Monday, June 14, 2010

A Year of Opportunities

Amazing. Life-changing. Inspirational. I can think of a lot of words, almost all of them clichés, to describe my year in Israel, but naturally none can even begin to sum it all up. How can you describe the pure joy of dancing at the Kotel on Yom Yerushalayim? The satisfaction of standing on the banks of the Kinneret after completing the Yam L’Yam hike? The ability to spend time with and get closer to my Israeli relatives? The amount of information I’ve learned about Judaism, Israel, and myself?

I have spent the past 10 months living in Israel as a participant on OTZMA, a post-college community service-based program sponsored by The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency for Israel and MASA. OTZMA’s structure afforded me the opportunity to live in three different cities – Ashkelon, Haifa, and Jerusalem – and to learn what daily life is like in Israel in these very distinct places. While there are certainly plenty of cultural things I’ve had to adjust to (the Sunday-Thursday work week, the complete chaos that is a line at the supermarket), I have enjoyed each and every day I’ve had here.

I love the energy and vibrancy of this country, as well as the amazing calm and tranquility that come every Friday, 18 minutes before sundown. I love that a couple of weeks ago, the driver of the Egged bus I was on stopped in the middle of the street to pick up a hand-delivery of freshly baked rugelach. I love how I’m constantly being challenged to think about what being Jewish means to me and to re-consider my level of observance. I love how despite going years since actively pursuing any kind of Torah or Tanach study, the things I’ve experienced and the Biblical connections to the places I’ve visited make it impossible for me not to re-engage in our wealth of religious sources.

One of my favorite parts of OTZMA has been the education component, which has allowed us to learn about the wide range of domestic and foreign issues facing Israel and to meet with both government policymakers and NGO representatives. We’ve traveled all around the country, from Har Ben Tal in the Golan to Sussiya and the southern Hevron Hills to Yerucham and the Negev. We even had our own mock “Camp David 2010” conference to study in-depth the major final status issues surrounding the peace process. Each of these sessions, seminars, and trips has left me wanting to learn more, adding books and other resources to my “to read” list.

While I’ve gotten into my fair share of debates and arguments about some of the major political issues, it’s only by being a part of a community that I’ve began to truly understand the real challenges facing Israelis in their day-to-day lives. In Haifa, for example, I helped teach a television production class to high school students with behavioral issues, and I was able to see how this kind of educational approach can spark these kids to turn their lives around. I also got to work with Ethiopian Israelis in both Ashkelon and Haifa and learned about the difficult balance between preserving Ethiopian culture and absorbing or assimilating into Israeli culture.

It’s been fascinating to talk to all kinds of Israelis about life here. Whether religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, third-generation or oleh chadash, Israelis care deeply about the future of their country, and as anyone who’s spent time here knows, they hold nothing back when it comes to their opinions of how best to move forward. And the great thing is there are people truly working to change and improve life here. During my two months as an intern at The Jewish Federations of North America’s Israel office, I’ve had the opportunity to see how American and Israeli philanthropy supports social change all over Israel. Just as it is in the United States, the gap between rich and poor in Israel has become a huge problem, and it’s critical to the country’s future that there are significant resources going to aid young adults find affordable housing, provide better after-school enrichment programs for youth-at-risk, and boost economic development in the Negev.

As the campaign to de-legitimize Israel grows, it’s become increasingly important for Jews everywhere, and specifically young Jewish adults, to consider everything Israel has given to us and to the rest of the Jewish world in just over 62 years of existence. For the first time in literally thousands of years, the Jewish people have a country of our own, one where we can decide our own future and live freely as Jews. For generations upon generations, our ancestors prayed for the return to Jerusalem and to this land, and now that we have it, it’s our individual and collective responsibilities to ensure its success.

A century ago, the original Zionist chalutzim came here and settled and built the land. They drained the swamps, developed an infrastructure and gained international recognition for the re-establishment of a Jewish state. The generation that followed paid a heavy price to defend the nascent state over years and decades of wars and also played a crucial role in developing and transforming the country’s economy. The challenge set forth to me and my generation is to figure out how we will continue their Zionist ideals and what we will do to ensure that Jewish life continues to flourish, not only in Israel, but in the Diaspora as well.

Like many of my fellow OTZMAnikim, one of the reasons I came here was to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. After graduating from college and working for three years at what had been my dream job, I realized my real passion lies with the Jewish people and with Israel. This year has re-affirmed that feeling as well as my commitment to finding a career that helps me do my part to strengthen the Jewish community.

I want to take this opportunity to thank the people and organizations who have made this experience possible for me: The Jewish Federations of North America, MASA, and Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston for their support of the OTZMA program as a whole and their financial contributions towards my personal participation. The OTZMA staff has worked tirelessly to provide us the best possible experience, coordinating some amazing education seminars and what I’m sure will be a memorable final tiyul. I also want to thank my fellow OTZMAnikim, without whom this year would have been a lot more difficult. We should all be proud of the amazing work we’ve done as individuals and as a group, and of the way we’ve become a family, celebrating holidays together and supporting each other through the hard times along the way. You’ve all challenged me, kept me smiling, and yes, provided me with tons of ice cream, and for our experience together this year, I feel truly blessed.

Originally written for The Federation Connection Blog of The Jewish Federations of North America.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yam L'Yam/Sea To Sea

Somehow we did it. This past weekend, Jeremy, Sam, Brett, Ari and I completed the cross-country hike known as Yam L’Yam, or Sea To Sea. The hike took us from Israel’s western coastline of Yam HaTichon/the Mediterranean Sea, to its eastern border of Yam HaKinneret/Sea of Galilee, a 65+ kilometer hike (40 miles, not counting the inclines and declines, including Israel’s 2nd-highest mountain, Mount Meron of 1208 meters).

It was without a doubt the most physically challenging and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done. There were many moments along the way where I was tempted to quit and others where I didn’t think we’d be able to finish the hike. But we did, and I’m very proud of this accomplishment.

We left Jerusalem Thursday evening with all of our gear – clothes, sleeping bags, tents, food, cooking supplies, and 6 liters of water a person. Picking up the bags was not an easy task. Boy would it be fun to strap them to our backs and start hiking with them. Well that’s what we did a few hours later. We got off the train in Nahariya, and hiked through the city and down the beach to our pre-hike camping spot for the night. The actual trail didn’t begin for another few kilometers but we wanted to make sure to get a solid night’s sleep.

After waking up around 5:30am, our first Manbreakfast of granola, Captain Crunch, and some nuts took place shortly thereafter. By 6:45am we filled a symbolic small bottle with water from the Mediterranean and we were off. After a few kilometers, you know, just for fun, we got to the beginning of the trail at Achziv, which is well identified because it takes you through a banana grove. The big adjustment for day one was dealing with the giant weight on our backs. But as you’ll be able to see from the pictures, the views and scenery were gorgeous, so at least we had that going for us.

We stopped for lunch near the base of Montfort, a Crusader fort somehow built atop a pretty steep mountain. Our Manlunch consisted of peanut butter and chocolate spread sandwiches, some salami, and apples. After lunch, we ventured through the first of several foresty trails cutting around and through little river streams and very green foliage. But as would be the theme with every day, the last leg was the hardest. We had a mountain and then some to climb to get to the end of our day’s hike. The initial incline was a quite a workout, but after about half an hour of steady climbing and several “I can feel it’s right around this corner” comments, we were all feeling pretty frustrated. But finally we got to the top of the nature reserve and exited to the road at the trail head.

Now this was where we expected to find our water source and campsite easily. Neither were to be found, but we checked the map and found the town of Abirim was right down the road, so we headed there at least to find some water. Just before reaching the gates, we met a man walking by us who had spent a few years studying in Santa Barbara, California. He invited us into the tiny town of 40 families to grill near the little park area just beyond the gates and to camp right there. The water tap was literally a stone’s throw away from our campsite so we couldn’t have been happier. We threw down our bags and started putting together some dinner, cutting up peppers, onions, potatoes and sweet potatoes, adding some beans, wrapping them together in a foil and tossing them on the grill. The dinner was cooked to perfection and tasted great after a very long day of hiking. And then at the unbelievably late hour of 8:45pm we headed to bed to prepare for Day 2.

