Sunday, December 31, 2006

friday night dinner

last friday night i joined a couple i'm friendly with for friday night dinner. the host happened to be isaac herzog, named after his grandfather, rabbi yitzhak halevi herzog. rabbi yitzhak halevi herzog was the first chief rabbi of ireland. subsequently, from 1937 until his death he was the chief rabbi of british mandate palestine and then israel, once it was formed. my friend, isaac herzog, the host, is also the nephew of the late chaim herzog, the sixth president of israel.

to eat a shabbat meal at the table of the grandson of a former chief rabbi of israel and nephew of a president of the state of israel is pretty remarkable. and yet, while this lineage impressed me, these facts did not faze me. in israel, there is a certain accessibility like nowhere else. perhaps because the country is so small, it seems almost commonplace to bump into and break bread with renowned professors, famous politicians and great personalities. isaac briefly mentioned his grandfather and shared a few stories.

as if that were not special enough, a guest knocked on the door during dessert. it was an older couple who live in the building stopping by to wish our host a shabbat shalom. it turns out that the older couple who visited were dr. and mrs. ephraim shach. dr. ephraim shach is the son of rav elazar shach, zecher tzaddik l'vracha, a leading eastern-european born and educated haredi rabbi of the past generation. rav shach was considered a "gadol hador" (supreme leader of the generation) and was the rosh yeshiva of the ponevezh yeshiva in bnei brak, as well as the founder of the degel hatorah political party.

dr. shach regaled us with stories about his father, his education, life in eastern europe, and stories about other gedolim for over an hour. i sat, mouth agape, totally enthralled. as a student of early modern jewish history and someone who is passionate about judaism, i could not believe how fortunate i was to be getting a first-hand lesson in jewish history. dr. shach spared no detail in painting vivid stories and connecting the dots between all of the great jewish personalities of eastern europe.

we learned of rav shach's early yeshiva studies and about how he was one of rav isser zalman meltzer's ( top pupils, along with a handful of other rabbis who went on to be esteemed figures in modern jewish american and israeli life. rav isser zalman meltzer's talmidim (pupils) included rav aharon kotler, who founded the lakewood yeshiva (, rabbi shlomo zalman auerbach (, and rabbi yehuda amital (, among others.

dr. shach explained that his father, while part of the haredi community, was in fact a zionist. he also told us how his family was supported primarily by his mother (who was rav isser zalman meltzer's niece). rav shach's wife had studied medicine for 3 years. she accompanied a prominent doctor when he made rounds to check on the roshei yeshiva of israel. while the doctor would examine the roshei yeshiva, mrs. shach would wait in the other room. the doctor would then share his findings with mrs. shach and she would diagnose the patient and prescribe medication.

dr. shach recounted the details surrounding his family's escape from lithuania shortly before WWII. rav isser zalman meltzer, who was by that point already in palestine, helped rav shach and his family obtain certificates to go to israel. along with several prominent rabbis and many family members, the shach family set sail from odessa to turkey, from where they would continue their journey by train and foot. the turkish authorities refused to let the eastern european jews disembark, leaving them with no option but to return to the increasingly dangerous situation in russia and eastern europe. a wealthy jew named brotzky heard about the plight of this group of jews and took matters into his own hands. he argued with the turkish authorities, bribed them and offered to personally pay all room and board expenses of the stranded jews. the authorities agreed, and this wealthy jew singlehandedly saved the lives of rav shach and his family. dr. shach, with a gleam in his eye, said to us: "imagine that. a jew, who didn't know us, completely secular, insisted on saving us. just like that. he had a 'pintele yid' (a little jewish spark) in him."

dr. shach is himself a fascinating man. he left the haredi world and became a religious zionist. he served in the IDF and received a doctorate in history and philosophy.

above are just a few of the myriad stories dr. shach shared with us. the stories i heard were moving, enlightening and inspiring. how special it is to live in jerusalem. a city where one's neighbors range from taxi drivers to descendants of great torah luminaries and renowned political figures, where one can stumble upon a history lesson at a neighbor's shabbat table. where once again, there is an inextricable connection to one another and to our rich and powerful heritage.

(below left, rabbi yitzhak halevi herzog. below right, rav elazar shach)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

brush with stardom...

love him or hate him, you have to respect avigdor lieberman. his 'israel beiteinu' party managed to score a huge victory in the recent israeli elections, winning 11 (of 120) seats in the knesset.

as i was leaving the inbal hotel tonight, following a friend's wedding, i noticed a large group of men entering the lobby, all clad in black suits. it was clear that someone important had arrived. i quickly realized lieberman was visiting the inbal hotel for a meeting, whereupon i remarked to my friend: "that's avigdor lieberman!" my friend attempted to hush me, but i couldn't miss the opportunity. i excused myself as i brushed past his bodyguard, stuck out my hand, said hello and wished him well. avigdor shook my hand and responded with a quick greeting and a smile.

i returned to my friend wondering to myself why i hadn't challenged him about his recent political move in which he joined olmert's government. the flawed move has only served to bolster olmert's government, something i'm not in favor of. in any event, when i returned to my friend, she said: "that's why you're going to be president one day!" if only it were that easy!
just another night and another politician in jerusalem...

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


duvdevan, meaning cherry, also refers to an elite special forces unit in the idf ( while we unfortunately did not get to spend the day with those duvdevanim, we at least enjoyed an afternoon of cherry-picking.

friday afternoon... a short drive from jerusalem and we are in a beautiful cherry orchard stuffing our bellies with delicious ripe cherries!

