Syrian fighting decimates tourism industry

Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. International flights into and out of the capital continued despite throughout 20-months of fighting between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the rebels seeking to depose him. But as of Friday, the flights have stopped.

The decision was taken and all flights were cancelled when government jets bombed rebel positions close to the airport. EgyptAir announced on Sunday that it would resume flights to Damascus, but that did not appear to happen. The Egyptian flag-carrier had been operating daily flights between Cairo and Damascus, as well as several weekly flights from Cairo to Aleppo.

Ali Zein El-Abedeen of EgyptAir told The Media Line that flights to Aleppo were resumed on Monday, but the flight to Damascus did not take off.

In any case, the nation’s tourism industry, an important sector in quieter times, has — not surprisingly — been decimated by the fighting, which has left more than 40,000 Syrians, many of them civilians, dead. Tourism was responsible for five percent of Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011, and directly supported 270,000 jobs according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Arab tourists do not need visas to visit Syria, and more than three million traditionally come annually for family visits or on business.

“I used to go to Syria for a week every month,” Adnan Habbab, the owner of Nawafir Tours in Jordan told The Media Line. “There are 3,000 archaeological sites in Syria alone.”

It takes just two hours to drive, or 25 minutes to fly between Amman and Damascus. Habbab’s agency marketed week-long tours of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to Europeans and sold between 10,000 and 12,000 packages every year. They even opened two hotels in Damascus. Now, he says, he has laid- off  90 of his one hundred employees.

“We lost millions of dollars in profit,” he said. “Since May 2011, everyone has cancelled their trips to Syria.”

The American government has issued a stern warning against travel to Syria.

“The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Syria and strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately,” the warning says. “This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning dated August 1, 2012, to remind U.S. citizens that the security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with an increased risk of kidnappings, and to update contact information.
No part of Syria should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, including kidnappings.”

While several foreign airlines including Air Arabia and Fly Dubai, in addition to EgyptAir, had been operating flights to Damascus, they had cut their numbers significantly during the past few months. Only a handful of flights were landing in Damascus even before the current stoppage.

“Damascus has always been a place where flight service has been incredibly volatile,” Toby Nicol, the communications director for the World Travel and Tourism Council told The Media Line. “Ettihad Air was due to resume flying next month, and Air Dubai still lists flights to Syria, but I have no idea of who is currently flying.”

Nicols says that he has not visited Damascus and does not plan to in the near future.

“It’s one of those places where I always meant to go but never got around to it,” he said. “Now it will probably have to wait for at least 18 months.”

There seems to be no end in sight for the fighting in Syria. Turkish officials said Syria resumed an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain, near the border with Turkey. They said two bombs hit a Syrian security building that had been captured by the rebels.

The officials said shrapnel from the bombing landed on Turkish territory but no one was injured.

Bulgarian police release photo of bomb attack accomplice

Bulgarian police released a computer-generated image and a fake driver’s license photo of a man believed to be an accomplice in the bombing of an Israeli tour bus in Burgas that killed six.

The fake Michigan driver’s license is registered to Jacques Philippe Martin, but investigators have learned that the man from the photo introduced himself by other names, according to the Focus information agency.

The man appears to be wearing a wig in the license photo. It was originally believed that the license belonged to the dead suicide bomber, but it was later determined to belong to an accomplice.

Five Israelis and the bus driver were killed in the July 18 attack on a tour bus full of Israeli tourists shortly after boarding in the Burgas airport.

Spain reaches out to American Jewish tourists

Unless you can read artistically distorted Hebrew, you might not realize that the logo of a program by Spain’s tourism board spells out the four letters of “Sepharad,” the Hebrew word for Spain. And unless you know European geography, you might not realize that the distorted Hebrew letters represent the outline — the national borders — of Spain.

On June 11, this Hebrew logo was on display as Spanish tourism officials — and city mayors — met with Southern California tour operators and travel writers to present a wide-ranging effort by the Spanish government to urge American Jews to visit Spanish sites important in Jewish history.

Called Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters, Routes of Sepharad (in Spanish: Red de Juderías de España, Caminos de Sefarad), this concerted push includes 24 Spanish cities that have restored and highlighted medieval areas that — more than 500 years ago — were home to thriving Jewish communities that produced Moses Maimonides, Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Benjamin of Tudela, among other luminaries. Spanish officials hope these renovated Jewish quarters will become must-visit destinations for American Jewish tourists.

Officials made their pitch at the stately Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, where the sanctuary design, décor and picturesque patio are reminiscent of classical Spain and where some prayers are still recited in Ladino, the medieval Iberian language Jewish exiles took with them to various lands after 1492, when they were expelled from Spain.

When asked about the expulsion, Ferran Bel Accensi, president of the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters and mayor of Tortosa, told The Journal, “What happened 500 years ago should never have happened, of course. We recognize that. At the same time, we realize that the descendants of those Jews who were forced to leave retain a love and esteem for Spain. What happened in 1492 is part of our history, and we don’t want to ignore it. We talk about it when we are at those sites. While acknowledging the past, the 24 cities involved in this program have embraced the positive aspects of those cities’ Jewish heritage, and they celebrate our shared history, art, gastronomy and culture.”

Assumpció Hosta Rebés, secretary-general of the Network of Jewish Quarters, pointed out that an excursion into the history of Jewish life in Spain can be divided up in various ways: by regions of the country or by cultural focus.

Rebés added that the network is guided by the RASGO program (an acronym representing Restaurants, Accommodations, Signposting, Guides, and Cultural Offerings), which ensures the availability of kosher food, good hotels and knowledgeable guides at all the historical sites, as well as good street signs and a variety of Jewish cultural events, such as music, art and literature.

“This program focuses on the Jewish community and emphasizes the Jewish roots they can find in Spain,” Rebés said. “We are trying to connect with American Jews, to let them know that Spain is an important part of their heritage. We want visitors to the Jewish quarters to come not just once, but again and again.”

Report: Jewish tourists in Jordan assaulted

A group of kipah-clad Jewish tourists in Jordan reportedly was harassed and attacked by locals.

Arab media reported that Jordanians in the town of Al Karak grew agitated on Monday when they saw a few Jewish men wearing head coverings in the local market. They threw shoes at them and chased them away, Ynet reported, citing the Jordanian daily Al Arab al Youm.

The Anti-Defamation League described the incident concerning and called on the Jordanian government to investigate.

Missing U.S. tourist found dead in Israel

The body of an American tourist missing since last week was discovered near Beit Shean.

Herman Kuehn, 80, of Platte County, Mo., was separated from his group on May 26 while visiting antiquities sites in Beit Shean, in northern Israel. His body was discovered Tuesday in an industrial zone north of the city.

There were no signs of violence or foul play, according to Israeli news reports.

Kuehn and his wife, Mary, were in Israel for a tour through the St. Paul School of Theology. They are members of the Pine Ridge Presbyterian Church, according to a local Missouri television station.

Kuehn had suffered a head injury several years ago and sometimes became confused, the family told Israeli media. The family on Monday released a statement thanking people who had been praying for the return of their family patriarch.

A large-scale search was mounted over the weekend for the missing tourist.

More Information on Getting That Visa

Visa Violations

The U.S. government estimates that about 40 percent of people who are in this country illegally arrived on a legal visa but lost their legal status either by overstaying or otherwise violating the terms of their visa. These are sometimes referred to as “nonimmigrant overstayers.”

Nonimmigrant overstayers include those who came here on a student visa (F-1 or M-1 visa, depending on the type of studies pursued) or their family’s visa (F-2 or M-2). Others come on a tourist visa (B-2) or temporary business visa (B-1).

Another visa commonly used by nonimmigrant overstayers is the H-series visa (H-1, H-2, etc.), which permits those with specialty occupations to enter the country, as well as their families, who enter with an H-4 visa. Another visa commonly used is the R-1, those permitted to enter the United States as “religious workers” and their spouses and children, who enter with an R-2 visa.

All of the above-cited visas are violated if the bearers remain in the United States in a different status from that stipulated in the visa, or if they stay beyond the valid period.

Aid for Those Who Overstay

There are a number of agencies that can help people who are here illegally and would like to talk with someone without fear of being arrested or deported.

