Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category


I’m continuing to spend days with dreary slate skies going through old boxes of stuff, tossing and scanning and reducing.  Much to my surprise, going through tens of thousands of photos wasn’t quite the walk down memory lane I expected.  I loved revisiting my children as toddlers; photos of my parents then younger than I am now; fancy birthday parties when I was four and decked out in numerous layers of petticoats and lacy white gloves.  Yet it was bittersweet too:  wistfulness about so many people gone, so many wonderful experiences and travels now in the past, unlikely to be repeated.  I am grateful for it all yet it was simply an archeologist’s documentation of a life spent, and the knowledge that realistically, there are more years behind me than there will ever be ahead of me.  It was terribly disconcerting to find pictures and even names of people who must have meant something to me once upon a time, but that I could no longer  remember or place, nor recall just why they were relevant to my life in the first place.

I wasn’t expecting to find a box that my mother must have saved: correspondence from 1972 – 1973 when I spent a gloriously adventurous year in Israel as an 11th grade high school exchange student, far far away from the comforts of home in America.

I made many wonderful Israeli friends that year.  It was also the first time (I thought I) fell in love.  Reading the letters my boyfriend wrote me all throughout the first year after I returned to the US to finish high school was quite a revelation, although not the rose-colored one I’d imagined.

Anyone who knows me would say that I am a strong person:  strong-willed, opinionated, focused, independent.  They would be shocked to know what a doormat I became when I fell under the spell of this young man.  I won’t get into the sordid details here, but reading the letters with a distance of time and space (42 years and 7,000 miles!) provided me with an emotional and physical objectivity that wasn’t possible back then, and suddenly I was gobsmacked by how I not only did not recognize his controlling and abusive nature because I was so blindsided by my infatuation, but worse, the realization that if something like this could happen to good ol’ strong me, it could happen to anyone.  No, he did not abuse me physically; but consistently, using poisonous words, attitude, and control he rendered me a person insignificant and inferior, and into a sad state of decline and self-destruction, doubting my own sense of worth and trying so hard to become the fantasy person he demanded.  (Of course, any therapist will tell you that he didn’t do this to me – – the sickness was that I allowed it to happen.)

When this young man dumped me, I was completely devastated.  Little did I realize at the time that by rejecting me so cruelly, what a huge favor he did for me.  Reading letters from one of my girlfriends from that time, I was amazed by how many polite hints which evolved to direct warnings about him she wrote to me – – all ignored because I refused to see.  I became someone so changed that my friends no longer knew me – – but I no longer recognized myself, either.

Every teenage girl has a fantasy checklist of “requirements” that she’s looking for in a boyfriend/soulmate.  Unfortunately in my case, “kindness” and “mentsch” somehow got smothered and lost behind “brilliance” and “looks.”  The good news is that when I finally felt like I could once again make myself vulnerable to another person, “kindness” and “mentsch” were at the very top of my checklist and I never again repeated that first, very horrible mistake. (Disclosure:  the man I’ve been married to for 38+ years is indeed a kind mentsch, but he’s not ugly or dumb, either.)

For so many women, abuse and cruelty from the hands and words of another becomes an unrelenting, escalating cycle.  I am so thankful that I never again allowed myself to be demeaned in this way, and that with time, I was able to learn to love myself enough to allow myself to experience what it is to be truly loved.

The letters went into our woodstove.

Tossing them into a container labeled “recycling” just seemed way too ironic.




Maine Burqa:

2015-01-13 17.03.36_resized

Je suis Juive.


Je suis Charlie.











Apocalypse, Prepping, and the U.S. versus Israel

A reader from Israel wrote to ask my opinion about America’s obsession with apocalypse – – that an external force (famine, natural disaster, disease etc) “will wipe out most of the population and only a few pockets of individuals will be left.”  Why, she wanted to know, are Americans “so concerned?  Do you suppose it’s from the time of the Cuban missile crisis, or did it start before?”

This question came at a funny time.  Jerusalem is supposed to get 3″ – 9″ of snow and the city is in a total panic.  This snowstorm is not going to last days or weeks, just a matter of hours, and then it will be done.  But the mayor has ordered all roads leading into or out of the city closed as soon as the first flakes hit.  The supermarket shelves have been wiped clean of all food (bottled water, disposable diapers, and meat were the first items to sell out).  Because snow hits Israel’s capitol about 3x every 10 years, the city lacks the machinery for effective snow removal.  Most people do not own snow boots, and you’d be hard pressed to even find snow shovels for sale in the stores – – most people use brooms and dustpans to clean off their cars and a bit of sidewalk.

I thought the whole apocalypse-prepper phenomena would make for an interesting essay, since we live in rural Maine.  We are somewhat isolated – – and insulated – – from potential apocalypse-related disasters.  We are not anticipating an apocalypse anytime soon but we are “preppers” out of necessity since the nearest supermarket is 45 minutes away and weather conditions and poor roads often make winter travel challenging.   We are pretty self-sufficient here and live mostly off the grid. Our closest neighbor is 1/4 mile away and the next one is 3 miles down the road.

I find my Israeli reader’s question about the American obsession with apocalypse especially significant, since unlike America, modern Israel has been actively living with conflict, terrorism and war(s) since its declaration of Statehood in 1948 (and well before).  Yet there is no concept of general apocalypse other than a prophetic, somewhat esoteric religious one that will lead to Israel’s Final Redemption, and even more significantly, there is no active “prepper” movement on an individual or community level – – yes, there are residential bomb shelters but typically they are not stockpiled with food or medicines and at best may contain a lone mattress and folding chair.

My observations and opinions are strictly anecdotal, and may be an over-simplification, but this is what I know:

I was in first grade in the 1960s when our teacher put us through the “duck ‘n cover” drills against what was then a grave concern of nuclear disaster (the US-Soviet “Cuban Missile Crisis”).  We were told to lower the venetian blinds, shut the windows, and crawl under our desks in a kneeling-to-the-floor fetal bracing position, with our hands grasping our necks, and our elbows tightly tucked and held close to our bodies.

duckandcover Somehow, even then, I knew this was utter bullshit, realizing at the tender age of 6 that it might protect us against shrapnel but we would in any case fry from the radiation.  I remember laying awake at night in bed, completely unable to fall asleep.  I was not worried about the monsters under my bed but rather, terrified and certain I was going to die from the upcoming Soviet invasion onto US soil and an atom bomb that would surely be aimed right over my head in Encino, California.

At the same time, in Hollywood, California where my future husband lived with his family, his father, a Holocaust survivor and partisan who lost his entire family during WWII,  ran out and bought a gun as soon as he became a US citizen because he was never, ever going to be defenseless again, and invested thousands of dollars he couldn’t spare into the excavation of his backyard to accommodate a pre-fab fall-out shelter.  (Sadly I never had the opportunity to know my father-in-law; he died of a sudden heart attack years before I met my husband.)  This thing had all the bells and whistles, with only a flat door running parallel to the ground giving hint to its existence.  It had thick metal sides to absorb radiation; the door had an internal latch and steep ladder leading several feet beneath the earth to the internal space, with an air filtration system, stockpiles of food and water, and a rifle.

This 1960s  bomb shelter door is in Wisconsin, but is similar to the one at my husband's childhood home in Hollywood.

This 1960s bomb shelter door is in Wisconsin, but is similar to the one at my husband’s childhood home in Hollywood.


But life in Southern California, at least until the 1971 earthquake, was idyllic and safe and once the Bay of Pigs crisis resolved, there were no more thoughts about impending doom.  The ’71 and subsequent earthquakes did serve as a wake-up call to Angelenos that having several days’ supply of food and water, batteries, flashlight and first aid was a good idea, but it did not, in my opinion, breed the current fear of apocalypse.

I think the current American preoccupation with apocalypse is the result of five factors:

  • The Y2K panic/hype
  • Hurricane Katrina, and the resultant Superdome chaos
  • The Internet
  • Right-wing Christian religious belief regarding Apocalypse, End of Days, and Rapture
  • Apocalypse as a genre in popular culture via books and movies


There was genuine fear bordering on panic starting a couple of years before Y2K, much of it promulgated by the media.  The fear, which seems unbelievably silly now, was that by referring to year dates by the last two digits instead of all four, “00,” 1900 was indistinguishable from 2000.  In embedded systems, this date mix-up would cause havoc with telecommunications and utilities infrastructures, resulting in chaos that would spread not only to the grid, but to food and fuel delivery systems, transportation, the pharmaceutical industry, and anything programmed and run by computer, et al. This might result in riots, martial law, etc.  Weapons were stockpiled by many who thought this would be their only possibility for defense against marauders that would scavenge for a failing food supply in total blackout conditions.  A new industry was created:  living off the grid.  Catalogs circulated that were full of products that enabled people to live comfortably and safely without electricity.  (My husband and I were delighted, a year after the Y2K panic had passed, to buy a $200 unused kerosene space heater for $25 from one such suckered consumer.)

While any immediate sense of urgency passed with the coming of January 2, 2000 and no apparent crisis at hand, only five years later Hurricane Katrina would create a different kind of havoc in New Orleans and the country at large.  It was the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, with over 1800 people dead (135 people remain missing to this day), causing damage in 7 states in an area 90,000 sq miles (almost the size of the United Kingdom); severe flooding left hundreds of thousands of people homeless; over a million people were left without power; and environmental damage including oil spills and toxic waste.   But the damage was not only physical and financial.  With the total breakdown of available services from disaster relief organizations and government, mayhem ensued.  The New Orleans Superdome, which sustained some hurricane damage, became a giant refugee center for the city’s poor, but roving gangs there inflicted robbery, rape and murder on those who sheltered there.  Elsewhere in New Orleans, nursing home patients died of dehydration and starvation when assistance was unavailable for days, and even weeks, after the hurricane hit.  The stores not hit by looters survived only because the store owners were heavily armed with personal weapons, standing guard on the roofs of their shops 24/7.  National Guardsmen from all 50 states were called in to restore order, but they were spread thin and it was too little, too late.

