The way to see Israel, I finally learned after two years of living there and umpteen visits, is by helicopter. We were five journalists whizzing south from Hertzliya, several-hundred feet in the air. Our guide was Marcus Sheff, a former journalist who now runs something called The Israel Project in, um, Israel. The organization regularly takes foreign journalists on these airborne “Intellicopter” tours of the country, to get a better understanding of Israel’s security concerns.

It’s the way to go. From up there, everything hard about Israel disappears: the traffic, the tension, the fear of bombs and rockets, the rising shekel and weakening dollar, the take-no-prisoners approach to every human interaction.

What you get instead is a God’s eye view of the Holy Land: close enough to see day-to-day life, far enough not to get involved — just like God.

The message Sheff wanted to get across was simple: Israel is trying to deal with its many security threats in as humane and effective a way as possible, given its precarious geography. Out the left window, he pointed to where the fence becomes a 28-foot wall, separating the West Bank Palestinian town of Kalkilya from Israel’s Highway 6 and the Israeli town of Kfar Saba.

“Look,” said Sheff, a former writer for The Nation, “Nobody likes walls. The wall in fact is ugly, and it does cut into people’s livelihood. It does impede them.”

Since the wall went up, Sheff explained, terror attacks have declined precipitously.

“If there is an agreement, you can remove walls, you can move fences,” he continued. “But you can’t bring back the 220 people killed by terrorists in 2002.”

We circled over Jerusalem. It was midday — “bad light,” groused the photographer from Stern — and the Holy City looked beautiful and small, the gold dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque a gem set into a circular jewel. The lines between Arab east and Jewish west, the compact Arab villages encircled by modern Jewish neighborhoods — it was all ancient, modern, intertwined, a GoogleMaps Rubik’s Cube. We cut west toward Sderot.

As Sheff explained how a rain of Hamas rockets followed Israel’s unilateral pullout from Gaza, we flew over a huge factory campus in Kiryat Gat.

“Intel,” Sheff pointed out. “They built their first factory outside of the United States right here.”

We landed just across from a large ranch house. It looked more like JR’s ranch in “Dallas” than the Negev.

“That’s Sharon’s house,” Sheff explained. “We’re using his pad.”

“Is that OK?” I asked.

“He’s in a coma, Lilly’s in the next world, and his son’s in jail,” someone said. “Who’s gonna complain?”

Ah, back on the ground in Israel.

We toured Sderot behind a tour bus of police chiefs from Georgia. Sderot, which has suffered some 7,000 rocket attacks since 2001, has become a kind of twisted attraction for outside security officials and pro-Israel tourists. (“Sderot is the new Yad Vashem,” The New York Times’ Ethan Bronner told me.) During the three days I spent there — with the Israel Project and then with a United Jewish Communities trip — no rockets fell on the city.

“Maybe we should arrange for some explosions,” an Israeli diplomat joked with me later. “So visitors aren’t disappointed.”

I was actually fine with it.

A few days after coming to earth, I drove up to Tel Aviv and attended a conference at the David InterContinental Hotel hosted by the Re’ut Institute. Re’ut founder Gidi Grinstein gathered many of Israel’s best and brightest entrepreneurs, high-tech innovators, thinkers and leaders to brainstorm a path for Israel to become one of the 15 leading countries in the world in terms of quality of life of its citizens. (The Jewish Journal was a co-sponsor.)

The speakers offered a “new Zionism,” a vision of an Israel that integrated all its citizens — Charedi, Arab, Bedouin — into a productive economy, that broke down trade and development barriers with the rest of the world, that offered all its citizens a world-class education, high-speed transit, green tech, etc.

“Israel is hardwired for globalization,” said the conference’s keynote speaker Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist. Friedman, of course, is the author of “The World Is Flat,” about adapting to an international, borderless high-tech economy. Israel, he pointed out, has three assets that will help it in a flat world: it values individual initiative, it is linked to a “cyber tribe” — the global network of Diaspora Jewry — and it values innovation. In that Asian wonder Singapore, Friedman pointed out, rote-taught students have to take courses on how to be creative. “One thing Israel doesn’t have to teach is courses on innovation,” he said.

