All-Inclusive Israel

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Because family is everything in Israel, kids are welcome everywhere — making the country a great family vacation destination. 

The first time I realized the extent of Israel’s family friendliness was prior to having my own kids. I was reviewing hotels and restaurants for the Jerusalem section of Fodor’s Israel, and had to check which restaurants, cafes and hotels could be flagged as welcoming to families.

Here was the thing: Virtually every place I visited was just that — from high-end bistros to mom-and-pop cafes — and nearly all included high chairs and a selection of kid-friendly menu options.

Now that I have kids of my own, I’m not all that surprised by Israel’s family focus. This is the land where families are front and center. According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 1.87 million families — out of a 7 million-plus population. Most — 63 percent — are two-parent households, and the average family has 3.72 kids. It’s a country where Family Day — Yom HaMishpachah, the 30th of Shevat — is celebrated rather than the American-style Mother’s Day.

Kids are welcome everywhere because family is everything in Israel. It’s a concept that’s been in place since the country’s 1948 rebirth, when world Jewry was reeling from the loss of six million Jews and the Jewish homeland was all about renewal — and demographics.

This is a country that provides financial allowances for each child, a system established in 1959 in order to help increase the Jewish population as one way to counter the effects of the Holocaust, worldwide Jewish assimilation and the much larger Arab population. In Israel, mothers receive three months’ paid maternity leave (better than the United States’ Family and Medical Leave Act that allows for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but it still doesn’t compare with the Netherlands’ fully paid 16 weeks) and a modest lump sum from the government upon birth.

The state also implemented fertility measures. The socialized health care system once allowed women an unlimited number of subsidized in vitro fertilization treatment cycles, which has since been capped at a maximum of eight cycles. This is in contrast to the United States, where a round of IVF costs an average of $12,000, and is currently an insurance coverage option in only 15 states.

The point of all this? Israel wants its families to have babies — and Israelis are complying. Add in the fact that all Israeli citizens have to serve in the army for two to three years from the age of 18, and it’s no wonder that Israelis savor those early years, given the inherent worries about the future. Even after the army, it’s not unusual for young adults to live at home for a time, bringing home girlfriends and boyfriends, creating one big, happy family.

One of the more recent developments in all this encouragement of family-making is in the single-parent and LGBT communities. The Central Bureau of Statistics shows that the number of single women who gave birth in 2010 nearly doubled compared with the year 2000. And while there aren’t any definitive numbers, it is relatively common for religious single women to have a child or two as a way to feel more part of the community.

Leah Leeder, a practicing chiropractor who is the single mother of a 4-year-old daughter, found that her identity has changed since becoming a parent, in part, she said, because of the intense focus on families in every aspect of life.

“Before I gave birth, I was who I was, and now I’m ‘the mother of Raphaela,’ ” she said, referring to the common terminology used in local preschools, when other parents may not know the parent’s name. “Adults I know through her will say, ‘Hi, Mom of Raphaela.’ I kind of enjoy that identity. When you are ‘Mom of’ in this country, it gives you a context.”

It’s a similar kind of experience for LGBT families, particularly gay couples, who have to leave Israel in order to have children, and have been doing so in increasing numbers, having surrogate pregnancies in the United States, India and, now, Thailand.

The prime destination for foreign surrogacy used to be India until last year, when the Indian government made it illegal to be a surrogate for same-sex couples. Then Israeli same-sex couples turned to Thailand, but a recently introduced Thai law automatically grants citizenship and full custody to the babies to their birth mothers, and any attempts to take a Thai baby out of the country can be construed as kidnapping.

Although there is an Israeli consulate in Thailand, the Israeli government has been warning gay couples to avoid surrogacy in Thailand, given the inherently complicated diplomatic procedures there.

While there have been a series of political issues of late for Israeli gay couples having surrogate children in Thailand, it’s still overwhelmingly acceptable for same-sex partners to have families in Israel; in fact, it’s expected.

Irit Rozenblum, the founder of New Family, a leading family rights organization in Israel, commented that Israel is fairly advanced when it comes to rights for LGBT families.

“Israeli society is particularly family-friendly, whatever the sex of the parents,” said Rozenblum. “One can even say that the perception toward gays is changing in their favor when they choose to grow and multiply.”