Rather than being united in this time of crisis – and there were several “good Samaritan” stories of course – – the images the media captured of the New Orleans’ free-for-all greatly demoralized the country.  For the first time, Americans felt vulnerable and distrustful of their fellow citizens, as things had deteriorated into a “it’s me or them” state of mind, instead of “we’re in this together.”  In the social order of American culture, this paradigm shift was epic!

This is when the Internet came into play.  Suddenly the Web was filled with “survivalist” forums and websites.  And, reactive to Katrina’s massive failure, it was not only about being prepared with emergency supplies during disaster.  The American public was being asked, for the first time on a national scale, to imagine frightening “what ifs” and contingency plans for the survival of immediate family with things like “bug-out locations,” the most effective firearms for self-defense of one’s home and supplies, how to lose one’s identity to avoid government surveillance or accountability, and how to live a self-sufficient lifestyle in terms of food, shelter, clothing, heat, etc. without the necessity to rely on others for subsistence.

In a time when the American public is increasingly suspicious of the toxins resulting in the industrialization of basic necessities, such highly processed food, a bad-tasting water supply, chemical pollutants, disease cluster populations, etc., the concept of a healthier lifestyle; of going “back to the land” and becoming more self-sufficient; and in recognizing a general wimpyness that has overtaken the American population – –  the survivalist mentality of getting back to our roots and becoming more independent could not have been more timely.  With political divisions becoming more extreme within the United States, increased religious fervor and both conservative and liberal political ideologies are often reactive and emotion-led rather the result of thoughtful intellectual reasoning.  It’s a world that seems to make less and less sense, where once concrete notions of Good and Evil are now subjects for debate and moral relativism and political correctness aren’t just about semantics, but a sea change for how we evaluate everyday ethics.  People want answers, and when those answers are less than satisfying, they will look to a Higher Power at one end of the spectrum, or disavow everything at the other end.  And forgive my cynical American self, but in our land of opportunity, where there is money to be made, anything goes.  Hence, not only do we have a media frenzy about the latest sexy whatever ad nauseam, we also have movies, books, and TV shows about zombies and Nights of the Living Dead, aliens of the extraterrestrial variety,  and end-of-the-world scenarios.  Which would be laughable, except the very realistic images on the screen have many Americans convinced that zombies are not the product of a screenwriter’s imagination; they are real.

My own evolution into the world of prepping has a lot to do with my decision to live, for now, in Maine, but it’s not the result of dogma.   Among die-hard survivalists I’d be considered naive and misguided.

As long-time followers of my blog know, my original heave-ho to urban living was the result of a personal and emotional crisis, not a sense that the End of the World was near.  Both my mother and mother-in-law lived with us near the end of their lives (at the same time!).  One parent was battling Alzheimer’s and cancer; the other’s problems were emotional and financial, in addition to congestive heart failure.  The stresses were enormous, and unlike the saintly people you read about in motivational books and magazines and newscasts, I was psychologically and spiritually  ill-equipped to deal with it.  As a caretaker of my loved ones, I constantly strove to make myself into a better person, but the trials and tribulations, and the harsh judgement and disowning of others close to me for my failures, perceived and real, brought me to the edge of a nervous breakdown.  I started questioning everything:  relationships, responsibility, love, faith, religion, sense of place, my city, my environment; but I was so confused and angry and sad that clarity was lacking.  I needed a change, and it had to be a drastic one.  I admit it – – I was running away – – but I was also running towards something.  I wanted to see if by reducing life to its most basic form, I could somehow manage to exist in a way that was more than going through the motions of daily living.  By living in a very isolated, rural environment, I would be challenging myself anew on many levels.  And by sheer need of the circumstances – – I live 30+ miles from the usual conveniences – – I would need to be prepared for many types of emergencies in a practical, girl-scout sort of way.  Over the years in Maine, my competence level for practical knowledge in day-to-day living has increased.  I’m content here.  My husband and I are alone, but not lonely.

And then, in the summer of 2014, Operation Protective Edge – – the war in Gaza and Israel – – happened, preceded by some terrorist-caused tragedies that led to the declaration of that war.  Via the Internet where I voraciously consumed news of Israel and following a personal visit there, I realized that “surviving” according to the American apocalyptic version, versus the Israeli version, are two very different concepts and are realized in nearly oppositional ways.

As a country and out of necessity, Israel is highly prepared for conflict.  Even young children know not to pick up tempting objects from the ground, such as a doll or a grapefruit – – both have been used by terrorists to hide explosives.  If someone leaves a backpack or lunch box or stray package behind on the bus and someone notices it – – and someone always does – – the bus is evacuated and a bomb squad is called in.  Usually a robot is used to inspect and “disable” the object.  This constant, heightened state of alert is imprinted in every single Israeli man, woman and child.  And yes, it means the mind and body can never really relax.

Perhaps that is why Israelis are so brash.  They have big hearts, but also big mouths.  They are quick to forgive.  They will lend their opinion about everything, unasked.  And while this can be annoying as heck, one realizes that the reason a complete stranger isn’t afraid to tell you how to run your life, is because they don’t consider themselves strangers – – all Israelis consider themselves part of one (often dysfunctional) family.  They really care because ultimately they realize that they are part of one cohesive family unit, despite individual differences.  This bond goes even beyond statehood; it is a bond of nationhood, and is perhaps the key to understanding why, despite all odds against it, Israel continues to thrive.  An Aramaic phrase from Talmudic times sums this up:  “kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh” — all Israel is responsible for one another.  This concept of communal responsibility is far-reaching.  If one Jew sees another acting sinfully or irresponsibly, he has the imperative to intervene.  It also obligates Jews to ensure that basic needs of his Jewish brethren, such as food, shelter and clothing, are taken care of.

Already you can see why, especially in times of conflict, the survivalist vision of a discreet, heavily armed and stockpiled compound in West Virginia that is completely self-sufficient and built to keep out others is in complete opposition to the Israeli model.

There are countless examples from Operation Protective Edge that turn classic American-style “survivalism” on its edge.  Here are but a few:

  • I called some friends living in the Galilee to ask how they were doing.  They couldn’t talk because they were in the process of welcoming a woman and her 5 children to their home – – people who were complete strangers to them.  The woman’s husband was called up to fight, and meanwhile the family, who were from Israel’s south and were under constant bombardment – – were mentally and physically exhausted.  Every time a siren indicated a possible attack, they had only 15 seconds to get to a shelter.  Sleep, meals, bus rides, school, going to buy food – – all activities were constantly disrupted, and they were under tremendous stress.  My friends would say they did nothing exceptional by welcoming these strangers into their home for a period of several weeks, completely without expectation of payment for their trouble.  In fact, thousands of Israelis in the North welcomed families from the South – – just as families in the South had done to families from the Northern regions when villages and cities had come under hundreds of missile attacks from Syria and Lebanon in 2006.
  • When it was difficult for businesses in the South to remain open due to the constant bombardment, competing businesses in the North gave up sales they might have had and invited their competitors in the South to set up merchandise fairs in the North in town halls and schools, as well as inviting them to send their stock to the North so these businesses could help sell things on their behalf.  This included merchandise such as school supplies, giftware, clothing, books and jewelry.
  • When it was known that a platoon would be passing through a town, residents rushed to make care packages for the soldiers consisting of socks, phone rechargers, toiletries, and home-cooked meals, sodas, baked goods, candy, and notes of encouragement.  The response by residents was so overwhelming that the soldiers actually had to tell them to stop.
  • Many towns didn’t wait for soldiers to pass through.  Instead, they organized “care packages” and had truckloads driven by residents who personally delivered the items to the combat zone border.
  • One civilian man rigged a solar shower contraption and drove from field base to field base so that soldiers could take hot showers.  He also supplied toiletries and clean towels free of charge.

Israel, on a national scale, is prepared for war.  Haifa’s Rambam Hospital recently opened the largest (2,000 bed) underground hospital in the world.  It is designed to protect staff and patients safe in the event of chemical or biological warfare, as well as from missiles and rocket attacks.  Newly constructed apartment buildings and private homes now have “sealed room” bomb shelters within the living space.  And yet, the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not stockpile food or water or emergency supplies in their homes and residential shelters in times of war! How ironic, then, that when a snowstorm of a few inches threatens every few years, the entire country goes into a crazy panic!  Entire supermarket shelves are completely emptied before impending snow.  And yet this store-storming buyers’ panic does not occur on the eve of a war.

While I personally believe keeping extra water and a small supply of food and medicine is a good idea for the sealed rooms, perhaps Israeli  reticence is based on the idea that no man is an island:  that to win in adversity, one must cooperate and share resources and help one another get through whatever trials life brings.  Because ultimately, despite the craziness, Israelis have each others’ backs.

Seeing how Israel behaved during last summer’s conflict forced me to ask myself this question:  in a survivalist’s bug-out location, one can survive Apocalypse — but does one want to be a survivor in such a world, where people unknown to you are the enemy, and one must live only for oneself and one’s immediate family at the expense of another?

I love my life here in Maine, but I think a large part of my heart is tied to Israel.  Living in Israel is about being part of something greater than myself, about being a part of history, and a part of destiny – – a perhaps-irrational desire that emanates without logic from my Jewish soul.

Aliyah (living in Israel some day) is a dream that I hope will become my new reality in the near future.

We Stand For Israel


Location:  Intervale Scenic Vista @ Rte. 16, White Mountains NH.

Location: Intervale Scenic Vista @ Rte. 16, White Mountains NH.

On very short notice we organized our We Stand For Israel get-together. There are very few Jews living in the White Mountains of NH-ME and it covers a very large geographical distance. Lots of diversity: old and young; religious and secular; politically liberal and conservative; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; gay and straight; converts and born Jewish – – everyone came together to show that WE ALL STAND FOR ISRAEL! Some people drove for nearly 2 hours so they could be part of this picture!

Israel, Day 11: Harish and Zichron Yaakov

Even though we were completely exhausted after taking the psychometric exam, we had promised good friends who live in Petach Tikva that we’d come for dinner, and we couldn’t disappoint them.  How we originally met the “F” family is a story in itself.

Many years ago, our eldest son was volunteering for Bikur Cholim, an organization that provides practical as well as emotional support and guidance to people who are hospitalized or seriously ill, as well as their families.  At the time, there were several Israelis who were undergoing kidney transplants at an East coast hospital, and since he is fluent in Hebrew, our son volunteered to be of assistance via the Bikur Cholim organization.

