Economic costs of Gaza fighting


Last Friday, Moshe Ahituv (not his real name) received another call-up from the Israeli army. A captain in the home front command, he had already completed 43 days of army reserve service this year.

Moshe, 40, is an English teacher and the father of two toddlers. His wife is a physical therapist and they are about to purchase their first apartment in Jerusalem. He says the emotional cost of the fighting in the Gaza Strip has already taken a toll.

“The kids aren’t sleeping well, and my three-year-old daughter is behaving badly at nursery school,” he told The Media Line. “It’s also frustrating for me. I spend a lot of time on buses getting from home to my base. I could be home with the kids then or working to bring home money to my family.”

There is also an economic toll. While the government will pay for his missed days at work, he will not receive compensation for the private tutoring hours he has been forced to cancel, which amounts to $400 per week.

Israelis and Palestinians are paying a heavy economic price for the cross-border fighting in Gaza. From orange trees in Gaza damaged during an Israeli airstrike to small restaurants in southern Israel who have no customers, to tourists cancelling trips to Israel and Bethlehem, to destroyed buildings in Gaza, the economic costs on both sides is astronomical.

The business information company IDI estimates the fighting in Gaza will cost the Israeli economy $75 million dollars per day in lost productivity. Many small businesses in southern Israel, in particular, are suffering.

“Usually on the weekends we are full, but this past weekend we had just two tables – both of journalists,” Elad Zaritsky, 35, the owner of Linda, a bistro restaurant in the Mediterranean coastal city of Ashqelon, told The Media Line. “We’ve already lost thousands of dollars and we simply can’t continue like this. If the fighting continues much longer, we may have to close.”

Zaritsky says small businesses like his operate with only a narrow profit margin. He says the restaurant has been open for five years. Four years ago, during Cast Lead, Israel’s last major ground operation in Gaza, his business also suffered. The government did give him compensation, but he says it did not nearly cover his losses.

Tourism in Israel is also beginning to suffer, although this is the low season for tourism, between the Jewish holidays of the fall; and Chanuka and Christmas in a few weeks.

“Incoming groups for the near future are down 10 percent and individual bookings are down 15 percent,” Ami Etgar, the general director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operator Association told The Media Line. “But groups that are already here have not left.”

Across the border, inside Gaza, life has virtually come to a standstill. While most residents keep a stock of food supplies including flour, oil, sugar and tea in their homes, most shops and businesses remain closed.

“Banks are closed and ATM machines are running out of cash,” Azzam Shawwa, the general manager of the Quds Bank told The Media Line. “But who wants to risk going out when there are airstrikes?”

Shawwa said there is also concern about the electricity supply to Gaza. While Israel has continued to provide power to the 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, the electricity must go through transformers to change the voltage. Some of those transformers have been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes, and the spare ones are already being used, he said.

“Even before this, some places only had electricity for 12 hours a day,” Omar Shaaban, an economist at Palthink, a Gaza-based think tank told The Media Line. “Now some places only have electricity for six hours a day. Some of us have generators, but there is a shortage of fuel for the generators. I just turned my generator on to answer some emails, but I’m going to have to turn it off soon.”

Shaaban says it’s too early to assess the economic damage caused by the Israeli airstrikes, which have killed at least 95 Palestinians and wounded hundreds. Dozens of buildings in Gaza have been completely destroyed.

“Our economy is losing at least $2 million dollars per day,” Shaaban said. “And that’s in addition to the agricultural sector which has already lost $25 million dollars. The economy has been completely suspended. Agricultural products were supposed to be exported this week from Gaza, but now that didn’t happen.”

Back across the border in Israel, more people seem to be staying home, even in areas that have been relatively free of missile strikes.

“There are many fewer passengers going from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem,” Raof Basila, an Arab citizen of Israel who drives a shared-taxi between the two cities. His colleague, Fadi Abu Katish, agrees. He told The Media Line that while fifty drivers normally transport more than 1,500 passengers each day, the drivers are now alone in their vehicles.

Basila added a pensive note. “People are afraid to go out,” he said. “It is not good for either side. Both sides need peace.”

POLL: Most Americans would back US strike over Iran nuclear weapon


A majority of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence that Tehran is building nuclear weapons, even if such action led to higher gasoline prices, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Tuesday.

The poll showed 56 percent of Americans would support U.S. military action against Iran if there were evidence of a nuclear weapon program. Thirty-nine percent of Americans opposed military strikes.

Asked whether they would back U.S. military action if it led to higher gasoline prices, 53 percent of Americans said they would, while 42 percent said they would not.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll also found that 62 percent of Americans would back Israel taking military action against Iran for the same reasons.

U.S. President Barack Obama has said all options are on the table in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, but he has encouraged Israel to give sanctions against Iran more time to have an effect.

Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Higher gasoline prices, which have risen in part due to tension in the Middle East, have put political pressure on Obama as he fights for re-election later this year.

The president, a Democrat, has also faced criticism from his potential Republican rivals for being too soft on Iran and not supportive enough of Israel.

The poll showed Republicans were more willing to support military action by the United States or Israel than Democrats. Seventy percent of Republicans would back U.S. action, while 46 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents said the same.

The breakdown was similar when respondents were asked to factor in gasoline prices or their support of an Israeli military move.

“What we’re seeing is kind of a general trend that we always see, that Republicans tend to be more hawkish than Democrats or independents,” said Ipsos pollster Cliff Young. “Historically Republicans have been much more security-centric.”

A potential conflict with Iran has cast a foreign policy shadow over the U.S. election, which is expected to be dominated by voter concerns over the domestic economy.

Obama accused Republican presidential candidates earlier this month of “beating the drums of war” while failing to consider the consequences.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, one of the top Republican presidential contenders, told the powerful pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC: “If Iran doesn’t get rid of nuclear facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.”

Despite Americans’ signs of tolerance of higher gasoline prices in the poll, Obama’s chances of getting re-elected are threatened by rising prices at the pump.

The poll was conducted from March 8-11 among 1,084 adults across the United States. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman

Cost to keep circumcision off ballot: $100K


In the very public fight over a ballot measure aiming to ban circumcision of underage males in San Francisco, the Jewish-led coalition that succeeded in keeping the practice legal in the city spent more than six times what the ban’s proponents did.

The Committee Opposing Forced Male Circumcision, which backed the ballot measure that ultimately was forced to be withdrawn, spent $14,000 on their efforts, according to the most recent filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission, covering political activity through the end of September.

The same filings show the Committee for Parental Choice and Religious Freedom, the political action committee (PAC) quickly organized by the Bay Area Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to wage a fight against the ballot measure, spent nearly $99,000 on its efforts.

The sum is expected to rise, JCRC Associate Director Abby Michelson Porth said, because the PAC still must be officially terminated.

“The good news is it cost us a fraction of what it would have cost had the legal victory not occurred,” Porth said. A California Superior Court judge struck the measure from the ballot in July, saying it was preempted by an existing state law.

If that hadn’t happened, Porth said, the Jewish-led coalition would have had to run a full political campaign all the way up to the Nov. 8 election. “It would have cost upward of four times what we spent,” Porth said.

For their effort, the JCRC hired four separate political firms to run the campaign. Although the Ethics Commission filings included no mention of Morrison Foerster, a firm that worked pro bono on the legal challenge that successfully struck the measure from the ballot, they did reveal that early in the campaign, the JCRC-led coalition paid $36,000 to the polling firm Tulchin Research.

“We ran a political poll to gauge how San Francisco voters felt about this measure,” Porth said, “to understand what were the key messages and messengers that would influence San Francisco voters’ attitudes.”

The JCRC itself charged the PAC over $10,000 for employees’ salaries, including Porth, who spent time working to defeat the measure.

All donations of $100 or more made to a committee on either side of the ballot measure are listed in the documents obtained from the Ethics Commission. Supporters of the JCRC-led coalition were mostly individuals and organizations in the Bay Area; the largest individual contribution came in July from Roselyne Swig, a prominent Jewish San Francisco philanthropist, who donated $10,000. National Jewish groups helped as well, among them the Anti-Defamation League, which donated $25,000 to support beating back the ban.

