ALIYAVERSARY!!!! 5 YEARS!!!!!

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Who would believe? Five years already since we packed up our things and made the huge move from Southern California to Israel! Who would believe we’d be spending our Aliyahversary under quarantine?

This week was supposed to be incredibly special – celebratory. My old neighbors and girlfriends of 25 years were supposed to fly in for an incredible visit yesterday. We were supposed to tour this gorgeous, history-packed country for the next two weeks. We were supposed to see the best of Israel from the hiking trails and waterfalls of Mt Hermon in the North to the Arava Desert and the coral reefs of the Red Sea in the South.

Instead, life on most continents has come to a screeching standstill. Actually, this has been an opportunity to really see the best of this country firsthand. I’ve been following stories of food, toilet paper, sanitary supply shortages in the United States as panicked shoppers try to prep for the seeming apocalypse. Angry Americans placing blame on government leaders. Hoarding. Inflated black market prices for basic supplies. Israel is surprisingly not experiencing that at all.

Israelis are notorious here for not following rules, being unable to form a simple queue. But we are a people who know how to handle emergencies. Get me right: I’ve had my doubts over the years. Over the span of five years, we’ve had the imminent threat of war several times. Hezbolla’s 15,000 missiles aimed right at us from Lebanon. ISIS, rebel strongholds, Bashir’s forces and a raging civil war in Syria within striking distance of our city. Yet, these Israelis always seemed nonplussed.

The first days in our lovely rented villa were spent equipping the mamad, the safe room. I stocked it with water to last a few weeks, food, medical supplies, a portable toilet and sanitizers, camping lanterns and cookstoves, flashlights, cards and boardgames, radio, sleeping bags, big-out bags, copies of important documents, clothes…. we were set. I did practice rounds in the event of hearing the red alert siren. Ready to go.

But this coronavirus snuck up on us. For the past two weeks, we watched and listened as this country shut down bit by bit. Israel was the first country to proactively cancel travel visas and send tourists back to their home countries if they did not have a place to quarantine.  Incoming flights from Asia, Italy… incoming flights from Europe…incoming flights from the States: canceled. Hotels closing. We were the first country to put a halt to all non-essential travel. I spent the week canceling hotel reservations and tickets purchased. Netanyahu and crew made the announcement that any group over 1000 people, then 500 people would be barred. Sporting and cultural events were closed. Then came the announcement last week that all schools would be shuttered for the next five weeks until after Passover. Regional hospitals to able to handle the virus were assigned. Then the public service announcements: cinemas, malls, restaurants were the next too close. No meetings of more than ten people – and they had to keep a two meter distance from each other. That put an end to religious gatherings – in this Holy Land. If we feel that we have come down with the virus, call Mogen David Adom, the ambulance services. Hotlines are set up, and the appropriate crew will come to us.

I fully expected to see huge lines coming out of the grocery stores. No food or supplies on the shelves. No. Quite the contrary. There’s plenty. No need for panic. Buy what you need. No hoarding. Antiseptic wipes to clean the carts and hands in plentiful supply. Face-masked customers and clerks greeting one another with a “Khag Corona samayakh!” or “Happy Corona holiday!” A bit surreal. The stores are much less crowded than usual, but still cheerful. Before entrance to a store or clinic, the usual security guard is armed with a digital scanning thermometer. He swipes our foreheads and asks each person: Have you been outside the country? Have you had any contact with a sick person? Have you had a cough or fever in the past few weeks? Why are you here?  You may pass. So weird…. but I feel pretty safe.

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The restaurants have all closed. But the home-delivery business is thriving!!! Extra drivers are being hired for grocery, pharmacy, pet store, and food deliveries. For those that have been temporarily laid off, they can fill out a simple online form at the Bituakh Leumi (Social Security) office and be reimbursed by the government for the loss of income. Things are running smoothly here. They seem to be organized and thorough. Funds have been fully allocated to handle the emergency.

Each person that has tested positive for the coronavirus has been tracked as to their exact whereabouts and contacts over the past two weeks. There is actually an online interactive map for tracking how many cases have been reported and their location (in real time)! I don’t know if I love it, but you can click the pinpoints on the map and get a detailed rundown, ted by the Ministry of Health, of where each infected person has been hour by hour- what stores they frequented; what sporting events; what synagogue or church or mosque; what clinic they used. There is a plethora of testing kits and facilities ready to handle the onslaught.

