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What we like about Kiryat Shmuel (and you might, too!)

image So… I’ve already kvetched enough about Haifa, in a weird, loving kind of way.  I’m sure you’re all wondering what we like about Kiryat Shmuel, at least enough that we’d want to spend a chunk of the next few years here.

Here are eight reasons.  Kind of a random number; I just brainstormed until I ran out.

  1. It’s a suburb.  I grew up in a suburb of Toronto.  To me, the distance here feels good – about half an hour or so by rapid-transit from the “big city.”  The mix of big streets and cozy enclaves also feels about right.
  2. Public transit.  I wanted to get by here without the expense and hassle of a car, and bus service here is generally excellent.  Even in a crisis, the buses are usually reliable, although the Metronit (rapid transit) would be better if it was a little more frequent (they come about every 13 minutes).
  3. Well-connected.  With a 5 minute walk to the Kiryat Motzkin train station, we can be almost anywhere in the country about 2 hours.  Bus takes a bit longer, because Haifa’s Merkazit HaMifratz bus station is about twenty minutes away.  From the local mall, you can get to points north including Akko, Nahariya, Karmiel and Tsfat as easily as getting on a local bus.
  4. Shopping.  There are plenty of local grocery stores, including a big new one here in KShmu.  If you want lower prices, there are several big chains not far away, including Osher Ad, Shufersal Deal, Rami Levy.  There take-out food places, and even a couple of nice malls a very easy distance away.  The only thing really lacking are decent sit-down restaurants, with actual ambience, but I’m sure we’ll find a couple.  Oh, did I mention that Israel’s third Ikea store, twenty minutes away, opens on March 11th?!  The Krayot are HAPPENING!
  5. Religious community.  Maybe this should go higher on the list!  I cannot say enough how wonderful it is to look out the window and see mamas in tichels and skirts and kids with yarmulkes and tzitzis.  To know that all the schools here are some kind of religious and that everything revolves around halacha.  It’s very, very nice, even if it does mean that taxes to the neighbourhood “vaad” (committee) include a small surcharge to run the mikveh and other religious services.
  6. Shabbat.  I know, I already raved about life in a religious community, but even so – on Shabbos, it’s different.  The streets are closed and this is when this community really does feel like an enclave, because the rest of the Krayot, indeed, almost the entire city of Haifa, are open to cars on Shabbos.  The kids run and play, the only sound is dogs barking (and barking, and barking) and families walk up and down in the middle of the street.  Bonus:  the local health clinic, on their list of hours, indicates that they have a non-Jewish doctor from 10-2 on Shabbat – how cool is that???  Okay, I have experienced this before, in Baltimore last year, for instance.  And I know also that this is nothing compared to bigger religious neighbourhoods, like the Shabbos we spent in Har Nof, or Elisheva’s experience in Sanhedriya, or the entire religious towns here that close their gates on Shabbos.  But to me, it’s not the size of the neighbourhood so much as the feeling that Shabbos is everywhere – the siren goes off and then… it’s really here, at last.  (It also smells great when everyone’s cooking on Friday!)
  7. English speakers.  Why am I putting all the best stuff so low on the list?!  This is great!  There are English speakers here.  Not many – maybe about 10 families of olim, although there are other fluent English speakers lurking here and there.  (Today, one of the gan mothers wished me a good morning in perfect, unaccented English.)  I know 10 families doesn’t sound like much, but what can I say…?  It’s a start, and now that the Krayot are included in Nefesh b’Nefesh’s Go North and Movin’ on Up initiatives, there may be more.  I heard that the February pilot trip group actually came here this year – right here, in “downtown” Kiryat Shmuel!  I hope so.  Because KShmu is a religious area, I think it is far more attractive to English-speaking olim (at least, religious ones) than other areas in the Krayot.  The core group here is small but reasonably active – no, there’s no English library, but there are Oneg Shabboses every other week, and lots of opportunities to socialize.  Everyone seems very friendly, and there are lots of kids of all ages, ranging from newborn to grown-up.
  8. A nice mix.  One thing I like about KShmu is the same thing that drew me to our area of Toronto, which was NOT the main frum community (that’s around Bathurst & Lawrence):  it’s not a monolithic community.  There’s a really nice mix of people here.  If you look at the men, you see srugim (knit kippahs), black hats (some), suits on Shabbos, more casual on Shabbos, and some with no kippah at all (they slap it on when they go to shul).  Among the women, there are tichels, sheitels, uncovered hair, skirts, pants, essentially the entire spectrum.  The area was described to me as attracting people who are either shomer Shabbos or “who like living in a place that is.”  Many Israelis are very traditional in their feelings but aren’t technically shomer mitzvos (observant).  There’s a place for them here and, as someone else told me, “our kids play with their kids.”  Everybody – apparently – gets along just fine.  Maybe this appeals to me because I’m not sure who WE are, religiously, especially in the whole mixed-up rainbow that is religious life in Israel.  For now, this seems like a good place to not have to fit in.

