Studying abroad in Israel: Safe and life-changing

When Ariel Brotman studied abroad in Israel two years ago, her most memorable lessons didn’t take place in the classroom.  

Brotman, who graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, this spring, attended Hebrew University of Jerusalem from September 2012 to January 2013. During that time, she befriended locals, improved her knowledge of Hebrew and developed a fascination with Israeli politics, ultimately adding Middle Eastern Studies as a second major. 

But Brotman’s time in the country also coincided with Operation Pillar of Defense and warnings of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. During the first siren warning, she said, Israelis told her there was no time to run to a shelter, and she ended up hiding in a stairwell. The second time, she was in a library, having just left a class called “Trauma and Resilience.”

“It was ironic that just as I’d gotten out of that class, the siren goes off,” she said. 

The experience was traumatizing, she said, but ultimately helped solidify her commitment to Israel. An aspiring lawyer, Brotman hopes to pursue a law career that in some way relates to Israel.

“Being abroad just made me want to send a pro-Israel message,” she said. 

Brotman is one of several students at California universities to travel to Israel in recent years. Following a U.S. Department of State warning in 2002, the year of the Second Intifada, the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems put their Israel study abroad programs on hiatus. UC reinstated its program in 2009, and CSU followed suit in 2012. 

CSU’s program places students for an entire school year at the University of Haifa International School, which offers courses in subjects from history to economics. Students are required to take an intensive language course in Hebrew or Arabic and continue foreign language studies throughout the year.

Mike Uhlenkamp, CSU’s director of public affairs, said four students will study in Israel this fall, starting Aug. 31. There haven’t been any enrollment changes in response to the recent Gaza war, he said, adding that the Israel programs have historically been very small compared to programs in other countries. 

Uhlenkamp said student safety is always a priority for the administration. CSU officials work closely with local law enforcement in Israel to make sure students are never in danger.  

He described studying abroad as an opportunity for students to participate in all aspects of Israeli life and immerse themselves in the local culture. 

“It’s not something you can really replicate,” Uhlenkamp said.  

The UC system’s study abroad program in Israel has been in place since 1962, said Briana Sapp, deputy to the associate vice provost and executive director of the UC Education Abroad Program. 

The partnership with Hebrew University began in 1968, and under the leadership of the UC system’s former president, Mark Yudof, the program was expanded to include a partnership with Ben-Gurion University last year. The Ben-Gurion option was added, in part, to try to encourage more students to join the Israel program, but Sapp said the change didn’t really make a difference. The UC system is also currently exploring the possibility of sending engineering students to Technion, the Haifa-based Israel Institute of Technology.

About 10 to 20 students sign up for the Israel program each year, Sapp said. She attributes the relatively small numbers of participants to the fact that students generally want to study in places like Europe. She said this year’s Israel program enrollment has not changed in response to the Gaza war.

“I think people go for lots of different reasons — personal, cultural, historical,” she said. 

The UC system provides comprehensive insurance through ACE USA that covers travel, health and other expenses, Sapp said, and communicates any warnings from the State Department or insurance company to students. 

For Brotman, studying abroad in Israel was a defining period in her life, and she says she would “100 percent” repeat the experience.  

“Studying abroad really changed me so much, affected me so much,” she said. “You really feel a part of it.”

What she remembers most about Israel is the hospitality its citizens showed to her. She describes Israel as a place where you can walk up to a stranger at the bus stop and ask for directions, and that person will take the time to help you reach your destination. 

“People you barely meet want you to stay at their house and have Shabbat with their family,” she said.

Obama in second inaugural speaks of a united America, U.S. involvement abroad

President Obama in his second inaugural address spoke of U.S. involvement throughout the world and Americans working together at home.

Obama was sworn in publicly for his second term at 11:50 a.m. Monday by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Some 800,000 people reportedly thronged the area to witness the inauguration.

“America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe; and we will renew those institutions that extend our capacity to manage crisis abroad, for no one has a greater stake in a peaceful world than its most powerful nation,” he said. “We will support democracy from Asia to Africa; from the Americas to the Middle East, because our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom.”

In his address, Obama focused on the promise of American democracy and all Americans working for the common good. He spoke of the allegiance to the Constitution and its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

“Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time,” he said. “For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they have never been self-executing; that while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”

The president alluded to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the day set aside in the United States to commemorate the slain human rights activist.

Obama said the U.S. “must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government, revamp our tax code, reform our schools, and empower our citizens with the skills they need to work harder, learn more, and reach higher.”

He called for a response to the threat of climate change, and praised the men and women who serve in the U.S. armed services. Obama also spoke of equality for women in the workplace and for gays.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the inaugural ceremonies chairman, opened the ceremony and introduced the participants.

