Sunday, December 27, 2009

New pics from Vaca

Just posted some new pics from the beginning of my vacation in Tel Aviv...check em out!

Friday, December 25, 2009

I finally had the chance to post most of my pictures from Livnot, my two weeks in Tzfat and our hikes around the Galil and Golan...I'll hopefully add some more descriptions and tags after Shabbat...enjoy! (click on this link to get to the pics)

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Touring Israel's borders along Lebanon and Syria

I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a few thoroughly educational and captivating days in the three and a half months I’ve been here. I can honestly say that Tuesday’s trip along Israel’s northern borders ranks among the most informative and influential days. In addition to learning about the security concerns along those specific borders, we also spent time discussing the greater existential problems Israel faces vis a vis not only Hamas and Hezbollah, but also Iran, a truly frightening situation.

Our tour guide for the day was a man named Elliot Chodoff, who in addition to teaching at the University of Haifa, also holds several advisory positions with the IDF. He is a fascinating speaker and man does he know his stuff.  He has several cardinal rules about military strategy, and the one that intrigued me the most says: “a successful preventive policy will always be condemned”. A perfect example was the Israeli government passing out gas masks during the Gulf War in 1991. After the war, the Israeli public was in an uproar about having to wear these masks. But the likelihood is that because Israel publicized having the gas masks for its entire population so that even Saddam Hussein knew that Israelis had them, it might have convinced him not to fire the chemical weapons into Tel Aviv, and instead send scud missiles, because the gas masks blunted the effects of the chemical attack. So in essence, this policy of using gas masks as a deterrent was condemned by the public as being too severe, despite the fact that it prevented a chemical attack.

Our first stop was a lookout point over Metulla, the Israeli town that has Lebanon as its border.

You can see how close the most southern Lebanese towns are to the border.  The problem isn’t that the towns are close – that’s the definition of a border between two countries; the problem is that Hezbollah continues to import rockets that it can fire from these towns into Israel. In media reports about the region, you often read “Hezbollah is smuggling weapons from Syria into Iran” which is pretty ridiculous if you think about it, because since Hezbollah, and by extension Syria, controls the Lebanese government, these weapons are not being smuggled but blatantly and openly imported with the aid and help of the government itself.

So you can imagine how unnerving it was to learn that the Israeli government turned a blind eye to the Lebanese border during the Second Intifada and pretty much ignored the continued rocket-fire reigning down on Israeli towns there, while allowing Hezbollah to stockpile weapons in southern Lebanon.

Then we went up to the Golan Heights to a place called Tel Fahkr, which was one of the key positions Israel took during the Six Day War in 1967 that helped it gain the entire Golan. It’s truly a case of needing to see the actual terrain and the land and the topography to be able to understand the situation. We learned how Israel identified a road to get up to Tel Fahkr as being the only un-mined road because an oil pipeline goes underneath it. Yet despite the intelligence, the commander of the brigade made a terrible miscalculation about their position relative to the Syrian base and cost nearly his entire unit their lives before Israel took the position.

Our third and final stop was Mount Bental, which is in the northern part of the Golan and is right next to the border with Syria. I had actually been there twice before, but hadn’t realized it was this same spot until we got there.  We had the fortune of being there on a pretty clear day, so we had a good view of the snow-capped Mount Hermon, the northern-most spot in Israel, as well as into Syria to our east (below is a pic of me and my buddy Brett with Syria behind us.)

When Israel captured the Golan from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967, the only objective the Israeli government gave the IDF was to defeat the enemy; it did not give a geographical or territorial objective.  The line of mountains from the Hermon to Bental was the first defensible position the army came to, and so that’s where it stopped.

Since gaining the Golan, Israel has been able to set up defensive military positions all across the eastern border, including on the Hermon. Its position on the Hermon makes it such that with a good pair of military binoculars, soldiers stationed there can read license plates off cars in Damascus 35 miles away. This piece of information fascinated me because it explains why Syria has been Israel’s quietest border since 1974. Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, knows that Israel has this military position and can hit anything inside the capital city of Damascus, so it acts as a deterrent for anytime Assad wakes up and thinks “is this the day I should fire some rockets into Israel?”

We also learned about Iran, and about all the consequences of trying to deal with a regime that doesn’t act logically. It’s very scary to think that Iran is just months, if not weeks, away from attaining nuclear power, and would not hesitate to use a nuclear bomb to hit Tel Aviv.  Not only that, but that one nuclear attack that lands near Tel Aviv would be the end of Israel as we know it. And equally scary is there’s a chance Israel might have to take out Iran’s nuclear arsenal on its own – I’d like to think that if Israel decided to strike Iran, the Obama Administration would not only back the decision, but would supply the aircraft and take care of the brunt of the work because America’s air force is so much larger. However, all indications are that Obama is not so much interested in helping out, and that Israel would have to go it alone.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shabbat and Beyond in Tzfat

The schedule here at Livnot in Tzfat has kept me plenty busy, so I figured I’d write an update while I had some free time. Shabbat was a very cool experience. As I mentioned last week, the first night of Chanukah coincided with Shabbat to make it an extra festive atmosphere.

There’s a giant Chanukiah on the first floor of the Livnot building, and it uses the traditional oil candles as light (it’s pretty big, as are the shot glass-size cups of oil as candles). We lit the Chanukiah and sang a few songs together to get in the Chanukah mood before switching over to Shabbat. The second floor of the Livnot building has a balcony with a fantastic view of Tzfat, especially during sunset, so we went out to the balcony after lighting Shabbat candles to take in the sunset view as the workweek turned into Shabbat and as light turned to darkness. After a short Kabbalat Shabbat service on the balcony, we had free time to check out different shuls in the area.

I was most interested in going to a congregation that uses melodies from Shlomo Carlebach, who was known as “The Singing Rabbi” because of all the different melodies he wrote to prayers during the 20th century. These shuls are known for their energy and their dancing, and this one was no exception. During the Kabbalat Shabbat service alone, pretty much every song erupted into joyous singing and dancing in a manner I hadn’t ever really enjoyed, even at the Kotel in Jerusalem. There’s something very spiritual about putting every ounce of your voice and soul into singing the prayer and knowing that the person sitting (or standing) next to you is doing the same thing.

We had a festive dinner all together at the Livnot campus. As part of the Shabbat festivities, people are encouraged to share some “Words of Wisdom”, whether it be sharing something they learned during the week, something related to the week’s Torah portion, or anything else Judaism-related that’s on their mind. I spoke for a couple of minutes about something that maybe we take for granted but for me is truly meaningful this time of year: during Channukah, we remember the several miracles that took place: the small band of Maccabbes that defeated the Syrian Greek army, the small amount of oil that was found in the Temple, and the fact that this small amount of oil which should have only lasted for one day burned for 8. I re-read the story of Channukah and was struck by the fact that while we talk about these miracles, we might not consider all the miracles that are still taking place in today’s world: a perfect example being the existence of the State of Israel. How else are we to explain the creation of a state for the Jewish people after being in exile for 2,000 years. And after the establishment of the state, a small Jewish defense corps being vastly outnumbered, yet holding off 5 Arab armies. Or Israel’s astounding military victory in 1967 against those same Arab armies. Or 1973, when Israel should have had its territory reduced to pre-67 lines, only to have the war turn around and re-gain all the lost territory. And if we’re tempted to say, “that was 40 years ago”, there’s the miracles of “lost” Jews from all over the world – Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, China – making Aliyah and coming to Israel. These are all miracles we have all witnessed and continue to witness, if only we open our eyes to them.

