Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Nefesh B’Nefesh

A-Minus: 8 Months, 1 Week

You may have noticed that I have adjusted my aliyah target date. Instead of June 1st, at this point it makes more sense for me to aim for August 15th, which will give me a little bit of time after the PE exam to prepare myself, and the Ulpan I want to take doesn't begin until September anyway.

The biggest aliyah news so far is that the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) has approved my Tik Aliyah (application for Israeli citizenship.) Now, once I am ready to go, all I have to do is visit the Israeli consulate and have my passport stamped with an aliyah visa, which will entitle me to citizenship upon landing in Israel.

The next step is to begin the application process with Nefesh B’Nefesh (“Soul to Soul” in Hebrew,) an organization dedicated to helping Canadians and Americans make aliyah by, “removing the financial, professional, and logistical obstacles that are preventing many ‘would-be’ Olim from fulfilling their dream.” Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass the day before the 9/11 attacks on the United States after his Israeli cousin was killed in a terrorist attack in Israel. He decided to honor his cousin’s memory by helping North Americans move to Israel as a response to those who would drive us out. He co-founded the organization with philanthropist Tony Gelbhart, and since then they have been steadily boosting the numbers of olim one year at a time.

The record number of immigrants from North America was 8,122 in 1971, part of a wave of immigrants inspired by Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War. Since then, numbers have steadily dropped off until, even during the prosperity and quiet of 1999, only 1,697 North Americans decided to make aliyah.

Nefesh B’ Nefesh charters flights full of olim with El Al (Israel’s national airline,) bringing in immigrants by the planeload. The first flight was in 2002, only a couple of months after I had to leave Israel. That year Nefesh B’Nefesh assisted about 200 immigrants. The numbers have steadily increased until this year, 2005, saw six planeloads with 2,300 immigrants, and 10 planeloads are expected for 2006. The eventual goal is to break the all-time record of 1971 and beyond.

If the old saying that Zionism is one Jew sending a second Jew to Israel on a third Jew’s money, then Nefesh B’Nefesh is Zionism par excellence. Right now, my main concern is completing my application for financial aid. I have to gather together all of my financial records and have my accountant fill in a financial affidavit. Then I’ll write an essay explaining my plans and dreams for aliyah, hopefully inspiring them enough to help me out with my student loans. Nefesh B’Nefesh is also involved with helping immigrants work their way through the Israeli bureaucracy, find work, and generally get settled in life.

While I’m busy with aliyah business, the rest of life seems to be moving apace. I unfortunately sprained my ankle about two months ago while jogging. It was a class 2 inversion sprain, which means that there was incredible swelling, bruising, and I was stuck at home on crutches for several days. After a couple of weeks, I was able to use the exercise bike, and after a month, I was able to use the elliptical machine at the gym. Unfortunately, I still can’t run without serious pain, which makes it difficult to cross the street when the little “Walk” symbol changes to a “Don’t Walk”. I was hoping to be able to run again by January 1st, but it’s looking less and less likely.

I also had my first business trip a week ago. The company actually seems convinced that I’m some sort of HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) guru, so they flew me up to Seattle and put me up in a hotel for a couple of days to help them with a project they’re doing up there. I managed to extend the trip through the weekend, so I had a chance to visit my friends, my Dad and Sister, and I met Ira and Terry, a couple of wonderful long-lost cousins who live near Seattle.

It was a fun trip, and great for the ego that the company thinks it’s worth $600 to fly me up to Seattle for my expertise. Now it’s back to the grind here in Walnut Creek, working 10 hours per day, 6 days per week as usual, trying to get out of debt and save up as much as possible.

Attached are some photos I took at a desalination pilot plant I visited earlier today.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Happy Birthday to the World and Me

The world turned 5,766 yesterday, and I turned 27 today. I want to wish everybody a happy Rosh Hashanah! If I have offended anybody over the past year I would like to here and now apologize (without necessarily admitting malice, wrongdoing, or negligence.)

I have been receiving the yearly parade of phone calls for my birthday, and in wishing her a happy Rosh Hashanah, my 16 year old skeptic sister bluntly pointed out the fact that the world is not 5,766 but, in fact, approximately 4.7 billion years old, and hence that going to Rosh Hashanah services is a waste of time. I'm so proud of her! She has matured from being childishly obnoxious to intellectually obnoxious. My natural response was, "Shut up."

