September 30, 2016

Not your regular graduation

On Wednesday evening, my older son officially became a Captain in the Israeli Army. He had just completed a rigorous, three-month course with 90 other soldiers becoming, in Israeli terms, a mefaked pluga

His previous rank was lieutenant. Now, he will supervise the officers, managing a company of up to 150 soldiers.

It has been a long four years of service for him and I clearly remember delivering him, at the tender age of 19, at the bakum in TelAviv for his draft, his giyus. It was an emotional time for every parent and grandparent who was there to see their children off.

At the bakum, we hand our precious kids over to the IDF for three years of military service. (Since 2013, when my son went in, the draft time has been reduced to 33 months for boys and may go down to 30 months soon.)

For three years, parents forfeit being the primary caregivers. The IDF looks after medical and dental needs and emotional wellbeing. The army feeds and clothes them. It tells them when they can go home and when they have to go back to base, when to sleep and when to wake up.

It is very emotional for the parents who tenderly cared for their kids since they were born and who must then say goodbye. Every mom secretly counts down the months until her child’s release from the army. But what happens when your son signs on for more time?

When my son did just this, I stopped counting and simply felt proud. How could I not? I have seen my son grow from a shy teenager to a leader who stands tall, knows how to listen to orders and now, knows how to give orders. The army has formed him into a real leader.

In the upcoming November draft, parents will again crowd into the bakum. There will be a sense of apprehension and nervousness.  Mothers will lock hands with their kids, not wanting to ever let go. The boys will be clean-shaven and have buzz cuts; the girls will have their hair tied back neatly.

They will be trading their jeans for khaki, sandals for boots, surfboards for weapons. Their free will is about to be forfeited for ultimate selflessness.  

Families will mill about nervously, waiting until their kids’ names ‘flash up on a board.’  Departure time, IDF style.

Come November, some of these kids will be handed over to the care of my son who will be their ‘mem peh’ for three months of basic training. He will do his best to ensure their safety and imbue in them a sense of solidarity, camaraderie and team spirit.  He will help build their confidence while teaching them respect and will help them to succeed. Who does not want this for their child?

His rank of mefaked pluga does not come without a price. This was earned after years of enduring strict discipline, of often feeling broken and overwhelmed; of sleeping outdoors, working and training in intense heat, rain, mud and cold; of long days with little sleep and of being hungry; and of times filled with severe stress, the unknown and pressure.

I have been to many army graduations over the years but this one was different. The ceremony was at a fancy theatre, not on a military base. We nibbled on party sandwiches when we entered the auditorium, then sat comfortably in plush chairs.

The big brass were there, sporting multiple ‘falafels’ on their shoulders. And there was no military marching like I had seen before in other military ceremonies.

The men walked up on stage and received their new status via a diploma and a handshake. They may look rested and their new uniforms may be freshly starched and spotless, but they have seen a lot: this distinction was earned with sweat.

Most of these soldiers are older and married, their wives holding squirming infants in their laps.  Many babies were crying and protesting, making this place feel more like a kindergarten than a serious ceremony.

Yet these wives are heroes as well. Their husbands are never home and the wives are alone to raise the children. They worry and are fearful, the children miss not having a father around.

This is the ultimate sacrifice for Israelis: parents, wives, children and the soldiers. And this is the most important work of all.

I am grateful to each soldier for making such a sacrifice for our security and safety, and offer thanks to all the new mem pehs. As they said at the ceremony, the training is complete and now the real work must be done.

Good luck and may we all learn from your dedication, inner strength and selflessness.

And may we all have a safe, secure new year.

Shana Tova

September 22, 2016

A Gift From the Sea

“My soul is full of longing
for the secret of the sea,
and the heart of the great ocean
sends a thrilling pulse through me.” 
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

It was time to leave the familiar black line at the bottom of the pool and face the deep sea. Or was it? I recently went for my first open-water swim in the Mediterranean.

I was anxious, apprehensive, insecure.  I’m one of those people who like to sit in the sand where the waves gently touch me. I have great respect for the deep, dark sea and feel like my place is safely on land. Yet I love to swim. For my son, who is an extreme athlete, dipping toes in the sand is just not permitted.

I fretted about water safety. Yet when he bought us each a swim float, I had no more excuses.  It was time to go. We headed out in the dark at 5:30am. The sky was just lightening by the time we reached the beach.

We pulled up at Hof HaZuk just south of Herzliya Pituach. The parking lot was filled with cars. Swimmers, kayakers, surfers, paddle boarders and runners gathered by the beach. It looked as if every triathlete in Israel was at this beach today.

 I have never seen so many fit, motivated, serious athletes in one place before. My son grinned. He felt like he was at home with his people. As for me, I felt like a Chihuahua in a pack of greyhounds, a penguin in a flock of falcons.

I grabbed my goggles, inflated my floatie and headed for the sea. Speed was essential for if I thought this through logically, I would be at the beach coffee shop sipping a steamy cappuccino.

The waves were high, arching, crashing and breaking thunderously. They were so high, surfers were out there.

“Did you check the water conditions today?” I asked my son who was still grinning, just itching to get out there.

“No,” he answered, moving forward into the crashing waves.

