Messianic Jewish groups claim rapid growth


About 200 congregants filled the stain glassed-windowed sanctuary on a Shabbat morning this spring, praying, singing and welcoming new members. Among the newly welcomed members was a young Israeli man, named Yoav. Not really extraordinary news, except Congregation Beth Hallel in a northern suburb of Atlanta is not a typical synagogue. Indeed, it is a member of the International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS), the largest ordaining body in the messianic Jewish movement.

Beth Hallel is only one of a number of messianic Jewish congregations in the Atlanta area – and one of some 800 messianic Jewish congregations in the world, according to Joel Chernoff, CEO of Messianic Jewish Alliance of America (MJAA), up from zero in 1967. “Messianic Judaism is the fastest growing stream of religious Jewish life since 1967,” said Chernoff, who said he grew up in a messianic Jewish family. Sharing his extrapolated and complicated arithmetic, Chernoff credited the Council of Jewish Federation’s 1990 National Jewish Population Survey for his belief that there are now more than one million messianic Jews. “Jews are becoming believers in Yehoshuah,” he says, referring to Jesus.

How can one be Jewish and accept Jesus?

Of course, mainstream Jewish leaders argue that messianic Judaism is not Judaism at all. How can one be Jewish and accept Jesus as the Messiah? Messianic Judaism, says Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union of Reform Judaism, is “built on a lie. They are lying about us and lying about themselves; they distort both.”

The rabbi of the Reform congregation not far from Beth Hallel says he rarely sees any of the messianic congregation’s members—“except those who want to see what a normative Jewish experience looks like,” says Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah. Greene expresses more concern about a local Baptist mega-church whose members approach Jewish teens and challenge them: “if you don’t find Jesus, you’ll go to hell.” Area high schools host rallies sponsored by the Fellowship for Christian Athletes. Other rabbis in the Atlanta area, even those who gladly share stages for pro-Israel rallies with evangelical groups, draw the line with messianic Jewish leaders, who also call themselves rabbis.

Still, while that line between evangelicals and messianic Jews may be distinct in the United States, in Israel, it has become fuzzier as the country reaches out for political support wherever it can get it.

Beth Hallel’s Rabbi Robert Solomon says his congregation is the oldest and largest messianic Jewish synagogue in Georgia and one of the largest messianic congregations in the world. “The congregation comes from many different backgrounds, including all branches of traditional Judaism as well as many denominations. While the majority of our member families come from a Jewish background, we have a strong minority of non-Jewish members as well.”

How many messianics are Jews?

Al Lopez, the leader of the Olive Tree Messianic Congregation in the Atlanta area, who, in contrast to Rabbi Solomon says he was ordained as a pastor, says most of his congregants are non-Jewish. Both messianic Jewish leaders say congregants come to them through word of mouth, through friends who spread the word. They claim they do not go into the Jewish community looking for new members.

Joel Chernoff, CEO of the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America.

They say, that in many cases, intermarried couples find their way to messianic congregations. In other cases, they assert, Jews who feel alienated from their heritage and traditional Jewish synagogues are attracted to messianic Judaism. Atlanta’s Beth Ha’Mashiach calls itself a congregation of Jews and Gentiles “together worshipping Adonai in a unique blend of church and synagogue.”

At Beth Hallel, beyond the Israeli new member, congregants were comprised of many nationalities and races, oftentimes couples with small children, all raising their hands to the Lord as they sang along with words provided on an overhead screen. Some messianic Jewish leaders acknowledge that, not only is the combination of religious practices confusing for potential new members, but it is a real problem for the movement.

According to Needham, Massachusetts-based messianic Rabbi Richard Nichol, this underlines a “foundational weakness in messianic Judaism. If there are a significant majority of non-Jews, this trivializes the enterprise. This is a problem for us. We must be consciously aware of who joins our synagogues and make it clear that this is a home for Jewish people. It needs to be Jewish space.”

Jewish space? While some some traditional Jewish prayers are recited on Shabbat and tallit, kipot and tefillin are worn by some, the Beth Hallel congregants also praise Jesus as the Messiah and are asked to place money in envelopes that were then collected at the end of the aisles.


Jan Jaben-Eilon is a long-time journalist who has written for The New York Times, Business Week, the International Herald Tribune, the Jerusalem Report and Womenetics. She was a founding reporter for the Atlanta Business Chronicle and was international editor for Advertising Age before she fulfilled a lifelong dream of moving to Israel. Jan and her Jerusalem-born husband have an apartment in that city, but live in Atlanta.

Marty Kaplan: Is luck dead?


The trouble with kids these days is that they think luck counts more than they should.  That’s the diagnosis of America’s young people offered by a New York Times opinion piece this past weekend.  Generation Y has moved back home and given up on gung-ho because in these recessionary times, they’re putting too little weight on the importance of effort and too much weight on the riskiness of risk.

This indictment of “” target=”_hplink”>Thinking, Fast and Slow, the one most startling to me is the power he attributes to luck.  This isn’t a philosophical or theoretical point that he’s making; it’s an empirical observation, based on data.

Stock traders, financial analysts, economic forecasters and CEOs may believe that their results are based on research, experience and skill.  On the contrary, says Kahneman, the overwhelming evidence – and he provides plenty of it – is that monkeys throwing darts would be just as good (that is, as bad) at doing their jobs.  Small businesses fail: that’s the rule.  To believe you’re going to be the exception requires not just confidence, it takes a resolute denial of reality.  (Intuition, by the way, is also wildly overrated.)  Every startup inevitably, and usually fatally, overestimates the brilliance of its own vision and underestimates the genius of its competitors.  Entrepreneurs maintain that success derives from sweat and indefatigability, but in fact it nearly always hinges on random, unpredictable events.

Look at the case histories of the wizards of the digital age, says Kahneman, and virtually all of them are testimony to luck.  Pundits and political scientists who get it right are shockingly rare, and when they do, the reason is luck.  The track record of clinicians and therapists depends more on fortune than is humanly bearable to acknowledge.  How an athlete performs on a given day always involves a roll of the dice.  All of history is driven by chance.  Choose any historic figure you like; the sperm and egg that produced them were brought together by blind odds, not by destiny, design or divinity.

This weekend also brought word of the death at age 87 of ” target=”_hplink”>Chance and Necessity, the book by Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Jacques Monod published a few years later, that opened my eyes to the disturbing notion that chance, not a Book of Life written in the clouds, was the name of life’s game.