I ran Friedman’s optimism by Tal Samuel-Azran, a young professor of new media at Ben Gurion University.

“I teach them what Tom Friedman says,” Samuel-Azran said, “and they say, ‘But what about Sderot?’ If the world is flat, why do we need these walls to protect us from our neighbors?”

That, of course, is Israel’s conundrum and curse. To be a 21st-century country fighting battles fueled by Iron Age beliefs. To boast of Intel while taking tourists to see holes left by Islamic Jihad mortars. To fly over an Israeli Bedouin village like Hashem Zaneh, whose 2,300 residents have no electricity and a single gas generator-powered laptop, and land in Tel Aviv, where there seem to be as many iPhones as semi-nude sun-worshippers. To be in Israel is to be whipsawed between optimism and pessimism.

And now, just as Iran’s president reaffirms his commitment to nuclear development, news comes that Israel and Hamas may be signing an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Hezbollah and Israel may exchange prisoners and Syria and Israel are closer than ever to a Turkey-brokered agreement.

Israel: It all looks so much simpler from the air.

LimmudLA — by the numbers

Participants:* 634
Sponsors: 14
Presenters 133
Sessions: 262
Films: 21
Artists: 23
On-site volunteers: 227
Steering committee: 14
Chairs: 2
Executive director: 1
*Participants for the entire conference. An additional 16 joined for Sunday only and an additional 32 participated as vendors in the Shuk on Sunday.

Cost of LimmudLA: Still being calculated. The fee of $450 per adult covered only part of the actual cost, while Limmud subsidized the rest. Significant scholarships were awarded. The Jewish Community Foundation provided the largest grant at $250,000 (paid out over three years.)

Breakdown by denomination:
Conservadox 56
Conservative 144
Chasidic 11
Humanist 4
Just Jewish 32
Modern Orthodox 150
Orthodox 30
Post-Denominational 27
Reconstructionist 5
Reform 68
Renewal 4
Secular 9
Traditional 14
Unaffiliated 14
Prefer not to answer 21

Breakdown by age (range, 0-87):
0-2 28
3-12 68
13-17 9
18-34 163
35-50 163
51-64 135
65+ 25

Breakdown by geography:
Within CA

Conejo Valley 5
Los Angeles Area 412
San Gabriel Valley Area 14
San Fernando Valley 79
Ventura County 7
Northern California 8
Orange County 20
Long Beach 7
South Bay 6
San Diego 8
Santa Barbara 1

Other states:
Colorado 1
Florida 3
Georgia 1
Illinois 3
Massachusetts 4
North Carolina 1
New Jersey 4
New York 22
Ohio 1
Pennsylvania 4
Texas 1
Virginia 1
Washington 1

Other countries:
Canada 6
Israel 7
United Kingdom 9

From Mulholland, to the freeway, to the ocean, white with foam — God bless the Valley Hills

Which section of Greater Los Angeles has the densest concentration of Jewish residents? The urban core, including Fairfax and Pico-Robertson? Maybe Beverly Hills and the Westside?

Try the Valley. More specifically, it’s the area demographers designate as Valley Hills, stretching from Studio City west to Sherman Oaks, Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills, clinging to the north face of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Of the affluent residents of Valley Hills, a surprising 48 percent are Jews, who lead all other areas in synagogue affiliation (43 percent), while ranking lowest in intermarriage (16 percent).

Although the San Fernando Valley is often seen as a cohesive geographical unit in many surveys, there are vast differences between the “Valley Hills” and the “Valley Flats.”The Jewish boundary line between the two entities fluctuates but is generally considered to run parallel and slightly north of the 101 Freeway.West Los Angeles is a close second to Valley Hills in the major categories, making the two expensive “golden ghettoes” the most Jewish in the city and country.

“People are willing to pay a premium to live with other Jews,” observed sociologist Bruce A. Phillips, a professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

(Architectural historian Reynar Banham has divided Los Angeles into four “ecologies,” which he designated as the “Surfburbia” coastal strip; “Autopia” for the San Fernando Valley; “Foothills,” including the canyons; and “Plains of Id” for the indistinguishable towns of the San Gabriel Valley and south of downtown.)

