

In the U.S., Chaya was an indifferent student at best. We always felt that she simply did not care about grades and was more interested in being a friend or helping hand. Her grades were good, not great. We hoped that she would pick up a bit as she got to high school and possibly college, but assumed that we were getting the most out of her at the time.

After coming on aliyah, she did not do much to dispel that notion. Not having spoken Hebrew as a language (beyond learning Torah in school), she struggled to understand what was going on in class. Her principal told us not to worry about things for the first year, because Chaya needed to learn the language and develop friendships with her peers before she could successfully pass her classes and earn a bagrut certificate (similar to a Regents diploma) and graduate. She built a program for Chaya (and another new olah) to study independently with tutors and experience some classroom instruction as well.

The first year, true to expectations, was a disaster. At the end of the year we met with the principal to craft a plan for the upcoming year, Grade 10. She told us that in her opinion, Chaya was too linguistically challenged to continue in the school. Although Chaya had made tremendous progress socially, she did not think that Chaya would be able to pass the bagruyot (examinations). Rather than have to face angry parents after a wasted Grade 10, she advised us to find another school that might be able to cater to her needs so that she could graduate.

Chaya was devastated. She had become attached to her friends and the school and did not want to leave. I cannot imagine how hard it was for her, having moved to a new country and made new friends at age 13. Yet, she was being told that she would have to go through the whole process a second time, with a new group of girls. Girls, who like her, could not make the grade.

We had a simple goal: we needed to make sure that Chaya could go to college if she chose and that our aliyah would not cripple that possibility. Our oldest son, Chaim, had just finished a year-long program and gotten a GED (high school equivalency degree). We liked the program, and knowing that Chaya was having academic difficulties, we had already spoken to the coordinators about enrolling Chaya. Unfortunately, they would not take students below Grade 11, so we knew that we would have to wait a full year before Chaya was eligible to enroll.

So, in the meeting, after Chaya had tearfully expressed her sincere desire to stay in the school, I made a proposal to the principal. Work with us, I asked. I told her about the GED program and that we were prepared to send Chaya to that program for Grade 11, if need be. All we asked was that Chaya be allowed to remain in the school for Grade 10 to see if she could make the grades and pass the tests. I specifically told her that we would have no complaints against the school if Chaya could not keep up and that we had a backup plan if things did not work out.

The principal agreed. She turned to Chaya and told her that if she wanted to truly stay in the school, she would have to buckle down and get incredibly serious about academics. She could not afford to play games with school anymore, she needed to focus on learning and studying. Together, they outlined a series of mandatory classes that Chaya needed to pass in order to graduate; she was exempted from the majority of the electives.

We did not know what to expect. We hoped that Chaya would work hard enough to pass. We were prepared to augment her studies with tutors (as do most parents) and give her whatever assistance we could to prepare her, but knew that it all depended on Chaya’s ability to do what she had never really done before—excel academically.

Chaya blew us all away. I have never seen such an outstanding transformation. She worked incredibly hard and was more focused on school than we had any reason to expect. She studied and studied, and the work paid off. She wasn’t just passing her exams—she was scoring in the 90s on them, regularly.

At the end of Grade 10, we went for a year recap meeting with the principal. At the meeting, remembering the discussion from the year before, I asked her if Chaya would be allowed to stay in the school for Grade 11? She laughed. It wasn’t even in doubt.

She has not only passed, she has excelled. She has certainly earned the diploma that she was awarded, and she did it by wholeheartedly embracing her new school, her new friends, and her new life. She is proof that you can be a teenage olah and still be successful.

We are excited for Chaya, who has been the trailblazer for her younger siblings. She has so much to look forward to and so much to experience along the way. She will be the first of our children to fulfill national service (she will be working in a senior citizen’s residence this upcoming year) and will be the first one of them to go to an Israeli university (we hope).

She has flowered here. She has become such a complete person, despite all the trials and tribulations, including the various family crises which should have made it impossible for her. She can be difficult at times (I think that is the Katz side), but has an intensely beautiful soul.

