Report: Communities Must Do More to Attract Birthright Alums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis: Mumbai attacks mean new challenges for Israel

ALTTEXTChabad men mourn near the bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his wife Rivkah, 28. Photo by Brian Hendler/JTA

Israel may consider beefing up security at hundreds of Israeli and Jewish institutions around the world in the wake of the terrorist attack at the Chabad center in Mumbai, experts say.

The attacks on 10 sites in the Indian city, which killed nearly 200 people, could lead to a shift in the way Israel views global terrorism and the way to combat it.

Besides tightening security around the institutions — Israeli representatives and businesspeople abroad may be advised to concentrate their offices in a single, well-protected compound — experts say there will have to be more training of counterterrorism forces, restructuring of intelligence gathering and enhanced global cooperation in training special forces and sharing intelligence.

The Indian special forces who responded to the Mumbai attacks were criticized as being slow to respond, inadequately prepared for such an attack and lacking key equipment.

Israeli experts long have predicted a mega-terror attack involving local, Western and Israeli targets, including symbols of government and economic power. Experts believe Mumbai will become the new model for international terrorist networks, such as Global Jihad or al-Qaeda.

As the Mumbai case showed, even in cases in which Israel ostensibly is not the focus of the conflict or attack, Israeli and Jewish institutions are likely to be targeted.

The lone surviving Mumbai terrorist, 21-year-old Azam Amir Kasab, reportedly told investigators that he and his comrades were given specific instructions to kill Israelis.

” alt=”Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attack” title=”Click here for complete Mumbai Chabad coverage” vspace = 4 hspace = 4 border = 0 align = ‘left’>Weeks before the attack, reports said, members of the terrorist squad spent time at the Chabad center to gather intelligence. If true, this shows that the attack on Israelis and Jews was part of the overall planning of a highly sophisticated, multitarget operation.

It has enormous implications for security at Israeli and Jewish institutions worldwide, but equally so for intelligence gathering.

At the behest of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the former head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Dan Meridor, produced a classified report in 2006 on Israel’s defense and intelligence needs in an age of potential high-tech megaterror. His recommendations, which remain secret, apparently were largely ignored; Mossad chief Meir Dagan preferred to focus the agency’s intelligence-gathering effort almost exclusively on Iran’s nuclear program.

Counterterrorism experts now are calling for revising this approach.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the bombings in subsequent years in Bali, London and Madrid all involved the Global Jihad’s modus operandi of hitting several targets simultaneously.

Israeli experts see even greater sophistication in the Mumbai attacks. More targets were involved, the targets were selected carefully to shut down a big city and the nature of the attack required a huge military effort to bring it to an end. The possibility of Hezbollah, Hamas or Global Jihad attempting something similar in Israel is a worst-case scenario that Israeli security specialists must consider.

What was new about Mumbai was the sheer size of the targets taken over by the terrorists. Indeed, the Mumbai attacks may serve as a game-changer in the way counterterrorist forces prepare for attacks.

Going room to room and floor to floor in a multistory, modern building to flush out terrorists who could be anywhere and to save hostages requires highly coordinated action by much larger special forces than currently exist in Israel — or for that matter, anywhere else. For Israel, it means training more special forces at home and possibly helping train others abroad. It also means heightened surveillance at potential target sites to spot suspicious people, guests or customers trying to gather intelligence and prepare for an attack.

Israeli experts note that the attackers in Mumbai were highly skilled in the use of weapons and explosives, had detailed intelligence on their targets and used sophisticated navigation devices. In other words, they performed like soldiers in a regular army.

Like soldiers, they likely spent time at terrorist camps undergoing training. An effective preemptive counterterrorist measure could be to hit terrorist training camps in places such as Lebanon or Pakistan, Israeli experts say.

While acknowledging the difficulty of fighting terrorists at as many as 10 sites, Israeli experts have been very critical of the way Indian security and special forces operated.

