January 16, 2014

Biblical Jordan Valley

Tu B’Shvat higiya,” the children sing. The 15th of the Hebrew month Shevat has arrived. In Israel, this is cause for celebration. Why? It is the birthday of the trees. I do not know of other nations who give trees a birthday, and would love to hear about this if anyone knows, but I certainly feel this is further proof of a Jewish sensitivity to and connection with nature.

Israeli children take the day off school and head out to plant trees in valleys, along mountain slopes and across fields from north to south. Adults also need an outing and with a blue sky and warm sunshine, we had the perfect ingredients for a tiyul

We signed up for an outing to the Bikat Jarden, the Jordan Valley, and  boarded our bus in Ra’anana, soon joining a convoy of busses loaded with people from all over Israel. We were all here to see the beauty of the Jordan Valley and learn about its importance to Israel.

The Jordan Valley is a narrow strip of land stretches for 70 kilometers from the Dead Sea northward to Beit Shean and in some parts, it is a mere five kilometers wide. It borders Jordan on the east side with the Hills of Gilead rising above, while the soaring Samarian Hills perch on the west.

I have never visited this part of Israel and since it has been in the news lately, becoming a point of contention in the recent peace talks, we felt it was important to understand the full story. We passed an army checkpoint to pass before entering this area, then sailed along Highway 90, which travels all the way to Kiryat Shmona at Israel’s northern tip. Abbas wants full control of these lands without any Jewish military presence. However, I  soon understood that Israel must indeed control this land so no weapons are brought in from Jordan. If this were to happen, the entire country, from Haifa to Tel Aviv, Ra’anana and Jerusalem, would be under mortal threat.

Leaving Jerusalem behind, it immediately felt as if we had entered biblical times. Young boys herded goats across scraggy slopes. Sheep sipped from an ancient watering hole. Date palms stoically stood in perfect formation, while swallows dipped and spun across an aqua sky. 

Looking around, it was a desert scape that could compete with any Lawrence of Arabia setting. Yet it also looked like a moonscape with craters pocking the land like mini gremlins. I saw a boy herding a large gangly pack of camels home and gawked like a pathetic tourist from Ra'anana, shouting out "Look. Camels!"

There are 4,500 Jews in the Jordan Valley. They live in 21 settlements, most of which were started after 1967. Today, the majority of residents are dedicated farmers who grow prized medjoul dates, grapes carefully grown under nets, peppers, eggplants and herbs.

Our guide took out his iPhone and read to us from his “Tanach elektroni.” This is where the Jews entered Israel after wandering for 40 years in the desert, he explained. And where  Jacob returned to the land after working for Laban.

Our bus headed up a rough, narrow path, around hairpin curves, then up and up again to the lookout of Sartaba. Here, around 70 BCE, The Hasmonean Dynasty built a fortress atop the peak of Sartaba. And here, on the conical peak, fires were stoked at the siting of the new moon, broadcasting the new month from mountaintops to Jews as far as Babylonia and Tsfat.

And then, in the true spirit of Tu B’Shavat, we all had the opportunity to plant a tree. I love to feel the soil in my fingers and was touched by the words of our guide who encouraged us to put our roots into the land. I fingered the sapling and marveled at its roots, then placed it into the warm earth, patting it down firmly.

As I walked back to the bus, I heard a woman proudly say “Natati.” I then realized that the word for ‘I planted’ and ‘I gave’ sound exactly the same in Hebrew. (Although the spelling is different.) Today we all planted, gave and received, returning home with a new found love and appreciation for our land, every precious centimeter of it.

We Do it Our Way

Young Arab soldiers proudly serving in the IDF? A Filipina cleaner winning first place in the popular X Factor show? Contrary to international criticism about Israeli being an apartheid nation, this country is accepting and open-minded.  Just last week I came across a fascinating article about two Israeli Arabs serving in the IDF. I honestly did not know that Israeli Arabs were permitted to serve. It turns out that not only are they allowed to volunteer, they are treated with great respect.

At the emotional swearing in ceremony when every Jewish soldier receives a gun and plegdes on a Torah, the Arabs are handed a Koran.  Is this not indicative of an open-minded democracy?  It is not easy for these boys; they have been shunned by their community for serving in the Israeli army and their mother, fearing the army uniforms will be stolen, refuses to hang them outside. 

Yet, these strong, principled young men believe in defending their country Israel. They are now enjoying new friendships in their respective units. And their proud mom admits (secretly) that she wants her other sons to follow in their brothers’ footsteps and join the IDF.

And Wednesday night, I sat glued to the TV. It was the final episode of X Factor and most Israelis were also tuned in to this musical talent contest. The last four contestants on the show included a sweet, promising 15-year-old singer, a group of young, cool, guys who sang, danced and wiggled across the stage and a winnowy, bleached blond, scantily-clad girl who imitated Christina Aguilera to a tee. And then there was a short, dumpy, middle-aged domestic worker who was not even Israeli. She had an incredible voice but neither she, nor I, nor many other viewers ever imagined she would win. Am I cynical or is ours a culture where youth and beauty triumph, especially in the entertainment industry?