On Sunday, we had the chance to walk in the footsteps of some of the Jewish fighters of days of yore. We hiked Tel Yodfat, which is in the lower Galil, and was one of the main battle areas during the Jewish revolt against Roman rule in the years 67-70, CE, and there are still pieces of pottery to be found in the area that date back to that period. Then we drove to an area called A-Roma, which is a Druze village about 25 minutes away. The Talmud tells of underground caves in the area where Jewish families lived for as many as three years during this revolt. About 25 years ago, our tour guide, Michael, went out looking for one of these caves near the village with a friend of his, and they came across this huge cave. After doing some exploring and calling in professional archaelogists, they confirmed this was indeed one of the caves used nearly 2,000 years ago. And now that the cave has been excavated, people can go inside and see what it was like to live inside them. Michael took us all in to one of the main living quarters and told us this story. He then invited us to crawl along the tunnels going from room to room to get the feeling of what it was like to navigate the tunnels, with the sharp curves. It was truly amazing to be in the same spot where these families were living, and fighting off the Romans. Every now and then, the Romans would find an entrance to a cave and would enter hoping to kill as many people as they could find. But because the Jews knew all the intricate twists and turns, the Romans were at a severe disadvantage and effectively walked into a trap. Eventually, however, after losing too many soldiers who were killed going in this way, the Romans sent smoke down the tunnels and the smoke suffocated the Jews to death.

Michael made a great comparison between these caves and the places Jews hid themselves during the Holocaust, in the tiniest of closets and floorboards and underground tunnels. It’s incredibly powerful to think about the length to which Jews went to preserve their peoplehood and religion throughout our history.

I'm excited for the next day plus here in Tzfat. In about an hour we're having a Purim party. Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me either, given we're about halfway through Chanukah, but Livnot wanted to show us the connection between the two holidays. We had an educational session on Purim this afternoon, and now a party tonight. It should be interesting to see what kinds of costumes people come up with such limited time and resources.

Then tomorrow, we're going back up north for a security tour along the Lebanese and Syrian borders, so I'm sure I'll have lots to write about that. And then tomorrow night, we're having a Chanukah party, with latkes and sufganiot and a movie - and yes, I've already nominated Home Alone as movie option, so we'll see where that goes!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Chanukah!

Happy Chanukah to all back home!

This year I am spending Chanukah in Tzfat, and I think it will be a memorable way to celebrate the holiday. In just a couple of hours, I will be lighting the candles with 14 other people from my Otzma Program, as well as the staff and participants of the Livnot U’Lehibanot program. More about Livnot in a second, but I’m very excited to be here for Chanukah.

While it’s always nice to light candles and sing Mah Oz Tzur, it feels special in a different way to be able to celebrate the holiday in the land in which the miracles took place – we always sing “A Great Miracle Happened There”, and now we get to sing “A Great Miracle Happened Here”. Dwelling on the miracle of Chanukah (or miracles, because there were multiple miracles), makes me think about the miracles that go on in today’s world, and how important it is to open our eyes to what’s around us (especially living in the State of Israel, whose existence is a miracle in it of itself)

But of course there’s a trade-off to being here at this time of the year. I won’t be able to take part in one of my favorite yearly traditions: multiple viewings of “Home Alone” prior to Christmas with Alex and Nicole – so I’ll have to watch the movie here next week and yell out all the lines and know they’re doing the same thing back home (From a treehouse!)

So back to Livnot. The past few days have been long but fun. Breakfast at Livnot starts at 7am, so that means getting up at 6:45. I regularly woke up at 7:15 or 7:20 to eat breakfast and read the news online before Ulpan class, but something about that “Waking up before 7” really makes it seem much earlier than just a half hour. But when the days are as short as they are this time of the year, it’s important to make the most of the daylight hours.

Anyway, we’ve had the good fortune to have weather largely cooperate with us this week. We spent the last 3 days doing three very different kinds of hikes. On Tuesday, we did a half-day hike from Tzfat to this park called the Wadi Amud, which is a pretty, foliage-covered nature reserve. Apparently in the warmer months, it’s a popular hiking spot because there are pools to go swimming and it’s generally an easy hike. But in the winter months, when it’s just rained and the terrain is very muddy and rocks are slippery…well you get the picture. There was definitely a lot of slip-sliding around and I definitely crashed my knee into at least one huge boulder.

Wednesday’s hike was my favorite of the week. It was a full-day hike but not as intense as the day before. We drove to the top of a mountain just south of Lake Kinneret and hiked all the way down.  From certain vantage points along the way, we could see the Kinneret to our left, the Jordan Valley straight ahead, and further back, the mountains of Jordan. This was one of those hikes where pictures don’t do the place justice. Along the way, our tour-guide extraordinaire, Michael, taught us about the different kinds of farming the Jewish pioneers did during the first waves of Aliyah and we discussed the sacrifices these chalutzim did when the founded the first kibbutz in Israel.  We ended our hike at sunset, and then had a cookout on the shores of the Kinneret, and it’s pretty cool to be able to do that in December anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

Thursday we took a ride up to the Golan Heights and got off near the eastern-most village in all of Israel. The town is called Alonei Habashan, which translates to mean the oak trees of the Golan, and it’s right near the border with Syria. As we gathered to begin our hike, we could see an IDF base manning the border. Then in the not-to-far-off-distance, we heard some gunfire and explosions, which we all assumed to be the IDF conducting some sort of war games and training. Turns out we were exactly right – as you can read here in this article from Ha’Aretz, the IDF was simulating missile attacks and war against Hizbollah. Because it had rained the day before, the grass in the area was green, which made the views along the hike very pretty.

I’d write more but the internet here is not working well and I need to get ready for the chag…so Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom, and I’ll try to upload some pictures next week!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Leaving Ashkelon

Our time in Ashkelon is drawing to a close, but of course, there's plenty of fanfare to keep us busy these last few days. Here's a link to my most recent batch of pictures.

First was a trip to the most bizarre shuk in Israel.  There are 3 shopping malls in Ashkelon - the Huzot Mall, which is the up-scale mall with a movie theater, the Giron Mall, which is the most practical of the three...and then there's the Lev Ashkelon mall, which I have dubbed the Dirt Mall (a name I may or may not have stole from Mallrats). It's less than a 5 minute walk away from our absorption center, and its two saving graces are a small grocery store that's adequate and has the staples; and a bakery. Aside from that, it's dirty and just plain weird. And on Tuesdays, the mall transforms into the weirdest shuk you've ever seen...people set up little stands all over the place, including the basement and sell all sorts of stuff that looks like the cheapest flea market you've ever seen. To my friends who had never been to it until recently, I would say it's exactly what you would expect a shuk at the dirt mall to look like. So naturally I went with some people to walk around and take some pictures.

And then there was Brunch at Nana's. A few of you commented on the picture of her in my Thanksgiving album (her full name is Chana, and Nana is a nickname that also means "mint"). She's our Ulpan teacher and she's simply the best - she made class fun and enjoyable and was always willing to teach us whatever we wanted to learn. Tuesday was our last official day of class, and she invited us all to her house for brunch yesterday morning (and like Israelis do, offered us a place to stay whenever we come back to Ashkelon). As you can see from the pictures, there was so much food, and yes...she made an ice cream cake because of my obsession! 

So what's next? A very good question. While the Otzma program is divided into three main parts, we have a mini track of two weeks this month, and we could choose from 3 options: studying Jewish texts at Pardes, a non-denominational institute in Jerusalem; volunteering with the army; and a program called Livnot U'Lehibanot, which is the one I'm doing. Initially I had planned to be with the army, but after talking to some people and then learning more about Livnot, it seems much more my speed. The words in Hebrew mean "To Build and to be built" and the concept is to physically build the land through community service and to be built by learning about different aspects of Judaism in perhaps a different way than we'd learned in years past. The program is based in Tzfat, which has always been a spiritual and mystical place, and it's where kaballah was started. So our two-week program combines some community service with lots of hiking and also Jewish learning. A huge part of learning about Israel is learning about the land and exploring all the different topography, so I'm very excited for our hikes. We'll also be with the Livnot program for all of Chanukah, so it will be fun to celebrate in a big group and be able to say "Nes Gadol Haya Po - A Great Miracle Happened Here" - and if you haven't seen this video to get in the Chanukah's definitely a fun time

Following Livnot, we have two weeks of vacation, and I'm so excited that Becca will be coming midway through my break! We'll be traveling through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for a week and then she's going to stay with me in Haifa for more than two weeks...very excited for all of this. I'll have my computer with me during Livnot and vacation, but I don't know quite how frequently I'll be able to get online and send emails and update my blog...I'll do the best I can, though!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thanksgiving and other tid-bits

Hard to believe it's our final week in Ashkelon - come Sunday our Otzma group will be split up for the remainder of the program. I'll write more about what's coming up later in the week, but first I wanted to update everyone on the past week.