The effort to ban circumcision, by contrast, appears in the Ethics Commission documents to have been mostly supported by in-kind, non-monetary contributions. Indeed, of the $14,000 spent by the Committee Opposing Forced Male Circumcision, $8,500 came from Richard Kurylo, who works in the operations unit of the San Francisco City Controller’s office, and his contributions are classified either as “Signature Gathering Expenses,” “Petition Circulators” or “photocopies/supplies.”

Many of the monetary donations to ban circumcision documented in the Ethics Commission filings came from prominent anti-circumcision activists. Kurylo personally gave $1,000; Lloyd Schofield, the ballot measure’s proponent, contributed $600; and Frank McGinness, the treasurer of the committee supporting the ballot measure, donated $1,600.

“It would’ve been nice to get more money to be able to do more,” Schofield said. “We did what we could with what we had.”

The very first itemized monetary donation to the campaign to ban circumcision in San Francisco was $150 from Matthew Hess, the San Diego-based anti-circumcision activist who authored the San Francisco ballot measure.

Hess contributed an additional $500 in March and was also the creator of the anti-circumcision comic book “Foreskin Man,” which was widely criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and others as anti-Semitic.

Just how expensive is it to live in Israel?


What began in Israel in June as a Facebook-driven rebellion against the rising cost of cottage cheese, then morphed in July into tent encampments protesting soaring real estate costs, has since turned into a full-scale Israeli social movement against the high cost of living in the Jewish state.

From Tel Aviv’s tent-filled Rothschild Boulevard to marches in Beersheva, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have participated in one protest or another. The movement’s targets have expanded from housing and cheese prices to everything from the costs of child care and gas—not to mention salaries.

All this begs the question: Just how expensive is it to live in Israel?

A close examination of some key metrics show that compared to the United States and Europe, Israeli costs of living are a mixed bag. Salaries are lower, but so are health care costs. Consumer goods and services costs are nearly double those in the United States, and owning a car can run about six times as much relative to one’s salary.

So how do Israelis make it? Israeli retailers and banks offer easy credit on everything from big-ticket items like summer vacations to everyday purchases like groceries; all can be paid in monthly installments. The result is that many Israelis are perennially in debt and are increasingly frustrated by their inability to cover costs with their monthly paychecks.

Here’s a closer look at some of the costs of living in Israel.

Housing

The most expensive and desirable places to live in Israel are in the center of the country, where the vast majority of the population resides and works.

According to figures from the real estate company RE/MAX Israel, apartment prices in central Tel Aviv run $5,714 to $7,142 per square meter. In Jerusalem, the peripheral neighborhoods of East Talpiot and Kiryat Hayovel offer housing from $4,285 to $5,714 per square meter, while prices in the tonier neighborhoods of Baka, the German Colony and Rechavia range from $7,000 to $8,571 per square meter.

That means that in Baka or the German Colony, a typical two-bedroom apartment starts at $428,571, according to Alyssa Friedland, a broker for RE/MAX.  In the peripheral neighborhoods, some of which are built on territory captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War, a two-bedroom apartment runs for about $343,000. According to RE/MAX figures, two-bedroom apartments in Beersheva, Haifa, Hadera and Afula cost between $143,000 and $286,000.

Mortgage rates are about 4.5 percent, according to Friedland, but the required down payment is usually about 40 percent.

“Young couples are getting the money from their parents because they don’t typically have savings like that,” she said.

As the economist Daniel Doron noted recently in The Wall Street Journal, “A small apartment can cost the average Israeli worker 12 years in annual salary.”

Salaries

In Israel, the average salary is about $2,572 per month, and the average income for a tfamily with two wage earners is approximately $3,428 per month, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Teachers and nurses earn abound $1,666 a month, making Israeli teachers’ salaries among the lowest in the world, according to a recent report by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Business managers, computer engineers and lawyers have some of the highest median salaries in Israel. A lawyer with five years’ experience can make $5,500 to $6,500 per month, and top associates earn about $8,571 per month, according to Dudi Zalmanovitsh, who runs the Tel Aviv law consulting firm GlawBAL. Technology professionals are some of the highest paid in Israel, with technical writers and software engineers earning between $2,500 and $3,500 a month, and managers making upward of $10,000 a month.

Doctors, most of whom work at clinics and hospitals, earn $6,000 to $7,000 a month, unless they also have a private practice.

Transportation

With a tax rate of 78 percent on new cars, a lack of competition in the import market and high auto insurance costs—not to mention the price of gas—owning a car can be one of the most expensive things for an Israeli.

A Honda Civic, which has a sticker price of approximately $16,000 in the United States, costs $33,000 in Israel. Gas costs more than $8 per gallon.

As most Israelis earn about one-third of their American counterparts, Israelis may spend more than six times as much of their monthly salaries on car ownership as the average American.

The alternative—public transportation—is cheap by comparison in Israel, though the network of mass transit is much less developed here than in America or Europe.

A small but growing number of Israelis commute by train, but most need to take a bus to complete their commute. Buses are subsidized and therefore relatively cheap. Within cities, bus fare costs about $1.51 per ride or $65 for a monthly pass.

Health care

Israel’s socialized health care system is considered among the world’s best, and taxes pay the lion’s share of costs. Based on figures from the National Insurance Institute, the health care costs deducted from the average paycheck are between 3 percent and 5.5 percent, estimates Dr. Michael Cohen, who runs an HMO in the coastal city of Netanya.

With a system of universal health care run by private corporations, all citizens are entitled to the same uniform package. Whether self-employed or employed by a company, every citizen pays a basic health insurance rate to one of the four HMOs, which are heavily regulated by the government and subsidized.

For Israelis who need to visit the doctor, require fertility treatment or visit the emergency room, the extra costs are minimal. Medications are cheaper in Israel than in the United States because they are subsidized by the HMOs.

Many Israelis choose to expand their coverage with private health insurance that offers more access to private care or more comprehensive coverage. Private insurance costs a fraction of what it costs in the States.

“The working poor are much better off here because if someone gets sick, they still get full hospital treatment for what would be very expensive in the U.S.,” Cohen said.

Taxes

Israel is more like Europe than America on taxes. The top rate of income tax is 45 percent (it was 50 percent until 2003). The value added tax, or VAT, which amounts to a sales tax, is 16 percent. That’s considered regressive because rich and poor pay the same rate.

The average Israeli pays an income tax rate of 20.5 percent. The top 1 percent of salaried workers, who earn an average of $19,000 per month, pay a 40 percent income tax rate. The top 1 percent of the self-employed—the super-rich who gross an average of $121,000 per month—pay 26 percent in income tax.

Education

Education is one area in which Israelis pay considerably less than Americans.

Tuition at Israel’s renowned public universities is about $2,714 per year, thanks in large part to government subsidies. At Israel’s lesser-known private colleges, tuition costs about $8,571 each year. Compared with other developed countries, Israel ranks eighth out of the OECD’s 26 countries for tuition rates.

Those paying tuition for Jewish day school in America would save a bundle in Israel. Public schools—whether secular, Modern Orthodox or haredi Orthodox—are free. However, parents must pay service fees for field trips and special events, are responsible for busing costs and must pay for books.

The growing number of semi-private schools that offer special pluralistic, democratic or religious curricula charge annual tuitions ranging from $800 to $1,600, and boarding schools charge $3,000 to $5,000 per year.

Because the traditional Israeli primary school day is short, often ending before 2 p.m., many parents shell out money for afternoon childcare programs or afterschool activities.

The most expensive part of child rearing may be day care for the under-3 set. Some day care centers cost $630 a month for private toddler day care. Once children turn 3, they can take advantage of the public school system and day care centers that charge as little as $257 a month for a six-day, six-hour program.

