Happy Anniversary to Us

We have just celebrated our first anniversary! It is now a full 12 months since we made aliyah. We left the U.S. on August 31, on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight, and arrived here on Sept. 1, shortly before Rosh Hashanah. We have come full cycle, having had the privilege of experiencing each holy day of the Jewish calendar in the Holy Land.  An incredible milestone! When we stepped off the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, it was with excitement and anticipation of the future.  We made this move with the utmost conviction that it was not only the right thing for us to do, but the only place for us to be.

It says in the Torah that Eretz Yisrael is acquired through challenges and just about everyone who we spoke to here confirmed that this is indeed true. So we understood that it would be best to remember the Jewish maxims “kol hatchalot kashot” – all beginnings are hard, and “gam zeh ya’avor” – this too shall pass, and most importantly, to remember that this is part of Hashem’s plan for us, too.  Thank G-d, it’s been without too much trial and tribulation, so far.  We have gotten accustomed to many different aspects of life in Israel; many facts of life here we’ve made our peace with; and there are things that we realized we can live with/without for now and look to change/acquire later on.

When we first arrived, discovering that stores and offices often close for a few hours in the middle of the day, close early or are totally closed on certain days was a bit of a shocker, but now we regularly take these schedules into consideration when making plans. This means that several weeks ago, because I knew the post office would be closed in the middle of the day, I waited till later in the afternoon to go, when I was sure it would open up again. Unfortunately I picked the day when it closed for the day in the early afternoon. But at least I could now accept having to go back again the next day with equanimity.  Now, I’m also a lot more comfortable going food shopping and usually have a better idea of what I am buying. My first foray into the supermarket was difficult. Despite the benefit of having most of my Judaic subjects taught in (biblical) Hebrew as I was growing up, the language, the different packaging, and the many products which were not quite like those we were accustomed to back in the States made it a trying experience. Fortunately, I can navigate the supermarket aisles now.

We’ve been told that it takes somewhere between 3-5 years to fully acclimate to life in Israel. I’m sure it does. There are many parts of the acclimation process that we’re still working on and even those things that we’ve gotten accustomed to, still feel “different”. One can’t expect to relinquish a whole life’s worth of habits and customs over night. But at the same time, I don’t think I’ve referred to New Jersey as “back home” in quite a while. It was very hard at first and I had to tell myself repeatedly, don’t say “back home” since this is your true home, the true home for the Jewish people. New York and New Jersey were places to live, but now we’re home.  So even though I have an affinity for the States and care about what transpires there, somewhere along the way, one chapter of my life ended and another began.  NJ became my past, Israel my home and future. Our dear daughter started medrasha (seminary) in Yerushalayim last week, as an Israeli; our dear son has just started his fourth year of yeshiva in Yerushalayim; and we have a nice circle of new friends in Rehovot, and have reconnected with many old friends who made aliyah years ago. So, yes, this is now home. It’s truly been a miraculous year.

As we approached our anniversary, I had a desire to say the Shehechiyanu prayer, much as I did when we first got here, to thank G-d for keeping us alive and bringing us to this place and time. Not having inquired into the propriety of doing so, I sufficed with again realizing how much our being here means to me, with understanding the depth of my gratitude.  I am so amazed at how much our lives have changed, how far we’ve come, and how much richer we are for it.  To all our friends and family who are still living “away from home” – if we could do it, you could do it too. Please come and join us. Hashem is anxiously waiting for you here. To make it easier, He personally arranged aliyah assistance for you through Nefesh B’Nefesh. It is time to come home.

