Israeli hotels showcase a summer medley of adventures


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sheraton Tel Aviv
Hotel & Towers

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

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


Rimonim Royal Dead Sea pool

Swedish FM cancels trip to Israel


Sweden’s foreign minister canceled a scheduled trip to Israel.

Saturday night’s cancellation of Carl Bildt’s trip scheduled for Sept. 11 comes on the heels of disintegrating relations between the two countries over the publication in a Swedish newspaper of an article alleging that Israeli soldiers harvested the organs of Palestinians they killed. Bildt has refused to condemn the publication of the article, citing freedom of the press. Israel calls it a blood libel.

Swedish officials told several media outlets that the visit was canceled until after the United Nations General Assembly later this month and would be rescheduled in the hopes that there would be more progress in the Middle East peace process. They denied the controversy over the article was the cause of the cancellation.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry told Ha’aretz the trip was canceled due to the Swedish government’s concern that Bildt would be shunned during his visit.

Sweden currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. The presidency is scheduled to be taken over by Spain, whose foreign minister on Saturday condemned an interview in a major Spanish newspaper with known Holocaust denier David Irving.

Report: Communities Must Do More to Attract Birthright Alums


SAN FRANCISCO (JTA)—Nearly 160,000 young Jews from North America have taken part in Taglit-Birthright Israel, a 10-day free Israel trip aimed at revving up their Jewish identities.

Of those no longer in college, only half have attended any Jewish event since their return.

That’s one of the findings of “Tourists, Travelers and Citizens,” a new report by the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. The report is based on interviews and online surveys of 1,534 Birthright alumni in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, the four largest Jewish communities in North America.

“It means we have a lot of work to do,” says Daniel Brenner, executive director of Birthright Israel NEXT, a national organization that tries to steer alumni toward greater Jewish involvement in their home communities.

The Birthright program was instituted in 2000 by mega-philanthropists concerned about what they perceived as the younger generation’s lack of Jewish involvement. Numerous formal and informal evaluations show participants’ connection to Israel and the Jewish community are enhanced by their trip, but that does not translate into ongoing Jewish involvement, according to the new report.

“Years after their trip, Taglit alumni continue to look more like ‘tourists’ than ‘citizens’ in the Jewish community world,” the report’s authors write. “Although they value their Jewish identities, most have only limited participation in Jewish communal life.”

The report shows that 44 percent of Birthright alumni who are no longer in college have not attended any Jewish program since their return from Israel. A further 39 percent have attended just one or two programs. Only 4 percent have taken part in more than four programs.

Toronto shows the greatest success at keeping this population somewhat engaged, with 63 percent of returnees participating in at least one Jewish event. Report co-author Fern Chertok attributes that to the close-knit nature of Toronto’s Jewish community, which keeps Birthright returnees apprised of a well-planned schedule of Jewish programs.

In New York, where 43 percent of returnees have not attended any Jewish program since their Israel trip, researchers found an array of Jewish offerings but little effort to communicate that information to Birthright alumni. Asked whether they had even heard of a dozen Jewish organizations offering programs for their age, the largest number—67 percent—said they knew of the JCC Manhattan and the Y’s at 92nd Street and 14th Street, but just 20 percent had attended events there. Other Jewish programs showed even less participation and were lesser known.

Los Angeles showed the greatest number of completely disengaged alumni, with 53 percent saying they had attended no Jewish programs since Israel. San Francisco had higher numbers of alumni taking part in one to four activities—43 percent and 10 percent, respectively—but just 1 percent who said they attended five or more.

Both California cities are hampered by a lack of good programs, say the report’s authors. Those that exist, particularly “Friday Night Live in L.A.” and the “Bay Area Tribe” and “Late Shabbat” in San Francisco, are high profile and do draw crowds.

The alumni surveyed in all four cities said they would like to be more involved than they were in Jewish life. Most preferred small gatherings to large, anonymous “meat market” Jewish events.

“They’re happy to eat free food and drink free beer at those big events, but they don’t feel it meets their needs to find Jewish community,” Chertok reports.