Although Mr. F’s transplant was successful, he would be unable to return to Israel in time for the Passover holiday.  He was in the US with his wife; his children (the youngest was only 9 years old) were staying with relatives in Israel and would have to celebrate this very family-oriented holiday without their parents.

Our son asked if we would mind having them as our guests during the Passover holiday; otherwise they’d be staying in a hotel near the hospital and eating alone.  Well, as it says in the Passover Haggada, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”  and so they came and stayed with us in our home over Passover.

Mr. F (the transplant recipient) was born on the island of Djerba in Tunisia.  He emigrated to Israel when he was a small child, but he had a thick Sephardi accent and he spoke a rapid-fire Hebrew, so it took our complete concentration to understand him.

Mrs. F was a Cochin Jew from India, having also immigrated to Israel as a small child.  Now working as a Hebrew teacher,  she enunciated very clearly and we were able to understand everything (in Hebrew) that she said.

Although our backgrounds could not have been more different, we quickly became close friends and have remained so to this day.  We love the fact that despite our very different backgrounds, the thing that binds us together is our diverse Jewish heritage which meets and melds and binds us as one in the Land of Israel.

Every time we’ve visited Israel, we make sure to spend time with the “F’s”  where we relive the miracle of Mr. F’s successful kidney transplant and the journey from near-death to a happy, healthy life.  Mr. F has lived to walk his daughter down the aisle and recently, experience the joy of becoming a grandfather.

While we were at the “F’s” we told them about our quest for a home in Israel.  They suggested we take a look at Harish, where their daughter and son-in-law had just bought an apartment.

“Not that there is much to see – – yet.  It will be Israel’s newest city, built from the ground up.”

About 15 years ago, Israel built a planned city all at one time, from the ground up, called Modi’in, located in the center of Israel.  It’s now a city of 50,000 and prices have quadrupled.  In fact, we could not consider Modi’in for ourselves – – it is just not within our budget.  But here was a chance to invest in a similar project model.    We decided that our last day in Israel, we would check out Harish.

But first, since we were staying in Rehovot, I wanted to visit the town of Mazkeret Batya.  A small village only 3 miles from Rehovot, it was founded in the 1800’s.  Only recently, on its outskirts, has the village started to expand with new building projects.  But the inner core of the village retains its quaint, cobblestoned appearance, with many art galleries, boutique inns, cafes, a delicious bakery, and small museums.  What I loved about Mazkeret Batya was that it had the look and feel of Zichron Yaakov, minus the constant arrival and departure of busloads of tourists and schoolchildren on class trips that sometimes turn Zichron Yaakov into a Zionist Disneyland.   It’s as if parts of Mazkeret Batya are suspended in time.

From there we traveled north to the not-yet-built massive pile of dirt that will be the new city of Harish.  Just across the road from the town of Pardes Chana, right now there isn’t much to see.  Currently the hilltop that will house Harish is full of monster trucks and excavation trucks.  Electricity, sewers, and roads are all being laid out; only a handful of apartments have begun construction.  Mostly there is just noise and dust.  There is a small lane where several builders have set up offices in modular trailers.  There you can see apartment plans and architectural renderings and maps of what Harish will look like not too far into the future. It’s easy to be dubious.  But seeing the success of Modi’in from the ground up, there is no reason to believe that Harish will be any different.  It will house a population of 25,000.

At the entrance to Harish, various contractors and developers have their signs posted, along with a map of the future Harish

At the entrance to Harish, various contractors and developers have their signs posted, along with a map of the future Harish

A look at the future:  right now there isn't much to see

A look at the future: right now there isn’t much to see

One of the first apartment buildings being built.  The block-like rooms seen here are the steel-reinforced "sealed rooms" that are used as both bomb shelters and in the event of chemical warfare.

One of the first apartment buildings being built. The block-like rooms seen here are the steel-reinforced “sealed rooms” that are used as both bomb shelters and in the event of chemical warfare.

Apartments under construction.  Right now there's lots and lots of dust.

Apartments under construction. Right now there’s lots and lots of dust.





From Harish we went to visit Zichron Yaakov.   We visited the Baron Hirsch synagogue and were delighted to find ourselves in the middle of a local school’s first grade end-of-the-year performance coinciding with the upcoming celebration of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Festival of Weeks), which commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people on Mt. Sinai (and is also a harvest festival, and it’s when the Book of Ruth is read in the synagogue ).



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  The children were very proud of the little Torahs they had made and decorated.

Alas, our trip to Israel was at an end.  The next morning we would be traveling via Turkish Air to Boston, and then back to Maine.  We saw so much, and would need time to absorb the vast amount of information we gathered.  But I think we felt closer to making a decision about where we will make our home, as we contemplate our future and final destiny.



Israel, Day 10: The Psychometric Exam

Ah, the infamous Israeli Psychometric Test.

In our profound ignorance, we did not realize just how crucial this exam is to determining the average Israeli’s future.

There are different types of psychometric tests, depending on their intended audience.

Students take the psychometric exam to get into university; and despite top high school grades and top scores on their matriculation exams, if they fail the psychometric test, Israelis won’t get into the university of their choice.

You might have a stellar resume, but if you blow the psychometric exam required by your employer, you can forget your job prospects.

The army uses similar tests to recruit their top echelon for the elite officers’ corps.

Similarly, if you want to join a “closed” or vetted community (yishuv), moshav, or kibbutz, you will be required to take the psychometric exam.

I asked both native Israelis and olim (immigrants) what to expect.  They sighed, rolled their eyes, and said, “You’ll do fine.”  But when I asked them to be more specific about the exam itself, the types of questions asked or the subject matter covered, they just shook their heads.  “We’d tell you but we’d have to kill you.  You’ll do fine, don’t worry,” they repeated, and so I didn’t give it much more thought.

That was my first mistake.

I figured I am a woman in my late fifties; my husband is in his mid-sixties; so how seriously should we take the psychometric exam, anyway?  We’re not depending on results to better our lot in life in the job market or in an academic field.  We’d already spent Shabbatot in two communities in Israel that we were interested in. They had interviewed us, had us interact socially with community members and administrators and religious leaders, and things seemed to be going well.  Our attitude was that if we were going to get rejected on the basis of our psychometric test results alone, then it probably wasn’t the type of community we’d want, anyhow. Since historically I do not test well, I decided to enter the exam with a fatalistic yet carefree attitude.  There was just no point getting anxious over the psychometric exam!

I found out only afterward, that Israelis take the psychometric exam very, very seriously.  So seriously, that they often sign up for preparatory courses – – some lasting as long as six months! – – on how to achieve good results when taking the psychometric exam, kind of like Americans who take prep courses for the SAT, GRE, LSAT, and MCAT exams.

We received one really bad piece of advice from every immigrant we talked to:  Since you already speak Hebrew, save yourself the extra $150 cost of taking the exam in English.  Especially since even though you are supposed to get the exam in English, much of the test is still in Hebrew anyhow!  Well, since the exam was quite expensive in the first place, we certainly were in no mood to pay more for an English version.  Our Hebrew may not be great, but it’s good – – good enough, we thought, to save ourselves from paying even more for an English translation of the test.  That was our second, biggest mistake.

Our psychometric exam was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. in the center of downtown Tel Aviv.  (We found out afterwards that there are also Keinan Sheffi testing centers located in Jerusalem, Haifa, and Be’er Sheva.)   There was no way we were going to travel to Tel Aviv in our rental car, handle the traffic and find a parking place, all by 8 a.m. So we stayed with friends in the city of Rehovot (home to the famous Weizmann Institute of Science) and took the train.  Like New York, the middle of Tel Aviv is crowded – that’s an understatement – – with loads of everything:  noise, traffic, tall buildings, and people rushing somewhere.  Everyone is focused only on where they need to go, and getting there on time, rather than the names of actual city streets.

Asking directions was futile.   When you ask directions of any Israeli living anywhere else in the country, they point in one direction and tell you with utmost confidence, “yashar, yashar!” which means “keep going straight ahead!” even if that is not even remotely correct.  Israelis are not doing this to intentionally mislead you; they just want to be helpful and chatty and friendly, even at the expense of being dead wrong.  In Tel Aviv, we got the same result as asking for directions elsewhere in Israel – – we weren’t getting anywhere with any kind of accuracy – – but in Tel Aviv, we encountered only blank looks and  shrugged shoulders whenever we asked passersby for directions.

Finally we found the building of Keinan Shefi Testing Center on a side street, and took an aging elevator to the 5th floor.  Miraculously we made it on time, but it was more a case of “hurry up and wait.”  There were dozens of people ahead of us.  We left our names with the receptionist, paid the 750 NIS test fee (about $200), and were told to be seated until we were called.

Around 8:15 we were led into a room with 8 other test-takers and handed a stack of forms to fill out, several pages long, and all in Hebrew.  None of the tests were done at computer stations:  Israelis also take graphology (handwriting analysis) very seriously.

The first page was a basic form asking for name, address, birth date, etc.  The second page asked us to write our “life story.”  We were also asked to write about why we desired to live in a yishuv; how we thought we could benefit from that lifestyle as well as what we could contribute (idealistically, not financially).  There were also many test sections that were timed:  We were given stacks and stacks of pages that were answer sheets based on a supplementary workbook, where we were to do various exercises including  “fill in the blank.”   The facilitator instructed us that “the key is not to think too hard about your answers, but rather to just write the first thing that pops into your head.  It’s kind of like a word association game.”)

Clearly they were trying to see if we had been scarred for life by our parents (LOTS of sentence completion questions regarding what parents should or shouldn’t do, say, or how they should act);  if  we were prone to depression; or had interpersonal relationship issues:

“My mother is . . . “

“A father should never . . . “

“A good mother does . . .”

“I feel overwhelmed when . . .”

“When people make fun of me, I . . . “

“I feel sad if . . . “

“What really makes me happy is . . . “

“When I want something, I . . . “

“Success means . . .”


Another segment had 2 pages of  little cartoon characters involved in 16 different sticky situations that would make most people upset, alongside another cartoon character with a dialogue bubble above its head.  We were supposed to fill in the 2nd cartoon characters’ responses.


