Mothers’ March

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith in Unique Places

When it comes to faith, Niles Goldstein seems to have it in spades — at least the faith in his own survival. After all, when the 36-year-old rabbi went on a quest to find God, he didn’t play musical synagogues or do a Beatles-style sit-in with the Maharishi. Instead, he set out on a variety of dangerous pilgrimages, ranging from trekking along the unpredictable Silk Road of Central Asia to cruising with federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents through the South Bronx.

Being chased by a ravenous grizzly bear out in the wilderness may seem like an odd approach to exploring the tug-of-war between uncertainty and faith, but Goldstein came away with a deeper understanding of this universal struggle, which he shared with fellow spirituality-seekers at The New Shul, his three-year-old multidenominational congregation in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Then came Sept. 11, and with the nation’s faith tested to a previously unimaginable degree, Goldstein high-tailed it to Ground Zero.

"A priest colleague used the phrase ‘ministry of presence,’ and I think that applies to how I was trying to help," he explains. "Just coming together and being there made people believe in the flip side of despair."

Now, from April 19-21, Goldstein will be in Los Angeles for the Faith and Leadership Conference. He will discuss the impact of the attacks on faith — his own and others’ — as well as the relationship between faith and leadership on both a global and day-to-day level.

"Human nature hasn’t changed," says Goldstein of the post-Sept. 11 zeitgeist, "but we got a glimpse of a world that people like us generally don’t see. Now, even the most progressive Jews are finding that faith can offer spiritual nourishment in the form of ritual."

Ritual is not a word normally associated with this unconventional hipster, who is most often found in faded jeans and a T-shirt. A karate blackbelt and well-known author, Goldstein co-founded The New Shul, "a downtown shul with a downtown sensibility," along with two Emmy Award-winning theater professionals. Yet, while some have described The New Shul’s sensibility as avant-garde, Goldstein sees it another way. "The independent congregation frees us up to honor our tradition and excavate old rituals that have fallen into disuse and can be made relevant today." Rituals like the 2,000-year-old Jewish rain dance, which the rabbi says has residues in Orthodox liturgy, has been reinterpreted by him with chanting and music.

Then there are the Goldstein-led Jewish Outward Bound trips. "These challenges and bonding experiences can be used to teach Jewish values," Goldstein says.

It is not surprising that the poster boy for being "on the edge" is at the forefront of exploring the link between faith and leadership in everything from community activism to entertainment industry moguldom. "Any business entrepreneur knows that the willingness to take risks is critical," Goldstein says. "Kierkegaard said that faith is a leap. When you operate from a place of faith, you risk falling down and making mistakes. But that’s far more satisfying than embracing status quo."

As part of the Faith and Leadership Weekend, Rabbi Niles Goldstein will speak on Friday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m., on "Brushes With the Sacred: An Experimental Approach to Mitzvah" at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, 8844 Burton Way; and at the all-day conference on Sunday, April 21 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15550 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 761-8674.