Back then, when I first entered college, an ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Turning 100: Los Angeles Jewish Home has ambitious growth plans


There are nearly 500 people waiting for a bed at L.A.’s largest senior living facility, the Los Angeles Jewish Home. Waiting, in many cases, for someone to die.

“It’s very depressing,” said Marlene Markheim, 80, of Encino. “We know that there’s a waiting list, and when a bed becomes available, we know what that entails. A bed becomes available when somebody else passes away.”

Markheim’s sister-in-law, Miriam, who is deaf and cannot see because of macular degeneration, has been on the waiting list since 2010. It’s not the Jewish Home that has her spirits low — quite the opposite; she’s heard great things — but rather the current state of eldercare in America.

“I rue the day when I’m going to need it,” Marlene Markheim said.

To people like her, it’s little solace that the Jewish Home — the largest single-source provider of senior care in Los Angeles — has 950 beds at two campuses in the San Fernando Valley and serves more than 2,300 people. How can that compare with the vast need faced by a city with more than 14,000 Jews over the age of 85, according to a 2008 estimate by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion sociologist Bruce Phillips?

The case of Markheim’s sister-in-law, who has bounced between a couple of private assisted-living communities in her search for better attention, is emblematic of a senior-care crisis. Americans are getting older and living longer, while lawmakers are cutting back on help for them. This year alone, Medi-Cal and Medicare funding for skilled-nursing centers is slated for double-digit percentage reductions.

A group of Jewish Home residents in 1950. Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

Stuck in the middle are long-term care providers like the Jewish Home.

“It’s pretty devastating,” said Joanne Handy, CEO/president of Aging Services of California, a membership organization that represents the not-for-profit senior living field.

It should be no surprise that these tough times have arrived —and that more are on the way. Nationally, there were nearly 40 million Americans at least 65 years old in 2009. By the time the final baby boomers hit retirement around 2030, that figure is expected to balloon to more than 72 million, according to an Administration on Aging report. That’s an increase of 80 percent in just over 20 years.

And while 13 percent of today’s Americans are age 65 or older, that figure was already close to 20 percent for Jews when the latest available data came out in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

“We’ve all talked about how baby boomers are coming. Well, now baby boomers are here,” said Molly Forrest, CEO/president of the Jewish Home, which turns 100 in 2012 and will begin its centennial celebration this week.

In fact, this was the topic of a speech Forrest gave to the American Jewish Press Association in 1993. She still has her notes from that address, titled “Why Is Aging a Jewish Community Issue?”

“Our numbers of Jewish elderly are almost twice that of the general population,” she said then. “If America is concerned about the ‘graying of America,’ Jews are the ‘white-haired’ members of the growing elder population.”

David Feldman, 84, is one of the home’s hoary-haired elders, figuratively at least. He has been at the Jewish Home for eight years, ever since his late wife overheard their kids talking about the future of the aging couple and decided to take matters into her own hands.

To them, the Home was more than a place where they could grow old together and live comfortably as Orthodox Jews who keep kosher. They needed access to the facility’s medical care for his heart and lung problems, diabetes and other chronic diseases. There was something else that drew them to it, too: peace of mind.

“It’s a not-for-profit, and they promise not to throw you out,” Feldman said.

That, of course, takes money. Seventy-five percent of the Jewish Home’s residents receive government assistance. Any reduction in such aid represents an additional challenge to funding the Home’s services, which include independent living, assisted care, dementia care and skilled nursing.

Still, as the Jewish Home prepares to celebrate its centennial next year — kicked off at its annual Reflections gala on Sept. 18 — its leaders reassure worried residents that they will continue to stand by old promises.

“We’ve been here 100 years,” Forrest said. “We would never consider throwing them out.”

In Los Angeles, the Home has long been the face of Jewish eldercare. It was founded in Boyle Heights in 1912 as the Hebrew Sheltering Home for the Aged, with just five residents.

A celebration at the Jewish Home, 1912. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

Its first president was a Polish immigrant and grocery store owner named Simon Lewis, who was moved by the plight of the destitute elderly and enlisted the support of colleagues to provide shelter to the needy, according to the Jewish Home’s official history.

What started as a home for transient men blossomed over the years, protecting those who might otherwise have been deliberately taunted at the county poor house with offers of pork. By 1916, Lewis and others had raised enough money to provide a permanent home on Boyle Avenue with 16 rooms and five adjacent lots for expansion.

When the Jewish community migrated to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, the Jewish Home traveled with it. Leaders purchased 11 acres on Victory Boulevard in Reseda in 1967 for what is now known as its Eisenberg Village. In 1979, it merged with the nearby Menorah Village on Tampa Avenue, which dated back to the 1930s, to create a second campus in the Valley.

Today, the Jewish Home’s reach extends to more than 2,300 people, through residents and community-based programs. The average age is 90, and 36 people are over 100. One-third of the residents do not have a living spouse, sibling or child.

Yet the need remains great. Of the 476 people waiting to get in, more than 30 are Holocaust survivors. (There are 57 who currently live there.) The giant gap between available rooms and applicants troubles Forrest deeply.

“That’s unconscionable,” she said. “We are the smallest Jewish home in the nation on a per capita basis. We need to build more. We need to build in a way that makes sense.”

Forrest admits that even building won’t be enough to meet immediate needs, so she’s calling for a plan that will expand services to the community as well.

Therein lies the challenge.

A resident performs the blessing for the Sabbath at the Jewish Home, 1976.

These bold words come at a time when everyone else seems to be cutting back. Earlier this year, state legislators voted to slash Medi-Cal reimbursements to nursing facilities by 10 percent. If the measure receives federal approval, it could mean a loss of up to $3.5 million in revenue at the Jewish Home, which has an $86 million budget.

“These were difficult reductions and not ones that we wanted to make,” said Tony Cava, spokesman for the California Department of Health Care Services. But, as a huge part of the General Fund, it had to be part of a solution to a massive state deficit, he said.

Just as bad, the feds plan on pulling back 11 percent of Medicare funds later this year, according to Handy of Aging Services of California. Those are painful cuts to absorb for providers that care for some of society’s most impoverished.

“We don’t have millions in the bank,” Forrest said. “You can’t go through and whack off $3.5 million in a month without us having to close a building. But part of the obligation when you’ve been here 100 years is you have to have a longer view of things.”

