Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Three Days in Nissan (Day Two At the Airport)

One of the many things I have to be grateful for is that over the course of my life, I – and now we – have made some amazing friends. Included in this ever-increasing list are Jeff and June Glazer. They made aliyah in grand style: they sold their house in Teaneck and took to the road, driving around the U.S., all the while regaling us with pictures and tales of their adventures, before boarding the Nefesh B’Nefesh winter flight last December. So when the next of the never ending stream of Teaneck olim, the Reubens, were set to arrive, of course, Jeff was the one to organize the trip to the airport to greet them. The plan was for the five of us (Jeff, June, Barbara, me, and Oriyah, the daughter of another of our Teaneck families) to meet at the very tall Sheraton hotel on King George St. near Agron St. and take the munit (taxi) which Jeff had hired to the airport. Barbara and I arrived a few minutes before nine; Jeff and June had already arrived, and – surprise, surprise – Jeff was engaged in a conversation with……..one of John Hagee’s entourage, the same group we had seen the day before. (It seems that the Hageeites were among the many, many tour groups staying at the Sheraton.) Soon the four of us were talking to several couples who were waiting to board their buses for yet another day of morning to night travel throughout the length and breadth of our admittedly tiny Land.
I am personally weary of the endless prattle about the motivation of these Christian individuals and groups that profess love for our people and our nation. That’s because I am a professional pragmatist. If the boat I’m on is leaking and I’m up to my skivvies in water, I would never question the motives of someone heaving a life raft in my direction. Perhaps it’s part of Hashem’s plan for me; leave it at that. However, when you engage in conversation with Christians who have taken their time and money to come here, you generally come away with a sense that, for whatever their reasons, they truly love our Land. They are truly interested in why one person authentically from The Heart of Texas or another who has spent his life leaving The Bronx would finally come to live near the Old City in Jerusalem. When you tell them that you have simply Come Home, they look at you with admiration, not with a blank look. I think that, somehow, they do understand.
Oriyah was slightly delayed, but she did show up, and the five of us got into our munit and off we went. Barbara had actually been back to the Ben-Gurion airport in order to meet her Sar-El group, but Jeff, June, and I had not been back since we arrived in Israel, they in December, me in July. And it is a strange sensation, going to an airport when you are not in fact going anwhere. It was only later that we all realized that we were having the same emotion: Thank G-d we don’t have to leave!!! We were not experiencing that feeling of loss that most or many Jews feel when their brief trip to Israel is coming to an end, and they are preparing to “go home.” We could stay! We could get back in a sherut, a cab, a bus and really go back home – to Jerusalem, or a Little Bit East thereof! What a glorious feeling! You will never know just how glorious until you can experience it yourself. For Barbara and me, we know full well that we will be back in The States sooner or later: to visit Barbara’s mother, to see family, friends and places, to go shopping. But not just yet. Right now, we are too busy living in the Land and experiencing the sensation of Being Home to get on a plane.
Planes! We were heading to Ben-Gurion to greet Hedda and Michael Reuben and Zaide, who is Hedda’s father. Now most Jewish men, if they live long and they have resisted the temptation along the way to murder their children, will arrive at that moment in time when they are grandfathers, sabaim, or zaides to their grandchildren. But this man had been, by general consent and acclimation, everyone in Teaneck’s zaide (you can’t “run” for this position, just as in American politics you can’t “run” to be nominated for Vice President. It takes a special person to be the Zaide for an entire community). But Zaide was not getting any younger, and he had been ill, and the Reuben’s aliyah had been postponed several times, until now, when they were at last on their way, they had become known as the “sof sof” (finally!) Reubens.