They point to three stages of failure: the lack of any prior intelligence on the planned terrorist operation, the failure to intercept the terrorists as they infiltrated the Indian coast and the slowness of the counterterrorism operation on the ground.

The experts were particularly critical of the drawn-out operation at Nariman House, the building that houses the Chabad center. Unlike the large hotels, the experts say, there was no reason to take 12 hours to liberate the much smaller Chabad house. For the hostages to have had any chance of survival, the counterterrorist operation needed to take place in minutes, not hours.

Others in Israel slammed the critics, noting that Israel, with its long history of fighting terrorism, has had its fair share of failures, too.

For its part, the Israeli government has studiously avoided any official criticism of the Indian effort. Diplomats, fearing possible strains on the close ties between Israel and India, urged Israeli critics to tread more carefully.

Israeli-Indian military, intelligence and counterterrorism cooperation is extremely close. Over the past several years, India has purchased an estimated $8 billion worth of military equipment from Israel, including the Green Pines radar system employed by Israel’s Arrow anti-ballistic missile batteries. India’s defense-related purchases from Israel amount to some $1.5 billion annually.

Just three weeks ago, Indian Defense Secretary Vijay Singh visited Israel to discuss the purchase of state-of-the-art Phalcon early-warning planes, missiles, helicopters and maintenance equipment for unmanned aircraft. The visit also focused on counterterrorism, with high-level intelligence exchanges on the war against global terrorism.

After Mumbai, the already deep cooperation between the two countries on counterterrorism almost certainly will be enhanced. India will want to share Israeli expertise, and Israel will be desperately keen to provide it. Both sides recognize that fighting global terrorism will take a huge international collaborative effort.

Nation & World Briefs

Abdullah Takes Saudi Throne

The successor to the late Saudi King Fahd has previously proposed a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Crown Prince Abdullah, who was pronounced monarch within hours of Fahd’s death of a long illness Monday, authored a Middle East peace plan endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 and again this year. Under the proposal, Israel would relinquish all territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War in return for full normalization with the Arab world. Israel was cool on Abdullah’s overtures, which first were made at the height of the intifada.

Deal Close on Corridor

Israel reportedly agreed that Egypt will post 750 troops along its border with the Gaza Strip. The new deployment, which effectively would overturn a clause in the 1979 Camp David peace accord demilitarizing the Sinai, will begin Sept. 1 along the Philadelphia Corridor, Israel Radio said Monday. Under the reported deal, Egypt will be responsible for preventing arms smuggling from Sinai to Palestinian terrorist groups in Gaza.

Israel: Not So Calm After All

Israel’s internal security service said the cease-fire declared by Palestinian terrorists has been flouted regularly. According to a Shin Bet report published Monday, 33 Israelis have died in Palestinian attacks in the first half of the year, most after the accord was declared Jan. 22. Another 286 Israelis were wounded in the period. The Shin Bet said it had foiled several Palestinian plots to carry out suicide bombings and kidnap Israeli soldiers. Islamic Jihad, which was not part of the agreement, has carried out most attacks in recent months, prompting Israel to resume its policy of “targeted killings” of the group’s leaders.

Sand Beats Rubber

The Israeli army is replacing its rubber bullets with sand bullets for controlling riots. The sand bullets are considered less dangerous than rubber bullets, because the sand bullets don’t penetrate the skin. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem praised the move, but questioned why it has taken the army so long to make the change, Ha’aretz reported.

Welcome to Nitzan

Israel unveiled a mobile-home park for housing settlers evacuated from the Gaza Strip. Only 130 of 350 trailers planned for the Nitzan park have been fully installed, but it was opened Sunday for orientation tours by Gaza settlers slated for evacuation next month. Officials said the community, which is intended to provide temporary housing while evacuees decide on their final destinations, would soon be filled.

“Three-hundred or more families have registered for this project, so it more or less meets our needs,” Interior Minister Ofir Pines-Paz told Israel Radio.