We packed up early in the morning and left Abirim, and for the first portion of the day we were doing some highway hiking, going through the towns of Fesutah, Elkosh and Hurfesh. Despite having to walk along the side of the road for several kilometers, it was an interesting landscape passing through an Arab, a Jewish and then a Druze town. Just past Elkosh we picked up a hiking trail and all of the sudden we were back to the beautiful forest hiking we all love about the north.

Our goal for the day was to get to the base of Mount Meron by 2pm, to give us enough daylight to climb the mountain, enjoy the view and the experience, hike back down and set up camp. We set a great pace for the first part of the day, so we got Meron according to schedule, re-filled our waters and joined the Israel Trail, the hiking trail that goes from Tel Dan near the Lebanese border all the way down to Eilat (on our third day, as we were going south, we passed by a few different hikers who had in fact started in Eilat and who had almost made it across the length of the country…talk about an accomplishment). But back to us…When faced with a 300 meter ascent over the course of just one kilometer, there’s only one thing to do: power through it as quickly as you can.  This was a perfect example of a time where I didn’t know how I was going to push through. After ten minutes of really booking it up the mountain, my legs were gassed, but since my friends were still moving, I was still moving. But as is usually the case with these situations, the view from the top was worth it. Even though there was a bit of a haze, we could see a good part of the north, including the city of Tzfat, which was really cool because when we were there for the 2-week Livnot program, we could see Meron from the balcony, and now we had switched spots.

It took a bit longer than we anticipated to descend and to get to our campsite, but we did have enough time to gather our wood and set up our tents for the evening while it was still light out.  There was a bit of a scare when we were sitting around the table finishing up dinner and could see a fox in the not too distant bushes waiting for us to clear out so he could eat our food. So we made sure to bring every last bit of food scrap to the dumpster by the water tap across the way from our camp site and Mr. Fox was never to be seen again.

Day 3 began great – we hiked through Nahal Amud and wound up joining up with a portion of a hike we had done together back in December while we were on Livnot. There was a particular bridge crossing over the river where we had stopped for a chevruta, or learning session, on that hike, and so we took a break at that same bridge in honor of Livnot (and wrote a little note for the current Livnoters who will be doing the hike in the next couple of days).

But as Nachal Amud turned into Nahchal Amud Tachton, things took a dicey turn. Our pace, which had been really quick for the first couple of hours, quickly ground to nearly a halt as we dealt with some really tricky climbing up and down. The hardest part was not really knowing how many kilometers we’d gone since the last landmark on the trail, since most of our hiking was up and down the wadi instead of steady forward progress.

We took a break for our last manlunch and re-charged our batteries. Within 45 minutes, we had reached Highway 85 and knew we were entering the homestretch, the final 10 kilometers of Yam L’Yam. The trail took us underneath the highway and for me, through the toughest stretch of the hike. By this point, I had drank 4 of my 6 liters of water and knew I needed to keep drinking to avoid getting dehydrated on the hottest day of our hike. It sure didn’t help that the majority of this next stretch would be in the open sun with very little shade. Thankfully the rest of my friends had water to spare and made sure I had enough water.

After about 2.5 or 3 kilometers of hiking at a good pace, the terrain became our enemy again. We entered a section that was absolutely beautiful to look at, but that slowed our pace considerably.  Assessing the situation, and accounting for the fact that we not only needed to get to the Kinneret while it was still light, but that we needed to get to Tiberias to catch the bus back to Jerusalem, we decided to change course and get to the upcoming highway and take the highway to the Kinneret, as opposed to staying on the Israel trail until the town of Ginosar on the water.

But once again, we had no way of telling how far away from that turnoff we were. Finally, we turned a corner and could see power lines, signaling the highway and civilization couldn’t be far. And sure enough, a few steps later, we could see the highway. We got up to the highway, took a break, and knew we were less than an hour away from our goal. We began the final journey, and as we cleared the first hill on the highway, the Kinneret came into sight for the first time, and it had never looked more beautiful. Talk about a morale boost, to be able to see our goal right in front of us, the city of Tiberias on the right, the Golan Heights on the other side of the water. I felt the excitement build as we got closer and closer to the water.

We stopped at a gas station to refill our water and then set off for the water, only because of our re-routing, we didn’t wind up at an area with a public beach. But from the map, there appeared to be several paths going from the main road down to the water. And to take the title of another Yam L’Yam blogger, we went from Bananas to Bananas, cutting through another banana grove to get to what we thought would be an open beach. It wasn’t, but after some weaseling, we found an open path and stood on the banks of the Kinneret.

After three long, tiring days, lots of trail mix and water, and perseverance, we made it. Ari emptied our little bottle of water from the Mediterranean into the Kinneret and it was an unbelievably satisfying moment for all of us, knowing we completed this very daunting and challenging journey across Israel.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Yom Yerushalayim: The Essence of Zionism

"Im eshkachech Yerushalayim, tishkach yemini"/"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand wither."

From the moment I first knew I wanted to come to Israel on OTZMA, I was excited about living in Tel Aviv for Part 3 – the beach, the big city, the food. I didn’t yet know what kind of internship I was looking for, but I figured I would find it in Tel Aviv.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I needed to be in Jerusalem. It wasn’t just that the places that interested me most were here, although from a practical standpoint that certainly contributed to my decision. But the real reason lies in the importance of Jerusalem to the Jewish people. It is here that the two Temples stood, and to here that generations of Jews prayed to return, to this day facing Jerusalem and the Temple Mount specifically during prayer.

So it is this connection to Jerusalem that made celebrating Yom Yerushalayim so special. It began Tuesday night with the Yom HaStudentim/White Night concert in Gan Sacher featuring an odd yet entertaining lineup of Israeli and American bands, from Hadag Nachash to 70s funk band Kool and the Gang. But the real highlight was the sunrise performance by Ehud Banai, a Jerusalemite and one of Israel’s most well-known and respected singer/songwriters. The entire Banai family still lives in the city, and Ehud has written several songs about living here, particularly “1 Haagas Street” about his home right by the Machane Yehuda shuk.

Flash forward several hours to Wednesday evening and the unbelievable scene at the Kotel. Jews of all kinds – young, old, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, haredi, hiloni/secular – joined together, proudly hoisting Israeli flags and dancing at the the Kotel plaza, celebrating 43 years of the reunification of Jerusalem, and the ability of Jews to return to the Old City, something denied during the 19-year Jordanian occupation of the city from 1948-1967. Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut on the streets of downtown Jerusalem was great, but it didn’t compare to the emotion, the pure joy, that I experienced and watched everyone around me experience at the Kotel.

This is the very essence of Zionism – the right of the Jewish people to be free in our homeland, the State of Israel, and Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and it’s no coincidence that the root of the word Zionism, Zion, is one of the Biblical names for Jerusalem.  We no doubt hold different opinions when it comes to politics, religion and how Israel should proceed from here, but the importance of Jerusalem to our past, our present, and our future couldn’t be more clear.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Happy 62nd, Israel!

