Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Life on the Front-lines; A Visit to Nativ HaAsara on the Border with Gaza

Moshav Nativ HaAsara on Northern Gaza Border with Israel
      At least one imperiled Israeli town is now inviting the public to learn about life on the frontlines at the farm community, Nativ HaAsara. This Moshav (a collective farm with privately owned homes) is right on the northern Gaza border, besieged with terror from above (rockets) and below (tunnels).

Gaza City from Moshav Nativ HaAsara
      Up until 14 years ago, the farm employed Gazans, and Nativ Ashara residents traveled less than a mile to Gaza City for shopping and dinner. Since then, thousands of rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel. The moshav kindergarten is “rocket-proof,”  bus stops serve as bomb shelters, and children go to school in blast-resistant buildings. When the alarm sounds, residents have three seconds to find shelter. 
Rocket-Proof Elementary School Building
Though unsettling, the Moshav encourages the public to come and learn what it’s like to be barraged by up to thirty rockets per day (it’s been quiet since October, 2014 – a good thing). To add to the terror, rockets are packed with ball bearings to maximize injury, and one particularly chilling weapon was stamped with he phrase, “Shalom First Grade."  “Where else in the world do kids think rockets are a normal part of life? Our life is all about running,” laments one resident. “A Mortar can hurt you even if it doesn’t hit you. It kills your soul. What’s it like for a child to be under 14 years of fire?”

"We are simple farmers. We just want to live a normal life."

Now, Terror Tunnels from Gaza; sophisticated, ventilated, electrified and some large enough to drive through are the new threat. The Israeli Defense Forces uncovered a plot to kidnap school age children from this Moshav as hostages. “They found syringes and rope in the tunnels.” 

Bus/Bomb Shelter: Three Seconds from rocket launch to impact
There is a feeling that most people on both side of the conflict just want to be left alone in peace. To that end, one community artist began to decorate the “horrible wall that not only surrounds Gaza but surrounds us” with a beautiful “Path to Peace” Mural. One can only hope.

Art on Security Wall: "Path To Peace"

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dead Sea Scrolls

Fragment of Dead Sea Scrolls

Last month, I visited Qumran (now located in the West Bank, but open to the public) and stared at the gaping holes in the desert mountainside where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  "Scrolls" is somewhat of a misnomer; much of what was excavated from these caves were fragments of the Jewish holy books and required much restoration.  Nearly a thousand scrolls were recovered, most in Hebrew (though 20 percent were written in Aramaic and a few in Greek), representing all of the books of the Torah with the exception of the Book of Esther (a very timely detail, since today is Purim).

Dr. Lawrence Schiffman
Dead Sea Scrolls
Discovery Times Square, NYC
Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls ended up in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, though I didn't visit them there.  Some are still in the hands of the Jordanian Antiquities Commission.  And a few, happily, are visiting about 40 miles from my Connecticut home in Times Square, New York City at the Discovery Times Square.  Several days ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Yeshiva University Professor and Dead Sea Scroll expert, Lawrence H. Schiffman at an event hosted by the Jerusalem-based Bible Lands Museum.  Schiffman led us on a wonderful tour of the Scroll Fragments and other artifacts of ancient Israel, and, while staring at the 2,500 year old pieces of my own Jewish history I wondered how anyone could  negate the existence of the Jewish People in that region.  The scrolls, our Torah, mostly written in Hebrew, are tangible proof that we were there.  To dispute that would be like finding remnants of the Koran in Mecca and insisting that there were never Muslims there.

I encourage anyone who lives in the NY area to see these incredible artifacts for yourself.  The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibition will be in Times Square through the middle of April, 2012.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Afula/Gilboa - Our "Sister City" Through Partnership Together

Perhaps this rainbow was a sign on our way up to the Lower Galilee and our Sister Region of Afula/Gilboa that this was going to be a meaningful (and colorful) weekend.  Rain-clouds cleared as we drove north from Tel Aviv, and this beautiful misty prism evoked smiles all around.  

