Thursday, April 28, 2011

Staying Put for Pesach

Pesach just ended and we enjoyed a terrific holiday. When the chag first began, I was a bit apprehensive about our time. While many people pack up and head to hotels for the entire chag, we would be staying put, as always. We certainly don’t have the money to enjoy an expensive get away – hell, we don’t even have enough space in our car anymore for the entire family!

And so, I was feeling a bit nervous. I want our boys to have great memories of their childhood, as does any parent. And when we stay home for just about every holiday, I sometimes worry that they aren’t going to look back with fond memories.

Fortunately, I was quite mistaken. And now, reflecting on our time spent at home for the past 8 or 9 days, I’m amazed by just how much fun we managed to have within a 20 - 30 minutes of home. We did our seder by ourselves this year and we encouraged all of the kids to get involved. This meant that Yehuda rewrote the song “Echad Mi Yodea?” to a family theme. “Who knows six?” he wrote, “Six is the number of Sussman boys!” and on and on. Matan wrote 30 questions that were age-appropriate for each sibling so that he could ask them during the seder. I wrote a story about what it would have been like for the Sussman family to run from Egypt and Josh had a game of Taboo with a Pesach theme ready to go. The kids created a play showing all of the 10 plagues which Matan, of course, directed and which they all spent two days practicing to perform. We set up blue fabric at the front of the house and we “went through the sea” when they returned from shul, and then we had a lovely seder.

All dressed for Seder

With that behind us, it was time for our first free day. We went to the Deer Park which is only about five minutes from our home and the kids all had an amazing time. They have a number of fantastic ropes course types of activities that really challenge the kids and make them push themselves. Matan, in particular, impressed all of us during the day. He decided, for the first time, to go on the zip line – the largest in the country – spanning 400 meters (and 120 meters high). And he had a great time (just as long as I didn’t have to go – I was thrilled to give him the opportunity). They also have a ropes course set up in the park that is about 25 feet above ground. Attached with a harness, you have to walk over narrow ropes, swing from hanging step to hanging step and more. Before it was Matan’s turn, a 15 year old girl got stuck on the steps section and started screaming. It took about 15 minutes for her father to calm her down and to get her to finish the course. And I prayed that Matan would not create a similar scene!

Next, it was Matan’s turn. It turned out that Matan was probably barely at the minimum height to be able to accomplish the course. When he got to the steps section he simply wasn’t tall enough to get from one hanging step to the next. I was immensely proud, however, of how he handled himself. While he was clearly quite scared and had a catch in his voice as he asked us for help, he continued to try to get to the next step. Finally, after quite awhile, the person running the course came up into the trees and swung the step towards him. Catching it with great relief, Matan thanked him and started on his way. The crowd that had formed below let out a surprising cheer and Matan finished the course with no more problems.

The next day, I took the three little kids to a great petting zoo and interactive animal center that we have five minutes from home in Elazar. Eliav, the future veterinarian, wrapped a snake around his neck with glee, rounded the stables on a horse, danced with a turtle and enjoyed feeding the llamas.

That evening, Josh took the older 4 boys on an overnight camping trip. They camped about 25 minutes from home in the mountains and had a fantastic time. This was Eliav’s first introduction to the camping experience. The Sussman rule is that you aren’t invited to camp until you are potty trained and ready to keep up with the big guys. He passed the test with flying colors and had a great time. The highlight of the trip, as far as I could tell, for the boys was when they drank “Golani” coffee in the morning with our friend, Itay. Itay instructed them about the “Golani” way of making coffee and regaled them with stories of his service and of his days making coffee for the other soldiers.

Finally, on the last day of Chol Hamoed we went to a natural spring (ma’ayan in Hebrew) in Bat Ayin, which is also about 10 minutes from home. Set in an incredible valley between two mountains of Gush Etzion, this natural ma’ayan invites swimmers to enjoy. We barbequed right nearby, watched Yehuda jump into the freezing cold water, played ball, and watched those on the zip line from below, as they sped by from one mountain to another.