It’s weird how these reasons grew, from very short at first to very long at the end.  I guess that makes sense, though, to think of the superficial things first and then get into the nitty-gritty.

If any of these reasons make sense to you, here’s some more information by another local English speaker, plus a video:

Welcome to my neighbourhood!

5 reasons to support Shemen LaMeor

It’s always fun to find other Canadians here in Israel and talk about the fascinating stuff they’re doing.  Even better if I can make a bit of money doing it… and do some good in the world.  Bonus!

This time, I got to chat with Nili Abrahams (left), who runs a B&B in Yavne’el, near Teveria, about Shemen LaMeor, an organization she and a friend (right, who happens to have been our rabbi back in Toronto) had to save olives in the Galil.

Check out my article here:

Shemen LameorHere are five reasons you should learn about and support Shemen LaMeor:

  1. They’re using local labour (instead of sending the men away to work!)
  2. They’re funding local tzedakah projects like schools, yeshivas and Tomchei Shabbos (instead of going begging!)
  3. They’re getting gap-year students involved with the land (instead of just putting them up in fancy hotels!)
  4. They’re promoting the “rest” of Israel (not just Yerusahalayim)
  5. They’re saving farmland that might otherwise be purchased by eager Arab buyers.  The Arab population here in northern Israel is now over 53 per cent.  Us Jews?  Under 44 per cent.

And since I’m sure you’re eager to know what you can do, here are five ways you can help them out!

  1. Visit their website to read about what they’re doing.
  2. Talk to any yeshivas or seminaries about setting up a visit during picking season this fall.  Or just get a few people together and come on your own!
  3. If you’re outside of Israel, talk to your shul about “twinning” with Shemen LaMeor.  It’s free!
  4. Donate money to support their programs and even receive some of their boutique olive oil.
  5. Watch their cool 4-minute video now… and then scroll back up to do steps 1-4.  :-)

Did I mention that this project is the brainchild of Rabbi Shmuel Veffer, inventor of the KosherLamp, which has changed late-night Shabbat reading for religious families around the world?  If I haven’t, I should.  It’s important.

(photo not taken on Shabbat :-) )

So there you go – SIX reasons to support Shemen LaMeor.

Things that are weird in Israel #5: Doorknobs

Put up your hand if you loooooove doorknobs!  What, no hands up?  What, you’ve never thought about doorknobs and how much you appreciate having them in your life?

You will if you come here. 

Mwa ha ha ha ha.

In fact, the title of this post is wrong:  there are almost no doorknobs here.  I saw one the other week and got all excited until I realized it was just a “dummy” – it didn’t actually turn or do anything.

imageThe truth is, if I was so inclined, I would have called this post “Things that suck in Israel.”  Because the alternative to the doorknob is… the door handle.  And I have never, ever met one here that works.

Apparently, nobody has found a good way to keep the handle part ATTACHED  to the door.  You’d think they’d have solved this early on, but no.

And that means that every single handle I have ever encountered here is somewhere along the inexorable process of falling off.

Why is this???

It’s not like the doorknob hasn’t been invented yet! 

It’s not like we’re living in some time a bazillion years ago, sitting around in our caves, wishing there was some way to close the door and then open it again. 

We already have such a thing… and it is called a doorknob.  And with the exception of a few in our old house in Toronto, it works quite, quite well, thank you very much.

