Happy 70th Birthday, Israel!

My husband turned 70 this week.  I thought it would be appropriate to share the story of his birth, since it’s also the week of Israel’s birthday.   Here is his story, in his own words:

I was born in Germany after the War.  My mother and my grandmother had assumed false identities and were able to live in Berlin throughout the war.  They were considered “aliens” since my grandmother came from Russia to Germany after WWI to marry my grandfather, but my mother and grandmother were not known as Jews.  Every moment they lived in fear that they would be caught, and their true Jewish identities revealed. Even though they did not suffer in concentration and death camps like other Jews,  they experienced much physical and emotional abuse when they were taken as “foreign laborers” to work within Germany.  My mother was sent as slave labor to a farm where she was with other “alien” teenagers.  Unfortunately the other teenaged forced laborers were Polish boys who, even though they shared similar circumstances with my mother for not being German, nevertheless were cruel to her in ways I will not share here.

My grandmother was forced to plant trees in the dead of winter, a senseless task and impossible digging in the frozen ground, and she suffered from pain in her chest her entire life due to the frostbite she suffered then.

My grandfather had been murdered in 1934 just as the Nazis were coming to power.  He was a painter, and he painted a neighbor’s house who had recently joined the then-new Nazi party.  When my grandfather asked for payment, the Nazi laughed and went straight to the police, telling them that my grandfather had stolen from him which was a complete lie.  When he realized he was a wanted man, my grandfather fled illegally across the border, thinking it was temporary until things cooled down.

One day my grandmother got a knock on the door.  It was the police, and they held my grandfather’s picture in their hands.  They asked her if she knew this man.  What should she do?  If my grandmother  said she knew him, they might arrest her as well, or take away my mother, who was a young girl.  If she said no, she might not find out what happened to him. It was a terrible choice.  She decided to say she didn’t know him, and in fact she was an agunah for most of the rest of her life until decades later when she found out he had been shot while trying to cross back illegally into Germany at the border to return home.

My father was the only survivor of his very large family (it seems they were Belz chassidim – – ironically my father was also the only one who was not religiously observant).  He ran to the forest to become a partisan, and fought during the entire war, escaping death through many miracles, many times.  He had begged his family to escape to the forest from the ghetto, but they refused.  He lived with survivor’s guilt, however, and many nightmares. My childhood in America, where we came when I was six, was not easy.  There was tension in the house due to my parents’ experiences during the War and how it affected them and their relationship to their three sons, of which I’m the eldest.

My parents met after the war in Germany and started a new life there.  I don’t know if it’s accurate, but my mother told me I was the first Jewish baby to be born in the newly rededicated and restored Jewish hospital in post-war Berlin.  There were terrible shortages and hunger after the war, and the only way to survive was to be active in the black market. Since there was so little food, there was no expectation of a festive meal for the bris.  At that time, usually the only thing that was given to guests at a bris was shnapps and cigarettes, both highly prized and very expensive on the black market.  I was born on Shabbat, and my father was very excited about this because it meant he would only have to give out schnapps and not have to supply cigarettes for the brit mila (circumcision ceremony), since smoking is forbidden on Shabbat.

Amazingly, a week after I was born, my brit mila was on medinat Israel’s first birthday – when Israel became a State and the very first Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day) was celebrated.  It really was an incredible miracle – – a new life after so much destruction and loss, and now a new homeland for the Jews.    I feel very privileged to be able to celebrate my 70th birthday and Yom Haatzmaut in our Holy Land, and very blessed that as I celebrate the remaining 50 years of my life, G-d willing I will do so in my home in the Galil in Israel, since I made aliyah with my wife a year ago.  I feel it closes a very large and complicated circle.

The thought of turning 70 is something I did not want to think about: it means I’m old!  But truthfully I am so very grateful for the blessings which HaShem has bestowed upon me, for my children and grandchildren, my friends, my marriage, my life in Israel, and my work.  For both my wife and myself, we never grew up with a grandfather, and our fathers died when we were  teenagers.  The fact that my children are adults and we are expecting our 17th grandchild this week IY”H, is truly a miracle.   I can only say ‘hodu lashem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo” and Baruch Atah Adon–, Elokaynu Melech HaOlam, Shehechiyanu, Vkiyamanu, vhigiyanu lazman hazeh ( We are thankful for God’s goodness, His kindness is ever-present.  Bless You G-d for giving us life, and bringing us to this day).

