Category Archives: Blog

Tutoring Ethiopian Students

(Although all names in this Blog are common girls’ names in the Ethiopian community, they are not the students’ actual names, but were changed to protect their anonymity)

Ethiopian students in the Ma'ayan program at Midreshet Nishmat, Jerusalem, and the English tutors at the Chanukah party, December 2018
Ethiopian students in the Ma’ayan program at Midreshet Nishmat, Jerusalem, and the English tutors at the Chanukah party, December 2018

I tink he will not be happy.” Yerus reads slowly and carefully.

As for most Israelis, the English “th” eludes her. I correct her pronunciation. “Think.”

She tries again. T-hink.”

“Not quite.” I stick my tongue out between my teeth. “Th…Think.”

She tries to imitate me. “Sth-ink.”

“Better. Try again. THink.”


“Perfect!” I cry, smiling broadly.

She and Mazal, her learning partner, give each other high fives. When Mazal manages the “th” correctly on her second try, they exchange another high five.

The Ma’ayan program for Ethiopian Women

Yerus and Mazal are two of the students I have tutored in English at Midreshet Nishmat, in Jerusalem.  Both girls were participants in Ma’ayan, a special program for young Ethiopian women. Every year, the program admits about 15 students who have graduated high school, passing the required number of bogrut exams. They have also completed national service or service in the IDF. All come from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and large families (generally 7-13 family members). 

The school provides them with room and board, educational counseling, guidance in managing time and finances, as well as a financial stipend. The educational arm of Ma’ayan includes classes in Limudei Kodesh (Bible, Jewish religion, ethics). The students receive tutoring in English, mathematics, and computer skills. They also have a special class to prepare them for the dreaded Psychometrics test, the Israeli equivalent of College Boards. The teachers and staff of Ma’ayan, under the direction of Dr. Estie Barel, are professionals. All the tutors are all volunteers. Those of us who tutor English are native speakers, educated primarily in English-speaking countries.

My students

All the students I have worked with are eager to learn, and they work hard to do so. If I forget to give them an assignment for the next week, they ask for homework. They smile easily and often, especially when they master something they have had difficulty with. Because of centuries of deprivation, most of them are short and slender. In a group of Ethiopian women, at 5 feet 3 inches I am often the tallest person.

I am now completing my sixth year tutoring English at Nishmat. This year I have three students: Felagush, Anguach, and Noga, who is thinking of becoming a nurse. I sit with Noga, discussing parts of the human body. Although she took biology in high school, as an Israeli she learned it all in Hebrew. But in nursing school she will need to know the vocabulary in English as well. The lectures will, of course, be in Hebrew, but the textbooks are in English.

I point to something in the middle of the chest of my crudely drawn person. “Do you know what this is?”

She answers confidently. “לב.”

I write “h-e-a-r-t” next to an arrow pointing to the organ in question.


“It’s pronounced ‘hart,” I say.

“But that doesn’t make sense!”

I write three words on another piece of paper: ear, hear, heart. After reading them out loud, I tell her I agree it doesn’t make sense. English spelling often doesn’t. She stops complaining when I tell her my son had the same problem with “heart” when he was learning to read.

Program history

Rabbanit Chana Henkin
Rabbanit Chana Henkin

Rabbanit Chana Henkin founded Midreshet Nishmat with her husband Rabbi Yehuda Henkin in 1990. Their first class consisted of two American students in a room she describes as being about the size of “a closet.” The school grew rapidly. They added a program for young Israeli women to the program for foreign students.

Ten years later, the Rabbanit decided they needed to do more. “We were bringing a large aliyah of Ethiopians to the country, but as a society we were not doing enough to help them.” She asked herself what she could do about it. Her answer was to educate the women so they can integrate into mainstream Israeli society. The ultimate goal of the program is to create Ethiopian leaders who are role models for other girls in their community in Israel.

Why this program is needed

In the United States, children who are the first in their families to attend college often have problems navigating the system. Among the Ethiopians in Israel, the current younger generation is the first to attend, not only college, but also high school. Even today, twenty years after the major Ethiopian aliyah started, most of the older generation lack high school education. As a result, about 90% of Ethiopians remain employed as house cleaners and janitors.

That is changing as people in their 40’s have started attending continuing education courses. They are studying for the bogrut exams to earn high school diplomas. A few members of the Ethiopian community have advanced farther than the majority. Israel now has Ethiopian lawyers, judges, army officers, nurses, and Knesset members. The economic situation of the community is slowly changing.

Nishmat’s program is an integral part of that change. There is no doubt that it works. More than 90% of its students attend college or university after completing the one-year program. Students who do not succeed in the program are not abandoned at the end of their year. One of my students, who had made aliyah only a few years earlier, did poorly on her Psychometrics exam. She received additional tutoring for a year while she worked. She now attends Efrata College, and plans to teach when she graduates.

Ma’ayan hemshech — continuation program

Following completion of the Ma’ayan program, some students continue in Ma’ayan Hemshech, which supports them in college or university. Students in this continuation program are provided with housing, a stipend, and any needed tutoring. I have tutored several Ethiopian students in English while they attended Machon Tal, a small women’s college near my house. Dr. Barel also has called on my professional skills to help several nursing students. I’ve worked on anatomy and physiology with one student, pulling information out of some back corner of my brain. Several more advanced students needed help with literature searches and analyzing research.

All this attention works—more than 90% of Ma’ayan participants graduate college or university.

Ma’ayan outcomes

My own contribution has achieved a mixed measure of success. At the end of the year, the young women read English with more proficiency and their vocabularies are larger. They speak with more confidence. But pronunciation and spelling? I don’t seem to have mastered the art of teaching those. Last year Yerus and Mazal gave me a hand washing cup on which they had written “Tank you.”

Graduates of the Ma’ayan program have become teachers, social workers, nurses, occupational therapists, lawyers. One is attending medical school. Amawayesh, who I worked with in my first year as a tutor, got married while a student at Herzog College. She now has a lovely baby. Since graduation, she has taught language at a religious high school in Beit Shemesh. In addition, she coordinates the leadership program for high school girls.

Riste, a nursing student I taught, passed her final English test. B’H she will graduate Shaare Zedek Nursing School this summer. She will join several hundred other young Ethiopians  who have been helped by Nishmat to move from the social margins to the mainstream of Israeli society.

To see Ma’ayan in action , including interviews with some students, click on this link:

The Air Force Museum, Near Be’er Sheva

Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum
Yakov, Moshe (holding his history of the IAF), and Sara in front of Kfir fighter, near the entrance to the Air Force Museum

Moshe, our ten-year old grandson, has become enamoured of the Israeli Air Force (IAF). He has read a thick history of the IAF at least three times. One day in the late summer, when I saw him reading the book, I mentioned I had visited the IAF museum several years ago. He immediately asked his parents to take him there. They agreed, and planned a family trip for Succot. The group quickly expanded to include two of his siblings and both sets of grandparents.

This week, the long anticipated outing took place. Nine of us piled in to a rented van for the trip to Hatzerim, a little to the west of Be’er Sheva. Harold, Aliza’s father, asked Moshe how excited he was, on a scale of 1 to 10. The answer came back immediately: “20.”

An open-air museum

The word “museum” generally brings to mind a picture of a large building, full of pictures on its walls and tastefully displayed artifacts. The IAF museum has no large building. Just inside the museum entrance are a snack bar and souvenir shop. Nearby are a few small buildings: the administration offices, archives, and exhibits related to the history of the IAF. This is the desert—the annual rainfall of nine inches makes large roofed areas a needless expense. Besides, most of the exhibits are outside.

More than 150 aircraft are parked on a large expanse of concrete. The aircraft are arranged in chronological order of their use by the IAF. We were lucky—because there were so many of us, we had our own English speaking guide. Audrey made aliyah from France as a teenager. She spent a year improving her Hebrew before drafting into the Air Force. She was probably assigned to guiding museum tours because of her fluency in three languages. As she led us around the field, she told us about the history of IAF, the air planes, and the men who flew them. (Women have been able to train as pilots only in the last decade or so.)

One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs
One of the reasons the Israeli-designed Lavi was outstanding was that it was made with input from pilots, specifically for Israel;s needs

Audrey had her work cut out for her. Moshe kept interrupting her with added information or questions. Several times she stopped in the middle of a comment to tell him that the plane was he had just asked about was “parked over there—we’ll get to it in a few minutes.”


Messershmitts: The beginning of the IAF

The first plane in the first row is one of the Messerschmitts Israel purchased from Czechoslovakia in 1948. The planes were brought disassembled to the new country as pieces of “agricultural equipment.” When the six planes were re-assembled, some parts were missing. For example, there was one more body than engine. After a frantic search, the procurement team located the wreck of a Messerschmitt whose engine remained in good condition. The wreck was dismantled and its engine placed in the German plane, whose body had been repainted to cover the Nazi insignia.

