Saturday, August 19, 2006

Israel's Katrina? Government AWOL in Shelled Northern Towns; Volunteers to the Rescue

Now that the fighting in Lebanon has ceased, practically no time elapsed before the public turned its anger on its own government. Much had to do with the the decision-making process by the government and the army. That will be left for others to argue.

What is very much in contention here is why were tens of thousands of Israelis left to fend for themselves, staying in bomb shelters along the northern border, short of provisions, scared and traumatized, as nearly 4000 missiles from Hizbollah were fired into Israeli territory.

Why weren't people evacuated until the last few days of the war? Why wasn't the government better prepared to meet the challenge of the "home front"? How could so many people - elderly, sick and poor - been left to fend for themselves.

Some critics in Israel have called this "Israel's Katrina." Here, in one of the world's most developed countries - with state-of-the-art communication and technology - one-third of Israel's population was left unattended by its own government. Those who could afford to , or who had families in other parts of the country, were able to leave the northern front towns and cities. But many others could not. Just 100 miles north of Tel Aviv, where life went on much as normal, countless Israeli citizens were stuck in cramped and hot bomb shelters, or trying to keep their sanity and safety amid the air raids and missile attacks.

The common perception - underscored by media reports from the northern zone - is that the government was AWOL for much of its populace.

Local muncipalities, better known for their inefficiency and bureaucratic bloat, took up much of the slack.

If there is anything take comfort in during this crisis, it is the efforts of thousands of Israelis, who volunteered - either at home or in the northern front - to help improve the lives of so many from of their embattled countrymen. Here are a few examples, based on personal experience:

*Friends in Herzliya were among the many Israelis who took in "refugees" from the North, people they didn't know, and found room for them in their homes.

*The Jewish Agency, which brought youngsters from the North to camps in the center and southern regions. It also brought air conditioners and provisions to bomb shelters. These activities, thanks to funds raised overseas in emergency drives.

*The daughter of another friend, a sometime actress, who donned a clown suit and spent 10 days in Safed, entertaining the children in the bomb shelters.

*The Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, and other cultural organizations, which offered free entry to all residents of the north, who had taken refuge in the region.

*Two hairdressers who went to Kiryat Shmona, the city along the Lebanese border which was the most damaged by missiles. There, they went from bomb shelter to bomb shelter where they provided free service - and comfort - to many local residents.

*Hundreds of Israelis who packed their cars with food and other provisions, drove to the northern towns almost daily, to make personal deliveries to those who couldn't leave.

*Well-known singers and entertainers who travelled to the front, performing in bomb shelters.

These are only a few of the countless selfless acts and deeds that were taken by Israelis in response to the crisis. Yes, there were fund-raisers, concerts, radio and telethons on behalf of the embattled residents of the northern region. But it is these direct acts of good will that stand out as well worth remembering.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


The Bar Mitzvah of our son, Nadav, took place yesterday, same day as the UN resolution for a cease fire, bringing a halt - at least temporarily - to the war in Lebanon. What good timing!

The Bar Mitzvah was at Beit Daniel, the Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. (Because Reform services in Israel are conducted in Hebrew, they may seem more traditional than what Americans are used to in their Reform congregations; other than that, services are similiar, with women taking part in the program)Beit Daniel, as well as other Reform synagogues in the country, is the preferred choice for many Israelis to have their Bar Mitvah ceremonies. Since they have a distant relationship with organized religion, the Reform synagogue provides a comfortable milieu for the secularists for their milestone events.

Our choice of Beit Daniel was easy. It is the same center where our children attended pre-school when we lived in Tel Aviv. The nursery and pre-school provided not only a warm and enjoyable environment for the children, but it also brought them into direct contact with the synagogue functions during the holidays.

Preparing for the Bar Mitzvah in the midst of the warwas a challenge. We had decided to scale it down, keeping it to good friends and family, no more than about 40 people. And to do a simple reception in the synagogue after the ceremony, leaving a larger and more festive event for a more appropriate time.

We had also asked our friends to contribute to the special summer camp and program that Beit Daniel had organized for children and families who were brought to Tel Aviv from Safed. Their well-being, and that of Israelis in the North, soldiers on the battlefront, were what was foremost in our concerns.

Here is one example of how the pre-Bar Mitvah preparations went. It concerns purchasing wine for the kiddush and reception. We ordered wine directly from the winery, Dalton, which is in the Galilee. This was one small gesture for the economy of northern Israel, which had been virtually shut down for a month. Conversations about the type of wine and shipment took place with the owner of the winery, who was speaking from a bomb shelter on his vineyard. The order was taken, processed and delivered as if there was nothing out of ordinary.

Bar Mitzvahs in Israel are always special. When it is your own son, even more. With an Israeli wife, two Israel-born children, and my own background of having lived in Israel for many years, our connection to the country runs particularly deep. And even though it wasn't the ideal time for a festive occasion, our many friends in Israel seemed particularly pleased that we had decided to go ahead with Nadav's Bar Mtizvah. And so were we.

Nadav rose beautifully to the occasion. His name means "generous" in Hebrew, and that is the type of boy he is. His chanted his Torah portion, Re'e, beautifully, without a hint of nervousness. Then, he decided to abandon his prepared English text and and speak off-the-cuff in Hebrew in the traditional Bar Mitzvah speech.

Nadav spoke about being in Israel during a war, a new experience for him (he and Alexandra, his sister, visit almost every summer, together with Sarit, my wife). He said that, even though it was a very different and difficult time, he was glad to be here. He mentioned that his Torah parasha referred to heritage of laws and norms of civilized behavior, which was what distinguished Israel from its neighbors. And tzedakah, giving to those who are in need. And that is just what he saw Israel doing., coming together and helping one another in this time of crisis. And, finally, he made a wish that Israel should be able to live in peace.

We couldn't have been more proud. His feelings about Israel had only been strengthened during this time of crisis. His decision to speak to an audience in Hebrew was more than expressing himself in the language of the country. It was as if it were a stronger statement, one that was at least as much of a milestone as the Bar Mitzvah itself.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony is also a time to involve family and friends in aliyot, the honor of being called to the Torah and reading a prayer, and brechot, giving blessings. These also had special significance. One aliya went to a close friend who is battling cancer, along with a mother of a child in the army. The blessing for the country we gave to a good friend whose son is a helicopter pilot, serving daily in combat.

In my own remarks, I spoke not only about Nadav, and the meaning of having his Bar Mitvah in Israel at this particular time. But also of our dream that all the children of Israel should grow up to live in peace. On a day like this, when seven more soldiers were buried in Israel, that wish had an immediacy and greater urgency than anything I have ever said in synagogue - or anywhere else for that matter.

At the reception in the synagogue, the mood was more upbeat. It appeared that the cease-fire, which took effect in the morning, was holding up. No one knew if it would last. But it offered a ray of hope, and perhaps Nadav's Bar Mitzvah will be remembered as much for that as for his own personal milestone.