Writer discovers California ‘Gold’ in banking ancestor Isaias Hellman


“Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” by Frances Dinkelspiel (St. Martin’s Press, $29.95)

Searching for ways to deal with the current economic crisis, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson could take a cue from Isaias Hellman, banker, capitalist and California visionary. More than once during financial panics in the 19th century, when bank runs were a too-frequent and devastating occurrence, Hellman resorted to a dramatic ploy to restore calm and confidence. He stacked massive towers of gold coins on the counter of his Farmers and Merchants Bank in Los Angeles.

Half a million dollars in plain view “was a tonic,” his great-great-granddaughter Frances Dinkelspiel writes in “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” (St. Martin’s Press). It was a sight that stopped withdrawals cold and even attracted deposits. Everyone, customers and competitors, seemed to trust Hellman’s faith that better times were ahead.

A grand gesture, his towers of gold represented not only Hellman’s keen sense of the public psyche when hard times arose but his own confidence in the opportunities and resources of California. Hellman was an essential part, according to Dinkelspiel, of the generation that built the economic engines and defined the social institutions of California. In that role and company, Hellman was arguably the single most powerful and influential Jew in the United States from the last quarter of the 19th century until his death in 1920.

A fifth-generation Californian and Bay Area journalist, Dinkelspiel grew up with little knowledge of her illustrious ancestor. She discovered in the Hellman papers at the California Historical Society “every reporter’s dream: an unknown story about a critical chapter in the country’s history.”

Sifting through extensive correspondence, ledgers, newspaper clippings and diaries, she realized that Hellman was a titan of his time, “California’s premier financier” when the state shed its isolation and became an economic force.

She soon was on a seven-year quest to re-insert Hellman into California history and expand the record of Jewish immigrant success beyond Levi Strauss (who was just one of several pioneer co-religionists helped by Hellman to build unimaginable fortunes).

Hellman arrived in Los Angeles from Bavaria in 1859, a few months shy of his 17th birthday. Still more Mexican than American and with a population of less than 5,000, Los Angeles was home to maybe 150 Jews, almost all merchants who belonged to a handful of extended families. Accompanied by his younger brother, Herman, and with less than $100 between them, Hellman went to work as a clerk in a cousin’s store.

Within a few years, Hellman was buying his own store, developing commercial property in the center of Los Angeles and going into business with men “who considered themselves the problem solvers” of the region. Men such as John G. Downey, an Irish immigrant and former governor of California, were eager to capitalize on the sterling reputation and business acumen of the 29-year-old when Hellman invited them to become shareholders in the Farmers and Merchants Bank.

Farmers and Merchants proved to be the city’s first successful financial institution. It also became Hellman’s springboard to a West Coast banking empire that by 1915 had resources totaling more than $100 million. The crown jewel in that empire was the Wells Fargo Nevada Bank.

In 1890, Hellman was tapped to save the Nevada Bank, a San Francisco firm that counted the Southern Pacific Railroad among its biggest customers. When capitalist E.H. Harriman decided to spin off the banking business of Wells Fargo, he approached Hellman to take charge of merging two of the state’s oldest establishments and creating one of the West’s largest financial institutions.

While Hellman had family ties to New York and European capitalists (his brother-in-law was Meyer Lehman of the Lehman Brothers commodity house), the roots of Hellman’s success were in his local connections. He persistently partnered with friends and neighbors, Jews and non-Jews, first in Los Angeles and later in San Francisco. As his success grew, he promoted California investment opportunities to Lehman Brothers and other prominent Jewish firms in the East and increased the wealth on both coasts.

As an investor, adviser and leader, Hellman extended his success and influence over several other major industries in California. He partnered with Collis and Henry E. Huntington to develop railroads and trolley lines in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He loaned Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny $500 to purchase the land where they sunk the first free-flowing oil well in Los Angeles.

Hellman was the largest shareholder in the Los Angeles Water Co., a private firm that developed the city’s water system in the 19th century, and personally sold a $14.5 million bond issue for the Spring Valley Water Co. that supplied San Francisco. Having early in his career invested in vineyards, in 1901 Hellman took control of the California wine industry, standardizing the product and elevating the reputation of the industry around the world. In addition, he developed land all over Los Angeles County, owned property in San Francisco and built a vacation retreat at Lake Tahoe that eventually became a state park.

Hellman’s influence on Los Angeles is still evident today. In an instance where capitalism and philanthropy met, Jewish Hellman, Protestant Ozro Childs and Catholic Downey donated 110 acres to the Methodist founders of USC. The land was in the center of the partners’ subdivision at the southwest edge of the city. They also extended the trolley line they owned from downtown to the new campus.

Their generosity gave potential land buyers a destination and a convenient way to get there. The city had a university, and the partners saw their land triple in value.

Hellman helped create another L.A. institution when he advised Harrison Gray Otis to buy out his partner in the Los Angeles Times and then provided the $18,000 loan required to put the paper in Otis’ hands. Otis’ descendants, the Chandler family, sold the massive media company that evolved for $8 billion in 2000.

Hellman’s leadership went beyond the world of finance and business. When Los Angeles’ first synagogue was built in 1872, he was president of Congregation B’nai B’rith, now known as Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He served as a regent of the University of California for more than 30 years and endowed a scholarship fund still supporting students. He took a leading role in the recovery of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Beneficiaries of his philanthropy ranged from Catholic orphans to World War I Jewish European refugees.

While unquestionably Hellman achieved the immigrant’s dream of success and acceptance in America, there were times when he was the target of anti-Jewish sentiments and anti-Semitic behavior. He and his companies also were subject to the wrath of unionists and socialists, progressive reformers and even betrayal by family members. His wealth, influence and fame brought both friends and enemies.

In its plain sense, the biography of Hellman is a story of nearly unfettered opportunity to apply one’s skills and realize one’s ambition. The openness of the American frontier stood in stark contrast to the restrictions on livelihood and residency most Jewish Europeans left behind. At a deeper level, Hellman’s story is a reminder that it took skill, ambition and connections to transform that frontier into part of the United States and create a state that today has a gross domestic product larger than all but eight countries in the world.

Jews were notably among the diverse contributors of those necessary ingredients, as they have continued to be, for example, the Stern, Haas and Goldman families in San Francisco and the Factor, Taper, Casden and Lowy families in Los Angeles.

To her credit, Dinkelspiel presents a well-developed and even-handed portrayal of Hellman and his extended family. The biography maintains a solid historical context in which to understand the perspectives, philosophy and values of a gilded-age capitalist. His German-American-Jewish sense of responsibility to family, community, customers, investors, competitors and the future comes through clearly. Through the vehicle of one man and his networks of family, friends and associates, the foundational place in California history of Jewish immigrants generally is illuminated, as well.

