Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Siblings in Need

Had a fun day filming at Shutaf last week, with friend and fellow parent of a kid with special needs, Michael Liben. Michael and I are friends from childhood and the Malverne Jewish Center, where my father was Rabbi for 25 years before retiring in 1992 and making Aliyah to Israel. Michael went to Brandeis High School while I was at Hillel - we shared the bus as the two schools were across from the street each other although they were much farther apart ideologically but that's another story.

Michael and I were looking for a story and that day we decided to follow the Junior Counselors - local teens, ages 15-19, both with disabilities and without. They were having one of their midday meetings and we shot them chatting, laughing and having fun, a blend of energy and happiness - no teen was left out of the discussion and nobody was marginalized because of disability.

After the teens went off back to their groups, we had a brief chat with one teen, Avigail and the Teen Coordinator, Nomi. At first, the camera made everyone a bit stiff until I asked the question of Avigail, 'why do you come to Shutaf?' She gave a positive response 'I love being with kids with special needs.' But I wanted a bit more and Avigail is the older sister of Atara who was at camp with us during the summer. Atara's issues are not insignificant - developmental and physical - so I wondered that Avigail had no sibling fatigue from dealing with kids with disabilities. I asked her about this. She told me that when she goes with her sister to the park or to shul that often she's hurt by how other kids behave to her. She said, 'I go home and I cry.' She also said that 'Atara doesn't understand' but of course, Avigail does and  hurts for herself and her sister's feelings. 

We talked more about this but I was struck by this feeling that Shutaf works for her because it's a place she can let down her hair and not worry about having her feelings hurt - about feeling any sense of humiliation for her sister, her self or for some perceived lack in her family because of her sister's presence. She can love her sister even more because of Shutaf and maybe she can forgive herself for any of the guilt she carries about this mix of feelings percolating around in her head and heart.

Wow. Maybe that's why I like Shutaf too. 

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Letter to the Editor

A local friend sent me a link to a recent article in the Jewish Week about the invisibility of being a certain kind of kid with special needs. It was hard not to want to react, both as a parent of a child with special needs and as a professional and exec at Shutaf. Even though my child's issues are more apparent, I understood immediately the frustration and sadness of the parents writing in to the paper. We want acceptance - for our kids and for ourselves. It's time that the great community really consider what that means. I don't know if my letter will make it so here it is for you to read and opine. 

Dear Jewish Week,
November's article 'Invisible Disability' Kids are being Left Out' struck a chord with me. My 12 year old son, Akiva, has a more visible disability - Down Syndrome and PDD - and yet, he is often just as invisible in community life. While he has many adult friends at Kehilat Mayanot in Jerusalem(where we regularly attend), and is welcomed when he arrives, he tends to remain by our side during Shabbat services. He's outgrown the children's service - he's too big to sit with the little ones - and we no longer have the patience to accompany him. Most kids don't know how to relate to him and he lacks the social skills to make appropriate overtures even though he loves contact with other children. 

When we lived in Brooklyn and attended the Kane Street Synagogue, we often wondered how we'd ever find a way to connect him with the other kids of the community. Once a child passes through the cute toddler stage (when all the teenage girls lavish attention), if they can't run with the pack they get left behind. If a kid has more moderate or 'invisible' issues, they suffer even more - they look like the others but can't cope with the typical kids social pace and demands. When we left Brooklyn and moved to Jerusalem, community life became even harder. At least in Brooklyn, everyone knew us and knew Akiva. Here, we were brand new and people weren't used to Akiva's noisy shul presence, consequently, we didn't feel welcome in every shul. 

Inclusion and acceptance are critical areas that need to be developed in every area of Jewish life - as an ethical, social and necessary Jewish value. Parents need to be educated and children taught to watch, care and include - with love and acceptance. 

Looking to answer my own child's needs, I co-founded a new camp and after school program in Jerusalem that teaches these important skills - Shutaf. At Shutaf, we've developed a unique new inclusion model that that teaches these important values in real time. We 'include' the typical kids, who are outnumbered by kids with special needs - all types, all disabilities, visible and invisible. Differences are not such a big deal when everyone is having fun together - when the program is carefully planned and the staff well-trained. By leveling the playing field in such a dramatic fashion at Shutaf, we teach with a gentle hand and make a difference in the lives of all the kids that participate. And our teen program offers opportunities for the older set to feel less marginalized by their differences. They train and work and earn, alongside their typical peers and life looks just a bit more brighter. 

It's not so impossible to create more programs like Shutaf in every community. Youth movement programs could be easily adapted to an inclusion model like Shutaf's. With proper parent support and education, barriers to such programs; fear, lack of awareness and experience, can be reduced and over time even eliminated. 

