Archive for June, 2012

With Gratitude, Multiple Blessings

Almost my entire family at the bris of my newest grandson (minus my youngest daughter, son-in-law, and their daughter, who are in Israel)

ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך

“And He took him outside, and said, “Gaze, now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!” And He said to him, “So shall your offspring be!” (Bereishis 15:5)

A little over 12 years ago, my two oldest children got married within 5 months of one another.  I wrote an article about my feelings from that time, entitled “The Numbers Game,” that appeared online at  aish.com and in Where, What, When magazine:

I stood on the sidelines, watching the kallah and chasan (bride and groom) pose for pictures. The just-married couple — my son and new daughter-in-law — was surrounded by her relatives for the traditional photo of the bride’s family. Besides parents and grandparents there were aunts, uncles, dozens of cousins, nieces, nephews — there was so much family, bleachers were necessary to fit everyone into the picture. It was a thing of beauty, this mass of humanity ages 1 to 91, all dressed in their wedding finery and radiating joy.

I felt only envy.

Orthodox Jews take seriously the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply;” it is the very first mitzvah in the Torah. Families of eight or ten or more children aren’t uncommon; extended family and occasions for celebratory simchas appear infinite.

Prodigious kinfolk are somewhat rare in non-observant Jewish families. As a ba’alas tshuva, someone who became observant later in life, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was The Numbers Game. When my children were small, they wondered why they didn’t have many uncles or aunts. Unlike their classmates whose parents were frum-from-birth, my kids pondered why they didn’t have dozens of cousins to celebrate the holidays with.

“And why don’t we have any rabbis in our family?” they wanted to know.

“In our family, we have a special opportunity,” I replied. “You will be the start of an entirely new Jewish generation of Torah scholars! And God willing, someday in the future your grandchildren will gather with their many cousins around your own holiday table!” But I admit I too was covetous, nor did I have the patience to wait decades until these hopes for offspring as numerous “as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is upon the seashore” (Genesis 22:17) would materialize.

Rarely did my assimilated American parents’ generation have more than two or three children. Of those siblings and cousins that married at all, they tended to marry “out” –tragically, there were more non-Jewish descendents at my grandmother’s funeral than Jewish ones. My parents’ clan was the typical American Jewish family — would there be any Jewish relatives a generation from now? My husband also had a dearth of relatives, but their quantitative paucity was due not to assimilation, but Nazi extermination.

The wedding photographer beckoned; it was time for our side of the family to take pictures. The contrast between “them” and “us” was extreme. Unlike the 100 family members on the bride’s side, we were a tenth of that number. Our children. One uncle. One cousin. Two grandmothers.

“Don’t worry,” the photographer said, looking us over, “this is gonna be quick and easy.”

Paltry, and rather pitiful.

I let out a big sigh, exactly at the same time as my husband’s mother.

“Isn’t it wonderful? Who would have thought it possible?” my mother-in-law exclaimed, looking at the ten of us, a big smile on her face. “When we came to this country after the War, it was just my mother, me, and my husband. There was no one else — everyone was killed by the Nazis. Who would have believed that I would live to see this day? From almost no one — and now there are ten!” she marveled, surveying her two sons and daughters-in-law and grandchildren with nachas.

“And whoever thought I’d be a matriarch to all these kids?” my mother piped in, grinning.

I stood next to my newly married son and his bride, a beacon of promise for future generations of Jews. I smiled into the camera.

We may not have needed bleachers, but never before had my family seemed so large.

Sadly, both my mother and mother-in-law have since passed away, but our family has continued to grow.  Last week with great happiness we celebrated the bris of our newest grandson, the sixth boy and seventh child born to our eldest daughter.  Although our youngest daughter, her husband, and their little girl could not be with us (they are in Israel), our daughter’s family and our two sons and their families were there, and indeed, it felt like soon enough, we too will need bleachers to fit everyone into the photos!  From nothing to something – – it is true nachas to build a family in this way.  Just as HaShem promised Avraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the sun and the stars, so we have been blessed by HaShem.  It really is a miracle.

Believe me, we don’t take it for granted.  We appreciate it with all our hearts.