(these pictures are from this summer, during the month-long cherry season in israel)

Monday, October 09, 2006

The People You Meet

Last night I was invited to join my friend's family, the Robinson's, on a night hike not far from the Dead Sea. I jumped at the opportunity. I enjoy hiking under any circumstances, but the darkness of night adds an element of excitement which I couldn't pass up.

We left Jerusalem around 7:30pm and headed in the direction of the Dead Sea. About twenty minutes outside of the city limits, we stopped in the yishuv of Mitzpe Yericho( There we met up with our guide, Moomie, and several other local Mitzpe Yericho inhabitants who would join us.

After departing Mitzpe Yericho, we traveled about five more minutes before reaching the beginning of our hike. All told we were about 25 people. A few of our fellow hikers carried glow-sticks or flashlights, but for the most part, we were guided by the shining full-moon above us.

At night, the Judean desert has an altogether different feel. We felt like we had landed on another planet. There was a delightful breeze and the expanse was simply striking. It was silent, beautiful and awe-inspiring. The hills and rock formations gave off a pale, silvery hue in the moonlight. The land beneath our feet was both firm and sandy at once.

Moomie, our guide, looked and sounded like he had hiked this trail (and probably most of Israel) many times. He stopped us at various junctions to point out something interesting, give us a brief geology lesson, or caution us with safety tips. As our hike continued, I gathered that Moomie, who looked like he was in his mid-forties, is a fireman in the district stretching from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Additionally, he is in charge of search and rescue operations for the area. At more than one location he told us a frightening story of a rescue attempt he had made in the region during flash floods.

The hike started off as a medium-to-rigorous walk. After about twenty minutes, however, it became a serious hike as we descended into the canyon. "Descending" into the canyon involves steep inclines, metal rungs bolted into the side of the cliffs and lots of sliding. What was most amazing was watching how stealthily and fearlessly the children who were in our group navigated their way down the steep precipices.

At one point, there was a bit of traffic as we waited for each person to make their way down a narrow and rocky incline. While waiting my turn, I struck up a conversation with Moomie's wife, Efrat. I asked her how many of the children on the hike belonged to her and Moomie. She showed me five of her six boys who were with us on the hike. The three older sons all looked alike and like their parents. The younger two, however, stood out. She explained that she and her husband had "adopted" the younger two.

The younger two boys had come from an abusive home and were taken from their parents because they had been abused by their parents. Efrat continued by telling me that the two boys, who are natural brothers, had joined her family a year ago at the ages of 3 and 5. The boys' father is in jail and the mother cannot, or does not want to, care for them. I heard grueling stories about how difficult the boys were at first. These stories were shocking in light of how gentle and loving the boys were toward their "adopted" brothers and parents. It was not without much effort, love and care, Efrat shared, that the boys had come to view themselves as part of her family.

The efforts of the past year, unfortunately, may come undone soon. The courts are considering returning the boys to their father, who is now claiming he wants to raise them. She is distressed at the thought of having to give up the boys, especially knowing what kind of home they will return to.

I was impressed with the sincere love and generous dedication that Moomie and Efrat and their older sons showed toward these adorable little boys. I asked Efrat what had inspired her and Moomie to adopt the boys. She told me that both she and her husband, Moomie, had grown up in homes in which their parents had also taken in children from foster or abusive homes! I found this incredibly inspiring.

Here I was on a night hike in the Judean desert with what seemed like a group of "regular" Israelis. Instead, I was marching through the desert with utterly selfless, generous and unique people. Just another night and hike in Israel....

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh La'Zeh

"All Jews are responsible one to the other"

I witnessed a subtle, yet powerful, scene today on the #18 bus as I traveled from Emek Refaim toward Machane Yehuda (the largest outdoor marketplace in Jerusalem). What I saw reminded me that every Jew is part of an organic nation that is Am Yisrael (the people of Israel).

I sat in the first row behind the back door of the bus. The bus trudged along in heavy traffic, stopping and starting abruptly at random intervals. At one point, a young woman boarded the bus with a stroller and her baby. Because the bus was so crowded, it was easier for her to alight with her full load through the back door of the bus. I was sitting on the inside seat in my row and had been engrossed in the book I was reading, so I didn't notice her until she had put her purse down on the seat across the aisle from me.

Her clothes and head-covering betrayed her religious affiliation. The long, flowy dress, with white pants peaking out at the bottom, coupled with the colorful scarf that hid every last strand of hair, immediately (albeit unfairly) labeled her as a "dati leumi" (national religious) woman.

With her purse resting on her seat, the young woman now needed to fold up her stroller and make her way to the front of the bus to pay for her fare, all while balancing her baby. Without hesitating, she asked the man sitting next to me, a complete stranger to her, to hold her baby.

My neighbor, whom I had heretofore not taken note of, was a handsome Israeli "sabra"-looking man in his sixties. He did not wear a kippa (yarmulke) and he dressed casually. Without missing a beat, he cradled the baby in his arms in the most delicate and natural manner. The woman smiled and made her way to the front of the bus, paid the bus driver and returned to retrieve her baby.

She was gone for under one minute and yet the moment, the whole scene froze in time for me. The utter trust that this woman assigned to this complete stranger was simply breathtaking. One can imagine that there is nothing more precious to a woman than her own child and yet it was so clear to this woman, that this man would care for her baby for those few moments. He held the baby so firmly, yet gently in a way that made even me feel secure.