Parents of kids with special needs have special needs. We need extra attention and effort paid - we tend to feel isolated and alone in our lives, even if we have good friends and seem involved in community life. The toll of caring for our kids takes a huge amount out of us. Making such efforts will go along way to bringing us back from the margins, from the 'invisible' corners of the community. And remember this - the typical kid and teen who has a positive experience now with a child with special needs may be the one who will hire him/her in the future, who will have less fear and more awareness that we're really all created in the image of G-d. Tikkun Olam - something we all need. 
Thank you,
Beth Steinberg
Executive Director and Founder, Shutaf.
Shutaf. Community. Inclusion. Fun.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Is NPO a Dirty Word? Finding a Model that Works in 2010

Those of us working in the NPO world constantly think about fundraising - how, when, where, etc. Then again, those working the world of profits always think about money - bottom line, where's the next money making idea, profit margins, etc.

But in fundraising circles there is this increasing sense that NPO's have to reconsider how they do business, especially in these economic times. How can one stay current in the world of 'the ask,' where every conversation may lead you to new contacts, where every letter of inquiry might, once and for all, be the one that means real sustainable funding for your program.  Or, how to move beyond the constant scrounge for funding to monies that mean growth, development and success in the years to come for the organization. Can one use a for profit approach that will reduce the fatigue of 'yet another NPO asking for funds.'

But what about the social worth factor? Something that makes a difference to others. Isn't that why you got yourself into this mess? As Dan Pallota, longtime NPO innovator writes, "We got involved because human suffering is not okay with us, and because we wanted to stop it."

Pallota, believes that NPO's should be allowed to do business in a way that would align them much more with profit making businesses, and in his new book, Uncharitable, writes that NPO's should be unleashed to do their good works under a free-market model.

“It is about freeing charities—and all of the good people who work for them—from a set of rules that were designed for another age and another purpose, and that actually undermine their potential and our compassion,” writes Dan Pallotta in Uncharitable (Tufts University, 2008).

As a parent of a child with special needs, I can tell you that I did not intend to start a program that would grow from 10-40 kids in less than a year. But it was hard to stop the ball from rolling once my colleague and I saw the need. Shutaf, the camp program that we founded makes a difference, serving children during long school vacations, August and 1x a week. Did the funding or lack thereof stop us from bringing in teens with special needs as well? Err, no. Our own kids are growing up and we saw the need. More than two years into this venture, we have yet to take a salary or truly pay ourselves back for costs incurred and time given.

Maybe Shutaf isn't yet ready for the kind of business models that Pallotta presents or maybe we should have considered building our infrastructure from the get go the same way a new business would. And yet, when I recall our 2nd camp, back in December 07, we had a budget shortfall. Essentially, we had some donations to make camp possible that combined with parent tuition should have covered everything. It didn't. One salary to one specialist remained unpaid for 6 months, until we had more funds in place by the following summer. Powerful lesson I thought at the time. We will never run a program again if we're not sure that we have the money.  That's a good business lesson, one worth learning but not one that all NPO's follow - at least not here in Israel.

What about partnering with NPO's doing similar work? This makes sense in theory but in practice or reality, doesn't always jive.

At Shutaf, we've been examining this concept from all sides but have discovered that it's not so easy. We spent much of the past summer negotiating with two local organizations in order to run our proposed weekly program for Shutaf kids with them. One organization works within the community and offers much of interest to typically-developing kids. Kids with special needs fit in only if they can manage within traditional inclusion boundaries - that is, they can be part of the program with minimal intervention. Unsurprisingly, many kids with special needs don't take part because they need extra staff or for the program to be adapted to their needs. They want us to bring our kids to them but were unwilling to really offer a space or a way of making it possible. Organization #2 works with a mainly adult population (they started off as kids) and is accustomed to the needs presented by people with special needs, even bigger needs, but they're not sure why they should bother with our method and our population - what's the worth in it for them. After having spend some time trying to convince both of them, we gave up for a while - rather, we retreated to reconsider a better approach in the future.

Financially it could have been a boon for us - shared resources, shared funds and a chance to fundraise and tell individuals and organizations that we serve more children, learn from each others methodologies and ultimately make a bigger and better difference.

We sat down again, rethought our finances, decided that we could manage a bare bones program for a small group of kids and went ahead with our fall program albeit much more simply - 8-10 children, 1x a week and found ourselves a hosting location willing to make it work for us financially. A success? We think so, but that means we're back to square 1 when it comes to finding longterm funds for the program.

I constantly think about other ways that we can generate funding in a more traditional sense. Lots of ideas but none that would work right now. We're running a program in a poor city, serving many marginal families with children who would not attend our programs unless they were as subsidized as we make them. 