The Fourth of July is perhaps my favorite American holiday.  So it should be no surprise that Yom Ha’atzma’ut is one of my favorite Israeli holidays, and for many of the same reasons: summer weather, barbeques, celebrations, and of course, fireworks.  But as proud of an American as I am, Yom Ha’atzma’ut is more meaningful to me as a Jew. It celebrates the return to our Biblical and historic homeland, to Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and the fulfillment of God’s promise to us as His Chosen People to bring us back to the Land of Israel.
While I’ve been able to attend memorial ceremonies and Independence Day parties before thanks to the large and vibrant Jewish community in Boston, the experience obviously cannot compare to what it’s like here in Israel.  But before I get to celebrating Israel’s 62nd birthday, I will write a bit about Yom Hazikaron, and the importance of remembering the soldiers who died defending the State of Israel and her citizens, and all the men, women, and children murdered by Islamic terrorists simply because they were Jewish.
I marked Yom Hazikaron on Sunday night by attending a memorial ceremony designed for American olim and other English speakers.  The ceremony began with the traditional siren, when all of Israel comes to a standstill to observe a minute of silence.  Then, there was a tribute to Staff Sgt. Ari Weiss, an American oleh and sargeant in the Nahal Bridgade, who was killed three weeks shy of his 22nd birthday in Shechem battling Hamas terrorists in 2002.   A touching video showcased who Ari was and why he was so loved by his friends and family. Ari’s father, Rabbi Stewart Weiss, spoke beautifully after the video tribute, re-telling the audience what he said to the people who attended his son’s funeral: that everyone go home and sing “Am Yisrael Chai” in Ari’s memory.  Thank God I haven’t personally suffered the loss of anyone serving in the IDF, so the ceremony really helped me internalize and personalize what it means to lose a loved one.
I have never lived a day in my life without the State of Israel being a fact, and it’s easy to take her existence for granted.  But the juxtaposition of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzma’ut reminds us that throughout Israel’s history, its citizens have had to defend the State each and every day, and often with their lives. This is why it’s so appropriate for the day of mourning to be followed by celebration, reminding us that these losses were not in vain, that helped create and protect the State of Israel.
So Monday night, as the sun set, mourning and sadness turned into jubilation and celebration.  I went with a group of friends to the downtown Jerusalem area of Ben Yehuda Street and it was, as you can imagine, quite a scene: older people, younger people, families, teenagers, everyone really, enjoying the revelry.  Over on Hillel Street, there were two stages set up with DJ’s playing different kinds of music and people hanging out and dancing.  And of course, my favorite event, two sets of fireworks, one shot off around 11:15pm, the other at midnight (I must say that coming from Boston, I am extremely spoiled when it comes to fireworks, and I have yet to see a display that comes close to the yearly displays in Newton and Boston).  After the fireworks, we headed to Machane Yehuda, where the entire shuk was transformed into yet another street party, this one aimed more at young adults. There were makeshift bars set up, a stage with a band, and streams and streams of young Zionists celebrating Independence Day.  Then yesterday was part two of the celebration, joining the all-Israeli activity of barbequing in Efrat with my cousins Ephraim, Batya, Shlomo, Julie and their kids…plenty of hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken, and steak to go around.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Italia to the pics!

Now that I’m settled in the new apartment on Har Hatzofim in Jerusalem, I have a chance to post an update on my trip to Italy over vacation. Here’s a quick little rundown:

Best Gelato – Vivoli, Florence
Best Dinner – La Giostra, Florence
Best accommodations – Florence
Best views - Florence
Best City – Florence
Oldest history - Rome
Best Shabbat Experience – Venice
Co-MVPs – Lindsey and Annie for helping us plan everything so well (thanks, ladies!)
What can I say about Italy…other than Florence rocks. Well, for starters I probably ate my weight in gelato, so the trip had to be amazing. I traveled for a week to Rome, Florence and Venice with Tom and Adam, and while I would have loved more time to see more of the country, we did a great job maximizing our time and seeing everything we had set out to see.

Our first day was a Monday in Rome, the only less-than-perfect-weather of the trip– it alternated between sun and brief rain showers.  We hit the Ancient Center area, heading first to the Colosseum which is just as massive as it looks in pictures. We took a tour of the inside as well, and it’s truly amazing to think how it was built so many hundreds of years ago with the technology they had back then. Next was Palantine Hill and the Roman Forum, where the major buildings and temples of the Roman empire were built. As a Jew, the most important structure there is the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the destruction of the Second Temple and of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. On the inside of the arch, very clearly, there is a depiction of the Romans hauling the menorah away and enslaving many Jews (some of whom were used to build the Colosseum). In the afternoon, we walked around to some of the other main sites in the city, Piazza Navona, Tiber Island, and Piazza Campo di Fiori.

Tuesday we went to Vatican City and toured St. Peter’s Basillica.  One thing I was struck by, first there and then at each of the other churches we visited is how intricate the artwork is, where there are literally hundreds of little paintings and sculptures adorning the insides of these places of worship.  We then climbed up nearly 500 steps to the top of the basilica dome for an amazing panoramic view of Rome, the only annoyance being the crowds at the top making it very difficult to move from one end to the other.  After walking back down, we headed to the Sistine Chapel and were amazed at the enormous lines we passed.  Thankfully, we had pre-booked our Vatican Museum tickets, so we bypassed the entire 3-block long line and went right in. Obviously everybody goes primarily to see the Sistine Chapel, but the way you get there is an interesting way to see other parts of the museum. You follow the signs for the Sistine Chapel, and you wind up walking through all sorts of galleries and rooms full of Renaissance art and seeing a lot of cool things you weren’t planning on seeing. It was along the way that I saw some beautiful ceiling paintings, impressive probably most because of the vibrant colors and the location. But of course what I saw along the way paled in comparison to what we saw inside the Sistine Chapel, which definitely lives up to its reputation.  The entire chapel features brilliant artwork, the most famous of which is Michelangelo’s ceiling, which depicts Bibilical stories across 33 different panels.
As you could probably guess from the top of the entry, Florence was far and away my favorite part of the trip. There’s something very friendly and inviting about the city, and it definitely helped as tourists that the main sights are so close to each other. Our first activity there was the Duomo church, the dominant centerpiece to the city’s skyline.  It is a giant building, with a dome on one end, and a separate bell tower on the other end. The coolest part of the church was climbing its dome. On the way up, there is a balcony where you can stop to look at the paintings high up on the inside of the ceiling. The reward for climbing the 500 steps was well worth it. We had a clear day to see all of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan mountains, truly a spectacular sight, and much less crowded than St. Peter’s Basillica the day before.

It was after descending from the Duomo and having lunch that we visited Vivoli, almost without a doubt the best gelato place in the world. I have to give an additional shoutout to Lindsey for telling me if I did one thing in Florence, it had to be to go there.  They had upwards of 25 flavors and a good mix between chocolate-based and fruit-based selections.  I had very high expectations and the gelato definitely exceeded those expectations, each variety full of flavor and having a perfect balance between being rich and being creamy. We ate there three times in the two days we were in Florence and after sampling about 13 flavors, my favorite combination was chocolate mousse, banana, and merangue.

We saw quite a bit of artwork in the afternoon, first at the Plazza della Signora, which has a copy of Michelangelo’s David, as well as a dozen other famous sculptures.  Then we went to the Uffizi gallery, which showcases some of the Renaissance’s best artwork. After the gallery, we walked over the Vecchio Bridge and the Arno River to southern Florence and hiked up to Piazza Michelangelo for sunset. This hill provided a different but equally beautiful viewpoint to take in the city skyline and its surroundings.

My favorite part of our second day in Florence was getting to see the synagogue there. It was built in the 1870s and is a gorgeous Byzantine-style building.  It was particularly nice to visit a Jewish community institution after spending so many hours either in churches or looking at Christian artwork.  The synagogue also has a museum of Jewish history and art, and it was while browsing the collection, I met a couple who currently live in Vancover, but who came to Florence 36 years ago as refugees from Ukraine. They had fled Ukraine and were granted asylum in Italy for a year, a few months of which they spent in Florence, before being granted permanent citizenship in Canada. This was the first time they had returned to Florence since then, and the wife was understandably emotional telling me about their journey and what it was like to return to that place.