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Conclusions

I learned many things from my visit to Israel.  Here are the most significant of my observations, in a nutshell:

1.  We belong in Israel – all of us.  I know, life intervenes (i.e. caring for an elderly parent, a chronic illness in the family, special educational needs, employment and language issues, the desire to remain in close proximity to relatives, shalom bayis etc).  But ultimately, truly, our place is there.

2.  There is a “right” place/community for everyone in Israel, but it takes a boatload of time and patience to find that place.

3.  Israel is the most progressive country in the world, in terms of positive energy, growth, focus, drive, ambition, success, standard of living, research and dedication, and quality of life.  (Don’t miss this book, which says it better than I ever can:  Start-Up Nation:  The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.)

4.  Israel is – –  and continues to be – –  a living, breathing miracle.  Its successes are so completely illogical and against nature, that all of the accomplishments listed in #3 could not have come about without Divine Intervention.  HaShem has truly blessed us, and uniquely so! (Really, this should be #1 on my list)

5.  The biggest catalyst that has changed Israel the most in the last ten years is the country-wide expansion of train service, and the construction of Kvish Shesh (Route 6), which is a major highway that stretches from northern Israel down to its south.  The combination of the excellent train and highway has had a huge impact, because suddenly more “out-of-the-way” areas of Israel are truly  accessible and no longer impractical.  Due to the railway and Kvish 6, Israel has at once  figuratively “shrunk” in size geographically speaking, while expanding its options and opportunities in endless ways, socially and economically.  This means that people are not “stuck” in densely populated urban areas where the jobs are.  They can now seek employment just about anywhere in the country and be within easy commuting distance.  (For example, Be’er Sheva to the Galil took only 2 hours!)  In the past, the only people living in rural areas were the kibbutznikim and moshavnikim.  For the first time, there now exists the concept of the “bedroom suburb” – beautiful areas of settlement throughout the country with an extremely high quality of life, close to shopping and city amenities, but without the noise, dirt, expense and stresses of city life.  This is a huge positive sociological change whose impact has only begun to be felt.

Lag B’Omer in Be’er Sheva

The very last day of our trip, we laid low in Be’er Sheva.  Unfortunately, around the time Lag B’Omer bonfires would start that evening, we would be taking off from Ben Gurion airport on our way back to the US.  I hadn’t thought to consult a Jewish calendar when I originally booked our tickets, so the realization that we’d be missing the celebrations came as a sore surprise.

The day before, the municipality had done a lot of neighborhood tree-trimming.  With the dearth of scrap wood in Be’er Sheva, they knew they wouldn’t have to haul the fallen boughs away – children and parents anxious to build impressive bonfires would take care of that job for them.  Indeed, by the next day, the massive piles of downed branches were completely gone, and in vacant lots there were several piles of wood and assorted scrap – basically people grabbed anything flammable, appropriate or not – just waiting for the touch of a match.

Fortunately my daughter’s nursery school decided to make a little Lag B’Omer celebration that day, so we visited her at gan.  Posted on the door were The Rules.

1. In our gan we speak calmly
2. In our gan, we don’t hurt feelings
3. In our gan we don’t tattle
4. In our gan we give lots of compliments
5. In our gan only nice and appropriate words come out of our mouths
6. In our gan when we want something, we say “please” and when we receive what we’ve asked for, we make sure to say “thank you”
7. In our gan if we make a mistake, we request forgiveness
8. In our gan we don’t hit, bite or kick
9. In our gan there are many smiles
10. In our gan, we are especially careful to fulfill the mitzvah, “You shall love your friend as yourself” to the highest level

Her class was huge – some 35 children ages 3 – 4, and at the time we visited there were also two part-time aides.  It was a pleasure to see how well the staff managed the large class size and it was clear the children were happy, and learning, learning, learning!  This was both a joyful and loving place.  The smiling, pleasant teacher frequently hugged the children or held them in her lap, and somehow managed to give them personal attention.  The children were in the  middle of davening when we came, saying a few blessings and psalms and then the prayer on behalf of Israeli soldiers, which was quite touching when heard from such small children, and then some dancing.