Respondents also said they were interested in learning more about Judaism and Jewish culture and history, including Hebrew, but were wary of outreach groups with a perceived “religious” agenda. They also wanted a network of friends to share those experiences as a way of re-creating the camaraderie they felt on their Israel trips.

“Birthright shows people that being part of a group, a Jewish group, is a meaningful experience,” report co-author Leonard Saxe says. “They come back hungry for that, and most communities don’t provide them with a set of those experiences.”

Birthright NEXT, which has chapters in New York and, as of last year, San Francisco, is taking those tips to heart, Brenner says.

Last fall, the organization launched NEXT Shabbat, which encourages Birthright alumni to host Shabbat meals in their homes. It’s a peer-driven project, Brenner says: Invitees RSVP online, Birthright NEXT provides resources and recipes on its Web site, and it picks up the tab after hosts submit feedback, which often includes posting photos.

So far, Brenner reports, 2,000 such Shabbat dinners have been held in the past six months. The average age of participants is 25, and 65 percent of the hosts said they had never invited people to a Shabbat meal before. In 2009, Brenner projects 70,000 young participants.

“We need to make drastic changes in New York,” he acknowledges. “There are so many alumni here, and just 5 percent say they participate ‘a lot.’ ”

NEXT Shabbat seems to appeal to New Yorkers, he says: About 28 percent of Birthright participants come from the New York area, which also provides about 28 percent of those taking part in NEXT Shabbat meals.

Brenner points out that many young Jews sign up for Birthright just because it’s a free trip.

“They have no intention of doing anything afterwards,” he says. “But if we can meet their real needs, I have no doubt we can help the majority build Jewish community.”

Jews by Choice bolster ties with first Israel mission


Misty Zollars knew she wanted to be Jewish ever since she was 13, when her best friend invited her to her first Passover seder.

“I found the afikoman, and I knew I was going to be a Jew,” said Zollars, now 28, of Sherman Oaks. “The warmth of the family tradition and the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world) just made sense to me. After I converted, I felt this need to go to Israel, but I discovered there wasn’t really a trip out there for people like me.”

So Zollars helped create one.

Next February, the fashion designer will join a group of converts like herself to take part in a groundbreaking event: the first mission to Israel tailored specifically for so-called “Jews by Choice.” The 12-day trip, led by Rabbis Neal Weinberg and Joel Rembaum, will take up to 40 travelers through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other locales to help foster a connection with the Jewish homeland that new recruits might not otherwise feel. Organizers say there are still openings for people to sign up before the Oct. 15 application deadline.

“This is a special trip for people who have become Jewish,” said Weinberg, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University. “There are a lot of people who have converted to Judaism who are 27, 28, 29 years old. They’re too old for [Taglit] Birthright now, and yet they’re young and they’ve never had the experience of going to Israel. To them, Israel is a faraway country. This is a way of making it come closer to them.”

Many of the trip’s participants — who span all ages and are both single and married — are graduates of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program. Having led the program since 1986, Weinberg said he saw a need for more programs geared toward new members of the Jewish community who still had questions after their classes ended.

The trip to Israel is sponsored, in part, by Judaism by Choice Inc., an organization that Weinberg and his wife, Miri, founded in 2005. Its purpose is to aid students seeking inclusion into the community who might feel overwhelmed by the prayers and rituals of a typical Shabbat service.

“There is a lack of programming for this niche in the community — for people who have embraced Judaism,” Weinberg said. “Before you can learn to ride a bicycle, you’ve got to have the training wheels. What we offer is extra support.”

Weinberg appointed Zollars to the board of of Judaism by Choice, which holds Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services each month at synagogues throughout the L.A. area, including Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom. Zollars had been observing Shabbat and keeping kosher since converting in 2006, but she also sought another, less-accessible part of the Jewish experience — going to Israel.

“I knew that if I was having these frustrations, there would be other people in the community, as well, looking for a trip like this,” she said.

Zollars suggested a mission to Israel to the board of Judaism by Choice, and enthusiasm grew. Jill Sperling, another board member, called Rembaum at Temple Beth Am to help arrange the trip.

“I thought the idea was exciting and important and said I’d love to help,” said Rembaum, who arranged the itinerary earlier this year. “Jews by Choice are wonderful miracles. Their addition to the Jewish community is an amazing thing.”