Such intriguing figures, and what they might portend for the future of the Jewish community and its institutions, were the focus of a recent lecture and discussion session at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program at Cal State Northridge.

CSUN geography professor James P. Allen and Phillips, both noted demographers, presented their recent research on the ethnic face of Los Angeles, with emphasis on the Jewish component.

The experts acknowledged two obstacles in arriving at accurate, up-to-date figures on the Jewish presence and life in Los Angeles.

First, federal law prohibits the U.S. Census from asking questions about respondents’ religion, so the 2000 census has been of little help.

Secondly, the last detailed study of the community by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles was conducted in 1996, so all figures on the constantly evolving population are at least 10 years old.

There are some ways of getting around the first restriction, said Allen, such as using U.S. census figures of Russian-born residents and extrapolating that 85 percent to 90 percent of these are Jewish. But the basic problem of obtaining hard current data remains.

Nevertheless, some broad trends can be discerned from the 1996 Federation survey and subsequent ministudies, which are of particular importance to future planning by synagogues and social service agencies, said Phillips in an interview.

Overall, Jewish immigration to Southern California from the East Coast and Midwest has slowed down during the past decade, said Phillips, raising the impact of immigrants from other countries in maintaining or increasing the size of the Jewish community here.

Demographers and large Los Angeles synagogues are keeping a particularly close eye on Jewish population shifts to the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles and to the Simi and Conejo valleys to the west, spilling over into Ventura County.

In the 1996 study, the Jewish presence was still quite marginal in the outlying valleys. By now, however, a solid Jewish core has been established, consisting largely of young couples and their families seeking affordable housing.

Phillips found a distinction in the 1996 study among Jews moving to the new areas, with Santa Clarita favored by Jews who had grown up in Los Angeles and Conejo by those who had come from other states.

Although the intermarriage rate has leveled off during the past decade, said Phillips, with many such couples resettling in Orange and Riverside counties, he believes that in the future, “all Jewish institutions will have to deal with this reality.”

On the ever popular and contested question of how many of the area’s 550,000 Jews are Israeli expatriates, Phillips comes down on the conservative side. He believes that the figure of 100,000 or more such expats, frequently cited by Israeli officials and media, is widely off the mark. He puts the number at about 26,000.

“According to the 2000 U.S. Census, only 14,000 L.A. County residents said they were born in Israel. Even if you add the 20,000 Russian-born residents and assume they all came by way of Israel, you still only get a total of 34,000,” he said.

“People always overestimate the number of blacks or illegal aliens in their communities,” he added. “The typical American thinks that the whole country is 25 percent Jewish.”

In Los Angeles, the last two comprehensive Jewish population studies were conducted in 1996 and 1979, but before that, The Federation organized such a census every 10 years.Phillips has just concluded a detailed Jewish population study for the San Francisco Bay area and noted that federations in many major U.S. cities are sticking to the one-every-decade schedule.

Information on these surveys is available from the North American Jewish Data Bank.

A detailed, professional community study doesn’t come cheaply, with Phillips estimating that the cost of conducting and publishing a new Los Angeles survey would run about $600,000.

“There are only three sources for such funding, The Jewish Federation, Jewish Community Foundation or a large private foundation,” Phillips said.

Federation spokeswoman Deborah Dragon said that a new Los Angeles population study was on the organization’s radar, and “we expect to do another demographic survey within the next two years.”

For more information, visit North American Jewish Data Bank at www.jewishdatabank.org.