Here is a partial list:

  • HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, offers a variety of services and acts as advocates for migrants’ rights. Their main office is in New York, 333 Seventh Ave., 16th floor, New York, NY 10001-5004. (212) 967-4100, (212) 613-1409 or (800) 442-714.
  • In Southern California, Public Counsel has a program called Immigrants’ Rights Project, which offers a variety of services. Public Counsel, P.O. Box 76900, Los Angeles, CA 90076. (213) 385-2977. Their office is located at 610 Ardmore Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90005, and their phone number at that office is (213) 385-9089. They accept appointments only, no walk-ins.
  • Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) offers a variety of services. They are located at 5228 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90022. For more information, call (213) 640-3883 or visit
  • The American Civil Liberties Union also offers aid at 1616 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90026. (213) 977-9500.

There are also many private attorneys and legal firms that offer services to those in this situation. L.A. newspapers in Spanish, Hebrew, Russian and other languages all have ads for immigration attorneys who are experienced in dealing with cases involving nonimmigrant overstayers and other immigrant issues.

Israel – Tourists Unfazed by Gaza Pullout

For visitors to Israel this summer, the disengagement from the Gaza Strip proved hard to ignore.

“Everybody’s orange,” said Rebecca Kaminski, from Berlin, with a laugh, referring to the color adopted by the anti-disengagement activists. “I’m on the blue side, I guess.”

Sitting on the beach in Netanya, the 22-year-old was working on her already impressive tan with a group of girlfriends, all students at a six-week summer ulpan, or Hebrew-language immersion course, in Kibbutz Mishmar Hasharon.

They have not been deterred from visiting Israel during its exit from the Gaza settlements and parts of the West Bank.

In fact, Kaminski is thrilled to be here right now.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a country that the whole world is watching. It’s historic.”

Her friend Sharon Asscher, 20, from Amsterdam, was not about to let the idea of trouble thwart her visit here.

“I haven’t come to Israel for five years because of the intifada and I missed it,” she said.

Alona Van t’Hoog, 25, from The Hague in Holland, is also a firm supporter of disengagement.

“I knew that, of course, it was going to be a hard time, but I have faith in the State of Israel and the army so I thought it would be OK,” Van t’Hoog said.

Sitting next to them on the sand, Melis Taragano, from Turkey, was less enthusiastic.

“It’s going to be bad for the Israeli people, I think, because here it’s going to be one big terror,” the 18-year-old said.

Tourism in Israel has yet to return to pre-intifada levels, with native Israelis still the dominant presence on beaches and boardwalks. But visitors are slowly returning as the threat of repeated suicide bombings fades. And with terror on the rise around the world, some vacationers reckon they may as well take their chances in Israel as anywhere else.

“They thought New York City was safe in 2001, and terrorists are blowing up London now, so is anywhere safe?” asks 30-year-old Marquis Cross from Baton Rouge, La., biting into a huge hamburger alongside his cousin James Yage at the Tel Aviv pub Mike’s Place, itself the site of a 2002 suicide bombing that killed three people.

Non-Jewish tourists, the pair have visited Jerusalem and taken in the Tel Aviv beaches, with the Dead Sea still to come.

“These are nice people. This is a fun city,” said Yage, 35, shaking more ketchup onto his fries.

And as for the political situation, “they’ve been going through these problems for years, and it seems pretty calm now,” he added in his Southern drawl.

“It’s pretty interesting, but I don’t have much of a view so I just turn on the sports,” Cross admitted sheepishly.

Dramatic television scenes of orange-clad settlers battling Israeli police and soldiers were ignored by retirees Samuel and Jutta Rosenblat, from Boca Raton, Fla. They were visiting the resort town of Herzliya, along with numerous members of their extended family, as they have for many years. Undeterred by terror in the past, they saw no reason why the disengagement — which they both support — should put them off this year.

“A lot of people in Florida are afraid to come every year because of the suicide bombings,” 82-year-old Jutta said. “It’s important to show that we’re not afraid and we have to support Israel.”

Her 83-year-old husband, a Holocaust survivor who was in five different concentration camps, agreed that showing faith in the Jewish state is vital.

“If we had had Israel before the war, then not so many Jews would have been killed,” he said. “We would have had somewhere to go.”

The disengagement has also provided an unexpected bonus to the tourism industry, especially in the southern parts of the country. Although most Israelis may be avoiding vacationing in the coastal region around Gaza, with the military imposing many restrictions on travel, journalists have flocked to the area.

Thousands of foreign journalists and TV crews snapped up every room in the vicinity, and kibbutzim close to Gaza rented out not only their bed-and-breakfast accommodations but all available spaces in their dining rooms, schools and community centers.


The Soul of Maui

There’s a Hawaiian legend about a pregnant woman who developed a craving for the eyeballs of royalty. Advisers to the king took this to mean that the woman’s child would one day grow up to defeat the king and rule all the islands. The king decreed that the baby be killed as soon as it was born. So the woman had her newborn boy spirited away and hidden from the king.

The boy became King Kamehameha, who indeed conquered the islands of Hawaii.

I read this Moses-like story one night, sitting on the balcony of our room at the Maui Prince Hotel.

It was Aug. 20, 2003. The planet Mars was orbiting closer to earth than it had in almost 80 years. The red planet would have appeared as a fireball in a star-addled sky. The waves crashed close by, and the sounds of a Hawaiian guitar drifted up from a small wedding reception below. Beside me, The New York Times front page offered tragic news from Israel — more suicide bombings — but at that moment Mars felt closer than the Middle East.

It was strange to be in a place of such magnificent tranquillity at a time of such unease, but that’s the point of vacations. And what we found in Maui and Molokai during our 10 days there last summer were places that not only helped us relax, but also replenished our souls.

We were in south Maui, staying at the Maui Prince Hotel — which hosted our visit — in Makena. The row of luxury hotels that begins in Kaanapali and continues through Wailea is a familiar litany to the Maui-bound. The Westin, Alii, Marriot, Hyatt, Grand Wailea, Four Seasons and Kea Lani: plenty of Angelenos can reel their names off with greater ease than the seven Hawaiian islands themselves.

But those developments, with their theme park-worthy pools, happening boardwalks and busy beaches, come to an abrupt end in Makena. The Maui Prince is the last development before the undeveloped coast that includes Big Beach, Little Beach and the black sands of Oneuli Beach. It is all strikingly beautiful, and even more so because comparatively few tourists make it this far south.

The Prince is part of a chain of Japanese-owned luxury hotels and in both its beauty and quirkiness it echoes its roots. A huge koi pond — the largest on the island — winds its way through the hotel property surrounded by lush native plants and Zen-like raked pebble gardens. Part of the massive garden forms the center of the 310-room hotel. The hotel hallways remain open to the atrium on one side, while the rooms face the sea or the mountains on the other.

Best of all is the wide crescent beach that even in high season is relatively deserted. Here, sea life doesn’t mean your neighbors from Tarzana fighting for cabana space, but a pair of sea turtles that loll around a nest of rocks, wading distance from shore. The Prince’s own bit of cove has a gently sloping sandy bottom edged by lava rock and rimmed further by beautiful coral outcroppings. Tourists from other hotels pay good money to take "adventure snorkeling trips" that moor about 100 yards off the Prince’s beach.

There is cable TV — the suites have two of them — but it wasn’t on my diet. There is The New York Times, but it arrives a day late. There is Internet service and probably talk radio, but no Larry Mantle or Warren Olney, so why bother? I did marvel at The Maui News, whose cover photo on Aug. 21 — this is the day after a bomb in Iraq killed 17 and a suicide bomber in Jerusalem killed 20 — featured a photo of a Los Gatos man who, while visiting Wailea, constructed an especially large sand castle.

Strange, yes, but that’s the point of Maui. You go there to replenish what the mainland and the media suck out of you. If you’re Jewish, you can even do so in a minyan. We had been to Maui once before and knew that it was no problem to suss out the island’s 2,500 or so Jews. You could raise a minyan at the hotels in Wailea in minutes. The nondenominational Jewish Congregation of Maui, headed by Los Angeles-born Rabbi David Glickman, now has a religious school. Both the Safeway and the Star Market in Kihei carry a shelf of kosher food and a selection of frozen kosher meat.

The island’s Jews turn up in some unexpected places. On a visit upcountry to what is probably Maui’s best restaurant, The Hali’imaile General Store, I discovered that founder/chef Beverly Gannon is from a large Jewish family in Dallas. Which explains the warmth and vitality of her restaurant.

"That’s the way I was raised," she said. "In the Jewish tradition of ‘eat, eat, eat.’"

