Israeli hotels showcase a summer medley of adventures

Spurred by a record-breaking number of foreign tourists who visited the Holy Land during the first quarter of 2012, Israel’s burgeoning hotel industry is gearing up for a busy summer tourism season by sprucing up their facilities and offering a variety of titillating vacation packages.

According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the 752,000 foreign visitors who entered the country between January and March 2012, not only eclipsed last year’s figures by 2 percent, the first-quarter figures also represent a 1 percent increase over 2010, which Israel’s Ministry of Tourism declared was Israel’s best year ever for incoming tourism.

Despite the generally optimistic picture, many hotel managers aren’t assuming that North American Jewish tourists will reflexively book a vacation to Israel when there are myriad interesting destinations to choose from. In order to attract both veteran and new foreign tourists to their facilities, some of Israel’s best-known hotels have undergone a series of physical transformations in order to broaden their appeal, while others have focused on offering newfangled experiences to both couples and families with children.

Ilan Brenner, executive assistant manager of marketing and sales at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, said that the hotel’s staff knows its clients, and in a growing number of cases they have literally grown up with entire families.

“So when a new generation emerges, we already have a good idea about their needs. Both returning and new tourists are always searching for and asking about upgrades, so we are constantly adding incentives, whether it’s a free car, a multimedia game room for youngsters, new spa treatments, trendy gastronomic experiences in the dining room,” he said. 

Rafi Beeri, the Dan Hotel’s vice president of marketing and sales, said renovations at Dan properties have included some innovations. “The King David has undergone a major makeover with a new section of rooms and suites. At the Dan Carmel, which debuted in 1962, we have completed a top-to-bottom renovation [that] includes new executive rooms, which overlook Haifa Bay and the Carmel Mountains. With the Dan Jerusalem, which we acquired in 2010, we realized that renovating this huge hotel would have to be done in phases and feature some unique aspects.”

According to Beeri, the Dan Jerusalem highlights a unique hotel-within-a-hotel concept, where both guests and groups can benefit from more personalized services and amenities.

“It can be compared to an airline’s business-class environment,” he said. “We’ve upgraded a wing of 120 rooms, where guests or groups who wish to stay in this section will enjoy a separate check-in area, separate lounge and dining facilities, as well as a special staff that will cater to them in a more personalized manner.”

The Ramada Jerusalem Hotel has acquired a stellar reputation among families who seek discounted long-term vacation packages (from seven to 21 days) with a variety of summer activities for adults and children, including its “We Love Kids” program, which features daily entertainment for children, including magicians and petting zoos.

“During weekdays, we offer complimentary shuttle bus service to the Old City, which is an attraction for the parents. And, our outdoor American-style barbecues out by the pool area during August always attracts a large audience of both adults and children,” said Yacov Shaari, general manager of the Ramada Jerusalem Hotel. The growing Rimonim chain recently rebranded four of its upscale properties to create the “Royal Collection,” which includes the Royal Dead Sea, Rimonim Eilat, Ruth Rimonim Safed and Rimonim Galei Kinnereth. Each hotel accentuates contrasting experiences for the mind, body and soul.

“During the summer months, the Royal Dead Sea will feature special spa packages that include the hotel’s new Royal Lounge,” said Anat Aharon, Rimonim’s vice president of sales and marketing. “At the Ruth Rimonim in Safed, we invite guests to let their soul breathe amid the mystic beauty of the hotel’s Galilean surroundings. The hotel also features a wine cellar, where you can sample the best Israeli wines and enjoy small talk.”

At the Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel, where North American, British and French tourists converge during the summer months, the “accent” will be on indulging kids and parents alike.

“Last year, we opened a children’s pool. This year, we will complement it with a guarded kids’ playground with games and toys, where families can relax and enjoy the pool while their children are playing,” said Jean-Louis Ripoche, general manager of the Sheraton Tel Aviv. “During the summer, we will be extending breakfast hours in the dining room till noon, so couples and families can enjoy a longer, relaxed morning. After breakfast, we offer adults a free bicycle, so they can pedal around the seaside boardwalk area and beyond.”

