Gold’s Hot Tip:Invest in Israel

For people who like to make money — and who take the long-range view — now is the time to invest in the Israeli economy, despite the current situtation, according to Stanley Gold, president and CEO of Shamrock Holdings, the investment arm of the Roy Disney family.

For some time, Shamrock has been the largest private investor in Israel. With a new capital-growth fund of $170 million fully subscribed, of which $65 million is earmarked for Israel, Gold is looking for new opportunities.

"The combined effects of the intifada and the world recession have stopped the kind of Israeli economic growth we saw in the mid-1990s, and a lot of investors got scared and ran away," Gold says. "We look on this as an opportunity to buy at bargain prices and reap the rewards later."

Putting his money where his mouth is, Gold has invested $700 million to $800 million in Israel on behalf of Shamrock over the past 15 years.

Gold’s confidence in the basic soundness of Israel’s society and industry is based on three factors, which, he says, underlie all economic growth:

  • The intelligence and educational level of the population.
  • An incorruptible judicial system.
  • A modern, cutting-edge technology that yields world-class products.

Because Israel rates high in all three categories, its economy will come back stronger than ever, predicts Gold.

One of Shamrock’s first major investments was to buy a controlling interest in Koor Industries in the early 1990s, which was sold two and a half years later in 1997, resulting in a total profit of $130 million.

Currently, Shamrock has a 46 percent interest in Tadiran Communications, which makes military communication systems, with Gold as the company’s chairman. Shamrock holds 50 percent of Pelephone Communications Inc., Israel’s second-largest cellular phone service, and 10 percent of Paradigm Geophysical, a geoscience software firm.

The company’s extensive real estate holdings include a substantial interest in the new Tel Aviv bus station, which is being remodeled as a retail shopping center and transportation hub.

One project Shamrock is not into, despite recent reports in the Israeli press, is the development of a $135 million Israeli Disneyland. "That story was made up," Gold says.

Worldwide, Shamrock has invested some $2 billion since its founding in 1978, and its Israeli investment decisions, like all others, are based purely on economic considerations.

"I don’t have a job unless I make money for the Disney family and our private investors," Gold says. "My Zionist impulses have nothing to do with it."

Participation in a Shamrock investment fund is not for the average Joe Blowstein, with the minimum stake running between $5 million to $10 million.

Gold, the profit-oriented capitalist, is also a self-described socialist, and when a visitor questions the apparent contradiction, he quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson that "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

He attributes his "philosophical socialism" to his parents, both good union members, and to growing up, 59 years ago, in South Central Los Angeles, when the population was one-third black, one-third Asian and one-third white.

"That [environment] was the best thing that ever happened to me," reminisces Gold, chewing on an unlit cigar while sitting in his sunny office in Burbank, a stone’s throw from the Warner Bros. studio lot. "I sold the old Los Angeles Mirror for 7 cents at the Coliseum, I got 3 cents per customer and a 1 cent tip."

He holds as his credo that society must provide a safety net for the less fortunate, and, even more importantly, a ladder to enable poor minorities to climb up into the middle class.

"If that doesn’t happen, if the gap between rich and poor keeps widening, then, ultimately, our society will be torn apart," he says.

Gold does not like to talk about his own community and charitable activities, but his support of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) is well-known.

He created a considerable stir in 1997, when as outgoing chairman of the HUC-JIR board he addressed the graduating class on the Jerusalem campus. In an impassioned speech, Gold warned of the danger facing Israeli democracy by the Orthodox insistence on dictating religious practice and he has since sought to "counterbalance this kind of poisonous attitude."

He is also recognized for his strong support of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program, especially the three-month exchange program among Israeli and American high school students.

"This program gives Israeli youngsters a chance to witness the religious pluralism practiced here," he says. "They get the perspective that you don’t need to be a Chasid to be Jewish."

Given Israel’s current problems, Gold was asked what Los Angeles and American Jews can do to help the state.

"After 54 years, Israel has less need for charity and more for working partnerships on the economic, social, religious and cultural levels," he responds.

"If American Jews can find ways to participate on any of these levels, they will do significant good for the Jewish people."

The New Face of the UJ

Sitting in his sunny Bel Air hilltop office, the president of the University of Judaism (UJ), Dr. Robert Wexler, is in a cheerful mood.