But she raised an excellent question: how can a person on the one hand function in the western world, with its dependence on fact, impartial judgment, and critical thought, yet at the same time be a religious Jew and believe in the Torah as the revealed word of God, straight from Mount Sinai? It's especially difficult for me, being an engineer, a profession requiring measurement, calculation, and a cold analysis of whether a solution to a particular problem is, in fact viable.

The easiest way to deal with such questions is to simply ignore the elephant sitting in your living room. For the religious, this means that anything contradicting the literal Torah view must be shut out, including books, movies, and news reports. Why is there fossilized evidence that creatures existed eons before the biblical 5,766 years of creation? How can we see light traveling from stars which are more than 5,766 light years away? None of this is a problem if you live in a Torah bubble.

Similarly, a secular person can to dismiss substantive arguments that the Torah is true as religious superstition. Why does the surrounding culture always react with great violence and hostility to Jews when they attempt to assimilate, contrary to the experience of all other exiled peoples? Why do the Jewish people, the weakest and smallest, survive when all the great and powerful nations of the earth have vanished, contrary to every rational argument? If you can brush off such questions as exceptions and quirks without a second thought, then you're out of the intellectual woods.

There are some who, in desperation, try to split this argument into two issues. "Science explains how the world works, and Torah explains why." In other words, don't try to mix the two, you're only asking for trouble. I've tried each of these methods and none of them work. The little unasked questions don't go away, they gestate and feed on my subconscious, growing into major doubts.
The next step is to try to reconcile the two ideas. There is an idea that the world was created in-situ. When God created the world, he created trees full-grown. Thus, if you were to cut down a tree on the sixth day of creation and count the number of rings, the tree would seem to be 70 years old when really it was only 3 days old. Likewise fossils were created already buried in the earth, and starlight was created already on its way here, such that it would appear to the scientific observer that the world is four billion years old when it is really only 5,766. All evidence contrary to divine creation is simply a divine test of faith.
Likewise, there is the scientific theory, called "intelligent design," postulating that the world was created through a natural process, but that this process was constantly guided by God's hand.

I have never been a big fan of either of these theories, since I don't see anywhere else that God tries to "fool" us with evidence to contradicts his words. "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live…" (Deut 30:19.) No tricks or demands that you live with your head in the sand, just the expectation that you live properly and the Torah, the teaching, of how to do so.

My own belief is that the two systems are part of one system, they simply haven't been reconciled yet. The physics world is experiencing a similar problem. Einstein's theory of relativity today explains how the world of the very large, galaxies, stars, light, and gravity, operates. Quantum physics explains how the world of the very small, the atoms, electrons, neutrons, and protons, operates. However, when one applies the laws of relativity to the very small, they do describe what is seen in a laboratory. And quantum physics, while beautifully explaining the world of the very small, doesn't bear any resemblance to reality on the very large scale. Still, there is no doubt that they do both, in fact, explain the same universe, and the search is on to find the "Grand Unified Theory" to unite them.

We know from physics that time is not necessarily a static quantity. Relativity tells us, and it has been scientifically observed, that what a person traveling at close to the speed of light experiences as a day may take years or centuries to a stationary observer. Likewise, one of the four Talmudic explanations of the Chanukah miracle is that, although outsiders observed the Chanukah menorah to burn for eight days, time inside the Beit Hamikdash where the menorah was burning was actually only one day, stretched out so that an outside observer would observe eight days.

There are aspects of the observable universe that science explains and aspects that only the Torah can explain, and sometimes pretending to know the answers is more destructive than admitting, "I don't know." The physicists argue over quantum mechanics and Einstein's relativity, but meanwhile we continue to enjoy televisions, computers, microwave ovens, and all the inventions that require both of these seemingly contradictory theories to function. Likewise, I have no doubt that with the coming of the Moshiach, we'll finally have our "Grand Unified Theory" of Torah and science. Until then, I'll keep using my microwave and keep going to minyan on Rosh Hashanah.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Moving Right Along

A-Minus: 8 Months 2 Weeks 2 Days

The Sochnut, Hebrew for “Jewish Agency,” began in Israel’s pre-state days facilitating Jewish Immigration to Palestine and representing the Jewish People when negotiating with the United Nations and national governments. When Israel declared independence in 1948, most of the duties of the Sochnut were taken over by the Israeli government. Today the Sochnut acts as a semi-autonomous arm of the government, responsible for immigration, Zionist education, and Israel’s relations with Jews around the world. The Sochnut sends shlichim (messengers) to cities with a significant Jewish population in order to encourage and facilitate aliyah.