Because of the timing, the Reubens were not arriving on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight, meaning a full plane of olim, NBN staff, and various and sundry dignitaries, with a small farewell ceremony and a HUGE welcoming ceremony upon landing. (I never got to write about our arrival because it was almost a month after we got here that we were successfully hooked up with a computer and internet access, and by then I was on to other matters.) In between these full flights, NBN has “group flights” on which they purchase fifty or so seats on a regular El Al flight. So while there are NBN personnel to assist the olim, most of the newbies don’t get the huge welcome which they richly deserve. But not the sof sof Reubens! What a reception they were going to get! In addition to the five of us, there were the Wimpfheimers, a Teaneck family who had made aliyah about three and a half years ago, and several other friends and old school mates of Hedda. Then there were the kids. Both of the Reuben’s children, Tehila and Yair, had previous made aliyah and they and Yair’s wife and baby were there……and all of Tehilla and Yaer’s friends, with banners and posters and smiles. The Reuben’s rooting section was probably larger than the contingent of olim getting off the plane!
We had at least an hour before the olim would complete their paper work and clear customs, time aplenty to have some coffee, chat with old friends, and make new ones. (Barbara discovered that one of Hedda’s friends had been in her youth group at Beth Shalom in Rochester forty five years ago.) Time aplenty for a flood of memories about what it was like to make aliyah the previous year: the packing, the moving, the trip to the airport, the flight, the reception, but mainly the emotion. We had done it. In fact, everyone in our group, young and old had done it: join the ever-growing but still small number of American Jews who had escaped the blandishments of Exile. So we all understood, and we all knew we understood what this moment was about.
Sof sof, the olim were starting to come through the exit. Sof sof, we could see the Reubens. They had so much luggage with them; had they left anything behind? They were remarkably cheerful, considering that they had not slept in several days, what with orchestrating an Open House on Sunday for their still unsold home and then getting ready for the flight. I am certain that having a welcoming committee waiting for you makes any such journey more rewarding. Zaide seemed to be OK; NBN had purchased an additional seat so he could have an oxygen tank on the plane with him. Many hugs, many digital pictures, many warm words of welcome, perhaps a few tears. And then, sof sof, it was time for Hedda, Michael, and Zaide to get into the munit (paid for by NBN) and head off to their new home in Beersheva. Thanks to their children, it was all set up, even having a phone and internet connection. I guess the secret is to have your kids make aliyah before you!
Thanks to my gregarious wife, we got a ride back to Jerusalem with a couple (the woman had gone to school with Hedda at Bar-Ilan) who needed to go to a specific supermarket in the Givat Shaul section which caters to an Ashkenazik crowd (Pesach!) On the way we got a fascinating tour of side streets that wend their way through the Jerusalem forests and somehow lead to Givat Shaul. We had left the airport as soon as the Reubens had departed, yet before we got dropped off, I could see Oriyah standing on Kanfei Nesharim St., using her cell phone. Maybe someday I will find out how she beat us back to Jerusalem.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Three Days in Nissan (Day One Olam Hamitnadvim

DAY ONE: MONDAY, APRIL 7 (NISSAN 2) “OLAM HAMITNADVIM” There was a time back in Teaneck when Natania, like other kids going to Jewish Day Schools, was scrounging around for “chesed hours” (time spent on philanthropic projects required by the schools for promotion or graduation). We had to arrive at something which she would want to do (not a lot!) and that we could get her to. Our solution: Tomche Shabbos! This is an organization that arranges for discrete delivery of food for Shabbat to needy families in the Bergen County community. Every Tuesday evening, the packing, which took less than an hour, was done at a synagogue about a ten minute drive from our house. Perfect! So for several months, I schlepped Natania up to B’nei Yeshuran; and because it made no sense to drop her off, come home, and come back forty minutes later, and because I wanted to set a good example, I joined her for the project. The guy in charge, who was named Boris, supervised the six or eight youngsters and one or two adults who would take quantities of onions, fruits, vegetables, bread, grape juice, whatever was there, and drop them in baskets placed on shelves around the room. I admit to having a certain visceral pleasure in this activity. I was literally feeding the hungry. Somebody else may have donated a thousand dollars to the organization, but I was taking a cauliflower in my two hands and putting it in the basket which would be delivered to someone’s door to be cooked and eaten. The several months passed by and Natania had done her hours. We stopped going – I’m sure to be replaced by other “needy” kids – and I lost out on this visceral feeling.
