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!!!