A high-profile lecture series of top American and Israeli personalities is generating national attention and an unexpected financial bonanza. The university’s continuing education arm is innovating new programs and drawing close to 10,000 participants. Enrollment in the young rabbinical school is running higher than anticipated.

Granted, there are also some nagging problems. As always, the fluctuating fiscal health of the institution is worrisome. The uncertain impact of the Sept. 11 attacks and a sliding economy has Wexler "holding my breath," he says. Undergraduate enrollment remains low. And some critics charge that the UJ has forsaken its responsibility as the flagship of Conservative Judaism on the West Coast.

The evolution of the University of Judaism and its 50-year-old president are closely intertwined. The UJ was founded in 1947, and Wexler was born three years later. In 1968, fresh out of high school, Wexler took his first UJ course during the summer session.

After receiving a doctorate in Near Eastern studies at UCLA and his ordination as a Conservative rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), followed by a lectureship at Princeton University, Wexler joined the UJ in 1978 as assistant to the dean of students.

In 1992, he followed the highly respected Dr. David Lieber as UJ president.

The institution Wexler took over was co-founded by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education and by the JTS in New York, the rabbinical training and academic center of the Conservative movement. UJ’s guiding philosophy, however, was formulated by the great Jewish educator and thinker Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, author of the path-breaking "Judaism as a Civilization."

"Kaplan viewed the role of the Jewish university as a multicentered institution, in which the teaching of the liberal and fine arts was of equal importance to the training of rabbis," Wexler says.

The founding lay leaders of the UJ, men like Dore Schary and Milton Sperling, came from the Hollywood film industry and shared the view that the UJ should give equal emphasis to culture and to religion.

As to his personal outlook, Wexler says, "I am an observant Jew, but I feel just as comfortable with a social-action Jew or a cultural Jew."

He acknowledges that UJ administrators may not have consistently clarified their philosophical viewpoint, leading later to criticism among some Conservative synagogues.

In practice, Wexler interprets the UJ’s "general educational mission to the community" and "eclectic approach to Judaism" broadly enough so that it easily accommodates a lecture series featuring former President Bill Clinton (Jan. 14); former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (Feb. 11); political strategist James Carville (March 11); and Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (April 22).

Spearheaded by a massive advertising campaign — including full-page ads in the Western editions of Time and Newsweek featuring the slogan, "If the University of Judaism can bring today’s leaders to L.A. — imagine what it can bring to you," — the lecture series has been met with a public response that has even stunned its organizers.

The lectures were originally booked for the 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but as the wave of ticket requests rolled in, they were quickly transferred to the Universal Amphitheatre, which seats 5,000 in the orchestra level, and 1,200 in the mezzanine.

After the change of venue, the idea was to restrict seating to the lower level, but as demand continued, the upper level was opened up as well. By early this week, all but a hundred of the mezzanine tickets had been sold, and it’s almost certain there will be a full house by the time Clinton takes the podium.

"I had no idea this series would be so popular," Wexler says, even though all four speakers have been closely involved in American-Israeli relations "I guess people, especially after Sept. 11, want direct access to those who have been in power. It’s different from seeing them on TV," he adds.

The financial payback on the lecture series is equally impressive. Assuming the mezzanine is also filled, a total of 6,200 tickets will have been sold.

Of these, 120 tickets went for $2,500 each, with the holders entitled to a private dinner with each of the speakers. That’s a total of $300,000.

Next, 400 people bought tickets at $400 each, entitling them to attend post-talk receptions for the speakers. That’s another $160,000.

That leaves 5,680 general reserved seats for the series, going at $180 each, totaling $1,022,400.

The grand total thus comes to $1,482,400.

What about the expenses? Both Wexler and the Harry Walker Agency in New York, which represents Clinton and Barak, declined to discuss the speakers’ fees.

However, inquiries to other booking agencies and to professionals familiar with the process yielded a fairly close consensus on the following going rates:

President Clinton: $100,000-$125,000, plus expenses for three people and transportation by private jet.

Albright: $50,000-$70,000, plus first-class plane fare.

Barak: $50,000 and first-class fare from Israel for himself and party of two. (Since Barak is scheduled for other appearances in the United States in April, the transportation expenses might be shared.)