By now it was late May 1948, and the Egyptian army was advancing on Tel Aviv. Israel was desperate. With no time to test fly the aircraft, the newly assembled planes were immediately pressed into battle just in time to stop the Egyptian army from capturing Tel Aviv. Twenty-five percent of the Israeli Air Force—one air plane—crashed into the Mediterranean.

Audrey pointed out a major problem with the German craft. Its machine gun sits behind the propeller. Any slight defect in the timing mechanism could cause the bullets from the machine gun to destroy the propeller. The Czechs were not as careful synchronizing the timing as the Germans, who had designed and first manufactured the planes, had been. Later Israel acquired some Messerschmitts with guns on their wings, which did not require synchronization with the propeller.

Another problem was psychological. Many people felt uncomfortable that Israel was using German aircraft so soon after the Nazis had tried to wipe out the Jewish people. The air force needed to find new sources of equipment.

The aircraft came from many countries

Israel bought aircraft from whoever was willing to sell them. We walked past rows of American planes and French ones. A British Spitfire was also on display, which seemed odd. When the British Mandate for Palestine expired, the British were determined not to leave anything usable in the hands of the Jews. A few Spitfires were left at one airfield. Since since none of them was complete, the British must have felt these planes were of no use. They failed to take Jewish ingenuity into account. The Israelis were able to construct two completely functional Spitfire planes, from the pieces they cannabalized from the planes. They used the engine from from a downed Egyptian Spitfire. These planes served the IAF well for years.

Audrey pointed a French Ouragon, which had survived a dangerous malfunction during a flight. As soon as she mentioned the pilot’s name, Yakov Turner, we knew the story would end well. In her introduction, she had mentioned that the

The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty
The Ouragon crash landed by Yakov Turner, which was repaired and returned to active duty

museum was the idea of General Turner when he was the commander of Hatzerim Air Force base. It had opened in 1991 when he was mayor of Be’er Sheva.

Turner was returning from a mission, about to land, when he discovered his front landing gear would not deploy. The control tower told him to eject and ditch the plane. Yakov refused to obey orders. He was not about to lose his plane. He told the tower to cover the runway with foam, he was bringing the plane in. While the airfield crew was covering the runway with foam, he dropped his remaining bombs somewhere they would do no harm and emptied his fuel tanks. When the tower radioed they were ready for him, he landed the plane on its belly on the foam covered runway. The plane sustained much damage, but was successfully repaired. Yakov walked away from the crash, and eventually flew that same plane again.

We walked past one French-built Mystere fighter, painted in a different way from the rest of the Mysteres. This plane had a history of having killed 13 enemy planes, the most hits by an IAF plane. When the IAF retired it, it was sold to Argentina, for use in its war against Great Britain over the Falkland Islands. A few years later, the IAF wanted to buy it back to display at Hatzerim. The Argentines agreed to sell it to Israel for $1, on condition that its Argentinian colors were retained.

A Soviet MIG fighter

One unusual plane parked at the museum is a Soviet MIG-21. At one time the MIG was the best fighter plane in the world. No one else had a plane like it; no air force could defend against it. The MIG-21 was deadly against the Mystere, the major fighter plane of the IAF in the early 1960’s. At the time, the Soviets supported the enemies of Israel. Military support included supplying several Arab countries with MIGs. Israel wanted one to study and figure out how to defend against it. They found an Iraqi pilot who was willing to steal the plane and fly it to Israel, if his family could first be smuggled out of Iraq.

The plane, obviously, did not come with an instruction manual. Danny Shapiro, who had been one of the pilots trained by the French to fly Ouragons and Mysteres, was assigned to figure out what made the MIG so lethal. He trained himself, flying the plane hundreds of hours. He realized that because the cockpit was so narrow, the only way to bring down a MIG was from almost directly behind it. Thanks to his work, the IAF was the first air force to kill MIGs.

Capturing Egyptian radar 

One of the non-aircraft exhibits was a large radar array on top of a truck. In the late 1960’s, when Egypt purchased this array from the Soviets, it was one of the most advanced in the world. The IAF needed to understand how it worked in order to counter the advantages it gave their enemy. They had to study it closely, which they could not do while it was in Egypt. To bring it to Israel, the Israelis cut the apparatus in two pieces. Two Sikorsky CH-53 Yas’ur helicopters were sent to lift it off the ground and carry it. The helicopters had problems because the machinery was heavier than they had estimated. One of the helicopters almost crashed several times. As soon as they were over Israeli territory, they landed. The radar was safe.

Daniel and Moshe filled in a few details Audrey had left out. Before the helicopters left the country, Israel sent paratroopers to Egypt to secure the site. At the end of the operation, the IAF was supposed to return and pick up the paratroopers. But when the radar arrived in Israel, the Israelis were so excited over the success of the operation, they forgot to go back. The paratroopers spent more time in Egypt than they had expected, until the IAF remembered to send a Super Ferlon helicopter back to pick them up. That Super Ferlon is parked next to one of the Yas’ur helicopters, close to where the now obsolete radar sits at Hatzerim.

Special for younger visitors

Because was in the middle of Sukkot, when schools are on vacation and many adults off from work, the museum had several activities directed to younger visitors. Tow historic planes made frequent demonstration flights directly above. A biplane flew Figure Eights, each one a little lower than the one before. It alternated with a bright yellow two seater Tzukit plane, which was used to train new pilots for more than forty years.

"Pilots for a Minute" Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots
“Pilots for a Minute” Yakov and Moshe dress up as fighter pilots

An activity strictly for children was “Pilot for a Moment,” where children had the opportunity to dress up in pilot’s uniforms. Yakov and Moshe wanted to participate; Sarah deliberated for a few minutes and then decided not to do it. Despite the lack of a visor, Moshe seemed very happy to be wearing the uniform. But, as Aliza pointed out, the boys will be in uniform soon enough. There was no need to rush it.

Over Shabbat, I asked the kids what they liked the best at the museum. Yakov said he liked dressing up as a pilot and getting in some of the planes. Sarah said she liked seeing the small planes flying so close above us.

And Moshe?
Predictably, he said it was all so good, he couldn’t choose.

Where is the Air Force Museum ?

Visiting the Gaza Border Area

Esther Marcus holding arson kite at Kibbutz Alumim
Esther Marcus holding an arson kite that landed at Kibbutz Alumim

Nogo Gulst fondly remembers the years when she could go to the nearest large city to do her shopping or to catch a bus to Tel Aviv. Noga, who lives in Kibbutz Mefalsim, Danny Rachamim from Kibbutz Nahal Oz, and Esther Marcus from Kibbutz Alumim, all say the same thing. From 1967 until the signing of the Oslo Accords, Gaza City was the place to go.

Noga said, “We did everything in Gaza.” They shopped there and ate in its restaurants. “It was the best hummous I ever eat,” Danny reported. The fastest to route to Tel Aviv was through Gaza City. They were friends with Arabs. Danny reports having hosted several families from Gaza at the wedding of one of his children. Long time residents of Sderot have happy memories of walking less than a kilometer to the beach on Shabbat during those years.

Touring with Honest Reporting

The Asaf Siboni overlook. Gaza City, less than a mile away, is on the horizon The black patches are fields that were burned in arson attacks by Hamas.
The Asaf Siboni overlook. Gaza City, less than a mile away, is on the horizon The black patches are fields that were burned in arson attacks by Hamas.

On August 7, my husband and I spent the day with Honest Reporting on a briefing tour of the Gaza border areas. The places we went, Asaf Siboni, Kibutz Nahal Oz, and Kibbutz Alumim, are all in areas allotted to Israel by the 1947 UN Partition PlanThey have been part of Israel since the founding of the state in May 1948. Elliot Chodoff, a military and political analyst spoke about the background of the current situation.

At each stop, we met several long-time residents, and toured their towns and farms. Today, the situation is different from what it was in the 1970s and 80s, when travel between Israel and Gaza was easy and safe. No Israelis go to Gaza City. The only exceptions are soldiers, and they only go armed, under military orders. In many Arab areas, in the Shomron as well as Gaza, Israeli soldiers are the only Jews anyone under the age of 25 has ever seen.

Hamas demonstrations at the Gaza border fence

Hamas has been trying to destroy Israel, ever since the founding of organization in 1987. But this summer has been particularly difficult for the residents of the south, especially for those living in the area closest to Gaza.

Since April, Hamas has directed weekly demonstrations along the border with Israel. Although billed as peaceful, the demonstrations are neither peaceful in intent, nor in actuality. Hamas leaders have encouraged demonstrators to come armed with knives slingshots, guns, and Molotov cocktails. They have urged Gaza residents to break down the border fence, and attack Israeli soldiers, and civilians. Hamas has distributed maps of Israeli towns near the border. With the map, any Gazan who gets through the fence can easily find Israelis and kill them.

