Sunday, June 16, 2013


With a little less than two weeks remaining, we've started to pack up and are getting ready to go home.

As we begin the process, there are a myriad of emotions that I feel. I am excited to be going home. I miss family, friends and our community and I miss the predictability of our usual lives.

At the same time, I am feeling sad to be leaving Jerusalem. My family has had an amazing time here. We will all miss our new friends and we will miss the unique experience of living in a place where Judaism is everyone's norm.

And, I am feeling overwhelmed. You can imagine how much we have acquired in the past six months. How we are going to fit it in the suitcases that will also be filled with everything we brought we do not yet know. And, as wonderful as it will be for life to go back to normal, we will quickly get caught up with the hustle and bustle of our lives at home, losing the flexibility and fluidity we established in these last six months.

But even with all these emotions, I find that the one closest to the surface is gratitude. I am so grateful for these last six months. We have had so much wonderful family time, allowing for all kinds of adventure and learning together. The fact that we got to spend it in Israel meant that we could experience living a very different kind of Jewish life. We have picked up new traditions and rituals that we are thrilled to continue at home. And,  most importantly, our kids have made a strong connection to Israel and to Israelis. The next time they come, they won't be strangers. This will always feel like their home, too.

I am grateful for my community, for their generosity and immense support. I am grateful that many have contacted me just to say hello and to let me know that I was missed.

I am grateful for my brothers, brother-in-law, and sisters-in-law who went out of their way to help us with the tasks necessary to maintain our lives at home. I am grateful to neighbors who helped to keep an eye on things.

I am grateful for my colleagues, who have shouldered far more than their share to allow me to have this time with my family.

I am grateful for my children's principal and teachers at home, who were so supportive of us taking our kids on this adventure, and who went out of their way to help us with materials and ideas to keep the kids up to date. And, I'm grateful for the parents in our school community who did all they could to reach out to us here to include our kids from a far.

I am grateful for the schools here in Israel, who embraced our kids and made them a part of the community. I am grateful for the ulpan who allowed our kids to jump into their year even though it was going to be hard. I am grateful for the Tali school, who ensured our kids felt loved and that they belong. I am grateful for the gan, the preschool here, whose love, care and warmth for our child has been overwhelming, and rivaled only by the affection we have from and for our Temple preschool at home. And, we are grateful for all the parents who reached out to us, who made special calls to be sure we knew what was happening, and who invited us to their homes so that we wouldn't feel alone. The goodness that you have given to my family is immeasurable.

I am grateful for my parents-in-law, for my sister and brother-in-law, my nieces, aunts, uncle, friends and colleagues who came to visit.

And, I am so grateful for my parents who courageously shared this time with us.

Most of all, I am grateful for my husband whose sense of adventure allowed him to enthusiastically agree that this would be a wonderful opportunity for our family. And, I am grateful for our children who bravely tried every new thing offered, and always found a way to enjoy it.

Finally, I am grateful to all of you who have joined in this experience with me through reading this blog. Thank you for helping me to reflect and to express what this time has meant to me.

I have more blessings in my life than could ever be deserved. Thank you to everyone who made this Sabbatical not only possible, but truly life changing.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Getting a Visa in Israel

I wrote a few posts ago that we were having trouble renewing our tourist visas. Thankfully, all of the paperwork came through and we are perfectly legal now. 
Upon entry to Israel, we received a three month tourist visa. We tried to obtain a visa for all six months before we left for Israel, but were assured that it is a simple process that can be done from Israel. In our case, not so simple. 

Ultimately, the big problem was that we didn't know our options. We had two choices: to pay for the extensions on the spot, or take the time to prove that we are Jewish through the Jewish Agency and then the fees would be waived. But, they didn't tell us that. Instead, the Ministry of the Interior clerks looked at us and said that the fact we wanted to stay in Israel for another three months so that our kids could learn Hebrew and build a connection with Israel made no sense whatsoever...unless of course we are Jewish. So, they said, or at least we heard, you don't get your visas until you prove you are Jewish. 

We were clearly upset with this news. Like, yelling upset. One might think that at least one of the three people we spoke with in the office that morning might have mentioned that we could just pay for it and be done. Alas, for some reason, they insisted we prove our Jewish status.

