February 28, 2016

Dedicated Druze

IDF uniform, Druze flag.
The IDF base of Michve Alon is home to soldiers from all over the world. On base, soldiers from over 40 countries are integrated into the army. They learn Hebrew, get basic training and help with army placements. There are also many Israelis on this base, including Druze soldiers, who are there to improve their Hebrew skills.

The Druze make up less than 2% of the Israeli population, yet their strong presence in the IDF, sports, culture and politics is remarkable. See this list of remarkable Druze in Israel.  In fact, more Druze draft into the IDF than secular and Orthodox Israelis.

Courtyard of Nabi Shu'ayb Shrine, tomb of Jethro.
The Druze are a religious minority of Arab descent who call themselves Al-Muwahhidin, which means 'The Monotheists.' Their most revered descendant and chief prophet is Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. And their most sacred place is Jethro’s tomb overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

They broke off from Islam in the 10th century and their relationship with Arab Muslims has been tense over the years. In the 1940s, Arab Muslims unsuccessfully tried to take over Jethro’s Tomb, worsening an already tenuous relationship.

Yet the Druze pledge allegiance to Israel and when it comes to serving in the army, they are very patriotic. Says the Druze poet Beda Mansour, “We are the only non-Jewish minority that is drafted into the military, and we have an even higher percentage in the combat units and as officers than the Jewish members themselves. So we are considered a very nationalistic, patriotic community.”

Originally, the Druze were drafted into their own unit called Gdud Herev, the Sword Brigade. After being separated from the Israelis for 41 years, the Druze said they wanted to be integrated. So in May 2015, the army disbanded the Herev unit and started integrating Druze soldiers into all units.

Druze leaders visit the navy.
This is enabling the Druze soldiers to attain higher echelons of command. And they are starting to succeed. Colonel Ghassan Alian became the second ever Druze officer to be commander of an infantry brigade.

There is much motivation in this community. 
According to the IDF, 80% of Druze men and women are drafted:
39% go into combat, including paratroopers and crack infantry brigades;
18% take quality courses that advance them into leadership positions;
17% go into technical support positions.

In fact, the commander of the Michve Alon base is Druze. Right now, there is a unit on Michve who are there to improve their Hebrew skills. Just last week, the Druze participated in a cultural evening and performed a special dance. The audience, soldiers at Michve from all over the world, clapped along and whistled, warmly welcoming them to the diversity that is Israel today.

May these soldiers help strengthen the army,  protect the land and be integrated into a vibrant, diverse Israel.

February 16, 2016

Here Comes the Sun

Field of lupines near my house.
The longer I live here in Israel, the harder it is for me to leave, even for a few days. I am not sure why this is, but after I return from being abroad, I am always struck as to how deeply tied I am to this land. Perhaps being away awakens a refreshing appreciation for this special country.

Israeli garden in February.
In Israel, when you travel abroad, you say you are going 'chutz l’aretz,' or ‘Chul' (an abbreviation for these words). These words first appeared in the Jerusalem Talmud, written in the 4th and 5th centuries, and express that when you leave Israel, you are not simply going away, but are going outside of the land. You cannot use these words when you depart from anywhere outside of Israel; this ancient expression is reserved only for when one leaves Israel. Leaving must have stronger implications than we think.

So I went to ‘Chul,’ traveling to London to celebrate a family simcha (Mazal Tov Jacob on your bar mitzvah….you were fabulous!) It was wonderful to reconnect with family as we have no close relatives in Israel.

Yet this was London in February and someone had turned off the lights! Permanently. I was shocked at how affected I was by the grey skies and the damp cold that sank into my bones. I consider myself as hardy seeing as I can camp outdoors on a rocky desert in the midst of winter; but I am weak when it comes to light deprivation. And this recent foray into ‘winter’ was a cold reminder of what made me pack up and leave Canada.

I was feeling so terrible when I was away last week, I actually became quite sick. Still unwell and recovering back in Israel under a deep blue sky, I thought I would look into the benefits of living in warm sunshine.

Here is what I learned:
* Light regulates the natural rhythms of our bodies
* We metabolize sunlight into important Vitamin D (and being deficient in Vitamin D can lead to many illnesses)
* Sunlight is beneficial to patients with Alzheimer's
* There is a strong connection with lack of sunlight and developing Multiple Sclerosis (MS is more common in populations that live farther from the equator)
* Sunlight heals psoriasis (a study shows that outdoor sunbathing therapy helped clear symptoms in 84% of patients)
* Sunlight improves our quality of sleep--when sunshine hits your optic nerve, it sends a message to produce melatonin which will helps you sleep better at night (melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant and has cancer-fighting properties)
* Sunlight kills bacteria and heals wounds
* Sun rays lower bold pressure in those who have high blood pressure
* Sunshine penetrates into the skin and cleanses blood vessels (a study showed that sunshine was beneficial  to people with artherosclerosis)
* Sunlight helps increase the oxygen in our blood and gives us stamina
* Sunshine, accompanied by blue skies, offers its very own benefits; blue light has recently been used in the treatment of of psychological problems, addictions, eating disorders, impotence, and depression. 
* People are often more productive in blue rooms so that blue sky must energize!
* Sunlight contributes to enhancing a good mood by increasing the level of a natural anti-depressant in our brain. Did you know that the brain produces more serotonin on sunny days than on cloudy days?

My garden writing nook.
Understanding the healing aspect of the sun is not modern science. The ancient yogis of India called the science of sunbathing Atapa Snana, while the Greeks called sunlight therapy heliosis. Today, we have lost the art. Many of us are forced to spend up to 90% of our lives indoors. Imagine this: noon sunshine offers 100,000 lux, yet when we sit indoors in an office under artificial lighting, we get 150-600 lux.

This lack of light eventually causes a disconnect with natural outdoor cycles. And as Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1862, “In Wildness, is the preservation of the world.”

I feel blessed to be living here in Israel, to be able to sit barefoot outside in the heat February under sunny, exhilaratingly blue skies. For here, I can heal and write and truly connect with the wildness of nature.

I invite you all to come join me for some Atapa Snana in Eretz Israel.