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A greener in Israel

I often think about what it would be like if I had moved to a different country, say England or France, instead of Israel. Would it be easier because I’d know that the country has a long history and therefore a different way of life? Would I accommodate myself easily to the differences, forgive the English their foibles, and take my newfound inadequacies in stride? In England you have to look the “wrong” way when crossing the street, a truck is called a lorry, and the last time I was there, about 10 years ago, discovered that the English do not use paper plates except for picnics (although that may have changed by now). Moving to France would necessitate my quickly becoming fluent in French although I’d be able to rely on my hubby for a bit, who not only majored in French, but spent a year in France as well.  Different currency, different attitudes, and all the other aspects of life that make France French and England English would all have to be learned. Would I, for the most part, expect that and take it all in stride?

Somehow, when making aliyah we are surprised to find out that we have to learn how to live all over again. Perhaps it’s because the country is so westernized, or because there’s so much English used, or so many American olim here, or because we’ve visited before and didn’t notice (or overlooked) all the different ways things are done here.  Or because it’s frustrating to feel so “green.”  Being a “greener” only applies, we think, to people who came to the United States from “the old country”, not to 21st Century Anglos making aliyah.

Not too long after we get off the boat/airplane, we realize that acclimating is more than just learning Hebrew, shopping in shekels and kilograms, and memorizing one’s Teudat Zehut (identity card) number, which is asked for more than one’s drivers license or social security number. I still haven’t memorized mine. There are myriad little aspects of daily life and the larger one of “knowing the system, the way things work” that we take for granted which are vastly  different here  and require adjustment – after we get over the shock about just how different things can be.

The first few weeks post aliyah are often very hectic as one tries to settle in and take care of opening a bank account, registering with one of the four health insurers, visiting Misrad Ha’p’nim (Interior Ministry) and Misrad Ha’klita (Absorption Ministry), obtaining cell phone service, and such.  “The shock” began for us when we were made aware that Israel is not open 24/6 (or even 10/6) as we are used to in the U.S.  Besides just about everything being closed on Shabbat – which is what we came here for – most offices are not open all day every day and in fact are often closed afternoons and  one or more days during the week. Misrad Ha’klita in Rehovot is not open at all on Tuesday and our bank is not open on Friday! And, if they are open morning and afternoon, they may very well be closed for a couple of hours midday. Here, in Rehovot, many stores are closed Tuesday afternoons. If you haven’t checked all the different schedules beforehand, finding out that the office/service that you need is not open when you are ready to go is quite an eye-opener.

Another interesting thing we discovered is that when signing up for health insurance the first stop is the post office. Yes, that’s right, the post office, where more transactions take place than just mailing letters and packages. The post office can be used instead of a bank  where you can open up an account (although that’s not generally recommended), as a place to change money from one currency to the next, pay bills, and of course, pay the initial fee to sign up for your health insurance. In the U.S. there are generally stanchions which delineate the line. When you get to the banks, post office, or government office in Israel, be prepared to take a number and sit down to wait your turn. But how do you get a ticket when you don’t understand which line you need to be on?

And, while it may seem like a trivial item, Israeli phone numbers still annoy me. In the U.S. the seven digit number is split between the first three numbers – the “exchange” which covers a particular area and the last four which make it your personal number.  In Israel the numbers after the area code are either broken up differently or, more likely, are one long 7- or 10-digit string, making it much harder to read and remember the number at a glance.  (Many businesses have only 6 digits, and very often an asterisk followed by about four numbers will be a shortcut to dialing.)

A lot of the acclimation process, however, seems to be one of attitude. My daughter exclaims to her friends that she’s not bored here because it’s a different culture. She finds it exciting and interesting.  My son commented on shopping in Rehovot. He thinks it’s much more of a pleasant adventure going into all the little shops along Rechov Herzel,  than walking into Shoprite, a large U.S. supermarket (although Israel has some large supermarkets, too) for one item and coming out six hours later. He points to my husband  – walking around in shorts, sandalim (sandals) and an almost 10 gallon hat which he bought for 10 shekels ( about $3.40 these days) to keep the sun off – who, ever the people person,  has a chavaya, an adventure, wherever he goes.

Being prepared, knowing what to expect, is important before one sets out on any trip, no less when one makes a major change in life, as aliyah is. More important, however, is one’s attitude; my children keep pointing this out to me.