Proof comes in the form of a letter from a rabbi who lives abroad and who can verify one's Jewishness. Unfortunately, a rabbi cannot vouch for herself. Fortunately, the East Bay Federation Mission to Israel was in town. I called Rabbi Chester to find out that he was at Yad Vashem, but was about to leave. With a half hour to get his signature, we quickly printed a letter and raced to the museum before he left Jerusalem. Thanks, Rabbi Chester, for attesting to our Jewishness!
As it turns out, once you prove you are Jewish, you actually have some rights. Everything having to do with visas is much easier. That may be why the Ministry bureaucrats assume that everyone would want to go through the process; especially a rabbi. Truth be told, if we had the option, we might well have chosen the "prove you are Jewish route" anyway. Yet, had we chosen it, we wouldn't have had the stress of thinking we had no way of rectifying our illegal presence in Israel. 

100% Kosher!
In the end, we are certified Jews, and I have learned enough about the process to help others not go crazy with stress when they deal with the Israeli government. Well, at least not on this issue. Below is a link to the document I put together for IRAC. It will be on their website. IRAC, being the social action arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, works on behalf of those for whom obtaining verification of Jewish status can prove difficult. They are fantastic. Though I did not have contact with Nicole Maor, the attorney who handles these cases, until after our process was complete, she was amazingly helpful in putting the puzzle pieces together so we could  understand what happened with our process. One more reason to appreciate the institution and the people who work on behalf of Reform Judaism here in Israel.  
If you know anyone planning an extended to trip to Israel any time soon, please feel free to forward this guideline. Hopefully, it will help reduce the stress. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Just for Fun

Just some pictures from the past few weeks activities.

Bar Kochba Caves at Churvat Madras. There are sites all over Israel that include tunnels carved into the rocks from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt. Some in the middle of nowhere, some under other sites like the palace at Herodium. As you may remember, Bar Kochba was a charismatic figure who attempted to establish Jewish independence in the 130s CE. Rabbi Akiva was said to have called him the messiah. His movement, however, was crushed by the Romans in a horribly bloody war that decimated the Jewish population.

While we talked a little about the caves and the people who had to hide there, our focus was mostly on the fun of crawling through. The pitch black, narrow tunnel took about fifteen minutes to crawl through. The kids had it somewhat easy, especially the three year old. The adults were lucky when we could crawl on our hands and knees, and once or twice had to squeeze through on our bellies. The first time, all six of us went, then I went with the kids, then my husband went with the kids. When they asked to go through a fourth time, we sent them on their own.

Ein Gedi is mentioned many times in the Tanach. This is where David hid from Saul. There are numerous waterfalls and pools all along the path.

Mamshit National Park. Mamshit is a Nabatean city. For hundreds of years, the Nabateans, whose capital is in Petra, Jordan, developed a monopoly over the transport of goods from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. They had very sophisticated water systems that enabled them to thrive in the Negev. Their wealth and success is evident in the cities they left behind, including five that are located in Israel. Mamshit, one of the five, was a particularly wealthy city. There are multiple mansions on the site, including one that is 2000 square meters (>21,000 sq ft). That particular house included an internal stable for twenty or so horses.

In the first house build in Mamshit
Most of the Nabatean cities were resettled over the years. Mamshit includes two churches and evidence of monks who likely used the former market place as living quarters. Under the Roman Empire the Nabateans became Christian and then, later, Muslim. They were thought to have lost their particularity as a people sometime during the early Muslim period and assimilated into the world around them.

Though we were having fun, our oldest was maxed
out on ruins and suggested our next stop have a roof on it.

Outside one of the churches
The kids thought this would be a good place for the flat screen

A self portrait from inside a huge cross carved into the stone

As we left Mamshit, we happened upon the Camel Ranch of the Negev. They give tours all around the area on camels. Sounded like fun, but we opted for twice around the corral.

Masada, in general, is always a great trip. This was our second visit. We ascended the Snake Path both times. The first time was in the last week of March and we started at eight in the morning. This time, it was mid-May and we started at nine. Wow, what a difference a couple of months and an hour makes! It was hot and the climb was much more difficult. One of the kids suggested that it could also be because of the excitement of the first time. He had told himself that hiking up the Snake Path was a once in a lifetime experience. As it turns out, the second time you have a once in a lifetime experience, it just isn't the same.

