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

 

 

 

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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.

 

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.)