It’s important to note that despite a 15 to 20 percent rise in the cost of airline tickets to Israel since last summer, many Israeli hotels have not raised their basic rates. Israeli hoteliers are cognizant of the fact that families are looking to maximize their vacation experience without blowing a hole in their budget.

Here is a guide to some of the hottest summer deals across Israel:

Inbal Jerusalem Hotel
July rates begin at $150 per person in a double room, based on a minimum five-night stay. The hotel’s Web site features several unique summer deals. Guests who book three consecutive nights in a “superior room” are entitled to a free car. Guests who book at least three consecutive nights in “executive rooms” or higher category are also entitled to a vehicle upgrade (such as Mazda 6). In August, the hotel’s popular Kids Club will feature a supervised multimedia game room and Gymboree. The Splash Bar situated poolside highlights an American-style barbecue menu as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages for adults and children. The hotel’s Mediterranean-accented Sofia restaurant has received rave reviews for the unique fish and pasta dishes served up by executive chef Moti Buchbut.

Ramada Jerusalem Hotel
The hotel’s “We Love Kids” rates start at $198 based on a seven- to 14-night stay, including two adults and one child in a room (including breakfast). Rates are discounted even further based on stays exceeding 14 nights. Amenities include large indoor and outdoor pools, health club and sauna, as well as supervised summer children’s camps and a teen corner during July and August. This hotel highlights OU mehadrin glatt kosher cuisine.

Dan Hotels
Rates for July and August for guests who book “Golden 7 Nights” at the King David start at $480 a night per room (per couple) based on a bed and breakfast excursion. The “Golden 7” special also includes pampering amenities such as free round-trip transportation between Ben-Gurion Airport and the hotel. Guests who stay a minimum of three nights are entitled to a free voucher to the Dan Lounge at Ben Gurion Airport on the day of their departure from Israel. At the Dan Jerusalem, guests who book a minimum of three nights in “deluxe rooms” will receive a free upgrade to “executive rooms,” which includes the use of the hotel’s new King David Executive Lounge.

Sheraton Tel Aviv
Hotel & Towers

The hotel is offering an “early bird package” starting from $370 per person with a minimum booking of five nights, or three nights non-refundable. The charge for a child in the room under the age of 17 is $30 per child. There is no charge for children under 3 years old. There is a limited promotion whereby guests who stay for a minimum of five nights between Aug. 5 and Aug. 25 will receive complimentary tickets to the world famous Cirque du Soleil, which will be playing Tel Aviv during August. Rates start from $400 a night based on double occupancy. The special deal can be booked direct via the hotel’s Web site.

Rimonim Hotels
Various deals are available for guests who book directly via the Web site. Rates vary for midweek and weekend vacations. At the Royal Dead Sea
guests staying in suites and preferred room types will enjoy a separate check-in at the lounge, private breakfast and dinner, as well as snacks and drinks during the day. Galei Kinnereth’s luxurious spa highlights a “domed Jacuzzi” overlooking the Sea of Galilee. The Rimonim Eilat’s “Serenity & Action” package includes a choice of two hot attractions for the whole family: IMAX Theater/Underwater Observatory/Ice & Space, when reserving for a minimum of three nights. The hotel’s “Romantic Serenity” deal for couples features pampering amenities such as, breakfast for two in your room, one gift dinner, spa treatment for both, as well as a 45-minute pedicure and manicure.

Rimonim Royal Dead Sea pool

The bachelor party grows up

There are many things that come to mind when the words “bachelor” and “party” are said in the same breath, and often the sum of this equation is not pretty.  Despite Hollywood’s depiction of this rite of passage as a final gasp of protracted adolescence (from the Tom Hanks camp classic “Bachelor Party” to the “Hangover” movies), there are men who are not interested in acting silly (or worse) for its own sake.

A variety of event planners are targeting grooms who want the time-honored tradition of transition into another stage of manhood to be, well, more mature. And men are increasingly opting for theme parties and weekend retreats, with activities that can be enriching rather than embarrassing.