Arson attacks against Israeli farms

This year’s summer unrest has unveiled a new weapon, which may have been more effective than Hamas originally envisioned: kites. The kites and balloons from Gaza may have started out as innocent children’s toys, but now they are weapons of war. They carry fire. Some are set on fire before being sent aloft, others carry Molotov cocktails or incendiary devices on timers. Their purpose is to destroy Israeli agriculture.

The kites have been remarkably successful. They are hard to detect when in the air, and when they land, the small fires they set spread quickly. Standing at Asaf Siboni, a high point overlooking the border with Gaza, Noga pointed out several fields that were recently burned by Hamas. Six months ago, she told us, from this spot all you could see was wheat. Half of it was burned by kite-triggered fires. Grass grows fast, and some of the fields and forests in the area burned more than once. She laughed when she said “forests,” because as she said, “Fifty trees is a forest in Israel.” But in an area where every tree was planted by hand and carefully irrigated, the loss of a stand of fifty trees hits hard.

At Nahal Oz, Danny pointed out a large wheat field, now scorched black from a fire. He reported that five thousand dunams of their land (about 1235 acres) is planted in wheat. This year Hamas burned a fifth of their crop, causing a loss of about 700,000 shekels from kibbutz income (a little more than $190,000). Their fields of sunflowers are almost ready for harvest. Because the fields are very dry,  they worry an arson kite or balloon will land in the field and destroy that crop as well.

Less than two kilometers away, Kibbutz Alumim lost a field of chickpeas to a fire two weeks ago and earlier this week a fire burned their corn. Although the government provides compensation for destroyed crops and lost income, it can not provide a sense of security for the residents.

Hamas rockets attack Israel

Kibbutzim, farms, and cities all over the Negev have been under sporadic attack by Hamas for almost twenty years. This area has been farmed by Jews since 1946, when the first kibbutzim in the Negev were founded. Be’er Sheva, about 50 km (30 miles) from Gaza, has been hit by rockets and a few arson kites which have drifted inland. The first

Esther shows remnants or some of the rockets that have landed at Alumim in the last ten years
Esther shows remnants or some of the rockets that have landed at Alumim in the last ten years

Kassam rockets were first launched in 2001. Noga says her youngest son was five years old then; he cannot remember a time when there was no terror. The  reinforced concrete protective rooms in every house and public building, and the squat shelters in parks and playgrounds, offer physical protection. Older schools and public buildings have been adapted by constructing thick reinforced concrete roofs above their original roofs. But these structures also constantly remind people of the rockets that necessitate their presence.

Kibbutz Alumim, when they recently erected a new children’s building, they made the whole building bomb proof. They needed the new center because, despite the constant danger, the kibbutz is growing. In the last three weeks alone, nine babies were born, including one set of twins.

Tzeva Adom: Warnings of rocket attacks

Even during quiet periods, everyone has with one ear listening for the warning “Tzeva Adom” warning, the woman’s voice announcing “Color red, color red.” They know when they hear that announcement they have fifteen seconds, sometimes less, to get into the shelter. To make sure they hear any announcement, they always keep a window open wherever they are, even if it is a hundred degrees outside and the air conditioner is struggling to keep the inside temperature down to 85.

When in places where there is no chance of a rocket warning, they are nevertheless on alert. Noga mentioned being in a foreign airport and hearing the little “tick” a loudspeaker makes as it turns on just before an announcement. Her whole family tensed, ready to run to shelter. “You can never 100% concentrate because you are always listening for the alarm.”

Hamas also occasionally fires mortars from Gaza at the Israeli farms. Mortars are small, with flatter trajectories. There’s no way to protect yourself from mortar, and there’s no warning. Four years ago, a mortar killed a young child in his own front yard, in the area we were touring.

Child care workers and teachers spend time working with children, teaching them what to do in case of an alarm. They also try to decrease the stress of rocket attacks. A teacher in the South wrote a song for the children to sing during an alert, that has body and hand motions to go with it.

Children have Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Nonetheless, there is a very high rate of PTSD among children in the areas within the 30 second warning area. Children have stopped using the color red in their art projects because of its association with rocket attacks.

To destigmatize the color, Esther Marcus wrote a children’s book called, Tzeva Adom. It is the story of about how all the colors gathered to choose the color of the year. Each color, starting with purple, explained all the things it can found in and why it should be chosen. But when it came to red’s turn it sat in the corner because people are afraid of it. All the other colors comfort red. It’s the life-saving color of warnings. They elect red as color of the year, and then all join together in a rainbow.

Esther talked about trying to “raise children not to have hate in their hearts, not to want revenge.” Noga talked about the electricity made by solar panels in nearby fields. The owners want to send the excess  electricity to Gaza, instead of selling it to the Israel Electric Company, as required.   Doing so would could give the people might have five or six hours hours of electricity a day, instead of four hours. They feel that “Making it better for them will make it better for us.”

Early August escalation of attacks

Wednesday night, August 8, into Thursday morning, Hamas fired hundreds of rockets into Israel. When I awoke Thursday morning, my phone alerts showed screen after screen full of Tzeva Adom notifications. The alert system has been so refined that only the area projected to be the target of a specific barrage is notified. The rest of us find out from the radio or notifications on our phones.

One of the painted public bomb shelters at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Inside, the walls are bare unpainted concrete.
One of the public bomb shelters at Kibbutz Nahal Oz. Inside, the walls are bare unpainted concrete.

So, while we were sleeping peacefully, thousands of residents of southern Israel dozed fitfully or sat up all night in their bomb shelters. About twenty people were wounded in the attacks, and many more suffered psychological trauma.

When I saw all the notifications, I thought of Noga, spending the night sitting or lying on the floor in her son’s bedroom, which is their family’s bomb-proof room. I think of all the children crowded into one room for the night, and then not being allowed out of the house to run around and get rid of their tension during the day, because there could be a Tzeva Adom at any second.

I think of those people walking outside when they hear the alarm and running to the nearest public shelter, a small windowless concrete box on the side of the street or in the middle of the park. In many places, the shelters are painted with cheerful designs, but inside there’s nothing but the bare concrete walls and other people standing there, all of you worried about your families and whether or not they were able to get to a shelter within 15 seconds of the Tzeva Adom.

All the people we met want to restore peaceful relationships with our neighbors. To Noga winning means staying where they have always lived; Winning is peace. They want to the Arabs to came to Israel in peace to work and to shop. They want to go to Gaza to shop, to swim, to have their cars repaired.

And Danny Rachamim wants a plate of Gaza’s best hummous.

Where we were.

Nahal Oz and Alumim are about eight kilometers south west of  The observation point

Frequently Heard Hebrew Phrases

Both physically and psychologically, Israel is a very small country. We all feel connected. I told my class coordinator I would miss a scheduled tour because I was traveling to the US for a family wedding. His reply? “מזל טוב” –Mazal Tov, the Hebrew phrase extending congratulations. When I told the chair of a committee I was sick and couldn’t get to a meeting, she wrote back, “Refuah shlaimah!” transliterating the Hebrew phrase that means “May you have a complete healing.”

We’ve been hearing “Refuah shlaimah” often. My husband just completed radiation treatment for prostate cancer. We went to Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem five times a week for a month. At the entrance to Machon Sharett, the

At the entrance to Machon Sharett, the oncology institute at Hadassah Medical Center in Ein Kerem: A Hebrew sign wishes everyone a complete healing
At the entrance to Machon Sharett, Hadassah Medical Center: A Hebrew sign wishes everyone a complete healing

oncology building, a little sign proclaims Refuah Shlaimah. The cab driver wishes us Refuah Shlaimah as we exit his vehicle, and people walking out of the building say it to people walking in. Even the young woman in hijab, who speaks to her mother only in Arabic, says the Hebrew phrase to those still waiting for treatment as she and her mother leave the room.

The connectedness and concern is expressed in other ways as well. A neighbor says to me in the parking lot that he hasn’t seen my husband in a while—is everything all right? When I tell him Allen is having trouble walking because of knee pain, he offers to pick up groceries for me when he goes to the store. I give his wife a short list of items, most of which are too heavy for me to carry. I write it in my most careful Hebrew lettering. My fourth grade Hebrew teacher would be proud of it.

The next afternoon I get a call from him—I requested two bottles of Coke Zero, but it’s on sale. Would I prefer four bottles? We’ll drink four bottles by the end of the summer I answer. He laughs and then asks if I want grape juice for kiddush or grape juice for children. I assume that by “grape juice for children” he means sugary grape drink, and tell him it’s for kiddush.