Food

Israel’s social protest movement began with an investigative report by the Globes business daily on food prices. Globes found that prices for basic food products were two to three times higher in Israeli stores than in other Western countries.

An 8-ounce container of cottage cheese costs $1.68; a pound of hummus costs $4.54; 2 liters of orange juice—in a country that exports oranges—costs $6.54; 2 pounds of rice costs $1.94; and a 13-ounce container of Israeli Osem soup nuts costs $4.54—more than it costs in American stores that import the soup nuts from Israel. A 6-ounce can of Israeli-made sunscreen spray can cost approximately $40.

“Prices have gone above what the middle class and weaker classes can afford,” said Rami Levy, who owns 22 supermarkets nationwide. He attributed the rise to Israeli supermarket chains that collude to set prices.

“I started my business with the goal of selling to my customers at wholesale prices,” said Levy, who started with a stall in Jerusalem’s open-air Machane Yehudah market. “I wanted them to be able to buy what they needed and still have money left at the end of the month.”

The high cost of dying


A traditional Jewish funeral is simple and not ostentatious good news for people concerned about the high cost of dying. But while Jewish law doesn’t require embalming, elaborate floral displays or 16-gauge metal caskets with tufted crepe interiors, it does require Jews to be buried in the ground. And that costs money.

“You have to be realistic. We happen to live in an area where even a small piece of real estate is expensive,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, who also serves as chair of the Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

But many Jews don’t want to be realistic when it comes to paying for funerals.

Perhaps it’s denial, a sign of reluctance to accept death, let alone finance it. Never mind that other lifecycle observances b’nai mitzvah and weddings, for instance come with concomitant costs.

Or perhaps it’s a fear of the potential ruses and abuses we’ve heard about in the funeral industry, many of them exposed in Jessica Mitford’s 1964 groundbreaking book titled, “The American Way of Death.”

Today, however, the funeral industry is highly regulated by both the federal and state governments many say as a result of Mitford’s book.

The “Funeral Rule,” stipulating how funeral professionals deal with consumers, was enacted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and put into effect in 1984. This has brought transparency to practices previously shrouded in secrecy; “Funerals: A Consumer’s Guide” is available online.

The Funeral Rule also requires funeral homes to give consumers who appear in person a detailed, printed list of merchandise and services, known as the “general price list.” If requested, a funeral home director must also quote prices over the phone. This allows consumers to more easily and accurately compare prices among funeral homes so they can select only those goods and services they want. Caskets and other items also must be allowed to be purchased from outside sources without incurring a handling fee.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs’ Cemetery and Funeral Bureau’s “Consumer Guide to Funeral & Cemetery Purchase,” spells out state law. Although those laws are applicable to all mortuaries, they do not pertain to cemeteries operated by religious organizations. That booklet, too, is available online.

In Southern California, the Board of Rabbis’ Funeral Practices Committee works with clergy, funeral industry representatives and the Jewish community to set standards, address issues and, as best as possible, nurture “a sacred and positive spirit of cooperation,” according the committee’s mission statement.

To that end, the committee has set a standard honorarium of $500 for unaffiliated families to pay ordained rabbis for officiating at Jewish funerals. Hyman said it is meant to represent the “time, energy and commitment that a rabbi should be giving to a family.”

The committee is also looking into the status and condition of various distressed or closed local Jewish cemeteries, among other priorities.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what funerals generally cost. The national average cost of a Jewish funeral is not available, as the Jewish Funeral Directors of America keeps no records, according to executive director Florence Pressman.

And the national median cost of a funeral in America which according to the National Funeral Directors Association totaled $7,323 in 2006, without including the cost of a plot is not relevant, as it encompasses nontraditional Jewish items, such as embalming, viewing and metal caskets.

In Los Angeles, estimated costs for a traditional Jewish funeral range roughly from $3,500 to $4,500, including the casket but not the plot or the rabbi’s services. The price can be less, with package deals available through some mortuaries. But higher costs can also be easily incurred.

For example, a plain pine casket costs $700 to $900, while some all-wood caskets still considered traditional can exceed $12,000. And a customized nonkosher casket can top $30,000.

As for land, the price for a single plot can range from around $2,000 in some cemeteries to as high as $35,000. And the price of a large estate, depending on the number of spaces allotted, can go as high as a family wishes to spend, commanding as much as half a million dollars.

“It’s location, location, location,” Mount Sinai’s general manager Len Lawrence said.

Despite the familiar real estate refrain, however, it’s worth noting that what you’re buying is the right to inter not actual property. Plot prices do not fluctuate with downturns in the real estate market.

The cost of a plot, by law, also includes a certain percentage mandated for endowment care to ensure cemetery upkeep in perpetuity. That amount for ground plots a minimum of $2.25 a square foot, according to California’s Cemetery & Funeral Bureau, though cemeteries can collect more is monitored by the state, and only its earned interest can be spent on maintenance.

Some cemeteries, such as those owned by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, are nonendowment care entities.

“Our cemeteries are older and more Orthodox,” said Yossi Manela, a Chevra Kadisha funeral director. “They’re more affordable, but they’re not for everyone.”

A burial vault is another expense that is often questioned. The container, which is usually made of cement and encloses a coffin, is not mandated by California law, but is required by many cemeteries to prevent the ground from settling and forming sinkholes and to facilitate maintenance. “Most cemeteries are referred to as memorial parks and have beautiful grounds. The vault allows for the park-like atmosphere,” said Ira Polisky, Eden’s family service manager.

To save money, some people buy plots from third-party sources. Plots offered for sale can be found in the newspaper classified ads including this newspaper as well as online, on sites like Craigslist and eBay. People sell plots because they decide to move, for example, or divorce and no longer want to share eternity. Or sometimes financial concerns force them to cash out.

Caskets also are sold through online distributors or retail stores. ABC Caskets Factory, for example, located in downtown Los Angeles, is a casket manufacturer and not merely an online store. The company offers same-day delivery to mortuaries within a 30-mile radius, accommodating families who are arranging next-day funerals in accordance with Jewish tradition.

“Our Jewish caskets are all ready. It’s no big deal,” said Isabelle Conzevoy, wife of owner Joey Conzevoy.

Online and retail sellers, however, are not regulated by the same federal and state laws that govern funeral establishments, though they are subject to state and local business laws.

However, a concern was voiced about third-party purchases. “But what do you do if the casket arrives dented or damaged?” asked Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park.

For the indigent, the Jewish Community Burial Program, offered through Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, provides a traditional Jewish burial at no cost, with participating Jewish mortuaries and cemeteries donating many of their services. (The toll-free contact number is (887) 275-4537.)

“No one should have to make an un-Jewish and undignified choice because of cost,” Funeral Practices Committee chair Hyman said.

Additionally, some cemeteries, including Hillside and Mount Sinai, do not charge for the burial of a child. “The family has enough tzuris (trouble). They don’t need any more,” Mount Sinai’s Lawrence said.

Still, the fact is, sooner or later, all of us are going to deal with the reality and the expense of death.

“It’s part of our life experience. Death is really another chapter in our life and is to be treated with the utmost sanctity,” Hyman said.



ALTTEXT
Caves of Abraham, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Simi Valley

Planning Ahead

Rabbis and Jewish community professionals have long trumpeted the advantages of preplanning for end-of-life exigencies.
It’s not always an easy sell.

“We live in psychological denial that we are going to die someday, although we mentally understand,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, who also serves as halachic consultant at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

“That’s perfectly healthy, but not OK if it prevents us from making preparations for death,” he added.

The Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which acts as a liaison among clergy, families in need and the Jewish funeral industry, takes a strong stance on this issue.

“For parents, [planning ahead] is a gift of love for your family, not just financially, but also spiritually and emotionally,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach and Funeral Practices Committee chair.

Ron Sobol, 54, took action after his mother’s death, soon after which he also received a flyer from Adat Ari El announcing a sale of cemetery plots the synagogue had purchased at Eden Memorial Park.

“When a parent dies, you feel a little bit more mortal,” Sobol said.

