El Al flight gets Swiss Air Force escort after bomb threat


An El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv landed safely after a bomb threat prompted an escort by the Swiss Air Force.

An anonymous bomb threat was called in to El Al on Tuesday when the plane was flying over the French-Swiss border. Two Swiss Air Force F-18 fighter jets established visual contact with the Boeing 747 passenger airliner and accompanied it until it passed out of Swiss airspace, the dpa news service reported.

The airplane’s kitchen was searched, but no explosives were found.

The plane landed safely in Tel Aviv.  Passengers aboard the flight were not aware of the security concern, the Jerusalem Post reported.

U.S. authorities issue Sukkot advisories


U.S. authorities released travel guidelines for Sukkot.

“TSA’s screening procedures do not prohibit the carrying of the four plants used during Sukkot – a palm branch, myrtle twigs, willow twigs, and a citron – in airports, through or security checkpoints, or on airplanes,” the Transportation Security Administration said in a statement, noting the dates of this year’s Sukkot holiday, from Sept. 18-25.

The TSA notice said, however, that all passengers undergo security screening at checkpoints.

In a separate statement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection also noted that the four species were allowed entry, but noted a number of restrictions subject to inspection.

“Travelers will be asked to open the container with the ethrog and unwrap it,” its advisory stated. “The agriculture specialist will inspect the ethrog. If either insect stings or pests are found, the ethrog will be prohibited from entering the United States. If neither is found, the traveler will be allowed to rewrap and re-box the ethrog for entry into the United States.”

Twigs of willow from Europe are banned, it continued, and any sign of pests or disease will mean confiscation of the product.

In a press statement noting the allowances, Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, also urged observant Jews to cooperate airline staff and authorities, for instance when praying aboard aircraft.

“Particularly, one should let flight attendants know if they will be davening in flight BEFORE they begin, and understand the implications, as well as potential prosecution, for ignoring requests to sit down when requested, etc.,” said Shemtov, who consulted with Rabbi Abba Cohen, the director of the Washington office for Agudath Israel of America, in setting out the guidelines. “For example, flight attendants do not usually understand ‘nu,’ ‘uh,’ and hand signals, etc. especially when you are already in tallis and tefillin.”

Shemtov told JTA that religious Jews should appreciate the efforts of travel authorities to facilitate their travel.

“We in the Jewish community are fortunate to live with an unprecedented level of personal liberty,” he said. “I hope everyone will appreciate that cooperation with authorities that are so sympathetic to our traditions is the least we can do in return.”

Chasidim on plane to Uman arrested for unrest


Several Chasidim heading to Ukraine to spend Rosh Hashanah at the burial site of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov were arrested at Ben Gurion Airport for rioting after their flight was delayed.

The flight was on the tarmac early Tuesday morning in Israel when airport operations were suspended for about an hour after two Palestinian men in a stolen struck ran a security barrier.

The passengers caused damage to the plane, including to its emergency oxygen systems, according to reports.

Some 25,000 pilgrims, many of them from the Breslov Chasidic movement, converge in Uman each year ahead of the Jewish New Year to pray near Nachman’s grave. The rabbi died in 1810.

Also Tuesday morning, some 50 people traveling to Uman were arrested. Among them were fugitives from justice, passport forgers and people wanted for questioning, according to The Times of Israel. The paper reported that it was unclear if those arrested are actually Chasidim or if they were trying to capitalize on the large number of similarly attired people in order to escape the country.

Meanwhile, rabbis and organizers from the Breslov movement met Monday in Uman with top Ukrainian government officials to work on security for the pilgrimage and facilitate cooperation between the World Breslov Center and the local police, Israel National News reported.

Among the subjects discussed was the building of a statue with a Christian cross in recent weeks on the banks of a lake near the grave, which the Chasidic leaders say will prevent the annual Tashlich ceremony from taking place. The Chasidic leaders agreed to use a different body of water for the ceremony, in which participants cast their sins on the water.

N.Y. yeshiva: Decision to boot students from plane ill conceived, not anti-Semitic


The decision to eject the senior class of the Yeshivah of Flatbush in Brooklyn from a flight was not anti-Semitic, an internal school report found.

AirTran Airways “abused its discretion” in forcing the 101 students off the early morning flight June 3 to their senior trip in Atlanta, according to the report authored by the yeshiva’s executive director, Rabbi Seth Linfield.

The report was obtained by the Times of Israel and reported on Tuesday.

Flight attendants said the students did not stay seated and continued to use their mobile devices in advance of takeoff, despite their requests as well as from the captain.

The report found that students erred by not turning off their cellphones.

“At no time did the students disrespect the flight crew in words or tone — beyond not immediately complying with the directives… to turn off all electronic devices,” the report said, according to the Times of Israel.

The yeshiva’s report said the airline crew rejected offers of assistance from the seven school chaperones in controlling the students.

The report opined that the reason the story was picked up by so many news outlets was the claim that anti-Semitism drove the decision to remove the students from the plane.

It included an apology to AirTran, a subsidiary of Southwest Airlines, “to the extent that any of our students behaved in a way that was perceived by the flight crew to be disrespectful or disobedient.”

The airline was praised for giving vouchers to the students to continue on to Atlanta and working to rebook them. Students traveled on several flights, some taking up to 12 hours to meet up with the group.

Syrian fighting decimates tourism industry


Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. International flights into and out of the capital continued despite throughout 20-months of fighting between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the rebels seeking to depose him. But as of Friday, the flights have stopped.

The decision was taken and all flights were cancelled when government jets bombed rebel positions close to the airport. EgyptAir announced on Sunday that it would resume flights to Damascus, but that did not appear to happen. The Egyptian flag-carrier had been operating daily flights between Cairo and Damascus, as well as several weekly flights from Cairo to Aleppo.

Ali Zein El-Abedeen of EgyptAir told The Media Line that flights to Aleppo were resumed on Monday, but the flight to Damascus did not take off.

In any case, the nation’s tourism industry, an important sector in quieter times, has — not surprisingly — been decimated by the fighting, which has left more than 40,000 Syrians, many of them civilians, dead. Tourism was responsible for five percent of Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011, and directly supported 270,000 jobs according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Arab tourists do not need visas to visit Syria, and more than three million traditionally come annually for family visits or on business.

“I used to go to Syria for a week every month,” Adnan Habbab, the owner of Nawafir Tours in Jordan told The Media Line. “There are 3,000 archaeological sites in Syria alone.”

It takes just two hours to drive, or 25 minutes to fly between Amman and Damascus. Habbab’s agency marketed week-long tours of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to Europeans and sold between 10,000 and 12,000 packages every year. They even opened two hotels in Damascus. Now, he says, he has laid- off  90 of his one hundred employees.

“We lost millions of dollars in profit,” he said. “Since May 2011, everyone has cancelled their trips to Syria.”

The American government has issued a stern warning against travel to Syria.

“The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Syria and strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately,” the warning says. “This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning dated August 1, 2012, to remind U.S. citizens that the security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with an increased risk of kidnappings, and to update contact information.
No part of Syria should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, including kidnappings.”

While several foreign airlines including Air Arabia and Fly Dubai, in addition to EgyptAir, had been operating flights to Damascus, they had cut their numbers significantly during the past few months. Only a handful of flights were landing in Damascus even before the current stoppage.