But spiritual uplift is not just a Jewish thing on Maui: it’s an island thing. Following the road up from Hali’imaile, we explored Haleakala National Park, site of an active volcano of the same name. The road ascends through heavy clouds. Along the way we spotted the rare nene, placid descendants of Canadian geese that got waylaid, then evolved and adapted to life at 11,000 feet. The tropical weather turns cold and windy near the top, but the terrain of barren, wind-swept lava is overpowering, inspiring.

The next day, more of the same sense of wonder struck us at the Hawaii Nature Center in the Iao Valley. Where Kamehameha’s soldiers fought the forces of the king of Maui until a river of blood roared through the peaceful valley (more biblical Hawaiian legends), we wandered down a trail lined with guava, banana, wild ginger, Indian almonds, mango. A river of pure water did roar beside us, and thick greenery blanketing the skyward spirals rising from the valley floor. It was an escape to Eden.

After Maui, we followed Eden to Molokai. If Maui is relaxing, then Molokai, the island northwest of it, is another order of tranquillity. There are no traffic lights on the entire 38-mile island. The downside is an island with some serious development issues.

"Why are we rebuilding Iraq?" my son asked as we drove down the slightly dilapidated main street of Molokai’s main town, Kaunakakai, "We should be rebuilding Molokai."

But a strong local pride infuses the island, whose roadside is dotted with handmade signs — "No Cruise Ships" — proclaiming the population’s intention to prevent the Waikiki-ization of Molokai.

The result is a population of 7,000 people who are struggling economically (many are on government assistance and hunt and fish for their sustenance) but who are stewards to an environment that recalls Hawaii of a century ago.

Back then, and for much of antiquity, Molokai was considered an island possessed of spiritual power. Only 4,000 residents inhabit the island, including the largest percentage of native Hawaiians in the state. There are dense rain forests, the tallest cliffs in the world (the opening scenes of Jurassic Park were shot here), deep pine forests, miles of ranch and farm land and a remarkable lack of tourism and industry. The island is famous for its colony devoted to people afflicted with Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, but the area made famous by the Rev. Damien is open only by arranged tours. Medication has all but eradicated the disease, and the remaining elderly residents prefer to guard their privacy.

There are tours to be had on Molokai — a coffee plantation, rain forests that are mostly on private land, snorkeling — but the island is also a wonderful place to contemplate natural Hawaii. The Sheraton Lodge has private canvas-sided luxury bungalows right on the beach, which we shared with a pair of monk seals for the duration of our stay (the beach, not the bungalow). The lodge has sweeping views of ranchland, a pool a dude-ranch-with-mai-tais atmosphere and activities like hiking, horseback riding and skeet shooting. The air is pure, the stars dense and bright, the waters blue and warm and filled with colorful fish.

When it was time to leave Maui and Molokai for the all-too-real world, the beauty had worked its magic. We were relaxed and replenished. That was in August. It’s November now, and I’m ready to go back.

FYI: Maui/Molokai

Jewish Congregation of Maui Beit Shalom Synagogue
634 Alulike St.
Kihei, HI 96753
(808) 874-5397

The Suzi and Mitch Katz Jewish Library of Maui, Inc.
1325 Lower Main St.
Suite 103
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-3700

Haleakala National Park
Makawao, HI
(808) 572-4400

Hali’imaile General Store
900 Hali’imaile Road
Makawao, HI 96768
(808) 572-2666

Iao Valley Hawaii Nature Center
875 Iao Valley Road
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-6500

Maui Visitors Bureau
1727 Wili Pa Loop
Wailuku, HI 96793
(808) 244-3530

Maui Prince Hotel
5400 Makena Alanui
Makena, HI 96753
(866) 774-6236

Sheraton Molokai Lodge & Beach Village
100 Maunaloa Highway
Maunaloa, Molokai, HI 96770
(866) 500-8313

Cuban Jews’ Plight Sparks Drive to Help

Tourist Cuba is a bit like a time-machine ride through a Cold War theme park. Vintage Detroit autos rumble past charming Havana hotels refurbished to their pre-revolutionary glory. Posters for featured movies at a film festival keep company with ones that blare slogans like, "La Revolucion Siempre," or the revolution always.

Yet, when Roe Gruber and her daughter took a Havana apartment for a month last summer, the Tustin residents were able to escape the tourist cocoon. They learned new skills, like coping with Third World shortages by offering bribes for tomatoes and theater tickets.

Along the way, they were warmly welcomed by an anemic population of 1,300 Jews, who after 40 years only recently have been permitted to resuscitate religious practices without risk of political stigma.

In a nation of 11 million, where a physician earns $25 a month and government-owned housing is left to decay, among the worst off are elderly Jews, most of them refugees from Nazi oppression and without surviving relatives for outside support. They scrape by in crumbling apartments on $3-a-month pensions and ration cards for food and clothing.

Such privations ignited a passion in Gruber, whose parents were Holocaust survivors. "Any of those women could have been my grandma," she said.

Like Dina Nudelfunden, 78, who prizes the 1953 Coldspot refrigerator in her kitchen, equipped with a one-burner stove. She spends two hours each day commuting for a hot meal served at her Orthodox synagogue, one of five in Havana.

She was overjoyed when Gruber and her daughter, Daniella, delivered a sackful of groceries and $10. "You would have thought I gave her gold," Gruber said.

Or Eva Nissembaum, 78, who shares two cinderblock rooms with three brothers. One is Maximo, 69, a victim of childhood polio, who cannot leave the apartment because his wheelchair is broken.

Since her first venture to Cuba three years ago, Gruber, by trade a travel agent who specializes in exotic locations, has organized a tzedakah (charity) project that is unusual on several counts.

Aid for religious, humanitarian or educational purposes is permitted into Cuba for nonprofit groups that apply for a federally sanctioned license. Gruber established the Sephardic Friendship Committee, so-named assuming the origin of Cuba’s Jews — wrongly as it turned out, since many of Cuba’s Jews immigrated from Ashkenazic countries.

Advertising lures fellow travelers who are each expected to schlep 20 pounds in donated food, clothing and medical supplies that Gruber collects. Some are also persuaded that they have acquired disabilities requiring the need of a wheelchair. Miraculously, they always leave Cuba cured and are forced to jettison their wheelchairs — a precious commodity in a nation where food is rationed and medicine is scarce.

After a 1998 papal visit to Cuba, Fidel Castro lifted the ban on organized religion imposed when he seized power in 1959. Soon after, details emerged about a quiet exodus to Israel of 400 Cuban Jews underway since 1995. Israel’s Jewish Agency made a deal with Castro for silence, in return for obstacle-free emigration, the report said.

Before the revolution, Cuba’s Jewish population was 15,000, supporting five synagogues, three Jewish elementary schools and a network of cultural, social and Zionist groups. The Balkan wars of 1910 had brought a steady stream of Jewish exiles from Turkey. Impoverished Polish and Romanian Jews arrived after World War I. And a third wave of immigrants fled Europe in the 1930s.

In Castro’s Cuba, though, the tide of emigres reversed direction. Havana’s largest synagogue fell into disrepair, its ceiling missing tiles and birds flying through broken windows.

Today, 150 younger, middle-class families flock to the repaired sanctuary of the Reform synagogue, which doubles as a Jewish Community Center and pharmacy, all known as the Patronato. In the absence of a rabbi, Dr. Jose Miller, a retired surgeon, is its leader.

A photo on its wall shows Miller posing with Castro, who attended a 1998 Chanukah party at Miller’s invitation. Visiting rabbis perform conversions of the many non-Jewish spouses, giving the tropical Diaspora a multiethnic mix.

"They had not been allowed to be Jewish openly. Now, they are really excited about it," Gruber said. "It’s not taken for granted."

Last June, she informally started a Cuba fund drive at her Conservative synagogue, Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel, and her daughter’s school, Irvine’s Tarbut V’Torah. Her goal was $3,600, enough to double the annual income for each of 30 elderly Jews.

"That’s not what happened," she said. "It was amazing."

Gruber ended up with $6,000 and is now considering how to expand the committee’s support beyond food staples to assist the elderly with home repairs. She returned to Cuba last month to meet with Miller, who plays a role in distributing charity.

Gruber and her 15-year-old daughter took a fourth-floor walk-up apartment while enrolled at the University of Havana in an intensive Spanish-language course. Gruber wanted to see the Jewish community from the inside.

