Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li

It’s Rosh Chodesh Elul, the beginning of the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holidays (Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Simchat Torah).  It is a month that we dedicate to introspection, to cheshbon hanefesh, where we look deeply into our souls and self-evaluate.  What did I do right? What could I have done better?  What do I regret, and what will I do to ensure I won’t repeat the things I’ve done wrong?  Whom have I hurt, and from whom must I beg forgiveness?  Can I find it in myself to forgive those who’ve done me wrong?  Can I maximize my potential?

It is said that  Elul – the letters aleph, lamed, vav, lamed – is an acronym for Ani L’Dodi v’Dodi Li:  I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me.  That the key to avoiding sin is love, because if we can love someone sincerely, whether in a neighborly way or in a more intimate way with our spouse and children, or through our awe and worship of G-d, that very love will help us choose to do the right thing, the loving thing, when we might be tempted to do otherwise.  

Everyone in Israel has a story.  It’s usually a Big Story.  Perhaps it’s because Israelis wear their hearts on their sleeves, and Israelis come from so many different lands and have been through many wars and tragedies and they feel like we’re all one big connected family; but there is an intimacy here that I never found in the US.  In completely mundane places it has been my privilege to meet people in Israel from all walks of life; every strata of society; different religions and cultures.  And for whatever reason they’ve shared their amazing Big Stories with me.

The story I am about to tell was, for me, devastating and shocking in its sadness, yet the person who told it to me felt differently.  She was a genuinely happy person.  I know I could not have made the choices she did, but she did so with complete sincerity and without regret.  She was selfless to a degree that I cannot imagine attaining, but it was a lesson in humility and grace that was profound.  

This past Shabbat, the culmination of what was a blisteringly hot and humid week in Israel,  our fan overheated (the irony is not lost on me) and the motor burned out .  Since our rental apartment doesn’t have air conditioning in the bedroom, it was essential that I replace it with a new fan the very next morning.

Fortunately most appliance stores had fans on “end of season” sales (even though this crazy heat’s “end of season” won’t be for another 6 weeks!).  While I was in the store two elderly women were also shopping for a fan, and we got into a conversation about various models and prices.  I thought they were friends or sisters, so I was surprised to see the younger one refer to the older lady as “Ima” – mother.  It turned out the mother was 83 years old, and although she moved slowly and deliberately, she was dressed to kill from head to toe, and sported chic French designer eyeglasses.

The fan would require assembly, and it came in a very large box.  After they paid, the ladies asked for a bag.

“Oh, we don’t have bags large enough for that,” the cashier replied.  They asked for a rope to make a handle so they could carry it comfortably, but there was no rope either.

“Perhaps you would be nice enough to have someone from the store carry it to the ladies’ car?” I interrupted.

“Oh, we don’t have a car,” the ladies said in unison.

How were they going to get this big box home, I wondered aloud.

“We will take the bus,” they answered.

“Ladies!” I replied.  “You simply cannot take the bus!  It’s 94 F degrees outside (34C), and very humid.  This is not healthy for you!”

They shrugged.

“Where do you live?” I asked.  They mentioned a suburb about 4 miles away.  “I will take you,” I said.  I just couldn’t bear picturing them struggling with the box on a bus in the heat.

The cashier shouted loudly, “Blessings upon your head!  May you have health, happiness, a long life!  May your children be a source of nachat! May you make a good living!  May HaShem bless you with only good, just as you are doing good for these ladies!”

Oh my!

The ladies then proceeded to bless me similarly as we made our way to my car.  By now I was blushing.

As soon as we started driving, the younger of the two ladies, Lorette (“that’s my real name, but I prefer that you call me by my Hebrew name, Efrat”) started telling me her life story.

“Mother and I made aliyah from Morocco in 1967.  At the time of the Six Day War, it was very difficult to be living in Morocco if you were a Jew, and we saw there was no future.  At home we spoke mostly French and some Hebrew, and we knew Moroccan Arabic.  We also learned English in school.

“My mother was a child bride, as was typical of that era.  She gave birth to me when she was 16,” she continued.

“Life has been good for us in Israel.  I was married for 15 years to the love of my life.  He is from Uzbekistan.  He was so good to me.  We were so happy.  But I couldn’t give him children, and even though he didn’t complain, I could not bear his sorrow.  So I suggested we get a divorce, so he could have children with someone else.  I only wanted him to be happy, and he deserved to have a family.

“He went on to marry someone else, and in fact he has two daughters today.  We are still in contact, and he invites me to his family events, which I attend with great happiness, since I am not forgotten.

“When we went to the rabbinical court for the get (religious divorce), the rabbis on the Beit Din (rabbinical court) urged me to collect the 100,000 shekel promised to me in my ketuba (marriage contract).  But I said no!  My husband had been so good to me all the years we were married, he really took care of me, but I knew he didn’t have the money, and I didn’t want him to be in so much debt, especially as he was starting a new life.  I had an apartment and a job, and I would manage.  So I walked away with nothing.

“Do not feel sorry for me.  I’ve had a happy life, and my husband has a lovely family.  I have so much to be grateful for!  But there is one thing I would like:  I am looking for a good man to marry.  Do you know of anyone for me?”

I was stunned by Lorette/Efrat’s story.  It took me many seconds to recover to be able to answer her.

“What are you looking for?” I replied meekly.

“An Ashkenazi man in his sixties.  Moroccan men are too macho, and want to take over!  Just… a good man.  Someone with a warm heart, who will enjoy spending time together.  Someone who believes in God.”  Lorette explained that in the past few years, she has had plenty of time to think about her life.  “I have no regrets, except that I wasn’t religious when I was young,” she said.  “Lately I’ve been going to the synagogue every Shabbat, and a young man who is a ba’al tshuva (newly religiously observant) sends me a video of the Torah reading every Monday and Thursday morning, along with an explanation.  She accessed her Facebook account and held her smart phone in front of me, showing me a Torah reading in a Sephardi shul. “I have so much to learn, and I’m sorry religious observance was never a priority for me in the past.”  She then began talking about her deep belief in God, and that we can’t always see the bigger picture.  Her faith and raison d’etre were rock-solid.