Visiting Israel is “the big hook” that helps converted Jews relate on a gut level to Jewish history and identity, Rembaum explained.

Just ask Sperling.

“Some of my defining moments as a Jew were in Israel — just to be there and feel that connection and feel accepted,” said the Los Angeles mother of two, who has been to Israel three times in the past five years. “For my family, our connection to Israel has really helped us grow as Jews. Israel is the key that inspires you and excites you. That’s something you can’t get in a classroom.”

Sperling, 44, took Weinberg’s Miller Introduction to Judaism program in 1989 with her husband, Skip Sperling, who is Jewish by birth. The course renewed the couple’s devotion to their religion, and they enrolled both their children — Sofia, 12, and Elliot, 15 — in Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am. Sperling and Sofia just returned in May from a visit to Israel with the Pressman Academy through The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program.

As an Israel “veteran,” Sperling said she hopes to be a mentor to her fellow Jews by Choice on the February trip. “Because I’ve already been there, I feel like I can support other people while they’re there,” she said. “This will be life-changing for people who have chosen to be Jewish.”

Participants will fly to Tel Aviv and visit Independence Hall, before embarking on a cross-country tour with stops at Masada, Yad Vashem, Safed (the birthplace of kabbalah), the Upper Galilee and the Kotel. Besides exploring popular landmarks, they will also meet with Israeli residents who have converted to Judaism — both those who converted in Israel through the Masorti (Conservative) movement and those who converted outside of the country and made aliyah.

“People often don’t think about the different needs of people who convert to Judaism on a trip to Israel,” Weinberg said. “Most of them are going to see the country for the first time with fresh eyes. They weren’t brought up with an understanding of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people.”

The program is open to Jews by Choice of all denominations, along with their spouses or significant others. The per-person cost of the trip — $3,000, including the flight — was kept low with support from Judaism by Choice, and scholarship funds are also available through several foundations and individual contributions. Weinberg said he is still seeking donations to further allay the cost for those who might not be able to afford the trip on their own.

Zollars said she is eagerly awaiting the chance to connect with the homeland to which she has always felt drawn.

“It’s almost like a graduation feeling,” she said. “It is, in a way, the last and first step in my journey as a Jew. Being surrounded and embraced by Judaism would make me so happy. It would be like a trip home for me.”

To learn more or sign up for the trip, e-mail MistyZollars@yahoo.com or Sperling@pacbell.net, or call Cori Drasin at Temple Beth Am, (310) 652-7353. The deadline is Oct. 15.

A free trip to Israel — custom-made for you!



Click on BIG ARROW for Taglit video

What’s more enticing than a free trip to Israel? A free trip to Israel tailor-made for your interests.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, a partnership between the Israeli government, local Jewish communities, Jewish federations and philanthropists, offers free first-time trips to Israel for Jewish young adults between 18 and 26. But these days, trips for special interest groups like medical students, law students, business students, military cadets and even aspiring chefs are another way to entice Jewish young adults to visit Israel.

Between exploring the Kotel, the Negev and the Dead Sea, young professionals spend time with Israeli experts in their field and visit prominent facilities that relate to their interests.

“Going with a special interest group gives people a chance to meet people with similar interests and to connect with Israel and the things that they’re specifically interested in,” said Miri Pomerantz, program director of the Jewish Book Council in New York, which is co-sponsoring a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for young professional journalists this summer. While exploring the Jewish homeland, the writers will meet with Israeli novelists, editors of The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz and other Israeli professionals in the world of literature and journalism.

For more information on Taglit-Birthright Israel, visit www.birthrightisrael.com.

— Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

Requests Swamp Israel Trip Program


Birthright Israel has received many more applications for its upcoming trips than it has spaces available. Approximately 14,000 young Jews applied for 8,000 spots in the program’s spring/summer trips this year in just the first 12 hours of registration Feb. 8.

The organization provides free trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26. In the six years since its founding, Birthright has brought 98,000 people from 45 countries to Israel. The upcoming trip will include the program’s 100,000th participant.

