December 28, 2016

Letting Go

Facing each other and clutching a plate between our hands, we hold our arms out, lift gently, then lower. I take a deep breath. My partner lets go and I hold on firmly, lowering the china plate to the floor.

“You have to let go,” she says gently. “Let’s try again.”

I take another deep breath and we do it again. This time we let go at the same moment and the plate, safely enclosed in a bag, smashes into tiny shards.

“Mazal Tov!”

Brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews break into song, clapping and dancing. 

This small action speaks volumes as I now feel that my daughter is officially engaged. She has grown up, found a partner with whom she has decided to share her life and is leaving her childhood home to start anew.

My hands tightly clutched that plate just as I used to hold my daughter as a baby. And now my hands are empty. I have just let her go.

The two mothers peeked at the shards inside the bag. These tiny fragments can never be put back together and as such, are symbolic of our children’s commitment to leave behind their former lives. This is true finality and an ending of something big.

The smashed plate is also an echo of the glass that will be smashed under the chuppah, a powerful symbol that tells of the destruction of the Temple. Even at our happiest times, we must be reminded of brokenness and suffering.

The two mothers share in this tradition to show that we are now part of a new, combined family. I read a beautiful explanation that says the mothers’ power in breaking the plate is a symbol of the strength of Jewish women in upholding tradition and marriage.

Shutterstock image
This new combined family is also the completion of the bridge we built as olim. My husband and I brought our family to Israel 11 years ago. My now engaged daughter, who was ten years old when she arrived, could not speak Hebrew. The Israeli culture was surprisingly foreign and the customs were different.

The parents of both bride and groom have a shared story; we all arrived as Jews from the diaspora coming to Israel to build new lives.

For me, I originally thought aliyah was a simple process of learning Hebrew but have since realized that the differences run far deeper. Moving here as an older olah, I soon came to understand that we would never really acclimatize.

I then reframed and considered my husband and I to be bridge builders, not fully belonging in either Canada or Israel. We could only offer our children a sturdy bridge, but could do no more. When the time came, our children, who would be brought up here in Israel, would cross over.

And now my daughter has navigated her way and reached the other side. She is marrying a native-born Israeli (born to English speakers) and their language together is Hebrew. They both served in the IDF, listen to Israeli music, sing niggunim and learn Torah together, all in Hebrew. They have shared goals and want to live meaningful non-materialistic lives. 

I look at the two of them in wonder and amazement, never imagining this moment. I have let go of my daughter and she has let go of her Diaspora Jewish self to become part of something miraculous. 

Their path is so far from the other side of the bridge where we originated. Our new chatan and kalla will soon be building another beautiful Jewish home in Israel, leaving behind the bridge that these two plate-clutching mothers built and stood on.

As we lowered our arms and let go of the plate, we made space for the young couple to create their own path together. 

Soon we will sing this beautiful wedding song:

Again it will be heard in the cities of Judea,
And in the streets of Jerusalem,
The Voice of Joy and the Voice of Gladness
The Voice of the Groom and the Voice of the Bride!
Jeremiah 33:10-11

עוֹד יִשָׁמַע 
בְּעַרֵי יְהוּדָה 
וּבְחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָלַיִם 

קוֹל שָשוֹן וְקוֹל שִמְחָה 
קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כָּלָה

Mazal Tov to 
Aviva and Shaarya!

December 16, 2016

Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Boca Raton? Nope. Ra'anana.  (photo credit:Brauner Properties) 
People in Israel tend to be polarized, be it religiously, politically, socially or culturally. So here we are, a Canadian family living in Ra’anana, a suburban town that resembles Boca Raton more than Israel. We have limited exposure to Hebrew media and thus live in a ‘bubble.’ People joke that Ra’anana is not even in Israel!

Last week, we were returning at night from a desert camping trip (not exactly a typical Ra’anana outing). We were hauling huge packs on our shoulders and were dusty and dirty.

Our next-door neighbor happened to pass us on the way to his car.
“Are you coming from Amona?” he asked.

My Hebrew is so bad, I thought he said Dimona, a city in the south. Only after the fact, my daughter turned to me and asked, “Why did he think we were in Amona?”

