Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Reverberation of Grief

Yesterday was a terrible day. In our immediate area there are four yishuvim (small towns). There was a funeral in each and every one of them yesterday. In Efrat, Alon Shvut and Elazar, the people buried members of their communities who were killed in a terrible head-on collision. Here in Neve Daniel we buried a 43 year old man who died just after arriving in Israel with his wife and triplets to pursue their dream of Aliyah.

It was one of those days that makes you tired to be alive….where you have knots in your stomach all day, trying to come up for air where there doesn’t seem to be any.

While I was thinking about these four people yesterday, none of whom I knew personally, I was trying to put into words what was making me so very sad. I never had the honor of meeting any of the deceased, so what was I so depressed about?

I came to a conclusion for myself, and then read a similar explanation in the evening from my dear friend Ruti Mizrachi that validated my hypothesis. Most people have a community of family and friends that is quite small. If there is a car accident on Santa Monica Blvd in Los Angeles or on 355 in Maryland, you don’t usually sit by the computer screen praying that the names won’t be ones you know. The chances are slim that they will be.

Here, however, our collective community is so tight-knit and symbiotic, that you know, as you check for those names, that even if you don’t personally end up recognizing one of them, your co-workers will and your neighbors might.

The benefits of living a life like ours are innumerable. The price we pay for membership to such a club, however, is collective and unadulterated pain when something happens in the area. And there are thousands of people here in Gush Etzion, which means that the pain of a three person car accident and the untimely death of one father reverberates far beyond what one would normally expect.

Four people died…none of whom I knew…and yet everyone I know in Neve Daniel was mourning yesterday; everyone I know at work from Alon Shvut was grieving; everyone I spoke to in the evening from Efrat was distraught.

The collective bond that we share as we build our lives here together is powerful and radiant; but it also means that the collective grief is searing and poignant beyond words.

May the families be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may we know only happy times ahead.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Remembering Koby

It was 10 years ago today that two young bar mitzvah boys decided to explore the mountains by their home.

As you know, they never returned.

Rather, while walking on their journey, they were set upon by 4 Arabs and were pummeled to death - beyond recognition - for the crime of being Jewish children living in their homeland.

It's the 10th Yartzeit (anniversary) today for Koby Mandell and Yosef Ish-Ran.

I remember sitting in my classroom in Potomac, Maryland, crying at my desk when I heard about their murders. I couldn't imagine anything more savage - anything more inhumane. Since then, of course, we've been challenged by other similarly despicable, unimaginable acts of this sort.

Five weeks after Koby's funeral, his father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, came back to Silver Spring to give a talk. The Mandells had made Aliyah from the area, and many of the children at the talk had been Koby's classmates. We were all looking for answers, for inspiration, for some understanding of how such an event could possibly take place - and of how one family could possibly be living through it.

During the talk, we were overcome by Rabbi Mandell's poise. He discussed the shiva and the many things that they learned about their dear son from those days. He discussed life in Israel and painted a picture for us of how difficult things were in general, and, of course, for their family in particular.

At that stage in our lives, we were raising our one son in Potomac and were still relatively new to Orthodox faith and practice. Aliyah was not something we had seriously considered. I assumed that we would have two or three children, and that we would raise them in the area.

When we finished the lecture and returned to our car, I was inconsolable. In the face of such tragedy - in the face of such cruelty and loss - I had only one thought. I turned to Josh on that night, in our car in Potomac, Maryland and said, "That's it. The answer to Koby's murder is children. We need to have lots and lots of children."

As the weeks and months went by, I started grappling with my feelings about Israel. Why should families like the Mandells be here, fighting for the safety and survival of Israel, while the rest of us could safely benefit from afar? It became harder for me to justify our lives outside of Israel.

Needless to say, our path has been long since 2001, with many things that have influenced our decisions. It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that we are now neighbors of the Mandells, living a few minutes away from their home in Gush Etzion; and that we are the very proud parents of six Israeli sons.