We arrived at the ladies’ apartment.  I wondered who would put the fan together for them but they assured me that they are assembly whizzes.  Lorette/Efrat took my phone number and promised to be in touch.  We exchanged blessings for the coming year, and I drove away, thinking deeply about our “random” encounter on Rosh Chodesh Elul for many hours thereafter.

 

 

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Mazal Tov (we take credit cards)

Because there are so many different levels of religious observance, customs, cultures and communities among Jews in Israel, it is always fascinating and fun to go to weddings where things are not quite what you are used to. Expect the unexpected!

Last night we were invited to the wedding of very dear friends of ours. We couldn’t be more different in terms of our backgrounds, yet we’ve remained close for the past 17 years despite living (until recently) on different sides of the world.

We met through our eldest son, seventeen years ago in Baltimore. At that time my son was volunteering through Bikur Cholim, an organization that visits the sick and helps families navigate through medical difficulties. My son met a man and his wife who had flown in from Israel so that the man could receive a kidney transplant. The operation was a success but for medical reasons they weren’t yet able to fly home. They had left 4 small children in Israel under the care of relatives. Pesach was coming in a few days and the prospect of spending Passover without their children was unbearable enough, but it was even more difficult knowing they’d be in a hotel near the hospital, alone. They barely spoke English.

My son called me to ask if we could invite them to stay with us for Pesach, so that they could participate in a Seder and have someone to talk to, since we speak Hebrew. Of course we agreed — the more the merrier, I said.

The father, who was in his 40s, was in a weakened state, but managing fine. He was originally from an island off Tunisia called Djerba, but his family made aliyah to Israel many years ago when he was four years old. His lovely wife is a teacher. Although she was born in Israel, her family originally made aliyah from India; they were part of the Cochin Jewish community. Culturally we couldn’t have been more different, but we hit it off immediately. In between my Pesach cooking and cleaning, I took them on a few drives to show them around Baltimore and we even fit in a shopping trip so they could buy presents for their children. It was the first time in their lives they had been to an Ashkenazi seder, and it was fun to exchange information about how differently we each celebrated Pesach.

We visited Israel a few times in the coming years, and each time we visited our new friends. We kept in touch in the interim through phone calls and emails. Now, seventeen years later, we were invited to their son’s wedding. Not only did the father of the groom survive his kidney transplant — thank G-d, he is thriving. What a miracle that he was able to walk his son down the aisle to his chuppa. Of course we were going!

Now here is where different customs get interesting. In Israel, expenses are very much on everyone’s minds. Most people are of modest means, yet weddings are always sit-down dinners. Families are large, with many extended relatives. Classmates are invited. People tend to have a lot of friends. It’s not an exaggeration to say that 400 – 500 people are the average number of attendees at an Israeli wedding. The wedding business is very lucrative since there are always so many weddings. Since there is lots of competition, the wedding halls go all out in their decor. The wedding hall we were in last night was just outside of Kfar Saba, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Besides the impressive building where the dinner and dancing took place, the outside grounds were landscaped beautifully. There was a giant swimming pool that was the size of a small lake, and an “island” in the middle is where the chuppa was set up. It was dazzling, to say the least.

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So how can the average Israel afford to marry off his children?

At secular Israeli weddings, as well as religious Sephardi weddings, it is the guests who pay for the wedding.

This is how it works:

When the couple gets engaged, the parents pay a small down payment to reserve a wedding hall, which comes with a caterer. The day of the wedding, the guests do not bring wedding gifts. The only gift that is given is money. We are not talking a small sum. The customary amount is around $100 – – per guest. But giving even more than that is not unusual.

That’s a lot of cash, and there have been cases where the money was stolen at the venue. So now wedding halls provide a safe at the entrance. The wedding hall we went to last night had a safe, and next to the safe was a table with pens, paper and envelopes, so you could put money and a greeting into the envelope before putting it in the safe. But this is not all. To make it even easier for guests, wedding halls have now installed dedicated ATMs. The screen has a photo of the bride and groom, and you simply fill in your name, amount, and a message. After you swipe your credit card, you get a receipt texted to your smart phone, along with a pre-written thank you text signed by the bride and groom.

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In the foreground, 2 men write greetings at the table provided with pens, paper and envelopes. In the middle ground to the left, a man enters the amount of his gift and swipes his credit card at one of the dedicated ATM machines.
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The envelopes containing greetings and cash go straight into the safe next to the table
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A close-up of the screen of the dedicated ATM machine. The caption under the bride and groom photo says “We are happy you’ve come to celebrate with us!” signed with their names

When the guests leave, and the bride and groom go off into the sunset, the wedding is still not over for the parents. Now they must settle the bill with the caterer. The safe is opened. The amount collected is tallied, as are the amounts deposited into the dedicated ATM machine. The parents pay the caterer’s bill with the gift money on the spot. Any money left after the caterer is paid then goes to the bride and groom.

Perhaps it’s not quite romantic, but this system does save families (but not their guests!) a lot of financial grief. The guests are not required to pay, but overwhelmingly they want to. The parents don’t have to go into hock to marry off their children (unless they are part of the Israeli Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox community, in which case the custom is for parents to buy their kids their first house). The newlyweds are not left with a huge amount of money after paying the caterer, but it’s usually enough to justify a shopping trip to IKEA to set up their rental apartment.

