Archive for May, 2012

Midreshet Ben Gurion

Midbar Tzin, near the overlook of Ben Gurion’s grave. (click to enlarge)

I’ve never tolerated heat well, which probably explains why I’m not bothered by cold Maine winters – I actually enjoy them!  I truly suffer in hot and humid climates, so many geographic areas of Israel where I might otherwise enjoy residing are simply not an option for me.  However, there is a distinction between “high” and “low” desert.  “Low” desert stays hot at night, and the air is not as dry as in “high” desert, where even though daytime temps can reach well over 100 degrees, nights are in the 60s- 70s and in winter it can actually reach freezing.  In practical terms, places like Rehovot, Raanana, and Be’er Sheva are out, but the Negev community of Midreshet Ben Gurion is definitely worth considering.

“P,” a friend from my home town, made aliyah about 20 years ago.  She built a home in the town of Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif, but we all know how that ended.  With her compensation package, she bought a lot and built her home in Midreshet Ben Gurion, and she is quite happy there.  It’s perhaps best known as the site of Ben Gurion’s grave, which overlooks the dramatic Tzin Desert.  In recent years the tiny academic community has expanded and it’s practically a suburb of Be’er Sheva (it’s between Be’er Sheva and Ramon Crater, with buses each way once an hour).  Even though there is a synagogue there, it’s not a religious community – it’s mostly secular families who are in some way connected with academia or scientific research.  The community was originally designed around Ben Gurion University’s satellite campus, which is an international graduate school of desert studies.  Whether it’s desert-friendly architecture, solar energy, desert agriculture, desert botany, zoology, etc., state-of-the-art research that is desert-based is conducted here. (I wrote about this in more detail in my blog when I visited last year.   You can click here to see the original post and pictures from that trip, as the weather was more photo-friendly that day.)

Last year 80 building lots came up for sale . . . they were sold out in 10 days!  On this trip, we were able to see actual construction taking place.  Even though the homes are being built in the “pueblo” style, each person has his own idea how to accomplish that in the most energy-efficient way possible.  We visited one construction site where a family was building a straw-bale house all by themselves, as a sort of 3-generation family project.  Straw bales were stacked within a frame, and coated with mud inside and out.  The walls are tremendously thick, and should help keep the house cool during the searingly hot summer days.

Mixing the mud that will coat the straw bales

My husband and our friend visit with the builder of the straw-bale home as he works

Straw bale walls awaiting coats of mud

The straw-bale house from the outside, still under construction

After visiting our friend’s house, we hiked in Ein Avdat Nature Park, where there is a beautiful oasis.

Steps cut into the rocks lead along a hiking trail through the oasis of Ein Avdat. Steep cliffs surround water which flows year round in an otherwise extremely arid area.

From there our friend took us to the community of Mitzpeh Ramon, which sits on an edge of the giant crater.  Recently an extremely fancy hotel and spa opened there, called Bereishit.  How fancy?  In addition to a giant infinity pool with an astounding view that overlooks desert cliffs, several of the units each have their own swimming pool, which is pretty absurd for a remote desert location that has serious issues with water availability.  Prices start at 3000 shekel per night – – but the most expensive rooms cost 30,000 shekels per night! (At the time we were there the exchange rate was 3.77 shekels to the dollar.)    Amazingly, most of the guests were not rich Americans but rather, very wealthy Israelis.  I don’t know whether they made their money in or outside of Israel, but we were outclassed and certainly not within our comfort zone and so we called it a day and returned by good old-fashioned public bus to Be’er Sheva!

The distinctive architecture of Bereishit,the exclusive spa/resort that overlooks Ramon crater. Many of the “villas” have their own lap pools.

As seen from the main lodge’s lobby and dining room, a huge “endless pool” overlooks the Ramon crater. Unfortunately the day we visited there was a sandstorm, so visibility was poor, but usually the view is magnificent.

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Ma’aleh Adumim

Having “been there and done that” when we made aliyah to Israel from 1983 – 1989, I know that finding a place to live in Israel is easier said than done.   Still, we couldn’t ignore our emotions:  Israel feels like home.  We were loving every moment of our vacation in  Israel.  Once again, we are considering the possibility of returning permanently, if we can find a community that will be a good fit for us.

It is kind of like finding a shidduch:  thinking about which qualities are  absolute requirements and which are deal-breakers.  First on my list:  a community where people get along.

This is more complicated than it sounds, and I prefer not to go into too much detail here about the social, cultural and religious “politics” of living in various communities in Israel.  But a community filled with strife is not a place I want to live.

