Fire from Below

by Brian on August 23, 2014

in Living Through Terror,War in Gaza

photo 2With our nerves already on edge from the air raid sirens and the heartbreaking mounting death toll as Operation Protective Edge raged on last month, the thick black smoke billowing out of our parking garage did not bode well. I was about to jump in the shower when my son burst in and told me to get dressed and shut the window in my bedroom…now!

We live in an apartment complex in Jerusalem that is built around a central courtyard. At even intervals along the length of that common area are mock “wells,” intended to remind passersby of, say, the architecture of the Old City or Nachlaot. The wells are actually just openings to the underground garage, letting in light and creating natural ventilation. (Cynics say that the architects put them there to keep local kids from using the courtyard as a soccer field.) And now they were belching smoke like a 19th century coal-fired power plant.

My first thought as the smoke rose, first in fits, then so fast and thick that we couldn’t even see out of our windows, was that a missile from Gaza had miraculously scored a direct bulls eye in the well. But there hadn’t been a siren and there was no boom.

The fire trucks arrived within minutes and the source of the smoke was squelched. When we were finally able to come out of our house, the smell of burnt plastic, metal, and fabric was overwhelming. Five cars in the garage had gone up in flames, one after another in a row until it reached our parking space, which was empty (my wife was out with the car and on her way home at that very moment), before jumping to the next spot to torch our downstairs neighbor’s rental car.

Speculation began among the neighbors even before the police inspector had noted his suspicions. It was definitely not an accident, he said, that was for sure. An arsonist (or arsonists) had entered the garage, smashed the windows of each car separately, and tossed in some lit material, which caused the cars to catch on fire. He deduced this because, in one car, only the interior burned. At some point, the fire may have jumped to another vehicle on its own. If the firefighters hadn’t come in time, the inferno could have engulfed the entire garage of 70 cars.

OK, if it wasn’t an accident, what was it then? Was it nationalistic? Had the war in Gaza reached our parking lot by proxy? A debate broke out as to what constitutes “terror.” Is it terror if the target is property and not human life? But what if the cars had exploded? Maybe that would have taken down the building, resulting in loss of life. There are upwards of 200 people living in our apartment complex.

I did a quick Internet search on “car gas tank” and “explosion.” It turns out that all those cars that explode in the movies – it doesn’t really happen like that so often in real life. First, gasoline itself isn’t explosive. It explodes in a car’s engine, but only after it’s been vaporized and turned into gas, then mixed with air before introducing a spark. If you put gasoline into a cup and light it, it will burn, for sure, but it won’t blow up. (Standard disclaimer: kids, don’t try this at home.)

And while there is gasoline vapor in the tank, you need to add a source of fire to get it started. Fire won’t normally travel up a fuel line to the tank because there’s not enough air in the line to keep the flame going. So someone would have to be smart enough to know to punch a hole in the tank and insert the fire that way. I don’t think most arsonists have degrees in chemistry. Ours clearly didn’t.

The other possibility that began floating around in the email discussion among the residents was that the arson had a criminal motive. We have a friend who works in the police. He took a quick look at the case in the computer and came away convinced that organized crime was behind the attack. “Every day, I deal with burned out cars,” he explained. “Usually, it’s someone who is trying to send a message. They don’t always know – or care – if it’s the target’s specific car. They just want to make the person feel unsafe. Or to get the neighbors to put pressure on him.”

And why couldn’t it be terror, I pressed? “Torching a car takes too much time,” he replied. “If you want to kill someone, you’d be much more effective by bringing in a small bomb.”

Somehow, that didn’t make me feel any more comfortable.

In fact, the entire experience has left me feeling deeply ill at ease in my own neighborhood, in a different way than being under potential missile attack. This seemed more personal. Someone came into our garage and lit our cars on fire. We’re not on the seam line of Jerusalem, let alone the front lines in Gaza; this is a quiet suburban neighborhood where kids play, we walk our dogs and pick up after them, and stroll over to the local Aroma to get a cup of ice coffee and a croissant on a Friday morning.

Walking home the next night after dark, I found myself startled by noises and shadows in a way I hadn’t before the attack.

We have a great Va’ad HaBayit (house committee), which moved quickly to hire a clean up company to deal with the mess and the stench, and is now discussing the merits of putting in a closed circuit camera security system.