We love to play Jewish Geography. Whenever we meet a fellow Jew for the first time, we try to find mutual people or places we might have in common.
I was leading a Jewish history tour to Prague when our group encountered a group of seniors from Israel. We immediately began to play Jewish Geography. It didn’t take long before one woman from Israel said she lived in Los Angeles before making aliyah. Although I didn’t recognize her, she had owned a home just a few blocks away from where I live.
“Which synagogue do you belong to?” she asked.
When I told her, she asked, “Is Rabbi Muskin still the rabbi?”
Not wanting to reveal my identity, I said, “I hope so.”
An hour latter, we met the group from Israel a second time. As soon as the lady from Los Angeles saw me, she came running over and said, “I feel so foolish and rude. I didn’t ask you the most important question. What is your name?”
Every so often, it happens to each of us. We fail to ask the most important question, we fail to prioritize, and as a result, we run the risk of embarrassing ourselves.
Prioritizing, the ability to determine what needs to be asked and said first, actually takes center stage in this week’s Torah portion.
The Torah states that Moses died betzem hayom hazeh, or at midday (Deuteronomy 32:48). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, notes that on two other occasions the Torah uses this expression, and in each one priorities seem to be involved.
The first event that occurred at high noon concerns Noah and the deluge. Rashi explains that the flood happened at midday because the people would not listen to Noah. When he told them that God was ready to destroy the world because they refused to mend their ways, they scoffed and declared instead that they would not allow anyone to enter the ark. God responded, “Watch and see who is in charge. The flood will happen right in the middle of the day, and I dare you to try to stop Noah.”
The second place in the Torah that high noon involved priorities involved the Egyptians who thought their protests could stop the Exodus. God responded, “Behold, I shall take them out at midday and whoever has the power to object, let him come and object.”
In this week’s Torah portion, we encounter misplaced priorities again in the description of Moses’ death. The Children of Israel proclaimed, “If we perceive that Moses is about to die, we will not let him.”
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explained this unusual reaction because they said, “The man who took us out of Egypt, and parted the sea for us, and brought down the manna for us, and made the pheasants fly to us, and brought up the well for us, and gave us the Torah, we will not let him die. The Holy One, blessed be He, said, ‘Behold, I will take him in at midday…'”
The only problem is the absurdity to think that anyone has the power to stop the Angel of Death. Israeli Torah scholar Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz suggested that this demonstrates the power of collective prayer. When the Children of Israel gather and pray fervently, they can even overpower the Angel of Death.
This whole theory, however, didn’t work. Moses died. What happened to the power of Israel’s prayer? The 19th century commentator The Kli Hemda notes that the problem rests in the order of priorities of the Jewish people. We told God that Moses was great because he took us out of Egypt, parted the sea, brought us the manna, gave us fowl to eat and brought up the well of water. Only after all of this did we note that he also gave us the Torah. Our priorities were skewed.
We first and foremost saw Moses as the supplier of the good life. It was only a second thought that we remembered the Torah. When our priorities are so twisted, when we can’t appreciate the real contribution of Moses, then our prayers are ineffective.
What a powerful lesson that every one must learn:

Both the nation and the individual must first set priorities straight if we ever hope to receive God’s blessings.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Never the Same

Danny, 10, can recite the Five Pillars of Islam: faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage.

Jeremy, 12, understands the difference between Predator armed drones and Global Hawk surveillance drones; between 500-pound "dumb" gravity bombs and 2,000-pound "smart" precision-guided bombs.

Gabe, 14, knows that Pastun and Dari are the spoken languages of Afghanistan while Pastuns, Uzbeks and Tajiks make up the main ethnic groups.

Zack, 18, can locate most of the "stans" — Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Since Sept. 11, on a practical and comprehensible level, my sons have learned about the religion of Islam, the military capability of the United States, the ethnicity of Afghanistan and the geography of Central Asia.

On an impractical and incomprehensible level, they have learned that their world can change horrifically and irreversibly in a split second.

They have learned that evil exists.

"Your lives will never be the same," I told them on Sept. 11. Even more than Dec. 7, 1941, altered the lives of their grandparents and Nov. 22, 1963, altered the lives of my husband, Larry, and myself.

Some changes happened immediately. I put a halt to Zack’s early decision application to an East Coast school. I forbid visits to theme parks, stadiums and venues with large gatherings. And I replenished and expanded the emergency supplies.