She could not have done anything without the support of a terrific group of friends at her school, Ulpanat Gila. I thank them for being so open to Chaya, for making her a part of their lives, and for being such terrific friends. Mazal tov to Sarah Fuchs, Leah Fingerer, and Miriam Kinberg (all former Five Towners) as well as Ayelet Gross and Noa Aronson. We hope that your families all enjoy your wonderful success.

I also need to make a special mention of her principal, Mrs. Yael VanDyke. Israeli born, she trained herself to speak American English without a trace of an accent, because she wanted to get it right. She was a true partner with us in making Chaya’s journey so fulfilling. She went through so much with Chaya and with us, and we are grateful to her.

But most importantly, we are proud of our terrific kid. She goes about her business in a very unassuming way, avoiding attention and shying away from accolades. I normally avoid talking about her, but she will be in the U.S. for the next month and I know she will see this paper (when you see her, please feel free to wish her a mazal tov).

So Chaya, I want you to know how proud we are of you. We know how much you have been through these past four years. Each time we thought we were over the hump, another curveball came our way. Yet, you have persevered and risen to the challenge and filled us with wonder at your accomplishments. We look forward to so much more from you and your siblings and hope you are a rebuke to all those in the U.S. who say that teens cannot be success stories. They can, and you are. Way to go, strawberry girl!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Candyman (6/17/2010)

Those of you who don’t follow sports can probably skip the next few paragraphs as you won’t be able to relate. Watching (and attending) sporting events is one of the things I miss here in Israel. Yes, it was very cool when the Israel Baseball League had its only season (we were Bet Shemesh Blue Sox season ticket holders). But, overall, with the exception of football games (which air at night here), I really do not catch that many games.

I have a Slingbox connection to U.S. sports TV (which is how I get to watch my beloved Chicago Bears), but even when I tape other sports games to watch at a later time, the time difference makes it difficult to really enjoy watching. Most games that I tape are night games, and by the time I get home from work the next day, I almost always know the results in advance of watching, which ruins the experience. If the specific game is really important to me to watch, I end up spending the day avoiding all online activity or speaking to anyone who may spill the beans (and even that is less than 50% effective).

As a diehard everything Chicago (except the hated White Sox) fan, it was especially exciting that the Chicago Blackhawks reached the finals this year (and were crowned champions). What wasn’t so exciting was the schedule of games. Each game started at around 3:15 a.m. here in Israel. Since we wanted to watch “live” and not take the chance of getting the results before watching, we woke up between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m. to watch the games (fast forwarding through commercials and breaks).

By the time Chicago won the series, I think I may have been happier that the games were over than about the fact that Chicago won. It was exhausting to be up every other day so early and a relief that I could go back to a normal sleeping pattern.

Even the Friday night game was a killer. Goldie and I had bought tickets for a comedy show on Motzaei Shabbat and instead of watching the game at 9:00 p.m. with Chaim, I watched it until 2:30 a.m. when we got home.

The show, Comedy for Koby, was outstanding, so I am happy we went. Comedy for Koby is an outstanding program of the Koby Mandell Foundation. Twice a year, a Jewish L.A.-based comedian, Avi Lieberman, brings three comedians for a multi-city tour here in Israel. The show plays to packed houses in Yerushalayim, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Bet Shemesh, Modiin, Raanana, and Efrat. With a private donor underwriting the tour, the shows raise money to send children who are from families with terror victims to a terrific summer camp program.

We had heard about the show, but for some reason, Goldie and I had not gone to one before. Our schedule did not allow us to go to the Bet Shemesh show; instead, we went to the Modiin show with two other couples, Jason and Chani Schwartz (Chani was a guest columnist in this space a few months back) and Dr. Herman and Mia Weiss (olim from West Hempstead). The Weisses had a friend from West Hempstead with them as well, Natasha Swirlowitz.

Everyone had a blast. The comedians were hilarious (we especially liked Bob Zany—great comedy name—who was funny from start to finish), and when Avi Lieberman had a dialogue with my boss (who is also a local Modiin rabbi) and skewered him, my entire week was made.