Companies offer weekends built around fishing, formula auto-racing, dude ranches and culinary education where wine, beer and spirits are put to more sophisticated, refined use. In England, event company StagWeb even offers a getaway built around a James Bond theme.

As bachelor weekends and weeks are picking up steam, services like CruiseWise have sprung up that allow for maximum bonding with minimum planning. 

Steve Davis, co-founder of CruiseWise, says that while his clients don’t see marriage as the end of fun or a loss of freedom, that doesn’t mean they want to skip a celebration with their friends.

They have witnessed a “trend away from ‘traditional’ bachelor parties for some time now,” he said. “While there will always be 20-somethings who want to do the traditional movie-style bachelor party, there are many more who would call that a nightmare, not a celebration.”

Obvious benefits of all-inclusive cruising include no need for a cab or designated driver, mix-and-match activity menus and easily customized itineraries to accommodate the different personalities that make up the groom’s entourage.

Thanks to the newly opened Beverly Hills flagship of Art of Shaving, grooms without the luxury of time can still put together a pre-wedding day celebration that is all about luxury, pampering and putting one’s best face forward.

Amber Loose, the store’s general manager, notes the location and the concept are particularly popular for older grooms as well as businessmen whose lifestyle may not allow getaways aside from the honeymoon. However, thanks to the distinctive ambience (mansion library/den-meets-men’s spa), the Art of Shaving alternative promises something more grown-up than a night in Vegas and more memorable than a steakhouse dinner.

“We don’t call it a bachelor party,” Loose said. “We see it as more of a sophisticated, pre-wedding gathering that’s particularly appealing to anybody who has outgrown strip clubs and pub crawls.”

When a gathering is booked with Art of Shaving, Loose says, she closes off the store to the public so guests have undisturbed access to eight barber chairs for shaves and haircuts, plus two manicure/pedicure stations.

“Brides, meanwhile, have the luxury of knowing their men are literally in good hands and will look fantastic on the big day,” Loose said.

Art of Shaving’s party planning service include customized wine and beverage services, hors d’oeuvres, music of choice and a photographer to capture the transformational magic. If bosses and co-workers are going to be a part of the wedding party, this kind of gathering will be sure to make a lasting positive impression.

Story continues after the jump

Art of Shaving in Beverly Hills offers a sophisticated alternative to the raucous bachelor party.

Although popular variations on the sports weekends include baseball fantasy camps, golf resorts and camping, a fitness retreat week can both enlighten and entertain, according to Omari Bernard, one of the lead coaches at Playa del Rey’s Live-In Fitness Enterprise (LIFE).

“When you think about it, getting drunk, behaving badly and feeling awful the next day is not how you want to start the next major chapter of your life,” he said. “However, this experience goes beyond just shaping up so you look great in your tux.”

LIFE emphasizes the team aspect of fitness and coaching. All activities, which integrate a variety of favorite sports (such as hikes, boxing, martial arts and basketball), involve team-building exercises that will help the groom and those closest to him with interpersonal relationships and challenges. 

Story continues after the jump

A Live-In Fitness Enterprise coach trains one-on-one with a client.

The groom, family and friends also learn good eating and exercise habits that can keep married life, and life in general, exciting and active, Bernard says.

“Everything we do is quantitative, and when the party leaves after a week, they don’t just take away a better body and some workouts to do at home. The groom brings practical information on staying healthy and fit into his marriage,” Bernard said.

What’s the best way to sum up the new wave of groomsman’s gatherings? Party on, but do it with intelligence and self-respect.

Swedish FM cancels trip to Israel

Sweden’s foreign minister canceled a scheduled trip to Israel.

Saturday night’s cancellation of Carl Bildt’s trip scheduled for Sept. 11 comes on the heels of disintegrating relations between the two countries over the publication in a Swedish newspaper of an article alleging that Israeli soldiers harvested the organs of Palestinians they killed. Bildt has refused to condemn the publication of the article, citing freedom of the press. Israel calls it a blood libel.