I noticed it was too early for the lifeguards to be out, but since people were out swimming, it must be ok. Groups of triathletes huddled at the beach, receiving instructions from their super athletic coaches who drew lines in the sand and explained technique.

I need instructions to swim? I was starting to feel very deflated and insecure and seriously preferred a beachfront seat at the café.

“Come on in. Swim,” my son called out to me, disappearing behind a wave.

Not wanting to be left alone, I entered the water, swimming under the crashing waves, waiting for the water to subside just a little. It did not. We swam straight out to a buoy and then he explained that we would swim parallel to the shore from buoy to buoy, then return the same way. Sounds straightforward? Not.

With currents, tides and swells, swimming in the sea is not like swimming in a pool. We are churned and lifted. In the midst of the sea, far from shore, we feel diminished, weak, lost.

Swimming in a pool is akin to running on a treadmill or spinning on a bike. The wild, outdoor versions of these tamer sports are single track mountain biking, wilderness hiking and open sea swimming.

As I started to swim, my eye on the buoy, I felt as if I had little control and could barely keep in a straight line. Each wave lifted me and dropped me, giving me a feeling of seasickness. It was daunting and I felt fragile and insubstantial.

Yet I kept on, stroke after stroke. I tried to calm my mind and surrender to the great being that is the sea.  I remembered hiking in the Himalayas decades ago and feeling this same respect for the greatness of nature. Back then, I also felt like an outsider and wanted to hike delicately, softly, offering respect for the towering mountains with their fierce, changeable climate, winds and high altitudes.

So here too. I was aware the winds could change and the currents could shift. I knew that there were fish out here and someone did mention that sharks are in the sea.

I peered down and saw something black and huge that looked like it was moving. Panicking, I decided not to look down but rather to focus on the buoy. The buoy, my target, my slimy, makeshift home sweet home. My essence in a watery, insubstantial world.  It rocked and shivered, its chain clinking hauntingly like a prisoner rattling in its cell. The waves keep churning, forcing me to lose sight of it.

I calmed my mind. I floated.

Occasionally, groups of swimmers would pass by, happily chatting away as if they were in a supermarket check out line. It was a bizarre feeling to meet up with bobbing heads way out at sea. I felt like calling out to them across the crashing waves, “Beware. Be mindful. This is the sea.”

Swimming onward, I lost sight of them, lulled forward by the clinking chain somewhere in front of me.

And when it was time to turn back to shore, I felt slight regret. I had just faced my frail mortality and was tingling from the awesome power of nature.

The sun was now quickly rising behind the shore. Traffic was building on the highways as commuters raced to work and kids hurried to school. The mad rush of a new day – yet I was beginning mine with a connection to something larger and timeless, my gift from the sea.

My son cools down with a sun salutation.
As Anne Morrow Lindbergh so beautifully writes, "The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach - waiting for a gift from the sea." 

September 13, 2016

Lighting a Fire

Education is not the filling of a pail, 
but the lighting of a fire.

I just read an article about the cost of giving a child a Jewish education. I read over the chart listing the tuition of Jewish day schools and then multiplied these enormous sums by the number of children born to families who send kids to these schools.

Based on having five children, the size of an average modern Orthodox Jewish family,  I came up with $100,000 per family per year.  If you live in Manhattan, you could spend as much as $40,000 as year to send your child off to grade one. These figures are, I imagine, similar to the prices of a Jewish day school education in Canada. Correct me if I am wrong.

portion of the recently published chart

I fall off my seat because, guess what? Jewish education in Israel is free! Our salaries may be lower and our grocery bills higher; our vacation bills are most likely lower (with heat and Mediterranean beaches close by, who needs to escape to the sun?) and gasoline is higher. Thankfully, the quest for acquiring is lower here. 

Our cars are dented and scratched. We do not fix them, preferring to hang onto them for well over a decade. Most of us live in apartments and we hand our clothes, schoolbooks and furniture down to the next in line. It’s a kind of Israeli recycling.

All in all, life here is less expensive and less overflowing with peripheral stuff that is distracting. Now back to school.

School in Israel is not exactly a discipline. As our cars, the classrooms are not fancy. The classes are oversized, bulging at the seams. The kids are irritating, rambunctious, chutzpadik and the teachers cannot control their students. On top of this, the Israeli school curriculum, tangled by bureaucracy and egos, seems to change as often as Americans go out for fast food.

Yet what really is education? Is it all about many hours of cramming, stressing out our children, making them competitive and then bragging about their degrees and high salaries so they can acquire stuff?

Israeli children run amuck in schools (that are free) yet somehow end up earning Nobel prizes, inventing and investing in technology and improving the world.  Their education gives them a sense of confidence, team spirit and ignites their souls. The army that follows high school, along with national service, enables them to be leaders and aids them to contribute to society in meaningful ways.

Moreover, Israeli children, by default, grow up in a Jewish world where the majority of the population (secular and Jewish) learns Torah in school (that is free), celebrates the Jewish holidays and marries Jewish.

This, I feel, is the better investment for the Jewish people.  

So why not invest our Jewish families’ futures in Israel instead of pouring our life savings into the pails of Jewish schools abroad? 

Is life all about 'stuff' or lighting a fire?