Monday, April 29, 2013

Learning About Team Spirit

Organized sports are wonderful. They allow kids to have fun, to play hard and to exercise. They are also, however, supposed to benefit kids in many other ways, and many coaches (and parents) tend to forget about  these benefits. I don't expect any of my children to make it to the NBA (shocking, I know) so why are they playing basketball? They play for the sport and the fun, of course. But I also hold out hope, as a parent, that they are learning about sharing, listening to others, passing the ball when necessary, taking direction and more.

I've been thrilled this year to see just how much Yehuda is learning these lessons. I don't know if his coach and his team are unique, but I would certainly love to see their style replicated the world over. Recently, they were playing a team that wasn't very good. The score was already something like 15 to 4 in the first quarter. Yehuda's coach gathered the kids together and told them that they weren't allowed to steal the ball for the rest of the game, and they weren't allowed to play aggressively. Yes, they could continue to try to win, but they shouldn't do so in a way that would embarrass the other team.


Then, last week, I was driving the basketball carpool home and asking the kids how the game went. Yehuda was telling me about the baskets that he made, and I asked the other kid if he had also made baskets.

"No," he said. And then he was quiet.

When he got out of the car, Yehuda explained to me that he was the only kid on the team who hadn't yet made a basket. Score one foot-in-mouth for this mother.

However, the kids had, apparently, created a system at the beginning of the year whereby they wanted to ensure that every kid on the team got at least one basket during a game. They made sure to pass to the kids that hadn't yet made baskets to try to help them to do so.

I assumed that the coach was involved in this idea. But it turned out that he wasn't - this was something that the kids, as a team, had taken on entirely by themselves.

During the last game, the child who hadn't gotten a basket all year finally got one. The kids exploded with cheers, high-fives and excitement as if they had just won the lottery. And the scorer beamed from ear to ear.

Yehuda may not remember the dribbling techniques that the coach teaches him. He probably won't end up on an athletic scholarship anywhere as a result of this team.

He will, however, remember how to show dignity to others who are struggling.

And he will remember how to be a team member, and how helping another to rise up really helps us all to do so.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Flag Dances, Fruit Roll-Ups and Family

For years, Josh and I have remarked that someday Matan would be part of the Daglanut (flag dance) on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) at the ceremony that we hold in Neve Daniel. The seventh grade boys and girls do a dance each year, waving enormous Israeli flags and filling the basketball court with their excitement and their Zionism.

A few years ago, we started talking about how Matan’s bar mitzvah would fall within a day or two of Yom Ha’atzmaut and how exciting it would be to fill the stands with family and to watch Matan on that evening.

And now the time has come…and gone. I will never understand the passage of time and how it seems to move so very quickly at times, when you anticipate, plan and dream.

And what a dream it was. Matan’s birthday is two days after Yom Ha’atzmaut. But this year, because of how the days fell out, his birthday started Motzei Yom Ha’atzmaut (just as Israel Independence Day ended). We planned and organized, made spreadsheets and planned some more. We had hopes of having some family with us, but never in our wildest dreams assumed we would have as many family members and friends as we did.

Monday night was the ceremony marking the end of Israel Memorial Day and the beginning of Independence Day. We eagerly made our way over to the basketball court with Josh’s parents, my mom and my uncle in tow. The ceremony was amazing and incredibly special. It was made even more touching than I could have imagined when Matan was honored with 11 other yishuv members and brought up in front of the entire yishuv to light a torch. He was honored for his commitment to charity work, for his bar mitzvah and as a representative of all of the youth in the yishuv.

Then, he performed his flag dance, along with his entire grade. Looking back 9 years, I get choked up every time that I think about the long journey that we’ve taken to get our children to Israel. And to think about these little kids from Potomac, Maryland with their Israeli friends, their fluent Hebrew and their love for the Land.


The evening was magical.

The weather forecast for the entire week, unfortunately, called for rain, and we had gone back and forth a million times about moving our party planned for Tuesday indoors. In the end, after personal consultations with a meteorologist in the area, we chose to continue with our dream of having Matan’s bar mitzvah in our yard.

We awoke on Tuesday morning to rain, and I prayed that the gloom would quickly pass and allow us to enjoy. Fortunately, it did, and we started to set up for our party. At 2 pm we gathered at Matsuot Yitzchak (the location of one of the four original yishuvim in Gush Etzion from the 1930’s-40’s) and went on a three hour guided hike. Matan’s friends had a great time, as did our friends and family who joined in the fun. It was cold, it was windy…but they hiked on and enjoyed! The hike was an opportunity to add significance to the typical bar mitzvah party, allowing Matan and his friends to learn more about the Land where they live, to hear about the history of Gush Etzion and explore!

Close friends Ruth and Chaim (not pictured) Sherman joined in the fun with their kids.

Yonatan Sherman organized team building activities as he led the trip.

Even Grandpa and Uncle Don (in the background) hiked along.

Good friends Dean (not pictured) and Devorah joined us from Silver Spring!

