Archive for the ‘Israel’ Category

Israel, Days 1 – 4: Moreshet

The purpose of our two-week visit to Israel was not a vacation.  Rather, we are thinking of moving back to Israel upon my husband’s retirement (we lived there from 1983-1989).

The socialized medical system in Israel has its headaches (an example of this later), but the quality is excellent and Israel is on the forefront of innovative treatment and medical and scientific research, especially for cancer, diabetes, brain injury, etc.  The quality of life in general is excellent, and the wealth of gorgeous fruits and vegetables and quality food is astounding.  Spiritually speaking,  there is nothing like Israel, and religiously speaking there are many different options in schools, synagogues, and communities for all levels of religious observance. As long as one stays away from severely expensive cities like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv , Herzliya,  Ra’anana, and Netanya, it is possible to live frugally in Israel on an American Social Security Income post-retirement.

From the years we spent in Israel (and a year I spent in Haifa in 1972 as a high school exchange student), my Hebrew speaking ability is pretty good, and I mix well with Israelis.  I will always be American culturally speaking and I’m not fooling myself that I will integrate smoothly into Israeli culture and society – – it will be nice to have a few other native English speakers wherever I end up living in Israel – – but I’m not seeking an American enclave of ex-pats in Israel, either.

Of course, as a Jew, I feel  a deep connection to our biblical Land.  Although there is much heartbreak with its history of numerous wars and conflicts, Israel nevertheless feels like “home” and despite Jews from many different backgrounds, Israelis feel like one big, happy but aggravating family that you can’t always easily live with, but certainly cannot live without.

With its population growth, burgeoning technology, scientific, agronomic, and medical research, and high quality of life, one has a sense that Israel is where it is happening; Israel is the future in the deepest sense of the word; Israel has a pulse, a positive energy so significant and meaningful that it’s hard sometimes to imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

That said, it would mean moving away from our children and grandchildren, with little hope of seeing them on a regular basis.  (Only one of my children is currently interested in making their permanent home in Israel sometime in the future.)  So it’s not an easy decision no matter how wonderful the results of our Israel trip might be.

The most visible improvement in Israel today is its transportation system.  Although Israel has always had excellent and reliable bus service throughout the country, the recent construction and continuing extension of Kvish Shesh (Highway 6, a toll road), which is stretching from Israel’s extreme south to north, as well as Israel’s trains, has put literally the entire country practically at one’s doorstep.  Formerly arduous journeys have seen driving times cut in half, resulting in Israelis no longer needing to live in the city where they work.  It has opened up the country and at the same time made it smaller and more user-friendly.

The downside of this is twofold:  one, the amount of smog due to the increase of Israeli vehicle ownership and use is both sad and appalling – – the haze was so bad I didn’t even bother trying to take pictures of what should have been beautiful vistas; and the rate of road accidents is extremely high due to careless driving (in 14 days we passed the scenes of 3 different fatal road accidents).  In fact, you are much more likely to die or be disabled from a road accident in Israel  than a terrorist attack, missile barrage,  or a war.

After a too-short sleep at a kind friend’s house in Rehovot  our first night in Israel (we arrived at 2:30 a.m.), we drove our rented Toyota Corolla to the Lower Galilee to the yishuv (hamlet) of Moreshet.  I wrote about Moreshet a couple of years ago on our last visit to Israel.  Moreshet is beautifully located, overlooking the other side of Haifa Bay, high on a mountaintop.  The homes are well maintained and the surrounding environment is clean, with many little parks and green areas, a beautiful school and synagogue, and a small but utilitarian market with all food essentials.  Besides the dramatic views of Haifa University towers in the far distance and ships in the Mediterranean, on a clear day it’s also possible to see Mt. Hermon on the Syrian border to the north.  It’s 15 minutes south of the Galilean city of Karmiel, and 25 minutes from the Haifa suburbs where there are large shopping malls.  It’s only 15 minutes from the beach town of Nahariya, 15 minutes from the super secret and famous strategic weaponry developer Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd (where several Moreshet residents are employed) and 30 minutes from the beautiful grotto Rosh HaNikra on the edge of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