Later, I answer a knock on the door, and his wife and one of his pre-teen sons bring in three bags of groceries. After putting them on the kitchen counter, she returns my list and credit card.

Tizku l’mitzvot,” I tell them.

May you perform more good deeds

Tizku l’mitzvot is another frequently used phrase. It means “May you merit to do more mitzvot.” Although in its most restrictive sense the Hebrew word mitzvot refers to the 613 commandments given by God, it is often used to mean a good deed. If you lend your phone to a stranger at the bus stop, when he returns it, he’ll say “Tizku l’mitzvot.” The teenagers who go door to door collecting cans of food for poor families, thank you for a contribution with “Tizku l’mitzvot.” The beggars on the street, collecting money for food for Shabbat, sometimes reply to a coin dropped into their hand or cup with “tizku l’mitzvot.”

Brachot are blessings

Some of the collectors on the street respond to a contribution with a bracha, a blessing. The blessings can range from the all-inclusive “May you know no sorrow,” to the specific. “May Hashem heal you from all afflictions” seems to fit most occasions. One man blessed me that my children all marry. I replied, “Thank you, my children are all married.” He quickly changed my bracha to “Your grandchildren. May your grandsons find virtuous brides and may your granddaughters merit good husbands.”

Giving and receiving brachot (blessings) is an almost daily occurrence. Brides and grooms, because of their state of elevated holiness, give individual blessings to guests . The bride blesses her friends that they should soon find their own shidduch (partner) soon. Her married friends receive brachot for healthy children. During our first year in Israel, two brides blessed me that Allen and I should have a rapid and easy absorption into Israeli life.
It is also common to ask elderly people for brachot. At a wedding, I saw a line of girls and young women near .a ninety year-old great grandmother waiting for brachot. One friend said that when she was a child, her mother dragged her all over the country to receive blessings. They visited friends’ grandmothers and elderly Rebbetzins.
I was with a young woman one day when she asked a 94 year old man for a bracha. He started by blessing her with good health, and that she should find her partner and marry this year. She and I answered, “Amen,” but he wasn’t finished. He continued that she should have many sons and daughters, and raise them in health, to learning, marriage, and good deeds. “Amen,” we said. He went on that she should know no sorrow, and her whole family should prosper with good living, and be preserved from illness, and injury, and bad news, and war, and catastrophe. “Amen!” we exclaimed as he finished.

So tizku l’mitzvot, and may Hashem shower you with only good things.

Reproducing the Incense of the Holy Temple

Balsam, C. gileadensis, growing at Guy Ehrlich's farm in Almog , Jordan River Valley.
Balsam, one of the main ingredients of incense used in the Temple, growing at Guy Ehrlich’s farm in the Jordan River Valley.

When Guy Ehrlich moved to Almog in the Jordan River Valley, he was searching for a project that engaged his heart and soul. When he learned about ancient afarsimon, known popularly as Balm of Gilead or balsam, he found it. (In the Bible and Talmud, the plant is also called bosom, nataf, and tzori;  I’ll call it balsam or afarsimon.)

The balsam tree, Commiphora gileadensis, used to grow on the shores of the Dead Sea. The ancient Jews were the only ones who knew how to cultivate it. They started to grow the afarsimon  when the Queen of Sheba gave some plants to King Solomon. They continued to farm it until the fall of the Roman Empire, more than 1200 years later. Its pure oil was used to anoint the Kings of Israel. It was also one of the ingredients of the incense used in the Temple. It was so popular for perfume and cosmetics among the Romans, it became the second largest industry in Judea.

The destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile of Jews caused the balsam industry to go into decline. By the sixth century, it had disappeared. By the twentieth century, the only true balsam plants in the world grew wild in Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

The secrets of its cultivation and use were lost, maybe forever.

Finding C. gileadensis plants

Guy Ehrlich decided he would revive the balsam industry. Whatever he grew needed to be commercially viable. The afarsimon, he hoped, would fill that purpose. It could be used as an essential oil, as a medication, and for perfume and cosmetics. When the Third Temple is built, it will be needed to make incense again. But first, he had to find the plant.

He learned that some plants had been smuggled to Israel from Saudia Arabia and were at the Botanical Garden in Jerusalem. Unfortunately the climate of Jerusalem is too cold for the desert-loving plants. Fortunately, before all the afarsimon died, the garden sent some to Dr. Elaine Solowey, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Kibbutz Ketura.

Guy convinced Elaine to give him some of her C. gileadensis. It thrived on his land. Chemical analysis of residue in ancient pottery demonstrates this plant is identical to one used in antiquity. But they cannot be 100% sure. Until that tiny doubt is removed, he will continue to cultivate his plants. His farm now has about five thousand balsam plants.

Before he moved to Almog, Guy had been a journalist. He knew very little about business. So he turned to the MATI, the government small business center, for help in turning his small stand of trees into a money-making venture.

They told him he was crazy—he would never make a living growing balsam. He should focus on tourism by establishing an educational visitors’ center. He would continue to grow the plant he loved, and teach tourists and students about its history and uses.

With the help of MATI, he established his tourism venture. at his Balm of Gilead Farm. He also expanded his agricultural aspirations. Why stop at growing only one ingredient of the incense? He began gathering more medical and perfume plants that had been named in the Bible. Today his Balm of Gilead Farm has the largest private collection of Biblical plants in the world.

Because he cultivates Biblical herbs, Guy keeps in close touch with Temple activists. He has consulted with Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a member of the Knesset who promotes Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, the holiest place in the world. Jews. He also works with Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the founder of the Temple Institute. Rabbi Ariel works with a team of scholars and craftspeople to research and reproduce instruments and furnishings of the Temple. They also want to make sure the raw materials of the incense will be available when the Temple is rebuilt.

The fragrance of balsam

We met Guy at the Balm of Gilead Farm in Almog when we toured the Jordan River Valley with One Israel Fund last month. After he reviewed the history of balsam and of his farm, he walked over to a stand of bushy trees, and pulled down a branch. With a small knife, he peeled a small strip of bark and made a shallow cut in the wood. Sap bubbled up. He gathered a drop of it with his finger, and then applied a tiny amount to the wrist of everyone who wanted to smell it. All fifty us wanted a sniff, so he ended up repeating the procedure with two more thin branches. That was a lot of sap from such a small cuts.

 The aroma of the raw balsam is light and pleasant, with a slight lemony tang. To produce oil from this sap, he needs to gather 150 Kg of plant material to distill 250 cc of the essential oil. Thus, it requires about 330 pounds of raw balsam to produce a cup of oil. No wonder it was so valuable.

Four years ago an American company looking for a good source of rare essential oils offered to partner with him. They invested a substantial amount of money in his venture. Unfortunately, they never received a return on their investment. Under pressure from the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement, the company withdrew its support. As a result, Guy had to let his Palestinian and Jewish workers go. He now relies on volunteer workers to help maintain the Balm of Gilead farm.

We’ve heard the same story before, at other small businesses in Judea and Shomron. Under pressure from BDS, foreign businesses withdraw their support. With a decreased customer base, the local companies are forced to downsize and let employees go. BDS supporters say they are acting to help Palestinians. I doubt that the thousand plus Palestinians who have lost jobs at Soda Stream, Havat Sde Bar, Balm of Gilead Farm, and other places, think they have been helped.

Frankincense growing at Balm of Gilead farm. The netting above the trees provides protection fro full strength of sunlight.
Frankincense growing at Balm of Gilead farm. The netting above the trees provides protection fro full strength of sunlight.

Guy took us on a short tour of the area around his tourist shelter, pulling down branches of various trees and shrubs planted there. We stood in the shade of some tall Frankincense trees, Boswellia sacra. There are twenty-two species of Boswellia. Experts, however, are certain that this one is the species used in the Biblical incense. It used to grow in the wild, in places like Somalia, Oman, and Yemen, but because of war and habitat destruction, it is disappearing. This farm is the only place in the world where it is being grown agriculturally. Without Guy’s thousand plants, Biblical frankincense is in danger of becoming extinct.

“I’m not a religious person,” Guy points out. He covers his head only when working in the sun. When he started farming, he had no plans to observe the strictures of shmittah, the sabbatical year. During shmittah, planting and tending to crops is forbidden, The land is left alone to produce what it will. In the year before shmittah, farmers prepare the land for its “vacation.” Guy did not plan to observe shmittah. He had a farm and the plants needed care.

Then, he changed his mind. He decided not to plant anything during the shmittah year. “It just seems like the right thing to do,” he said. The ingredients of the Biblical incense would be grown according to agricultural halakhah (Jewish law).

For now, there is no market for Temple incense. The secret of how to make it, the proportions of the various herbs, even the exact identity of some of its ingredients, disappeared with the Temple’s destruction.