In the merkaz klitah, our neighbours across the hall had a door handle so ornery that every few days when they went out, we’d all be startled inside our apartment by the distinctive CLANG of their door handle hitting the floor.  It always happens when you’re going out – you give the door a good tug behind you and – CLANG! – the handle on the other side, inside the apartment, falls off.  Ours wasn’t much better, but Akiva happens to be handy with an allen key, which generally kept ours from suffering the same fate.

imageThis morning, the  one on our bathroom door called it quits after a month of suffering our rough treatment (by which I mean going in and out of the bathroom and sometimes wanting privacy in there). 

It had been sort of hanging by a “thread” anyway – albeit a sturdy thread made of steel.  This morning, with a nudge from GZ, it sheared, leaving us with an empty hole where the knob had been.

(Yes, every bathroom, even newer ones, has these weird old-fashioned keyholes, too!)

Fortunately, the kit to replace the door handle is cheap – which is probably why they fall apart in the first place, but I don’t want to think about that.


The bigger lesson here:  nothing makes you nostalgic like the little things, like doorknobs.  In the face of big obstacles – learning a language! navigating government bureaucracy! – I’m totally okay.  While stuff like this can sometimes bring me to the point of tears.

coffee from sara

And that’s when it’s incredible to open up the mailbox and find a whole envelope with something like a BAZILLION packets of instant Starbucks coffee, a belated birthday present from my sister. 

Sometimes, the little things we take for granted – doorknobs, coffee – are the ones that disturb us most when they’re yanked out from beneath us.

So maybe that’s the “take away”?  That the doorknobs suck but the postal service here isn’t bad?

It’s true, at least.  The coffee came in only SIX DAYS, and only cost her $11 to mail (about what you’d spend on two cups of fancy Starbucks coffee).  Family isn’t so far away that you can’t count the packets and know that only a week ago they were in the hands of someone I love very much.

The little things can bring you to the edge… but other little things can bring you BACK from the edge to face the possibility that you may survive this adventure, after all.

Cool things in Israel #3: 4 things you’ll love about bakeries!

1. They have no doors.  Who needs doors, anyway?


2.  They’re (almost) all kosher, even in areas without a significant religious community.


3.  They all have ₪5 icekaffe on tap.  (Not always tasty, but a quick fix if you need one.)


4.  They tell you what season it is!  Or at least, what holiday’s coming up.


Good Shabbos / Shabbat Shalom!!!

More in this series of Things that are cool in Israel: 

My new hometown: Haifa, a mixed-up love story.

IMG_00003904 Nearly two years ago, I narrowed down my personal Top 3 “places to live in Israel.”  To refresh your memory, those choices were Karmiel, Ma’alot, and Nahariya.

Quit laughing.

Then came our pilot trip, a year ago, when we came home having decided “for sure” – Karmiel.  Our new Israeli home had a name and it was a beautiful one.

Okay, quit laughing.  Again.

I still think it is a beautiful name… and a beautiful city, with a lot of what we were looking for.  But here we are nonetheless.

In case it isn’t clear, we’re not in Karmiel. 

We’re nowhere near Karmiel.  Nope, we’re in Haifa and it looks like we’ll be staying here for the foreseeable future.

To me, this is a great big “huh???”

What the heck am I doing in a city I knew nothing about before we came to Israel, other than that it wasn’t Tel Aviv or Yerushalayim??? 

If you’d asked me two years ago for a fact about Haifa, I probably couldn’t have come up with a single one.  Maybe, maybe I would have remembered that the Baha’i gardens are here.  I wouldn’t have known if it started with a “h” or a “ch.”

So here it is:  חֵיפָה. 

  • The first consonant is “ch” as in “I’ve got something yuchhhy stuck in my throat.” 
  • The first vowel is actually “ey” as in “prey.” 
  • Which means nearly everybody pronounces it wrong.

Say it:  “chey” “fa”.  The origins of the name aren’t clear – it could come from the word “חפה” (chafa, a cover or shield, because of the mountain that “covers” the city) or a short form of “חוֹף יָפֶה” (chof yafe, which means beautiful beach), or from somewhere unknown.

Of course, when I say “we’re in Haifa,” I mean… technically speaking.

Technically, Kiryat Shmuel is part of Haifa, though I’m not sure there is a solid contiguous connection, because we’re actually about half an hour away from what anybody sane would consider Haifa, namely, the big green sparkly mountain that I’m growing increasingly fond of.

The big green sparkly mountain off in the distance, a considerable distance away.