At Havana’s 400-bed Children’s Hospital, she found quality medical care provided by well-educated staff, but a shortage of medicine and equipment. Dr. Sylvia Leone begged her for syringes. On the streets, women would approach Gruber, rubbing their forearms, a signal they were seeking soap.

Cuba is currency starved. After losing an estimated $5.8 billion a year in subsidies from its chief benefactor, the former Soviet Union, Cuba’s economic plight grew worse last year because of the worldwide decline in tourism. Clothing rations for each citizen were cut from three articles to none this year. Desperate for dollars, the Cuban government is restoring portions of Havana to lure tourists and loosening rules on foreign charity efforts.

Several other United States-based groups also are intent on aiding Cuban Jews. The Berkeley-based Cuba-America Jewish Mission started as a Hadassah membership drive in 1994 and has returned 14 times since, said June Safran, its executive director. "I saw that I could do some good," she said.

The Cuban Jewish Relief Project of B’nai B’rith’s Center for Public Policy in Philadelphia estimates it has shipped $3 million in supplies to Cuba over three years. At least six U.S. synagogues have Cuban projects.

However, some in the Cuban exile community are ambivalent about aid, viewing it as perpetuating a government they oppose.

"One thing we don’t advocate is starving," said Dennis K. Hays, a former U.S. ambassador and executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, the oldest and largest exile community.

"Well-meaning individuals get pulled into the regime’s orbit," Hays said. "With some effort you can get it into the hands of the people."

Hays warned that charitable groups should be suspicious of having to rely on an "official interlocutor."

"Our position is we support efforts that help Cuban people," Hays said. "If they are going down and working independently, we would be supportive."

Gruber returned to the United States with a fresh perspective. In the supermarket, the produce manager wondered why she remained rooted in front of a heap of tomatoes.

"It makes you realize there’s an imbalance," she said. "We have too much, and they have too little."

Singles Fall in Love With Israel

Luckily, the lure was Israel, not pairing up. With a group consisting of 24 men and only seven women, singles action on the July Birthright trip to Israel sponsored by JDate, the Jewish singles online network, was minimal.

But the 10-day tour did have lots of Los Angeles action, with nine of the travelers, five men and four women, hailing from the L.A. area.

All the members of the L.A. contingent agreed they’d had a great and exhausting vacation. Steven Finnk, 25, from Santa Monica, called the trip "breathtaking — a walk through history" — and enthused about standing in the field where David and Goliath battled, climbing Masada at dawn and kayaking down the Jordan River. "All the stories of Jewish history came to life," he said.

For most of the L.A. travelers, like Finnk, the trip made Israel a knowable reality to which they could imagine returning — a definite win for the Birthright project, whose aim is to turn on young adults to Israel and Zionism.

Birthright Israel offers a free 10-day trip to Jews between 18 and 26 who have never visited the Jewish state (and to some who have, as it turns out) as a way of bolstering their sense of Jewish pride, adding to their Jewish knowledge and connecting them to the country. The trips are organized through various providers offering different itineraries and philosophical approaches. The JDate excursion was run by IsraelExperts. So far, nearly 30,000 North American Jews have taken advantage of the Birthright program.

Ari Zipper, a newcomer to Los Angeles, was bitten so hard by the Israel bug that he was having a hard time with the idea of going home. Zipper, originally from Colorado, moved to Los Angeles a few months ago to take a job in custom-designing home-theater installations. Now a resident of Valley Village, he’d lived in Jerusalem as a small child and felt "ready to stay" — except for the pledge he’d made to his job.

As a Hebrew speaker — his mother forced him to speak the language as a child, which he said made him angry then, but glad now — he became the group’s Israel-integration success story. While on the trip, he got job offers and was interviewed on Israeli television.

Where others talked about visiting the Western Wall or other tourist sites, Zipper cited as his trip highlights a doorway in Jerusalem and a groove in a cobblestone street with water running in it — small details he recalled from his early childhood here. "This is my home," he marveled. "I can’t describe the feeling. I’ve never been this happy. When I’m here, I have peace of mind."

For Rachel Katz, 25, a fourth-grade teacher in Buena Park, visiting Israel was "like a far dream," something she wanted, but somehow didn’t expect to do. Katz, a native of Orange County where she was active at Temple Beth David in Westminster, made going to the Western Wall a top priority. "I just wanted to go to the Kotel. I’d seen it in picture but never thought I would be here. Now I feel like I’ll come back."

The Tepper family sent Jennifer, 25, and Stacey, 23, sisters from Huntington Beach, where Jennifer lives with her cousin, Marisha Tepper, 20, who also came on the trip.

The Western Wall — "to be there and experience it in real life" — was the high point of the trip for Stacey, too, currently a student at Arizona State University. Jennifer, a clinical psychologist, found that the trip "brought together so much of who I am. I didn’t expect to be so moved." Marisha, a student at Orange Coast Community College, particularly loved finding ancient remnants at an archeological dig near Beit Guvrin.

For the Teppers, as for most others on the trip, security had been a concern in planning their trip but, ironically, concerns about safety had faded once they got to Israel. Marisha, whose parents had counseled her to "wait" to come to Israel, noted, "It’s sad to see how fearful Americans are and how strong Israelis are."

Marc Miller, 26, an information technology consultant from West Los Angeles, reported that co-workers and friends worried about his safety, and had pressured him not come on the trip. Now, he said, he sees Israel as "one of the safest places on earth" and blames television for "painting a picture."

Like others in the group, Miller thinks this trip signals a long-term change for him. "I had pushed away my interest in being Jewish in favor of college and non-Jewish friends," he mused. "This trip made me remember how important being Jewish is to me and how important it is to people in Israel that we came."

Mahbod Moghadam, 19, of Encino, had "put aside the summer for traveling" and couldn’t beat Birthright’s price. A student at Yale and the son of Iranian immigrants, Moghadam, who had his bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Emet in Burbank, was planning a trip to Israel next year for a research project on Iranian history. Friends warned him that Birthright would try to "brainwash" him in regard to Israel, but he says he found only "sincere, open argument, not brainwashing. The agenda is to allow young, dynamic people to make up their own minds."

Meanwhile, he praised the enormous range of activities, a "sample platter" he didn’t think he would have thought to do on his own, and he expects, back in America, to "extend" his Jewish religious life and his support of Israel and Zionism.

Pejman Nabat, 25, a native of Iran — his family escaped by way of Pakistan and India to Europe when he was 5, before moving to America — is studying history and psychology at UCLA and planning to go to dental school ("I have a passion for dentistry," he confided).

Active in Nessah Yisrael, a Persian community organization, he lauded the trip as providing fun, learning and a feeling of being "at home." He says he made "30 friends I’ll keep in touch with" on the trip. His highlight? "Everything was a highlight — I looked forward to every day."

The Melting Wok

It was Friday night in Shanghai, a major linchpin of the Jewish Diaspora, and folks from all over the world were dropping in to wish Rabbi Greenberg "Shabbat shalom." But in the fastest-changing city in the world, we were gathered for worship in a skyscraper instead of one of the lovely old synagogues that served a 30,000-strong community less than a century ago.

Shanghai, where so many foreigners made their fortune before the Communist clampdown, is once again a melting pot for merchant adventurers, many of whom find common ground at Greenberg’s services and haimish Friday night dinners. Both Sephardi and Ashkenazi dishes are served, symbolic of the town’s dual-pronged Jewish heritage: the Sassoons, Hardoons and Kadoories whose fortunes built synagogues, schools and hospitals, and the second wave who took refuge here from pogroms and Nazi persecution.

Although religion is still not quite PC here, the churches are open again now that China has opened up to the world, even if the synagogues have been appropriated by the civil service. And the Shanghainese are once again doing what they do best — trading their socks off and partying till dawn.

This fabulous metropolis of 20 million has awakened from a half-century of sleep and reclaimed its reputation for wicked fun. Dubbed the Paris of the East when the British and French ruled the roost, today’s Shanghai is the New York of Asia, fast overtaking Hong Kong in importance.

Its great delight is that it’s so accessible and user-friendly, looking like Europe with a touch of Chicago, full of tree-lined boulevards for strolling and skylines for gawping at. Thanks to a wealth of world-class architecture, the past and future are present simultaneously in Shanghai, which makes for heady viewing.