Medicinal uses of balsam, frankincense, and myrrh

To make the farm economically viable, Guy needs a market for his herbs and herbal products. Most of the plants he grows were used as medicines in the past. It is hard to find information on balsam, because what is marketed as balsam oil is not derived from Commiphora gileadensis. Rather, the oil is produced from several species of poplar trees, which have similar fragrances but not all the same constituents. True balsam (Biblical afarsimon) can be used to help heal wounds, as well as for cosmetics and perfumes.

Frankincense can be used for colic and indigestions. It is recommended by some herbalist to treat acne, improve dental hygiene, deodorize spaces, and relieve stress. Additionally, it is an ingredient in some skin lotions. Myrrh is an anti-inflammatory resin, and beneficial for indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, lung congestions, arthritis, and pain. It is also be applied topically for bedsores, wounds, abrasions, and boils. Cosmetically, it is used as an ingredient in perfumes and a preservative in cosmetics.

Guy said several times that research is needed on all these herbs to determine how their pharmaceutical qualities can be put to best use. The Romans used many of the herbs in cosmetics and perfumes. He has developed a perfume and soap scented with balsam. After our tour, he displayed his products. The perfume oil has a pleasant light scent, and I bought a large (100 cc) bottle.

When the Moshiach (Messiah) arrives, the Third Temple will be built. The Temple Institute will be ready to reinstate prescribed worship there, with everything needed for worship. The secrets of the incense will be revealed to the Cohanim and they will again make incense, from the herbs supplied by Guy Ehrlich.


From the Schocken Library to Villa Schocken

Schocken Library conference room. Books are stored in glass fronted cabinets on right and in locked cabinets of the far wall and the wall on the left.
Schocken Library, Jerusalem, conference room. Books are stored in glass fronted cabinets on right and in locked cabinets of the far wall and the wall on the left.

A few years ago, on a tour of the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, we walked through a security gate and past the entrance of the Prime Minister’s (PM) Residence. Further down Balfour Street, but still within the secure area, guide pointed out the Schocken Library. It’s a private research facility that now belongs to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The library is an unimpressive building—two stories, no balconies, square in front. Aside from a strange tall curved window sticking out of the south side, the building looked neither architecturally nor historically interesting. I almost forgot about it. 


But recently, the Schocken Library was open for public tours during the “Houses from Within” event. Allen and I went, and ended up seeing more than just a library.

Zalman Schocken’s rare book collection

Zalman Schocken was not a religious man. As the publisher and a patron of  Martin Buber, he had read Buber’s edition of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s stories. The book changed his view of Judaism from a set of rigorous practices to Judaism as a tradition and a culture.

So Schocken started collecting Jewish books. He didn’t have a specific goal in mind, but every time he heard about an old book he bought it. He started in his home town of Zwickau, Germany, and then widened his search to all of Germany. Eventually he collected books frolm all over Europe, and even in British Mandatory Palestine.

By 1932, he had a substantial collection of rare books. Conditions in Germany were becoming difficult for Jews. He needed a permanent home for his collection. What better place could there be for a vast collection of books about Jews and Judaism than Jerusalem?

At that time, Eric Mendelsohn, one of the most renowned architects in the world, had recently made aliyah. He was happy to accept Schocken’s commission to design both a house, to be called Villa Schocken, and a library for the book collection in the new Rehavia neighborhood.
By British law, the exteriors of buildings in Jerusalem had to be the local cream or pink limestone, today called “Jerusalem stone.” That law is still in force, and gives the city its uniform appearance. In the 1930s, all buildings were constructed of stone blocks. But Mendelsohn’s buildings were concrete faced with limestone.

The Schocken Library

After a brief introduction about Schocken and Mendelsohn, our guide Alon, led us through the building. He mentioned several times that

The coatroom, with a shallow gutter to carry away water that drips from raincoats and umbrellas. At the Schocken Library, Jerusalem.
The coatroom, with a shallow gutter to carry away water that drips from raincoats and umbrellas.

Mendelsohn always combined practicality with design. Alon showed us the cloakroom in the back hall. The line of coat hooks along the wall is not unusual, nor is the grid for umbrellas. However, I was impressed by the small gutter running along wall to channel the water that dripped from coats and umbrellas. The polished stone floors found in most Israeli buildings are slippery when wet, so this small detail is important. The drain seems like such an obvious idea. Why don’t more places have drains built into coat rooms, so that rain water doesn’t get tracked into the rooms?

On the second floor is the large conference room/library, which still looks as it did in the 1940s. The long north side of the room features glass-fronted shelves packed with old books. A row of windows runs along the top of these cases. The other three walls are locked wooden cabinets, from floor to ceiling. In the middle of the long wall opposite the glass fronted bookcases, a glass-walled alcove filled with bright sunlight juts out from the room.

The conference room alcove, as seen from the south side of the Schocken Library building. While allowing plenty of light into the room, it does not allow any direct sunlight to hit the rare books.
The conference room alcove, as seen from the south side of the Schocken Library building. While allowing plenty of light into the room, it does not allow any direct sunlight to hit the rare books.

The room highlights Mendelsohn’s concern for combining the aesthetic and the practical. Direct sunlight can damage old books, and the room was designed so the sun would not shine directly on them.

Nonetheless, the room was full of natural light. The east and west walls of the room have no windows. The high windows above the bookcases allow indirect northern light to enter the room. Because the alcove faces south, sunlight floods it all day. Its shape, however, prevents direct sunlight from touching the books, no matter if they are on the shelves or one of the tables.

The line of the wooden dividers in the bookcases continues across the room as dark stripes in the pale stone floor. On the other side of the room, the supports of the wooden cabinets continue the line up to the ceiling. The locked wood cabinets hold more books.

Alon called an elderly man to the lectern. After introducing himself as Danny, he showed us two photos. The first showed him at age five sitting on the front steps of the library. He explained that his mother had been

The garden in front of the building.
The garden in front of the building.

the librarian, and he often came to play.

The second photo was of a model of the area in the 1940s that his father, an engineer, had constructed of small blocks. It showed the Villa Schocken, its spacious gardens, and Balfour Street. Because of all the construction in the last seventy years, Danny had to run his finger along each street to orient us. Then he pointed to the corner of Villa Schocken. “This is where my family lived.”

When we walked out gate, Danny’s friend suggested they go see the building where he had lived as a child. He demurred—the building had been changed, it was in the compound of the Prime Minister’s house, the guards wouldn’t let them in. But she insisted. What would it hurt if they asked?

They agreed when I asked if we could accompany them.

Villa Schocken

To leave the secured area, we had to go past a chayal (male soldier), a chayelet (female soldier), and a security guard which, of course, shouldn’t be a problem. However, the building Danny wanted to show us sat within the secured area. That should not have been a problem either, because the area he wanted to enter was on the other side of a wall that divided the former Villa Schocken from the Prime Minister’s residence.

The friend went to the soldiers and explained we had just toured the Schocken Library. She pointed at Danny and said that he wanted to show us where he grew up.

Danny showed them the photo of his father’s model. The soldiers peered at it, and after turning it upside down, they identified the streets.
The security guard asked to see the other photo, and Danny handed it to him. The young man looked at the picture of the small boy and asked, “This is you?”

The friend answered, “What, you can’t identify him?”

The soldiers looked at the photo of the five year old, at the 85 year old man, and laughed.

A moment later, the chayelet, still looking at the photo, exclaimed, “That’s the library over there!”

Danny had established his credibility. Now he had their full attention. They all wanted more details. Danny explained that his father, an engineer, had built the model. He pointed first to the photo, and then at the dilapidated building to our right, and said he had been born right there, in that room. The family had lived there until 1944 when the British took over the property. While the British were in charge, Jews had not been allowed in the area.

After the British left and the state was established, the building had been used as school. Later, it became a music academy. Now it was simply an abandoned building.

The soldiers let us approach the building. It was tricky going; like many abandoned properties, it was surrounded by a collection of trash. We picked our way through old bottles, bits of wire, and discarded paper cups, to the ground floor window, and peered through the dirty glass. The room we saw was large. Papers were strewn all over the floor, as if it had been ransacked by someone looking something valuable. This had been the main room used by Danny’s family.

He carefully made his way to look in a second window. “This was my room,” he said.

The guards had not followed us. They must have deemed us harmless. As we exited the area, they nodded at us.

I wondered what they would tell their friends that evening. No, nothing exciting happened at the PM’s place—no terrorists (Thank God!), no obnoxious demonstrators today. Just a bunch of old people who came to see where one of them used to live. But the routine had unexpectedly changed. A boring shift guarding the small side entrance to the street along the PM’s residence, had turned into an interesting day.

Karaites: A Different Way of Being Jewish

The "Temple" area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.
The “Temple” area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.

