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.

 

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Down Under

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On Friday I visited two attractions just outside the town of Beit Shean.  I almost didn’t get there, as unbeknownst to me, there was a marathon race going on and many of the roads were closed to traffic.  Waze (the traffic and map navigation app) took me a roundabout way, telling me to go on dirt “security roads” that bordered kibbutz agricultural fields and Arab villages.  Instead of taking an hour from my home, it took nearly 2.5 hours’ travel time and I got lost repeatedly! I finally passed a concrete bus stop where a soldier was waiting for a bus to take him home in time for Shabbat.  I gave him a ride which he gratefully accepted all the way to his home on Kibbutz Nir David (where his mother anxiously and proudly awaited his return with all sorts of special treats and foods for Shabbat; I think every Israeli mother gives her son a hero’s welcome when he comes home on weekly leave).  He had come all the way from south of Eilat, so this final leg of his long journey was a big relief to him, and he was of course a big help to me in finding my way.

The first place I stopped is called Gan Garoo (which is next to the aforementioned kibbutz).  It’s an immaculately kept zoo that is dedicated to Australian-Israeli friendship, and all the animals within are those found in Australia.  There are many different unusual birds large and small, but the real highlight is the “mob” of different varieties of kangaroos of all ages and sizes – some 53 in all – who roam freely in a large enclosure where humans can not only interact with them, but oblige the ‘roos with a much-appreciated back scratch or neck massage.

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lorakeets
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neck rub

What a delightful experience!  The kangaroos were as tame as one’s pet dog, and each one had its own look and personality.  The joeys (baby kangaroos) were adorable, but my favorite was actually the oldest and largest, a red kangaroo with the expressive face of a donkey (others had faces that looked like rabbits, hares, deer and goats).  They reacted equally well to being petted by a 3-year-old little girl as they did an adult human.  It was truly thrilling, and I hated to leave, but on a short winter Friday, I wanted to leave time for a swim at the three spring-fed natural pools of Sachne (also known as Gan HaShlosha).

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a punim only a mother could love
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joey with child

Sachne’s waters are a crystal-clear turquoise blue and maintain their 84 degree F temperature year round.  The swimming there is fantastic.  The springs, part of Israel’s national park system, are visited year round by an extremely diverse group of people: Israeli Jews (Sephardi, Ashkenazi, religious and secular, and lots of Russian, French, and Anglo immigrants) and Arabs (Christian and Muslim) families, along with a sprinkling of tourists, who are seeking an enjoyable, relaxing and beautiful way to spend the day.  There is plenty of picnicking alongside the water in park-like grassy areas, and this is just one of many places where tolerance and cooperation between peoples defies the anti-Israel propaganda promoted by world media.

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As the sun started to get lower, I regretfully said goodbye and continued on another 5 or 10 minutes by car to the town of Beit Shean, where I would be attending a special Shabbat weekend with other Anglo immigrants to Israel who are associated with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that facilitates aliyah to Israel from North America, and provides many helpful services to help olim navigate the bureaucracy that challenges every newcomer.  This annual gathering is specifically for olim (immigrants) who’ve chosen to make their permanent home in northern Israel (the Galilee and the Golan Heights).  We stayed in a government-run youth hostel that was newly remodeled and expanded, with attractive if simple dorm-like rooms and a general dining hall where the dozens of Anglo immigrant families shared meals together.  It was a great opportunity to meet and make new friends, and encourage one another with a deep understanding and empathy about the joys and challenges of living in Israel.  Everyone was nice, but I was especially excited to meet some new potential friends and we have already made plans to get together next week.

On Saturday afternoon, the entire group meandered over to the Beit Shean archeological dig, which is located about a block away from the youth hostel.  I was wondering why I had never visited the remnants of old Beit Shean and the subsequent Roman city of Scythopolis, which at one time housed a staggering 40,000 residents, when I lived in Israel many years ago!  The beautiful amphitheater, which has been partially restored, had seats for 7,000 Roman citizens.  You can wander down the Cardo (the shopping lane, lined with many stores), visit the arena where gladiator games were held; you can see the remains of a fountain, a temple, a brothel, and several restored mosaic floors.  Perhaps most amazing, Scythopolis had only been aggressively excavated in the 1980s and 90s – – before that is was mostly unexcavated and buried completely under the ground (the city was completely destroyed by an earthquake in 749 AD) and the extent of its size until then was unknown – – which also explains why I hadn’t known about it when I lived in Israel in the early 80s and it was not yet open to the public.