A few days ago, we received word that a suspect had been caught with a nationalistic background. However, he was subsequently released for lack of evidence.

We may never know what the true motive was for the attack on our building. The only consolation I can summon up is the hope that, as the old saying goes, lightning rarely strike the exact same spot twice. Illogical and probably not true, it still gives me some small comfort. Which is about as good as it gets in this long, strange summer of war.

This article appeared in the Friday edition of The Jerusalem Post.


Ben-Gurion flight boardJuly 22, 2014. Remember that date. It will be recalled in history books yet to be written as the day the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians changed completely. That’s because it’s the day that the war in Gaza transformed from just another in a series of “operations” to an existential threat to the Jewish State. As a result, any future negotiations towards a two state solution will look very different.

What’s so important about July 22? That’s when the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) put in place a temporary ban on air travel between the U.S. and Israel. Most of Europe quickly followed suit. By day’s end, 160 flights were canceled.

That might seem a minor annoyance. Big deal, a few vacations got canceled and a (not insubstantial) number of tourists were inconvenienced. But an existential threat? Isn’t that a bit dramatic?

But when an international airport is shut down by the crude and navigationally-challenged missiles being fired by Hamas out of Gaza, it is indeed a game changer.

Israel can’t be physically destroyed by those missiles. The Iron Dome has done a spectacular job of keeping nearly every missile from falling in urban areas.

But Israel can be destroyed economically if its link to the outside world is severed. In our globally connected planet, we rely on air travel to move both physical and intellectual goods and services between markets. If the missiles were to continue indefinitely or to become more accurate, that short-lived air travel ban would be transformed into a semi-permanent one, and the Jewish State would not be able to survive.

All those Israeli R&D centers of international hi-tech companies would be shut down, or maybe even worse, their Israeli staff relocated to “safer” locations overseas. Tech conferences and professional meetings between scientists and entrepreneurs would be canceled. Shipments by plane, both commercial and private would stop or, at best, become unreliable and erratic. FedEx: When it absolutely, positively has to get there overnight…or maybe not.

Tourism of course would be decimated, putting tens of thousands of Israelis out of work. “Who would want to fly into an airport that the top aviation authorities say is dangerous?” travel professional Moshe Mizrahi asked David Shamah at The Times of Israel.

The resulting economic implosion would be worse than what the BDS activists have been trying – mostly in vain – to achieve over the past several years. Our enemies will have finally figured out a way to bring us to our knees. Israel would become a true island and emigration – at least among those who have that option, including much of the country’s essential business community – would become rampant.

Yes, but what’s changed? Hamas has had the ability to aim for the airport at any point over the past few years. There are missiles targeting Israel from Lebanon, Syria and Iran too.

But this is the first time the imagined threat has become actualized. Once the FAA stopped the planes, it is no longer possible to hide our heads in the sands and pretend it will never happen. It just did.

This is not the first time planes have stopped flying. During the first Gulf War, when Iraqi Scud missiles were falling on Israel, there was a wide-scale suspension of flights by foreign carriers. But that was a time-limited conflict and, more importantly, the enemy was really trying to halt the U.S. operation, using Israel as the most vulnerable proxy. It’s different this time, knowing there are thousands of missiles in Gaza intended for us specifically.

As I write this, it’s not clear where the war, with its repeated attempts at breached ceasefires and unilateral redeployments, will take us. Even if there is a positive, enforceable outcome, and the threat from Gaza is somehow neutralized, the effect on the peace process will be profound. The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon perhaps said it best. While the world will say that the Gaza fighting demonstrates “why reaching a two state solution is so critical, now more than ever…Israel’s takeaway [will be] that in any possible two-state solution there will need to be a long-term Israeli security presence throughout the West Bank. Not just along the Jordan River, but throughout the West Bank.”

The reason is clear: Ben-Gurion Airport is just 10 kilometers (6 miles) away from the old Green Line. If missiles got into that territory, compared with relatively far away Gaza, they wouldn’t miss the runways and land in Yehud next time.

In some ways, this is nothing new. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long talked about the need for a future Palestinian state to be demilitarized and, in his June 29 speech at the Institute for National Security Studies, emphasized that Israel will have to retain a security presence west of the river as well to ensure that the West Bank doesn’t become the equivalent of, as he put it, 20 Gaza Strips.