Sobol met an Adat Ari El representative at the cemetery, viewed plots in three locations and purchased companion side-by-side plots for himself and his wife, Leah.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Sobol said.

For people who want a traditional burial, selecting a cemetery is usually the first step. Choosing a particular plot or crypt, which is a space in a mausoleum or other building, follows.

Those set on Hillside Memorial Park or Mount Sinai Memorial Park’s Hollywood Hills location might not want to drag their feet. In 25 years or more, both expect to be out of room.

“Sold out, not filled,” Mount Sinai general manager Len Lawrence specified.

But the situation isn’t dire.

Mount Sinai opened its 160-acre Simi Valley location in 2002, giving it space for the next two centuries, according to Lawrence. Hillside is actively looking for new property, CEO Mark Friedman reported. And Eden Memorial Park, which was purchased by Service Corporation International in 1985, is “good for 100 years-plus,” said general manager Anthony Lempe.

No national statistics are available concerning the number of Jews who make advance burial preparations, but according to representatives at Mount Sinai, Hillside and Eden, the three largest cemeteries that serve the multidenominational Los Angeles community, it’s a clear majority.

“This is going to happen to all of us, and if you do your thinking and decision making at a time when you can all be open and rational and truly together, you make much better decisions,” Hillside’s Friedman said.

In addition to the plot, preplanning can include selecting the casket and, if desired, a shroud. Plus, certain services, such as taharah (the ritual cleansing) and shmira (guarding the body) can be prearranged. Even flowers can be ordered in advance.

Mortuaries generally take care of the casket and additional services. Certain cemeteries, including Hillside, Mount Sinai and Sholom, have their own mortuaries. Others are independent but work cooperatively with all cemeteries.

Fewer people, however, prepay the mortuary expenses.

“It’s really a personal decision based on a family’s current financial position,” said Helaine Cohen, a certified public accountant.

She explained that families struggling with mortgages, college tuitions and other day-to-day expenses may be better off waiting until the children leave home. Other families, with one or both spouses working, may be better positioned to pay for these expenses when their income is more substantial, before they retire.

Cohen herself admits that she and her husband have not discussed buying plots. “We just turned 50,” she said. “That’s the age to address long-term health insurance.”

But people can make many end-of-life decisions without actually prepaying for them. Most mortuaries, in fact, will

keep these preferences on record. Additionally, writing wills and creating other financial and health care directives are really part of the preplanning process, with some of these documents not subject to delay.

“I frankly think and people look at me cross-eyed when I say this that as soon as a person gets a driver’s license that person should fill out a durable power of attorney of health care,” Dorff said. He believes it’s important that parents know their teenager’s wishes in the rare case of a debilitating accident.

Dorff also recommends that parents, as they get older, write an ethical will, essentially a letter to their children specifying their life values. Additionally, he advises compiling a family history.

But people can’t preplan in a vacuum.

“It’s interesting. We encourage people to preplan, but first you have to do education,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, the national nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring Jewish death and bereavement practices.

Generally, end-of-life education takes place in the synagogue, encompassing a session or two in a Jewish life-cycle curriculum. It’s also a popular sermon topic during the Yom Kippur Yizkor (memorial) service.

Kavod v’Nichum itself sponsors an annual conference on chevra kadisha (a holy society that prepares the body of the deceased for burial) and related topics such as chaplaincy. The organization’s next conference, in June 2009, is targeted for the West Coast, possibly Los Angeles, according to Zinner.

Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park, holds a seminar annually after the High Holy Days to educate people about preneed. This year it’s scheduled for Oct. 26 at Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.

And Sinai Temple is hosting a one-day seminar on death and dying on Feb. 22, 2009, open to the community. “We hope to help people begin a discussion,” said Terry Wohlberg, co-founder of the synagogue’s chevra kadisha.

A conversation about these issues, whether people actually make advance arrangements or not, can do more than ease future burdens on the survivors. It can have real-time and unexpected benefits for the people themselves.

Producer Cathee Weiss works with individuals who want to create film biographies, sitting down with them to discuss the life lessons they wish to impart to their progeny.

“There’s always reflection on the big values,” Weiss said. “The notion of what we’re going to leave behind makes all of us a little more conscious of living a life of worth, of value, of integrity.”

Checklist: What to do when someone dies


Make sure to contact the hospital or mortuary so that you can fill out any paperwork, i.e., death certificate, as soon after the death as possible.

If you have preplanned:

  1. Contact the doctor to fill out any paperwork.
  2. Contact the funeral director (who should have a list of arrangements).
  3. Call your synagogue and speak with the rabbi about possible times for the service.
  4. Register the death with the synagogue.
  5. Re-contact the funeral home/mortuary to arrange for a funeral time.
  6. Contact close friends and family/chavurah so they can help relay funeral time and information.
  7. Decide for how many days you will sit shiva. Your friends/chavurah can arrange for people to sit shiva with you and your family.

If you have not preplanned:

  1. Contact the doctor to fill out any paperwork.
  2. Call a Jewish funeral director to arrange for someone to pick up the body and to discuss available times for the funeral at a Jewish cemetery.
  3. Call your synagogue and speak with the rabbi about possible times for the service.
  4. Register the death with the synagogue.
  5. After speaking with both the director of the cemetery and the rabbi, arrange for a funeral time.
  6. Call a mortuary that may or may not be affiliated with the cemetery (depending upon which cemetery you use). Set up a service time that is convenient both for the rabbi and the mortuary.
  7. Have your friends/family/chavurah make calls to friends/family/loved ones to relay funeral time and information.
  8. Decide for how many days you will sit shiva. Your friends/chavurah can arrange for people to sit shiva with you and your family.


ALTTEXT
Resources

Web sites:

Jewish Funerals, Burial and Mourning, published by Kavod v’Nichum and the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington

“My Jewish Learning Death and Funeral Practices

“A Guide to Jewish Burial and Mourning Practices” published by the Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

A Guide to Jewish Mourning and Condolence” by Jerry Rabow, Valley Beth Shalom

Funerals: A Consumer Guide (Federal Trade Commission)

Consumer Guide to Funeral & Cemetery Purchases (California Department of Consumer Affairs Cemetery & Funeral Bureau)

Funeral Consumers Alliance

The Green Funeral Site

Books

“Mourning & Mitzvah: A Guided Journey for Walking the Mourner’s Path Through Grief to Healing” by Anne Brener (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001)

“The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning” by Maurice Lamm (Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)

“So That Your Values Live on: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them” by Jack Riemer and Nathan Stampfer (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994)

“A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement” Ron Wolfson (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005)

— Jane Ulman



JEWISH CEMETERIES AND MORTUARIES IN LOS ANGELES

CEMETERIES

AGUDATH ACHIM CEMETERY
1022 S. Downey Road
Los Angeles, CA 90023
323 653-8886
800 654-6772

Opened in 1919. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.

BETH ISRAEL CEMETERY
1068 S. Downey Road
Los Angeles, CA 90023
213 653-8886
800 654-6772

Opened in 1907. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.

BETH OLAM CEMETERY OF HOLLYWOOD
900 N. Gower Street
Hollywood, CA 90038
323 469-2322
877 238-4652
www.betholam.com

Opened around 1927. Organized as the Jewish section within the larger Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, now called Hollywood Forever.

EASTERN COMMUNITY JEWISH CEMETERY
15270 Woodcrest Dr.
Whittier, CA 90604
310 943-3170

Opened in 1987.

EDEN MEMORIAL PARK
11500 Sepulveda Blvd.
Mission Hills, CA 91345
818 361-7161
800 441-7161

Opened in 1954. Acquired by Service Corporation International (SCI) in 1985.

HILLSIDE MEMORIAL PARK
6001 Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(800) 576-1994
www.hillsidememorial.org

Opened in 1946. Owned by Temple Israel of Hollywood since the 1950s.

