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The People You Meet
by Judy Lash Balint
April 6, 2003

Dr. Mordechai Bishari is one of Israel's top scientists. For many years he was director general of the Ministry of Science. He has taught at universities all over the world, and serves as Israel's representative to all sorts of top level scientific committees. Today he's the chief scientist at the Ministry of Communications, which means he's in demand at international conferences on various topics of the latest technology used for civilian and military purposes.

But for more than a year, Dr.Bishari would return from his trips abroad where he stayed in 5 star hotels in Paris, New York and Rome, to be driven back to his home in a caravan at the top of a windy hill in Kochav Yakov by his ministry chauffeur.

"It was always so good to come home to that caravan," he exclaims, over Shabbat dinner. Dr. Bishari and his wife Adina, a scholar in her own right, are neighbors of Navah and Yakov, good friends of mine who recently moved from Jerusalem to the community of Kochav Yakov, 20 minutes north of the city.

After almost two years, the Bishari's moved into their permanent home next door to my friends in Kochav Yakov, but they both speak fondly of their time in the caravan. The Bisharis are not young, idealistic kids--they're grandparents in their early sixties.

These are the kind of people you meet over Shabbat in the warmth of a small community just 10 minutes drive from the large new Jerusalem neighborhoods of Pisgat Zev and Neve Yaakov.

Today, Kochav Yakov is home to around 350 Torah observant families. Founded some 18 years ago with a core of a few families, the community is growing as fast as new houses are going up. Housing prices are less than half those of Jerusalem, and cheaper than the larger, more established communities of Gush Etzion south of the city.

But it's the warmth and friendliness of the people that attracted my friends to move out there. On Friday night, a knock at the door brings in another neighbor, Bracha and her 3 year-old son Yitzhak. It takes no more than two minutes for me to figure out that she is the grandaughter of one of my political mentors, Manfred Vanson. Manfred and his late wife were among my parent's closest friends, and I visit him quite regularly in his Jerusalem home to mull over the issues of the day. Bracha is married to a Yemenite Jew and the Bisharis, whose parents made aliya from Yemen, are proud to claim her as one of their own.

Over dinner, Mordechai, a totally unpretentious and optimistic man, tells us stories of his early life in Rehovot, where his parents settled from Yement in the 1930s. Tall and silver haired, Mordechai has delicate, long hands, probably nothing like the hands of his father who labored in the orchards. Mordechai and Adina are passionate in expressing their love for the land of Israel, and they're obviously delighted at their new neighbors who have immigrated to the land they love so much.

It's full house at the Sephardic synagogue on Shabbat morning. Several hundred people crowd into the sanctuary above the supermarket for morning prayer. Bracha tells me that almost one third of Kochav Yakov is made up of French speaking families. Around 10 per cent are English speakers. Many of the French observe Sephardic customs from their North African ancestry, so the French/Hebrew prayerbooks scattered around the synagogue don't come as a surprise.

At lunch, we meet Tamar and David Feld. The Felds are vatikim--old-timers. They moved to Kochav Yakov from Jerusalem 12 years ago when there were less than 30 families here. Tamar is from California and David from New York, but their five children are all Sabras. Tamar is a news editor at Arutz 7, the radio and internet station based just up the road in Beit El. David works with the US servicemen stationed in Israel, and he's involved with several chesed projects.

Tamar is currently devoting her time to promoting aliya to Kochav Yakov. She decribes her recent trip to 11 communities all over the US, where she tried to dispel the excuses Jews come up with for not making aliya. "Come with the blessings you already have," she urged those who claimed they would have to wait until their economic situation improved. Under Finance Minister Netanyahu's proposed budget cuts, many immigrant subsidies are being eliminated, providing another potential excuse for postponing the decision to move. "We got nothing when we came," counters Tamar, "and we made it..."

On a post-lunch walk on this clear, cool early spring day, we head up the slope where the caravans command the view over the magnificent undulating hills . A few hills over to the northwest, the outskirts of Ramallah are clearly visible. To the east, a few small Jewish communities are dotted, and looking south, the Arab village of Jaba spreads across a foothill, the mosque in its center drawing the eye.

On the way back to Jerusalem after Shabbat, I stop to pick up a young man "tremping"--waiting for a lift, at the bus stop. He's a security guard at the Anglican School in Jerusalem and has managed to persuade the company to assign him some extra hours working guard duty at an evening event at Pardes, the learning institute in Talpiot, not too far from my apartment. The money will come in handy, he tells me, as he and his wife are expecting their third child in a few weeks. The thirty minute ride passes quickly as we debate the merits of religious political parties.

I drop off my Shabbat gear and pick up the lasagna I've made to contribute to the potluck party celebrating the 58th wedding anniversary of parents of one of my oldest friends. Debbie and I met in college, and she was the first in her family to make aliya back in the late 1970s. Her parents and sister followed, leaving their son and brother back in Portland with his wife. Tonight, the party celebrates a wedding anniversary as well as the 18th aliya anniversary of a remarkable couple.

Matti and Shari came to Israel after retirement. Matti was a popular and busy dentist in Portland, and Shari was one of the most active women in the Jewish community there. Today, their lives are full with classes and simchas and the joy of five grandchildren. They are stalwart members of the Conservative shul on Agron Street.

The party is full of happy reminiscences. We see black and white footage of the young couple on their wedding day, rare in 1945--Matti cutting a handsome figure in his US army uniform, Shari, a slim and stunning bride, with long, black curls and porcelain skin.

The kids and grandchildren have prepared songs and "shtick" in honor of Matti and Shari. Much of it surrounds Matti's legendary story-telling ability. Now in his late 80s, Matti is always ready to recount old war stories, or tales of his many escapades.

Tonight, instead of those adventures, Matti chooses to speak about their decision to make their lives in Israel. "Here we all are," he says looking around the room filled with friends and family, "I would never have believed it. What a wonderful thing to be able to say we live in Jerusalem."

On the way home, I find myself sitting next to one of Matti and Shari's friends who agrees with Matti's sentiment. He's an immigrant from Milan, born in Istanbul, who happens to know my neighbors who are also from Italy. A rare book dealer, he's just another one of the remarkable people you can meet over a weekend in this Jewish centrifuge.