L’hitraot (until next we meet)

One year ago, we were finishing packing in Berkeley, about to head out for a year away. Today, we are finishing packing in Jerusalem, about to make our way home to Berkeley, with some stops along the way. It is surreal to realize that this experience is coming to a close. I find myself feeling a bit sad and nostalgic about every “last thing” –  my final yoga classes, my last falafel, the last time seeing friends. At the same time, I am looking forward to resuming our lives in California, and to being back with our family, friends and community. I think we are holding two distinct sets of emotions right now – a love and longing for Israel, and relief and excitement to return to our rich lives in California.

We planned this trip to be one year. You might recall that we tried to get a visa to be here for a year, on a sabbatical of sorts, but as neither of us are university professors, we aren’t able to get the appropriate visa. We ended up being convinced that making aliyah (becoming Israeli citizens) was the best path for us. We benefited in many ways from the “absorption basket” of services and support offered to new immigrants. But, being citizens also changed something in us psychologically a bit. Once we were Israeli, which was supposed to be just a bureaucratic reality, we started to really feel Israeli. In late November, we started to question whether or not we should return to Berkeley after one year. We were never contemplating staying forever, but suddenly a second year became quite appealing on some levels. Our first months were really quite rough on the kids, and we could see that things were starting to become easier for them. We went through so many transitions when we left home, that it really overwhelmed me to go through all of those transitions again just one year later. For months we sat with the idea of staying a second year, to minimize change, and hopefully get to a place of real fluency and comfort here. Eventually, we made the very difficult decision to honor our promise to our kids, our family and our friends, and keep this to a one year adventure. With tears in our eyes we purchased tickets, knowing we wouldn’t be quite ready to say goodbye to Israel.

It turns out that there is a lot less for us to do in leaving Israel than was required to get out of Berkeley. There were some bureaucratic issues to deal with – we had to end our health insurance, give up our Jerusalem residency, finalize our property taxes, cancel utilities and close our bank account. Lucky for me, Yossi is a self-described “bureaucracy navigation ninja” and took care of that with patience and grace, involving many phone calls and several office visits. We settled up with our landlords. We have to finish packing, and it is a lot of work, but leaving a furnished home after one year is so much easier than emptying a home of 12 years.

When we get home we will have a lot of transition related work to do. We need to make sure our tenants left our house in good shape (I’m sure they did, they have been truly amazing), get our stuff out of storage and move everything back in. We need to buy some big ticket replacements, like a new couch, new bikes and new computers. We will have different health insurance when we get home (hooray, we have health insurance!), so we will need to research, select, and visit all new doctors. Most importantly, we need to figure out where the kids are each going to school. The older two need to take some placement tests, and everyone will need to get prepared for the school year.

There is so much I will miss about Israel. The food, the people, the language, the spirit of adventuring throughout the country, the varied landscape, the history, walking everywhere, our beautiful apartment, and the wonderful people we’ve become friends with all come to mind. Personally, I will be looking for a job soon after we return, so I will miss the freedom I had this year to exercise, run errands, relax and entertain guests. There are also lots of things I won’t miss – terrible customer service, feeling incompetent all the time, the crazy drivers, the heat.

Our last day in Israel at Machane Yehuda

John Updike is quoted as saying “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.” For me, that’s basically how I feel about Israel right now – that the authentic thing for a Jew in this world to do is to live in Israel. Take the good and the bad, earn a living, raise a family and send kids to the army in Israel, helping to build the State and actualizing the Zionist dream.  It takes a lot to make it work in our complicated and amazing homeland, but anything less feels like taking the easy way out. All of that said, our lives are richer and more comfortable in Berkeley, and I’m not inclined to sacrifice family, friends and community for a philosophy.

So farewell, Israel, for now. We will all be back, certainly to visit and possibly more.

Season of Sadness

One of the reasons we chose to stay in Israel for an entire year was to be able to experience an entire cycle of holidays.  We saw the pop-up stands and enjoyed the street fair on Sukkot.  We lost count of menorahs in windows on Chanukah.  We witnessed the widespread disappearance of bread during Pesach.  We interacted with early Zionist heroes on the streets of Tel Aviv on Yom Ha’Atzmaut.

But because of how our visit lined up on the calendar, there was one holiday we won’t experience in Jerusalem: Tisha B’Av.  Tisha B’Av fell about a week before our arrival last year, and will fall again about 2 weeks after our departure this year.  In some ways, the timing of this holiday is fitting for us – I’ll get back to that in a bit.

For those who are unfamiliar – Tisha B’Av is a day remembering the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem – the first in 586 BCE at the hands of the Babylonians, and the second in 70 CE at the hands of the Romans.  It is traditionally marked with a full 25-hour fast, and it’s the only day with such a long fast besides Yom Kippur.