You might have already seen pictures from our Thanksgiving on Facebook, but if not, here's the link to my pics. It was truly a great way to celebrate a family-based holiday away from home, because even though it sounds a bit cliche, in many ways our group has become a family - we live together, eat together, and yes - make fun of each other plenty. And even though Thanksgiving is not a holiday that is celebrated here in Israel, there was a very festive atmosphere in Calanit all day long, as we all ran around cooking and preparing our dishes.  Hallie and Alex, two girls from my program, organized the whole soiree and they couldn't have done a better job. It was a potluck style dinner with a twist. We all contributed money to buy two huge turkeys and some extra parts - and then the girls picked up the turkeys, seasoned them, and cooked them. One of the running jokes on Otzma is that I'm the Dad of the group because I'm older than most everyone else, so Hallie and Alex asked me to help them carve the turkeys...naturally one the perks to carving the turkey is that I was able to taste test the turkey while I carved it (just to make sure it was fit to serve, of course)

We had our feast in the multi-murpose room in our absorption center, complete with decorations, and of course, hand turkeys.  In addition to our entire Otzma group, we had the 10 participants in the Israeli Teaching Corps program (a program run in conjunction with ours), our program leaders and their families, and of course, Nana, our beloved Ulpan teacher, who celebrated her first Thanksgiving with us (and who invited us to her house for breakfast on Wednesday morning!) Each person on our program cooked a dish to bring, and people doubled up on the staples, so we had several different kinds of stuffing and mashed potatoes, along with meatballs, rice, pasta salad, my Handsome Kugel, and of course, tons and tons of desserts. The food was not only amazing, but there was an absurd amount...and we had so much food leftover, that we woke up on Friday and had a potluck lunch of all the leftovers.

The other exciting thing from this past week was getting to visit Haifa, where I'll be living from January through March. The focus of Part 2 of Otzma is to live and volunteer in "partnership cities", cities/towns in Israel that have a connection and relationship with cities back in the States. Most of the other partnership placements are smaller towns like Netivot, Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Shmona, but because Boston and Haifa have had a strong sister-city relationship since 1989 we get to go to the third largest city in Israel and live there for 3 months.  I'll be living there with 3 other guys - Tom, who is also from Newton, and Brett and Joseph from Texas, and we're all really excited for what lies ahead.  We'll be living in an absorption center in Haifa, and while some other partnership communities have better housing, the opportunity to live and volunteer in Haifa was one of the main reasons I chose Otzma in the first place, so in my eyes, I'm not making any kind of sacrifice to be there.

We met with the Jewish Federation representatives in Haifa, as well as the people who work in the Boston-Haifa connection office, and they told us how excited they were to have us and about all the opportunities we'll have. One of the coolest things is we're going to be involved in the Young Leadership Division, which aims to get 22-30 year olds involved in the Jewish community. They have social events a couple of times a week, as well as weekend day trips around the region, so it's a great way to get to know Haifa and also meet people our age in the city. I took some pics from around town but I kind of erased them by if you're dying to get a look at what the city of Haifa looks like, click here to see my pics from '06 when I was there with my fam.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Happy (early) Thanksgiving

It's hard to believe that Thanksgiving is really just 2 days away - in many ways it does seem that it's been 3 months that I've been in Israel, and in others it's gone very quickly. But obviously unlike back in the States, Thanksgiving is not a holiday people here celebrate, let alone have ever even heard of. We're having a pot-luck dinner at our absorption center in Ashkelon which I'm naturally excited for - we should have plenty of turkey, potato-related dishes, stuffing, pumpkin pie, the works.

One tradition that we started in my family around this time of year is vocalizing all that we have to be thankful for, and since I am very blessed to have so many things to be thankful for, I wanted to post them here. So even though I'm not able to eat with my family this year, I am thankful for their love and support (not to mention, excited for them to visit!) I'm thankful for my amazing friends who always know how to pick me up when I'm down, and who constantly encourage my ice cream-needing habits. I'm thankful for the State of Israel, and for the opportunity to live here for a year and experience life here in a way I wouldn't otherwise be able to. I'm thankful for the United States of America and for the educational opportunities it has offered me. And to all the past and current members of the Channel 7 Sports department...thankful I don't have to harass any high school football coaches and tell them how sorry I am their team lost the big Turkey Day game. So Happy Thanksgiving to all back home!

That being said - here's an update on two very interesting and thought-provoking education days in the past week. The first one was to learn about different elements of the Israeli Defense Forces, and the second was an intense examination of the political situation and scene.

The focus of the IDF day was on ethics and combat. There was a panel discussion with a journalist from Channel 10 as well as a current member of Knesset from the Kadima Party and the Vice Commander of an Armoured Division, in which we learned a lot about the realities of war and the amount of time soldiers have to make a decision on how to act.  I knew the IDF aims to prevent civilian death as much as possible, but it's always amazing to hear the lengths to which they actually go. Before bombing apartment buildings in Gaza where terrorists were hiding, they would first drop leaflets advising residents to leave because the IDF is planning to bomb. If the leaflets weren't enough, the course of the Gaza War, the IDF made over 160,000 phone calls to Gaza residents who might have been too scared to go outside to get the leaflets. We also learned about the blatant lies in the death toll counts from the Gaza War - I won't get into all the facts and figures, but suffice it to say that the number Hamas gave to the world (including such "respected" organizations such as Amnesty International) was inflated due to the fact that anyone who died in all of Gaza during the war was counted in the death toll. That includes people killed in fighting, but also all those who died natural deaths (approx. 450 a month in Gaza) as well as the members of Fatah that Hamas killed and then added to the count. Clearly it was a mistake that Israel decided to bar Israeli-based journalists from entering Gaza during the war, and instead of allowing reporters to embed with units going in on missions, the world gets to read, and ultimately believe all of Hamas' propaganda.

Some people on my program were skeptical about the speakers and the agenda they had calling Israel the most moral army in the world. But what other army in the world goes to these lengths to make sure civilians are out of harm's way? What other army gives such advance notice to the enemy? War is a horrible thing, and yes, there are going to be innocent people killed and wounded and suffering tremendous amounts of pain. But you cannot do a better job of protecting human life, especially when the enemy not only has no regard for life, but does the best it can to not only kill you and your civilians, but puts its own civilians in the line of fire (for example, we saw video of Hamas terrorists grabbing children and dragging them across streets in Gaza to use as cover, because they know with a child as cover, the IDF won't fire on them)

By far the coolest part was getting to visit the Sde Dov Air Force Base in northern Tel Aviv. We weren't allowed to take pictures of our own, but there was an IDF photographers taking pictures and we should get a link via email in the coming days so I'll post some pics when I get them. We learned a bit about the Air Force base, the kids of planes they have, and the intense training to become a pilot. Then we got to go and walk around near the runway - we saw a grounded B200 beachcraft plane that was wired for a communications relay flight, and saw some planes taking off and landing. Then we got to go up to the Air Traffic Control tower, which has an amazing beach-front view of the entire city of Tel Aviv.

Then Sunday was the final day of the Politics and Society seminars. First we learned about how the Knesset works (or doesn't) and how the government is formed. Israel has a parliamentary system, so when people go to the polls, they vote for a party instead of a candidate. And as you can imagine in a country full of Jews, there's enough political parties to run a continent. There are 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset, and a party has to garner at least 2% of the popular vote to get a seat. In the elections that were held in February, 33 parties were on the ballot, and ultimately there are 12 parties represented in the government. Usually, the party that wins the most seats gets the right to build a coalition to gain a majority of 61 seats. This year's election was particularly strange. The centrist Kadima party won the most seats, but its leader, Tzipi Livni was unable to show she could build a strong enough coalition. So the president, Shimon Peres, went to the right wing party, the Likud, and gave its leader, Bibi Netanyahu, the right to build the coalition. As it turns out, this is the first time in Israeli history that the party that won the most seats in the election isn't even part of the coalition (Livni is the leader of the opposition)

So from there, we learned about the smaller but very influential political parties, such as the religious parties who hold an extreme amount of power. The 3 main parties (Labor, Likud, Kadima) are overall secular parties, but because they rely on the religious parties like Shas to make up a coalition, they trade Knesset seats for decisions that affect how Judaism is practiced. Unfortunately, Israeli politicians have a history of giving almost total control to the Haredi parties, who in turn use their power to discriminate against everyone and anyone who dares practice a form of Judaism that isn't to their standards.