What’s different now, writes Keinon, is that while in the past there might have been strong debate within Israel on whether Netanyahu’s approach was overly reactionary, he will now have “more domestic understanding and support for that position.” And while his old/new line “might have been looked upon as obstructionist by many Israelis before the current operation, [it] will appear more reasonable by much of the Israeli public today.” In short: “anyone who thinks that…Israel will return to negotiations with the Palestinians as if nothing has happened is deluding themselves.”

Keinon isn’t the only analyst who’s come to that conclusion. Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz goes further and writes that “Hamas’s decision to fire rockets in the direction of Ben-Gurion Airport may well have ended any real prospect of a two-state solution…Israel will now be more reluctant than ever to give up military control over the West Bank, which is even closer to Ben-Gurion Airport than is Gaza.” And he adds, echoing Keinon (and Netanyahu), that “the Israeli public would never accept a deal that did not include a continued Israeli military presence in the West Bank. They have learned the tragic lesson of Gaza and they will not allow it to be repeated.”

Dershowitz says that Israel is not just fighting for its own safety. “If Hamas is allowed to shut down Israel’s major airport, every terrorist group in the world will begin to target airports…the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine will be but one of many such tragedies…an attack on the safety of Israel’s airport is an attack on the safety of all international aviation.”

One beneficiary of the FAA decision will be El Al, which did not cease its flights for a moment. A year ago, my wife and I flew on Israel’s national carrier to Asia and found it to be quite disappointing: the service, food, entertainment system and even the physical condition of the plane were so far below other carriers that we could have taken to our destination, that I vowed never to fly El Al again. I have now revised that position. (Reports of El Al’s price gouging during the flight ban temper that somewhat.)

The FAA lifted its ban on flights to Ben-Gurion in just 36 hours and most of Europe followed suit in the days to follow, but the sea change in Israeli attitudes will last much longer. When our children ask when did the Israeli-Palestinian conflict become whatever it will morph into in the months and years to come, we will remind them of this date: July 22, 2014.

The article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post’s Friday Magazine.


YMCA Chorus in t-shirts (sm)An article a few weeks ago in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz questioned why someone would ever want to make aliyah from a comfortable country like the U.S. Especially these days – with the murders of the Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Shear and Eyal Shach still on our minds, the revenge killing of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khaider stinging at our collective conscious, followed by hundreds of Hamas missiles from Gaza and the thunderous response of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza – why, asked writer Vered Kellner, would a family pick up and leave friends and family, “a renovated apartment in the heart of Manhattan, a lively Jewish community and kids in some of the best schools around,” to come to what is these days among the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world?

Why indeed? Even as a not-so-recent immigrant to Israel, it’s a question I still ask myself sometimes.

Kellner, an Israeli living in New York for the past two years, became obsessed with a particular family making the move to Israel. “I followed them on Facebook and peeked at them in synagogue, trying to pick out from among their words and glances the reason why they were taking such a dramatic step,” she writes. Kellner admits she misses the Israeli pressure cooker with its intense, bipolar emotions, as she puts it. “I’m already addicted, a lost cause,” she says. “But what about the new immigrants, the ones who choose it?”

Like the family in New York, I left a good job in hi-tech to move 7,500 miles away from all but our immediate family and I’m still struggling, 20 years later, with accepting that I will never fully speak a language whose backward squiggles and ornate verb constructions are so completely foreign from the English in which I make a living expressing myself as to render me prime parody fodder for an Israeli TV comedy show like Eretz Nehederet.

And then there’s the missiles. It’s not that I didn’t know there was the possibility of sirens and running for shelters in my future. During the first Gulf War, I had a transistor radio at my desk in California tuned in all day to the local all news station. I would hear the sirens, the reports of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds and the purposely-vague descriptions of where they landed. But just like the parent I would soon become, I put it out of my mind. When our kids grow up, there will be peace, I cooed. We won’t need an army and there certainly won’t be any more rockets.

The day we made aliyah, Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped. I can almost hear Kellner crying out, “What were you thinking!”

The truth is, I was never supposed to be here. I came to Israel almost by accident. After I graduated from college, I dreamed of traveling around the world. I loaded my arm up with inoculations that would allow me to go anywhere – Africa, India, Southeast Asia. Israel was just a stop along the way.