It can be helpful to associate Jewish holidays with emotions.  Sukkot is the holiday associated with joy.  Rosh HaShana is fear.  Yom Kippur is resolve.  Shavuot is anticipation.  Purim is surprise.   And Tisha B’Av is sadness.

I’m Tisha B’Av

In fact, there is a whole “sad season” which begins today on the lesser holiday of 17 Tammuz (which, according to tradition, is the day that the city walls were first breached, commencing the destruction that eventually led to the complete razing of Jerusalem).  It’s when we begin emotionally girding ourselves for the melancholy that will arrive in three weeks with Tisha B’Av.

I’ve been in Jerusalem for Tisha B’Av before.  It’s… weird.  The day is traditionally one of mourning for the loss of Jerusalem, which feels strange when you’re actually sitting in the city.  It’s like having a funeral for a relative who keeps insisting that they’re not actually dead yet.

So I feel like it’s fitting for us that today on the 17th of Tammuz, we are starting to pack.  The walls of our family year in Israel have been breached.  The end is at hand.  By the time Tisha B’Av comes around, we’ll be in California, wistfully remembering how we once lived in Jerusalem.

Navigating the Israeli Health Care System

As someone who has dedicated much of my professional life to improving access to and quality of health care, I felt the need to share some of our health care related experiences in Israel this year. Luckily, they have been fairly limited, so I don’t have a particularly broad view.

Because we came as olim, or new immigrants, we were given basic health insurance for free for the first year. Just this fact is remarkable – can you imagine if we immediately covered all new immigrants? Our approach in the US is so vastly different, and leaves so many vulnerable populations, like immigrants (especially undocumented ones, but that’s probably the case in Israel too) stuck without coverage. One of the first questions we had to answer at the airport was, “Which health insurer (kupah) do you choose?”.  Despite having done some research before hand, I hadn’t figured out any way to significantly distinguish between the three major carriers. I also thought it didn’t matter much, as we also were covered by Kaiser, and was planning to utilize email and phone appointments if I had any concerns (little did I know that Yossi’s job and our insurance would disappear within a month of our arrival!). I chose one somewhat at random, and our coverage began immediately. Soon after, we got a booklet and insurance cards in the mail.


The first time we needed to see a doctor, I called the insurer’s number. I was pretty quickly offered an appointment with an English speaking pediatrician about a 10 minute walk from our apartment. Score! When we first got to the office, we were totally confused. There were some receptionists sitting together, but they were very bogged down in work and people. Eventually I spoke with someone to check in, and she looked at me like I was crazy and simply said “Room 2” and pointed. We went to find Room 2, which had a closed door, and a list of the day’s appointments on the front. It turns out that there is no formal check in process, no checking of insurance status, no confirming of address and phone number. You just sit outside the doctor’s exam room (1 exam room per provider, which is unheard of in primary care in the US) and wait for the person before you to exit. Even more remarkably, there is no medical assistant who rooms the patient or takes their vitals (blood pressure, weight, height, etc.). The physician swipes the magnetic insurance card and the visit begins. On the one hand, this means quality time directly with the provider. On the other, it often means that vitals are skipped, and while they can be seen as busy work, they do have some utility. For example, we were asked several times if one of our children had gained or lost weight since arriving in Israel. I could guess, but that child had not been weighed at all, despite several visits! No check in process means that if a phone number has changed, the physician has no way to get in touch with you (this happened to us – our phone number was not entered correctly, and the doctor wanted to talk about lab results, but had no way to call us!). There are one or more nurses working in each medical clinic, and the physician can send the patient over for more detailed health education, further studies, etc., which is a great team approach to care. We found the physicians we worked with to be warm, knowledgeable, fluent in English and ready to give referrals and order lab tests as needed.

Hospitals in Israel are well run and technologically advanced. However, they are less hotel-like than we are used to in the US, with few private rooms and no dining menu. I have heard horror stories about people calling an ambulance instead of their kupah when a problem arises, and then being told that nothing of the ambulance ride, emergency room visit or hospitalization would be covered, as they didn’t follow protocol. I am pleased to report that we never needed an ambulance or a hospitalization, so I don’t have an personal experience on this front. I do think that these stories imply that newcomers to Israel should receive some sort of orientation as to basic procedures for utilizing care, so they don’t accidentally make a big mistake.