We liked Moreshet so much that we had been corresponding with several residents there over the past two years, inquiring about the possibility of making it our permanent home should we decide to move to Israel.  One Israeli couple in particular, Yair and Rivka Li’on, have become friends and in fact we hosted them for a few days when they came from Israel to visit us in Maine to see the glorious autumn colors.  The Li’ons were kind enough to host us in their lovely home for Shabbat, as well as the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer.  On Shabbat they invited 2 other couples to join us for a meal, who had moved to Israel from the U.S. and Canada many years ago and had been living in Moreshet for the past 15 years.

Beautiful vistas from Moreshet.  On the mountain furthest in distance are the towers of University of Haifa.

Beautiful vistas from Moreshet. On the mountain furthest in distance are the towers of University of Haifa. (click to enlarge)

Vista from Moreshet

Vista from Moreshet (click to enlarge)

A view of the most recently completed building phase of private duplex homes  in Moreshet.  The left side of the left-most gold house is only 2 bedrooms and was up for resale for the unrealistic price of 1.7 million shekels - about  $500,000!

A view of the most recently completed building phase of private duplex homes in Moreshet. The left side of the left-most gold house is only 2 bedrooms and was up for resale for the unrealistic price of 1.7 million shekels – about $500,000! (click to enlarge)

Lag B’Omer is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated 33 days after Passover.  It commemorates the end of a horrific plague that killed 24,000 scholars and students of Rabbi Akiva in Talmudic times.  It also celebrates the triumph over Roman persecution during that time.  Traditionally large bonfires are lit to the accompaniment of music, dancing, and eating (without the latter it wouldn’t be Jewish!).  In Moreshet, the children had been gathering scrap wood for weeks at a field.  From third to eigth grade, each class had their own bonfire and planned activities to celebrate the holiday.  The older kids would stay up the whole night next to their bonfires, supervised by their youth group leaders (there was no school the next day).  The sparkling lights of Haifa Bay across from and below us on such a clear and lovely night made for a spectacular view.

The many bonfires of Moreshet on Lag B'Omer

The many bonfires of Moreshet on Lag B’Omer

Moreshet bonfires

Moreshet bonfires:  the lights of Haifa Bay twinkle in the background

 

School children and their families enjoying the bonfires.

School children and their families enjoying the bonfires.

Moreshet Bonfires

Moreshet Bonfires

But this wasn’t only a holiday for children.  In Moreshet, the “seniors” (ages 50 – 70) have their own group (called Moreshet “Gold”) and they had planned a lovely evening, to which we were graciously invited.  Everyone brought pot-luck dishes and barbeque for a great dinner, followed by an evening of singing Israeli songs from the ’50s to the ’70s that was accompanied by an accomplished accordionist.  The songs’ lyrics were projected onto the wall of the living room where the party was held, enabling us “Amerikaners” to sing along with the best of ’em.  It was a wholesome, enjoyable evening and it gave us an opportunity to meet and interact with Moreshet residents within our age group.

The words to the songs were flashed on the wall

The words to the songs were flashed on the wall

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Everyone sang along, re-living the good old days

On our last day, Ya’ir Li’on drove us around much of the Lower Galilee, showing us hidden spots known only to locals.  We visited an olive oil factory, where I learned that 90% of Israel’s olive oil is produced in the Lower Galilee. The views were magnificent.  Click on the photos below to enlarge – – it’s well worth it!

Views of the Galilee from the olive oil factory

Views of the Galilee from the olive oil factory

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Since the majority of an olive is made up of a pit and flesh, it takes many, many olives to extract a large quantity of oil.

This is where the oil is extracted from the olives.   Operations take place between October - December.

This is where the oil is extracted from the olives. Operations take place between October – December.

The retail store at the olive oil factory sells many products made from olive oil.

