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.

November 22, 2018

Peace Summit on Bus 486

When we get together over Shabbat dinner, we often ask everyone at the table to share a meaningful moment.  Last Friday, the topic was gratitude: specifically, an event from the week for which we were thankful. Everyone had a beautiful story to share, be it an encounter at school or at work.

When it came to my son-in-law Shaarya’s turn, he said he was grateful for sharing positive encounters with Palestinians. And then he told the following story.

He is now learning Arabic. A few days ago, finding himself at a bus stop with an Arab, he realized this was a great opportunity to practice Arabic. So he started a conversation and soon after, they boarded the bus together where they continued talking. 

Other Arabs got on the bus and became interested in this unusual encounter; Shaarya is an Israeli Jew wearing a kippa who is speaking Arabic and talking to a Palestinian.  The other Arab passengers were curious and became involved in the conversation.

To the passengers' delight, they discovered that Arabs and Jews are more alike than different. They realized that all want an education and a job; all want to be respected and to live comfortably without needing to be in constant fear and conflict; and no one wants to live and raise children in a violent reality.

Sderot Rothschild today.
Building of Sderot Rothschild.
Some expressed admiration for what the Jews had done in Israel, transforming it from an impoverished desert to a first-world high-tech nation in a short period of time. 

Their mutual conclusion? Politicians have ruined the ability to establish peace between Arabs and Israelis. And changes that must happen given this sensitive reality will have to come bottom-up - from the citizens, not the politicians.

Talking casually like this where everyone is on equal footing enabled them to develop a mutual trust and respect for each other.  Shaarya did not even realize that he was the only Israeli on a bus filled with Palestinians. 

He then asked one of the Palestinians if he thinks the situation is getting better or worse.

The Palestinian replied, “There's no better or worse. There are good people and bad people on both sides of this conflict. The key to change is when we learn to trust and give respect to each other."

When the bus reached Tzomet Tapuach and an IDF soldier noticed Shaarya sitting amidst all of the Palestinian passengers, the soldier was surprised to see an Israeli so relaxed in what could be perceived as a tense situation.

The horrific reality of the Middle Eastern conflict causes us to be fearful, suspicious and even hateful of each other. But what if we could drop the stereotypes, look the other in the eye and see our shared humanity?  What if we were to focus on our similarities as opposed to our differences?

And this is what Shaarya accomplished. 

I dream that his conversation will have a lasting effect on the Arabs in the bus - I know his story affected all of the people sitting around our Shabbat table.

So when I throw my hands up and feel the conflict is impossible to resolve, I can now see that change is possible. And peace will not happen via a foreign summit or funding from NGOs, financial punishment via BDS or the removing of Jewish listings by Airbnb in Yehuda and Shomron -- a peace summit happened on bus 486 from Tel Aviv to Tapuach Junction just last week.

Imagine if such positive encounters were to multiply... this is something for which we would all be grateful.

October 25, 2018

Kibbutz in the Andes

We are spending three weeks in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Cradled by soaring, snow-capped peaks and sustained by a verdant, fertile valley where fields of corn sway in the breeze.

The people here are soft, gentle and friendly. Everyone greets each other with a smile and a warm Buenos Dias. Many dress in their traditional hand-woven clothes of crimson and orange; farmers work the land as the Inca once did, preparing their potato fields with a wooden foot plough; and alpacas and llamas graze the mountain slopes.

I could not be farther from hot, arid, tough Israel.  Yet wherever one travels on this incredible planet, Israelis have been there. I wrote about this in a blog post about a trip to New Zealand. And here in Peru, I find it again, yet in a different form.

We first arrived in Cusco, the largest city in the Sacred Valley and the former capital of the Inca Empire. There is a Chabad in Cusco but as it is closed from October through February, we were on our own to make the best of Shabbat and finding food we could eat.
And with a plethora of vegan restaurants to choose from in Cusco, we were very satisfied.

Wandering the side streets of the old city, we soon came upon many signs in Hebrew. We saw stores offering discounts to Israelis and menus in Hebrew. I did not see shops with signs in Cantonese, French or German – just English, Spanish and Hebrew.  One restaurant even had its name written in Hebrew – Chalom Cachol.  Blue Dream.  As October is off season for tourists, we heard little Hebrew spoken, however, evidence of Israeli travelers was everywhere.

We then traveled around the Sacred Valley, some 500 metres below Cusco. Many of these towns were once inhabited by the Inca and Chimu peoples with their ancient temples, altars and spiritual apus dotting the peaks above. Life in the more remote villages has not changed for 500 years. There is no electricity or running water and hardly a car is seen on the narrow dirt roads. 

People still farm potatoes like their ancestors did and shear alpacas for wool which is dyed with native plants, spun by hand and then woven in intricate designs. These people sleep when the sun sets and wake before it rises. 

Babies are wrapped in blankets and slung on mother’s back while she farms, weaves and cooks. The floors are dirt, the walls adobe, the roofs thatched and a smoky fire burns inside warming the squeaking, scampering guinea pigs (cuy) that will be a prized dish served to mark special occasions.

I could not be farther my life in modern, high-speed, fast-paced, technologically-savvy Israel.