Over the year, we were referred by primary care to a few specialists. One of these required an intake process before getting an appointment, which was annoying, but also helpful to ensure that the patient is getting the care they need. One was to a dermatologist, who somehow fit our kid in that day when we explained he needed to be seen in order to return to school (a same day appointment with a dermatologist would be hard to pull off in Berkeley!). That’s actually a funny story – one of our kids came back from a long hike with many bites, and was sent home from school because the faculty feared he had chicken pox. The pediatrician wouldn’t clear him to return to school -she didn’t feel confident enough identifying the rash, and rashes are taken very seriously here. Thankfully the dermatologist gave the all clear to return to school, blaming fleas (though I disagree with the diagnosis, I think it was mildly poisonous caterpillars!). The third was to a specialty clinic at Hadassah Hospital. This was actually not covered by our health insurance, but they set an incredibly low fee to make it accessible to patients (100 NIS or $25 for an hour long appointment with one of the best specialists in this field in the country!). This was also a good experience, but it was a little bit frustrating to have to call the hospital, try to schedule the appointment, be given a date (in two months) but no time, etc.

There are also urgent care centers all over the country. A big part of their business is tourists, but Israelis also use them every day. In general, they operate on a (reasonable) fee for service basis. If your health insurance provider can’t get you in for an appointment you need (especially if it’s on a Friday afternoon, Saturday or holiday), they will end up paying for a large part of the visit. The one time we used them was on a Saturday night, with a fear of strep throat among several family members. It took a few hours as it was their busiest time of year, but they got rapid tests, cultures, a first dose of antibiotics for each person and prescriptions for the rest, so it was a positive experience.

After the first year in Israel, all Israelis need to cover a part of the cost of their health insurance. The fees are nominal compared to what most of us pay in the US, but they are significant given low salaries in Israel. Many employers cover these costs for their employees and their families, which is a big benefit. In addition, many Israelis upgrade from basic coverage to plans with higher premiums and better coverage, especially for specialty care and hospitalizations.

Dental care, especially for children, has been added to the basket of services each health insurance provider is required to offer. When we suddenly needed dental care for one of our kids, we got some recommendations and tried to get in with a couple of dentists who would be covered by our insurance. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any nearby that both spoke English and were taking new patients. So, I decided to just spend the money on a private dentist. It turns out to have been a good decision for our family – we spent some money, but were thrilled with the quality of care. It’s also worth noting that the charges are about a fourth of the pre-insurance prices we are used to paying in the States, so even with a broken appliance, a crown, a root canal and three cleanings, we actually paid what seems like very little.

Overall – the Israeli health care system seems to be much more efficient, equitable and cost efficient than the American one. It was fantastic to pay nothing or very little as co-pays for appointments when needed.  Most of the time, it was fairly simple to get an appointment when we needed one. Israel should be applauded for working toward both mental health and dental parity in recent years, as an accompaniment to long-standing universal health insurance. I am impressed with the electronic medical records system, and patient’s ability (if they read Hebrew well) to find providers, get lab results and email providers online. However, I think that adding additional support staff and exam rooms would help physicians to be able to see patients more efficiently, and also ensure better data, both in terms of demographics/registration and clinical areas like vital signs.

Summer Camps Without Stress

Last August we posted about The Israeli Summer Camp Scramble and our struggles to get the kids in the right places after we arrived in Israel.  I’m happy to report that this summer is tremendously simpler!

School ended June 30 (a little earlier for Shoshana) and we are scheduled to leave Israel on July 27. Therefore, there were only a few weeks that we were worrying about occupying the kids. (We have a few weeks on the other end in Berkeley, but I think that unpacking the house, catching up with all our friends and family, visiting new doctors and getting ready for school to start should be enough for us, especially as I won’t yet be working.)

Amir is attending “Camp at School”. The municipality of Jerusalem announced in May that they were funding free camp for the first three weeks of summer for all kids completing first and second grade, at every school throughout the city. I believe that the intentions were around preventing academic backslide, helping parents with the financial challenges associated with paying for summer care and finding healthy ways to engage kids. At our school, camp was offered the first three weeks of summer, which is perfect for us. My understanding is that at Arab schools within the city, camp was offered slightly later in the summer, after Ramadan ended. This whole enterprise seems very progressive to me! The teachers were given the choice to extend their contracts for an additional three weeks, which is great as it ensures continuity for the kids. When Amir first heard about it he was super annoyed – who wants to go to camp at their school?  But, I was insistent he should go – it’s free, it’s a 5 minute walk from our house, and he wouldn’t be shy because he already knows all the kids. School camp meets 5 days a week from 8 am to 1 pm. The only thing parents need to pay for is a couple of workbooks (the cost I certainly didn’t mind – having shlepped to 5 different stores a total of about 15 times to try to get said books, I did mind!) There is afterschool care available until 4:30 pm for a very reasonable price. They have two hours of lessons each day – one of Hebrew reading and writing and the other of math. The other three hours are spent in recess, snack time and fun activities. Amir has come home each day excited about that day’s plan – capoiera, zumba, art projects, gardening, water fights, zumba, obstacle courses, plays, puppet shows, animal experiences and other delights.

Amir inside a bubble, inexplicably wearing a wig (yikes, I better check for lice!) as part of a fun science activity at school/camp.