In the following few weeks, in a warranted and comforting burst of patriotism, we adorned our car windows, garage and boys’ bedroom walls with American flags. My younger sons replaced pop singers and athletes with firefighters and police officers as their heroes. And we mourned the victims, crying as we read their encapsulated biographies in The New York Times "Portraits of Grief."

Six months later, our lives are still not the same.

Yes, the fear of immediate danger is less palpable.

Larry and I have let Zack apply to three East Coast colleges. We have allowed Jeremy to visit Magic Mountain and Gabe to visit CityWalk and Century City. We have resumed going out to dinner, though less frequently, and supporting our faltering economy, though less enthusiastically. We have taken down all the flags except for a child-made felt flag that hangs in the front hall.

But I still nervously await the next terrorist attack on United States territory.

I still cry easily, this last time when journalist Daniel Pearl was first kidnapped and then viciously murdered.

And I find myself agreeing with Dr. Chris Giannou, head surgeon of the International Red Cross, who has spent 20 years in war-ravaged countries, including six weeks in Afghanistan last fall. He said, "For me, the world is divided between the bad and the worst, not the good and the bad."

But my sons, at least outwardly, are more optimistic.

"It’s not as if I walk into Dad’s office [on the 40th floor] and think, ‘Oh no, an airplane’s going to fly into the building.’ You can’t worry about that stuff," Gabe says.

"I can’t think about the terrorists all the time. It’s too sad. It’s what Osama wants us to do," Jeremy adds.

Perhaps their youth affords them more resiliency. Or affords them no basis for comparison, unlike their grandparents who witnessed World War II, or Larry and me who lived through the assassinations and upheavals of the late ’60s and ’70s. Or perhaps they’re repressing fear is too painful to surface.

I see their anxiety, however, when they talk about Israel, when they read about yet another suicide bomber in this increasingly volatile and seemingly insolvable conflict.

"It seems so unfair," Zack says, "that I get to plan for college while my Israeli friends have to go into the army."

These friends include our beloved "adopted" son, Ya’ir Cohen, who lived with us two years ago for three months and visited last October, as well as the other Israeli teens from Tichon Chadash High School who participated in Milken Community High School’s Israel Exchange Program.

They also include Gabe’s friends from the A.D. Gordon school in Tel Aviv, who visited Heschel Day School last year as part of The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership 2000.

My sons’ concerns are heightened by having experienced Sept. 11. By knowing how it feels to have their own country unexpectedly and brutally attacked.

But despite the world situation, which he reads about in detail in the newspapers, Danny is enthusiastically making plans for his birthday party in April.

Jeremy, as Cantor Jay Frailich of University Synagogue says, "is really cooking" as he learns his prayers and aliyot for his bar mitzvah in June.

Gabe is engrossed in rehearsing his lines for Milken’s spring production of "Comedy of Errors," in which he’s playing Dromio of Syracuse.

And Zack is enmeshed in the final semester of his senior year.

Yes, their lives will never be the same. They have permanently lost their naiveté and sense of invincibility. But perhaps, despite the sadness and the uncertainty, I could benefit from their forward-looking attitudes.

As Robert Frost said, "In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on."

New Vistas

"The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape," by Joel Kotkin. (Random House, $22.95)

Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at both Pepperdine University Institute for Public Policy and Milken Institute and a research fellow at the libertarian Reason Public Policy Institute, for 20 years has been researching and writing about what he terms "intangible" inputs into economic life.

His previous book, "Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy," studied cultural factors that, for example, gave Jews and expatriate Chinese communities tools for their historical economic successes.

Likewise, he argued that Southeast Asians and Koreans, among others, benefit from a variety of culturally based strategies that enable them to negotiate the shoals of a fast-paced, chaotic and demanding business environment.

In "The New Geography," Kotkin, an occasional Journal contributor, brings a similar analytic approach to the impact of the digitized economy on our physical environments. Forgoing jargon, except for the symbolic language he creates to explain some of the more overt effects of the great economic transition we have witnessed in the past 10 years or so, Kotkin writes an extremely accessible book that explores the choices and consequences of where and how we choose to live and work.