In contrast, here is flat, tiny Kiryat Shmuel:

Here is “beautiful downtown Kiryat Shmuel,” right across from the Central Shul:

Here is the most exciting thing that ever happened in Kiryat Shmuel:

(translated news report:  “driver in his twenties, apparently lost control of his private car, went tonight (Wednesday) into a hat shop in Kiryat Shmuel Shapira Street”)

(note:  this is right across from our house!)

So that’s Kiryat Shmuel.

Still – due to some bureaucratic fluke, our apartment is technically in Haifa, and that’s where I have to go if I want to do something like register my kids in school, like I did last week for Gavriel Zev.  Naomi Rivka will continue in her Kiryat Yam school, which we’re very happy with, for the rest of the year.

I probably should have remembered my mother saying Haifa was beautiful. 

IMG_00003898She must have seen only the good bits; as a former British oil refinery and port town, there are plenty of not-so-good bits around here as well.  She must have seen the green, mountainy parts, and maybe skipped the bits that look like a giant used car lot – slash – car tire factory.

IMG_00003897It’s meaningless to say Haifa is a city of contrasts, because what city isn’t?  But still – there are contrasts. 

Between the nice green parts and the falling-down parts.   (This caved-in formerly-residential dwelling has a sign above it saying “parking forbidden – private.”)

Between the Jewish parts and the not-so Jewish parts (rambling down the street and encountering groups of Arab schoolchildren).

IMG_00003899Between the parts that feel familiar (big office towers) and the parts that feel foreign (this wreck of a building with a winter rose blooming out front).  

Oh, yeah, and the port.  What a big crazy deal THAT is.

You can see the port cranes in the distance (on the left) here – behind a different wrecked old building and a nice new office building.


When buildings collapse here, it seems like they just leave them and go build somewhere else.

As I said, our Haifa address is sort of just a technicality, but having grown up in a suburb of a big city, it feels very familiar to me, this living one comfortable rapid-transit ride away from the hustle and bustle (and from what I consider the country’s most depressing shuk, or market).

I’ve also been wondering, because of the seeming randomness of our ending up here… 

Is this the best place in Israel that we could have picked?

Answer:  I can’t answer that.  It’s an impossible question.

Was Toronto the best place in Canada for our family?  Maybe, maybe not.  We didn’t “pick” Toronto, it just happened to be where we were, and it’s most likely that even my grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t pick Toronto but were simply sent there, by relatives or government officials or Fate.

We liked it there, in Toronto – dare I say, we loved it there?  It’s a great city.  But was it the BEST?

We had a tough time on our pilot trip because, everywhere we went, everybody told us what was great about where they lived.   Everybody we met loved where they lived; they honestly believed they lived in the BEST place, and many of them thought we should pick their place, too, because it was simply the BEST.

And in the end, we picked none of them.

We picked this kinda-smelly rinky-dink third-rate town (literally, a distant third after Tel Aviv).  And I think we’re starting to like it.

We may indeed have found ourselves in the best possible place… for us, for now.

Last night, coming home by train from the south, I enjoyed the sight that always welcomes us these days when we’re on our way home:  the famous evergreen mountain, Mount Carmel, covered in magical lights, winking and welcoming me – weirdly – home.

There’s an old Hebrew song called “the evergreen mountain,” about Mount Carmel – specifically, its forest. 

Two years ago, when I was in Canada and the Carmel Forest was on fire, the deadliest fire in Israel’s history, which destroyed perhaps half the forest area, I wouldn’t say I didn’t care… but I didn’t take it personally. 

Today, and probably forever, it’s personal.  I care about this evergreen mountain; I’ve started to love the lights, and even the weird rambling wreck of a city in whose shadows I live and work and play every day.

Here’s the song:

Here are a few of the words:

פקחתי את עיני, היה אז חודש שבט,
ראיתי מעלי ציפור קטנה אחת
ותכלת השמיים וענן יחיד
וראיתי -
את ההר הירוק תמיד.

ההר הירוק כל ימות השנה,
אני עוד חולם ושואל
לנשום רוחות יך כבראשונה,
לשכב בצילך כרמל.

Thanks, Google Translate!

I opened my eyes, it was then the month of Shevat,
I saw above me one little bird
And the blue sky and single cloud
And I saw -
The ever-green mountain.

