Made in Israel


On a typically bustling weekday morning at Elat Market onPico Boulevard, regular shopper Boris Sinofsky was at the fish counter,ordering several pounds of tilapia. He had seen a pamphlet for Fine Foods FromIsrael — a campaign to support Israel through the purchase of its goods — buthe didn’t pay it much mind.

“I shop at Elat, Kosher Club, Koltov all the time. I alreadybuy a lot of Israeli products.”

Over by the meat counter, Gila Mehraban had not even heardof the campaign.

“I usually buy kosher products,” Mehraban said. “But I getall kinds of brands.”

Nobody she knows, she added, is consciously buying Israeliproducts to support the Jewish State.

Fine Foods From Israel — a citywide awareness campaignrunning March 19-31 — hopes to change Jewish consumer patterns. The marketingcampaign was launched earlier this month in a collaboration by the SouthernCalifornia Israel Chamber of Commerce, The Jewish Federation of Greater LosAngeles, the Government of Israel Economic Mission and the Israel Export andInternational Cooperation Institute. More than 60,000 pamphlets weredistributed throughout Los Angeles, listing participation of 90 markets,including 56 Ralphs supermarkets and independent outlets such as Elite Marketand Sami Makolet.  The campaign’s goal: to coax customers to buy products fromIsraeli companies such as Adin Ltd., Segal Wines and Wissotzky Tea.

Fine Foods is one of many ways American Jewish communitieshave been rallying support through Israel, using financial and educationalprograms. But unlike victims of terror funds such as The Jewish Federation’sJews in Crisis, Fine Foods’ objective is not to raise proceeds for specificcharities, but to boost revenue of Israeli companies and, by extension,Israel’s economy. Israel — which has experienced a steady economic downturnsince the second Intifada began in September 2000 — ships about $38 billion intotal exports, an estimated $1 billion of that food-related. Israel exports toNorth America decreased from $76 million in 2001 to $70 million in 2002.

Fine Foods is one of many recent “buy Israel” efforts.Another food-related initiative involves Osem USA  — the American branch of Israel’s largest food manufacturer — which has partnered with Jewish NationalFund (JNF) to launch the Passover campaign Matzah With a Mitzvah. For everyfive boxes of Osem products purchased, Osem will make a donation to JNF toplant a tree in Israel. Osem will also promote facts on its packaging aboutJNF, the century-old organization that has developed more than 250,000 acres ofIsraeli land. Major supermarket chains nationwide — including Ralphs andAlbertsons — are endorsing this endeavor.

“This is a great way to support Israel,” Osem’s PresidentIzzet Ozdogan said. “With one purchase, you are helping Israel’s economy,fulfilling the obligations of Passover and planting trees in Israel — threemitzvot for the price of one.”

“Buy Israel” programs are also transcending the foodindustry. American Jewish Committee devoted part of its Web site to a “Made inIsrael” section that identifies Israeli cosmetics and clothing brands, andincludes links to other “buy Israel” Web sites, such as ShopBenYehuda.com andUSAIsrael.org.

Consumers have also been supporting Israel in the homeimprovement arena, where Israeli companies have a prominent local presence.Doorset Closet Mobel, manufacturer of custom closet and storage systems, openeda Beverly Hills showroom in 2001, while Caesarstone — pioneers of quartzsurfaces — has based U.S. operations in Sun Valley. Meanwhile, Bradco Kitchens& Baths has become the exclusive U.S. distributor of Israeli companiesTopaz Kitchens and Harsa Sink.

Doron Abrahami, consul for economic affairs at the SouthernCalifornia Israel Chamber of Commerce, believes that word is slowly gettingout. He was encouraged by the 160 people who attended a Fine Foods “food expo,”held March 24 in Beverly Hills. The networking party attracted store owners,distributors and buyers for Ralphs, Albertsons and Trader Joe’s.

“It’s too early,” Abrahami said, “but from the feedback thatwe’re getting, we’re considering holding this campaign again next year.”

Midway through this attempt to boost the quotient of Israeligoods, the Fine Foods campaign’s effectiveness is difficult to separate from anoverall, pre-Passover trend. Participating retailers endorse the marketingendeavor, but report conflicting feedback on its effectiveness. David Eskenazi,manager of Kosher Club in Los Angeles, noticed a small spike in the shape of afew phone calls.

“Overall there’s been a general increase in the purchase ofIsraeli goods even before the campaign,” said Eskenazi, who added that,conversely, “there’s been a drop in the sales of all of our French products.”

As a result of demand, Kosher Club will carry four moreIsrael-imported wine brands this Passover.

“Consumers are making a choice to support Israel, and we’remaking an effort to purchase these products,” Eskenazi said.