Carville: A bargain at $20,000, plus first-class airfare.

So, fees alone for the four speakers range between $220,000 and $265,000, not including airfare. Even doubling this figure, and more, for rental at Universal, transportation, advertising, extensive security, first-class hotel accommodations and dinners, the UJ should end up with a very handsome profit, which Wexler says will go for scholarships.

Not everybody is cheering for the lecture series. Wexler says he has received about 20 messages objecting, some quite forcefully, to the democratic and liberal orientation of the speakers.

Others charged that Clinton and his advisers "have aided and abetted the foes of Israel," in the words of one writer. And one or two notes alluded to Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.

"We have previously received similar messages, from the other side, when we had conservative speakers like [talk show host] Dennis Prager," Wexler says. "We are not honoring or endorsing any speakers, but we will continue to present them as long as they are respectable and we can learn from them."

The lecture series was the brainchild of Gady Levy, the 32-year-old dean of UJ’s department of continuing education, whom Wexler credits with reinvigorating and expanding UJ’s sizable outreach and extension program.

Close to 10,000 people annually participate in a diversified program of classes, tours, lectures, seminars, forums and special events, mainly held in the evenings and on Sundays.

Levy also launched Yesod ("foundation" in Hebrew), an intensive two-year biblical and Jewish studies program, held in partnership with 10 Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues.

Now in the works is a videoconferencing program, linking UJ faculty with adult students in Palm Springs and San Jose.

Innovative projects are under way in other parts of the campus. At the Whizin Center for the Jewish Future, director Ron Wolfson is working toward formation of a Jewish Teacher Service Corps, modeled on the Teach for America program.

He hopes to alleviate the shortage of qualified teachers in Jewish day schools and synagogues by enlisting alumni of Birthright Israel and other Israel-centered programs, as well as recent college graduates in Jewish studies, for one- to two-year stints as teachers. (For more on visiting lecturer Mimi Feigelson, see page 52.)

Seminars and workshops for teachers and parents, directed by Risa Munitz-Gruberger, are emphasizing the key role of family education.

The university’s performing arts program hosted the world premiere of the full-scale musical "Haven," and Wexler is looking toward edgier projects, such as staging translated Israeli plays and readings of the works of younger Jewish writers.

"We have all this Hollywood talent here, and we want them not just as donors, but as participants," he says.

On the construction front, the current project is the Auerbach Student Center, which will serve as a combination fitness and student union center, with an adjoining Olympic-length swimming pool, soccer field and basketball court.

The UJ does not field any athletic teams, but under consideration is formation of a debating team, which should be a natural at a Jewish liberal arts college.

Visitors — impressed by the attractive UJ campus, the diversity of its activities, and frequent media attention — are often startled to learn that only 223 undergraduate and graduate students are enrolled on a regular, year-around basis.

The College of Arts and Sciences teaches 103 undergraduates, well below its earlier peak. The master of business administration program, designed for future administrators of nonprofit organizations, has 36 students. The Fingerhut School of Education, which grants master’s degrees in education and behavioral psychology, has 20 students.

The one branch of the academic program that is exceeding enrollment projections and is on the soundest financial footing is the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, with 64 future rabbis enrolled in the five-year study program.

"When we started the Ziegler school in 1996, we thought we’d take 10 new students each year, for a total of 50 at all five levels, because there wouldn’t be enough jobs for any more," Wexler says.

But since then, rabbinical job opportunities have greatly expanded beyond the usual congregational pulpits, especially in the fields of education and community service.

"Now even The Jewish Federation has a rabbi in residence," Wexler marvels. "Who would have thought of that 30 years ago, when The Federation barely tolerated its Board of Rabbis."

Plans now call for the annual admission of 20 new students in the rabbinic school, and a total student body of 100.

The UJ also co-sponsors two programs in Israel. A one-year program for high school graduates, conducted jointly with Young Judea, is currently dormant, in light of the intifada and the Sept. 11 attacks. However, a third-year program for rabbinical students, a joint venture with the JTS, remains on course.

Among some Conservative synagogue members, particularly those who have been part of the Conservative movement from childhood on, criticism is being leveled at the UJ and Wexler administration on both philosophical and practical grounds.

