If you think of yourself as Israeli... 

Saturday, July 01, 2006

(Published in Haaretz, July 21, 2006)

SHARON, MASSACHUSETTS – A special El Al flight from New York brought 220 American “olim” [new immigrants] to Israel yesterday. The flight was the second of seven Jewish Agency/Nefesh B’Nefesh charters planned this summer, and the first to arrive since warfare erupted on Israel’s northern front. According to the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization, 20 prospective olim who had signed up for yesterday’s flight decided to postpone their “aliyah” – at least for a week or two.

On the eve of the flight, Anglo File visited with Joel and Debbie Wine in Sharon, Massachusetts as they struggled to finish packing their belongings, complete a list of last-minute errands, tend to their three young children and say goodbye to friends and family. “Yes, it’s crazy globally and crazy in our little world, getting everything done,” Joel acknowledges, sitting on a folding chair among the open suitcases and sprawl of unpacked items.

After the war in the north began, people started asking them whether they still planned to move to Israel. “With what’s going on now, we’re being made out to be some sort of heroes,” Joel says. “But this is Israel and if you think of yourself as Israeli, you realize there’s really not a choice. We’ve mentally, psychologically, emotionally made the commitment to be part of the people of Israel in the Land of Israel, and, unfortunately, this [war] is part of the reality.” When he received an e-mail from Nefesh B’Nefesh this week confirming that the flight was still on, he sent a one-word reply: “Good.”

Since courtship
Aliyah is something Joel and Debbie have talked about for years. “It was really part of our dialogue ever since courtship,” Joel says, noting that Debbie was more of the driving force behind their decision to immigrate to Israel. Joel, 37, and Debbie, 36, met during their student days at Columbia University. After marrying, they lived for several years in Riverdale, New York before settling in Joel’s hometown of Sharon, a wooded community of some 18,000 people, about 22 miles southwest of Boston.

Sharon is known for its strong Jewish presence. (The Website of the local Catholic church states that the town’s population is 75% Jewish.) Joel is not sure of the exact numbers, but recites a list of the local Jewish congregations: three Orthodox, two Conservative, one Reform and one Reconstructionist.

For a committed Jew, the town is about the best place one can imagine in the Diaspora, Joel suggests. He makes it clear that the family’s decision to relocate to Modi’in is not because they are unhappy in Sharon: “It’s an amazing community; we enjoyed a wonderful suburban lifestyle, with three kids and a dog, a wonderful house [about 2,400 square feet], a two-car garage, 8/10 of an acre, and it’s close to my parents.”

Debbie, originally from Los Angeles, has also come to love New England and says she will especially miss the fall, when the leaves change colors and the family goes apple picking. Israel may lack this verdant charm, but it offers a different kind of beauty, she explains. More importantly, the Israeli landscape is imbued with a deeper sense of purpose for her: “You sense not only the physical history of the land, but also the history of all the people who have died to protect it and worked so hard to build up this incredible gift for the Jewish people, and I feel like I have to accept it if I’m able to do that.”

American history fails to engage Debbie in the same personal and profound way: “I don’t feel that same connection and it’s ironic, because I’m a seventh-generation American and that’s pretty rare.”

Joel and Debbie hope the children – Noam (7), Meirav (5) and Liron (4 months) – will develop the same type of connection they feel toward Israel. “We’re hoping that they’ll look to Israeli soldiers as heroes rather than the commercial superheroes and princesses that seem to dominate American children’s media,” Debbie says.

Deaf American Jews visit Israel 

(Published in Haaretz, August 25, 2006)

A group of 16 deaf Jewish adults from the United States, accompanied by a sign language interpreter and a specially trained tour guide, concluded a 10-day visit to Israel on Wednesday night. The trip was organized by the Jewish Deaf Singles Registry, part of the New York-based Our Way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing organization, and included several joint programs with deaf Israelis.

Encouraged by the response the group received in Israel, the New Jerusalem Foundation (NJF), which supports a club for deaf Israelis in the capital, hopes to bring thousands of deaf Jews from around the world next year to help celebrate the 40th anniversary of Jerusalem's reunification. Oshik Porshian, coordinator of special projects at the NJF, has begun lining up financial support for this plan and believes it is entirely realistic to envision 5,000 deaf Jews – a third of the world's Jewish deaf population, he says – gathering in Jerusalem in 2007.

The just-completed Our Way tour and the ambitious NJF plan share the goals of strengthening Jewish connections and preventing assimilation. Our Way's program director, Batya Jacob, explains that deaf Jews have a very high rate of intermarriage, especially those who rely on sign language to communicate: "If you're signing, you're looking for people you can communicate with first."

Our Way operates under the auspices of the Orthodox Union in America, but anyone who is "halachically Jewish" can participate in Our Way programs, Jacob says, and estimates that 75% of the membership is non-Orthodox. "Nobody decides who to talk to or be friendly with based on whether they're Orthodox, Conservative or Reform," she emphasizes. "They just all are so happy to be together as a group because it's such a small Jewish deaf world, and that's the key for them."

No moustache

The itinerary for the 10-day tour of Israel included most of the standard sites, but also was tailored to meet the participants' specific needs. This included hiring a tour guide, Michael Bar-Neder, who is trained to lead groups of disabled people. One of the things he did to prepare for this group was to shave the moustache he has nurtured for three decades – so the participants would have an easier time reading his lips.
The American group had an opportunity to socialize with deaf Israelis at a get-together on Saturday night at the NJF-supported club in Jerusalem and at a picnic the following day. They also participated together in a dance workshop led by Amnon Damti, a deaf dancer from the Kol Demama troupe. "He worked with the group and showed them how to use rhythm from the vibrations in order to learn to dance," Jacob says.

Hilly Waldman, 31, from New York, cites the meeting at the deaf club Saturday night as one of the highlights of the trip. He had visited Israel twice before with his family, but says, "It was very difficult to understand on past trips. I wanted to tour with deaf people and with an interpreter."

It was the first trip to Israel for Faith Kuznitz, a 43-year-old from New Jersey. When the hostilities erupted in July, she worried about whether it would be safe to come to Israel. Indeed, three people decided to cancel their trip. The itinerary was also revised – the group did not visit the north as planned.

Instead of visiting the north, the group sent packages: On Sunday morning, they packed 1,000 boxes of supplies (underwear, socks, toiletries, candy, etc.) for soldiers serving on the northern front. "We felt very strongly that to come to Israel at any time and not to be giving back was not a message we wanted to send the group home with," Jacob says. 'We wanted everyone to understand that having a challenge in life like a hearing loss doesn’t mean that you're not responsible for other Jews. And they really loved being able to help and felt very useful." Until they reached the goal of 1,000 packages, Jacob adds, they refused to leave for the next destination on their itinerary.

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