But from nearly the moment I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, I was captivated. Even though (or maybe because) I grew up utterly assimilated, with no bar mitzvah, Yom Kippur just another school day, and the highlight of Shabbat mornings our weekly bacon breakfast, I couldn’t tear myself away from this place. The trip around the world was put on hold, I stayed for three years and met my wife-to-be. We returned to the U.S. to jumpstart our careers, started a family and made aliyah for real a few years later.

Bomb shelters were never a part of the narrative. So, maybe the question is not why’d you want to come here, but why do you stay?

We have a family trip to Ireland planned for the end of the summer. (The irony of visiting a country that had its own long-term terrorism problem is not lost on me.) As the missiles fell, my daughter asked if we could move the date of the vacation up.

“Could we maybe get out now…just for a little while?” she asked.

“You know what you’d be doing, right?” I replied. “You’d have your news app open on your iPhone all day and you’d be Whatsapping with your friends non-stop and be totally unable to enjoy the trip.”

That was the experience of Allison Kaplan-Sommer who was vacationing in Rhode Island during June’s kidnapping crisis. She was looking forward to the trip as a break from the “sadness and strife” of the Middle East. But try as she might, “I haven’t been able to give myself that break…it seems wrong to wake up and read a local morning newspaper where the top story is a feature celebrating the fact that the shin-guards worn by the American soccer team in the World Cup were made in Rhode Island.” And so she spent much of her vacation glued to streaming video and social media out of Israel.

To friends who have helpfully suggested to Kaplan-Sommer that maybe she ought to pack up the kids and “find a safe refuge until the storm blows over,” she responds that she’d “rather be here experiencing it than far away wondering what the country is going through.” She likens it to when a family member is ill. It’s easier somehow to cope when you’re right in front of them, “with your finger on the pulse of their condition.”

Kellner gets it too. “Why settle for a seat in the balcony when you can have one in the orchestra?” she mused.

And yet, that seat in the orchestra can be so difficult. Why choose to put yourself in harm’s way when, as an immigrant with two passports, you always have an easy way out?

Michael Oren says it’s a matter of responsibility. Oren is the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., and an eminent historian – his “Six Days of War” is by far the best and most comprehensive volume in English on the 1967 war.

The rebirth of the state of Israel is an historic opportunity for Jews who care about their Judaism to take responsibility for making the country all that it can be, Oren told a sold out crowd at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies earlier this month. “The notion that as Jews we are responsible for one another is a time-honored Jewish definition…and what I’d call the base definition of Zionism,” Oren explained.

Yes, Israel is beset by a myriad of problems – economic, political, social, racial. “Sovereignty is messy,” Oren said. “But taking responsibility for that mess is what Zionism is all about. It’s very easy for me to talk about Israel’s astounding achievements in hi-tech, medical science and Nobel Prize winners. But what I’m proudest of is the mess, the chaos. And right now, we have no shortage of it.”

(Maybe that’s why our Jewish mothers back in the States have such a hard time with us being here. They spent their entire childrearing years trying to coax us into avoiding getting messy.)

Our youngest son sings in a unique Israeli-Palestinian teen choir. The Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which has been meeting for two years now under the sponsorship of the Jerusalem International YMCA, has performed all over the country – including singing backup for veteran Israeli guitarist and peace activist David Broza’s Israel radio chart topping cover of “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding.”

The group’s weekly meetings alternate rehearsal time with “dialogue,” led by trained facilitators. The conversations are not always easy but for the 32 teenagers in the choir, an understanding and respect for the “other side” has developed.

Sometimes, though, I wonder: what’s the point? A couple dozen kids are being educated towards coexistence? Big deal. How is that going to make a difference on the national level? Can any of them personally stop the missiles? How, in fact, is my being here rather than in the U.S., also not being involved in anything political, going to make a change in Israeli society (other than, say, encouraging dog owners to pick up after their pets in the park)?

But you don’t need to educate a whole society for change to occur. A single individual can have profound impact – for better or for worse. Maybe one of the kids in the chorus will grow up to be prime minister and figure out how to forge peace in a way no one has yet thought of. Maybe, because of this experience, one will not grow up to be a terrorist (Arab or Jewish). And here’s one for believers: maybe one will grow up to be the messiah.

When you hear the sirens, it’s easy to succumb to despair, that this is too overwhelming a mess. “But I look at it the other way around,” Oren concluded his talk. “I can think of no greater blessing than to be alive at a time in Jewish history when I as a Jew have to deal with this mess.”

