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