Once Ari joined Israel’s National Under 12 baseball team, his summer camp plan became non-negotiable For the first week and a half of summer he was to attend baseball training camp with the rest of his team. The downside is that this was being offered in Petah Tikva, a city a good hour and a half from Jerusalem! Luckily, there were other kids attending camp from Jerusalem (one other on the national team, and a few kids attending the simultaneous baseball camp that’s offered to all interested kids), and so group transportation was arranged. We had to pay a lot for the transportation, but I’m so glad that we didn’t need to spend many hours per day driving! Ari absolutely loved camp. He was with his baseball buddies and got to play hard for hours each day. That’s all he ever needs to be happy. Ari then had a rest day, and then he and his team left for Italy to play in tournaments. Hopefully he will write a post all about that experience when he returns!

Ari (standing up, last kid on the right) and his team at Ben Gurion airport, about to head to Italy.

Shoshana is going into 9th grade, so she’s at an age where camp is actually optional. I was always a CIT for younger kids at that age, rather than a camper at a day camp. But, she needs something to occupy her time, so off to camp it is. She is back at Hacker Camp at a great organization called The Learning Works. She attended their camp the last couple of weeks of last summer, and then their afterschool program all year long. It is a fully bilingual camp that is focused on technology and science. All of the nerdiest (in the best way possible!) English speaking kids in Jerusalem are there, and it’s so great for her to be with people who get her, and are happy to talk about Doctor Who or Harry Potter or math or science for hours on end. This year she is navigating her way on public buses to and from camp every day. She went on a field trip last week to a local technology startup, the week before on a scavenger hunt all around the Machane Yehuda shuk, and later this week will go camping in Israel’s south. She and a team are working on designing their own Doctor Who escape room, which is a perfect project for her. It is a bummer that we will leave before it’s up and running, but great that she was able to get it started.

Shoshana and her team working on their “Escape from the Daleks” escape room (with a Rubik’s cube in her hand!).

What a difference a year makes! Now each kid has a camp and a cohort that they love and will be (at least a little bit) sad to leave.



Reflecting on the End of the School Year

Ari and Amir walking together to elementary school for the last time

School in Israel officially ended on June 30. Unfortunately, the kids absolutely refused a proper end of year photo. I thought I’d share some of my thoughts at the end of a difficult and enriching year. I wish the kids would share their reflections on the blog, but that’s not going to happen at this time. Try to ask them in person for their thoughts if you get a chance.

General Thoughts

Overall, the schools were better than we expected. We had been warned that class sizes are much bigger than we are used to in public schools in Berkeley, and certainly larger than Jewish day school in Oakland. We found that was true, but not as extreme as we expected – each kid had 30-33 students in their class at any given time. Amir’s first grade class had around 32 students in it, but in addition to the teacher, there was an assistant teacher in the classroom, and also an aide (she was formally dedicated to a particular student, but in reality, helped out any kid who was struggling). For a few months there was a second aide, dedicated to one student, who is a native English speaker and ended up working with Amir a ton. 3 to 4 caring adults to 32 kids is a pretty good ratio!

We were also warned that the schools were rougher – kids were wilder and there was bullying everywhere. That was definitely true, and was hard for each of the kids at different points during the year. In elementary school, we saw a lot of hitting and yelling and fighting. In secondary school, there was lots of aggression, yelling and also smoking cigarettes (and plenty of other goings on that we didn’t witness).

We were told we would need to advocate like crazy for the faculty and administration to pay attention to our kids, but that warning proved false. We were, in fact, very pleased with the caring and accommodation the schools gave to our kids, coming in brand new to the country. We always felt like there was a team supporting us and our kids, and trying to make the year as successful as possible.

Something I didn’t know in advance was about the structure of the school day in Israel. Starting in first grade, the day is divided up into periods, with bells that ring about every hour. Each class has a “mechanechet” a main teacher, who is responsible for the curriculum, communication with parents, and overall student achievement. Many subjects are taught by specialty teachers, including science, English, music/dance and PE. Math is also taught by a specialist in the upper elementary grades.

In general, the teachers come to the students, instead of the students walking from class to class. I also was surprised by the level of communication. We received emails from teachers at least weekly. In addition, there were (very) active WhatsApp groups for each class, with notices, information and emoticons sent many times per day. Individual communication about each student was rarer, but the teachers were accessible if we initiated it. I found myself a bit shocked by some things you would definitely hear from the teacher about, e.g. if your kid didn’t bring a sweatshirt to school on a 65 degree day, or didn’t bring a hat on a field trip – these are crises! There wer also things that I think certainly merit a text or phone call home, but apparently not in Israel  – say a child was bitten by a rodent and the skin was broken during science class, or a child was hit so hard by another kid that there is significant bruising at the end of the day and the aggressor was required to be picked up from a field trip due to his behavior.