We heard from Michael Melchior, a former member of Knesset who is the leader of a centrist religious party that did not get the 2% vote in these elections to be represented. I thought the most interesting thing he had to say was about all the issues Israel faces that is unrelated to the political situation and peace process. Politicians and the parties are always re-adjusting their platforms vis a vis the latest developments regarding the Palestinians or Hezbollah or Iran, and while this is obviously the most important issue to consider, almost every other major issue falls by the wayside as a result. Education is not what it once was and performance is falling in almost every single category.

My favorite part of the day was meeting with David Horovitz, the editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post. Journalism has always been an interest of mine, and so naturally it was fascinating to hear his thoughts especially on the political situation and the existential threats Israel faces. He identified peace with the Palestinians, Iran, and de-legitimization of Israel around the world as the 3 biggest threats, with Iran being the scariest and most severe of the 3. He called the world's view on Iran as hypocritical, because many countries are giving it lip service, and the US and Israel aside, nobody's really interested in doing anything about it. And so as is the case at the end of these days, I now have a whole new list of articles and topics to research.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Volunteering with the kiddies

Pretty cute, ay? These are some of the kids I get to play with at the other absorption center in Ashkelon. I realized you all might be wondering what it is I do all day long here, especially now that it's too cold to go to the beach (poor me, I know). So now that our time in Ashkelon is coming to a close, I figured it would be a good idea to post a bit about my daily life.

We have Ulpan (Hebrew classes) four days a week from 8:15am-12:30pm, with a half-hour break at 10. It's pretty convenient that we have our class on the ground floor of our absorption center, so we can head down in our PJs and then come back up to our rooms during the break. During Ulpan, we do different things - we talk about the news and current events here in Israel, so as you can imagine, there's always plenty to talk about. We also read little stories and articles and learn plenty of new vocab along the way. And then about twice a month, we watch an Israeli movie - some of them I've seen, some are new. But even the ones I've already seen, I try to watch without looking at the English subtitles.

We also volunteer a couple of times a week - there are all sorts of different things people are doing. Some are helping with sailing lessons at the marina, some are teaching English, some working at Netzach Yisrael, the conservative synagogue. I've been volunteering twice a week at the bigger of the two absorption centers in Ashkelon, called Beit Canada/Canada House, and it predominantly houses olim chadashim (new immigrants) from Ethiopia. It really wasn't my intention to have this to be my volunteer placement, but Otzma sent me and a couple of other people there our first week and I took one look at the kids and couldn't say no. They're all so adorable and they all speak Hebrew too which is the coolest thing ever! So I've been working in the "gan", which is for 4-5 year olds.

The kids all go to regular school with other Israelis during the day, and then around 3:30pm, they come to the gan for an after-school program while their parents are still at work. They play outside, draw, practice writing letters and numbers, and if they behave, they watch some childrens' TV shows. One of their favorite things to do when I'm around is have me pick them up and run with them in my arms or on my shoulders.

These families come from different areas of Ethiopia - their ancestors were all Jewish, and somewhere along the way, they were forced to convert to Christianity. But they go through a conversion process when they arrive and are now Jewish according to halacha . On average, the families live in the absorption center for 2-3 years while they get settled to their new lives. Their native language is Amheric, so the parents take Ulpan classes to learn Hebrew and they also have jobs. As part of the process to integrate olim chadashim into Israel, the government then gives these families some money towards an apartment of their own in smaller cities.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Extended Weekend in the Golan

Just got back from a great and relaxing weekend in Katzrin, located in the Golan Heights. I was able to use two of my "days off" to extend my normal weekend and stayed with Eli, Elisheva and Ma'Or for 4 nights, so you better believe there was lots of relaxing...and lots and lots of eating! It's so beautiful up there, I'm definitely looking forward already to my next trip there.

Eli had suggested if it was nice out on Friday morning, we'd go out for a hike.  It was raining off and on, but we went out for a short time anyway. There's a famous hike called Yehudia, known for its waterfalls and water streams, and so we set out to hike a branch of it called Zavitan. There were lots and lots of rocks on this branch of the hike, so needless to say it was very slippery, especially in my sneakers...I probably would have been fine in my hiking boots. Somehow I managed not to hurt myself or fall at all! We hiked a short ways in, about 20 mins until we got to the first water stream and then headed back...but hopefully I'll have a chance to go back with better sneakers and with dry rocks.

We got back to the house, and their friends Ben and Sarah had arrived, along with their almost-two-year-old son Judah. We all went out to eat at the Golan Brewery and restaurant, definitely someplace I'd go back to. They have a pretty wide-range of food and great burgers. They make four different styles of beer: a wheat-based beer, a Pilsner lager, a standard lager, and a dubbelbach (dark beer). They had a cool promotion - a tasting is 13 NIS, but if you wind up then ordering another beer, you get the tasting for free. We were in a bit of a rush to get back and get ready for Shabbat so I only had time for the tasting...but there's always next time!

Shabbat was very nice and very relaxing, and then Sunday I went to the Katsrin Archaelogical Park, where they have ruins from Talmudic villages dating back to the 3rd Century, CE, and then to a museum that has a topographical model of the Golan Heights, really showing why it's such a strategic advantage to have it because of how high above the Galil and the Kinneret it is.

In the afternoon, Elisheva took me to this town called Yonatan, where she and Eli are starting the process of building their house. It's a really cool, environmentally-friendly concept, and I'm sure I'm not going to get all the details right but I'll do my best. Each family has a certain space allotment and can create its own floorplan for the house, as long it works within the given allotment.  The exteriors of the houses are assembled in a factory, including the plumbing and electrical wiring, and are shipped to the site where the house will be, and workers assemble the pieces on site. There are solar panels that go on part of the roof, and - this is the coolest part - the house is self-sufficient in terms of electricity. When the sun shines, the panels store the solar energy for use, and if there's leftover energy, they sell it to the electrical company. Currently, there's one house that's already assembled and being worked on-site (Eli's actually working on it, although it's not their house)

This coming week should be fun - we have two educational days that I think will be very interesting. On Thursday, we're going to Tel Aviv and are learning about various aspects of the Israeli Defense Forces. We'll be hearing from a professor who drafted the IDF's Rules of Conduct, a member of Knesset who has previously worked as an IDF spokesman, a journalist who covers the IDF, and a Vice Commander of the Armored Division. Then we'll get to tour an army base (not sure which one yet). Then on Sunday, we'll be in Jerusalem to learn about how the Knesset works (or doesn't), we're going to meet with the editor in chief of the Jerusalem Post, and a few other things too.

That's about it - I'm attaching a link to pics from the weekend...enjoy!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Education Seminar in Tel Aviv

This past Sunday we had the second of our educational seminars on Israeli Politics and Society, this one in Tel Aviv. We spent the majority of the day in southern Tel Aviv, which has a much lower socio-economic status and situation than the rest of the city.

Our first stop was the Rigozin School, which is a public school for children of foreign workers.  Like just about everything else in Israel, the status of these children is very controversial. In some ways the debate is similar to illegal immigration and migrant workers in the States, because some of their parents are here legally, others illegally. The government wants to deport nearly 1200 families at the end of the school year. Some of these children were born in Israel and some were born elsewhere, but even those born here are not citizens and would have to return to the countries where their parents came from - the Philippines, Thailand, Nigeria, and many other countries. The parents often work in agriculture, and like migrant and illegal workers in the States, are willing to work for a fraction of what Israelis would be willing to work for.  These are jobs that Palestinians used to have, and once the second intifada broke out, businesses began lobbying the government to allow them to bring in migrant workers to fill those jobs. And now, the same government (and specifically the same MK) that allowed these migrant workers into the country wants to deport their children who were born here. The biggest issue is there are no adequate immigration laws and the government changes its policies on a regular basis.