Swedish officials told several media outlets that the visit was canceled until after the United Nations General Assembly later this month and would be rescheduled in the hopes that there would be more progress in the Middle East peace process. They denied the controversy over the article was the cause of the cancellation.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry told Ha’aretz the trip was canceled due to the Swedish government’s concern that Bildt would be shunned during his visit.

Sweden currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency. The presidency is scheduled to be taken over by Spain, whose foreign minister on Saturday condemned an interview in a major Spanish newspaper with known Holocaust denier David Irving.

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.”

Jews by Choice bolster ties with first Israel mission

Misty Zollars knew she wanted to be Jewish ever since she was 13, when her best friend invited her to her first Passover seder.

“I found the afikoman, and I knew I was going to be a Jew,” said Zollars, now 28, of Sherman Oaks. “The warmth of the family tradition and the concept of tikkun olam (healing the world) just made sense to me. After I converted, I felt this need to go to Israel, but I discovered there wasn’t really a trip out there for people like me.”

So Zollars helped create one.

Next February, the fashion designer will join a group of converts like herself to take part in a groundbreaking event: the first mission to Israel tailored specifically for so-called “Jews by Choice.” The 12-day trip, led by Rabbis Neal Weinberg and Joel Rembaum, will take up to 40 travelers through Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other locales to help foster a connection with the Jewish homeland that new recruits might not otherwise feel. Organizers say there are still openings for people to sign up before the Oct. 15 application deadline.

“This is a special trip for people who have become Jewish,” said Weinberg, director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at American Jewish University. “There are a lot of people who have converted to Judaism who are 27, 28, 29 years old. They’re too old for [Taglit] Birthright now, and yet they’re young and they’ve never had the experience of going to Israel. To them, Israel is a faraway country. This is a way of making it come closer to them.”

Many of the trip’s participants — who span all ages and are both single and married — are graduates of the Miller Introduction to Judaism program. Having led the program since 1986, Weinberg said he saw a need for more programs geared toward new members of the Jewish community who still had questions after their classes ended.

The trip to Israel is sponsored, in part, by Judaism by Choice Inc., an organization that Weinberg and his wife, Miri, founded in 2005. Its purpose is to aid students seeking inclusion into the community who might feel overwhelmed by the prayers and rituals of a typical Shabbat service.

“There is a lack of programming for this niche in the community — for people who have embraced Judaism,” Weinberg said. “Before you can learn to ride a bicycle, you’ve got to have the training wheels. What we offer is extra support.”

Weinberg appointed Zollars to the board of of Judaism by Choice, which holds Shabbat dinners and Saturday morning services each month at synagogues throughout the L.A. area, including Temple Beth Am, Sinai Temple and Valley Beth Shalom. Zollars had been observing Shabbat and keeping kosher since converting in 2006, but she also sought another, less-accessible part of the Jewish experience — going to Israel.

“I knew that if I was having these frustrations, there would be other people in the community, as well, looking for a trip like this,” she said.

Zollars suggested a mission to Israel to the board of Judaism by Choice, and enthusiasm grew. Jill Sperling, another board member, called Rembaum at Temple Beth Am to help arrange the trip.

“I thought the idea was exciting and important and said I’d love to help,” said Rembaum, who arranged the itinerary earlier this year. “Jews by Choice are wonderful miracles. Their addition to the Jewish community is an amazing thing.”

Visiting Israel is “the big hook” that helps converted Jews relate on a gut level to Jewish history and identity, Rembaum explained.

Just ask Sperling.

“Some of my defining moments as a Jew were in Israel — just to be there and feel that connection and feel accepted,” said the Los Angeles mother of two, who has been to Israel three times in the past five years. “For my family, our connection to Israel has really helped us grow as Jews. Israel is the key that inspires you and excites you. That’s something you can’t get in a classroom.”

Sperling, 44, took Weinberg’s Miller Introduction to Judaism program in 1989 with her husband, Skip Sperling, who is Jewish by birth. The course renewed the couple’s devotion to their religion, and they enrolled both their children — Sofia, 12, and Elliot, 15 — in Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am. Sperling and Sofia just returned in May from a visit to Israel with the Pressman Academy through The Jewish Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership program.