My worries have definitely evaporated. While it is wonderful to show the kids other areas of the country, it’s also such a gift to have so much to do close to home. Without leaving the vicinity, the kids had a fantastic vacation exploring their land – and making memories that we hope will last a lifetime…right in their own backyard.

As I tucked the kids into bed the night before school started, I asked them what their favorite part of the holiday was. Since the teachers always ask, I wanted to prep the kids and to have them ready with an answer for school the next day. Yehuda said that he couldn't answer the question, because it would be too hard to decide what was the most fun - after having such a great holiday.

Now that's what I like to hear.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Decade to Reflect

It's hard to imagine. 10 years ago this week, we were on a flight to Israel to visit our dear friends and to show solidarity during a very difficult time.

I had not considered Aliyah in our near future. In fact, I tried to get off of the plane during take-off.

Flash back ten years with me. It was March of 2001, and the people of Israel were completely and totally under siege as they dealt with daily bus bombings, home invasions, road killings and more. We were planning to come to Israel for Pesach to spend time with our friends, Rafi and Atzila Abbo, who had been on shlichut (Israeli emissaries abroad) in Washington D.C with us for two years. We had a ten month old son.

And I was very nervous.

Yes, I knew we should make the trip. I knew that Rafi and Atzila were counting on us. I knew that it wasn't fair that the people living in Israel should be on the front lines of the terror they were experiencing, while I was only reading about it in the newspapers in Potomac each day.

And yet, I was scared.

So, to pacify my fears and to gain one last push for our trip, I decided to call Rafi. We didn't have a long distance plan, so I had to arrange with my neighbor and friend, Sarah, to make the call from her house. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and I had raced home from work to make the connection before Rafi went to bed. I sat in Sarah's kitchen and made the call to Rafi to hear that everything was alright and that I would be safe on our trip.

When he answered the phone, he said, "Oh, so you heard."

"Um, no," I said. "What are you talking about?"

"You didn't see the front page of the Jerusalem Post this morning?"

And then he started to tell me. I had caught him right after he returned from burying one of his oldest friends. Tzachi Sasson had been driving on the road that day in Gush Etzion. Driving to work, from work, to the grocery store....what, really, does it matter? And he was gunned down by terrorists and killed. And Rafi had just returned from his funeral.

And this was my call for chizuk (strength). When I got off the phone, shaking, I turned to Sarah and said, "My Gd. I guess I just got my answer. There is no way that we are going."

And she said, "Romi, you certainly DID just get your answer."

I looked at her, wishing that she weren't saying to me what I knew she was - and wishing that she weren't right.

Of course we were going.

Who were we to say that our friends should be on the front lines of the fight to save Israel - to save the Jewish people and their homeland, while I sat safely in my house in America? Who were we to say that we were truly their friends, if we didn't have the faith, the guts, and the strength to come and show them that they were part of our lives, that they mattered, and that their presence in Israel mattered?

This is not to say that I wasn't incredibly scared. The American media had made me believe that there was a gunman at every corner in Israel and that I couldn't possibly be safe on my trip. I still remember the picture that was on the front page of the paper the day before we flew out. It was an amazing shot of a bomb exploding in Gaza, as seen through the reflection of an Arab woman's glasses.

The reality of our trip, however, was quite different.

We had a fantastic time with the Abbos. We saw that they, their community, their families and their friends were continuing with their lives as best that they could, while dealing with constant, daily terror. They were a productive, faithful and persevering people under siege.

And they were unspeakably, overwhelmingly and completely in awe of our presence and appreciative that we were standing with them - with our bodies and our presence, not with our money or distant support.

We have a picture from that trip standing on the Abbo balcony, capturing a bit of what Gush Etzion looked like. Years later, after we made Aliyah, I looked back at that picture to realize that in the foreground is the house that we would eventually own.

Little did we know at the time...and little could we have imagined.