The wedding was extremely lively, with dinner, dancing and festivities that lasted well into the night. Even though we didn’t know another soul, we had a great time and met lots of really nice people. A wedding in Israel lasts many hours with lots of food, music, dancing and singing; it’s pure happiness combined with spirituality. I’ve never seen anyone get drunk at an Israeli wedding. People are lively – – there is always a guest who juggles fire at some point, or balances a chair on his nose – – but generally guests behave themselves. They are there to truly bring joy to the bride and groom, and they certainly do succeed. Certainly with the guests’ gifts of money, they succeed in bringing joy to the (much relieved) parents as well!

Job Hunting in Israel: Great Advice

Perhaps some of you are thinking about aliyah, and wonder about job prospects. I have much to say on this subject, but fortunately, a wonderful German olah (immigrant) by the name of Julia Noa Thanheiser eloquently beat me to the punch. She wrote this for a Facebook group called “Keep Olim in Israel” and that is a group well worth joining if aliyah is on your radar (caveat:  the Keep Olim group doesn’t always stick to platitudes; you will hear plenty of kvetches too; but overall the Keep Olim group gives a genuine picture of the joys and challenges of living in Israel). Julia Noa Thanheiser’s advice is SO true, SO relevant, and SO helpful – – it’s an absolute must-read if you are considering aliyah and will be looking for employment in Israel.

**Happy Monday post!! Successful Aliyah comes with good employment! But how to get there?**
My name is Julia and I am nearly 20 years in Israel. I would say my Aliyah is a success story overall although I had my share of ups and downs. Life isn’t always easy away from everything you know (people and culture), but I love this country, it’s my home and the only thing missing these days is a partner, but I believe when time is right he will come.
I would like to share with you my experience over the years in the hi-tech world. While I established myself in the hi-tech world, I had to change a few things from what I was used to. It wasn’t very easy at start (low salary and very many hours including evening and Fridays) but once you have one good company name on your resume, doors start to open. It doesn’t matter how much money you made in that first job. Just that you worked in a good company.
Then you up your salary job by job until you get to your career. Also note (and I only speak for the tech world) networking is everything. You keep meeting people at different companies. Israel is small. Everyone knows everyone. So even if you are laid off, be nice. You WILL meet them again. And keep in touch with people and network network network. There are a million events and meet-ups for that. One year ago I was made redundant at my company after 10 years of service.
At this point in life I had become a single mom. Being responsible not only for myself but for my adorable 6-year-old made the “fall” much harder. I was very stressed and scared. But I didn’t allow myself to fall. A day of a good cry and then back to what I know…. reach out to my network and search for a job. I sent 200 CVs out in only the first week of job search. I documented every single job I applied to, the contact person, who I knew in the company, and any other useful info. And it was through an old colleague who had moved on to another company, that I was invited to interview at the place I am working the past 12 months. I initially didn’t hear from them after I sent my CV. So I followed up with my friend. She went to talk to the hiring manager who said he wasn’t going to invite me for an interview cause I was lacking one of the skills/requirements. She asked him to meet me anyhow and it would be worth his time. Once they met me they heavily pursued me to come on board and we are very happy with each other.
I have a very high flexibility towards where I work from and when I do the hours to get the job done which allows me to be with my daughter daily at hours she is out of daycare and in return they get the full dedication from me that no matter on an evening or a Friday sometimes – I get the job done.
I am happy at work and happy with my life.

My suggestion for DOs and DONTs re job search:
1) Don’t get drawn into what’s wrong in Israel (there is lots but it will affect your mood and your attitude), refocus on what’s going well
2) Job search is a full-time job. Treat it with that seriousness and time investment
3) Network network network. Talk to everyone you know, post in respective groups (there are many) go to meet-ups (there are gazillions).
4) Always research your potential position. If you know someone in the company contact that person to discuss the position and ask them to send your CV internally. This will up your chances by a lot. Companies prefer to hire friends of employees.
4b) Always adjust your CV with keywords matching the requirements from the job ad. Often automatic algorithms will determine if your CV gets to a hiring manager or not.
5) ALWAYS but always follow up after you sent your CV and also after an interview. Call them and introduce yourself. It is a bit unpleasant/stressful at first but it has only worked in my favor. People were so nice, even scheduled interviews with me right away on the phone even though all I asked was if they had received my CV.
6) When you interview remember you interview them too, whether or not this is a company you wish to work for, whether the job is what you are looking for. This reduces stress and puts you as equals.
7) Accept jobs in great companies also if they are below your standard. I have been offered for example a promotion after only 1 month on a temporary job and spent 3 happy years there before I chose to move on.
8 ) Do your research to enable you to ask intelligent questions about the company and position, the market in question, etc.
9) Return the favor to people who helped you. Invite them for coffee or see how you can put a smile on their face. And pay it forward. Help other people find work. Trust me, they will always remember you. The difference between a well-connected person looking for work and someone without connections can be long months of unemployment.
10) Make use of your advantages. You speak English at mother tongue level, Spanish, German? You have other additional skills? Sell yourself with why this helps your potential employer and the company. What’s in it for them?
Last but not least:
11) Learn Hebrew! While being hired in hi-tech does not require fluent Hebrew, everyone prefers to hire at least basic Hebrew speakers so they don’t have to hold team meetings internally in English because of you.

Good luck!!

ed. note:  in Israel, the term “hi-tech” refers to jobs having to do with computer programming, software design, engineering and architecture, as well as start-ups

Immigrant Blues

Our aliyah to Israel has been nothing short of spectacularly successful so far.  We’ve made friends, we love our community and its location, my husband loves his job, we’re healthy, and life is good.

But.

My ego is hurting.

I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person.  I love learning just about anything and everything.  I love to read, and I have a strong, curious nature that wants to know what makes things tick.  I also consider myself a great resource person, and love to help the constant stream of people who come to me for advice on where to buy whatever at a good price, how to build or design something, where to travel,  what remedy to use.

Perhaps the most challenging thing about our journey here is feeling stupid.