A few hours ago I made the first phone call to the Sochnut at the Israeli Consulate in San Francisco to open my Tik Aliyah (immigration file.) After repeated phone calls I finally got a hold of my shaliach, whose name is Shiri and seems quite friendly. She briefly interviewed me and we discussed my plans, which met with her approval. I already have all of my personal paperwork together (new passport and proof of Jewishness,) and she mailed me some additional paperwork to fill out. Once I have crossed all my t’s and dotted my i’s, I’ll have to make a trip out to San Francisco to meet with her for a face to face interview and to check my paperwork.

Meanwhile, my Hebrew has been suffering over the last few months. I’ve been so busy at work that it has been difficult to find time to study. Also, I took a 4th of July vacation down to Southern California to visit friends when my briefcase with all of my study materials and palm pilot was either lost, misplaced, or stolen by gnomes. I had an Israeli friend at Chabad who was correcting my grammar exercises, but then he stopped coming so there’s nobody to help with my written exercises. Also, my good next-door neighbors who were helping me learn and feeding me every night have moved away to Toronto, so now I don’t have anybody to eat or read with.

Helping my neighbors pack all of their junk and garbage for the move to Toronto made me realize how much junk and garbage I also own, and it made me wonder how I’m going to get it all to Israel. One of the Zchuyot Oleh, the special rights granted to new immigrants, is the right to bring over a container full of possessions without paying Israel’s draconian import taxes. Once I started looking into it, however, I discovered that a container will cost at least $6,000 after everything is said and done. I don’t think that all of my possessions combined are worth that much, not to mention that I’ll have nowhere to put them once I arrive, so I think it’s better just to sell everything I can, especially the large stuff. I have already photographed almost everything I own and am working on a website to launch an internet garage sale, probably after I finish the PE exam in April.

I do have some small stuff that I don’t want to just have to throw away, so I’ve begun transferring it to store with my family up north. I just took a good week and a half vacation up there, and managed to transfer about 100 lbs worth of valuable but unnecessary items. I will keep bringing my possessions north incrementally until my final departure. Then, once I live in Israel, I will incrementally bring stuff over with me in my luggage as I shuttle back and forth for visits. This process is a bit tedious, but if it saves me $6,000, it will have been worth it.

As I mentioned, I got to visit my family up north. It really is great to see my family, and makes me realize I don’t see them nearly enough. Pictures are attached.

I also got to visit the King County Cogeneration Plant in Seattle, which was the first project I ever worked on as an engineer, starting way back in October 2002. I designed everything in that building from the 6 MegaWatt Gas Generators to the mop sink and hose spigots, so it’s very exciting to see the project nearing completion. Pictures of me in my macho hard hat are attached.

It was refreshing to take time off to focus on things other than money, career, and aliyah. It reminds me how much I’m looking forward to being finished with this part of my life.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Progress & eLationships

A-minus: 10 months, 3 days

I’ve got 10 months to my Aliyah target date, so it’s time to stop daydreaming and start the process. The first step was to get a new passport since I lost my old one. Next, I’m going to open a “Tik Aliyah” (Aliyah folder) with the Israeli consulate.

To become an Israeli citizen, the Israeli “Law of Return” requires that the prospective immigrant prove his Jewishness. The Jewish definition of “Who is a Jew” states that one must either have a Jewish mother or have converted to Judaism. However, the founding fathers of Israel decided that in order to fulfill Israel’s mission as a Jewish refuge, anyone who would have been persecuted as a Jew is entitled to Israeli citizenship. Since the Nazis decreed that anyone who had one Jewish grandparent was Jewish enough to kill, the Israeli government adopted this definition. To obtain Israeli citizenship, one needs to present the Israeli consulate with two letters from prominent community members or a certificate of conversion as proof of Jewishness. I’m now in the process of preparing my paperwork.

Interestingly, post-war Germany also decided to open its borders to Jews in order to rebuild its local Jewish population, so anyone who has a Jewish mother can also immigrate to Germany. This results in the strange situation where the Jewish State uses the Nazi definition of “Who is a Jew”, and the descendants of the Nazis use the Jewish definition.

In the mean time I’ve been corresponding with a few potential Shidduchim (matches) via internet and telephone. I refer to these electronic relationships as eLationships. For those who don’t know, in the Frum (Orthodox Jewish) world, dating for marriage-minded singles works something like this:
1. Compile a list of character traits you are looking for in a prospective bride.
2. Go to local Rabbi, Rebbetzin (Rabbi’s wife) or trusted friend and tell them you’re “on the market” and what you’re looking for.
3. Someone recommends a Shidduch.
4. Give and check Shidduch’s references.
5. Initiate contact via phone or email.
6. Arrange and go on dates.
7. Get serious or split up.

