Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hanukkah in the Negev

Israel is beautiful. The splendor of the Nevada desert, the awe of the grand canyon, the tranquility of summer in Aspen, Colorado, and the beauty of Monterrey, California are all  packed into the Southern portion of this country, known as the Negev, in an area smaller than half of New Jersey. (Everyone always compares the size of Israel to New Jersey, and who am I to differ?) For Hanukkah, we took a family road trip to the Negev for six days. A full photo album of the trip can be found here.

The first day, we picked up the kids from school and drove two hours to a Beduin tent camp site situated about halfway between Sde Boker and Mitzpeh Ramon. I'm not one for roughing it, so we opted for the heated cabins over the communal tents. Dinner was served Beduin style, on rugs in the sand in an open tent. As soon as we were seated a tray containing the entire dinner arrived. The food consisted of roasted chicken, pita bread, hummus, potatoes, rice, and various salads. I was expecting to eat with our hands, but there was plastic silverware.

After dinner, we walked around the camp site and huddled around a large fire they had built. Then, we went back to our cozy cabin, grateful we did not have the idea of roughing it and sleeping in the open tents. It was quite cold out. Before bed, I explained to the kids how to put their socks over their shoes so scorpions would not get in.  This was totally unnecessary, but I got a perverse pleasure from their seriousness on this matter. I learned this trick from my survival days in the desert, or maybe it was from a movie I saw, I can't remember.

The Beduin village (a.k.a. tourist trap) boasts a herd of about 20 camels, and the next morning, we took a ride on these large, gentle, awkward animals.

After our camel ride in the desert, which lasted about 30 minutes but left a pain in my buttocks for a bit longer than that, we drove to the Mitzpeh Ramon crater, Israel's version of the Grand Canyon. We took a short hike and then made several stops on our way South.

At one point, there was an area with mounds of colored sand that the children used to fill test tubes in artistic fashion.

After Mitzpeh Ramon, we headed South again, with our sights set on Eilat, a resort town on the edge of the Red Sea, bordering Jordan and Egypt. The trip took about two and a half hours from our last stop at Mitzpeh Ramon.

Eilat is known for its fancy waterfront hotels, expansive coral beaches, underwater observatory, and great nightlife and restaurants. We stayed at a place called Isrotel Agamim, about a 10 minute walk from the water. We opted for the half board option, which included breakfast and dinner. We arrived there on Friday night, and I was pretty disappointed with the dinner. However, my opinion changed on subsequent nights when the food was nothing short of gourmet, and Ann observed that since the restaurant was kosher, Friday night dinner consisted of food that had to be prepared in advance because no fire or electricity could be used on Shabbat. This explained why the options were so limited that first night.

The hotel had a ballroom reserved for lighting Hanukkah candles each night, and we were given the candle lighting times. I expected everyone to show up and light as a community, but strangely, each family picked a spot and a hanukkiah of their own and said the blessings themselves. There were parallel renditions of Maoz Tsur throughout the rooms, sung in various keys and intonations. It was quite a sight. We took turns with a different family member lighting each night.

On our first day, we went snorkeling in the coral reef area, with spectacular underwater views. This picture was taken from the underwater observatory.

The next day, we took a glass bottom boat tour for an even better view of this precious underwater phenomenon.

Here are some more pictures showing the beauty of Eilat.

We spent one of our afternoons and evenings in Eilat in Timna park, which needs to be added as a "must see" to anyone traveling to Israel. This park consists of some incredible natural desert sights, and several man made ones. The area was used in ancient times as a copper mine, and there is access (for those with less claustrophobia than I have) to the underground caves. The rock formations are like nothing I've ever seen before, and driving from one spot to the next, we felt that the views could not be more spectacular. The rock below is called the mushroom, for obvious reasons.

These rock formations are known as Solomon's pillars, although we were disappointed to learn that King Solomon was not actually here, nor was he in historic times.

Here is Benny, pictured after climbing through the hole in the rock at the top of the picture.

This view of a naturally formed bridge in the rock is stunning.

Timna park was historically significant in large part because there was an oasis of water, which made it habitable. The children filled platic jars with colored sand in front of the Timna lake, and later everyone at the park participated in a Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony.

After three fun filled days in Eilat, we headed due North (the only direction to drive and stay in Israel) and stopped at the Hai Bar nature preserve. The place provides refuge for and rehabilitates endangered species. We took a driving tour through the park, guided by a CD, which explained the history of each of the species of animals in the park.

We stopped in Mizpeh Ramon for lunch, and then visited an alpaca farm, where the children rode alpacas and their father tried to ignore the smell.

After the farm, we headed further North and spent the night in a Kibbutz, where we had booked sleeping accommodations for two nights. At dinner time, the food in the dining room was our least appetizing meal of the trip, and we made a note not to eat there again the second night.