With the lack of English-speaking entertainment here outside the major cities (and even in the major cities the supply is limited), the Comedy for Koby show was a welcome oasis for us. We eagerly anticipate their next tour.

A couple of days later I went to be menachem avel the family of Izzy Naiman, ob’m. Izzy was the candyman in Rabbi Rosenthal’s shul in Chicago (the shul is now a Lubavitch high school). Each Shabbat, every child in shul would go over to Izzy and had to wish him a Good Shabbos and shake his hand in order to receive the coveted Bazooka gum that he would bring in from Israel on his annual trips.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Israeli Bazooka was generally only available in Chicago for Pesach. Having him import boxes and boxes of the stuff for us was a big treat and something every kid in shul looked forward to each week. Yet, as I look back, it was not the gum that made the biggest impact on me. The thing that stuck with me the most was his insistence that every child offer him a proper Good Shabbos greeting and that the boys shake his hand when doing so. It lent a dignity and formality to his greeting.

He also had a special policy of hosting us for a meal when we would spend a year in Israel. I still have the picture that was taken at the Plaza Hotel’s patio breakfast when Yaakov Lopin (a childhood friend of mine from Chicago who davened in the same shul) and I joined Izzy there for breakfast. Very fond memories. So I was dismayed to see the e-mail notice of his passing and resolved to be menachem avel his family.

Upon arrival at the shiva house, all I had to say was that I was “one of the Bazooka boys” and even though only his wife remembered me, the whole family “knew” who I was, so to speak. They told me how their father used to drive them crazy to make sure they shipped him gum when supplies were running low and how much joy he took in being the candyman in shul and in sharing the lives of all the kids of the community.

I was glad I went because it gave me a chance to share with them what an impact Izzy had on my life. You see, I too am the candyman in shul and have been for quite some time. While my father also was a candyman (albeit in a different shul) and I certainly was motivated by him as well, it is Izzy’s dignity and formality that I pass along in my shul as well.

Each child, boy or girl, greets me with a Shabbat Shalom before they get their lollipop (gum provides too many opportunities to ruin furniture); the boys all shake my hand. I see the joy and anticipation in their eyes when they come to greet me and I know that I learned a special lesson from the candyman. You see, I don’t think he really cared one way or the other about the greeting or the candy, I know that I sure don’t. What is important is the message the kids get.

They are excited to come to shul. They know that shul is a special place. A place of dignity where they are expected to act like adults and are made to feel important. That is the message that I learned from Izzy, a’h, and that is the message I hope to pass on to the next generation. Yehi zichro baruch.

Command Sergeant Major Yehoshua (Shuki) Sofer was shot and killed in an ambush by terrorists this week just south of Chevron. While the world media ignores the fact that another Jew was killed by terrorists in an ambush attack and continues to focus instead on the deaths of several terrorists who were killed by people who only shot in self-defense, we need to honor his memory and continue to support the Israeli Defense Forces whose only goal is the safety and security of our nation and our land.

Shuki Sofer, z’l, was supposed to be married this September. Yehi zichro baruch.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Spying out the Land - Part 3 (6/4/2010)

I have written a special column for Shabbat Parashat Shelach for each of the past two years. I was originally inspired to write the first column by Nefesh B’Nefesh. They had a program in which they encouraged their olim to e-mail a top-twelve list of the reasons to make aliyah to twelve friends in chutz la’aretz in the week of Parashat Shelach.

I thought differently. While there may have been twelve meraglim who spied out the land in biblical times, I have no problems with two of the twelve. So I decided to write ten reasons instead of twelve, corresponding to the ten spies who influenced the Jews to not enter Israel. And instead of sending it to twelve friends, I address it to the nearly 200,000 readers of this paper.

Here, then, is the third installment of another ten reasons (in no apparent order) you should be joining us in making aliyah (please note that I expect the geulah at any time now, so the following reasons apply only on the off chance that the geulah has not yet come):

10. The soldiers — With one nephew completing his military service and another being drafted in a year, this is the longest gap our family will have with no one in the military for the next 20 years or so. So my siblings and I are certainly very aware of who is keeping us all safe.