Waiter talking to customer:  “I’m sorry, but we do not have what you ordered.”

Customer to waiter:  (fill in the bubble)


Man to second person:  “I’m sorry I hit your car, but it’s really nothing.”

Second person to man: (fill in the bubble)


Man to woman:  “You should not have done that!”

Woman to man:  (fill in the bubble)


Boss to employee:  “This is all wrong!”

Employee to boss:  (fill in the bubble)


Driver to bicyclist:  “Next time watch where you’re going!  I almost hit you!”

Bicyclist to driver:  (fill in the bubble)



Despite allowing us to use a dictionary which my husband fortunately thought to bring with us to the exam, we struggled to understand the Hebrew vocabulary so we could grasp the meaning of the questions, and yes, it took us considerably longer to fill out the forms than the other test-takers (all native Israelis except for a Russian immigrant who was taking the test in Russian).  We were racing against the clock!  Our concentration was broken when a different proctor called us out of the room. (“Not to worry,” she assured us, “you’ll have time to finish the first set of questions after our meeting.”)

In this other room we were given yet more forms with test questions.

First, we had to rate certain personality traits on a scale of 1 to 10,  “1” being “strongly disagree” and “10” being “strongly agree.”  There were questions such as,

“When I am in a bad mood, everyone knows about it.”

“When I am sad, I think of killing myself.” (Come on, what person hoping to pass this test is going to write “10”?)

“I like to take charge.”

“I see myself more as an observer than as a participant.”

“I am a team player.”

Then we had to do a really strange exercise, also under the clock.  We were given a list of 32 words written in Hebrew letters, but they weren’t really Hebrew words.  We had to circle those whose definition we understood.  I think the idea was to separate the “intellgentsia” from the “chaff”, as well as to see how much exposure one had to the outside world intellectually, academically, scientifically, medically, and journalistically .  Many of the words were in fact “trick” questions, as they were close to a real word, but slightly off . . . or was it that it just sounded different in Hebrew?  This should have been easy – – after all one is reading mostly English or Latin words transliterated into Hebrew.  But reading words that are not Hebrew words in Hebrew letters is a killer for a non-native speaker, since one is struggling phonetically with the Hebrew letters and trying to make sense of it.

Here are some approximations:






Perontitis. (fake.  Should be “peritonitis.”)



Peroncardial.  (that’s a fake one – – I think the correct one would have been “pericardial”)

Endocretin (another imaginary one – (I hope )- – I believe the correct version would have been “endocrine”)


Dyspepsic.  (No.  Should read, “dyspeptic.”)

Anthropog. (should’ve been “anthropologist”)

There were several more tests like these – – I can’t remember all of them, and believe me, memory was a very important part of the day in general as you will soon see in other test examples.

After completing this set of exercises, were told to return to the first room and finish up those papers we had been working on.

I had written maybe two sentences of my “life story” when we had been called away the first time.  Now I had to take extra time to re-read the instructions and review what I had written, so there would be some continuity to my essay answer.  But only 3 minutes after resuming writing my life story (I don’t think my husband was even at the life story part yet, he was still sweating over the basic info part of the first questionnaire), we were once again interrupted and told to follow yet another examiner into a different room for a “private” interview.  She wanted to probe our relationship as a couple.

The psychologist/therapist wanted to know about the quality of our marriage.  It’s not that problem marriages don’t exist in yishuvim, but the yishuv did not want people with rocky marriages thinking that moving to a small, closed community would be the panacea for their conflicts.  Fortunately we had nothing to hide, and we are clearly in sync.

“I have to tell you,” the psychologist began, “that most of the couples I interview are much younger than you.  They’ve been together – –  either married or as partners – –  for only a year or two.  It’s a bit unusual that I’m interviewing a couple that’s been married for more than 35 years, on the quality of their relationship.  I mean, I guess by now you probably have lots in common.”

Together, as one, we snapped, “No way!  We have nothing in common!”

Taken completely aback, she was momentarily speechless.  So we continued,

Me:  “We don’t have the same hobbies.”

Spouse:  “We don’t share the same interests.”

Me:  “We don’t have the same taste.”

Spouse:  “We don’t share the same politics.”

The psychologist’s eyes kept getting wider and wider; she was looking downright alarmed.

Me:  “But that stuff doesn’t really matter.'”

Spouse:  “Yeah.  It’s just stuff.”

Me:  “We have the same goals.”

Spouse:  “We have the same ideals.”

Me:  “The same things are important to us.”

Spouse:  “We are best friends.”

Me:  “We love each other and our kids and grandkids very much.”

Spouse:  “Life is good.  We are truly blessed and we know it.”

We smiled at one another.  The psychologist looked uncomfortable, and before it got too sappy she ushered us out, back to the first room.  Suffice it to say, I think we passed this part of the exam.

I re-read the four lines of my life story, and continued writing the saga.  But soon enough we were once again interrupted, and instructed to go to yet another room.

There, we sat with six other test-takers, including the Russian immigrant, whose Hebrew was better than ours though more thickly accented, and who refused to answer any questions in Hebrew because he had paid extra for the Russian version of the test; a philosophy student hoping to get into grad school; a 60-ish kibbutznik hoping to get an industrial managerial position on his kibbutz; a congenial former naval officer who was applying to be a firefighter; a middle-aged Arab who was applying for a job with an Israeli company;  a fellow who was applying for a position as a security guard; my husband and myself.  I was the only woman other than the facilitator.  We were asked to introduce ourselves by name and tell about ourselves briefly.

We were each given an identical piece of paper containing a list of nine imaginary candidates for the Israel Prize (Israel’s top award for Biggest Mensch/Innovator, similar to the Nobel prizes).  Each of us was also asked to come up with our own idea of an ideal candidate, and promote his or her contribution to society as being worthy of an award.  We were to pick one candidate from the eight personal suggestions invented by each of us, along with two other candidates from the list of nine.  There was to be a first, second and third prize, but we all had to agree on the order of the prizes and we had only nine minutes  to do so.  (One “candidate” on the ” list” was a doctor who discovered a successful cancer treatment; another was a rabbi who helped the poor; yet another was a high-ranking military officer who began an integrative rehabilitation program for disabled soldiers; another was a painter who created a major work of art; another was an educator who worked with underprivileged youth; yet another was a hi-tech innovator who created something bigger and better; another was a person who encouraged Arabs and Israelis to work cooperatively to develop cultural, social and economic ties; etc.).

First each person presented their imagined ideal candidate.  Then we proceeded to vote on the top three choices from the entire list.  Then we attempted to come to an agreement as to which order the prizes would be awarded – – this decision had to be unanimous.  We had nine minutes to accomplish the entire process.

This sounds easier than it actually was.  What was fascinating about the exercise  – – and I suspect was the true point of it all – – was to see how various personalities evolved.  There was the complainer; the leader; the shy one; the argumentative one; the passive one; the follower.  At the end of the nine minutes (and we still had not come to a final resolution, so I guess we “failed”) the facilitator asked us what we could have done better to ensure that our mission would have succeeded.  Then she asked us to write on a piece of paper which participant we thought was the most successful, and why – – and then asked us to write which participant we liked the least – – and why.  (She assured us that only she would be reading the answers; the idea wasn’t to defame others but to examine our thought processes and analytical sense, as well as how well we worked as a team and independently.)

Then we were given drawings of shapes.  We were told to copy the shapes on a piece of paper, and continue the pattern.  The shapes looked something like this:

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Aha!  Trick question?  Should one continue the pattern horizontally – – or perhaps also as a mirror image beneath?

She then collected our drawings.  Then she had us take out another blank piece of paper, and requested that we re-draw the shapes, this time from memory.  Since my own short-term memory skills are poor, I could not remember all the shapes – – but neither could most of the participants, so I didn’t feel too terrible.  Fortunately I had not only memorized the shapes, but I had counted the number of repeats, so I was able to re-draw those I remembered with accuracy.

Then came a really unusual exercise having to do with perception, coordination and memory.  We were told to look at the following shape:

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We were then instructed to put an “X” inside the center of the main circle, which was about the size of a salad plate.  Then we were told to put “x’s” in each of the small circles.

Now we were instructed to close our eyes, and with our eyes closed, to draw an “x” in what we thought was the center of the circle, as well as inside what we thought was the location of  the four small outer circles.  The results were not particularly impressive.  We were allowed to make 3 attempts at this exercise.  After the third attempt, we were instructed to write our accuracy rate at each attempt (how many x’s were placed correctly in attempts 1 – 3).

Next we were given a test in cryptography.  We were given numbers 1 thru 9.  Each number had a graphic symbol associated with it.  Then we were given a series of numbers and told to place the appropriate symbols next to the numbers.  We had to complete the exercise in three minutes or less.  This was an exercise in hand-eye coordination, as well as seeing how long it took our brains to process and translate visual information.

Then came a very tricky brain teaser.  We were given a paper with a series of shapes.  We had to re-draw the shapes, but we weren’t allowed to cross or repeat a line and our pens could not be lifted from the page.  If we made a mistake, then we were required to put our pens down and not proceed further with that particular segment of the test.  We would have 5 minutes to complete all the shapes.

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Clearly I did not work well under pressure.  Instead of thinking about the exercise logically and thoroughly, I instead grew more concerned with the time limitations, which impeded my rational thought. I only got as far as the third puzzle before I realized I was “stuck” and could go no further.  Not only did the exercise require logic and perception, it required planning and forethought and the ability to stay collected and focused under pressure.  Let’s just say I am not that person!

Once again we were ushered back into the first room; once again we tackled the first set of questionnaires including our life story.  Alas, once again we were interrupted and requested to go to another room.  I realized that they were also studying our reaction to interruptions – – annoyance, our ability to multi-task, our ability to regain focus, our attitudes, our levels of fatigue.

The same eight of us once again were put together in the same room.  We were each handed a blank sheet of paper.  We were told that we would have to make a cohesive drawing so that the eight papers would fit together as one.  We would be given the topic of the drawing as a single keyword, and have 5 minutes to make the drawing, but after the subject matter of the drawing was announced by the facilitator, we would not be allowed to communicate verbally or via hand motions as to what the drawing should look like or how the picture should be drawn.  The main thing was that it should be a cohesive unit from 8 separate papers.  We would be allowed to come up with a plan on how to accomplish this before the subject of the drawing would be announced; we could take 10 minutes to discuss it before the exercise would begin.