"I used to think of the UJ as the center of the Conservative movement on the West Coast, but now the only thing Conservative about it consists of the Ziegler rabbinical school, Camp Ramah and the Introduction to Judaism classes," says Michael Waterman, vice president of finance at Valley Beth Shalom.

As it stands now, "the UJ has marooned the Conservative movement and left it without a focal point," says Waterman, adding, "If the Conservative movement is to survive, it can’t be a loose confederation of synagogues, with each rabbi or board of directors making their own rules. There has to be a central authority."

His criticism is reinforced by Jules Porter, a former member of the UJ board of directors and past president of both the university’s Patrons Society and Sinai Temple.

"I am disappointed that the UJ has been turned into a generic cultural and community institution, whose ambition seems to be to become the Princeton of the West Coast," Porter says.

Wexler acknowledges these criticisms as a "fair statement," but believes that the critics are nostalgic for a type of institution that never really existed.

The UJ has never aimed to be the flagship of Conservative Judaism or the interpreter of Conservative religious doctrine, Wexler argues. "Our rabbinical school is Conservative. The rest of the university is basically nondenominational."

Doctrinal interpretations lie partially within the purview of the JTS in New York, but mainly with the Rabbinical Assembly, the worldwide association of Conservative rabbis, Wexler says.

"When the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards rules, for instance, that it’s OK to drive to the synagogue on Shabbat — but only to the synagogue — or that openly homosexual rabbis cannot become members of the Rabbinical Assembly, then Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson [dean of the Ziegler school] has to comply with these rules, regardless of how he feels about them personally," Wexler notes.

A second criticism by Waterman and Porter, more immediate and emotional than philosophical differences, turns on the UJ’s past and planned actions in "evicting" other Conservative organizations and school classes from its campus.

The West Coast offices of the United Synagogue, the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations, and the United Synagogue Youth, were asked to find other quarters some time ago.

But what brings the critics’ blood to a boil now is the UJ’s demand that the Los Angeles Hebrew High School move its Sunday classes off campus.

Currently, the school’s seventh- to 12th-graders meet twice a week at seven different synagogue locations, but the 400-500 students study together on Sundays for three and a half hours in 25 UJ classrooms. The UJ space was provided free until last June, when the school was asked to hold its Sunday classes somewhere else. When Hebrew High objected, the UJ asked for $100,000 for a year’s extension, says Waterman, an attorney who teaches ethics classes at the school. The parties ultimately agreed on a $50,000 payment, with the matter to be reopened next June.

One result of the friction between some Conservative synagogues — with VBS in the forefront — and the UJ, is that VBS has changed the beneficiary of its annual fundraising breakfast. Formerly, all the proceeds went directly to the UJ. Now money is specifically earmarked for the Ziegler rabbinical school, although, Waterman says, the Ziegler school is already well-endowed, while the 54-year-old UJ as a whole is running in the red.

Waterman readily concedes that his criticism of the UJ represents a minority viewpoint among Conservative synagogue leaders.

More typical are the opinions of Elaine Berke, also a VBS member and a past president of The Jewish Federation’s Valley Alliance, who serves on the board of UJ’s think tank, the Center for Policy Options.

"I wasn’t brought up in the Conservative movement, so I don’t have a particular ax to grind," she says. "Every institution has to grow up and assume its own identity. It may be a good thing that the UJ has become nondenominational."

Wexler says that the contentious Hebrew High issue simply comes down to a matter of space, and that organizations not part of the UJ have to go to make room for the university’s expanding continuing education and cultural programs.

While Wexler regrets any loss of financial support, he notes that the UJ is relying less and less on synagogue donations and more on contributions by individuals.

While he would not cite specific figures on the UJ’s financial situation, he observed "We are subject to ups and downs. Like any corporation, in flusher periods we upsize, and in leaner periods we downsize.

"We are holding our breath now to see how the events of Sept. 11 and the downturn in the economy will affect us. We’ll know better by the end of the calendar year."

One of the more drastic downturns confronted the UJ in 1997, when, facing a $2 million deficit, the administration terminated the jobs of 14 of its 100 faculty and staff.

Another below-the-surface indicator of fiscal problems has been the "unnaming" of the College of Arts and Sciences. In the 1980s, it became the Lee College, in honor of British philanthropists Norman and Sadie Lee, presumably after a large donation.

