Israel invites you to pedal with purpose, hike for hope


Three years ago, Betsy Diamant-Cohen had a double knee replacement. Once healed, the Baltimore resident got on a bicycle and slowly built up her strength to the point that she recently flew to Israel to participate in a cycling fundraiser for the Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (arava.org) trains Jews and Arabs to be environmental leaders, and Hazon (hazon.org) is America’s largest Jewish environmental group. Diamant-Cohen, a 57-year-old literacy expert, said she decided to participate in the ride supporting the two organizations after her husband, Stuart, did so a year earlier. 

“He came home so enthusiastic that I decided I wanted to go with him this year,” she said. “We trained ahead of time by riding on weekends to build up endurance and muscles. But I kept reminding myself what I had been told: It’s a ride, not a race, so I didn’t push myself to exhaustion.” 

As the popularity of physically demanding fundraisers has grown dramatically in Israel during the past decade, so too has the number of participants over the age of 50, some of whom travel to Israel expressly to take part in the events.  

Diamant-Cohen said she took advantage of the option to sit out some of the tougher hills on the ride, thanks to the air-conditioned bus that accompanied the cyclists throughout their journey in southern Israel. The riders could enter the bus whenever they chose. 

“I’m proud of myself for completing the journey, exhilarated at having ridden downhill to the Arava desert, glad to have raised money for causes I believe in, and a deep sense of kinship with the other riders,” she said. 

Diamant-Cohen and her husband together raised a total of $11,395.

She said the fundraiser “allowed me to experience Israel in a way I have never experienced it before. I shared a unique experience with my husband, and I used the bike ride as an opportunity to come back to Israel to visit my friends and relatives.” 

Israel’s most successful sports fundraiser is Wheels of Love (alynride.org), the annual charity bike ride on behalf of ALYN Hospital, Israel’s only pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation center. Last month, 700 riders, including many from abroad, took part in the strenuous five-day ALYN bike ride, as well as shorter routes. This year’s event has so far raised $2.44 million “with money still coming in,” said Erez Ezrachi, director of Wheels of Love. 

Each participant commits to raising a minimum of $2,500, though many raise more than $5,000, and, as with other physically demanding events, must bring a doctor’s note certifying they are healthy enough to participate. They must also have health insurance. This year’s riders ranged from age 14 to 81, but Ezrachi said the average age of the participants was just over 50.

“Riders who have participated for years are getting older, so our average age is rising. But it’s also true that people in their 40s and 50s are more aware of their responsibility to the community, more philanthropic than their younger counterparts, and that’s who we tend to attract,” he said.

Thomas Shipley, 53, who lives in Demarest, N.J., raised a total of $22,000 during ALYN’s last two bike rides. He chose the most difficult on-road route: 350 miles, including the hilly Negev desert, from the great Ramon Crater to Eilat and then to the hospital in Jerusalem.  

As the cyclists reached the hospital’s finish line, “We were greeted by the staff and the volunteers dancing and singing,” Shipley recalled. “The children were beating drums. We couldn’t help but feel the emotion.” 

Mark Render, 62, is both a founder of and participant in the Hike for Hope, an event that has, over the past decade, raised more than $300,000 for Tsad Kadima (A Step Forward), a rehabilitation organization for children, adolescents and young adults with cerebral palsy and other motor dysfunctions. The annual event offers both extreme and newbie hikers a choice of routes. Several of the organization’s young beneficiaries participate in some of the hikes, often in wheelchairs. 

“We started with 10 hikers and now we have 45,” Render said. “We are a small but very motivated group and have a lot of fun on the hike together.” 

Render, a Jerusalemite whose daughter has cerebral palsy, said about 60 percent of the hikers are over 50. 

“Many are personal friends who come back year after year,” he said. “But aside from the personal connection, hiking is a physically challenging activity that brings a tremendous feeling of achievement and can be enjoyed well over the age of 50. Together with the younger hikers, we feel we make a difference in the kids’ lives.”

Andrew Eisen, 52, from Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., said his past participation in a fundraising walk for AKIM, an organization that serves intellectually disabled Israeli children and adults, and more recent participation in ALYN’s Wheels of Love, has given him “an emotional high.”