As an Israel “veteran,” Sperling said she hopes to be a mentor to her fellow Jews by Choice on the February trip. “Because I’ve already been there, I feel like I can support other people while they’re there,” she said. “This will be life-changing for people who have chosen to be Jewish.”

Participants will fly to Tel Aviv and visit Independence Hall, before embarking on a cross-country tour with stops at Masada, Yad Vashem, Safed (the birthplace of kabbalah), the Upper Galilee and the Kotel. Besides exploring popular landmarks, they will also meet with Israeli residents who have converted to Judaism — both those who converted in Israel through the Masorti (Conservative) movement and those who converted outside of the country and made aliyah.

“People often don’t think about the different needs of people who convert to Judaism on a trip to Israel,” Weinberg said. “Most of them are going to see the country for the first time with fresh eyes. They weren’t brought up with an understanding of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people.”

The program is open to Jews by Choice of all denominations, along with their spouses or significant others. The per-person cost of the trip — $3,000, including the flight — was kept low with support from Judaism by Choice, and scholarship funds are also available through several foundations and individual contributions. Weinberg said he is still seeking donations to further allay the cost for those who might not be able to afford the trip on their own.

Zollars said she is eagerly awaiting the chance to connect with the homeland to which she has always felt drawn.

“It’s almost like a graduation feeling,” she said. “It is, in a way, the last and first step in my journey as a Jew. Being surrounded and embraced by Judaism would make me so happy. It would be like a trip home for me.”

To learn more or sign up for the trip, e-mail or, or call Cori Drasin at Temple Beth Am, (310) 652-7353. The deadline is Oct. 15.

A free trip to Israel — custom-made for you!

Click on BIG ARROW for Taglit video

What’s more enticing than a free trip to Israel? A free trip to Israel tailor-made for your interests.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, a partnership between the Israeli government, local Jewish communities, Jewish federations and philanthropists, offers free first-time trips to Israel for Jewish young adults between 18 and 26. But these days, trips for special interest groups like medical students, law students, business students, military cadets and even aspiring chefs are another way to entice Jewish young adults to visit Israel.

Between exploring the Kotel, the Negev and the Dead Sea, young professionals spend time with Israeli experts in their field and visit prominent facilities that relate to their interests.

“Going with a special interest group gives people a chance to meet people with similar interests and to connect with Israel and the things that they’re specifically interested in,” said Miri Pomerantz, program director of the Jewish Book Council in New York, which is co-sponsoring a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip for young professional journalists this summer. While exploring the Jewish homeland, the writers will meet with Israeli novelists, editors of The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz and other Israeli professionals in the world of literature and journalism.

For more information on Taglit-Birthright Israel, visit

— Sharon Schatz Rosenthal

Requests Swamp Israel Trip Program

Birthright Israel has received many more applications for its upcoming trips than it has spaces available. Approximately 14,000 young Jews applied for 8,000 spots in the program’s spring/summer trips this year in just the first 12 hours of registration Feb. 8.

The organization provides free trips to Israel for Jews ages 18 to 26. In the six years since its founding, Birthright has brought 98,000 people from 45 countries to Israel. The upcoming trip will include the program’s 100,000th participant.

“The level of demand is unprecedented and well exceeds our financial capability to accommodate the majority of those who currently wish to go on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips,” said Susie Gelman, Birthright Israel Foundation chair.

Taglit is the Hebrew name for the program.

“As Taglit-Birthright Israel grows rapidly and develops into a community-supported organization, we hope that our friends will support us in enabling more young Jews to participate in the Taglit-Birthright Israel experience, so that we can send the 100,000th participant and plan for the next 100,000,” Gelman said.

Villaraigosa a Yemenite?

The energy and enthusiasm of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa got ahead of his staff when, at a Rosh Hashanah dinner with consular officials, he suddenly announced his intention to lead a local delegation to Israel.