Anyone living here can tell you that our lives aren’t always easy. Sure, it would have made more economic sense to have three children rather than six. Of course we would have made more money living in the States, and had, perhaps, a quieter life.

But we wake up each day feeling like pioneers, and appreciating that we aren’t sitting on the sidelines of Jewish history – but participating in it.

We’re here for ourselves.

We're here for our people.

And we’re here for Koby.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Magic of Daglanut

It's 1935 and Rivki is part of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in Poland. Once a week, she gets together with her friends and they talk about the dream of establishing a country together - the dream of traveling to Palestine to work the land. They focus on the ideology of Torah v'Avodah - that Torah studies and work go hand in hand and that they can both learn and build the land that HaShem gave to them.

They sing songs together, they talk about the Zionist dream and they dance.

Most of them never make it to Palestine - they meet their fate, instead, in the gas chambers, dreaming of a life in a Jewish homeland.

It's 1951 in Tel Aviv and Dovid is part of the Bnei Akiva youth movement in his neighborhood. He gets together with his friends each week to discuss Zionism, to build character through activities and programs and to hang out with other youths his age.

He made it to Eretz Yisrael when his parents escaped from Germany by posing as Gentiles, and he has hopes and visions for Israel's future.

These are the children that I think about when I watch the daglanut (flag) ceremony at our Yom Ha'Atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) presentation each year. Our children are part of the Bnei Akiva youth movement that was founded in 1929 and that has the vision of teaching religious children to love the Land of Israel and to combine their Torah studies with building up the nation.

Today, Bnei Akiva has over 50,000 members around the world, and approximately 100,000 in Israel. In Israel, they meet two times a week, on Tuesday afternoons and on Shabbat, to hang out with friends, to learn about their history and to look to the future. And this is only one of the many youth movements around the country that is tasked with a similar mandate.

Each Yom Ha'Atzmaut when we gather together at the soccer field to watch the celebrations, I hold back tears (ok...I don't hold them back well) as I watch the 7th graders proudly dance with their Israeli flags. It's a right of passage here. The kids wait with eager anticipation until they are in the seventh grade so that they can be part of the daglanut ceremony. They practice for weeks to get it right and they proudly display their flags and their Zionism on this night each year.

And although I don't yet have a 7th grader, I cry every year. They are dancing with a flag that Rivki couldn't have imagined existing - that she never got to see as she entered Auschwitz. They are dancing with the flag of our people, of our army, of our nation. They are 7th grade kids, who are supposed to think this type of activity is "geeky" or "lame" but they don't.

Sometimes I get frustrated with the way things work here in Israel. I have a point of comparison, after all, having lived in America for 33 years. But then I remember that those 33 years constituted more than half of Israel's lifetime. This country of ours is still such a young lady. She is still growing, developing and working so hard to find herself. She isn't perfect, but she is OURS.

When I look at her that way, it's an absolute miracle that we have come anywhere near as far as we have. She's younger than many people that I know. What an incredible thing she is, this young nation of Israel with all of her wrinkles and blemishes.

And what an incredible show these kids put on each year, reminding us of where we've been...and where we are going as a people.

I'm not sure how I'll get through the ceremony when Matan participates in two years (and his brothers every two years after that). He'll be dancing with his flag two days before his bar mitzvah, exuding energy, grace and a love of Israel.

I'll save you a seat. It won't be hard to find me - I'll be the one with the tissues.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Baby Giggles...A Siren Wails

It's such a complicated country we live in.

Today is Mother's Day, and as I was wishing all of the moms in my life a beautiful day through Facebook and on the phone, I could hear music of mourning in the background in my own home.

See, it's Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) here which is simply one of the saddest days of the year. It's the day, each year, when we tear off the feebly placed band-aid and re-expose our moms (and dads and brothers and sisters and grandparents and children) to the unspeakable loss that they have endured simply by wanting to live and grow here.