The hike ended at our home where we had a joyous party filled with great food (catered by Gavri Greenwald), wonderful family and friends and beautiful music (by Rav Ishai Kornblum, Matan's second grade teacher). We had worked for weeks (if not longer) to create a video of Matan’s speech so that he wouldn’t spend the party worrying about having to deliver a speech. As a stutterer, Matan’s challenge of giving a speech was not lost on any of us, and we hoped that the video would alleviate some of his worry. It was beautiful and well received, and we got many comments on it afterwards, including from an adult stutterer who said that he still regrets to this day that he didn’t speak at his own bar mitzvah. Matan will not have the same regret.

(Video below is in Hebrew. Message me if you'd like an English translation. But I think it's worth watching just 30 seconds or so to get the feel for the video. Thank you amazing video editor!)

Party time for Romi and Stella

My mom with Matan, me and Yehuda

During the rest of the week, more family slowly arrived, including my dad, brother and cousins from Los Angeles, my aunt (joining my uncle) from San Diego, and our close friends from Silver Spring. We were 22 people by the time Friday rolled around.

All photography by Kinamon Ron - highly recommended!

Josh's parents with the kids

My dad and brother with the kids

Uncle Don, Aunt Marilyn, cousins Rachel and Andy

Of course, no simcha is complete without a bit of drama, and Amichai made sure to provide it. At 3 pm on Friday, as we were trying to nap everyone, get the food ready for Shabbat, organize and clean, Amichai sliced open his finger and required stitches. Daniel Kasovitz (an oral surgeon in the yishuv) saved the day, ensuring that one of us would not spend Shabbat in the hospital with Amichai!

Returning home stitched, if a bit shaken, Amichai took a nap and his mother looked for some Valium. And then Shabbat began.

The goosebumps began for me when we lit candles. Gathered in my family room were many of the people that I love most in the world, reciting the candle lighting prayers together. It was a very powerful moment, which led to a beautiful Shabbat. We enjoyed delicious food (all catered by Fagie Reves), had beautiful singing led by Dean and Devorah Grayson and Jeff and Devra Fantl and remarked to our families and friends what a gift it was to share the event with all of them.

Matan was amazing in shul, reading all 144 pasukim without a glimpse of nervous energy (which can’t be said for his mother) and candy (including 288 fruit roll-ups that my father brought from the States!) rained down on the expectant children as he received his Aliyah and finished reading.

We ate a wonderful lunch, played games all afternoon with our family, enjoyed Seudah Shlisheet and then bid adieu to Shabbat and to most of our families.

The next morning, as I drove Matan and Yehuda to school, I asked them what their favorite part of the entire week was. I expected them to say something about the party, about the funny hats we gave out, or the meat that we ate, or the music that was playing.

“Shabbat.” Matan said. “Mommy, I think that was the best Shabbat of my entire life.”

Matan has received some lovely gifts for his bar mitzvah.

But those lines?

Those were my bar mitzvah gifts, to cherish and enjoy for years to come.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Answers? Yes, I've Got Six of Those

It’s Yom HaZikaron laShoa v’Hagvura (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) here in Israel. And I can’t bring back the 6 million or wipe out the horrific injustices that I’m hearing about all over the television tonight. But I do have six answers to the six million, and they are as good an answer as any that was ever found.

One of these answers is about to have his bar mitzvah. He’s putting on his tefillin everyday now in Eretz Yisrael, in the hills in Gush Etzion, surrounded by hundreds of fellow Jewish children.

One of these answers is a great basketball player. He’s playing on a Jewish team on a court built with money from the State of Israel. And he feels like just a regular kid, participating in a regular sport that any kid here might join.

Another of these answers recently helped to plant one of the two new trees in our yard. He’s building up Eretz Yisrael and living out the mitzvot that we will learn about in an upcoming Torah portion.

The next answer is a toothless, fearless little soccer player who proudly wore the uniform of the Israeli National Team for Purim this year (and continues to wear it as pajamas sometimes). He’ll wipe you off the court and then smile at you and see if you want to play again.

The next answer speaks with the cutest little Israeli accent you’ve ever heard. And his Hebrew is better than his English.

And the sixth answer? Well, this one is named for his great grandfather who fought with the US Army in Europe in World War 2 and dreamed a distant dream of having a homeland for the Jewish people.

Yes, I’m left with an overwhelming number of questions when I hear these stories, see the pleading eyes of survivors, and wonder how a horror of this sort could possibly have been allowed to happen.

But answers?

Yes, I’ve got six of those.

And there is no more powerful an answer in the world to Hitler and his failed attempt to obliterate us.

Because my answers aren’t just thriving, beautiful Jewish people; they are thriving, beautiful Jewish people living in Eretz Yisrael and building a future for themselves, their children and all of our people.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Exploring the Alpaca at a Time

It always amazes me just how much is packed into this little country of ours.