Two years ago, the "Lee" name was dropped, following "a confidential understanding with the Lee family," Wexler says.

The university is now looking for a new sponsor, one bearing a hefty endowment. One report — that if no such philanthropist is found the college may have to close down — was firmly denied by Wexler, who says that there are "no plans whatsoever" to discontinue the college.

Toward the end of the nearly two-hour interview, Wexler turned toward the future of the 54-year old university"All our programs are directed toward one goal, and that is to make a real impact on the shape and direction of American Judaism," he says. "We are very much a California institution, which means that we will always be innovative, that we will always look forward."

Money In The Bank

In addition to wanting to get back the Golan Heights, Syrian President Hafez Assad also is hoping that normalized relations with Israel will help improve the faltering Syrian economy — and Israeli officials already are preparing for that.

“We are mapping the Syrian economy to see what kind of trade avenues could be opened,” said Reuven Horesh, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade.

In an interview during a United States visit, Horesh said it was too soon to discuss the nature of that trade, but that “there are commodities they could export.”

He noted that Syria is “economically isolated” because it does not want to be dependent on Iraq and Iran to its north.

“The only way to ease that is to open up the south,” and that means trade with Israel, said Horesh.

Normalized relations with Israel also could open Syria to trade and aid from the West, and removal from the U.S. list of terrorist nations.

Syria’s economy is among the most stagnant in the region, with unemployment at 30 percent in some communities. Analysts believe it has contracted in the last two years, and that a widespread drought and declining oil sales this year compounded the problem.

There is concern, too, that Syria may not have enough food to feed its 16 million citizens, according to a recent study released by the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University.

The study attributed Syria’s economic problems to its failure to implement privatization and its opposition to reforms. It said a law passed in 1991 to encourage foreign investment had failed to do so, and that those who did invest were withdrawing.

Syria’s foreign debt is $21 billion — much of it owed to Russia — compared to its $17 billion GNP. Per capita income is only about $1,000.

And the study found an almost complete lack of a banking system. “You can’t imagine how backward the country is,” said the study’s author Gil Feiler.

Horesh said he is aware that Syria is “suffering a severe economic toll because of its isolation by Israel, which is a major player economically.” Horesh believes “Assad is looking at the Golan Heights issues as an internal political issue. If he gets it back, it will be a boost to his very fragile regime.”

Horesh, who was in the U.S. to attend the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, said he does not believe a peace treaty with Syria will mean that much insofar as Israel’s relations with the rest of the Arab world.

“I don’t see a change until the Israeli-Palestinian situation is resolved,” he said. “I then see frozen ties melted and the peace dividend start to be paid.”

Trade between Israel and Jordan is expected to benefit from such an accord. It has been hovering at the $27 million level, compared with $2.5 billion in trade now being conducted between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Trade between Israel and Egypt amounts to no more than a few million dollars, said Horesh, despite their peace agreement signed two decades ago.

“We, in our ministry, are talking to anyone who wants to talk to us — enemy states, those we have peace with,” said Horesh. “We believe the way to help the peace is to enhance economic ties. Money talks.”

In striving to improve Israel’s economy, Ran Cohen, minister of Industry and Trade, said he was concerned about “the very wide economic gap with our neighbors. We would not like to replace the military conflict between Israel, the Arab countries and the Palestinians with an economic conflict. Their per capital income is at the $1,000 or $1,400 level [Israel’s is $16,400], so I want to meet with the ministers of industry and trade in Egypt, Syria and Jordan to help them strengthen their economies.”

He noted that already Israel is working with the Palestinians to build nine industrial zones — eight in the West Bank and one in the Gaza Strip bordering Israel, Gaza and Egypt. Cohen said the latter will be a full high-tech industrial park and is expected to be built in the near future.

“I and my partner, the minister of industry of the Palestinian Authority, are leading a steering committee of Israelis and Palestinians,” he said. “In two to three weeks, we will complete the work of how these industrial parks will be built. They will create 50,000 new jobs for Palestinians and tens of thousands of new jobs for Israelis.”

Cohen noted that the Palestinians could have built the industrial parks on their own, but chose instead “to build it with me and my government.

In this way, we will be helping ourselves and our neighbors, and strengthening the political line of peace through the economic line.”

Stewart Ain is a staff writer with The Jewish Week