L’chaim! 

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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.

 

Star Wars

My husband is having surgery this coming Thursday to repair a torn rotator cuff.  (I will undoubtedly write a blogpost about our experiences with socialized medicine in Israel but so far, so good.) Because he will be housebound for awhile, I suggested that he go see the latest Star Wars movie the day before his operation since by the time he recovers it will probably no longer be playing in theaters.

I myself am not much of a movie-goer (I saw the original Star Wars movie when it first came out and that was it for me), and really have no desire to see the latest and greatest.  So I did what any resident of my village does when they have something they need:  I posted on a village Whatsapp group asking if anyone wanted to join my husband tomorrow night at the movies.

Before I tell you how this ends, a little preface.  We chose to live in a village rather than a city precisely because we thought we’d integrate into the community faster due to its smaller size and intimacy.  Israelis are very very connected to their families and extended families and get-togethers with relatives are constant.  Israelis also have close relationships with their friends, but many of those bonds are formed from their younger years when they were in youth groups and later, in the military.  Consequently, many olim may find it difficult to integrate socially and “break in” to Israeli culture, and some olim feel both alone and lonely — especially those who reside in large cities, where finding one’s place in a “community” may take a lot of work.

In our case, our logic was good.  We weren’t looking for an “American ghetto” in Israel, although there are a smattering of Anglos where we live.  Even though our Hebrew is far from perfect, we get by pretty well and people respect our efforts to speak in Hebrew despite our sometimes sounding like 4th graders or making lots of linguistic mistakes.  Our village has 290 families and while by no means do we know everyone, we’ve gotten to know numerous people quickly.  There is rarely a Shabbat where we are not invited or  else that we do the inviting for a meal, but we never are alone unless we consciously choose to be by ourselves.  We are part of a seniors group, an English-speakers group, and regularly participate in a wide range of local activities.  We’ve been in Israel for 9 months and many people have commented, “it seems like you’ve been here forever.”  (Fortunately, they mean this in a good way!) It’s true:  our village in particular, and Israel in general, feel like home.

But my favorite part of this story is the person who will be my husband’s Star Wars “date:”  a man 33 years younger than my husband, a person who we both call our friend.

Now I don’t know about you, but in the United States, we rarely had multi-generational friendships: people mostly socialized with people their own age.  But here, one of the things we absolutely love about Israel, is that we have friends from all walks of life professionally and economically; from different levels of religious observance (and many who are completely secular); from many different cultures and countries of origin, as well as sabras; and many different ages – both much older and much younger than ourselves.  We feel so blessed and privileged to love and be loved, and to be included not because people pity us, but because they choose to be part of our lives and let us share part of theirs.

The Force is truly with us.

 

It’s All About the “Poh”

dredielpoh

Chanuka is about miracles, and the very fact of our being here in Israel and that things are going well seems pretty miraculous in and of itself.  It seems hard to believe that we’ve been here for 9 months.  The time has flown so quickly. First I want to say:  Thank you, HaShem: we’ve settled in quickly and made many new and wonderful friends; I can daven at the Kotel and other holy sites whenever the mood strikes; we’ve learned all kinds of new skills and our Hebrew continues to improve; our house construction has still not started but at least we have a very nice rental apartment in the meantime; we have great medical care and it’s actually affordable; the fruits and vegetables are bountiful, delicious and reasonably priced; we live in a place with gorgeous views of mountains, the city, villages, and the Mediterranean; and my husband found work at age 69 only 30 minutes away, in a job that is technically challenging, pays decently, has good benefits, with a great boss and wonderful coworkers.

There is an interesting difference between dreidels sold in in the Diaspora versus dreidels sold in Israel :  the letters on the dreidels are different.  In the Diaspora the letters are nun, gimel, hey, shin. These letters stand for Nes Gadol Haya Sham – – “a great miracle happened there” which refers to the miracle of the oil and the victory over the Greeks.  In Israel the letters on the dreidel are nun, gimel, hey, peh – – Nes Gadol Haya Poh – – “a great miracle happened here.”  For us that just about sums it up:  it’s all about the “Poh.”