Obama was sworn in officially on Sunday, the inauguration day mandated by the Constitution, in a private ceremony.

The Rough Guide

In Barcelona’s Old City, there’s a narrow street off the well-trod tourist path that leads to what was once the Jewish quarter. In 1391, 100 years before the official start of the Inquisition, Barcelona massacred many and expelled the rest of its Jews, who historians say made up as much as 20 percent of the population. The City Hall in Plaça Sant Jaume was built on land taken from some of these families.  

I was there with my family this past week, thumbing through the Rough Guide, when I stumbled upon this backstory, written as an aside to the long architectural history of the beautiful square.  

I didn’t mean to make this vacation a working trip, following the trials and tribulations of Europe’s Jews, long gone or still around. But it’s hard not to.  When I was in Poland last year with a group of journalists, one of them called the country “a Jewish graveyard.” 

On this trip, I began to think my colleague may as well have been talking about all of Europe.

We followed some terse tourist signs beyond the Plaça to El Call, the ancient Jewish quarter. It was never a ghetto. Barcelona’s Jews were free to live where they pleased and do business with whom they wished. Until they weren’t, of course.

We got lost, until we came across a kosher wine and Judaica shop called El Call. The owner pointed us toward Sinagoga Mayor de Barcelona. It is now a tiny room, originally excavated from beneath the city building in the early 1990s. It is Europe’s oldest synagogue, dating back to Roman times.

Of the long, rich history of Barcelona’s Jews, that was what remained — a room the size of a Bel Air walk-in closet. 

Late that afternoon, we took a taxi to an address on the outskirts of town. It was Shabbat. I knew we had arrived at the Comunitat Jueva Atid de Catalunya, one of the city’s three synagogues, when I spotted the guard outside an otherwise unadorned wall.   

We walked in to hear a syncopated Spanish guitar melody. Given what I’d seen during the day, I was fully prepared to spend the evening with a handful of elderly, nostalgic Jews, remnants.  But the voices and clapping came from a room bursting with young Spaniards, teenagers mostly, and their charismatic woman rabbi. Their summer-camp energy was familiar, the melodies and music wonderfully Spanish. Some 5,000 Jews live in and around Barcelona, among them many Israelis, North African immigrants and expats, and they have created, or re-created, a deeply attached, welcoming Jewish community.

Isn’t that the European Jewish story?  Birth, efflorescence, death and now a small, steady rebirth.

It was the same in Amsterdam, which we had visited just before. Our bed and breakfast happened to be in Nieuwmarkt Square, a relatively quiet area one canal away from the pot and hookers. I sat there, in the welcome sun, sipping my Heineken, reading up on the neighborhood. Nieuwmarkt Square, according to the Rough Guide, is at the border of the old Jewish quarter. More than 100,000 Jews had lived there from the 1300s — many of them Spanish and Portuguese refugees from the Inquisition. They created a nearly unparalleled urban Jewish life, until the Nazis invaded Holland and rounded up the Jews from among their good Dutch neighbors. The holding pen for these Jews? Nieuwmarkt Square, right where I was sitting. It was circled in barbed wire and turned into a temporary prison for Jews awaiting transport to Auschwitz.

Though we set out to make a minyan in Amsterdam — there are a couple — we couldn’t because of a timing foul-up.  But we did spend hours at the Jewish museum and the Esnoga Synagogue — as grand and impressive a shul as I’ve ever seen.

And then there was the Anne Frank House. A two-hour line snakes out from the ticket booth. The masses are drawn to that house, wanting to climb up the steep stairs, to go behind the secret passage hidden by the swinging bookshelf and into her room.

Why? Why, I wondered, in a city that offers so much competition and distraction, is this the No. 1 tourist site? Partly, of course, because of the words of her diary, which has been translated into 78 languages and has touched millions. 

But maybe it’s also because, through her diary, she brings to life the missing voice. City by city, there is a Jewish religious and cultural revival in Europe. But when you travel through these countries as a tourist, you also have to realize, if only by reading between the lines of the guidebooks, that it is also a continent of silenced voices, of untold stories, of a displaced and murdered people. There are a jillion cathedrals and paintings to see of one Jew — Jesus — but the stories of the other millions have disappeared. 

On the wall of the Anne Frank House is a quote from her diary, written just before her capture and murder:

I’ll make my voice heard.

I’ll go out into the world

And work for mankind!

And so she did, indeed. And so, in their name, must we all.

A ‘Promise’ to Help Jews Overseas

A 100-year-old Jewish woman, whose closest relatives are dead, lives in a one-room walk-up apartment in the former Soviet republic of Moldova that she hasn’t walked out of in four years.