Green Mountain all year round,
I still dream and ask,
To breathe your winds as they were before,
To lie in your shadow, Carmel.

To lie in your shadow, Carmel.

Things that are weird in Israel #4: Gans

IMG_00003959Have we really been here for six months and this is only my 4th “Things that are weird” post???

Okay… gan.

Gan is pronounced like “gun” but it means “garden.”  As in Kindergarten.

So what’s weird about kindergarten???

Well, I don’t know about you, but where I come from, kindergarten is a grade.  Actually, in Ontario, we have two levels of kindergarten:  junior (JK) and senior (SK). 

In any event, as a grade, it takes place in a SCHOOL.  With a principal and teachers.  In a classroom that, except for a few more toys, is kind of indistinguishable from a very colourful Grade 1 classroom.

Gan does not.

Gan is a separate building.  If your kid goes to gan for two years, there’s a decent chance (depending on where you live and a bunch of other variables) that they’ll have to go to a different gan for each year.

In gan, there are no teachers or principals:  there’s a ganenet.  This is a hard word, apparently, judging from the fact that it took my sister many tries to not quite get it right while she was here.  Say it:  “Gun” the letter “en” then “ette” like the end of cigarette (chas v’shalom).  Gun-en-ette.

Schools have names that are sometimes lofty, sometimes vague.  Naomi’s school is Moriah, named after Har Hamoriah (Mount Moriah), the holy Temple Mount site where Avraham nearly sacrificed Yitzchak.  Other elementary schools around here are Aharon Haroeh, Yamit (roughly, “sea” school; it’s right beside the ocean) and Sinai.  Nice, lofty names.

Gans are named after objects, period.  Preferably basic one-word nouns that sound like they were thought up as team names by an unimaginative camp counsellor.

GZ switched gans this week.  His old gan was called Gan Etrog (citron kindergarten).  His new gan is called Gan Chitah (wheat kindergarten).  Here it is:


Actually… that is the other weird thing about gans.

Gans are built side-by-side.

I don’t know if this is a local phenomenon or some kind of thing to save building materials and other resources, but almost every gan I’ve seen is actually TWO gans right next to each other.  There are separate entrances, separate bathrooms, separate playgrounds.  The kids don’t play together, let alone greet or even know each other during school hours.  But they are right there, side by side.

The picture above, though I said it is GZ’s new gan, is actually mainly of the next-door gan, Gan Tapuchim (apples kindergarten).  His old gan, Gan Etrog, was right next to Gan Hadas (myrtle kindergarten).

The new gan looks very new… kind of sterile, in fact.  Akiva told me they build it just a few years ago because, and I quote, “the old one fell down.”  I’m counting myself lucky because it’s not surrounded by a sand pit like most.  Those sand pits make their way home in shoes, pockets, backpacks  - everywhere.

Inside the gan, it goes without saying that everything possible is child-sized:  tables, chairs, aron kodesh (the little Holy Ark at the front of the room).  It seems like a very nice place to start out in school.

The picture right at the top of this post is a “goodbye picture” Akiva took.  He never did fit in there, exactly.  The new gan is more mixed, racially; he will no longer be the only “lavan.”  Also, even the Ethiopian kids there are more likely to be second-generation Israeli and fluent Hebrew speakers.

Here’s another local gan I happened to be walking past on Friday.  This one is called Gan Tzivoni (colourful kindergarten).  There’s another one next door, but I didn’t catch the name. 


You can see stuck to the fence:  every gan in town gets routinely plastered with posters for every single upcoming children’s play and production anywhere in the vicinity.  Unfortunately, both of the ones shown here were on Shabbat. 


I actually took the kids to a play two weeks ago.  They have them every month in the ulam (community centre).  What can I say?  It was a terrible play, with puppets, based loosely on the mashal (parable) of the guy who goes out looking for diamonds and brings home a boat reeking-full of fish.

What?  Never heard it before?  Google it; it’s a good one, but everyone who knows me is sick of it by now.

Anyway, the play wasn’t all that great, and my kids didn’t understand it all that well, and it was overly loud and the audience members were obnoxious, but somehow, sitting there, I felt happy to be part of a community, feeling maybe like things in Israel were not so weird after all.

But then I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the characters in the play, when they want to make them sound like idiots, just total dummies, they give them a bit of the old American accident.  “Mah?  Mah ani rotzah???” with a nice American R.