Overlooking the ancient city, which was a half-way point for trade between Damascus and Caesarea, is a huge tel (mound) which was first excavated by archeologists from the University of Pennsylvania in the 1930s.  Eighteen different civilizations were uncovered from the different strata, including Crusader, Muslim, Roman, Greek, Philistine, Israelite and Canaanite periods.  The relics were shipped mostly to Philadelphia, where the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was constructed especially to house the extensive finds (and is still in operation today).  A small portion of the finds were donated to the Israel Museum where they can been viewed.

But for me the most meaningful events of Beit Shean occurred years before the Roman conquest.  For it was at nearby Mt. Gilboa that King Shaul fought his final battle against the Philistine king.  Three of Shaul’s sons were killed in that battle, and King Shaul himself was gravely injured. Rather than face capture alive, he threw himself upon his own sword, ending his own life.  The Philistine king would not permit the corpses of Shaul nor his sons to be buried, and instead decapitated them and took their bodies to the gates of the city of Beit Shean, where they hung on those walls as a final humiliation.

It never fails to amaze me that I am walking on the very ground where my forefathers walked, lived, loved, prayed, fought, and died.  Everywhere – everywhere! – in Israel, the ground is rich with the holy blood, sweat and tears of the Jewish people.  I am not only reliving that history, I am part of it and it is part of me.  The connection to the past is palpable, and the realization that I am part of its future fills me with humility and awe.

Only in Israel could I go from a modern Australian zoo to a natural oasis to an ancient city where Biblical battles were fought, all within a few minutes of one another.

Not a day goes by without me pinching myself that I merit living here on a daily basis, something my great-grandparents could only dream about in the most surreal of fantasies from their pogrom-ridden shtetls.

This new life of ours is very good indeed.

(I do not use a camera on Shabbat, which is why I didn’t take pictures of Beit Shean, the youth hostel, and the archeological park.  Please feel free to click on the highlighted links for pictures taken by others.)

 

The Best Things in Life are Free

We knew it was going to be 18 months to 2 years before we’d be moving into the house we are building, due to permits bureaucracy and construction process in Israel being so slow.  With that in mind, and the realization that most of our American furniture was either too large for the smaller room sizes in Israel; that the furniture we had was worn out after 40 years of heavy family use; and that much of our furniture was collected over the years from yard sales and dumpster diving and the shipping costs were too high to justify moving what was essentially junk:  we knew we’d be buying our furniture in Israel.  We also didn’t know what type of apartment we’d be renting while waiting for the house to be built.  So the only furniture we ended up bringing was an antique armoire I wasn’t successful in selling beforehand;  a well-worn futon couch for last-minute guests; a circa 1955 dresser that we had been given many years ago for free; and the one piece of furniture I really wanted to bring all along:  a hand-made pine dining room table we had gotten at a farmer’s yard sale in Maine for $75.  The table was beautifully made but the farmer’s Labrador retriever puppy had chewed the corners, leaving lots of teeth marks; plus their kids hadn’t been careful about putting hot things or cups of liquid on the wood, so it was pretty scratched, stained and banged up.  I figured that only added to its charm and the price was right.  Unfortunately, however, when we stacked hundreds of pounds of boxes on the sturdy table top when we shipped our stuff to Israel, the soft pine wood could only take so much weight, and the cartons of books left deep gouges from the impressions of the boxes on the tabletop.  Our table no longer looked so charming by the time it was delivered to us in Israel.

Meanwhile I hadn’t brought my bedroom set or mattress from America.  We bought a $40 blow-up air mattress on sale from Target a week before our flight, and slipped it easily into our suitcase.  We figured we’d buy a real mattress the first week after we arrived, and the air mattress would tide us over until then. It has:  it’s so comfortable my husband is in no rush to replace it, 3 1/2 months later. We are still sleeping on it.