“The level of demand is unprecedented and well exceeds our financial capability to accommodate the majority of those who currently wish to go on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips,” said Susie Gelman, Birthright Israel Foundation chair.

Taglit is the Hebrew name for the program.

“As Taglit-Birthright Israel grows rapidly and develops into a community-supported organization, we hope that our friends will support us in enabling more young Jews to participate in the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience, so that we can send the 100,000th participant and plan for the next 100,000,” Gelman said.

Villaraigosa a Yemenite?


The energy and enthusiasm of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got ahead of his staff when, at a Rosh Hashanah dinner with consular officials, he suddenly announced his intention to lead a local delegation to Israel.

The pledge had raced across newswires for several days and still the mayor’s staffers pleaded ignorance late last week, saying that they had no details, such as a date, an itinerary or participants.

But Westside City Councilman Jack Weiss, at least, was wise to what was up. He, too, had been at the Beverly Hills home of Ehud Danoch, the regional Israeli Consul General, and his wife, Miki. The Danochs hosted the gathering to celebrate their first Rosh Hashanah in Los Angeles, said Weiss, a close Villaraigosa ally.

“Mayor Villaraigosa said many times during his campaign that he would lead a trip to Israel,” Weiss said in a phone interview. “He feels a strong connection to Israel.”

Villaraigosa’s wife, Corina, and their two children were also among the guests, along with other consular officials. Also on hand was Benny Alagem, co-founder and one-time CEO of Packard Bell NEC. He’d helped arrange the visit to Israel by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Villaraigosa has long had strong ties with the Jewish community. He grew up in Boyle Heights, a former Jewish enclave that became Latino. A Jewish teacher and mentor paid for him to take his college boards. And leading Jewish progressives and funders supported his political rise early on. Weiss said that Villaraigosa already has been to Israel twice before.

But Consul General Danoch, a fluent Spanish speaker, spied another semblance of connection. Danoch’s parents are originally from Yemen and when they “saw a picture of Antonio on television, they told Ehud that he looked like a Yemenite,” Weiss said. “The mayor got a big kick out of that.”

Funding Our Jewish Future


Imagine a world in which every newborn child receives a voucher toward early childhood Jewish education and a free trip to Israel.

That’s what philanthropist Michael Steinhardt asked 4,000 delegates to the North American Jewish federation system’s General Assembly to consider earlier this month.

The "Newborn Gift" would be part of an overall investment in strengthening Jewish education that Steinhardt is proposing. He told delegates that he was willing to contribute $10 million to the project, which he called the Fund for Our Jewish Future — on condition that his contribution represent no more than 10 percent of the total fund.

In other words, the former Wall Street tycoon was challenging the audience to raise at least $90 million for Jewish education in the Diaspora.

Many in the room found Steinhardt’s speech groundbreaking — and highly relevant.

Chip Koplin of Macon, Ga., said the speech gave him the chills. Koplin said that of all his experiences at this year’s General Assembly — his first time in Israel — Steinhardt’s speech "is going to have the most profound effect on me."

"As an American challenged with the struggles of a small, Southern Jewish community" trying to sustain Jewish identity, Koplin said he could relate to the speech.

The speech came as federations struggle to fund their local and overseas needs amid flat campaigns. Still, federation leaders didn’t appear to worry that Steinhardt’s appeal would undermine their own efforts.

"He made the speech to a convention of North American federations, so clearly he is looking" to partner with them, said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. In fact, the federation system encourages such visionary ideas, Solomon said.

Steinhardt said the proposal is a response to decreasing Jewish identification among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews.

Steinhardt mustered a litany of statistics to prove his point. Some 49 percent of American Jews identify as secular; only 20 percent give to Jewish causes, down from a post-World War II period when half the community gave to Jewish causes; and the number of American Jews is dwindling, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Steinhardt said.

"This part of the Diaspora community — its majority — is in crisis," Steinhardt said. While most Jewish activists focus on threats to Israel, in some respects the Diaspora is "far more vulnerable," he said.

"We don’t know enough about our religion to take true pride in it. We remain Jewish on the vapors of cultural memory," Steinhardt said.