Oh, and then there’s dealing with military time – but that’s for another time!

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This is MY TERRITORY

When one talks about being American, Canadian, Israeli, British, Ethiopian, Russian, etc., it’s very often a cultural identification, rather than a geographic one. The longer one has lived in their country of origin, the more ingrained the cultural references, habits, ways of thinking and relating to people and the world become.  So, when one finds oneself smack dab in the middle of Israel, by their own volition, is one obliged to become Israeli? Is one automatically required to shed their frames of reference and take on Israeli outlooks and mannerisms for everything from what’s considered polite and acceptable behavior to the Israeli way of washing floors? Or does being Israeli (as that’s how the government recognizes olim) simply mean having an allegiance to the country, adapting and slowly adopting as much as possible and necessary while retaining your core essence? In a very humorous website, How to be Israeli , blogger Maya, who made aliyah from the U.S.  in early 2008, gives her take on the idiosyncrasies of Israeli life and culture as viewed by an American on everything from the Israeli version of a mop to the correct pronunciation of the name of a major Israeli supermarket chain to the difference between what is considered rude and polite in Israel vs. the States.

How hard or easy one’s acculturation process is probably depends upon one’s like/dislike for their country of origin as well as their personal attitude towards change. I would also venture that the more one is “moving to Israel,” rather than away from their home country, also plays a great part in their willingness and ease of adaptation.  A very interesting article entitled “A local girl in the IDF”  includes a letter from former Fresno, California resident Darrow Pierce, whose (progressive) opinions of Israel changed as a result of making aliyah and joining the IDF. She concludes:

I once heard that moving to Israel is like a marriage — you give, take, fight, love, disagree, compromise, and work on your relationship with the country and the people. For some it doesn’t work out, and others are happy for the rest of their lives. I don’t know what’ll happen after I discharge from the army, but for now, my marriage is going great.

If I was to compare making aliyah to marriage, I would say that a great determining factor as to whether or not you succeed is your level of commitment. Going  into a marriage – do you expect it to work and to work it – do you believe that you are marrying your bashert (destined) or do you tell yourself that if things don’t work out there’s  always the option of divorce? Or in terms of aliyah, did you come to Israel because this is the place you want to be, where Hashem (G-d) has prepared a place for you, or do you expect that if things don’t work out, you can always return to your home country? The better you are prepared emotionally, the more realistic your expectations, and the more willing you are to weather  and work through the tough times, the greater chance of success  you give your marriage/aliyah.  If the option of divorce/return is on the table before you’ve entered the relationship/made aliyah, IMHO, this mode of thinking makes one less likely to stick with it and overcome the challenges; you’ve most likely undermined the success of the venture before you’ve even started out.

Maya, in her post “Aliyah after the honeymoon,” uses the marriage analogy as well:

The aliyah-as-marriage analogy works in many other ways, too: you must get to know each other first, you must be committed, you must discuss money and how to raise the kids and where to live. (I bet that the percentage of people who “divorce” aliyah over financial concerns is at least as high as the percentage of marriages that dissolve over money.) I once heard someone say that the best indication of how happy you will be in a marriage is how happy you are out of it. In other words, if you are miserable, don’t expect marriage (or aliyah) to transform you. We are responsible for our own happiness. As I waited for aliyah, I reminded myself to practice enjoying life then so that I would be able to enjoy life in Israel.

Reflecting on my previous relocation from New York to New Jersey, I realized that after having lived in New York for many years, I didn’t feel like a New Jersey-ite all of a sudden.  My body may have crossed state lines, but I considered myself a New Yorker for quite a while afterward. I was more interested to learn what Mayor Bloomberg was doing to/for New York City than about anything that was going on in New Jersey. Truthfully, I had no frame of reference or understanding about local and state politics at that point and I wasn’t sure I cared. Over time, however, that slowly changed. I don’t know when it happened, but at some point I stopped thinking of myself as a New Yorker.  I could no longer vote in New York State and my interest and connection dwindled; New Jersey became my home.