The retail store at the olive oil factory sells many products made from olive oil.

I was fascinated to learn that the refuse of crushed pits and flesh are not thrown away, but rather they are dried and formed into bricks called “gefet” in Hebrew, and sold as an alternative fuel source for wood stoves.  It costs only $5 for a 2 -3 day supply of fuel, which is encouraging in a country where the cost of water, gas, propane and electricity is outrageous.  (At almost $9/gallon, it cost us $100 every time we filled up the rented Toyota Corolla with gas!)

"Gefet," the discarded flesh and pits of the olives after they've been compressed for their oil, will be turned into bricks of fuel.

“Gefet,” the discarded flesh and pits of the olives after they’ve been compressed for their oil, will be turned into bricks of fuel.

This wood stove will burn "gefet," the refuse of olives.

This wood stove will burn “gefet,” the refuse of olives.

Ya’ir also took us to “Johncolad,” a one-man chocolate confectionary located in the small Galilean village of Manof.

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John Alford, an immigrant from New Zealand, imports the chocolate from Belgium and makes many flavors of candies and truffles that are sold primarily to wholesalers, hotels and caterers, but also to individuals who stop by the small factory for a quick tour.

 

John Alford describes his chocolate-making operation.

John Alford describes his chocolate-making operation.

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The machinery is pretty ancient looking.

The machinery is pretty ancient looking.

This machine forms the chocolate into balls.

This machine forms the chocolate into balls.

Yum.

Yum.

The confections are made from chocolate imported from Belgium.

The confections are made from chocolate imported from Belgium.

In fact, factory tours are alive and well throughout Israel and a great side trip, especially if you are vacationing with children.  I regretted that I didn’t have time to  tour the Tnuva factory in the Galil, which is home to my favorite “choco” (chocolate milk sold in single-serving-size plastic bags; you break open a corner of the bag with your teeth and suck out the chocolate milk) and “Milky” (single serving size of chocolate or vanilla pudding topped with whipped cream) or the Elite Chocoate factory, as well as the Osem factory that makes my favorite Israeli junk food, Bamba (the same look and texture as a Cheetos cheese puff, but with a peanut butter flavor).

"Choco" - single serving sized chocolate milk packaged in a small plastic bag - it reason enough to live in Israel!

Delicious “choco” – single serving sized chocolate milk packaged in a small plastic bag – is reason enough to live in Israel!

Israeli Choco:  Definitely not for kids only!

Israeli Choco: Definitely not for kids only!

Meanwhile, our hostess was suffering from a very sore foot and she feared she might have a stress fracture on her heel.  She had plans that day to go to the doctor to receive a prescription for a cortisone injection.  There is a medical clinic in Moreshet but her specialist doctor was located about 30 minutes away by car.  From the doctor’s office  she would go to the pharmacy to fill the prescription for the cortisone injection.  Next she would need to schedule a new appointment with her doctor, so she could bring the cortisone fluid to the appointment and get the required injection.  I was frankly appalled that doctors in Israel don’t automatically have a supply of injectable cortisone in their offices, necessitating 2 visits by the patient and a treatment delay of several days.  But our hostess took it for granted that this was the way the sytem worked and knew of nothing else, so the incredible inconvenience didn’t seem aggravating or strange to her in any way.

On the last night of our stay, we had an appointment to meet with the Absorption Committee of Moreshet.  In a small village such as Moreshet, it is important that everyone more or less gets along and fits in philosophically and ideologically with their neighbors, so applicants are vetted accordingly.  Quite honestly, the committee members were less than thrilled to accept us due to our age.

Age discrimination is rampant in Israel, which is a youth-oriented culture in the extreme.  No matter what one’s level of expertise, it is difficult for anyone past their thirties to find new employment, or get accepted into a small village or kibbutz.  Israel is concerned with building its future, and the unfortunate result of this is an obsession with youth being seen as the only productive part of society, at least for new hires.