With that criteria in mind, several different people recommended we check out Ma’aleh Adumim.  It was originally founded in the late 70s, but the most expansive growth has been in the last 10 years.   It is only 5 minutes from Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus (Har HaTzofim) Jerusalem campus, and in fact it takes much less time to get to the university from Ma’aleh Adumim than many other parts of Jerusalem.  Yet politically, Ma’aleh Adumim is considered “over the green line”   (territory that is disputed by international governments that do not recognize Israel’s right to their own land).   In truth, its impressive and vibrant growth has turned Ma’aleh Adumim into a bedroom suburb of Jerusalem, and every 15 minutes there are one of four different bus lines that run into Jerusalem.  A large percentage of its inhabitants work in Jerusalem.  But unlike Jerusalem, it’s considerably quieter, cleaner, and smaller.  In Ma’aleh Adumim, people of all ages and backgrounds  live together peacefully with ahavat yisrael.  There is  tremendous community spirit.  Homes are pricey (a basic apartment is 800,000 shekels and villas can go for 3 million shekels), but still less than Jerusalem, and there are many types of apartments, duplexes, and villas – – if you can find one for sale.  The population of Ma’aleh Adumim is currently 40,000 and still growing.

Shelley Brinn is the aliyah coordinator for Ma’aleh Adumim.  And that brings me to another point:  Israel has always taken aliyah seriously, but once olim arrived and attended ulpan, they were left to their own devices to battle the bureaucracy and do whatever they had to do to settle in.   Only recently, thanks to organizations like Nefesh B’Nefesh, are they actually doing something about the absorption process that will ensure that immigrants stay for good.  Several local governments in communities throughout Israel have hired native English-speaking olim (immigrants) who have been in Israel for many years, to serve as liasons and advisors within their immigrant community.  Shelley not only takes prospective olim for extensive tours of Ma’aleh Adumim, she helps olim find rental housing, helps them get set up with a medical insurance plan, helps them admit their children to local schools, makes them aware of hidden government benefits, helps them shop, invites them to cultural events,  and holds their hands way beyond the call of duty to ensure that their aliyah and subsequent absorption will go as smoothly as possible.

Shelley was gracious enough to drive us around Ma’aleh Adumim for a full two hours, showing off neighborhoods, pointing out the local mall, schools, shopping and cultural centers, and inviting a mix of residents to “meet and greet” us.

At the end of the two hours, with our heads positively bursting with new information, we went to visit some friends of ours from Los Angeles who had made aliyah to Ma’aleh Adumim 3 years ago.  The D’s built a lovely, enormous house in an affluent neighborhood of villas with magnificent views.  Mrs. D was kind enough to feed us a delicious lunch of wonderful fresh Israeli bread, various salads, and some fantastic goat cheese and fruit.  We spent the afternoon talking about their life in Ma’aleh Adumim and how their teenaged children have adjusted (very well!).  From there we went to visit a rebbetzin from our home town who made aliyah and now lives in Ma’aleh Adumim (her husband was out of town) and got a somewhat different, but equally enthusiastic perspective.

I don’t know if ultimately Ma’aleh Adumim is the community for us, but I think the most impressive thing about it is not the cleanliness, views, proximity to Jerusalem, magnificent schools, parks, museum, concert hall, shopping, or lovely housing.  It’s the fact that no matter who you ask – Sephardi, Ashkenazi, religious, secular, Russian, American, Ethiopian, or sabra – everyone is genuinely happy to be there.

Ironically, the day I went to Ma’aleh Adumim there was a desert sandstorm which obliterated the usually awesome views far into the distance.  But at least you will get a feel for the place and its architecture with these photos:

It may seem strange to start our tour with an interior photo of Ma’aleh Adumim’s shopping mall, but I wanted to show what makes Israeli malls unique: the sign for the beit knesset (small shul), where shoppers can find a walk-in minyan (look carefully – it’s to the left of the column in the foreground)

Even though Ma’aleh Adumim has many parks, this will be its largest municipal park, with an artificial lake and boat concession when it’s completed

Thanks to drip irrigation, Israel is making the desert bloom.

Housing at the top of a ridge, with one of many parks below

There are interconnected biking and walking trails. Crossing from one area and/or neighborhood to the next, there are tunnels for pedestrians and bike riders so they can avoid vehicular traffic.

surrounding the walkway are the future concert hall, a library, art gallery, and schools.

In the left foreground is a park dedicated for teen-only use. To the right is the health club with its indoor and outdoor swimming pools.