After discussing whether the picture would be vertical or horizontal, in one, two or four rows, we told the facilitator we were ready to begin.

Announcing the keyword, “Miracle,” she then clicked the stopwatch and signaled for us to begin.

We just looked at one another.  I thought of being the initiator and drawing a part of a splitting sea, but before I could act, another participant drew the beginning of a menorah.  Despite what should have been a fairly easy concept to carry out (I thought the menorah idea was much better and less complicated than my idea of the splitting of the Red Sea), we were not particularly successful in getting the pages to line up.  Actually, it was an epic fail.  We were then required to analyze our failure as a team.

Finally we were escorted back to the first room to finish up our essay questions and life story.  It was now 4:15 p.m. and we had been at this for almost 8 hours (there were bathroom breaks but no lunch break).  The Israelis were able to finish up quickly, but we were still breaking our teeth over the Hebrew.

“No worries,” the staff assured us, “we’re here until 5 p.m. anyhow.”

We turned to the remaining, final questions.  The first page was a picture of a farmer, his back to the observer, plowing a field, with every muscle strained.  To the side was a woman, heavy with child, leaning against a tree and gazing off into the distance.  In the foreground was a teenaged girl, looking at the observer with a steady, calm and determined look; she was holding a stack of books.  We were instructed to compose a story based on what we saw.

The next page also requested us to write a story based on what we saw:  a blank page.  By now I was so exhausted from intense concentration, the many hours of writing and thinking, and the constant struggle with Hebrew reading and writing, that I was nearly slap-happy.  I started expounding on what was probably the worst and most clichéd writing of my life:  “Life is like a blank page,” it began.  The result was so bad I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Clearly my brain was shutting down.  I quickly finished up my life story, which by now was completely incoherent, disjointed, and sounded nothing like my life.  I had been at it for 8.5 hours and simply needed to escape.

But my husband was nowhere near done, and was hardly having an easier time of it.

My husband is no dummy.  He has an advanced graduate degree from a top university and he is a genuine guru when it comes to anything having to do with computer software design, engineering and architecture.  He is a very literal, rational, and logical person, but creative thought is not his forté.  Any creative writing assignment is a form of torture for him.

But a blank page!  That was a lot to ask.

So he wrote two lines:

“I see a blank page.  That’s it.”

Fatigued and cranky, he declared himself “done.”

The examiner collected our papers and glanced at my husband’s final exercise.

“Oh, no, this will not do,” she said.  “The instructions say that you must write a minimum of ten lines.”  About a blank page!

Groaning, he took the paper from her hands, and looked at the blank page.  He then wrote,  like a true Mainer:

“I see a white house in the middle of a snowstorm.  There is a person inside of the house trying to get out, but he is trapped until the snowstorm is over. . . ”  

(He did not know how to say the word “shovel” in Hebrew so that is why the person was trapped until the snowstorm was over!)

He handed the paper to the woman.  By now it was 5:15 and he had been at it for nine hours.

We were both completely spent to the point of being ga-ga.  I had that deer-in-the-headlights look; my husband was nearly catatonic.

Riding the train back to Rehovot, we rehashed the experience.  My husband felt that the results would be meaningless because of our poor language skills.  Instead of writing in an articulate manner, and revealing facts about ourselves in a thoughtful way, our limited Hebrew vocabulary reduced us to the level of fourth graders, with spelling, grammar, and comprehension mistakes that reflected on us very badly.  I think I might have actually enjoyed the test had I taken it in English, because I love essay questions which allow room for creative expression.  Instead my answers in Hebrew were stilted and canned.

But my reaction was completely different from my husband’s.  True, we ended up looking like bozos and probably “failed.”  But I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment:  I had taken a 9-hour exam completely in Hebrew, and survived to tell the tale!

“It was kind of like childbirth,” I gushed.  “Long; shleppy; painful;  but afterwards . . . empowering!”

My husband looked at me and rolled his eyes.

“You have got to be kidding,” he said.

But I knew that if I could do this, I could do anything!

Now all we had to do was wait for the results of our tests to be sent to Moreshet and Mitzpe Netofa.

No one could tell us how long it would take before we’d get the results, but we knew it wouldn’t happen before we returned to the U.S.

Israel, Days 8 – 9: Mitzpe Netofa

Our second and final Shabbat in Israel would be spent in the Galilee, in a small yishuv called Mitzpe Netofa.  It is located near a major highway crossroads called Tzomet Golani (Golani Junction), from which the highway takes you, depending on which direction you choose, to Tiberias, to the Upper Galil, or the Golan Heights (but still feels out of the way when compared to Highway 6, which runs north to south down the center of the country).    Tiberias is only 15 minutes away, but Mitzpe Netofa is high in the hills so it’s quite a bit cooler than Tiberias’ oppressively hot, humid summer weather, and there is always a nice breeze.

There is a convenient strip mall, part of “The Big” (pronounced, comically, “Ha-Beeg“) franchise, just off the main highway on the outskirts of Tiberias (downtown Tiberias has yet another, much larger “Big”).

2014-05-25 15.36.42_resizedThis off-highway “Big” is one of many “Bigs” located throughout Israel.  The larger-scale Bigs have many stores which any American will recognize, including The Gap, Banana Republic, Nike, etc. (but this being Israel, clothing and shoes are double the price). It also has a great Rami Levi discount supermarket (a chain found throughout Israel), as well as a wonderful kosher dairy cafe franchise called Cafe Greg, that served one of the best vegetarian meals I’ve ever eaten.

A delicious vegetarian meal of handmade spinacha and sweet potato ravioli, with a feta and goat cheese, lentil, bulghur  and edameme salad.

A delicious vegetarian meal of handmade spinach and sweet potato ravioli, with a feta and goat cheese, lentil, bulgur and edamame salad, served with crusty artisan bread.


All guests are welcome at Cafe Greg



It meant that if we lived in Mitzpe Netofa, we wouldn’t have to rely solely on the local macolet (mini-market) with its limited selection, since the Rami Levi supermarket chains are big, beautiful, well-stocked and fairly priced, and this one was only 15 minutes away.  I also enjoyed people-watching there:  there were some Druz couples out on dates, plenty of Israeli youth, and families all enjoying the food and ambience.  Until now we had been eating on the cheap:  besides my beloved Milky puddings and Choco drinks, we were subsisting on fresh pita and humus bought at convenience stores because due to our extensive driving schedule, other than the shwarma in Jerusalem, we hadn’t even had time to sit and eat at a restaurant, so the delicious meal of  incredibly fresh salad with local feta cheese, and handmade spinach and sweet potato ravioli with goat cheese along with a cold Tuborg beer that we enjoyed at Cafe Greg, was especially appreciated.

There were several things about Mitzpe Netofa that appealed to us.  First, there is absolutely no age discrimination.  There are plenty of people our age, but of course there are many young families as well.  What is impressive is that the various age groups seemed to mix; they greeted one another with genuine affection and interacted socially in one another’s homes.  Everyone we saw came up to us and greeted us in a friendly manner, really going out of their way to make us feel welcome.  At the synagogue on Friday night, during the announcements, our names were mentioned as visitors and we were publicly welcomed by the entire congregation.  The main synagogue is located in the main, original area of Mitzpe Netofa.


The flag banners inside the synagogue are left over from Israeli Independence Day celebrations

Just outside the synagogue is an amphitheatre which serves as a great meeting spot and is perfect for community concerts and performances.

The ampitheatre outside the synagogue

The amphitheatre outside the synagogue

The newer building area is in a completely different location one hillside away, which is a bit of a shlep (not a problem for me, as I love to walk).  There is a possibility that a Sephardi syngagogue will eventually be built to service the new neighborhood.  But for ourselves, it probably makes more sense for us to buy an already-built (and rarely available!) home in the 15-year-old neighborhood, since as we age a long, uphill walk may be impractical.  Most of the “older” residents – – those who had been in Mitzpe Netofa for 15 years – – live in the older neighborhood, with young couples with small children buying in the newest areas.

New construction in a new neighborhood in Mitzpe Netofa

New construction in a new neighborhood in Mitzpe Netofa






Mitzpe Netofa, in conjunction with Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah organization (a key administrator in NBN lives in Mitzpe Netofa), has a rather unique program called the Soft Landing Program.  In order to not only encourage aliyah to Mitzpe Netofa but also to the North part of Israel in general, they have a “try before you buy” program at Mitzpe Netofa.  This is not an option for acceptance – – the one year probationary period is a requirement for acceptance/membership/permanent residence.  One rents a “caravilla” (very basic modular prefab home) for the highly subsidized price of 1000 NIS approx for 3 bedroom caravilla to 1500 NIS approx for 4 room caravilla per month for a minimum of one year (As of this writing $1 = 3.4 NIS’ or put differently, 1 NIS = $.29).  During that time, you participate in all aspects of life in Mitzpe Netofa, with the exception of voting rights on community issues.  During that time, one’s children (if applicable) attend local schools; one is a member of the synagogue; one participates in any extracurricular activities offered by the community; one makes use of the medical clinic if necessary, one interacts socially and gets to know the residents, etc.  The community meanwhile does its utmost during that initial try-out year to make potential residents feel welcome, inviting them as guests on Shabbat, befriending them, including them in participatory activities, etc.  It’s a way of getting one’s feet wet – – a sort of baptism by fire – – without burning one’s bridges if things don’t work out.