The Mineral Beach on the Dead Sea. Of all the beaches on the Dead Sea, this one might be our favorite. We have promised at least one more trip to the Dead Sea before we return home. For those of us who love getting slathered up with mud and floating in salty water, we just can't seem to get enough!

Guess who?

In and around Jerusalem. There are a number of new sites that have just opened in honor of long time mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kolek. At least one member of the family thinks that Teddy Park right outside the old city and Teddy Stadium near the Malcha Mall were named just perfectly.

And, just for fun at home. Did you know that Mah Jong is an Israel tradition? Well, at least for my family. This is not the original set that was purchased when my husband and I lived here fifteen years ago. This is a mini travel one we asked my sister to bring because the our set is way to heavy. The luggage weight limit was much higher back then. And, in case you were wondering, my Mom was the big winner.

We have about five weeks left here in Israel. More adventure to come...

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Women of the Wall: The Next Chapter

Kotel. 7:00am. Friday May 10, 2013. Rosh Chodesh Sivan 5773.

The events of the morning were simultaneously amazing, crazy, scary and unbelievable.

The first clue that this Woman of the Wall service would be different from others I attended was the huge numbers of orthodox teenage girls who passed as we descended from the Jaffa gate toward the Kotel. We knew that there were several rabbis who had put a call out to the girls' yeshivot in order to get huge numbers of Haredim to come out to protest the ruling in favor of Women of the Wall, but that knowledge did not prepare us for what we were about to experience.

There were thousands upon thousands of people at the wall and its adjacent plaza. The massive numbers of people meant that the Women of the Wall could not meet at its usual spot on the women's side, rather, we met on the plaza that morning. The added bonus was that men and women were able to pray together. As soon as we found the group, we pulled out our tallitot, now totally legal, and we joined in the service. We were encircled by police.

But, who could pray? We sang and participated, yet, it is hard to concentrate when just steps away are police officers linked arm and arm to prevent people who might hurt you from getting too close. Because we were on the side of the plaza closest to the women's section, we were surrounded mostly by the yeshiva girls. Many of them had their prayerbooks out and were trying to go through the morning service. They were crowding in, giving curious or sometimes strange looks. Some engaged in critical conversation, but it wasn't until we were toward the end of the service that we had some spit balls and then a water bottle thrown our way. On the men's side, the incitement started much earlier, with people throwing coffee grounds and at one point, someone threw a chair.

My dad and me. First time we prayed at the Kotel together.

As the service wore on, the crowd made us more and more nervous. At one point, the police had pushed the teens way back, but then a crowd of men in black hats came rushing forward. Cheers from the crowds that had gathered on the balconies of nearby buildings hinted that the protesters were giving police a hard time. By the end of the service, it was clear to everyone that the only safe way we were leaving was in a pack.

People gathered on balconies and on top of buildings to watch.

Anat Hoffman reminded us to stay as close together as possible. The police made two lines to hold back the protesters and then more officers walked alongside us as we left the old city through the Dung Gate. People shouted at us, people threw water bottles and hard candy. And the scariest part was that they kept coming. Once we were through security, I thought we would be past the danger, but protesters were lined up through the exit and all along the street outside. A public bus pulled up and we boarded. As we drove away, the spitting started, and then people started to hit the side of the bus with their hands. Once we gained speed, they started throwing rocks.

Police insisting protesters stay behind the barricade.
I snapped this picture right after the man in the middle spit at the bus.
As the bus picked up speed, several protesters ran alongside hitting the bus and throwing rocks.

It was amazing to feel the protection of the police. It was amazing to be there with the men and women who support Jewish pluralism in Israel. It was amazing to know that after twenty five years, the State of Israel is beginning to recognize the rights of women and of progressive Jews.

It was crazy to see the number of people gathered to protest the presence of Jews in prayer. And even crazier to know that they themselves were all Jews.

It was scary to be witness to a mob scene. It was scary to see the disgust on people's faces. It is scary to know the power that the leadership of any group has to incite violence and hate.

