Archive | January 2012

The Edge of January

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We have had the wimpiest winter in Rochester, NY in anyone’s memory. Being the transplant that I am, I asked lifelong Rochesterians if they can remember a January where they could go outside with just a sweater. A January where the temperatures barely went below freezing. They can’t.

But this warm winter seems no less longer then the cold snowy ones. It’s just dull. There are no bragging rights when you are stuck with a wimpy winter.

There is just the weak light. The sun is runny in the sky, like a pale broken egg yolk in a pan:

There is no point to winter in Western New York if  you can’t tell people elsewhere how you had to remove snow off your roof with a roof rake for fear of it caving in or have icicles hanging off the eaves of your house the height of a professional basketball player.

It’s just not winter if you can’t build your own igloo on the front lawn:

we have not yet experienced any significant storms or accumulations.

The official snowfall count for the season: 18.9 inches.

How much snow should have normally fallen by now? 55.7 inches.

In years past, it  was if we were living in a snow globe.

It would snow  a few inches every day for weeks at a time.

But not this winter. Everyone is missing the snow:

  • Up on Lake Ontario, the Webster Ridge runner snowmobiling club has had to suspend its season because off lack of snow.
  • My daughter’s youth group trip to go snow tubing was cancelled.
  • My daughter also joined the high school cross country ski team this winter.  At best, she has skied on the slushy man-made snow at Bristol Mountain. At worst, her team has spent the winter jogging outside or practicing on roller skis. 

Ironically, in one of the few strong winter systems that passed through, our school district cancelled all sport practices, including cross-country skiing. Imagine that, ski practice was cancelled on account of SNOW!

But last night we were hit with several bands of fast moving lake-effect snow squalls. One particularly strong squall showed off its wintry moxy with a show of snow thunder and lightening that is completely out of place in the middle of winter.

Now, this is more like it:

Courageous Transplants

Bryson gets help from his cousin. Photo by Kris. J. Murante/D&C Staff Photographer

Bryson gets help from his cousin. Photo by Kris. J. Murante/D&C Staff Photographer

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting two transplants to Rochester from North Carolina and one all the way from Taiwan.

They came to be nearer to lifesaving healthcare resources. They came here for family and for love.

These transplants found all that in Rochester. What they also found was a community on ice.

Before I share their story, think about something you’ve complained about today.

Maybe you had an ache in your back. Or the winter weather makes you not want to get out of bed. Or your co-workers, siblings, roommates, spouse, etc., is driving you crazy. Keep your problems. You really don’t have any problems. Instead, count those blessings. 

Thank you to Amanda, the courageous single mom of Bryson. Thank you for calling me to make sure I had everything for my story while Bryson was once again in the ICU. Amanda was apologizing to me for not keeping in touch. 

When I told her not to worry and how instead how sorry I was that Bryson was back in the ICU because of complications related to his CP, she just said – “That’s okay. That’s just how it is.”

I saw Amanda and Bryson about a week later at a routine checkup for my son’s asthma. Amanda gave me a quick hello, thanked me again and said she had to run, she had six other doctors appointments for Bryson. 

Sadly, Bryson died about under two years from the time this piece was published in the Democrat and Chronicle. I am glad I was able to have written this to preserve his memory. 

 

There is a little ritual performed by Gliding Stars students each time they take to the ice at the Webster Ice Arena. Each skater is escorted onto the ice with one or two volunteers as a straight line forms across the center of the rink. Some stand independently while others use the support of walkers and arm braces. At the cue of their skating instructor, they chant a cheer: “Can we skate? Yes we can!”

With the help of his family, friends and the larger community in Webster, this can-do spirit lives within the tiny body of 6-year-old skater Bryson Sparrin.

Bryson, of Webster, was born prematurely at 27 weeks with cerebral palsy. In 2010, he contracted hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain, and had to have shunts placed within his brain to relieve the pressure. Already coping with speech delays caused by cerebral palsy, the shunts further curtailed his speech development. He can carry on a conversation and express himself with short sentences, gestures and with the help of an iPad application.

In spite of it all, Bryson wants to be like any other boy his age. Getting on the ice with Gliding Stars is one more way Bryson feels like the rest of his peers.