Well-researched and highly readable, “Towers of Gold” makes an important contribution to both the history of the Golden State and the history of Jews in America. It is a very strong case for the veracity of the volume’s subtitle — “How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California” — demonstrating the key role of Hellman in the urban and economic development of California.

It also adds a fresh perspective on the Jewish immigrants from Central Europe who in the mid-19th century joined in the continental expansion of the United States and set down roots in emerging communities. As historian Kevin Starr has noted, frontier California was influenced by “Jewish values and sensibility” in ways unprecedented anywhere else in the nation.

Hellman’s life and accomplishments illustrated that influence, and this biography brings attention to its still-unfolding consequences.

Karen S. Wilson is a doctoral candidate in history at UCLA and curator for the upcoming Autry National Center exhibition on the history of Jews in Los Angeles.

Conejo Valley Hit by Growing Pains


Rabbi Gary Johnson is overjoyed. There’s no other way to describe it.

His bliss over the new home for his congregation, Temple Beth Haverim, is so obvious that he practically dances around the building as he takes a visitor on a tour of the site. Not surprising for a man who for the past 15 years has been forced to lead services in a tiny, rented space in an Agoura industrial park.

"Up until now, we were in an industrial park, sort of tucked away and invisible," Johnson said. "It’s a maturation of our community to realize we’re landowners. It’s been a major undertaking."

Temple Beth Haverim made the official move to its new home at the end of February. The property is nestled against Ladyface Mountain in Agoura Hills and has space for multiple buildings, plus an open area that Johnson hopes to use for the temple’s Shabbat Under the Stars program this summer.

Although the main sanctuary has not been built yet, the small sanctuary will be adequate for the present time to serve the congregation’s 440 families. According to Johnson, the synagogue must raise an additional $6 million to build the main sanctuary, for an estimated total of $12 million when the facility is completed.

The temple’s preschool and religious school buildings are finished. The preschool, which opened in September, is full and has a waiting list for most classes.

Temple Beth Haverim is just one example of the growth of the Jewish community in the Conejo Valley. Over the past two decades, the area has experienced a migration of Jewish families heading west, similar to what occurred in the San Fernando Valley in the 1950s. It’s been a more difficult birth, however, in part because of an entrenched group of no-growth proponents, and in part because the Conejo’s Jewish population remained a quiet minority for a long time.

Another example of growth in the community is the Conejo Jewish Day School. Operated under the auspices of Chabad of the Conejo, the school opened in September 2000 and has since increased its student population from 38 to 64. It will add a fifth-grade class in the fall.

According to day school principal Rabbi Menachem Weiss, the school draws families not only from the Conejo and Simi Valley areas but also from as far away as North Hollywood and Sherman Oaks. The individual attention afforded to students in the small school is one factor in its attraction. Weiss said the rural environment also has its appeal.

The school currently operates on rustic property owned by Gateway Church, which is used in the summer by a popular local day camp.

"It’s very kid friendly," Weiss said. "When kids come to school, it should look like a school, not an office building."

The relatively unscathed landscape of the Conejo Valley is part of the area’s allure. Its slightly more affordable homes also make it attractive to families. The Conejo stretches from the western edge of Calabasas to Thousand Oaks and includes the communities of Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Newbury Park.

With the exception of Calabasas, these bedroom communities have never been seen as particularly Jewish neighborhoods. However, local leaders point to the many examples of flourishing Jewish institutions in the area as strong evidence of the Conejo Valley’s transformation into a major Jewish center.

The Conejo includes two Conservative synagogues. Besides Beth Haverim, there is Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. There are also two Reform congregations: Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks and Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas.

In addition, there is a large Chabad network, with a main site in Agoura and several satellite sites in surrounding areas, plus a Jewish Federation office. Also, there is an Agoura Hills Jewish Community Center, which primarily serves as a preschool, as well as an active bikur cholim group that visits patients at Los Robles Medical Center in Thousand Oaks.

"It’s a very cohesive Jewish community," said Rabbi Alan Greenbaum of Adat Elohim. "There are many events co-sponsored by most, if not all, of the congregations, such as Chanukah events and speakers series"

"There’s a lot of harmony," he continued. "The clergy meet together, we speak well of each other and it comes from a sincere place. We’re just very pleased and proud of the quality of the Jewish community here."

Growing a new community is not always smooth. Among the problems the Jewish community of the Conejo has experienced are a lack of affordable space in some areas and the controversy surrounding Heschel West Day School.

Seeking to expand, the school purchased 70 acres near Agoura High School five years ago but has not been able to overcome resistance from neighbors and begin building. The school opponents — both Jewish and non-Jewish, referred to in the local papers as coming from Old Agoura — believe that the project would negatively impact the already narrow traffic corridor running near the high school, making it dangerous in case of an earthquake or other emergency.

Johnson said the heated debate over the controversy has been discouraging for his congregation, which includes people on opposite sides of the issue.

"The Old Agoura Jewish residents say to me, ‘Rabbi, we want Heschel West in our community, but that is the wrong area, because of access and egress,’" he said. "They say, ‘God forbid there is a fire, and we have to get the kids out of Heschel West and residents out of Old Agoura, there’s only one two-lane road, one lane in each direction. This isn’t anti-Semitism, it’s a traffic issue.’"

"And then I have my Heschel West families, who say they will address those safety issues," Johnson continued. "It’s very passionate on both sides."

Founders of the Conejo Jewish Day school are watching Heschel West’s fight as an indicator of what they can expect when they, too, seek a new location.

"What happens with them [Heschel] will affect us," said Leora Langberg, the day school’s president. "If public opinion is for keeping day schools out, it’s really going to hurt us."

Although demographic evidence of the area becoming "more Jewish" is difficult to compile — most synagogues have experienced a significant increase in members, but there could be reasons other than more Jews moving to the area — anecdotal evidence indicates that growth has been steady and will continue.

Yuval and Ronit Golan are betting on a steady increase. The couple, who own Sam’s Bakery & Doughnut in North Hollywood, will open a second store in Westlake Village later this month. The shop joins an Agoura Hills kosher butcher-grocer, pizza parlor and kosher restaurant catering to the observant Jewish community in the area.