The whole experience and the whole situation is just unbelievable.

In the past few days, I've heard a lot of talk about what happened and how people feel about it. Some are still very critical about the Women of the Wall and the way they have taken up this fight. Some have said that they should keep to the courts; that their splashy tactics to attract the media cheapen the message. Others complain that it is just an American movement and Israelis don't really care. Others say that they should leave the Wall alone and concentrate on more pressing issues like non-Orthodox weddings and divorces.

Yet, the strategy of Women of the Wall necessarily helped to get the entire Jewish world involved with the issue of women's rights and the rights of progressive Jews in Israel. Being able to pray at the Wall in the way in which you are accustomed to praying may not seem like a big deal to most people, but the inequality is symbolic of other ways in which women's rights are being subverted.

Segregation between men and women in Israel began only in 1999. Now, it happens on streets and on buses. There have been segregated health clinics and water fountains. On certain Israeli radio stations, women's voices are not allowed. When Kenesset sessions are aired, the voices of female ministers are bleeped out. There are communities where women are made to wear clothing akin to the burkas under the Taliban. There are signs in front of synagogues that tell women that they have to hide behind cars if they are waiting for their husbands so as not to disrupt the study of Torah through their very presence. The Israeli ReligiousAction Center (IRAC) has been successful in combating segregation in many of these areas, and they are winning new cases all the time. However, even in areas where segregation has been deemed illegal, social pressures have women seemingly volunteering to sit at the back of the bus, quite literally.

On Jerusalem bus #56, a bus that starts in an Ultra-Orthodox community, goes through an Ultra-Orthodox community and then ends in an Ultra-Orthodox community, the buses continue to be gender segregated. IRAC has started a “Freedom Ride” wherein a group of people get on the bus at the first stop and all the women sit in the front bus with an empty seat beside them. This enables the Orthodox women to sit in the front next to another woman. They can take advantage of the situation and not be scorned for sitting next to a man or stealing a seat from a man. Sue Bojdak and I participated last week during the WUPJ (World Union for Progressive Judaism) convention last week.

It was a very interesting experience. I sat in the very front. Many of the women who came on the bus walked straight past me without a second look. But, I got many surprised glances from men as the bus slowly filled. At one point, an Ultra-Orthodox man put the two bags he was carrying on the seat next to me and then balanced on the armrest. When he got off the bus, a secular man smiled at me, sat down and said, “Ani lo dati" (I'm not religious). Another member of our party overheard a young girl saying, “Uch! Are they here again?” There was nothing subtle about the situation. We were disrupting the usual practice of men up front and women in the back of the bus. A practice that serves to emphasize the restriction of women's freedom and rights in some parts of the Ultra-Orthodox world.

My mom and me in our tallitot. Glasses broke prior to event.
So, this is not just about whether or not women can pray at the wall wearing a tallit. It is a small piece of a much larger issue of extremism within Judaism, where the basic rights of women are being violated. Why such virulence? In general, it is an extreme reaction to the threat they feel from the outside world. It looks like Haredim will begin to be drafted into the military. There are no Ultra-Orthodox parties in Natenyahu's government. The money usually earmarked for Haredi yeshivot is being reallocated. While the Ultra-Orthodox are still very powerful in Israel, that power is waning. And, when people begin to lose their power, they clamp down on whatever and whoever is still under their control. Because of the way that literal Jewish tradition is set up, women are most susceptible. 

As you might imagine, however, the influence of the contemporary world has the potential to better the situation of the women. Haredi girls learn the national curriculum that includes math and science. They are the ones who learn how to pay mortgages and open bank accounts. They are the ones who find work to support the family. A minimum wage job earns more that a stipend for studying in the yeshiva. It sets up a system wherein the men have to rely on the women in their lives. Thus, the threat is not only from the outside, but it is also coming from inside their communities as well. The women are thus in the perfect position to be the victims of the attacks brought on by fear.

So, yes, the Women of the Wall are about the freedom of prayer. And they are about protecting the rights of progressive Jews who are not equal in the State of Israel. And they are about protecting women, whether they agree with the ideology and strategy of Women of the Wall or not. And they are absolutely about breaking down the stronghold of power and authority that allows for a few individuals to subjugate and control others. This is what Jews have always struggled against; those who would mistake themselves for God and thus design the world according to their will and benefit. It is a struggle incumbent upon all Jews, through time, space, and denomination. Even when it is with each other that we must battle.