Gliding Stars was started in Buffalo in 1994 by a figure skater who wanted to make the sport accessible to people with physical, mental or emotional challenges. The Rochester Chapter, which meets weekly in Webster, currently enrolls 35 skaters and meets each Sunday afternoon from November through April. The season culminates with a choreographed ice show where the students can show off their moves.

According to Rochester Gliding Stars co-coordinator Christie Leszczynski, also of Webster, ice skating provides Bryson and other disabled children with many benefits. Physically, it helps strengthen muscles and improve stability. Children who are otherwise confined to wheelchairs or have limited ability to walk get a great sense of freedom when their legs can glide over the ice. Emotionally, skating and making friends through the program boost the child’s self-esteem.

It costs $700 for each child to skate to cover insurance, equipment and renting ice rink time. Gliding Stars makes the program as financially accessible as possible to students by charging them only $140 per season. The rest of the tuition is offset by grants, community fundraisers and the dedication of volunteers.

As a skating instructor, Leszczynski modifies skating moves to match students’ capabilities. Some children master basic skills such as alternating feet and skating in a circle with a group, while others learn basic figure skating moves like spins and jumps.

The Sparrins moved to Webster in 2010 from Ashville, N.C. Here, they discovered a welcoming community, support from family and a dedicated team of 10 doctors at Golisano Children’s Hospital at Strong to treat Bryson.

When one of the doctors recommended that Bryson try out Gliding Stars, his mother was initially hesitant.

 

“I first thought, ‘There is no way Bryson can ice skate.’ But the first time he tried it out, I saw a huge smile on his face. Now, skating and being with friends on the ice is the thing he looks forward to most each week,” said Amanda Sparrin, a single mother.

Bryson gets around in a powered wheelchair. He is unable to stand or walk on his own. But because of specially designed ice skates and a walker with a sling seat provided by Gliding Stars, Bryson can skate. His beaming smile shows the sense of satisfaction that brings.

Accompanying Bryson on the ice is his cousin, 9year-old Ruby Salamone, a fourth-grader at Schlegel Road Elementary School.

 

Ruby, who was adopted from Taiwan by Amanda’s sister in October 2010, came to the ice with her own challenges of adjusting to a new family, a new country and a new language.

The skater-volunteer relationship has been mutually beneficial for Bryson and Ruby. Bryson looks up to his new cousin as a role model, and Ruby gains self-confidence at being able to help her cousin while making new friends, said Amanda.

“Ruby really understands Bryson’s nonverbal cues. When they are on the ice, she monitors his mood to help him feel successful. Having that family connection of his cousin skating with him every week is a big bonus in Bryson’s skating. They really love each other,” said Amanda.

After spending the first 86 days of Bryson’s life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Amanda knows the ins and outs of what it takes to care for premature babies. When Bryson was released from the NICU, Amanda had to be trained how to change Bryson’s feeding tube, operate a breathing machine and manage his seizures.

Amanda said she remains in close contact with the nurses who cared for Bryson. Now, to make that support come “full circle,” she is studying at Monroe Community College and hopes to work as an NICU nurse to care for premature babies and their parents.

“For those parents now dealing with babies in the NICU who are living through those first days knowing their child has a life-altering disability — I lived that. I know what they are going through, and I want to become a nurse because I can

give them hope,” said Amanda.

Chocolate, Love, Olives and Lemons

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I love the land of Israel. I only wish that in this land, there could be more straight roads.

It was about the sixth day of our tour of Israel. We had left sacred Jerusalem for a tour of the more secular, serene northern region of Israel, full of fields, mountains and seaside scenery.

After a morning  jeep ride, our family got back in our minibus and we began our long and winding  climb climb climb to the top of Mount BenTal, one of the highest points of Israel. Here, there is a lookout point where Israelis fought the biggest tank battle against invading Syrian armies in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Thank you to Jewish Virtual Library for this source of information:

In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Mount Bental was the site of one of the largest tank battles in history. Mount Bental is a key strategic point for Israel due to its advantageous observation point. Israel knew it count not risk losing this mountain, nor any of the Golan Heights . The Syrians attacked the Golan with 1,500 tanks and 1,000 artillery pieces. Israel countered with only 160 tanks and 60 artillery pieces. The long stretch of valley in between Mount Bental and Mount Hermon became known as the Valley of Tears. The 100 Israeli tanks were reduced to seven under extreme enemy fire. However, the Israelis managed to take down 600 Syrian tanks in the process. The Syrians eventually retreated, but not without inflicting heavy casualties on Israel.