The next morning, we drove to a national park called Ein Avdat. This is one of the real national treasures of Israel. Unfortunately, the park has a hiking path that becomes one way about halfway through. There is a steep climb in the rocks, and given that 1,500 people take the hike in one day, they do not allow you to backtrack. Most tour groups have their bus drop them off and then meet them on the other side. As we were there with our car, once we reached the halfway point, I had to backtrack, get the car and drive to the other side to meet the family. Backtracking was very difficult, as there were several steep stairways carved out of the rock, full of Israelis who did not appreciate me going against traffic. Some of them expressed this to me in colorful language that I'd rather pretend I did not understand.

Ein Avdat has some of the most breathtaking views anywhere.

This stone staircase below is the one I had to navigate against traffic. I made my way bit by bit as people passed me and gave me a hard time. It was pretty scary. At one point, an Ibex startled everyone by running up the cliff side. The animal was disoriented by all the tourists, and it was actually quite scary. So much so, that everyone below him went back down, and everyone above him went back up. The animal left, and I got to start my descent against traffic from the beginning, with a bigger backlog of people at the bottom. It took me 45 minutes to get down.

In the afternoon, we drove to nearby Sde Boker, which is where David Ben Gurion spent his final years, and where he is buried. We visited his tomb, which overlooks the desert crater.

And, behind the tomb, we took one of the few family pictures with all five of us.

We returned to our Kibbutz, which had an indoor, heated pool, quite rare in Israel, and the kids swam and played for a while. Then, we decided to drive to Be'er Sheva for dinner. We found a great Asian restaurant which was quite better than the Kibbutz food, and then went back to the Kibbutz for our final night. In the morning, we drove a couple of hours home to Tel Aviv, and two days later the first storm of the year, a massive one, hit the country. Pretty good timing!

You cannot and should not visit Israel without a tour of the Negev. It's natural beauty is compelling, and all the major sights are within short driving range. One would have to purchase several airline tickets and budget several weeks of travel in the US to see a comparable, diverse set of marvels that can be seen in a six day trip with easy, short drives, in Israel.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Elementary School in Israel

It would be an understatement to say that the schools in Israel are different from those in the States. Our friends Peter & Tammy Stone spent a Sabbatical here a couple of years ago, and their children are close in age to ours, so we were well briefed on the Israeli school system in advance of our trip.

In Baltimore, we have a wealth of choices for educating our children. There are, of course, public school, but also enough private schools to meet every budget and for virtually every religious denomination. In Israel, unless you want to send your kids to the English speaking International school or to special religious schools, they most likely will attend public school. The schools vary in quality, mostly based on the demographics of the neighborhoods, as children are zoned for a particular school, and it is very difficult to get them into a different one. This circumstance is not without its merits, as it is common for elementary school children (grades 1-6) to walk to school and to live among their classmates in the same buildings or in adjacent ones.

When planning where to live during my Sabbatical, our first priority was finding the best school for the children. Several of our friends recommended the schools Nitzanim and Aruzim in Ramat Aviv. However, we had trouble finding housing that met our needs (more accurately our wants) in that neighborhood. Furthermore, upon inquiring, we were informed that the third grade at Nitzanim was likely to be full, and as we have two children in that grade, the likelihood was that we would not be able to register them there.

There is a neighborhood called Ramat Aviv Hahadasha that looked promising, but the school there was one to be avoided, according to various sources. Ultimately, we ended up in Ramat Aviv Gimel at the Gimel elementary school. The process of registering the children involved obtaining a lease to prove that we are Gimel residents and getting a notarized power of attorney letter giving Sharon Geva the authority to register our children. After several hours of my life (that I will never recover) at the Israeli embassy in Washington, I obtained the letter, mailed it to Sharon, and she took that and our lease to the city government building in Tel Aviv. Then, our kids were officially enrolled in school.

Ramat Aviv Gimel is the largest elementary school in Tel Aviv. The very popular long-time principal is on Sabbatical this year, and a young, energetic new interim principal is in her place, an ambitious young man who appears determined to make his mark. I estimate that Ilan Grossman is in his early 30s, and I predict that by the time he is 50, he will be in a senior administrative position in the Israeli department of education.

Shorlty after we arrived, we received a call from a woman named Anna, declaring that she was Tamara's teacher, and that she was interested in meeting all of us. We came to the school that same day, and met a delightful, young, energetic and charming teacher. She is originally from the Czech Republic and has been in Israel for about 14 years. She went over the curriculum with us and showed us what books Tamara needed to buy. She reassured us that Tamara would do fine in her class, and I believed her. We've been unbelievably impressed with Anna, and frankly, she may be one of the best teachers that I've ever known. She sends the parents weekly email updates about what is going on in the class, and she went out of her way to make sure Tamara had friends in the class, encouraging other parents to call Tamara for play dates. Thanks in large part to Anna, Tamara is having a very positive experience in school. She has regular play dates with classmates, occasional sleepovers, and to my delight, she is even developing a bit of an Israeli accent in Hebrew.

