Monday, January 28, 2013

The Realities of Living in Jerusalem

The city is rapidly growing.  There are high rise (well, high rise for Jerusalem) apartment buildings going up all over the city. And, at the same time, there is a clearly concerted effort to make the city very livable.  There is a new Train Track Park that extends the length of Emek Refaim and follows the old train tracks.  It is a beautiful walking and bike path that really takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets.  People have compared it Highline in New York, both in purpose and in form.

No one flinches when you say you have four children.

The bus drivers are amazing...a little terrifying all at the same time.  Everyone of them can enter necessary information into their machine, count and give change, usually to more than one person at a time, and drive along the curvy and narrow streets of Jerusalem.  I saw one who read a map for a passenger while making a sharp right turn.  

The lines in the supermarkets can be pretty long. My parents spoke to one woman who was frustrated and explained that it is something she is still having trouble getting used to.  When asked how long she had lived here, she replied, "60 years."

The schools are incredibly nurturing and caring.  They work hard to ensure our children feel included and that they teach them from where they are, even though we are disrupting things by coming in the middle of the year, and even though we are only staying a short while.  We are very grateful.

When people say fifteen minutes, plan for an hour and a half.  When people say that something will be done within the hour, you might want to specify to which hour they are referring.

Don't walk and text. Israelis have not yet embraced the practice of picking up after their dogs.

The juxtaposition of old and new. Yesterday, we walked to a 2000 year old catacomb, now a park in the middle of the Northern part of the city.  It is surrounded by cars and buses on busy streets and has a playground build right above it.

Today, we saw a bus driver honk at someone in the crosswalk as opposed to stopping to allow the person to cross.  Yesterday, we were on a bus where the driver made a special stop to allow the elderly passengers to disembark right at the open air market, rather than making them walk the block and a half from the scheduled stop.

Everywhere we go, people are willing and eager to assist us; by walking way out of their way to show us the building for which we are looking, by stopping in the street to see if we are lost and need help and by deciphering the special labels in the market so we can figure out which products are on sale.

On Fridays, people say Shabbat Shalom on the street.  There will be parades on Purim.  And, on Passover, restaurants will serve kosher for Passover meals.

Every morning we get to wake up in this 3000 year old city, the symbolic heart of our people. Life here sometimes makes you crazy, and sometimes overwhelms you with beauty, kindness and tradition.  What a blessing it is to experience it all.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Israeli Elections

Shalom!  Hope everyone is doing well.

A few nights ago, I attended a debate on the election.  It opened with the President of the Great Synagogue (our host) welcoming everyone to the evening.  He began, "Welcome Friends and Foes..." In every respect, that set the appropriate tone for the rest of the night.

(Before you keep reading, check this out if you want an overview of the Israeli Government structure.)

There were 8 ministers.   More than half of them had immigrated to Israel, mostly from the United States, and chosen most likely because it was an all English speaking crowd.  Only three of them were in suits: the minister from Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a rabbi originally from the US; the representative from SHAS, the Ultra-Orthodox party; and the minister representing Likud, a Refusnik from the former Soviet Union.  The attire was the first clear sign that this was going to be unlike American political debates.  No, actually, the first sign was that it was in a synagogue.

Many of the issues that were the big topics in our most recent election were also the focus of this discussion.  Economic inequalities came up a number of times.  Some parties specifically talked about wanting to take the burden off of the middle class. Another argued that the money to bridge the economic gaps ought to come from the big companies who received billions of shekels in tax relief last year.  People brought up environmental issues and the need to become more energy independent.  The minister from Meretz (Energy) let everyone know that her party was the only one that did not have anyone who had ever been investigated.  One mentioned education. 

And then there were the issues specific to Israel.  There was a debate as to how many Palestinians live in the West Bank; one said 1.8 million, others said it was more like 3.5 million.  The minister from Otzma Leyisrael (Strong Israel) said that the Palestinians already have a country; it is called Jordan.  That got a lot of applause.  Then the Labor minister reminded the audience that this is being televised and they should be careful not to make such a rukus over things they know nothing about. 

Can you imagine if an American politician turned to the crowd and told them they don't know what they are talking about?  Only in Israel!

Bayit Yehudi, the only party to have a top minister (Naftali Bennett) attend, was interesting.  Very liberal on social issues, including civil rights for Israeli Arabs, and very clear that they oppose a "Palestinian State in the Land of Israel." An interesting combination. He was quite popular with this particular crowd.

Religious pluralism came up many times. The Green Party's minister is Mesorti (Israeli Conservative Movement) and talked about how terrible it was when his daughter was harassed for wearing a tallit at the Wall. He also explained that Tzippy Livni, the head of his party, is Mesorti, and thus very sensitive to these issues.  Yesh Atid said it was awful that the people who came from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia had so much trouble convincing the Israeli Rabbinate of their Jewish status.  They were punished in their countries of birth for being Jewish, and they are punished here for "not" being Jewish. 