Three homemade neologisms act as his introduction to our new geography: valhalla, nerdistan and midopolis. The cutesy names belie a serious argument: that each of the three types of places, representing different tracks and classes in the new e-economy, express the different interests and capacities of their inhabitants.

One of the historic privileges of great wealth was to gain physical distance from the masses. That distance historically was constrained by practical necessity: the need to oversee in person one’s business interests, the limitations of communication, the time needed for one to travel, and one’s own need to have goods and services in somewhat close proximity. As both communication and travel have become faster, more efficient and increasingly inexpensive, the entrepreneurs of the new e-economy can locate themselves far away.

Vail in Colorado, Park City in Utah, and any number of other places are these valhallas. The locations play no part in the economic lives of their new residents, however, and the flow of wealth into such areas often leads to a serious disruption in the lives of others who live and work there. "They may be breathtakingly beautiful as places, but they are no longer rustic in the nature of their economy or, increasingly, in their population," writes Kotkin. "As Ed Marston, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, suggests, ‘What is Montana without cowboys? Once you get rid of agriculture, you’re left with nothingness. You’re not using the land. It just becomes ‘looking country.’"

Not everyone can be a wildly successful entrepreneur, and the management and technological sectors of the new economy need their physical places also. One group gravitates toward Kotkin’s so-called nerdistans: these master-planned communities feature "a more ‘campus-like’ environment, often with landscaped walkways and access to bikeways and other recreations." These are idealized communities for raising families; refurbished suburban dreams catering to the concerns of scientists, engineers and technocrats in the e-economy.

Parallel to that are the urban pioneers, the artists, artisans and generally creative types who flock into Kotkin’s "artful city," working in a more informal manner, seeking the inspiration and excitement of a revitalized urban life.

True to his long roots in Southern California, Kotkin uses local geography to illustrate his point. Irvine is a nerdistan; Santa Monica, the hip, urban "artful city."

Often those in the latter are the childless, gay, empty-nesters, divorced or never-married. In some ways, one can imagine the Getty Center as a nerdistan/artful city monument. Its design is certainly campus-like; its contents, well, arty.

The midopolises are more problematic. Typically, as the suburbs recycle and grow denser and grittier, they devolve into slums. But the great influx of immigrants, with their verve, determination, hard work and overall economic and social energy, help resist the natural history of the housing stock. As soon as they can afford it, they settle away from the inner city and into the suburban landscape, where they reshape traditional suburbia in surprising ways.

The San Gabriel Valley is in sections overwhelmingly Asian, with an elaborate and sophisticated Asian cultural and economic infrastructure, while previously "lily-white" suburbs have often become predominantly Latino. Both populations are driven to thrive in an economically beneficent environment relative to their respective homelands.

Nonetheless, the midopolises as often as not rely on the old economic mode — light manufacturing, retailing, import-export firms — rather than the new one, which has the potential of seriously limiting these groups’ progress up the economic ladder.

Kotkin points to a potential real-estate crisis. As retail sales move more to the Internet, the vast retailing physical structure will be threatened. For massive big-box stores, a 6 percent loss in sales to the Internet could translate into a 50 percent loss in profitability. Just as traditional downtown shopping areas died in the wake of regional malls, so too regional malls can suffer seriously over the long run when exposed to e-commerce.

As he explores the implications of the class stratification growing out of the digital revolution, Kotkin uses a wide range of historic analogies: Rome, Greece, Venice, Amsterdam, London. In doing so, he traces the arc of urban life, examining the relevance to our situation of the growth of artisans, the rise of factories, the inevitable development of conflict along class lines in highly stratified cities. He fears that those conflicts could grow here: the educated, online, plugged-in will so far economically surpass the under-educated and off-line that the valhallas and nerdistans will become in all essentials separated from the midopolises and city centers.

His hope is that we realize we live not only in virtual reality, but in a physical reality of place; that the intersection of real, lived human lives determines both economic and community success. "The oldest fundamentals of place — sense of community, identity, history and faith — not only remain important, they are increasingly the critical determinants of success and failure," he maintains. As always, Kotkin remains both open-eyed and optimistic.