On the road from Tel Aviv to Afula, Israel

Shabbat evening, we were treated to a raucous dinner at the Emunah Children's Residential Center in Afula - where kids at risk in their homes (physically abused, sexually abused, teen sex abusers) receive therapy and education in a loving, stable family-like environment. Some of the favorite counselors were residents here themselves and know from whence they speak (and treat the kids). A few of these feisty and shy kids sing in a professional choir that tours all over the USA.  It was a happy, inspiring place, filled with hope and smiling children. And good food, too.  Shabbat dinner was certainly a spirited event.

Emuhan Children's Residential Centre
Afula, Israel

For years before and after its declaration of Statehood, many settlers in Israel lived on communal farms called Kibbutzim (or Kibbutz, in the singular).  Based on a socialistic model, groups of people worked the land together, ate together in the "Cheder Ochel" - literal translation - "eating room" and otherwise pooled their earnings to ensure the health and welfare of all.  Yes, it was idealistic, but very tempting for young Americans like me; I lived, worked and studied on a kibbutz for three months in the summer of 1975.  Even back then, some kinks in the armor of this idealism began to show.  Kibbutz families fortunate enough to have relatives in the States began receiving shipments of luxuries like televisions and appliances, creating a lopsided distribution of goods. As Israeli society became more capitalistic, the Kibbutz concept began to seem less and less attractive. Kibbutzim began to shut down or "privatize."  But some have clung to life, opening thriving factories and businesses on site, and we were thrilled to stay in a beautiful guesthouse on a still-idealistic kibbutz near Afula called Kibbutz Yizreel.  

If you have a pool, and use the electronic "Dolphin Pro" or any other Dolphin Pool or Maytronic appliance to clean it, you are in possession of a device manufactured in Israel on Kibbutz Yizreel.  The plant sits about 50 yards from a  shed and pen jammed with dairy cows.  That is basically Israel in a nutshell; technology and livestock all on the same block. 

Strolling through Kibbutz Yizreel
in the Yizreel Valley, Israel

Beautifully landscaped Kibbutz Yizreel; Note Farmland in Valley below

Kibbutz Yizreel in Lower Galilee

Kibbutz Yizreel; Home to Dolphin Pool Co.

Good Morning - At the Dining Hall @ Kibbutz Yizreel
Israeli Salad for breakfast

Its about half an hour's drive to Tiberius and Lake Kinneret (Kinneret translates to "harp" -and so named because lake is shaped somewhat like one) from the kibbutz.  Known to Christians as The Sea Of Galilee, the Kinneret is rather small and bordered by hills that until 1967, belonged to Syria.  Given the government violence against its own people amounting to over 7,000 dead, according to a BBC report, we were relieved that Syria no longer shares the shoreline of The Sea of Galilee and that the conflict is far from here.

Again, the air was still with unexpected calm.  We came across a restaurant right on the lake that seemed closed.  There were no cars in the dirt parking lot, and not a soul in the place.  Always a bad sign.  But it was indeed open, and it turned out to be a wonderful meal with some of the best and freshest fish I've ever had. We ordered plain grilled "St. Peter's Fish" aka tilapia, a local specialty.  Extraordinary.....

St. Peter's Fish - straight from the Sea of Galilee Israel

Fish Fillet Master
Restaurant on Lake Kinneret (AKA Sea of Galilee) 

Before heading to see our last few Jewish Federation sponsored programs, we had to stop at this nut store. Afula is known the world over for its roasted sunflower seeds. Popularity polls have deemed this place the best place in Israel to buy these tasty treats.  With only hours to go before our flight home, we had to load up on kilos of warm, just out of the roaster seeds:

The Nut Shop in Afula, Israel; Best Place to Buy Freshly-Roasted Sunflower Seeds

The Nut Shop in Afula, Israel;
Best Place to Buy Freshly-Roasted Sunflower Seeds

On Sunday afternoon, before driving to the airport, we heard from dedicated women therapists at a Rape Crisis Center (no photos allowed there, of course) and dedicated teachers at a school in Afula with a large immigrant enrollment.  Enrichment programs boost learning, and the most at-risk students are paired with teachers who "take them under their wing" to ensure that each child learns and thrives.  It's a terrific, nurturing program and we heard from both the kids and parents who benefit.