In the backdrop of all this very recent history, mount Bental is also a great place to have lunch.

High atop on Mount Bental is Cafe Annan (anan means cloud in Hebrew). A great play on words, Israel’s highest restaurant is named after the former UN Secretary General.

There, we were treated to steaming bowls of sweet potato soup, salads, tuna and grilled mozzarella sandwiches, bagels, and great cups of hot coffee.

Afterwards, we walked among the bunkers where Israeli troops fought off invading Syrian army during the Yom Kippur War.

Mom walking through the bunkers where IDF soldiers defended Mount BenTal from Syria

The mountaintop also affords a great view of Har Hermon, blessed this winter with snow:

the family with Mount Hermon and Syria in the background

And right into Syria. Damascus is only 60 kilometers away.

The Israel/Syria border

My son the Bar Mitzvah boy was nearly eaten by a rusting metallic giant insect, made out of scrap metal from leftover Syrian tanks:

Then, we boarded the bus and went down the winding road to our next stop, the de Karina Chocolate Factory. A small factory created by Argentinian immigrants, de Karina specializes in micro batches of different kinds of confections we all had an opportunity to taste and then make our own chocolates in a workshop. We all had fun getting our hands dirty, except for my dad. My dad doesn’t even like to get his hands dirty eating french fries or barbecued chicken. He can dissect every piece of meat from a chicken breast like a steely surgeon. So you can see the disgust on his face when we all were up to our elbows in melted chocolate:

I however, didn’t mind in the least:

As we were waiting for our chocolate creations to cool, we had a chat with our chocolatier guide, Sigi. When he found out my in-laws were from Long Island, his face lit up:

“Are you near Syosset? That’s where my girlfriend lives!” exclaimed Sigi with a big grin.

“How do you know a girl from Syosset?” We asked.

“I met her when she came on birthright trip when I was still in the army!”

A match made through birthright. My heart melted like chocolate.

Then, it was onto another winding road to an Olive Oil Factory in the Katzrim village. Israel has no shortage of Olives. Groves of olives are everywhere. As it happens, we were in Israel the very week of Chanukkah, when we celebrate the miracle of the olive oil that burned in the newly restored temple for eight days.

An ancient Olive Oil Press at Capernaum Vista Olive Mill

It was about the end of this tour that my day started going, well, downhill. I had already started feeling the effects from a day riding a jeep and riding through the winding hills of the Golan. I am sure that chocolate tasting and then olive oil sampling were not much help either.

On the winding way  back to our hotel on Kibbutz Halavi, I tried to remember tips to ease motion sickness. Look to a still horizon. Don’t talk. Don’t move. Deep breaths.

No help.

Our driver had to pull over about twice for me. The second time was in the thick of the afternoon traffic rush in Tiberias. I lost sight of the horizon of the Sea of Galilee to the  houses and buildings of this ancient and thriving town in Israel’s north. I also lost my lunch, chocolates and olive oil.

Our guide Vivi (have I told you yet about the incredible guide Vivi?) hopped off the bus and held back my hair as I puked into the street curb. I was completely humiliated and apologized for making the bus  stop so much on account of my weak constitution.

“Aeyn Ba’ayah,” she said, no problem, in Hebrew.”This happens all the time, I’ve seen it all,” she said. Indeed, Vivi has 13 years  of experience leading small and large tours through Israel.

Out of nowhere, our driver Eli also came to my aid and handed me a freshly-halved lemon. The lemon’s zingy scent  was instantly refreshing and reminded me of how an Arab shopkeeper decades ago revived my brother on a hot August  day in Jerusalem in 1982 with a lemon.

I guess Eli had this lemon stored away for this very occasion. Israeli guides and their drivers are prepared for anything and keep their tourists in very good  hands.