How do we move our young organization to a business model that foundations would still fund and private donors would still find acceptable? One that would impress them both with our financial acumen and ways of making it work - especially in this particular market and economic environment. And, how do we, an NPO barely scraping by, get the right kind of advice and mentorship that could mean success and a viable future for our organization so that we can continue with our mission of quality, inclusive informal-education programming for children and teens with special needs?

Here's a great closing story that makes me feel like a real Vermonter, given that at Shutaf we're quite careful with every shekel. Christopher Kimball from Cooks' Illustrated wrote recently (sorry, couldn't find the original)..

I leave you with yet another story from Allen R. Foley, who wrote The Old-Timer Talks Back. It was foliage season and a tourist cruising the back roads felt an immediate need to visit toilet facilities, so he stopped at a farm. The lady of the house directed him to the privy out back. On arriving there, he was embarrassed to find it already occupied by the farmer.
“No bother,” said the farmer. “This is a two-holer, so come on in.”
Later, as the farmer was leaving, a dime fell out of his pants and slipped down the hole. The farmer got out his leather wallet, removed a $5 bill, and tossed it down the hole.
“What in the world did you do that for?” exclaimed the visitor.
“Mister,” said the farmer, “you don’t think, do you, that I would climb down in there for just a dime?”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Shalva - Akiva's Afternoon Program for kids with special needs

It's 4:28pm. Ordinarily, I'd be scurrying around the house dealing with Akiva - wiping noses, changing music/dvd's, mopping pee, running laundry, making snacks...waiting for Melina to come and whisk him away to an afternoon activity.

Not since Akiva started Shalva. Shalva runs an afterschool program for kids with special needs - like Akiva - with developmental delay mostly;  Down Syndrome, MR, ADD, ADHD and ASD, etc, who come from school on their school buses to enjoy a few hours in the hands of young, caring staff in an absolutely lovely environment overlooking the Jerusalem forest.

So far, so good. Akiva goes happily, asks for Shalva on non-Shalva days and even better, the staff there seems to be enjoying him despite an initial settling in period that has included some hitting and scratching and no small amount of toileting adventures.

As a parent - how to ford the beginning of a new program? What to 'tell' and what to let them 'find out on their own?' How much to badger the staff so that you feel that you 'know' what's going on?

Best practices require that you share the good with the bad. What will be hard in the transition to the new space/program, how to interact with your child and how to make his/her experience great for everyone. As for maintaining regular contact with the staff - sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.

Still that's easier said than done. We keep a notebook that's passed back and forth between Akiva's teachers at school. We instituted the notebook right away with Shalva but it took a few weeks for the counselors to readily write in it and moreover to cover what needed to know the most - did he eat dinner and how did toileting go (did he go or not).

Even with the notebook, it's hard to know what he's really doing each day. Akiva gets off the bus with a smile but he rarely shares any of his days' adventures making it challenging to follow up with him at the end of a long day. He may give you a word from an event of 3 months ago or from the day before. Rarely does he share in 'real time.'

Most importantly, how does your child seem? We take our cues from his stress level - is he grinding his teeth or chewing on his fingers excessively? Is he responding - in his way - to questions in a pleasant manner? Does he seem tidy and well cared for? Focusing on the basics will help you over that initial period of worry and 'is my child being taken care of properly.'

Thankfully, Akiva appears to be settling in well and Ira and I are thrilled - for ourselves, for the big boys and for Akiva, who now has social opportunities beyond the school day and Shutaf.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


It's been a busy week. New project for me and Jess - came as a result of the 'on hiatus' Honey and hopefully will bring us both parnassa/a living as well as some good writing experiences. Right now, just slogging away at re-writes and edits of existing text for 2 websites. It's long and vaguely interesting and lots of back and forth between investigating facts, etc. Still, nice to make a living at doing something - Shutaf certainly wasn't going to bring me fame and fortune, especially not this year.

Ira's in the US but I'm in a good head because it's a shortish trip with him leaving on a Monday night/Tuesday morning and he'll be home next Monday. Not bad really and Sister Sarah coming for Shabbat and here it is already Thursday - he'll be home before we know it. Akiva's had a good week, with many trips to the pool - it was quite nastily hot earlier this week - and today was horseback riding. He's doing so beautifully with his riding - holding the reins (something he hates to do), standing in the stirrups and counting to 10 with Katia, his instructor, working with Katia using a lead rope (meaning he controls the horse, sort of!) and mounting and dismounting with little help. Huge things. Some weeks he's focused and some weeks he's in his own head but he loves to go and have his riding adventure.

The boys are out seeing the Star Trek movie tonight with a cast of the usual crowd. They've also been working on a song together for next week's benefit concert at the Democratic School. Children of the 70's, singing Cats in the Cradle. If only Harry were still alive to hear them. I think he died in 1979, no maybe that was Therman Munson - on the Long Island Expressway no less - what a way to go. I just checked, it was 1981, which makes sense as I was in college when it happened and Chapin played Queens College all of the time - I had friends who were huge fans. It's something to hear my two boys - Natan on piano and Gabe on guitar singing and harmonizing together - very nice. I told them now they should work on Mr Tanner but Natan said not bloody likely. I think Mr Tanner is sung by a contra-tenor.

