Letter from Israel

Letter from Israel

A paean to public transportation

This bus to Ma’aleh Adumim displays a Chanukah greeting. (Jacob Richman)
This bus to Ma’aleh Adumim displays a Chanukah greeting. (Jacob Richman)

Before making aliyah in 2007, we sold our two Subarus and decided to try living in Israel without a car. This was almost as radical a decision as was aliyah itself.

But we reasoned that the high price of the car, gas, maintenance, and insurance in Israel didn’t make sense for our shrinking household. A bus to Jerusalem stopped every 20 minutes outside our new home. We could take taxis, hitch rides, even rent a car when necessary, and still come out way ahead.

It’s been more than 10 years, and we are happier than ever with our car-free existence. In fact, it has only gotten easier.

Buses now come more frequently and cost less per ride than they did when we first arrived. The Rav Kav electronic card introduced a few years ago allows us to pay our fare on any bus in Israel with a fast swipe, as well as receive free transfers to other buses or the light rail within 90 minutes. New dynamic solar-powered signs at bus stops take the guesswork out of when the next bus will arrive.

We are spared the headache of navigating through traffic and searching (and paying) for parking. We don’t have to deal with fender-benders, flat tires, or road rage. A few times a year, we rent a car for vacations or when we host special visitors. After returning the vehicle we always breathe a little sigh of relief; it’s not our responsibility anymore.

One of the delights of Israeli life is to see electronic Jewish holiday greetings flashing from the front of public buses. Drivers, whether Jewish or Arab, often wish passengers “Shabbat shalom” on Fridays as they disembark. Last October, an Arab driver in Jerusalem made the news for decorating his bus for Sukkot.

Of course, reaching any destination usually takes longer by mass transit than by car. For example, the trip to our son’s home takes about an hour via two buses or about half an hour by car. So if we’re pressed for time or toting large packages, we contact our favorite taxi driver, Eyal, or use our Gett app to hail a cab if Eyal isn’t available.

And how do we handle grocery shopping? We have several good alternatives. One, we walk to the neighborhood grocery with a granny cart for day-to-day shopping. Two, I have a standing offer to join friends who drive to a nearby supermarket every Thursday morning. Three, I place our larger grocery orders online. The delivery man schleps the bags right into the kitchen. This time- and labor-saving convenience costs about the same as it would have cost in gas.

There are two big non-monetary reasons I prefer public transportation, too. First, not having a car dramatically reduces our carbon footprint. Second, the experience is powerfully democratizing.

Life in Israel — a bus, a rifle, a phone, and a flower. (Abigail Leichman)

Think about it: In a private car you have no occasion to observe, much less interact with, the masses. Admittedly, that can be a good thing; it’s not pleasant to be a straphanger on a crowded bus or share a seat with someone giving their deodorant a run for its money. You sometimes have to put up with crying babies and rude passengers or drivers.

And yet I’ve never felt so very much a part of greater society as I have on Israeli buses and trains. I have abundant opportunities to observe a wide swath of cultures, to help fellow passengers struggling with packages or baby carriages, or even to choose a seat beside a woman in a hijab reading the Koran. I am proud to say that our public transportation is an equal-opportunity carrier.

Regarding that last scenario, I understand why many people, especially tourists, get nervous in the presence of Arabs on public transit.

Between 2001 and 2004, 27 terrorist bombs were detonated at Israeli bus stops or on Israeli buses. In addition to physical trauma, these horrific incidents caused psychological trauma that persisted even after such attacks finally waned.

As newcomers in 2007, we discovered that many students arriving for gap-year studies in Israel still had to promise their parents they’d never take a public bus. Occasionally I ran into children of friends or relatives at bus stops who begged me not to rat them out. They didn’t want to act like spoiled Americans, they preferred to use their taxi allowance for other expenditures, and they realized that the vast majority of Arab passengers, like themselves, are just trying to get from point A to point B on a safe and convenient mode of transportation.

They didn’t have to convince me. When all is said and done, the chances of arriving at a destination in one piece are much higher in a bus than in a car.

Besides, you almost always have armed escorts. Uniformed soldiers ride public transportation for free, so it’s not unusual to have several rifle-toting IDF service members along for the ride. And if your bus goes through a military checkpoint, a few young soldiers come aboard to scan the scene quickly for anything (or anyone) suspicious.

Last Friday, as my bus reached a checkpoint, I didn’t pay much attention as several teens climbed aboard in matching t-shirts — until I saw they weren’t soldiers with rifles but rather youth group members with flowers.

They handed out single stems to every passenger and wished us all Shabbat shalom. I couldn’t help but take a surreptitious snapshot of a soldier in the seat ahead of me with a rifle on his lap, a phone in one hand and that colorful blossom in the other. It was one of those precious sights I would have missed had I been alone behind the wheel of a car.

Abigail Klein Leichman, a Jewish Standard correspondent, made aliyah from Teaneck more than a decade ago and sometimes sends us letters from Israel.

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