I spend the rest of the drive sucking on the lemon, rubbing it on my forehead and inhaling its citrus aroma. And I felt much, much better.

Riding a Jeep in the Golan Heights

Taking a break in the Golan Heights

Taking a break in the Golan Heights

There is not one big vacation that comes to mind that I didn’t suffer from some kind of motion sickness.

I do not do well with motion. When I asked my friends back home who had been on one of these jeep rides in Israel how it was,  they described it like being on a roller coaster.

I do not do roller coasters. Even stop-and-go traffic makes me ill.

But I am still glad I embarked on a two-hour jeep ride through the Golan Heights. Like anything else in Israel, every  tourist activity, even a seemingly carefree jeep ride, is an opportunity to learn and further reinforce the fact that land, water and security are never things taken for granted.

The scenery along the ride was beautiful. The recent winter rains keep pastures and fields green.

Fields of Wheat

Cows graze along the pastures. The rainfall in the winter provides grass for the cows, which then provides  milk, butter and other dairy products for the Israelis.

A view from the Golan Heights looking down into the Hula Valley. The mountains Lebanon is in the distance.

But, within that beauty is a constant reminder that it wasn’t too long ago that the people below lived in constant fear when the Syrians controlled the Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights are high bluffs that were captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.

Fact: Israel is not hungry  for more land. They are hungry for safe, defensible borders. So, why then, does Israel not give it back? First of all, what country in the history of the world has ever been put upon to give back land it won in a war?  Where are the Golan Heights and why are they strategically important to Israel?

According to JewishVirtualLibrary, from 1948-67, when Syria controlled the Golan Heights, it used the area as a military stronghold from which its troops randomly sniped at Israeli civilians in the Hulah Valley below, forcing children living in villages to sleep in bomb shelters. In addition, many roads in northern Israel could be crossed only after probing by mine-detection vehicles. In late 1966, a youth was blown to pieces by a mine while playing football near the Lebanon border. In some cases, attacks were carried out by Yasir Arafat’s Fatah, which Syria allowed to operate from its territory. For more on the Golan Heights, go to JewishVirtualLibrary

If you need a visual to get oriented to this region,  here is a map that shows you just why the Golan is important to Israel’s security. Our jeep toured through the tiny green area. With the current situation in Syria and a Lebanese government that is controlled by Iranian backed Hizbullah, the map shows that Israel is set within one very rough neighborhood:

If you still don’t understand why the Golan Heights are essential to Israel’s security, I’ll let our jeep driver, Avihu Hardy Yessod-Hamala speak for himself.

Avihu is a stout, strong man in his mid-50s with the ruddy complexion of a man who farms for a living. A retired pilot from Israel’s Air Force, Avihu is a fourth generation Israeli. In the early 1900’s, philanthropist Baron Edmond James de Rothschild commissioned Avihu’s great-grandfather to come to Israel because of his expertise as an agriculturist. Once in Israel, he helped pre-state Israel’s first wave pioneers learn how to turn northern swampland into farmland as part of Rothschild’s Jewish Colinization Association.

Avihu still lives in the same village in the fertile Hula Valley that his great-grandfather helped found.  The region serves as resting point for 500 million birds that migrate each year from Europe to Africa. Avihu’s family grows fruit like peaches, plums, pears and pomegranates that are sold locally in Israel and exported to Europe.

Avihu remembers as a child the dangers his villagers faced every day they went into the fields. Syrians had a stronghold and fortresses in the hills we drove along. From that vantage point, the farmers in the fields were  like fish in a barrel. Very easy to shoot.

When Avihu was 14, the Six-Day War broke out. Avihu remembers sleeping in those  bunkers mentioned above. He remembers his village being shelled.

In some of the  fields, there are still active mines though the war ended over 40 years ago. The Syrians refuse to tell Israel where the mines are in these fields, so vast parts of land are wired off with warning signs in  Hebrew, English and Arabic.  As we took a break sipping freshly prepared mint and honey tea that Avihu made for us in a portable kettle, we could not help but reflect on the beauty – and the still lingering danger – that surrounded us.

