Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Balancing Act

Before I started caring about Israel, I was truly the most apolitical person you could imagine. I didn't know, or care to know, much of what the rest of the world calls Current Events. I had no strong opinions about anything in the realm of politics or history. It wasn't worth debating with me because I had nothing to bring to the table. I didn't know and I didn't care.

That's the truth.

This, of course, changed the moment I started investing myself in Israel. I am still not a political person, but I do know a lot more about what's going on in the world as it relates to Israel.

And I have many strong opinions.

Though they have political implications, my opinions are spiritual ones, based on traditional Jewish teachings about the relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, on prophecies recorded in the Torah and on my fervent belief that we are in the tumultuous period of history preceding the long-awaited Redemption of the Jewish people.

Although, like most of us, I tend to surround myself with people who share my political-spiritual perspective, the last few weeks have put me directly in the path of people who see the world very differently.

Here are three very recent examples.

Looking for a certain kind of wallet on eBay, I wrote to the American manufacturer of a style I liked to ask if he would ship it to me in Israel. After some time had passed, I received the following response:

Hello Rivkah,
I apologize for taking so long to respond. I have been weighing how to respond, to respect your request and to respect the cause of the Palestinians. I decided I can honor your request and also need to let you know the following.

I am opposed to the Israeli Occupation and support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against the apartheid regime that is wreaking havoc in the lives of the Palestinians.

With that said, if you want to buy my product I will sell it to you and the purchase price will be donated to ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid).

In other words, this eBay seller has decided that Israel is the enemy of peace and the oppressors of the Palestinians and if I, as an Israeli citizen, buy his product, he will donate my money to my enemies.

The second example is the recent news story about a group of Muslims who bought a $1 million property in the middle of the Jewish community in Baltimore, not a mile from our old house, to use as a mosque. The story profiles this particular group of Muslims as being moderate and non-violent. Their self-proclaimed motto is,“Love for all, hatred for none.”

The politically-correct response of the Jewish community was to warmly welcome them in a spirit of peace and improved Muslim-Jewish relations.

Now this particular group of 40 Muslim families may be the most gentle and peace-loving people on the face of the earth, which certainly seems to be as the article portrays them. But the fact that there will now be a mosque in the heart of the Jewish community does not seem to faze my former neighbors. They do not see this purchase, as I do, as a first domino in an eventual Islamization of Baltimore, as it has been happening in Europe and other parts of the US, including Washington, DC, just south of Baltimore.



The third example of being brought-face-to-face with people who see the world very differently is an op-ed from the NY Times that was written by three liberal Israelis and declared, by someone in the Old County whom I have known for over 20 years, a person who possesses an extraordinarily powerful intellect coupled with precise verbal acuity, as being "sane, rational, humane". The article calls for Israel to engage in "constructive unilateralism", meaning Israel would:

1. declare that it is willing to return to negotiations anytime and that it has no claims of sovereignty on areas east of the existing security barrier

2. end all settlement construction east of the security barrier and in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

3. create a plan to help 100,000 settlers [including my family, by the way] who live east of the barrier to relocate within Israel’s recognized borders.

And, Israel should do these things "regardless of whether Palestinian leaders have agreed to accept it."

Of course, to me, and to people who think like me, this proposal is about as preposterous, insane, irrational and inhumane as any other that starts from the premise that a two-state solution is the answer to the conflict in this region.

Now I know that it's not unusual for friends to have differing, even stridently opposed, political opinions. But when the stakes are so high, it's agonizingly painful to be so diametrically opposed to the thinking of old friends.

Frankly, it's a lot more comfortable to surround myself with like-minded people.

The challenge before me is to learn to balance vehement disagreement over matters of life and death for my Israeli family and fellow citizens with retaining esteem for liberal Americans who espouse well-intentioned, though, from my perspective, deeply misguided, opinions about this region.

It's a balancing act with which I wish I had more experience.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Stam A Day



Last night, we had dinner with some old friends and family in an Israeli grill. Just three couples who have known one another for a few decades. We all used to live in the same community in the Old Country and now we are all here. Only one of the six of us has any real fluency with Hebrew, so watching us try to order dinner with a waitress who spoke little English was like a skit of Kita Bet ulpan on the first day of class. The waitress asked how many people we would be. I said, "shaysh" and she said, "shisha". That was kind of how it went.