Our Hebrew is good – – we can mostly negotiate the day-to-day stuff.  It takes a painfully long time, but I can now read much of the daily news in Hebrew.  Conversational Hebrew is fine, too – – I have made Israeli friends and regularly host people at my home for meals.  Our Hebrew may be good, and yes, we can get by.  But will we ever attain a level of proficiency that enables us to sound truly intelligent, instead of like sixth graders?

It’s doubtful.

So no, we cannot contribute to a deep philosophical or academic conversation with our brilliant Israeli friends.  We just sit there absorbing the information, but looking kind of dumb as we nod furiously.  Our discussions rarely get past the superficial if they are going to be two-way conversations.

Recently I joined a committee in my village to help plan and execute cultural events.  I thought it would be a great way to meet people on a deeper level.  I know I’m a great resource person, and I’ve planned many major events.  But I found that as the “whatsapp” messages starting flying back and forth to the committee members about suggestions, and what needed to be done, I was overwhelmed and lost.  By the time I tediously and laboriously typed in my input in Hebrew on my smart phone, they were already 20 whatsapps ahead of me and onto a different topic entirely.  Meeting in person didn’t help either.  They thought my suggestions for events were dumb.  Probably some were dumb, but others, I can assure you, were not.  I had two things going against myself:  I was not young and cool, and I did not know where the cheapest/best/fastest etc could be found.  I admit it.  They intimidated me, and I retreated into silence.  I was irrelevant, and consequently unhelpful.  I tried, but I was invisible.  When I told them that the combination of my Hebrew difficulties and lack of input made it impossible for me to continue being on the committee, despite my sincere desire to assist, the response was the Hebrew equivalent of “don’t slam the door on your way out.”

These are not mean or evil people.  I simply didn’t make the grade.  And I don’t honestly know that five years from now, despite my striving to improve, it will be any better.

I know that every immigrant anywhere in the world will relate to this, especially those that are older (I’m 61 and my husband is 70).  I also know that we could have made life easier for ourselves by moving to a city in Israel that is more heavily populated with English speakers, so we wouldn’t have to struggle with language and culture.

But we chose to live in a very Israeli village, and I’m still truly glad we did.  We didn’t come to Israel to live in “little America.”  We chose to immerse ourselves in Israeli culture, all the while knowing that we will always be “the Americans” despite our Israeli citizenship.  And we have been accepted here with genuine love and friendship.  I love Israeli energy, optimism, and achievement.  I love the big hearts of Israelis, and their naturally giving – – and forgiving – – natures.  I love that every single Israeli is a “character”, and has a story and family history that is astounding.  I respect that every Israeli has been touched by tragedy, but that he looks to the future.  I am proud that every Israeli yearns not for the destruction of our enemies, but through doing good and doing it with love, Israelis hope that our enemies will recognize Truth, accept us and want to live in peace.

Israel is filled with immigrants who work at minimum wage because their age or language impedes them from moving forward.  (I once met a woman janitor who used to be a judge in Russia.)  It’s so humiliating to feel stupid, and so frustrating not to be able to express ourselves, or contribute in the way we might wish.  (My husband, who is blessed to have a great job in the hi-tech industry as a high-level programmer, can communicate and perform brilliantly in the international language of Java or C++.  He feels fine until he opens his mouth.)  Despite our outward confidence, who are we kidding?  We feel inadequate on a constant basis.

I think of my grandparents, who were smart yet limited by their immigrant burdens.  It’s ironic that I now find myself in a similar place, even if the country is different.

Many of us swallow our pride, because we are building a future and fulfilling a greater destiny in a bigger picture. We are not only experiencing history in Israel – – we are part of it.

 

 

 

 

Bullying

It’s considered a grave sin to say bad things about the Holy Land of Israel, even if they’re true, but sometimes, when there is at least the possibility of redemption, the story needs to be told.

Israel is not immune to the Human Condition — both its beauty and its ugliness.  It’s been my mission in my blog “Midlife in Israel” to promote its beauty because the Land of Israel gets enough bad-mouthing from the rest of the world, and most of the accusations are unjust.

But this story tore at my heartstrings.

It starts with a Jewish-but-not-religious grandmother who made aliyah with her 11 year old daughter from Romania.  The daughter grew up, married, and had a son.  I don’t know what their particular challenges were, but they returned to Romania when the boy was 2.  Ten years later, they decided that they wanted to raise the child in Israel, among Jews, so they came back to Israel a year ago and settled in Netanya, a coastal town north of Tel Aviv.  The mother knows Hebrew fluently; the rest of her family does not.

On his first day of school, the teacher asked 13-year-old Daniel to introduce himself.  He didn’t really know Hebrew yet, but he said his name, that he was from Romania, and that his “dream was to become an Israeli soldier,” a line he worked hard to memorize in Hebrew.

Unfortunately, the kids didn’t care about his dream; they only knew that he was different. His accent sounded funny; he dressed differently.  And so when the teacher wasn’t looking, a boy punched him in the shoulder.

This wasn’t a friendly punch.  Daniel was shocked.  Little did he know that he had enrolled in a school controlled by a small cluster of hoodlums that made the lives of many children difficult.  Instead of feeling pity, the other hoodlums’ victims felt relief – – maybe now the bullies would leave them alone and pick on someone else.  And indeed, the bullies had a field day with Daniel, punching him in the shoulder, back, and stomach throughout that first day.  It was just a single delivered punch, and it always came as a surprise when Daniel least expected it, by multiple assailants.

The bullying escalated throughout the year.  Daniel’s mother complained, but her complaints fell on deaf ears.  The teacher was having trouble coping with the large size of her rambunctious, difficult 7th grade class, and felt powerless.  The principal didn’t want trouble.  He scolded the boys but was wary of doing much else.  The bullies were sons of bullies who were known to police.  They came from a culture in which to “be a man” meant being cocky and domineering, intimidating, stubborn, and in control; where establishing one’s pecking order as king of the mountain and head of the pack was paramount, using any  means (including violence) to achieve that end.