HOME OF PEACE MEMORIAL PARK
4334 Whittier Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90023
323 261-6135
800 300-0223
www.homeofpeacememorialpark.com

Opened in 1902 in current location. Owned and operated by Rose Hills Memorial Park.

MOUNT CARMEL CEMETERY
6505 E. Gage Ave.
City of Commerce, CA 90040
(323) 653-8886
(800) 654-6772

Opened in 1931. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.

MOUNT OLIVE MEMORIAL PARK
7231 E. Slauson Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90040
323 721-4729

Opened in 1948. Donated to Chabad of California in the 1980s.

MOUNT SINAI MEMORIAL PARKS
5950 Forest Lawn Dr.
Los Angeles, CA 90068
(800) 600-0076
(323) 469-6000
www.mt-sinai.com

Originally founded by Forest Lawn in 1953 and exclusively Jewish since 1959. Owned by Sinai Temple since 1967.

6150 Mount Sinai Drive
Simi Valley, CA 93063
(800) 600-0076
www.mt-sinai.com

160-acre site purchased in 1997 and opened in 2002. Owned by Sinai Temple.

MOUNT ZION CEMETERY
1030 S. Downey Rd.
Los Angeles, CA 90023

Opened in 1916. Currently owned by Jewish Federation Council of Los Angeles and operated by Rose Hills Memorial Park, which owns Home of Peace.

SHOLOM MEMORIAL PARK
13017 N. Lopez Canyon Road
San Fernando, CA 91342
818 899-5216

Founded in 1951. Privately owned.

YOUNG ISRAEL CEMETERY
13622 Curtis and King Road
Norwalk, CA 90650
(213) 653-8886

Opened in 1938. Owned and operated by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary.

JEWISH MORTUARIES

CHEVRA KADISHA MORTUAR
7832 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90046
800 654-6772
323 653-8886
www.chevrakadisha.com

Founded in 1976 as a private organization and not a traditional “chevra kadisha.”

R.L. MALINOW GLASBAND WEINSTEIN MORTUARIES
7700 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90046
800 300-0223
323 656-6260

GROMAN EDEN MORTUARIES
11500 Sepulveda Blvd,
Mission Hills, CA 91345
800 522-4875
www.gromaneden.com

GROMAN MORTUARIES
830 W. Washington Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90015
213 748-2201

HILLSIDE MORTUARY
6001 W. Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90045
800 576-1994
310 641-0707
www.hillsidememorial.org

Founded in 1946 in association with Hillside Memorial Park.

MOUNT SINAI MORTUARIES
5950 Forest Lawn Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90068
800 600-0076
323 469-6000
www.mt-sinai.com

6150 Mount Sinai Drive
Simi Valley, CA 93063
800 600-0076
323 469-6000
www.mt-sinai.com

Associated with Mount Sinai Memorial Parks.

MALINOW AND SILVERMAN MORTUARY
7366 S. Osage Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90045
(800) 710-7100

SHOLOM MEMORIAL PARK MORTUARIES
8629 W. Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90035
310 659-3055
www.sholomchapels.com

13017 N. Lopez Canyon Road
San Fernando, CA 91342
818 899-5211
www.sholomchapels.com

Founded in 1951. Associated with Sholom Memorial Park

# # #

Compiled by Molly Binenfeld and Jane Ulman

Budget black hole


Are school trips worth the cost?


  • Sixth-Grade Trip to Catalina: $400
  • Senior Trip to Poland and Israel: $4,000
  • Educational Value: Priceless

Milken Community High School 11th-grader Rebecca Suchov considers her elementary and middle school trips to Colorado, Arizona and Washington, D.C., — and any number of local weekend retreats — as some of her most formative experiences, so she expected a lot from her four months in Israel with Milken last spring. But she never anticipated just how lasting the impact would be.

“Before I left, my mom told me I’d come back changed, more mature, and I thought ‘OK, whatever.’ But I never felt so much more grown up, or so much more alive, like I know what is going on with the world. I feel like a completely different person,” said Suchov, who was one of 40 10th-graders to participate in Milken’s Tiferet Israel Fellowship in the program’s inaugural year last spring.

That response is just what educators are looking for when they offer students out-of-classroom experiences to augment what they learn from lectures, projects and textbooks. Those trips — ranging from a few nights of local camping to pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., to overseas travel — have become part of the curriculum at most Jewish schools and at other independent schools.

“Families are going to Jewish day schools because they can get these kinds of experiences,” said Larry Kligman, middle school director of Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge. “There is no question that the kids are more confident, that they have a stronger Jewish identity and that the classroom experience is more beneficial for them because they have these trips, these journeys and adventures.”

But the trips also pose challenges to schools and families. Schools often subsidize the trips and offer assistance to families who can’t pay, but for parents already struggling to pay day school tuition — ironically, cutting their own travel budgets, among other areas — trips bring added pressure, especially with everyone-else-is-going guilt from kids. And administrators concede that some families opt out of the trips because of cost — anywhere from $100 for a Shabbaton to thousands for an Israel trip — widening the economic divide already present in schools.

Other trips are selective, bringing only a small group, leaving others behind and perhaps resentful. Some parents also complain that the educational content on some of these trips is minimal.

“The bottom line that we have to be asking ourselves is: Does it fit into our curriculum? Is it something the family could do on their own or something the school can uniquely provide? And is it something we can offer at a reasonable cost? And that — the reasonable cost — that has become an issue, as far as I’m concerned,” said Barbara Gereboff, head of school at Kadima Academy in West Hills. “I want to make sure we are not falling into this trap of taking trips because everyone else is doing it.”

Gereboff said she and her staff are opening up a conversation about exploring less costly, more local alternatives to the Washington, D.C., or New York trips her middle schoolers take.

Kadima and the newly merged Kadima-Heschel West Middle School won’t be doing away with the trips, she emphasized. Like most educators, Gereboff sees great value in kids learning in a hands-on, natural context, and in building bonds with each other and with staff in a way that doesn’t happen in the school building.

“Is it a luxury? Absolutely. But given the range of luxuries these kids are exposed to, I think it’s a good one,” said Madeline Levine, a Marin County psychologist and author of “The Price of Privilege” (HarperCollins, 2006). “Even though it does require financial scraping for most of us parents, I think it is a better place to spend our money than on more hors d’oeuvres at the bar mitzvah. Most parents and kids spend resources on stuff — material goods — and I like the notion of spending money on an experience that is enriching in some way.”

In fact, taking kids out of a homogeneous middle-class environment can be good for suburban kids, says psychologist Wendy Mogel, author of “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee” (Scribner, 2001).

“I think our students in L.A. are a little bit bubble-wrapped, and so these trips give them an opportunity to wet their feet in life a little more,” Mogel said. “My experience in talking to kids is that they love these things, and one of the reasons they do is because they are kind of nature- and culture-deprived.”

Lina Suchov, Rebecca’s mom, says she jumped at the chance to have Rebecca go on Tiferet, which included intensive classroom study, interaction with Israeli teens and their families, and trips all over Israel. Having seen her three children — now 16, 17 and 20 — go on school trips through Milken and Heschel, Suchov is sold on their value.

“All the trips were a culmination of their studies, so it made a lot of sense to put into practice the concepts they had learned,” Suchov said. “I really believe in experiential learning — they come away with a good sense of purpose of the trip and how it applies to their studies, they make new friends, they see their teachers in a casual environment, and they get used to the idea of separating from their parents,” she said.

Most schools start trips in fifth or sixth grade, with local adventures that involve camping or a science component and usually cost in the range of $200-$500.

Kadima sends its fifth-graders on a science-oriented trip, such as Astrocamp. Seventh-graders in the newly merged middle school will take a social studies trip to New York — a change from Kadima’s usual Catalina camping trip. Students will get that outdoor experience, including challenging hikes and a few days in tents, on a sixth-grade science adventure in Washington state.

“We want them to try things they never thought they could do and come out of it feeling empowered,” Gereboff said.

