Committee to review protesters’ demands set up after mass demonstration


Israel’s prime minister established a committee to examine the demands of leaders of the social justice protest movement following one of the largest demonstrations in Israel’s history.

An estimated 300,000 demonstrators protesting the rising costs of living gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday night, with another 20,000 protesting in Jerusalem, and several thousand others in cities throughout the country. It was the third such demonstration – and the largest –  since the protests began more than three weeks ago. Protesters chanted, among other slogans,  “The people demand social justice” and “An entire generation demands a future.”

Israeli musicians Shlomo Artzi, Rita and Yehudit Ravitz entertained the demonstrators, who also heard speeches from Daphne Leef, founder of the movement, and Rabbi Benny Lau, founder of the Beit Morasha social justice institute.

“If I could I would show you how people have demanded social justice since the origin of Judaism,” Lau told the crowd Saturday night.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday morning announced the formation of a 15-member professional committee to review the demands of the social justice movement and to submit proposals for social and economic reform in the next month. The committee is headed by Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, chairman of the National Economic Council, and made up of Cabinet ministers, observers and economic experts.

Protest leaders have already decried the committee, saying that they are looking for direct dialogue with Netanyahu.

Netanyahu announced the formation of the committee on Sunday, at the start of the regular weekly Cabinet meeting.

“We are aware of the fact that working couples with children are finding it difficult to finish the month. We recognize the plight of students who cannot pay their rent. We are aware of the distress of the residents of neighborhoods, of discharged soldiers and others. We want to provide genuine solutions,” Netanyahu said.

He acknowledged that the committee’s proposals will not please everybody but pledged: “We will listen to everyone. We will speak with everyone. We will hold a genuine dialogue, not pressured and perfunctory, but we will really listen both to the distress and to the proposals for solutions. In the end, we will consider practical solutions. Practical solutions require choices. They also require balance.”

Food prices squeeze Israel’s needy


TEL AVIV (JTA) – It’s mid-afternoon and Michael Dahan is buying food for his first meal of the day. With rising food prices compounding his already dire economic situation, it has become his habit to skip meals, he admits.

“What can I do?” the unemployed 49-year-old says with a shrug, holding the small carton of milk he has just bought at a grocery store in the rundown Shapira neighborhood of south Tel Aviv. “I hardly have anything to get by on once I’ve paid rent and utilities.”

A block away, on a sidewalk strewn with cigarette butts and plastic bags, Maria Arnov, 28, an immigrant from Latvia and mother of two, says food prices have changed the way she shops. Arnov goes to the store less often and cuts corners wherever she can, like buying cheaper frozen meat and not buying the type of rice her family favors because its price has doubled in the past three months.

Israel, like many parts of the world, has seen food staples such as meat, rice and vegetables rise significantly. Its poor, already struggling to make ends meet, have been hardest hit—along with the nonprofit groups that serve them.

Although it is rare for Israelis to go hungry, food insecurity is a growing problem in their nation as traditional social safety nets fall short and nearly a quarter of Israeli families find themselves subsisting on less nutritious diets than before.

Many of the nonprofit groups that deliver food to the needy say they have been reeling from the one-two punch of rising prices and a sinking dollar.

In Israel, groups that rely in large part on funds raised in the United States have been forced by the dollar’s plunge to cut back on services, sometimes reducing the number of families they serve by as much as 40 percent.

In Beersheva, the social assistance group Beit Moriah has had to reduce the number of food packages it delivers to families every month to 200, down from 500 last year.

At From the Heart, an organization in Rishon LeZion that runs a food distribution project called Lev Chesed, volunteers are overwhelmed by requests they cannot meet.

“We have several hundred people on our waiting lists, but it’s not financially possible to help them,” said Ronen Ziv, the director of the group, which provides food packages to 700 families per week. “We have no government assistance.”

With budgets becoming leaner, government officials for the first time are pushing to develop a policy to combat food insecurity. The first-ever interministerial report on the subject was completed recently, and legislation is pending in the Knesset for a new council on food security to be created to develop coordinated policies to tackle the problem.

The ministerial report, which is pending Cabinet approval, recommends increasing annual state funding for nutrition and food insecurity to $10 million to $15 million from the current $1 million.

“There needs to be an appropriate range of government responses, from funding food assistance programs, to reducing state Value Added Tax on staple foods, to ensuring that having basic foods is seen as a right for all Israelis,” said Batya Kallus, the director of the Forum to Address Food Insecurity and Poverty in Israel.

The forum, which conducts research, engineered the establishment of Leket, Israel’s first national food bank.

Established last year, Leket is based on the model of U.S. community food banks. It attempts to coordinate and streamline the efforts of many nonprofit food agencies. In the past decade the number of such groups has grown to about 400, which collectively distribute some 20,000 tons of food per year.

