Sunday, October 23, 2011

Continental Air Lines - Tel-Aviv to Toronto

I tried flying Continental Air Lines on my most recent flight from Tel-Aviv back to Toronto.

The flight time was a key consideration. The flight leaves Tel-Aviv at about 11:00 p.m. and arrives in Newark, New Jersey around 4:30 a.m. (EST). There is a 6:30 a.m. connection to Toronto which means that that the flight arrives in Toronto at about 8:00 a.m. These flight times are similar to US Air times (via Philadelphia). I find it much better to fly at night. Air Canada's direct flights back to Toronto from Tel-Aviv all leave at 12:00 p.m. and arrive in Toronto at 6:00 p.m. For various reasons, which I have written about in other blog posts, I'm not very happy about these all day flights. With Continental (now also called United - since the two merged), you can even fly from Tel-Aviv to Toronto via the U.S. at night and then fly back from Toronto to Tel-Aviv on Air Canada direct at night. The price is very similar to flying both ways on Air Canada.

The Continental flight was quite decent. The flight left on time. The airplane was clean and looked fairly new. It seemed to be well kept. The personal entertainment systems were among the best I've seen. There was an enormous selection of music with hundreds of CDs. There was also an enormous selection of movies.

A major benefit of flying Continental for Air Canada Aeroplan Elite or Super Elite members is that you get the same bonus points as if you were flying Air Canada itself. So an Elite traveller can get about 18,000 points for a round trip flight between Toronto and Tel-Aviv. A super elite traveller can get about 23,000 points. No other airline (other than Air Canada) offers this benefit for this route.

Like other U.S. airlines, Continental charges for extra baggage (meaning more than one suitcase) and charges for everything from headphones to alcoholic beverages. The staff, like other U.S. airlines, are somewhat aloof. This is not the personal interaction that you can get with El Al nor is it even as friendly as Air Canada. At best, you could call it organized and competent, if somewhat stingy.

On arrival in New Jersey from Tel-Aviv, all passengers must clear U.S. customs and collect their baggage to be handed back for check-in just after customs clearance. Here it is a great benefit to have a Nexus card and bypass the lengthy customs line-ups. Otherwise you could be waiting for a quite a while in an immigration/customs line-up.

There is an airport shuttle that runs from the arrival terminal (Terminal C) to the departure terminal (A) but this was reasonably convenient, even if not marked particularly well. Unfortunately, there was no access to duty free since the duty free shops only open at 6:30 a.m. and the plane from Newark to Toronto left at 6:30 a.m. It is worth pointing out that you can buy duty free items in Tel-Aviv and then put them in your suitcase after you pick the suitcase up in Newark before sending it along to Toronto. However, you have to pay the prices of the Israeli duty free shops where are not necessarily that reasonable. Unlike the connection through Philadelphia, you have to clear personal security again after landing so that adds to the line-up time and inconvenience factor.

Overall, the flight was fine and was probably a decent option for Aeroplan members looking to take a night flight from Israel to Toronto though there is no easy way to upgrade to business class from economy. The availability of upgrades is still one of the best reasons to fly Air Canada between Toronto and Tel-Aviv along with the general convenience of a direct flight.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sukkot 5772/2011 in Israel

Sukkot is a holiday that is often neglected in the Jewish community in North America. Though it is considered one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar, part of the group of three “pilgrimage” holidays, it has become a holiday that is more likely to be celebrated by Orthodox Jews along with some Conservative and Reform Jews.

Perhaps this is partially due to timing. Since Sukkot arrives only a few days after Yom Kippur, it is difficult for many people to take off days from work for religious observance after having used holiday time for Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

It could also be related to the weather. After all, in many parts of North America, it could be only 10 or 15 degrees Celsius and maybe even very rainy, which makes it a challenge to sit outside in a makeshift hut with a thinly covered roof and enjoy meals for 8 days. Then there is the challenge of procuring a palm branch, some willow leaves, myrtle leaves and an etrog (citron – part of the lemon family) to hold together during morning prayers. Finally, many families simply did not grow up celebrating the holiday in post-war Canada and the U.S. and the traditions were not passed along in the same way as a holiday like Pesach (Passover).

All of this is very different in Israel, which is clearly the best place in the world to be to celebrate Sukkot.

For starters, Sukkot is a national holiday in Israel. Most stores, restaurants, and other businesses are closed on the first and last days of the seven day holiday. Kids are off school the entire time. Many businesses are on lighter work schedules during the intermediary days. For many families, it is a great opportunity to leave the country and go travelling to Europe or some other destination for a family vacation. But for those remaining in Israel, it is a very important and widely celebrated holiday.