Like most Jerusalemites in the holy city, I had often walked past the Karaite Synagogue. Sometimes I even wondered what it was like inside, how it differed from synagogues in which I have prayed. Last week, I got to see.

At the time, all I knew was that the Karaites rejected the Talmud and two thousand years of Rabbinic tradition. Shulie Mishkin, our guide for the morning in the Old City, mentioned they are similar to the Saducees and Essenes of the Roman period. However, as a distinct group they first appeared in Jerusalem in the 7th or 8th century. Karaites have lived in Jerusalem since. They called themselves ”Lovers of Zion” and believed it was important to live in Jerusalem, even in its destroyed state. Their cemetery in the Hinnom Valley contains graves from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. 

When we arrived at the museum, Avi, the Karaite representative, invited us to sit and watch a short video on the history of Karaism. While in the museum, he said, we would have the opportunity to see the synagogue, but could not enter it for reasons of ritual purity.

Principles of Karaite Interpretation

Karaites consider themselves a branch of Judaism, and allow intermarriage with other Jews. They believe the whole Tanakh (Bible) is holy. Indeed, most of their prayers are from the book of Psalms. As we walked through the museum, Avi stopped several times to explained their customs in detail. The three foundations of their religious observance are the Tanakh, analogy, and tradition. Because the Tanakh gives no details about how many mitzvot are to be carried out, many commandments need explication. Rabbinic Judaism relies on certain principles of interpretation that are enumerated in the Talmud. Karaites use only analogy to explain the laws.

Avi gave us an example, using the line from the Sh’ma: “uk’shartem otam–You will bind them [my commandments] upon your arm and as totafot between your eyes.” This was interpreted by the Rabbis as meaning we should put on tefillin when we pray in the morning. These small boxes of animal skin contain certain paragraphs of the Torah written on parchments. The Karaites, however, do not wear tefillin. In B’raishit, it says that Jacob’s soul was k’shura, bound up, with the soul of his youngest son, Benjamin. Karaites point out that here K-SH-R is a spiritual, not physical, bond. Using analogy, they hold therefore uk’shartem means spiritually binding the words to the body. Thus the boxes with words of the Torah are not necessary.

Further along in the room we saw an exhibit of Karaite tzitzit, the fringes tied to the corners of any garment with four corners. Two differences between their tzitzit and those of mainstream Jews were immediately apparent. The knots are tied in a different pattern, and the blue thread is prominent.

Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.
Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.

In D’varim (Deuteronomy), when God commands us to tie fringes on the corners of our garments, it is specified that the fringes include a blue thread. When the Temple was destroyed the identity of the blue dye was lost. To compensate, two traditions arose. Some Sephardi Rabbis held that the color blue is more important than the specific dye used. Accordingly, some eastern Jews continued to tie tzitzit with a blue thread. Most Ashkenazi Rabbis however, ruled that in the absence of the traditional dye, the tzitzit should be plain undyed wool. Like the Sephardim, Karaites feel that the color is more important than its source, and they tie blue and white tzitzit on four-cornered clothes.

How the Karaite Calendar Differs from the Standard One

The calendar, and thus when holidays are observed, also differ. The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar and solar cycles. New months begin at the time of the new moon. However, the major festivals (Succot, Passover, and Shavuot) must be celebrated at specific times in the agricultural cycle, which is governed by the movements of the sun.

When the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin no longer existed, there was no one to proclaim the new month or to reconcile the lunar year with the solar one. A new type of calendar was required. Somewhere between 320 and 385 CE, Hillel II, also known as Hillel the Younger, calculated the calendar that we still use today. The Karaites, however, adhere to the calendar as it was originally practiced. New months begin only when the new moon is sighted.

Karaite experts go out into the fields in late winter to check the state of the growing barley before proclaiming when the month of Nissan will begin in the spring. Passover must be celebrated at the time of the barley harvest. Avi pointed to a large photo of men checking the barley in the field. Stalks of barley at different stages of ripeness were below the photo, with explanations of what the experts looked for. If the grain in the fields looks like it will ripen in March, they declare that the month of Nissan will be proclaimed when the next new moon is sighted. If the barley is not sufficiently mature, they rule that an extra month is needed. A second Adar is proclaimed at the next new moon. The start of Nissan is then proclaimed when the following new moon is sighted. Thus, the lunar year is realigned with the solar one. 

The Karaite Synagogue

The "hall" area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.
The “hall” area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.

Following our tour of the museum we descended another floor to see the synagogue. A window to our left allowed us to peer into the synagogue and see its “temple.” This is a raised area in the front where the Chazan stands to lead the prayers. Cohanim also stand there to bless the congregation. The sanctuary contains no chairs. The congregation stands or sits on the floor for most of the prayers, and bows down at appropriate points. The lack of chairs made their sanctuary look empty, but waiting to be filled, with people, perhaps, or with the sound of prayer. 

The sanctuary had no windows, and was below street level, so a multitude of lamps hung from the ceiling. This, of course, led to a question. One of the big differences between Karaites and those they call Rabbinites relates to the use of fire on Shabbat. Karaites hold that absolutely no fire may exist on Shabbat. Mainstream Jews believe that fire is acceptable if it was lit before the Shabbat and nothing is done to change the fire. Thus we have warmth and light in our homes and synagogues on Shabbat, while the Karaites have neither. If they cannot light the lamps on Shabbat, how do they see to read the Torah and pray?

To his credit, Avi did not duck the question. It is disrespectful to pray in the dark, he said, and therefore, it is permitted to light the lamps and use electric lights on Shabbat. Artificial light can be used only in adherence to some very specific rules, which he did not go into. I wondered if his air of discomfort with his answer was because discussing the use of light on the Shabbat was too close to Rabbinic interpretation of Torah law. This was the only point in an hour and a half at which he seemed less than confident during his explanation.

Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.
Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.

As we walked out of the building, one of the women in our group noticed the mezuza attached to the door post. It was a small thick metal plaque of the Ten Commandments. “What’s written inside?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Avi. “It’s empty. The metal plaque itself reminds us to observe God’s commandments.”

So at the end, although we have many differences, nonetheless Karaites are similar to those who observe mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. We all keep the commandments in the way we believe God meant them to be observed.

(Although Karaites do not observe Chanukah, Avi added, “We do eat sufganiyot, because that’s Israeli.”)


Climbing Tel Givon

Olive grove growing on edge of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.
Olive grove growing at the foot of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.

Tel Givon may be one of the most important archeological sites in Israel, according to Professor Yoel Elitzur of Herzog College. He was guiding my class to sites connected to the prophet Jeremiah.

But first, we had to get there.

The tel sits within the original tribal lands of Benjamin, in Area A, on the Arab side of the security barrier. Although we had permission of the IDF to enter the security barrier, our visit could be canceled at any time, depending on of the situation. Nonetheless, Yoel was very excited to be leading us up the tel. The last time he had visited the site was forty years ago, when he had taken his son to see it. In 1977, relations between Arabs and Jews had been more casual and movement between Arab and Jewish towns had been easy. The intifadas and terror attacks had changed that.

We arrived before our 9A.M. appointment with the IDF at the entrance to Givon Hayishana (Old Givon). Meir Rotem, our local guide, talked about the history of the area while we waited for someone to come unlock the first gate in the security barrier.

In this area, the barrier is a twenty foot high wall, like the one seen on most newscasts from Bethlehem. The security road runs along the Israeli side of the wall. Closer to us, down a small hill, a barbed wire fence runs parallel to the road.

Almost an hour after we arrived, the Border Police pulled up. Two policemen got out of the armored car and talked to Meir and Yoel. After about fifteen minutes, the policemen walked up the hill to the barbed wire fence and unlocked the gate.

We walked to the open gate, but had to wait for the IDF to arrive before going through. Yoel spoke some more about the history of the Gibeonites. A half hour later we heard the IDF was on its way. We walked up to the road, and along the wall for about two kilometers, to where the security barrier changes from wall to an electronic fence. The security barrier is a chain-link fence fitted with electronic sensors, to detect penetration or interference with its integrity, for more than 95% of its length.

The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)
The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)

Soon a green IDF armored vehicle pulled up to the gate in the fence. Three soldiers got out and walked around as we all waited for Magav Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Border Police) to come unlock the gate, and then re-lock it behind us. After a while, they arrived in their light gray armored car. Two policemen got out. One of them unlocked the gate. The other border policeman and two IDF soldiers accompanied us as we—finally!–walked through the gate. They would accompany us for the two hours we remained in Area A.

We walked down a small hill, through some fields, across the valley and then began to ascend Tel Givon. The valley through which we walked is bordered by Nebi Samuil, which at 908 meters is one of the highest points in the Judean mountains. At the top of Tel Giv’on we would be on eye level with Nebi Samuil.

