April 22, 2019

Trading in a role for a mission

It could have been any bus station on a sunny morning. A fresh spring day. A Thursday. 

Guys came in jeans with duffel bags slung over their shoulders. Families arrived: mothers, fathers, little brothers and sisters, girlfriends and grandparents. They joked and chatted and took pictures and ate. Ethiopian families, Anglos and Sephardim all stood together. Busses arrived, then left.

A group of young guys gathered in a circle and started to sing and dance. And then this group picked up their bags and lined up for their bus.

Despite the songs, there was tension in the air and these families milled about nervously. One girl hugged her boyfriend and, in tears, she left. Mothers held onto their sons’ hands, fathers gave blessings. 

This was the liskat giyus, the place where young soldiers draft into the IDF. And this sunny Thursday marked the moment when the army takes  responsibilty of the child away from the parent. It is the moment when the young adult gives up civilian freedom for close to three years.

As this was a religious draft, all boys wore kippot and tzitzit dangled from under their shirts. After finishing high school, they had all studied for a year or two at yeshivot before drafting. 

They were learned in Torah and had a deep love for Israel and for the Jewish people. So much so, they sang and danced to mark their draft.

My younger son was one of them.

This is in stark contrast to my last blog post where I wrote about Hareidim protesting the forced army draft, screaming that they would rather die than serve.   

Yet being at Tel Hashomer that Thursday morning renewed my pride because young religious men are happy to serve their country. Many of these soldiers will go into Hesder units with other religious soldiers and others will do a full service.

Ethiopian parents.
There is a place for everyone in the IDF; be they Orthodox Jewish, Muslim, Druze or Christian, new immigrants from Ethiopia, India, Russia or the US, or young adults with special needs

 The army is a place where these new recruits will be challenged and will grow. It’s not an easy transition going from being a kid with no responsibilities to a soldier, but the army will teach them all important life lessons.

Although they are putting their freedom on hold, they are privileged to be a part of the IDF.

The inscription on the building (pictured below) bears this quote by Shimon Peres:
The essence of life is not what to be but what to do
There is no such thing as a role - there is a mission.
 To Shaya and to all of the boys who went in, I wish them all much success, positive growth and a sense of mission in their army service.

March 31, 2019

Never Have I Ever

“I’m at the central bus station,” my daughter replied.  “I’ll be there in about 10 minutes. Can’t wait to see the show.” 

I hung up the phone and ordered a coffee, sitting comfortably in the lobby of the Beit Shmuel theater beside the King David Hotel.

I was relieved that we had arrived early, found parking and was happy to be in Jerusalem for a night out at the theater.  The last time we went out to meet friends, we went to Tel Aviv and we were caught in a demonstration. As we tried to reach the restaurant, each road we wanted to turn onto was methodically barred by police. All traffic converged onto one road and soon came to a standstill. Waze, our usually reliable GPS system, had a nervous breakdown, displaying angry lines across the map. 

Lost without Waze and frustrated, I just wanted to abandon the car and walk. But there was no place to park. I googled the problem and realized that we had arrived in central Tel Aviv just in time for an Ethiopian demonstration against police violence. We finally ditched the car and made it to the restaurant on foot. It was a fancy chef-style bistro where people chatted politely over fancy hors d’oeuvres while not so far away, angry demonstrators protested and screamed.

I finished my coffee and looked at my watch. Twenty minutes had passed. I called my daughter. No reply. The performance was to begin in ten minutes. Where was she? I called again. Finally, she picked up the phone.

“I’m on the light rail. There’s some kind of Hareidi demonstration and we’re not moving.” 

I suggested she get off the light rail and walk but she told me the driver was not allowed to open the doors in between stops.

“The demonstrators are banging on the windows. They’re lying on the pavement in front of the train. Why are they so angry?”

I looked on my news app. Headlines read ‘Ultra-Orthodoxanti-draft protesters block Jerusalem roads.’ I read on. It was reported that they took to the streets after an Orthodox draft dodger was arrested for ignoring his draft notice for five years.

“We will die and not be drafted,” they screamed.

We left my daughter’s ticket with the usher and went into the theater to see ‘In the Heights.’ The salsa music and dancing were upbeat, the rap melodies clever and catchy.  Yet as we were riveted by this performance, not far away, the demonstrators hit and banged the street car and destroyed public property. Everyone who was locked inside the light rail car had places to go, jobs to get to and families to go home to. 

Frustrated secular passengers started to vent their frustration out on the religious passengers who looked around helplessly, explaining, “We’re not like them.”

One young energetic girl tried to make the best of a bad situation. “Let’s play ‘Never have I Ever.’” For once, everyone agreed.

“Never have I ever been stuck in a light rail car like this,” she started.

“Never have I ever been on a plane,” a religious boy in a black velvet kippa chimed in.