The woman returned and thanked her "babysitter" graciously. I was left feeling something so special. While some might view the woman as naive, I couldn't help thinking that I had just witnessed the fulfilment of the Talmudic dictum that instructs us to look out for and take care of one another. The notion of accountability toward a complete stranger is something difficult to grasp, and yet it is part of the fabric of the Jewish people.

It did not matter to the woman that the man appeared to come from a different neighborhood, religious background, and political affiliation. Likewise, the man did not hesitate for even a moment because of the gap that stood between him and the woman making the request. When all is said and done, we are all Jews. And we must be "responsible one to another."

May this small moment in my day inspire us all to be united together as Am Yisrael.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

"more precious than rubies"

it's time for me to post pictures of the most precious baby...
my beautiful, darling niece, Sabrina!
below she is enjoying the company of her wonderful savta and saba.

Monday, September 11, 2006

a pastiche of jerusalem

"there's no diversity in jerusalem." a good friend of mine uttered these words to explain why she misses new york city so deeply. she shared these sentiments at a passover meal my parents so graciously hosted when they visited earlier this year. at the time i found this comment somewhat bewildering and i was reminded of it again this past friday night.

as i left my sister's apt in old katamon, a smile crept on my face. the night was simply divine. the breeze was perfect. the moon was full, radiant and glorious. and i was sated from a delicious shabbat meal. when i walk through the streets of jerusalem, i am startled anew each time i look up and examine the striking architecture, the old arab homes, the hodge-podge of apartment buildings, the newly renovated, modern homes, the shikkunim (projects), and the occasional consulate. i am simply taken with the beauty and unique nature of jerusalem.

i must confess, that i often strain my neck ever so slightly to peer into the windows of these varied homes and catch a glimpse of the interior and the life inside.

on this particular friday night, i could not help but shift my gaze from left to right as i strolled down my sister's street. the first house i passed revealed three children around a shabbat table playing cards as they wiped away the crumbs from dessert. as i continued down the street my attention was drawn to an open door of the second story of a two-story house, from which i could hear the sounds of a yeminite song being sung. below, the first-floor door was open exposing a family that looked like they had recently arrived from the former soviet union. further on, i noticed a group of young secular israelis, probably around my age, hanging out on a large balcony, drinking beer and discussing the latest political crisis. as i turned the corner, making my way from old katamon to the german colony, i smiled at an elderly couple, who looked as if they had stories to share from pre-State israel.

i ambled down the main street, connecting the two neighborhoods, and i felt serene. i felt lucky to be part of the melange that is my neighborhood. somehow, without knowing personally any of the neighbors i passed, there was something that united us. the songs, the discussions, the games, the food looked and sounded foreign to me and yet i felt close to the people singing, discussing, eating, and playing. i couldn't help but think of my friend's comment and how wrong she is. the difference between new york and jerusalem is not diversity. it is our connection to the diversity that surrounds us.

tomorrow night i will dance at that same friend's wedding as she, a modern orthodox girl from new york, marries her lubavitch fiancee from venezuela.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Close to Home

Signs like this appear all over Jerusalem. This particular sign appears on the road exiting Jerusalem. The homemade sign reads: "Soldier, Thank you for watching over us. Come home in peace!"

Yesterday I attended a prayer rally at the Kotel. I stood next to my friend, Yael, as prominent Jerusalem rabbis led us in the recitation of Psalms. King David (who authored most of the book of psalms), had a way of penetrating the human soul and capturing the deepest of fears, joys and inner-workings of human beings. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Metzger, urged the crowd, which filled the entire plaza extending upwards from the kotel, to have special kavana (intention) for the kidnapped soldiers when reciting the last verse of chapter 142: "Release my soul from confinement to acknowledge Your Name.."

Standing next to us was Yael's mother and her neighbor from Ramot, whose son has been stationed on the southern border of Lebanon for the past week. Yael told me that her neighbor's son is allowed to send one text message a day. Yesterday, he wrote to his family: "Ti'hi'yu chazakim. Ani ohev otchem," "Be strong. I love you guys." I closed my eyes and thought about this boy as we recited chapter 22, "For dogs have surrounded me; a pack of evildoers has enclosed me..." Later I looked up this verse and discovered that one commentary explains: "dogs" refers to "frenzied mobs comprised of base people." How prescient, potent and relevant King David's words are so many thousands of years after he wrote them.

We continue to pray on behalf of the IDF and am Yisrael that, in the words of King David, "G-d will protect you from every evil; He will guard your soul... from this time and forever."

sderot "hizdahut" trip

last night i led a group of nine friends on a trip to sderot. the trip to sderot was born out of a desire to show solidarity with the people of the community. sderot has been pounded with kassams for the past five years, but in the past year since the disengagement, it has intensified tremendously.

i have wanted to visit sderot for several months. initially, before gilad shalit was kidnapped, there was the extra layer of wanting to protest the government's inaction in halting the daily kassams that disturb, disrupt and sometimes destroy the lives of israeli civilians. however, following gilad shalit's kidnapping the government finally sent the army into gaza in an effort to both rescue gilad shalit and to destroy the kassam launching infrastructure. at this point, we thought, we were traveling to sderot to let the people of sderot know that we continue to think of them and pray for their well-being and for the success of the army operation in gaza.