Here in The Land, there seems to be even more of these Tomche Shabbos-type activities: volunteer projects to help the needy. And, thank G-d, here in The Land, there seems to be armies of volunteers to do the work – especially in Jerusalem. Yes, there are students from schools, yeshivas, and seminaries; but, in addition, there are scores of retirees, many of whom are Anglos, willing and able to help out.
Among the recruits to this force of mitnadvim (volunteers) are friends, Beth and David, who have been living a little bit east of Yerushalayim a year longer than us. Beth has learned zero Hebrew, but she has racked up more “chesed hours” than anyone else I know. Every Monday, they are working for an organization called “A Package from Home.” It appeared that more volunteers were needed on this particular Monday – the last effort prior to Pesach – so they recruited Barbara, who, always willing to share, asked me if I wanted to come along. Now Barbara, if I haven’t mentioned it already, spent three weeks volunteering on an army base – part of a program called “Sar-El” – on which she packed medical supplies and painted walls, while others cleaned out an underground hospital which hasn’t been used since the most recent military activity in Lebanon two years ago. She also has volunteered at a soup kitchen on recent Fridays (while I was home making Shabbat soup for us). So she had a certain amount of moral suasion to convince me to go with her. Besides, I was curious to see what the world of volunteers was like here in The Land. We agreed to meet our friends on a specified 174 bus, and we traveled together into Jerusalem where we got on another bus going to a neighborhood called Katamon. Along the way, I got a crash course on the organization I was going to help.
Like many things, there is a history here. And like many things, there is something I call a “moment of decision.” Some of you (at least the people in Teaneck) know about Clara Hammer, “The Chicken Lady,” a woman who was simply standing on line (for those of you who don’t appreciate the linguistic subtlety, while most Americans stand “in line;” because I’m from New York, I stand “on line.”) waiting to purchase her Shabbat chicken, when she realized that the family who was in front of her on/in that line in that butcher shop was getting almost inedible chicken scraps because they were too poor to buy a real chicken. Mrs. Hammer decided to pay for that family’s chicken for that Shabbat, the next Shabbat, and every Shabbat. And, because there were so many other families in similar situations, Mrs. Hammer decided to become “The Chicken Lady,” soliciting funds to provide chickens for hundreds of needy families in Jerusalem.
Let me now introduce you to Barbara Silverman, like Clara Hammer, an American olah. It seems that in 1985, she and her husband were driving past a roadblock near the Arab village of Ramallah. There are many, including some Israelis, who thoughts on passing such a roadblock, put up to prevent terrorists from gaining access to heavily populated areas, would dwell on the “plight” of the “Palestinians” (although, in truth, the roadblocks and road closings are a serious difficulty for many Arabs who are just trying to get through their day). Most of us would be grateful for the soldiers protecting our lives, but would leave it at that. But Mrs. Silverman took it one step further. It occurred to her that while she would be enjoying her Shabbat day of rest in the comfort and safety of Rehavia (one of Jerusalem’s nicest neighborhoods), a group of young men would be standing on duty at this machsom in the heat of the summer, making do with what passes for cuisine in the I.D.F. And so Barbara Silverman came back before that Shabbat to that machsom with enough home cooked food for six Shabbat meals. When she came back for the following Shabbat, she found out that there were more hayalim in another machsom just down the road. It wound up with her preparing and bringing forty eight meals every week for years, until the ID.F. asked her to stop because the trip had become too dangerous for unarmed civilians. But you can’t keep an intrepid soul like Barbara Silverman down for long! After a few year’s hiatus to take care of family matters, she began her current project: to provide every week “A Package from Home” for the many bodedim and bodedot, “lone soldiers”, young men and women who come on their own from across the globe to volunteer and serve in the first Jewish army since the time of Bar Kochba. She began this project in her apartment in Rehavia, only to have it overwhelm her living space and threaten to destroy her furniture. Recently, the project has been on the move, and Beth, David, Barbara and I were on our way to its most recent home, a matnas (community center) in Katamon, which we finally located by virtue of walking around the neighborhood.