I was therefore quite pleasantly surprised not long ago, to realize the degree of ownership I feel here already. When listening to Binyamin Netanyahu (I’ve not gotten to the familiar “Bibi” stage yet) address Congress recently, I took umbrage when he magnanimously offered major land concessions in return for “piece” – the little piece we would keep.  What right does he have to offer so much of Yehuda and Shomron (Judea and Samaria), I said to myself – it’s my land and I don’t approve!

Most wonderful, however, was hearing my daughter, Tova, express similar sentiments to her friend who was visiting from the States. Trying to arrange a meeting place in Yerushalayim  over the phone, her friend was anxious about traveling in the area – it wasn’t her territory. Tova, trying to give directions, responded – “well, it’s my territory.” And, the other day, a friend, still stateside, asked Tova if she was bored. “Bored!” she exclaimed. “It’s a different culture!” I’m so glad she’s embracing and enjoying the differences.

As much as making aliyah involves learning a different language and different way of life, it is also just the opposite – it’s living in a country where everybody speaks the same language and runs on the same calendar as you do. It’s the most comfortable place to be Jewish.  For the first time we truly feel that we’re in the place where we belong.  With time the rest will come, but we’ve already got the most important part.

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Cottage cheese and false gods

The price of cottage cheese here in Israel has become a hot topic. The Israeli financial newspaper, Globes, had done some investigative reporting recently and in an article entitled We’re overpaying for more than just cottage cheese put the spotlight on the high cost of dairy products , other foods, and consumer goods and services, as well as providing a price and salary comparison with other countries. As a result, Israeli resident Yitzhak Elrov decided to do something about it and called for a boycott of cottage cheese for the month of July. Apparently, this has made it all the way to the K’nesset, where an investigation into the cost of dairy products is being launched. And some supermarkets have even reduced the price of cottage cheese, letting their suppliers know they expect them to do the same.

Because we olim are particularly sensitive to the disparity in prices for many products between Israel and our home countries, these articles have been cause for much comment on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s email list. Of course, if there is no economic reason for the high cost of many of these products, then they should be investigated; true market forces and competition should be allowed to help bring down the cost of living for all of us in Israel. Most commentators offered their take on the veracity of the article and were also sure to mention that although finances are of significant concern, making aliyah is not a financial decision.

To quote a few olim:

From IP
In the UK, students leave university carrying a huge debt of student loans – that wasn’t mentioned in the article. Neither was the relative cost of health care in Europe, the US and Israel.

It’s easy to pick and choose individual prices to make your point, just as the international media pick and choose their “facts” about Israel. You can be technically “accurate” without being “truthful”.

From HB
It is certainly true that some products here have inflated prices that would come down if more competition were allowed – and something really does need to be done about this – and not just for cottage cheese. And it’s also true that wages in many cases are lower here than they should be – and something ultimately has to give there as well. But when you really factor in everything, there isn’t the great difference that so many people describe. And while people here complain about going into minus, I know too many Americans who have their own version of minus – just going into credit card debt.

All in all, it’s great to be here in Israel, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

From RA
…take the good with the bad and keep the eye on the prize, which is NOT the cheapest cost of living, or the highest average level of education, or the cleanliness of the cities for that matter. The prize is the land itself and the Jewish mishpacha that is of every possible origin, every look, every walk of life, and of wide range of religious observance.”

From MB
I am clear about what I have come here for, I came for the people of Israel. During a few months baaretz I’ve been successful if I can say, meeting excellent Israeli people. That’s the value I look for. It’s far away from monetary values. It provides me with a feeling of fulfillment, with a venue of self-expression; I recognize myself in these people … In short, I came for the tribe and my place in it.