A group of Kadima-Heschel West middle schoolers visit a sister school in Israel every year. Eighth-graders go to Washington, D.C., and spend months before the trip researching the sites they visit so they can serve as tour guides for their peers.

Gereboff said that trip will be on the table as the school explores whether kids might get the same benefit from a trip in the American Southwest, for example.

That would be a tough trend to buck, since eighth-grade trips to Washington or Israel have became standard in most Jewish day schools.

Heschel, in Northridge, used to offer eighth-graders the opportunity to go to both Washington and Israel, on an exchange program with a sister school in Tel Aviv. For kids who opted for both, that meant missing three or four weeks of school and paying $5,000.

So in the last few years the school has beefed up the East Coast trip with stops in New York and Philadelphia, and asked eighth-graders to choose between Israel and East Coast — an approach that so far has been successful, according to middle school principal Kligman.

At Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park, eighth-graders traditionally go to Israel at the end of the year. Last year, parents had to pay only $600 for the trip, because of a fundraising concert and other efforts.

At some schools, the kids do much of the fundraising on their own.

“It teaches the kids honesty and responsibility,” said Rabbi Boruch Sufrin, head of school at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, where eighth-graders raise money for their Washington, D.C., trip by selling challah and flowers at carpool line every Friday, running a snack bar after school, and countless other small fundraisers. A percentage of the money they raise goes to charitable causes.

Even with the fundraising, eighth-grade parents are usually left with a bill of more than $1,000 at Hillel, and up to $2,500 at other schools. Some kids contribute their own babysitting money or savings, and schools often offer payment plans and scholarships where necessary. Others roll the price of the trip into tuition. Occasionally, a few administrators admit, kids end up not going because it costs too much.

The stakes are even greater in high school.

Shalhevet’s senior trip to Poland and Israel costs $4,000, with aid available. New Community Jewish High School takes kids to Israel.

YULA tries to achieve the bonding and memory building at a lower cost. Last year, the senior boys went river rafting on the American River and visited San Francisco. The boys earned money for the trip by building sukkahs and running the student store. To cover the rest, the kids contributed $100 for the trip — a sum administrators felt the boys could earn themselves without having to tap into already taxed parental funds.

Milken Community High School holds trips for every grade, and often specific language, science or social studies classes take other trips. In addition to weekend Shabbatons, freshman go to Yuma, Ariz., and other grades go on rafting trips, exchange programs with schools in Tel Aviv or Mexico City, or social justice trips, such as to post-Katrina Mississippi. For the past few years in April, a growing number of seniors have been traveling to Israel and Poland with thousands of other teens from around the world to take part in the annual March of the Living.

“We see this as an exciting, engaging and educationally fruitful way to get our students into their Jewish identity and Jewish learning, and to bring the outside world into relationship with their Jewish identity,” said David Lewis, dean of student life at Milken. “This gets the kids off the hill in Bel Air and gets them into the real world.”

For kids who don’t like to or can’t travel, local options are usually available.

Mogel, who next year will publish her book about teenagers, “The Blessing of a B-” (Scribner), says that a graceful way out is important for kids who are not developmentally ready to take on a big camping trip or the commotion of an Israel trip.

“Our new philosophy of education is ‘the more, the earlier, the better,'” she said. “Better to think about readiness. For many students, these school trips provide a vista broader than their usual haunts, exciting opportunities and lifelong memories — but so can less-glittering adventures.”

R.E. Hard Crash? Soft Landing? Bursting Balloon? Leaking Balloon?


Mark Cohen thinks those doomsday scenarios about an impending Southland housing crash miss the mark. And the founder and president of Beverly Hills-based Cohen Financial Group has learned a thing or two about real estate over the last 20 years.

With an MBA from USC and a law degree from Loyola Law School, the 47-year-old mortgage broker helped secure nearly $1.1 billion in home loans last year, making him the No. 1 individual mortgage loan originator in the country, according to Mortgage Originator Magazine.

When not spending time with his three children and wife Laurie, Cohen has been involved in the local Jewish community.

A member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Real Estate and Construction Division, Cohen has also played an active role at Sinai Temple for more than two decades. He and his wife have long supported ATID (which translates as future in Hebrew), a Sinai program that trains future Jewish leaders. They also recently contributed funds toward the writing of a new Torah.

The Jewish Journal spoke to Cohen about the recent reversal in the local housing market.

Jewish Journal: Why has the housing market slowed in Southern California?

Mark Cohen: Southern California is a great place to live, which is why so many people want to live here. However, that also means the supply of apartments, houses and condos is limited. Over time, this supply-and-demand situation in housing has pushed prices up dramatically, pricing many people completely out of the market. Added to this are the interest-rate hikes by the Fed. Rates have increased by about 2 1/2 percent over the past few years, and that has made the cost of borrowing more expensive, closing the door on even more potential homeowners.

JJ: If the Fed raises interest rates to keep inflation in check, will that help or hurt the market?

MC: The jury is still out on whether or not the Fed will continue to raise rates. It all depends on whether or not they can keep inflation under control. If there are more rate increases in the near future, they will likely have a negative effect on the market in the short term. However, if the Fed is successful in keeping inflation in check, they can keep the door open for future rate cuts should there be a slowdown in the economy. Recent economic reports are showing that inflation has moderated for the time being, which means the Fed’s tightening cycle may be over. And that would have a positive impact on the real estate market.

JJ: What areas of the Southland are most at risk of having the bottom drop out? Why?

MC: It’s difficult to single out specific areas in Southern California that have the most risk. However, right now, San Diego seems to have an oversupply of new condominiums on the market due to all the speculation that occurred over the past few years. There’s also usually a deeper correction in areas where there has been excess in new construction. Palm Springs is an example of this. On the other side of the coin, the Westside, South Bay and San Fernando Valley will likely fare better during a slowdown because of the lack of new construction, limited supply of homes and desirability.

All in all, Southern California is a great place to live and historically, over time, real estate here has proven to be a great investment.

JJ: Do you anticipate a hard or soft landing locally?

MC: A soft lading will depend on several factors. First, the direction of interest rates will have a big impact, as will the strength of the local economy. As long as jobs are being created and the economy stays at its current growth levels, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll experience a hard landing.

Obviously, the actions by the Fed in the next few months will affect the local real estate market for the foreseeable future.

JJ: How long do you expect the market to remain soft?

MC: It really depends on the economy. If we have continued job creation and continued economic growth, the market will recover more quickly. Fewer jobs created and slower growth will mean a longer slowdown. The real driving force behind the real estate market isn’t interest rates; it’s the economy. That’s because even though fixed-interest rates have risen recently, they are still at manageable levels.

JJ: How is this housing market of today different from the boom-and-bust cycle of the late 1980s and early 1990s?

MC: This is a very different market from the one we saw in the late 1980s or early 1990s, primarily because the Southern California economy is now much more diverse. During that period, the economy here was based on the aerospace, defense and entertainment industries. Today our economy is much more diverse, with financial services, technology, biotechnology and other industries playing major roles on the region’s vitality. A more diverse economy means the chances of a hard economic landing are reduced, and this, in turn, helps to support the housing market.

JJ: What kind of industries might suffer in a soft housing market, and how could that impact the entire local economy?

MC: The real estate industry has a large effect on the Southern California economy, because there are so many people employed in it either directly or indirectly, including lenders, title companies, escrow agents, real estate sales agents, contractors, and developers, This means that a prolonged slowdown would hurt the folks employed in these industries and the overall local economy as well.

JJ: How much do you expect housing in Southern California to drop in the next year? What price ranges will be hit hardest?

MC: I don’t expect prices will fall more than 5 percent to 10 percent from the market highs of a couple years ago, with the hardest hit homes being those in the mid-level price range between $1 million to $3 million.

JJ: What advice would you give to someone who is considering buying or selling a home in Los Angeles?

MC: I’m a big proponent of home ownership. Don’t we all work hard so we can eventually own our own home? My advice is for people to feel comfortable living in a new home for at least five years so interest rates and real-estate-cycle influences are reduced. I don’t think we’re in a market that allows for short-term housing speculation, since the market is extremely volatile.