“Damascus has always been a place where flight service has been incredibly volatile,” Toby Nicol, the communications director for the World Travel and Tourism Council told The Media Line. “Ettihad Air was due to resume flying next month, and Air Dubai still lists flights to Syria, but I have no idea of who is currently flying.”

Nicols says that he has not visited Damascus and does not plan to in the near future.

“It’s one of those places where I always meant to go but never got around to it,” he said. “Now it will probably have to wait for at least 18 months.”

There seems to be no end in sight for the fighting in Syria. Turkish officials said Syria resumed an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain, near the border with Turkey. They said two bombs hit a Syrian security building that had been captured by the rebels.

The officials said shrapnel from the bombing landed on Turkish territory but no one was injured.

Flights between Israel and U.S. delayed due to Sandy


Flights between Israel and the United States continue to be delayed as superstorm Sandy continues to batter America's northeast coast.

Thousands of Israeli airline passengers had their flights to the United States canceled on Monday and Tuesday.

Israelis trying to get home remained stranded in New York, New Jersey and the D.C. area as well.

In all  more than 14,000 flights reportedly have been canceled due to Sandy.

Passengers will be able to take a different flight or get their money back under a new law on flight delays.

Ynet reported on Jacob, a young religious resident of Jerusalem, whose wedding is scheduled for Thursday in New York.  Flights from Tel Aviv to the East Coast for Jacob and 30 of his family members have been  delayed since Sunday. The groom and his family are concerned that the wedding may not take place on the scheduled day.

El Al to honor cheap tickets to Israel from glitch


El Al Airlines said it will honor all tickets purchased during a glitch that had thousands of round-trip tickets selling for as low as $330.

The airline also announced Thursday that those who purchased tickets three days earlier at the hugely discounted fare would be given the opportunity to convert their tickets to a direct flight provided by El Al for an additional $75 each way rather than fly with a codeshare partner with a connecting flight in Europe.

“Although a review of this occurence has not been finalized, a decision was made to accommodate El Al passengers who purchased these low fares because we value our reputation of offering excellent customer service,” said Danny Saadon, El Al’s vice president of North America, in a statement released Thursday. “Hopefully we have provided an opportunity to many first timers to visit Israel as well as reconnect family and friends.”

A full refund without penalty also will be offered to passengers who wish to cancel their ticket.

The glitch was the result of a third party subcontracted by El Al to post the Israeli airline’s winter promotional fares online. According to El Al, the discounted airfares were the result of the subcontractor failing to add the fuel surcharge to the total price.

In an interview Thursday with JTA, Saadon took credit for pitching the idea to honor the fares to El Al President and CEO Elyezer Shkedy, but said the decision for the direct flight add-on was Shkedy’s.

“If we’re honoring passengers’ tickets, let’s also offer them an opportunity to fly with El Al, and make life easier for families that might lose baggage and lose a connection,” Saadon said in explaining the company’s rationale behind the add-on offer.

On Tuesday, the day after the glitch set off a three-hour buying frenzy, an El Al spokesperson told The New York Jewish Week that the status of tickets purchased during the frenzy was “unclear.” The position was reinforced Wednesday by a follow-up statement posted to the company’s Twitter feed.

“Thanks for your patience,” the tweet read. “Details/decisions re incorrect fares that were briefly sold on Monday are not finalized.”

The wavering was in contrast to two separate Twitter posts on Monday afternoon that pledged to honor the tickets. Saadon in the JTA interview acknowledged that the company’s posts via Twitter on Monday may have been a contributing factor in the decision to honor the tickets.

“Once we said it, we may as well follow our word,” Saadon said.

The decision to honor was “mainly to save face with El Al,” he said. “We’re talking about thousands of passengers. Most are customers anyways, they just took advantage of a ticket that was available at a low price. We’d rather keep them flying with El Al without disappointing them.”

To minimize exposure to similar glitches in the future, Saadon said that El Al will review fares before they are posted online and maintain a buffer of two hours before the process is finalized.

“I’m very pleased with the decision we made,” he said. “Our customers are very important to us and we want them to fly El Al.”

El Al dithers on honoring cheap fares


An El Al spokesperson said the airline had not decided whether or not to honor round-trip tickets to Israel that were offered erroneously for prices as low as $330.

On Wednesday afternoon, the airline issued the following statement via Twitter: “Thanks for your patience. Details/decisions re incorrect fares that were briefly sold on Monday are not finalized. We will update tomorrow.”

The announcement came two days after El Al codeshare flights from several U.S. cities to Israel went on sale for bargain-basement prices due to an error by a subcontractor handling El Al’s winter promotional fares. The round-trip tickets ranging from $330 to $460, including all taxes and fees, were for travel between November and March and included layovers in Europe.

On Monday, El Al said via Twitter that it would honor the tickets, which reportedly numbered in the thousands.

“An outside company posted incorrect fares on travel websites, so all tickets sold will indeed be honored,” the company wrote at around 6 p.m., once the inexpensive prices were no longer available.

But on Tuesday, the airline appeared to backtrack, suggesting in a comment to The New York Jewish Week and later in emails to JTA that El Al had not decided conclusively whether or not to honor the purchases.

Onboard klezmer music for delayed passengers


Air Canada passengers stuck aboard a delayed flight on Wednesday were treated to an impromptu onboard klezmer concert.

The mini-concert by Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Toronto’s self-billed “only Balkan-Klezmer-Gypsy-Party-Punk-Super-Band,” was on a flight from Toronto to Frankfurt, Germany, reported CBC News. It featured six band members playing a lively tune that had some passengers clapping along, bobbing their heads and smiling. They then gave the band a rousing ovation.

“The in-flight performance was not a planned stunt. We were getting a little anxious about waiting on the tarmac, and so were the other passengers. Call it ‘lightening the mood.’ It’s the kind of thing we do all the time,” said Mark Marczyk, the group’s green-mohawked leader.

He and his 13 fellow band members were en route to Bucharest, Romania, where they played at The Silver Church club with the Romani band Taraf de Haidouks.

Israeli hotels showcase a summer medley of adventures


Spurred by a record-breaking number of foreign tourists who visited the Holy Land during the first quarter of 2012, Israel’s burgeoning hotel industry is gearing up for a busy summer tourism season by sprucing up their facilities and offering a variety of titillating vacation packages.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the 752,000 foreign visitors who entered the country between January and March 2012, not only eclipsed last year’s figures by 2 percent, the first-quarter figures also represent a 1 percent increase over 2010, which Israel’s Ministry of Tourism declared was Israel’s best year ever for incoming tourism.

Despite the generally optimistic picture, many hotel managers aren’t assuming that North American Jewish tourists will reflexively book a vacation to Israel when there are myriad interesting destinations to choose from. In order to attract both veteran and new foreign tourists to their facilities, some of Israel’s best-known hotels have undergone a series of physical transformations in order to broaden their appeal, while others have focused on offering newfangled experiences to both couples and families with children.

Ilan Brenner, executive assistant manager of marketing and sales at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, said that the hotel’s staff knows its clients, and in a growing number of cases they have literally grown up with entire families.