Interestingly, there is no particular pressure to join Mitzpe Netofa itself.  The real purpose of the Soft Landing Program is to use Mitzpe Netofa as a base for further exploration of the Galilee, whether it’s towns or cities or smaller villages, moshavim, or yishuvim.  The point is to attract new inhabitants to the Galilee/Golan region.  Less than 50% of the people in the Soft Landing Program end up living in Mitzpe Netofa, yet the program organizers don’t consider this a failure, as the reasons for leaving are diverse.  If someone is going to be very unhappy at Mitzpe Netofa, it’s better for all concerned to realize it’s not a good match before they’ve committed to building a house.  One person I spoke with who was leaving who had really enjoyed living in Mitzpe Netofa looked for a job in the North but simply couldn’t find anything within commuting distance (they will be moving to Modi’in in central Israel after he got a job in hi-tech in Tel Aviv).  Another person realized they didn’t enjoy living in such a rural, small place and moved to Ma’alot, a beautiful city of 25,000 people near the Lebanese border.  Yet another tried to find work and was unsuccessful, and with broken spirit returned to the US (but these yordim assured me that had they found work and not exhausted their savings, they would have stayed, because they loved the residents and lifestyle in Mitzpe Netofa).

So what’s the downside of the Soft Landing Program?  Practically speaking, based on our observations, the caravillas were poorly maintained.  They’re hot in the summer and cold in the winter (no insulation); because they are rented and maintenance is the responsibility of the tenant, the yards are unfortunately completely overgrown with weeds and they have a generally neglected appearance.  Their location is next to the youth organization clubhouse, which is extremely noisy when meetings and gatherings take place, sometimes late on Friday night.  The majority of residents in the caravillas are very young families, with no immediate neighbors in our age range.  In short – – and yes, I’m spoiled! – – I don’t feel like I have the patience or desire to live like this, especially when this one-year “temporary” housing often stretches to 3 – 5 years (one person we spoke with had been living in their caravilla for 7 years!) while waiting for a building lot to become available.  (All building lots in the current phase are sold out; the next building phase, which will not take place for at least 2 years, is also sold out.)  I am also afraid that if we rent for many years, we will go through savings that could have been applied to a permanent home.

There is an alternative to living in a caravilla while undergoing the probationary period for acceptance, but it’s a more costly one:  renting a whole house or basement apartment from someone who has temporarily left Mitzpe Netofa (i.e. doing a fellowship abroad, doing work for the Jewish Agency or other non-profits abroad, etc.).  I am afraid that if we end up renting for many years, though, we will go through savings that will compromise our ability to buy or build a permanent home.  We met a lovely British couple who are our age that made aliyah a year ago, who are experiencing exactly this (remember what I said about age discrimination in Israel – – it is extremely difficult to find work if you make aliyah in your 50s and 60s).  And of course, if the owners of the rental house return, one is forced to look for new housing and move yet again.  But at least there seemed to be a precedent for older olim and wannabe Mitzpe Netofa residents to experience the Soft Landing Program outside of the usual caravilla framework.

We rented a zimmer in Mitzpe Netofa which was really nice; it led to a beautiful, private garden.




It had every amenity, including a Shabbat hot water urn, instant coffee, cake, and milk in the small refrigerator.

20140523_165548_resized It was owned by a lovely woman who had built her dream house in Mitzpe Netofa 17 years ago with her husband; but shortly after its completion he was tragically felled by a terminal illness.  She converted the lower level of her house to a series of beautiful apartments that are used as zimmers and which provide her with an income.




There was a printed piece of paper left on the counter by Mitzpe Netofa’s Aliyah Committee with our “Shabbat itinerary” telling us the names of the families where we’d be eating our Shabbat meals.  This gave us the opportunity to get to know both “Anglo” and Israeli families living in Mitzpe Netofa, and allowed us to ask many questions and address any concerns.  We met many unique and outstanding individuals with fascinating stories to tell.

Shabbat Itinerary (click to enlarge)

Shabbat Itinerary (click to enlarge)

The residents of Mitzpe Netofa have diverse occupations.  I met teachers; youth leaders; an archaeologist; a librarian; a retired plastic surgeon who is now a successful sculptor; a farmer; a computer guru who was involved with several start-ups and interested in my husband’s work experience; an employee of Raphael (Israel’s top secret weapons developer); and the retired military commander of the entire North, who lives in Mitzpe Netofa as well.  There is also a vintner whose wine is sold around the world (Domaine Netofa Winery); his grapes are grown in the Galilee and the Golan Heights, about 45 minutes away.



The particular Shabbat we visited they had invited a guest singer, a Modhitzer chassid, to lead the prayers.  This was most defnitely not a usual event, since the yishuv is neither chassidic nor chareidi, and the usual chants are sung in more au courant tunes than those delivered by the chassid.  That said, I thought it spoke well of the yishuv that it attempts to expose its members to different cultures within cultures.  It’s part of Mitzpe Netofa’s philosophy to get exposure to an “other,” and respect and celebrate differences and foster cooperation.  (They even have a karate club with the nearby Arab village.  An Arab teacher teaches karate to the Jewish boys, and the Arab boys are taught by a Jewish teacher. These are everyday stories of daily life in Israel that you won’t hear about in the news.)  There were also many religious classes offered throughout the week in both Hebrew and English, by resident rabbis and female scholars as well as those who came from other towns to teach.

When Shabbat was over, we met privately with the rabbi of Mitzpe Netofa, a very young and gentle scholar who clearly loved the residents and whose admiration was definitely mutual.  One thing I appreciated was his honesty.  After discussing the many positive traits of Mitzpe Netofa, he didn’t whitewash the challenges and mentioned some of the issues affecting the community.  That said, Mitzpe Netofa is a very non-judgmental sort of place, with residents respecting each other’s differences, which greatly appealed to us.

I felt that Mitzpe Netofa was not nearly as selective or exclusive as Moreshet in choosing their future members.  Yet their required Soft Landing program accomplished the same thing in weeding people out, because only someone with tremendous commitment and patience would agree to live under temporary circumstances for so lengthy a period.

So what to do?  I preferred the location of Moreshet, closer to Haifa and Highway 6, although it seemed more culturally rigid and was not as socially friendly.  The reality is that on Shabbat, total strangers greeted us warmly in Mitzpe Netofa; in Moreshet people were more aloof and rarely initiated contact with people they did not know.  I am pretty sure that socially, Mitzpe Netofa would be a better fit for my husband, which of course is very important.  It’s a much more laid back sort of place.  But the thought of renting for years until something becomes available for us to buy is a genuine concern.  Moreshet will eventually grow to about 450 families; Mitzpe Netofa will eventually have 230 families.  Currently both places have 15 – 20 English-speaking families

We decided the best decision was to make no immediate decision at all, at least until we had more pieces of the application process complete.  We decided to go ahead with our application process for both Moreshet and Mitzpe Netofa, because we wanted to do whatever was necessary to fulfill the prerequisites to get the long process of absorption and acceptance into motion.  We would still be required by both places to take the dreaded Israeli psychometric exam, and acceptance to either place would hinge greatly on the results of this test.  Our feeling was this:  if we got accepted by a yishuv, great; if we didn’t “pass” the battery of tests, then it simply wasn’t meant to be.  We would not be disappointed, because we felt that we wanted to go only where we were wanted and accepted.  If living in a small, closed community was not an option, then so be it – – we would instead look at small towns or cities on a future pilot trip.  The main thing is to be flexible and remain open to a variety of possibilities, of which there are many.  Perhaps a yishuv was the wrong option for us altogether, since we’d have to add in the huge, necessary expense of owning a car, and in a city we wouldn’t need to own a car and would be closer to a major medical facility as we age (that is something that is very hard for me to think about as it is not my reality at present, thank G-d).  So much to think about!  Whatever we decide, we want it to be the correct decision; we are too old and too tired to be living like “wandering Jews” once we get to Israel.

Meanwhile, we booked an appointment with the Keinan Shefi Institute Testing Center in the center of Tel Aviv, to take place two days before we were scheduled to depart Israel, so we could get the required psychometric exam out of the way.

Little did we know what we were getting into!  It would prove to be the biggest “adventure” of our entire trip to Israel . . .

Israel, Day 7: Jerusalem

2014-05-21 06.50.37_resizedBefore leaving Midreshet Ben Gurion, we took a quick look at the new home construction.  One hundred eighty building lots were snapped up in less than 10 days.  Prices have already doubled.

There are many eco-conscious residents who are scientists, educators, agronomists, and architects living in Midreshet Ben Gurion, and many have incorporated their desert-related research about energy efficiency and the desert environment when building their homes.  There are straw-bale homes, solar homes, and now, for the first time in this new neighborhood, a rammed-earth home in the initial stages of construction.




To the rear right side, a “sealed room” shelter of reinforced cement has been added to the house, required by code for every new dwelling in Israel in the event of rocket attack or war.




On our way from the Negev headed north to Jerusalem, we traveled over the “Green Line” into areas of “shared” jurisdiction by the Palestinian Authority.  Unlike most of the rest of Israel, where Israelis and Arabs shop and work and study together, there was a sinister undercurrent. (ed. note:  this post was written a few days before 3 Israeli teenagers were kidnapped by terrorists, in the very area I was writing about.)

In front of every Arab city, town and village was a huge orange sign in English, Hebrew and Arabic that warned,


And to think Israel has been accused of being an apartheid State!

I have never, ever seen such a sign in any Israeli city, town or village forbidding Arabs from entering, and wondered what the world at large would say if such signs did exist.  I know of no Israeli Jew who is welcome to study at Arab universities within “Palestinian territory”, nor receive medical aid at Arab hospitals; yet the reverse is certainly true:  Arabs receive degrees from all Israeli universities and are treated at Israeli hospitals throughout the country.  How poisonous is this blind hatred!

Before going to Jerusalem, we drove to the nearby city of Ma’aleh Adumim, where we visited with friends.  We knew we didn’t want to drive our rental car within Jerusalem’s city limits due to traffic, overcrowding, and too many one-way streets.  There are buses every 10 -15 minutes to Jerusalem from Ma’aleh Adumim, and so we happily boarded an outgoing bus, reaching Jeruslaem’s Central Bus Station within 15 minutes.  The new-ish train was also full of commuters.  At the bus station, which is filled with small shops, we made the only touristy purchase of our trip:  some new kippot (yarmulkas) for my husband and a couple of headscarves for myself — a total of 15 minutes.  Since we hadn’t come to shop for souvenirs nor Judaica, we were not planning to hit Geula, Mea Shearim, or Ben Yehuda to buy any touristy stuff.  I had only two places on my Jerusalem agenda:  shuk Machane Yehuda (the open-air market) and the Kotel (Western Wall.)