Amir – 1st grade

Elementary school starts in 1st grade in Israel. (Kindergarten is universal, but is included as the last year of preschool and is very play based.) That means that everyone started out as new to the school, and there were no expectations around reading, writing or math. Of course, most of the other students spoke and understood Hebrew fluently, so Amir was clearly behind on that front.

At first grade orientation a few days before school started, Amir spent most of the time with his head down, silently crying, completely overwhelmed by the environment, language and people. Thankfully, he quickly transitioned to going to school without protest, though he never really loved it. He remained shy for much of the year, but did warm up a bit. For the first half of the school year, despite the best efforts of the assistant teacher, he rarely played with other 1st graders at recess. Instead, he played with Ari (why a school decides to put 1st and 5th graders together at recess, I don’t understand, but it worked for our boys).

Amir received two sets of special services – pull out “ulpan” or Hebrew language instruction and also a weekly class for native English speakers. His Hebrew improved a great deal due to the teacher’s individual instruction. His English didn’t backslide, due to the special English course, plus it was the highlight of his week to be in a room with other English speakers having fun.

He learned to read and write in Hebrew along with his class. He sometimes chose to do writing assignments in English, but his teachers were fairly tolerant of that. Most of them speak and understand some English, so they were gentle at the beginning of the year when he was reluctant to speak. Starting in the late winter, if he tried to ask them something in English, they would send him out of the class to ask his ulpan teacher how to say what he wanted in Hebrew! This was a good incentive for him to start talking. He was expected to keep up with all of the school work and classwork. He and I sat and did homework almost every night, sometimes reluctantly, but he succeeded at completing all of his work. The Hebrew was sometimes quite difficult for him. The math was almost always easy, but figuring out the directions was occasionally a challenge for both of us.

Socially, he did become friends with some of the boys in the class, and started playing with them. He only had a few playdates during the year, but he enjoyed them. He really loved the basketball class he took after school one day per week. He developed some sports and Hebrew skills through basketball! His Hebrew vocabulary grew enormously. He is not fluent (which I expected he would be at this point), but he’s comfortable in Hebrew and his accent is spot on.

I’m a little bit worried that he is not as strong of a reader and writer in English as he’s expected to be. He also keeps getting confused about direction of letters. I would have him tested for dyslexia, but my intuition is that the problems is simply switching back and forth between Hebrew (which is read from write to left) and English. Hopefully he’ll catch up in the first few months of 2nd grade in Berkeley.

amir farewell
Laminated goodbye note from Amir’s teachers

Ari, 5th grade

On Day 1 of school in Israel, Ari was cool as a cucumber. He wasn’t excited to go to school in a foreign language, but he had great self-confidence and was ready to take it on. By the time he got home, he was crushed. Everything was so much harder, more stressful and more overwhelming than he could have imagined.

Things got better, of course. He quickly made a close friend in the class, which has made all the difference in the world. There was also a girl in the class on sabbatical from the US, so he had a true peer, with similar struggles and similar strengths. He excels in sports, and when he’s not playing with Amir during recess, he was happy to play sports with other kids. By the end of the year, he was quite good friends with a couple of other boys in the class as well. He found a lot of the other kids rough (and he’s a pretty tough kid!), but managed to hold his own, and didn’t disclose to us most of the craziness that took place in the classroom and on the playground.  He was also blown away by the yelling and general lack of respect in the classroom – students talking to teachers in a manner that would never be accepted at home.

Ari received a great deal of accommodation in school this year. Like Amir, he received two sets of pull out services: ulpan, or Hebrew language instruction, and a special class for native English speakers. He benefited a great deal from each of these. In addition, he was simply not expected to keep up with his class, he just couldn’t. He understood very little of class lecture in any subject. Some subjects, like Tanakh (Bible), were completely impossible for him to understand whatsoever. As a result, he did virtually no homework and limited classwork during the year. 5th graders are often assigned big reports and projects, to get them ready for middle school and get them used to long-term complex work. However, with the exception of a couple of science projects, he skipped almost all of the assignments. The math work was too easy for him, so he was bored during math. He ended up going outside with the other American girl in the class and completing workbooks sent from her school in New York. In addition, his grandfather Dan gave him weekly math lessons via video chat, which I think was fulfilling for both of them.

At one point we were called into school to discuss Ari’s progress. It turns out that the main issue was that Ari kept falling asleep in class! The teacher was worried that Ari had some serious health issue going on, or wasn’t sleeping at night. We assured her that wasn’t the problem. Basically, it’s simultaneously incredibly boring and tremendously exhausting to listen and try to keep up in a language you don’t understand all day long. When he gave up, he would simply fall asleep. We were able to convince him that it wasn’t particularly cool to sleep in class, and by the end of the year I think he’d given up that habit.