in israel, the experience begins from the moment you board the bus. i reserved a ten-seater nesher and a driver named sabari sabari (- from the word "sabra," the word used to describe a native Israeli, after the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, which is prickly on the outside and sweet on the inside). our drivers first and last name can be translated as: "my cactus!" obviously, someone with a name like that has a personality to match! sabari was friendly and talkative from the moment we alighted his bus. he was impressed with our group and referred to us over the radio as an "achla," awesome, group of kids. as we left the hills of jerusalem behind us, someone from our group began reciting "tefillat haderech," the traveler's prayer. immediately, sabari turned off the radio and placed a kippah on his head.

after driving for just over an hour we reached sderot. i found this remarkable. only one hour outisde of jerusalem and we were as close as you can get to the border with gaza! only one hour away from our comfortable lives in jerusalem and we were standing in sderot, a place where kassams fall at random intervals throughout the day!

we met with rabbi fendel, the head of the hesder yeshiva and an american oleh who arrived in sderot twelve years ago. rabbi fendel gave us a tour of the yeshiva, which cuts through the middle of the town and took us to the edge of sderot. we followed him up the stairs of an abandoned building and emerged on the roof in time to watch an exceptional sunset.

as we gazed at the beautiful sun slipping away, rabbi fendel gave us a brief history of the town. sderot was found in 1955 as an immigrant town. the israeli government settled persians and then morrocans in sderot. in more recent years, russian immigrants have also been settled there.

rabbi fendel arrived in sderot twelve years ago as part of a large-scale program to bring torah and judaism to development towns and communities throughout israel. to his credit, rabbi fendel turned a kollel of nine guys into a yeshiva that today boasts 400 students. the yeshiva has implemented several worthwhile programs in the community, including a pensioners kollel for retired men.

after telling us about the yeshiva and the community, rabbi fendel pointed toward a lone tree, the golani tree, on a hilltop only a half-mile distance from where we stood. "behind that tree, behind that hill," rabbi fendel told us, "is beit hanoun. it is from there that the kassams are fired." i was taken aback at the proximity of this terrorist breeding ground to the beautiful town of sderot. he pointed out that the israeli government promised peace and quiet once israel evacuated gaza and handed it over to the palestinians. contrary to the empty promises, the palestinians have been working more diligently than ever at creating a "ghost town" out of sderot, as rabbi fendel describes it. this is even more striking as sderot is within israel's pre-1967 borders. rabbi fendel left us with the following: "it is immoral for the israeli government to not wipe out the kassams and terrorists of beit hanoun. there is a moral obligation to protect the citizens of sderot. we cannot live like this."

standing on the rooftop of that building, taking in the beautiful sunset, i looked back at the city of sderot. there were young boys playing on a basketball court not far from us. we saw the yeshiva boys behind us in the distance rushing to their classes. and sderot looked stunning in the sunset. i felt serene taking in the scene. it was hard to imagine the fright that must paralyze the people of sderot when they hear the blaring sound of "shachar adom," red dawn, which gives a 15 second warning for incoming kassams.

as rabbi fendel bid us goodbye, his wife, mechi joined our group. mechi, also an american-born olah, spoke with us a little while longer about life in sderot. she told us about a family who sleeps in their living room because there are no windows in the living room and that way they can be safe from kassams. she told us about children who have trouble sleeping at night. she told us about ella abukasis, who was killed by a kassam while shielding and saving the life of her brother (please see the following link to learn more about ella's tragic death and about other sderot citizens who have been killed by kassams:
we walked with mechi back to our bus so that she could show us around sderot.

before we arrived at the bus, we stopped by the protest tent next to the municipality. the protest tent was erected several months ago by residents of sderot wishing to send a message to the government: put an end to kassams falling on sderot. i had assumed that the protest tent would be empty following the idf's incursion into gaza. however, we discovered about 10 people, secular sderot citizens, sitting in the tent.

approaching the tent, one is greeted by several different homemade posters. one reads: "government of israel, you have failed!" another states: "security does not exist for us." after entering the tent, we met with the local sderot citizens. i asked one of the men sitting there, who told us he would be sleeping in the tent that night, "now that the army has entered gaza, what are you protesting?" he responded: "we are happy the army is in gaza, but that does not change the fact that six kassams fell on sderot today. in fact, one kassam fell in my very own yard today. until kassams stop falling in sderot, we continue to protest." he explained that sderot citizens have banded together to create a 24-hour a day presence in the tent.

we met another woman in the tent who told us that she had heard the red dawn siren, looked up, and saw the kassam veering toward her. she stepped aside, and thankfully, avoided the kassam. one of the men sitting in the tent thanked us for coming, saying, "with everything going on in the north, it is so special to us to know that you are still thinking of us and that you came all the way here to support us."

we left the protest tent touched by the two teenage boys, the women, the men, the russian woman and her daughter. these are the people who live in constant threat of kassam rockets!

before heading to a local restaurant, to offer a little financial support as well, we pulled over by an elementary school. our guide showed us a dip in the concrete road where a kassam had fallen not long ago. the kassam fell at 7am, just fifteen minutes before students would have flooded that very street to begin their school day. we learned that when a kassam falls in the middle of the street, even if it's just several feet from a school yard or a house, it is reported in the news as having landed in an "open area." we saw and understood very clearly that this is a gross misnomer. the term "open area" conjures images of an abandoned, large field and yet, in this case, the kassam had fallen just feet from a school yard!

we ended our trip to sderot with dinner in the local dairy restaurant. once again, we were received warmly. we enjoyed dinner and boarded our nesher to return to jerusalem. i left sderot feeling torn. part of me felt relieved to leave the city unscathed and looked forward to returning to the "safety" of jerusalem. part of me felt very reluctant to leave this beautiful city and its inhabitants who live with a constant fear of kassams. one thing was clear: i'm happy i went. i'm happy i was able to tell the people of sderot: we're still thinking about you and we continue to daven for you.

may the idf mission in to gaza be swift and thorough and safe!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"and behold, there came a great wind"

a friend from the states inquired this morning: "what is the average citizen in israel feeling right now?" underlying the seemingly casual question was a serious expression of concern. how is the country dealing with the kidnapping of gilad shalit? what do people here feel about the idf incursion into gaza? how is the government responding to the continued kassam shelling of sderot and now ashkelon and is the response strong enough or effective?