He also bemoaned what he called a glaring lack of Jewish leadership and innovative ideas.

By contrast, he pointed to the birthright israel program, which offers free trips to 18-26-year-olds who have never been on a peer trip to Israel. Steinhardt is one of the program’s major funders.

"Birthright has been nothing less than a transformation in Jewish life," he said. However, "the future of the program is tenuous — not because there are no young people who want to partake of this venture," but "simply because there’s not enough money to pay for them."

While the federation system raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Israel Emergency Campaign, it has difficulty raising "a fraction of that amount" for birthright, Steinhardt said.

Steinhardt called for a "Jewish renaissance for our young people." He said his agenda would focus on the "centrality of Israel for the Jewish soul," the "pre-eminence of Jewish peoplehood," encouragement of vibrant rabbis, the principle of charity and the "imperative of a Jewish education."

"Our survival depends on the next generation being educated," Steinhardt said.

The audience, which buzzed with electrified chatter after the speech, seemed to feel the same way. Many rushed the stage to shake Steinhardt’s hand.

Passing out flyers outside the auditorium, Jewish students stated that they would raise $500,000 for Steinhardt’s proposed fund.

Federation leaders largely praised the initiative but noted that the challenge is significant. They rejected the idea that the appeal might undermine their own fund-raising efforts.

Robert Schrayer, vice chairman of the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella organization, sounded a note of optimism.

"Can he do it? Yeah, I think there’s a large amount of money available in the American Jewish community for a cause like this," Schrayer said.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, praised the effort but took a wait-and-see approach.

"We need to have more details" on what such a plan would entail before commenting on its chances for success, Ruskay said.

As far as Steinhardt is concerned, the project is an imperative.

"The Jewish future of our children" is at stake, he said. "We owe our children nothing less."

Koala Makes Aliyah


Ben-Gurion Airport welcomed a new Israeli, and a rather furry one at that.

Didgee, a koala, made aliyah from Melbourne, Australia, but he won’t be the only Aussie in his new home. Cindy and Mindy, two cute koala girls who made aliyah from the Melbourne Zoo in February, already have been resettled in the park.

Upon his arrival, Israeli authorities put Didgee in quarantine for six weeks. When his isolation ends, he will meet his prospective mates, and they can kick back in the Beit Shean valley and talk about the old days in Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s estimated that Didgee has been photographed more than 10,000 times by enthusiastic tourists in Australia. He will have some time to rest and recuperate from his trip before delighting the 80,000 annual visitors to Gan Garoo, a four-acre park fully recognized by the Australian Wildlife Authority. Gan Garoo is a little slice of Australia in the middle of Israel, which even has a plaque in memory of the Australian athletes who lost their lives when a bridge collapsed during the opening ceremony of the 1997 Maccabiah Games, said Gan Garoo administrator Yehuda Gat, who started the park.

Australia does not export many koalas and they need special care, said Chandi De Alwis, Melbourne Zoo’s native mammal expert.

"However, they have bred very successfully overseas and I hope Gan Garoo will be home to many generations," De Alwis said. "They are delightful animals, loved by park visitors. In these difficult times, I hope they will bring some joy to the troubled Israelis."

Koalas are not really bears but rather marsupials, like kangaroos. They are born after 34 days gestation, and live in their mother’s pouches until they are almost 6 months old.

However, Didgee will be a little confused: In Australia it’s spring, the koalas’ mating season, but it’s autumn in Israel.

"They will adjust and when spring comes round, Cindy and Mindy should have no worries, mate," De Alwis said.

Didgee is looking forward to the day he can leave the quarantine cage to snuggle up with his two Sheilas in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, and learn to say "Shalom" as well as "G’day."

United We Stand


Nearly twice as many residents as last year intend to participate in the We Stand With Israel trip next month, Federation Executive Director Bunnie Mauldin said,adding that “despite what’s going on politically or war with Iraq on the horizon, our aim is the same.”

The trip is an opportunity for people to show their support.

“There is no more important time for American Jews to visit Israel and let the people of Israel know they are not alone. This is the time to go,” she said.

Lou Weiss, the Federation’s president, thinks the group should be making an annual Israel pilgrimage.