The last week of school was filled with class parties of various types, and thus requests to bring in all kinds of treats and such at the last minute. One day Ari came home and informed me that he and two classmates who are also leaving the school were throwing a party two days later for the whole class. He gave me a list of items to buy – various snack foods, and also a personal gift for their head teacher. The party ended up being a very sweet and touching farewell. Ari received a few gifts, including a book with photos and notes from every student in the class. Over the year, he really became a part of their class community.

Ari’s Hebrew definitely improved a great deal by the end of the year. He can manage in any social or sports setting, and understands some of the conversation in the classroom. I think that he was able to keep us his math skills. Though proficient, he was never a big reader or writer in English, and that remains true at the end of the year. Next year, he will really have to step up in middle school – at this point he is used to getting away with doing almost no work, and that just isn’t going to fly at his new school in Berkeley!

Ari farewell book
Farewell book from Ari’s classmates

Shoshana, 8th grade

Shoshana came into the year with the most Hebrew of the kids by far. In fact, in 7th grade in California, she took 3 classes that were taught completely in Hebrew. For that reason, we thought she was fairly well equipped to handle school. However, 13 is a very difficult age to leave all your friends and change schools and cultures, so even with a base of Hebrew, the year was quite difficult for her. She attended a 7th-12th grade school, about a 10 minute walk from our house.

She was part of a core class of 30 students. She was included with them in field trips and any class she could handle, like science and Jewish traditions. She was exempted from some classes that were deemed simply too difficult for a new immigrant, namely Hebrew Literature and Arabic or French. After a few weeks, she was placed in the highest level math class offered in her grade, and an additional hour per week of math enrichment (plus her math studies were supplemented by sporadic use of Khan Academy and weekly sessions with her grandfather). She spent about half her day in Ulpan, or special classes for Hebrew language learning, and the rest of the day with her class. She learned a lot of Hebrew in ulpan, and it was also a great opportunity to meet kids who have come to Israel from all over the world. During English class, she generally just read, as English for Israelis is not particularly compelling for her. She was given one hour per week of one on one English class, at her level. The way her schedule worked out, she ended up having to be at school at 8 am, and was home from school pretty early most days. On Fridays, she had just two hours of class. She is not a morning person at all, and felt unwell for much of the school year, so she often had trouble with being on time to school, and she missed a lot of days. Overall, she did very little school work during the year, a tiny fraction of what she would have been expected to do in 8th grade at home. She spent a lot of class time simply not participating. Most of her teachers opted not to give her grades. In the end, she learned a lot of Hebrew, some math, some science and a tremendous amount about herself.

Socially, she had a rough year as well. She basically decided that she didn’t want to make close friends, as she hates the idea of investing herself in people or a place and then leaving it behind. Eventually, her classmates caught on that she didn’t really want to be friends, and left her alone. One girl was persistent, however, and over time Shoshana softened and they ended up having a great time together. The last week of school she and her classmates in ulpan had an end of year party, and her general class had an end of year party as well. She was very touched to receive a goodbye gift from her classmates – she is the only one of 30 who will not be returning next year.

Secondary school ended earlier in June than elementary school. I had no idea that school was ending until she told me she had one more Friday with a science class, then a pool fun day on Sunday. Monday she just needed to go to school for a few minutes to pick up her report card, then she was done. I thought she had two more weeks! Needless to say, we hadn’t made any plans for her. She spent a lot of the time sleeping and bumming around. Thankfully her friend Max was also bored when his school ended before his siblings’ so he came to Jerusalem and they had a day and a half to hang out together.

shosh max
Shosh and Max at Kikar HaMusica, with a live music performance behind us, when we went out on Ben Yehuda Street at night.

She will begin high school when we get home. In some ways, it will be easier than she’s used to, as she’ll have 6 or 7 different classes at Berkeley High, rather than the 12+ she had in middle school in the States and in Jerusalem. However, she did almost no school work this entire year, and missed a lot of class due to travel, illness and exhaustion. Next year, she will need to actively manage all of her assignments, get herself to school on time every day, check her work and follow through in order to be successful in a large and demanding school.

ari amir wind
Ari and Amir at the science museum in Haifa – where we went immediately after school ended
haifa beach
Shoshana, Ari and Amir looking out over the Mediterranean Sea on the last day of school

Overall, there are many adjectives that can be used to describe this school year – overwhelming, underwhelming, difficult, successful, fun, exhausting, boring, scary and exciting all come to mind. The kids did not achieve academically in the ways we’re used to, but learned so much about about resiliency, persistence, friendship, culture and, of course, Hebrew. For all of them, I think their biggest highlights were outside of the classroom in our travels and their extracurricular activities, but school provided an important structure and environment.