So when Bar Refaeli, the M.C., announced the final winner, I was delighted and shocked. Rose Fostanes, the Filipino caregiver who won, was in shock too. And I am sure the entire Filipino community here in Israel was in shock.  Here was a woman who worked for an elderly lady in Tel Aviv and shared a tiny apartment in South Tel Aviv with seven others. Here was someone who spent her adult life as a domestic worker in Egypt, Lebanon and Israel, scraping together money to support her family in the Philippines.  Rose spoke no Hebrew, looked like an outsider and described herself as  “an alien.”

The XFactor did not consider her an alien. They rolled out the red carpet, praised her as a diva and acclaimed her the winner. The show managed to fly over her sister and best friend from the Philippines and the Ambassador to the Philippines jumped on stage to celebrate with Rose, Israel’s new music star.

During the commercial breaks of the show, I saw a new TV campaign aimed at  bringing awareness to Israelis about being prejudiced. The commercials focus on Arabs and African immigrants, showing just how awful it feels to be treated badly.

No matter how terribly the world speaks about our country, Israel is progressive and is striving to be better. As Rose belted out last night, “I did it my way,” Israelis should swell in pride for being accepting, endearing, sensitive and embracing. 

We do it our way and we do it well. The Jewish people have had their fair share of feeling downtrodden and know all too well what it feels like to be the underdog. May our Arab soldiers continue to serve their country Israel with pride, may Rosa burst forth in song and may this mark a new beginning of understanding.  

January 2, 2014

Israelis Are Giving

December 31 was GivingTuesdayIsrael, the country’s national day of donating. Canada and the United States also have a GivingTuesday and hopefully many more countries will join in. 

People around the world are enthusiastic about giving to their loved ones on Christmas, but getting excited about giving away time and money to strangers is, unfortunately, a rare concept.  Here is a peek at one small country that has become a specialist is this art.

Israelis are good at donating time and money and a recent study proves it. In a report published by the Central Bureau of Statistics and a report by the World Bank, Israel ranked second in the world as the most charitable country. Given that this place is fairly fresh on the new country scale and teensy on the size charts (about the size of the state of New Jersey), this is actually remarkable. And although the good ol’ USA scored number one, many developed, affluent countries did not rank so high on the charitable scale.  Australia came in third, with the U.K., South Africa and Canada following behind.

Drill the Israeli statistics down and we learn that there is one small place in this small country that ranks as Israel’s most charitable town for giving via online donations. And I am proud to say that Ra’anana ranks as number one. Ra’anana with one piddling main street (Ahuza) and two rickety police cars is a sleepy suburban kind of town; but its citizens make up for it with their zest for giving.

In an article detailing this incredible news, one commentator suggested that Ra’anana ranks number one because of its high population of Anglo olim who were educated to give. And even though they may have brought along a grating accent when they ‘medabearrr eevreet,’ they immigrated with the custom of tzedaka, the Jewish mitzvah of donating at least ten per cent of one’s net income.

Aside from simply writing checks, Anglo Ra’anana-ites have placed their energy into making this country a better place.

Ra’anana is home to Leket, the brainchild of an American immigrant who wanted to solve the problem of hunger in Israel. From one person and a fridge, Leket has evolved into a national charity in just 10 years. In 2013 alone, Leket’s 50,000 volunteers helped rescue and distribute some 2.5 million pounds of produce, serve one million prepared meals and deliver 1.1 million prepared sandwiches to schools. This week we were two of about 1,500 donors who went to their annual dinner, all eager to give and support.

Beit Issie Shapiro, a school for children with disabilities, was the dream of one South African immigrant to Ra'anana with a vision to assist those with special needs. Today, Beit Issie is recognized as the most effective non-profit and is renowned world wide for its special education school, hydrotherapy center and multi-sensory therapy, all impacting 30,000 children and adults a year.

Mishne Lehem was founded by a few Americans in Ra’anana. This organization has a network of volunteers who deliver bags of groceries to under privileged families in Ra’anana. The Lemonade Fund was developed three years ago by an American immigrant to Ra’anana. A breast cancer survivor, the founder decided to help Israeli women diagnosed with breast cancer to receive the proper care and support during treatments. 

And a Canadian immigrant to Ra’anana who saw a lack of financial planning knowledge in many poor households, founded Chaim BePlus. This organization helps families who are in debt to balance their budget, decreasing the downward spiral of poverty and increasing financial stability.

This is just a sampling of some of my immigrant neighbors who are making a big difference in Israel. There are many more incredible organizations run by inspiring visionaries in Ra’anana and beyond.

Israel may have instituted GivingTuesday into its calendar, but many Israelis get excited about giving every day of the year.