But one day while browsing on a Facebook group that is dedicated to the sale of second-hand furniture in the Karmiel region, I noticed a picture of a bed being given away that looked to be in good condition.  I contacted the owner who explained the bed was 17 years old but in great shape.  They were moving that week to a new house and wanted to get a new bed.  So without telling my husband, I hopped into the car and drove to Karmiel to take a look.

It was a very sturdy platform bed, and with its built-in lift mechanism, there was a huge amount of storage that one could easily access under the mattress.  It looked like the frame’s side and head rails would come apart easily enough with a screwdriver, so I told the owner we’d take it.  My one worry was the mattress support, which was a single piece of mason board.  There was no way it would fit in our car.

When I got home I told my husband that we needed to go into Karmiel the next day, because – surprise! –  we were now the owners of a real bed and that we needed to take it apart before we could bring it home (thankfully my long-suffering husband is an awfully good sport).  But I knew I’d need to get a mover for that mason board, so I posted on one of the gazillion WhatsApp groups in our village to see if anyone could recommend a mover.

I instantly got a reply:  someone knew someone who was a carpenter in Karmiel; surely he’d have a truck.  I contacted the fellow and he was a bit reluctant, since he’s a carpenter by trade and not a mover, but yes, he had a large van and for a pretty sum he was willing to deliver the mason board.  The carpenter was an oleh chadash (new immigrant to Israel) who made aliyah with his wife and kids eighteen months ago.  He was a third-generation carpenter and woodworker from North Carolina. and his specialty was custom kitchen cabinets.   Hmm, I thought.  It would certainly pay to get an estimate for a kitchen for my new house while he’s around.

That’s when I remembered my beat-up table.  I asked him if he had a belt sander, and if so, would be interested in sanding down the table top when he delivers the bed?  So for another pretty sum we arranged that he’d do just that.

When my husband and I got to the owner’s house the next day, we tried to take apart the bed, but it wasn’t as simple as I originally thought.  It turned out the base was one big piece that you couldn’t unscrew, so we took the headboard and side rails and left the rest, telling the owner that the carpenter would be there the next day, assisted by my husband, to move the rest of the bed out of her house.

The next day my husband met the carpenter in Karmiel.  No one was home, but the landlady let us in to the apartment with her extra key and so they loaded the truck.  The bed was delivered and the carpenter spent two full hours outside our apartment on a very hot day sanding down the table top.  It looked like a new table when he was done and I was thrilled.  I wanted to put oil on it to make the wood more resistant to stains, but wasn’t sure where to buy it, so I asked the carpenter.  He suggested a store in Kiryat Bialik, a suburb of Haifa.  He wasn’t sure of the name, but he knew the name of another store that was nearby.

Re-assembling the bed would have to wait.

The next day I plugged the name of the store into Waze, but Waze didn’t recognize it.  I found an alternate spelling and it took me to a mall.  There was no such store in the mall, so I called the carpenter.  He told me the store was near a supermarket, so I found the supermarket, but not the store I needed for the oil.  I called the carpenter back and he tried to explain how to get to the store.  I finally found the store it was supposedly near, and that store owner directed me to another store and then the second store directed me to a third store.  Eureka!  It was a wholesale factory that produced finishes for wood products.

The secretary couldn’t believe I wanted shemen pishtan (linseed oil).  So she called a young man from the warehouse to the reception area.  He was sure I wanted a water-based polyurethane.  But when I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father, who came from the back of the warehouse.  The father thought I wanted an oil-based polyurethane.  When I repeated that I wanted linseed oil, he called his father from the warehouse.  The grandfather proudly explained that he was the founder of their varnish “empire,”  and it now supported and was staffed by 3 generations of his family.  He felt it curious that I wanted such an “old-fashioned” finish for my table, and wanted to know where I was from.  America!!!  He couldn’t believe it!  He was so proud that someone would come all the way from America to his varnish factory in the decrepit industrial zone of Kiryat Bialik just to buy his products!  He was beaming; he was kvelling.  His grandchildren were amazed.  Now, he insisted, I had to sit and tell him why I wanted linseed oil for my table, and tell him why I wanted to make aliyah; am I married? Do I have children? Why did I want to live in Moreshet? But no, he repeated, I didn’t want linseed oil, I wanted something called “dek” which is a blend of linseed oil and pine resin which would create a hard finish on  the surface of my table. He insisted on calling the carpenter because surely I was mistaken and the carpenter would convince me to get dek , if not the polyurethane.  The carpenter told him to give me linseed oil.  He glanced my way.