For a short video with highlights of the morning, check out The Times of Israel. And for additional photos, go to this site.

Taking part in the monthly Rosh Chodesh services has been a real highlight of my time in Israel. Even with all the varied emotions, I am grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of positive change in the Jewish State.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Only in Israel

A handful of things you would likely only see or experience in Israel:

The first ten times I walked past this, I thought someone had decorated the neighborhood recycle bin. Then, one day, I looked closer and read the sign.

It's a genizah for tefillin and mezzuzot. A genizah right there in the middle of the alley! The same alley, by the way, where people kasher dishes and burn chametz before Passover.

 These are pictures of corner stores in Jerusalem. 

Not all 24 hour places even bother to include the 6, it is just assumed that everyone would know that open all the time, 24 hours a day, never closes, would not include being open on Shabbat. It is just one example of the many things in Israel that are always, always, always the same...except for the times they are not. Another example that comes to mind is parking. Red and white curbs mean no parking, all the time, except, apparently, when you can park there. Just like on Shabbat when everyone parks in bus stops because the buses do not run. Otherwise, we aren't totally sure.  It could also be that Israeli's ignore the rules or don't care if they get citations. Just more of the basics of socialization that we all take for granted until we go and live somewhere else and are at a loss for the rules that no one bothers to write down because they are so obvious to everyone.

There was an amazing sight last Friday at Machne Yehudah, the open air market. Unfortunately, I was too overloaded with groceries to be able to reach a camera. It was of the man who sits in the same part of the market every single day and asks for money. On Friday morning, there was literally a line of people waiting to drop a few shekels into his cup. It is good to give tzedakah in preparation for Shabbat, but, a unique sight to have people lining up to do it. Only in Israel.

This, I suppose, you might see in and around New York, and perhaps even in parts of Los Angeles.

It is a salon, and in fact, the place where I got a haircut just a few days ago. It's a very nice place and very busy. Sometimes, you will walk by and see the stylists inside with round brushes and hairdryers, intently working on styling someone's hair. If you look closer, you will see that the hair is not always connected to someone's head, rather, it is sometimes sitting on a plastic head that is attached to the chair with a wire stand. There is a very large ultra Orthodox population in this neighborhood, and many of the women cover their hair with wigs rather than scarves or hats. The wigs are very high quality and some of them really beautiful. And, it makes sense, that, just as you take your clothes to the cleaner, you would take your wigs to be washed and restyled. But, I still did a double take the first time I saw it. While I am not going the way of the wig, truth be told, it would be a huge time saver to drop your hair off at the salon and pick it up later looking clean and fresh.

Here's a good one from the Old City:

Self explanatory. Though for the next few images, you need a little background.

When we first rented our car, the woman with the rental car company went through all of the various things that were covered under the extra insurance we purchased. Broken windows was not one of them. We asked, then, what happens if someone breaks a window to steal something out of the car? She looked at me as if I had asked what would happen if aliens landed on top of the car and made a dent in the roof with their spaceship. I guess that kind of thing doesn't happen so much in Israel. Then, her coworker explained that, actually, the windows would be covered if a Palestinian threw a rock at the car and broke a window. Thinking that the comment was another example of the lack of political correctness here, we left vowing to steer clear of anything that might damage the windshield.

And then, lo and behold, a few weeks ago, my husband, my in-laws and two of the kids were driving home from the Mt. of Olives and had a rock thrown at one of the back windows, shattering it completely. Luckily, no one was hurt. It was just a group of kids in East Jerusalem. One of them cheered when they got the window. Though the practice may be rooted in politics, this was really just malicious mischief.

When they went to the police station to file a report, the officer said it happens all the time. All the time. They got the paperwork done, and then the officer gave them a tour of the building, including the roof that has a view of the Dome of the Rock.

The rock, the tour, the view...only in Israel.

This is less "only in Israel" and more "never in the US".