Not too much cooking for Shabbat this week. Friday night with Jess, Daniel and boys. Saturday lunch at Miriam and Peretz. Have to make stuff but not a full complement of stuff. Natan has peach sorbet and some sort of sherbet with whipped eggwhites planned. Should be fun.

A good weekend and Shabbat to all.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Wedding Bells

Had a wedding on Erev Lag Ba'omer - Tova Hartman's daughter Nomi. A pleasure to be invited as part of the Shira Hadasha community and as a friend of Tova's. Then again, it was us and about 600 of their closest buddies. Welcome my friends to the Israeli wedding where everyone comes to enjoy and be happy. Sister Sarah often comments about the weddings in her neighboring community of Rosh Ha'ayin which is about 98% Yemenite - everyone is related in some way...therefore, everyone is invited. Sarah, who is included by virtue of her being an alto in the choir - it's Sarah and all the Yemenites - describes that the weddings are about 900 people and that if she doesn't show, the hostess always knows.

Nomi and Eli'ad's wedding was at Naom Kedumim, a lovely site a bit past Modiin on 443 - it's a place for wandering and doing activities of a bibilical style. That means baking the ubiquitous pitot and making herbed olive oils and whatever else stands in for biblical here. It's quite large and they often host all sorts of happy events as well. What's great is that you're not stuck in the overly air-conditioned catering hall. The evening was cool, the stars were out - talk about an 'open Huppah/marriage canopy' to the skies. Very nice.

The crowd was a young one - lots of friends dressed in that uniquely drapey style of clothing typical of a young, Orthodox Jew in these parts. Not a lot of dressing up in the usual New York wedding style, except for the immediate families who all looked lovely in their finery - the women, that is. The men wore white shirts and dark pants. No, wait, the groom wore an untucked white shirt with his tzitzit hanging out, along with khakis and sandals. Now that's an outfit. Comfortable, clean and easy. The bride wore a lovely, modest white dress that fit her beautifully and went nicely with her simply braided hair - no makeup, no jewels. She went as a bride should in Jewish custom - unadorned. It was a spiritual bunch - between the Shira Hadasher's who are always ready to break into 4 part harmony and the younger set who sang, wept, waved their hands and jumped (when the music was jumpy, shall we say). As we waited for the groom to appear before the ceremony for the Bideken (to veil the bride), 2 guitarists played and a drummer thumped and we all sang along. The groom approached and took a guitar and sang (while weeping, with his eyes closed) the brides' favorite piyut/religious poem.

I sound cynical but I have to tell you that as I think back on the evening, what I'm reminded by is the enjoyment and meaning of the event to the participants. For me, it was so far removed from the New York Jewish Wedding - translation, fancy dress for all, fancy caterer and fancy price, top drawer band, photographer/video, fancy wedding hall/shul/other fab venue...meaning, big bucks meted out.

The bride and groom, if one knows them are dedicated to a host of good works - from volunteering at a great place, Beit Hagalgalim where they befriend a young person in a wheel chair and do activities with them (there were about 10 young guests at the wedding in wheelchairs, having a great time) to other local good works. Nomi, is Tova's daughter and Tova exemplifies being dedicated to community, to people, to making people feel important. As a woman, I am welcomed on the women's side at SH by Tova herself most Shabbatot - with a hug and a kiss and a smile. This past Shabbat, I was there with Akiva which is always hard - Tova took the time to tell me how Akiva's noises/sounds/excitement are important to her and that she'll kill me if I dare to leave because I'm worried that someone is irritated by them. As a matter of fact, her mother Bobby took a moment to tell me the same sort of thing the night of the wedding, a few moments after the ceremony when I was trying to tell her mazal tov.

I degress but my point was that to the bride and groom what was important were the rituals of the day - sharing it with friends and family, experiencing it spiritually and emotionally and clearly making it an important moment to remember. (And let me tell you that they spent a long time in Yichud while friends hung outside waiting for them to come so that the dancing could begin). So, if you ask, how was the prime rib, I'll tell you that it was bagels and salads and not even a schnapps to drink. How great is that? Who remembers the food at weddings anyway and with so many mouths to feed, does it really matter? There were some hot dishes too but essentially it was a modest meal and although we laughed about it a bit, nobody cared.