French Tourism to Israel up

French tourism to Israel is at an all-time high. Israeli officials announced Monday that 134,200 people entered the country from French airports between January and June 2005, an increase of 28 percent over the same time last year. Seventy percent of French tourists head for Tel Aviv, officials said, with Netanya and Eilat in second and third place.

But the French Jewish community has not felt fairly treated by the Israeli tourism industry. In June, the French Jewish newsweekly Actualite Juive claimed French tourists were treated like “milk cows,” to be drained of all their money.

“They don’t speak French to us until it’s time to pay the bills,” the editor of Actualite Juive, Serge Benattar, told JTA. The Israeli minister of tourism, Avraham Herschson, responded by ordering a boycott of the newsweekly.

However, Herschson said last week that “We are aware of the problem and we are studying several solutions.”

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency


Melrose: Avenue of the Stars of David

The street was made famous by the TV show "Melrose Place," and for years, scores of tourists have trawled Melrose Avenue every day, hoping that some Los Angeles stardust will rub off on them.

They find a number of things as they stroll down Melrose: They discover that while there are almost no chain stores, it’s a great street for those who want to dress like Paris Hilton but can’t afford to, because so many stores stock a full array of cheap, tight, midriff-baring T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like "Juicy," which look great with thong underwear that peeks out from the top of hot-pink hotpants.

They also find that Melrose is like Little Israel. Between Fairfax and La Brea avenues, most of the stores on Melrose are owned by Israelis who came to the United States looking to own and operate their own stores, and many are staffed by newcomer Israelis who might not yet have green cards and want a job that can pay cash.

The milieu of stores that sell cheap merchandise and proprietors who are amenable to customers haggling over prices is somewhat similar to the souks in Israel. While the Valley might be the home away from home for Israelis in Los Angeles, Melrose is, perhaps, their business away from business.

"Israelis are attracted to anywhere where there is business to be made," said Rafael Cohen, an Israeli and president of Rafael and Associates Real Estate, which specializes in properties around the area. "I think that the bazaar, open-market type environment on Melrose is similar to what we are familiar with in Israel, and the fact that Melrose is a place to be seen and show off matches the Israeli personality nicely."

On Melrose, the Israeli store owners tend to have a friendly, yet competitive camaraderie. Their watering hole of choice is the Vienna Cafe, where many meet daily to sip coffee and schmooze about business.

They speak to each other in Hebrew so much that even some of the non-Israeli store owners, such as the Koreans who own accessories stores, are starting to pick up a few words of Hebrew. And they watch what goes on in each other’s stores, in both an effort not to duplicate and to assess how well other store owners are doing.

"We try to stay away from each other’s [merchandise]" said Dror Avisov, the proprietor of American Rebel. "When I go downtown [to buy wholesale merchandise], if I see something I like, I wouldn’t buy it if I know someone else stocks it. We are friends with everybody, as long as the guy is not trying to copy you."

"There’s always competition," said Alon Zeltzer who owns the XCVI clothing store with his father, while his wife, Milla, owns the Milla Angelina Gallery. "But it’s not ruthless competition by any stretch. Still, everyone counts each other’s bags — we check to see how many people are walking on the street with a store’s bag."

Not everyone is happy about the bazaar-type environment.

"Unfortunately, there is haggling on Melrose," said Gila Shlomof Leibovitch, who owns two stores, Blowout and Matrix, at opposite ends of Melrose. "I think it started about four years ago. There were too many desperate store owners trying to sell stuff, and someone started this whole price war. He had signs everywhere, ‘$5’, ‘$10’, ‘Make me an offer,’ and he created this whole swap meet image on Melrose, and now everyone expects that from every store."

But sustaining a thriving retail business on Melrose is not so easy any more. Owners complain that there is no longer enough foot traffic to justify rents of $3-$5 a square foot, and that their niche of cheap clothes for clubbing has been co-opted by stores like Forever 21, which sell similar stuff in the Beverly Center and The Grove.

"We used to have buses of tourists come to the street, but after Sept. 11 that decreased dramatically," Zeltzer said. "The retail business has seen better times."