“It’s wonderful working together with so many for the good of Israel as a people, and physically it is wonderful to challenge myself in ways that I enjoy. Were it not dressed in the clothing of assisting others, I would not find the time to do it,” he said.

Eisen, who lived in Israel from 1997 to 2004, said traveling to Israel for a fundraiser presents only one problem: “I suffer each time I have to leave.” 


2015 fundraiser sampler:

  • Hike for Hope: March 11-12
  • Wheels of Love: Oct. 25-29
  • Arava Institute and Hazon Israel Ride: Oct. 27-Nov. 3

VideoJew’s VideoGuide to L.A. #5–Jew vs. Wild


VideoJew Jay Firestone goes native in this episode of VideoJew’s VideoGuide to Los Angeles

Baja community begins where the land ends


Waves rush over a pebbled beach as the tensions of city life melt away. The Mexican sun hangs languidly overhead, bleaching colorful kayaks stacked along the shoreline. Hovering far off in the deep blue skies, parasailors are dwarfed by the arriving Carnival cruise ship that will soon drop anchor off the rocky coast.
 
It’s easy to understand why celebrities like John Wayne, Desi Arnaz and Bing Crosby were drawn here — yet kept it a secret for nearly 20 years after the 1956 opening of The Palmilla, the area’s first resort catering to sportfishing enthusiasts.
 
Located at the tip of Baja California, Cabo San Lucas is at the western end of what has become a 20-mile corridor of hotels and gated communities known collectively as Los Cabos, bookended in the east by the airport-adjacent town of San José del Cabo. The tiny fishing village has given way to beaches lined with luxury hotels and a notorious nightlife, but the laid-back seaside attitude still hangs in region’s salty air.
 
World-class golf courses, sportfishing, scuba diving, horseback riding, hiking and desert tours are all popular draws, as Cabo enjoys 350 days of sun annually. From December to April, gray whales migrate here to calve their young, and this year’s addition of the Cabo Dolphins center to the Cabo San Lucas marina adds the opportunity for visitors to swim with Pacific bottlenose dolphins (reservations are required).
 
Since tourism continues to boom here, drawing upward of 1 million guests each year, construction projects are part of the backdrop along the corridor, much like the Vegas Strip.
 
Many of the 100,000 permanent residents are retirees from north of the border, so this decidedly Mexican resort destination has an increasingly American sensibility. A plethora of U.S. retail chains and restaurants — including Johnny Rockets and Hard Rock Cafe — have set up shop in area malls and shopping centers, and even lox is now readily available at the local Costco.
 
Once the secret of Cabo was out, it seemed that there were few surprises left. But in the last year a very visible and increasingly vibrant Jewish community is taking shape where the land meets the sea.
 
While the exact number of Jews living here is not known, a communitywide Passover seder earlier this year at the Villa Del Palmar attracted more than 100 guests, and Shabbat services on the last weekend of each month routinely draws between 30 to 50 people to a donated third-floor space in the contemporary Puerto Paraiso shopping center.
 
Los Cabos is such a boomtown it has few natives. Jews attending community events hail from all over — America, Israel, Argentina, South Africa and other Mexican states. But the diversity has led to some communication problems.
 
“Israelis here don’t speak Spanish, and some Argentineans don’t speak English. So there’s no one language [that we have] in common,” said Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, who has conducted religious services in Cabo San Lucas over the last year. “When I give a dvar Torah, I don’t know what language to use. I do half English and half Spanish usually.”
 
Polichenco, director of Chula Vista-based Chabad Without Borders, says U.S., Israeli and Argentinean employees at Diamonds International have been spreading word about the religious services, as well as Adriana Kenlan, an English news broadcaster on Cabo Mil Radio.
 
But the person he credits with being at the forefront of Jewish organizing in Los Cabos is David Greenberg of Senor Greenberg’s Mexicatessen.
 