These parents refused to take responsibility, and in fact felt proud of their sons’ bullying because it showed they were “tough.”  The principal did not take responsibility. Nor did the teacher.  It was only Daniel and his mom, and it would not be enough.

A few weeks ago, the Hebrew press reported the story of a 7th grade boy in Netanya, only 13 years old, who was bullied and beaten and brutalized by his classmates  – – 30 of them! – – so badly that he was hospitalized for three weeks.  Neither the principal nor the teacher stopped it, even though it took place on school property.  It was Daniel!  And even more than the physical wounds he suffered, the emotional trauma was severe.  He was afraid to go back to school and seriously contemplated suicide.  Not his teacher nor his principal could be bothered to visit him in the hospital even once.  His mother had to take much time off of work to care for him, and as a result her job is currently at risk.  They felt truly, absolutely alone.

The instigating ringleaders were 6 bullies, all very full of themselves and completely without remorse.  Daniel’s mother demanded something be done.  Nothing was.  And meanwhile, Daniel continued to receive threats.

Fortunately, the story got the attention of the director of a Facebook group and non-profit organization called “Keep Olim.”  The group was started to try to stem the tide of immigrants who come to Israel full of idealism, suffer a mountain of disappointments, feel life is too difficult here, and return to their countries of origin.  For some it may be the difficulty of learning Hebrew; for others the difficulty of finding a job or affordable housing; some haven’t been able to integrate into a community or Israeli culture – – there are as many reasons for failure as there are immigrants.  But Liami Lawrence, the American-born founder of the group (and someone who questions his sanity daily for staying in Israel with all its challenges, when life could be easier back in the US), decided that if immigrants united together, regardless of personal politics, country of origin,  or their level of Jewish observance, they could help one another, provide information and resources, and even – – dare he hope? – – change or improve the “System” to make life in Israel more navigable and manageable.

Relying solely on donations and going into severe personal debt, Liami and his cohort, sabra Tzvika Graiver, started getting things done.  They provided pro bono legal aid for immigrants struggling to understand complicated housing and employment contracts; they formed committees to visit and help immigrants who were hospitalized or needed care,  provide hosting with volunteer families for meals and a place to stay during Jewish holidays, and created a job bank, career counseling, and low-cost mental health services.  They also lobbied successfully to allow immigrants to circumvent the long, expensive and complicated Israeli driving license laws, enabling immigrants to immediately transfer their valid licenses from their countries of origin and receive valid Israeli driving licenses.

The Keep Olim facebook group and nonprofit organization has grown to nearly 40,000 members in two years.

And now Liami was calling upon its members to be witness advocates for Daniel.  He was going to court in Netanya with a pro bono lawyer and his mother, to try to get the six bullies permanently expelled from the school and get a restraining order against them, as he no longer felt safe due to the threats and the abuse he has already suffered and continued to experience.

Daniel was very scared to be in that courtroom.  Despite his large frame, he was pale and shaky and on the verge of tears.  Even there, the bullies and their parents heckled him.  The school’s recommendation was that Daniel go to a different school.  For the school, it was a lot easier to move one student than it was to move six.  And in the small picture, it would probably have been easier for Daniel to start anew.

But here is 13-year-old Daniel’s greatness:  he refused.  He knew that if he left the school, he might not get bullied, but someone else would.  And the cycle would continue unabated, and the school would not be forced to take responsibility or do anything about it.  So with great courage, he demanded that something be done, so that he could continue in the same school, and so that no other student in that school would have to suffer as he had.

Because Daniel’s Hebrew is so limited, it was his mother who did most of the talking.  She was a lioness, fighting for her only cub.  She refused to be intimidated, and she refused to back down. Yet she remained calm, polite, and spoke with both passion and grace on her son’s behalf.

In the end, the judge ruled that five of the six boys must be removed from the school, and were given restraining orders to not come anywhere near Daniel.  The sixth boy, it was felt, was simply a weakling who was controlled by the mob; he expressed remorse (the only boy to do so) and apologized to Daniel.  He was allowed to remain at the school and hopefully, will start a new chapter without his former friends’ influence.

Daniel was incredibly grateful for the support he received from the members of Keep Olim who spent the afternoon at the courthouse giving him moral fortitude and encouragement.  With great emotion and composure, he thanked everyone and told them that he hopes that someday, should his advocates require his help, that he will be there for them,”day or night.”

But despite his courage, he still suffers from PTSD.  He has panic attacks and often becomes both tearful and fearful.

I spoke with both Daniel and his mom.  “I know you may not be ready for this,” I ventured, “but I was wondering if you would both consider coming to my village to speak about your experience.  Bullying is not just a problem at your school – – it’s everywhere, whether in rich or poor neighborhoods, secular or religious, in cities or in kibbutzim.  Many people simply don’t realize how bullying can alter someone’s life forever, that you don’t necessarily just ‘get over it.’  If you could speak in front of a class of seventh graders like yourself, you could help kids really understand what it feels like to be bullied, and perhaps create empathy.  Maybe you could even help the bullies in other places take responsibility and feel some sense of remorse.”

And to his mother I added, “You should also speak!  Other parents need to hear about bullying from a parent’s perspective:  how to respond to your child, how to protect him, how to work with the school and if necessary, and how to deal with the legal system.

“When you are ready – – I’m not pressuring you, I want it to be when you feel you can do this – – I want you to come to us, to inform and educate.  It is awful what happened to you, but you can change the world, one kid and one parent at a time, one school at a time, one town at a time! I know it will be very difficult at first for you to recount and relive this trauma, but it will get easier each time you tell your story.  Will you consider it?”

