Park Bench Therapy


It’s been eight days since I returned from visiting my son Shimon and his family in Kiryat Sefer, and I still find myself looking at my watch between 9 and 11 a.m. – that is, 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., Israel time. That’s the time my daughter-in-law Tziporah and her friends meet for “bench therapy.”

Right in front of my children’s apartment building, there is a large sandy playground that young mothers and their children flock to daily from far and near. Although there are playgrounds every fourth or fifth building, this one is among the most popular.

Located in the scenic foothills of the Judean mountains, Kiryat Sefer is a town of large apartment buildings, inhabited by 30 to 36 families each. And since the typical Kiryat Sefer apartment (two bedrooms, one-and-a-half baths, a small kitchen, and a mirpeset) is not big enough to comfortably accommodate large families, outdoor playtime is crucial for these children – and their mothers. Even the youngest of children very independently climb the monkey bars, fly down the slide, and build sandcastles, as their mothers keep a close watch on them from the benches on the periphery, while discussing everything from childrearing challenges to the latest Israeli security situation.

After joining bench therapy just about every day during my two-week stay, I got to experience the special camaraderie of some of the wonderful Anglo women. (Dear reader, did you know that when you move to Israel, you become an “Anglo”? This is the quaint Israeli term for anyone from the English-speaking countries.) Over 1,000 Kiryat Sefer families are English speaking, hailing from North America, England, Canada, South Africa, and Australia. About 25 of them frequent this playground. Even a 60-mile-per hour sandstorm couldn’t keep them away – nor I, who had the pleasure of interviewing them for our WWW readers.

Solving the World’s Problems – and their Own

“The women need to get out,” explains Zehava, as the sun was setting and the wind was blowing sand into everyone’s eyes. “It is very important, mostly for our kids. Our apartments aren’t very big, and this is like our yard. It’s also very healthy for them. They are not into electronic entertainment. They are riding bikes, climbing up and down, and running around, instead. They are very active. This is the time the Americans come out. The Israelis come out when the Americans go in, between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. They come out with their sandwiches and lebens and eat dinner outside.” 

Chaya, a native New Yorker who moved to Kiryat Sefer seven years ago, when her husband started learning in Lakewood Kollel East, gives me the scoop. “We talk about childrearing, suppers, bath time, bedtime, and how to get around all that normal ladies’ stuff that needs to get done.

“We need advice; we need help; we need to figure it out. Whether it is advice regarding setting up for a bar mitzva or where to send our kids to school,” Chaya continues. “We also discuss various types of birthing, personality categorization, how you live your life, and how you go about your day. Of course, there is seasonal talk: for example, before Rosh Hashanah, when the topic is how do you prepare for Yom Hadin (the Day of Judgment)?”

It seems these women give each other the love and support all women need – but these women especially, since most of them are in Eretz Yisrael without their families nearby. “We reinforce the fact that we are important women doing important things – even if we are not davening all day,” says Chaya. “We also sometimes say tehilim together on the bench on Shabbos or when there is a bad matzav (situation), like now, or last year, during the war.”

“But,” my daughter-in-law Tziporah adds, “we don’t talk about politics on the park bench or about sensitive topics that we are split on, pro and con, like vaccinations.”

In the midst of talk about the challenges of motherhood, Devorah brings up the security situation: “Arabs work on the roof of our building. They go up and down the staircase. We try not to go out in the corridor until after they are done with their drilling or whatever they are doing.”

A Day in the Life of…

Most of the men in Kiryat Sefer learn in kollel. Even many of those who work – such as doctors and lawyers – learn part-time. As for their wives, what is their average day like? “It depends if you work or not,” notes Chaya. “A lot of English speakers work at night; others work in the city. Some have businesses out of their homes – like they might be interior designers, audiologists, labor coaches, computer specialists, bookkeepers, and EFT (Emotional Freedom Tapping) practitioners.”

Chaya wakes her children up at 7 a.m. to get them washed, dressed, and fed for school. They are out the door by 8 a.m. They have a five- to seven-minute “walk pool” walk to school. (No carpools in Kiryat Sefer!) Girls schools and preschools end at 1 p.m. Boys schools, even the younger grades, end later. Some boys come home for a hot lunch; others either pay extra to eat the school lunch or bring lunch from home.

On Fridays, school ends at noon for the boys. Most girls schools end at 11:30. Older high school girls don’t have school at all on Fridays. Sunday is a regular school day. On Rosh Chodesh, the older grades get out earlier, at 2 p.m. Children dress in white shirts and blouses, and the preschoolers get a necklace or a headpiece in school that is related to the theme of the month. Some of the chutznik (foreign) parents and their children take a short nap from 2 to 3 p.m. after school, and 4 p.m. is “park time”! Mothers and children are outside on the playground until 6, then comes supper, a bath, and bedtime. By 8 p.m., the children are hopefully asleep, and whoever works starts at that time. Most chutzniks are on this schedule; Israelis are on a somewhat different one.