Okay, so it’s still quite quite strange here.  Sometimes, overwhelmingly strange.  But culture shock is an insidious thing that doesn’t always lend itself well to witty blog posts.

Still, I’ll try to post more of these as they occur to me.

In the meantime, I have to go to bed so I can be up early for our second day of… Wheat Kindergarten!!!

Come on – that’s weird, isn’t it????

We <3 (love) United Hatzalah!

IMG_00003911This may be the most important post on my blog.  I hope you read it carefully.

Today was “We <3 [love] United Hatzalah Day” for our family!  We learned so much, but this shouldn’t end with us.  I believe that every oleh, tourist, heck, Jew, must know about this organization, which saves countless lives each year not just in Yerushalayim, but throughout the country.

We took the bus down to Yerushalayim for a dedication ceremony on behalf of a Canadian friend who donated an “ambucycle” – a motorcycle ambulance – and who couldn’t travel to be there for the dedication in person.

I thought we’d go, see the motorcycle, shake a few hands (Akiva) and, as we say in Israel, zehu – finished.  But oh, no.  The five of us (big daughter Elisheva skipped classes to join us, for which I’m very grateful) were given the total red carpet treatment.

Saving a single life?

Later on, after we got home, I did some Googling and discovered that the big news for United Hatzalah this month (though nobody mentioned this while we were there) is that a New York millionaire has donated FIFTY ambucycles, at a cost of about $1.3 million. 

Which is fabulous and all, I mean it, but my heart beat proudly, seeing that, to realize that “our” donation of a single ambucycle (it wasn’t really even ours!) was not treated as any less significant… as if they really do give credence to the Talmudic dictum, “he who saves a single life, it is as if he has saved the entire world.” 

Just one ambucycle can save thousands of lives, and they know it.

And oy, what a setup they have there!  I’ve walked past their building maybe dozens of times while in Yerushalayim, and never, ever had a clue as to everything going on behind those doors.

Our tour began with the ambucycle itself, dedicated by our friend in Toronto.  It was clearly brand-new – it still had the plastic wrap on the seat and its supply box was empty.


We then went into the supply depot to see what goes into the kit that all the United Hatzalah volunteers (currently over 2000) take with them everywhere they go.

A lot of stuff to carry around.

So what’s inside the big box in the back of the ambucycle?  A little bit of everything, it turns out.  “It’s got everything an ambulance has, except the bed,” says founder Eli Beer.

There’s a portable bag containing everything from a drug box to bandages to a childbirth kit, all in big, padded red compartments.  There were a few items that our host decided not to pull out, concerned that they might alarm the children.  Good call, I think, especially since GZ is creeped out by all things medical.

Here’s the childbirth kit:


(Of course, to my homebirthed kiddoes, the first question was, why do you need supplies to have a baby?  When I looked at the contents list and explained that there was a blanket inside, they remained unconvinced.)

To show us exactly how much equipment is involved, he started loading Elisheva up, starting out by kitting her up with a bulletproof vest and helmet – I suppose for heading into still-active trouble areas.  These aren’t worn every day, but they’re a fun part of the demonstration.  After that, he added a backpack, supplies bag, defibrillator… as she staggered under the weight. 


It’s a lot of stuff to carry around, but the mobility and portability are the secret to United Hatzalah’s success.  In years of driving an ambulance, Beer says, he never successfully rescued a patient until he responded on foot to a call he’d overheard on a police scanner in his own neighbourhood… and actually saved a life for the first time.

Motorcycles, scooters and medics on foot are nimble in a city, a country, where being nimble can mean the difference between a response time of ten minutes (dead on arrival) or ninety seconds (good chance of resuscitation).

Command and control:  hand in hand

From the supplies room, we headed into Command Central – the hard-core control room from which United Hatzalah responds to nearly 200,000 calls a year. 


*** FOR MAGEN DAVID ADOM (regular ambulance), DIAL 101.

“Jews and Arabs don’t always get along,” says Beer.  But today, “hand in hand… Jews and Arabs are getting together for the purpose of saving lives.”  When Beer’s own father collapsed a few years ago, the first responder at his side was an Arab medic from East Jerusalem.