The thought of Klara Kogan, who exists on a paltry government pension, haunts Steven Schwager, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which provides relief and welfare to Jews abroad.

“We owe it to those people” to care for them, said Schwager, whose group provides Kogan with a home-care worker — and her only human contact. “Those people could be us.”

Making the case for funding overseas needs has become increasingly difficult for the North American Jewish federation system, which raises money for local, national and international needs.

Jewish federations have increasingly put their campaign dollars toward local social service and educational needs; today, roughly 30 percent of funds raised by federations go overseas, down from 50 percent in earlier times.

But the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of the federation system, wants to change that.

At its annual conference held in Toronto in mid-November, the UJC heavily promoted “Operation Promise,” a special campaign to raise $160 million over three years primarily to finance the aliyah of an estimated 17,000 Ethiopians of Jewish descent known as the Falash Mura.

The funds will also go toward the absorption of Ethiopian Jews in Israel, caring for the Jewish elderly of the former Soviet Union and invigorating the identity of its Jewish youth.

Despite the fanfare around the special campaign, launched in September by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and endorsed by him via video conference at the General Assembly, there is real concern about how it will resonate with donors across North America.

But Carole Solomon, who chairs the Jewish Agency of Israel’s board of governors, said there was great urgency in expediting the aliyah of the Falash Mura and reuniting families.

“It’s our every expectation that they will provide the necessary funds to complete this chapter of Jewish history,” she said, referring to UJC and the federations.

The campaign comes amid another major development in the federation system’s overseas work — the creation of a new allocations system.

With the 1999 creation of the UJC — a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, United Jewish Appeal and United Israel Appeal — came the Overseas Needs Assessment and Distribution Committee (ONAD), which comprised a cross-section of federation leaders to determine allocations overseas with the aim of increasing overseas dollars.

Fraught with politics and bureaucracy, the committee has cost several million dollars and has not substantially increased the allocation of overseas funds.

The system’s major overseas partners are the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which runs aliyah and Zionist education worldwide.

While the federations’ annual campaign, which tops $800 million, increased by 4 percent since 2000, dollars overseas have dropped by more than 4.5 percent since 2001.

The UJC board of trustees unanimously voted to replace ONAD with a system that allows the Jewish Agency and the JDC to hammer out their own agreement for the next two years. A group of federation officials will monitor the process and the UJC board must then approve the deal by the two agencies.

Some hope the new format — a modified return to pre-ONAD days, when the Jewish Agency and JDC negotiated their funds — will restore a spirit of cooperation to the process.

Others call the resolution a compromise document that will satisfy no one, and some lament the lack of minimum amounts required by federations to allocate overseas, given past shortfalls.

In fact, the critical issue of shoring up overseas funds remains in question.

“Nothing much will improve unless there’s an increase in overseas allocations, and that takes more than a document,” said Ellen Heller of Baltimore, the JDC’s president. “That takes advocacy.”

There is no formal advocacy committee, UJC President Howard Rieger told JTA. But the resolution allows for an aggressive approach to raising overseas funds, he said.

It asks federations to increase overseas giving, provides incentives for those that do and calls for the consideration of punitive measures against noncompliant federations.

For many local federation leaders, making the connection to overseas needs in general and Operation Promise in particular is tough amid so many competing local demands.

People don’t see overseas concerns as their responsibility because they have never seen the problems firsthand, said Michael Nissenson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara

Federations are also facing increased local costs due to growing numbers and budgets of local agencies like day schools, said Steven Rakitt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.

Still, Rakitt said that “sometimes a special campaign has a way of providing a laser focus,” suggesting the new campaign will generate additional funds overseas.

“We have a responsibility to Jews wherever they live and an elderly person who’s hungry in Atlanta or hungry in Belarus is our responsibility.”

Operation Promise has already raised $32 million in pledges, according to UJC officials.

Several federations are responding to the campaign by soliciting individual major donors rather than rolling out a massive campaign.

Privately, several officials said they didn’t want to conduct a “second-line campaign” because it would raise questions among donors, who understand that the annual campaign already funds these types of overseas needs.

The UJA-Federation of New York, which has been a leading proponent of the push to expedite the aliyah of the Falash Mura, has already appropriated $5.7 million to the cause.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the New York federation, said his federation would provide an additional $18 million over the next three years for the other elements of Operation Promise.

“This is our way of fully participating in Operation Promise,” he said. Jay Sarver, a UJC board member from St. Louis and the budget and finance chairman of the Jewish Agency, said that although the needs of Operation Promise are contained in the federations’ annual campaign efforts, the urgency of the situation demands more funds in a shorter time frame.