Mural painted by the children
Yet we discovered a beautiful piece of Israel in the Sacred Valley – and it was not in the form of Hebrew writing to attract tourists. We met a couple, an Israeli husband and his Peruvian wife, who run an orphanage in Urubamba and are transforming the lives of the children there.

About five years ago, Avishai and Viviana were given the opportunity to run an orphanage that was orphaned – Mama Kia, the woman who created a safe place for these children had passed away. 

Soledad demonstrating a pan flute.
Full of love and giving, they soon found themselves responsible for 22 children, many of whom had once been victims of abuse and violence. Creating Ninos Del Sol (Children of the Sun),  they decided not to call it an orphanage, rather a home. Avishai explains that he actually prefers to call this place a kibbutz, modeling it on the community where he grew up in Israel – a place where everyone shares and takes responsibility.

We visited them for lunch and were given a tour by the youngest girl there, Soledad. She spoke perfect English, thanks to Avishai and Viviana’s efforts. She first showed us the organic permaculture garden that the children plant and tend, pointing out all the vegetables and herbs. I had never seen quinoa growing before! They had chickens wandering about and Avishai took out a few fresh organic eggs from the coop.
Mural of virtues painted by the children.

Inside, we saw the children’s neat bedrooms and Soleldad explained what each child likes to do. One likes art, the other reading and another music. The children had painted murals on the walls with inspirational messages. Upstairs is an art room and a library. We saw the house mother sitting in the library helping a few children with their homework.

A board hung in the kitchen that listed each child’s chores. They all help out with the cleaning, are in charge of cooking meals on the weekends, take turns gardening and they do the laundry.
Love is freedom. Mural painted by the children.

We sat down for a healthy, delicious lunch with Avishai, Viviana and some of the children. On the wall was a large map of the world that I am sure the children are familiar with. On the counter were glass bottles of home-made yogurt and kimchee. Food here is for health and nurturing.

We learned that these children all excel in school and go to a special after-school academy to improve their studies. Some are already grown up and are at college in Cusco, coming home to visit on weekends and vacations. The younger ones all plan to continue  with higher studies. 

Avishai and Viviana will support them until they are in their mid twenties, yet we were surprised to hear that they receive no money from the government. Money to run this magical place comes from donations and from their own pockets.

The children can earn extra money by guiding tourists. Yesterday, Sanko, a 15-year-old boy, accompanied us with a driver to two sites: the circular terraces of Moray and the salt pans of Salineras, as well as a hike down to the valley. 

He was shy yet slowly opened up, wanting to know about books we had read, movies and bible stories. We asked him if Avishai spoke some Hebrew to him and he replied, "Yes, he tells us to not be a 'rosh katan'." (Literally, a small head or one who does not take responsibility.)

Avishai also celebrates Shabbat with the children every Friday night. They light candles and make Kiddush, the prayer on the wine. Since these children are Peruvian, some from Quechua speaking homes and some Catholic, he changes one word in the Kiddush prayer to incorporate everyone into the sanctity of the day. He says that ‘G-d chose us with all the nations’ and not ‘from all the nations’ as traditionally chanted.

It was enlightening and inspiring. Here in the Sacred Valley is a couple who give all they have to transform the lives of orphaned children. Kids who once had nothing now have everything; these children are open-minded, spiritual, healthy, loved, loving and giving.  And really, this is all we need.

September 29, 2018

Shabbat Bliss

Having grown up in land-locked Toronto where the nearest ocean is a 10-hour drive away, I am in constant bliss to now be living near the sea. 

In Israel, I can drive to the beach in 15 minutes so when life overwhelms, I pack a towel and a book and head to the soft white sands of the beaches in Herzliya Pituach. A few hours of being lulled by the rhythmic rolling surf and feeling the sun on my face does wonders to the mind, body and soul.

We have taken our love of the beach to the next level. On Saturday afternoons when it is not too hot, we set out by foot to the beach. It is a 10-kilometer walk and takes just over two hours. As it is Shabbat, we park a car at the beach on Friday afternoon so we can drive home at night after Shabbat is out. 

We take our Golden Retriever TJ,  who, upon hearing the words ‘beach walk,’ starts racing in circles and wagging his tail frantically. 

We then put on our running shoes, a hat and walk out the front door.

We have been doing this Shabbat beach walk for years. It has been so many years, we have seen the landscape change right under our feet. We used to walk from Ra’anana straight into the fields, passing strawberries and orange groves, not exiting nature until we were reached the beach.

The strawberry fields have since sprouted apartment buildings, while some of the tranquil orange and avocado groves have been uprooted to make space for a busy highway. 

Week by week as we walked over the years, we saw the earth being dug up, forming mountains of soil.  These fields soon became on ramps, road and tunnels and the earth was reformed to become embankments beside the highway.

Highway 2 - another road we must cross.
Recently Highway 531 opened up, decisively intersecting our nature walk (at least until they build a pedestrian crossing over the highway near the fields). Sorely missing our nature beach walk, we are always searching for a way to avoid the big roads.  

And today, we found it in the form of a magic door. Seriously. Walking across the highway, we came to abandoned train tracks. On the other side of the tracks was a door that we had seen over the years but not really noticed.