We took a train to Venice at night, and it was cool to see the canals there lit up at night.  Since the entire city is full of water and canals, the public transportation is comprised of a fleet of waterbuses that go around the different islands. We took a waterbus from the train station to right near our hostel, a fun way to see the city for the first time.  Our top priority for Venice was seeing the Jewish area of the city, known as the Jewish ghetto (it was in Venice that the word ghetto originated to describe the area where Jews were forced to live.) We had quite an adventure getting there, but due to some very good fortunes, a random guy we asked told us, “go over the next 3 bridges, turn right after the 4th and go straight from there.” Sure enough after turning right, there were signs all over (in Italian, English and Hebrew) pointing to the synagogue. We got to the Jewish museum two minutes before the tour started, which was pretty clutch.  The tour took us to 4 of the 5 synagogues in Venice, and we learned that the 2 in use split the year in half: one is open from Sukkot to Pesach during the winter months and the other between Pesach and Sukkot for the summer months. 

Another highlight of the trip was visiting the Fenice Opera House and happening to get there during the orchestra’s rehearsal on the main stage. We sat in on the rehearsal in the luxury boxes and watched and listened to the different arrangements, a pretty nice and unexpected treat.  Since I was in Venice for Shabbat, I wanted to see what the Shabbat experience was like there, so I walked back to the Jewish ghetto and attended Kaballat Shabbat at the summer months shul, and then headed to dinner at Chabad. The dinner was held at the one kosher restaurant and the 200-plus people in attendance were split between the inside of the restaurant and tables outside. I sat outside with a whole group of Israelis, seated at a giant table along the banks of one of the canals, which was a pretty nice Shabbat atmosphere.

I spent my final day in Italy largely on the water. I got a waterbus day pass and went from the main part of Venice to two of the side islands: Murano and Burano. Murano is famous for its glass-making industry, so I went to a factory to see a glass-blowing exhibit and to check out all the cool glassware around the island. Then I went to Burano, which in addition for Venetian lace, is known for the houses and buildings painted bright pastel colors.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Chag Pesach Sameach

A quick update before Pesach break…it definitely feels weird to be leaving Haifa. A great 3 months, and it sounds cliché, but I can’t believe it’s over already. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here, both the time I spent volunteering in the community and my free time exploring Israel’s third-largest city. I was fortunate enough to meet so many great people, and while I know I’m not always the best at keeping in touch, I hope to keep these connections going, especially everyone involved in the Boston/Haifa Connection with whom I’m looking forward to working when I get back in Boston.

I still have yet to post anything about our most recent Otzma education seminar, a 2-day tiyul about religious minorities in Israel. I hope to post an entry about my thoughts and reactions before I leave for Italy next week. Italy? Holla! I’ll be spending the second half of my Pesach vacation traveling around Rome, Florence and Venice with Tom and Adam, so best believe there will be plenty of pictures to be taken, including a special gelato photo diary. Then it’s off to Jerusalem for my last two months in Israel.

So Chag Sameach to all – and especially on Pesach, where we commemorate the exodus from Egypt, from slavery to freedom, I hope each of us keeps Gilad Schalit in our hearts and prayers. Gilad is spending his 4th Pesach in captivity, held prisoner by Hamas against all conventions of international law.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

An Inspirational Conference

These past few days have truly been a highlight of my time in Haifa.  I had the opportunity to participate in the Boston/Haifa Connection’s Joint Steering Committee conference, an experience that re-affirmed my desire to become more involved in the partnership’s activities and projects.  Even though I knew generally what each of the 7 committees did, I learned a tremendous amount about the specific projects they work on and plan to start, as well as the pilot programs and special missions the Haifa/Boston Connection has recently initiated (such as the truly inspiring Hatikvah mission of Israeli soldiers who will be traveling to Boston to commemorate Yom HaShoah.)

I enjoyed meeting and talking with people from both sides of the partnership, from new friends involved in the Young Leadership on the Haifa side, to the dedicated and talented professionals and lay leaders with whom I look forward to working when I return to Boston in June. 

The meeting of the Joint Steering Committee coincided with the Volunteer Week spearheaded by the Young Leadership of Haifa—over 1200 young adults volunteering their time in different areas across the city.  I have had the opportunity to take part in a wide variety of community service projects during my year on OTZMAl, and it was particularly refreshing to go to the Fichman elementary school and the Beit HaKehilla community center along with the Young Leadership Committee to see many other Haifaim involved and energized to help their community.  At the Fichman school, we were able to be in a few places at once, as we split up between helping out in a first grade classroom, assembling and planting a “wishing tree”, and painting a mural on the school’s outside walls (somehow I managed not to screw up the mural too much and came away with zero paint on myself…quite a success!) 

But personally, our volunteer activity on Tuesday was particularly meaningful because it was a fitting way to say goodbye to the community center where I volunteered every Tuesday.  We visited Beit HaKehilla in the Sha’ar Ha’Aliyah neighborhood, which is a community center for Ethiopian Israelis and is supported by both Shiluvim and the Leo Baeck Education Center.  Given the upcoming start to Pesach vacation, it was my last day at Beit HaKehilla, so it was really nice to see our Boston/Haifa volunteers interacting and gardening with the kids I’ve been working with, and for me to have the chance to say a proper goodbye afterwards. 

Through my work at the Haifa/Boston Connection office here in Haifa, I was able to see first-hand how much time and energy Lital, Vered, and Yehudit, along with dozens of other committee members, spent, preparing for the meeting of the Joint Steering Committee. And as I think was apparent to all of us who were able to attend, they did a fantastic job planning and organizing the meeting, allowing for a good balance between time for the individual committees to meet together, and time to mix and interact outside the committees, such as the dinner and karaoke at the Binyamina Winery.

Hit it here for my most recent pics 

Also, if you made it this far, check out the amazing work my sister Becca has been doing leading U. Maryland's Alternative Spring Break trip to Rancho Feliz, Mexico - they're doing some really cool things....kudos Beccs

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tiyulim in K-Shmo

I can't say I've gotten everywhere I wanted to during this Part 2 of Otzma (sorry southerners), but I did get up to Kiryat Shmona this past weekend.  My roommate Tom and I traveled up north to visit our friends who live in K-Shmo, San Francisco’s partnership community, located just five kilometers south of the Israeli/Lebanese border.  We had the good fortunes to visit during a weekend with great weather to be outdoors—sunny and about 70 degrees, and we took advantage of those conditions. 

On Friday, our fellow Otzmanik Jeremy led a group of 9 of us from the program on a hike through Tel Hai National Park and up the Naftali Mountains.  As we hiked, we took in the beautiful views—the city of Kiryat Shmona directly below us, the entire Hula Valley and the Golan Heights to the east, and the still snow-capped Hermon range to the north.  All the grassy fields we walked by were green, thanks to the rainfall from the previous weekend (rain which brought the water level in the Kinneret back over the “red” emergency line).  The one depressing thing was seeing the remains of cut-down trees that were hit by Katyusha rockets fired by Hezbollah.  Over 1,000 of the 4,000-plus Katyushas fired by Hezbollah during the Second Lebanon War fell in Kiryat Shmona. 

We had a very nice Shabbat dinner, as we split up between Jeremy's host family and Yael's co-worker and her always, there was no shortage of delicious food and good company.  We were in for another fun but challenging adventure on Shabbat, as we walked all the way from K-Shmo to the Jordan River, about a 4-mile walk each direction. Along the way, we enjoyed more of the surrounding scenery, including a huge wheat field featuring Israeli irrigation technology and a gorgeous view of the western Golan.  When we got to the Jordan, we passed by several groups of people sitting and relaxing along the banks of the river, enjoying the day the same way we were.

Israelis—religious and secular alike—feel such a strong connection to the land, evidenced by their love of hiking and exploring the country.  It’s a great feeling to be able to join them in exploring and getting to know this amazing land, whose topography includes such a diverse range of mountains, hills, and valleys stretching from Metulla and the Hermon in the North to Eilat and the Arava Mountains in the South.

Here in Haifa, we're gearing up for the Joint Steering Committee meeting of the Haifa/Boston Connection starting on Sunday. I'm looking forward to this meeting to see how the two sides of the partnership come together and how each is planning to go forward with their respective programs.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Purim in Tel Aviv - Israel's Mardi Gras

There’s no holiday quite like Purim.  From the costumes, to sounding the graggers during megillah reading, to the Talmudic commandment to drink as a way of lifting our spirits closer to God, there’s no other celebration that’s as outwardly – and inwardly – festive on the Jewish calendar.