Greenberg, a 37-year-old L.A. native who grew up in the Conservative movement, came to Los Cabos in January 1992 to consider whether he would attend law school and never left. He knocked around in construction and restaurant management jobs and spent three years as a consular agent for the U.S. State Department. But after meeting Jim Sutter, the two became business partners and decided to open an upscale New York-style deli together in Cabo San Lucas. After getting pointers from Art Ginsburg of Art’s Deli in Studio City, the pair opened the first Senor Greenberg’s in the Plaza Nautica in October 1997, followed by a second location at Puerto Paraiso in September 2004.

“Next thing I know, I’ve got another restaurant, I’m married, I have a son,” said Greenberg, whose Mazatlan-born wife, Karla, converted through the University of Judaism.
 
As if his life wasn’t busy enough already with 11-month-old Joshua and a third Senor Greenberg’s scheduled to open this month in Plaza Gali near Cabo Dolphins, Greenberg is working hard to establish a Jewish presence in Cabo.
 
Real estate developer José Galicot, who is based out of San Diego and Tijuana, has provided the funds for Polichenco’s visits, he said. But that money was only intended as a stopgap and will dry up at the end of this year.
 
“It’s going to be up to us to see it through to 2007,” said Greenberg, who added that he expects developing a self-sufficient community here will be challenging.
 
Securing a permanent space at Puerto Paraiso for the Baja Jewish Community Center is the next step, he said. Hebrew classes, as well as Spanish lessons for Israelis, will be offered there, in addition to religious services. As far as future spiritual leadership, Greenberg hopes to track down a retired rabbi who would want to spend Jewish holidays in Cabo. And then there’s the matter of finding a Torah that would be stored at the center.
 
A Torah scroll already exists in Los Cabos, at the five-star Marquis Los Cabos, some 20 minutes east of Cabo San Lucas, where Mexico City-based proprietor Jose Kalach has set up a prayer room in his hotel, complete with a small ark. But the Torah is intended primarily for the Kalach family’s personal use. Hotel guests and wedding parties can use it, but a written request must be filed with the hotel at least one month prior. Since the sanctuary is attached to a conference room, scheduling conflicts can make availability less certain.
 
Opened in 2003, this Condé Nast gold list hotel was designed by Jewish Mexican architect Jacobo Micha, who modeled the hotel’s open-air arch entrance after El Arco, or the Arch of Poseidon, a famous 200-foot natural passageway at the tip of the Baja peninsula that travelers can walk through at low tide. Statues of winged angels stand at the ready in the hotel’s entrance and throughout the property (photo below).

God Was With Us That Night in the Negev


Our bus driver Boris had been navigating the roads of the Negev for at least an hour when the whole bus suddenly shook, rattled and rolled. As we gazed out the window, we saw that Boris had left the road. All we saw was rock, dust and a little more rock. It took about two more hours of off-road driving for us to reach our destination for the night.

I stepped off the bus and asked our counselor, “Where is the bathroom?”
“Follow me and I will demonstrate,” she said. “Girls to those rocks on the left, boys to the right.” Enough said.

I had just arrived in Israel that week for a four-week tour with 34 other California teens in Group Three of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) summer Israel program. And we were about to spend three nights in the middle of the Negev Desert with nothing but food and sleeping bags — definitely a sight to see.

Not only did we do it, but so did 12 other NFTY groups in Israel this summer, and we would soon find out that the experience of sleeping on our ancestors’ land would set the tone for our whole trip.

We unloaded the materials from the bus including dishes, food supplies, sleeping bags and our own personal bags. Once dinner was made and served, our group began to gather for Maariv, the evening prayer service.

This was by far the most spiritual moment in my life. I gazed up at the stars as I chanted the V’Ahavta prayer with amazing new friends, standing around the same rocks that our people had wandered past thousands of years before. My eyes couldn’t help but tear up as we moved on to the Mi Chamocha, the song of freedom. At that moment I felt as though God truly was with us.

We ended the night with our usual closing circle, where we sang Hashkiveinu and the Shema, with the words: “Keep us safe throughout the night, until we wake with morning’s light.” But that night, I felt as though we didn’t even need to ask for safety, that this ground and these mountains would keep us safe.