"There’s no kosher bakery out in that area, and we want to expand our business," Ronit Golan said. "We’re looking forward to serving everyone in the Conejo Valley."

Overall, it does not appear that much can prevent the transformation of the Conejo into a center of Jewish life comparable to the San Fernando Valley.

"The challenge of the community is to keep up with the needs," said Greenbaum of Adat Elohim. "As [Temple Beth Haverim and Chabad] complete their building process, that will mark a critical turning point for the Jewish community here, because we will all have finished our minimal building campaigns and will have to look beyond our individual synagogues toward, say, building a Jewish Community Center. That will be an exciting time for the Jewish community."

2040 Vision


This, too, shall pass.

And when the current government crisis in Israel, the showdown with Iraq and the conflict with the Palestinians are history, professor Avishay Braverman wonders, whither Israel?

His answer: the Negev.

"All our focus is on what I call the theater of the immediate," Braverman said. "I’m concerned we ignore internal issues in Israel, as if all we have to do is solve our external problems and the Messiah will come."

Braverman, the president of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), was in Los Angeles last week raising money and awareness for his college and his cause. At a time when Israel’s "Theater of the Immediate" was running three shows daily on CNN, he was pushing his audiences to think long term.

The Negev Desert in southern Israel makes up 60 percent of Israel, but accounts for only 8 percent of its population. Braverman envisions turning the region’s main city, Beersheba, into a metropolis of 3 millions souls. Surrounding it would be development towns, now blisters of unemployment and neglect, reinvented as research and support centers. These communities and greenbelts would carpet the desert, airing out the tightly packed coastal area of Israel and linked via efficient trains to similar new developments in the Galilee.

"By the year 2040, there will be 12 million Israelis," Braverman told me over breakfast in Century City. "Now is the time for the Negev project."

Braverman, 54, is a tall man with a keen intellect and the forceful presence of a platoon commander, which he was. The Stanford-trained economist counts himself as a friend to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and observers of the Israeli political scene say that if Braverman only wanted to get his hands a little dirty in national politics, Labor Party leadership would be his for the taking.

But Braverman says he is content — for now — to leverage his considerable access and influence to push his dream. "I want the key players of the Jewish world to focus now on the Negev."

If there is a bit of Los Angeles water pioneer William Mulholland in Braverman — it’s easy to picture him standing astride the empty stretches of desert proclaiming as Mulholland did, "There it is, take it" — there is more than a touch of David Ben-Gurion. Israel’s first prime minister made his home on Kibbutz Sde Boker, about 25 miles from Beersheba. He who would seek wisdom, Ben-Gurion used to say, should head south to the Negev.

Ben-Gurion long believed that settling the Negev was critical to Israel’s future, and today his vision seems more urgent than ever. It is the catalyst for what Braverman calls Zionism 2.0, the next phase in the Jewish people’s nation-building in its ancestral homeland. Like Zionism’s first iteration, this one, too, involves a man, a vision and a desert landscape.

It is true that every third Israeli declares his corner of the country the next "Silicon Wadi," ripe for foreign investment and boom times. But Braverman — to judge by his track record — might just be the one to fulfill his own prophecy.

He arrived at BGU 12 years ago as Israel’s youngest university president, at a time when the government threatened to turn the school, riddled with debt and declining enrollment, into a community college. He has since tripled enrollment to 16,000, raised $250 million, run budget surpluses each year and established the campus as a leader in science and literature.

Its Hebrew literature faculty includes Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld; its National Institute for Biotechnology boasts as consultants Phillip Needleman, developer of Celebrex, and Nobel Prize laureate Sir Aaron Klug, and it runs a world-renowned program in arid lands and water research.

Now, BGU is the fastest-growing university in Israel and the hardest one to get into. Think Princeton or Dartmouth at 33 Celsius.

But Braverman’s vision of Israel extends beyond the university and the desert. Israel’s lurching from crisis to crisis has blinded its leaders to the need for long-term planning and investment. During the last decade, when the tech boom and the glow of Oslo set fire to the nation’s economy, the division between the country’s haves and have-nots only grew, and monies for public services were nowhere to be found.

"The trickle-down theory never took place anywhere," said Braverman, who served as a senior economist at the World Bank. "There is no trickle-down theory. We never invested — that’s my j’accuse — not in education, desalination, transportation. We didn’t do what we’re supposed to do."

But, he says, it is not too late. Development in the Negev and the Galilee — another underutilized region to the north — could be the catalyst for improving Israel’s governance — more regional control, less waste and corruption — and democracy.

For starters, Braverman urges Angelenos who visit Israel to start putting Beersheba and environs on their itinerary. "If you don’t go to the Negev" he told me, "you don’t understand what Israel is." Or, he might have added, what it can become.

For more information, contact the American Associates ofBen Gurion University at (310) 552-3300 or www.aabgu.org.

Six Months Later


Sept. 11 was a watershed event in American history. Every decent person felt shock and revulsion to the very core. But human nature cannot maintain such a heightened sense of trauma indefinitely — life goes on. Six months later, The Journal interviewed several local Jews and discovered how even now, the Sept. 11 attacks continue to touch their lives, in ways large and small.

Sharon Mendel, a native New Yorker who has lived in Los Angeles “for too long,” said that the attacks “absolutely changed me. It made every moment count more than it had in the past, realizing that life could be taken instantaneously.” Mendel, an actress, had been slowly edging closer to traditional Jewish observance over a period of several years, and eventually became shomer Shabbat last year. But after Sept. 11, she felt added urgency to her spiritual growth.

As a result, she became more consistent in waking up early to daven the morning “Shacahrit” prayers. “You can’t fight evil with evil,” she said. “God needs our prayers, and we need to pray in a meaningful way, not just saying things by rote.” Mendel also tried to live up to other Torah values, such as being more tolerant of other people and greeting people with a pleasant demeanor. And, whereas prior to Sept. 11 a day off from work might have meant taking in a movie, she now tries to use that time to find a Torah class.

“All the other things we worried about are nothing compared to what is happening now,” Mendel added. “You’re defeated if you give up optimism, but you also have to put in the effort. It’s not enough to be a better person, you have to be a better Jew.”

Although they have never met, Tom Eisenstadt, a financial advisor with Merrill Lynch, agrees. The Calabasas-based family man and founding member of The Calabasas Shul felt a shift in priorities after Sept. 11. Some things seemed less important: He slacked off on his previously strict exercise regimen and even, to some extent, his diet.