Some of these steps may be skipped. For instance, if I bumped into someone I liked at shul (synagogue) and thought she was appropriate, I might start asking around about her without waiting for someone else to have the idea. Sometimes people don’t ask for references. In some very religious communities the couple meets once before getting married, although that is strongly advised against for people who grew up in western society.

So far I’ve made it up to steps 5 and 6, but no further. I’ve been involved in several eLationships recently, but I’ve been finding them extremely difficult since most of the girls I talk to live far, far away. I can have a few phone conversations, but if I want to get to know the girl, I have to buy an airline ticket and fly cross-country. The amount of money I would lose would set my Aliyah plans back by at least a month, maybe two, so it’s already a serious investment.

All these failed eLationships and financial issues sometimes trigger me to fall into the blues. Most mornings I wake up ready to go, to bring myself one more day, one more hour, one more minute closer to my goal. I can daven (pray) with kavannah (intent), and I get to work with a spring in my step. But about once every six months to a year, something happens that causes me to lose my footing. I won’t sleep all night, but in the morning I just want to lay there. I go to work but am really just an empty desk. My last episode happened around Lag B’Omer last May.

Since these “Blues Episodes” have happened a few times, I’ve been learning how to deal with and control them. The Jewish concept of Emunah is not really blind faith, but faithfulness, i.e. sticking to what you know even in times of challenge. I find that if I can just focus on the memory that, yes, there was a time when I woke up and had that powerful sense of direction, and that yes, I am still working towards a goal, even though I may be a bit confused now and it seems out of sight. I use the memory of having direction to gather enough strength to sustain the effort. Gradually, over a course of two or three weeks, I slowly regain my footing and begin again to have that burning fire in my belly of purpose and direction. I always come out of “Blues Episodes” stronger than I was when I fell in.

Well, I’ve got no blues for the time being and am making some serious progress. I put in another 10-hour workday today, I’m putting together my paperwork, and gearing up to begin the Aliyah process!

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A-Minus: One Year

Well, this is it, I'm in the home stretch. My aliyah target date is June 1st, 2006. I realize that I may not be leaving on exactly that day, but I want to at least have my Professional Engineering License, to have my debts squared away, and to have all my possessions packed, shipped, sold, or burned by then. It feels good to be moving forward.

On the down side, my dear, precious 1992 Ford Tempo, which I've driven since I was in high school, is now in its death throes. The bearings on the AC compressor are failing, so the car makes these horrible banging and clicking sounds when I drive it. The repairs will cost significantly more than the value of the car. I've been riding my bike as much as possible, hoping beyond hope that I could stretch the car's life out for just one more year, but I don't think it's going to pull through.

Fortunately, a car was just donated to our Chabad, so the Rabbi said I can take it. The deal is that I pay for registration, the smog check, etc., and he'll let me use it for the year.

So my new car is a two-seater 1988 Honda CRX hatchback with 150,000 miles on it. I was ten years old when this baby was born. The hood ornament is missing, the front left end is slightly crunched from some sort of collision, the sunroof looks a bit leaky, the air conditioning and power steering are long gone, the upholstery is shredded, and the body has numerous metastasizing colonies of blood rust. That aside, the old girl really runs smoothly and handles like a missile. I have dubbed her the "Rust Rocket."

The main disadvantage is that it's a manual transmission, and I only know how to drive an automatic. Not to worry! My buddy Art from Chabad has been taking me on lessons after work and on weekends. So far I've managed to go from a standstill to a start without screeching a total of four times out of roughly two hundred attempts. Usually we practice until either we can smell the clutch burning or Art starts experiencing whiplash. I'm only hoping I can get the hang of it before my Tempo breathes its last.

At work, we've hired a new Mechanical Engineer whom I interviewed a few months ago, and I am now in charge of training him. Boy, talk about starting from scratch. This young whipper-snapper came out of school and knows a lot of theoretical engineering stuff, but he's really pretty much a baby when it comes to practical applications and construction. I was never like that, was I? Still, he asks lots of questions and clearly knows that he doesn't know anything, which is a very good sign.

Otherwise things are okay. Life can sometimes get lonely here in Walnut Creek, as there aren't any girls of my age and religious persuasion around. I also haven't been studying Hebrew as much as I should lately, as I have been feeling a bit burned out on it. Still, I've got some good friends to go riding and hiking with. I'm also keeping in shape, working hard, learning a lot, and counting down the days.