I get that and agree. But a little less mess, that would be OK too.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post Magazine and blog.


Using FB on Internet (Reuters)A rabbi friend of mine had major surgery last month. Thankfully, he made it through OK and has now begun a long recovery process.

Before, during and after the surgery, my Facebook Wall was flooded with posts asking me to pray for my friend. Impromptu minyans were formed online as well as at his congregation in St. Louis. Individual prayer was requested…the tone was concerned yet strident. The message seemed to be: if enough of us pray long and hard enough, my friend would be assured a successful return.

The same approach was prevalent throughout the tragic ordeal Israel has just gone through regarding the murders of Gil-Ad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel and Eyal Yifrach…if anything on a much grander scale. Special prayers and psalms were added to the regular synagogue service and mass gatherings, including one at the Western Wall, attracted tens of thousands of supplicants.

Even the usually secular Yair Lapid got into the prayer space. In a meeting with Bat-Galim Shaar, Gilad’s mother, Lapid said, “I haven’t prayed for six years. Since the bar mitzvah of my son I haven’t been in a synagogue. When the story of your sons broke, I looked through the entire house searching for my grandfather’s siddur (prayer book). I sat and prayed.”

I didn’t pray for the rabbi in St. Louis or for the three boys. Not that I didn’t want my friend to recover or the boys to be returned home alive and well! It’s just that I’ve always had a hard time relating to the implied end result of the classic understanding of prayer in times of emergency: that God can miraculously bend the laws of nature according to the fervency of words directed in a heavenly direction.

So how does a skeptic like me respond to all those calls to pray spilling forth from my email, social media, and even some news sites? In the aftermath of the horror that has gripped the nation, I suspect I won’t be the only one asking the question.

My first reaction was to respectfully ignore the messages. To say, well, it doesn’t work for me, but everyone has his or her own way of coping. But there was an implied guilt in the entreaties. Maybe I was just reading into them, but they seemed to be chiding me: have you done your part? Have you forwarded this email sufficiently? You don’t want to be the weak link. Are you really so sure of your beliefs?

It was that same kind of thinking that had me ask my father, a devout atheist, five years ago, as he was dying in a California hospital, what his full Hebrew name was.

“Why do you want to know?” he said to me.

“People are asking,” I replied. “They need your Hebrew name to pray for your recovery.” And then I added: “do you mind if they pray for you?”

“They can if they want to,” he said, as matter of factly as he could between morphine drips. “But it’s not going to change anything.”

Which it didn’t. He was gone a few days later.

And still: maybe I just don’t get how prayer really works. If only I could drop the defenses and give it a try.

Leah-Bieler-mediumIn the midst of the kidnapping crisis, I came across an article by Leah Bieler that helped put things in perspective. Bieler is a Talmud teacher in the U.S. with a master’s degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

“Individual and communal prayer have in them the potential for tremendous power,” Bieler writes in a piece that appeared in The Forward. “Prayer can force us outside of ourselves, help create and maintain empathy, form community, heal wounded souls. It can redirect our thinking [and] bind us to the past.”

That certainly seems true enough. Indeed, in times of helplessness, just the act of coming together, even if we say nothing at all, can be tremendously affirming. And isn’t it during those very gatherings that ideas for specific responses are mulled and eventually enacted. Would the campaign to free Soviet Jewry, for example, have been so effective if Jews didn’t have the opportunity to meet every Shabbat to pray…and plan?

Bieler continues: “All of these are holy purposes. But using prayer as a magic trick is a much dicier business. The moment I’m sure that my specific mode of praying will work miracles is bound to be short lived. I will, without fail, find myself disappointed in the end.”

That set off a stream of angry talkbacks and counter-posts, such as this one from the blogger Elder of Zion: “Wow! I guess all the theologians over the centuries of every religion must bow to the mighty logic of Bieler and stop wasting their time in prayer!”

But for every counter, there is a counter-counter post. The blogger Atheodox Jew commented on why his wife acceded to a similarly mystical call that was made for Jewish women around the world to light extra Shabbat candles (or to light candles earlier than usual) in the merit of the missing boys.