“So when a new generation emerges, we already have a good idea about their needs. Both returning and new tourists are always searching for and asking about upgrades, so we are constantly adding incentives, whether it’s a free car, a multimedia game room for youngsters, new spa treatments, trendy gastronomic experiences in the dining room,” he said. 

Rafi Beeri, the Dan Hotel’s vice president of marketing and sales, said renovations at Dan properties have included some innovations. “The King David has undergone a major makeover with a new section of rooms and suites. At the Dan Carmel, which debuted in 1962, we have completed a top-to-bottom renovation [that] includes new executive rooms, which overlook Haifa Bay and the Carmel Mountains. With the Dan Jerusalem, which we acquired in 2010, we realized that renovating this huge hotel would have to be done in phases and feature some unique aspects.”

According to Beeri, the Dan Jerusalem highlights a unique hotel-within-a-hotel concept, where both guests and groups can benefit from more personalized services and amenities.

“It can be compared to an airline’s business-class environment,” he said. “We’ve upgraded a wing of 120 rooms, where guests or groups who wish to stay in this section will enjoy a separate check-in area, separate lounge and dining facilities, as well as a special staff that will cater to them in a more personalized manner.”

The Ramada Jerusalem Hotel has acquired a stellar reputation among families who seek discounted long-term vacation packages (from seven to 21 days) with a variety of summer activities for adults and children, including its “We Love Kids” program, which features daily entertainment for children, including magicians and petting zoos.

“During weekdays, we offer complimentary shuttle bus service to the Old City, which is an attraction for the parents. And, our outdoor American-style barbecues out by the pool area during August always attracts a large audience of both adults and children,” said Yacov Shaari, general manager of the Ramada Jerusalem Hotel. The growing Rimonim chain recently rebranded four of its upscale properties to create the “Royal Collection,” which includes the Royal Dead Sea, Rimonim Eilat, Ruth Rimonim Safed and Rimonim Galei Kinnereth. Each hotel accentuates contrasting experiences for the mind, body and soul.

“During the summer months, the Royal Dead Sea will feature special spa packages that include the hotel’s new Royal Lounge,” said Anat Aharon, Rimonim’s vice president of sales and marketing. “At the Ruth Rimonim in Safed, we invite guests to let their soul breathe amid the mystic beauty of the hotel’s Galilean surroundings. The hotel also features a wine cellar, where you can sample the best Israeli wines and enjoy small talk.”

At the Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel, where North American, British and French tourists converge during the summer months, the “accent” will be on indulging kids and parents alike.

“Last year, we opened a children’s pool. This year, we will complement it with a guarded kids’ playground with games and toys, where families can relax and enjoy the pool while their children are playing,” said Jean-Louis Ripoche, general manager of the Sheraton Tel Aviv. “During the summer, we will be extending breakfast hours in the dining room till noon, so couples and families can enjoy a longer, relaxed morning. After breakfast, we offer adults a free bicycle, so they can pedal around the seaside boardwalk area and beyond.”

It’s important to note that despite a 15 to 20 percent rise in the cost of airline tickets to Israel since last summer, many Israeli hotels have not raised their basic rates. Israeli hoteliers are cognizant of the fact that families are looking to maximize their vacation experience without blowing a hole in their budget.

Here is a guide to some of the hottest summer deals across Israel:

Inbal Jerusalem Hotel
July rates begin at $150 per person in a double room, based on a minimum five-night stay. The hotel’s Web site features several unique summer deals. Guests who book three consecutive nights in a “superior room” are entitled to a free car. Guests who book at least three consecutive nights in “executive rooms” or higher category are also entitled to a vehicle upgrade (such as Mazda 6). In August, the hotel’s popular Kids Club will feature a supervised multimedia game room and Gymboree. The Splash Bar situated poolside highlights an American-style barbecue menu as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages for adults and children. The hotel’s Mediterranean-accented Sofia restaurant has received rave reviews for the unique fish and pasta dishes served up by executive chef Moti Buchbut. 
inbalhotel.com.

Ramada Jerusalem Hotel
The hotel’s “We Love Kids” rates start at $198 based on a seven- to 14-night stay, including two adults and one child in a room (including breakfast). Rates are discounted even further based on stays exceeding 14 nights. Amenities include large indoor and outdoor pools, health club and sauna, as well as supervised summer children’s camps and a teen corner during July and August. This hotel highlights OU mehadrin glatt kosher cuisine.
jerusalemramada.com.

Dan Hotels
Rates for July and August for guests who book “Golden 7 Nights” at the King David start at $480 a night per room (per couple) based on a bed and breakfast excursion. The “Golden 7” special also includes pampering amenities such as free round-trip transportation between Ben-Gurion Airport and the hotel. Guests who stay a minimum of three nights are entitled to a free voucher to the Dan Lounge at Ben Gurion Airport on the day of their departure from Israel. At the Dan Jerusalem, guests who book a minimum of three nights in “deluxe rooms” will receive a free upgrade to “executive rooms,” which includes the use of the hotel’s new King David Executive Lounge.
danhotels.com.

Sheraton Tel Aviv
Hotel & Towers

The hotel is offering an “early bird package” starting from $370 per person with a minimum booking of five nights, or three nights non-refundable. The charge for a child in the room under the age of 17 is $30 per child. There is no charge for children under 3 years old. There is a limited promotion whereby guests who stay for a minimum of five nights between Aug. 5 and Aug. 25 will receive complimentary tickets to the world famous Cirque du Soleil, which will be playing Tel Aviv during August. Rates start from $400 a night based on double occupancy. The special deal can be booked direct via the hotel’s Web site.
sheratontelaviv.com.

Rimonim Hotels
Various deals are available for guests who book directly via the Web site. Rates vary for midweek and weekend vacations. At the Royal Dead Sea
guests staying in suites and preferred room types will enjoy a separate check-in at the lounge, private breakfast and dinner, as well as snacks and drinks during the day. Galei Kinnereth’s luxurious spa highlights a “domed Jacuzzi” overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The Rimonim Eilat’s “Serenity & Action” package includes a choice of two hot attractions for the whole family: IMAX Theater/Underwater Observatory/Ice & Space, when reserving for a minimum of three nights. The hotel’s “Romantic Serenity” deal for couples features pampering amenities such as, breakfast for two in your room, one gift dinner, spa treatment for both, as well as a 45-minute pedicure and manicure.
english.rimonim.com


Rimonim Royal Dead Sea pool

Up close and personal with the TSA


Recent days have been full of continually unfolding reports about a new intercepted underwear bomb intended to be carried aboard a U.S.-bound plane by an al-Qaida agent. That agent, said to be British, turned out to be working simultaneously with Saudi and U.S. intelligence, and the bomb never got near a plane. But as I prepared last week to board a flight to Alaska, where I would be participating in a conference devoted to the ethical work of Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, I couldn’t help but wonder what role this newly acquired knowledge will play in upcoming discussions about airport security and the effectiveness of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Even though the TSA’s screening program played no part in thwarting this potential terrorist attack, the question of whether the existence of this bomb will help justify continuing the enormous sums of taxpayer money being poured into body-scanning technology has already begun to haunt me.