We have tremendous pride in our soldiers. I have written about giving mishloach manot to them on Purim, our trips to bring presents to them on their bases, and how much love and concern we have for them. Yet it is their inner joy and love for us which is most overwhelming. The excitement and pride they feel in themselves is truly inspirational.

There is no doubt that being in the military is an incredibly maturing part of the lives of our youth, religious or not. It instills discipline and pride in them and can be an incredible bonding experience. All too often, they also learn about loss, as my nephew did when his buddy was killed on erev Shabbat HaGadol.

Yet, as I tell my children with a sentiment that is shared throughout our land, everyone has a time that is their time. What a great kavod that his time came while defending our country instead of in a meaningless car crash or other accident.

Each one of them knows what they face. Yet they also know that we love, honor, and care for them. This is a tremendous lesson that my family gets to learn all the time. Yours should too.

9. A three-day chag is extremely rare — This is a bit of a repeat. I have talked about having only one day of chag in a previous list and touched upon the fact that only Rosh Hashanah can be part of a three-day chag here. Then I took a look at the calendar.

Have you looked at the yom tov calendar for the next ten years or so (through 2020)? If not, let me be the first to tell you: You had better get used to the three-day yom tov, because you are going to be seeing a lot of it. There is not a single year of the next ten that does not have at least one three day yom tov. Years 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2017 are all ones during which you will get a triple dose of Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah three-day chagim. Out of the next 22 times there will be a three-day chag, only 5 of them will be held in Israel. All the housewives out there should be putting down the paper and starting to make plans for the move here right now!

As a postscript to this, I should add that no one here counts a yom tov day as a vacation or personal day. You just get the day off, with no repercussions (unless you are an hourly employee). Some companies don’t even count chol ha’moed days against you, while others do, and yet others take a novel approach and only calculate them as half a day off.

8. The semachot — I don’t mean to say that a simcha outside Israel is not joyous or meaningful (and fun to be a part of). Yet there is something about the way we celebrate life here that is simply different.

Attend a b’rit milah in Israel and you will be inspired. Yes, the circumcision is no different, but the “ritual” is so much different. From the moment the baby is brought in and the father and attendees begin singing the pesukim of Shema and Ana Hashem, everyone is immediately thrust into the role as participant instead of attendee.

Bar mitzvah celebrations at the Kotel (either putting on tefillin the first time or the actual day of the bar mitzvah) are events you can participate in, simply by going to the Kotel. Enjoy a Sephardi family singing and dancing their way from outside the Old City walls all the way to the Kotel every day if you want.

Even weddings are different—especially the Religious Zionist Israeli weddings. Things are so informal. I have been to outdoor chupot where the crowd sang, danced, and clapped along with an acoustic band who played through every pause in the ceremony. Every occasion is filled with a communal joy that is unique here.

7. Barack Obama is not our president — Enough said.

6. Israeli politics — Politics here reminds me of the reputation of Chicago in the times of the original Mayor Daley. You know what I mean. The days when people knew to “vote early . . . and vote often.” The days when voter registration drives consisted of a few volunteers taking names and birthdates off the tombstones in a local cemetery.

I didn’t like Olmert or Livni. You might not like Bibi. I personally feel they are all a bunch of crooks looking for a way to line their pockets. Yet it is so entertaining to see another round of indictments and realize that we have bad sides as well as good sides.

The one difference for us is the passion with which politics is discussed and voted upon here. In the USA, we never felt passionate about an election for one candidate or another. Well, maybe the school board and tax/budget elections, but nothing else. Here in Israel, the elections carry so much weight in determining who will build what and where, which groups get more funds and which get less, that the passions can sometimes be overwhelming. We feel like we make a difference much more here.