“Many native Israelis in Kiryat Sefer work until 1 p.m.,” says Chaya. They have their main meal at lunch and take a substantial nap between 2 and 4. On this schedule, the children go to sleep at 11 p.m., at the same time as their parents.” Women who work outside the home until 4 p.m. are able to leave their young grade-school children at an aftercare program instituted by the Israeli government.”

Where does a Kiryat Sefer family’s hard-earned money go? “Clothes, food, and shelter,” says Chaya. “Although we shop in the small local grocery stores and the larger Bar Kol supermarket, our family also orders things like produce, canned goods, candy, crackers, and pretzels through our neighborhood mechira (sale). A truck delivers our orders to a nearby parking lot each week. Milk and other refrigerated items are not sold through the mechira, and meat and chicken are sold by the case every couple of weeks.”

When I noticed how many people in Kiryat Sefer get their groceries home, I realized the necessity for these mechiros. Most of the residents do not own cars, and it is not unusual to see them walking with their groceries piled in, on, and underneath their baby carriages – with or without their children in them.

Beyond their park bench relationship, the chutznik women have other get-togethers, as well: N’shei meetings, game mornings, and shopping together for food and clothing. They also get together to cook and bake when they cater each other’s simchas. Meals are sent for a week or two after a baby is born. They also take over each other’s walk-pools and keep an eye on each other’s children at the park when someone is on bed rest, sick, or just had a baby. An annual N’shei Chanukah play is performed before Chanukah, so as not to coincide with family and friend gatherings and menorah lighting. During Chanukah, there are family gatherings, but as Chaya mentioned, “If there are no family members, friends take their place.”

Miracles in Our Day

Zehava’s husband started off learning in a kollel in Yerushalayim; for the last nine years he has been learning in Kiryat Sefer and recently started to learn safrus (being a Torah scribe). Zahava made aliyah, along with her family, after eleventh grade. Ironically, although she attended the same school in Flatbush as my daughter-in-law, they didn’t meet until they were both living in Kiryat Sefer. Zahava’s whole family lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, and her in-laws live a short walk away in Moshav Matisyahu. “I’m very spoiled,” says Zehava, who has a part-time transcription job and works whenever she can manage to. “I’m definitely less dependent on my chutznik friends, but I enjoy the social aspect of it. It’s so nice knowing that I have that. It’s fun. It’s my personal outlet.

“I love Kiryat Sefer; I love the City of Torah,” continues Zehava. “Not everyone in Kiryat Sefer is in kollel, but their whole lives are focused around Torah and what is important in life. I think the fact that there’s not as much gashmius (materialism) here as in other places helps keep the focus on what is important. Because we are so focused on Torah, parnassa (earning a livelihood) is not a focus. Everyone knows that in Kiryat Sefer there are nissim (miracles). There are a lot of men in kollel. How is everyone making a living? It really doesn’t make sense. If you put the numbers together they don’t add up. Each family can tell you stories about parnassa and how things worked out for them. When you see it so clearly – when you see the Yad Hashem (hand of G-d), when you are focused on a life of Torah and Hashem is in the picture, then you realize that Hashem will work it out – although you don‘t know how exactly. Everyone is doing some form of hishtadlus (effort) or another. It always works out for everyone. Most of the chutznik families do not have parents who can afford to support their kids. Here, in Kiryat Sefer, it is a different crowd.”

A Feeling of Family

Rivky, who hails from England, also enjoys bench therapy, no matter what the topic. “The main thing is that whoever has anything on her mind comes to the park, and that is what the conversation will be about that day – whether it is about their child, their teenagers, their mortgage, or a complaint shared at PTA. It doesn’t make a difference. You talk it over, and with their advice or without their advice, you get it all out, and you go home feeling better. And the children have loads of aunties. We see each other every day, and our children know everyone on the park benches. It really gives them a feeling of family.

After experiencing park bench therapy myself – albeit as an onlooker – I thought about the life of women in America. Sure, we have many more rooms in our homes and our own private swing-sets in our yards, but aren’t we also a little isolated? Talking things over with friends and neighbors happens mostly one-on-one over the telephone, and getting together can involve complicated arrangements. I certainly understand Rivky when she says, “When people move back to America or England, the main thing they miss is the park bench. It is something that is really very nice and very, very strong. It is unique!”


ã Margie Pensak-2015


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