“What we have been seeing in purchasing food to be donated is that people are paying a huge range of prices, from rock bottom to retail,” Kallus said. “We have tried to make sense of that by creating a central purchasing division where organizations can come to Leket and we offer them a wide basket of foods they can purchase that we offer at the lowest possible prices.”

In a 2003 study on food insecurity in Israel commissioned by Leket from the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, researchers found that some 22 percent of Israelis are unable to provide for their basic nutritional needs on a daily basis.

A father of eight in Jerusalem whose family has slipped into poverty after emigrating from the United States many years ago says he lives with food insecurity every day.

“When there is food we are happy, when there isn’t we are not,” said the man, who asked not to be identified. “It’s not a matter of decision-making. When there’s just no money, there is no food.”

He says there are days when the family goes without food.

Ido Nachum, a spokesman for Israel’s welfare ministry, says he hopes the interministerial report’s recommendations will be adopted, including increased state investment and oversight of nonprofits, the establishment of the national council on food insecurity, expanding a hot lunch program for schoolchildren and ensuring government subsidies for those who cannot afford to feed their families adequately.

Far from the corridors of national decision-making, Dahan, the unemployed man in south Tel Aviv, shuffles away with his small bag of provisions, hoping for better days.

Falling dollar hurts seniors in former Soviet Union


MOSCOW (JTA) — From its perch above a shelf packed with crystal dishes, a photograph of Alexey Zheleznyak’s late wife keeps watch over a spotless apartment.

The ripple effect of a sluggish American economy has forced Zheleznyak, 81, into what he calls the “woman’s business” of dusting and cooking.

“I spend almost all my time and all my energy on these things now,” he said.

Three years ago, Zheleznyak’s wife was bedridden and dying, but a home-care worker funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) dropped by twice a week to wash her, care for her bedsores, clean and cook.

After his wife died, the worker still came but less often, until global economic pressure forced the JDC to scale back operations for the “least needy” in the former Soviet Union. Six months ago, Zheleznyak began having to fend for himself.

Of all the JDC’s operations abroad, the former Soviet Union has been hit hardest, according to JDC officials, due to the sliding value of the dollar coupled with inflation in a resurgent Russian economy. Only Israel receives more American funds than the former Soviet Union from the JDC.

As a result, some 32,000 elderly Russians like Zheleznyak have been shaved from the JDC rolls of those who received aid since 2006, when the number peaked at 220,000, JDC officials said.

Organizations such as the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which are the overseas partners of the North American federation system, rely on donations or money from reparations that is distributed, budgeted and doled out in dollars. Most of that money is sent abroad, where it is spent in local currency under local market conditions.

As the U.S. presidential contenders, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, trade barbs on how best to fix the economy, the dollar continues a three-year slide against other currencies. In the former Soviet Union, the JDC’s purchasing power has decreased by 13 percent to 20 percent, depending on the country.

At the same time, Russia’s economy is soaring on the back of oil prices at $130 per barrel that provide a base for increased wealth, higher commodity prices and inflation.

Russia experienced nearly 12 percent inflation in 2007. Despite price controls on food that lasted through March’s presidential election, the International Monetary Fund is predicting that inflation may top 14 percent in 2008.

In sum, that means JDC’s $100 million budget for the former Soviet Union set in 2007 now buys only $80 million worth of home-care workers, hot meals and the staff to administer it all.

That has “forced us to rethink how we do business,” JDC Executive Vice President Steve Schwager said during a recent trip to Moscow. “Some things that we would normally do, we’ve had to cut out and find alternatives.”

On Monday, the JDC announced it will lay off more than 60 staff members worldwide in an effort to grapple with the budget shortfalls. In addition to cutbacks on social services to the elderly, JDC also has cut back dramatically on Jewish arts and education activities.

Despite efforts to insulate the elderly from budget cuts, those who receive help from the welfare centers in Russia and other countries have paid the price in solitude or painful walks to open markets where they can purchase cheaper groceries.

The most able are the first to be taken off the collective list maintained by the five welfare centers in the Moscow area.

“The first priority we have is to help people who can’t help themselves,” said Alexander Kirnos, director of the Yad Ezracenter.

The uniform public pension across Russia is about $143 a month, but each area calculates bonuses on those pensions based on the cost of living, said Zhenya Mazarova, JDC’s director of welfare programs for Moscow and central Russia.

While pensions increase each year, their purchasing power decreases when measured against inflation — some 26 percent over the past three years, based on government figures.

One pensioner, Olga Troytsa, 85, lives alone in a one-room apartment outside Moscow.

With no children, Troytsa occasionally receives visits from longtime family friends who bring her food packages and a half-hour of friendly company — services that used to come from a JDC employee.

Despite having had six operations and a metal support that she wears all but three hours a night, her Moscow pension disqualified her from a JDC food delivery program.

Troytsa says her pension is mostly gone by the end of the month and she misses the company, but there is only one way to make it through the day.