Having never been in Israel during Purim, many of us on Otzma were determined to celebrate it in style.  We heard about the annual street party in Tel Aviv’s Florentine neighborhood that always draws a big crowd and decided to check it out.  While the forecast predicted heavy downpours for Saturday night, the rain stayed away for the entire evening, and thousands descended on the street party extraordinaire that had the feel of a Jewish Mardi Gras.  Yours truly went as a pirate, and my fellow Otzmaniks dressed up as everything from Aladdin to cowboys to Shnickers and the Situation from Jersey Shore (incidentally, the real life Snooki and Vinny attended a Purim party the other night in Manhattan).

Sunday afternoon was for the kids – Dizengoff Center was filled with families and children in all sorts of costumes (by my informal count, the most popular costume among young kids was the Na-Nachs, a sect of the Breslov Hasids who wear big white, knitted kippot). Inside the mall, there were games and mini-playgrounds set up for the kids, and the middle schoolers shopping and eating were also decked out and dressed up. 

While the events of the Purim story took place thousands of years ago, there are still Hamans in the world today who are openly and vocally plotting the destruction of the Jewish people. Just this past weekend, the unholy triumvirate of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hassan Nasrallah, and Bashar Assad had a get-together in Syria full of the usual rhetoric, once again reminding the world of their dangerous intentions, and the Jewish people of the continued existence of Amalek.  But just like the Jewish people survived Haman’s original Purim plot, and the countless incarnations of Amalek ever since, we will continue to live eternal, the ultimate miracle of God’s Covenant with us as His Chosen People.

Hit it here for pics from the Purim weekend, including our Thursday night holiday festivities in Haifa.

Faithful readers of this space will remember that this was actually the second time I've "celebrated" Purim in just over 2 months. There was, of course, the absurd Purim party we had at Livnot in the middle of Chanukah. Weird as it was, it did bring us this fantastic picture...Captain Israel lives on!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Quite A Week

I’ve finally had a chance to write some more about what I’ve been up to recently. Hard to believe it's been almost a week since my parents left because the week went by so quickly. 

This past weekend, our entire program had a Shabbat Mifgash (encounter) with a group our age, described to us as “our Israeli counterparts”. These Israelis in their early 20s will all be returning to work at various Jewish summer camps in the States as counselors and activity specialists, and they receive training from the Avi Chai Foundation.  I admit a lot of us were unsure of how the weekend would go and were even skeptical at first, but it really couldn’t have gone any better.  In just two short days, we created new friendships and bonds, while learning a lot about ourselves and about each other at the same time.

We all stayed at a hotel at a gorgeous kibbutz called Ma’ale HaChamisha that overlooks Abu Ghosh, just west of Jerusalem.  Upon our arrival on Thursday evening, we were split into four groups, mixed between Americans and Israelis, and played some icebreaker games to get to know each other.  The focus of the weekend was talking about our individual and collective thoughts and feelings about Judaism, Israeli/Diaspora and Israeli/American relations, and the future of the Jewish people. 

One of my favorite activities was a game called “Beseder or Lo Besder” / “Okay, or not Okay”, where our group leader gave us an issue and we had to respond one way or the other, without passing or providing an explanation for our opinion. Following controversial topics, we could ask people to explain their answer and then had a back-and-forth for a couple of minutes before moving on to the next issue.  We then broke into smaller groups of 6 or 7 and continued playing, and we had a few minutes to discuss our individual points of view for each issue.  All weekend long, I was amazed at how our entire group was able to get into some real and honest discussion without becoming uncivil by shouting or interrupting one another, as is the temptation when talking about such emotional issues.

Meal times were a highlight of the weekend, and not just for the obvious reason of the great buffets in the dining hall (there was an amazing apple salad as well as delicious sweet potatoes, and of course a nice dessert spread). But the real reason I enjoyed our meals was the chance to sit and chat with the Israelis who were not in my group.  We also had some additional free time, and since it was warm and sunny all weekend, many of us sat outside and continued the discussions we were having in our sessions.

Before the Mifgash, some of us on Otzma (myself included) had thought having this Shabbaton weekend earlier in the year would have been more beneficial to us because it would have given us more time to spend with our new Israeli friends before the end of our year. But looking back at all we talked about during the weekend and the way we related to one other, I don’t think the groups would have bonded the way we did, had it happened earlier. All of us on Otzma have not only learned a lot about Israel through our various educational seminars and trips, but we’ve lived here now for close to six months and have experienced so many things just through our everyday lives that no doubt helped us connect with this great group of young Israelis.

Last Wednesday, I attended the Jerusalem Conference at a 5-star hotel on Mount Scopus.  There were sessions on all of the major issues facing Israel: Iran, the Palestinian conflict, economic growth, and American/Israel relations, just to name a few.  Among the speakers were several heavy-hitters, most notably Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Tzipi Livni, and Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai. 

One of my favorite speakers was Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY), seen here in a picture with our own Tom Holtz. Congressman Engel spoke at length about US/Israel relations, specifically in light of the Obama administration’s questionable approach to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  He noted how despite his frequent criticism of the administration’s approach on policy issues, US/Israel relations remain very strong, and he spoke about the importance for American Jews to continue to lobby Congress to support Israel and US/Israel interests.

I learned the most from the session that dealt with activism on college campuses, approaching the issue differently than other seminars. While part of the time was spent discussing the hate-driven incitement on college campuses such as Concordia University and UC-Irvine, the bulk of the session dealt with problems on Israeli campuses and Israeli academia.  This issue is perhaps more disturbing than the virulent anti-Semitism being displayed by leftist groups in the States, because it speaks to the continuity of the Jewish people.  Unless and until we “clean up our own house” and recognize that Israeli college students are being subjected to the same brand of anti-Zionism as their American counterparts, we will be unable to effectively fight against the worldwide de-legitimization of Israel.  I strongly believe the key to saving Israel is educating and engaging the young people, the future leaders of the Jewish people, and communicating the severity of what’s at stake.

Bibi’s speech was preceded by the tightest security I’ve ever seen – everyone entering the hall had to pass through three different security stations, including one that swabbed people’s hands for traces of gunpowder or explosives.  The Prime Minister looked tired following his trip to Russia and his speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, but he was still very interesting to hear.  He began by noting the location of the conference, at the Regency Hotel on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, the spot of the assassination of Israel’s tourism minister, Rechavam Ze'evi, in 2001. He said he would never free Ze’evi’s assassins, whom Hamas wants released in any prisoner exchange for Gilad Schalit. He also talked about the importance and significance of having the conference in Jerusalem, the undividable, eternal capital of Israel and of the Jewish people, and gave specific examples of the kinds of economic sanctions the international community needs to enact against Iran.

And as always, a reward for those who made it to the bottom...a link to the newest batch of pictures

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Gift Of Life

It's been quite a while since my last post - it's been a whirlwind couple of weeks, spending time with my parents while they were here visiting, attending a conference in Jerusalem and a Shabbat Mifgash weekend with Israelis our age who will be counselors at Jewish overnight camps this summer. I'll write more about the mifgash and the conference later in the week, but I wanted to share a very special event from last Sunday.

My grandparents, Rose and Sol Turetsky, are the two most generous people I’ve ever met, and I am blessed to have such a special relationship with them.  About five years ago, in the midst of continual Palestinian terrorist attacks in Israel, they decided to give the gift of life.  Together, they decided the best way to help and support Israel was to donate an ambulance to Magen David Adom to help save as many Israeli lives as possible.  Both of my grandparents have been life-long Zionists and have imparted their love of Israel not only to their children, but to their grandchildren as well.

I am extremely proud of all the philanthropic work they’ve been fortunate enough to have taken part in, both in the States and in Israel.  This past Sunday, along with my parents, my aunt June and her kids Chaim and Rivka, I got to see my grandparents’ generosity in action here in Israel.  The six of us visited one of the Magen David Adom stations in Tel Aviv to see their ambulance that arrived to serve the people of Israel nearly three years ago.