Just the Facts, Mom! I’m studying for midterms.

Originally posted on Stacy Gittleman's blog:

Can you name this world leader?

My daughter came down from her bedroom to talk to me the other night.

No, this sentence warrants a six-column headline:

My daughter came down from her bedroom to talk to me the other night

That’s better.

After all, she is 15. Aside from emerging for meals, school, and showers, she lives in her room.

In another astounding development, my brilliant, confident and extremely disciplined daughter came down to ask me – her mom (!) to help her study!

She asked me to help her study! She still needs me!

Fantastic!

This week marks her first set of high school midterms. I admire her extra efforts for studying for them. Math and science is dad’s department. But current events and English, that is my domain. We began to review for her social studies exam. But  as we started to review the material – and please – JUST the material – the thought-provoking documentary Race…

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Just the Facts, Mom! I’m studying for midterms.

Can you name this world leader?

My daughter came down from her bedroom to talk to me the other night.

No, this sentence warrants a six-column headline:

My daughter came down from her bedroom to talk to me the other night

That’s better.

After all, she is 15. Aside from emerging for meals, school, and showers, she lives in her room.

In another astounding development, my brilliant, confident and extremely disciplined daughter came down to ask me – her mom (!) to help her study!

She asked me to help her study! She still needs me!

Fantastic!

This week marks her first set of high school midterms. I admire her extra efforts for studying for them. Math and science is dad’s department. But current events and English, that is my domain. We began to review for her social studies exam. But  as we started to review the material – and please – JUST the material – the thought-provoking documentary Race to Nowhere came to mind.

As she crammed the names and positions of 40 current world leaders into her head, was she truly gaining an understanding of current world events? I am a news junkie, so I couldn’t help but wonder – she was memorizing names with faces, but was she learning?

My daughter thrust into my hands a four-page study packet that had 40 mug shots of leaders of North America, Asia and Europe. Also included in the lineup were that week’s Republican candidates who were vying for the nomination for this November’s presidential election. We started with those:

I asked: “Can you name the candidates who are running in the Republican primary?’

“Sure: Gingrich. Romney, and, um — Santorum!”

Great, she had them down. And Perry had just dropped out. But for me, these answers aren’t good enough. After all, in by the time the 2016 Presidential election comes around, she’ll be old enough to vote. So I press on:

“Who is this Newt Gingrich and what position of government did he hold in the past? What was he known for doing in this position?

“I don’t care, mom, that’s not on the test! Just names and positions, Mom.”

I could in some ways  empathize with her. The Social Studies midterm was just one test in a slew of tests she will face this week. She still had to conjugate lots of verbs in Spanish for another test. And tackle some tough algebra problems for yet another. Names and faces of world leaders, that’s plenty to know. But is it?

I pressed on.

“Who is the secretary of state?”

“Easy. Hillary Clinton.”

I couldn’t help myself: “And what does the secretary of state do? And what was she before she was secretary of state?”

“Not important, it won’t be on the test! Next leader, please….This is why I like to study with dad more than you!”

“Who is the leader of Venezuela?”

“No problem, Ces, Chavez…. he has a mustache!

“Yes. Now, which other world leader is he getting into bed with and why is this a problem?”

“Into bed with?!?”

“It’s just an expression. It means getting buddy-buddy with.”

“I don’t know! Who cares, it’s-“

“….I know it’s not on the test.  But he is getting cozy with a leader in the Middle East in a country that starts with an I-“

“Okay, I know this one, the president of Iran is Ahmadinejad.”

I personally hope she won’t have to spell that one…

“And why is this a problem? What do these countries both have a lot of that we depend on?

“I don’t knoooooww, mom! Sugar? This will not be on the test!”

“Oil, honey, they both have oil and they are both consider the US as an enemy. Oh, and what other country does Iran consider an enemy?”

“This is not on the TEST!”

But she knows. She knows the leaders of Iran want to wipe Israel off the map. She knows this because it’s what we discuss at home. Just like she knew the leader of Israel was Benjamin Netanyahu before she got that study packet.

So, how many world leaders or members of the US cabinet can you recognize or name? And does rattling off these names make our high school students any more knowledgeable on current events?