Despite that, Melrose maintains a flavor of its own.

"It’s a young, crazy, fun, funky, promiscuous street," said Shlomof-Leibovitch. "You have celebrities, interesting-looking people and half-naked girls walking down the street. The other day, Snoop Dogg had his whole band crammed into a truck that was playing up and down the street. And you can still find products here that nobody else has."

"I guess Melrose is the closest thing to Dizengoff," said Zeltzer, referring to the famous pedestrian street mall in –where else? — Tel Aviv.

Dining With Tolerance in Krakow

Soon after Alef Jewish Restaurant opened for business in Krakow’s Jewish quarter more than a decade ago, a gaggle of Polish schoolgirls wandered in during their lunch break. The anxious students asked the restaurant’s co-owner, Janusz Benigier, whether they served non-Jews.

Benigier recounts the story to support his theory that Polish anti-Semitism, which a recent survey measured at more than 50 percent, springs from a lack of knowledge rather than a dark place in the soul.

“There are cases of ignorance,” he said over dinner at his restaurant. “I hope we are one of the places that provides an education.”

A doughy, red-cheeked fellow with a brown mustache and an unfortunate Hiltler-esque haircut, Benigier acknowledges that Alef attracts few Polish customers. The restaurant caters mainly to tourists, some of the 200 Jews or so left in the Kazimierz neighborhood and the occasional Holocaust survivor in town to visit nearby Auschwitz.

“Survivors come here from abroad after years,” Benigier said. “They’ve wanted to avoid thinking of memories of their families, their children who perished. There are a lot of tears here.”

The candlelit dining room in the 17th-century merchant’s house does evoke a sentimental time — the “between the war” period, when 65,000 Jews helped establish Krakow as a thriving center of culture and commerce. Paintings and period photos hang on the walls, which are the color of braised celery. Portraits of Frida Kahlo, Mozart and local rabbis intermingle. Mismatched antique wooden chairs encircle white lace-covered tables, common in the homes of many a Jewish grandmother.

Distraught diners at Alef, named for the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, tend to brighten after sampling familiar food, sensitive service (the waiters, all non-Jews, learn about Jewish culture as part of their training) and a few shots of Shilivitz, a potent vodka made from, according to Benigier, “plums and fire.”

There were few diners during a recent visit to Alef, giving Benigier a chance to play host. He switched off Rosemary Clooney’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” — the Klezmer band apparently had the night off — to give me a tour of his wall of fame. A framed note from Steven Spielberg, who filmed part of “Schindler’s List” at the restaurant, reads: “May your establishment survive for 2,000 years. The tradition is so important.” There’s a letter from Itzhak Perlman and a photo of Prince Charles–wearing a blue yarmulke embroidered with royal feathers. Last year, “Charles” — that’s how he signed the restaurant’s guest book, as if he were a supermodel — shared fruit juice and cake with Holocaust survivors during a photo-op at Alef.

It’s a shame HRH did not stay for more of a nosh. A meal at Alef, which is not kosher, proved a pleasure, aside from the unappetizing first course — carp Jewish-style. The hunk of white fish swims in a pond of viscous beige jelly studded with blanched almonds and black currants. Benigier noted with amusement that many Poles serve the dish on Christmas Eve, evidence of the comingling of cultures.

A better option is the rich wild mushroom soup with onions, a nice change from ubiquitous borscht. For a main course, I was tempted by the stuffed goose necks but instead opted for sticky but hearty cholent, a stew of beef, kidney beans, lentils and kasha that was traditionally eaten in Orthodox homes on the Sabbath. Religious law dictates that observant Jews refrain from using electricity on the Sabbath, hence the popularity of cholent, which can retain heat for hours. For dessert, I sampled a dense chocolate walnut cake, notable for its tempered sweetness.