He continued, enjoying his moment of fame. “And never have I ever had my own cell phone.” His mother frowned at him. He giggled.

By intermission time, I was sure my daughter would be at the theatre. She was not. She so badly had wanted to come and knew the all the words to this musical by heart. When the second act started, her seat was still empty.

The light rail car ended up reversing a few meters back to the central bus station, to the exact spot where the passengers had boarded some two and a half hours previously.  Everyone was finally let off to find their own way in the now dark streets.

The curtain had come down and the theater was dark.

In Israel, extremism has become a norm. With so many external existential threats, one would think the country should be more united, especially when it comes to the army and self-defense. Sadly, this is not so.

We met our daughter after the show. She took the experience in stride but unfortunately it changed her and, after what she saw, there is no going back.

“I know we are all different,” she explained. “I respect everyone for their beliefs and I never wanted to judge people. But today, I saw anger and hate and I cannot accept this, especially when it comes to religion.”

This could have been her ‘Never have I ever’ statement. Sadly, she will see this anger again. These demonstrators gnarled up a huge city for hours, stole busy people’s precious time and jaded a young, open mind irreparably.

Israel is a young country with growing pains and an identity crisis. We have a lot of maturing ahead of us and a lot to learn.  Like the old Jewish parable about the stiff, upright cedar and the soft, flexible reed, we must all learn to stoop and to bend when the strong winds blow. As it says in the Talmud, 'Be pliable like a reed, not rigid like a cedar.' 

Yet, Never Have I Ever lived in a country that is so young yet has accomplished and contributed so much to the world in so little time. We must keep these miracles close to our hearts, think positively, envision unity and more than ever, learn how to be flexible. 


February 26, 2019

Silent Heart and Peaceful Mind

“Meditation is a silent heart, a peaceful mind 
which can make life more lovable, more livable.” 

My mind has been racing for most of my life. Influenced by stresses around me, I soar and dive, thoughts spinning inside my personal roller coaster. And with smartphone WhatsApp beeps, text bings and a pulsating newsfeed, my mind has become splintered and fractured.

As for my body, it never rests. From the moment I wake up until the time I fall into bed, I rush around at high speed. When I exercise, I run - and when I do errands, I speed walk.  And to cross more items off my check list, I have become adept at multi-tasking. I wash dishes while talking on the phone, walk my dog while sending emails and listen to podcasts while cooking. 

Yet I have come to realize that this roller coaster mind of mine gets me nowhere; it chugs back to the starting point and jerks to a stop, leaving me blinking and bewildered. Not only does it get me nowhere, it creates stress, fear and anxiety. 

When I decided to pull the hand break on my rollercoaster, I signed up for a four-day Jewish silent meditation retreat. It was high time I banish my overstimulated mind and learn how to relax my body.

I had trepidations about going. Maybe I was in denial, but I but did not prepare at all. So when I arrived at the retreat center on a kibbutz in northern Israel, I went into shock.

We were instructed not to speak with one another and not to make any eye contact with each other. No computers or cell phones were allowed. No pens and paper. No books. Questions could be asked by writing notes. We were beseeched to open and close doors with no more than a hush and to avoid scraping chairs on the floor. We had entered a world of silence.

A group of about 50 people squatted on pillows and sat upright in chairs. They were of all ages and from across the religious spectrum. They stared ahead. And as a bell donged, they closed their eyes. Silence.

I sat still. I breathed in slowly, then released my breath. When I did this a second time, my mind flipped out. “Hey, are you serious?” I breathed in and then out. My thoughts did somersaults. “Don’t forget about us,” they giggled. I breathed in and out, ignoring them. “You seriously think you can do this?” they scoffed. While I focused on the breath, they raced around trying to distract me.

With the ding of the Tibetan bowl, the first meditation was over. I was exhausted, torn asunder by the sound and light show of my unremitting thoughts.

We were told it was time to go outside and walk. My leg muscles perked up like an eager puppy poking out the car window.  I can do that.

But no. This was a walking meditation. ‘Focus on your feet kissing the ground,’ we were instructed. Move SLOWLY.  Be in the moment.

The group spread out and the garden soon looked like the scene of a zombie invasion. I moved my leg up and forward. I heard my sole crunch the ground below. I did it again. My muscles twinged and my thoughts ridiculed me. “Are you serious?’ they taunted. I persevered. But I was not even near the Bodhi tree.

By the third day, my thoughts realized they were on vacation and peace settled in. During the walking meditations outside, my gaze softened and my eyes opened to minute magical details in the buds and on shimmering leaves. 

For the first time ever, I did not run for cover when the rains came; instead I stood still under an olive tree listening to the drops, watching them pool on the leaves and be absorbed by the earth.

As a group, we became accustomed to being quiet. We tiptoed around in slippers. We hovered across the dining room like ghosts and sat in silence with our plates of food.  We were alone yet we were alone together.