No, I insisted, I didn’t want dek, I wanted linseed oil.  The factory owner thought we Americans were a strange and confused lot.

“Fine!” he sighed dramatically, and told his secretary to ring it up.  “How much?” I asked.  He told me a price but his secretary quickly interrupted.  “Give her a 20 shekel discount,” she insisted.  “How often do you get customers from America?!?!

Light-headed from the combination of my newfound celebrity status and the fumes from the varnish factory, I made my way home. I got a call from the original owner of the bed.

“You forgot the mason board!” she said.  “It’s sitting here in my living room waiting for you to take it away!”  The well-meaning lady had moved the mason board from the bedroom, away from the bed, into the living room; and my husband hadn’t thought to look for it when they moved the bed out of the owner’s bedroom.

The carpenter and his truck were long gone, his pocket newly cushioned by a check written by my husband for services rendered.  I sighed.  I needed that mason board, but I had no interest in paying twice to get it moved.  With a friend, I  made my way to Karmiel and put the mason board on the roof of the car, tying it down with some rope I happened to have in the car.  I felt like a Girl Scout, prepared and capable! And of course I said a little prayer, so it wouldn’t fly off the roof of the car while driving on the twisty mountain highway that would take me home.

How ironic, I thought.  The very reason we originally hired the carpenter was to move only the mason board to our house.  In the process, we got a bed, our table was refinished, I had an adventure in an industrial zone in the middle of nowhere.  The mover-who-is-really-a-carpenter  is now giving me estimates for kitchen cabinets for our new house, and ironically, in the end, I moved the mason board on my own, anyway!

A Mystery (Finally) Solved in the Galilee

A generous donor funded the construction by the Jewish National Fund and the regional council of Misgav, of a beautiful bike and walking path which connects the communities of Manof and Shechaniya, two lovely yishuvim in the Galil.  The mostly level path is not long, but it affords panoramic views of the thorn-, carob- and pine-covered Western Galilee and on a clear day you can see Rosh HaNikra in the far north and Haifa Bay in the distance.  Just off the path is a somewhat challenging trail to a cave inhabited by bats.  It was in this cave that human skeletal remains were discovered, fifty-two years after the original murder was committed.

The sad and fascinating story is etched on some stone boulders, a memorial to the 33-year old husband, father, and seventh-generation Israeli Jewish pioneer who met an untimely end while in the service of the Jewish National Fund.  His name was Yisrael ben Ze’ev Loifer Hy”d.  He disappeared mysteriously in August 1938 and nothing was heard from him nor from the people who kidnapped him.  It was as though he’d fallen off the face of the earth.

What follows is my translation of the Hebrew inscription at the memorial site:

Yisrael was born in 1905 in a Jewish settlement in the Galil.  His parents, Ze’ev and Sara, were the sixth generation of his family to live in the Land of Israel.  They left their home in Tzfat to help settle the Galilee in a place called Yisod HaMaaleh.

Because of the difficult economic conditions, as well as severe malarial outbreaks in the area that sickened and killed many, Yisrael was forced to abandon the family settlement and left the Galil to work in the orchards of Petach Tikva.   There, he met the woman who would become his wife, Rivka Bergman, a sixth-generation Jew living in the Land of Israel.  They became parents to a boy, Ze’ev, and a girl, Shulamit.

In 1930 the Jewish National Fund appointed Yisrael as a property guard in the Zevulun Valley and his family moved to Akko.  In the 1920s and then again from 1936 – 1939, Israel experienced an ongoing Arab intifada which included strikes, riots, pograms, thefts and attacks against Jewish settlers throughout the Land.  Hundreds of Jews died.  (ed. note:  It was during this time that many German Jewish emigres living in Israel, traumatized by these attacks, actually returned to Germany where ironically and tragically they would perish in the Holocaust only a few years later.)  Because they were living in what was then considered a remote area subject to extreme danger, Yisrael moved his family to an area just outside of Haifa, in what is today known as Kiryat Bialik.

