Leaving the Galilee we headed towards Tel Aviv and pulled in to the brand new Royal Beach Tel Aviv. This hotel is an absolute hoot. It is so modern you really feel as if the Jetsons are going to walk in the door and Rosie the Robot is going to come help you with your ironing. Aside from the fact that you couldn't get out of the chairs once you got in, and that the walls opened up with hidey away cabinets so you couldn't remember where you put what, it was really nice. Oh well except for the shower head.. which once turned on acts like a run away hose and floods the bathroom.. and the color scheme which is cool shades of grey and black making you feel like you are visiting a very expensive prison. Hey I don't have to like everything!!! It was fun staying there and I'm sure youngin's will love it as it is very trendy and cool.. and as we all know I've never been cool a day in my life.
The food was a totally different thing. The hotel's food was delicious and I just loved their cucumber salad. Is that a work of art or what! So since we are on food.. we took a Taste of Israel Tour of Tel Aviv. It was really something- we walked through the streets of Tel Aviv stopping at little shops to taste spices, fruit, new sodas, olives and turkey. The colors and sounds and smells of the city were too amazing for words.
Ok, so you know how there are moments in life that just hit you between the eyes or touch your heart? Here we are wending our way through these tiny streets, crammed with humanity and food and garbage and I see a young Israeli soldier, firearm at his side, walking in to a mini-mart during our tour. He strides into the store absentmindedly kissing the Mezuzah on the door. He wasn't religious, no kippah, and yet it was automatic.
My other moment wandering the streets was seeing a bored street vendor (nobody knows how to look bored like an Israeli street vendor) and he sees an elderly man getting into a cab. He rushes over, helps him get into the cab and then resumes his bored position.
That evening we went to Nagalat, a restaurant that is totally in the dark and where the waiters are blind. They make you put your cell phones and even watches in a lock box during dinner. We were led into a world of darkness, where we had to be led to our chairs and coached on how to pour a glass of water and how to eat. It was an extraordinary experience, not knowing if you were going to taste anything on your fork when you put it in your mouth as you didn't really know if you stabbed any food, learning how to pour water with your finger as a measure so you wouldn't spill. The experience was a gift and we have heightened appreciation for those without sight.
The Serious Stuff
Friday morning, November 8th, we started off with a briefing by Aluf Benn, the Editor in Chief of Ha'aretz, Israel's premier newspaper. The entire group sat there spellbound. I have rarely heard such an amazing presentation. I certainly can not rearticuate what Aluf said, but can share with you my take aways.
He started speaking about Prime Minister Netanyahu. He said that his strengths lie in his ability to project calmness and control. The economy is strong, the shekel is strong and the country is going from strength to strength. He said his weaknesses revolve around the West Bank and Gaza and that he waffles and isn't consistent from one period to the next. He also said that Netanyahu is in a tough position as his coalition party is delicate and he doesn't want to anger the different factions within his own party which might lead to destabilizing the government. Gee.. this sounds familiar doesn't it? Exactly what's going on in the States.
He said that the issue of peace is of much more of a priority to Americans and American Jews than it is to Israelis. They would like peace but it just isn't in their range of expectations any longer. They talk about the latest dialogues for a few minutes and then turn to issues that affect their daily lives.
So what are Israelis concerned with? The two top issues of concern are the economy and the Haredim (the religious community).
The economy is doing very well, but there are still great divides between those with good incomes and those with with minimal wages. One of the ironic unintended consequences of overseas support for Israel is that Americans and other wealthy Jews from around the world come and buy apartments in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, driving up the prices so that it is hard for locals to afford in town homes. The cost of housing is competitive with the more expensive cities in the States.
The issue with the Haredim is complicated. Aluf spoke at length about it and then we went to visit a job training program sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC or the Joint) where we had a chance to sit with three young Haredi men. I apologize in advance for misinterpreting the situation, if I have.
Side note- All Israeli youth are required to serve in the army, however to date the Haredim have been exempt from serving. Those that do, are given non-combat service, which is sort of like a domestic peace corps. Whereas such programs in the states are run out of non-profits or non-military departments of the government in the US, here in Israel they are run as part of the army.
The Haredim, the religious families, in Israel tend to have large families, 8-10 kids, and their world revolves around family and study of the Torah. They receive a stipend from the government to support this study. The problem is that the stipend can not adequately support the family and there is increasing resentment from non-Haredi Israelis that they are subsidizing the living of those who don't work and who won't serve in the army.
The Haredim want to preserve the old ways and feel that if they interact with secular Jews that they might lose their young people through temptation or that their Judaism might somehow be watered down.
There are those, however, who do not want to live in poverty and who want a better life for their children. The critical problem is that the education that the Haredim receive is not competitive in the Israeli market place as they are not taught English, math and science. There are now efforts afoot to create learning environments where this can be provided for Haredi youth. This is very controversial. Indeed, the three young men we met with disagreed among themselves as to what the best path is.
There are now young Haredi men who do serve in non-combat units in the army, who leave home in the morning and return at night with no one knowing that during the day they are switching out their black coats for an IDF uniform. This provides them pathways to not only skill development but to better jobs on completion of army service.
The whole situation is extraordinary. I can't help but wish that the Haredim would view working within the mainstream of society as an opportunity to share their experiences and bring others closer to Judaism. Separation only creates more separation.
From current days to ancient times.. I leave you with photos from our visit to Petra, Jordan!