Over the past decade, something new has come to define the American ethos: fear. It isn’t as if fear had no part of our impulses until this moment, but the heightened fear that the world is a dangerous place has come to characterize the 21st century American mindset. It is a fear upon which we have allowed institutions to prey, so much that, since the events of 9/11, we have stopped asking many questions that still matter.

Jews are taught to question, and I have found that asking the right questions often leads to taking action. I have made a decision not to allow fear to lead my life, and I am committed to questioning any behavior that seems to have its basis in post-9/11 fear mongering. And that is how I came to find myself earlier this year in a face-off with a TSA agent at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). In that moment, I became achingly aware of just how critical — and difficult — it can be not only to ask the right questions, but also to do so even when asking those questions causes inconvenience. Still, simply doing what one is told, for me, is more transgressive and more destructive than inconvenience.

I was traveling from Los Angeles to Boston. My companion and I had made a decision not to submit to the virtual strip-searches routinely conducted by body-scanner machines. We had two reasons: First, the images of nude bodies transmitted by the machines are indecent and immodest. Even the newest auto imaging technology software that claims to obscure the image of the nude body only presents the machine operator with an edited version of the image, while the machine captures the entire image, which can then be stored by governmental and private agencies.

Second, while TSA and creators of the machines tout the safety of body-scanner technology, the truth is that there is no long-term data to confirm these claims. Researchers have challenged these findings, claiming that the amount of radiation is higher than suggested because the doses were calculated as if distributed throughout the entire body, whereas the radiation emitted is focused only on the skin and surrounding tissues. (This also means that if a bomb were carried inside the body, these scanners would not detect it.) The verdict on the safety of body-scanning technology has yet to be delivered. Rather than walk through a machine that may cause harm to my body, I prefer to ask questions. When told to walk through the body scanner, I informed the TSA agent that I could not submit to that form of screening, but that I would walk through a metal detector and have all of my items searched. The next step would be the infamous pat-down. I knew of one man who successfully opted out, and so we decided to see if we, too, could opt out of both.

Image from a full body scanner now used in airports

We could not. As soon as we explained that we could submit to neither the pat down nor the body-scan, the TSA shut down the entire line behind us, effectively decreasing the efficiency of their overall screening procedures and doubling the wait time for other travelers. Members of the LAPD arrived to deal with the “issue”: two people standing shoeless, respectfully asking questions.

The TSA Web site states that travelers are entitled to ask questions about the process, but the more questions we asked, the more we felt we were being penalized. It was an absurd situation in which to find ourselves — I a Jewish Studies professor and my companion a nice Jewish comedy director — and my emotions bordered simultaneously on laughter and tears as I realized with horror that we had created a spectacle. We were being used to create a spectacle of fear in what amounts to little more than the TSA security theater. I shuddered as I realized I was flanked by apathy and fear. People all around us continued to thoughtlessly walk through body-scanners and receive pat-downs. Those who were not altogether apathetic watched us with expressions of fear.

A revelation: It was not security that was being peddled, but rather fear and paranoia, all to create for the public an illusion of security. Do what we say, give us your trust, refrain from questioning us, and you will be safe. But are we safe? Are we safer than we were before the implementation of invasive searches?

In January 2012, the TSA published online a list of the top 10 finds for 2011. Some of these “good catches” include snakes, birds and reptiles; a graduate student’s science experiment that contained a device that looked like it could be an explosive device (it was harmless); inert landmines; a ninja book with two throwing knives (the passenger surrendered the book at the checkpoint because he had forgotten that it was in the carry-on bag); small chunks of inert C4 explosives found in the checked bag of a member of our armed forces who was taking them home as souvenirs; a pistol strapped to the ankle of a 76-year-old man; a flare gun along with seven flares; a stun gun disguised as a smartphone; and a non-metallic martial arts device called a “tactical spike” found in a passenger’s sock.

If it sounds like a list created by The Onion, it was not. This was published by the TSA in support of the strength of its security screening procedures. So let’s break this list down. With the exception of the “tactical spike,” not one of these “top finds” was discovered by a body-scanning device. The pistol would have been easily detected by a metal detector. Further, it is not illegal to travel with firearms, as long as they are declared and not carried on the plane. Typically, passengers carrying undeclared firearms were not arrested, but rather fined. That is, such passengers are suspected not of having terrorist impulses, but of forgetfulness or unintelligent decisions. In the words of the TSA: “Just because we find a prohibited item on an individual does not mean they had bad intentions, that’s for the law enforcement officer to decide. In many cases, people simply forgot they had these items in their bag.”

Now, the landmines: They were, well, inert. They were harmless, as were the small chunks of C4 explosives found in the checked bag of a member of our military. Without a detonator — and it is virtually impossible to carry a functioning detonator through a metal detector — there is nothing that could have been accomplished with the chunks of C4. As for the ninja book with the throwing knives, which the passenger himself surrendered after realizing that it was not in his checked bag, I’m not sure it should be on the list. And while I do not prefer to fly on an airplane with reptilian and avian stowaways, I’m also not sure that doing so would put me in the line of terrorist fire. The intense TSA security screening procedures have been implemented to protect us from the threat of terrorism, not to discover illegal but non-threatening items. I remain unimpressed with the effectiveness of the body-scanning devices and pat-downs. Apparently the experts are equally unimpressed. Rafi Sela, an Israeli airport security expert who helped design security at Ben Gurion International Airport, has said: “I don’t know why everybody is running to buy these expensive and useless machines. I can overcome the body scanners with enough explosives to bring down a Boeing 747. … That’s why we haven’t put them in our airport.”

One brash commenter on the TSA Web site suggests that he would rather the TSA prevent passengers with antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis from flying than confiscate birds, science experiments, unloaded guns, toothpaste and cupcakes. As always, the threat here remains unclear. Given the recent debacles over confiscated toiletries and baked goods, it seems that the greatest fear is that passengers will clean their teeth or develop Type 2 diabetes. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the threat was terrorism. As a result, we allowed many of our rights to be violated in the name of justice and in the hope of preventing another terrorist attack. But what has materialized is the realization that the cost of these procedures to our dignity — not to mention the monetary cost, hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase the machines and maintain them each year — is not worth the mountains of confiscated items.

We all want to fly on safe airplanes. The fallacy is that this must be accomplished by violating our privacy.

In my case, we had to make a decision: insist on ethics and dignity and miss our flight; or accept the pat-down, board our flight, and reclaim our dignity on another day. I opted to fly and found myself standing before a line of 12 to 15 men and one female terminal manager. A female TSA agent began to explain the procedure. I asked her if she would be touching my genitals, and she confirmed that she would be touching my “labia.” I was told to raise my arms, and standing in front of multiple men, my long blouse (which I had worn over black footless tights) was pulled up, exposing my entire bare midriff as well as the bottom portion of my bra. I forced myself to look into the faces of all the men who stood there, bearing witness to my humiliation. I continued to look, as the TSA agent pulled my tights away from my body and ran her fingers around my bare waistline.

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The TSA Web site states: “You should neither be asked to nor agree to lift, remove, or raise any article of clothing to reveal a sensitive area of the body,” and, “Bare or exposed skin should not be touched by the security officer.” Both of these regulations were violated in full view of those in charge. Surely, I thought, this must be an anomaly. Driving home to Pico-Robertson from LAX later that week, I experienced a clash of emotions: anger, sadness, shame, humiliation, regret, fear. I was confused. I had a deep sense of having insisted on the “right” thing, but it had gone unrewarded. I felt punished. I asked myself: What, as both a Jew and a human being, is my responsibility? The simple but complex answer is that I am simply responsible. And as I accepted that responsibility, I became a repository for stories more distressing than my own.