We then met with someone who works with refugees from war-torn countries who have come to Israel to seek asylum. The underlying issue here is to what extent Israel has a responsibility to take in and help these refugees, who come mainly from Darfur and Eritrea, but other places too. In addition to wanting to be "a beacon of light unto the nations" and to help those in desperate situations, I believe Israel should take in refugees fleeing genocide, like those from Sudan. Of all the nations in the world, we as Jews know the horrors of a true genocide and of a world that watched and sat idly by while millions were murdered and slaughtered and tortured, and we have a certain responsibility to open our doors in the same way other nations should have during the Shoah.

But, like everything else, things are not as simple as that. Taking in refugees also means finding a place for them to live, and resources to help them put their lives back together. There are organizations, specifically in south Tel Aviv, that have built shelters and provide education and other forms of humanitarian aid. On the one hand, we have enough problems "taking care of our own" —Jews and other Israeli citizens who live below the poverty line and are in need of help. But on the other hand, we have a responsibility to make sure that if we take in these refugees, we're putting them on a path to success and not towards a life of despair and crime. A lot of work has been done in recent years to transform south Tel Aviv into a crime-ridden, dangerous area into an area with a future.

The final stop of the day was a type of walking tour around part of the downtown area. The purpose was to examine various sites of cultural significance and to assess their role in Tel Aviv's history. As we visited different buildings and read about them, were forced to think about the role Tel Aviv, the country's cultural and secular center, plays in the Jewish state - is it a Jewish city or just an Israeli city? Is there anything wrong with wanting to escape the political and security problems and spend free time at the beach or at a cafe?

The more I learn about life here, the more I see just how much there is I still have to learn - it's amazing how many different fragments and segments of society there are, how there can be so many different kinds of Jews and Israelis who have such different views of what it is to be Jewish, what it is to be Israeli, and what this country is and what it should be. I feel truly blessed that I have the opportunity to learn all these things first-hand and take in pieces every single day.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Turning The Calendar

Hard to believe it's November already (and that it's been a while since my last post), and that we have just 4 more weeks left in Ashkelon. But we have gotten our first taste of "winter" here...we had a  stretch of five "60 degrees and rainy" days, but the rain is very important for Israel, so there's no complaining here. And it's supposed to be warmer and sunnier through the weekend.

It's been a pretty laid-back week or so. I spent the last two Shabbatot in Efrat with Ephraim and Batya. I love spending Shabbat with them because even though I only met them two months ago, it feels like I've known them forever. It's such a welcoming and familiar atmosphere, and Shabbat there is so peaceful and serene. The first weekend I brought my two roommates, Aaron and Derek over, and one of Ephraim's cousins from his mother's side of the family was there with a friend. And then last weekend, Eli, Elisheva and Ma'Or were there. Batya was heading to the States after Shabbat, and she said it would be a pretty simple Shabbat food-wise but as usual, there was so much to eat and it was so so good!

I took advantage in a break in the rain the other day to walk around the Ashkelon Archaeological Park. We walk through part of it every time we go to the beach, but it wasn't until Thursday that I went around to see what everything was. Ashkelon has thousands of years of history - the Phillistines, Canaanites, Muslims, and Crusaders have all left their mark - and archaeologists have been uncovering various structures and artifacts from the 3,000+ years (it's actually a group from Harvard that spear-heads the excavation). I posted some pictures from the journey around the park and the link is in the post below. There are still some sights I didn't get to, but seeing a gate from the Cannanite period from 1850 BCE was pretty cool, and I'm sure I'll have a chance to go back and see the things I didn't get to see.

We have a series of educational seminars throughout the year to learn in detail about the different aspects of Israeli life and culture, including tours of different areas we might not get to on our own. There's a 3-week section called "Politics and Society" and Sunday was the first of the seminars. We went to Be'er Sheva and visited the Dekel Prison, which was quite an experience. First, we met with one of the social workers there, and she introduced us to the prison system and explained the roles of the different people who work there. Unfortunately, Israel has seen a dramatic increase in crime, especially domestic crime in the past 13 years, so prisons have become more crowded.

We got a guided tour of the facility and saw the variation in the way different groups of prisoners live. First was the maximum security ward, where the prisoners are locked in their cells for 22 hours a day. They have 2 hours during the day to shower, make phone calls, and sit in the common area, all of which takes place inside the ward - they are not allowed outside at all. A tray of food is brought to their room, and there are 12 prisoners in one cell (6 bunk beds). Basically these are prisoners who refuse to behave or change their ways, and their free time is staggered to prevent fights.

For prisoners who show good behavior and indicate they want to get their lives back on track, there are other set-ups. There are fewer people in one cell (btwn 4-8) and they're allowed to spend free time outside and have meals in a dining hall. There are also facilities such as a library, computer room (without internet access of course), and there are even Torah classes for people who have found God and are becoming religious and want to study. We also saw the factory where some are allowed to work.

There's also a rehab clinic for prisoners trying to overcome substance abuse and alcoholism. One of the prisoners going through rehab spoke to us. His name is Dmitry and he's originally from Russia. He started doing drugs and drinking when he was a teenager and has been in and out of jail his whole life and finally decided he wanted to clean up his life. He told us his story and also that in 18 months when he finishes serving his time, he's going to go and life in a half-way house that helps former prisoners with histories of substance abuse stay clean after leaving jail.

I'm very excited for this upcoming weekend - I'm going to Tel Aviv tomorrow to see Mosh Ben-Ari in concert. He's one of my favorite Israeli musicians, and he just released a new album less than 2 months ago. This is his official album release party, and some of his musician friends will be performing on stage with him, including Ehud Banai and Avraham Tal. A few different people on my program are celebrating birthdays this week/weekend in Tel Aviv as well so there should be some fun celebrations.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

New Pics

I posted a few pictures from the last couple of weeks - blog entry coming but it's a work in progress so I figured I'd put up the link to the pics first

Friday, October 23, 2009

HaDegel Sheli (My Flag)

The Jewish Eye Film Festival is currently going on here in Ashkelon, and last night I saw a very thought-provoking documentary called "HaDegel Sheli" or "My Flag". It was written, produced and directed by a Canadian Israeli, and the premise was to go different places in Israel with an Israeli flag and ask people what the flag means to them.

Two scenes in particular hit a strong chord - the first took place in the Meah Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, which is populated exclusively by different groups of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews,  most of whom believe the State of Israel should not exist because the messiah hasn't come yet. There's even a sign that hangs in their neighborhood that says "Zionism = Holocaust", which is troubling enough on its own but is nothing short of revolting coming from anyone Jewish. These are the same people that throw stones at people who walk by who aren't dressed modest enough, riot on Shabbat because a parking lot is open and people are driving, and desecrate Torah scrolls at the Kotel because women read from them. Oh, yeah, and some of these groups openly support Ahmadinijad and Hamas. Yet somehow God sees them as better people...give me a break. It's one thing to disagree with the government on this issue or that issue, but to live in Jerusalem (and in many cases take charity money from the Israeli government) and say, "I wish the Arabs were ruling us" is vile, and is more disgusting than seeing a 4-year old Palestinian child with a suicide bomb strapped around his body yelling that he wants to blow Jews up.

But the most shocking part for me was when the film cut to Ashkelon and showed raw footage of the aftermath of the Palestinian katyusha rocket attack on the Hutzot Mall in May 2008 - 90 people were injured. I knew the mall had been hit, but it's something completely different to see the video of the damage to the building, and emergency crews carrying out people in stretchers...and then going to the mall and seeing it re-built. Thankfully none of the rockets that have been fired from Gaza while I've been here have come too close to Ashkelon. And yes - this attack was one of hundreds on the towns in southern Israel before Israel's military operation in Gaza last winter...none of which are mentioned in Goldstone's "report". Brandeis is hosting both Goldstone in two weeks in a forum for him to defend his report, and his views will be opposed by Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN and who knows just about everything there is to know about the military legality of war.