After dinner, Benigier reflected on discovering his own Jewish roots as an adult. He lost two uncles in the Holocaust, but his family rarely discussed religion at the dinner table. “It was taboo during Communism. If you have to stand in a queue and fight for a meal, the interest in private affairs is not very critical,” he explained. His father fretted that his son would encounter harassment, or worse, by opening Alef, but so far the restaurant has been vandalism-free.

Encouraged by his success, Benigier plans to open an outpost of Alef in the middle of Krakow, which will test his hopeful hypothesis that anti-Semitism is waning in Poland. He has big plans: Jewish cooking classes, Jewish folk dancing and visions of tour groups spilling out of busses. Is he nervous about venturing out of the Jewish neighborhood?

“Not fear, just excitement,” he said. “I trust young people who are tolerant and looking [at the past]. A lot of them will find Jewishness in their own identities.”

For more information about Alef Jewish Restaurant, visit . Dinner for one runs about $20.

Tourist Trap

Summer is often a season of travel and vacation. Whether travel is a part of our plans for this summer, most of us have had the experience of being a tourist.

Some of us are bold and adventurous travelers; we enjoy exploring every new place and sight. Others of us, just as curious about our new surroundings, travel in a more reserved and cautious style. Yet, for all of us, whenever and however we travel, this definition applies: a tourist is someone who stands on the outside looking in.

When we travel, we are often asked, “Where are you from?” Our answer to that question is a statement of personal identity. The place that we each call home and the cultural values that each one of us reflect, define who each of us is in the larger world of people and places.

The truth is, we do not have to go far to be tourists. We don’t even have to take a trip. We meet people all the time who stand on the outside of their own life experiences looking in. These are people who live separate from — and unaffected by — those around them, the things that happen to them or the chances before them. These are individuals who don’t recognize the truth in the cliché that “life is what happens while we are making plans.”

The story is told of a young man who finished his education and started out his adult years with a great desire to live an exciting and important life. Like many young men before him, he had grandiose expectations of accomplishing great things. The trouble was that he didn’t really know how to go about doing it, so he lived his life and routine as it seemed he should, as most of us would. He fell in love with a good woman, raised a family with her, earned some money working, made some mistakes and corrected as many of them as he could. He traveled a little, read a little, made new friends and volunteered here and there.

Toward the end of his years, he dreamed that the angel of death approached him.

“But I have not had the chance to truly live and accomplish the great things I had hoped to achieve,” he complained.

The angel of death was puzzled and asked: “What have you been doing all these years?”

The now-elderly man answered by recounting how he had only loved, raised a family, worked, talked, helped some, made a few mistakes, traveled a bit and learned what he could — but that he had never truly understood much about his place in the world.

“But don’t you see,” replied the angel of death, “that is life.”

Too many of us live with the expectation that life is something more than our actual experience. We are like tourists on a journey through the challenges and opportunities of every day. We have in our mind’s eye a different image of what we’re supposed to do, or even of whom we are supposed to be. The real challenge is to make ourselves at home with who we are.

At the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, God instructs Moses and Israel to place a fringe, the tzitzit, “on the corners of their garments … so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge” (Numbers 15:38-41). The Torah’s concern was paganism and idolatry. Yet for us, as for every generation, the tzitzit are significant as a reminder of God’s commandments.

We remember that the Jewish people’s proud place in life is found in the doing of mitzvot. Every one of us can be a privileged participant in this sacred purpose. None of us need stand on the outside looking in. Each of us can know the comfort and confidence of feeling at home in Jewish tradition and community.

The Torah’s word for “follow” is derived from the Hebrew word for scouting or touring. Moses instructs each tribe’s scouts with this same word at the beginning of the portion: “To scout the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2).

As Rashi suggests, our heart and eyes are our body’s scouts. Through them we desire and discover all of life’s opportunities. In touring the world, we determine with our heart and eyes where we might visit and where we will reside. The message here is one of caution. In order to make ourselves feel at home and to understand where we are from, we ought not to follow our heart and eyes toward things foreign to the reality of our own experiences. Rather, we are encouraged to turn within, to recognize who we are and to live on the inside, at home in Jewish identity and present every day in the personal circumstances and genuine context of our lives.