In Cleveland, the community has already pledged nearly 90 percent of its goal to raise almost $6 million for Operation Promise, said Stephen Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

These pledges come on top of its annual campaign as well as a $137 million capital campaign.

Success comes “if you ask and you take the time to explain why you’re asking.”

Still, it may be a tough sell.

“It’s going to take some real strategic marketing and an incredibly intensive fund-raising effort to reach the $160 million goal, and if we don’t reach that goal the Jewish Agency and JDC are going to be in a tremendous debt situation,” said Richard Wexler, a UJC board member from Chicago.

Moshe Vigdor, director general of the Jewish Agency, said that “if we have less, we will be able to do less, unfortunately.”

But the aliyah operation is unlikely to be halted, even in a funding crisis, according to senior UJC and Jewish Agency officials.

“We have an obligation here,” Rieger said.

He noted that Ethiopia and Israel reached an agreement that officials say could prompt the Ethiopian immigration to begin in December.

The $100 million cost of funding the aliyah is broken down as follows: $23 million for preparing and educating the Jews before they immigrate, $40 million for their needs in Israeli absorption centers and $37 million for programs that integrate Ethiopians once they have moved out of the absorption centers, Vigdor said.

Zeev Bielski, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency, which will assume the bulk of responsibility for the education and preparation for the Falash Mura aliyah, said he hoped that the entire immigration would be completed by the end of 2007.


Paredes Found

Without much fear of contradiction, Mark Paredes observes, "I think I’m the only biracial Mormon representing the state of Israel abroad."

Paredes, a personable bachelor in his early 30s, appointed earlier this year as press attaché at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, has other claims to distinction.

He speaks seven languages fluently (English, Italian, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, French and Portuguese), served as a U.S. foreign service officer in Mexico and Tel Aviv, and studied at Brigham Young University, University of Texas and the Moscow University of Steel and Alloys.

Paredes was born in Bay City, Mich. (otherwise famed as Madonna’s birthplace), the son of a white mother and a black father, though he was raised by a Chilean stepfather. He joined the Mormon Church at age 11, later served as a missionary in southern Italy, and, in line with his religious upbringing, has never had an alcoholic drink, never smoked a cigarette and doesn’t swear.

However, it wasn’t necessarily the latter virtues that convinced Consul General Yuval Rotem to hire Paredes as spokesman and liaison to the African American and Christian communities.

"When I first came to Los Angeles in September 1999, I realized that to promote Israel’s interest in as diversified an area as this city and the southwestern region of the United States, I had to reach out beyond the Jewish community," Rotem says.

The need to add to his staff people with a natural feel for non-Jewish communities struck Rotem when he visited Utah, where the Mormon Church is a key influence, during an initial trip to the states within his jurisdiction.

His first non-Jewish hire was Dr. Lauren Foster, whose roots are in the Mormon Church. Foster was selected as Rotem’s liaison to Utah, on top of her job as the consulate’s director for academic affairs.

Next, Rotem turned his attention to Los Angeles’ Latino community, the largest in the United States, which is playing an increasingly crucial role in California and national politics. He appointed as his community affairs specialist Naomi Rodriguez, a young woman savvy in the ways of Latino culture and politics. One of the fruits of her labor was last month’s yacht cruise, which brought together 100 Latino leaders, and an equal number of their Jewish counterparts, for a casual evening of Jewish and Mexican cuisine, Israeli and Latino music and transethnic networking.

One of the participants was Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who observed, "It’s funny how it took a foreign diplomat to put this together."

Rodriguez is leaving to work for Mayor James Hahn, but Rotem has been so impressed by the effectiveness of her work, that he is already interviewing for her successor.

Paredes got a quick start on his job when he arranged for the consular staff to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day at the AME Church, the city’s premier black church.

Police Chief Bernard Parks and other top African American officials participated in the event. "We received a terrific welcome, it was unbelievable," Rotem says.

Paredes, who worked in the economic section of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv between 1994 to 1996, after taking an intensive six-month Hebrew course, may be the only person who can compare the working styles of American and Israeli diplomacy from the inside.

"In the U.S. foreign service, the rules are very clearly defined," he says. "The Israeli service is less hierarchical, more open and has more flexibility."

This flexibility is clearly part of Rotem’s modus operandi. Since his regular budget does not provide for the special community liaisons, he pays their salaries through some judicious local fundraising.

He says his unorthodox initiative has been warmly endorsed by his boss, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and, following his example, the Israeli consulates in Houston and Miami are considering the employment of Latino liaisons. Rotem notes: "I think it reflects Israel’s growing sense of maturity that there is room for non-Jews to represent us."