Eisenstadt admits to being frustrated by this lessening of resolve to exercise, and is trying to get it back. He attributes this in part to increasing stress at work, since his business is affected by the slumping economy. However, like Mendel, he has been more motivated in spiritual matters, and has also been more consistent in davening each morning. “Relationships are all about communication, and the more you communicate the better the relationship,” he says. “Davening is a way to building that relationship with God.”

People could choose to look at Sept. 11 in one of two ways, Eisenstadt said: Either God was involved or He was not. “As Jews, we learn that everything God does is for the good, even if we can’t understand it. Understanding that somewhere, somehow, this was good makes it easier to live with this horrific tragedy.”

Very shortly after Eisenstadt and his wife moved into their new home last October, they hosted a class by Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik, director of the Jewish Learning Exchange, on Jewish responses to Sept. 11. Czapnik, who taught several well-attended classes on the subject, noted, “People wanted understanding, and still do, but I don’t see people wearing Sept. 11 on their sleeves. As Americans it has been hard for us to grasp the concept of pure evil. We always want to understand the other perspective, but the Torah teaches us that there is such a thing as raw evil, as well as objective good. People can hear this now easier than before, that certain things are simply transcendent.”

Czapnik noted that Sept. 11 helped many people appreciate what Israel has been enduring for so long. “Just as Americans don’t want to negotiate with Al Qaeda, they can more easily see why Israel doesn’t want to negotiate with the PLO.”

Many local Jews found that Sept. 11 fostered an even stronger alliance with Israel. Ira Mehlman, a Marina del Rey public relations consultant, ramped up his involvement with the Israel Emergency Alliance (IEA), a media watchdog group that also runs the web site StandWithUs.com. Mehlman, already a member of the IEA, became a board member after Sept. 11, and worked to help organize the Solidarity Walk for Israel held last December, as well as other IEA activities.

“I’m trying to educate myself as best as possible regarding threats to Israel and the U.S.,” Mehlman said. “The alliance tries to confront anti-Israel activism on college campuses and in the media, and we’ve had growing visibility and impact.” Mehlman views his work with the IEA as an important mitzvah. “I find this more meaningful than if I just picked another ritual to practice, even though the rituals have their own value.”

A native New Yorker, Mehlman knows of several people who died in the attacks; they were from his old neighborhood of Neponsit. At one time, his mother worked on the 86th floor of one of the towers. “I think everyone was affected in some way,” he said. Mehlman plans a solidarity visit to Israel over Pesach, where he will meet up with family members, some of whom live in Israel.

Family, and the need to feel closely connected to them, was probably the biggest reaction that Denise Koek, an actress and writer, had after the attacks. Koek said, “I had a realization that I wanted to be with my family more than ever, especially my two children. It just felt more pressing. If after a week or so I don’t hear from my brothers or father, who live out of town, I call them or start e-mailing like crazy.” She also felt more motivated to move ahead in her career, trying, as she said, “to seize the day.”

Koek also stepped up her involvement in her synagogue, Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita. Before Sept. 11, Koek and her family may have attended services monthly; now it’s at least double that. “It feels like a tonic to go to shul, and to have that sense of community there,” she observed. Koek joined the membership committee, where she helps plan recruitment activities, and also applied her comedy-writing skills for the shul’s Purim program.

Immediately after the attacks, nearly all shuls were packed to capacity, but that ebbed in most cases. However, Koek observed that people seem quicker to come to shul now even after vague threats, such as when the FBI issues its occasional warnings. She also credits the shul’s rabbi, Steven Conn, for being “really attuned to people’s more intense needs for spiritual leadership.” Overall, Koek said, “I’m sad that what happened occurred, but I’m very encouraged that more people acknowledge that there is more to life than material things, and place more emphasis on interacting with your religious community.”

Conn is still trying to nurture the closeness and strength felt so keenly among his congregants after Sept. 11. Conn said, “I do see that people still look at family in a new light, and some people have made life changes that may be subtle, but have important impact. We always think there will be tomorrow, but we don’t have forever to make our lives what we want them to be, and what God wants them to be.”

Similarly, Deborah Goldberger, a “professional volunteer” whose previous career experience included children’s television production and development, business consulting and even translating (from Arabic) for the Department of Defense, found that Sept. 11 reconfirmed her decision to retreat from the professional world in favor of being a stay-at-home mother to her 11-year-old twin daughters. In fact, at the time of the attacks, Goldberger was chaperoning her girls’ class trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Although they couldn’t fly back, they took a bus straight through for nearly 50 hours to return home, just in time for Rosh Hashana.

While trying to reassure the children (and even some of the other chaperones), Goldberger said, “I learned that I was much stronger and more independent than I thought I was. The hardest thing was worrying about being on the road over Rosh Hashana, which was a very distressing thought. All this made it clear that it was right to focus on my family, that I shouldn’t feel torn about not being so involved in the work world.”

Goldberger’s relief at arriving home just before Rosh Hashana was immense. “My Judaism grounds me,” she said, and since that time, she has lit Shabbat candles more often, and taken her family to shul more often, too. “It took a long time to recover from that trip, but it did validate my need for spirituality. It’s okay to reprioritize, and this idea has really stuck.”

Reprioritizing values, and reinforcing others, also felt urgent to Richard Fauman, an observant Jew in the television industry. On the Shabbat immediately after Sept. 11, Fauman was seized by an idea offered in shul by Rabbi Nachum Braverman of Aish HaTorah in Los Angeles. “He said that it was time for us to wake up to our spiritual obligations, and that we need to stay awake to respond in an appropriate and elevated fashion,” Fauman recalled.

Inspired, Fauman followed the rabbi’s advice and found a chevruta, a partner with whom he could study Torah and also foster one another’s personal growth. Fauman did this with a few different people, and would either meet or phone each of them weekly. They exchanged lists of goals in personal, spiritual and even financial areas. They checked on one another’s progress and offered encouragement when needed.

“We all had a sense of urgency and immediacy right after Sept. 11,” Fauman recalled, explaining how he and some other volunteers were able to organize the “Spiritual Responses to Sept. 11” conference in only five weeks, drawing nearly 400 participants as well as renowned speakers from around the country. Unfortunately, Fauman believes that in the past few months, he and others have been “falling back asleep” again.

“My sense is that there has been little practical action in the city as a result [of Sept. 11],” he said, and noted particular disappointment in the Orthodox community, whom he believes were among the most likely to view Sept. 11 as a wake-up call from God for enhanced spiritual development.