Jewish Journal September 1, 2006 43

T

Drug Plan Proving Bitter Pill for Seniors


After sorting through piles of brochures, Millie Topper thought she had finally found the right Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit plan to pay for the high blood pressure medications she wanted.

But once the 77-year-old resident of Silver Spring, Md., crunched the numbers, she realized she couldn’t afford the plan’s heavy deductibles and monthly premiums. Grudgingly, she signed up instead for a plan that forces her to take a generic drug in lieu of the brand name she prefers.

“I don’t know which way to turn,” Topper said.

Her friends, she said, complain that “you’d have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the Medicare drug benefit.”

It’s a familiar story for Jewish officials who staff the community’s elderly help lines, where phones have been ringing off the hook in advance of the May 15 deadline to enroll in a prescription benefit plan. The benefit, which took effect Jan. 1, has been financially detrimental to some Jewish seniors and helpful to others — but bewildering to almost all.

“I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘Boy that’s terrific,'” said Beth Hess, director of aging and disability services for the Jewish Social Services Agency. “Nobody’s dancing on the ceiling with enthusiasm for this.”

Its consequences are important for a Jewish community with disproportionately large numbers of seniors. A recent survey recorded 19 percent of U.S. Jews as seniors, as opposed to 12 percent in the general population.

The benefit is the fruit of the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, which for the first time covers all Medicare beneficiaries. The government turned to private enterprise to handle the massive new entitlement, against the backdrop of escalating drug costs. Incentives were offered to private companies to administer the benefit at the lowest possible cost. The idea was to encourage profit-driven companies to compete against one another to enlist seniors, causing prices to drop.

Under the rules of Medicare’s new prescription drug plan, known as Part D, beneficiaries must choose a plan offered by a private insurer. Each Part D plan — and there are dozens in each state — has its own “formulary,” a restrictive list of drugs, pharmacies, monthly premiums, co-payments and yearly deductibles.

Finding the best and most affordable plan has Jewish seniors grousing about the maze of options. The jargon has added to the confusion.

“I didn’t even know what ‘formulary’ meant,” Topper said.

For those enrollees who stand to benefit from the new system, the immense confusion triggered by the transition has overshadowed the more affordable costs. With many seniors on multiple prescription drugs at once — along with the ever-present prospect of needing new medications, finding the right formulary has become a tall order.

One way of searching for plans is by accessing the “plan finder” on the Medicare.gov Web site, a process many experts say can be confusing for anyone, let alone seniors who may not be computer savvy.

Some seniors pore over each individual formulary brochure they receive in the mail. But most chafe at sifting through the formularies or using the Internet to find the best plan. Many Jewish seniors have turned to their children and grandchildren for help

“What’s most impressive is how active children are in trying to help their parents, regardless of how much money they have,” Hess said. “Active adult children are making it a lot easier on Jewish seniors.”

William Peirez, president of B’nai B’rith International’s MetroNorth region, enrolled his 87-year-old mother in an AARP plan. Peirez is angry about the new system, which he says is far too complicated.

“An 80-year-old can not figure this out,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s too difficult for me, and I’m 62 and a lawyer.”

Jewish leaders and policy analysts agree that some of the biggest losers from the benefit are the indigent on Medicaid, including a number of Jews.

“There is this stereotype that all Jews have money,” said Rachel Goldberg, director of senior advocacy at B’nai B’rith International. “We forget that while the average income for Jews is slightly higher, we still do have older Jews living in poverty.”

At the beginning of the year, all 6 million Americans who qualify for both Medicaid and Medicare were automatically enrolled in random private plans under the new benefit.

Prior to the switch, Medicaid recipients, who are in the lowest income bracket, had received their drugs without cost. Now they are saddled with more restricted options and face co-payment costs of a few dollars each time they request a prescription.

“Many are paying more than they used to, and simply cannot afford it,” Goldberg said. “What sounds like coffee money to middle-class people, if you’re living hand-to-mouth, can [determine] whether or not you make your electric bill.”

Goldberg and other Jewish leaders are also highlighting lower-middle and low-income seniors who come close but do not qualify for Medicaid. This group has the most to gain from the benefit but also the most to lose, they said. Many seniors lack assistance in paying for their drugs, though there are subsidies for people who pass an assets test. But poorer seniors are less likely to have access to advisers and the best information to find the right plan. Without help, many feel powerless and are avoiding the benefit altogether, experts said.

Another lightning rod for confusion and concern is gaps in the benefit structure, called “doughnut holes.” If drug costs — including out-of-pocket costs and Medicare’s portion — exceed $2,250, Medicare pays nothing, while the beneficiary must cover 100 percent, until costs reach $5,100. Then Medicare defrays 95 percent of costs.

Many Jewish seniors don’t know whether it’s worth spending the extra money in monthly premiums to receive a plan that will fill in all or part of the gap.

Jews who are better off financially and already receiving their drugs through separate plans are unsure whether they would fare better or worse under Part D. Opting into the benefit may result in worse or more costly coverage and lead to the termination of former plans — but seniors also want to avoid late fees incurred if they enroll after the May 15 deadline.

Seniors “are resigned to struggling with a very complicated situation, where what’s right for them can change over time,” said David Gamse, executive director of Jewish Council for the Aging.

 

Critics Pound Paper Panning Israel Lobby


Two weeks after two prominent political science professors published a paper that they promised would expose the pro-Israel lobby in the United States, the collective reaction so far suggests they get a “D” for impact.

“The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” by John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard’s John. F. Kennedy School of Government, has been the subject of numerous Op-Eds — which generally have discredited it — but has been all but ignored in the halls of Congress, its purported target.

Among other assertions, the paper suggests that the pro-Israel lobby (especially the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has helped make the United States more vulnerable to terrorist attacks, steered the country into the Iraq war, silenced debate on campuses and in the media, cost the United States friends throughout the world and corrupted U.S. moral standing.

Walt and Mearsheimer portray as interchangeable the pro-Israel lobby and the neo-conservatives who have developed Bush’s foreign policy. Not surprisingly, this report got negative reviews from pro-Israel groups. The paper’s “disagreement is not with America’s pro-Israel lobby, but with the American people, who overwhelmingly support our relationship with Israel,” said an official with a pro-Israel lobbying organization in Washington.

The Anti-Defamation League called the paper “an amateurish and biased critique of Israel, American Jews and American policy.”

Especially outrageous, some said, are the paper’s insinuations that Jewish officials in government are somehow suspect.

“Not only are these charges wildly at variance with what I have personally witnessed in the Oval Office, but they also impugn the unstinting service to America’s national security by public figures like Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and many others,” David Gergen, Walt’s fellow academic at the Kennedy School and a veteran of four administrations, wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Daily News.

One of the few positive reviews came from white supremacist David Duke, who said the authors reiterate points he has been making for years.

The controversy passed almost unnoticed on Capitol Hill. A statement from Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) was typical of the few who bothered to pay attention to the paper, which Nadler called “little more than a repackaging of old conspiracy theories, historical revisionism and a distorted understanding of U.S. strategic interest.”

U.S. support of Israel was no mystery, Nadler said: “Israel is our only democratic and reliable ally in an extremely volatile and strategically important region. It is in our nation’s best interests to maintain that alliance.”

The authors said that they anticipated silence, arguing that the Israel lobby is “manipulating the media [because] an open debate might cause Americans to question the level of support that they currently provide.”

The problem with that theory is that some of the harshest criticism of the paper has come from individuals and groups who have long called for changes in how the United States deals with Israel.

“It was a lot of warmed-over arguments that have been tossed about for years, brought together in a rather unscholarly fashion and presented as a Harvard document, clearly not deserving of the title,” said Lewis Roth, assistant executive director of Americans for Peace Now, a group that has argued for increased U.S. pressure on Israel to achieve a peace agreement.