In addition to functioning as a regular ambulance, “Yarkon 144” as it’s called (its region and number) is a fully equipped Intensive Care Unit.  It can accommodate two patients at the same time, one on the main stretcher, and a second on an additional bench that can be converted into a stretcher that can stabilize the patient. It’s stationed in Rosh Ha’ayin, but like all other MADA ambulances, responds to emergencies in other areas as needed.

We got to sit inside the ambulance and take an inventory of all the medical and life-saving equipment available for the MADA personnel to use.  In addition to touring the ambulance, we also visited the command center, where MADA operators field incoming calls and dispatch teams to respond to emergencies.  Not surprisingly, the technology is fascinating, and we were able to watch in real time how the status of an ambulance dispatched to an emergency changed and modified with the color-coded computer program and mapping system.

One thing I had known but had forgotten was just how much of the MADA staff and first responders are volunteers. These volunteers undergo a rigorous course before becoming a fully licensed MADA, and Sam Gavzy, one of my fellow Otzma participants, has already completed more than 200 hours of training and service with them during his time here.

That's it from here - I'll have more to say and a new batch of pics later in the week!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lots of Sichsuch, Hardly any Tikvah - Lots of Conflict, Barely Any Hope

So many thoughts – where to begin? We just returned from a 5-day Otzma seminar, called Sichsuch v’Tikvah, or Conflict & Hope, about the political situation and the Israeli/Arab conflict. It was engaging, intriguing and obviously mentally draining. I consider myself pretty well versed in many aspects of the conflict, but I knew I’d learn plenty from our speakers and excursions. We met with people from all across the political spectrum, from a woman who lives in Efrat, to leftist Jews who don’t believe Israel needs to be a Jewish state to the leading advocate for human rights among the Palestinian people. We traveled around Judaea and Samaria, as well as different parts of Jerusalem and also land within pre-1967 Israel.

So where to start? I’ll begin with the only part that inspired hope – the thought-provoking, often intense discussions we had amongst our group in between and following sessions and speakers. In a group of 38, we have many differing opinions and points of view, but what’s so important is that we had these tough discussions.  It forces us to put our thoughts and opinions in context regarding how we feel as Jews, and hopefully among the next generation of Jewish leaders, making Jewish decisions. As one of my favorite authors, Daniel Gordis, notes in his most recent book, Saving Israel, it’s discussions precisely like the ones we had and will continue to have that give purpose and meaning for a Jewish state as a place where Jews have self-determination and the ability to decide their own future.

Regardless of our individual politics, it was important to see the places and things we’ve seen and speak with the people we’ve met because it helps us form our own opinions and beliefs knowing we’ve seen the facts on the ground. Some people in our group had never been to a Jewish settlement over the Green Line, or seen Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, and it was great seeing my friends process these new sights. We did things and visited places people wouldn’t have even thought to do on their own, such as visiting the southern Hevron Hills and the village of Sussia, a hot spot for violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. The incredible amount of information we’ve received over the past few days has given all of us new things to think about and even more important, topics and issues to learn about.

One of the highlights of the seminar was a role-play session, a mock “Camp David 2010”, with each of us having a role in the negotiations. We were divided into three sides: Israelis, Palestinians, and a contingent of American mediators, and each group had a specific issue to negotiate: settlements, Jerusalem, final borders, and refugees. We first sat with our own delegation to formulate our position on our issue to decide what we were willing and unwilling to compromise on. I was part of the Israeli delegation discussing settlements, so we received a background brief on the history of the settlements, along with facts and figures, and a list of questions to consider. We also had a map of Judea and Samaria, with all the settlements marked on it and had to decide which settlements, or blocs of settlements, were untouchable and which we were willing to give up in a peace deal.  What seemed relatively easy on the surface became very difficult in actuality.

I joined one of my Israeli delegation representatives at the negotiating table to meet with our two Palestinian counterparts and two American mediators. And believe it or not, we agreed on a deal, where the central component was that Israel would retain the major settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ariel, Ma’ale Adumim and Giv’at Zeev and would trade some land within pre-1967 Israel a la Ehud Olmert’s proposal from September 2008. We agreed to dismantle all outposts and give the Jewish residents of the other settlements the option to remain in their houses and become citizens of a Palestinian state, or receive compensation to move to Israel proper. The Americans proposed a $5 billion fund to provide housing to Jews moving out of the new Palestinian state, and for the Palestinians to buy land, build housing, and for both to build infrastructure.  Afterwards, Ari, aka our American mediator, asked me if those were the real terms of an agreement, is that something I’d be happy with. And I told him, if it meant a real and true peace, then yes, in a heartbeat. If it meant that Jews can live without fearing for their lives in a future Palestinian state the way Israeli Arabs can be Israeli citizens, it’s a deal I’d be willing to make 100% of the time.

Now comes the conflict.  We are years upon years away from an actual deal and a real peace agreement. While I’ll be the first to admit Israel has done plenty wrong in this conflict, Israel can only do so much to push the peace process forward if there’s no real partner, someone on the Palestinian side who is willing and strong enough to make the tough concessions the Israelis have shown they’re willing to make time and time again. Any future peace agreement will be a land-for-peace deal, but look what happened when we gave up land the last time. We evacuated over 8,000 Jews from Gaza and what do we get in return? A state run by Hamas and hundreds of rockets reigning down on southern Israel.

And the sick part is that if the Palestinian Authority does hold elections any time in the future in the West Bank, it’s likely that Hamas would win there too because Fatah has almost no credibility on the street. And it’s the same reasons Hamas won in Gaza, that Fatah officials, including PA Preseident Mahmoud Abbas, continue to steal hundreds of millions of dollars in aid money meant for the Palestinian people, for their education, economy and health care. For anyone who thinks the PA has reformed itself since the days of Yasser Arafat giving his wife a monthly allowance directly from PA funds, check out Friday’s front page story from the Jerusalem Post. (

As if that picture wasn’t sad enough, we heard from Bassam Eid, the director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.  He said many ordinary Palestinians are too scared to speak out against their government, and that’s why their officials can get away with what they do. He reiterated that Palestinian society needs to change from the bottom up, that’s how revolutions happen. The solution can’t be imposed from the top down.

The most infuriating session for me was visiting Neve Shalom, a “coexistence” village near Mod’in and Latrun, where Israeli Jews and Israeli Palestinians live together (Israeli Palestinians are also called Israeli Arabs. They are Arabs with full Israeli citizenship and live inside the pre-1967 borders of Israel). On the surface, it seems like a great idea and as someone who is volunteering with a real Arab/Jewish coexistence group in Haifa, I was excited to hear about their community. The problem is they bill themselves as an Israeli/Palestinian co-existence group, when they’re really not because they only work with Israeli citizens and also don’t deal with Jews or Palestinians living in the West Bank (and yes, there are at least two co-existence dialogue groups between those often-volatile communities).

Our speaker, an Israeli Jew, described people in nearby pubic schools, who she admitted were on the left of the political spectrum, as too “nationalistic, militaristic and too focused on the existence of Israel as a Jewish state”.  She even took issue with the fact that the army visited high schools in the area a couple of years before students would be drafted, as if it’s unreasonable to prepare them for the fact that all Israeli citizens are obligated to serve in the army. It’s the quintessential “blame Israel for all of the world’s evils” – again, there is plenty of blame to go around here, but to pretend that the Palestinians are completely innocent and that every part of the conflict is Israel’s fault is unreasonable and completely illogical.

One thing that was totally crystallized for me over the course of the seminar is the inability for many on the left, and certainly vocal advocates for a Palestinian state, to acknowledge the right for Israel to exist as a Jewish state. If a Jew can say, “I believe the Palestinians deserve a state of their own,” why can’t Arabs say, “I believe Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state”? How is that not a double standard?