Certainly, that trip had a great influence on us, on our thought process, on what Israel means to us, and on how we wanted to show our support.

It was by no means the only piece to the puzzle that propelled our Aliyah, but it was a small part. And I look back on that trip, today, with admiration for the people who got on that plane and came to visit their friends, and with amazement at how far we've come.

10 years later... 5 more boys, 4 of whom are sabras...home sales, apartment rentals, home purchases in Israel, and so many other experiences.

And here we sit, today, showing how important this country is to us with our every breath - with our bodies, with our children and with our future.

Once a month, we bring cakes to the Pinat Chama (literally 'Warm Corner'), a small house that has been created in Gush Etzion in memory of Tzachi Sasson and Dr. Shmuel Gillis who were both killed on our roads during the intifada. It's open all day and night, offering free cakes and drinks to the soldiers who patrol our area. Today, I am part of remembering Tzachi as best as I can, and teaching my children each month to bake for the soldiers who continue to protect us and to prevent similar tragedies.

We were slaves in Egypt - we were slaves to our own misconceptions, fears and uncertainties.

Today we are free.

Free to live in the land that our ancestors couldn't even dream of returning to or of calling home.

Free to sing "Next Year in Jerusalem" at the Seder while living 10 minutes south of the eternal city.

Free to teach our children about leaving Egypt for the promise of the Land to which Hashem said he would bring us - for the promise of THIS land where we live today as free, practicing Jews.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lessons Learned at the Bakery

It's the day before Pesach (Passover) and we are all crazy busy trying to get ready. And, as usually happens right before the chag, there is no food in the house. Well, none that we can really eat at the moment.

So, when I came home from work today, we gathered the kids into the car and headed to the bakery up the street. We were calmly figuring out what to order and looking around the empty store when a huge crowd suddenly descended onto the bakery. It was a madhouse of tourists and we quickly ordered and ran out of the store. The clerk mentioned, however, as we left, that there was extra seating behind the store if we wanted to eat there.

So, we turned the corner and enjoyed the quiet location and the beautiful rolling hills of Gush Etzion for a few moments. And then, the tourists found us! They had, as well, been told to go to the tables behind the store and to enjoy their lunch there. So much for peace and quiet.

But, as so often happens in life, something that we assume will be inconvenient or annoying can, possibly, open our eyes and our hearts.

Josh started talking to one of the tourists and it turns out that they have arrived from Norway. They are part of a church group that comes every single spring and travels the country for 10 days. Our country.

Why, we asked, do you come here? Is it to see churches and to see where Jesus was? 'No,' he replied. 'We come to give you support and to see what your lives are really like. We also want you to know that not everyone in Norway is like what you read about in your papers. We love Israel, support Israel and want you to know, despite what some in our country say, that you have friends in Norway.' He mentioned, with a sad chuckle, that they were the only groups around during the Intifada in 2001, 2002...that no one else was coming, but that they still made their yearly trip.

It's not always the same people who come. It depends on the year and the finances of the people. 'For instance,' he said, pointing out a family of four. 'They had to decide this year whether to build on a garage to the house, or to bring the family to Israel. And you can see,' he said with a twinkle in his eye, 'what they decided.'

As I watched this group, I have to say that I felt incredibly grateful to them - even in awe - and embarrassed at the same time. These non-Jewish tourists spend their money and their time each year coming here - to our country - to experience our lives and to show their support.

I was all too happy to smile for their pictures and to have them point at our cherry-cheeked Norwegian looking children.

At the same time, I couldn't help but marvel at their priorities, their commitment and their interest.

Wouldn't it be amazing if every Jewish group in America were as similarly committed to Israel? And if I couldn't get through the bakery every time that I walked in because another eager Jewish group had come to show their support to Gush Etzion on their way to Hebron?

We waved goodbye as they thanked us for our time and got ready for their bus. And then, one person came running back for that last picture of Zeli. "Smile Zeli!" we gently prodded. "These pictures are going back to your friends and supporters in Norway."