Posts Tagged ‘Galilee’

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 . . .

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Israel, Days 4 – 6: Amirim

 

Beautiful views of the Galilee

Beautiful views of the Galilee (click to enlarge)

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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.

http://www.zimmeril.com

These sites are specific to Amirim:

http://www.booking.com/searchresults.en-us.html?aid=336408;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

http://www.havilot-nofesh.co.il/eng/ZimmerList.asp?MenuID=337

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.