Monday, November 19, 2007


What was it that my dear friend Daniel said to me years ago, that the definition of a dysfunctional family is any family which has at least two people in it!? Such a complex subject. Of course the mother of all family stories is the Bible itself; Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah and his sons, Abraham & Lot, Isaac & Ishmael, Jacob & Rachel, Dina & her brothers, Joseph & his brothers, Moses and Aaron, and of course the travels of the Children of Israel for 40 years in the desert before entering the Land of Israel. And that's just the tip of the iceberg from only the first five books of the Torah!

So why am I writing about family today? My parents, may they live to 120, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary yesterday. An attempt was made initially to somehow organize an appropiate celebration in honor of this once in a lifetime milestone. The thing is that we are 15 siblings, scattered throughout the United States and Israel. My parents live in Iowa. And so instead of having a party somehere on this globe, my brother Yaakov organized the next best thing, which was a surprise family conference call to our parents.

We actually have a family email group which helps us all stay in touch with each other, in addition to the weekly call to our parents. But to have all 17 of us simultaneously on the phone line was really something quite powerful. The phone call itself went on for over three hours. Each one of us shared our childhood memories and blessings to our parents, and theirs to us. I mean just think of it. Fifteen children. It's really something, and the moment spent together was very special.

So what's so complex, you ask. I am 22 years older than my youngest sibling. My oldest daughter is close to his age. The reality is that while we are one family, I am in fact a lot closer to some of my siblings than to others. Cosidering that I also left home to study out of town at the young age of 14, you can understand to some extent the impact of that.

The thing is though, that when we speak to each other through the family, as we did last night, the family as a whole filters out those differences. That was the beauty of the phone call, almost like a group therapy session. Maybe that's what it was! The true beauty of family is this ability to retain your unique identity and yet communicate and relate with someone else who may be very different from you. Maybe you are even angry or have issues with one or more in the group, but as a family together sharing the love and common bond which we have, the differences can be spoken about with an air of respect.

My family, quite a large one, can be a microcosm of the global family at large. When we truly internalize that with all our differences, we are all at the end of the day part of the one family of G-d, only then will we too be able to relate to each other not with warfare, but in peace.

Mazal tov Mommy and Daddy.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

From the Mouths of Babes

Before making aliyah, my wife and I attended weekly Ulpan classes offered by our local Jewish Federation. And just in case you're wondering as to whether or not those infamous Ulpan classes really help much, you'll need to ask my wife (in English). My instructor was Ishai Ron. In Israel he practiced Law. He was in the United States on one of those temporary missions from Israel, together with his wife and their 10 year old daughter.

At our very first lecture, our class translated and discussed the meaning of Israel's National Anthem, the Hatikva. When Ishai brought up the "Post-Zionism" argument as to why the Hatikva , a song which expresses the yearnings and hope for the establishment of a Jewish State, would seem to be in our day and age, after the establishment of the State, "out of date", I kind of sensed as to where Ishai's leanings were coming from. Undeterred, I invited Ishai with his family to join us for a Shabbat dinner. He graciously accepted, and despite any apprehensions we both might of had initially, in the end we all enjoyed a wonderful family evening together and became the best of friends.

Over time, our relationship only strengthened, the Lubavitcher chassid and the Israeli kibbutznik. I enjoyed family visits to his home in Fair Lawn, and I even had the honor of taking Ishai to his very first NY Yankees game at Yankee stadium in the Bronx. When it was time for Ishai to return back to Israel, he informed me of his decision to commence studies for the Reform Rabbinate upon his return to Israel. His hope was that with this way he would be able to reach out to the secular Israeli.

I am reminded of the time I took my good friend and study partner, Rabbi Bruce Block of Temple Sinai in Tenafly, to visit the Lubavithcher Rebbe ob"m. I remember the impact of the Rebbe's words to Rabbi Block. After being introduced to the Rebbe, the Rebbe blessed Rabbi Block with the words, "to use your influence to bring Jews closer to Judaism."

So now, five years later, this is exactly what my friend Ishai is striving to do. We have stayed in contact all throughout this time. I recently attended his ordination in Jerusalem. Before the ceremony, he introduced me to his Rabbinic sponsor, and said to him half jokingly that I was the one in fact to blame for the decision of his to enter thr Rabbinate.

It was what Ishai said to me next that really touched me. We were reminiscing about when we first met. Ishai recalled how during that very first Shabbat dinner with our family, he heard from my 10 year old daughter Bat-Sheva her 'dvar torah' presentation she had learned in school, based on a teaching from the Ethics of our Fathers, " To judge every person in a favorable light".