“Did she light early because she sees the act as a segula, a sort of ‘charm’ or ‘technique’ for aligning spiritual forces in our favor?” he writes. “Certainly not. Did she do it, as most people spoke about, ‘in the merit’ of the boys, meaning that if we accrue enough favor with Hashem (God), He will change His decree and grant the boys’ release? No, that was not her intent either.”

She did it, in much the same way as Bieler is arguing, as a symbolic act of caring, ”of keeping the fate of the boys and the anguish of their families in our minds and hearts” and as “an expression of solidarity and compassion.”

At the Jewish Renewal community my family and I attend in Jerusalem, when it’s time for Maariv (the evening prayer) on Friday night, the rabbi suggests that congregants either join with the chazzan (prayer leader) for traditional davening, or sit quietly in mindful meditation. “Just no talking!” she insists.

I usually choose the second option. That should be no surprise: I’ve written before about my personal practice of mindfulness, an approach that focuses on being in the moment; of not “grasping” towards a particular desired outcome or “resisting” negative or painful thoughts and feelings. Prayer for God to intercede in the world seems in some ways to be the opposite of that; a way of covering up the pain with ready-made texts and semi-plausible sentiments rather than fully feeling difficult emotions.

James-picI asked my teacher, Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels of the Or HaLev Center for Jewish Spirituality and Meditation, for a comment. After all, he teaches Jewish mindfulness.

Prayer, when it is about “recognizing what you want and then asking for it or trying to get it is not necessarily being stuck in ‘desire’ or unhealthy ‘aversion’ towards the current situation,” he explains. “It may actually be justice. That is, if I see injustice and I have the desire for justice, I pray for justice, and I act to create justice, then that is all very healthy, as long as I am doing it in a way that recognizes that I also may not get what I want and I can still be present with that.”

Indeed, mindfulness – that being in the moment and not grasping or resisting – should never be used to shut down desire, Jacobson-Maisels continues. Desire is to be embraced. The key is not getting lost in it. Prayer is important because it “helps us name and express our desires,” he says. “And in my experience, it can connect us with the pain we are experiencing rather than having us run away from it.”

What seems clear is that Jewish prayer in the modern world can probably be interpreted in as many ways as there are people praying. If I take a step back and drop the judgment; the grasping and aversion, I can almost look forward to that next Facebook request.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.


Students 2Ever since we moved to Israel 20 years ago, I’ve always felt like I don’t quite fit in anywhere. I’ll never be truly Israeli, since I didn’t grow up with all the pop culture references someone born in the country knows intuitively. And I’m not fully American anymore either, since I haven’t resided in the U.S. for more than a month at a time for nearly two decades.

Now, it turns out, there’s a term to describe me: I’m what’s known as a TCI – a “third culture individual.”

The expression isn’t new. It was first coined by researchers in the 1950s to describe the children of American citizens working and living abroad (in that case, they’re often called TCKs for “third culture kids”). These TCKs are not part of their parent’s culture and not entirely at one with their new country’s culture, hence the appellation “third culture.” The term received visibility when a very famous TCK became president of the U.S. (Barak Obama was born in Hawaii but grew up in Indonesia).

While TCKs are generally children and young adults who have spent a good chunk of their developmental years outside their parents’ culture, a TCI can be anyone who has significant living experience in a culture outside his or her own. Which means that I am a TCI, but my kids are not: even though two of them were born in California, they came here when they were young enough that their culture is 100% Israeli.

profileDespite being a TCI for close to half of my adult life, I hadn’t realized that I was part of a specific subculture until I met Lital Helman, COO of the web startup GradTrain. Helman was sitting next to me at a networking event sponsored by JNext, a new organization in Jerusalem that is working hard to foster an interdisciplinary ecosystem for entrepreneurs in Israel’s capital.

The event was an invitation-only moderated discussion between Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg prior to the latter’s receipt of the Genesis Prize last month. It was held at the Hansen House, the former leper hospital turned hi-tech and design hub. Helman and I struck up a conversation while drinking mid-day champagne and eating mini-quiches and chocolate éclairs.

Helman was born in Jerusalem and grew up here, but has been TCI’ing it in New York and Pennsylvania for the past seven years. She moved there for school where she quickly discovered that a preference for hanging out with her fellow ex-countrymen was not unique to Israelis. In fact, TCIs often have more in common with other TCIs – even those from entirely different countries – than with the majority culture around then.