In fact, Mearsheimer and Walt have quietly removed the imprimatur of the Harvard and Kennedy schools that originally appeared on the paper. Walt holds the Robert and Renee Belfer professorship at the Kennedy School, and the paper appalled Robert Belfer, a major donor to Jewish causes, according to a report in the New York Sun. The chair is the equivalent of an academic dean at the Kennedy School, one of the most influential foreign policy centers in the United States.

“It read more like an opinion piece than serious research, and even as opinion it was so overreaching in some of its claims,” Roth said. “It didn’t have a lot of utility.”

One of the harshest critics of the paper was Noam Chomsky, the political theorist who routinely excoriates the U.S.-Israel relationship. He ridiculed the paper’s central “wag the dog” thesis, that the United States has “been willing to set aside its own security in order to advance the interests of another state.”

Walt and Mearsheimer “have a highly selective use of evidence (and much of the evidence is assertion),” Chomsky wrote in an e-mail to followers.

One example, he says, is how the paper cites Israel’s arms sales to China as evidence that the Jewish state detracts from U.S. security interests.

“But they fail to mention that when the U.S. objected, Israel was compelled to back down: under Clinton in 2000, and again in 2005, in this case with the Washington neo-con regime going out of its way to humiliate Israel,” Chomsky noted.

One of the paper’s more curious conclusions is that “what sets the Israel Lobby apart is its extraordinary effectiveness. But there is nothing improper about American Jews and their Christian allies attempting to sway U.S. policy toward Israel.”

If so, it begs the question of why Walt and Mearsheimer set out to write the paper. Mearsheimer did not return a call for comment.

In other areas, the paper gets facts wrong, for example when it says Israel wanted to sell its Lavie fighter aircraft to the United States, when it was strictly a domestic project.

According to the writers, “pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the U.S. decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was a critical element.”

Off the record, Jewish officials here reverse that equation, saying their support for the Iraq war was necessary in order to curry favor with a White House that was hell-bent on war. In fact, the adventure unsettled many Israeli and Jewish officials because of concerns that the principal beneficiary would be Iran.

“That really jumped out at me,” Roth said. “Among nasty neighbors, Iran was clearly the greater threat.”

Jewish groups and individuals at first were reluctant to react to a paper they saw as impugning their patriotism, but in time they could not resist. Detailed debunkings of Walt and Mearsheimer have proliferated.

Some of these, notably by fellow Harvard professors Ruth Wisse and Alan Dershowitz, have likened the writers to Duke — a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan — and other anti-Semites.

For some Jews, however, the criticism proved that despite the paper’s flaws, it correctly identified a symptom afflicting discussion of Israel: a tendency to dismiss all criticism as anti-Semitism.

“Even if the paper is as bad as its critics say, that does not obviate the need to respond to the points it makes,” said Eric Alterman, a media critic for The Nation. “So far, most of what I am seeing is mere character assassination of exactly the kind I, also, experience whenever I take up the issue. This leads me to conclude the point of most — but not all — of the criticism is to shut down debate because AIPAC partisans are wary of seeing their arguments and tactics subjected to scrutiny of any kind.”

Special-Needs Bill: Good IDEA or Not?


 

Jewish organizations expressed disappointment over President Bush’s recent signing of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), saying the bill does not go far enough to help Jewish children in private school who need extra educational support.

Under IDEA, students who require special services — such as speech therapy, sign language interpreters or resource teachers — must receive them by attending local public schools. Although some parents have successfully negotiated or even sued to allow their child to attend a private school and still receive financial support from their district for those services, for the most part, parents who want their child to receive a religious education must pay for additional services themselves.

Prior to the mid-1990s, IDEA made it possible for parents to send their child to a religious school and still receive services, such as speech therapy or occupational therapy, through their local school district.

However, a reauthorization of the law in 1997 changed all that. Currently, in states like California, many parents who would prefer to send all of their children to the same Jewish day school are forced to send their physically or otherwise challenged child to the local public school because the school district will not pay for support services provided off campus.

Jewish educators and advocates had hoped Bush, a proponent of school choice, would support changes to the law that included increased funding for services and making religious private schools a part of the larger picture of special education.

But while the reauthorization of the law includes some improvements, most advocates were disappointed.

“The last reauthorization in 1997 made things harder, and this did nothing to correct that,” said Michael Held, executive director of the Etta Israel Center, which provides services for children with special needs. “Unfortunately, Congress was not able to make the needed changes at this time.”

IDEA requires, for example, that the state pay for the federally mandated services only if the child is in a public school, even though funding is based on the total number of children with special needs who live in a district. Private schools do receive federal funds through IDEA, but those funds usually only cover a small percentage of the services the law itself mandates.

“We’re talking about a relatively small amount of money being made available to all private schools in the state. This has been the biggest problem for private schools, and in fact there has been a dramatic falloff [at Jewish private schools] in the number of kids receiving services and in the number of services they are getting,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Washington office director and counsel for Agudath Israel.

The latest legislation did make some improvements, fine-tuning the way private school students are counted in the overall picture for federal funding, and requiring the public school district, which distributes the federal funds, to consult with local private schools in determining how the funds are distributed among the schools.

It has been a tough road for supporters of legislation that had started out with such promise. H.R. 1350, which was passed by Congress last month and signed into law by Bush on Dec. 3, is the latest in a long line of legislation to ensure the rights of disabled people, beginning with the passage in 1975 of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, renamed Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990. The law is intended to make possible a free and appropriate education for any child with physical, mental and emotional challenges.

Activists for the disabled championed the initial passage of the act in 1975 as a bold civil rights initiative. In the education world, it had the same meaning for children with disabilities as Brown v. Board of Education had for African American students. However, IDEA is not a permanent part of federal law and, therefore, requires reauthorization approximately every five years.

“The irony is this particular piece of legislation was one of the most empowering to come along in terms of including children with special needs. But, over time, it has become extremely restrictive and adversarial, denying private school families the ability to get what they need,” said Held of the Etta Israel Center. The center provides inclusion support and self-contained classrooms for Jewish students with educational and developmental challenges, and also trains Jewish educators to work with such students through its Schools Attuned program.

Held said that Etta Israel is still committed to providing a full range of services — speech therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy — to Jewish children, despite the fact the Center is not reimbursed through the IDEA by either the state or federal government. He said, however, that his dream of full inclusion for children with learning challenges and physical disabilities within the Jewish community will not come to fruition until IDEA is changed back to its pre-1997 funding standards.

“At Etta Israel, we have really tried to create a model that does not separate [regular] education and special education. But the old model is the model IDEA supports,” Held said. “The result is that parents are locked into this scenario where they have to fight, advocate and litigate to get services. If the model were allowed to change and the education dollars flowed to helping the kids, there would be a lot more services to go around.”

David Ackerman, director of educational services for the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) in Los Angeles, said problems stemming from the bill have been exacerbated by state law.

“The difficulty is not just because of federal legislation, but because of the state’s policy and its tradition of separating church and state issues,” Ackerman noted. “Other states have found ways to provide special education services [in private religious schools] in a way California never has.”

The BJE recently commissioned a task force which will, among its other duties, examine ways to obtain funding within the confines of the law, and make sure private school students identified as needing support services are accounted for in the state budget.

“We are concerned the state won’t properly identify those kids from private schools who should be receiving services and are entitled to those services,” Ackerman said.

Held acknowledged there was one helpful change in the new legislation.

“It does endorse and fund professional development,” he said. “So our Schools Attuned work will be able to access the dollars to provide high-quality professional development to private Jewish schools throughout Los Angeles.”

Overall, the complexity of the IDEA and the failure on the part of Congress to make needed changes means parents are going to have to work harder to educate themselves. At Agudath Israel, Cohen said part of the organization’s focus is to help parents to get more than “yes or no” answers from their local school districts.

“Unless they know what they are entitled to, parents are going to forgo services,” Cohen said. “A lot of strides have been made but unfortunately they are because of litigation and knocking on the doors of city hall. I suspect that will continue.”

 

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