Noori Zbida has seen a bump in interest since the campaignbegan at his Fairfax Avenue store, Picanty.

“People want to choose more Israeli products than before,”Zbida said.

Tzvi Guttman of Mr. Kosher in Encino, felt otherwise.

“I sell the same amount around the year,” said Guttman, who”didn’t feel a difference.”

Abrahami cautioned against looking for instantaneous resultsfrom this inaugural Fine Foods.

“It might take a year to measure this campaign,” he said.”It’s a big community. I think there’s a big potential.”

Chamber of Commerce executive committee member BennettZimmerman agreed.

“If we could reach 100,000 people in California with ourcampaign,” he said, “that’s $100 million worth of goods. If we can replicatethis across the country, that’s a very significant impact on Israel’s economy.”

For more information on the Fine Foods from Israel campaign, call (323) 658-7924; visit www.finefoodsisrael.com. For more information on Jewish National Fund, call (800) 542-8733; visit www.jnf.org. For more information on American Jewish Committee’s Made in Israel program, visit www.ajc.org.

Argentina


To visit Argentina today is to see with your own eyes the tragedy these people are facing.

Imagine living in a country where you experience the following:

You have worked hard for years, and every month you add to your savings in a dollar account held at a major international bank (i.e. Citibank or equal). You placed your savings in this dollar account to be safe from currency fluctuations that are so frequent in South American countries. One day, you get a letter from your bank saying that your account has been changed from a dollar account to a peso account — transferred without your permission. You are outraged because you understand that last year the peso was equal to the dollar i.e. one peso equaling $1, yet today, it takes nearly four pesos to equal $1, thus your lifetime savings account has taken a huge hit. Later, another letter arrives that says you can only withdraw a limited amount per month from this peso account.

You appeal to the bank and hear, "Sorry, but this is government policy." You go to the politicians and hear, "Sorry, economic conditions demanded this action." There is such political turmoil that their congress didn’t meet for five straight weeks due to lack of a quorum and four presidents resigned within two weeks. You go to the courts with your dollar agreement in hand and get a total runaround. The net effect is countrywide anger.

Many banks in Buenos Aires have their first two-floor exteriors covered with plywood to ward off flying bricks and other evidence of the seething public rage. The Argentine government owes $135 billion to the IMF and the world bank, with little chance of ever repaying this staggering amount. In addition, over the past 45 years, 15 of the 19 agreements with the IMF have been broken, and thus, Argentina has zero credibility for further borrowings.

The net effect of this economic and political chaos has been the destruction of the middle-class. The official unemployment rate is 21 percent, but the unofficial estimate is 35 percent. Of the 200,000 Jews in the country, 80 percent are small businessmen or professionals and their lives have been devastated. An estimated 40,000 Jews are living below the poverty line and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) is serving more than 30,000. The JDC reported that last year 1,000 Jews left for Israel, and this year the number is approaching 6,000, with three times that number seeking refuge wherever in the world they gain admittance.

Heart-wrenching stories are heard everywhere. Rosa and Bernardo are in their 60s, came originally from Eastern Europe and have lived in Buenos Aires for 30 years. Bernardo has a heart problem, cannot walk and requires Rosa’s full-time attention. They were evicted from their residence, unable to pay their rent. JDC pays their rooming-house rent and Rosa comes to the JDC soup kitchen every day and takes the lunch, offered by JDC, to her husband. Bernardo is too ill to emigrate, so they just exist — day by day.

Enrique is a lawyer who came to Buenos Aires in 1940. His wife recently died and his youngest child has Down syndrome and can’t walk. The economic crisis in the past two years forced him to layoff all his employees and he ultimately had to close his practice. He still has to support his youngest daughter, and his friends do what they can to help him with expenses. He has been coming to the soup kitchen for a regular hot lunch paid by JDC, but he refused to have his picture taken — feeling so ashamed of his situation.

Melina Fiszerman is fortunate. She has a secure, responsible position with the JDC in Buenos Aires and is getting an advanced degree in economics. Yet, Melina, 25, is also threatened by the personal and political anguish surrounding her. Argentina is a dangerous place and she lives with the risks of random kidnappings on major streets and frequent, violent civil unrest. When we visited her in November, I asked her why she stays in Argentina.

She responded, "This is my country and my people. I love this country. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, and this is my home. I am optimistic about the future."

How can Melina be optimistic surrounded by such chaos? She is young, which helps. But much more than her youth is her knowledge and belief in the historic ability of Jews to survive. As American Jews living in our blessed country, it is our privilege and responsibility to help people like Melina and those thousands of Jews in Argentina who are living such painful, difficult lives. We cannot change the politics or economics of Argentina. But we can help by sending our dollars for Argentine relief.


Richard S. Gunther is on the board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.