Retirement is mandatory for adults in their sixties, although pension plans are extremely generous.  So generous, in fact, that it simply cannot logically continue in its current form without bankrupting the government, universities, and private companies.  Originally pensions in the newly formed State of Israel were based on a socialist system controlled by power-hungry party members, who competed in favor-garnering.  The payouts are overly generous, and completely unsustainable.  Israel is facing a total rehab of their pension system in the coming years.  The only people for whom this is good news is actuaries, who will be kept incredibly busy working out new algorithms  to ensure pensions will be more realistically formulated.  (And yes, this is a not-so-subtle hint to my 30-something Son-in-Law The Actuary, who currently has no plans or desire to move to Israel, that he will be eminently employable there.)

But I digress. The Absorption Committee wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about accepting us as new members.  The next building phase would have 45 lots available, and ten were already taken by people who were on a waiting list from the previous phase.  The committee naturally preferred to accept young couples with children, since that would guarantee continuity of the village and its school and other institutions.  There were 35 lots that were unspoken for but already there were 80 couples clamoring to buy them.

The committee told us they would not object to our buying a home that was already built by someone who might  be leaving the village, but at the current time the likelihood of our getting one of the new building lots was practically zilch.  There were three houses currently for sale, but they were either overpriced and too large for our needs, or they were impractically laid out (i.e. 16 steep steps from the street to get to down to the front door — fine now but not 20 years from now).  Additionally, we would be required — as are all applicants to the yishuv – – to take the notorious Israeli psychometric exam at a testing center found in any major Israeli city throughout the country.  (More about this test in a future post.)

This 20 year old "fixer upper" was for sale for 1.3 million shekels, approximately $380,000!

This 20 year old “fixer upper” was for sale for 1.3 million shekels, approximately $380,000!

The biggest problem besides the price was how the house was sited.  The street and parking was at the top of the stairs.  It would not be terribly fun to negotiate these steps while carrying bags of groceries, especially as I get older!

The biggest problem besides the price was how the house was sited. The street and parking was at the top of the stairs. It would not be terribly fun to negotiate these steps while carrying bags of groceries, especially as I get older!

I gave an impassioned speech in Hebrew about why we liked Moreshet and saw it as our future home, which raised quite a few eyebrows (in a positive way).  The committee seemed to soften, and suggested we make an appointment to take the psychometric test before our return to the U.S.  The only available appointment was in Tel Aviv,  2 days before the end of our stay in Israel, but we were committed to doing whatever it took to find a permanent home in Israel, so we agreed.  Meanwhile, we realized that we couldn’t depend on Moreshet accepting us, and while we were in Israel we had to utilize our remaining time to explore every possible option.  With fond goodbyes, we left our pleasant Israeli hosts, the Li’ons, and continued our mission of traversing Israel “yama, kedma, tzafona unegba”  — west from the sea to the east; from the north to the desert south.

By the end of the  2-week trip, we would put 2100 kilometers (over 1300 miles) on our rental car, an impressive feat in so short a time in a country so small.

Travel Plans

Way back in October 2013, we bought tickets for a 2-week trip to Israel.  We decided to fly in May 2014, quite frankly to avoid the worst of bug season in Maine, also knowing that we’d miss the hottest part of summer in Israel at that time.  After comparing prices, we found the cheapest tickets – – $800 r/t – – were on Turkish Air.  To be honest, I had serious doubts about whether we should fly on this airline, especially since diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey were faltering (and the week before we were set to fly, the Israeli government issued a travel warning for Israelis flying to Egypt and Turkey).  I was also concerned that since our mode of dress identifies us as Orthodox Jews, we would feel somewhat vulnerable in a Muslim-majority country.  Fortunately our fears were unfounded.  Turkish Air turned out to be a very nice airline not only because of their more reasonable price, but also in terms of service and comfort.  The kosher airline food had been made by a kosher caterer in Istanbul, La Casa de Barinyurt, which was under a Turkish hechsher as well as O-K Laboratories.  All meals were fresh, not frozen; they were dairy and were chalav yisrael/bishul yisrael/yoshon (prepared according to the highest standards of kashrut) .  Besides some interesting Turkish salads, I especially enjoyed the light and flavorful orange-farina pudding for dessert.  I later found this recipe online at epicurious.com.  I would add some orange zest or replace 1/4 c. of the milk with orange juice to best replicate the airplane dessert:

yield
Serves 2

ingredients
For pudding

  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons uncooked farina
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