Eventually, the food came and the talk turned to the spiritual merits of our lives in Israel. How we feel closer to Hashem here. How praying, even out loud and with our hands raised in a posture of urgent pleading, feels more natural here. How geula feels closer. How Gd's Hand in our daily lives is clearer.

Earlier in the day, I was on a bus on my way to my office in Jerusalem when the Yom HaShoah siren went off. Ironically, my watch was a few minutes slow, so I wasn't expecting it quite then. The driver stopped the bus, shut off the engine, then everyone, and I mean everyone - soldiers in uniform, young children, Russian immigrants, native Israelis, religious men, secular women, old Ethiopians, everyone stood up inside the bus in absolute silence for two minutes of memory.

Please Hashem, redeem your people from the ravages of antisemitism. Let us live in peace in our Land. Bring back those of our people who were killed because they were Jews and also all those whom we have loved. Let us live in a world of truth and of spiritual clarity.

The moment passed. The driver started the engine, the radio came back on, announcing that it was 10:02. I wiped a small tear, reset my watch and thus began another day.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

How To Bank (More) Like An Israeli



There are many surprises (and yes, some horror stories) for former Americans who make aliyah and open a bank account in Israel. For example, in most Israeli banks, you cannot cash a check against your own account. You must bring it to the bank (and some say even to the specific branch) that hosts the account on which the check was drawn in order to cash it. Even further, some checks, marked with two parallel black lines on the face, can't be cashed at all and must be deposited.

Being constantly surprised by banking practices here, I asked friends on Facebook to comment on what they've learned about banking since making aliyah. A very special thanks to all who responded to my request.

I've organized and compiled the comments here in an effort to make things easier for the rest of us. If you have other tips, please feel free to add them in the comments section below. Especially welcome are comments that correct errors, if any, listed below.

First, in no particular order, some basic facts about banking in Israel:
  • Most Israeli credit cards operate more like debit cards. You get a monthly credit limit and your credit limit is reduced as you charge things during the month. Payment is taken from your account once a month and your credit line is restored to the monthly limit. When you first arrive and/or whenever you are making large purchases, your card can be declined even if you have plenty of money in your account. This is generally resolved with a call to your banker who can authorize a monthly credit limit increase, either temporarily or permanently.
  • Tashlumim means payments. When you buy a big-ticket item, you can arrange to make monthly payments, called tashlumim, generally without interest charges. Each time you check out at the grocery store, you will be asked how many payments you want to make. So if you're not careful, you could still be paying in September for vegetables you ate in June.
  • Many recurring bills (utilities, arnona, cell phone, even charitable donations) can be set up to be automatically deducted from your bank account or charged to your credit card. This system is called horat keva.
  • Most banks charge a fee for everything. We once wanted to make a mortgage payment in cash and were shocked to learn that there was a fee to deposit cash into our account.
  • Although less common than it once was, overdraft is a system by which Israeli banks cover your bills and lend you money (with interest) without informing you that you have gone into overdraft. As I understand it, there are now limits imposed on accounts so people can't run up the kind of huge overdrafts they used to, but the system still exists.
  • Israel has a banking system called Bank HaDoar which makes it possible to open an account at the post office and do most basic banking transactions there. Fees and services are bare bones, but there are branches all over the country.

Here are some comments about surprises olim encountered as a result of being unfamiliar with the Israeli banking system. In most cases, these are being published verbatim, but I did edit lightly to correct typos and make things a bit clearer to those less familiar with the system here.

You can write post-dated checks.

You can write a check with the payee blank. Your check will be passed from hand-to-hand as cash until someone decides to deposit it.

Be very careful about cashing checks, because after 5 months they will not honor/deposit the check in your account.

All your 'horao't keva' should be put onto your credit card and not via your account, because they will charge you for every single transaction including hora'ot keva of course. So on a credit card, all your payments are deducted once a month and the fee is charged only once. Very useful, bankers don't tell you this of course.

The problem with putting everything on your credit card is that you will use up all your mesgaerit (the limit on your card). It has happened to us. We bought a few big items, fridge, beds, etc. and put them on payments on our card. When I went to the supermarket the next day, the card was declined. When I called the bank, they said I had reached my limit.