Here in a small room was a table laden with merchandise, more boxes on the floors, plastic bags all around, packers and soldiers milling around, from which seeming chaos would come an hour or so later over 400 packages ready for delivery. The procedure was simple enough: take a plastic bag, put in it a package of socks, a package of underwear, a tee shirt, several kinds of snacks, some toiletries, and some sheets of paper containing messages of encouragement in at least three languages. How this was done reminded me of shul kiddushes I have witnessed: find a plate and a fork, reach over several people to spear a few pieces of herring, go around another mass of surging people to locate a piece of kugel, walk around the table to get some pastry, balance this carefully as you head over to where you think they might have some Scotch, find a napkin, etc. In our situation, a dozen or so people were performing a dance, weaving in and out around the small tables laden with stuff, sometimes improvising a relay where a bag might be handed from person A who was near the socks to person B who stood by the snacks to person C who would flip in some shampoo or a toothbrush to person D who had the letters to person E who would tie the bag and place it in one of several piles. How the counting as done, I couldn’t figure out, but finally we had packed the requisite number of bags, and we were done. People began to leave, stuff got packed up, the floor was swept, and the room became quiet.
At this point, I approached Shira Gilor, who has served as the program coordinator for the last several years. I told her that I had just finished a course in grant writing, and before I started charging for my services, I was willing to write a few proposals gratis to polish my skills. Well, did I feel like Santa Claus! Shira’s face lit up; she told me that she had wanted to apply for a grant, but she didn’t have the time, didn’t know how to do it, and didn’t know where to apply. So, in effect, I was “hired,” starting after Pesach.
Our farewells said, Barbara and I followed Beth and David out the door, down the block, through the neighborhood, to Beit Lechem Street in the German Colony. Our destination? A tiny (I mean tiny) shop that, according to David, makes the best falafel in town. One thing about David Gordon: he knows his falafel. We had a simple, inexpensive meal and continued our perambulation through the German Colony back to the center of town, where we stopped at the new Cup o’ Joe for an Israeli “Iced Coffee” (not the same as a plebian “kafe kar” [cold coffee]). At this point, none of us was in a hurry. David was considering a pre-Pesach haircut, Beth had a little time before her next tzedekah project, and Barbara and I had several hours until our next appointment: we needed to get pre-approval for a larger mortgage (the dollar has shrunk in value; the price of real estate throughout Israel has risen because the economy keeps growing). We ran a few errands and headed to our mortgage banker in the Bank Leumi on King George St. There in front of the Mashbir (Israel’s first “department store”) was an enormous contingent of Christians, mostly from America, supporters of Rev. John Hagee, who had come to The Land to show their support of our beleaguered country. Barbara spoke with a few of them briefly before we went in to see Dafna, our banker, who had our much larger request pre-approved on the spot.
Finally, it was time to head back to Ma’ale Adumim. We waited for our bus and headed off. But Jaffa Street ahead of us was blocked up. The large contingent we had seen before was now marching a thousand strong through the midrechov (promenade) on Ben Yehuda and on to I know not where. My initial reaction was one of annoyance. But as I watched this demonstration with its banners “Israel, we support you,” I had a change of heart. Usually, if traffic is stopped in Jerusalem, it is either because of a chefets chashood (a suspicious object; i.e, a bomb threat) or because some foreign dignitary – who is most likely here to convince us to divide our City and relinquish our land – is passing by. Here were a thousand people who have no direct stake in the outcome of our conflict with our neighbors coming to offer us their encouragement. Let them march. In fact, we would meet them again the next day, another day in Nissan.