"with all of these terrible things looming in the air," i wrote, "life does continue here." israel is a place where one is forced to integrate, or perhaps, balance, the tension of a constant terrorist threat with the vibrant and enriching cultural, intellectual and religious life that exists here like no other place in the world. in fact, just this past week, jerusalem kicked off a ten-day film festival. the jerusalem film festival is said to be the most impressive in the country.

hoping to escape the radio and internet updates for a few hours, i scanned the film festival program for the days afternoon movies. one title caught my eye: "and behold, there came a great wind." recognizing, the biblical origin of the title, i clicked on the synopsis and discovered the film is a documentary about a couple from nezer hazani and a rabbi/principal of a school in atzmona.

i was immediately intrigued. i arrived in the country just a week after the disengagement, in time to witness the aftermath. this past year i volunteered at a local jerusalem hotel doing arts and crafts projects with boys between 2 and 10 years old and their mothers from neveh dekalim. i worked with this group of incredible children and women through the winter, as they remained in the jerusalem gold hotel (due to the fact that the government had still not "resettled" these families).

my weekly visits to the hotel afforded me the opportunity to get to know some of the special people of gaza. while i did spend quite a bit of time with this group, we almost never spoke about their "previous" life in gush katif. both the boys and their mothers seemed to find the art projects cathartic and soothing. i hesitated to ask questions about life in neveh dekalim, as i didn't want to open the fresh wound. consequently, i was all the more interested in seeing the documentary which followed three people over the course of eight months leading up to the disengagement.

i arrived at the theater just before the movie began. i was gratified to see that the large hall was almost full and that the demographic ranged from teens to senior citizens and kipah-wearing to bare(and sometimes bald)-headed men.

the film was an incredible piece of history that everyone must see. we meet the yefet family from nezer hazani in the opening shot of the film. we are introduced to everyday life in the beautiful community. the camera follows both mr. and mrs. yefet through their respective daily routines. i can think of no better way to describe this extraordinary couple than just salt-of-the-earth, deeply-believing people. they arrived in and helped found nezer hazani in 1977. while mrs. yefet seemed to always be cooking up some delicacy for her family, mr. yefet was busy tending to his farming business, producing herbs such as basil and chives.

the yefet family lost their son, and brother, itamar, in 2000 (please see the following link to the tragic death of itamar yefet: despite their son's untimely death in gush katif, the yefet's were committed to living in gaza. in fact, mr. yefet at one point says he does not fear the mortar shells that occasionally fall into his hothouses. until the month preceding the disengagement, both yefet parents are convinced the disengagement will not happen.

in the days leading up to the disengagement, when it becomes clear to the family that they will in fact be removed from their homes, mrs. yefet expresses her exasperation at the lack of governmental planning for the "day after." the documentary juxtaposes her concern with a clip from a news station aired the night before the disengagement. the newscaster explains the intricate plan of how the residents of gush katif will be removed from their homes. the movie then returns to rachel yefet whose post-disengagement home is still not ready. the filmaker seems to be telling the viewer: you see, the government did not spare anything to insure that the removal of jews from their homes would go flawlessly. however, the government failed to plan, with the same effort and concern, the follow-up for people who would be without homes, jobs, community.

the film weaves another story through the yefet narrative, that of rabbi rafi peretz. rabbi peretz is the beloved head of the pre-military "mechina" yeshiva in atzmona. in the months leading up to the disengagement, rabbi peretz preaches civil disobedience, not violence, to his yeshiva students. even while disbelieving, he cautions his impressionable students that they must never stop respecting the government, however flawed the government's decisions may be.

rabbi peretz invokes the persona of king david to convey his stance. when saul was still king of israel he repeatedly threatened to kill david, who was annointed by G-d as the new king. rabbi peretz points out that david did two things: 1. he never stopped treating saul with respect (see samuel I, chapter 24 as one example) and 2. he never stopped fighting for his people. rabbi peretz seems to embody this two-tiered tactic. he refuses to disrespect the government or the army, and yet he insists on remaining in his beloved beit midrash until the end.

in the final scenes of the documentary, we witness the yefet family in their yard, sobbing together. we are also shown rabbi peretz weeping and speaking in the beit midrash of atzmona to his 200 talmidim (students), who echo his cries in the background. i did not expect to cry and i did not cry until these last shots. the grief woven into the brow of the stoic mr. yefet as he watches his hothouses being dismantled is too much to bear. the yefet family clutching each other, sobbing; the tears shed by the yeshiva boys as they are asked by an army officer to leave their beit midrash.

after the film ended, the director introduced himself and fielded a few questions. the director, ziv alexandroni, is a self-proclaimed tel aviv liberal. he described the experience he witnessed in gush katif as a "tragedy." when asked why alexandroni did not include footage of the people of gush katif rebuilding and rehabillitating their lives, the director stated: "i wanted the film to end on a sad note."