My jaw dropped. What? Because we are religious and we looked unkempt, we were instantly judged and labeled? (Amona is a settlement in Yehuda and Shomron that is right now on the verge of being evacuated as it has been deemed illegal by the court and the government.) A label.

Although we were not in Amona, we do have a connection to it. My daughter’s boyfriend’s sister Manya has been living there for 14 years. Before the community started, it was empty, unclaimed land and the government gave the green light to these people to legally live there. 

Someone then dug up some British documents about the ownership and discovered that several Arab families had claims to this land. What should have been done at the time, is to legally compensate the owners for their land. This is how land claims are settled in Tel Aviv and in other places around the world. Yet, land is a charged commodity here. 

With initial government permission, Manya and her family, along with eight other families from Amona, built homes here. After the claims began, nine homes were destroyed by Israeli army bulldozers, including hers. 

This was 11 years ago. Now she lives with her husband and children in two trailers. She loves her life and her community. 

She was interviewed by Dutch TV and I urge you to watch the whole interview below as it is enlightening.

The time has come for the settlement to be evacuated. The government has been in negotiations to come to an agreement. There is a lot of international pressure and many divisive opinions on the subject.

I haven’t been to Amona but what I learned from the interview (and you can do your own research), is that the issue was hashed by Jews pitted against Jews. Apparently left-wing groups with deep pockets and loud voices are stirring an already boiling pot. 

And because of this, Jewish policemen and Jewish soldiers will have to forcefully evict Jewish families from their homes. With so many enemies in this world, Jews fighting Jews is abhorrent.

Naftali Bennett from the Jewish Home party has been trying to negotiate a deal but was not successful. After his negotiations fell apart, a busload of Amona youth arrived outside Bennett’s house in Ra’anana and began shouting with loudspeakers.  They were obviously upset and had no one else to turn to.  But Bennett could not help. 

As it was such a cold night to be standing outside, my daughter walked over to the house with hot tea for her boyfriend’s young nephew who was part of the demonstration.

As he shyly accepted the tea, his friend pointed to Aviva and said, “Who is she?” If someone is surprised that a settlement person knows a Ra’anana person, it’s a sure sign that we live worlds apart. Another label.

Amona (photo credit:
Just last night, the government presented the community of Amona with an agreement. I read about this agreement in the news and was excited as it sounded as if the community was offered enough land for the 41 families close by. I thought they would agree to this and we could put the discord behind us.

But this is not what happened.  The adults stayed up most of the night debating what to do. Turns out the agreement only gave enough land for 11 families to live in one caravan each with no promise that they could receive more land. As the families are large, most need two caravans to live comfortably so land for 11 single caravans would not be enough. 

A community needs space to grow. The people of Amona really care for each other and do not want to be split up. They voted 58-20, rejecting the agreement, then went home to pack up.

So why did the government publicize to the media an agreement that was not the same as the one presented to the people of Amona? Was it because the government knew the people would reject this agreement?  And if the public assumed the agreement looked fair and was then rejected, the settlers would look like radicals and the government could look justified. Is this the idea? I just don’t know any more.

Right now, Aviva’s boyfriend is staying at his sister’s house to help them out. He is babysitting the anxious kids, giving the parents time to pull their lives together. Last night at 4am, with the children fast asleep, they all started to pack up the house. After there was no hope of an agreement, the people of Amona were sure the police and army would soon arrive.

They worked quickly. And then the power went out. With flashlights, feeling like fleeing, downcast vagrants, they packed up clothing, dishes and toys. Someone observed this was not the first time Jews had to pack up in the middle of the night to flee. Except this time it is different. They are not fleeing the Crusaders or the Cossacks or the Nazis. It is Jews.

The situation is heart wrenching for Jewish unity. If only we could see each other as people and not labels, we could start to empathize with the other.

Many Jewish youth who are not from Amona are now gathering in the village. They are frustrated with the government's actions and want to express this.  Although all want calm, people are afraid things could turn violent. Some Israelis would call them thugs. Another label. 

To ensure all act peacefully, the rabbi of Amona is running around speaking to the youth who are arriving. Yesterday he set up a speaker from his balcony that played a song with the sweet words: 
וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ
Love your neighbor as yourself.