Both Daniel and his mother said they would.  We exchanged phone numbers and the very next day I approached the administration of my village.  “Yes!” was the answer I received.  There was a lot of excitement about it.

So the while this chapter isn’t yet over, it is looking very positive.

Next week Liami is taking Daniel and his mom to a Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game – – Adam Silk, the team’s chiropractor, personally donated the tickets, just in time for Daniel’s fourteenth birthday.  Members of Keep Olim are sending birthday greetings Daniel’s way – – we truly have his back, and he knows he is not alone.

And hopefully, in a few years, Daniel will reach his eventual goal: becoming an Israeli soldier.  Those of us who met him have no doubt he will use his difficult beginning in Israel to become a true leader that others will want to emulate.

 

for more information on bullying and what you can do to stop it, visit www.stopbullying.gov

 

 

 

Koolulam

About a week ago, I was privileged to be part of a bucket-list experience in the city of Haifa in Israel.  Three thousand people  – – men, women, Jews, Arabs, secular, religious, immigrants, sabras, old and young – – came together to sing Matisyahu’s “One Day” in Hebrew, English and Arabic.  There was an incredible feeling of unity.  Every one of the 3,000 people there want the same thing:  peace.

We arrived at a hangar in Haifa Port, where the women were given red or yellow dot stickers signifying soprano or alto.  The men were grouped separately as bass.  We were given a sheet with the lyrics, and split into our groups so we could learn our parts – – all in about one hour.  The amazing director somehow held the attention of 3,000 previously boisterous souls and everyone enthusiastically belted out the tune.

Israelis never cease to amaze me with their positivity and optimism, their ongoing affirmation and celebration of life,  their belief in ultimate goodness, and their faith in the future.  I’m so happy that now, I too can call myself Israeli and merit belonging to this incredible, unique society and culture.

We are living the dream.

Here is the link to our performance:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=share&v=XqvKDCP5-xE&

Health Care in Israel

Several months ago, shortly after we made aliyah, my husband slipped and fell very hard on his shoulder. A visit to Terem (the urgent care clinics whose concept in Israel was founded by the brilliant Dr. David Appelbaum hy”d, who was killed along with his daughter Nava on the eve of her wedding in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem) presented no evidence of a fracture, so he was sent home to rest it in a sling. A few months went by and it didn’t get any better; my husband was in such pain that it was affecting his ability to sleep at night.

Unfortunately for us, we still did not have decent health insurance. Although all new immigrants to Israel are given membership to the health care system in Israel the second they step off the plane, we were not considered “new immigrants” because we had lived in Israel in the 1980s. We were “returning Israelis” and the rules are quite different. There is a six month waiting period before you are accepted into the Israeli health care system, and meanwhile you must get private health insurance which in our case turned out to be very poor. It did not include any pre-existing conditions, it was expensive, and the doctors who would take the insurance were non-existent outside of the major cities of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

The “six-month rule” was instituted because too many Israelis were spending the most productive years of their lives living and making money in the US, Canada, and Berlin, and only returning to Israel at retirement age when their health care needs were greatest. The government was resentful that these returning Israelis had not been paying into the National Health Care system (called Bituach Leumi) for decades, and now they were returning and bankrupting the system with their medical needs. Hence the six-month rule.

Thankfully, the six months passed quickly for us mostly without incident (the xray was covered by the private insurance as an emergency condition), and at the first available opportunity we signed up with one of Israel’s kupot holim (health funds).

Which fund to choose? This is a valid question because they all have subtle differences. For instance, some include certain medicines in their “health basket” and others include yet a different set of medicines. So if you have a chronic illness requiring expensive medication, it behooves you to check just which specific medicines are included in the health basket of the kupat holim of your choice. Which kupat holim has the best doctors? The clinic with the most convenient hours? The ease in making appointments? How is their hospital network? Choice of specialists? How far do you have to travel? The latter question is especially important if you do not live in a major city like Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa or Beer Sheva.  Where we live, there is a small clinic right in the yishuv (village) but they’re affiliated with the Clalit health fund. We wanted to join Kupat Holim Maccabi, whose clinic is 5 miles up the road – – fortunately, we have a car as buses run only every 90 minutes.

While one health fund might be great in one location, the same fund might not be so great in another. So it’s important to determine the quality of care available in your particular location.  In our case, the tiny Kupat Holim Maccabi clinic for the Misgav region where we live in the Galilee happens to have excellent doctors. The family doctor has won all kinds of awards for her excellent care. Specialists such as an orthopedic surgeon, physical therapist, and ophthalmologist visit the clinic weekly.  I needed to travel to Karmiel or the outskirts of Haifa for other specialists and services such as MRIs, CT scans or ultrasound, but this is only a 20 – 30  minute car ride. But this brings me to mention a very important consideration when you are deciding where to live in Israel: how far will you be from excellent medical services? Will you have a car or rely on buses?  If you are retirement age or, G-d forbid, you have a serious illness that requires highly specialized treatment, frequent therapies or monitoring, it is no fun to travel hours when you are feeling your sickest to seek care, which could be the case if you live in the Golan, for example.

Each kupat holim has 3 levels of care to choose from. The cost difference is not huge between the lowest priced plan and the most expensive, so we opted for the most expensive plan, which offered additional benefits. The cost of our health insurance, called Maccabi Sheli, is approximately $145 monthly for the two of us together. Yes, you heard right: Around $70 per person for the top-level plan. To be fair, it doesn’t include everything. The particular diabetes medication that my husband takes is not part of the health basket but it’s still less than $30 per month. An ultrasound recently cost me $10. But these prices are still way cheaper than what we paid in the US, even with insurance.