A few weeks ago we celebrated Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates receiving the Torah, and also the first fruits of the summer. Shavuot fell on a Saturday night/ Sunday, which meant it was a long weekend of sorts – school on Friday morning, then off on until Tuesday.

The week before the holiday, Amir’s class, like most 1st grade classes in Israel, had a “Torah Celebration”. This is a ceremony to honor the children receiving their first bible, which they will start studying in 2nd grade. We had attended similar programs for Shoshana, when she received first her own siddur (prayerbook) and then humash (bible) at her Jewish day school, but we didn’t know quite what to expect from this program in Israel, at our kids’ largely secular school. We all met up as instructed at a nearby synagogue – everyone dressed up, and boys required to wear kippot. After the chaos you’d expect with 60+ first graders and their families together, the ceremony started. The kids walked in two by two, under prayer shawls held up by parents. They same songs about the torah, which they had clearly practiced. There was a little skit and a dance. It was very cute, in the way first grade performances are. The room parents also used this time together as an opportunity to present end of year gifts to the teachers. Finally, each child was called up to receive a package from their teacher. I expected there to be a humash inside, but no! There was candy, a really cool personalized pencil case, a torah themed coloring book, and a few other odds and ends. I felt both very connected to Israel and the school during the ceremony, but then was so confused that the kids didn’t actually receive their bible – my understanding is that they buy one when they buy their books for second grade. Of course, there is no celebration without food, so everyone shared some snacks, and then got their photos taken – we were given commemorative magnets the next day.

The ornate synagogue
amir torah
Amir among his classmates
torah cake
A beautiful cake for the event (I didn’t make it)
A photo of Amir, holding a small torah with his name and the first passage of the torah
pencil case
Amir’s fancy new pencil case – it says “Good luck in second grade”
Commemorative magnet

As for all holidays, the boys’ school had an assembly for the holiday of Shavuot. The first graders were the featured class for this assembly. Each of them brought decorated basket with fruit inside, and wore a crown of flowers. They sang some delightful songs, did some dances and there were several skits. Amir had no speaking parts (his Hebrew has come along a great deal, but he still wouldn’t want to speak in public), but did a great job singing and dancing.

amir basket
Amir and his basket (he refused to pose with the crown)
All of the baskets lined up under an art piece created for the assembly
shavuot show
Amir singing with his classmates

Shavuot is Shoshana’s favorite holiday in Berkeley. She absolutely loves two things about it: Berkeley’s tikkun leyl Shavuot, a community wide all night study session, and the potluck we host every year. Actually, all five of us love those things, but Shavuot is often one of the highlights of her year. To that end, she really wanted to be with friends for Shavuot. So, she hopped on a bus and went to our friends the Bambergers in Zichron Ya’akov. She spent all of Shabbat and Shavuot with them. They stayed up all night at a study session, and spent lots of time hanging out, eating and having fun. For her, this was the next best thing to being in Berkeley.

The rest of us stayed in Jerusalem for Shabbat and the beginning of Shavuot. We ate everyone’s favorite macaroni and cheese for dinner (it is customary to eat dairy foods during Shavuot, and I make loads of this mac and cheese every year). Yossi went to some study sessions around Jerusalem. He ended up at Pardes, where he has studied all year, and attended some great classes in the middle of the night. Unfortunately for me, all of the classes seemed to start at 11 p or later, and we couldn’t leave the boys home alone, so I didn’t attend any. After Yossi’s morning nap, we went to visit cousins Yossi had recently looked up. We had a wonderful time getting to know them, and shared a delicious Shavuot meal. It was a great opportunity to celebrate the holiday in a secular Israeli fashion – with a great meal and family time together, but little in the way of religious ritual or content. It was a truly lovely afternoon.

tamar moran
Tamar and Moran
roni bat el
Roni and Bat-El and their granddaughter Liri – such wonderful hosts!

The next day, there was no school. It is a very rare event to have a day that’s not Shabbat or a holiday off school, so it was like a gift of a day. We met up with friends at Sarona in Tel Aviv. Shoshana took the train and met us there, after her weekend away. Just a few days before, there was a terrible terrorist attack at that location, so it was very meaningful to be there. We were glad to see the place busy. We enjoyed a delicious lunch and the fun playground. We took a short tour of the underground area of the Sarona, which served as a critical operations area in the War of Independence. After the tour we gave pairs of kids money and let them wonder around the food market on their own, which was fun for everyone.

Some of the kids being kids at Sarona

We enjoyed Shavuot in Israel, but we are definitely looking forward to next year in Berkeley!


Yom Ha’Atzmaut – Israel’s Independence Day

The Google Doodle of the Day, when logging into Google in Israel
The Google Doodle of the Day, when logging into Google from Israel

As Yom Hazikaron ends in the evening, it becomes Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, and there is a collective transition from mourning to celebration. Blue and white flags are everywhere – on nearly every car, balcony and storefront. We investigated a variety of celebrations in Jerusalem for the evening, and decided to go to the closest one to us – at the Tayelet or Haas Promenade, a few blocks from our house.