that it did. after watching this film, i was struck by the beauty, depth, simplicity and richness of life in gush katif. the sight of the bulldozers destroying the yefet's, and so many other, homes was that much more tragic after seeing the life that was.

this film resonates even more clearly now. just several days ago, the army returned to a number of the jewish settlements that were evacuated almost one year ago. the army did this in a strategic effort to curb, if not wipe out, the kassam shelling of israel (pre-1967 israel). additionally, the army is in gaza to find and return gilad shalit.

it is not surprising that reports continue to be published analyzing the "failure" of the disengagement. many jewish families who were evacuated are still without permanent homes and jobs. since the disengagement more kassams have been fired into israel than had been fired since 1967. gaza is currently governed by a terrorist organization that avowedly calls for the destruction of israel. in the midst of this, olmert recently reiterated his intention to go forward with the convergence plan, removing 10 times as many people from the west bank as were evacuated from gaza.

"and behold, there came a great wind," the title of the documentary, is part of a verse taken from the book of job (job 1:19). the verse appears after we are told that job's animals, servants and sons and daughters have been taken from him. "and behold, there came a great wind," begins the verse, "and smote the four corners of the house..." the houses and homes of an unbelievable group of people were destroyed. in many ways, their lives were, at least temporarily, destroyed. one must see the film to understand the gravity of this destruction.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Tense Weeks....

It has been a difficult and tense week in Israel. We awoke a week ago, Sunday, to discover the horrible news that Gilad, a 20 year-old soldier in the IDF, had been taken hostage by Palestinian militants. Along with his capture, the terrorists also killed two other chayalim (soldiers).

By Tuesday morning the Israeli government had done little more than entertain diplomatic options and amass tanks along the border with Gaza. That same morning, I attended a briefing at a Jerusalem think-tank, where I work part-time. The former head of the Mossad, Epraim Halevy, spoke with foreign diplomats, press and researchers from the think-tank.

Halevy described the kidnapping of Gilad as "the fatal moment, the moment of truth" for Hamas. This, he claimed, is the moment for the Hamas leadership to prove their mettle, to prove that they are competent and capable of governing the Palestinian people. And the manner in which they handle the crisis will determine the future of Hamas as a governing body.

He viewed this "moment" as a contest between Mashal, the head of the military wing of Hamas, based in Damascus, and the "civil" wing of Hamas. The ex-Mossad head predicted that we would see where Hamas is headed within two days. I sit typing this post nearly a week after Halevy's briefing. It seems abundantly clear that Hamas has failed to "create a structure of command, control and viable governance," the challenge Halevy outlined in the briefing. Gilad remains in the hands of the terrorists and we continue to pray for his well-being.

Amidst the horror of Gilad's kidnapping, the country was informed that Eliyahu, an 18 year-old boy from Itamar was also kidnapped. For some reason, Eliyahu's kidnapping did not generate the same publicity and media attention as Gilad's. Perhaps because Eliyahu was from the "shtachim," the settlements. However, Eliyahu was kidnapped while hitchiking from French Hill, a neighborhood in Jerusalem.

On Thursday, it was revealed that Eliyahu had been killed immediately after he was kidnapped (on Sunday). One of the murderers, who was arrested by the Israeli government in an effort to crack down on the Hamas leadership, led the police to Eliyahu's body on a hilltop near Ramallah.

I attended Eliyahu's funeral in Jerusalem. Needless to say, the scene was heart-breaking. I stood in the blazing sun with several thousand Israelis. We listened to the hespedim (eulogies) over loud-speakers. A number of rabbis and local Itamar politicians eulogized Eliyahu. Although it was difficult to hear and decipher the speeches, the sobs and wails of Eliyahu's four younger siblings and parents were a distinct undertone throughout.

The sound of the continuous wail of the family members will always remain with me. The sickening sound of a young girl sobbing, wailing over her 18 year old brother's casket was haunting, eerie and unnatural.

Both Eliyahu's mother and father gave eulogies. Eliyahu's "adopted" grandfather, Rav Druckman also spoke about his son. One common theme that all of the speakers touched upon was Eliyahu's biblical namesake, Elijah the Prophet and his ability to intercede on behalf of the people of Israel. Eliyahu's mother beseeched him: "Eliyahu, please pray to God on our behalf."

Today I joined a group of several people who desired to pay a shiva call to the Osheri family. We traveled on a bullet-proof bus to the town of Itamar. As we left Jerusalem behind us, I was struck, as I always am, by the beautiful vast expanse of land, mountains and hills that is the "west bank." Only fifteen minutes outside of the bustling city center of Jerusalem, the serenity of the stunning landscape is striking.

We passed Beit El, Eli, Shilo, Ofra and many other charming and vibrant towns as we headed toward Itamar. When I got off the bus in Itamar I took several pictures. Although Nablus is only 3 kilometers from Itamar, I immediately did a 360 and realized I could see no other village or town in any direction.

As we approached the Osheri house, we discovered the family sitting shiva in the yard outside. Apparently, the home was too small to contain the large numbers of friends, families, and strangers like myself. I joined the group surrounding Eliyahu's parents. I sat toward the back of the circle and listened and watched the bereaved mother and father. I glalnced behind me and saw a girl, Eliyahu's sister, the source of the horrifying wails at the funeral, who looked like she couldn't be more than ten or eleven, surrounded by a circle of her peers.