We were all from different parts of Israel, with divergent stories, distinct backgrounds and varying ways of religious observance. These contrasts are what makes Israel clash, yet here, it was unbelievable; we were unified, respectful, hushed.

So when Shabbat arrived, everyone was invited to observe the Sabbath in their own way. The room was divided into three: the left side had a mechitzah for women who wanted to pray separately, the center was for mixed prayer and the right side for men.  

When we did Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, the group sang in unison and songs soon erupted into dance. There were dance circles for everyone and the dancing was spirited. 

We then ate dinner in silence yet sang nigunim (ancient tunes that are hummed) after the meal. People clapped, banged on the tables, hummed and wailed. As one tune morphed into another, we were transported back in time from Shabbat tables in Polish shtetls and German towns to communities in Iraq and Tunisia.

It was beautiful and refreshing to see such a revival in Jewish spirituality. Come Shabbat morning, each participant had a place to connect: one could pray in an Orthodox minyan, sit and meditate, go to an alternative prayer lab or walk outside.

It was as if everyone had parked their attitudes, rifts, frictions and preconceived notions at the entrance of the kibbutz.  And this resulted in one of the most powerful Shabbats I have ever experienced. When our minds open, our hearts expand.

As Voltaire so beautifully said, “Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in eternal awareness or pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.”

As a nation, Israelis may not have found their Bodhi tree, but come Shabbat we are able to feel finitude merge into infinity. And with our meditation practice, we hope to re-enter life that is more lovable and more livable.  


January 29, 2019

A Living Paradox

Israel is a paradox. A tiny land on a large planet with incredible contrasts: from stark desert to snow-capped Mount Hermon; from secular Tel Aviv to observant B’nai Brak; from shepherding to software developing; and from tragedy to joy.  

We just had a mini-vacation in Crete where I also found interesting polarities. Israel is just a two-hour flight to Athens, and from there, it is a quick hop to many Greek islands. There is no time change and the best kept secret is that Greece in the winter is quiet; no cruise ships equals very few tourists.
As we sipped coffee in the main square of Chania, locals drank ouzo, shared a few jokes then fell into silence, their amber komboloi (worry beads) clacking. 

No one was in a rush except for  sheep and mountain goats who had taken over the empty hiking paths, jangling bells echoing across steep marbled gorges. The sea was a vibrant blue. Stark-white villages clung to cliffs and soaring mountains were clad in snow.

To capture the azure sea and sparkling snow-capped mountains in one vista is inconceivable, unimaginable, yet mezmerizing. A paradox. 

In just one afternoon, we hiked down a gorge in Akotiri, dipping our feet in the Mediterranean, then threw snowballs in the blustery White Mountains. The Cretans certainly appreciated this glorious backdrop, often constructing open-air theaters with direct mountain vistas.

Mosaic from walls of Knossos Palace
As we dug deeper into the local history, we learned of its many wars, rulers and invasions across a span of 4,000 years of civilization. After the decline of the peaceful, progressive and creative Minoans, the island was ruled by Dorians, Romans, Saracens, Byzantines, Venetians, Turks and, during the Second World War, the Germans.

Much like Israel, Crete was a place of splendid palaces, massive forts, active trading ports, yet a place of defeat and loss. Most villages we visited had a memorial to the Cretans who were killed in the Second World War.

And so we asked, where were the Jews of Crete? There is evidence of a Jewish community in Crete since 142 BCE. Josephus was married to a Cretan Jew who was living in Jerusalem. By 1481 there were 600 Jewish families and four synagogues in Chania and soon after, exiles from the Spanish Inquisition were welcomed to the community.

Over the centuries, Cretan Jews had been treated as serfs. Under Venetian rule, they had to wear a Jewish badge. They were accused of blood libels by the church, were highly taxed, imprisoned and suffered many massacres. Yet they somehow survived for close to 2,000 years.

So where were the Jews of Crete? When the Nazis invaded Crete in May 1941, they surrounded the Jewish quarter of Chania and rounded up the remaining 263 Cretan Jews. Men, women and children were imprisoned and, together with Greek and Italian prisoners, placed on a ship destined for Auschwitz. A day later, the ship was torpedoed by the British. Everyone on board was killed and 2,000 years of Jewish life in Crete was erased.

Another paradox in the story is that even though the Jews were wiped out, one synagogue stands today. The Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania, once in ruins, is now fully restored and operational. A testament to a once thriving Jewish life in Crete, Shabbat prayers are heard on Fridays and guest rabbis perform service on the Jewish holidays.


When we visited, cats were lounging on seats in the main sanctuary. An original etrog tree stood in the courtyard, heavy with yellow fruit. 
The restored mikveh

The mikveh, with inspiring art on its walls, had been restored and flowed from an underwater stream. Cats also stood guard atop three graves of rabbis just outside the sanctuary.