Some expenses, like tuition for school, can't be charged on a credit card and can only be paid by hora'ot keva from your bank account.

Unpaid tashlumim still count against your credit limit, which will lead them to shut down your card. For example, we had two children to pay orthodontia for, so my husband arranged tashlumim through the kupa, using his credit card. The next thing we knew, all of our credit cards attached to the same account were shut down because they decided that we were in overdraft. They were not able to explain this to us when we called to ask why we couldn't use our credit cards, and we started freaking out, thinking someone had stolen our credit card, until I analyzed the account closely over the internet and then called them up arguing. That's when they explained to me that tashlumim, even though you are not paying it yet, still counts against your available balance as if you are paying for it!

The big one for me was overdraft. I was in shock when I realized that we had one. So, they should know that such a thing exists and it is based on your monthly income and does incur interest.
They will bump it and bump it until pitom you have a huge debt on your hands. Happened to us to, we went to the bank and our overdraft was almost at 40,000 shekels!! I was in shock and they said that every month they just bumped it up to keep everything covered instead of telling us to stop spending!! This was before we could access our account on the net. Now, I watch it. But, on the plus side, if you have some kind of financial emergency (broken appliance, emergency trip abroad), you can get a temporary raise in your overdraft or a small loan fairly easy at the bank.

If the bank machine eats your check at a different branch, you have to get your branch to call them and arrange for them to "transfer" the money into your account, since the branch which ate the check takes the money for themselves.

It is sometimes cheaper to take cash from an ATM than from the teller. It pays to ask. 

When your credit card expires, they don't mail a new one to you (or even send a notification). You need to know by yourself to go to the bank and pick it up.

Banks will not mail credit cards, check orders or PINs. You have to pick them up yourself.

And when the card expires without you noticing, your payments could be declined and not paid. This also happened to us when we were in the US on vacation. Our card expired, we weren't here to pick up the new one and activate it. Our phone got turned off because we "missed" a payment even though there was plenty of money in the bank. 

Banks here know no privacy. They will share your bank details as if it were a shuk. Coming from Europe where you need an appointment with the banker to discuss your matters .. here it's quite a shocker!

You can get a credit card from CAL. It is called a "Cal Active." It works like the American credit cards. You can charge the full amount or do payments if the place of business offers it. Each month, the minimum amount is automatically deducted from your bank account. If you want to pay more than the minimum, you need to call or go on-line to raise the amount to be deducted. I got my Cal Active from being in the teacher's union, but I am sure there is other ways of getting it.

When you send a deposit by mail, it can take weeks to show up in your account.
 
Here are some tips olim and vatikim have learned about how to work with banks:


The number one tip: Make friends with someone at the bank. It will prove useful time and time again to know a particular employee you can go to with your banking problems.

I think it's fair to say that banking here is more "human" than in the U.S. - you can talk to your banker or the branch manager if you have issues or special requests to deal with.

Sometimes you can get bank accounts through your place of work. Like, I am a member of the teacher's union, irgun hamorim, I can open an account with Bank Discount with extra benefits and more loan options with better conditions since the organization is the guarantor.

Always make sure you're getting the best deal they can give you. We were with Bank Discount from Day 1, always dealt with the same woman who knows us. Three years into having an account we went in to tell them we want to switch to a different bank for a better rate. She suddenly says, "You're a doctor, right? I think I can get you a great rate." It took her three yrs to decide to share this...and we didn't know enough to ask for it!

Regarding mortgages, my advice is to use a broker. Our first mortgage we did by ourselves and now we are re-financing through a broker. We got a bad deal the first time just because we didn't understand anything. It is well worth the money to go through a broker.

Realize that it's not the bank that makes the polices, but rather the branch itself. Some banks are not olim friendly at all and you have to "prove" your solubility over the course of 1/2 a year to a year, before they will simply let you deposit foreign checks. Other banks, which deal with olim, and realize 1) American salaries are much higher than Israeli ones, 2) American HATE being in the red, will be much more flexible and will even "advance" you the money until the foreign check clears. Also, very important, you must check your bank account balance. In America if you're in arrears, the bank will call you nonstop. Here, not only don't they tell you, they actually don't mind it at all.