Today, Amir went up to the door and it opened. Eureka! It opened right onto a beautiful residential street in Kfar Shmeryahu. It was like we were standing on Platform 9 ¾ and entered into a new world. Or , was is like discovering the door in the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe?  Like gleeful children, we hopped through the door which mysteriously locked behind us as if it were waiting for us to enter.

We walked through quiet streets, passed majestic homes and verdant parks. Sitting to rest on a park bench, we spied a Roman burial cave that dated back to the fifth century.

We made it to Apollonia Beach just as the sun was ready to set. We sat on the sand and our dog played in the water. There was a strong wind and kite surfers flew across the waves, their kites dotting the sky with multiple colors like a flock of swooping tropical birds.

Children were just putting on the finishing touches to their sand castles before being scooped into fluffy robes by their parents. Joggers were out. Couples walked hand in hand. The sun slowly sank.

We were in bliss. Our feet aching from the walk, we took off our shoes and dug our toes into the sand. The shoreline was tinged orange from the sun. 

We felt whole. We felt blessed. We felt connected to the land and to the sea and to the day. For us walkers, there is no better way to feel fulfilled on Shabbat and no better way to say goodbye to a day that invokes us to put all else aside, to appreciate what we have and to be in the moment. 

None of these photos were taken on Shabbat - they capture the essence of the moment anyway!

August 29, 2018

There are more things in Heaven and Earth

Hamlet: What hour now?

Horatio: I think it lacks of twelve.

Where are we?  London’s Globe Theatre?  The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington?  The Stratford Festival in Niagara Falls, Canada or, maybe Central Park, summer home of the popular Shakespeare in the Park.

Yet, bells jangle. A cacophony of pealing bells. If you look to your left, the walls of Jerusalem dominate the horizon with the bell towers of the Church of the Dormition. It is 6pm and the church bells of Jerusalem chime. The evening brings a delicious fresh breeze to the Bloomfield Gardens tucked between the King David Hotel and the cobbled steps of Yemin Moshe.

Hamlet: No, it is struck.

Horatio: Indeed? I heard it not.

The audience laughs, for indeed, we are hearing the bells – the timing of this line could not have been better.   

We sit outdoors in Jerusalem on a grassy slope in the Bloomfield Gardens. Shakespeare's Hamlet is being performed by Theater in the Rough.

This a moment in Israel when one thinks, where am I?  The play is by Shakespeare and most of the audience members are English speakers relishing every line. Yet this is theater that could only happen in Israel. It is free, unconstricted, flowing, informal, participatory and fun. Unlike most theaters, these audience members are not bound to a seat in a tight row. This is what the company calls 'Hamlet in Motion.'

Edward Beili
There are no rules in this theater. People bring a blanket, a lawn chair, sandwiches, a bottle of wine, their babies and some bring their dogs.

People sit for a scene and are then invited by the cast to move to yet another stunning section of the treed park. The actors are reciting lines through branches of ancient olive trees and perched atop park monuments.

Ophelia makes a dramatic entrance to her madness scene by first soaking her hair in the fountain and then tumbling down a grassy hill. The grave digger pulls out a skull from the site of an ancient tomb - some say it may be Herod’s burial place - and the audience cries out in unison, “Alas, poor Yorick!”

The actors interact with the audience as they all shift from one set to another. During one scene change, Hamlet stood helpless in the throng of people wailing in madness. 

Ophelia, after being told to ‘get thee to a nunnery,’ sat on the ground sobbing as audience members passed her by.  One woman handed over her baby, telling Ophelia it would make her feel better, while during another performance, she was given a glass of wine by a member of the audience.

When you are performing in a park, anything can and does happen. It does not ruffle the actors or the audience as everyone is in the flow. On opening night, the lawn sprinklers went off in random places right where the audience was sitting. People shrieked and quickly found another spot. Luckily, this did not happen again.

One evening, a large group on a segway tour inched right behind the actors. I am not sure who looked more surprised, the swash-buckling Hamlet and Laertes or the shocked tourists. Israel knows no boundaries or affectations so a passerby in the park may walk right beside an actor before veering down a pathway.

And the children loved it. The theater company offered a children’s workshop to prep the kids on the plot and introduce them to the actors. The children always rushed to be in the front row and were entranced. At the end of one show, many young  girls ran up to Ophelia asking for her autograph.

It was the final death scene and behind the pines where a dying Hamlet lay, a large full blood moon rose up. A woman beside me sobbed as Hamlet turned to Horatio, saying:

“So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.”

We looked down at Hamlet and gazed up at the moon.  It had popped above the church tower tucked inside the old ramparts and glowed in a silent sky.

We know that Jerusalem is alive and well when Shakespeare can be heard in the park and the church bells chime. For 600 years, the city was hushed. No church bells rang in Jerusalem and no shofars were blown as they were deemed offensive to the ruling overlords. But today in Israel, anything and everything goes. 

As Hamlet says, "There are more things in Heaven And Earth, Horatio, that are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Theater in the Rough continues to create more things, offering us Shakespeare that is innovative, fun, relevant and available to all.