On a final note, my daughter invited a friend home to study and have dinner with us tonight. Another source of midterm stress: the English composition.

“This could be on ANYTHING, mom. We just won’t know what we are going to have to write about. I mean, the topic could be: What are the social implications of when Neil Young walked on the moon?!”

Acre Eye Candy

Acre, or Akko, is an Arab port city in the north of Israel. It is a city that was built and rebuilt by the Crusaders, and then the Ottomans. Parts of the old walled city are being excavated til this day.

You can look up the history of Akko. I’m just going to show you some nice pictures that will speak for themselves.

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Would you Give up Your Seat? The New Segregation of Sexes

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In advance of Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, I bought my eight-year-old son As Good as Anybody, by Richard Michaelson, a beautiful picture book tracing the fight  for justice fought by two incredible men: The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

The story opened with an angry young Martin growing up in the 1930’s segregated South who was not allowed to swim in a pool or drink from a water fountain or even use  a public bathroom because he was black.

This was paralleled with a scared young Jewish rabbi in 1930’s Nazi-occupied Poland who could not find a job, use  regular transportation, or attend university because he was a Jew.

As we cuddled on the couch and read,  my son found it most troubling that a person would be asked to give up a seat on a bus because of the color of their skin.

I told him about Rosa Parks, the courageous woman who would not give up her seat to white man, and how her refusal started the year-long African-American bus boycott that eventually ended bus segregation in Montgomery, Alabama.

All my life, I have held this lesson that Rosa Parks gave America in the highest regard. But on a plane ride home from Israel, I forgot her lesson.  I did not stand my ground.

A new kind of segregation is taking hold in certain Israeli towns where small but fanatical groups of ultra-Orthodox Jews are looking to bend and warp Halacha (Jewish law) to their benefit in order to separate Jewish women from public life. All in the name of modesty.

I’m ashamed to say that three years ago on that Continental flight bound to the U.S., I gave into the demands of one such fanatical Jew.

The plane was full and it took some time for all the passengers to go through the final security check before we finally boarded.  It was a midnight flight and, after 10 days of participating in a rigorous Jewish educator program in Israel, I was tired. All I wanted was to settle into my seat (an aisle seat next to a secular man), and sleep for the better part of the 12 hour flight. My husband and kids were waiting for me on the other side.

Then, a steward came by. Standing next to him was a man dressed in 18th Century garb: white shirt, black coat, black knickers. The man sternly looked at me and let the steward do his asking.  Outside of asking me for this favor, or money for tzedakah (charity),  he would not regard me as a fellow Jew.

“Ma’am, I’m asking  if you could  give up your seat for this man for religious reasons.”

The religious reason is that this man was following this perversion of modesty codes that are stretching beyond houses of worship and are impacting every aspect of public life in parts of Israel.  Women are beginning to be segregated on sidewalks. At funerals. On busses. And yes, they even want to extend their restrictions onto airplanes. Heaven forbid a man should sit next to a fully dressed woman and accidentally rub elbows.

I was told in advance by our group leader not to give in to these demands. But, in the heat of the moment, I caved.

I said, “I’m sorry, why is this my problem? It is he who has put so many restrictions upon himself.”

And  the steward’s reply: “This is your problem, ma’am. If you don’t give up your seat, the plane will not take off.”

So I moved. I wound up sitting in a middle seat. In the row right in front of the bathroom so my seat wouldn’t recline all the way. Because a man wanted my seat so he could sit next to another man.

At the end of the flight, sheepishly, the man thanked me for giving up my seat.

At that point, I took a lesson from Dr. King, and Rabbi Heschel.

I told him, if he wants to practice what he learns in the Torah, he had to live in the world.

Where Getting Rained out can be a Blessing

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You see that blue sky above the ancient white stones? Beautiful, yes? And not a cloud in the sky. It hardly ever rains here. This is Israel. So, who would imagine our family celebration would be rained out?

Back in July, I went through all the right channels in Israel to reserve my family a time slot at the Davidson Archeological Center (in the above picture) for a second Bar Mitzvah celebration for my son. I pictured a sun-soaked day like the one above. I packed khakis and open toed sandals and cotton button-down shirts for the boys. No ties. Very Israeli. For my daughter and I, flowing thin ankle length skirts. And sandals.