So what does the flag mean to me? It's the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, to the land where our Temples stood over 2,000 years ago, to Jerusalem, to where we've prayed to return for centuries upon centuries. It's the establishment of the only Jewish government in the entire world, a place where Jews can live in freedom without fear of being persecuted for practicing their religion (or not practicing it as they choose).

Monday, October 19, 2009

In the Negev

 What a day in the Negev – we took a tour through the Negev Desert to meet with and learn about some of the small communities that live there.

The highlight was clearly this and my twin brother Dan, who naturally had done Otzma back in 1994.

We first visited a town called Segev Shalom, one of 7 Bedouin Arab towns that have officially been incorporated into Israel. In the 70s, the Israeli government encouraged the Bedouins to settle in 7 specific towns in the Negev, rather than continue with their nomadic lifestyle. Some Bedouins agreed and are currently living in those towns, but some did not, and they currently live in towns and settlements the government considers illegal. Additionally, many of these communities have created problems for the Jewish towns in the Negev because of drugs and crime. There’s also a big problem with Bedouin men attracting Israeli teenage girls and showering them with money and gifts and encouraging them to leave home to live in the Bedouin community. Then, when these girls leave, they marry the Bedouin men and become trapped: they’re not allowed to leave their house, they don’t have a cell phone, they don’t have any money and it’s very hard for them to escape.

From there, we visited Yerucham, a small developing community that’s trying its hardest to expand and become an attractive place for people to live. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, had a vision to  “make the Negev bloom” and to populate it with people.  There are some sizeable cities and communities there, but while the Negev makes up 60% of the State of Israel’s land, it contains just 8% of its population.  Some of the small towns there, like Yerucham, are making a push to attract people and jobs by portraying themselves as tranquil oases where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s a very interesting situation, because at one point in Israeli history, the Negev was considered their “Wild West”, a frontier full of exciting new adventures. But as beautiful as the landscape is, the reality is that currently, many Israelis see nothing attractive about living in an oppressively hot town in the middle of nowhere. The land and the housing there is much cheaper and the government provides some economic incentives to live there, but with public transportation becoming increasingly efficient, people can still live in a suburb of Tel Aviv and commute an hour and half to work in a desert city like Be’er Sheva. We saw a very nice, state of the art community center there, but it seemed that while the Yeruchamites were telling us about their town, they were trying to convince themselves just as much as us that it’s a great place to live. I’m sure it is great for some people, but they still have a lot of work to do to convince most Israelis to move from the cities.

But the most interesting and best stop of the day was meeting the Black Hebrews at Kibbutz Shomrei HaShalom, or the Peace Village. They’re a community who see themselves as one of the Lost Tribes of Israel who fled the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE and moved to various parts of Africa.  They lived all over Africa until many were then sold in slavery and came to the United States.  Their spiritual leader had a vision when he was living in Chicago in 1966 that it was time for them to return to their homeland in Israel. So they traveled to Israel by way of Liberia and have a community in the town of Dimona.

The Black Hebrews have a holistic and independent attitude towards life. They don’t consider themselves to be Jewish but take all of their teachings and rules directly from the Torah. As part of their belief system, they are vegan, and they served us an amazing meal of salad, rice, pita and hummus, soy burgers and soy shnitzel, and a very tasty chocolate pudding dessert (apparently it’s very easy to make!) We spend just over an hour there, but pretty much everyone on our program wished we had more time to learn about the beliefs, history and lifestyle of the Black Hebrews because it’s something none of us know about. They invited us over to spend some more time in the future, so a few of us are hoping to spend a weekend there in the coming weeks to learn more about their culture.

I had a nice and relaxing Shabbat – it’s weird to think that I’ve been here a month and a half and this was only my 2nd Shabbat in Ashkelon because of all the holidays. Friday evening, a few of us went to Kabbalat Shabbat services at Netzach Yisrael, the conservative synagogue in Ashkelon.  We had been there before to help them build their sukkah and they have a very nice congregation. The service was exactly like the kind of Kabbalat Shabbat service I’m used to at home, where almost every prayer is sung. I always find it a peaceful and reflective service so I always enjoy going and seeing how different congregations choose their different tunes. We came back to our absorption center and had a potluck Shabbat dinner (or to use Becca’s term, a Shabbatluck dinner). We’ve had a few of these already and this one was by far the best – everyone’s really stepping their game up. I started things off strong with my Handsome Salad, and then there was grilled chicken, a gulash stew, pad thai, mango rice, mashed potatoes, and about the best banana bread I’ve ever had (certainly the best parev banana bread I’ve ever had).

Hopefully I can get my camera situation all figured out before the weekend. On Sunday, we’re getting a tour of some of the holy sites in Jerusalem. We’ll walk down the Via Dolorosa, the path which Jesus took to his crucifixion and then go the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he died. And then we’re going to Har HaBayit, or the Temple Mount and see where the Two Temples once stood and where the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosques are today. Then at night, we’re all going to see Idan Raichel live in concert – he’s so talented and he and his band put on such a great show.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Petra Pics

Finally got the Petra pics up click here to view!
For Part I (Tel Aviv and Eilat pics) click here

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sukkot Vacation - Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petra, and Jerusalem

Back in Ashkelon after a busy week of traveling and a great Sukkot vacation. I traveled mainly with 3 friends – Brett, Derek and Ari, and then we met up with some other people from our program this past weekend in Jerusalem for Simchat Torah.

We left for Tel Aviv Friday afternoon and stayed with two of Brett’s friends, which was clutch. Friday and Saturday nights we stayed with his friend Jonathan, who is about to start studying at Technion University in Haifa. He gave us quite a tour of Northern Tel Aviv, where he grew up and his parents live and made sure we got to do the things we wanted to and volunteered to do some chauffeuring around. We also did a lot of walking around Tel Aviv, which was great because I’ll be more familiar with the city when I live there starting in April. We got some great falafel, checked out the Carmel shuk, and went to the Diaspora Museum which has so much Jewish history that I feel like I might need to go back because there was too much to absorb in a single visit.

Our Petra adventure was by far the highlight of the trip. It’s the remnants of an ancient city built by the Nabateans about 2,000 years ago, and it’s located in the middle of the Edom Mountain range in Jordan. We took a cab from our motel in Eilat to the border crossing and thankfully beat a big tour group to the passport control on the Israeli side and didn’t have to wait at all. We paid our exit tax, changed some money over to the Jordanian Dinar and then literally walked across the “no man’s land” and the international border into Jordan. Nobody hassled us with our bags or passports, and naturally one of the Jordanian security asked if I was an Arab. We then took a cab from the border in Aqabba to the town of Wadi Musa where we stayed (it’s called Wadi Musa because it was the riverbed created when Moses struck the rock and water started flowing from it).

The staff at our hostel was very helpful and friendly, and they insisted we have some coffee before heading out to begin our tour. They also invited us for an all you can eat buffet dinner for 5 dinar (about $8) so we signed up on the spot, and then walked down from Wadi Musa to the entrance of Petra. We definitely made the right decision to tour on our own instead of with a tour guide because not only was it cheaper, but we went at our own pace and stopped where we wanted to and when we wanted to. We had two different tour guides and an additional map to point out the major sites to see. To get to the main sites of Petra, you walk down a gravel path and pass by several tombs carved into the sides of mountains. Petra was the capital of their empire, but also a necropolis because they believed that if they showed respect for the dead, the spirits would look after them.

After about 15 minutes of walking down a gravel path through the mountains, Petra’s most well-known façade comes into view, the Treasury, which was featured in the Indiana Jones movie. Its size and detail was absolutely astounding. Somehow, the Nabateans carved this façade into the side of the mountain. I can’t even fathom how much time and cooperation it took, and how they were able to build that far up with the technology available at the time.