The people of Amona are now inside their homes packing up their lives and their memories, saying goodbye to good neighbours. They do not want a fight. They simply want a home together.

As for the country, we desperately need to know when to put aside our egos, open our hearts, stop stirring an already boiling pot and know when to be quiet. We must talk with each other and strive for understanding and unity. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Photo credit: Arutz Sheva


November 27, 2016

Israel on Fire

Haifa on fire (AFP)
You can call it a fire intifada, an arson intifada or random fires. The truth is that Israel is on fire. Literally. Some 80,000 Israelis have been evacuated from their homes in the last week. 

There have been 220 separate fires burning in northern and central Israel leaving many families homeless, precious forests ruined and fields ravaged.

We have had no rain all November.  There has been just one insignificant rainfall in parts of the country since last winter. Everything here is bone dry. And then the winds picked up. They were blowing furiously last week and our tinderbox of a country caught fire.

I do not know how these fires became an intifada but they did. A single naturally caused fire plus perhaps some suspicious reports about arson literally sparked a blaze. 

There were fires all around Jerusalem, Modi’in, Haifa and many settlements in the Yehuda and Shomron area. Perpetrators starting these fires were caught on camera.  They even tried to set the Haifa fire station on fire in order to paralyze the fire fighting crews. Many have been arrested. And the damage continues.

See the chaos from Saturday in the once tranquil forested town of Beit Meir, which is just outside Jerusalem off Highway 1.

Everyone in Beit Meir was evacuated from their homes, including 300 people from a guesthouse. Three perpetrators were seen fleeing the area and one has since been arrested.

International aid came quickly. The US Supertanker with 50 American firefighters landed in Israel on Friday. With its 19,600 gallons of fire retardant, it was able to contain the flames outside Jerusalem near the main highway. 

Egypt has sent two helicopters and Azerbaijan sent a plane. Jordan responded with fire trucks and firefighters. Turkey, Russia, Italy and Croatia also committed to help. The Palestinians arrived with eight fire trucks and 40 firefighters, working along Israelis in Haifa to help contain the raging inferno.

KKL website home page
From rockets to knives to car rammings to matches, I guess we’ve seen it all here. Unfortunately. 

Yet when the going gets tough, Israelis pull up their sleeves and run to help.  

A hotline was set up by the KKL (Keren Kayemet Leumi) asking for volunteers who had 4x4 cars to guard the forests.  The phone lines were flooded with willing helpers, including my husband Amir.

Plea to guard the forests

Amir left a phone message and received a call back on Friday. He was asked where he lived and then given a choice of forests in our area. 

He chose a forest nearby and was told to bring a companion and to drive around the forest looking for suspicious activity. If he were to see something, he was to call the police or the fire department.

He was grateful to be able to do something. In emergency situations, it is so hard to see suffering and feel powerless. Amir called his fellow adventurer-friend Ken and they arranged to go out Saturday evening for a four-hour shift.  He brought along a fire extinguisher just in case, while Ken decided a baseball bat could be helpful.

Amir and Ken on guard duty.
They set off last night. When they arrived at the tiny forest, a police car was already there. The police stopped them right away, asked them who they were and thanked them for their assistance. 

While Amir and Ken were driving around, they noticed other cars in the middle of the night in this small dark forest. These were other Israeli volunteers also looking around for arsonists.  

Eventually one car flagged them down; it was he next shift of volunteers assigned to this tiny forest. These volunteers were so zealous about protecting their country, they turned up early and told Amir and Ken to go home.  

Turns out this tiny dark forest seemed to be a little crowded for a Saturday night. Hopefully all forests, groves, towns and settlements across Israel are being watched by such caring eyes.

Last week, two arsonists set fires outside the town of Ariel in broad daylight by a road. With glee, they returned back to their village. The Israeli motorists who saw this happen jumped out of their cars and started dousing the fires with water bottles.  

Just outside Haifa, a yeshiva was told to keep watch. As the students guarded the grounds, they saw two young arsonists setting fires right by the school building. The students reacted quickly and were able to stop their school from burning down. They even tried to run after the criminals but could not catch them.