The woman sitting next to me reminded me that the town of Itamar (which is populated by around 100 families) has seen its share of tragedies. In the past five years, fourteen members of the community have been murdered in terrorist attacks. I cringed at the thought. And then the woman told me that one of those fourteen had been a dear friend of Eliyahu's. (please see the following link to the unspeakable tragedy of the shabo family from itamar: I later found out from Eliyahu's father that Eliyahu would have been at his friend's house that night, but had rushed home immediately after the night's activities at his father's instruction.

After sitting with the parents for a little while, I joined a group of three journalists who interviewed Eliyahu's father. The father agreed to speak with the press, for what ended up lasting about an hour. Mr. Osheri spoke of his son's development in the years leading up to his murder last week.

Apparently, Eliyahu was not much of a student in high school. He was not interested in the material being taught. Once he entered a "pre-military" mechina program, however, Eliyahu seemed to turn over a new leaf. His spiritual development progressed very quickly. As his mother had told us earlier, he asked penetrating, thoughtful and deep questions about belief and Judaism. He thrived at his yeshiva.

Mr. Osheri shared with us that Eliyahu's mother had given voice to concern several months back regarding Eliyahu's spiritual growth. His mother worried:"He's so close to the Almighty now, I'm afraid the Almighty will take him." (How unfortunately prophetic her words were). I was told that when Eliyahu prayed the mincha, afternoon service, it was like watching someone pray the Yom Kippur service.

Eliyahu's father's words left an indelible imprint on me. I kept returning to the picture of Eliyahu smiling, emanating "chein," goodness and a deep spirituality.

After discussing Eliyahu for a while, the questions veered toward Mr. Osheri's own spiritual journey. He shared with us his own path to Judaism. As a non-Jewish child in Australia, he told us, he knew at the age of ten that Catholicism was not for him. He studied East Asian religions in college and found them engaging only on a cursory level. When he lived in New Guinea for two years, he met an architect whose wife happened to be Israeli. This woman encouraged Mr. Osheri to visit and spend time in Israel.

He did. He spent a year living on a non-religious kibbutz. Mr. Osheri explained that it was on that kibbutz that he sensed something special, unique about the Jewish people. The kibbutznikim possessed some sort of intangible spiritual, ethical quality. He asked them the source of that spark. Someone handed Mr. Osheri a pamphlet of "pirkei avot," "ethics of our fathers." Reading Pirkei Avot, for him, was like discovering a canteen of water in the middle of the desert. Subsequent to his stint on kibbutz, Mr. Osheri returned to Australia where he studied and learned for a year, culminating in his conversion to Judaism.

I was amazed at the quiet, humble and methodical manner in which Mr. Osheri shared such a personal and unbelievable story. Toward the end of the conversation, the ha'aretz journalist asked him how he would respond to people who think that he should not be living in Itamar. Eliyahu's father softly, yet firmly, answered: "I would tell them to open the Bible and read very closely and discover that G-d gave this Land to only one people, the Jewish people."

On the bus ride back to Jerusalem, I thought about Eliyahu, his parents and his siblings. His parents, such salt-of-the-earth, gentle, spiritual people grieving over the loss of a son. I thought about the people of Itamar, their beautiful town, their idealism. I thought about the little children who were playing in their "gan," schoolyard when I walked through the town. I thought about Mr. Osheri, his spiritual journey and his son Eliyahu, and his own spiritual journey. I thought about Mrs. Osheri, who could not release my hand from hers when I blessed her upon my departure that G-d should comfort her.

These sights are difficult to understand and accept. I am left without words. Only with prayer. For Gilad. For the Osheri family. For the Jewish people. For the State of Israel.

(the picture at the top of the post is Eliyahu Asheri, Hashem Yikom Damo)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

a nation of hope

(i wrote this on april 2, 2006 just after the israeli elections)

leading up to last tuesday night, i had the honor of working with ari h. on the likud campaign. ari was the likud spokesperson and responsible for the foreign press. although i got involved late in the game, i still enjoyed attending a press conference, and meeting with several diplomats and MK's, including Bibi Netanyahu. the climax of my volunteer work with the likud culminated with the results from the israeli elections on tuesday night of last week.

i was invited to join and assist at likud headquarters in tel aviv, at ganei hatarucha, as election results arrived. the buzz leading up to the first tally was still optimistic. i met with the cnn people and the bbc people and as MK's arrived, i met with their press people. i rushed around the oval-shaped room matchmaking press people with MK's available for interviews. but as the results were announced, the mood quickly devolved into a palpable gloom.

according to initial results, the likud, which had received 38 mandates in the previous election, was slated to receive only 11 seats this time around. as all of the supporters, aides, press people and MK's hovered around the large tv screens to watch the results, we witnessed rejoicing at almost every other campaign headquarters. the mood was quiet and despondent at the ganei hataarucha likud headquarters. eventually, bibi came to make a speech. all of the likud MK's who were present joined him on the dais. (every MK was dressed in suit and tie except for Natan Sharansky, who, at least several inches shorter than the next shortest MK, donned his trademark army green cap and wore a dark colored shirt). netanyahu gave an inspiring speech, given the circumstances. he vowed to remain at the helm and guide the likud forward.

when netanyahu finished his speech, he paused for a moment, and the room became silent. seconds later the opening chords of "hatikva" wafted through the room. every person stood in place and sang loudly and proudly with netanyahu, sharansky and the several other likud MK's who likely will not enjoy a seat in this knesset.