Some aspects of the holiday have transcended religious boundaries and become part of a national celebration. Many secular families put up sukkot (temporary booths) even if they only wind up using them once or twice to entertain some guests. Kids have lots of fun making decorations for their family sukkah, in school before the holiday starts, and with their families.

Many Israeli cities have palm trees. In Ra’anana, for example, the city trims its palm trees a few days before Sukkot and posts a schedule of when the trees will be trimmed and where the branches will be available for free pick-up. Residents are able to collect these palm branches and use them for the roofs of their sukkot. Some families have one or more of the required trees on their own property and can collect the proper items from their own backyard.

Cities across Israel have “Sukkot markets” where people can come and buy almost any item needed for the holiday, ranging from pre-fabricated sukkot starting from about $150 for a complete kit (with metal poles, canvas walls and bamboo roofs), to the sets of items needed for the holiday (lulav and etrog sets). With all of the competition, the prices of the various items become much more reasonable. It is quite a bit of fun to wander around in these markets and see what is being offered and the varying price ranges.

Restaurants throughout Israel, even many that are not even kosher, put up sukkot, so that their patrons can sit and eat their meals in the sukkah. This is actually quite the sight. In areas that are densely packed with restaurants, like some parts of Achuza Street in Ra’anana, you can see a whole row of sukkot, one in front of each restaurant. Some restaurants share one sukkah between two or three establishments.

We enjoyed a family dinner at the beginning of the holiday sitting outside with a group of about 30, eating, singing and drinking wine. We could see and hear neighbours on both sides also enjoying the festival with outdoor family meals. We also managed to make it Jerusalem for a bat-mitzvah during the intermediary days of the holiday. There were thousands of people arriving at the Old City of Jerusalem that day with their lulav and etrog sets in hand for the morning prayers. The roads were closed to most private vehicles so we wound up walking for about 40 minutes from the Kotel area to the restaurant for the celebration. The area was simply too crowded to be able to take a taxi.

The weather was beautiful throughout the country for the entire seven day holiday. Israeli and other musicians were performing at clubs and venues all over. There were various indoor and outdoor festivals taking place and many people taking the time to enjoy family outings at many of Israel’s hiking trails, water parks or historical sites.

One of the Hebrew names for Sukkot is “z’man simchateinu” (the time of our happiness). It is a name that is well suited. Sukkot really is one of the happiest times to be in Israel, as a visitor or as an Israeli.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shalit Released - Emotional and Bittersweet Day in Israel

Gilad Shalit is back home and the first group of 477 Palestinian prisoners have been released. Some 550 more will be released over the coming months.

It has been a gripping and highly emotional day in Israel. News coverage began early in the morning and continued throughout the day. There was no other real news here in Israel. This historic exchange was one of those days – days that will stick out as historic – like the day of Kennedy’s assassination or the day the Twin Towers fell. A day about which people in Israel will ask each other for years – what were you doing on the day Shalit was released?

There was a thick cloud of apprehension throughout the morning. Would the deal go through? Would there be some kind of last minute hitch? Would Shalit really be alive and well? As the morning progressed, events unfolded as planned in the deal that had been reached on October 11, 2011. Convoys of Palestinian prisoners were driven from Israeli jails to various points for exchange. Israeli dignitaries and military helicopters were prepared. Worldwide press streamed to various sites.

As the morning unfolded, the events occurred as planned, mostly. The Palestinian prisoners, more than half of whom were serving life sentences for murder or other equally heinous crimes were released. Shalit was released to Egyptian authorities and was promptly interviewed in Egypt. It was almost surreal. Here was the Egyptian press asking Shalit if he would now commit to working to secure the release of the thousands of remaining Palestinian prisoners – trying to draw a moral equivalence between a captured soldier and thousands of convicted terrorists and murderers. He was quick enough on his feet to explain that he would like to see peace – and to see them released – if they agreed to end their armed struggle against Israel and to live in peace.

Shalit was handed over by the Egyptian authorities to the Israeli officials. He was given an Israeli army uniform and met with Israel’s Prime Minister before meeting his parents. He looked thin and pale. He had seen no sunlight for more than 5 years and was still suffering the effects of some shrapnel injuries that had never been properly treated. He seemed quite frail. There is much work ahead to bring him back to a state of good health.

At Shalit’s yishuv in Mitzpe Hila, in North Central Israel, there was palpable excitement. Many might have wondered whether they would have ever seen Gilad Shalit alive again. Shalit’s father called this the “happiest day of my life.” Residents of the Yishuv were in a celebratory mood.