For the few things the kupat holim plan doesn’t cover, you can buy private “supplemental” insurance that usually pays in 100% as a secondary insurance. This is not cheap but still way cheaper than insurance in the US.  This “private” insurance will also pay for seeing physicians not in your health plan, as well as surgeries and second opinions abroad.  Finally, there is long-term nursing care insurance,  called “siyudi,” which works somewhat differently in Israel than the US.

The kupot holim do offer long-term nursing care insurance, but it is via a private health care insurance agency. The cost depends on what age you sign up for it. At our age (I’m 60 and my husband is 69) it is more expensive than if you sign up at age 40. The “gotcha” is that it provides nursing care at a set limit (in our case, around 3500 NIS per month per person) for a maximum of 5 years. Statistically, they reason that after 5 years requiring full-time care, you will likely be dead. Currently full-time nursing care in one’s home costs about 7500 – 10K NIS monthly (about $2500 – $3500 per month in dollars) in Israel. It is also advisable to purchase supplemental long-term care insurance privately to make up for the difference, as well as the possibility for insuring longer than 5 years. Our insurance agent tried to dissuade us from getting insurance beyond the 5 year limit as a waste of our hard-earned money, but we explained to him that since we live in Israel without family, we are literally on our own with no relatives to take care of us, so we will need to rely on professional care. In Israel, families are very close and usually care is shared by family members, so few opt for extended or extensive long-term care insurance. The supplemental long-term care insurance is not cheap by any means, but it is a fraction of what we would have paid in the US, plus the cost of private nursing care is also cheaper than the US. Caveat:  it may be difficult to purchase these types of insurance in Israel after age 70 so it’s important to take care of this while you can.

But back to my husband. We made an initial appointment with our new family doctor, who proved to be every bit as wonderful as we were told. She told my husband that he was in luck, the orthopedic surgeon who comes to our local clinic on Thursdays happens to be a shoulder specialist. My husband was able to get an appointment with him for that very afternoon.

The doctor felt my husband would probably require surgery due to his rotator cuff injury, but without an MRI it would be impossible to diagnose accurately. He suggested my husband get a cortisone shot to temporarily relieve his pain and once again we were exposed to differences between the Israeli and US health care system. In America, the doctor would have given my husband the shot right then in the office and that would’ve been that. In Israel, doctors have zero supplies in their clinic offices. My husband was given a prescription for the cortisone, but there is no pharmacy at the clinic. So we had to travel 20 minutes to the city of Karmiel to fill the prescription for the injection, and then bring the vial back to the clinic so the doctor could give him the shot. Well that’s fine – – except the doctor only comes once a week to our local clinic, and the following week was a Jewish holiday and the clinic would be closed. So like speed demons we raced from the pharmacy in Karmiel back to the local clinic barely making it before the doctor had to leave for the day.

The shot provided tremendous temporary relief from pain. But the MRI revealed the damage was bad enough that physical therapy and rest would not be enough to fix my husband’s shoulder. The doctor warned us that at his advanced age, my husband may not heal well since the ligaments and tendons are no longer supple, so he couldn’t guarantee the surgery would be successful. My husband replied that even if he didn’t regain full range of motion for his arm, the surgery was worth the risk if there was a chance of relieving his chronic pain. Thank G-d, my husband is in good basic health and very physically active, so we felt he had a good chance of success.

The surgery was scheduled for a couple of weeks later. And that’s another thing: one usually hears that with socialized medicine, “elective” surgeries take months or years to schedule. This was certainly not true in our case!

We had the option of not using this doctor, and going with a “private” doctor at our own expense. But we liked this doctor; he did these surgeries regularly and seemed competent enough.

Which brings me to another point: here in Israel your perception of Israel as a land of Nice Jewish Doctors might be challenged, especially if you don’t live in a major city. Just like in America, the “best” doctors are rarely attracted to rural areas, since the pay and the equipment and facilities are less than what’s available in major cities. In rural areas you are much more likely to get doctors trained in Eastern Europe and who may not speak English, or Arab doctors.

In fact, my endocrinologist is an Arab, and couldn’t be nicer or more qualified – – I’m very happy. He’s polite, friendly, caring, knowledgable and helpful. In my husband’s case, the orthopedic surgeon was Russian.

I know many American olim shy away from Russian doctors in Israel. Mostly it’s a personality thing. In America, doctors usually discuss various treatment options with you. Russian doctors tend to be gruff, matter-of-fact, intimidating and have a “my way or the highway” attitude. This is the stereotype, anyway. It can also be frightening when you are a new immigrant facing a medical procedure and your doctor doesn’t speak English and your Hebrew is weak; it’s important to understand what is being done to you and the particulars of your care.

But while my husband’s doctor was rather forceful and had a strong personality, he truly seemed to know what he was doing. We liked him right away. And I reasoned that in Russia, where anti-Semitic policies implement severe quotas on the number of Jews accepted to medical schools, only the very best of the best Jewish students become doctors. He was going to do the entire operation arthoscopically, so there would be no large gaping incision.  We felt we were in good hands, and truly in G-d’s hands.

All the way through, communication was excellent. Israel is very proficient with Electronic Health Records, and we frequently got text messages to remind of us appointments. Setting appointments was easy online. If we couldn’t handle things due to limited Hebrew, there were always “live” people to speak to who went out of their way to be patient in setting things up for us or to explain things. There were always follow-up calls checking up on us. Doctors and institutions had no trouble accessing our EHRs no matter where we were (caveat: there is no privacy in Israel!).

So on Thursday after Chanuka my husband had his surgery in a small hospital just outside of Haifa.

And while the care was great and the surgery seemingly successful, once again, there were some things that were very different from the US.

For one thing, the hospital was located in a huge shopping mall. Seriously. When we arrived at 6 a.m, we saw two male patients window shopping (the stores were closed at that early hour), walking around the mall pushing their IVs with one hand and clutching their backless hospital gowns with the other hand. The hospital was on the 3rd floor; Children’s Place and other typical clothing, jewelry and kitchen stores as well as a Cineplex and food court were on floors 1 – 2.