Meanwhile Yisrael continued his work guarding undeveloped Jewish land in the Galil.  He got to know his Arab neighbors and their way of life; he learned to speak Arabic fluently.  Many Arabs considered him a friend.  Yisrael wore a kaffiye (Arab cloth headdress) and dressed in an abbayya (long flowing white cotton robe); on his feet he wore leather boots and he rode upon a fine Arabian horse.  Only his pale skin identified him as a Jew.  According to Arab custom, Yisrael was called “Abu Ziv” – father of Ze’ev, his firstborn son.

Within the framework of his position as a guard, he prevented the theft and takeover of Jewish-owned land by the area’s Bedouin tribes. (ed. note:  it seems Yisrael Loifer was part Lawrence of Arabia and part Texas Ranger.)  He helped the Jewish National Fund  redeem parcels from the hands of Bedouins that lived in the Zevulun Valley.  Additionally, he secretly trained Jewish youth living in the area of Haifa Bay to handle and  fire weapons for their defense.  With great sensitivity he took tremendous responsibility for his very dangerous work, a task he fulfilled with tremendous passion and dedication.  Yisrael was known far and wide for his audaciousness and courage and his reputation extended all the way to Damascus.

In the beginning of August 1938, Yisrael loaned his beloved horse to a trusted friend, a Bedouin guard, who promised to return the horse to him the following day.  When he was late,  Yisrael took his wooden staff and hiked to the Bedouin guard’s village, Kfar Damon.

And then no trace remained of Yisrael Loifer.

After a long and exhaustive investigation by his son, Ze’ev,  and with the help of Giora Zaid (the son of the legendary guard, Alexander Zaid) and according to eyewitness accounts by Najiv Zaidan and Abu-Daouf, the mystery was finally solved.

It appears that Yisrael was tortured and murdered by three barbaric Bedouin men who chose to commit these horrific acts as part of an initiation rite to join a gang.

On the first of Nisan (March 27, 1990),  bones were found buried under a pile of stones in Shechaniya cave, a place in the area of Bir El Yahudi.

Forensic evidence confirmed that the bones were those of Yisrael Loifer, killed 52 years earlier.

On the 20 of Iyar, 5750 (May 15, 1990), Yisrael Loifer’s remains were brought to Jewish burial next to the grave of his faithful wife, in the Segula cemetery in Petach Tikva.

Rivka Bergman Loifer died without knowing whatever happened to him.

Hy”d.

Yom HaZikaron l’Shoa (Holocaust Remembrance Day)

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My friend is a classic Israeli.  Sabra; patriotic; a Jewish mother par excellence.  Fluctuating between agnostic and atheist and proudly secular; religion is irrelevant to her daily life.  Close to her extended family.  Raised in the Scouts youth movement, did her mandatory military duty with enthusiasm. Until recently a chain smoker.  Widely traveled, happy to get away from the craziness that is part of daily life in Israel, but always happier to come back to the only place that feels truly like home. Worked for a government agency and now gracefully retired with a cushy pension. A good person.  Loves to volunteer and will be the first to help anyone in need.

She invited me to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot.

This is a big deal.  The kibbutz was founded by survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Located in the Western Galilee between Akko and Nahariya, it houses two museums dedicated to the Holocaust, one of which is expressly for children.  The kibbutz conducts educational programs about the Holocaust to schoolchildren, youth groups, young soldiers in the Israeli army and tourists throughout the year.  It also houses archives – – the kibbutz was the first in the entire world to start an archival collection of Holocaust information shortly after the War.

Every year Kibbutz Lochamei HaGhettaot hosts a huge ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day.  It is held in a massive amphitheatre whose backdrop is along an ancient Roman aqueduct, lit dramatically against the night.  Many thousands of people from all over Israel attend the annual ceremony, and it was no different last night.  The overwhelming number of attendees were very much like my friend:  completely secular and deeply connected to the State of Israel.