This Pesach, since the calendar is so incredibly early, we realized that the North might still be quite cold at the end of March. As a result, we decided to go South and camp in Mitzpe Ramon. Except for a few trips to Eilat, we haven't really been South with the kids or explored the Negev at all.

The main attraction in this area, located in the Negev desert, is the stunningly amazing Maktesh (Ramon Crater). The crater isn’t actually a crater created from a meteor, but a vast area created by receding ocean waters, climatic forces, river changes and more.

Our kids had never been to the Maktesh, and it’s definitely somewhere that every Israeli child (and those visiting!) should experience and enjoy. At the visitor’s center there are three videos about the creation of the Maktesh, the many animals and life forms that live in the Maktesh and the life of Ilan Ramon (no idea what the relationship was – but the kids loved the video). They also have a very interested demonstration of how the Maktesh was created with 3-D visual assistance.

There are oodles of National Park volunteers around who can offer suggestions for the best hikes through the Maktesh – and we discovered that there are even campgrounds inside the crater itself (note to self for next trip..). We ended up taking a three hour hike through the crater. It was absolutely beautiful, allowed for rock climbing and cave exploration without too much physical effort and afforded all of the kids a great way to explore a new surrounding.

We camped in Mitzpe Ramon for two nights and the kids delighted in creating the campfire and the cooking fire, setting up the tents, nestling together in their six person tent and wrestling in the great outdoors.

No trip is complete, of course, without a stop off at the Alpaca Farm, and that's where we found ourselves the next morning after a great night of camping.The Alpaca Farm is beautifully organized and includes at least 200 alpacas and llamas. We were able to feed the alpacas, ride on a llama and see a demonstration by the owner of his shearing techniques!

The kids loved this detour and it was a fascinating little gem (and another example of creative money making - they have five cabins on the farm so that you can sleep overnight on an alpaca farm!)

I am continually amazed by just how much there is to do and see in this little country of ours. A two hour drive in almost any direction introduces our children to something new and exciting, and affords them the opportunity to walk their land and enjoy.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

At the Water's Edge

The interplay of cultures in Israel creates a nuance that is almost impossible to explain to those who aren't living it. On Sunday, during Pesach, we decided to spend our last free day at the beach. We enjoy going to Ashkelon and headed there for some sun and fun.

As we got there, the kids remarked that there seemed to be a number of police boats in the area. Then they noticed a few scuba divers. What was going on? We had no idea, but it didn't seem to be infringing upon anyone's fun or anyone's time in the water, and we soon ignored the distant action.

Then, about an hour into our time at the beach, we noticed a huge crowd of fully clothed men from teenagers to elders congregating on the beach. There must have been at least a hundred of them, and by the end of the day I would say there were more like a hundred and fifty. There were five scuba divers who were about to return to the water, Jewish police officers in rescue boats, and Zaka members around. (Zaka is an incredible volunteer organization started by a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. They arrive at the scene of bombings and disasters to ensure that every body part is collected for the sanctity of the burial.)

Clearly, someone had drowned and they appeared to be trying to find him. There were two things that were most interesting about this drama.

1. They weren't closing the beach to perform their search and rescue.

2. An entire Bedouin community had come to the shore. They were not needed for the rescue effort, but they milled about and walked up and down the beach for hours.
We tried to carry on having fun, but it was certainly difficult not to be moved by the process happening around us. As we played, I looked into the faces of these young men pacing at the shore. They clearly felt out of their element walking along the beach, and you could see the pinched, worried expressions on their faces as some caressed their prayer beads.

Finally, I asked a rescue member what was going on and he explained, vaguely, that three people had died there last week and that they were still looking for one of them.

The search continued.

Then, about an hour later, when I took Zeli to the bathroom, I noticed the enormous procession leaving the beach. There were well over a hundred of them, all walking away. And I prayed for them that their community member had been found and that they could move forward from whatever tragedy had occurred.

We played for another hour. Two scuba divers came walking up the beach, and I took the opportunity to ask.

"Did you find him?"

"Yes," they said, and moved on.

We continued the rest of our time at the water, trying to balance explaining to the kids what had happened and enjoying our day.

As we got into our cars, we were surprised to hear that the lead news story of the hour was about Ashkelon and the search and rescue efforts.  Apparently, as we learned, last Thursday three brothers (aged 16, 19 and 26) drowned exactly where we were. They had found two, but were still searching for the third. And that day, while we were at the beach, they finally found the oldest brother.

I was moved beyond words by the scene. Here was an entire community that had come to the shore day after day, waiting for the body of their friend/brother/cousin/son/neighbor to be found. They stood by the shore and waited, showing a sense of community and respect for the dead that was profoundly moving.

Similarly, I was moved by the nuanced and complicated inter-workings of our community in Israel. Jewish-Israeli police officers and scuba experts were searching for the body of a Bedouin man while Orthodox volunteers from Zaka stood by to be of assistance as needed.

A day in the life of a complicated, nuanced, incredibly interesting place called Israel.

At the water's edge.