Mauldin is optimistic a 40-seat bus will be filled to capacity for the 10-day trip, compared to 22 who went last December.

During the first leg of this $2,530-per-person trip, participants will hear firsthand analysis of the Middle East situation in briefings by top-level officials. The mission will also tour the Golan, Tiberias and Safed in northern Israel and visit the Federation’s sister cities, Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon.

For more information, call (714) 755-5555, ext. 231, or e-mail bunnie@jfoc.org.

Beyond the Headlines


I recently returned from eight days in Israel. After months of reaching for the newspaper first thing each morning and follow with online searches for even more recent events, I felt a strong need to go to Israel and see firsthand how things were going. I was nervous before I left due to the constant photos of destruction and despair. It is the first time that I blessed each of my children before departing on a trip.

As I rode in the cab from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem, I marveled at how life seemed unchanged physically. The highway was full of cars. It was hard to imagine that less than 10 miles from the airport and its modern freeway were Palestinian villages in squalor. My travel partner was going to the Sheraton in Jerusalem, a 24-story building in the heart of the city. The cabbie said that he was not sure as to its location, because he had not traveled with a tourist to Jerusalem in six months. Not everything was the same.

I met with three former Orange County residents during my visit.

Richard Jaffe moved to Israel nearly 18 years ago. He traded in his Laguna Beach home and Porsche for an apartment in the Old City. He says that he and his wife made the move to enhance their children’s lives. Richard was the first podiatrist in Israel and has developed a reputation for skillful surgeries. Richard’s office is decorated with what appears to be the world’s largest collection of ancient feet in the form of pottery, stone and bronze. Richard’s synagogue is in the Muslim Quarter of the City, providing a challenging walk on Saturday mornings. He and his wife have succeeded in crafting close bonds with their four children, each married, and their four grandchildren.

Robbie Hurwitz is a UCLA student from my congregation who has spent the academic year on the Junior Year Abroad program at Hebrew University. The UC system withdrew their support after Passover due to legal concerns, asking UC students to return home. He is now registered under the auspices of Hebrew University. Although Junior Year Abroad usually draws close to 500 students from the United States, this current semester there are 60 students. Despite the problems, he stayed and had the time of his life. The morning I rendezvoused with Robbie he was taking a noncredit class on Hasidut at the Conservative Yeshiva. He says that he has operated with caution, but has not felt afraid during his two-semester stay.

Debbie Sklar, who grew up in my congregation, has lived in Israel for the past five years and is a government-employed archaeologist and graduate student. During a visit to Israel she fell in love with an Israeli. Debbie and her partner, Masada, made a formal commitment to each other several years ago and she is now expecting twins, a medical procedure paid for by National Health Insurance. Debbie provides me a window into the life of the gay community in Israel, a collective that participates in an annual gay pride parade. Israel is a country that knowingly accepts gays into the armed service and provides medical benefits to life partners. Debbie and Masada live in Pisgat Ze’ev, a suburb of Jerusalem on the other side of the Green Line. Debbie says that Israel is home and she has no intention of leaving. It is the place where she wants to raise her children. I adore Debbie, knowing her generosity of spirit and her inner strength.

Life in Israel is a roller coaster, with great highs and lows and always a sense of leaning forward on your chair. On my last day in Israel the homicide bombing resumed after a two-week lull. I was on a tour bus to the Palmach museum, an engaging, audiovisual immersion in the birth of Israel, when I heard the news. As the radio on the bus told the story, the tension and sadness was palpable. Life in Israel is hard because there is uncertainty over how the situation will progress. Nonetheless, people maintain their sanity by looking to each other for friendship and investing time in their families.

I returned with holy envy for the sense of place and purpose I observed among family and friends. I was also much more relaxed in Israel than I had anticipated, because the tragic events have a larger context of ongoing daily life. I am glad that I went and would take my family the next time, because it is a joy to be in Israel and far safer than it appears from reading the newspapers’ headlines.