The elegant former French Concession is as famous now as in the roaring ’20s for its smart shops, fashionable clubs and magnificent Art Deco buildings lining its main thoroughfare, the Huaihai Lu (formerly Avenue Joffre). Stroll east towards Fuxing Park, where locals touchingly celebrate the new liberalism with ballroom dancing in the open air beneath statues of Marx and Lenin, in whose names such decadent pursuits were once banned.

More traditional sights are concentrated in the Old Town, where most Chinese lived when Shanghai was a treaty port and the posher neighborhoods were reserved for foreigners. Beyond the tourist circuit of the Yu-Yuan Garden with its teahouse pavilion and nearby bazaar full of cheap and cheerful souvenirs lie the attractions of real life — a huge cluster of convivial old men kibbitzing around a single game of Chinese checkers, a stall selling props for ancestor worship.

Shanghai’s older generation is fascinating in every respect, not least its members’ passion for keeping fit, which drives them into the parks and squares at first light to join tai chi sessions or perform their own keep-fit routines, oblivious to passersby. A common sight is the elderly lady flexing her leg into a high-kick atop a railing and the grandpa studiously walking backwards (they say it’s good for the brain).

A good place to see all this action is around People’s Square, a race course in Shanghai’s heyday and now home to the world-class Shanghai Museum and Grand Theatre as well as charming little Renmin Park. It is approached from the Nanjing Lu, which runs from the famous Bund past endless department stores to the Shanghai Centre and beyond.

The Centre houses not only Greenberg, who hails from Brooklyn, and a whole host of apartments, shops and offices serving the ex-pat community, but the posh Portman Ritz-Carlton, which offers the city’s most Western-style welcome. The "Porterman," as it’s known in local parlance, boasts one of the world’s finest Italian restaurants and a fabulous jazz bar; its caring staff is a welcome buffer against initial culture shock, and best of all are the private tours given — for a price — by the general manager in the sidecar of his vintage motorcycle.

The Ritz-Carlton is up against stiff competition from an equally glitzy establishment that enjoys the added luster of being the world’s tallest hotel. The Grand Hyatt Pudong sits on the far shore of the Huangpu River, dominating a neighborhood that was wasteland just a few years ago and is now home to a whole clutch of futuristic, Blade Runner-type buildings, including the shocking pink baubles of the Oriental Pearl tower.

Owned by the Chinese government, the Grand Hyatt is less cozy than the Portman, but its views and facilities are unparalleled. No visitor to Shanghai should miss a visit to its 87th floor Cloud Nine bar, whose 21st century architecture is softened by traditional entertainment from magicians, Chinese fortune-tellers and paper-cutters who recreate your silhouette in seconds. The third-floor Pu-J’s disco is one of the most hopping clubs in town, while Cucina, complete with wood-fired oven, recalls the buzzy brasseries of Milan, albeit with a fabulous view of the Bund.

To really experience Shanghai, it’s vital to spend a good stretch of time on the Bund, ogling the splendid old buildings while gazing across the river at the new (and ideally, cruising between the two at night, when the buildings are floodlit with more wattage than Las Vegas). The spectacular Peace Hotel was built as the Cathay by Victor Sassoon in the ’20s, when it was the site of the city’s most fabulously glittering parties. However, in spite of its sumptuous Art Deco interior and famous jazz band, it is perceived as a tad overpriced for the level of service.

One hostelry on the Bund that is pricey but worth every penny is Australian Michelle Garnaut’s fabulous restaurant M on the Bund. World food is served here amidst international buzz on the seventh floor of an old shipping building, with a huge terrace where it’s possible to take drinks, with or without dinner, enjoying the best view in town.

Good food is not hard to come by in Shanghai, and the best native fare is also served in spectacular surroundings at Meilongzhen on Nanjing Lu, a 1930s building once Communist HQ and still a feast for the eyes, its wood-floored rooms ablaze with carved dragons, Chinese lanterns and waiters expertly dispensing chai — the fragrant, leaf-laden brew served everywhere — from teapots with two-foot spouts.

Getting around is cheap and safe, though not necessarily foolproof. Taxis are plentiful, with rides costing only a pound or two within the city; a recorded message provides an English welcome and reminds travelers to pay what’s on the meter and demand a receipt. However, as drivers do not speak English, it’s vital to get the hotel doorman to write your destination in Chinese and procure a driver who knows where he’s going.

A great antidote to this frenetic city is a day trip to Zhouzhuang, the region’s Little Venice, where you can cruise the canals, explore historic houses and find phenomenal bargains, especially in the side streets. A recent haul included silk devore scarves for $1.25 and evocative "antique" advertising posters for a similar price. In Shanghai itself, go with a guide to Huating Market, where fabulous fake designer handbags cost less than $15, or to Amy’s Pearls in the suburbs, where real freshwater pearls, jade and silver are spun into fabulous confections.

But don’t expect to fight the locals for the best bargains — they’re all at work aspiring to top-end goodies by Versace, Polo, Prada, Gucci and all the other international designers bullish enough to have set up shop in Asia’s most happening city.

Israel All to Yourself

I was more than a little conflicted when Israel’s Ministry of Tourism invited me to visit the Holy Land for one week in December to judge for myself whether the country was safe enough for tourists. I’d never traveled to Israel before, and while I knew that life was going on as usual for most Israelis, CNN’s daily images of conflict and the U.S. State Department’s warning fed my apprehension.

Like many who have either postponed or canceled their trips to Israel since late September, I was worried that I could very easily become another statistic on the nightly news. But I decided to go, because I wanted to see if my fears, and those of the larger Jewish community, were justified.

The flight over was unexpectedly cramped, crowded and restless. In response to a 30 percent drop in business, El Al has elected to use smaller planes instead of flying half-full or reducing fares, according to El Al spokesman Nachman Klieman.

Following my arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I joined with the other journalists in my tour group and left for Jerusalem. A few hours later, we sat down for dinner at Darna — a Moroccan restaurant whose atmosphere and cuisine put Dar Maghreb to shame — and met with our host, Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.

Before the intifada began in late September, 2000 was shaping up to be a banner year for Israel, with a 30 percent expected increase in tourism, according to Lipkin-Shahak. But after three months, a 40 percent drop has led to the loss of at least $250 million and 15,000 jobs. David, the tour’s bus driver, confessed to us that he hadn’t worked the two weeks prior to our arrival.

“If people want to support Israel, they should visit Israel,” Lipkin-Shahak said.

The next morning, the King David Hotel’s famous breakfast buffet offered up a tempting selection, but there were few takers. Beyond the two dozen people in the press tour, the five-star hotel was practically empty. The Israel Hotels Association is anticipating an occupancy rate of only 35 percent for the beginning of 2001, and two hotels have temporarily closed their doors.

As I walked off breakfast in the Old City, its gems were nearly bereft of admirers. But the lack of tourists at the Western Wall, the Western Wall tunnels, Via Dolorosa and the Tower of David Museum meant unfettered, quick access for those who went ahead with travel plans. I gleefully haggled in the shuk and memorized Hebrew for “No, thank you” in no time at all, had a bite to eat in the Jewish Quarter at Cardo Culinaria — a scaled-down Roman version of Medieval Times — and caught the Dale Chihuly glass exhibit in its last week at the Tower of David.

The only time I saw anything resembling Palestinian unrest first-hand was while I was walking alone in the Jewish Quarter. A gang of eight Palestinian teens charged across a parking lot, yelling at a young Orthodox boy while he was taking out some trash. But the police and army personnel, who seemed to be everywhere, were more than ready. They defused the situation so quickly and without incident, I didn’t have time to think about whether I was in danger or not.

Unlike Los Angeles, where I’m on guard while walking down the street in broad daylight, I roamed Israel’s streets at night with no fear. I perused stores along Jaffa Road in West Jerusalem and caught up on my e-mail at a cyberpub near Ben Yehuda Street. The only time I really had a safety concern was when it came to public transportation. I’ve read more than my fair share of stories about bombs on public buses, so I allayed my fears by taking taxis.

The third day of my tour started with wine tasting at the Carmel Winery in Zichron Yaacov and ended with a walking tour of street art in Haifa that highlighted coexistence between Christian Arabs and Jews. The next morning, I previewed the breathtaking new Baha’i Gardens, which stretch from the foot to the crest of Mount Carmel in terraces designed as nine concentric circles. The gardens are scheduled to open in May. Be sure to bring good shoes to tackle the gardens’ kilometer hike, and dress modestly if you plan to enter the temple.

