Wandering Jew – A Nosh of the Big Apple

It seemed the perfect thing to do on a recent winter Sunday in New York — visit some synagogues and nosh on ethnic foods.

So my husband and two sons got in the car, drove through an amazingly empty Manhattan to the Lower East Side and joined the second annual Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy Noshing Tour Extravaganza.

Once home to 500 houses of prayer around the turn of the 19th century, now only about 20 remain active on the Lower East Side. The area has gone through numerous incarnations since after World War II, when many Jewish families moved up and out to other parts of the city or to the suburbs.

At one point the neighborhood was considered so dangerous, people were afraid to walk the streets at night, but now it is experiencing something of a renaissance among Jews and non-Jews alike.

We had no idea if we would be the only ones to brave the cold and damp but were pleasantly surprised; about 30 people made up our tour.

The first stop was Congregation Chasam Sopher, which was built in 1853 and is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the Lower East Side.

The synagogue underwent a $3 million renovation and now is a stunning jewel boasting beautiful stained glass illuminating the 12 tribes, chandeliers and polished pews.

“This building was done from the ground to roof,” Eugene Weiser, president of the congregation, told us. The previous temple president, by the way, was his father, Morris Weiser, a Holocaust survivor.

The snacks, cookies and other sweets were a welcome treat, especially for our sons, Ben and Gabriel, ages 10 and 7.

Our next synagogue was Congregation B’nai Jacob Anshei Brezezan, also known as the Stanton Street Shul, where we gathered in the basement for herring, garbanzo beans and potatonik heated on the radiators, just as it is every morning for the men who gather for a minyan. (This nosh was appreciated more by my husband and me than our sons.)

Founded in 1894 by immigrant Jews from the town of Brezezany in Poland, the synagogue is tall and narrow, a classic example of tenement-style synagogue architecture.

Elissa Sampson, Lower East Side native, synagogue historian and enthusiastic speaker, stood on a table and told us about the stages her shul has undergone in trying to survive over the years.

She showed the synagogue’s constitution, which stipulated how much each member could expect in burial money as well as the amounts of aid tendered to the disabled, widowed or orphaned. She brought alive the sense that each of the synagogues that used to densely populate the area were tight-knit congregations that mirrored not just the recent immigrants’ home country, but their hometowns.

B’nai Jacob also is “one of the last functioning synagogues in the area that has old-timers and new arrivals,” she said. One of their youngest congregants, a 3-year-old, entered the synagogue, then grabbed a cane, so he could be like the old men he sees at prayer.

After our snack, we went upstairs to the shul. Divided by a curtain between men and women, it’s in shabby condition, with peeling frescoes, decades-old round fluorescent lights and a few boarded-up windows.

The good news is, the buckets once needed to catch the rain are gone, because the roof has been fixed.

“The windows still need to be repaired,” Sampson said. “It’s a race against time.”

The tour continued, but we almost gave up at that point. It was rainy, we seemed to be walking forever and, despite the delicious food, our spirits were flagging.

But we continued, and were glad we did. The final synagogue was Kehila Kedosha Janina, the last remaining Greek-language, Romaniote-tradition synagogue in the western hemisphere — and it is still operating in its original form.

We had never heard of Romaniote Jews, an obscure branch of Judaism, a tiny minority within a minority.

They are Jews who, after the destruction of the Second Temple, were sent on a slave ship to Rome. Instead, a storm forced them to land in Greece, where over the next 2,000 years they developed uniquely different ethnic and religious customs.

Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos, president of the Association of Friends of Greek Jewry and the synagogue’s museum director, showed us the beautiful Torah scrolls wrapped around such heavy tubes that during Simcha Torah, she said, they put out a call for some of the younger, stronger men to help carry them.

The synagogue has no paid membership, but a mailing list of 3,000 households nationwide, and its leaders organize annual visits to Greece to help revitalize its Jewish community.

“We are the remnants of the Romaniote Jews,” Ikonomopoulos said.

A Holocaust memorial sits in the corner of the shul, easy to overlook but breathtaking in its simplicity. It is a Mogen David, with shards of glass representing Kristallnacht. Six memorial candles burn, for the 6 million killed. And on the ground are stones taken from Corfu that Greek Jews walked on when they were rounded up on June 9, 1944, never to return.

The building is undergoing the first stages of interior restoration, which will replace the antiquated electrical system and add air conditioning, along with re-doing plastering and painting while staying as close as possible to the look of the original interior.