Friday, March 25, 2005

A Freilecha Purim!

In shul this morning the Rabbi was passing out miniature bottles of vodka, so it must be PURIM TIME! Happy Purim to everyone!

Things have been moving along nicely here in Walnut Creek. First off, I found out that I passed the EIT exam. What a load off my shoulders! A few weeks later, I got a 3.88% raise, which felt even better. It would appear that Environmental Engineers (Environmental is the latest euphemism for sewage treatment) are in great demand these days. About 15% of the engineers at my company have left over the last two months, recruited mostly by our clients, the local municipalities. I think passing the EIT exam demonstrated my seriousness about advancement to my bosses, and they want to keep me, hence the raise.

When I was studying for the EIT exam, I would usually go to the library for two or three hours every night and spend all day Sunday studying at the coffee shop. I think that the brain is like a muscle, and once you start pushing it, you build up your strength. In order to better understand this process, I invented a new engineering unit. I figure that one fully-functional brain operating at full capacity for a standard hour is one "brain-hour." By long hours of studying, I increased my daily brain-hour capacity by about 40% from 8 hours per day to 11 hours per day. Once I finished the exam, I suddenly found that I had leisure time, something unknown in Israel, and I didn't know what to do with myself. I would finish work, come home, and just vegetate on video games or movies. Like a well-honed endurance runner suddenly sidelined, I found myself going crazy, so I decided to do something about it.

There are many hobbies that I've wanted to do. I've always been embarrassed about being a mechanical engineer and not being able to fix my car, so I could enroll in auto mechanic's courses at the local community college. I also wanted to improve my Hebrew, grow a vegetable garden, and maybe even learn an instrument. Well, I think that one of the reasons that the KBH (Kadosh Baruch Hu, a.k.a. God) sent me out here was to learn about focus. I really have to focus myself to get out of debt and stay on track. So I eliminated three and decided that the most important thing by far is to improve my Hebrew. I figure if I can learn Hebrew well enough, then I'll be able to get a better job after Aliyah, so I can hire someone else to fix my car and I'll be able to haggle with the mechanic better. I will also be able to afford vegetables instead of growing them, and I could buy a nice stereo instead of learning piano.

Thanks to friends in Israel I have some Ulpan (intensive Hebrew) workbooks, so I started with those. I've been going to the library for two hours every night, slowly working through the problems. I have several Israeli expatriate friends from Chabad and one in particular has spent many hours helping me. I fill out about five pages of grammar and vocabulary exercises per night and then fax them to him. He usually returns them, corrected, the next day at morning davening. He's been an amazing help.
Also, I really hit the jackpot when an older friend of mine, Meshullam got married. His wife moved into town and is a total Chabad-style Yiddishe Mame, who happens to have lived in Israel for twenty years. I have been going over to their house every night of the week for a sumptuous and highly kosher meal. After the meal, I have to earn my keep by reading from a Hebrew book of stories about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I usually read for an hour or more, with her gently correcting and translating the parts I don't understand. It's a fantastic arrangement, and it's a relief to interact with non-engineers from time to time.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Halfway There

I'll start with the good news. My recent collision and the resulting damage to my 12-year-old Tempo caused $1,629.83 worth of damage to the car, which, after some haggling, my insurance company agreed to pay. I then made a near 100% repair with two wood screws and some rubbing compound, costing a total of $0.15, and promptly paid the balance to my student loans, which brings me to my next positive development.

Last year on January 1st, I made a vow to myself that within one year I would finish paying off my parents' portion of my student loans, an amount of $20,000 which we had agreed before my going to college that I was to pay myself. Today, I can proudly announce that, thank God, I reached my goal with 19 hours to spare. Now all I have left is the $20,000 that is in my name. I had decided to finish with my parents' portion first since, if God forbid I get fired or laid off, at least all of the debt would be in my own name, so the government can't go after my family. For the first time in my life I am completely financially independent, as all of my debt is in my own name.

I can now project that I should be able to finish with the second $20,000 by the end of this secular year, January 1st, 2006. I plan on taking the PE exam in April, 2006. This gives me some time to save up a bit extra, and I can at long last set myself a target date for aliyah: June, 2006.

Having a target date changes my outlook on life. I feel like I've been running up a mountain this whole time, and now that I'm halfway, I've come over the crest and am on my way back down. It's just as grueling and just as far as the way I've come, but now I know the terrain and I can finally see the finish line. I know I can make it.