All the while, we’ve been praying for rain each Shabbat. In Judaism, Jews have a special prayer we say between the High Holidays and Passover:

Mashiv Haruach U’Morid Hagashem

Bless you Gd who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.

Of course, praying for rain is good for anyplace, but especially Israel. They don’t have the Nile River. Or the Great Lakes. Their main source of water for crops, for their showers and drinking needs, is rain.

Our prayers were answered. And, yes, we felt very blessed in a country that only receives 19.4 inches of rain all year. The rain drenched Jerusalem the  day of our celebration. When rain falls in Jerusalem, the sidewalks, made of that white limestone, become very slippery. The rain made it impossible to take out a Torah Scroll in an outdoor setting.

So, inside we went to the Fuschberg Center for Conservative Judaism where we worshipped with ironJew Rabbi Matthew Field officiating:

My parents, daughter, Nathan and Rabbi Matthew Field

Before our trip , many asked me if we would have Nate’s Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel.

I said no.

I already had that experience – pretty much a slap in the face – at my own “Bat Mitzvah” at the Kotel. Being that I was a girl, I didn’t have to really do anything. But my dad got an aliyah and I got to wave from him from the women’s section.

I have absolute respect for those who pray at the Kotel. I utter my deepest prayers there too.  But for me, as a woman,  the Kotel is a place for individual reflection and personal prayer.  I’m not asking this place to change. It is the Kotel, after all.

But for my family celebration, I wished to have a completely egalitarian service where our family: us, kids, parents, and grandparents, could stand together to celebrate. I also wanted my daughter and I to have a chance to read Torah in Jerusalem.

And we did.

The next day, we returned to the Davidson Archeological Park to explore an area excavated to show how King Herod built an enormous arch (named Robinson’s Arch for the American Archeologist who discovered this place on the Southern edge of the Western Wall) to create a bridge between the upper part of Jerusalem to the Temple Mount.

If you are looking to have an egalitarian service, this is the place. And, pray for good weather of the sunny variety:

Tunneling Through time under the Western Wall

 

After years of waiting, finally I got to take a tour of the passageways below the Western retaining Wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem.

In 1967, when Israel reunified Jerusalem after capturing the Old City from the Jordanians, the Jewish Quarter of the Old city lay in ruins.  For nineteen years, Jews had been kept away from their holiest site from the Jordanians. Jordan had destroyed most of the synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. Most of the Western Wall, the remnant of the Holy Temple that stood two thousand years ago and was destroyed in 70 AD, was buried in rubbish.

When Israel recaptured the Old City from Jordanian rule, Israeli authorities pledged that they would restore the Old city and do extensive renovations along the Western Wall, and then continue these restorations to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. After decades of painstaking excavations, the tunnels were opened to the public in 2002.

For complete details on the history of these excavations, click here.

When most people think of the Western Wall, this image comes to mind:

Actually, this is only a small portion of the enormous Western Wall that King Herod (truly the Donald Trump of his day) had constructed as a retaining wall to expand the Temple Mount to support the Second Temple.

Today, this massive wall is buried and where over the centuries, the Moslem Quarter of the Old City was built over the rubble.

So, we began our journey under the Western Wall at the extreme left corner of the above photo:

 Appropriately, for Chanukkah, our guide was Mattisyahu (no, not that one), originally from Atlanta, who used Toby as a volunteer:

Toby helping out Mattisyahu demonstrate the massive size (40 feet long) each Herodian stone for the foundation of the Temple Mount

Below the surface, there are narrow passageways, but there are also cavernous rooms. The visitor is taken back to the First Century, the heyday of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.

The Western Wall Tunnels provide an odd mixture of tourists

devout women wishing to pray in the quiet subterranean solitude,

As close as they can get: women of the Western Wall Tunnels

and construction workers.  In the distance, down a tunnel not yet open to the public, there are the noises of hammers and drills as further excavations are meticulously conducted as to not disturb the houses in the Moslem Quarter overhead.  There are new discoveries made every day.

 Down here, even construction work is holy.

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