Even though all schools have been cancelled, online counsellors are available to help parents. They recommend being honest with the children, telling them exactly what is happening; instructing them on proper distancing and hygiene; the importance of keeping up a regular schedule and set routines; the importance of letting the child ask as many questions as they want – and trying to give them age-appropriate answers. There are on-line classes set up by each teacher – WhatsApp classroom groups, where the children can continue with their work and interact with their classmates.

WhatsApp groups are a big thing here. It is THE MAIN way people communicate in Israel. Whether classroom, sports group, groups for immigrants, hobbyists or religious communities. Everyone seems to be a member of an infinite number of WhatsApp groups. Not only are there WhatsApp classrooms, but new Quarantine Friend Circles, and even Quarantine Dating Groups!!! (spend your 14 day quarantine with a fun-loving guy who loves Thai food, hiking and animals – no joke!!)

Last week we spent the holiday of Purim making and delivering several food baskets for our quarantined neighbors. We knew of people who had recently returned from South Africa and Europe. They had to go into a 14-day confinement period. So we made big baskets of an Italian dinner complete with tapenade, crackers, pasta, pasta sauce, salad, homemade croutons and Italian dressing, meringues and lemon curd, wedges of cheese and a bottle of wine (Usually these mishloakh manot gifts for Purim consist of sweets and treats). We left them at their front gates with a cheery note and our phone number if they need anything else. a great way to meet a couple of our neighbors.

Boredom in your new self-imposed confinement? I think not!!! I’m totally surprised at and delighted with the world museums which are offering virtual tours: no lines, no crowds, linger as long as you’d like. The Met Opera is offering free opera screenings all this week – the best of the best. There’s Netflix and HBO and DisneyPlus. Hulu is offering free screening. Check out Spotify!!!! There’s a myriad of new Coronavirus, CO-VID19 and Quarantine playlists.

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The global community has been coming together in a most extraordinary way (how did people survive before the internet????). Authors are offering story times for children. Artists, drawing and art classes, activities and contests. Instagram is rife with lovely activities for all ages. Free yoga and exercise classes. Crafting lessons. Gardening help.IMG_9069IMG_9065 2IMG_9068IMG_9067

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I’m not trying to make light of this situation by any means. My husband has been glued to the stock market as it continues to drop. But hopefully, this dire situation will pass soon. Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy and take all the proper precautions. Here, it is not a time for mass panic. It’s a time to catch up on all those projects we’ve been putting off. It’s a time to hunker down, count our blessings, hug our loved ones, reach out to those across the miles. We are waiting for the next week of drenching rains to arrive and planning a time of board games and movies. Soon enough, the warm weather will be here and the cases of illness will drop off. There will be time to celebrate our Aliyahversary in style another day. Be creative. Be gentle. Be thankful. Be safe. Be well- we can get through this stronger and better people. May G-d bless us all!!!!

Sheba: The Queen in Israel

The central part of Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv is known for its hospitals and excellence of medical care. I grew up knowing of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem – my parents were big donors. But there is also Shaare Tzedek, Beilenson, Ichilov, and Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. When my husband was diagnosed with Stage 3+ cancer, we made the immediate decision to transfer from our hospital in the North to Sheba. It required some pull (proteczia) from friends who knew people there, but we were able to get an immediate appointment, thank the Lord.

Sheba Medical Center, the largest hospital complex in the Middle East (and the largest I’ve ever seen), was first established as a triage and military hospital in 1948 in military barracks and quonset huts for casualties from the Israeli War for Independence. In 1953, it also began to take on civilian patients. Today, it sits on a 163 acre campus east of Tel Aviv. With over 125 departments, Sheba has been rated in the top ten medical centers of the world by Newsweek. It is number four in cancer care worldwide. It is a city unto itself, complete with its own infrastructure.

John and I were more than a bit overwhelmed by our first visit – just trying to find our way around this huge campus was daunting. However, we were immediately put at ease, as an entire personalized team had been pre-assembled for John which included his own oncologist (world famous, Dr. Anat Shmueli who specializes in colorectal cancer), radiologist (Dr. Jacob Lawrence also only sees colorectal cancer patients…he’s the best!), surgeons, dietician, nursing staff, social worker, acupuncturist, alternative medicine specialist, spiritual advisors (there is a panel of rabbis, priests, pastors, imams and other spiritual leaders), and our personal patient coordinator. We understood from the beginning that theirs would be a holistic approach to healing, leaving nothing out. Unlike many of the hospitals here in the North, everyone is completely fluent in English. All the signs and paperwork are in English and Hebrew, which was a huge improvement for us. Cleanliness and efficiency are all top notch. All of our paperwork was handled the first day, so there was not the typical delay in getting referrals, approvals for each doctor and procedure, and delays in appointment and treatment protocols. It was all handled for us.