Ron Shulman is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes.

Jewish History Draws in Bratislava

Once we declared here that we would visit Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, we expected people to say, “How quaint! How interesting! What an unusual place to visit.” Instead, we invariably heard, “Why Bratislava?” And in Prague, when we announced our next stop, the reaction was, “Why do you want to go there?” Amazingly, even in beautiful Bratislava itself, residents asked in wonder and bemusement, with no hint of being impolite: “Why would you want to come here?”

Folks in Bratislava are not used to tourists. It is not, as they say in the travel trade, a “destination.” No tourist buses crowd the streets like in Prague. No Israelis swarm here. And even if tourists come, we were told, they are ultra-Orthodox Jewish tourists visiting Budapest who take a taxi to Bratislava for a quick visit to the tomb of the revered early 19th century sage Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chatam Sofer), and then scoot back to Budapest without so much as a backward glance.

Which is too bad, for Bratislava is a lovely place to behold — despite a long-time resident’s semi-jocular remark: “It’s a pleasant town to live in, but not to visit.”

Known also as Pressburg, Bratislava has a special place in Jewish history. Jews have been connected to this city for more than 800 years, and may even have been here (like in Budapest) with the Roman legions. Since the 1700s it has been an important center for organized Jewish life. Hebrew and Yiddish book printing thrived — always a mark of a community’s importance. In the 100 years between 1830 and 1930, about 340 Jewish books appeared, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers and magazines.

In 1940, nearly 15,000 Jews lived in Bratislava, about 12 percent of the general population. Services were held in three shuls and in 14 Chasidic shtibls (prayer rooms). During World War II, few of the Bratislava Jews survived the combination of German racial laws and Slovak state anti-Semitism, sponsored by the fascist leader/priest, Father Tiso, and other church leaders who cooperated with the Germans. Of the 90,000 Jews in pre-War Slovakia, only 15,000 survived.

In 1947, the Jewish population in Bratislava was 7,000, bolstered by survivors who made their way to the capital from outlying towns and villages where Jewish life was not reconstituted after the war. During the following years, several thousand Jews went to Israel, so by 1969, the population had declined to 1,500. Today, 720 Jews are registered in the Jewish community.

An active synagogue functions under the leadership of a bright, energetic, 38-year-old American Chabad rabbi, Baruch Myers, who is secularly educated (a rarity among Chabadniks, for Lubavitch discourages non-Jewish higher education). The synagogue is part of the modern communal offices complex, and consists of a large, well-lit room, divided partly by a partition to create a woman’s gallery. The kehilla’s kosher kitchen serves meals to the elderly for less than $1. The community also runs a small kindergarten, but admits only children who are halachically Jewish (born of a Jewish mother).

Bratislava’s grand synagogue, built in 1926 in the elaborate 19th century style, with six great white columns, is the only pre-World War II shul still standing in the city. But this imposing edifice, with a beautiful interior, is rarely used nowadays.

At Sabbath services we noticed a mixture of older men, all Holocaust survivors, middle-aged men, and a couple of young adults, about 15-20 in all. All the pain of the Jewish past is borne by these old men. You look around the shul and see, even more than a half-century later, the suffering etched into their faces. At one table, a man in his late 70s looks sadly out the window. Who is he remembering? Another snoozes during the davening, a third man is missing an arm. Some of the middle-aged men sit, but do not participate. Two or three younger men with obviously Slavic faces are either converts or on their way to conversion. No teenagers were present; nor did we see any father-son duos, which is always the hallmark of Jewish continuity.

The only youngster in shul, of any age, was the rabbi’s 6-year-old son, who sat in the hollow of the prayer stand behind which his father was giving the sermon in Slovak. (Yes, Myers took the trouble to learn and master the local language.) No old women were seen in shul, but there were two of college age, one a Jewish teacher from South Africa, the other a gentile from Bratislava who, after working for a Jewish camp, decided to convert.