But for many others throughout Israel, the mood was much more sombre. There was a sense of relief and thankfulness that Shalit was back home and free. But Israelis also had to watch scenes of hundreds of convicted criminals being released to wildly enthusiastic crowds in Gaza, calling on Hamas to kidnap “another Shalit” as soon as possible. It was not a day for celebration but a day on which an Israeli life was been saved – even at the cost of 1,027 freed prisoners, who had collectively been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelis.

Despite the calls by some for Hamas to try to capture new prisoners or commence a new wave of terrorist attacks, there was still a feeling that maybe this could be the first deal of a series. Maybe there are more negotiations to be conducted between Israel and Hamas, however indirectly. Maybe a deal can be reached that will bring stability and calm to the relationship between Israel and Gaza and bring hope to the idea that there really can be peace in the region one day – even if that day is still many years away.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kidnapped Israeli Soldier Gilad Shalit is Coming Home

There is a decidedly bittersweet mood in Israel these days. The top story in the newspapers, on websites, television and the radio is the pending release of Gilad Shalit which is scheduled to take place on Tuesday October 18, 2011.

Shalit is an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in June 2006 by Hamas terrorists who made their way through a crossing from the Gaza strip into an Israeli military area by boring through a tunnel. After more than 5 years of being held captive by Hamas, in Gaza, without access to the Red Cross, medical attention, any other visitors or the outside world, Shalit is being released in exchange for 1027 Palestinian prisoners currently being held by Israel.

Israeli society is very concerned about the welfare of Israel’s soldiers. Since there is almost universal conscription at the age of 18 (with certain exceptions), the army is made up of a significant number of conscripted civilians. While there are also many career army professionals, the Israeli army relies on its citizens to serve their terms and then to be available annually for one month of reserve duty. The army is very much a people’s army and many people in Israel have been touched by the death or injury to a loved one who suffered in the course of fulfilling military duty.

The kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, a conscripted soldier, and the fact that Hamas continued to hold him captive for so long brought many Israelis together in a push to have the Israeli government find a way to bring him home. Shalit’s parents were very active in finding ways to pressure the government. They set up a tent not too far from the Prime Minister’s residence and vowed to remain in the tent and not go home until Shalit was able to return to Israel. They and their increasingly numerous supporters spearheaded publicity campaigns which included bumper stickers on cars, world publicity campaigns, public rallies in Israel and a range of other efforts that brought Shalit to the forefront of the Israeli national conscience. Youth and school groups, university students and other organizations mobilized. Israelis across the political spectrum were united in the idea of finding a way for Shalit to return to Israeli.

However, Israelis were not necessarily united on the price that Israel should be prepared to pay. Over the five years, Hamas continued to demand that Israel release hundreds if not thousands of prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Many of these prisoners were convicted terrorists, having been found guilty of a range of atrocities including multiple murders. The Israeli government negotiated with Hamas through intermediaries but up until October 11, 2011 could not come to a deal.

On October 11, 2011, Israel reached a deal with Hamas, brokered by Egypt, to release 1,027 prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Some 280 of these prisoners to be exchanged have been tried and convicted to one or more life sentences. They include murderers of innocent civilians, planners and architects of terrorist attacks and others who were involved in grotesque, violent crimes. This is not a “P.O.W. exchange” or a “prisoner exchange” where each side gives back its captured soldiers from a war. This is the ransom of 1027 dangerous criminals in exchange for a kidnapped soldier.

Families of the victims of some of these terror incidents brought three separate petitions to Israeli’s Supreme Court today in efforts to stop the deal from proceeding. Two cabinet ministers from the Israeli Government including Avigdor Lieberman opposed the deal in a cabinet vote. Heated debates have taken place all over the country about the wisdom of agreeing to exchange such a large group of violent, unrepentant terrorists for one soldier.

Yet, ultimately, there appears to be majority support for this difficult decision taken by Prime Minister Netanyahu. The opportunity to save a life – to fulfill the deal that the State of Israel makes with its citizens – to spare no efforts to protect its soldiers and to leave no soldier behind – these ideas resonate with Israelis. They reinforce the value of life and give hope to Israelis that the government will take all necessary steps to protect themselves, their friends, family members and others they know who could somehow find themselves in a similar situations.

So, as Israelis are glued to their televisions tomorrow, hoping to catch a view of Gilad Shalit as he returns home, and praying that he does so in good health, they will be very mindful of the steep price that the Country has paid to redeem him from captivity. As Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated, this will not be a day for celebration. Israel will be comforted and even happy to see Shalit return. But it will be a very difficult sight indeed to see so many terrorists released. Some of these criminals will be returning to Gaza. Others will go back to the West Bank. Some will be expelled and will be taken in by Turkey or Syria. Many are likely to begin thinking about their next terrorist operation immediately upon their release. Preventing these attacks will certainly occupy the army and Israeli intelligence organizations for years to come.