 

Shachar, a’h

IMG_20171207_111725.jpgIn the midst of the hustle and bustle of packing up everything on the eve of our aliyah, my son called.

“If you can get it to fit, would you mind taking something for someone in your lift?”

My son had been storing Shachar Weissberg’s shtender (a type of bookstand intended for supporting heavy tomes on a tabletop) for several years in his shed in Baltimore, with no way to get it to him now that he was living in Israel.

Although Shachar had always dreamed of living in Israel and had strong roots there (his mother is Israeli and many of his siblings live there), you might call his aliyah “accidental.”  While on a visit to Israel, Shachar fell seriously ill, yet another episode in a long string of ups and downs that were part of the degenerative illness that had plagued him for years.  There were many times when he almost didn’t survive, but this time it was clear that he would be unable to travel back to America without great risk to his life.  He was happily “stuck” in Israel, and Jerusalem is where he would spend the remainder of his too-short life.

He made aliyah only with the clothes that were in his suitcase, intended for a short visit.  From Israel, Shachar asked my son if he could store his shtender.

Normally when we think of a shtender, it’s a tabletop model.  But this was a large piece of wooden furniture, designed especially for use with a wheelchair.  Its tabletop stretched across the width of his wheelchair, and its legs reached along the sides, to the floor.  Shipping it was simply not feasible – – until now.

Our lift arrived 4 weeks after we made aliyah to the Galilee, in northern Israel.  At the time I had no car, and couldn’t figure out how I was going to get the shtender to Shachar in Jerusalem.  It sat in a corner of my rental apartment for several weeks. After speaking to his mother, who also didn’t have a car and was immersed in her role as Shachar’s caretaker, it was clear that somehow, I’d just have to make it happen.

Fortunately there is a direct bus from my village in the Galilee to Jerusalem’s central bus station.  With a hand cart, I was able to roll the shtender from my apartment to the bus, load it in the storage area under the bus, and so I made the two hour journey to Jerusalem.  Shachar lived in an apartment near Machane Yehuda, a short 10 minute walk from the bus station, and thanks to the dolly, I was able to roll it all the way to his house.

Although I had davened regularly for Rafael Shachar ben Zehavit, I hadn’t seen Shachar for several years, and I’d heard his condition was poor.  Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing how much he had deteriorated.  He was bedridden in tremendous pain, could barely speak, and was clearly suffering. I will spare you the details, but it was clear to me that he would be unable to use the shtender in his current condition, and things were unlikely to improve.

I felt terrible for bringing Shachar the shtender!  I was bringing him a relic from his past that was a bitter reminder of how much better things used to be, and it only emphasized all the things he could no longer do.  If the purpose of visiting the sick is to bring comfort, this was not it!

But Shachar greeted me with a huge smile.  And his face lit up when he saw his shtender. With great effort to speak, he thanked me profusely for bringing the shtender.

“This shtender is a source of great joy to me,” he said.  “It reminds me of such happy times.  I made this shtender with my own two hands in Camp Simcha.  I worked so hard on building it, and I was so happy that I was able to accomplish it.  That was huge for me.  Every time I learned Torah with this shtender, it made my learning so much sweeter.  Having it now will give me so much joy and strength, even if I can only just look at it.”

And that was the greatness of Shachar Weissberg a’h.  He only saw the good in situations, in people, in life. He lived every moment of his life to the fullest and with meaning. He never took anything or anyone for granted.  He appreciated everyone, and anyone who came to visit him with the idea of giving him encouragement, instead walked away encouraged and strengthened by him!  He loved people from all walks of life and they loved him – – literally thousands of people from across the globe. His neshama was holy and pure.

He transcended his illness with his indomitable fighting spirit, yet was a gentle, kind, patient and loving friend to all who crossed his path.  I confess I wondered how much longer he would be forced to suffer the ravages of his illness; it was awful and so unfair. But the world needed him more than he needed the world, and perhaps that is why he lived as long as he did.

His quiet greatness will never be forgotten.  May we merit filling the tremendous void of his passing with kindness, fortitude, love and hope, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace, Shachar Weissberg.