Like in America, the intermarriage rate is 50 percent. A curious fact: the assimilated Jews in prewar Bratislava married Jews — but the postwar Jewish children intermarry. Still, Myers has performed several marriages during the past few years.

We stayed at the simply appointed, comfortable, community-owned hotel, the Chez David. As spare as its rooms are, so impressive is its kosher restaurant, which is patronized mostly by local Slovaks. The talented and imaginative chef serves meals that are not only delicious, but artistically presented; they could be photographed for Gourmet magazine. The Chez David is ideally located, a few minutes away from the historic Old Town and a short walk from the synagogue.

In the Old Town, accompanied by the president of the
Jewish community, Peter Salner, we noticed a Cafe Mikva. But he told us that neither the owners nor the patrons know what a mikvah is. It is so named because an old mikvah used to be located on that street. The Old Town, with narrow cobblestone streets and a large, imposing square, is an esthetic entity, with fine old buildings, a market on one side, and upscale shops and an elegant cafe on the other. Posters are seen everywhere advertising the many concerts, plays and folklore evenings available almost nightly in Bratislava. A short walk from the Old Town stands a rather large memorial to the Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The dollar in Slovakia makes everything rather inexpensive. The rabbi and members of the community are warm and welcoming. When we arrived at Chez David, Salner was waiting for us to show us around; he returned later that evening to escort us to the shul. And once we met the rabbi, he immediately invited us to his house for the Sabbath meals.

To get to Bratislava we flew with the reliable and efficient British Airways to Vienna. Once there, we used our Eurail Flexipass obtained in the United States. Not only do the passes save you money — more important, they save you the hassle and waste of time in long lines at ticket counters.

So the next time anyone asks you, “Why Bratislava?” tell them it’s a beautiful town in the heart of Europe, with a rich Jewish past.

For information on the Eurail Flexipass, call (888)
342-7245; for information on Bratislava, visit “> or

A Reason to Party

After Osama bin Laden demolished the World Trade Center, then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a point of dining out in Manhattan. Last week, after two more bombings, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert went one step further.

Olmert persuaded hundreds of citizens to join him for a fressfest in the downtown Ben Yehuda pedestrian street. Rock groups blared, lights twinkled, steaks sizzled, wines were tasted. Chefs baked the world’s longest challah and a kugel worthy of the Guinness Book of Records.

The four-day food fair opened, as planned, a few hours after five Americans and two Israelis were murdered in an bombing at a cafeteria at the Hebrew University. The opening was not callous commercialism, but a deliberate act of defiance.

Ilan Siboni, owner of the Darna Moroccan restaurant, was offering couscous, savory cigars and oriental grills from an improvised, open-air kitchen. On that first night, he sold out. He — and his customers — were refusing to let the terrorists win.

"We choose for life; they choose for death," said Siboni, who opened his first Jerusalem restaurant 27 years ago. "Despite everything, we decided to go out. If we do what they want us to do, we can just stay at home and be miserable. You see how Jerusalem people react. It’s what we have to do."

The food fair launched a nine-week summer festival of events designed to revitalize Ben Yehuda, which has been targeted by bombers and abandoned by shoppers. Future events this summer will include a local fashion week and a schoolbook fair. An advertising campaign — on television, radio and newspapers — is urging Israelis to take a break in Jerusalem.

The city fathers noticed that people preferred the suburban Malcha shopping mall because it was enclosed and guarded. So they enclosed and guarded Ben Yehuda, too. They erected barriers at all entrances and renamed the paved street the "Open Mall." Police checked everyone coming in. Paramilitary border guards, armed with automatics, patrolled the streets.

A young mother, Rena Schwartz, brought her 3-year-old son, Ben, to the food fair. "I was a bit afraid," she confessed, "but I trust the security. It’s lovely here. People are walking about freely. That’s how the summer should be."

