May 4, 2009
This On the Ground column is dedicated to next year's MetroWest Shlichim: Yotam, Natasha, Shachar, Inbar, Inbal, and Danielle. To all of you – please read this carefully as you "don't want to cook your goose. . ."
Thirteen years later, I can now safely unveil what has become a traumatic experience in my professional life and a myth in the Jewish Agency and UJC MetroWest's history – the Yom Ha'atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) community wide event of May 1996 in Whippany, NJ:
Only few months earlier, I had come as a new community Shaliach (Israeli emissary) in order to serve in MetroWest. Foolishly enough, one of the first things I did was convince the Federation to purchase a tent. In a typical Israeli Hutzpadik way, I went from one person to the other explaining that a tent is highly needed in order to accommodate the large crowd attending the Yom Ha'atzmaut event, that this is the most important day in our Jewish calendar and that a one-time $15,000 investment is not much compared to rentals. I still don’t know what I was thinking and how it was perceived, but somehow it worked. A huge fancy tent was purchased at my request.
A couple of days before Yom Ha'atzmaut I was called out of the office to instruct the workers where exactly to place the tent in UJC’s backyard. When I showed them the location (now the Lester housing complex), they said that it can't be done since there is a goose sitting on her eggs on that same spot. When I asked them what they would advise us to do, they replied that it is better to wait few weeks since Canadian geese are protected birds and can’t be removed. I consulted with my supervisors and leadership, and they confirmed that, with all due respect to Israel's Independence Day, we can’t touch the goose. Someone advised me to call the animal department in the municipality of Whippany. I spent a few critical hours being transferred from the raccoon division to the squirrel and rat expert with no luck. They politely made it clear that they can't help. I was desperate.
I sure hope that by now the statute of limitations has passed and I can safely share with you the rest of the story: I waited until it was dark so no one could see me. I took a big stick, waved, begged, shouted, and threatened the goose to leave the place. She didn't give up and fought back, attacking me angrily. Like any mother, she would do anything to protect her eggs from strangers. However, I was protecting my country's independence and couldn’t surrender. After a long, bitter struggle I was able to take the three eggs and moved them a few meters away. The goose surprisingly accepted the situation, waddled over, and calmly sat down. The tent was beautifully constructed the next day after I told the workers that the goose decided to leave. I thought that the war was over and felt very proud of my victory. I didn't realize that this was only the beginning of the nightmare.
Erev Yom Ha'atzmaut, 7 p.m. Hundreds of people were already sitting in the beautifully set-up tent, waiting for the opening ceremony to begin. Everything was in place, the weather was gorgeous, and we were all ready to start. The only concern was continuous reporting about "severe weather" that was approaching our area. In a quick consultation that we held an hour earlier, we decided to ignore the forecast and go on with our plans. After all, this is an Israeli event; we are not used to such an unstable weather conditions, we believe in miracles, and we are an optimistic people. What a stupid mistake. Exactly when the ceremony was about to begin, a mighty thunderstorm came out of nowhere and blew the tent over. This was not funny anymore. The poles, pegs, and all other parts of this fancy tent were blowing with the wind all over the place. Children were hurt and parents were running around crying and yelling. I will never forget the keynote speaker, the legendary IDF General, Yoram Yair (YaYa) standing there in the pouring rain staring at me, reprimanding me with his deep voice: "This is not how we taught you to build tents." Good thing I didn’t share with him my victory on the goose. I was helpless and humiliated.
What happened in the next couple of hours is still a mystery to me. It breaks all prejudice about the American mentality and perhaps is the main reason why I am still around in this business. The community suddenly understood the emergency and came together; they forgot all cultural traditions, left aside all bureaucratic complicities or process requirements, and proved that the lack of improvisation ability is only a myth. Everyone was asked to help carry chairs, stage equipment, the sound system, and food into the building. They all helped out; no one left or complained. Within an hour or so we were able to reconstruct the entire ceremony inside the JCC gym. General Yair's opening sentence was: "I salute MetroWest." The entertainer – famous Israeli singer Chava Alberstein – waited patiently all this time and eventually performed without even checking the sound system first.
By the end of that night, nightmare I should say, I asked my family to start packing. I was sure that after such a foul-up, my shlichut was probably over. I didn’t sleep all night, and the next morning I went to see what happened to the tent. It was a total mess. The tent was down and pieces of it were strewn throughout the entire area. The land was muddy and trees were broken. It looked like a disaster zone. In one of the corners, exactly where she was moved a few days before, I suddenly saw her, my goose. She was quiet and didn't seem to suffer much from the Balagan. I walked closer to her and realized that three chicks had hatched from her eggs and were now hiding under her wings. For the first time in many hours, I felt good.
Eventually I was forgiven, received another chance, somehow completed my term, and have continued serving MetroWest since then. However, the above story was never forgotten and became a well known study case for every Shaliach. There is so much to learn from it, but I will only relate one lesson: At my "Shaliach" farewell party, I received a gift from the Federation: a t-shirt with the slogan: "No tent please." I think they were trying to be funny and recall with a smile the traumatic incident from some two years before.
However and perhaps it is only my imagination, I believe that there was also a hidden serious message in the phrase "no tent please," something like: "Tents are nicknames for everything that is out of our traditional system. Tents are tentative and not stable. We like permanent, safe buildings. Now that you are going to work for us, try to be more mainstream in your thinking. Don't be too wild in your actions. Think twice before you come up with another high risk, crazy idea. Act American and not just Israeli." "No tent please."
Thirteen years ago on Yom Ha'atzmaut of 1996, I was the only Israeli Shaliach in the MetroWest community. For next year's Yom Ha'atzmaut, we will probably have amazing team of seven Israeli Shlichim. It is not by coincidence that UJC MetroWest is so advanced in developing the Shlichut program, more than any other North American Jewish community. Our leadership was always highly appreciative and very tolerant of the Shlichim's unique contribution and to the various "tents" that they have built over the years in our "backyard," most of them successfully.
Our community's advantage in this regard is that we always knew how to combine the American and Israeli mentalities and take advantage of them as a positive force. When I train the new Shlichim for next year, now as an official of the Federation, I am going to tell them the story of the 1996 Yom Ha'atzmaut tent. I am going to point out the many mistakes that I made back then and ask them not to repeat them. However, at the same time I am going to say that even if we tell them "no more tents," they don't have to listen. They need to keep being creative, authentic, and enthusiastic, out of the box thinkers, cutting edge, sometimes even wild programmers. They need to act Israeli and keep the Shlichim spirit, while giving much respect to the American way of thinking. This is the winning model. If we help them keep this balance, we can continue to be called: MetroBest.
Drishat Shalom and Behatzlacha,