A few days before, the teacher had sent home a note asking parents to send wood scraps for the bonfire, as well as a foil-wrapped potato for baking in the fire.  The bonfire at the perimeter of the gan was a mess of wood, cardboard, and broken furniture, including a formica-covered broken bookshelf made of pressed wood that would surely send off toxic fumes when lit.

The foil-wrapped potatoes, baked in the bonfire

The teacher was thrilled that my husband had come because now she could designate him to start the fire.  Several matches later (the wood from the tree cuttings had not been seasoned, so it would not light), he got it going with some assistance from one of the nursery school aides, a young Ethiopian woman whose work at the nursery school was part of her National Service (Sheirut Leumi), an alternative for religious women who do not want to serve in the army.  She had been in the country for only 4 years and her Hebrew was completely fluent.

The fire-baked potatoes were served, along with popsicles as a final treat.

After the celebration and after school let out, we all went to Australia Park, Be’er Sheva’s nicest municipal park.  The park commemorates the Australian cavalry’s capture (under the British)  of  Be’er Sheva from the Turks in 1917.  It’s beautifully landscaped, has a fantastic, tent-covered playground, and a labyrinth that is fun for children to get “lost” in.

(click to enlarge)

The massive tented playground area

We came home, ate a quick dinner, said our goodbyes, and traveled by train from Be’er Sheva to Ben Gurion airport.

I am convinced that they tell you to get to the airport early not because of security, but because they want you to spend money at the duty-free shops.  And spend we did (I hadn’t bought souvenirs until now).  We bought some contemporary Israeli music CDs, and a couple of middle-eastern music CDs that I could use as background music for my djembe (drum) playing.  I bought two copies of a  beautiful Israeli cookbook for wedding gifts, and a wonderful “coffee table” book with gorgeous photographs of Israel. (Ultimately this proved to be a mistake.  I hadn’t realized that books published in Israel were available new and used on Amazon for a fraction of the price.  Live and learn.)

Because we were anxious to continue hearing and practicing our Hebrew (an unlikely event in rural Maine), I bought a set of DVDs from a popular Israeli TV series, called Srugim.  Although we don’t have a TV at home (although I do on occasion watch shows on my computer), I have to say this show is completely addictive!  It chronicles the lives of “older” singles living in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem.  I’ve heard it compared to “Friends” but I’ve never watched that show so I can’t say . . . but it certainly does cover complicated contemporary issues of modern Orthodox Israeli Jews with the right mixture of Jewish angst, humor, and sensitivity, plus it’s fun to recognize or try to identify the many streets, cafes, and landmarks of Jerusalem.

I’ve learned all sorts of new Hebrew slang thanks to watching the show, and picked up some nice expressions as well, which show the inherent beauty of the Hebrew language – even modern Hebrew (i.e. “Chalomot Paz!” – – translated as “sweet dreams!” but really it means “Golden Dreams” – and the type of gold – “paz” –  that is spoken of, is gold in its purest form).

We Hit the Beach!

As our trip came to a close we decided to simply relax and visit the beach in the city of Ashkelon with our daughter and granddaughter, about a 45 minute bus ride from our daughter’s apartment in Be’er Sheva.  And what a beach it was!  The silky clean sand and clear, warm turquoise waters of the Mediterranean were magnificent.  Since it was a weekday and school wasn’t out, there were barely any people on the sand.

The beach in Ashkelon

Another view of Ashkelon beach

The turquoise water was very clean and clear

A view of the “separate” same-sex beach (behind the barrier). This is for religious men or women who wouldn’t otherwise go to a public beach and/or swimming for reasons of modesty. Certain days of the week are reserved for women-only, and other days of the week for men-only.

On the boardwalk there is a small public outdoor fitness center with all sorts of fun exercise equipment.  Here my spouse and granddaughter try the elliptical.

On the way back to Be’er Sheva my daughter pointed out the bus stop at the entrance to the beautiful town of Sderot as we drove by.  You may recognize the name:  tens of thousands of rockets/missiles  have been blasted at Sderot from Gaza over the past three years causing structural damage, some deaths, and lots of psychological trauma for its residents.  Now, each bus stop has a bomb shelter that adjoins it.  The shelter was covered with graffiti, including the ironic “Peace In the Middle East!.”