Showing Solidarity


Back in October, 60 UCLA students learned that over winter break they would be going on the trip of a lifetime. They had been chosen from among hundreds of applicants to take part, virtually for free, in UCLA Hillel’s Birthright Israel contingent. The Birthright program brings thousands of Jewish students to Israel for 10-day tours that encourage them to discover their own Jewish identity. The 1999 trip had received glowing reviews. But in December 2000, one-third of the UCLA slots were suddenly up for grabs.

The problem, of course, was the ongoing flare-ups of violence that have made some college students and their parents nervous about scheduling a visit to the Jewish homeland. UCLA Hillel, like the other participating chapters nationwide, did its best to reassure the travelers, taking pains to spell out the elaborate security measures that would be in place during their stay. Not everyone was convinced, but UCLA managed to fill a fair number of the vacated spaces with names from the waiting list.

Ultimately, 47 UCLA students made the trip. At some campuses, the high dropout rate proved to be an unexpected boon. The Hillel chapter serving Pierce and Valley colleges was originally entitled to 20 slots. When this group departed on Dec. 31, it had gained an additional 17 travelers. In all, as of the first week in January, some 5,100 young Jews from all over the world had made this winter’s Birthright trip. Eight hundred of them hailed from California.

Marlene Post, chairman of Birthright Israel North America, acknowledges that many of the young people had serious concerns when they arrived. Some were additionally shaken when a car bomb exploded in Netanya just one day after their group had visited the city. But the Birthright format allowed them ample opportunity to discuss their fears, and the remainder of their stay in Israel showed them that life goes on. They were encouraged to speak at length to soldiers and others close to their own age, which showed them the stress under which their Israeli counterparts live. Post sees a major benefit in such personal contact: “You start to understand that you are really one people.”

Birthright gave each of its participants two 10-minute phone cards, for phoning home in order to allay parents’ fears. Many of the cards were put to use on the evening a planeload of UCLA and USC students touched down in Tel Aviv. Upon reaching their hotel, they were quietly informed that there had been a bombing in the city earlier that day. Rebecca Charmack, a USC grad student, was frightened enough to consult the group’s rabbi. Later, she was able to be philosophical, recognizing that media reports can blow isolated incidents out of proportion.

Says Charmack, “I go to USC, in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, where there are shootouts and drive-bys every day.”

As a new student, she was terrified of walking to her off-campus parking space; later she came to feel completely safe. So too in Israel. When the trip ended, she didn’t want to go home, and she looks forward to a return trip some day.

Given that several violent episodes occurred while they were on Israeli soil, Birthright travelers could not resist a touch of gallows humor. Lisa Schloss of USC recalls that on a rainy afternoon in Jerusalem, everyone in her group was handed a matching umbrella emblazoned with the Birthright name. At which one wag quipped, “Oh, we’re just one huge target now.”

By and large, the students were well aware of how carefully they were being protected. USC’s Garrett Shaw notes there was a soldier with a sniper rifle for every 20 students; when Shaw left the group briefly to get minor medical treatment, he was accompanied by an armed bodyguard.

Bill Golditch of UCLA admits that “a lot of the trip was like traveling in a bubble,” a far cry from the experience of soldiers with whom he chatted. From them he learned the basic fact of Israeli life: “You really don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day.” That doesn’t stop Golditch from wanting to return. He’s convinced that having visited Israel once, he knows enough not to be afraid.

Shaw, a USC senior, was able to take part in the Birthright trip because someone else had opted to stay home. Originally on the waiting list, Shaw had planned to use his winter break studying Spanish in Costa Rica. But when a slot opened, he didn’t hesitate to come aboard. As he puts it, “I think Jewish solidarity is a major thing right now. Not only was I not nervous — I was proud to go.”

Sarah Talei, a USC junior, made the opposite choice. She pulled out of the trip a mere week before her schoolmates departed. Her decision was based on her parents’ anxieties. They consulted an uncle based in Israel, who advised her to wait until the current cycle of violence had run its course.

Talei muses, “I hope I gained some points [with my parents] by not going.” Still, she can’t help having regrets: “The majority of people around me told me not to go. But my gut feeling was that nothing would really happen.”

The Birthright returnees agree that despite the tension in the air, their trip was a superlative experience. In Golditch’s own words, “It gives a whole new dimension to Jewish identity.”

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