Staff Spotlight - Lisa Biton
This week, for our first Staff Spotlight, we head down to the Gaza Envelope to speak with Lisa Biton, current Dean of Israel Studies/Israel Studies Teacher Emeritus.
You are originally from San Francisco, and now live in Kiryat Gat. How did you get from Point A to Point B?
For college, I attended a Catholic university in California. As a Jew, I felt I needed to get away and connect to my roots. So I studied abroad in Israel, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. I know it’s not the most popular choice—most people go to Hebrew U or Tel Aviv U. But I’ve always been a pioneer, and I wanted to be in a place with fewer Americans. While at BGU, I met my husband. That’s when I decided to move here. He is from Kiryat Gat, so that was a big factor in why we stayed in the south. He has family spread throughout the Gaza Envelope area, so our 3 kids have plenty of family and cousins around.
What are your hobbies and talents?
I am an avid runner, and like listening to podcasts. A couple of my favorites are The Promised Podcast and Real Dictators. I also have taken up cross-stitching.
As for talents, I definitely know a ton of random trivia. Here’s an example: What country lost the second most number of people in WWII? China. We are so European-focused we often forget about other parts of the world, such as the Far East, and we forget that the Chinese were totally slaughtered by the Japanese in WWII. I also love the word, “defenestration.” If you don’t know what it means, look it up. I promise you’ll have a good laugh (unless you’re the one being defenestrated).
What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I am a big country music fan, and love anything by Dolly Parton.
What is the best meal you ever had?
Any Thanksgiving meal. I guess you can’t totally get rid of the American in me. I still make Thanksgiving dinner for my family and friends in Kiryat Gat. Turkey, bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, caramelized sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and cranberry sauce—the canned, gelled kind. Tradition is tradition. Don’t try to go gourmet with the cranberry sauce. And of course, cranberry-apple cobbler for dessert.
What was your most memorable AMHSI moment?
Anytime I saw a student have a Eureka moment regarding their connection to Israel and Judaism. To be there when all of a sudden the realization of who they are and what they want for the future hits them, it’s unbelievably inspiring. I remember one particular student who wasn’t always the most engaged in class, but who was a really talented artist. For her final project, she drew a detailed map of Israel with artistic depictions of every tiyul. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but when I saw that project, I had no words; she simply took my breath away. I was so inspired and so proud. Seeing work like that, you realize that teaching is the greatest profession in the world.
What is your favorite lesson to teach?
Masada. My college degree is in Latin and Ancient History, and when you go to Masada, the history just comes alive. It’s awesome.
Favorite thing about being Jewish?
Totally following up on the last question, it’s the connection to history. As a Jew, I can draw a direct line between myself today and to my ancestors living thousands of years ago. And that same thread can connect to this land, the Land of Israel, too. The fact that I can go to an archaeological site and read a 2,000 year old Hebrew inscription, and understand exactly what it’s talking about because the language and the culture and the practices are still the same—it’s an unbelievable feeling of being part of something worthwhile in this world.
Favorite thing about living in Israel?
Community. It’s why we chose to live in Kiryat Gat, but it’s also why I chose to live in Israel. To live in a country where you feel all the citizens have your back, how can you beat that? Yes, we have heated fights and arguments. But that’s the thing; they will yell at you, then lift you up again. We’re family.
How has living in Kiryat Gat, and the war specifically, impacted your day-to-day routine?
I can’t sugarcoat it. Living so close to Gaza, we get rockets. Also, between us and Gaza is a flat, empty plain, so we hear everything, all the booms, shooting, fighting. When things are tense and I go out for runs, I always play this game in my head, “Ok. Where is there a bomb shelter withing a 45-second range?”. I have been out running before when an alert goes off, and I’ve laid in ditches on the side of the road since there wasn’t a shelter nearby. When that happens, I also think about my kids. As much as I am worried for their safety, they are thinking, “Where’s Ima?” Also, until now, I don’t think the rest of the country fully understood what happens in the south. There would be nights when life outside the Gaza Envelope would go on as normal. Workplaces were open, people went out to bars, clubs, restaurants, etc. Yet we in the south spent the night in bomb shelters. I would still get up the next morning and go to work.
Now, with the war, I don’t need to tell you that it’s even more so. I have tons of in-laws from Sderot. They have been through incredible trauma, have been evacuated from their homes, and are currently staying in Eilat. We in Kiryat Gat know that we were lucky. Our town could have been one of the ones attacked by Hamas terrorists on October 7th. I have seemingly endless connections to people who were either killed, kidnapped, or who fought off terrorists. This war is personal. The other day, the IDF rescued a soldier from Gaza. She was from Kiryat Gat. The whole town came out singing and dancing and celebrating. So we take the good moments, too.
Who do you want to thank and why?
My parents. They live in the U.S, and I know it’s difficult to have your daughter and grandkids living across the world. I want to thank them for supporting me and my decision to live in Israel.