My favorite part of Petra was the Great Temple. Historians aren’t sure exactly who prayed there, but the most fascinating part to me is that it’s a gigantic structure with 3 different levels, and it was discovered by Brown University archaeologists in 1994 – a full century and a half after much of the rest of Petra was discovered by a Swiss explorer. We hiked up two different mountains (one the first day and one the second) and took plenty of time to enjoy the spectacular views down from the top.

One weird – and sad – part about touring Petra is that everywhere you look there are Bedouins selling cheap souvenirs, jewelry and even rocks for a one or two dinar. Many of them live in the caves in the Petra mountains and there are children as young as 5 and 6 trying to sell souvenirs to tourists. It was actually the way we knew we were on the right path on our hikes, is if we took a turn or climbed up some stairs and we passed by a table. I tried to take a lot of pictures to illustrate the scale of the buildings and how high we climbed, but I’m not sure how well it will translate when I upload them to Facebook.

We came back to Eilat Wednesday night and hit up Big Apple Pizza, which was really good. Apparently it’s a chain and there’s one near Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem too. My 3 friends stayed in Eilat for Thursday, but I took the bus up to Jerusalem to spend the day with family. I had a late lunch/early dinner in Efrat with Ephraim, Batya, Eli, and Ma’Or and then at night met my cousins Chaim and Rivka at the “Rock Ami” concert at Kraft Stadium and we saw a few bands play, such as Soulfarm and Moshav Band. Kraft Stadium was built by Bob Kraft and it’s where the Israeli American Football league plays. Inside the stadium there’s a wall with pictures of Kraft with the Patriots, and there’s a Benjamin Watson jersey hanging on the wall. Kraft brought Watson and his wife here two summers ago and he loved it. There were a couple of food vendors, and to my surprise, there were taps from Dancing Camel, a micro-brewery located in Tel Aviv. I had the stout beer and it was easily the best beer I’ve had since I’ve been here. The company rep handed me a sheet listing all the locations around Israel where they either have their different beers on tap and there are a few in Haifa (none in Ashkelon though)

I also wanted to be in Jerusalem for Simchat Torah and it did not disappoint. I went to a shul just outside Jerusalem for hakafot on Friday night and then had dinner with Datia, Guy and Michal. Then I went to the Kotel Saturday morning and joined different minyanim dancing and reading Torah. I got to dance with one Torah and had an aliyah at another minyan.

I’m sure I left some details out but if anyone has questions about the trip, let me know and I’ll holler back! I’ve uploaded a small batch of pictures from the first few days, and I’ll try to get the rest up on Facebook tomorrow and I’ll post a link to the pics.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim

Officially had my first “Wow” moment spending Yom Kippur in Yerushalayim. I don’t consider myself to be very religious but this was the most spiritual Yom Kippur I’ve experienced and the location had everything to do with it. When the fast started at 4:49pm, a siren wailed throughout the city and everything came to a stop – people finished lighting their candles and walked to shul. There were no cars on the road, no stores, bakeries or offices open, and it was really a meaningful and inspiring holiday.

This year was also the longest fast I’ve ever had, which is strange because the holiday ended earlier than any year in Boston. In Israel, we changed to Standard Time on Saturday night and turned the clocks back and hour to make the fast easier and have it end an hour earlier than it would have. My entire program stayed at the Lev Yerushalayim hotel right near Ben Yehuda Street (a great location and it’s where people who will be in Jerusalem for our third part will be living) and we had both our pre-fast and break-fast meals at the hotel. The catch was that we had to eat our final meal at 3pm because their kitchen closed at 3:30. So we were done eating by 3:30 and the fast didn’t officially start until 4:49, and then today it ended at 6:05pm, so it was close to a 27 hour fast instead of a 25 hour fast.

We got a list of all the shuls in the area and a description of each one so we could decide which one we wanted to go to. For Kol Nidre, I went to the Great Synagogue, a modern-Orthodox congregation, and it definitely lived up to its name. The sanctuary was so beautiful with chandeliers and stained glass all over. At some point I would like to go back there to get a better look at the building and at all the Judaica they have all around. The choir sung beautifully and even though they mainly sung tunes I didn’t know, it was so cool to see such a packed place (my friend Scott and I estimated there were close to a thousand men and 500 women in just this one congregation), and to know that places all over Jerusalem and all over Israel were packed just the same.

For the morning service today, I went with a bunch of people to the Conservative Center, and it was exactly the kind of service I was looking for. It was founded by American olim so the prayer books had English translations (it was actually the same Machzor I use at home) and the rabbi’s sermon was in English. There was plenty of singing, which made me feel very at-home.

We got back to the hotel around 2 and I did get an hour and a half nap in before it was time to leave for Ne’ilah. The great thing about the hotel we stayed at was there were all sorts of different shuls within a 10 or 15 minute walk, and then the Kotel was about half an hour away. I knew that the Kotel was where I wanted to be for the end, so I went with a few friends and we got there around 4:30pm, just before the Ne’ilah service. I spent the first half hour or so just taking in the atmosphere, walking from one corner to the next, listening to everyone singing and praying. There were probably 25 or 30 different services going on at the same time, each one sounding just a bit different than the one next to it. I joined one that was loud enough that I could follow along. I did some praying but I was mesmerized by my surroundings – how we went from light to darkness, how we were standing at a spot where Jews for centuries upon centuries prayed to return to. At the very end of Yom Kippur, the shofar is sounded to conclude the fast, and since each service ends at a different moment, around 6pm, shofarot rang out throughout the Kotel area and people started dancing and singing.

There was one unfortunate incident. As I was turning to leave the Kotel and walk back towards the plaza, this guy stopped me, he couldn’t have been more than 20 or 21, was not wearing a black hat or a beard, just a tallit, and he pointed to my earring and smiled. I thought he liked it. But then he explained to me I needed to do Teshuvah (a prayer for repentance) because of the earring and he opened up his prayer book and pointed to the prayer he wanted me to do. So I told him I wasn’t about to say any prayer because he wanted me to. And he goes, “Only Go’im have earrings, Jews don’t” and I told him it was none of his business and it wasn’t his place on Yom Kippur of all days to tell me what to do and how to pray to God. I have plenty of religious relatives, and even though we don’t observe the same way, none of them would ever tell me how to live my life or how to pray. It definitely left a sour taste in my mouth.

But that taste was quickly changed to a sweet taste, because there were juices and challah and little muffins being handed out at the Kotel plaza to break the fast. It definitely made all the difference in the world, to have a little bit of something before our half hour walk back to the hotel for our big break-fast meal.

So now we have a short week – just 3 days of ulpan before our Sukkot vacation. It’s crazy that we have a full vacation so early into our program. I’ll be going to Tel Aviv, Eilat, Petra and Jerusalem over the break, and I’ll definitely have heaps and heaps of pictures of the adventures to post when I get back.

Pics are up

I posted pictures from our first 3 weeks to my Facebook page (click on the title of this post to go there) There are also plenty of pics from my last time here in Israel with my family back in the winter of 2005-06. I took a lot of good scenery shots that I probably won't duplicate this time around, so feel free to check out those ones on my Shutterfly page (

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Skype Alert

Now that we have our wireless set up, I'll try to be on Skype when I'm in my room. My screenname is mattyc18 - and thanks to my newish computer I have a built-in camera for videochat...holla!

Final Ashkelon 82, Final HaPoal Jerusalem 82

Just got back from the most exciting tie basketball game ever. We all got free tickets to watch an exhibition game between Ashkelon and Jerusalem. Quite an experience. I guess since it was just an exhibition they didn’t bother with overtime, which was kind of strange to see. Ashkelon blew a 3 point lead with 5 seconds to go because they couldn’t figure out that they were supposed to foul Jerusalem immediately after the in-bounds pass. Naturally the Jerusalem player hit a wide open 3 to tie the game. There were probably 200 people in attendance, including 38 from our group and a whole bunch of rowdy 10 year olds, where they’re parents were, we have no idea. There was also a guy who beat a huge drum throughout the game and changed his beat depending on who has the ball.