After buying Israeli chocolate bars for our grandchildren in the U.S., we left the shuk, grabbed a delicious and inexpensive shwarma at a roadside stand (where we ate alongside religious and secular Israelis, as well as Muslim and Christian Arabs all enjoying the delicious food), and made our way to the Kotel.  It was now dusk.

As we made our way towards the Kotel entrance, an amazing sight greeted us:  tens of thousands of people, with barely space to move!






Unbeknownst to us, we had walked right into a special military ceremony, in which newly inducted members of the Golani brigade recite their oaths of allegiance to the State of Israel.

It was highly moving; hundreds of soldiers stood in their platoons in the plaza reciting the oath, as thousands of family members looked on from the sides with tears of bittersweet joy and pride.  To ensure that everyone could see, huge screens showing the soldiers up close were placed throughout the plaza.  These new soldiers consisted of sabras and immigrants from Ethiopia, Russia, France, the United States, Canada, and South America, religious and secular.  It was extremely moving to hear tens of thousands of voices – – soldiers, their families, and general visitors to the Kotel — sing Hatikva, Israel’s national anthem, as one.

But the highlight, for me, was at the ceremony’s conclusion, when the soldiers were allowed to rejoin their families.  There was a mad rush as grandparents, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters found one another across the plaza, embracing with joy and pride and all stopping to take pictures of the occasion.




Israel is a small country, and the degrees of separation are few.  Nearly every Israeli has a relative who was killed fighting one of Israel’s many wars.  Nearly every Israeli knows someone killed or gravely injured in a terrorist attack.  Imagine how difficult it is for parents and siblings and girlfriends to wish “mazal tov” to these sons and daughters of Israel, and yet they do so with pride, hope, fear, prayer, faith, appreciation, gratitude and joy.

Our unexpected encounter at the Kotel was one of the highlights of our trip.  And with deep feeling, I davened at the Wall, praying not only on behalf of sick friends, on behalf of the welfare of my family, and of Jews around the world.  I prayed for those hundreds of Golani soldiers, that HaShem should protect them; that they should survive, live and thrive in the Land of Israel for their families’ sake and for the sake of all Jews, everywhere.

Please pray for the safe return of teenagers Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devora, Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim, and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah, who were abducted by terrorists on their way home from school.



Israel, Days 6 – 7: Negev Desert

Anyone considering a move to Israel should put the South (Negev Desert) at the very top of their list.  Even Israelis in Tel Aviv and Haifa who wouldn’t dream of moving to the South to live in the desert are snapping up newly-built apartments as an investment.

The Negev desert makes up more than half of Israel’s land mass, but only 8% of the population currently lives there.

That is about to change.  More than any other place in Israel, in the next ten years, the Negev will be expanding at warp speed.

Later this year, over 10,000 troops will move from army bases in land-pricey greater Tel Aviv to a $650 million dollar training base now under construction 30 miles south of Be’er Sheva.  By the end of the decade, half of the bases in Israel’s center will move South.  Two- to three hundred career officers and their families will also be making the move, and require the housing to go with it.

But not only will the army be bringing their families to settle in the desert.


International hi-tech corporations such as EMC, IBM, Cisco, Lockheed Martin, RSA and Deutsche Telekom are opening R&D (research and development) labs in a new technology park in Be’er Sheva. (You can see photos of Be’er Sheva from my 2011 trip here.)

Be’er Sheva is host to a renowned university (Ben Gurion University) and hospital (Soroka); its own symphony and shopping malls; its concert hall and cultural center attracts internationally recognized artists.  Everywhere you look, giant cranes assist in the construction of luxurious hi-rise apartment buildings, along with villas-in-progress on the outskirts of town.

Even formerly backwater towns such as Dimona and Yerucham – – once upon a time crime-ridden places filled with unemployed men loitering on the streets with too much time on their hands – – are feeling the effects of this metamorphosis-in-progress.  In the old days, you practically couldn’t pay someone to live in these places.  Today, it’s not uncommon to see luxury apartments and private homes in the $450K – $600K range.

I am blessed to have a wonderful friend – – one of Israel’s top entomologists and scientific researchers – – who has lived in Midreshet Ben Gurion/Sde Boker in the Negev for the past decade.  She was kind enough to let us use her house as a base to explore the Negev.  I wrote extensively about Midreshet Ben Gurion on a previous trip to Israel, and you can read about that here (and don’t forget to look at the stunning photos of the Zin wilderness).  We drove 30 minutes south of our friend’s house until we reached the funky town of Mitzpe Ramon.

There we met with a pioneering couple around our age, the Rappeports, who are attempting, quite literally, to make the desert bloom.  They have 80 dunam (20 acres of sand and scrub) just outside of Mitzpe Ramon, where they are planting Argan trees.  Argan oil extracted from this tree is used in shampoos and other cosmetics.


Watering an experimental vegetable garden

Watering an experimental vegetable garden. In the background is a neighboring “farm,” in which someone is successfully growing grapes in a vineyard of sand and dust with drip irrigation. I don’t know how the grapes survive the searing temperatures and sandstorms and whipping wind, but they do.

Aragon tree seedlings await planting

Argan tree seedlings await planting

An argan tree seedling, next to some drip irrigation

An argan tree seedling, next to some drip irrigation

Imagine the courage, determination and faith it takes to look at this vast, searingly hot and dusty, sandy expanse and dare to dream that it will bloom one day.  Ben Gurion believed it.  The Rappeports believe it.  And G-d has promised it to the Jewish people.  Israel is full of wide-open, living miracles that one can experience on nearly a daily basis.

Imagine the courage, determination and faith it takes to look at this vast, searingly hot and dusty, sandy expanse and dare to dream that it will bloom one day. Ben Gurion believed it. The Rappeports believe it. And G-d has promised it to the Jewish people. Israel is full of wide-open, living miracles that one can experience on nearly a daily basis.


Alas, it was not a good day for planting the 200 seedlings they had hoped to put into the ground!  We found ourselves in the middle of a raging sandstorm, with winds whipping the fine grains of sand into every pore of our being.  (I would taste grit for several hours afterwards.)  We took shelter inside a storage shed, hoping to wait out the storm, but there was no let-up.  Admitting defeat, the Rappeports instead invited us to their home for a cold drink (it’s hot in the desert!), where they told us a little about Mitzpe Ramon.

The town of Mitzpe Ramon sits along the edge of an unusual geological formation similar to a crater, known as Makhtesh Ramon.  It’s Israel’s wannabe Grand Canyon, with its steep desert cliffs changing color based on the time of day.  It is also home to many different zimmers, as well as a new-ish luxury hotel spa called Beresheet.  Mitzpe Ramon is surrounded by national parks, including an oasis with a stream bed and palm trees.  The hills are dotted with mountain goats called ibex.  It’s also a center of ecotourism and mountain biking, artists and musicians; a wannabe Burning Man festival, lots of dance and alternative music festivals (with plenty of hippies to make it feel more authentic).  There’s also a yeshiva there (men’s religious seminary).  Think of Mitzpe Ramon as a much smaller, indie version of Palm Springs, minus the golf courses.

There is bus service every 30 minutes – 1 hour to Be’er Sheva and there are also buses that go from Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat.  And because it is considered “high desert” (elevation 2,800 feet), the night, after a hellish-hot day, can get downright chilly.  On a clear day, dramatic views of the desert and its many colors and contours, mysteries and wonders delight.

But: it’s hot.  True, it’s not humid like Tel Aviv, Ra’anana or Rehovot.

But it’s still hot.

Hellish hot.

It’s the hot flash that never goes away, for about 10 months out of 12.

And those pesky, several-times-a-year sandstorms!   The thought of constant sweeping and dusting (one woman told me she has the air filter on her car changed at twice the normal interval, due to all the sand) made me re-think any fantasies of pioneering in the Negev.


Israel, Days 4 – 6: Amirim


Beautiful views of the Galilee

Beautiful views of the Galilee (click to enlarge)




OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA From Moreshet we traveled only 30 minutes away to Amirim, located in the central Lower Galilee.  Like Moreshet, Amirim is sited high on a hilltop, 2100+ feet above sea level, with expansive views of forests, agricultural fields, and Arab villages in the distance. There are two things that make Amirim unique.

Amirim is Israel’s first designated  “tourist village.”  Amirim was the first place in Israel to inaugurate the European concept of the “zimmer” (pronounced “tzimmer” in Hebrew), way back in the 1960s.  Zimmer means “room” in German; its equivalent in English is bed & breakfast or guesthouse, although unlike a b&b, a zimmer does not automatically include breakfast.

In Europe a zimmer is often just an extra room in someone’s house that is rented to the occasional traveler passing by for a price much cheaper than one might pay to stay in a hotel.  In Israel, however, the zimmer has become a whole new industry, often as small ells or even cabins built on private lands within villages known as moshavim.  Moshavim are collective settlements similar to kibbutzim, but people live independently (ie there is no common dining hall, and personal income is not communally managed or restricted); yet certain public areas and services are controlled and budgeted by the equivalent of an “association” similar to those regulating gated communities and condominiums in the US.  Unlike city dwellers, moshav residents have more land allotted to them  – – originally intended for agricultural use – – but today many Israelis are finding the hospitality industry more lucrative than agriculture, so they are building lovely wood cabins, dachas and outbuildings on their plots.  (And we noticed ads for zimmers in Druz and Arab villages as well.)

At least 25% of Amirim residents operate zimmers.  They range not only in price and size but also in architectural style and accoutrements.  All have kitchenettes, an eating area, and a bedroom and bathroom alongside a lovely, landscaped garden with outdoor seating.