Our tour ended with stuffed grape leaves, sugary sweets and, of course, olives. We then stepped out into the streets of the Lower East Side, which now — to our newly educated eyes — seemed to have a patina of the 19th century overlaid on modern Manhattan.

For tours of the Lower East Side synagogues, visit

Negev + Galilee = Israel’s Future

“The Negev and the Galilee comprise 70 percent of the area of the State of Israel with 30 percent of its populace, but they guarantee 100 percent of the future of the state,” said Ron Pelmer, the director of Or National Initiatives, a nonprofit organization that helps to develop Israel’s periphery.

Pelmer spoke at November’s Sderot Conference for Social and Economic Policy, at a session devoted to developing the Negev and the Galilee. The phrase “Gedera to Hadera” — referring to the metropolitan sprawl where most of Israel’s populace lives — was oft heard in comparison with the Negev and the Galilee, considered Israel’s peripheries. Attracting people to the peripheries will take an overall strategy, he noted.

Jewish Agency Chairman Ze’ev Bielski, who chaired the session, described the agency’s role in bringing together Israeli philanthropists and their Diaspora counterparts to help the government implement its decision to develop the Negev. In June, the agency agreed to the multiyear funding of Daroma, a company comprising Israeli and Diaspora businesspeople and public officials who will devote time and resources to develop the Negev. Likewise, Tzafona will be established to help develop the Galilee.

“Real Zionism is to encourage all to move to the Negev and the Galilee,” said Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit, adding that the key to developing the peripheries lies in improving transportation to the center of the country. Efficient transportation, he said, will change the periphery into suburbia.

Sheetrit would like every citizen to be able to reach a large urban center within half an hour. Train lines have expanded in recent years, and further expansion is planned. A new train line will shorten travel time from the Negev to Tel Aviv, and another line will bring the Galilee closer to Haifa. Highway 6 (the Trans-Israel Highway) already connects Gedera to Hadera. By 2007, two new sections will extend the highway north and south.

Sheetrit rejected the government policy of offering tax incentives, since only 20 percent of the periphery’s residents reach tax brackets entitling them to such incentives. “It would be better to take the money and invest in a long school day, thus providing equal opportunities for each child. Education is the real answer for social change,” he said.

“The State of Israel will not advance without the Negev and the Galilee. We will have serious problems if we don’t develop these areas,” said Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick of the Sacta-Rashi Foundation, a private family fund dedicated to assisting the underprivileged in Israel’s geographic and social periphery. Although an interministerial government committee has been established, Brick stressed the role of nongovernment organizations, some voluntary, in filling the gap until the government becomes more involved.

The Or movement hopes to market homes in the Negev to 108,000 people by developing housing, services and employment opportunities. It has already helped establish six settlements — five in the Negev and one in the Galilee — and expand 25 moshavim and kibbutzim.

Pelmer moved with his family from Petah Tikva to Sansana in the northern Negev, providing an example for others. “In the Negev there are 200 professional job offers every month, and in the Galilee, 400,” Pelmer said. He wants to prevent people from leaving these areas and attract more young and young-at-heart residents. Since army bases dot the Negev, families of military personnel will live there if services are sufficiently developed, he said. Or is also trying to attract large companies to the area.

The Strauss-Elite food concern is an example of a large firm reaping the financial benefits of operating in the periphery. “It’s a win-win situation,” Director-General Giora Bar Deah said. “There are economic advantages in these areas, like tax breaks and benefits. There’s no shame in benefiting from them.”

Ofra Strauss, chairperson of the Strauss-Elite Group and a Jewish Agency board member, provides an example of industry’s positive involvement by volunteering as a driving force behind the agency’s Babayit Beyahad program that matches veteran Israelis with new immigrants.

Representing local government, Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri placed the blame for his city’s decline since 1982 on government policy, along with lack of local leadership and a master plan. At Acre’s helm since 2003, Lankri has improved infrastructure, developed tourism and stemmed the tide of residents leaving the city. Acre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“As a mayor, I have taken upon myself to improve a city with potential. We must not be alone in this. Without the government bringing strong populations and increasing grants, we are unable to do it alone,” he said.

Young people are seen as the key to development. Discharged IDF soldiers founded the Ayalim association with the aim of keeping students in the peripheries after they complete their studies. Today there are some 26,000 students at southern venues, including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Sapir College, where the Sderot Conference took place. There are some 47,000 students in northern colleges and universities. Most will later return to the center of the country to find employment.