A colleague, his wife and their 7-month-old daughter, Hazel, were flying from Charlotte, N.C., to Providence, R.I., for Thanksgiving in 2010. My friend and his wife discussed refusing the scanner, but considering the difficulty of making a 14-hour car ride with a baby, his wife insisted that they “comply.” Out of respect for his wife’s desire to get home for her first Thanksgiving with her new baby, my friend agreed to undergo whatever invasion of privacy the TSA insisted on. He went through the metal detector after disassembling his daughter’s stroller. While he reassembled it on the other side, the agents asked his wife to remove their daughter’s pink cardigan sweater-vest. The mother complied, and the agent felt Hazel’s little torso, presumably for an explosive device.

When asked how he felt about the pat-down of his baby girl, my friend responded: “I don’t know. I’m still telling the story, which probably gives some indication of how I feel. It’s an unnamed feeling, and I have nothing to compare it to — something having to do with violation of what makes me, and all of us, human. I would prefer to put my daughter on a hundred flights that involved no security check at all to even dreaming about a stranger patting her down for explosives again.”

The next time the family flew, they passed through the metal detectors unmolested. But my colleague will never forget watching the family in front of them: “I watched the passive father, who was watching his 14-year-old daughter with her arms extended and her feet shoulders width apart while a TSA agent, a woman, with disposable plastic gloves felt around the young girl’s waistband. Needless to say, I wish I hadn’t seen it, and I’m glad I didn’t make eye contact with that father.”

It occurs to me that it is one thing to allow one’s own dignity to be violated. It is quite another to watch that dignity being stripped from our children. My friend cannot stop saying to himself: It’s not just another policy. He continues: “I disagree with 90 percent of what the American government turns into law, but I always felt myself emotionally tied to my country — that was never a question for me. Until the thing with Hazel. Now I’m indifferent. I’m a husband, a father, a pseudo-Buddhist-Gnostic-Christian — but the America that my grandpas fought for in World War II — that’s a thing of the past, to me. I’m over it. When the revolutionaries come looking for support, they can count me in.”

I recently taught a class on post-9/11 fiction at Loyola Marymount University, and I took the opportunity to initiate a dialogue about terrorism, security, fear, human rights and ethical responsibility. I recounted my own experience as a starting point. One student, an Orthodox Jewish woman from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, explained that, because of her modest clothing, each time she flies, she and her children must go through the body-scanner as well as receive pat-downs. She was told once that her skirt was not tight enough. As I listened to her story of being penalized for modesty, my distress was reignited. I realized that with regard to the level of indecency of which the TSA is capable, I had only touched the surface.

Ouriel and Gabrielle Hassan (a Canadian citizen with a green card) are Orthodox Jews living in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Ouriel’s family is from Egypt. Years ago, Ouriel’s grandfather changed the family’s name from “Hazan” to “Hassan” in an effort to avoid persecution in Egypt. In 2002, Ouriel arrived at LAX on a flight from New York. To his surprise, he was met by two machine-gun-toting soldiers who instructed Ouriel to accompany them. Once in a private room, Ouriel was strip-searched and held for three hours. The items he carried — clothing, Hebrew books, tefillin — were searched meticulously, and he was asked to open his tefillin, which would have destroyed them. When he explained that to the officers, they retracted the order, and, finding no reason to detain him, they released Ouriel with neither apologies nor explanation. He is subjected to scrutiny each time he travels.

Last year before Pesach, he and his wife and their 3-year-old son traveled from Los Angeles to Vancouver. As Ouriel prepared to enter the body-scanner, TSA agents approached Gabrielle and told her that her son, Eliyahu Yosef Hassan, would need to undergo additional screening procedures. She was told to point out Eliyahu’s bags and personal items; being only 3 years old, however, he had no personal items. Eliyahu was then taken from his mother and brought to a special screening area where a large woman roughly “patted” him down, grasping at his genitals and demonstrating indifference to his fearful and hysterical sobs. Gabrielle was prohibited from holding her son’s little hand. Despite TSA regulations that do not permit children to be separated from parents, she was forbidden from standing near him because he might “pass” something to her.

The TSA claimed that “Eliyahu Yosef Hassan” was on a no-fly list. It turns out that the name of the person on the no-fly list is “Yusef Hasan.” Yet little Eliyahu has experienced the traumatizing security screening two additional times. Although the TSA allows people with names similar to those on no-fly lists to apply for special numbers that will alert agents to these similarities and simplify screening processes, Eliyahu is not eligible for this number because he is under 16 years old. Instead, they must be prepared to submit their son to this humiliation. Additionally, TSA agents have withheld from Gabrielle the offer of a private screening room and patted her down in public by putting their hands underneath her skirt and against her legs, as well as lifting her clothing and running their hands underneath the underwire of her bra. Women, particularly those who dress modestly for religious reasons, are being publically humiliated, and their fathers, husbands and brothers must often deal with guilt stemming from their inability to protect their loved ones from degradation.

These are not the experiences of all travelers. But it is difficult to justify even one small child being violated by procedures implemented on the basis of their capacity to protect us from acts of terrorism. Children are being touched in a way that would be illegal anywhere outside of the gray zone of the TSA screening area. In a society that has, given the countless sexual abuse scandals involving priests, coaches and others in positions of authority, we are obsessed with protecting our children from physical and sexual abuse. Yet we give random people in TSA uniforms the authority to touch our children in any way they see fit — all in the name of safer skies. The past years have shown us that people in positions of power often violate children. But our fear of terrorism has become greater than our fear of child abuse, and we have offered up the dignity of our children in exchange for the illusion that we are safer because of it.

Some suggest that if one finds pat-downs to be inappropriate, he or she should not resist the technology that is designed to detect the materials sought through pat-downs. But a number of experts in the field remind us that these machines make mistakes. Agents testing the system have successfully passed through body-scanners with weapons. And they have warned of the possibility of overdose. One glitch could cause a body-scanner to emit an overdose of radiation. But just how common are errors? Apparently the TSA screeners at LAX have grown accustomed to them.

Jaime Eliezer Karas recently declined the body-scan at LAX, chose the pat-down, and watched the agent insert the piece of fabric into the machine that detects traces of explosive material. According to Karas: “We stood there in silence, both knowing everything was almost over. Suddenly, the machine displayed a message: ‘EXPLOSIVES DETECTED.’  The TSA agent did not flinch. As if in a previously choreographed sequence, he glided over to the next machine and was replaced by another agent.” Karas decided to inquire about what was wrong, and the second TSA employee replied that the cloth came up as having detected explosives, and that he was scanning it again at the next machine. The agent — who works for the same organization that terrorizes little Eliyahu Hassan every time he flies — was unconcerned by this information. The second machine did not think that Karas was carrying explosives, and he was given clearance to proceed toward the gates. Indeed, Karas carried no explosives. But the point is the inability of the technology to accurately assess the situation 100 percent of the time.