Another thing:  when we checked in, no mention was made of cost.  In the States it seems like it’s always about money.  But as I sat in the intake chair, I started getting really nervous about how we’d pay for everything even with insurance (our supplemental private insurance wouldn’t pay for this surgery since the original injury occurred before we had this insurance, and it was considered a “pre-existing condition”), but realized at this late stage in the game it was too late to worry about it.

Even for what was a “minor” surgery there are risks, and I can’t say I wasn’t worried.  Usually both patient and spouse utter endearments to one another as the patient is wheeled away.  But instead of “I love you!” my husband, ever the geek, said, “My password is . . . ”

While I was waiting for the surgery to be over, I struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to me (Israelis always make conversation with strangers; I think it is because ultimately we feel like one big family). I asked her how I might calculate costs.  She didn’t know, but just then a cleaning lady – an older woman pushing a hospital cart that contained a bucket of water and a sponja stick (mop) – overheard me and said, “Excuse me. . . um, what health plan are you associated with?” and proceeded to tell me the intricacies of how the system worked.  Yes – – the cleaning lady.  She also wished a speedy recovery on my husband’s behalf- but so did everyone wish us and everyone else the same, Jewish and Arab alike.

My husband was wheeled out of the operating room and I met him in the recovery room.  Of course he has zero recollection of our conversation but it was truly YouTube-worthy.  Although in normal circumstances he is far from fluent in Hebrew, under anesthetic he suddenly became 100% fluent in Hebrew, speaking  quickly with a perfect Israeli accent.  I addressed him in English but he looked at me as if he couldn’t understand.  I repeated what I has said in Hebrew and he answered me in Hebrew, perfectly.  In fact he was rambling on and on in perfect Hebrew.  He was unable to speak English at all.  As the anesthetic wore off, his perfect Hebrew disappeared and English once again ruled.  I guess it means his neshama (soul) is Israeli!

How bad can things be when the first thing you’re allowed to eat after surgery is kosher chocolate pudding, provided by the hospital?  The surgeon told us the damage was more extensive than the MRI had indicated, and that it was a complete tear.  The entire operation was done arthroscopically so there were only five small staples and there would be no external scarring.

My husband was supposed to stay overnight, but it was clear he was doing better than expected, and they gave us the option of leaving at the end of the day.

This is where things got exciting.

It so happened that we had guests staying at our rental apartment who were visiting  from America.  I will call them the “Rosens” – – not their real name.  Because the previous nights they’d been with us they were up till around 11:30 pm, we didn’t bother telling them we had decided at the last minute to come home the same evening as the surgery.

We arrived home around 10 pm. Unfortunately, our front door was locked and our guests had put the key in the door, so our key couldn’t open it.  After I tried phoning and texting them I realized their phone was turned off.  They had a busy day touring and were exhausted from a general lack of sleep, so they decided to turn in early.  They didn’t hear me knocking.  So there we were, my husband only hours out of surgery, on the doorstep of our rental apartment in pitch darkness, with no way to get in.

(I seem to have a talent for getting locked out of houses.  Perhaps this will remind you of a similar incident I wrote about in this blog that happened to me during Pesach, which you can read about here.)

All of my windows were bolted, but I suddenly remembered that there was one window I had forgotten to lock – – the kitchen window.  Leaving my husband resting on the porch, I pushed a garbage can next to the window and climbed on top of the can.  With a little prying I was able to slide the window open.  The window was next to the kitchen counter, which happened to be crowded with drying dishes and food supplies.  I am not a small person, and this was like watching an elephant in a tutu.  Unfortunately, not a graceful elephant.  So in the process of climbing onto the counter, and because it was pitch dark, I managed to knock over a bottle of wine and a bottle of olive oil that were on the counter.

The noise woke up my guests.  I decided to stop and be very quiet, since I felt bad I had disturbed their sleep and perhaps they would go back to sleep.  This idea was nice in theory but the elephant in me knocked over a container of spices and now they were up for real.

Well, they were awake, but not up.  Actually, they were quaking in their beds.  They knew we were not supposed to be home that night, so it couldn’t be us.  They were convinced they were hearing Arabs trying to break into our home to commit a terrorist attack.

I finally landed with a thud from the counter to the kitchen floor.  Again, I tried to be quiet, but the elephant in me ran into the broom and it knocked loudly to the floor.  I ran to the front door to unlock it for my husband, waiting patiently but weakly outside on the porch.  Suddenly my guests’ bedroom door opened slowly and ‘Mr. Rosen” peeked out.

“Hi and surprise!” I said.  “It turned out we were able to be discharged early, so we came home!  But you left the key in the inside of front door so I couldn’t unlock it so I had to break in!”

“Mr. Rosen” looked pale.

“Yeah, we were in bed when we heard you,” he said.  “We weren’t sure what to do.  My wife finally convinced me to investigate.  I was sure when I opened this door I was going to hear “Allahu Akhbar!””

I actually felt really badly that I’d caused them such a fright; but I knew this would be something that we’d laugh over someday . . .  if the “Rosens”  didn’t want to kill me first.

Postscript:  the surgeon called us at home to make sure my husband felt okay, and offered kind words of encouragement.  We also got called several times by the hospital and the kupa, just to see how he was feeling.  Physical therapy was arranged and the first session was 5 days after the operation with a wonderful PT who couldn’t believe how much range of motion my husband had already.  His recovery is stellar, thank G-d, surpassing all estimates (the doctor said up to 3 months before my husband could go back to work; he is already (cautiously) doing a few hours’ work at his computer at home less than a week after the surgery).

As to the bill?  The surgery, hospital stay, and subsequent physical therapy are free.

We are so blessed to be in Israel, both in sickness and in health.