“Six months later, I’m fighting to regain that sense of urgency that I had before, even though I’m doing more Jewishly than ever. But I don’t think it’s enough. Each day, though, I add the prayer that Braverman suggested we say during davening: ‘Hashem, please give me the time I need to the make the changes I need to make in my life.'”

Survivor: Malibu


Forget the South Pacific, the Australian Outback and Africa — if you want to see a real survivor, look no further than in your own backyard.

Despite the well-chronicled hardships of its parent organization, Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA), Malibu-based The Shalom Institute: Camp and Conference Center has managed to maintain its composure in the face of the organization’s upheaval.

“Fortunately, we are in a good place financially,” Bill Kaplan, Camp JCA Shalom’s director, told The Journal. “We’re right there. We’re doing OK. We’re maintaining.”

Based in Malibu, the Shalom Institute is the umbrella entity of four basic departments: Camp JCA Shalom, which offers summer and weekend camps for young children and teens; Shalom Adventure Center, which offers rock climbing, hiking and other activities; Shalom Nature Center, which offers educational environmental programs; and the Emma Stern Conference and Retreat Center, an elderhostel program. At an annual budget of just over $2 million from revenue and contributions, the institute has grown since 1994, when it operated on $855,000.

Kaplan, who has been director for eight years, believes multiple factors have kept The Shalom Institute afloat. However, not to be undervalued are his institution’s great relationships with parent institution JCCGLA, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish Community Foundation.

“Jewish camping has such a great impact on Jewish continuity,” Kaplan said. “Financially, we’ve been more independent. We’re less costly. We’ve grown over the years, and we’ve reinvented ourselves from summer camp into a year-round camping institute.”

Post-recession and Sept. 11, the institute’s elderhostel, which is based in its recently established 24-room Emma Stern building, took a hit in attendance, although it is slowly rebounding.

“After Sept. 11, a lot of people, who come from out of town, weren’t flying — especially senior citizens,” said Joel Charnick, 27, who serves as both assistant director of The Shalom Institute and as director of the Emma Stern Conference and Retreat Center. Nevertheless, Charnick will push forward with developing the Shalom Senior Arts Program, which will offer classes in Jewish humor, theater, dancing and song.

The institute has also seen rises in costs of basic operations. “Our utilities shot through the roof, “Kaplan said. Some of the facilities are aging and require maintenance and repairs. “The reality is those are the costs,” he said. “We’re not making huge profits.”

“Overall, the big impact on us is scholarships,” Kaplan said. “Scholarship requests from kids more than doubled than last year.”

With the Federation’s help, Camp JCA Shalom distributes between $50,000 and $100,000 in scholarships to more than 160 children each year. The scholarships are crucial for many children, since the institute has had to raise tuition fees over the years in order to stay competitive and maintain a quality staff. A two-week session at Camp JCA costs about $1,300 per kid; a four-week session costs $2,600.

The Shalom Institute’s world goes back 51 years. Back then, Camp JCA (which stands for Jewish Community Association, the original acronym for the JCC system) was located at Barton Flats in the San Bernardino Mountains. In 1972, Camp JCA opened its Malibu campus. In 1990, the Barton Flats location was sold, and the Malibu campus became the camp’s primary location, which it remains today. The campus consists of 135 acres nestled within a canyon filled with oak and sycamore trees, and the area is conducive to the institute’s various athletic activities.

In 1997, the institution’s advisory board made a bold move to reinvent itself from Camp JCA Shalom to The Shalom Institute.

The Federation was a crucial player in Shalom’s rebirth a few years back. “They gave us $50,000 per year to help out in scholarships,” Kaplan said. “We’re hoping that they’ll help us again.”

Another reason for Shalom Institute’s feasibility might be Kaplan himself, and the tradition and continuity he has brought to the institution. Kaplan’s history with JCA spans most of his 36 years. Before rising to the position of director, he served as JCA’s assistant camp director for four years.

Since becoming a year-round camping destination, the institute, under Kaplan’s aegis, has become more ambitious in its programming, because he was intent on cultivating “new and innovative ways to attract young Jews.”

Last year, a Murder Mystery Weekend was held for young adults. This year, the institute will develop its Young Adults Getaway Weekend for 21 to 39-year-olds, to be held Labor Day weekend. Singles will be able to mingle as they participate in activities such as rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, and Israeli dancing.”

The Shalom Institute has also partnered with Hillel in its College Campus Initiative, a $552,000 Jewish Community Foundation grant doled out over three years, to involve college students.

“Under Bill’s leadership and Adam Grant, president of the institute’s advisory board, as the lay leader, you have great people involved,” said JCCGLA Executive Vice President Nina Lieberman Giladi. “It’s also vital and successful because there’ve been a lot of healthy initiative with Hillel to do outreach with college people.”

The firsthand experience and personal touch that Kaplan, Charnick and their staff have contributed to Shalom Institute has made JCCGLA’s top brass very happy campers.

“Where it is going is an opportunity for continued growth,” Giladi said. “Bill is treating this as an institute without walls. He has been and will be doing a lot of programming offsite, and I think that it’s an area that we can keep growing.”

For more information, visit The Shalom Institute: Camp and Conference Center at campjcashalom.com and www.shalominstitute.com .

Conquest by Birthrate


A leading Arab think tank is backing an old strategy — to defeat the Jewish State from within by encouraging the growth of its Arab population.

The prime proponent of the conquest-by-demography theory is Wahid Abdel Maguid, chief editor of the Arab Strategic Report, the publication of Egypt’s premier think tank, the Al-Ahram Institute. The institute is part of the group that runs Egypt’s semiofficial newspaper of record, Al-Ahram.

"We are capable of increasing the demographic threat against Israel, if we demonstrate the necessary determination," Maguid declared in a recent interview with the London-based Al-Hayat Arabic newspaper.

Israel’s Arab population is estimated at some 1.2 million, compared with approximately 5 million Israeli Jews.

However, the Arabs’ birthrate is far higher than the Jews’, and Maguid estimates that Israel’s Arab population will equal its Jewish population in 34 years’ time through natural population increase.

Israel, of course, is not unaware of the demographic threat. Israeli surveys also warn of the dangers the Arab birthrate poses to Israel’s nature as a Jewish State, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stresses the need to bring as many Jewish immigrants to Israel as possible.