Many of us have forgotten how to be mindful. Are the deep costs to human dignity worth the ambiguous outcomes — piles of confiscated toothpaste and cupcakes amid optimistic claims that we are now safer? I continue to ask myself what, exactly, is my responsibility? How can I contribute to making a positive and meaningful change?

Much like the inconsistency in how TSA regulations are carried out, the attitudes of TSA members vary. Some TSA agents are snide and aggressive.  One woman, who recently conducted my pat-down in Seattle, was different. As she asked me if I had ever experienced the procedure, the look on my face told her I had. I opened my mouth to speak, but I had no words and I knew somehow that my face was telling the stories I could not speak in that moment. She looked at me intently, lowered her gaze and said, “I know. I’m sorry. It’s awful. You shouldn’t have to …  “ Her voice trailed off and she looked back up at me, as if asking for a pardon for what she was about to do.

Perhaps I was more of a revolutionary in this moment, when I smiled and said, “Thank you. Thank you for saying that.” There was something in her acknowledgment of her complicity in something indecent and undeserved that moved me. Her acknowledgment of how we were both, in that moment, being shamed as women, as citizens, and as human beings was an opening: an unspoken dialogue.

Responsibility begins with awareness and, one day, hopefully, ends with action.

The TSA claims that “since imaging technology has been deployed at airports, more than 99 percent of passengers choose to be screened by this technology over alternative screening procedures.” Perhaps we should think carefully about why people “choose” radiation over public humiliation — or perhaps there’s not much to think about there.

Monica Osborne is a professor of Jewish literature and culture and has written for The New Republic, Tikkun, Jewcy.com and other publications.

In their off hours, El Al flight crews are now ‘ambassadors’


A good flight crew requires a certain amount of charm to keep passengers calm during turbulence, emergencies or pretzel shortages.

Five El Al Airlines flight attendants and a pilot put those skills to the test Monday at Rutgers University in New Jersey as they fielded questions on their personal lives and on Israel from an audience of more than 100 for nearly two hours.

It was the opening event for the El Al Ambassadors program, an initiative to put El Al crews to use during their U.S. layover time to create a positive image of Israel in the United States. The idea is to counteract the negative images of Israel in the news with the personal stories and faces of El Al pilots and flight attendants.

“This is a unique opportunity for a Zionist company in the private sector to do something meaningful,” said Alon Futterman, the program’s director and emissary development director at the Jewish Agency for Israel. “You have real people. You have people with families. You have people with the same range of ages talking about real life.”

El Al partnered with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the advocacy group StandWithUs and the Jewish Agency to select 60 El Al crew members from hundreds of volunteers to take part in the pilot program (no pun intended). The event at Rutgers, which boasts one of the largest populations of Jewish undergraduates in the country, was organized by members of the university’s Hillel.

Organizers say the El Al volunteers were chosen largely for their eloquence and English skills, but it did not escape the notice of students that the El Al delegation was unusually diverse: two gay men, a Druze Israeli, a woman who sidelines as an aerobics instructor and a pilot who also is a yoga teacher. The six also happened to be particularly attractive.

Futterman said El Al crews already have received 20 invitations to speak at events across the United States in 2012.

“We weren’t specifically looking for diversity, but it came out that way,” said Daniel Saadon, vice president of El Al’s North and Central America operations. He described the six participants as “the civilian wings of Israel.”

The Monday talk largely kept clear of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Questions ranged from what life is like for gay men in Israel—“We live a normal life. The nightlife is better than New York,” said flight attendant Kai Elias—to balancing a flying career with university studies to dealing with ear popping upon descent.

The crew members also discussed headier topics such as Israel’s changing society, the tent protests that sprung up in Israel over the summer and the changing role of Zionism. Crew member Yuval Vershavsky, a 34-year-old father of two, said Zionism is now about making Israel “a more just, liberal and secular country.”

One of the gay flight attendants, Gilad Greengold, said the only time he had felt the subject of discrimination in Israel was when he and his partner were denied an apartment lease after the landlady consulted with her rabbi.

“It’s not very common,” he said. “It’s just something we’ll have to deal with and change.”

Fares Saeb, a newly married Druze flight attendant, told JTA that the program was an opportunity to share a unique perspective.

“You talk to people from around the world and you get to see how they see Israel, how local press covers Israel,” he said. “They have a narrow perspective, and we have an opportunity to show something personal, private and human. You get a larger perspective from the air.”

El Al to charge for second bag on Israel trips


El Al Airlines soon will be charging $70 for the second piece of luggage checked on coach seats to and from Israel.

The new fee will affect tickets purchased after Nov. 1, two representatives of Israel’s national airline confirmed to JTA on Monday. The first bag will remain free.

Continental Airlines started charging $70 for the second bag checked on direct flights to Israel in mid-June. Passengers had been able to check two bags for free.

Delta is in the process of changing its price structure for bags checked to Israel but would not disclose the changes.

US Airways provides free checking for the first and second bag for all visitors to Israel.

Life at 85: what a trip!


I was born in Chicago some 85 years ago. My home was Jewish Orthodox and consisted of my mother, her two brothers and their father, my grandfather. I specify
my grandfather because, in those days, nobody ever thought of placing their old father in an old folks’ home.

My closest friend while growing up was Alan, who lived across the street. Each evening, we would go for a walk — generally lasting about two hours. He and I really liked each other, but this walk was a very silent one, neither of us had much to say.

In 1943, I left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles. It was during the war, and I became a flight test engineer and copilot on the airplane known as the B-25. From then on, Alan and I spoke on the phone but also had personal visits during the years.

The other day, I got a call from Alan, who is now 87 and a widower.

Now, not as before, there was ongoing conversation. Not silent anymore. But what did we have to talk about? The talk ran easy. We spoke for a long time about his hip problems and my back and other health problems. The opening, “How are you?” was for one minute, and the health conversation lasted for one hour.

Now you may ask, why I am telling you the story of my friend? It has to do with my past. When he and I were growing up, how in the world would we ever know or think about hip problems at the age of 87? We would have asked: What do you mean by “the age of 87?” It was another world. A world of which we had no knowledge.
My reaction to our long conversation was very emotional. I was in tears when it was time to say goodbye. I said, “Alan, you have my love.”

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But this is what the past does for you — it is really another life; it’s gone but never forgotten. That thought will always put a tear in your eye.

The goodbye was so different than our youthful, nonspeaking days.

The conversation with Alan opened the door of my brain. I suddenly realized I am 85 and part of another world: It’s called the present. I have gone through the youth time, the middle time when I was 40 to 60 and, now, I find myself in the third stage. What a trip! Really unbelievable.

We look back on the past because it was another era. In our youth and young years, life included activities you chose. Your responsibilities were minimal compared to those as you grew older. Being young and thinking young allowed you to exist in a world that is the start of the middle age.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some people are required to give more of themselves as required by family obligations. But those times somewhat establish the makeup you will carry the rest of your life.

From the middle age, we enter what is called the old-age era. Old age is intended to slow the flow of time so we can get back to the real “hopefully pleasant” moments of the past.

How do I handle belonging to the senior group? How do I accept the present? It is very, very hard to say to myself: “You are old.” Stepping into this stage is not easy; it’s difficult to accept the number 85.