The garden parking spot for our zimmer at Nofesh Ne'eman in Amirim

The garden parking spot for our zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman in Amirim

The private garden outside our zimmer

The private garden outside our zimmer

another zimmer at Nofesh Ne'eman

another zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman

our zimmer's kitchenette

our zimmer’s kitchenette

our zimmer's bedroom

our zimmer’s bedroom

en suite jacuzzi in our zimmer

en suite jacuzzi in our zimmer

the sitting area of our zimmer looks out onto the garden

the sitting area of our zimmer looks out onto the garden

Some offer multiple bedrooms and ensuite jacuzzis, expansive porches, and spa services including various types of massage and alternative healing, yoga, reiki, etc.

an outdoor jacuzzi at Nofesh Ne'eman

an outdoor jacuzzi at Nofesh Ne’eman

But what makes Amirim truly unique is that it is a completely vegetarian village.  All zimmer guests must agree to abide by vegetarian eating habits while they reside in the village; even bbq grills are banned.  Many but not all of the permanent residents within the village don’t simply abstain from meat; they are vegans and eat no fish, dairy or egg products.  Some of the strictest adherents also abstain from honey and “live” plants, and refrain from using anything made of silk (to learn more about the philosophy behind this more extreme form of veganism, click here). There are several restaurants within the village, many of them organic, although currently none are certified kosher.

This was not a problem for us personally, since I prepared simple meals in our kitchenette of fresh pita and hummus with salad and fruit that I had purchased from a supermarket on our way to Amirim, and it was more than adequate.  (In case you are wondering why a strictly vegan restaurant needs kosher certification:  it is unlikely that any products used are not kosher; however, there are certain Biblical mitzvot (commandments) that are observed only within Israel, including the tithing of all produce grown in Israel, and if these vegan restaurants use produce that has not been tithed, it is forbidden for religious Jews to eat it.  Kosher supervision in Israel not only checks that meat and milk are not mixed and that the products used are indeed kosher, but it also ensures that Israeli produce has been properly tithed.)

Within the village are many artists and musicians.  Free concerts are given Friday afternoons until the onset of Shabbat.  There are many galleries filled with paintings, ceramics, jewelry and fiber art created by Amirim artisans for sale.  The village also has a small food market, and community swimming pool which also offers both mixed- and separate-gender swimming hours.  A small synagogue is open for Shabbat services, although there is no daily minyan.

Our sparkling clean but simple family-friendly zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman, designed to sleep 4, cost $100 a night, truly a bargain in light of its beautiful surroundings, ensuite jacuzzi,  kitchenette, comfortable beds, and private garden.  Also included in the price was a daily doorstop visit  by best friends Lobo the German Shepherd and Geula the cat.  How can one not like a cat named Geula?  (The name means “final redemption” in Hebrew.)

Geula the cat and Lobo the dog greeted us at our zimmer doorstep

Geula the cat and Lobo the dog greeted us at our zimmer doorstep

 You don't really want to wake me up so you can enter the room, do you?

You don’t really want to wake me up so you can enter the room, do you?

Gentle giant

Gentle giant

It didn’t hurt that our particular zimmer at Nofesh Ne’eman (they have 5 different zimmers to choose from at this particular establishment) included a lovely bottle of merlot along with a bar of dark chocolate (both Israeli made). There are larger and more luxurious zimmers, of course — some cost as much as $500 a night – – but we were completely satisfied with our little gem.  The tremendous privacy it afforded makes it ideal for either honeymooners or families, or just people looking for a little quiet (no wonder so many Israelis rent zimmers in Amirim!)

Although Amirim is not a consideration for us as a permanent place to live, it s a great place just to relax, regenerate, and recoup from the stresses of jet lag and intense travel.  It is also a wonderful location from which to venture out on day trips around the Galil.  The Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) is 12 miles from Amirim and the ancient holy city of Tzfat is only 10 miles away.  In order to maximize your sightseeing time in the Galil, renting a car is highly recommended, although a few eco-conscious zimmers give room discounts for guests who arrive by bus or bicycle.

One village we were interested in checking out was Bar Yochai.  Within walking distance of the small town of Meron (the main site of Lag B’Omer celebrations in Israel, Meron attracts as many as 500,000 people from all walks of Israeli life on that particular day, who celebrate the holiday near the tomb of kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai).

At Bar Yochai we met with a lovely couple from Detroit who were in the process of making Bar Yochai their permanent home.  He is a professor of math at a US university, but his schedule allowed both vacation and research time in Israel.  Originally they rented zimmers in different villages throughout the Galilee for a month at a time until they found a place they might consider “home.”  Now they were renting a house in Bar Yochai for several months, and were nearing a decision to settle there permanently.

Although the village did not appeal to me personally, it just proved the mantra, “different strokes for different folks” – – if you look hard enough, there truly is a place for everyone who wishes to call Israel home.

Since we were so close to Tzfat, we decided to take a quick detour into the town.  Tzfat is known for its beautiful ancient synagogues; its cemetery where many holy Jewish kabbalists are buried; and its artists’ quarter, which though charming, is very touristy.

The next day we continued to explore the Galilee.  At my husband’s former hi-tech workplace in the US, he worked with an Israeli ex-pat living in the Boston area.  Now they are both working at different jobs, but have maintained contact over the years.  The co-worker has since moved back to Israel,  and now lives in the upper Galilee in a magnificent town called Kfar Vradim (Village of Roses), close to the Lebanese border, and just down the road from the small Israeli city of Ma’alot – – and Ma’alot was one city we wished to investigate.

Kfar Vradim is full of secular Israelis who have made it big in the hi-tech industry.  Most of the single-family homes looked as if they were plucked from Beverly Hills (or Calabasas, for my California-savvy friends).  My husband’s friend, who graciously invited us for coffee, had just built an infinity pool in the backyard, along with a jacuzzi and lovely landscaping with many newly planted fruit trees.  The views were magnificent, too.

A view from Kfar Vradim into the valley below

A view from Kfar Vradim into the valley below

My husband's friend's house in Kfar Vradim

My husband’s friend’s house in Kfar Vradim

A view of the friend's garden, in Kfar Vradim

A view of the friend’s garden, in Kfar Vradim

My husband's friend's house in Kfar Vradim.  Private pools are considered the ultimate luxury in Israel.

My husband’s friend’s house in Kfar Vradim. Private pools are considered the ultimate luxury in Israel.

That said, Kfar Vradim is on the cusp of some very big changes.

In order to encourage Israeli citizens to live in less central areas of the country, the government gives incentives such as reduced income and property taxes for outlying areas and development towns.  And outlying it is – – Kfar Vradim is located only 8.7 miles from the Lebanese border.

Because of these incentives, people built enormous homes dripping with affluence. Unfortunately, it appears that Kfar Vradim is now a victim of its own success.  The government has announced that it will end incentives and tax discounts as of 2015.  People who built McMansions will suddenly be burdened with increased tax bills they hadn’t expected to pay.

This has resulted in a panic sell-out.  The problem is that so many homes are now up for sale, that it’s caused real estate prices in Kfar Vradim to nose-dive – – probably one of the few nice areas in all of Israel where the prices are actually going down rather than rising.

Perhaps the most surprising result of this fallout is the interest Kfar Vradim has garnered by haredim, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews.  Until now the town has been completely secular.  But haredim with large families are eyeing the huge, luxurious homes, which can better accommodate their ever-growing families (typically haredim have between 6 – 12 children) for a price that would be unattainable anywhere else in Israel.

There are currently a group of 20 haredi families slated to buy in Kfar Vradim, and surely more will follow.  This will cause seismic cultural and religious changes in the previously all-secular town.  It will be certainly be interesting to see how this plays out!

Next we drove to the small city of Ma’alot (population 20,000).  Like many towns and cities in Israel today, Ma’alot has its own immigrant absorption office and works closely with Nefesh B’Nefesh, the immigrant organization responsible for bringing so many Jews from English-speaking countries to Israel on aliyah.  We spoke with a caseworker named Julia, a young Russian immigrant who has lived in Ma’alot for many years.  She offered to escort us on a brief tour of the city and get an overview of the many different neighborhoods there.

We were most impressed with Ma’alot:  it has every possible city amenity from an educational, religious, cultural, recreational and commercial perspective; the city was extremely clean and well landscaped; the views were magnificent (it sits 2000′ above sea level), and many of the neighborhoods are truly lovely, with parks and bricked walkways and courtyards between buildings that encouraged neighbors to stroll and socialize yet maintain a sense of privacy.

Our favorite was the new Savyonim neighborhood, which is also conveniently close to major shopping.

The population of Ma’alot is extremely diverse culturally, and included immigrants of all ages from all over the world.  The concert hall regularly featured world-class international performers (dance, music, symphonies); Ma’alot also sponsors an international chess tournament as well as an international documentary film festival and jazz festival.

Truthfully, there would be little reason to leave Ma’alot once one put down roots there; but the perception that Ma’alot is at the end of the world means that friends from other places may think it an inconvenient place to visit regularly if at all (in fact, it’s 30 miles from Haifa and 7 miles from Karmiel).  It could get lonely.  But we thought that if our attempts at acceptance to one of Israel’s vetted villages didn’t work out, then Ma’alot would be a beautiful place to consider more seriously, provided we could find a social niche there.

The northern city of Maalot, which is practically on the Lebanese border, is filled with parks.  It even has a man-made lake where there is a paddleboat concession.

The northern city of Maalot, which is practically on the Lebanese border, is filled with parks. It even has a man-made lake where there is a paddleboat concession.

A quiet lane in the Savyionim neighborhood of Maalot.

A quiet lane in the Savyionim neighborhood of Maalot.

The Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

The Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

Another neighborhood park in Maalot.

Another neighborhood park in Maalot.

Homes in the Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

Homes in the Savyonim neighborhood of Maalot.

So-called "development towns" are rapidly losing their poor, backwater image.  In Maalot Israelis pay a fraction of what they'd pay in a major, more centrally located city for housing, and many argue that the quality of life is much nicer as well.

So-called “development towns” are rapidly losing their poor, backwater image. In Maalot Israelis pay a fraction of what they’d pay in a major, more centrally located city for housing, and many argue that the quality of life is much nicer as well.

These Israeli websites are great for finding accommodations throughout Israel, although the translated English text is a bit rough around the edges.  Type “amirim” into the search option.

These sites are specific to Amirim:;label=amirim-Jbk3yIGCCFpoo7uGlJnJPAS35468182556%3Apl%3Ata%3Ap115%3Ap2%3Aac%3Aap1o1%3Aneg;sid=88b78d9bfb9d86a953a72972fc60e132;dcid=1;city=-779193;hyb_red=1;redirected_from_city=1;src=city