i sang loudly and felt proud to be in israel, a part of this incredible country and people, a part of a democratic process in a democratic country amidst a sea of muslim terrorist countries. i sang loudly because i was inspired by watching the "defeated team" - netanyahu, MK uzi landau (quite an impressive man) who will not make it into the knesset because he was #14 on the likud slate, and others- sing with pride... "od lo avda tikvateinu" ..." we have not yet lost our hope".... "hatikva bat shnot alpayim lihiyot am chofshi b'artzeinu eretz zion yerushalaim"... "the hope of thousands of years, to be a free nation in our land, the land of zion, jerusalem"...

less than a day later, i found myself standing in the cool jerusalem night breeze on a balcony at the king david hotel overlooking the walls of the old city. my sister and i joined eight people who had journeyed to jerusalem from yucaipa and redlands, california. we came together to witness the wedding ceremony of a couple from redlands, california who had just converted to judaism. every guest present participated in the ceremony, whether reciting a bracha, or holding up a corner of the talit to create the chuppa.

it was interesting and almost surreal to participate in such a small jewish wedding and play such an integral role. the symbolic act of the chatan stamping on the glass, commemorating the destruction of the beit hamikdash and expressing our yearning for it to be rebuilt, seemed that much more relevant and potent as the old city walls loomed in the backdrop. the impressive stone structures, lit up at night, exuded an almost magical quality from our vantage point. the walls, built in the 16th by sultan the magnificent of the ottoman empire, surround the remnants of the outer walls of the beit hamikdash.

i've been thinking about how i spent tuesday and wednesday nights last week. at the election headquarters and then at a tiny jerusalem wedding. the events were separated by fewer than 24 hours and a solar eclipse. when i think of those two nights and many other incredible nights that have passed since i first arrived in this country, the words of hatikva pulse through my head.... "od lo avda tikvateinu".. "we still have not lost hope"... the likud, the newly jewish couple, the jewish nation. democracy prevails in the middle east despite our neighbors best efforts. we are not always satisfied with the results, and we continue to hope and pray for a government that will protect its people and its land, and yet, democracy prevails. as do the jewish people. we vote, we rejoice, we live.

the words of jeremiah continue to be fulfilled "od yishama b'arei yehuda u'v'chutzot yerushalaim kol sasson v'kol simcha kol chatan v'kol kallah" (jeremiah 33:10-11) "there will still be heard in the cities of judah and in the streets of jerusalem the sound of gladness, the sound of happiness, the sound of the groom, the sound of the bride." i witnessed the fulfillment of jeremiahs words last week. for these reasons, the words "od lo avda tikvateinu, we have not yet lost hope" are always on my mind in this country. because we are a people of hope.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Vive la Fete

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine informed my sister and me that there would be a Republican Party gathering at the King David Hotel that Saturday night. We decided to attend.

When we arrived, there were probably forty or so people in the hall. Shortly thereafter, a contingent of about fifteen men, looking like upscale business-men entered the room. As it turns out, they were all elites of the Republican party taking part of a Republican mission to Israel.

One of the gentlemen struck up a conversation with me. I told him about where I had gone to college, what I was doing in Israel, etc. I spoke about myself for about fifteen minutes, when I finally asked him: "And what is your affiliation with the Republican party?" to which he responded: "I'm the Chairman."

There I was, slightly aghast, that I had been blabbing on about myself to the Chairman of the Republican Party! The Chairman, Ken Mehlman, was lovely, personable, friendly and intelligent. He continued by informing me that he had run President Bush's re-election campaign! I felt somewhat humbled, but also delighted by the fact that I was casually shmoozing with such an important figure in the party.

We also met Matt Brooks, the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He was also very friendly. Mr. Mehlman spoke and fielded questions. He was quite articulate and impressive, reiterating President Bush's support for Israel.

As we exited the room we nearly collided with Former Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who was headed to the King David gym! I shook hands with him and wished him a goodnight!

The entire night left me with the feeling: "Only in Israel." Where else would I have rubbed elbows with dignitaries from the Republican party and bumped into a former prime minister?!

(The pictures are of me, Ken Mehlman and my sister; the second one is us with Matt Brooks)
(Enjoy the irony of the French title to describe a Republican party gathering!)

Freeways, Fireworks and Fearless Sisters

My sister just sent me pics from a recent adventure that began on a disappointing note but ended on an exciting, if somewhat dangerous high note...

To kick off the recent French Festival in Tel Aviv, a big-name French fireworks company decided to launch the largest fireworks show in Israel to date. My sister and I, never ones to miss out on something fun, decided to travel to Tel Aviv after a short stop in Modi'in. The only problem was that half the country had the same plan. We left Modi'in only thirty minutes before the extravaganza was to begin. (Modi'in is about 40 minutes from Tel Aviv when there's zero traffic). It quickly became clear to us that we would not make it to Tel Aviv in time. As we sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic, we turned to each other and decided to give up. We got off at the next exit and headed back to Jerusalem.

As we alighted a hill on the freeway heading home, we noticed several cars pulled over on the shoulder. It occurred to us that these cars had pulled over to view the fireworks from the road. Because we were on the top of the incline, we would have a perfect view. We immediately decided to pull over. Shortly thereafter, the fireworks began. An Israeli who had parked his car not far from ours ran across the freeway to the middle of the freeway and called us to join him for a better view. We foolishly agreed and ran to the island in the middle of the highway! Needless to say, the fireworks were spectacular, and that much more exciting from our vantage point!!!