The minister from Yesh Atid is an Orthodox rabbi with a Haredi background.  He is in favor of religious pluralism, and works against the extremists in places like Beit Shemesh. It was very powerful to hear an Orthodox rabbi lobbying for religious pluralism. When I lived in Israel 15 years ago, this was the topic of conversation amongst the liberal movements, but I had never heard an argument for pluralism from the Orthodox side. I imagine his ideal still might look a little different from mine, but he felt like someone who was ready to work on this together. That's pretty exciting.

He also brought up the fact that, last year, 50% of the first graders were either Haredi or Israeli Arab.  Neither group is routinely conscripted into the military.  His conclusion was that the Haredim should have to start serving in the military.  And, the military would have to ensure that it was inclusive.  As an example, all the food should be kosher.

The evening continued with some highly entertaining cheap shots and snide remarks.  At one point, the moderator had asked a member of the audience to take his seat because there was no time for more questions.  The audience member did not want to sit down.  After yelling at each other for a few moments, the moderator came to the edge of the stage and threatened to have the man removed from the room.  The man sat down.  As the moderator walked back to his podium he said, "It always helps in Israel just to shout louder than the other person."

The evening ended in a very surprising way.  As each of the parties was summing up, many stated that they believed Natanyahu was going to be prime minister again.  There was no question in their minds.  For many of them, the real issue being settled in this election is how many seats the smaller parties will get.  When Natanyahu is building his coalition, will he need his numbers from left or right leaning parties?

Of course, they could also be wrong.  If Labor were to unseat Likud as the dominant party, they would build a very different looking coalition and likely move things in a very different direction. Now, is that a real possibility?  Well, it depends on who you ask.  Labor, certainly, thinks it is.

At the end of a thought provoking and entertaining evening, I was still left with the question of what will come out of this election. The answer is, of course, we won't know until it is done.  But, what we do know is that the democratic process promises that whatever happens, it will be a reflection of the hearts and minds of the Israeli people.  That leaves us, as American Jews, in our strange and unique situation; we are, on the one hand, mere observers in this process, and yet at the same time, so very invested in the outcome. 

I cannot predict what will be.  I only hope, as do millions of other Jews in Israel and around the world, that this 19th Knesset will move the State of Israel forward in its continuing pursuit of justice, prosperity and peace.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The first week

We've survived!

The trip was long yet relatively smooth.  Our apartment is great and we unpacked quickly.  The jet lag is finally wearing off.  I believe everyone is now sleeping about 8 hours in a row...during the night even, which is great.  We ventured to Ben Yehuda, Mahaneh Yehuda twice, Mamilla Mall and we strolled down memory lane with a walk by Hebrew Union College (my seminary) and the apartment on Rachov Washington where we lived 15 years ago.

This past Shabbat, we went to services at Nava Tehila, a relatively new community that rents space in other buildings at the moment, but seems to be gaining a following.  Beautiful music.  Cantor Keys has incorporated their version of Oseh Shalom into our services, as a matter of fact.  After services, we came back to our apartment for Shabbat dinner.  I asked the kids what they had enjoyed about Israel so far.  We got two votes for Ben Yehudah, one for the shuk, and then the three year old said one of his favorite things so far was sleeping through services.

Shabbat afternoon, we met Sinai's own Cantorial student, Elaya Jenkins-Adelberg, and her parents Jody and Luanne for lunch. A real treat.

We are figuring out the kids' schools.  The older two are attending an ulpan for students from 2nd through 12th grades.  They go there four days a week, and then go to a "regular" school for Sunday and Friday.   I think we have settled on a Tali school (Israeli public schools associated with the Reform Movement in Israel) for our first grader and for the boys' other two days.  It is far, but it feels like such a nurturing place to be.  The principal told me that her biggest concern is making our child really feel that she belongs. I suppose it is no wonder that we feel like it is such a good fit.  Narrowing down options for the youngest and should have everyone straightened out in the next week.

I am looking to sign up for a class in scribal arts beginning in a few weeks.  Only a few sessions, but with the Torah project starting up at Sinai, I thought it would be fun to delve into the topic and learn from other scribes.

But, the biggest excitement of all is the storm.  For most of the week, super cold and rainy.  Way more rain than usual.  Our ceiling sprung a leak three days ago, and now we are up to about six.  Pots and towels all over the floor.  Good thing we rented an apartment with a kosher kitchen.  Twice the number of pots!  Nearly every building we have visited in the last few days has a least one leak.  Actually, what was even worse was a piece of sheet metal on the roof that was attached to the top of the elevator shaft.  Problem was that it extended about two feet beyond the shaft on every side.  Every time the wind blew, the metal would flap back and forth creating a sound like thunder right over our heads.  Our landlord climbed up to the roof and tied it down the other day with extension cords (because he didn't have any rope).

Today, lots and lots of snow.  Trees branches are snapping under the weight of it.  The kids are running in and out of the apartment.  They love to play in the snow, but alas, we are barely prepared for all the rain.  So, they come inside, warm up, and head right back out.  Just like all the other Israeli children in Jerusalem!

Looking forward to lots of exciting adventures.