The last two days were spent doing some much-needed unwinding in Eilat, a resort town popular among Europeans and Israelis. Located at the southern tip of Israel on the Red Sea, Eilat features an underwater observatory and submarine rides, opportunities to swim with dolphins, beaches, some amazing hotels and Herods Vitalis, a decadent health spa.

After four days in near-empty accommodations, Eilat’s domestic appeal on weekends ensured that the plush Queen of Sheba Hilton would hold some signs of life. But even sun-drenched Eilat is taking a hit, and its hotels are expecting to run at only 30 percent capacity during January and February.

The day I arrived in Eilat, I learned about a Palestinian riot in the Old City the same way most of Israel did — on the evening news. As I watched the footage, it was a little shocking to see the Israeli military hold back Palestinians observing the “day of rage” in a spot I’d walked through just three days before. The more I watched, the more I realized I was nearly 200 miles away from a rare melee in Old Jerusalem that had already been quelled. I turned off the TV and answered the beckoning call of Eilat’s nightlife.

The next day, Palestinian violence was the last thing on my mind as I strolled along the beachfront shuk and shopped in Eilat’s mall.

By the end of the tour, I was more conflicted over whether I wanted to return to the U.S. or make aliyah.
American tourists in Israel are as likely to encounter violence as a New York family would have on a trip to Disneyland during the L.A. Riots in 1992. To date, no tourists have been hurt by Palestinian unrest since the current crisis began. Unless you’re in the West Bank and Gaza, there’s not much reason to worry.
Bottom line: Israel is safer than CNN or the State Department would have you believe.

For more information about travel to Israel, be sure to visit the Israel Ministry of Tourism Web site:

Downward Trend

Tour operator Tova Gilead returned from a 10-day trip to Israel in early January and brought back wonderful stories of people experiencing the beauty and history of the Holy Land, many for the first time. Before the resurgence of Palestinian-Israeli violence in September, 228 people had signed up for Gilead’s special B’nai Mitzvah family trip to Israel, but only 17 people actually accompanied her on the tour. For upcoming trips, she says, “I get cancellations every day.”

Many organizations have planned “solidarity missions” to bring Americans to Israel and demonstrate support, and Hillel’s Birthright Israel program has sent thousands of young men and women to the state in the past months. Yet American travel agents report tourism is down as much as 60 percent compared to the past few years.

For Dorit Zohar of World Express Travel in Tarzana, the travelers who go to Israel and the cancellations demonstrate a definite pattern. “Israelis still go, Americans don’t,” she noted.

Zohar added that those with friends or relatives in Israel were less likely to cancel trips, as they learned firsthand which areas were safe. The travel agents interviewed for this report generally agreed that with the exception of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the places tourists want to visit are safe. With most of the violence confined to Palestinian-controlled areas, tourists can feel comfortable visiting Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa, Eilat, Haifa, Masada, the Galilee and Golan Heights, and most of Jerusalem.

Jay Press, owner of Israel Travel Discounters in Philadelphia, pointed to a different problem for Americans visiting Israel in the past few months.

“They were lonely,” he said, “They were very happy they went, but they felt like the only tourists there.”
Press added that at this time of year, when people would ordinarily be planning or finalizing Passover travel to Israel, “we haven’t seen as many cancellations [as in October-December], but we haven’t seen as many more people sign up as we normally would.” Press estimates his business is down 30 percent from last year.

Barring a final, complete peace accord, these travel industry insiders are divided as to what it will take to get Americans back to Israel. Price discounts do not seem to be the answer, or even really an issue. Many hotels have reduced their rates and El Al has added some incentives for frequent fliers to use their miles now, yet for the most part prices for a trip to Israel remain steady.

“I just don’t believe that’s the issue,” says Gilead, “People are dying to go, they want to go … when they feel safe.”

Some potential travelers may be waiting until after the Jan. 20 inauguration of George W. Bush and the Feb. 7 elections in Israel, to see how the new leaders in charge handle the delicate situation. For others, the plan is simply to wait and see, until the shooting stops. For now, many Americans are staying away. But as Tova Gilead says of her recent trip, “No one was sorry that they went.”


In most big cities in the United States, horse-and-buggy rides are offered as tourist attractions. It is therefore not shocking to find them lined up in Philadelphia, right near Constitution Hall and the Liberty Bell.

What was surprising, however, was whom I found driving a horse and buggy during a summer visit to Philadelphia. As I approached the horses and buggies, I noticed that all of the drivers were dressed in crazy costumes, each claiming that his ride was the best Philadelphia could offer. But one buggy driver was a little different. His outfit consisted of a beard and yarmulke. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Immediately I thought, “What is wrong with this picture?” Didn’t this fellow ever hear Jackie Mason instruct that certain professions aren’t for Jews?

I inquired if he had any problem getting the job. Did the owner of the business object to his wearing a yarmulke? He told me, “Are you kidding? The owner loved it. He thought it was a costume, and the crazier you look, the better it is for business.” I then asked if it actually attracts people. He replied that Israelis love it, and they come and take rides so they can have pictures of him with the horse and buggy. They do this because no one in Israel will believe them unless they have the picture to prove it.

I wondered what a religious Jew was doing here. He told us that he is a college student majoring in history. I inquired if his interest in history led to his employment, but he assured me that it didn’t. I then asked if he had a natural empathy for horses, but he replied that until he took this job he had never come near a horse. Confused, I again asked, “Why would a nice Jewish boy like you be working here?” He replied simply, “I needed a summer job.”

It took me some time to appreciate his answer, but when I did I realized it also helped me understand a fascinating point about Noah and the view the sages of old had of him.

Our sages wondered if Noah was really great. Although the Torah states in the opening verse, “Noah was a perfect tzadik in his generation,” Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, quotes the Midrash that states, “But if he had been in the generation of Abraham, he would not have been considered significant.”

In a penetrating observation, the 19th century Chassidic work, the Shem MiShmuel, wonders how we can say this when the Torah itself stated that Noah was “a perfect tzadik.” Abraham, in contrast, was never called perfect. Instead, God told him before his circumcision, “Walk before Me and be perfect.” In other words, Noah was perfect, but Abraham had to attain perfection.

This, claims the Shem MiShmuel, is the message of the Midrash. Noah was perfect because he was blessed innately with spirituality. As the Talmudic work Avot D’rabbi Nathan claims, Noah was even born circumcised. He needed to do nothing to attain piety. It was a built-in phenomenon that never changed.But, asks the Midrash, is true greatness received or achieved? In contrast to Noah, Abraham’s origins were idolatrous, and he attained piety because of his tremendous efforts. This, argue our rabbis, is true greatness. When one overcomes all the obstacles that are in front of him and becomes great, that deserves our recognition.

That young college student in Philadelphia proved to me that you can achieve anything you want if you just put your mind to it. He needed a job, so he overcame obstacles to get one. Some of us are like Noah with all of the blessings built in, but most people have to work to achieve success.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Tourism in Israel

Ehud Barak has the hardest job in Israel these days, but Itai Eiges’ is no walk in the park, either. As director general of the ministry of tourism, Eiges is in charge of promoting an industry that has been crippled by the recent conflict. Tour operators are reporting a 50 percent cancellation rate, the U.S. State Department has instituted a travel warning on the Middle East, and Britain has levied one against Jerusalem. It is the worst drop-off in travel in decades.

For a country that relies heavily on tourist dollars, the impact has been immediate: massive layoffs of hospitality workers and millions of dollars in lost revenue.

But Israel, fighting its conflict with the Palestinians on the military, diplomatic and media fronts, is also waging a tourism war.

Eiges, along with government spokesman Nachman Shai, held an international press briefing by telephone with Jewish newspapers around the world on Oct. 29.

“We are here to try to convince you to come to Israel,” said Eiges. “This is a time to be together,” said Shai, “to share what we are going through.”

What potential tourists need to know, said Eiges, is that the battles they see raging on CNN are not the every day reality. “The people of Israel are leading normal lives,” he said. “My wife and daughters are having doughnuts in the mall right now.” A group of 1,500 Japanese tourists have been enjoying the country without incident, said Eiges. Jewish leadership groups have visited the Western Wall and East and West Jerusalem and report feeling very safe. At a Feast of the Tabernacles in Jerusalem, 5,000 Christian pilgrims attended ceremonies at the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Only 7 percent canceled. “There are groups of pilgrims visiting Nazareth, Jerusalem and other places,” said Eiges.