A small bus stop is on the right at the entrance to the town of Sderot, and to the bus stop’s left is the graffiti-covered bomb shelter added when thousands of hostile rockets from Gaza began pounding the town.

Sderot bomb shelter graffiti includes posters requesting funds to feed the poor, guaranteeing the benefactors salvation of their souls; and the ironic scribble, “Peace in the Middle East.”

We returned to Be’er Sheva tired, relaxed, and very tan!  It seemed unbelievable that the very next day we’d be on a plane back to the US.

A view of Shechunat Hey neighborhood in Be’er Sheva

The apartment building in Shechunat Hey in Be’er Sheva where my daughter and her family stayed for the past 3 years while her husband attended medical school there.

A week after Independence Day, Israeli flags are still draped outside my daughter’s apartment complex. It’s hard to imagine that people once lived in Be’er Sheva without air conditioning! Even though random violent crime is rare, burglaries are unfortunately common, so every window has decorative iron bars as a deterrent to theft – and to keep children from falling through the open windows.

Views from the Galil

View of the north from Moreshet. Unfortunately Mt. Hermon was obscured by clouds. (click to enlarge)

Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), the organization that promotes aliyah for North Americans, has a section on their website called “Communities.”  Just about every single community in Israel is listed there, whether a city, town, moshav, or yishuv.  Arranged both alphabetically and geographically, there is a brief description of each community, along with the type of population they cater to, the age groups, level and type of religious observance, cost of housing, percentage of English speakers, etc.  One community listed there sounded particularly appealing:  it was on a mountaintop in the Galil with not much else nearby; the views were astounding, and it attracted both religious and non-religious Jews, with everyone getting along quite nicely.  I could practically picture religious and secular Jews sitting around a campfire singing “Kumbaya.” For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to give it a pseudonym:  “Mitzpeh Mazeh.”

So I arranged a meeting with one of Mitzpeh Mazeh’s “macher-founders” who had lived there for the past 25 years, who hailed originally from New York and had the accent to prove it.  Located 10 minutes south of Karmiel, the Galil’s newest large city, we wended our way up and up and up the mountaintop.  It has magnificent views!  Before we would meet with our guy, I wanted to stop in the yishuv’s makolet (convenience store/market) for a cold drink.  But when I asked someone who was walking around how to find the makolet, they only laughed.  “We don’t have a makolet.”

Red flag!  I don’t care how tiny the community, in Israel just about every place has its own makolet.  It’s where you pick up milk, bread, eggs and cottage cheese because you don’t feel like shlepping to town, even if the prices are a bit higher.  It’s where you find out what’s new with your neighbor, who just had a baby and who is sick; you discuss politics or mention the latest bestseller.  There could be reasons why there was no makolet, but none of them were good:  either too many residents bought on credit and then couldn’t come up with the funds later in the month so the owner went broke; or there are some sort of politics and petty jealousies or crazy bureaucracy that kept the makolet from functioning.  I hate to generalize, but the absence of a makolet is a sign of dysfunction.

And true enough, there were no sounds of “Kumbaya.”  The old guard, a bunch of die-hard idealists, were just that:  old.  Many of them left the yishuv when they had to stop driving, or moved to be closer to children in the big city who could better watch over them as they aged.  The new people coming in were exclusively young, and non-observant, and they had little tolerance for anything to do with religious life.  As all of this was sinking in, the macher told us, “Listen, don’t be offended, you seem like nice people, but this place is not for you.”  We had already figured that out on our own, so we were not offended.  But the macher told us that because we didn’t have young kids in school that would serve as a bridge to others in the community, there would be nothing to give us a sense of connection to the place.  The oldsters had been together for 25 years, and while they would be nice to us, they didn’t need new best friends.  We would be lonely there, he said, and we agreed.

Because religious life had become de-emphasized with the influx of the new generation of non-religious residents, religious members of the yishuv tended to go to nearby religious settlements when they wanted to partake of a holiday, a class, or religious celebration.  “But,” he chortled, “that also has its downside, because the closest religious settlement to this one is more observant than the most religious person here.  A few months ago some of the guys went to that yishuv – – it’s called “Moreshet” – – and they came back shaking their heads, saying that something came up and they had a whole discussion about it  – – this one saying that such-and-such rabbi held a certain way, and another saying that such-and-such rabbi held differently, and they couldn’t agree on anything!”