This all, of course, was before she said she didn’t think Israel should be a Jewish state, and instead there should be a bi-national state, which is code for an Arab majority erasing the Jewish quality of the state.  But the clincher was when she admitted that there’s really not much difference between Hamas and the “supposedly moderate” Fatah. Not much difference between a terrorist organization whose charter calls for Israel’s destruction, and the political government the world is convinced is a true partner for peace?

One of my favorite sessions featured back-to-back speakers discussing how Israel is viewed around the world, via both the media and the government’s own initiatives and work. We heard from Gwen Ackerman, who covers Israel for Bloomberg News, and David Segal, who is the Chief Policy Advisor to Danny Ayalon, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister. I obviously love hearing from journalists their thoughts and feelings about their work, especially covering a conflict as intense and closely followed as this one. But as much as I enjoyed Gwen’s stories, the speaker I learned the most from was David Segal. Talk about a wealth of information. Whether it was in his opening statement or answering questions, he added the most to my list of new things to research, in terms of Israel’s economic partnerships with countries and organizations around the world, and even with the UN.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Happy Australia Day

A very Happy Australia Day to all - it's hard to believe it's really been five years since that incredible semester in Sydney full of sun, Toohey's Old, pides, ice cream, and plenty of giggling in the Cohen/Goldstein room (thanks Mikey for the photo)

Today we celebrated Brett's 23rd birthday in style. Haifa Hotel manager Joseph cooked up a Tex-Mex dinner, and Gym Instructor Tom Holtz and I contributed the dessert to the celebrations.

One of the other highlights this week was meeting with a delegation that's here from Boston called The Learning Exchange. It's a group of NGO leaders visiting Israel for a week and Haifa for a 3-day seminar, in conjunction with the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Haifa/Boston Connection. They are meeting their NGO counterparts in Haifa to share experiences and learn new approaches towards strengthening the economic development and social justice work in their respective communities. For many, this is their first trip to Israel and to Haifa, and I got to meet with them at their opening event last night.

Thursday, we will be waking up bright and early to get on a 6am bus for the start of a 5-day seminar...and if it wasn't a seminar I was really looking forward to, I'd be royally pissed to get up that early.  Our Otzma seminar is called Sichsuch veh Tikvah, or Conflict & Hope, and is about the Israeli/Arab conflict. We'll be hearing from people from all across the political spectrum - from the left, the right, and from the Arab perspective, and we'll be going on some tours around Judea and Samaria. I think it will be fascinating to be able to see with our own eyes things that we read about in the news. I think it will also be important for some people in the group to learn the real facts about certain issues, as opposed to the way the mainstream media and often anti-Israeli media, reports.

I try to read as much as I can about the current events, and I found this feature from Ha'Aretz particularly interesting, and it's definitely something I'd like to ask different people about during this upcoming seminar. The headline is, "Not all settlers and Palestinians want each other to disappear", and it's about a group called Yerushalom, made up of Jews living in Judea and Samaria, and Palestinians living in surrounding Arab villages, who meet on a regular basis and talk about the things going on in their communities and look for a way to find a common ground and live peacefully together. It's long but very well worth the read.

I'm sure I'll have plenty to write and share after the seminar, so I will post another update when I get back to Haifa next week.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Step Tours and Crazy Sunsets

Many people know about the Bahi’I Gardens and the shops and restaurants in the Carmel Center, but another activity that is unique to Haifa is the Thousand Step Tours that take you from the top of the Carmel to the bottom. There are four paths you can choose, each taking you down a different route through one of the neighborhoods at the bottom. Given the weather has been so beautiful, I thought going on one of these self-guided tours would be a great way to see a new part of the city and to be outside and get some exercise at the same time.

Becca and I went on Thursday afternoon, and it was Take 2 for us. We had set out to do it the week before but neglected to bring our maps and before we even hit the 50 step mark, we lost the official step path and proceeded to make our own route down the mountain. It was definitely fun, but we wanted to do it the right way. This time, we set out to go down the Red path to Wadi Nisnas, an area neither of us had really seen yet. The photo on the left is from the beginning of the Thousand Step Tour, at the top of the first staircase before the four paths split from each other. Descending down the stairs, we walked through some residential streets that were reminiscent of suburbia with all the trees and gardens surrounding some of the houses. As we continued west and down the mountain, we approached the Bahi’I Gardens before cutting back east into Wadi Nisnas. After completing the Red path, not only do I now want to do the other three paths, but I’m planning to take a day to walk up the Thousand Steps from the bottom to the top…talk about some exercise!

Ariel came in for Shabbat and we made a delicious dairy dinner (oh Channel 7…) of a salad with feta cheese, salmon steak, and a noodle kugel, and two different kinds of ice cream for dessert. The three of us went on quite an adventure on Saturday. We took a sherut to Akko and walked along the water en route to the Old City. The stone walls are from the days of the Crusaders and there are paths along the Ramparts to walk on top of them, so we went up to see the views from a bit higher. While up on the walls, we stopped to watch some of the waves crash near a lookout point directly below us. There we saw a highlight of the day – a group of kids were watching the waves, when a big one approached. Most of them ran from the shore, but one kid stayed and got drenched by this huge wave! From there, we walked through the shuk, which on Saturday consisted of mainly Arab businesses, and found a restaurant for lunch. It was this really nice place with arches carved into the stone interior, and we gorged ourselves on pita, hummus and falafel.

Ariel’s friend from summer camp, Amir, met us at the restaurant and wanted to take us somewhere to go walking or hiking. So we started driving north planning on going for a short hike and then to a Crusader fortress. But since we were so far up north, we decided instead to go to Rosh Hanikra, the beautiful cliffs marking Israel’s border with Lebanon along the Mediterranean. We first saw the dramatic scenery from high up at the top of the cliff, and then went down to sea level to sit and watch the waves crash and the water splash on the rocks along the coast. We stayed for sunset, which as you’ll be able to see from my pictures, was all sorts of crazy colors – (so many colors even I could see!).

Amir then took us to his house in Mitzpeh Hila for some tea. As we turned onto his street, there was a poster reading “Gilad, we’re waiting for you at home” – referring to Gilad Schalit, the Israeli soldier who was kidnapped 3 and a half years ago and is being held in captivity by Hamas. I didn’t think much of it as we passed it because many places in Israel have posters in his honor. But as we slowed down to turn into Amir’s driveway, he pointed to the house across the street, he said, “That over there is Gilad Schalit’s house”. He said it rather non-chalantly, but it was very powerful. Gilad’s captivity, and the proposed prisoner exchange with Hamas to bring him home is a controversial, yet gut-wrenching political discussion. And regardless of how I feel about the exchange itself, there’s no way to deny the pain of knowing that one of Israel’s soldiers is being held by Hamas and is living in untold suffering, unable to be visited by the International Red Cross or any other human rights organizations.

But back to happier things – on Sunday, Becca and I went up to Katzrin for two simchas. Eli and Elisheva had a birthday party for Ma’or, who just turned three years old. In addition to the Elmo Cake and lots of very good food and goodie bags for the kids, Ma’or got his hair cut for the first time and got his first kippa and tzitzit to wear. It was also the first time we got to meet their beautiful newborn daughter, Hallel Shira.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

All Sorts of Adventures

I got here just over a week ago, and already, I feel at home. All four of us are getting closer to finalizing our volunteering schedules, and we have a pretty cool range of activities. Brett and Joseph will be working in Akko every Monday because Akko is the partnership city for Texas, so they'll be able to get involved there and get to know a second city. Tom and Brett are helping to coach basketball with Maccabi Haifa's youth league, and all three of them will be volunteering at the zoo as well (clearly the zoo is not the spot for me). And I have my first day of teaching TV production tomorrow, so hopefully that goes well.