“I laugh at it,” she said. “To cry wouldn’t help.”

R.E. Hard Crash? Soft Landing? Bursting Balloon? Leaking Balloon?


Mark Cohen thinks those doomsday scenarios about an impending Southland housing crash miss the mark. And the founder and president of Beverly Hills-based Cohen Financial Group has learned a thing or two about real estate over the last 20 years.

With an MBA from USC and a law degree from Loyola Law School, the 47-year-old mortgage broker helped secure nearly $1.1 billion in home loans last year, making him the No. 1 individual mortgage loan originator in the country, according to Mortgage Originator Magazine.

When not spending time with his three children and wife Laurie, Cohen has been involved in the local Jewish community.

A member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Real Estate and Construction Division, Cohen has also played an active role at Sinai Temple for more than two decades. He and his wife have long supported ATID (which translates as future in Hebrew), a Sinai program that trains future Jewish leaders. They also recently contributed funds toward the writing of a new Torah.

The Jewish Journal spoke to Cohen about the recent reversal in the local housing market.

Jewish Journal: Why has the housing market slowed in Southern California?

Mark Cohen: Southern California is a great place to live, which is why so many people want to live here. However, that also means the supply of apartments, houses and condos is limited. Over time, this supply-and-demand situation in housing has pushed prices up dramatically, pricing many people completely out of the market. Added to this are the interest-rate hikes by the Fed. Rates have increased by about 2 1/2 percent over the past few years, and that has made the cost of borrowing more expensive, closing the door on even more potential homeowners.

JJ: If the Fed raises interest rates to keep inflation in check, will that help or hurt the market?

MC: The jury is still out on whether or not the Fed will continue to raise rates. It all depends on whether or not they can keep inflation under control. If there are more rate increases in the near future, they will likely have a negative effect on the market in the short term. However, if the Fed is successful in keeping inflation in check, they can keep the door open for future rate cuts should there be a slowdown in the economy. Recent economic reports are showing that inflation has moderated for the time being, which means the Fed’s tightening cycle may be over. And that would have a positive impact on the real estate market.

JJ: What areas of the Southland are most at risk of having the bottom drop out? Why?

MC: It’s difficult to single out specific areas in Southern California that have the most risk. However, right now, San Diego seems to have an oversupply of new condominiums on the market due to all the speculation that occurred over the past few years. There’s also usually a deeper correction in areas where there has been excess in new construction. Palm Springs is an example of this. On the other side of the coin, the Westside, South Bay and San Fernando Valley will likely fare better during a slowdown because of the lack of new construction, limited supply of homes and desirability.

All in all, Southern California is a great place to live and historically, over time, real estate here has proven to be a great investment.

JJ: Do you anticipate a hard or soft landing locally?

MC: A soft lading will depend on several factors. First, the direction of interest rates will have a big impact, as will the strength of the local economy. As long as jobs are being created and the economy stays at its current growth levels, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll experience a hard landing.

Obviously, the actions by the Fed in the next few months will affect the local real estate market for the foreseeable future.

JJ: How long do you expect the market to remain soft?

MC: It really depends on the economy. If we have continued job creation and continued economic growth, the market will recover more quickly. Fewer jobs created and slower growth will mean a longer slowdown. The real driving force behind the real estate market isn’t interest rates; it’s the economy. That’s because even though fixed-interest rates have risen recently, they are still at manageable levels.

JJ: How is this housing market of today different from the boom-and-bust cycle of the late 1980s and early 1990s?

MC: This is a very different market from the one we saw in the late 1980s or early 1990s, primarily because the Southern California economy is now much more diverse. During that period, the economy here was based on the aerospace, defense and entertainment industries. Today our economy is much more diverse, with financial services, technology, biotechnology and other industries playing major roles on the region’s vitality. A more diverse economy means the chances of a hard economic landing are reduced, and this, in turn, helps to support the housing market.

JJ: What kind of industries might suffer in a soft housing market, and how could that impact the entire local economy?

MC: The real estate industry has a large effect on the Southern California economy, because there are so many people employed in it either directly or indirectly, including lenders, title companies, escrow agents, real estate sales agents, contractors, and developers, This means that a prolonged slowdown would hurt the folks employed in these industries and the overall local economy as well.

JJ: How much do you expect housing in Southern California to drop in the next year? What price ranges will be hit hardest?

MC: I don’t expect prices will fall more than 5 percent to 10 percent from the market highs of a couple years ago, with the hardest hit homes being those in the mid-level price range between $1 million to $3 million.

JJ: What advice would you give to someone who is considering buying or selling a home in Los Angeles?

MC: I’m a big proponent of home ownership. Don’t we all work hard so we can eventually own our own home? My advice is for people to feel comfortable living in a new home for at least five years so interest rates and real-estate-cycle influences are reduced. I don’t think we’re in a market that allows for short-term housing speculation, since the market is extremely volatile.

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