Mazal tov was all we needed to say to each other - to the families and to ourselves.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day

Mother's Day today worldwide. Can't get into it too much in these parts but it was nice to consider that it was Jess's first Mother's Day. I always felt that Mother's/Father's Day never reverb'd for us too much as a family because Ira couldn't pay too much attention to it. This made sense - with both parents dead by the time he was 26, the day would have understandably lost its luster. As well, this focus on the day means that you have to badger your children to remember and honor the day since your husband shouldn't have to do it - you're not his mother, or whatever reasoning can be applied here.

So, imagine my surprise when in the middle of a marathon Skype session - first to friend, Jo in LA with her girls onhand to play with her hair and annoy her and then to Jo and Charlie in Merrick, NY, the boys appeared to chat on the computer and present me with a lovely homemade card. It reads 'here's to the most imitatable mommy out there.' Do you think they meant inimitable? I'll have to ask at some point.

Many teens onhand in the house over the past few days. Maybe that's the Mother's Day gift. To see your kids getting older and bringing their friends by who seem to like hanging by you, laying on your sofa (so that you are banished to the bedroom) and making lots of noise (that you get rid of by watching television or whatever you can do) and eating you out of house and home (but what's some pita and humus).

Happy Mother's Day to all of us out there.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


Great meeting tonight with our Shutaf social worker, Binyamin Rose. First of all, he's a Brit (I know they hate been called that but...) and that means he has all sorts of charming turns of phrase like 'whilst' and 'shedloads' but that aside, he's smart, savvy and knows how to write a great evaluation.

The upshot, is that Binyamin thought we ran a good Pesach camp. We set out to professionalize and develop the program this year and we've met many of our goals. That said, there's work to be done and the question is how to do it, especially this year when we we're struggling just to come up with the funds to make camp happen.

That's the painful part - how to make camp happen when all we've received are rejections to our grant proposals this year. We know we're not doing anything wrong, just have fallen on hard times but it's not easy to feel that we can't really serve our population of kids if we don't have the funds. We're probably planning 2 weeks of camp at most this August and while I'll personally miss the 3rd week - what will I do with Akiva - it's probably for the best. We're already making hard decisions on what to cut from an already skinny budget - probably my fave, the food program - and how to make camp as good as we can make it without spending a lot. Mind you, it's not like we were spending a lot given that Miriam and I are still working as volunteers 2 years later.

So, dear readers, help me think about how to reach out to others and ask them all to help make Shutaf possible. Every bit helps, every bit matters - have a bake sale, do a stoop sale, save your quarters for Shutaf. Help us continue to help our community of children. Help us meet that special person that could really help fund the program - now.

I welcome all ideas.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Soldier Deaths

We're watching the Tekes Yom Ha'zikaron - the ceremony for Memorial Day for soldiers and civilians killed - and Gabe asks, 'How many soldiers fall in the line of duty?' A squirmy moment for the mother of 16 year old - they both know he'll get his 'tzav giyus'/command to report next year around his 17th birthday.

We discuss that in Israel's 61 year history, their losses are about 10% of the population, comparable numbers in the US would mean 1 million losses within country. We analyze the old adage of more Israelis die in car accidents than in wars. That the numbers can even reflect someone killed in a car accident during his army service will be put on the lists. Is that the same as a combat death? This is all true but it's not exactly comforting to parents.

Gabe often worries that he's fit, strong, not scholastically inclined (meaning, Modi'in/Intelligence won't necessarily run after him) and that he's clearly headed towards a combat role when his time in the army come. I reasoned that his cousin Adam, who is a paratrooper, ended up taking a course to train other soldiers and by this means, wasn't involved in the recent combat in Gaza. That there are ways to avoid direct combat and still be in a combat unit. Truth is, I don't know enough about it anyway to really assure him of anything and as we see with Natan, the army here is a big machine and your kid is of course, one of many.

Look at Gilad Schalit? What are parents supposed to think about that one? We're just supposed to send our kids off and hope for the best. יהיה בסדר - It will be okay. It probably will be okay but every so often, it just isn't.

May their memories all be a blessing.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Soldier Boy

He's happy, our soldier man-boy. He goes off to the base, comes home in general one night of the week and is generally around, eating us out of house and home on weekends. He says he has learned how to sleep anywhere (not that sleep was every really a problem) and tells me he can get in a bout 1.5 hours on the bus without a problem. (Natan describes his trip sort of like Uncle Charlie's trip to NYC from Merrick years ago. 3 buses - one in the bus, one to J'lem and one to our house. Charlie had a similiar sort of travel but he used to add the elevator in his building which was frustratingly slow and annoying.)

He advises newbies - a whole bunch of his local harem (he doesn't think of them quite this way but they tend to arrive en masse to pick him up on Shabbat afternoons) just went in during Pesach vacation and he spoke to a few, fielded a couple of phone calls and generally sounded the voice of calm experience. I mentioned to him how scared he was back in October and he said, 'Oh, I wasn't that scared really.' I said, 'You've forgotten.' He admitted this may be true.