I still miss some of those things more easily or cheaply acquired in the States. It has taken/is taking a while for me to get used to “making do” with substitutes or paying “premium prices” for some goods. Other items are cheaper, particularly fruits and vegetables which are very inexpensive compared to those in the U.S. So, it’s a mixed bag. And, even though people who say ‘you have to realize that Israel is not America and the sooner you get used to that idea, the easier your absorption here’ are pretty much on the mark, changing one’s mindset takes time.

However, we must remember that money can be a false god and believing that living in Israel is more financially risky than elsewhere is to believe in the false god of country or currency, and not in the G-d of Israel. Consider that the world is losing confidence in the dollar as its reserve currency:

Why the Dollar’s Reign Is Near an End
Finally, there is the danger that the dollar’s safe-haven status will be lost. Foreign investors—private and official alike—hold dollars not simply because they are liquid but because they are secure. The U.S. government has a history of honoring its obligations, and it has always had the fiscal capacity to do so.

But now, mainly as a result of the financial crisis, federal debt is approaching 75% of U.S. gross domestic product. Trillion-dollar deficits stretch as far as the eye can see. And as the burden of debt service grows heavier, questions will be asked about whether the U.S. intends to maintain the value of its debts or might resort to inflating them away.

Even individual states are losing faith in the dollar:

Tenn. Joins States Considering Alternate Currency Legislation
According to the text of Senate Joint Resolution 98, Ketron’s purpose in initiating such a proposal is “to create a special joint committee to study whether the State of Tennessee should adopt a currency to serve as an alternative to the currency distributed by the Federal Reserve System in the event of a major breakdown of the Federal Reserve System.”

…The state governments of South Carolina and Virginia have passed their respective versions of the law, and both houses of the Utah legislature have passed a bill approving gold and silver as legal tender (it awaits the Governor’s signature or veto). Colorado, Montana, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Georgia, and Washington are also considering doing the same thing.

Europe has its own problems, too.

Perfect Financial Storm Shaping Up for Europe, U.S.
Meanwhile, the IMF, whose disgraced former president, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was instrumental in helping the eurozone finesse the bailouts of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, is rudderless and likely to have considerably less clout. The G8 countries are meeting this week to try to cobble out yet another way to buy time for Europe, but they will be distracted by a burgeoning debt problem on the other side of the Atlantic: the spectacle of the United States sinking into insolvency as it runs out of money to borrow. Greece, after all, has been sunk by indebtedness of around 150 percent of the GDP; can the USA, whose debt has reached roughly 100 percent of its own GDP, be far behind?

The British Health Care system needs a bailout:

Germany offers to treat a million British patients
German hospitals are offering to clear the entire NHS waiting list after the Department of Health opened the floodgates for Britons to seek treatment abroad.

Health bosses in Germany yesterday urged Britain to send up to a million patients for surgery this year – which would clear almost every person waiting for an operation.

Now, consider Israel – it has weathered the recent economic crises much better than many other countries, it’s a high-tech leader that has made possible much of the computer and cellphone technology we have today, has recently discovered huge reserves of oil and gas it can begin to develop (thank you G-d), and all this in only 63 years, all while fighting constant battles for survival. I ask you, which country is better poised for future growth?

So, while there are problems to be addressed, inequities to be rectified, and issues to be resolved, I’ll bank on the land that Hashem has not forgotten. Because He did promise us a rose garden here; we just have to till the soil a bit while we watch out for the thorns (false gods included).

Will I eat cottage cheese next month? Probably. But I didn’t come here for the cheese.

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The blessing of completeness

Dear Family & Friends,

I would like to give you a little more insight into our lives here, so this post is a bit different than my previous ones.

First, I want to say that, B”H (Thank G-d), we are deep down happy here. Despite the seeming difficulties involved in transitioning to a different culture and language and getting ourselves settled, we are comfortable here in a way that we had not been before. Maybe it has to do with something I read in the OU Israel Center’s Torah Tidbits (issue 957, page 19) by Rabbi Yosef Wolicki of Beit Shemesh entitled: CHIZUK-and-IDUD-for-Olim-not-yet-Olim-respectively, on why Birkat Kohanim, the blessing of the Kohanim, is not said outside of Israel on a daily basis, as it is in Israel.