The future concert hall, under construction

A typical view of dramatic desert mountains from Ma’aleh Adumim

This is the view from the living room window of our friends’ home in Ma’aleh Adumim

a partial view of our friends’ dream kitchen in their home in Ma’aleh Adumim

our friends’ kitchen in Ma’aleh Adumim

more unending gorgeous porch views

still more porch views

in the villa neighborhood, many residents have their own private lap pools in small yards that overlook expansive desert mountain views

The view from our friends’ house’s porch, overlooking the Judean desert

Revisiting Shuk Machaneh Yehuda

You may recall my photos from last year’s blog post about my visit to Machaneh Yehuda, which you can see by clicking here (note:  the kipas in last year’s picture are now 10 shekels  each – talk about inflation!)   No matter how many times you visit, no trip to Israel is complete without a frenzied stroll through Jerusalem’s produce market during the Friday rush before Shabbat.  Here are two photos from my current trip which really convey the mishmash of “kibbutz galuyot” – the ingathering of diaspora Jews from around the world to Israel (click on each to enlarge):

Dignity

note: you can click on any of the photographs to enlarge

“If you are going to Jerusalem, you have to go to Yad Lakashish (Lifeline for the Old),” my daughter insisted.  She had bought a magnificent wall-hanging at Yad Lakashish.  “Not only will you find some beautiful souvenirs, you will actually feel good about spending money there.” (Please go to http://www.lifeline.org.il/ to find out more about this wonderful organization!)

Imagine this:  an older person not ready to retire makes aliyah, and soon finds himself unable to cope with learning Hebrew proficiently enough to be able to pass licensing exams or attract clientele or simply negotiate the Israeli business world.  Suddenly a once-vital and successful person feels old, tired, depressed, useless and hopeless.

Yad Lakashish was founded with these immigrants in mind.  The idea was to have a place where older immigrants could come and do work and feel productive, in a safe, social and enjoyable environment that would also provide remuneration and restore their sense of pride.  Select artisans and craftsmen from top academies and design schools throughout Israel would teach and retrain older immigrants (mostly from the Soviet bloc, Ethiopia, and yes, even a smattering of native English speakers) to become artisans in their own right.  A monthly bus pass would be provided.  Dental and health insurance would be guaranteed.  Cash bonuses would be presented before holidays.  And their artwork would be shown and sold in Yad Lakashish’s gallery and retail store.

Artisans range in age from their 60s to their 90s.  Currently Yad Lakashish serves 300 elderly male and female artisans.  There is a long waiting list to be accepted into the program, and Yad Lakashish is hoping to add another floor to their building so they can create even more workshops and include still more people in their program.  The administration, tour guides and teachers all work on a volunteer basis.

There are all types of workshops:  metalworking, paper-making, printing, silk dying, textiles and jewelry-making, to name a few.  The workshops hum with activity from 8:30 – 12 noon, during which time guided tours go from station to station and visitors can meet the artisans (most speak no Hebrew at all) and see first-hand how the objects for sale in the gift shop were created.  Each workstation has a photo and name of the particular artisan manning that station.  Such a small detail; yet by making it personal, it becomes a point of pride.

About 20% of the funds generated for Yad Lakashish come from gift shop sales; other expenses are met through private funding, donations, and grants.

As their brochure states, Yad Lakashish isn’t only about providing employment – it’s about fostering and preserving dignity.

Yosef, an immigrant from Ethiopia, shows off his paper mache cats

This man creates silk-screened greeting cards in the printing workshop

A paper-fiber bird, in the Ethiopian style

Decorative painting on a kiddush cup in the ceramic workshop

This will be a hand-painted silk scarf

Hand-painted paper-fiber beads

Mezuza covers embroidered in the Ethiopian style await buyers in the gift shop

Ceramic menorahs in the Ethiopian style await glazing and firing

Metalworking shop

Painting hamsas

Above each workstation is a photograph and the name of the artisan

These will be bent and rolled into napkin rings and tea-light Shabbat candle holders

Dinner

Lafa

We took our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter out for dinner in Be’er Sheva.  The house specialty is their lafa (a type of flat bread) and grilled meat on skewers.  They have a dozen types of salads that are served all at once as the appetizer, with unlimited refills.

Some of the many spicy pickled and fresh salads

Another nice touch is that the waitress announces not only what menu choices are available, but also which kosher hechsher is associated with each particular kind of meat (chicken, lamb, beef, and turkey).

Check out the menu, especially the listing in the second row from the bottom! (click on the photo and then click again to enlarge)

Click to enlarge

If you want to know how to convert prices from shekels to dollars, divide the shekel amount by 3.77 (that day’s exchange rate).