Among gay couples, it’s common to use money set aside for mortgages in order to pay the tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to afford surrogate pregnancies, said Avi Rose, an informal Jewish educator in Jerusalem who, with his partner, has 2-year-old boy-and-girl twins born in India.

And despite “changing the rules of the game,” said Rose, who has mostly positive things to say about the governmental intervention in their surrogacy experience, he finds that his kids sometimes call him “Ima,” the Hebrew word for Mommy, when they’re upset.

“It’s such a mother culture here,” he said.

At the same time, even here, in the “startup nation,” where most families include two working parents, it’s rare to come across a family where both parents don’t show up for their kids’ preschool birthday party (or the Rosh Hashanah/Chanukah/Shavuot celebration), and fathers pick up kids from school almost as regularly as do mothers.

A Tel Aviv University study comparing family policy and public attitudes in Germany and Israel looked at other societal factors that have affected Israel’s family-friendly structure. There was the large 1950s immigration from traditional societies in North Africa, bringing their dominant family structure, religious observance and high fertility rates. While that population has clearly Westernized in the ensuing decades, their concept of extended family wrought a significant effect on Israeli society.

So while most families may not eat dinner together every night of the week — the main meal of the day is often lunch, whether it’s the schnitzel and ptitim (known elsewhere as orzo) served at school, or rice and meat patties made at home by Mom or Grandma — they certainly gather every Friday night for Shabbat dinner, even if it’s a staunchly secular family that often includes not just parents and kids, but grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

It’s also not surprising to find kids, even toddlers and preschoolers, accompanying Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa for an evening jaunt to the mall, the movies or a late-night snack at the local cafe. A friend and his family told of visiting a vegan bar in Haifa, where intellectuals, students and musicians like to hang out. The owner made balloon animals for the girls and they ended up staying for a performance of Greek music.

Other examples abound. Who hasn’t made a visit to a government office with a baby in tow, handing off their bawling infant to a clerk in order to sign some paperwork? It’s unusual to walk down the street with a newborn — whether in a stroller or baby carrier — and not have some grandmotherly or grandfatherly type stop you with a “Tut-tut,” exclaiming over the lack of a hat or what they consider warm-enough clothing. And whether in the playground, sidewalk or parking lot, it’s common to see a mother or father pulling their toddler or preschooler to the side, allowing them a quick pee in the weeds, rather than waiting to find the nearest bathroom.

Israeli culture can be a bit “vulgar” in that sense, commented Noam Rizi, a father of three young children and the owner of four restaurants in Jerusalem, including Adom, a bistro in the city’s renovated train station complex.

“But that’s our behavior, for better or for worse,” he said. “We’re easy, we’re warm and we’re family-friendly. We don’t create obstacles for families, whether it’s in a restaurant or on the street. Kids create noise and a certain kind of atmosphere, but you can’t let yourself not be child-friendly, because that’s what people expect.”

Consider weddings, often held on weeknights, and almost always including kids on the guest list, because the wedding is considered a family affair. It isn’t unusual to see Grandpa kicking up his heels with his granddaughter, or for Mom and Dad to boogie on the dance floor, baby held firmly in his Ergo.

Even Israeli hotels are meccas for families. With the exception of Isrotel’s Carmel Forest spa, where kids aren’t welcome until they’re 16 or older, and several other smaller boutique hotels, kids are welcome everywhere, even at the priciest five-star places, where meals are often served family style.

“Even in a five-star deluxe hotel, it’s about families,” said Alex Herman, vice president of marketing at Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel. “The experience is for the whole family, even on Passover, when we serve snacks to the kids during the long seder, like they get at home.”

Not everyone has children, of course, and for those who don’t have kids, there can be a significant, difficult sense of being left out of society, excluded from something essential in Israeli life. And as warm and inclusive as Israelis are with family and friends, they often miss the boat when it comes to warming up to those who aren’t familiar to them, whether long-time neighbors or someone they just met at a party.

But as a place to raise kids? It can’t be beat.

Leeder, the single mother, uses the holiday seasons as an example of why she loves being a parent in Israel. The various holidays, which form the backbone of the calendar year, are often family events that revolve around the kids. She has also found that she enjoys holidays more now that she’s a parent.

“It’s this experience, it’s just this enthusiasm and pure joy,” she said. “And kids make it a part of something bigger.”o

When she’s not busy with her twin 5-year-old sons, Jessica Steinberg is the culture and lifestyles correspondent at the Times of Israel. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.

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