By Deborah Fineblum
(JNS) It’s official. Israel has been named the 13th happiest country in the world. So says the 2019 United Nations World Happiness Report, which ranks no less than 156 countries using such factors as income, social-support networks and life expectancy. Topping the list was Finland, with the United States lagging behind Israel as the 19th happiest, and South Sudan bringing up the rear at No. 156 (arguably, the most miserable).
In search of some of the happiest moments in a contented Israel? Here are just a few:
The Perseids meteor shower in Mitzpe Ramon. Every August it happens: The Earth’s orbit lands in the precise spot where it ploughs into the path of the ancient Swift-Tuttle comet and the debris (aka meteors or shooting stars) falls to earth. Taking the name Perseids from the originating constellation Perseus, the display is particularly vivid from the depths of the Mitzpe Ramon crater, where there is virtually no light to dilute the view, including a stunning panoramic peek at the Milky Way.
You can catch the action from the end of July through the first three weeks of August, peaking on the night of Aug. 12, when thousands of star-gazers flock to town hoping to catch sight of as many as 120 an hour. Says Ira Machefsky, who gives star shows then at a local alpaca farm near the rim of the crater. “Lying in the dark on our sleeping bags, the shooting stars were so vivid,” recalls Bracha Sukenik of Ra’anana who went with a group six years ago. “The entire sky was like a field of stars that felt so close up.”
Visit astronomyisrael.com to find out about Machefsky’s star show.
For the birds. In Israel, Passover has a double meaning in the month of April. As in the holiday celebrating our freedom from Egyptian slavery and also alluding to the untold thousands of birds who pass over Israel on their migratory path en route from Africa, where they spent the winter, to Europe, where they plan to build nests and lay eggs in the warmth of summer. Exhausted by the 1,000-mile trek that takes them across the Sahara, they stop over the Jewish state long enough to rest and refuel. And that makes tiny Israel a veritable magnet for birdwatchers from all over, many of them with binoculars poised to spy such rare breeds as the wryneck.
“It’s an amazing bird,” says Alena Kacal, who heads up the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, a pristine 1.5-acre spot of welcoming green perched between the Knesset and the Supreme Court building. This cousin of the woodpecker “does a dance with his head that looks like a snake to frighten off predators,” she says, adding that the observatory provides a rare opportunity to catch sight of the wryneck, which stops for R&R “because they’re usually extremely good at camouflage.” Human visitors at the observatory can also watch the banding process each morning.
Becoming a Jew in the Jewish homeland.It’s been nearly three years since Juliane Schiffner came to Israel with her sister for what she thought was a three-week tour. “As soon as I got here, I felt this is my nation, this is my people,” says Schiffner, a native of Germany who was living in Spain at the time. “My sister was happy to have a vacation here and return home, but I knew this was my home, and Judaism was my way.” Now 27, Schiffner has mastered the complexities of the foreign visa system, is known as Ilana, and has already gone before the beit din (religious court) to become Jewish. It’s a process she is looking forward to completing when she immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath) in a couple of weeks. “I couldn’t imagine doing my conversion anywhere but Israel,” she says. “It was such a feeling to go to the beit din here and know that soon I will be part of the Jewish people and part of this land.” Next up for Schiffner, just as soon as the ink is dry on her conversion: applying for aliyah. She’s also been writing a blog about her adventures.
Summertime celebration of Israeli dance. In a country that now has more malls than kibbutzim, there’s nothing like Israeli dancing to transport one back to the unbounded joy of Zionism’s early days. Each summer, the Karmiel Dance Festival, billed as “Israel’s largest dance celebration,” attracts upwards of 250,000, folks who gather in this Galilee town from across Israel and across the globe to dance, enroll in workshops and master classes, see who wins the year’s competitions, and take in three days and nights of performances, described as “incessant dancing.” Though today’s glitzy costumes and mind-bending staging technologies were unheard of in the 1940s and ’50s when Israeli dance began spreading its happy net over the infant state (and the Jewish world), the joy remains undiminished. “When I’m dancing, I feel energized, happy, beautiful,” says Alex Huber, who at 69 has been at it for decades when he’s not photographing other dancers.
Israeli folk dancing was created as a way of celebrating holidays on kibbutzim and “bringing people together when they were spending all day in the field,” explains Huber. “It’s grown way beyond that now, but no matter how big it gets, it’s basically a way of life here.” Tickets go on sale on April 20 for this year’s Karmiel Dance Festival, scheduled for June 30 to July 2.
A proud moment of Jewish survival. In 2013, at their son Bentzi’s graduation from his paratrooper-squad commander course, Danny and Gabie Sykora noticed something. His parents, Edith and Joel Sykora, who were watching the ceremony at Latrun’s Armored Corps Memorial from their wheelchairs, were being given a mazel tov by all the Israel Defense Forces’ brass as they walked toward the dais.