Angels Bakery greeted them off Zion Square with the record 66-foot-long challah. The Israel Chefs’ Association, a quarter of whose 500 members are out of work because of the tourism slump, flaunted the biggest kugel and the biggest kubeh, a popular Middle Eastern delicacy.

Rafi Yefet, association president, revealed the secret of the distinctive, gigantic "Jerusalem kugel": 220 pounds of lokshen, 600 eggs, 110 pounds of sugar, 55 pounds of raisins and a gallon of olive oil. Bake slowly for five hours, three with a high-tech oven.

"Jerusalem Buys Blue and White" read a streamer across a side street. Old men licked cornets outside an ice cream parlor that had put chairs and tables back on the sidewalk. Yuppies nibbled goat cheeses from the Sataf Dairy’s stall.

Fancy French restaurants — Arcadia and Cavalier — offered quality dishes at knockdown prices: fillet steak in wine sauce for 29 shekels (about $6), "rostbif" for 25. The El Gaucho Argentine restaurant was grilling huge steaks alfresco. Shanti (Sanskrit for "peace") peddled vegetarian salads.

A Lubavitcher Chasid with a wispy white beard invited passers-by to lay tefillin. He had few takers. They had come out for fun, not devotion, to make a point, not to worship.

As Olmert, shadowed by his bodyguard and spokeswoman, put it: "This is the strongest and most relevant manifestation by the people of Jerusalem that nothing will break our spirit. This is where we belong. Nobody can force us out."

If the food fair was any guide, he was right about the people of Jerusalem. The rest of Israel seems in no hurry, however, to weekend in the lonely capital. And foreign tourists are still as hard to find as a silver coin in a Jerusalem kugel.

Closed for the Duration

Whenever there’s a wave of terror in Israel, the nation’s hotels come up against a wave of cancellations, and the country’s entire tourist industry — from five-star hotels to souvenir hawkers — goes into a slump. But in a few months the terror and fear subside, and the tourists come back.

Not this time. "The tourism industry has never had a crisis of these proportions since the country began. Little by little it keeps getting worse, and nobody can see the end of it," says Mira Altman, director-general of the Tourism Ministry. "Hotels are closing, travel agencies are closing, tour guides haven’t worked in a year. The tourism industry is simply collapsing."

The crisis began in October 2000 with the outbreak of the intifada, and people stopped flying to Israel. Then came Sept. 11, and people stopped flying anywhere. Now two wars have to end — the one against Israel, and the one against America — before Israel’s tourism industry climbs out of depression. This could take years. The question is: If and when the wars end, will tourists wishing to visit Israel again have hotels, tour operators, guides and such to accommodate them?

The industry is now in a survival mode, firing workers, trimming services and slashing expenses like mad, trying to stay afloat in anticipation of "the day after," Altman says. "We’re not doing any marketing, any advertising," she adds.

The statistics for the year beginning October 2000 are in now, and they’re bleak. Some 40,000 of the 180,000 tourism employees lost their jobs. Industry-wide income fell from $4.2 billion to $2 billion. Hotel occupancy fell by 60 percent. Scores of the country’s 350 hotels closed whole floors, and 32 shut down altogether.

Hardest hit were Jerusalem — the No. 1 destination for foreign tourists — and the other cities that depend heavily on overseas visitors — Tiberias, Netanya and Nazareth.

The city of Jesus’ birth was counting on millennium tourism to boost its economy. Three big hotels were built in advance of 2000: the Renaissance, Marriott and Howard Johnson’s. All three closed in the last year, as well as the city’s five other, smaller hotels.

Some hotels are considering retooling and becoming office buildings. A couple of the smaller ones have turned themselves into immigrant hostels.

Now that the Jewish holidays are over, another 15-20 hotels are expected to close — bringing the country’s total to about 300, down from 350 a year ago. "I hope 300 is the bottom and it will go no lower," says Avi Rosenthal, general manager of the Israel Hotels Association. "But I don’t know. The way things are going, we can expect a few thousand more hotel rooms to shut down, and a few thousand more employees to be fired."