First Israeli President Reuvi Rivlin addressed the crowd.  While it was beautifully stated, the speech was pretty much what you’d expect:  Never Forget. Always Remember. Bear Witness.  Share your stories. Pass them on from generation to generation.  Educate the world, so we can actualize Never Again.

Next was former German President Joachim Gauck.  He appeared sincerely touched and affected to have been invited to the ceremony.  Can you imagine?, he said.  A boy (himself) who had Nazi parents, or at the very least parents who were complicit Nazi sympathizers, who is the same age of the Jewish boy (Rivlin) whose parents fled Germany.   Is it not ironic, the President of Germany wondered aloud, that the current President of Israel,  who once undoubtedly hated all Germans for what they did to his family,  invited the object of his disdain to participate in the commemoration of victims of German hatred, cruelty and oppression?

Then came the most moving segment of the evening.  They chose six Holocaust survivors to light memorial beacons representing the six million Jews murdered.  First they gave a short bio about each survivor, and then the survivor was shown in a taped interview, telling their stories of survival and loss.  And the best part:  they were called up to light the beacon, accompanies by those whom they aptly called their Living Revenge:  each survivor was supported (literally; they are so old and frail that many can no longer walk on their own) by a child or grandchild  who stood alongside them to light the beacon with them, representing the past, the present, and the future.

Thirty-five Holocaust survivors die of old age every day.  Soon there will be no one left.   It is up to the survivors to transmit those stories while they still can, because they are too important to be lost forever.   It is up to us, the children and grandchildren, to tell their stories.  How many of these survivors will be at the ceremony next year, or the year after?

And then the head of the Jewish National Fund got up to speak.  Like Rivlin, he spoke the words that we hear again and again:  Always remember.  Never forget.  Never again.  He spoke of the miracle of the State of Israel.  How that in Israel, a land re-birthed and built from the ashes only 69 years ago, we are at the forefront of medical, scientific, educational and agricultural innovation and revolution.  We have built village, towns and cities that thrive.  Israelis not only produce for themselves, they share the products of their toil with other nations.  They are at the forefront of helping other countries during national disasters, and training Third World countries to improve the lives of their citizens.  Israel’s youth groups train future leaders, as does its army.  Its army is one of the best in the world.  Israel’s military strength will ensure that what happened to helpless Jews in WWII will Never. Happen. Again.

Oh, really?

Today, Israel is at its greatest height.

I love and respect the Israeli army.  Those boy and girl soldiers are like my sons and daughters.  They are risking everything every day to ensure that I am protected.  Many have fallen so that I could live here.  We are incredibly grateful for Israel’s military finesse, and recognize that a strong military is both critical and essential.

Nations come and go.  They ascend, and they fall;  they cease to exist.  Who would have believed in the decay of the superpowers of ancient Greece?  Rome?  Mid-20th-century Germany?  Who cannot deny that currently America is in a state of decline?  Do we really believe that we Israelis are invincible and invulnerable?

Why is the Jewish religion so completely irrelevant to Israeli culture that it was not mentioned the entire evening in a ceremony dedicated to Holocaust remembrance?

One of the things I love about Israel is the diversity in its people.  And although I am a person of faith, the truth is that none of us can be sure that our faith would remain intact after going through the horrible things that our families went through in Europe. But if we excise what makes us unique – – the Jewish, religious part that has also defined us and our history – – then we are like any other nation.  If we are like every other nation, then we must accept that like the others, we will rise – – and eventually, G-d forbid, fall.

Our revenge is a Living Revenge:  that despite our broken-ness and destitution, the survivors (and indeed  Jewish people throughout history) have always moved forward.  We are builders.  We are lovers of life.  We have faith – yes, Jewish faith that there is something supernatural happening that we continue to beat the odds, even if we don’t understand it.  We have children who beget more children and give us grandchildren.  And we teach these children who they are, why they are here, what is their legacy, and what their purpose is in a life we regard with holiness.  And we teach them what it means to be Jewish, their importance and responsibility and the myriad challenges in being the continual link in the chain; how to live Jewish-ly, and how this will positively affect and impact their life and the lives of those around them.

If we ignore the Jewish part of the equation, then we become like every other nation. Our Israeli army is strong, but it is not invincible.   We need to know who we are, not just as Israelis, but also as Jews.