“There was my mother-in-law, who survived Auschwitz and two death marches, and my father-in-law, who’d escaped from both a train and a forced labor camp, and made it to Budapest where he got false documents from Raoul Wallenberg [the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Hungarian Jews]. The two of them never thought they would live, never thought they’d marry or have children, and there was no way they could have imagined that someday they’d live in a Jewish country and have grandchildren serving in its army.” Though Edith and Joel have since passed on, it was an experience their son and daughter-in-law (who live with their family in Ra’anana) say they will never forget. “It was a moment of pride and deep gratitude,” says their son. Adds his wife, “having a child in the army, you hold your breath when they go on dangerous assignments, and there’s laundry and sewing and early mornings. But on that day, I just felt privileged to witness this moment in Jewish destiny after 2,000 years of exile and to know that our family is a part of it.”
Weddings “with a full heart.” At 19 and 22, Rachel and Yoni had no idea how they could afford a wedding–much less be able to set up an apartment. His mother had died and so had her father, and their surviving parents had more medical bills than income. But when a friend told Rachel’s mother, Shira (not their real names) that the Israeli philanthropy Yad Eliezer has a wedding fund for such circumstances, the young couple’s plans suddenly took a turn for the better. They joined the 15,000 low-income Israeli couples who have had weddings in the last two decades with the help of Yad Eliezer.
Although the families are responsible for a minimal per-guest fee and often some rent for the hall, the charity’s fund foots most of the bill. In addition, many couples receive appliances, bedding and other household necessities. “She’s my youngest, and I wanted her to have a real wedding, but had no idea how our families could do it,” says Shira. “Yad Eliezer provided an absolutely gorgeous gown; everyone was so happy for them. It was a wedding any mother and father would want to give if they could, with a full heart.” Just as valuable, she says, was the dignity associated with it all, the fact that “we were never made to feel like we were beggars. They made two families who have been through hard times feel like we’re not alone.”
To learn more about this program, visit: yadeliezer.org/ and click on the Adopt-a-Wedding tab.
Birthright Israel does Ben-Yehuda Street. The casual observer walking through Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall will have little trouble picking them out. They’re the college-aged kids in bunches of four or six or eight with the big goofy grins on their faces talking and laughing with their friends. Friends they had never met until a week or so earlier, when they set off together on their 10-day Birthright Israel discovery of Israel and their Jewish selves. It’s been 20 years, and more than 750,000 Jewish young adults later since the plane carrying the very first Birthrighters arrived in Israel in 2000. And, since the beginning, one time-honored Birthright tradition has been letting the travelers loose on this Jerusalem landmark, filled with every sort of shop, as well as countless falafel and shawarma joints.
“Shabbat was a really beautiful and thoughtful day, and then to go into the city with the wonderful hubbub and have the freedom to explore with friends was perfect,” says Princeton University student Naomi Hess, who traveled on Birthright last summer.
An editor for her school paper who is studying public policy so she can be an advocate for others with disabilities, Hess participated in Birthright’s No Limits: In Motion program for those with mental or physical challenges. More than 3,000 participants have participated in 100 accessibility trips since Birthright’s inception. “One of the best parts of the trip was to be surrounded by such an incredible group of other Jews with similar mobility issues. We were able to really connect with Israel and with each other.”
Graduation Day: A family first. As a child growing up in Ethiopia, Girum Abay dreamed of a different life–one in which he could use his mind and, with hard work, “do something that matters.” Moving to Israel at age 18 with his grandmother, he “didn’t know what life would be like here,” but he resisted family pressures to go to work right after the army, insisting instead on attending university. His curriculum at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheva was very challenging, he says, as was the Hebrew he was learning in.
But the effort paid off. He emerged from his 2018 graduation with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering in hand, landing him a job as engineer for the city of Beersheva. “I knew I wanted to do something with my life; it was something I’ve been thinking about since I was a kid.”
Now 32, Abay is a married father of two. “My children were born in Israel,” he says. “I hope I will give them the life here I didn’t get as a kid.”
Welcoming ceremony for new immigrants. Ben-Gurion International Airport: This is where it all begins for tens of thousands of newly minted Israelis every year–a record-breaking 34,000 in 2019 alone. (This brings to 255,000 the decade total of new Israelis coming in from 150 countries.) Every year those arriving from North America on the Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight are greeted by more than 1,000 of their new compatriots waving Israeli flags and belting out “Havenu Shalom Aleichem.” Yaakov and Julie Rosenberg, along with their four school-aged children, were among those welcomed by this wildly enthusiastic crowd as they arrived on aliyah last summer from Bergenfield, New Jersey, headed for their new home in Beit Shemesh.
“In New Jersey, I would regularly stay up till 1 in the morning to watch online as the new olim arrived, looking for people I knew, and now it was us coming down those stairs,” Julie recalls six months later. “That’s when our six-year-old turned to me and said, ‘Look, we’re home.’ Our six-year-old, she got it that we were coming home.”
Main Photo: A young couple by a lookout point of Machtesh Ramon, a crater formed naturally millions of years ago near Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert, June 28, 2014. Photo by Zoe Vayer/Flash90.