And so I sat, wishing my mom a wonderful Mother's Day, while my big boys sat in the next room listening to story after story after story on the news of mothers losing their children.


Yesterday, I sat on a panel with two other working women. Together, we were asked to speak before 70 or so American girls who are here learning for a year. They had gathered in Neve Daniel for a Shabbat that was intended to focus on Aliyah and to encourage them to stay past their year of learning (or to come back at some point later).

One girl asked the question, "How do you deal with living here when you know your children are going to have to be in the army, and that they may die?"

I gave an impassioned answer about our duties, about defending our country, and about the privilege of serving in an army that didn't even exist in our grandparents' generation. I explained, as I did at Yakir's brit six months ago, that my grandfather, while serving in the American army and fighting against the Nazis in WWII, couldn't have imagined in his wildest dreams that his great-grandchildren would some day serve in a Jewish army.

And then the psychiatrist next to me said what I really wanted to say, and what we often think but don't say to people outside of Israel. She said that, years ago, sitting safely in America, she came to the conclusion that she doesn't love HER children more than any woman in Israel. To say that you can't come to Israel because you can't bear the idea of sending your kids to the army implies that the women here bear it better, and, therefore, love their children less. They don't love their children as much, and they simply learn to live with the pain of sending them, and potentially losing them.

And my friend realized that this simply wasn't true. Why, she explained, should the women of Israel be willing to make a sacrifice with THEIR children, whom they love just as much? Why should they be holding up the country that we value and love so much; while we were sitting in America, unwilling to send ours?

She certainly gave the girls something to think about, as she echoed sentiments that I've tried to express for years.

And then tonight, when Yom HaZikaron started, the siren wailed. It was 8:00 pm and we had explained to the boys that the siren was coming and that they would need to be still, standing and quiet. I stood in the kitchen as the piercing sounds echoed through our home, and I watched Yakir play in his bouncy seat.

What a strange juxtaposition to watch my beautiful 6 month old baby playing and giggling, knowing that he will someday be one of these soldiers serving the country...and knowing that so many mothers tonight are mourning for that baby who grew up to serve, but not to survive.

Then, Josh put the television on the computer so that the kids could watch the national program that starts Yom HaZikaron at the Kotel (the Western Wall). We watched the solemn ceremony, which ended with Hatikva, and then we started watching the evening program. With extremely sad music in the background, the program showed interviews with family after family after family that had lost someone in the line of duty. These shows will continue around the clock until tomorrow night, when the sadness of Yom HaZikaron transforms into the joy and sheer excitement of Yom Ha'atzmaut (Independence Day).

I sat in the background, trying to get some work done, and wondering whether this was the right thing to show the kids. Here were my boys, ages 9 and 3-days-from-11, listening to stories about soldiers who have died. When you're going to be a soldier someday, how do you sit and listen to those stories? What does this information do to your young psyche?

But this, in the end, is also part of our lives. And so, we begin Yom HaZikaron, hoping as I do every single year with passionate prayer that I should never feel the pain of this day personally.

But understanding and deeply appreciating, as well, the sacrifices that so many have had to make so that we may be here as free, practicing Jews in our homeland.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Smallest of Details

About a week ago, Josh started a 40 day party for me. He's doing something sweet for me each day for the 40 days leading up to my 40th birthday. Yes, adorable.

So, last Friday he came home with flowers. There were three small bouquets, and after we put two in vases around the family room, Josh recommended that we put the third bouquet in our bathroom.

"Our what?" I said.

And so, giggling a bit, I placed the third bouquet in our bathroom.

And each time that I went by the bathroom during the day, I felt like royalty. It was such a refreshing thing to admire a beautiful bouquet of bright white flowers in the bathroom. I had to laugh when Josh mentioned that they made him feel similarly regal.

And so, today when we did our errands, we made sure to buy a bouquet for the bathroom.

Beautiful pink roses.

For only 15 shekels (about $4), I've become royal.

Just call me Kate.

It's amazing how much a difference little things can make.