What about Bethlehem, site of some fierce rioting? “There are groups of pilgrims visiting Nazareth, Jerusalem and other places,” Euges repeated obliquely.

The irony here is that until a few weeks ago, these were boom times in Israel travel. After suffering a sharp decline from 1996-1999 following bus bombings, the industry rebounded and set new records. There were 2.5 million visitors in 1999, with 3.1 million expected this year.

Christian pilgrims have always made up the hardiest and most dependable lot of Holy Land travelers. And hotels by the Dead Sea and in Eilat are at capacity with the annual pilgrimage of Northern Europeans seeking sunburns and cold drinks. But otherwise the number for 2000 is stuck at 2.7 million – a new record, to be sure – with no major upward movement expected. The trick is pulling in the others, especially American Jewish tourists and conference attendees.

Eiges said the large conferences have postponed, rather than canceled, their arrangements. But other tourists are a different problem.

One solution, he said, is to get foreign governments to discontinue their travel warnings on the country. Israel is working with the State Department to review its warning, which it claims is unjustified. “I think Manhattan is much more dangerous than Israel,” said Shai.

Public relations and outreach are the other weapons Eiges has. “Mega-missions” of concerned American and European Jews are in process and more are being planned, along with phone calls to media here and abroad. There are reports from England that some airlines are offering reduced fares on Israel flights, though Eiges didn’t confirm whether Intifada II will at least be good for bargain hunters.

The question people naturally want answered before purchasing any ticket: “Is it safe?” “I don’t think I can tell you when things are going to go back to normal,” said Eiges. “But they will.”

Shai, who has been a frequent, and refreshingly direct, presence on CNN these days, put it bluntly. “What I say to [tourists] is what I say to my wife and kids: they should be careful. And in the time being, nothing has happened.”

Approaching The Millennium

Melodic harmonies echo through Dominus Flevit, a small-but-quaint church on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, as a group of 30 Christian Bible scholars and pastors sing “Hallelujah to the Lord,” first in English, then Hebrew.

Built in 1955 on the ruins of an ancient church, the teardrop-shaped structure commands a breathtaking view of the eastern walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. According to Christian tradition, Jesus, knowing his prophetic message would be rejected, wept here as he viewed the illusion of a tranquil city that, in fact, was bitterly divided, its Jewish population suffering under a brutal Roman occupation.

Outside the church, tourists lower their heads in quiet prayer for peace in Jerusalem.

The scene contrasts sharply with images in the Israeli and international media that have regularly reported millennium celebrations with sensational stories about deranged Christian tourists or fringe groups who may carry out violent acts to hasten Jesus’ “second coming.”

Yet this group of Christians, who has come to Israel on a combined pilgrimage and study tour organized by the California-based Centre for the Study of Biblical Research, was surprisingly undeterred by Israel’s recent crackdown and deportation of some fringe Christian groups. Some even defended the government’s actions, but warned that Israel must be careful not to stereotype all 2.5 million Christian pilgrims expected next year as dangerous.

“This is a Jewish state, and we are guests in the Jewish state,” said Bill Bean, an ordained minister and director of the center. “Christians are invited to this land if they don’t break the law. If Christians are going to come here and break the law, then they shouldn’t be here.”

For many, the main concern about the way Israel is handling millennialist threats is that Israelis do not really understand the differences between Christian denominations.

“As you have Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewry, we have many, many denominations,” Bean said. “It would be nice if someone in the government or the Ministry of Religious Affairs would take time to talk to people who really are legitimate in this field to learn from them about the different groups.”

Although millennium observers and experts acknowledge that Israel must take threats of fanaticism seriously, some are concerned about the way Israel has handled the situation so far.

Earlier this month, Israel deported a group of 20 fundamentalist Christians led by Brother David, a colorful character who lived in Jerusalem for many years and whose followers were anticipating what they believed would be Jesus’ imminent second coming.

Brother David was in Israel illegally, having destroyed his passport several years ago. But despite his offbeat religious beliefs, he spent most of his time doing charitable work — and his peaceful followers showed no signs of violence.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Israel office of the Anti-Defamation League and an interfaith activist, said accusations by Israeli police that Brother David’s followers had planned a mass suicide demonstrated an “abysmal ignorance” of the differences between mainstream Christian believers, fringe nonviolent groups and radical cults.

“There may be a failure to distinguish violent from peaceful Christian millennial groups,” Rosen said. “Such confusion will prove to be a serious boomerang for Israel. Aside from the damage to Israel’s international image, such actions may have wider-range deleterious effects on potential pilgrimage to Israel, depriving the Jewish state not only of the benefits of tourism, but also of the enormous amount of goodwill that is offered by the pilgrimage of millions for the new millennium.”

Rosen says that since the expulsions, he has seen encouraging signs that the police may try harder not to generalize about Christian tourists. Indeed, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel’s public security minister said, through a spokesman, that Israel “wants to carry out a policy of keeping its gates open and encouraging tourists to come to Israel.”

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism insists the recent expulsions will not hurt tourism. Nitsan Ilan, a spokeswoman for the ministry, said it recognizes that policemen dealing with millennial threats need a better understanding of Christianity.

“The Tourism Ministry is working with the police to give seminars to policemen,” she said. “This month 700 Jerusalem-based policemen will be participating in lectures given by experts on Christianity.”

For his part, Steven Notley, a Christian scholar and licensed tour guide who has been in Israel for 14 years, is not worried about the crackdown.

“I do not think it will affect tourism one way or another,” he said. “But I would like the government to make sure that whoever they get rid of is clearly breaking the law. It should not be some sort of hysteria that you are getting rid of anybody who dares to suggest that they believe in the second coming.”

As Notley led the California group though the Old City, hordes of tourists in dozens of groups at the most famous Christian sites appeared to signal that little damage has been done so far.

One group carries a large wooden cross, walking in the footsteps of Jesus as they chant hymns in unison.

Jeanne Miterko, director of the New England branch of the center, said she has been to Israel four times and has never seen so many tourists.

“I don’t blame the Israelis for being concerned,” she said. “The big question is how they act on that. The best prophylactic measure is to know where these people are coming from before they board the plane.”

To do so, Israeli security services are cooperating with foreign secret services such as the FBI. However, the problem is how to finger potential threats without undermining the “open gates” policy and frightening away tourists.

“In America you just cannot tell people they cannot come in because they are associated with this or that group,” Miterko said. “That could really create a problem of public perception of Israel.”

Some say the media fuss over potential millennium madness is counterproductive. “If they talk about it in the news media it becomes a magnet for meshugenehs,” says Larry Hirsch, a “messianic Jew” from California. “The fact that some Americans were kicked out doesn’t bother me, but keep it low key.”

Hirsch — and veteran Christian tour guides — say the real threat to millennial tourism will be the fear that Israel will simply be too crowded. “People will be deterred from coming because there is no room at the inn,” Hirsch said.

Jewish Croatia: Through the Looking Glass

This past October I found myself, along with four other North American Jewish journalists, flying business class — a wonderful way to fly — to Croatia on Lufthansa Airlines. The Croatian Tourist Office in conjunction with Lufthansa had generously put together a 12 day guest package, hoping we would like what we saw (after all, parts of Croatia, especially the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic Sea, are quite beautiful). The thought was we would combine descriptions of the famous tourist sights with a report to our readers on the life and times of Jewish Croatia.

There was a certain disarming lunacy about the whole enterprise. Certainly a journalist can discover interesting and important stories to recount about Croatia — its politics, its recent history, and its estrangement from the West; reportage about Croatia’s dying, autocratic President Franja Tudjman and the likelihood of his party’s (the HDZ or Croatian Democratic Union) success in the elections scheduled for Jan. 3; accounts of the high levels of unemployment (nearly 20 percent) along with the moribund tourist trade; or the way in which modern life continues to persist (with energy) in this strange isolated land: from urban Central European Zagreb, the capitol city, all the way to the Dalmatian Coast on the beautiful Adriatic, with its Italian and Mediterranean ambiance looming out of the sea in such lovely port cities as Split and Dubrovnik.

Despite the generosity of the Croatian Tourist Bureau towards me and the other journalists, these are not Jewish stories and have little to do with what might be called Jewish Croatia. Ironically, the outcome in all these political matters — Tudjman’s successor, unemployment, tourism, relations with the U.S. and Western Europe — will determine the fate of Croatia’s 2,500 Jews just as it will the rest of the nation’s near 5 million population.