The main crop of Kibbutz Ashbal in the Galilee is education. Founded a few years ago, its 60 members — all graduates of the Hano’ar Ha’oved Vehalomed youth movement — are involved in educational projects, some unconventional. They work with 4,000 local children and youths from all social sectors, including Jews, Arabs and Bedouin. The kibbutz has a dormitory for Ethiopian immigrant youths who might otherwise have dropped out of school, and has established five study centers in Arab villages.

Professor Alean Al-Krenawi, head of BGU’s Department of Social Work, feels that the Israeli Arab population is ignored. A Bedouin whose brother is mayor of Rahat, Al-Krenawi believes that the programs and initiatives for the Negev serve to weaken the Bedouin population and increase the gaps between them and their Jewish neighbors.

“One cannot ignore the 1.5 million Arabs in Israel. The Arab Bedouin population of the Negev is in a dire economic situation,” he said.

Eitan Broshi, head of the Jezreel Valley regional council, bemoaned the lack of government involvement but also noted the dearth of leaders from the periphery. “Since the days of Ben-Gurion there has been no national leadership from these areas,” he said.

Broshi argued that transportation options are not the solution for outlying areas. “Young people need a purpose and the means to live in these areas. Once people moved to these areas as a national mission. Today they look for self-fulfillment.”

Although the challenge of developing Israel’s peripheries is daunting, Bielski suggests to “look at what we’ve done in the past 57 years” and gain encouragement for the future.


There’s a New Deputy in Town

Competition for postings to Los Angeles is fierce within the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and two young diplomats who made the grade, Yaron Gamburg and Gilad Millo, have joined the staff of the consulate general here.

Gamburg, 34, has taken over the post of deputy consul general, the No. 2 man after Ehud Danoch, and is concentrating on political and security issues, as well as relations with the Latino, Korean, Russian, Israeli and Persian communities.

Born in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, the hometown of the great Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik and 60 percent Jewish before the Holocaust, Gamburg made aliyah to Israel at age 18.

After earning a master’s degree in political science at the Hebrew University, Gamburg worked on immigrant absorption before joining the Foreign Ministry.

His first major assignment was a three-year stint as spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, followed, for the last two years, as director of the Foreign Ministry’s cadet course, a kind of basic training for future diplomats.

Reflecting the attractiveness of the career diplomatic service, some 2,500 Israelis apply for jobs each year, of whom only some 20 are accepted, Gamburg said.

Close to 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union, like Gamburg himself, have had an enormous impact on Israeli society and the economy. They make up some 40 percent of the work force in Israel’s high-tech sector, outnumbering all past and present Technion graduates.

Gamburg is married to Delphine, a native of France, and their son, Tal, has just celebrated his first birthday.

Gilad Millo, the new consul for communications and public affairs, was literally born into the foreign service. His father, Yehuda Millo, served 37 years as an Israeli diplomat, including as ambassador to Italy, and young Gilad was raised, two or three years at a time, in Bonn, London, New York, Ankara and Jerusalem.

He did not immediately follow in his father’s footsteps, starting off as a singer in the Israeli rock band, White Donkey, and then as a television reporter and editor on the foreign news desk of Israel’s independent Channel 2.

Millo, also 34, joined the Foreign Ministry three years ago, initially serving as its youngest spokesman. During the past two years, he has been the deputy head of the Israeli mission to Kenya and six other African nations.

During his term, he initiated extensive food relief projects for malnourished African children and was the driving force in the formation of the African Women’s Forum for Israel.

Besides media relations, Millo is also responsible for academic and cultural affairs, and he is visibly frustrated that practically all the news headlines about Israel in the United States are about the conflict with the Palestinians and terrorism.

“Media reporting on Israel seems to follow the rule, ‘If it bleeds, it leads,'” he said. “In reality, Israel is a fascinating place. We are leaders in technology and agriculture, we have great universities and wonderful beaches.

“There are stories to be told about our business initiatives, the environment, what we’re doing to help developing countries, how we’ve dealt with masses of immigrants, and so forth,” he emphasized.

Millo met his wife, Hadas, while both were serving in the army, and they have two children, Omer, 6, and 2-year-old Lisa.

The jurisdiction of the Los Angeles-based consulate includes Southern California, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.