February 26, 2015

Wearing army boots

One big family.
When my daughter Aviva’s new Ethiopian soldiers arrive on base, they are beaming, white teeth gleaming behind open ready smiles, happy to please and succeed.
Aviva shows them how to stand at attention and how to work under time constraints.
Echad, shtaim, shalosh (one, two, three).
She shouts this mantra several hundred times a day as they run in circles, trying to figure it out. She shows them how to tell time on a watch and how to grip a pencil. 
She shows them how to shoot a gun, speaking to them in simple Hebrew, trying to ingrain the new words. They go to Hebrew classes where a 19-year-old teacher instructs them in the language basics.
Aviva rewards them all day long, lavishing praise and encouragement. When she wants to make them feel really accomplished, she asks them to run. At first, they want to do this bare foot and fly like gazelles, maybe run straight for a desert. But Aviva shakes her head and insists they wear army boots and stay in formation.
When the soldiers go home for Shabbat, Aviva talks to them after they have arrived, checking in to see if they are ok, always explaining when they should be back on base Sunday morning. She has gone to the hospital emergency room with her sick soldiers, sitting with them, ensuring they get proper care. 
She also goes to the bank with them to help get their finances in order and she speaks to real estate agents to help the lone soldiers find reasonable apartments.
Soldier with proud mom graduating as paratrooper. 
She teaches them about history and geography and science, teaching them about the solar system, our planet Earth and space ships that travel to the moon. Here is a conversation from one recent class:
Aviva to soldiers: What is in the sky?
Soldiers answering all at once: Hashem!
Aviva to soldiers (holding a ball that represents our planet): Our planet is like this ball and there are other balls out there.
Soldier asks: Really? We have a ball?
Soldier asks: How much is the world?
Solider asks: Where is space during the day?
Mainly because of such an army experience, young Ethiopians are starting to integrate into Israeli society. There are still many issues, including poverty and juvenile delinquency. Yet these programs are slowly working.  

In 2005, 3,000 Ethiopian students graduated from higher education institutions, and 1,500 others graduated at the university level. 

After they graduate from their three-month course, she will follow their lives by being there to celebrate future army successes and help solve struggles. 

'Class picture.'

This week, she showed them a video of a rocket taking off for the moon. They sat wide- eyed in disbelief.
Aviva to soldiers: What does the spaceship look like?
Soldier: A fish
Soldier to Aviva: When are we going?
Soldier to Aviva: Will you take us there, mefakedet?
She may not take them to the moon, but she will escort them into their future.

Aviva and her guys have become one solid team. And this is what helps solidify Israel, strengthen its unity and forge it into a cultural and spiritual mosaic unique in this world.

How much is this world? the soldiers ask. It is as big as our hearts. Just ask anyone in this IDF unit.

February 20, 2015

Our mosaic, Eretz Israel

Their lives are too hard. They are so sweet and know so little. They’re like my children.
Learning how to tell time.

These are the words of my 19-year-old daughter, Aviva, who is talking about the Ethiopian soldiers she supervises. All are all new immigrants to Israel.

Aviva started working as a mefakadet (sergeant) in the IDF last April and her job in the army is to take her soldiers through basic training with the goal of helping them advance to higher units in the IDF.

Her other big challenge is to acclimatize these new immigrants to a life in modern day, stressful, urban Israel. When the soldiers arrive on her base, they come with multiple challenges; they have very limited Hebrew language skills, most of them are illiterate, they are poor and are under intense personal stress in their family lives.

Proud to be a yehudi
Before entering the army, some of these boys were the only income earners in the family. Many are orphans or come from broken families, having a Christian parent stranded in Ethiopia. They live in destitution and are under much stress.

And so they arrive at Michve Alon, my daughter’s army base. They range from18-25 years old although they’re not even sure of their ages, because in Ethiopia no one recorded their birth dates. 

This is a heavy load for a 19 year old (who just graduated from high school) to carry. After three months of army training, she now finds herself wearing many hats: social worker, sergeant, financial planner, Hebrew teacher, therapist and mother hen.

Despite the challenges, this is important, life changing work. These Ethiopian soldiers must be placed into their own separate unit because they are new to Israelis culture and speak little Hebrew.
Learning colors

According to one report commissioned by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption in 1999, 75% of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community could not read or write Hebrew and half of them could not have a simple conversation in Hebrew.  
Many come from a rural, agrarian culture and arrive with no job skills. The rural Ethiopians had never used electricity, never seen a TV nor used an elevator. Having been cut off from the Jewish world for two millennia, many did not know the Second Temple had been destroyed.
Geography lesson

So innocent, they had also never heard about the Holocaust. They were in total shock when they learned about the calculated deaths of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis and started to cry. 

It is sometimes hard to burst their bubble, for we live in a mean world and they live in a pure one. Yet their military service here in Israel opens windows and worlds and increases their options for a better life. 

Their lives are too hard. They are so sweet and know so little. They’re like my children.

Israeli mosaic: a new Ethiopian soldier befriends a new Russian-Israeli soldier.
My daughter listens, praises, helps and learns. Step by step, her soldiers move onward and upward, carving out a place for themselves in this modern day miraculous mosaic called Eretz Israel.

February 12, 2015

Dust in the forecast

Who said Israel had enough problems?

Tuesday night, the wind was howling so ferociously, we decided to close all the shutters in the apartment, clamming ourselves in like oysters. Still it whistled and clamored, finding cracks to enter and buffeting the curtains.

Looking at my iphone, I saw the strangest four-letter word forecast. There were no delicate snowflakes, dewy raindrops or beaming suns on the screen. Just a visual fog and the words DUST.

Dust is ‘weather’?

The next morning, I woke up to a yellowish sky and could barely see the next block of buildings.  The wind was still angry, trying to dislodge a pergola from our roof like an impatient dentist yanking at a tooth.

As I ventured outside to walk my dog, the world was eerily silent. I passed a woman walking two huskies, moving very briskly. She was wearing a surgical facemask and looked less friendly than her growling canines.  The cars on the road were covered in a fine reddish dust. Every single leaf on every plant was coated in a dusty film.
Soldiers on duty in dusty conditions.

I had grit in my teeth and felt as if I were breathing in powder.

What was this? 

I came back to the apartment and looked around closely. While we were sleeping, the insolent wind had brought in buckets of dust and had scattered it all over the apartment like a delinquent Jack Frost. It was even inside the washing machine drum.
Washing machine

What was this?

According to NASA, a cyclone in the Atlas Mountains cooked up a massive sand storm, covering the Middle East in a powdery film of grit. I looked at my geography book and located the Atlas Mountains in southwestern Morocco. Just south of the range is the huge Sahara Desert.

My dining room table.
From the sub Sahara to my living room; that is one far journey. How did it do that?

I then learned that a deep depression had formed over the eastern Mediterranean, creating a superhighway for Saharan dust to travel to my living room. A sort of one-way, non-stop flight.

Thanks Sahara. Guess who has to clean this mess?
The combination of howling winds and dust created many problems outside of my dusty apartment. The measure of PM (particles with a diameter of 10 microns) was forty times the regular readings. This was dangerous weather for those with asthma, heart conditions and allergies.  The young and the elderly were urged to stay indoors.

Dust? It is serious weather. When I next see this four-letter forecast on my iphone, I will cover my apartment with bed sheets, stock up on Pledge wood cleaner and lay low.