Elana and Benny are not faring quite as well, but for different reasons. Elana's teacher, Gila, is wonderful. She does not speak any English, which is probably a good thing for Elana's Hebrew, although she cannot communicate with Ann, so everything goes through me. Gila is on the verge of retirement. Apparently, the only person who retires more often than her is Brett Favre. The last time I spoke with her, I asked if she was coming back next year, and she sighed and said, she was retiring, but that maybe she would come back. She wasn't sure. Gila is very conscientious and has made a substantial effort to get other girls in the class to call Elana and to include her in activities. However, 12 year old girls are quite different from 8 year olds, and it's taken Elana a bit of time to integrate into the class. Of our three children, Elana is the only one without a classmate who speaks English fluently, and she has had to survive on her (rapidly improving) Hebrew alone.

But, I think the biggest problem for Elana has been the structure of the Israeli school system. Elana loves learning. She is constantly reading, looking up topics that interest her on Wikipedia. School for her has always challenged her and satiated her thirst for knowledge and understanding of the world. Whenever we encounter the need for a fact, before we consult Google, we ask Elana (who we nicknamed "encyclopedia") and very often she knows the answer, on many different topics. Learning is not always easy to come by in an Israeli classroom. Class sizes approach 40, with one teacher, and Israeli children tend to be much more wild and unruly than their American counterparts. For a child who cherishes learning and information, school here does not provide the kind of outlet that she is used to at Schechter, and it is sometimes very frustrating for her.

Whereas most of the girls in her class tend to wander around Ramat Aviv Gimel arm in arm with their girlfriends whom they've known since infancy, Elana does not have a strong friendship like she does back home. However, recently, things have begun turning around for her.  There are girls who regularly come get her when it's time to go to out of school activities, such as the Scouts (Tsofim), and they walk her home. She often has lunch on Fridays with her friends from school in a shopping center near our house, and last night she attended a Bat Mitzvah party for one of her classmates and had a very good time. She got a ride there with one girl in her class and a ride home with another. In Gimel, a Bat Mizvah resembles a sweet 16 party, except it's for 12 year old girls. There is no religious component to it. Just, every girl gets a big birthday party when she turns 12, and it's called a Bat Mitzvah. Elana is turning 12 here on this trip, but we're planning an American style Bat Mitzvah for her next year in Baltimore. She'll have an aliya, read from the Torah, give a sermon, and if she does a good job, we'll let her have a party.

And now Benny. Oy, Benny. For the first month and a half that we were here, Benny decided he was on vacation. We did not realize this at first, but after a while, we grew suspicious of his claim that there was no homework, given that Tamara was getting a couple of hours worth a day in her class. We tried contacting his teacher, Ronit, and asking why Benny never comes home with homework. Ronit said that the homework was too hard for him because Benny does not know any Hebrew, and so she is giving him a break. She also delicately asked us if Benny had any learning disabilities or perhaps attention deficit disorder.

Deep breath. Here's more or less how we responded to her, through clinched teeth. Okay, first of all, Benny knows plenty of Hebrew. He knows how to read and write, and speaks it at least as well as Tamara. (It was helpful to have a twin in another 3rd grade class to make our point. We knew that Ronit could never compete with Anna in terms of the attention that she gives each student, but we felt she could try a little harder.) No, Benny does not have a learning disability. Sure, every parent thinks their kid is a genius, but based on his results at Schechter we are confident that he's well above average in every aspect of learning ability and cognition. Sure, he has trouble sitting still, but Benny is a very smart kid. And in this case, he's decided to apply his talents towards getting away without doing any work. Would it be too much to ask you to make sure he copies down the homework every day? We have a tutor at home that we hired to help the kids understand their assignments, but we need to know that he copies them down. That's all we're asking.

Her response was to refer us to the principal. Ann tried to reach Ilan on his cell phone number, which he had given me in case I ever had any questions. Don't hesitate if you need anything, call me, he had said. The principal answered and asked her if this was an emergency. He then gave her a lecture about calling him on his cell phone for non-emergencies. At this point we were wondering if his constant apparent concern and involvement was just an act. But, in truth, this was a while ago, and I've since formed the opinion that he must have been caught on a bad day. Israelis tend to be much more direct than we're used too, and they can easily offend Americans without realizing it. Anyway, the principal began by asking if we've had Benny tested for learning disabilities. We patiently explained that we believe that the problem is that he's getting away without doing any homework because his teacher has decided that it is not worth the effort to give him any assignments because he can't do them and because we're returning to the States next year. All we want is for the teacher to make sure he gets his assignments. The principal said that the only way to resolve this is to meet with Ronit.