In addition to complex mapping software which can plot the arrival times of the five nearest United Hatzalah responders (which is calculated intelligently based on whether they’re coming on foot, by car or on a motorcycle!), our host pointed out the central computer which is hard-wired to Home Front Command, the central Israeli agency which sends out missile alerts.  If there is anything going on, anywhere in the country, these guys will know about it first.


The other cool thing is that if you have donated an ambucycle (and really, you must if you can!), they can find it for you anywhere, anytime.  Just punch in the number and their computers can tell you instantly where it is.

Because the rescue workers with United Hatzalah are all volunteers, the ambucycle essentially becomes their best friend – they take it with them everywhere they go.  The volunteers are essentially on duty 24/7 – yes, that’s 7 as in “seven days a week,” unlike a lot of other things in Israel, which are 24/6. 

Anytime, anywhere, they could get a call.  And no matter what they’re doing – our host told us about a time he was in shul on Simchas Torah and had to leave right before the big aliyah he’d paid a lot for – they drop everything and run.  (He said he also had a newborn baby at the time – but that doesn’t matter when you’re a United Hatzalah volunteer.)

When I mentioned that you’d have to have a pretty understanding employer, he told us about a United Hatzalah volunteer who worked as a delivery guy for a meat store.  The boss apparently started getting sick of not knowing when his employee would have to leave, abandoning his chicken deliveries (“He delivered chickens… he delivered babies.”).  But, since they were both religious people, the meat store owner consulted a rabbi who said that he may be losing a reliable delivery guy but he was gaining a half share in the zechut, the merit, of the lives that the delivery guy was saving.  The delivery guy kept his job.

Ambucycles save lives:  the too-scary-for-kids video

After our visit to Command Central, we went inside to watch a video about United Hatzalah and its activities. 

I’ll warn you now:  this video is too scary for children.  And maybe too creepy for adults. 

A father basically dies during his young daughter’s birthday party because the conventional ambulance can’t get to him on time.  Then, the scene is replayed, except he is saved by an ambucycle that arrives within 90 seconds of the call (based on an actual call to United Hatzalah).

Our host realized after the video started that the kids probably shouldn’t watch the guy (actor, but hey, they’re young kids) die, so he fast-forwarded to the triumphant ambucycle scene.  Nevertheless, they were both quite troubled afterwards. 

As with seemingly every event of this type, there were tasty pastries and soft drinks, and we were even presented with “swag” in the form of magnets, brochures and some nifty-cool United Hatzalah hats.

A country run on donations.

On our way out, we waved to “our” ambucycle, while I silently resolved never to drop in on the Command Centre to find out where it is at any given time.  The work these guys are doing is just too important to interrupt.

But that idea, of pandering to demanding American donors, got me thinking hard about the donor-recipient relationship between Israel and chutz la’aretz, which has gone on since even before the state itself was founded. 

A few weeks ago in my Hebrew film discussion class (what?  you didn’t know I was taking a film discussion class?), we explored this issue as part of the classic 1965 film Sallah Shabati (סאלח שבתי) (excerpt here, captions in French only), in which early pioneers are planting a forest.  When wealthy American donors drive up, their fancy-looking Israeli host hammers in a sign dedicating the forest as the “Birnbaum” forest.    But later, after they’re out of sight, he comes with a new sign proclaiming it to be the “Mrs. Pearl Sonnenschein” forest. 


“What can I do?” he asks.  “It’s tourist season.  They all want their own sign.”

Of Yissachar and Zevulun.

Modern Israel is littered with signs, acknowledging all the Birnbaums and Sonnenscheins, generous donors all, over the last century.  Before I came, I admit, I was more cynical about this phenomenon.  If they care so much about Israel, why don’t they move there?  I wondered. 

I still don’t have an answer to this question, but I don’t ask it so much anymore.

Now that I’m here, I’m grateful every time I see an ambulance going past with its dedication, whether from the Canadian Friends of Magen David Adom or from Australia, the U.S., or the United Kingdom.  I’m grateful for every hospital, clinic, and ambucycle bearing the name of somebody outside of Israel who cared deeply about the wellbeing of the people here.

Yeah, it would be incredible if everybody could come live here.  But as in the case of the chicken seller and his ambulance/delivery driver, the Torah speaks of the “Yissachar / Zevulun” relationship, in which one of these tribes (Yissachar / Issachar) worked hard to learn Torah, while the other (Zevulun / Zebulon) became sailors and traders to support them.