We got to the Tayelet around 9:00 pm and things seemed very quiet. We kept walking when realized the celebration was actually on the far end. We eventually a entered a vibrant festival. There were a couple thousand people there, two stages, a play area, booths selling treats and light up toys, face painting, balloons, etc. There were even various performers circulating through the crowd on stilts, and others posed as statues until One of the stages had a variety of live acts, ranging from local kids’ gymnastics performances to rock bands. The other stage had a children’s show. The area was filled with Israelis of all ages, despite the late hour. We checked out everything there and hung out for a while, but after a while it became a bit boring as we didn’t have any good friends there. We went home and played games, then Yossi and Shosh and Ari headed back to the Tayelet around 10:30. They arrived in time to watch the fireworks, with a view of the Old City in the background.

light up sword
Amir with the obligatory light up sword
kids show
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a children’s show performed at 9:00 and 9:45 pm in the States!
Some of the scene at the festival

Unlike Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaShoah, Yom Ha’Atzmaut is a day off from school and most jobs – which is good considering all the late night celebrations the evening before. We weren’t sure how to spend the day, but then we saw an advertisement for an English language tour about the founding of Israel in Tel Aviv. So, we dragged the kids out (who wanted to stay home all day and watch YouTube videos) for the hour drive.

We arrived in downtown Tel Aviv, and eventually found the starting point of the tour. The City of Tel Aviv had arranged for numerous tour guides to take groups around to important sites related to the founding of the country. However, when we checked in for our tour, we were informed that no one else was there for the English tour, so we could go on a tour in Hebrew or go without. I was furious – there was no way we would have come for a Hebrew language tour, as the kids would have been so incredibly grumpy about it. After some significant advocacy, some tears, and explaining that we had driven in from Jerusalem just for this, the staff eventually caved. A few minutes later we were provided a delightful tour guide who spoke great English, and three other English speaking tourists joined us. We learned a little about the founding of Tel Aviv 100+ years ago as the first Jewish city, and Dizengoff, Tel Aviv’s famous mayor. We were also amused and delighted by actors dressed up as Meir Dizengoff, Theodore Herzl, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin and other key figures in Israel’s history, walking around and interacting with folks.

tel aviv
Tamar and our tour guide
Amir and Yossi with “Meir Dizengoff”
Amir and Yossi with “Golda Meir”

We then decided to go to Independence Hall, the place where Israel’s declaration of independence was made in 1948. It was a long wait, but we had a good time chatting with people in line. We were also surprised when a young woman approached us and started chatting with Ari – I had never met her, but she is one of a few young women completing their national service (a choice that religious girls can make instead of the army) by working full time at Ari & Amir’s school. We eventually entered and saw a film in Hebrew about the founding of Israel. Israel decided to declare independence just in advance of the British Mandate ending, and also before Shabbat came in, so the Ben-Gurion and the leadership only had a day or so to prepare. They declared independence in an art museum/private home that was emptied for the occasion, and that is now Independence Hall. It was quite moving to be in the very room and sing Hatikva where Israel officially began as a country, on the 68th anniversary of that date.

Founding Plaque at Independence Hall

We then decided to go to Independence Hall, the place where Israel’s declaration of independence was made in 1948. It was a long wait, but we had a good time chatting with people in line. We were also surprised when a young woman approached us and started chatting with Ari – I had never met her, but she is one of a few young women completing their national service (a choice that religious girls can make instead of the army) by working full time at Ari & Amir’s school. We eventually entered and saw a film in Hebrew about the founding of Israel. Israel decided to declare independence just in advance of the British Mandate ending, and also before Shabbat came in, so the Ben-Gurion and the leadership only had a day or so to prepare. They declared independence in an art museum/private home that was emptied for the occasion, and that is now Independence Hall. It was quite moving to be in the very room where Israel officially began as a country, on the 68th anniversary of that date.

Independence Hall
Inside the room where independence was declared

There were other things to see and do, but everyone was hungry. Lots of restaurants were full, but we were able to have a delightful late lunch at Max Brenner, a chocolate themed restaurant. We then got balloons from a clown named “Rami Salami” before heading out of Tel Aviv.

amir rami
Amir (formerly known as Rami) with Rami Salami, the clown

The day nearly ended in disaster when, in a moment where I didn’t have my eye or hand on him, Amir ran out into the street and was nearly hit by a car. So, the conclusion of day was filled with emotion and thanks. Amazement regarding the founding of the State of Israel and what it has become in 68 short years. Fear of what could have happened – both to Amir and to our country. And profound gratitude for the anonymous driver who was paying very close attention to the road and had razor sharp reflexes.