I spent Rosh Hashana at my cousin Datia Shaked’s house just outside of Jerusalem (we’re still trying to figure out how we’re exactly related but it does go back a couple of generations). I hadn’t seen her or Michal or Guy (her two children who are now 30 and 29) in close to 4 years so it was great to re-connect. I feel very fortunate to have so much family in Israel that is so friendly and welcoming. Some of these cousins I’ve met before and some I’m just now meeting for the first time. But everyone I’ve met has told me the same thing: let me know when you want to come over for Shabbat and you can come and spend the weekend. I’m hoping that after we get back from Sukkot vacation I can get to Jerusalem a couple of weekends a month so I can spend time and get to know all these cousins and visit the ones I know well.

In addition to these other relatives, I have two first cousins who are in Israel. Chaim is studying at a yeshiva and his sister Rivka just made Aliyah. So a fun little aside. I was about to leave Datia’s to head back to Ashkelon, when Chaim called me and told me he was going to be in downtown J’lem watching the Patriots/Jets game if I was around. So I switched up my plans and met up with him for a bit and watched about 3 quarters before I had to get to the bus station to head back (he called me while I was on the bus back to tell me the game had gone final and the Jets had won)

The day before Rosh Hashana I got to do something very special. I was one of 15 people from Otzma to help deliver packages of food to Holocaust survivors living in Ashkelon. We were split into groups of 3, and each group was paired with 3 Israeli soldiers to deliver the food. I went to 5 houses of Holocaust survivors and it was incredible to see how much joy and happiness it brought to them. One woman happened to be celebrating her 90th birthday that day, and another was so overcome with emotions she started to tear up. It’s unbelievable how doing something that seems so small can mean so much to someone.

That's it for now - we finally have internet in our rooms so hopefully I'll post more frequently and I'll get pics up in the next day or two.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Ashkelon, Week 2

Hopefully I’ll be able to write shorter posts more often once we get our internet set up, which should be when we get back from Rosh Hashana on Monday. Here’s what I’ve been up to over the past few days. I spent Shabbat in the town of Efrat with my newly-discovered cousins on my dad’s side of the family, Ephraim and his son Eli, and I had such a great time. I had met Eli back in June when he came to Boston and we walked around town and took a mini tour of the Freedom Trail. I hadn’t realized Efrat had such a big population of olim from North America so the only Hebrew I spoke during the weekend was during services at shul.

We started Ulpan, or Hebrew classes, on Sunday, and so far so good for me. Our teacher is really nice and I already have a whole stack of vocab to learn…now I just have to remember what it’s like to study and learn new words! But in addition to learning new words, the whole class is conducted in Hebrew and we’ll be talking about current events all in Hebrew so I would hope that after a few weeks of being fully immersed, my Hebrew will be much better. But as it is, it’s been a huge advantage to have such a great base and hold conversations with people around town. I was surprised at how many people on my program know almost no Hebrew and it’s been hard for them in certain situations to get around because some people in Ashkelon speak English, but not everyone.

Yesterday I got to the shuk, or market, for the first time. For those who have never been to one, it’s the best (and most fun) way to buy food around here. There are open-air tents where dozens of vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables very cheaply, and you’re supposed to bargain with them so they lower the price. I bought 3 peppers, 4 plum tomatoes, 2 nectarines and two apples for 10 shekels, which is about $2.50 in US dollars. In other cities, there are shuks that sell meat, but I got some chicken down the road.

In addition to ulpan classes, we’ll also be doing some volunteer work in Ashkelon. So yesterday while most of the group had a training session for one of their placements, 3 of us went to the other absorption center in the city, called Beit Canada (literally, Canada House – go figure, our one Canadian on the program did not come with us, but he did go there today). Their Mercaz Klita as it’s called in Hebrew is much larger than ours, and in addition to students, there are many families who live in apartments there with their kids. The absorption center has after school classes and activities for the kids, and we’ll be helping out with that. I was caught off-guard actually, because it wasn’t one of the volunteer options I had signed up to do or was even interested in, but as soon as we got there and toured the buildings and saw the kids, I decided I definitely wanted to spend some time there. Almost all of the families are Ethiopian immigrants and I guess a lot of them are undergoing an official conversion to Judaism (I’m so interested in learning more about the Ethiopian Jews so I’m really excited to start working with them). But the kids were so cute and they were so excited to see us come through their classrooms. And it was super easy to get there – there’s a bus that stops right down the street from where we live and takes us within a block of the absorption center. Transportation in this city is so cheap. All bus fares are 3.8 shekels (less than $1), and cabs almost anywhere cost 20 shekels, so if you split a cab ride with 3 other people, it amounts to about $1.25 a person.

I don’t know if I’ll have the chance to write another post before Rosh Hashana, so if I don’t, Shana Tova U’Metukah to everyone!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Boker Tov M'Ashkelon

Greetings from Ashkelon, where I’ll be living for the next 3 months. I can’t believe I landed in Israel just over a week ago – we’ve done so much and spent so much time together as a group that it feels like so much longer. In addition to orientation sessions, we went to the Kotel in the Old City of Jerusalem for Shabbat, hiking in the Negev, swimming (or floating) in the Dead Sea, and we’ve now settling into our new home in an immigrant absorption center. These are places where new Olim can live for free for up to three weeks while they look for an apartment. They can stay longer and their rent is highly subsidized by the Israeli government. I’m living with 2 other guys, Derek from Montreal and Aaron from Chicago. Our apartment is very basic – a bedroom with 2 of the beds, a common area where my bed is, a kitchenette and a bathroom. Besides our program, there are a handful of students attending the university in Ashkelon and there are Ethiopians and South Americans living in our absorption center.

In the little time we’ve had to explore our new home, Ashkelon seems like a great city to start out. It’s right on the Mediterranean, there are about 110,000 people who live here, and there’s also a university, so there are plenty of students in their mid-20s in the area. There’s a marina filled with cool sailboats and surrounded by bars and restaurants with outdoor patio seating. I haven’t yet seen the beach during the day, but friends who have gone say it’s beautiful and the waves are huge. We did go to a bar on the beach the other night that was really chill. The seating was couch-style with big cushions and pillows and there were even seating on the sand and you could walk directly to the shorelines (which we obviously did).

Needless to say, I’ve advertised my love of ice cream from the first time we went around the circle to introduce ourselves. We had a pot-luck dinner last night and I was summoned at the end of the meal to take care of the melting ice cream before it all turned to soup. I also made sure to hit up a good gelato place on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when we were there last weekend.

As for what we’ll be doing here in Ashkelon – our Hebrew classes start on Monday and then we’ll be volunteering a few hours a week in places around the community (we’re supposed to hear more about that later today). Weekends are Friday/Saturday, and we’re free most weekends to travel or do what we want. So tomorrow I’m heading to visit my newly-discovered cousin Eli and his family in Efrat, and then I’ll be with cousins on the other side of the family the following weekend for Rosh Hashana.

Our internet situation is still being worked out – hopefully we’ll have it set up by Sunday or Monday. For the time being, there is a free kiosk in the lobby of where we’re staying, and we’re poaching wireless access in the front yard from someone named Sergei. We don’t know who he is but we thank him for not password protecting his router. That’s it for now – sorry it took so long to get another update up here. I’ll post some pictures when we have reliable internet because it’s too slow to do it with this connection. Miss you all back home!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Greetings from Yerushalayim

Hello from Jerusalem

We're staying at the Rabin Hostel in Jerusalem for the next several days. So far so good - we have a group of 37 Americans and 1 Canadian and so far everyone seems pretty cool. We've done plenty of ice breakers and get to know you activities and I have almost everyone's name down pat (which is a pretty big feat for me). We have orienation for the next week or so - Shabbat tomorrow night at the Kotel and then a 2 day hike starting on Sunday which should be great before moving into our apartments in Ashkelon. I'll write a bit more when I have time but for now just thought I'd let everyone know that I've arrived safely...more soon!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bruchim Ha'Ba'im

That's "welcome" in Hebrew.

Me blogging? I guess it had to happen...I'll be posting my random thoughts, observations, and misadventures throughout my year in Israel. Until then, I'm gonna sit back and unwind and enjoy the summertime.