As morning woke us with its light, we found ourselves at the beginning of a long day of hiking in the Negev and then swimming in Eilat.

On our last day camping out, Boris took us to a Bedouin tent. We were warmly welcomed and introduced to the interesting Bedouin culture. We experienced their music, cultural food and hospitality — especially when they invited us to use the tent’s bathrooms, equipped with actual showers. I would have to say that the next task might have been even harder then the previous day’s four-hour hike. This was the situation: four showers, 20 girls, 30 minutes.

That night I was in a Bedouin tent celebrating Shabbat like I never had done before. This was our third and final night sleeping on the ground of the Negev, so we were both excited and upset.

The next day we arrived at Kibbutz Yahel near Eilat. Our tour guide, Sivan, took us on a very short hike on the outskirts of the Kibbutz. As we all sat in a circle in the middle of two mountains — a lot like our accommodations for the past three nights — Ellie Klein, our madrich, shared some words that I will never forget. She told us that by successfully making it through this Negev experience, whether we knew it our not, we had already changed and grown.

This campout was our chance to be with the land of Israel, nothing else. Just the land with all of its components. Through the tasks that we had completed and the experiences we had, we had assured ourselves that we could do it again.

Ellie asked us to grab a rock and gather them all in a pile in the center of our circle. I found a rock and felt the firmness of it and dropped it in the center, feeling as though I had just left a piece of myself in the desert. Not only a piece of myself, but a newly grown, solid and firm me. The words she said about us and the natural land still echoes in my mind because I really felt that for those few days, I was at my true quintessential state — and so was the Land of Israel.

We left the rocks in a clump on the ground as we made our way back to Kibbutz Yahel. This experience was the start of a treasured summer traveling with the most incredible people. I was finding my true Jewish identity not only among the historical sights, but among the millions of rocks that make up Eretz Yisrael.

Daniella Kaufman is an 11th grader at New Community Jewish High School.

Spice Up Pesachat Ixtapa Club Med


Kayaking, catamarans and savory kabobs are all on the menu at the kosher Club Med program in Ixtapa, Mexico. The weather is warm, the sunsets are spectacular and the meals are to “live for.”

Raphael Bellehsen of New York-based Le Voyage Travel is the brains behind the program, which is supervised glatt kosher and all-inclusive of meals and beverages, accommodations, two kinds of seders, two full restaurants and a tea room. There are also daily minyanim, sports activities, a children's club and evening entertainment. Even taxes and gratuities are included.

Bellehsen is once again offering a glatt kosher Passover program April 11-24. Based on a wonderful week I once spent at Club Med Ixtapa, it should make for a terrific holiday.

With perfect weather and good company, it was easy to retreat to this tropical, epicurean heaven. As a single traveler, I felt completely at home at this “three-trident family village.” (That's Club Med lingo for a resort roughly ranked at four stars plus.)

My days were mostly filled with water sports. My nights were reserved for leisurely dinners and deep sleep, lulled by the sound of the ocean crashing just a few hundred yards from my air-conditioned room.

Each morning, we awoke to a sumptuous kosher buffet: huevos rancheros (scrambled eggs with or without Mexican spices) omelets to order fried over a grill, freshly baked treats, perfectly ripe Mexican papaya and other fruits, brie, goat cheese and other dairy delicacies, fresh fruit smoothies and juices — and more.

Lunches and dinner, either dairy or meat, always included an extensive selection of elaborate dishes based on various themes. On Mexican night, we dined on delicious fish, chicken and meat dishes; various salads, and more. Specialties on the Asian-Pacific menu included melt-in-your-mouth sashimi, sushi and chicken.

Middle Eastern fare included a knockout Moroccan-style fish, prime rib in a mushroom and wine sauce, tuna steak or chicken kabobs.

The specialties just kept coming: fantastic beef bourguinonne, duck ? l'orange, succulent osso bucco lamb and on Shabbat, an authentic cholent.

Meats and fish were grilled over a flame as part of the buffet, and fish was served at every lunch or dinner, whether dairy or meat. There was also no shortage of kid favorites: hamburgers, fries and more.