Maguid outlines a five-pronged strategy for making sure this "population bomb" can be accelerated, thus defeating Israel without another major Arab-Israeli war. Several of these processes already are under way, though not as part of a concerted Arab strategy:

Limit or reverse emigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union. In fact, levels of immigration have fallen sharply from their highs in the early- to mid-1990s;

Bring Arabs living inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders into close alignment with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, encourage them to spurn their identity as Israeli citizens and give them decision-making roles in the anti-Israel campaign. This development, which began with the Oslo peace process and which has been encouraged by the Palestinian Authority, saw its fullest expression in the Israeli Arab riots that accompanied the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in the fall of 2000;

Maintain a continual intifada to discourage Jewish immigration to Israel and encourage Israelis to emigrate;

Build worldwide condemnation of Israel as a "racist" state to prevent Israeli pressure on Arabs to leave Israel or to reduce their birthrate. (This fall’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, was the apex of this effort to date.)

promote an influx of Arabs into pre-1967 Israel through infiltration and marriage. According to Israeli media reports, this is occurring now.

Maguid proposes that future anti-Israeli actions be spearheaded by Arab citizens of Israel, and be coordinated with the Palestinians and other Arab states.

He believes that Arab infiltrators into Israel should focus on marrying Israeli Arabs, making it virtually impossible for Israel to expel the illegal immigrants — at least without opening itself to charges of racism.

The population battle already has been joined, though not yet in the organized way Maguid advocates. According to Israeli estimates, more than 50,000 Arabs have moved into Israel since the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

They are mainly Palestinians, Jordanians and Egyptians who enter Israel to find work, and take up residence in Israeli Arab communities. Security sources claim that some have carried out or supported acts of terror, and some are believed to be agents of the Palestinian Authority.

A key battleground of the future may be in the field of aliyah. One plank of the new Arab strategy should be undermining Israeli aliyah efforts, Maguid argues.

He urges Arabs to meet with candidates for immigration to Israel — especially in the ex-Soviet states — and tell them that living in Israel will present more daily hardships and security threats than they currently experience.

This is hardly new, however, as the Arabs and Palestinians mounted a fierce — though unsuccessful — propaganda effort to persuade ex-Soviet leaders not to allow Jewish emigration in the early 1990s.

Key to discouraging aliyah will be continuing the intifada, Maguid says. He also recommends stressing the feelings of "marginalization and disappointment" that some Russian immigrants reportedly feel.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon constantly stresses his commitment to Jewish immigration from the Diaspora, often talking of bringing 1 million more Jews to Israel in coming decades, especially from the former Soviet Union, South America and South Africa.

The Palestinian Authority also recognizes the importance to Israel of immigration. Its spokesman condemned Sharon’s proposal for increased immigration as a "powder-keg" likely to set off a new explosion in the tense region — even as the Palestinian Authority insists that some 4 to 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants be granted a "right of return" to homes they left in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.

The Palestinian Authority statement expressed fears that new Jewish immigrants could be placed in settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but Maguid’s fear is that — even if settled within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, as are the vast majority of immigrants — these immigrants would help Israel maintain a Jewish majority.

Both Sharon and Maguid would agree on one thing: To the winner of the population battle will go control of the state. Should the Arabs become the majority within Israel, Maguid has no doubt about the type of state that would be imposed.

"Palestine can be made Arab again — Arab, and not binational — Arab Palestine," he writes. In a new, Arab-dominated state, those Jews who wished to remain, could live "strong and respected under the umbrella of our Arab culture," he proposes.

Israel: Land of Sustainable Growth?


The captains of Israel’s economy told world economic leaders at the annual conference of the International Monetary Fund last month that Israel’s sluggish economy is set for a revival after a three-year slowdown.

Rosy government forecasts have been backed by a series of recent reports issued by leading financial analysts, who see Israel’s economy pulling out of the slowdown that has pushed unemployment up to nearly 9 percent since 1997.

But at the same time, some economic experts are warning that despite signs of an upturn, the prospects of Israel enjoying sustainable long-term growth are unlikely without a serious change in the composition of the budget and the political framework that creates it.

Speaking to the Ha’aretz daily newspaper from the Washington conference, Avraham Shohat, Israel’s finance minister, said he believes Israel has turned the corner.

“One cannot say for sure that we have already reached rapid growth,” Shohat said. “I feel that we’re passed the lowest point. It depends on a lot of factors but there are definitely positive indicators.”

Shohat said he believes the economy will grow at about 3 percent next year. Israel’s gross domestic product — the total amount of goods and services produced in an economy and a standard measure of economic growth — grew only about 2 percent in both 1997 and 1998, and a mere 0.3 percent during the first half of this year. In contrast, the gross domestic product grew at a rapid rate of about 6 percent a year during the mid-1990s.

Shohat’s optimism was confirmed by reports released last week by Salomon Smith Barney and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, two leading investment banks, which argued that Israel’s credit ratings should be raised. These ratings are measures of an economy’s overall status and stability, and higher ratings can help a country raise funds at lower interest rates.

Both reports cited Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s recent election, and his determination to forge regional peace and to maintain stable economic policies. Salomon Smith Barney said Israel’s leaders have decided “that the country’s future lies in deeper and broader integration with the world economy” and praised the government’s “commitment to prudent economic policies and structural reforms.”

The reports were referring to the Israeli Cabinet’s decision to approve a budget for the year 2000 based on cuts of about $1.4 billion to projected spending for next year. This allayed fears that Shochat, who served as finance minister under the previous Labor-led government from 1992 to 1996, would continue his previous policy of high government spending, which fuels inflation.

However, when Knesset members and ministers returned from their Sukkot vacations, the annual slugfest over the budget promptly began. The budget must be approved by year’s end.

This, say some critics, is the real problem. Even if the budget framework is reasonable, they say, political pressures prevent a distribution of funds to sectors that can give a boost to the economy and create jobs. The way to boost growth, they say, is not a matter of how much is spent, but how it is spent.

For example, government investment in public works projects such as roads and infrastructure is considered a key to economic revival.

Although the government has pledged to increase such spending, it is still unclear to what extent this will be reflected in the budget.

Pinchas Landau, a veteran Israeli economic commentator, said the current Israeli political system, in which every faction fights for funds without considering the bigger picture, has created a “warped and flawed” budget composition in which Israeli government expenditures will always rise — and in the wrong directions.

In the long term, he said, this will be unsustainable: “Either it will just roll on until it blows up — and that is the more likely scenario — or there will be a change in the focus of the government.”