So, for example, I as a TCI in Israel might relate quite resonantly to the travails of an American expatriate who has lived for 15 years in Japan or a Swedish Ph.D candidate in Canada, even though it would seem that our day-to-day experiences would be quite dissimilar.

Helman ought to know. Her company, GradTrain, is a peer-to-peer video coaching platform that helps students from one country wishing to study at a university in another figure out the nuances of everything from application essays and scholarship options to what to expect from roommates and healthcare. The company was founded last year and is growing steadily with several thousand unique visitors a month, a couple hundred active coaches and 20,000 social media followers. Coaches charge for their insight and time; GradTrain takes a percentage.

While most students come to GradTrain to figure out how to get into a graduate program overseas, many return to their coaches for follow-on sessions once they’re been accepted to school, as “third culture” issues start to arise. (All of GradTrain’s coaches are themselves TCIs, so they’ve walked the same road as the people they’re mentoring.)

Language is a big part of being a TCI. Helman gives the example of someone saying “that’s interesting.” In Israel, she says, “that means the person wants to hear more. In the U.S., it often means ‘let’s change the subject.’” The same is true when an American says, “let’s have lunch. The real meaning if often just ‘nice to meet you.’ In Israel, I’d invite that person for a meal!”

This lack of understanding can be very disconcerting for a TCI in a new culture. “People who travel abroad to study are usually very motivated and talented. They’re used to having conversations where they understand what’s going on, so not getting the reaction they expect can be very confusing. It can really break a person,” Helman says. “They wonder if something has happened to them, if maybe because they’ve moved to a new country, they’re not the same person anymore. It takes time to learn the rules.”

Helman advises TCI students to do the opposite of what’s often suggested for faster acculturation, to hang out only with locals from their adopted country. Rather, “they should keep some friends from back home, or hang out with other people with international backgrounds,” she says. “That way, you won’t be the only one around who doesn’t get what’s going on.”

I’ve certainly seen the language issue in action with my TCI friends in Israel. Even the most Hebrew-fluent Anglo might not fully appreciate the word play of the legendary Israeli pop band Kaveret like a native. In the same way, Israelis will never get the cultural “stickiness” of Gilda Radner’s “Never mind” or Steve Martin’s “Excuse Me” on the gut level of a 70s child growing up in the U.S. with the first generation of TV’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Another example, this one not from Israel: on a recent episode of the U.S. public radio show “This American Life,” author David Sedaris described his experience living in Paris. He shared how he structures which establishments he patronizes and which he avoids in large part according to where he’ll have an easier time communicating in his limited French.

Maybe it’s because we’re both writers, with all the perfectionism we attach to communicating with grace and facilité, but like me, Sedaris is devastated daily by the withering comments a salesperson can lob in his direction for an awkwardly constructed phrase in a language not his own. All the more so in Israel, where the resurrection of an ancient tongue is a source of national pride and, even after two decades in the country and attendance at no less than six Hebrew ulpans, my still fumbling attempts at ordering anything more complicated than falafel are fodder for communal outrage.

Helman, 34, ultimately found she was tired of being a TCI in New York and together with company co-founder Jacob Bacon (despite the unlikely name, he is Israeli like Helman), returned to Israel earlier this year to run the company from the city of her birth. They are currently operating out of the JVP incubator in Jerusalem.

Helman discovered upon her return that being a TCI can go both ways. “When you come home, it can be like starting all over again,” she says. “You’re not the same person. People and places have changed. You sometimes feel like you’re now a foreigner” in your own country.

Do most TCIs stay in the country they’ve found themselves in or return home? Helman says it depends on the nationality. “People from Eastern Europe want to stay in the place they’re moving to and often use their studies as a gate to immigration. Israel, Germany and China have programs in place that provide a lot of incentives for students to come back.” The Chief Scientist’s “returning academics” program in Israel is an example.

As for TCIs from the United States, “99 percent of Americans who study abroad go back,” she adds.

I’m not planning on becoming part of that 99 percent and abandoning my own TCI status to return to California. Indeed, I think there’s probably something a little different about the crazies among us who make aliyah, at least in terms of our commitment to a new culture.

After 20 years, though, perhaps now is the time to embrace my essential TCI-ness, awkward moments and all. After all, I’m not just an anomaly. I’m a trend!

This post appeared originally in The Jerusalem Post’s Friday Magazine section.


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