5. No separation of church and state — Public funding does not apply solely to parks and community centers. Mikvaot are municipally funded as well. Shuls often get siddurim, chumashim, and other necessary supplies as well. Organizations such as Puah and other religious charities serving the public get funds from the government, because we provide vitally needed services. There is recognition that the state must support social services not just for physical needs, but also for religious needs.

4. Help New York City balance its budget — I read the other day that over one million people attended the Salute to Israel Parade in each of the last two years. A million people create a lot of garbage and require a lot of police protection. The overtime for the security and cleanup of the parade is enormous.

Imagine if only 10 percent of those people made aliyah. A crowd of 900,000 people is still significant enough to make an impression of support, yet the city would save tens of thousands of dollars each year. In these trying financial times, you could provide much-needed relief to the entire city of New York.

3. Tuition — You knew this was coming. The only item to appear on each of the three lists is the incredibly low cost of tuition here. Have you gotten your registration forms for next year in yeshiva yet? Ha-Ha-Ha! We pay about $300 a year for preschool for Moshe, and half of that amount is a voluntary surcharge we agreed to in order to hire a rebbi to come in for a few hours each week. Even high-school tuition is only a few hundred dollars each month—for two kids!

Building fund? Why? The city builds all the school buildings and even pays for maintenance! The money that the lottery makes actually does go to education here. Classes are crowded, and the quality of instruction sometimes suffers because of that. However, even including the private tutors that we hire to supplement the kids’ education, the costs are so much lower here that it is astonishing.

2. No tax returns to file — We do have different tax rates based upon income, etc. However, since there are very few deductions, there is no reason to file. Only people who are self-employed or have unique situations to report have to file a return (if you are entitled to a refund for some reason or perhaps have overseas income to declare). Everyone else has their taxes paid via withholding, and the government gets the accounting for it directly from the employer.

Even getting a deduction for something like a charitable contribution is simple. The receipt is given to the payroll administrator and the credit is given to you as part of your next paycheck. What could be simpler?

Our tax rates are very high, as is the mandatory payment for medical coverage. Yet the record-keeping is pretty simple. I might not understand the basic form, but I know that it truly is basic and is evidence of a simple tax system.

1. Achdut — This one is a bit of a reversal for me. I have bemoaned the lack of achdut between the different segments of our community. This is definitely a problem here and is a serious concern. The fact that huge groups of Jews not only don’t get along, but actually despise each other, is troubling. I definitely feel that this is less of a problem outside of Israel.

However, the longer we live here and bond with our neighbors, the greater our sense of community becomes. While we cannot seem to make friends with the chareidim, we have friends from many cultures and backgrounds. Earlier this week, Chaya had a friend over for a day of studying. All our kids came and went throughout the day and barely noticed them. The fact that this friend is Ethiopian registered more deeply for Goldie and me than for the kids. They simply don’t care.

Our shul is a mishmash of olim (all Ashkenazi) and Israeli-born (mostly Sephardi) families. Yet we try as hard as we can to make everyone feel included and part of the community. The only barriers are language barriers. The other barriers are falling. I think this is great.

The more we can integrate and be viewed as part of the tapestry of Israel, the more we are able to bond with each other and make a contribution. Hundreds of thousands of Russians made aliyah in the most recent wave of immigration (one of them being my nephew’s aforementioned buddy who was killed in action earlier this year), and the country is different because of them. Joining with the thousands of English-speaking olim who have made aliyah, you can help us make Israel better for all of us.

Occasionally, I will use the last paragraphs at the end of my column to wish a mazal tov to friends or relatives here or overseas. This week’s mazal tov is a little closer to home.

When we are at a bar mitzvah or other celebration, Goldie and I often comment to each other how uncomfortable we are when the husband or wife publicly confesses their undying love for their spouse. The proclamations seem a bit much to us and more appropriate for a private conversation. So I want to simply wish a mazal tov to Goldie on our 20th anniversary this Friday. (I might also wish her a yasher koach, since living with me is no picnic.) As for all the rest, she knows what I have to say without my having to spell it out here.

NOTE: The previous two articles are available at the following links:

Spying out the Land:

Spying out the Land (again):