At 85 I have given up driving. I just can’t see well enough. There are two other “loves of my life that also went by the wayside: tennis and jogging. My eyesight also contributes to hardship in reading the newspaper. I find it difficult to really accept the fact that I can no longer do all of the middle-life chores or continue with many of my chosen activities. I find myself thinking about the activities that came so easily in my middle life.

But in the “old age” category, one must force oneself to realize the here and now. Activities must conform to the present place you are in life, both physically and mentally. When you come to accept the present position, time wise, I think you can then enjoy what you have — and prosper with all the good things that are there.

You can take advantage of the knowledge of the past, an example of which is the seven-member men’s club I belong to. It used to be that each time we met, the opening welcome was a cordial handshake. The past brought me to ask this group of men, a gender that often refuses to show hidden emotions, “Are you glad to see each other?”

The answer was, of course, “Yes.”

So I suggested a hug in place of a handshake — and the hug has taken over.
I find others, friends not in their 80s, display emotional tenderness to me and my wife, who is 84. I detect my friends thinking that age brings great knowledge not present in the early years. Another great experience is having our family close by and the joy they exhibit at having us with them.

The past is very important; it contributes to the actions of the present. Look back and enjoy your thoughts, but the present is here and now. Live it up, take pleasure in your friends and do not feel bad thinking about who you are today. Tell your thoughts and become a charter member of “Senior Time.”


Red Lachman is a short-story writer.

Controverisal Israeli security approach takes flight in U.S.


The changes were inevitable. The Sept. 11 hijackers used box cutters as weapons, so box cutters were banned. Richard Reid smuggled explosives onto an American Airlines plane in his shoes, so passengers were ordered to remove their shoes for screening. The recent London air terror plot was predicated on liquid explosives, so now almost all liquids are forbidden, too.

 

Fight or flight? A Jewish Cuban mom wonders


Melinda Lopez’s “Sonia Flew,” which opens at the Laguna Playhouse on Sept. 16, depicts the parallel struggles of a Cuban girl in 1961 and a half-Jewish, half-Cuban American boy just after Sept. 11.

Of Cubans and Jews, Lopez says, “These are two cultures that have experienced Diaspora, two cultures that are disconnected from their homeland, two cultures that stress education, family, food, laughter. When you go to Thanksgiving in a Jewish household or a Cuban household, you’ll talk about politics, tell jokes.”

Speaking from Boston, where she lives with her Jewish husband, Lopez, who was born in this country to Cuban parents, says with a chuckle: “Two Cubans in a household is just trouble.”

The first act of her new play takes place during Chanukah/Christmas vacation in 2001. To emphasize the seeming harmony of this “blended family,” Lopez indicates in stage directions that the Christmas tree is decorated with Stars of David.

Yet we sense that something may be wrong when Sonia, the protagonist, and her daughter forget to make the traditional 7-Up Jell-O salad, a symbolic failure that suggests a rift in the family, similar to what occurs in Barry Levinson’s “Avalon” when a guest, arriving late for Thanksgiving, complains, “You cut the turkey?”

In Levinson’s movie, the discord is over the relative climb up the financial ladder of the differing family members, while in Lopez’s play Sonia is distressed over her son’s decision to leave college and join the Marines.

In making a parallel between the aftermath of Castro’s revolution and Sept. 11, Lopez seems to posit that history doesn’t repeat itself but it can overwhelm families and tear them apart. Like Stephen Dedalus, who famously says in “Ulysses,” “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Sonia feels she has been doomed twice by history, once in 1961 when her parents forced her to flee to the United States, the second time in 2001 when her son, Zak, heads off to fight in Afghanistan. Like Daedalus, the namesake for Joyce’s character, who flies from the island of Crete to safety but loses his son, Sonia escapes from Castro’s oppression but never gets to see her parents again, and 40 years later she fears losing her son, too.

One of the ironies of “Sonia Flew” is that flight, which should signify freedom, comes to mean betrayal to Sonia — abandonment and a manipulation of patriotism.

With the subtext of the two hijacked airplanes flying into the Twin Towers, Lopez broaches the forgotten history of the Pedro Pan children, whose parents sent them away from Cuba on falsified student visas in the early 1960s; the play ponders why the parents never left the windows open so the children could return to their homeland.

Unlike Peter Pan and the lost boys, the Pedro Pan children don’t live in Never Neverland; they live very much in the real world, in a new country, the United States, where they have to start all over, learn a new language, make new families. In that regard, Sonia shares a bond with Sam, her father-in-law, a World War II veteran who emigrated from Europe to the United States at the time of the Holocaust.

While there is no suspense in the first half of the play about Zak’s joining the Marines, the act ends with Zak involved in an explosion in Afghanistan, followed by a blackout. Lopez leaves us uncertain for nearly the entire second act as to whether Zak lives or dies. For a scene or two, she also effectively withholds from us the key point that Sonia’s parents hated the revolution under Castro.
Occasionally, Sonia tips us off with Shakespearean-style soliloquies. Lopez began her theatrical career as an actress for Shakespeare & Company, a troupe in Western Massachusetts, and she says that when she first started acting, “I imagined myself exclusively performing Shakespeare’s plays.”

For years, she was primarily an actor. However, she enjoyed “contributing to someone else’s artistic vision” to such an extent that she decided to write her own plays. She obtained a masters in playwriting from Boston University, where she studied with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, and wrote her first play about 10 years ago, a one-woman show, “Midnight Sandwich,” which was staged in Boston and in which she played all the parts of her bicultural family.

Since then, she has written several other short works, as well as a number of full-length plays. In addition to Shakespeare, whose Ariel is a precursor to Sonia in that she can fly, yet lacks freedom until the end of “The Tempest,” Lopez cites August Wilson as an influence. Lopez doesn’t write the way Wilson does with his flowing jazz-like riffs and authentic dialect. At times, Lopez’s dialogue veers toward cliché, such as when young Sonia, in a line uttered countless times since the dawn of movies, tells her mother, “I’m not going to end up like you, I know that much. I’m going to do something with my life.”

Despite the occasional, overly familiar line, Lopez creates characters who are inhabited with the kind of dedication and idealism we expect of pioneers. Given the waves of Jewish immigration in this country, it may not be surprising that after Lopez staged her one-woman show, “Midnight Sandwich,” her mother-in-law said to her, “You’re Jewish, and your whole family is Jewish.” Her mother-in-law then began asking Lopez if her family lit candles on Friday nights, like Marrano Jews who conducted ancient Jewish rituals in the basements of their homes after the Spanish Inquisition.

“You came over with Columbus and stopped off at Cuba,” theorized her mother-in-law.

Lopez took her mother-in-law’s comment as a compliment, though she has no idea whether she actually descends from Jews. While her protagonist, Sonia, is very attracted to Castro, whose surname, according to tradition, is a Jewish surname, Lopez does not have fond words for the aging Cuban leader.

“I don’t think he’s going to die. He’s too stubborn to die,” she said. “Nothing will change. When he does die in another 50 years, things will get worse. Scarcity will be greater. I’m not very optimistic.”

PhD on the Flying Trapeze


You’re on the flying trapeze, gliding fearlessly through the air. Keeping you aloft, 30 feet above gaping spectators, are your trusted teammates. Today, your welfare is in their hands. Tomorrow they’ll go back to being — the guys from accounting?