“Hah,” I laughed, looking at my husband.  Picturing the chaos that ensued under the guise of religion, I said, “Remind me to avoid going to that community!”  We thanked the macher (he really was a very nice guy) and continued on to Karmiel, where we visited with friends and spent the night.  For reasons I shan’t go into here, it became rapidly apparent that Karmiel was not a good match for us, so the next morning we set out quite early to do some more sightseeing and make our way slowly back to Be’er Sheva.

Once again we passed the turnoff for “Mitzpeh Mazeh” and continued down the steep, windy Galil roads.  We passed a huge, walled, luxurious-looking  campus compound surrounded by several layers of barbed wire and lookout towers.  It was “Raphael,” Israel’s most sophisticated and secret weaponry research and production facility for high-tech defense systems for air, land, sea and space applications.  It’s sort of the Israeli equivalent of Los Alamos.  Raphael employs thousands of Israeli scientists and engineers who have top security clearances; 6,500 people work there.     We looked in our extremely detailed atlas, but Raphael’s location (tellingly) was not listed.

Shortly after passing Raphael,  a turnoff for “Moreshet” came into view – – the very community the macher had derided.

“Ooh!” I said to my husband, “let’s turn in here and take a look around.   It sounds like an amusing place, and we’re in no rush.”

The road leading to Moreshet

from a viewpoint near the entrance to Moreshet, a sign identifies various landmarks

On a clear day from this vantage point, one can see Haifa University, the Carmel, and Akko

Moreshet is at the crest of the hill

It was high on its own mountaintop, with 360 degrees of commanding views of Haifa Bay and the Golan Heights on a clear day (which, unfortunately, this was not).

Ever amenable, my husband drove through the security gate.  Beautiful landscaping abounded.  Everything was in bloom.  We stopped at the foundation stone sign.

Every town seems to have its own “motto.”  This is also true where I live in Maine.  In Stoneham it’s, “A Small Town . . . Overflowing With Tradition.”  In Waterford it’s “Welcome to Waterford . . . A Peaceful Village.”

But Moreshet quotes from Isaiah 52:7:  “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger that announces peace, the harbinger of good tidings, that announces salvation, that says unto Zion, ‘Your God reigns!'”

The entrance to Moreshet

Etched onto the back of the Moreshet sign at the entrance, a quote from Isaiah 52:7

My first stop was, of course, the makolet.

It wasn’t large, but it was extremely well stocked, and the prices were not at all outrageous.  The cashier and many of the customers went out of their way to be friendly to us.  I was impressed.

We walked over to the shul, located in a temporary building until the main shul’s construction is complete, where the later morning minyan was finishing up.  As the men unwrapped their tefillin, my husband ambled over and started shmoozing.  He was immediately struck by how friendly and helpful they were.  One of them gave us a brief synopsis about the community, and told us we should go to the main office to find out more.

As we walked around, the thing that struck me was how comfortable it felt.  There was a mix of ages – lots of young marrieds in their 30s, but plenty of people with grey hair as well.  The young couples reminded me of my own children; their children, my grandchildren.  This may sound egocentric, but everyone kind of looked like . . . us.  In a good way.

We passed an older gentleman who was watering the flowers on his front lawn.  We must have looked lost, because he said, “Can I help you?”  He gave us directions to the main office, which unfortunately turned out to be open only in the afternoons on Thursday, and it was now 10 a.m.  Undaunted, we continued walking around, looking at the magnificent elementary school, the sports center, and a huge and beautiful synagogue and educational center under construction that would someday hold hundreds of worshipers and classrooms for Torah study.  There were several parks, and the streets were immaculate.

A public walkway in Moreshet

A nursery school

One of several parks and playgrounds

The gym and community center

The elementary school

The shul and adult educational center is under construction. There’s no escaping it: residents must pay a shul building fund!

A view of the shul from the other side, under construction

The homes constructed in the original phase were well maintained with lovely gardens.

On the outskirts of the yishuv there was a rugged walking trail leading to the height of land, with markers identifying the nearby mountains.

The path leading to the overlook above Moreshet.