Venetian-style door in Jewish Quarter

I left the shul and circled the pretty harbor with its lighthouse and chic cafes. Looking out to sea, I thought of those last Jews imprisoned on a flaming ship that sank into the depths.

Yet despite this heaviness and tragedy, the synagogue doors in Crete are now open and welcoming, conveying a feeling of love and care. This too is the story of Israel. It is the Jewish paradox and we are living it.


December 23, 2018

Everything is Possible - הכל אפשרי

Life in Israel is intense. It can bounce from harmony to terror; from serenity to fear and from wholeness to shattered – within seconds.

Recently a pregnant woman waiting at a bus stop was shot by terrorists. She and her husband were seriously wounded and her baby who had to be prematurely delivered died a few days later. My older daughter was standing at this same bus stop on this very day – just one hour before the attack. The wounded woman’s aunt is acting in the same play with my younger daughter.

A few days later, terrorists opened fire on soldiers guarding another bus stop in the area. Two young soldiers were killed and a third who was shot in the head is critically injured. The 21-year-old soldier is now fighting for his life. Netanel is part of our community – his parents, like us, are North American olim. Their daughter was recently engaged to be married - and in the midst of their celebration, life collapsed. They ask that everyone pray for their son’s recovery. Just a few weeks ago, my son’s best friend was guarding the same bus stop on his army reserve duty.

Whether we are directly related to the victims or not, we are connected and affected. It is a sick and heavy feeling, yet these tragedies drive Israelis to increase their acts of kindness and compassion.

Yet they will continue to build this land. Using a combination of creativity, research, technology, open hearts and determination, Israelis are motivated to improve life both here in Israel and around the world.

There is a small place nestled in a valley near Modi’in, barely sign-posted, that represents our intense desire for community and harmony and tikkun olam, fixing the world. It is called Hava & Adam (Eve and Adam). 

This educational farm teaches sustainable and ecological living to young people from all over the world.

Our neighbor Jesse, who was there on a two-month ‘Work the Land’ program, invited us to see how this magical community works. 

Walking inside, we left behind the stress and pollution of the outside world and entered a place of peace, health and wholeness.
Art from recycled paper.

We first sat down for a healthy vegan lunch. People streamed in from the fields and sat in silence until one participant shared her thoughts on gratitude.  We then filled our plates with delicious home-grown greens, 70% of which were harvested in these fields. The vegan meals are cooked by the participants and leftovers are scraped and composted.

Jesse then gave us an inspired and enthusiastic tour of a place that is a true Garden of Eden. 

Inspiring art: 'The walls of fear will melt'
Many of the structures were built from hand-made straw bale bricks. One area teaches students how to create the mud bricks from a combination of organic substances and to also create clay art.   

Plastic bottles and glass are reused in creative ways in the structures and there is an art center where participants learn ways to create art by recycling.

The farm is filled with creative artwork: mandalas hanging from trees, sculptures made of recycled computer parts and old bathtubs and toilets that are now planters. There are words of wisdom carved into signs and painted on doorways so no matter which way one turns, one cannot help but be inspired.

Mosaic at the outdoor Mermaid Shower.

The gardens are based on the principles of permaculture where no pesticides or chemical fertilizers are used. 

Energy is harnessed by the sun and provided by compost – even toilet waste is composted. 

And there are two very affectionate resident donkeys who produce nutrient-rich waste which is also composted.

Many crops are grown on the grounds – on our tour, we foraged our way through the gardens, munching on various herbs, sampling seasonal vegetables, nuts and fruits. The dark leaves of kale, broccoli, cauliflower and Swiss chard glistened in the sun.

Recycled shopping cart grows produce.
Herbs such as sage, lavender, rosemary and calendula are picked, hung in bundles, dried and then infused. The sweet aroma in the herbal healing center is intoxicating. Here the students learn how to create essential oils, infusions and healing salves from 100% natural ingredients.

It was touching to be in a place that works in total harmony with nature and to meet young people who are devoted to pursuing this knowledge and who strive to resuscitate a simple, clean and meaningful lifestyle.

It was hard to say goodbye, to turn the key and ignite the car engine then merge into commuter traffic on the speedy highway. Yet, within minutes, we could see the soaring towers of Tel Aviv where the start-up nation sows and harvests high tech.

Israel is a country of inspiring contrasts filled with meaning. In these times of darkness and fear, Israelis hold together and are strengthened. 
Despite the pain, they will continue to focus on their places of study, their fields and their labs; they will never sink into the darkness.

Jesse beside door where it is written "Everything is possible."
Instead they choose to transform our broken world into light with an unremitting desire to make it a better place – just like Hava & Adam, today’s Garden of Eden where the words written on the door are 'hakol efshari.'   Everything is possible. 

And it is. We should all pray for the recovery of Netanel ben Shayna Tziporah.