For fruit

  • 1 kiwi
  • 1/2 mango
  • 6 large strawberries
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

preparation

Make pudding:
In a small saucepan over moderate heat simmer milk, farina, honey,and a pinch salt, stirring constantly, 3 minutes. In a bowl beat egg lightly and stir in about one fourth farina mixture. Stir egg mixture into farina mixture and cook, stirring, until pudding just begins to boil.

Put pan in a bowl of ice and water and stir pudding until cool, about 5 minutes. Stir in vanilla and divide between 2 small dessert bowls. Cover surface of pudding with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming and chill 20 minutes, or until ready to serve.

Prepare fruit while pudding is chilling:
Peel and dice kiwi and mango. Hull and dice strawberries. In a small bowl stir together fruit, lime juice, and sugar and chill until ready to serve. Spoon fruit over pudding.

That is not to say that we didn’t have some interesting cultural experiences, however.  At the Istanbul airport, next to the gate that was boarding the flight to Israel, there was a gate with a plane going to Saudi Arabia.  It was possible to see polygamous families dressed head to toe in white.  Next to them was another gate, with people boarding a plane to Iraq; in this line the Muslims wore all black.  One gate further along were many Muslims boarding a plane to Turkmenistan.   The women were dressed in beautiful, loose-fitting embroidered dresses, a brooch pulling the v-neck opening closed; their heads were covered with extremely colorful, pointed headscarves that were worn in a style that was very different from the veils and scarves worn by the travelers to Saudi Arabia and Iraq.  It was then that we noticed a strange phenomenon:  every Turkmeni man and woman in the line carried a roll of packing tape.

Apparently, Turkmenis often shop abroad for items that are either overpriced or unattainable in Turkmenistan.  They then re-sell the items at a huge profit on the black market in Turkmenistan.  The problem is that the number of packages they acquire far exceeds the number of bags they can check in and carry on the plane.  The men were busy using the packing tape to tape 3, 4 and even 5 packages together so they could be counted as one carry-on.  An even more amazing scene awaited an American tourist who happened to wander into the ladies’ bathroom near the departure gate.  There, Turkmeni women lifted their loose dresses, and were frantically duct-taping all sorts of packages to their inner thighs and bellies, bodily attaching the result of their shopping sprees so they would not exceed the weight or item limits, then smoothing out their robe-like caftans over their hidden treasures.   There was an entire contingent of Turkmeni women boarding the plane who looked obese and 9 months pregnant, when in reality their bulging abdomens and zaftig figures were the fruits of their smuggling  goods into Turkmenistan via Turkish Air!

I found an image of Turkmeni women on the Internet.  These women are dressed similarly to the women I saw at the airport (minus the packing tape!)

 

On the way home from Israel we had another unusual experience in Istanbul.  As we boarded our plane to Boston, I looked out the window and noticed the plane was surrounded by Turk police cars with flashing blue lights, along with some journalists with extremely long telephoto lenses who were taking pictures of the plane from the tarmac.  Shortly thereafter, about 10 “Men in Black” – sinister-looking security personnel and bodyguards wearing earphones, padded vests, and crew-cuts – –  boarded the plane and sat down in our section of the plane, along with a couple of photojournalists.  I found out when the flight arrived uneventfully in Boston that our celebrity traveler was the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, who was flying to Boston to attend his son’s Harvard graduation.  (And according to a Harvard Turkish Student Union’s Facebook page, Abdullah Gul would be met on Graduation Day by protesters objecting to human rights violations in Turkey.)