On that premise, Edy Greenblatt has built a new Southern California-based business.

Greenblatt is best known in Los Angeles as an energetic, knowledgeable folk dance teacher. But in search of a more stable career, she studied organizational behavior at the Harvard Business School, in a joint doctoral program involving Harvard’s graduate schools of psychology and sociology. Her doctoral research on stress in the workplace took her to a string of Club Meds — the better to investigate worker burnout.

At a Club Med in Florida, she first caught glimpse of a flying trapeze. It was love at first flight.

The 30-something Greenblatt saw “the most powerful tool for professional and personal transformation.” Now, as president and “chief flying officer” of five-year-old Execu-Care Coaching and Consulting, she helps corporate managers hone communication and leadership skills by teaching them the knee-hang and the back-flip dismount from a bar swinging 30 feet off the ground.

It’s not as terrifying as it sounds. Everyone wears a safety harness, and there’s a net below. Greenblatt’s staffers, who do the actual catching each time you fly through the air, have logged 10,000 hours of training and coaching time.

The trapeze requires intense collaboration, so the corporate execs build trust and self-confidence, which makes them more effective at work. That’s the theory anyway.

At the very least, the experience fulfills many a childhood circus fantasy, and it’s a deductible business expense.

The Chicago-born Greenblatt originally came to Los Angeles at 17 to pursue her passion for international folkdance, studying dance ethnology at UCLA and teaching dance all over the place. But eventually it dawned on her that leading novices through “Dodi Li” was no way for a nice Jewish girl to make a living. She also recognized that, as a dance leader, “I was spending my life fixing the damage caused by work and life.” Rather than struggling to restore people’s psyches through dance, she vowed to help transform the workplace that saps so many souls.

That led her to Harvard for her academic credentials and eventually to the trapeze.

In a way, she’s come full circle. In high school, she sold peanuts and Cokes when Ringling Bros. came to town. When they moved on, she was sorely tempted to go with them. Now she uses circus tricks to teach the desk-bound how to soar.

For information, call (626) 644-7745 or edy@execu-care.com.

 

Tourists Pass on Israeli Passover


It’s known as the holiday of freedom, but Passover this year in Israel will likely be remembered for its sense of restriction.

With a worldwide recession in progress and would-be tourists still wary of airline travel because of possible terrorist attacks, there will be far fewer tourists eating matzah in Israel this spring.

While some hotels are booked for the Passover holiday, others are expecting the worst during what is usually a peak season for the Israeli tourist industry.

“I think Americans aren’t coming, and money doesn’t seem to be the issue,” said Zvi Lapian at Platinum Travel. “To me, it’s very sad.

This is Lapian’s fifth year arranging Passover week vacations at the glatt kosher Caesar Premier Resort hotel in the Dead Sea, and he only has about 172 rooms booked at $999 per person.

Most of the guests will be Israeli, but about 20 percent off the visitors will come from England.

A general manager at one of the higher-end hotels in Tel Aviv said he expected a much tougher season than in previous years. With Tel Aviv tourism geared toward incoming traffic from abroad, all issues of marketing depend on outside factors.

“This is a period when we’re trying to understand what’s happening,” he said. “It’s hard to know with all the turmoil. People have to be calm to make reservations and that depends on the political situation.”

For Israelis, Passover is usually a time for family travel, particularly those who are not observant and don’t mind missing the family seder. With the kids off from school for two weeks and most companies offering half days during the holiday’s four intermediate days, it’s the perfect time to take a trip.

But these Israelis aren’t heading back to Egypt, nor are they planning on exploring the land of milk and honey. Clearly, Israelis aren’t interested in swimming in the Red Sea like their ancestors.

Instead, they’ll be driving to Ben-Gurion International Airport and taking off for foreign locales. New York, London, Paris, Holland and China are all popular Passover destinations, according to El Al, Israel’s national airline.

From mid-March until mid-April, El Al will have 72 flights to 16 destinations. There are three additional flights each week to New York, four more to London, three to Milan and two to Amsterdam.

“They want to go places where the weather is springlike, where they can forget their troubles,” said an El Al spokesperson. “They want a great vacation.”

According to ISSTA, a large Israeli travel agency that caters to the student segment, around 250,000 Israelis will leave Israel for Passover. Around 60 percent of the outgoing traffic will be after the single seder night — some traditions can’t be broken, after all — and others will go away for the entire holiday.

The average cost of a trip? Around $800 per person, depending on the destination. Mediterranean trips to Turkey and Greece are the cheapest, followed by Europe, with the United States costing the most per person.

For Israelis who like staying closer to home, whether for financial reasons or religious, few are making elaborate plans for the holiday’s intermediate days.

Unlike previous years, when Israelis went to relax in the Sinai Desert or explore the Petra caves in Jordan during Passover, no one is visiting Israel’s neighbors this year. There may be peace with Egypt, the nation that figures so prominently in the Passover narrative, but it’s not quiet enough on the border to venture a boat ride on the Nile.

“Pesach used to be a very popular time to go into Sinai,” said a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which organizes local hiking trips. “But we’re not doing that right now, because no one wants to go.”

Instead, the society, like other local tour companies, is focusing on tourism inside Israel.

All the tours down south to Ein Gedi, the Ramon Crater, as well as up north to the upper Galilee and Golan, are almost fully booked. With the average cost of $15 to $30 for an adult and $12 to $25 for a child, depending on the length of the trip, it’s a bargain, and that’s good news for many Israelis right now.

Down at the Dead Sea, the 22 mineral-rich waters still attract tourists, mainly Israelis, because it is far from any security threat, and Israelis can still drive there safely.

Safe roads and distance from possible trouble spots are taken very seriously these days. No one wants to run into trouble, and that has made resort areas like the Dead Sea and Eilat still popular for Israelis.

“Freedom of movement is an important factor,” Lapian said. “People feel a bit safer at the Dead Sea, but they won’t drive on certain roads to get here even though there haven’t been any problems.”

In fact, the Hyatt hotel at the Dead Sea is fully booked for Passover, with 50 percent of the guests from Europe and the rest from Israel. Many are family units that book 20 to 40 rooms and stay for the entire week.

“I think this particular segment isn’t sensitive to the situation because they figure they have to celebrate Pesach anyway,” Hyatt Manager Arie Aizenshtat said. “And for them, celebrating in Israel is the most important thing. There’s a logic to it.”

In Jerusalem reservations are being made, albeit slowly, at the capital city’s top hotels.

“If someone could tell me what’s going to happen with peace, I could tell you what’s going to happen with my bookings,” said Norman Rafelson, the general manager of the David Citadel Hotel, formerly the Hilton, in Jerusalem.

By mid-February, the five-star hotel had more than 100 bookings for 10-night stays during Passover, which put the hotel at 50 percent of its hoped-for 80 percent occupancy rate.

“I think we’re prepared for a little bit less this Pesach,” Rafelson said. “I thought bookings would have picked up earlier, but everyone’s waiting for the last minute.”

For now, Israelis will be celebrating the holiday of freedom, of spring and of matzahs in destinations far and wide. And next year? Maybe in Jerusalem.