Even I am an old hand. I saw a friend who's 2 girls went in recently (she has triplets) and she told me that the girls seemed okay but that she was a wreck. I inquired how long the basic training is for them - '3 weeks,' she said. I told her it will go by so fast they'll barely have time to register it. And thank goodness for it. Basic training isn't easy - emotionally, mostly - and it's good to on to a course, or a job or whatever.

Someone else asked Natan recently what his job is. When he told them that he's doing office work and some teaching English, the person said, 'Oh, what a shame.' I felt like throttling them. Could Natan have done some fancier job in intelligence or with computers or who knows what? Yea, maybe, had he gotten someone to help get him there when he was in the application process. But he's doing, he's serving and he's learning Hebrew, meeting different kinds of people and it's a good thing. There is nothing bad about it. At all.

He's upstairs tonight. Came home tonight because he offered to be in the office on Tuesday morning, Remembrance Day for soldiers killed in wars. He could have gone with Gabe to school, or shown up at Akiva's ceremony in his school and been Akiva's show and tell, or he could have shown up at another ceremony - soldiers are welcome everywhere on that day. Natan felt uncomfortable. He said to me, 'I'm not a combat soldier, I don't have the history that everyone else's important to me but I'm okay being in the office.' I told him that I understood but that he should be proud of doing service to his country - to any country, to any cause. It's a good thing to be a service minded individual and that he's an important symbol to many here because of that. It's a big army - not everyone is a fighter. It takes admin and logistics and many other 'jobniks' to keep the army moving. Nothing to be ashamed of - nothing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Holocaust Day

A note that here, Holocaust Day is called - יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה - Remembrance Day for the Holocaust and the Brave/Courageous/ get the picture. It sounds better to me and it does make you think about all the Jews who didn't just walk their way into the gas chambers - who walks into the gas chambers really?
At the memorial ceremony held at Yad Vashem on Monday evening, 6 torches were lit but survivors. This year, the them was children who survived and their stories were, as always to us post-Holocaust generations, nothing short of unbelievable. The twins, who withstood Mengele's experiements - the pain, the agony - and who survived, along with their parents and made Aliyah as a family after the war. The Greek boy, now and older man living in Holon, who used every ounce or savvy to save himself and many others during the war. The children who were forced to live on their own at young, young ages - at Shabbat lunch this past week, our hostess, Yael, (wife of cousin Marc Rosenberg) told of a story of 2 children, ages 5 and 7, who survived by virtue of their preternatural adult-like skills. She looked across the room at her 4 year old son, busily playing with toys - a very, young boy indeed - and said she couldn't imagine her Aryeh on his own, fending for himself.
The day had its own drama with Durban II and the 'he who shall not be named' speaker. Israelis were up in arms about the speech - what was said and what wasn't said.
In Gemara class on Tuesday morning we studied B'rachot and it felt good to study - something pleasurable and important as Jews that was denied during many times of Jewish history to Jews. We studied, discussed and enjoyed - our own little bit of fighting back on a day of remembering not just destruction but acts of rebellion, battle and standing up for Jewish rights.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Oseh Ma'aseh B'reishit - Being Thankful for Creation

I don't remember Birkat Hachamah the last time - the Blessing of the Sun, from 1981. A big of google work and I found that the date was April 11th, 1981. I sniffed around and was reminded that the Aids epidemic was felt to have begun in 1981, that Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul were both shot and recovered and if you look on Wikipedia, you'll see an exhaustive listing of births (the Bush twins) and deaths (Hoagy Charmichael and Bobby Sands). Stuff happened.

Just to give you some background - From an article in the NYTimes: 'The calculation goes like this: God created the sun, the moon and the stars on Wednesday, the fourth day. A solar year is about 365 1/4 days, or about 52 weeks and 1 1/4 days. So each year since creation, the sun rises 1 1/4 days, or 30 hours, later. It takes 28 years for the sun to again hit the same position in the firmament at the same moment on the same day of the week.

Of course, it is not that simple. The astronomical computations, as well as the proper course of action in case the sun is obscured, are “subjects of great discussion, debate and analysis...Though the sun was created during the vernal equinox, a solar year is not precisely 365 1/4 days, but a few minutes less. Over many millennia, the time difference puts the solar calendar out of sync with the lunar Hebrew calendar; the actual vernal equinox occurred on March 20.'

Here's another good bit from an article from the Shalom Center:
'Why today? Because alongside the view that the Creation of the World occurred in Elul and Tishri, at Rosh Hashanah time, the Talmud preserves another view: that the Creation occurred in Nisan, the first of the months, in spring.