Handmade ceramic markers set in rocks around the overlook identify landmarks

On a clear day you can see Haifa and Akko . . .

Pointing out the views of Nahariya, Rosh Hanikra, and Lebanon . . .

Views of Nazareth, Tzipori . . .

As we returned to the residential area, the man who had been watering his flowers was now busy scrubbing his bbq grill.  “Was the office open?” he asked.  We explained that it was only open in the afternoon, which was really a shame because we wanted to find out more but we couldn’t stay so long.

“Well, then,” he said, “why don’t you come in for a cup of tea?  I can perhaps answer any questions you might have about Moreshet.”

We drank that tea for 90 minutes, as guests of Ya’ir and his wife Rivka.

Introductions were made.  “I’m actually Palestinian,” Ya’ir said with a grin.  “My parents came here shortly before the War, and I was born here in 1944, before there was a State of Israel.”  He had worked for Raphael but was now retired.  His wife until recently was an international tour guide operator and had accompanied Israelis to China, South America, South Africa, Canada, the US, and much of Europe.  Lately, however, her life was mostly about caring for her 96-year-old mother, who still lived independently near Haifa, where Rivka  traveled to visit her mother daily.

“We’ve lived here about 10 years now,” she said, “and we really love it.  And now that Kvish 6 (the main highway) has expanded, it’s less than 2 hours to Jerusalem!  And once they finish building the new train station to Yokneam – just 6 minutes away – we’ll be able to easily connect with any part of Israel in no time!” she said, smiling.

“The amount of things happening here is truly amazing,” continued Ya’ir.  Besides the usual school activities and associated clubs for children like karate, music, art,  sports, and nature, we have lots going on for the adults, too.  There are parenting classes for the young couples, and we also have monthly organized bus trips and tours around Israel.  This weekend we are going to Gush Etzion where we’ll learn about the history of the area, and visit the yishuvim and go to some wineries.  And as far as Torah classes – we have at least 10 different classes every day, some for men, some for women, some for children and teens, and some for a mixed audience.  Moreshet has its own resident rabbi, Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen.  Basically, the resources are here if you want them.”

” . . . But if you don’t,” Rivka added, “that’s okay, too.  People respect your privacy, unlike what goes on in many other places like kibbutzim.”

“Oh, and we also have several volunteer committees.” Ya’ir continued.  One concentrates on gardening and landscaping, another on organizing cultural or educational  activities, and another is for absorption of new residents.  You see, we are a small place, and we pride ourselves on the fact that most everyone really gets along with one another.  That’s partly because anyone who wants to live here must be screened by a committee.  There are interviews, psychological tests, required references, etc.  The process can take 6 months or more.

“Right now we aren’t even accepting anyone.  That’s because we only accept people based on the number of vacancies we have.  Moreshet is being built in phases.  Right now we’ve just finished selling 40 lots for Phase Four.  People who have been accepted may purchase a lot and then build their own house.  So until those 40 houses get built, we’re not opening up applications for Phase Five.  We hope to build in six phases, with a maximum of about 270 families.”

This will be the location of the next group of building lots

A view of houses under construction in the current building phase

New houses under construction

An overview of Moreshet; the current building phase is on the left

With such strict requirements, I wondered if we would even have a chance of getting accepted, especially due to our age.  Israel is a young country, and it is the youth that are building and ensuring Israel’s continued growth.  The downside is that anyone over the age of 35 – 40 is considered past his prime (!), and may suffer discrimination in the job and housing markets.

“Actually, Moreshet is pretty unique in that way,” Ya’ir reassured me.  “Most settlements and small communities only want young people – – that’s true.  But we believe it’s short-sighted.  Look, it’s very nice to have a vibrant community of all young people.  But what happens in 30 years from now?  That community is almost exclusively made up of old people, and a new crop of young people don’t want to come into a community of oldsters!   We feel a community of mixed ages is healthier.  So when there is a new building phase, we create quotas:  “x” percent are accepted who are ages 20 – 30, “x” percent who are ages 30 – 40, and “x” percent who are ages 50 – 70.  So yes, there is hope for you!”