That teaching made such a strong and everlasting impression upon him that he chose it as his life motto for his ordination.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

One Of Our Children Has Died

One of the most unnatural events in this world is the death of one's child. You are born, you age, you die. King Solomon himself declares in the Book of Ecclesiastes; "Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven: A time to be born and a time to die". We marvel at the beauty of springtime even knowing that the trees will be bare come winter. We mourn upon the death of one's parent even as we know that death is part of nature. It is natural to bury one's parents after they die. It is unnatural to have to bury one of your children.

I have been asked countless times over the past four years why I decided to move to the community I reside in. I live on a "Yishuv" in Israel. The very first time I visited my Yishuv was when I was vacationing with my wife and children. It was during the heat of the summer. We stayed over in the Yishuv for a few days. We had visited many places in Israel, but this was our very first experience with a Yishuv. Something clicked. My wife and I both commented to each other at the time that if we were ever to decide to live in Israel, this would be the place we would choose to make our home. There were a number of reasons for this, but the overall feeling was that this would be a really great place to raise our children. There was something about the attitude of the people, something about the atmosphere of the Yishuv, that you could just sense how precious and important the children were.

A few years later we did in fact move here and have not been disappointed from our original impression. In fact, this feeling has only strengthened over time. After living here for even a brief time, it begins to sink in that every single child living on the Yishuv is considered exactly like one of your very own. People treat and care for their neighbor's children in the same exact way they treat and care for their own. This is not an exageration. And so therefore it's no wonder that at any given time on any given day, your child can be found in any number of homes around the Yishuv while at the same time any given number of neighborhood children can be found in yours. That is life on a Yishuv. The Yishuv is one of the most "children-friendly" places you could ever imagine living in. During the week, you are constantly picking up in your car neighborhood kids on the street who need a lift somewhere. I get a real kick on Friday night, mostly before dinner is over, when the parade of children into our home begins with the first knock of the evening at the door and the chorus of response from the house "ken!" (yes) and the first friend of many more to follow enters. You lose something in the transalation. Eventually a group of kids will congregate outside our home, making enough noise to disturb someone's peace.That's how it is here.

At this time every year, a few weeks before Chanukah, the streets of the Yishuv are filled with the sounds of our children busy preparing for the annual youth groups presentation. For weeks, almost every night, children are preparing dances and acrobatics and all kinds of presentations that will culminate at the grand outdoor presentation after the conclusion of Shabbat. The preparations themselves are really something that enlighten your heart to watch and listen to.

But this year, the sounds of preparation have been silenced.

Life on our Yishuv also means "tremping", hitchhiking back and forth to school or to work or to wherever. Everyone does it, adults, kids. It's just a part of life here. A few days ago, a couple of kids, 12-13 year olds, were on their way home from school. They were only a few minutes away from home when their car crashed on the slippery road, killing three of the kids and the driver and seriously injuring a fourth.

In a single moment, four of our children, two of them brothers, were killed.

It would be so easy to just say that the entire community is in mourning. Not one, but four of our children have died. The wound is still so fresh. One of the parents had rushed to the accident scene to help, not realizing that his very own child was there laying dead on the highway. How can you possibly describe the sadness? Parents in mourning. Grand-parents, siblings, friends. Our children! The tears flow wherever you go. In the homes of the mourners. On the streets. In the schools. In the aisles of the local food store. Everywhere. You see groups of children, of all ages, walking from house of mourning to house of mourning. The flow of people into our neighbor's home is non-stop. We are not all sitting shiva, but we are all in mourning over the loss of our children.

I also have a 12 year old son. These were his best friends. They were in our house, he was in theirs. They went to school together, played basketball together, went to karate together, played Risk together, and were preparing for the big outdoor presentation together. But the presentation has been postponed. So has my 4 year old's birthay party. How can you have a party, how can there be a presentation when we are all in mourning and some of the performers have died? We are relative newcomers here. How many friends already does my son have here?

My 10 year old son saw a bus this morning on our way to school. We had travelled by bus to the cemetery for the four funerals. That was a long day. My son upon seeing the bus wanted to know whose funeral it was today. My 8 year old daughter asks whether or not they know for sure that our neighbor's child is really dead. My four year old daughter spoke about the death of her brother's friend to her pre-school teacher.

The social workers here, the psychologists, the school, all have there hands full. As if they weren't busy enough until now. And they will be plenty busy for quite some time. Wherever you turn on the Yishuv, there is another sign posted directing you to another home of mourning.

I ask myself how it is that rain, something we pray for so much, could also somehow, someway, sometimes be a part of something so tragic. It's as we say, that we want rain, but that it should come in the right way, in the way that it will be a source of blessing. For me personally, what comes to mind is the statement in the Ethics of our Fathers; "You are forced to Live". I, like the rest of my family and community right now, feel such a heavy load upon us. It's in the air. You can cut it with a knife. We are all forcing ourselves to live on, to somehow lend some comfort to the parents and families of those who are in mourning over this tragic, tragic loss.

Only with G-d's help do we have the necessary strength to succeed.