Evidently to the rabbis it felt particularly apppropriate that the birthday of the sun should be at the spring equinox, when the sun emerges from the womb of winter and crosses the Equator coming northward. The Torah teaches that the sun was created at the beginning of the fourth day -- Tuesday evening, to use our present labels. So the moment when the sun is again where it was at the beginning comes in a year when the equinox as the rabbis defined it comes on Tuesday evening in Nisan.

Then why are we celebrating today the eighth of April? Surely it is not the equinox! The rabbis' calculation of the length of the year was a few minutes off and in 2, 000 years that has added up to a few weeks.

And why only every twenty eight years? By assigning Tuesday evening as the moment, the rabbis made the moment hard to come by. For the year does not divide into four equal seasons of full days. There is a day and a¬quarter left over. So if the equinox comes on a Tuesday evening this year, it will come next year a day and a quarter later. It will take four years for it to come 'round to the evening again and then it will be five days away from Tuesday. Only after seven times four years will the moment come back to a Tuesday evening.

By working out this cycle of twenty eight years, the rabbis accomplished something else: by celebrating the sun only once a generation, they gave us a way to look ahead and look back that is worthy of the sun.'

I woke the big boys up early and we headed out to the Tayelet - the Promenade overlooking the Old City - with everyone else, yawning and wrapped up in our sweaters against the early morning air of 6AM. I had decided to meet up at the end of the Tayelet, past the usual stopping points, and join in the celebrations being hosted by the Navah Tehilah community known for their hippy, dippy, multi-faith approach. They didn't dissapoint. Drums, guitars, chanting and song - it seemed just the right thing for the morning. The sun rose in the distance, the Judean Desert shimmering in the early morning light, the morning sun beginning to strengthen and warm us up. We all stood and wondered where we'd be in another 28 years. I put on my sunglasses against the always strong glare of the sun in this part of the world. We could hear the chanting of thousands of people at the Kotel. Wild. Completely hokey but so appropriate in this part of the world where mythology has a habit of coming alive on a regular basis.

We picked up Ira and Akiva and shared some pre-Pesach bagel and coffee. The morning light felt especially good on us.

Moadim L'Simchah.

Sunday, April 05, 2009


It's getting done - the cleaning, the dusting, the organizing, the whatever. Of course, one doesn't have to empty out every drawer and clean every closet, just the ones in food-related areas but it's hard to avoid that desire to just clean the whole house top to bottom.

We've been working in sections and bits and pieces. Natan came home a couple of nights last week to pitch in and Gabe's been making his way through various kitchen cabinets in between football and whatever. The menu is set, the tasks given out. Seder 09 is on it's way.

It's our first year for hosting since we've moved which is fun to consider. I for one, feel ready to return to a job that Ira and I did happily (most of the time) for most of our years in Bklyn. Once my parents made Aliyah in 1992, we were in Bklyn. One or 2 years in Merrick at Ira's brother but they mostly came to us along with Joanne's parents, usually on 1st night, and when Ralph and Lisa were in town we Seder'ed with them many times and also with Ron and Marion and Miriam Wasserman, Iris and Steve, etc, etc, etc. Sorry for the trip down memories of Seder's past.

I should add here that the reason we're extra relaxed this year is due to the debut of the new Ira. Some of you may remember the Old, New Ira - way back with George W Bush's first term. I think there was something said about the Kinder, Gentler America (I don't remember, it's soooo long ago and I like to forget that period of American History). Ira decided that he'd be the Kinder, Gentler Ira. No more sarcastic retorts, no more nasty NY humor - Ira went all nice on all of us. This lasted for a time and then was replaced by the regular Ira we all know and love.

Now we have the Zen Ira. Zen Ira goes to the shuk and is unperturbed by marauding shoppers. Zen Ira gets ready for Pesach in a laid back mode - hey, it'll all get done. Zen Ira is off playing baseball and singing in Oklahoma! rehearsals Erev hag. What me worry?

I'll keep you posted. Later note: A few days later and Zen Ira is rubbing off positively on everyone, including myself. Best moment was calling Ira yesterday from camp (we were closing up, organizing and putting things away and I was running very late and Akiva was unattended by his babysitter who had canceled and Ira was working) and instead of kvetching that he needed me at home (which he had every right to do), he Ohmmed....on the phone. Hilarious. I think this is all the Eastern influence of our favorite books of the moment - John Burdett's tales of the adventures of a Buddhist detective in Krung Thep, or for you Farang, Bangkok. He assures me he's not about to take up Yoga and wishes that people would stop recommending it (a flash of the Ira we know and love) but that so far this is working for him. He did have a weak moment today, Erev Hag, when the phone was ringing fast and furious between Jess, myself, Daniel, Natan and Ira - he snapped a bit at Daniel but it was brief.