I am so, so grateful to our friend in Toronto, and everybody like her who – although they cannot live here – have taken on the role of Zevulun to those of us who are working hard, like Yissachar, to make this a liveable homeland.

Thanks to them, it is a safer home, where lives are saved in a way that respects the land’s holiness, the honour of all its inhabitants… and cashes in on the enterprising high-tech spirit that has made this the “Start-up Nation” we all know it can be at its best.

For more about the spirit behind United Hatzalah, I really recommend watching United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer’s TED Talks video, The Fastest Ambulance?  A Motorcycle.

Did I mention that United Hatzalah emergency responders, thousands of them, are all volunteers?  That they’re on duty 24/7?  That, Muslim or Christian or Jew or whatever, they will save your life for FREE if you ever need them?  Even if you can’t afford a whole ambucycle, do something today to help them out!!!


*** FOR MAGEN DAVID ADOM (regular ambulance), DIAL 101.

One year ago today… (and milestones)

One year ago today… we were here!

Actually as of last week, Rosh Chodesh Adar, but tomorrow is also the 10th of February, which is when we left Canada for our pilot trip.

We had so many questions then!  Some are still unanswered, but many , as everybody kind of hinted, have kind of answered themselves. 

The biggest question was, “where are we going to live?”  Which turned out to be a non-issue.  We were offered a place here, and here is where (for the time being) we will stay.  Here is as good a place as any, and maybe far better than some.

Beyond the pilot trip thing, we’ve been too busy with LIFE and all for me to comment on our big milestone:  we passed the six-month mark.

Six months is a big deal for me for a few reasons.  I mean, it’s kind of obvious – a year is an important, measureable amount of time.  But even half a year means you’re not messing around; maybe you’re actually serious about this whole “Israel” thing.  Very few people (that I’ve known) have the privilege of spending a whole half-year here.

But here’s another, maybe stranger reason.  Good friends of mine came last year for six months.  It was a hard six months for them, and a long six months for us, missing them back in Toronto.  My friend was gone and my kids’ friends, so it was a big double-whammy.

At their end, here in Israel, everything that could go wrong did, pretty much (except, b”h, they all came home alive!).  Plus, they had a newborn (when they left, and a bigger baby when they came back), which never makes things easier.

Anyway, maybe because of them, for our whole first six months here, I was always thinking in the back of my head, “If we were staying for only six months…”  As in, “we’d have five more months to go, still lots of time,” or “we’d be halfway through already,” or “we’d be packing to leave by now and saying goodbye to our favourite people and places.”

Those milestones came and went… but we didn’t.

At six months, we found an apartment.

At six months, Akiva finished ulpan.

At six months, my work started picking up to a point where it might be possible to sustain ourselves someday.

At six months, I could start to understand the Hebrew around me.

At six months, I realized that if I won a lottery tomorrow, I wouldn’t spend it flying to Canada, I’d use the money to bring the rest of my family here.  (It would have to be a BIG lottery, I suppose.  And some family members might come kicking and screaming.  Okay, all.  You can bake and sing and knit and build sets and whatever-else just as well on this side of the pond!)

Here’s what Naomi Rivka had to say in a letter to her friend, around about six months:


“Things are not really going as well as you would think!” (arrow points to girl)  “I look happy, but no!”

While this is Gavriel Zev’s deep and heartfelt reflection:


“You know how I was 5 in Canada?  Well, I’m six now.  And we weren’t going to stay in our apartment, either.”

But I think we’re all keeping our senses of humour, and maybe that will keep us together even as we enter what I suspect will be the difficult half of our first year…

How do I know our sense of humour is intact? 

At the bottom of Naomi’s note to her friend is this tidbit – a magic trick.  Kind of.


Insruction for craft:  subject:  magic!

1.  Cut out cards shown below (arrow points right)

2.  Needed more than 1 person.

3.  Turn cards upside-down and 1 person needs to jog out of room.


2 1/2.  Glue cards on cardboard.

4.  Scramble up cards and tell the person which card you want them to find.

5.  If the person is magic, he/she will find card.


How can you not laugh?  Even if, some days, the laughter can barely make its way through the tears.

To find more posts about our pilot trip, step back in time to last February, or (for things slightly more tangentially related) click here.