Thankfully there were plenty of opportunities to burn off excess calories. One day I joined a combination hiking and snorkeling excursion to nearby Las Gatas. After a bus ride to the marina in Ixtapa, we boated to a picturesque beach and hiked through a beautiful reserve overlooking a lighthouse and majestic cliffs. Once we hit the water snorkeling, I was thrilled to ID a spotted boxfish, a colorful parrotfish and plenty of dark-blue damselfish.

Afterward, we dined on kosher bag lunches the staff brought along from Club Med and plenty of frosty mineral water, Coke and Fresca. Another day, I swam with bottlenose dolphins at nearby Delfiniti (www.delfiniti.com). Restricted to a large pool and supervised by a trainer, the opportunities to interact with the dolphins are nearly constant.

There was still plenty of time for kayaking, sailing catamarans, ocean swims and snorkeling at a nearby island frequented by bright barber fish, camouflage-colored balloon fish and spotted puffers. Other activities include in-line skating, archery, tennis and flying trapeze. (Lessons are included for all of these activities.)

Bring plenty of small bills or change money at Club Med's reception desk for all the beachside fun. Vendors offer boogie board rentals, massage and rides to a nearby island, where you can bring your own snorkeling equipment or rent for about $10. Access to a magnificent coral reef with terrific snorkeling is free to the public. The current is strong, so consider opting for the life jacket included in your snorkel rental.

Prices for the Pesach program vary based on the number of nights. For the basic program, April 12-21, rates are per person, based on double occupancy: $2,675, adults; $1,745, teens, 12-15; $1,565, children, 4-11; $998, children 2-3; $120, infants. Required insurance is $40 per adult and $30 per child.

Additional fees are charged for connecting rooms, as well as supervised Petit/Baby Club children's programming, which requires advance reservations. Excursions and Internet access are also extra.

Lisa Alcalay Klug was hosted by Club Med and her air travel was provided by Mexicana Airlines.

For more information or reservation, contact Le Voyage Travel at (877) 452-8744 or visit them online at

A Torah Trek to Find a ‘God Moment’


It’s a Sunday afternoon in midwinter Los Angeles, the sun is sparkling, the temperature is perfect, I’m in one of the most beautiful settings anyone can imagine, and I’m supposed to be talking to God. I’m sitting alone in a lush, grassy field near a rustling brook, mountains surround me, birds are chirping, the smells of nature are excellent and all I can think of is whether I should eat that last bit of leftover lunch that I still have in my backpack.

It is an especially untimely moment to be pondering such a mundane question, because on this day, I’ve joined 14 adults on a daylong excursion in Malibu Creek State Park led by Rabbi Mike Comins, who runs Torah Trek, Spiritual Wilderness Adventures. Whether it’s a one-day exercise for first-timers — like ours is — or a multiday meditative adventure, the idea is to spend time studying Torah, reading, thinking, meditating and seeking a “God experience,” as Comins calls it. We are now at the ultimate moment of the day, the portion called “hitbodedut,” which translates from the Hebrew as “to be alone.”

So I’m on my own, tackling the task of connecting to God, and I’m doing just about anything but. The act of meditation, never my strength, seems particularly contrived for me on this day. Add God to the mix, and my sense of failure multiplies.

A soft wind blows across my face, ruffling my hair ever so slightly. Is that God? A blue jay flits, determined in its search for some unknowable purpose. Is that? I watch as a small biplane flies overhead, and I’m sure that its passengers are feeling more awe than I am, but are they having a close-to-God experience? Up in the sky, do we feel more spiritual? Is it easier to feel God’s presence when we’re above everyone else?

OK, I’ve got about another 20 minutes of solitude to go. So far, I must be completely off track.

I live in the heart of urban Los Angeles in a house that looks out on urban sprawl, with a view, too, of the much-utilized Griffith Park. There is no silence in the city, but I’ve grown used to that. There are trees and a little grass, but not much in my neighborhood. I appreciate the beauty of our Southern California climate, but I rarely feel the transcendence of nature in my daily life. In honor of Tu b’Shevat, in hopes of connecting to a greater sense of our natural world, I’ve come on this hike.