Shopping in the shuk is mostly done. Bought some fun things this time - freshly ground rice flour (first you check the rice and then they grind it for you), also, freshly ground almond flour. A lovely assortment of coconut based and chocolate dipped macaroons. Spices of all sorts. Nuts and dried fruits. It's just so easy in this country at Pesach time, especially if you eat kitniyot/legumes, which we do, even Zen Ira has come over to the Dark Side.

And we have our new Guide to the Perplexed,, the work of Rabbi Abadi formerly of Lakewood, NJ, which seems like enough of a 'hechsher' for us. Take a look at his extremely and seemingly lenient take on much of the cleaning and craziness of Pesach. Hey, we can all learn new tricks and still have ourselves plenty of work to do - but maybe, just maybe be a bit less tired.

A Happy and Kosher Pesach to all.

Friday, January 09, 2009

The News

We don't need to agree that the news stinks. It is rather fascinating to observe the difference in headlines. The Herald Tribune and Ha'aretz always differ in their approach to the news of the day, with the IHT usually referring to Hamas fighters as militants and Ha'aretz referring to them as terrorists. As for the Post, they take an even harder line as most of their op-eds and opinion pieces are overwhelmingly conservative. This is nothing new just extra interesting these days.

Best article read this week? This one, by Gideon Litchfield - describing exactly how I felt when the IDF hit the school in Gaza the other day, of course eerily reminiscent of the accidental hit in Kana in Southern Lebanon in 06. I also liked this excellent article by Natan Sharansky earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal but it doesn't admit to the overall problem of there's no winning in what we're doing down in Gaza.

There is no winning, you know. I don't want my neighbors in the South to live under the threat of fire. Our friend, Melina's parents live in Ashdod and needless to say it's been a scary time. They're Argentinean and have been here since 2001 or so. They live in a high-rise building and can't get to the shelter in time when the siren rings. The 'shelter' in the stairway and hope for the best. Melina tried to encourage them to come up to J'lem but they demurred saying they're okay, and they have things to do and they won't be run out of town. My friend Karyn's daughter Ayelet, who's trained as a Red Cross Technician spent a few days down in Ashkelon riding the ambulence and giving a break to overwhelmed workers in that area. Karyn just requested that she call in every few hours and her know that all was okay.

No way to live, right? But what about living under a blockade in the most densely populated place on earth with nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nowhere to find shelter and very little in the way of fresh food, water, etc availble to you. It's tiresome to hear people say, 'well they voted in Hamas, what did they expect?' Who knows? I remain convinced that there are regular types of people who just want to live, buy their eggs, make a cake, have coffee in a cafe, go to work, send their kids out without worrying for their lives - all the things that I do. Again, I can't say why they don't think through what their lives have been about, how little their gov't has done for them, how their vaunted leadership puts them in the line of fire time after time. This is the part that is always strange and confusing to us here in Israel who assume that someone living in Gaza doesn't want what they've been forced into.

My breads are baked - oat/whole wheat sourdough and a whole wheat/rye foccacia. I will bring Shabbat in with Jess, Daniel and the babies as well as Mona and the kids. My children will be reasonably scrubbed and cleaned up, Natan will be in civilian clothes and I will hope for peace in the coming week. For myself and for my neighbors.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Separate Really?

Today, Jess and I went to the big mall with the babies. I stood outside Golf kids - the stroller wouldn't fit inside - while Jess took care of an exchange. A family entered the store - Mom, Dad, 2 little boys immaculately dressed in cargo pants and sweaters, baby in snowsuit held in Dad's arms. Picture perfect, right? Arab family, as it just so happens. Lots of Arab families at the mall always.

Last week, I went on a 2-day trip with visiting cousins, Karen and Barbara (my Aunt Nora's 2 eldest). We spent a lovely early evening at Hamat Gader, the natural hot springs Southeast of Tiberias. The water was steamy, the evening air crisp and the pools were filled with people of all ages and all nationalities - yes, there were Arabs there too.

Stop in at any hospital locally, and watch how Jews and Arabs mix. Nurses, doctors, support staff, families, patients - hospitals are an unusual oasis of 'getting along.'

Ramat Rachel, where I work out is a stone's throw from Tzur Bacher. Many Arab families join and use the pool and workout room. When the bombing first started last Saturday, I stopped to watch the news on my way out Saturday night. I stood with a few of the Arab workers at the pool and we all watched the news and the headlines regarding the rising death count. As I left the pool, the Muezzin was screaming - or so it seemed to me - and it didn't sound like prayers, it sounded much stronger. Turns out it was the sounds of demonstrations in the street.

It's such a small country here. Borders so close to each other. Not enough room to breathe and find a way to living together. And yet, on Thursday, when I stopped in both Acco to walk around the Old City (in the hopes of some good humus as well) and when we finally ate our humus in the Druze town of Kfar Yasif (which felt quite Arab to me), I wondered at our ability to 'live' together and yet not be able to make peace together.