Jewish Croatia to all intents and purposes is a statistical blip. More than half the Jews, 1,500, live in Zagreb which has a population of about one million. Split, a jewel of a city (population about 200,000) on the Dalmatian Coast, contains about 150 Jews, but not all are participants in the community. In Dubrovnik, with its marvelous old walled city, there are 44 Jews. Bruno Horowitz the leader of the community, explains that services are held infrequently; only “when there are enough tourists to have a minyan.” Carefully he traces through the list of each Jewish family in Dubrovnik: he’s a dentist; she’s a teacher; he’s a photographer; and on through all 44.

Hungarian Haven

In other circumstances, there would be nothing unusual about busloads of Yugoslavs visiting the capital of their northern neighbor, Hungary.

But with NATO’s daily assault on Kosovo and other locations throughout Yugoslavia, these are no ordinary “tourists.” Roughly 200 Yugoslav Jews — some of whom arrived one day before NATO fired its first missile, on March 24 — are now in Budapest, hosted by the Hungarian Jewish community.

As the Jews here wait and see how events unfold at home, more buses are on their way.

“We are not refugees; we’re still tourists, who crossed the border legally with our passports,” said one woman from Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, who arrived on March 23 with her two grown children.

“The plan was just to come for a couple of days until things settle down, then go back. But we’re still waiting.”

Indeed, there is a huge distinction between these citizens of Yugoslavia — composed of two republics, Serbia and tiny Montenegro — and the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province.

During 14 months of conflict, the Yugoslav army and Serbian police have forced tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians — known as Kosovars — to flee south into Albania proper. And more are coming every day. In all, 500,000 of the 2 million Kosovars have reportedly been uprooted from their homes.

Escalating tension in the province, fueled by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, prompted NATO to launch its unprecedented air campaign. Soon, there may be other ethnic minorities in Serbia seeking relief from the warfare.

Hungary, for example, is bracing for a wave of ethnic Hungarians from northern Serbia, and many Serbs themselves are believed to be already staying with relatives in Hungary.

All the activity in Serbia is reminiscent of what happened earlier this decade, as Milosevic orchestrated the wars in Bosnia and Croatia next door. From 1991 to 1995, some 200,000 Serbian citizens emigrated abroad, many of them to avoid the army draft. At that time, some Yugoslav Jewish parents also sent their draft-age sons to Israel.

This time around, as NATO strikes loomed last week, the Hungarian Federation of Jewish Communities offered shelter to the estimated 3,000 Yugoslav Jews.

With Yugoslavia a pariah state, Hungary is one of the few countries in the world that hasn’t slapped visa requirements on Yugoslavia’s citizens.

So, on March 23, the Belgrade community took up the Hungarian offer and rented the first two buses to make the 400-mile trip.

As NATO bombing has intensified in the days since, so, too, has the stream of Yugoslav Jews into Budapest. Two-thirds of them are teen-agers and young adults, sent away for safekeeping — and for their parents’ peace of mind.

“I’m here because my mom made me,” said Iva, 23, a university student who, on Monday, sent her first e-mail back home. “She said: ‘Go, while you can. You can always come back.’ But I have just a few more exams before I graduate, so now I don’t know what to do.”

Other arrivals include a handful of families, a few elderly people and several young children.

The visitors are spending their days gathered at the center, the adults sitting on wooden chairs, chain-smoking, nervously talking about the war. Community officials are trying to come up with activities for the kids — such as arts and crafts and basketball games — especially those separated from their parents.

Thrown into the mix are a pair of young sisters, Bosnian Jews who are on the move for the second time in their short lives. They were among the 200 Jews evacuated from Sarajevo to Belgrade in 1992.

Up to 150 of the visiting Jews are being housed at the Jewish Community Center in downtown Budapest, in dorms usually reserved for 40 Hungarian Jewish students from the provinces. But those students are home for Passover. So extra foam mattresses have been crammed in to sleep seven to 10 per room.

The other Yugoslav Jews are sleeping at a Jewish high school in town, which lacks shower facilities.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has quickly swung into action, assisting with individual needs of the Yugoslav Jews, including counseling and finding better accommodations.

In Budapest, when the number of Jews streaming in jumped from 40 to 200 over the weekend, the local Budapest community, which had initially thought it could assist their neighbors on its own, asked the JDC for help.

But now thinking longer-term, the JDC’s priority is to find better housing. One possibility is the Szarvas international Jewish camp, located two hours from Budapest.

Yugoslav Jews want to return home when the dust clears. Many have opted not to come to Budapest — yet — for fear of losing jobs difficult to come by in a country in economic ruin.

And when it comes to the NATO assault, most share the hostility of their compatriots toward the United States and Europe.

“Milosevic is a jerk, but this does nothing to him,” Iva said, echoing the views of many here. “Instead, they’re killing people like my friends, who are forced to serve their military service in Kosovo.”

Meanwhile, Jews in Kosovo have declined offers to help them leave, according to Jewish aid workers who have been active in the former Yugoslavia.

Plans have reportedly been drawn up to extract the approximately 50 Jews remaining in the Kosovar capital of Pristina if necessary, the workers said.

Meanwhile, eight Jewish men from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia fled to Bulgaria over the weekend and are being cared for by local Jews near the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. The men, all college students, expressed fears that the conflict may spill over the Serbian-Macedonian border. *

The Spiritual Tourist

Near Mt. Amir in Israel. Photo from “Skyline” 1990

My neighbors completed an around-the-world trip. It was their dream, the trip of a lifetime. When we gathered to welcome them home, they eagerly described the journey’s highlights — the Sheraton in Bangkok, the Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, a Clint Eastwood film in a Calcutta theater, Budweiser in Holland and Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in Great Britain.

My neighbor, the “accidental tourist!” He travels the world to experience its wonders from behind an inch of hermetically sealed tinted-glass bus window. Bravely, he ventures out of the bus, protected by a huge Nikon camera slung around his neck — his life-support apparatus identifying him as a stranger, and keeping the outside world at bay. He sleeps at the Hilton, breathes filtered air and drinks bottled water. He wants to see the world, but he won’t let it touch him. So afraid of the new, the unfamiliar, the exotic, so afraid that it might shake his safe, secure, narrow world, so afraid of life, he visited all the world’s capitals, and, in every one, he ate at McDonald’s.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses sends 12 men on a mission, latur et ha’aretz (Numbers 13:16), to scout out, or more literally, “to tour,” the Promised Land. Upon their return, 10 offer the dispiriting report of the land’s fearful impregnability. Tourists they left, and tourists they returned. They saw the land but didn’t let it touch them, didn’t let it change them. They found no bond with this land; they were only visitors, not owners, not inheritors. Fearful and small, they knew that they didn’t belong: They didn’t belong in this place. They didn’t belong to this place. And the place would never belong to them.

Two men, Joshua and Caleb, heard a different commandment from Moses: Alu zeh (Numbers 13:17), “rise up,” or perhaps, “become an oleh.” Don’t go as a tourist; go as an oleh. Do not go in fear. Let the land elevate you; let the experience transform you; let this life moment move you. Go not as visitors, as sightseers, as strangers. This is your home. You are expected. You belong here. Fight for this place. Root yourself here.

The most important gift we give our children is a sense of their place in the world: You belong here. You are not just passing through. The world welcomes you and your unique contribution. You needn’t feel afraid, strange or unfamiliar. You have a right to be here. This world is yours, and, so, you have the responsibility and the power to transform and mend it.

But this courage is easily forgotten. The Israelites are condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years. An apt punishment. People who do not feel they belong are sentenced to a lifetime of aimless, rootless wandering.

At the portion’s end, we are commanded to wear tzitzit, fringes, on the corners of our garments, V’lo tarturu, “so as not to become a tourist” — so as not to shrink back in fear of the world, as if we don’t really belong here, as if we are just visiting, just sightseeing. Le’maan tizkiru, wear your tzitzit and be reminded there is work to be done to transform and mend the world. Be reminded who you are and why you are here. Your sense of belonging is the precious gift of your ancestry. Don’t leave home without it!

Ed Feinstein is the associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. He replaces Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who is completing a book (along with fulfilling synagogue responsibilities at Wilshire Boulevard Temple).