Afula School; Kids are paired with teachers who ensure
that each student learns and thrives.

Student in Afula, Israel

Songbirds in Afula, Israel

Our final stop before driving to the airport was at the Len and Susan Mark Center; built as a teen center for Jews of Ethiopian heritage.  We were treated to a traditional Ethiopian meal along with falafel, representing a blending of Middle Eastern and African cultures.  We weren't too surprised to see most of the kids eating Israeli food; they see the moist bread and stew-like dishes of Ethiopia as their "parent's food."  They are also quite beguiled, like all teens the world over, by social media and YouTube - most have a Facebook account.  Some of the guys tried to teach us some hip-hop moves that they "learned on YouTube,"  but I don't even want to get near the videos taken of my attempt.  Suffice it to say, I have the rhythm of a middle-aged white women.  In other words...none.  

Afula, Israel

Trying to Teach Old Dogs New Moves
Len and Susan Marks Center
Afula, Israel

Trying to Teach Old Dogs New Moves
Len and Susan Marks Center
Afula, Israel

A Room to Hang out at the
Len and Susan Mark Center
Afula, Israel

A Place to Hang out After School
Len and Susan Mark Center
Afula, Israel
We are now back in the USA and ready to raise money for these great programs and others back home.  (No, this is not a solicitation, but if you feel charitably inclined, I'm here to tell you that your Federation funds really do change lives.  I've seen it for myself.)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Shades of Tel Aviv, Israel


The city of Tel Aviv is made up of a disparate group of neighborhoods.  There's the ancient stone-wall section high on a bluff, known for 4,000 years as Jaffa.  There's the funky first-settlement outside of Jaffe called Neve Tzedek (known for boutiques, designers and celebrity restaurants).  There's the Mediterranean Sea-lapped section of high-rise hotels, nightclubs, beaches and Old Port filled with restaurants and art markets. A few blocks inland the Bauhaus building lined neighborhood is nicknamed the "White City." 

After a very scheduled five days, all we wanted to do was meander and explore at least some of these areas of Tel Aviv, and here are some memories:

Archways and Walkways in Old Jaffa, Israel

Perfect method for hiding facial hair....
Considering Yemenite Face Jewelry
Jaffa, Israel

A Plant Grows in Jaffa; Life Among the Stones

Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea from the top of Old Jaffa, Israel

History of Jaffa, Israel

View of Sea and Tel Aviv from Jaffa, Israel

Back in town, we decided to ignore the blight created by the garbage strike (Israelis fight for wage hikes just like everyone else), and shopped on trendy Shenkin Street. We popped into jewelry shops, cheap clothing stores, a "Purim" costume shop and spent a few shekels for a terrifically fresh smoothie; 

Garbage Strike Mars Otherwise Clean Sidewalks
Tel Aviv, Israel

A Purim Costume Shop in Israel
Israeli Jews don't celebrate Halloween
Costumes are reserved for the holiday of  Purim

Fresh Juice Smoothies
Shenkin Street Tel Aviv, Israel

Who Needs Grays Papaya?
We've got this place on Shenkin St. Tel Aviv, Israel

Just Pick Your Fruit; Get the Best Pomegranate/Date Smoothies Here!
Shenkin Street, Tel Aviv, Israel

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Eating our Hearts Out: Our Final Heart To Heart Day in Israel

To Americans raised on Lucky Charms and Cookie Crisp cereals, breakfast in Israel is a revelation. Somehow, the bounty of every Israeli farm and hydroponic greenhouse makes its way to private and hotel kitchens across the land. I've told my friends a million times - I'd fly 11 hours to Israel for the morning meal alone.  We stayed just outside of Tzefat in a nice hotel called the Canaan Spa.  Though there seemed to be no spa services available, we felt healthier, anyway, by eating this bountiful breakfast.  I loved the whole vegetables in straw bins, just waiting to be chopped up by the percussionist salad chef.  