Comins believes that Jewish practice has lost its connection to our ancestors’ roots, which lie, as we all know, in the Torah but also in the connection of the Torah itself to nature, even to the wilderness. Yet, for most of us, as Comins explains at the start of the day, the essential experience of Judaism has become a series of stories and edicts, rather than an experience or a communing. So, through trial and error, and in concert with a small community of fellow spiritual naturalists, he’s attempting to connect the dots.

“If you ask people where they are likely to find a ‘God moment,’ they say in nature,” Comins says in his introduction to the day, which began at 9:30 a.m. with the group of us sitting on dewy grass at the entry to the wilderness park. “If we have this arena where the issue of God is not contrived, and, at the same time, our greatest challenge in Jewish education is finding God, then one plus one is two.”

Comins, 49, grew up in Studio City; he had a classic suburban childhood interspersed with regular family camping trips to Yosemite. When he decided to make aliyah and moved to Israel, he says, he initially considered his backpacking career a thing of the past. He studied to become a Reform rabbi in Israel, and as he sat in front of a library computer screen for days on end, working on his thesis, he says, “I felt less and less God in my life.”

” target=”_blank”>www.torahtrek.com.

 

A Desert High in Palm Springs


While nearby flatlands warm under perfect 60-degree winter weather, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway transports visitors to a pristine snow-covered forest. In just 10 minutes, this aerial tram carries passengers nearly 6,000 feet. The beautiful 14,000 acres of Mount San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness area are among the most visit-worthy in this heavily tourist destination.

As you ride in the world’s largest rotating cars of the Aerial Tramway, the flora and fauna include everything one would see driving from the hot Sonora Desert of Mexico to the Transitional (alpine) Zone of Alaska. The highlights read like entries from a naturalist guide. From the main road nearest the tram, Highway 111, to the tram station, this green cienega, or Spanish marsh, nurtures cottonwood, sycamore, wild grape, mesquite and native Washingtonia filifera palm trees. Barrel cactus, cholla, prickly pear and yucca grow amid springtime wildflowers, including lupine, Canterbury bells and sunflowers.

Desert bighorn sheep, kit and gray foxes, bobcats, coyotes and ringtail raccoons also make their home here. As the tram climbs, wild apricot trees stand amid metamorphic rock, gneisses and schists. Deer and mountain lion roam among chaparral. And as the elevation rises, evergreens, firs and oaks thin as the peak approaches.

At the top of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, there are a host of trails — including a three-quarters of a mile loop through picturesque Long Valley, just behind the Mountain Station that introduces visitors to regional plants and animals. A much longer path, at 5.5 miles, leads to the peak of Mount San Jacinto, the second-tallest mountain in Southern California at 10,834 feet.

The ideal tram departure time is just before sunset. The reversible 80-passenger cars revolve slowly from within, making two rotations and offering spectacular views. One popular option: capping off the day with a drink in the Top of the Tram Restaurant and the Elevations Restaurant while admiring the city lights below.

Erected in 1963, nearly 30 years after its inception, the tramway was named an engineering “wonder of the world” for its ingenious use of helicopters in erecting four of five support towers; 23,000 flight missions were required to carry workers, supplies and materials for the towers and the Mountain Station.

During the summer, the mercury reaches well into the 100s in Palm Springs, but the mountain offers more than 54 miles of hiking trails, camping and guided nature walks, at almost 40 degrees cooler.

Another day, my father and I opted to hike closer to sea level at nearby Palm Canyons. This ancient home of the band of Cahuilla (Agua Caliente) Indians boasts palms that are 200 years old, many of them with the natural foliage skirts that are removed on commercial palms. These layers of dried branches encircle the trunk-like structure of these trees, which technically are massive grasses rather than trees.

We learned these facts and more by joining a guided tour with Rocky, a native Hawaiian who turned tribal ranger after serving 20 years in the Marine Corps and 10 volunteering with the San Bernadino Police Department as a rescue tracker. His desert survival skills make him a perfect guide. Rocky showed us all the edibles and how the native peoples prepared acorns, made their homes and harvested the sweet date palm fruit growing high overhead.