Yesterday, three separate fires were started by arsonists in the town of Neve Tsuf. 350 people were evacuated and 15 homes were burnt down to the ground. An appeal went out last night for people to bring bedding, towels and clothes for the families who now have nothing. Cars left an hour later loaded down with supplies.
Neve Tsuf engulfed in flames (Israel national News)

There is also a hotline for families who have room in their homes to host displaced families. This same appeal happened with northern families in the Lebanon war and also in Tsuk Eitan to aid families living near Gaza.

Fires may burn down homes, schools and forests but the hearts of Israelis burn with pride, unity and love. Now, if only we could have some rain...

November 22, 2016

Birds Know No Borders

“Make sure you’re there for sunset.”

That’s what we were told as we made our way to the Agamon Nature Reserve in the Hula Valley.

Fall and spring are prime time for viewing the incredible bird migration that passes through Israel.  Some 500 million birds pass through Israel from Europe and Asia to Africa and back again in the spring.

Of these plentiful visitors, 100,000 are Eurasian cranes. There are so many coming for R&R in the Hula Valley, this is one of the world’s largest concentration of cranes.  It’s one thing to read the statistics and quite another to actually be there.

We eagerly stood in line to get our binoculars and soon headed off in our golf cart, following the trail signs. It was 4pm. The trail wound through lush treed areas and past marshy pools.

Our first sighting!  We pulled over to  observe a white pelican hanging out, taking in the last rays of sun. 

We saw fat yet famished furry creatures called nutria (or coypu), the Israeli form of a beaver. 

Spur-winged plovers, with their striking black and white tuxedo like markings, busied themselves on the shore. The Mallard Ducks seems headless, obsessively nibbling on underwater dinner, displaying only their fluffy rears.  We saw turtles playing Yertle, claiming a mini fiefdom of mud poking from the middle of the lake. Just being, well,  turtles.

Catching a burst of blue, we focused our binoculars on a tree and saw two kingfishers with flashy turquoise wings staring back at us.

We heard some rustling and saw two wild boar in the bushes across the water. (Close enough to see but enough distance to feel secure!)

It was quickly becoming dark and we heard honking sounds from above. 

The cranes. 

They were flying in formation and coming in quickly from all directions. They filled the skies with their calls, circling the lake and pulling out their long legs to make a perfect landing in the very crowded water. 

Like ballet slippers brushing the stage, they barely made a ripple on the lake. (If only I could park my car so effortlessly.) The cranes sailed to a sweet sleeping spot by the rushes and tucked in their wings for the night.

We had heard a guide explain that the cranes prefer to roost in water as the temperature at night is warmer than the air.

As we looked up a second time, we saw the sky almost blackened against the orange-streaked clouds as the sun set behind the mountains. 

The birds continued to come. We pointed up and shouted. “Here.” “And here.” Our necks strained as we tried to spot one flock. And then another. We snapped photos and video, yet this did not capture the power and concentration of these majestic birds.

They are on a huge trip from Europe heading all the way to Africa and are enjoying a well-deserved break to rest and feed. The Hula has become one popular bed and breakfast for birds. I quickly concluded that if I were a crane, I would just stay put paddling around these warm tropical marshes. Nice digs!

We were in awe; at a juncture when nature is so overwhelmingly majestic, words are not sufficient. Get a piece of the beauty and the intensity of sound on this Hula Valley video of our visit.

This powerful moment may have lasted just 10 minutes. And then it was dark. And quiet. And our golf cart was overdue!

We zipped back in darkness, not knowing where our cart’s headlights were. The park was so tranquil and serene after the incredible bed-time ritual of these birds.

I wish them all a safe trip to Africa, but know that dangers await these migrating birds. There are collisions with aircraft and poisonings caused by agriculture.

Yet is comes as not surprise that Israel is taking this to heart and finding solutions. One ornithologist, Dr. Yossi Leshem, has devised ways to reduce the deaths of these birds. He has studied the migratory patterns up close and has helped reduce air collisions with birds by 90 per cent. He has set up radar systems that are in constant contact with the IDF air force.

He is also developing cooperation with our neighbours so that they too can protect this incredible natural phenomenon. You will be inspired as you watch the two videos about his progress. 

His work is of utmost importance because, unlike the political world, birds know no borders. If only we could all learn this, we too could soar!