The third blessing adds the element Shalom, which includes Sh’Leimut [completion]; that we should achieve the feeling of completeness that comes with a fully integrated personality.

In Israel, these blessing[s] are part of our daily lives… We don’t have to accommodate to someone else’s calendar. Judaism is our public face as well as our private one. There is no dichotomy. We left our split personalities behind us. Here we are whole.  Here we are complete. Here we receive G-d’s blessings every day of the year.

Perhaps this is why, despite the regional politics and security concerns here, Israelis are happy.  A recent YNet News article, Israel ranks 7th in ‘happiness index’,  reported on the results of  a survey of 124 nations :

 A survey conducted by Gallup institute ranked Israel seventh out of 124 states, based on the happiness level of residents.

According to the global wellbeing survey, published over the weekend, 63% of respondents in Israel said they were happy with their lives.

We definitely feel more whole here. We are living by Jewish time – and not the kind that means we’re always running late! And, it still amazes us that we no longer have to seek out stores that cater to a Jewish clientele or Jewish sensibilities, be they Judaica shops, or stores selling skirts, hats, kippot, menorahs, Kiddush cups, and the like, because they are ubiquitous here, part and parcel of the landscape and of life. We also feel that we are finally living where we belong, in the place that Hashem has prepared for the Jewish nation and, on a personal level, that He handpicked our location in Rehovot.

It is a good thing that I did not see our apartment before we rented it, but had new-found friends, also recent olim, living in Rehovot (they had responded to a posting of mine on the Rehovot Yahoo list and kept in contact with us to help us along) check it out for us. As they had already been living here for almost two months, they had seen other apartments in the neighborhood and had a basis for comparison. Rehovot is a small city, so it was also fortunate that the apartment was close to theirs; it was very helpful having friends nearby to greet us and help us acclimate. We are not in a beautiful location, the apartment is small (compared to what we’re used to) and our two bathrooms are really one full bathroom and a toilet, no sink. On the other hand, we have a large picture window with glass and shutters that completely slide into the wall, and no buildings nearby, so that we have an unobstructed view. A nice breeze (we are on the fifth floor) comes through most of the day so that we haven’t had to put the air conditioner on yet, despite the heat that can be felt once we go out. Ceiling fans do the trick. Right outside the window, like a tremendous window box, is a porch for plants – we essentially have a garden in our living room. And, because the climate here is so mild, most of the year we can keep the window wide open. Other good things about our apartment are the (very) small porch, a kitchen full of cabinets, a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, a crawl space for storage, and a storage space downstairs. Cabinets and closets are generally not built in to apartments or houses here, as they are in “the States” so, especially in respect to the kitchen, we are quite fortunate.

Our apartment is in walking distance of most shopping, and we have several small grocery and fruit and vegetable stores,  a hardware store, and pharmacy either right across the street or within a few blocks of our home, so that we don’t have to go far for essentials or in case of an emergency. Supermarkets are farther away. We either take a taxi (monit) back home,  have the food delivered, or, occasionally, go shopping with a friend who has a car. We are also centrally located in relationship to the shuls (synagogues) where we find ourselves comfortable and where we have found a social circle.

It’s not that all this was/is easy to get used to. However, recognizing the gift that we’ve received of being able to live here and knowing that kol hatchalot kashot – all beginnings are hard – especially making aliyah, we have persevered and continue still. More and more, we are making/finding a place for ourselves here. We’ve certainly had plenty of ups and downs, and I’m sure there are more in store. It takes a lot of faith in G-d to make a move like this. That said, I think that there is no better or safer place than where He has guided us. There is a feeling of contentment living here that has nothing to do with physical circumstances.

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