All of the departments are world class and cutting edge in research and technology. The medical center is home to the National Center for Health Policy and Epidemiology Research; the National Blood Bank; two heart centers; several medical research centers; the world’s largest rehabilitation center; geriatrics; pediatrics; a huge Alzheimer’s center; an eating disorders hospital; and numerous other clinics, both outpatient and inpatient.

Some of the departments, I’ve never even heard of, like the translational medicine center. I guess that’s for people like us who need remedial help with their Hebrew????? No clue…. but I’m pretty sure that if it’s a disease, a treatment for it can be found here.

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Sheba has its own hotel for guests who wish to stay close to their patients. Because it is known for medical tourism (people from all over the world come to be treated here), there is an off-campus “hotel” just for patients who need to be seen on a regular/daily basis for treatment. This full-service hotel is for patients of Sheba only, with full-time nursing staff in house and shuttle to and from the hotel to each building of the hospital. We were advised to have John spend the last two weeks of treatment there, but did not need it (it was all covered under our state medical insurance).

In addition, there are two full shopping malls for all your needs from clothing to books to pharmacies to grocery stores, banks, and a post office. There are full service hair and nail salons, offering free services to cancer patients. Four restaurant courts have a wide variety of Kosher restaurants. Sheba is a little city unto itself.

Because art and music are known to be beneficial to the soul, and have been proven to aid in the recuperation process, there are magnificent pieces of original art in sculpture gardens scattered throughout the campus and galleries along each corridor. It is not infrequently that we heard a classical or jazz quartet in one of the lobbies or courtyards. Pianists, local klezmer groups, and choirs serenade the patients regularly on a volunteer basis. This is a medical center like no other that we’ve visited. Tucked away in nooks and crannies are indoor lily ponds and waterfalls, multi-language libraries, family rooms with interactive games for the children, zen gardens, and all sorts of things to feed the soul and make the hospital stay as pleasant as possible.

Our favorite buildings included the pediatrics wings. the cheerful, brightly-colored sculptures outside (pink alligators climb the wall of the main building), indoor play areas, rainbow colors, and interactive and educational displays are everywhere. There is a full size theater, a puppet/marionette theater, and roaming clowns, mimes and musicians who roam throughout. A small rainbow train takes children and parents from building to building.

For me, the crown jewel (literally) was walking into the newly dedicated Beit Yehuda and Tamar Synagogue. Spectacular, dazzling colors caught me by surprise. The stained glass is everywhere. Modern and reminiscent of the Chagall stained-glass windows at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, it is an artistic masterpiece designed by the German artist, Yvelle Gabriel. The focal point is the cobalt blue, stained glass Aron Kodesh (holy ark that houses the sacred Torah and Haftorah) suspended in mid air. I was up in the balcony (women’s section), but the rabbi told me that when viewed straight on, it appears to be in the shape of a Star of David. The Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) is a kaleidoscopic star of reds, oranges, golds and yellows. Other pieces of stained-glass are found throughout the large synagogue symbolizing the journey of the Jewish peoples from the Beginning to modern binary pixels. There is a supernatural, almost cosmic feel to the place. There are study halls adjoining the main worship hall. Services are conducted several times daily as well as Shabbat and holidays. I was able to be present for the morning davening and Torah reading. It was a spiritually uplifting experience in every way.

 

Medical care is open to all. Patients from the Palestinian Authority and Gaza are also treated. And Sheba is not just in Tel Hashomer. There are outposts in Uzbekistan, Mauritania, Equatorial New Guinea, Cambodia, Armenia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka – and a multidisciplinary clinic was recently established in the Ukraine. Docotrs, many specialists in their field worldwide, fly into Sheba Medical Center for further training.

John’s radiation and chemo treatments have been easy going, thank G-d and the staff of Sheba. He has had absolutely no symptoms: no nausea; no hair loss; no low energy; no weakness; no appetite loss; no further weight loss; no ulcerations. This part of the journey has been an answer to prayer. We pray his MRI and PET scan results come back clean and that he will not have to undergo that horrific surgery. It would be a huge miracle, but we wholeheartedly acknowledge G-d’s hand in all of this. We could not have asked for better care anywhere. The oncology center has an on-call hotline for questions that is open 24 hours. We were given many different numbers for who to call/contact directly in case of emergency or just for information or questions. There were always doctors and pharmacists available and a host of nurses on call. I only wish I could say this about the hospitals in the north of the country. Truly, Sheba deserves its rating as one of the top ten in medical care.