We wandered amid giant palms, verdant grasses and a warm, picturesque creek that smelled of sulfur due to a high mineral content. Rocky pointed out one tiny, creek-side impression where a native family would have once ground their acorns (five such mini-ditches appear in rocks throughout the canyon).

In contrast to our inspiring, mellow days of hiking, one evening we attended the raucous “Palm Springs Follies,” a Rockette-style music and dance of the 1930s and ’40s with performers old enough to have lived it. Amazingly youthful seniors age 56 to 86 strut their stuff in between international vaudeville acts from November through May.

Jewish impresario Riff Markowitz, a former television producer, serves as emcee for this three-hour extravaganza, leading the audience through a show peppered with Jewish jokes — even a few relating to travel.

At one point he turned his attention to the holiday of Thanksgiving, saying no Jews were aboard the Mayflower.

“Do you know why?” he asked. “There were no first-class seats.”

The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is located at One Tramway
Road. The cost is about $20. Tramcars depart every half hour from 10 a.m. to 8
p.m. For more information, call (888) 515-TRAM or visit “>www.psfollies.com .

Mothers’ March


A single mother’s 120-mile hike to protest Israeli government cuts in social welfare benefits has captivated public and media attention and spawned similar pilgrimages in the country.

The growing tent encampment set up by Mitzpe Ramon resident Vicky Knafo and her comrades on the sidewalk across from the Finance Ministry building in Jerusalem is becoming a site for supporters and well-wishers. Some observers, though, question whether the single mothers will be able to translate their campaign into a political force capable of affecting economic policy.

The protests are in response to budget cuts pushed by Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The cuts are aimed at liberalizing and jump-starting Israel’s economy.

The economy — hurt by nearly three years of violence with the Palestinians — has shrunk 1 percent annually the last two years, and unemployment is approaching a record 11 percent.

Knafo, a 43-year-old mother of three, embarked on her weeklong trek from the Negev town of Mitzpe Ramon to Jerusalem to protest government cuts to income supplements, which she said represent the difference between subsistence and starvation for single mothers.

The gravelly voiced, curly headed Knafo said she was propelled by her personal need. Her undertaking inspired other women — and some men — to set off on similar pilgrimages.

Among those who made their way to Jerusalem were Ilana Azulai, an Arad resident accompanied by her 17-year-old wheelchair-bound son, as well as Aliza Ezra, a mother of three, who walked from Shlomi in the Upper Galilee.

Describing the economic hardships the women face, Ezra said her National Insurance Institute allowance last month was cut from less than $800 to under $600. "I don’t know what to pay first, food, electricity, water or the telephone," she told the daily newspaper Ha’aretz.

The number of families who will be affected by the cuts is significant. According to the National Insurance Institute, 112,000 single-parent families, with children up to age 21, live in Israel. About 64 percent receive some form of state support.

Ha’aretz reported that 87,000 single-parent mothers with children up to age 17 live in Israel. About 76 percent of them work outside the home.

As the grass-roots movement gathers steam, the Treasury has tried to stress that the aim of the measures is to shift the emphasis on income support away from welfare and toward job incentives.

Netanyahu recently unveiled a plan aimed at helping single mothers return to work. The proposal included providing grants for up to one year for women who work at least one-third of the time. The plan also calls for generating employment for the single mothers through public works projects. Some of the plan’s most severe austerity measures will be cuts in income supplements for working mothers earning the minimum wage.

Critics said that the grants are only short-term solutions, while the stipends would continue to be cut, and that the job incentives are also temporary.

Knafo, who is employed, rejected what she said were efforts by the Treasury to paint single mothers as parasites who prefer welfare to work.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon gave his backing July 20 to Netanyahu’s efforts and did not open a Cabinet discussion on the protest. The single mothers did appear to get a sympathetic ear, though, from President Moshe Katsav, who met with a delegation the same day and listened to their plight.

Katsav said he raised the matter with Netanyahu, who repeated his offer to have the ministry’s director general meet with the demonstrators — a proposal the protesters have previously rejected, Israel Radio reported.