Must-Haves

Although I don’t usually plug specific consumer products on my blog, I recently came across two items that are must-haves.  I decided to share information about them here.

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While shopping at Target I noticed a water bottle made by Brita that contained a filter good for 300 uses.  The filter does not purify bad water, it simply makes drinkable water more palatable. It’s not something I’d need in Maine – – our well water is truly fantastic – – but  I thought the Brita bottle could be very useful in my hometown, where the water coming out of the faucet is downright gross.  It stinks of chlorine and goodness knows what else; it’s often murky with white matter floating in the glass right after you pour it from the faucet.     The tap water in my hometown is so bad  that even  my dog won’t  drink it, and this Brita water bottle was not only re-usable, the water really did taste better.  I knew it would be a great choice also for travel.  Since you can’t bring in any quantity of liquid over 3 oz. past security, I could  bring the bottle empty and then refill it at a drinking fountain inside the airport.  If you’ve ever been in LAX or Newark, you know how bad the water is from the drinking fountain, and the Brita filter promised to rectify that issue.  Plus, the water sold in airports and other tourist venues is grossly overpriced at $3 – 4 per disposable bottle. Besides the expense, I hate the idea of buying one-time plastic water bottles due to the tremendous waste they create. The price for the Brita was $16, but since the replaceable filter can be reused up to 300 times, I thought it was a bargain, especially with my upcoming trip to Israel.  In Israel the tap water is safe to drink but is often murky, very hard,  and the taste leaves much to be desired.

 

 

A couple of weeks later I was shopping in my favorite store:  Costco.  I noticed a two-pack of these towels, which promised to keep me cool.  I had tried similarly made towels before, but found the material to be rubbery and clammy.  The mini towels sold at Costco were instead soft and velvety.

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To derive maximum benefit, the towels are taken out of their air-tight plastic containers, soaked in cold water, and then all excess moisture is wrung out.  When the towel  is folded and draped around your neck, it retains cool moisture without feeling clammy or getting your clothes wet.   This special towel has many obvious uses (great for keeping cool when hiking, going to the gym, or playing sports) but it’s also terrific for women experiencing hot flashes.  To keep it moist when not in use, you store it in the included airtight plastic container.  If you let the towel dry out, you simply need to re-moisten it with fresh water and wring it out.  It is machine washable, too.  The price at Costco is $14 for the 2-pack, and is well worth it.

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lag B’Omer in Be’er Sheva

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

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

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

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

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

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

The foil-wrapped potatoes, baked in the bonfire

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

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

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

(click to enlarge)

The massive tented playground area

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

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

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

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

We Hit the Beach!

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

The beach in Ashkelon

Another view of Ashkelon beach

The turquoise water was very clean and clear

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of Shechunat Hey neighborhood in Be’er Sheva

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

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

Views from the Galil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The road leading to Moreshet

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

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

Moreshet is at the crest of the hill

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

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

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

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

The entrance to Moreshet

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

My first stop was, of course, the makolet.

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

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

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

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

A public walkway in Moreshet

A nursery school

One of several parks and playgrounds

The gym and community center

The elementary school

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

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

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

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

The path leading to the overlook above Moreshet.

Handmade ceramic markers set in rocks around the overlook identify landmarks

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

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

Views of Nazareth, Tzipori . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A view of houses under construction in the current building phase

New houses under construction

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

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

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

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

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

A few days later I got this email from Rivka:

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

Zichron Ya’akov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The shul as seen from the women’s gallery above

Looking from the front of the shul towards the back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new apartment complex overlooking a park

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

“770” comes to Zichron Yaakov

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

Ramat HaNadiv Botanical Gardens in Zichron Yaakov

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

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

Midreshet Ben Gurion

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

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

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

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

Mixing the mud that will coat the straw bales

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

Straw bale walls awaiting coats of mud

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ma’aleh Adumim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future concert hall, under construction

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

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

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

our friends’ kitchen in Ma’aleh Adumim

more unending gorgeous porch views

still more porch views

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

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