We had been through several communities in Israel, but Moreshet seemed to have everything we were looking for as a place to reside permanently.  English speakers made up 15% of the population.  Twenty percent of the population were ages 50 – 70.  Moreshet was surrounded by nature and the emerald forests of the Galil; people were relaxed and kind and got along; the residents enjoyed intellectual stimulation both religiously and secularly; they put Torah very high on their list of priorities yet worked in a variety of professions in the secular world; the housing was of high quality yet more affordable than many other places; the location was only 25 minutes from city and medical amenities (Afula, Nazareth, Haifa, Karmiel) yet far enough away to enjoy peace and quiet and a slower pace in life, and it was not too hot or humid (although it does get a lot of rain in the winter).  There were Arab villages in the vicinity but not very close by, and they were not known as “troublemakers.”  Plus, the Israeli government is waging a campaign to encourage more people to settle in the Galil, and there are no “political” issues regarding territory and boundary lines.

After thanking Ya’ir and Rivka, we left feeling very excited and enthusiastic.  Back in the car, I remarked to my spouse, “Such nice people – we really ‘clicked.’  I can imagine us being good friends some day.”

A few days later I got this email from Rivka:

” . . . Personally, we are glad that you like our place and wish to come and live with us in the Galil. When you left our house we both felt that you are the right people to be our friends and neighbours . . .”

Zichron Ya’akov

We contacted Esther Friedman, the aliyah representative for Anglos in Zichron Yaakov, via email, and expressed our interest in seeing this picturesque town from an insider’s point of view.  Zichron Yaakov is located south of Haifa, slightly inland but overlooking the Mediterranean, and benefits from sea breezes, clean air, proximity to Haifa and all its amenities; yet it retains its hamlet-like vibe.  Ms. Friedman hooked us up with Joel Ruttman, a retired gentleman originally from San Antonio Texas, who has since made aliyah and now lives in Zichron Yaakov full-time.  Mr. Ruttman used to be the cantor at the Orthodox synagogue in San Antonio, which is where my eldest daughter and her husband lived for a few years when my son-in-law served as a chaplain there, on Lackland Air Force Base.

We first connected at a sidewalk cafe, where  Mr. Ruttman came well prepared with maps and loads of information about each neighborhood’s personality, the various shuls, and cultural life.  The cobble-stoned main street was closed off daily from 10 a.m. to vehicular traffic, and was filled with residents and busloads of adult tourists and Israeli children on school field trips, passing many sidewalk cafes, boutiques, artsy stores, and various historic sites from the 1800s when the town was founded by Baron Rothchild.

Yoel Ruttman (l.) and my husband walk up the midrechov (pedestrian mall)

Another view of Main Street. closed to vehicular traffic during business hours

The flags and banners are leftovers from Independence Day, celebrated the week before

Mr. Ruttman lives in a lovely cottage half a block from the pedestrian walkway, in a rather pricey area.  We asked him how he came to settle in the town.

He had originally wanted to live in Jerusalem.  He was going to settle in the German Colony, in an apartment above Emek Refa’im Street.  The day before he was to sign the contract and take possession of the apartment, there was a terrorist attack.  This was the tragic calamity at Cafe Hillel that killed Dr. David Applebaum and his daughter Nava y”d on the eve of her wedding.  It was one of a string of devastating attacks that had plagued Jerusalem in a short period of time, but for Mr. Ruttman it was the end of his dream of living in Jerusalem.  He cancelled his plans, and decided to dwell elsewhere.  And so he came to Zichron Yaakov.

At the end of the main street is the town’s oldest synagogue built in 1886 by Baron Rothschild.  It is called Ohel Yaakov and named in memory of the Baron’s father.

Although there is no daily minyan there, it does have regular Shabbat services.  During the week, the shul is kept locked, but Mr. Ruttman walked us over to a small bakery where the elderly owner – who happened to be the gabbai and was born in Zichron Yaakov,  and is the son of one of the town’s founders – keeps the key.

The main synagogue of Zichron Yaakov. The woman’s gallery is on the top floor.

The shul as seen from the women’s gallery above

Looking from the front of the shul towards the back

It was at this point that my husband and I experienced something rather sad . . .  but first a little background.