As we walked through the valley, past olive groves and fields being readied for planting, Arab cars whizzed past us on the road between Ramallah, Al Jib and Al Judeira. Part of the way, we walked along a small stream. It had rained in the previous week, so I wasn’t surprised to see the water flowing. Due to its geology many springs in Benjamin flow year round. I was surprised, however, by this stream’s sick green color and sewage smell. Israel has offered to build sewage systems in several Arab areas, but for political reasons, the Palestinian Authority has refused. I wonder if the people who live with these open sewers know that their own government is forcing them to put up with this stench.

After crossing the small stream by stepping on rocks that offered almost secure footing, we started to climb the hill. There is no smooth path, like at established archeological sites and national parks. We walked through olive groves on soft soil, and along ridges of cobblestone sized rocks. We scrambled up small cliffs, clinging to outcropping larger rocks, carefully placing our feet on the same rocks the person in front of us did. In some places, a more adventurous classmate would walk a little farther along the flatter area, and find an easier route up a ten-foot high cliff. A few times I gratefully grasped the proffered arm of a taller, more fit, classmate to ascend a particularly high gap between a stone and the more secure footing above. It was not an easy climb. We hiked for about forty-five minutes without stopping.

Our security escorts climbed with us. At least one of them was always the last person in our ragged procession. Often one of them walked ahead of us, scouting his own route. I noticed how they held their weapons. None of them let his rifle hang down his back for more than a moment or two. They weren’t wandering through a quiet national park or down the streets of Jerusalem for pleasure. They had been assigned to hike with us because their services might be needed. Or, perhaps, to ensure their services would not be needed.              

A shepherd in a red sweatshirt watched us scramble up one cliff and cross the path in front him to climb the next steep area. I envied the goats’ sharp hoofs that could enabled them to climb up and down this hill easily.

About two-thirds of the way to the top, we stopped to enter a first Temple period burial cave. All the bones had been removed more than two thousand

Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon
Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon

years ago, when the cave was converted to an olive press. The Arabic graffiti on the walls showed the cave was still in use. Yoel read some of the graffiti and translated into Hebrew: “Hamas yesodi.”  It could be translated into English more than one way: violence is fundamental or Hamas [the group] is primary.

Leaving the cave, we continued to climb. At the flat top, we saw several large circular excavations. The shallow one had been used to press grapes. Yoel pointed out areas where the grapes were pressed and the channels carved in the rock to collect the juice.

The larger excavation was much more impressive. It was very wide and deep. Hugging the interior wall, more than a hundred stairs led to the bottom. Yoel led a few energetic people down the stairs to see where the water had once collected. The first few steps were covered with small stones; they looked more like a steep hill of rubble than a safe slope. I remained at the top. Even though Yoel was dozens of meters below us, those of us at the top could hear his explanation of the water system. Even our security escorts hugged the fence at the top of the water system, listening.  

Our IDF security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon
Our security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon

The pit reminded me of the circular excavations with carved stairs I had seen at Megiddo and at Tel Sheva. Yoel compared this water system to them, mentioning that it dated from either the Canaanite or First Temple period. A nearby, shallower tunnel to the spring is dated similarly. Experts question which access was constructed first. Because the Palestinian Authority has not permitted complete scientific excavation of the tel, the question will remain unanswered.

The shepherd in the red sweatshirt wandered past on the ridge above us. Four Arab men gathered on the stone steps above us to watch and listen for a while. They soon left.

I did enter the more shallow water tunnel. It was totally dark, except for the flashlights of those in front and behind me. I wondered if joining this short exploration had been a mistake and hoped I wouldn’t trip. Keeping one hand on the cold damp stone walls gave me a small feeling of safety. The short trip renewed my appreciation of what our ancestors did to survive. Fetching water was often a job for girls in antiquity. That’s why so many ancient cultures tell stories about boys and girls meeting at a well.

At the other end of the tunnel, water ran out of the hill in a cement block trench, built by the British during the Mandate, 1919 to 1948. While listening to

Goats and sheep on Tel Givon
The goats and sheep that seemed to follow us on our climb up

Meir explain the British work, I looked up and saw goats, sheep, and the red-shirted shepherd standing on the bank we had just scrambled down. I wondered if he was following us, or his regular route with the goats took him on a path that just happened to cross ours.

As we turned to go back down the tel, it started to drizzle. Descending wasn’t as difficult as climbing been. No strong arms were needed to help any of us traverse a particularly steep spot. Balance was a challenge because the rocks were getting slippery.

The man behind me quoted something we’d been told in class, “this is ‘intermediate level’ difficulty.”

“Then I don’t want to see ‘difficult level’ difficulty,” I answered.

He grunted.”You have to remember. In a terrorist attack, ‘intermediate injury’ means the person loses only an arm or a leg.”

At the bottom of the tel, as I walked back across the fields, I heard shouting behind me. Arabs at the top were yelling and throwing stones at us.

“Don’t worry!” shouted Meir. “They are out of range. They won’t hit anyone.”

The line of stragglers behind me, still on the steep hill, kept up their steady pace. Our security escort, a short distance behind the stragglers turned and moved towards the rock throwers. The Arabs disappeared.

We only had to wait a few minutes at the barrier for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. But when we got back to the barbed wire fence we had to wait a while in the rain for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. Cold and wet, I climbed on the bus, grateful that the driver had turned on the heat.

It was three days before my overstressed thighs could navigate stairs and hills easily. But getting to see ancient Giv’on was worth the pain. 

Tel Giv’on is on the eastern edge of Al Jib on this map.

Watching Birds Migrate in the Galil

Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil , Israel
Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil

Nir, the guide at Agmon Park Nature Reserve, told us to hurry and get off the bus. “The cranes are already coming. You can hear them.”

As I walked toward the lake, I could hear a faint sound.

Nir pointed towards the mountains to our south. “See?” he shouted. “Here they come!”

I looked towards a depression in the line of mountains, but I saw only gray clouds. And then I saw a large group of black specks, slowly getting larger as they came closer, resolving into tiny v-shapes, and then into bird silhouettes. The cries of the birds steadily grew louder, as the birds came closer, and as more and more flew towards the water. The cranes were coming from the surrounding fields to the lake where they would spend the night. The first group came near and circled over the lake. Another group appeared from over the mountains. A large flock flew in from the north and circled. The flocks kept coming—thousands of birds.

Israel is on the second largest migration flyway in the world. In the fall the birds fly over us on their way from Europe to Africa. In the spring they fly back north. More than four hundred species, five hundred million individual birds transit Israel twice a year.

Draining the Swamps

Throughout history, the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps were major attractions for birds. In the 1950s, however, David Ben Gurion decided that draining the swamps should be a major project of the young state of Israel. The project was necessary to provide additional land for agriculture The new settlements being built for the influx of immigrants needed land for housing and to farm. Draining the Hula Valley would also decrease disease. Too many early pioneers had died of malaria, and the mosquito-borne disease continued to affect too much of the population.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) built canals on both sides of the valley and deepened the channel of the Jordan River to the east. It was not until the swamps were drained that they discovered they had done too good a job. Swampy soil needs to stay wet or it becomes dry dust, unsuitable for growing crops. Migrating birds now found little food. Migratory paths were disrupted.

Farmers and ecologists realized the water engineering had gone too far. So the JNF-KKL undertook a project to restore the swamps and lake. They renovated the canal system to channel the water and keep the soil wet all the time. Today the water table is about a meter below the surface. The swamps are now much smaller and healthier—no anopheles mosquitoes. Agriculture flourishes in the area. The birds returned, and tourism has become a local industry. And the birds are happy—particularly the cranes.

Not all the birds migrate to Africa

The fall bird watching season runs from October through November. But every year several thousand cranes don’t continue on to Africa. They stay in Israel. That many cranes pose a problem to local agriculture. Farmers complained about the birds eating all the seeds and tiny sprouts, destroying the crops before they even started growing. Bird lovers became upset because it’s not right to wantonly destroy creatures who are just trying to survive. The birds that stayed were fledglings not yet strong enough to fly to Africa and their mothers, as well as injured birds. Eventually, a compromise was worked out.

When a farmer seeds his fields, Agmon Park workers keep the birds away from the field until the plants are too big to be eaten. Park employees scare the birds away from newly seeded fields by driving equipment through the field several times a day. They also put out food for the cranes in another part of the park, so the birds have no need to forage in the farmers’ fields. This bird feeding program runs from December through February every year.

The bird feeding program is a successful venture. The farmers are able to grow crops, and the cranes get the food they need. About 30,000 cranes overwinter in the vicinity of Agmon Hula.

Cranes are not the only birds that like the Hula Valley. We were too late in the year to see the eagles and storks. However, with the help of binoculars, we could see a small flock of fifteen white flamingos standing together on the far side of the water. My first reaction when Nir pointed out a pair of ducks flying over the canal was that Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were far away from the swan boats of Boston Garden.