Mordechai Weiss
Mitzpeh Yericho

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Why did you move to Israel?

There is a unique phenomena that many Jewish American tourists experience when they visit Israel. Inevitably, some Israeli, either the tour guide, a family member or a complete stranger will spring upon you “the” question. “Why don’t you come and live in Israel?”
On the surface, the question seems to be innocent enough, even endearing. After all, isn’t living in Israel the fulfillment of a dream the Jewish Nation has dreamt about for thousands of years? But considering all the security and economic hardships Israelis endure, the question could be rephrased, “Why don’t you come and suffer along with us?” It’s no secret that hundreds of thousands of Israelis have left Israel due to its hardships, and more would surely follow if only they could.
What makes “the” question even more interesting is its uniqueness to Israel. I resided in the United States for 45 years. I was born there, my children were born there, my parents, my wife, my grandmother. It’s a wonderful, wonderful country. In America I enjoyed unbridled religious freedom and great opportunities for employment. And yet, not ever did it dawn on me to encourage a visitor to my country to immigrate.
If America is the melting pot then Israel is the family pot. Which other country in the world can claim that practically all of its citizens are blood relatives. The Jewish People are all the children of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. That alone entitles you to citizenship in Israel. Even our enemies are cousins.
And so when an Israeli asks “the” question, it’s similar to when your mother asks you to live close by together with the rest of the family. Sure it may be more difficult with special challenges to face, with more intra-family disputes to contend with, but at least you’ll be with the family!
If there is one thing that I can claim some expertise in it’s family dynamics. Being the oldest of 15 children and having 12 myself is lots of family experience. Coming up to half a century, I am son, father, husband, grandfather, uncle, nephew, cousin, son-in-law, father-in-law and more, besides having been a first grandson as well. I’ve observed from up close marriage, divorce, re-marriage, birth, death, sibling rivalry, celebrations, tragedies, rifts, relocations, mother-daughter relationship and much more.
Life in Israel is all about getting along with your extended family. I live in Mitzpeh Yericho, a lovely community of about 300 families. We enjoy spectacular vistas of the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea. One of the number of reasons we decided to call this place home is its close proximity to Jerusalem and the affordability of real estate. It was while vacationing here a number of years ago that my wife and I, as we observed the ancient Bedouin shepherd ritual of tending to their flocks of goat and sheep, that we commented that if we were ever to move to Israel, this would be the place where we would live. In our eyes, this was Israel.
On the occasion of our first anniversary here, I emailed the following to my friends: My wife and I can still recall vividly our very first day of living in Israel. After the exhilarating group flight of Olim with Nefesh B’Nefesh and our reception at Ben Gurion airport, all 11 of us with our 40 pieces of luggage herded into two awaiting vans to transport us to our new home in Mitzpeh Yericho.
It was a blazing hot summer day. Mitzpeh Yericho has two seasons, summer and Hell. The mid-day desert sun was blasting at full force. We were all totally wasted from our very long journey. As we alighted from the vans in front of our still under construction new home, all we could see was sand, sun and sky. It was like entering the twilight zone. Goodbye civilization (Teaneck, New Jersey), hello Mitzpeh.
No sooner had we crossed the threshold that our new neighbor Akiva arrived with a cluster of grapes he had grown in his backyard. On his footsteps were the rest of the curious neighbors with food in tow, coming to meet the American family who had decided to join them in the midst of the Intifada. By the next day, our younger children had already made a bunch of friends. From early morn’ till after dusk, we hardly saw them as they quickly acclimated to our new lifestyle. So is life on a Yishuv. It was a lot easier for our younger children than it was for our teenagers. Summer was fun, even before the swimming pool was completed, but school would soon begin.
For the first few weeks we did without sinks, closets and appliances. It was all part of the adventure. We loved both the big and the little things you experience in Israel, such as Mezuzahs on the doorposts of the stores in the mall and giving birth in a Jewish hospital or the extra half-liter of soda you receive free in honor of the holidays. Nothing can compare to celebrating the holidays in Israel.
Our first year involved great adjustment. It was a year of great joy, with the birth of our second grandchild and subsequent birth of a daughter three days later. It was a year of sorrow, following the death of my wife’s mother, of blessed memory. At times it was fearful, especially following terrorist attacks in neighborhoods frequented by our children.
But we are finally home. We love our community and have been welcomed with open arms. My wife is finally able to force the words “I live in Israel” out of her mouth. In our neighbors’ eyes, we will always be “the Americans”. At least we now have a child who will not have to take Ulpan.
You come to Israel for one reason, but stay for another.

What a country!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Thank G-d!

After almost 2 years of study, I have finally taken my final written exam to become a tour guide in Israel. But this wasn't the big one. The five hour Tourism ministry written exam is at the end of the month and the one hour oral exam is in mid-January. Stay tuned!