Zichron Yaakov was first founded in 1882 by Romanian Jewish Zionist farming pioneers.  Unfortunately, the thin, rocky soil was not amenable to high crop yields, and hunger and malaria threatened the yishuv’s very existence.  The following year, Baron Edmund Rothschild came to the settlers’ rescue, drawing up plans for its residential layout and agricultural economy, and donating funds to sustain it.  He named the town after his father, Yaakov.  The baron also established what is today the Carmel winery, located on the outskirts of the town.

During the late 1800s, two Jewish brothers and their sister spied on the Ottoman Turks for the British (they were part of the “Nili” spy network).  They were caught by the Turks and tortured.  On her way to prison, the sister, Sarah Abramsohn, requested that she be allowed to stop at her home and change her clothes.   She promptly locked herself in the cellar, where she committed suicide rather than give the Turks the information they wanted.  The Abramsohn home has been converted into a museum, where Israeli schoolchildren learn about Zionist history, of which Zichron Yaakov is a prominent part and place of pilgrimage.

While we were in Zichron Yaakov, busload after busload of Israeli schoolchildren – hundreds of children – toured the town, including the Abramsohn cellar and the Ohel Yaakov synagogue, which is only 1/2 block further up the street.  Because Mr. Ruttman had gotten the key from the gabbai/baker, the shul was open when several of the schoolchildren happened by.  They asked us for permission to enter, and stood in awe.  They had many questions about the layout of the shul, prayers, and asked what the bimah was and where the Torahs were kept.  I was amazed to find out that this was the first and only time these Israeli children had ever set foot in a shul their entire lives!  Imagine – –  even though they were Jewish children living in a Jewish country, they had absolutely no exposure to Judaism other than as some sort of historical artifact!  Mr. Ruttman proceeded to give several groups of children a tour of the shul and patiently answered their questions.  We were heartsick that we had to leave, lock up the shul and return the key to the gabbai/baker, because subsequent groups of children could only view the shul from the outside, and the only information they would get would be from the small white sign posted outside at the entrance!

The sign outside the shul’s entrance (click to enlarge). For the average tourist during a weekday, this is as close as they would get to seeing the shul, which normally remains locked except for Shabbat.

It occurred to me that should I ever elect to live in Zichron Yaakov, my “mission” would be to volunteer to be a daytime presence at the shul, so Israeli schoolchildren could see what a synagogue looks like from the inside and learn more about Jewish life.  I just could not get over the irony of it all.

We also visited one of Zichron Yaakov’s newest neighborhoods, which is filled with parks and beautiful apartment buildings that overlook the sea on one side and the Carmel hills on the other. These apartments start at about $275,000 for 3 bedrooms, which is not expensive for Zichron Yaakov (there is also a neighborhood called Neve Baron where villas start at a million dollars).

A new apartment complex overlooking a park

It was then that we noticed a funny-looking but oddly familiar building that looked completely out of place, architecturally speaking.  Only when we got closer and read the sign did we understand why:  it was a Chabad synagogue that was constructed to resemble the 770 Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights in Brooklyn!

“770” comes to Zichron Yaakov

Mr. Rutter then took us to Zichron Yaakov’s famous botanical gardens, a magnificent park called Ramat HaNadiv, which is also the place Baron Rothschild and his wife are buried.  We didn’t have time to view more than the periphery, but the rose gardens were lovely.

Ramat HaNadiv Botanical Gardens in Zichron Yaakov

We thanked Mr. Ruttman and said our goodbyes, and decided to splurge on lunch at one of the charming sidewalk cafes.  We had a fabulous milchig lunch, with homemade spinach pasta filled with local goat cheese, pizza, and whole-grain olive bread, along with some delicious red wine.  It was a truly memorable meal.

Could I see myself living permanently in Zichron Yaakov?  The location is great, the weather wonderful, the beach close by, the town quaint and charming.  There is a yeshiva there, and several shuls, although Zichron Yaakov is not outwardly “religious” in character.  Besides the fact that the housing is probably too  pricey for our budget, its primary source of income (besides the winery) is based on tourism, and the huge throngs of tourists give it a somewhat Disneyland-like feel.  I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but something about it just didn’t scream home.  Clearly if we wanted a more complete picture, we would have to return a few more times.