Birds of prey encouraged

The park encourages birds of prey because they help control the rodent population. We walked past one of the many owl houses, which are not occupied at this time of year. The owls are such good hunters, when park staff clean the owl houses after the birds have left for the season, they find many uneaten carcasses of rats, voles, and other small rodents.

Despite the predations of the raptors, the rodent population seems to flourish.

Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop at Agmon Park Nature Reserve during migration through Israel
Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop during migration through Israel

We walked by numerous holes dug by a variety of rodents. But the only rodent we saw was a river rat, also known as a nutria. It looked a long dark brown furry blob crossing the road. I had never seen one before—I had no idea nutria were that big.

Around a bend in the road, we spotted a large black and white bird sitting on the bare top branch of a tree. It was a Black Shouldered Kite. It obligingly sat there staring off into the distance long enough for all of us to snap its photo. This species of kite is rarely around, so we needed those photos to prove we had actually seen it.

Cranes fly to lake at sunset

The highlight of the afternoon was watching the cranes come in for the night. Although they forage in the fields during the day, they spend the night on the water. Between sunset and nightfall they all leave the fields, fly over the valley, and land on the water. The first flock flew in from the south. And the next one, and then the next—too many birds in each flock to count. We were so focused on these birds, we did not notice those flying to the lake from the north until they were directly overhead. More flocks flew from the fields closer to the Jordan River on the east, and then a few from the mountains of Naphtali to the west. And still more came from the south.

There were too many in each flock to count. Nir had told us earlier that there were 33,000 cranes in the park that week. How, I asked him, do they know the number? He said staff count the cranes early in the morning, before sunrise when the birds rise from the lake to forage in the fields during the day.

Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula during migration through Israel from Europe to Africa
Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula

We stood there more than ten minutes, watching as more and more cranes filled the sky. After flying in large circles over the park, they began to land on the water, just a few at first, who were soon joined by others. The water in front of us began to disappear under its cover of birds.

The light had faded. The group coordinator told us we had to get back on the bus, but we stood there mesmerized by the cranes. Finally, the coordinator made the ultimate threat: if we wanted a bathroom stop on the way home, we had to leave immediately. Reluctantly, we headed back to the bus.

After finding my seat, I looked out the window. In the growing darkness, cranes were flying in from the east and the north, flying from Europe to Africa, as they had for millennia, as, God willing, they will continue to do for all the years to come.

Where is Agmon Hula Nature Reserve?

Treating Wounded Syrians in Tsfat

Mural in lobby of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), where almost a thousand wounded Syrians have been treated over the past five years.
Mural in lobby of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), where almost a thousand wounded Syrians have been treated over the past five years.

Health care in Syria is almost nonexistent after six years of civil war. Yarden, an Arabic-speaking social worker at Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), cited a few illustrative statistics: “Their medical system is 70% destroyed. About a million people live in the border areas, but there are only seven doctors.” One doctor for every 143,000 people? The number was shocking.

My husband and I were on an Honest Reporting trip to learn more about how wounded Syrians were receiving care in Israel. Ziv’s program has evolved in response to a need.

In March 2011, when the civil war startedi Syria, the IDF had a policy of watchful waiting. But then, on Saturday, February 16, 2013, seven badly wounded Syrians crossed the border into Israel. IDF medics evaluated them and transported them to the nearest hospital. Ziv doctors were called to come in for an emergency. They had no idea who the patients were or what the problem was until they reported for duty and met the wounded Syrians.

Syria has been at war with Israel since May 1948. Syria’s leaders have refused to participate in any peace talks. They have never considered negotiating a treaty. These wounded men were our enemies. But the doctors did not hesitate—an injured person is a person in need of care. The men were treated. When they recovered the IDF took them back to the border and sent them home. Since then Ziv Hospital has treated almost 1000 patients who have made their way over the border.

Yarden instructed us not to take any photos. Photos could endanger the men and their families. We never learned any patient’s name. All newspaper and TV stories about treatment of Syrians in Israel change patients’ names and either blur their faces or photograph them from an angle which does not reveal their identity.

Dr. Lerner describes care

We met with Prof. Alexander Lerner, the Director of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery. He first described the care of a young bearded Syrian man whose left arm looked like it was caught in a metal cage. The elaborate fixation device was attached by pins to his arm. Dr. Lerner explained that the man’s elbow joint had been destroyed. The hinge in the middle of the device was locked to keep the reconstructed joint still. As the bone and muscle start to heal, therapists will release the lock to perform physical therapy. Later, the patient will also need a skin graft.

Like many of the injured Syrians who are treated at Ziv, this young man will probably go home with the fixation device still in place. The devices cost $2000 to $3000 each. For local patients, they are used several times. But Syrian patients do not come back to the hospital for follow-up; the expensive devices are not returned.

Another young man walked out of the room with his left leg in a cage-like fixation device that was longer than his leg. His foot hung in the air several inches above the end of the device, which rested on the floor. Despite the disparity in the lengths of his legs, the device enabled him to walk. He had arrived at the hospital with a partial amputation of his leg. When he recovers from a leg elongation procedure, he will receive a special shoe to enable him to walk.

Both Yarden and Dr. Lerner pointed out that they know nothing about these patients. Unless the Syrians themselves choose to reveal something, the medical staff have no idea if they are civilians or fighters. Many of the men say they were injured in an accident, and leave it at that.

The lack of medical history is a serious problem. Previous injuries, chronic diseases, even allergies are all unknown. The doctors can only hope the patient is not allergic to needed antibiotics.

Complicated trauma frequently results in infection. Dr. Lerner said that similar injuries treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington have an infection rate of 17%. However, the Syrians at Ziv are all infection-free by the time of discharge. It’s not just a matter of antibiotic use. Dr. Lerner believes the difference lies in continuity of care. By the time injured US military personnel arrive at Walter Reed, they have already been treated at a field hospital, a local military hospital, and the military hospital in Germany. At each point, a different doctor with a different approach cares for them.

At Ziv, one doctor directs all care from initial admission until discharge. He plans the first surgery with follow-up care, future operations, and

Dr. Alexander Lerner's book about what the staff have learned about complex trauma from treating wounded Syrians
Dr. Alexander Lerner’s book about what the staff have learned about complex trauma from treating wounded Syrians

rehabilitation in mind. He can follow those plans throughout the patient’s hospital stay.

Someone asked what Dr. Lerner had learned anything caring for these patients. Had he published anything about such complex trauma?

The doctor smiled. He proudly showed us a photo on his phone of his latest book, Complicated War Trauma and Care of the Wounded, which he co-edited with Salman Zarka. The book describes not only orthopedics and other surgical treatment, but also psychological therapy and ethical issues involved in treating soldiers and civilians from an enemy country.

Getting to Ziv Hospital

As word spread that free medical treatment was available in Israel, more and more Syrians started showing up at the border. They always arrive at night; it is impossible to safely cross the border during daylight. The IDF carries out initial stabilization of patients, and transports them to Ziv or to Poriya hospital for treatment. Because they arrive at night, it is often easier to get time in an operating room than during the day. The patients arrive with nothing. After an incident when a fighter pulled a weapon hidden in his clothing, the hospital only accepts patients in their underwear. The Red Cross provides them with clothing, a toothbrush, soap, and other necessities.

The patients are unaccompanied. No family member or friend can visit during their entire hospital stay, which can last several months. The only exceptions to this rule are children; a parent accompanies patients less than 18 years old.

Recently, Ziv has opened a free one day pediatric clinic. Every three weeks a bus brings Syrian children from the border. A parent accompanies each child. The clinic provides standard well child checkups as well as treatment for more complicated problems. Most of the children return to the border at the end of the day. Occasionally a child will stay for further treatment. Although they arrive during the day, like the wounded men, they probably travel to the border under the cover of darkness.

All patients are given a summary of their medical treatment when they return to Syria. Written in Arabic on plain paper, the summary has nothing on it to indicate they received treatment in Israel. I suspect the Syrian doctors know where their patients were treated. Injured people could not have found the sophisticated treatment in their home country’s collapsed medical system. And they could not have afforded care in Lebanon or Jordan.

The wounded Syrians are not charged for their care. It is paid for by the Israeli government, Ziv Medical Center itself, and by individual contributions to Ziv. The medical center brochure we received points out that contributions to Ziv are tax deductible in both the US and Israel. (Friends of Ziv Medical Center, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) charity).

We’re not the only visitors who have come to observe the treatment of Syrians at Ziv. A few weeks ago Conan O’Brien stopped in during his tour of Israel. His team was allowed to film in the Syrians’ room, on condition that they not show any of the patients’ faces. His hospital visit became part of his Israel show.