A few days ago, we celebrated Lag B'Omer. In the days leading up to it, all of our kids had bonfires and picnics with their classes. There were bonfires everywhere. This one was for our daughter's first grade class. We were struck by the proximity of this raging fire to the play structure where all of our kids were climbing.

The fire was so hot, the kids could not get close enough to roast the marshmallows we had brought. Fortunately, they are not so insistent about the need for roasting.

And, the final picture for this entry is me, pulling my hair out.

Because, only in Israel does a Reform rabbi have to prove that she is Jewish in order to extend her tourist visa. More on that another time.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

In Israel, it's personal.

There is nothing remote or symbolic about Yom HaZikaron, Israel's Memorial Day, for Israelis. It is the day when you remember specific people in your family, or your friends or in your friends' families. It is a day to remember the people who graduated from the same school you go to, or those who were members of the same communities to which you belong. Everyone is touched by the death of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to defend and protect Israel and those civilians killed in terrorist attacks.

The memorial at the Kotel

At my children's elementary school, memorials of alumni and students can be found at the main entrance. Each has a picture and a story. Some have books that were put together about the young person's life; something that has become common practice when a soldier dies. There are a dozen young smiling faces. Equally as powerful as their pictures is to see the gathering of people reading the stories and leafing through the memorial books. They were the children, the students. These people who died stood where they stood not too long ago, carrying their backpacks, playing football with their friends and learning from the very same teachers. For these first through sixth graders, the reality of life in Israel, at all levels, is already a part of their consciousness. I imagine it makes Israelis have to grow up faster than other kids.

The memorial at my kids' elementary school

I remember the last time I was in Israel for Yom HaZikaron. I went to Sultan's Pool outside the old city walls for a gathering. There was a big screen and the stories of those who had died that year were being told. I sat there with hundreds of Israels listening to the story of a settlement family of five, including a newborn baby, who had been murdered by terrorists just days before.  Hundreds of somber faces sat and mourned together.

At the same time, Yom HaZikaron brings up different emotions for others who live in Israel. This year, we went to the bridge that leads to the Jaffa Gate to be with people there when the sirens rang for two minutes of silence. Now, every other time I have been in Israel when the siren sounded, I've been in the heart of Jewish Jerusalem: Ben Yehudah, King David Street, King George Street. And, when the sirens sounded, everyone stood still, creating an overwhelming sense of shared loss. Today, right on the boarder between east and west Jerusalem, half the cars didn't even stop. Others blasted their horn and tried to drive around those who had gotten out of their cars. People walking ignored what was happening and kept right on going. 

During the siren right outside the Jaffa Gate

Not everyone in Jerusalem mourns the loss of fallen Israeli soldiers. Palestinians call the Israeli Day of Independence the Nakba, the Day of Catastrophe. When Israelis celebrate their independence, others mourn their losses of people, of their homes and their land. People's reactions to Yom HaZikaron certainly stand out as an example of how Jerusalem is terribly divided. Far from being comforting, the scene today was painful and disturbing. 

The complexity of life in Israel continues, for as soon as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, the music and dancing for Yom HaAzmaut begin. The losses are terrible, but going from mourning to celebration helps remind everyone of what the sacrifices were for. The only time I have ever experienced people to taking to the street and celebrating the way Israelis celebrate Yom HaAzmaut is when one of the local sports teams won a national championship. There is folk dancing at Kikar Safra, Jerusalem's Civic Center, fireworks over Independence Park a little past midnight, and thousands of people walking the streets with inflatable toys decorated with Israeli flags and wearing light up headbands.

Dancing in Kikar Safra

It is unbridled joy, the likes of which I could barely fathom on any given Fourth of July. On the other hand, it never once crossed my mind on a Forth of July that there is a chance that the United States might not exist to celebrate at the same time next year. Of course, it is highly unlikely that would be the case for Israel, but no one knows for sure what the future will bring. Enjoy what is now.

In Israel, it's personal. The losses are personal losses. The joys are about individual freedom. Perhaps that is why it is so intense as well. The intensity of both the sadness and the happiness are powerful and moving, and so telling of the reality of life in Israel. If you want to really know this place, come to experience Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut one year. It is an amazing time to be in Israel.

Shaving cream graffiti of Star of David in downtown Jerusalem