The meeting was held the next day, made a bit awkward by a long, flaming email message that I sent her the night before. I couldn't help myself, and in hindsight, it was the wrong move. She started out very defensive. At Ann's urging, I profusely apologized for my message and said that I'm sure she's doing everything she can, and that all we want to do is something simple. When Benny comes home from school and says, as he always does, that there was no homework today, we want to know if it's true. She showed us where she writes the assignment on the board every day, and that gave me an idea. Every day, Benny has to copy the assignment from the board and get her to initial it or write a check mark. If he comes home without the check mark, then he will be punished. If there is no homework, then he needs to write "no homework" and get the teacher to sign or put a check mark. Ronit agreed to the plan.

I then had a long and serious talk with Benny about the importance of education, school and responsibility. I can tell you that I would not have enjoyed being on the receiving end of that talk. I probably would have hated it more than Benny did. It was the kind of "talk" that I had on a few memorable occasions when my Dad was less than pleased with me, and I'm still traumatized by those encounters. I explained to Benny that his vacation was over, and that he was going to have to get serious about work. Then I laid out the consequences of him coming home without the check marks. Without going into details, let's say that he tried it once or twice, and then realized it wasn't worth it, and since then, he's been getting his assignments and doing his homework.

Socially, Benny has been doing great. He is an extremely confident and social kid. I went on a class field trip to Jerusalem with him and saw that he was at the center of attention every step of the way. On the bus, all the kids wanted to sit with him. Walking to the Wall, he was the leader of the pack, and I noticed at one point that a couple of the girls offered him candy. He mostly speaks English to the other kids who answer him in Hebrew. The language does not seem to be a barrier for him. He is constantly on play dates and sleepovers, and if he had his way, I doubt we'd see much of him on weekends. I don't think he has an insecure bone in his body.

Much of the communication from the school to the parents happens over email. My Hebrew reading skills are not on par with my speaking ability, and this has resulted in some misunderstandings. For example, we received an email saying that we were supposed to meet with all of the kids' teachers for parent/teacher conferences. We decided that only I would go because Ann would not be able to understand what the teachers were saying anyway. I made the 3 appointments. Elana's was first, and so on the indicated day, I took off from work, went to the school, and met with Gila. She closed the door and said, "So, what was it you wanted to talk about?" I was confused and said that the email from the school said to make appointments with the teachers. She said that I misunderstood the message, and that it was just saying that such meetings are going to be held in the future. Oh. So, anyway, we had a nice discussion about Elana, and then I called the twins' teachers and cancelled the meetings, although Anna said she'd be delighted to speak about Tamara anytime. Later this week, we have the real parent/teacher conferences (I think), and I'll find out more about how they are doing.

Overall, the school system in Israel is disappointing. While I believe we ended up in one of the very best public schools, with two out of three exceptional teachers, I can't help but wonder how this country, which values children so much, got its priorities so wrong. Children in these schools who cherish learning are out of place. And, from what I hear, most other schools are a lot worse. Violence among the children is apparently commonplace, although we have not seen much of this first hand.

I understand that Israel has to spend a tremendous proportion of its GNP on security. The country has a great public transportation infrastructure. Wonderful parks. Great public beaches. And, while the economy lags behind the US and some other countries, Israel appears to be in pretty good shape. But, they are killing their seed corn. One of the greatest resources here is the talent level of the people. Israel's impact on high tech, medicine, biology is legendary. And, rather than nurturing their young minds and encouraging academics at an early age, the school system is ridiculously under funded. Instead of 40 screaming kids per teacher, they should have 15 (without the screaming). Magnet schools should be set up, and a program should be in place for identifying gifted and talented kids at an early age. Israeli children are in school from 8 a.m - 1:30 p.m. six days a week. That system needs to be re-examined. No other country in the world (to my knowledge) practices these hours. If American middle schoolers can handle 8 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., so can Israeli kids. The teachers are each given one day off during the week, so they effectively have a 5 day work week. On the days that their teachers are off, the students are occupied by a hodgepodge of activities, including origami, playing with animals, and other non-educational subjects. It is a true shame that a country that I believe boasts more brain power per capita than any other is letting the opportunity to nurture this potential go to waste.

I have no doubt that the kids will return to Schechter in Baltimore next year and will hit the ground running. They have kept up with the math from back home, in addition to learning the math that is taught here, and whatever little they might be behind in some of their English subjects is more than compensated for by their life experience and their advancement in Hebrew subjects. Overall it is a big win, and while the kids are finding it challenging and at times overwhelming, I believe that the risk we took coming here for a year has definitely paid off.