In addition to meeting the people we'll be volunteering with, we've had fabulous weather with which to go out and explore the city (and yes, as you can see from some of my pictures, go on an adventure to the Yam in January). Becca and I did quite a bit of walking the other day. There are 4 different walking trails that take you from the top of Haifa and the Carmel Mountain to the bottom of the city by steps (there are about 1000 steps on each trail). We figured it would be a great way to see different neighborhoods in the city and get some exercise at the same time. I knew where the trail began so I didn't bring my map of where the trail went...each of the paths is color coded so I figured it would be marked which way to go. Well, naturally after about 50 steps we lost the steps and just wound up making our own trail, which ended us being a good thing because we found both the Arab markets and the regular shuk, so we stopped off to get some good fruits and veggies, and continued our walk all the way down back to our place.

One of the great things about being here has been meeting the volunteers of the Young Leadership Division of the Haifa/Boston Connection. They've been a great welcoming committee, taking us out to some fun bars around town and even bringing us gift baskets full of food. Liel, a member of the YLD, works as a broadcaster and producer at Radio Haifa 107.5 FM and invited us to the station last night to watch her show. We hung out in the studio with her while she was on air from 10pm-midnight and she talked a bit about us during the program and let us each give a quick shoutout on the air. And as we found out during the middle of the show thanks to Tom Holtz, the entire show is broadcast via webcam online, so next time we go visit, everyone can see us rocking out in the studio.

Today was my first day helping out at an after school community center for Ethiopian olim called Beit Kehilah (literally, the house of the community). It's funny, much like was the case with the gan I worked at in Ashkelon, before we went on a site visit last week, I wasn't planning on working there. But we met with two of the center's directors and advisors and they told us what the center offered, and especially after briefly chatting with some of the kids, I decided it was exactly where I wanted to help. Middle school-age kids come after school at 1:30pm and are served a hot lunch, which is important because many of them come from lower income families who sometimes don't provide proper nutrition. So they eat and then start on their homework and have a small support staff to help them with their work.  They stay until 4:30ish and then the high schoolers come. My role is to help with English homework as needed, and if the kids have already done their homework, just talk about anything and get them to practice speaking in English. This is where I feel so fortunate that my Hebrew is as good as it is because I can switch from English to Hebrew to translate or explain something and then switch back to remind them to use their English. And it's so important for them to practice speaking because a lot of jobs, especially retail or food service jobs, require a certain level of English speaking ability.

Many of the kids I talked to first asked me where I was from and how long I was staying in Israel, and then asked me if I listened to the same American rap they did. And of course, pretty high up on that list is Tupac. I still don't understand how Ethiopian Israelis came to be obsessed with Tupac. I mean I know why I became obsessed with him, but it's really interesting that Israelis who were literally 2 or 3 when he died still know everything about him. So I actually spent a good 15 minutes talking to these 15 year old girls about Tupac...gotta love it!  Another reason I'm excited about volunteering there is the community center receives assistance as part of a project called Shiluvim, which is run by the Haifa/Boston Connection to help the Ethiopian community.  Generally volunteers have a chance to be involved on the committee level or on the grassroots level but not always both. By working with these students twice a week, I'll be able to see exactly how the aims and goals of the Shiluvim project are carried out in the community and how it helps build the future leaders of the community.

We've also had the chance to check out the nighlife in Haifa (yes, there are other places besides Scubar). Thursday night, a few of our other friends from Otzma came to visit and celebrate Jeremy's birthday – dinner in the German Colony followed by seeing HaDag Nahash live in concert. HaDag Nahash is one of my favorite Israeli bands – for those who haven't heard of them or their music, I can describe them as the Israeli version of the Roots, especially in concert, when they have 8 musicians on stage in addition to the two MCs. In addition to their classics and fan favorites such as "The Sticker Song" and "Hine Ani Ba", they played a few songs from their upcoming album, which should be out in the next couple of months.

For those that made it this far, the reward is's the link to my album of pics from the first week in Haifa, enjoy!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Welcome to Haifa

After about a month on the road, I'm finally settling into my new home in Haifa - and I couldn't be more excited.

As you can see from the picture, it's absolutely gorgeous here, and there's amazing scenery to see just about anywhere in the city For those who don't know, Haifa is Israel's third-largest city, located on the Mediterranean about an hour north of Tel Aviv. It's built on the Carmel Mountain, and I've heard its steep streets going up the mountain remind people of San Francisco.

I'll be here for 3 months, until the end of March, with 3 friends from my program: Brett, Joseph, and Tom. We're living in the lower part of the mountain, in between the Kiryat Eliezer and German Colony neighborhoods, and about a 15 minute walk from the beach. There's so much to do and so many things to see, I almost don't know where to begin with all my exploring.

Haifa is Boston's sister city, and so much of the work I'll be doing is in conjunction with the Boston-Haifa Connection, the organization that runs the partnership between the two cities. Along with two of the people who work on the Haifa side of the partnership, I'm going to be working on communications outreach and raising awareness about all the great programs and events going on across Haifa. Hopefully this will include not only revamping their website and translating it into English, but getting out and taking pictures and videos of different events around town and putting together a more updated promotional video to highlight what the partnership does. One of the reasons I'm so excited about this work is I'll get to meet all the different groups coming from Boston to Haifa during the time I'm here, including different birthright/Taglit trips (we met a group from UMass yesterday) and kids from the same Schechter school where I went from K-8.

I'm also going to have the opportunity to help teach television production to high school students. Here in Israel, students have the ability to choose a major in high school and take extra classes in subjects that interest them. So for students interested in communication, they can take classes in film and television, and I'll be helping out with the technical aspect, teaching them about studio and field production, and how to use different computer programs to edit their video projects. I enjoyed getting to teach TV production during the ITRP summer programs at BU, and I'm excited for the opportunity to be able to use my skills and knowledge in TV to not only teach Israeli teenagers, but also get to know them outside the traditional classroom setting.

I realize it's been quite a while since I posted anything, so here's a cliff's notes version of what I've been up to (you can also see the visual diary of my pics on facebook). After the Livnot U'Lehibanot program in Tzfat, I had the opportunity to take part in the first ever conference on Israel-based education. It was held over 3 days in Jerusalem, and I learned a tremendous amount about the challenges Israel educators face in teaching about Israel. It's so important to me that Jews all around the world, and particularly American Jews, have a connection with Israel. Of course there's the old saying: 2 Jews, 3 opinions, so we're not going to agree on everything, especially when it comes to politics, but there's so much more to Israel than politics, and it's crucial Jewish day schools and Hebrew schools work to do a better job of incorporating Israel education into the curriculum. Especially with the incredibly high rate of intermarriage among American Jews, it's important to foster a connection to Israel and to teach why Israel is so crucial to Jews all around the world.

After the conference, I spent a couple of days with Reut and her family in Netanya - we had a great time wandering around Yafo and Tel Aviv, and watching Home Alone on Christmas Eve! I spent the following Shabbat in Katzrin with Eli, Elisheva, Ma'Or and a whole gang of hooligans, and then Becca came! It’s been a few years since we’ve traveled together, but true to Cohen family tradition, we quickly had gigglefests, and I’m sure there will still be many more along the way.

Becca and I spent the first two days in Tel Aviv wandering around and doing lots of eating. We took advantage of the great weather and a trusty city map to walk all over on Monday, going to Dizengoff Center, the Jabotinsky Institute Museum and the Etzel Museum, the Shuk HaCarmelit, and of course, a café for lunch before making our way to the beach to relax for a bit and meeting up with Ariel for dinner. We spent the next day in Jerusalem, taking a tour of the Kotel Tunnels, the underground extension of the Western Wall located underneath the streets of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, truly one of the most fascinating archaeological findings anywhere in Israel.

We spent Shabbat in Efrat with Ephraim and Batya, which was great. Somehow they hadn't known about my obsession with ice cream, and since Batya was preparing a milk meal for Shabbat lunch, she suggested we pick up some ice cream that we could have for dessert. Ephraim picked up 4 pints of Haagen Daas ice cream and the 4 of us nearly polished off all of them...what a great way to spend Shabbat!

So that's what's going on in a here for pictures from my vacation, and here for a few first pics from Haifa!