I think in my 32 years here, I have had just about every banking problem there is: shutting down checking (after the divorce), bounced checks, miscalculated charges, etc. I have found that there are two big factors in successful banking: 1) get an online account with the bank and monitor your activity often, and KNOW (not guess) what your balance is, and what is going in and coming out. 2) develop a good relationship with the bank personnel. Loans, overdraft, and even all kinds of charges are really on a "sliding scale," despite their being bank guidelines. interest can be adjusted, etc just by showing good faith and being open with the bank folks.

Finally, a number of people wrote about good experiences they have had at banks in Israel. And they name names.

I actually opened an account at Bank of Jerusalem and I love them.

Some of the banks (Bank Yerushalayim) will let you prove your income for a loan by a letter from a Rav. You put together all your income info (especially if it is undocumented) take it to a Rav or the bais din and they certify that the info is correct and the bank accepts it as proof of income. We did that in Kiryat Sefer to prove income for a loan!

Our family started banking at Bank of Jerusalem when we got our first Israeli mortgage close to 10 years ago. After we paid off the mortgage and made aliyah, we were going to switch to a bank closer to home, but we have been getting excellent service from our English-speaking banker at Bank of Jerusalem so we stay there. We recommend him, and the bank, to many new olim who are looking for an olim-friendly bank.

I just had a wonderful surprise. Bank Hapoalim called because my balance was over a certain amount and they want to know if I want to invest it with interest. And when deciding how much to withdraw, she asked me how much I think I need over Pesach :) And of course, the call ended with Chag Sameach!

Our best banking experience has been with Bank Yahav (which is now open to everyone). At least in our case, they don't charge ANY transaction fee (no line fees either). And we cash checks at our bank all the time.

Bank Leumi started mailing the credit cards. I was prepared to go get mine when I received a replacement by mail. To validate it you have to call them or go to an ATM.

I love Bank Hadoar! You can go to any post office and do your transactions. We pay 12 NIS a month for a debit card. No tashlumim. No ovedraft. It is simple and it works. Plus you can get a debit card for international purchases if you want. Post offices have better hours than banks in general.

And one final, upbeat comment from a woman who single-handedly shared the most tips for the benefit of the rest of us:

With all these mishaps we have had at the bank (and we have had a lot), I am very pleased with my financial situation here. I am a teacher and my husband an officer manager. Our salaries are not high at all and I feel with all the things offered here that aren't offered in the States have made it easier to get by here without feeling like you are drowning. I never stress out if I am not going to have quite enough money to cover my debts because of overdraft and post-dating checks and payments. You just have to watch it and manage it so that it doesn't get out of hand.

May we all be blessed to learn from one another always.

Eilat of Relief

Sometimes it's good to get out of Jerusalem and see something new. I've wanted to visit Eilat for the longest time. This past week, we had the opportunity to go for a very short vacation. How different from Jerusalem! 

While we were there, we were awed by the fact that the Eilat airport is smack in the middle of the hotel district. 

We also goofed around a little.

 


Just noticed the similarity between "goofing" and "gof" (גוף). There's lots to do in Eilat for the gof, and plenty of it is not kosher. Not so much there for the neshama. But it is also Eretz Yisrael, so I tried really hard to think of something spiritual about the place.

When we went to the Underwater Observatory Marine Park, I thought about why Hashem created so many different kinds of fish. And, at the Underwater Observatory, looking through dozens of windows into a world of fish and coral (which are living organisms and not just rocks), I realized that just as there is a whole unseen life under the surface of the water, so there is a whole unseen spiritual world. 


We think we know what an ocean looks like, or what the world is like, but what we perceive with our five senses is only part of the real story. There is so much more that we can't necessarily perceive or name. But just because we can't perceive or name something doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

For example, on the bus ride home, I had a strange sensation for which I have no name. I began to breathe more deeply as we approached Yerushalayim. I felt my neshama, which had been in some kind of suspended animation while we were away, slip in and lock back into place.

Those who know the city better may well claim that I totally missed the essence of Eilat. I'm open to that possibility. All I can say for certain is that I experienced Eilat of relief to come home.