Breakfast at the Canaan Spa; Tzefat, Israel

Breakfast at the Canaan Spa; Tzefat, Israel

Boogie Along to the Salad-Chopping Chef; Breakfast at the Canaan Spa; Tzefat, Israel

I'm not normally a fan of coach-bus tourism, but riding along with these like-minded women was a privilege and an honor.  And we were lucky to have one of the best, most knowledgeable, most clever and witty guides in Israel; Nomi Appel-Hazi, who never missed a beat and stayed cool in the most frustrating situations.  She shared personal stories, made us laugh and cry.  She touched our hearts, making this a literal Heart To Heart visit to Israel.

Heart To Heart Bus 3; This is How We Roll

Our Amazing Guide; Nomi Appel-Hazi
Bus # 3 Heart To Heart Mission Israel

IDF Navy Seal Nir Krichman, of Blessed Memory
 Namesake of "Nirim in the Neighborhood"
Program for At-Risk Kids in Troubled Neighborhoods

Our final Heart to Heart "See Where Our Dollars Go" visit was to Nirim Schunot - or "Nirim In the Neighborhood" - a program run by IDF Navy Seals to help Israel's most distressed youth.  Named for Navy Seal Nir Krichman, whose dream post-army was to help kids virtually abandoned by society (but who died during a military operation in 2002), this program is run by Nir's friends and family in his honor.  Tough Navy Seals encourage at-risk teens to push themselves in Outward-Bound-like excursions into the deserts and mountains to positive effect.  We were heartened to see yet another way that Israelis turn tragedy into hope for its most downtrodden citizens.  

We shared our last meal together as a group at this stunning "farm-to-table" restaurant located within an orange grove, Cafe Tapuz in Moshav Bazra.  I wasn't expecting much as we gathered in a circle, sharing what we each got out of the mission, but it turned into a very emotional and uplifting "encounter" group.  These past few days affected us all deeply.

Cafe Tapuz, Moshav Bazra, Israel

One of the most exquisitely set restaurants within an orange grove.  Wow!
Cafe Tapuz, Moshav Bazra, Israel

On the patio overlooking the orange grove
Cafe Tapuz, Moshav Bazra, Israel

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Heart to Heart Night in Tzefat; Birthplace of the Kabala

The Israeli city of Tzfat became an important center of Jewish life in the late 1400's after Jews were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. From; The city is most closely associated with Jewish mysticism, the kabbalah, whose foremost exponent, Rabbi Isaac Luria, lived and taught there.  The "bible" of the kabbalists, the Zohar, was attributed to the second-century talmudist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who believed each word and line of the Torah had a higher meaning.

The women of Heart to Heart spent an afternoon and night in Tzefat; shopping along the stone streets of the Old City, making our own "Tzefat Candles," stopping to take pictures of the historic 16th Century Abuhav Synagogue, and finally dancing and singing together in a Spanish-influenced event space.

Mystics and artists are drawn to Tzefat, Israel

Making Colorful Candles in Tzefat, Israel

Inside the 16th Century Avuhav Synagogue - Said to Contain the Oldest Torah Scroll in the area
Tzefat, Israel

Intricate Carvings on Exterior Wall of Abuhav Synagogue
Tzefat, Israel

Doors of Abuhav Synagogue
Tzefat, Israel

Ancient Streets of Old Tzefat, Israel

On our last full night together, all 155 of us - four buses of invigorated women philanthropists - gathered for a Sephardic meal, singing, dancing and girlfriend togetherness.  So overwhelmingly inspired, we were already making plans to sign up for the next Heart to Heart Mission two years from now.

Heart to Heart Wrap-Up Party in Tzefat, Israel

Heart to Heart Wrap-Up Party in Tzefat, Israel

"You've Got A Friend"
Heart to Heart Wrap-Up Party in Tzefat, Israel