Despite all of the negative aspects of this deal, Israelis are an optimistic people. They have to be to live in this neighbourhood. Perhaps there is, in the background, the thought that if the deal goes through, as negotiated – maybe, just maybe, there might be other deals to be made with Hamas. For all of its terrorist history, its avowed intention to destroy Israel and its brutal tactics within the areas it controls, perhaps Hamas will be willing to take other steps that lead to short, medium or even long term improvements in the area and can be viewed as steps towards peace. As na├»ve as this might sound and even if the odds are less than one in 1,027, many Israelis might still feel that the risk is worth taking.

For now, given that the deal has been signed and the petitions to stop the deal have been rejected by Israel’s Supreme Court, Israelis will hope that Gilad Shalit returns home as planned and that he is healthy and well.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Selichot and Yom Kippur in Jerusalem and Ra'anana, Israel

This is the Kotel (the "Western Wall" or the "Wailing Wall") in Jerusalem, at 2:00 a.m. on Friday October 7, 2011. From the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until the day before Yom Kippur, tens of thousands of Jews make their way to the Kotel for Selichot prayers. The prayers are penitential prayers which are said as part or religious preparations leading up to Yom Kippur, usually between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.

People come to Jerusalem from all over Israel to recite the Selichot prayers. Traffic to Jerusalem is madness. Many of the roads are closed to passenger vehicles. We tried our luck driving anyways and wound up spending quite a bit of time in the car. Eventually we parked a couple of kilometers away from the Old City and made our way to the Kotel by foot, moving along with thousands of other pedestrians.

We were not there for one of the main, official Selichot services. Instead, we saw groups of 10 or 15 people doing individual Selichot prayers. The area near the Kotel was so densely packed, it was next to impossible to move to the front and actually get near the wall. It was quite fascinating to see so many people there in the middle of the night. Though we left at 3:00 a.m. from the Kotel area, it might as well have been the middle of the day. The whole area was well lit and thousands of people were just arriving as others left. Luckily for us there was a 24 hour Aroma Coffee bar nearby, which must have been enjoying one of its busiest days of the year. Nothing like a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant to go with those penitential prayers...

We spent Yom Kippur this year in Ra'anana. From about 2:00 p.m., on Erev Yom Kippur (the day before) everything in Israel completely shuts down. The buses and trains stop running. The airport closes. Stores and restaurants close. Even the border crossings all close. By 5:00 p.m., when Yom Kippur starts and the fast begins, everyone stops driving. There is not a car on the road, other than emergency vehicles. It is actually amazing to see. There is no law that prohibits cars from driving and a significant percentage of the population does not observe the holiday in any religious way. Many are not Jewish. But nevertheless, there are simply no cars on the road.

Instead, Yom Kippur has become a national day of bicycling and walking. The day before Yom Kippur in Israel is the single biggest day of the year for bicycle sales. Secular kids and adults throughout the country go on lengthy cycling trips, riding in the middle of the main highways, with not a car in sight. Others walk up and down the main city streets, in the middle of the road.

We drove our car to our synagogue before Yom Kippur and parked it there before Yom Kippur started. After services, we walked backed to Ra'anana from K'far Saba (a walk of about an hour). There were thousands of people in the streets, walking along, chatting with each other and people they might bump into. The main street in Ra'anana (Ahuza Street) was filled with wall to wall people, strolling along and enjoying the chance to take over the main streets with no cars anywhere. For the kids, the highlight was sitting down on the main highway (Highway 4) as we crossed it from K'far Saba to Ra'anana. An erie sight to see one of Israel's busiest highways with no vehicles whatsoever.

Israel moved its clocks back one hour just before Yom Kippur to ensure that the fast would end earlier. So the scheduled time for the fast to end was 5:54 p.m. on

We walked to Yom Kippur services in Ra'anana in the morning. Again, it was quite the sight to see children bicycling, skate boarding and roller blading everywhere, on main streets and side streets, right in the middle of the road, as others walked to synagogues throughout the city, often dressed head to toe in white clothes.

According to a recent survey conducted, 85% of Israelis claimed that they fast during Yom Kippur, which is a remarkably high percentage considering the number of secular people in the country. I don't know what percentage would have also said that they were happy to take their kids out for a bike ride, while fasting, but that number must have also been quite high.

Strangely enough, a day that is seen as the most solemn and holy day on the Jewish calendar has probably become the most exciting day of the year for many Israeli youth. Nevertheless, many of these non-observant Jews head over to the nearest synagogue, with their children, to hear the Shofar being blown just after sunset, marking the end of another year in the Jewish calendar and the fresh beginning of a new one.

Shana Tova to all from Ra'anana.