Passover In Bolivia

I found myself at a seder in Cochabamba, Bolivia on a cool spring evening during Passover 1999. At the time I was spending a semester abroad as part of my major in international studies at Macalester College.

On a daily basis in Bolivia, I experienced most situations from the perspective of a North American female living in a culture dramatically different from the one in which I was raised. The first night of Passover in Bolivia was unique because it was an uncanny juxtaposition of the foreign and the totally familiar, a combination that had the potential to be unsettling but proved to be truly rewarding.

I had learned about this seder — and the synagogue service that preceded it — from a Bolivian doctor who was a member of the small Jewish community in Cochabamba. Most Bolivians, including the incredible host family with whom I lived for six months and became very attached to, had very little practical knowledge of Judaism, since Bolivia is an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

The local synagogue, discreetly tucked into a corner of town not far from the main plaza, was a small white colonial-style building with a delicate stained-glass Star of David above the door. Arriving a few minutes early, I walked in and was faced with a wooden partition, which I assumed was to prevent the congregated masses from having to view the arrival of latecomers. Entering, I saw that the sanctuary was totally empty.

About 20 rows of red-upholstered pews extended in two columns. At the front of the sanctuary were the bimah and the ark. It was all quite familiar: the flame burning above the ark to remind the congregation of God’s eternal presence, and other traditional objects like a menorah and wine glasses.

I had been standing in the doorway for a minute, wondering if I had arrived on the wrong day, when two young men arrived and introduced themselves as Peace Corps volunteers. From the basket just inside the door, they helped themselves to kipot, and we stood there chatting, waiting awkwardly for directions of some kind.

Finally, after a good 15 minutes, people began to arrive. I realized that the more relaxed South American standards of time applied to religious services as well as to everyday events. As people filed in and began to mill around, I said goodbye to my new friends when I realized I would be sitting separate from them in the women’s section. I approached a group of women, hoping to make conversation.

"Buenas noches," I said, unsure as to what language I would hear in reply. "Chag sameach" they answered. Familiar as their greeting was, it gave me no clue as to their nationality. I began some small talk in Spanish, but it became clear that the language of choice was Hebrew, with English as a fallback. I soon learned that these women were all from Israel and were here to visit family. Just as I was wondering if the service would ever begin, 30 to 40 Israelis in their 20’s entered in groups of three or four.

Soon the service began, although it seemed that hardly anyone realized it. A few of the men were chanting a familiar melody, and the rest of the congregation was simply watching. In the women’s section, most were chatting quite loudly. Only a couple of times did we sing a prayer in unison. The service was over before I realized it, lasting less than half an hour.

The seder itself was held in a spacious room in a nearby community center. Tables set up in a U-shaped pattern lined the perimeter of the room, with three smaller tables in the center. I smiled to myself as I spotted all the traditional foods of the holiday — plates of matzah, the bright pink maror, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, charoset and wine. The three center tables seemed to be designated for families — several children were in the group — and the families appeared to be Bolivian, all chatting in Spanish, with some of the kids rehearsing their readings for the service to come.

The haggadahs for the evening were photocopied booklets, with the service in Hebrew and Spanish. A Bolivian man began to lead the seder, and his wife, the Hebrew school teacher, prompted the children when it was their turn to read.

Once the dinner was served, I felt as though I could have been at any other seder I’ve ever attended. There was the traditional matzah ball soup, the chicken, potatoes, gefilte fish and fruit salads. After dinner, the table looked like tables always seem to after a seder, with scattered bits of matzah that didn’t make it into anyone’s mouth, bright blotches of the almost fluorescent pink horseradish on various plates, and wine stains on the white tablecloth.

As at many seders, we began to sing after dinner, though this singing was like none that I have experienced. A woman, her hands swaying through the air, stood at the front of the room to direct her Sunday school students in song. However, it soon it became clear who was really leading the songs. The 60-strong Israeli delegation, some rather affected by the wine, sang out with spirit and enthusiasm, and soon no one else could be heard. Everyone joined in, and finally, as all seders do, this one ended when group consensus determined that the singing had gone on long enough.

I had approached this event with little idea of what to expect at a Bolivian seder, but with a firm notion of what a seder was "supposed to be." In the end, I was not disappointed. I had anticipated a more distinctly Bolivian flavor to the evening, but it reflected more of an international sentiment. In retrospect, though, this seems only appropriate, since Judaism, after all, is a religion that transcends national boundaries, creating an international community of Jews all over the globe.

And that is something that I know will offer me both comfort and familiarity, no matter where in the world I find myself at future seders.