The pledge had raced across newswires for several days and still the mayor’s staffers pleaded ignorance late last week, saying that they had no details, such as a date, an itinerary or participants.

But Westside City Councilman Jack Weiss, at least, was wise to what was up. He, too, had been at the Beverly Hills home of Ehud Danoch, the regional Israeli Consul General, and his wife, Miki. The Danochs hosted the gathering to celebrate their first Rosh Hashanah in Los Angeles, said Weiss, a close Villaraigosa ally.

“Mayor Villaraigosa said many times during his campaign that he would lead a trip to Israel,” Weiss said in a phone interview. “He feels a strong connection to Israel.”

Villaraigosa’s wife, Corina, and their two children were also among the guests, along with other consular officials. Also on hand was Benny Alagem, co-founder and one-time CEO of Packard Bell NEC. He’d helped arrange the visit to Israel by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Villaraigosa has long had strong ties with the Jewish community. He grew up in Boyle Heights, a former Jewish enclave that became Latino. A Jewish teacher and mentor paid for him to take his college boards. And leading Jewish progressives and funders supported his political rise early on. Weiss said that Villaraigosa already has been to Israel twice before.

But Consul General Danoch, a fluent Spanish speaker, spied another semblance of connection. Danoch’s parents are originally from Yemen and when they “saw a picture of Antonio on television, they told Ehud that he looked like a Yemenite,” Weiss said. “The mayor got a big kick out of that.”

Rough It in Style at El Capitan Canyon

As a city woman whose family is unaccustomed to “roughing it,” I planned our family vacation to involve a lot of nature but no sleeping on hard ground. That’s what made El Capitan Canyon in Santa Barbara the perfect place for us: It’s camping for people who like staying in Hiltons.

A two-hour drive north of Los Angeles, El Capitan Canyon is a former private campground that was transformed five years ago into a plush nature resort on 65 acres heavily populated with oak and sycamore trees. It allows guests to savor a rustic environment, but with down duvets and gourmet coffee for the coffeemaker.

Upon arrival, we took in the sweet, clean air gently blowing through the canyon. We had booked two cabins for our party of seven: a king suite with a bedroom, a living room with a pullout sleeper sofa and kitchenette, and a bunk cabin (which could have slept six) for our three sons. All cabins have bathrooms with showers, as well as refrigerators in kitchenettes — an important consideration for kosher consumers like us who bring our own food.

For more rustic tastes, El Capitan Canyon offers canvas safari tents on raised wooden decks, with screened windows and zip-down flaps. Bathroom facilities and showers for the tents are located in nearby buildings. Though our boys were at first disappointed at the absence of TVs, the beauty and calm of the campground environment assuaged them.

Cabin rates range from $135 to $345 for their brand-new canyon loft, which has a king-sized bedroom, living room with a sleeper sofa and stairs leading to a sleeping loft that can sleep up to four. It also has a full bathroom, gas fireplace and kitchenette. Safari tents range from $115 to $135 for a deluxe tent. Midweek pricing specials are available.

Cars are not allowed in the canyon, but a shuttle brings guests from their cabin or tent to the entrance of the facility, where the El Capitan Canyon store and deli are located. We preferred walking the half-mile or so from our cabin to the store, spotting vibrantly colored scrub jays and woodpeckers along the way.

Visitors can be as relaxed or as busy as they want. Our family borrowed complimentary bikes from the front office and rode for several miles on the bike path along El Capitan and Refugio beaches, just five minutes from the campsite. Water-lovers can kayak or surf, though rentals are not available directly on the premises. My husband and I hiked along the paths in the canyon, on the lookout for snakes, bobcats or mountain lions, which signs at the trailhead warn live in the mountain. (Fortunately, we didn’t meet any.) Our less adventurous kids preferred to swim at the pool or play catch on the large grassy area adjacent to the cabins. Our favorite time was after dinner, when nearly everyone dined at picnic tables outside their cabins or tents. We met our neighbors, our kids met other kids and we had fun roasting ‘smores in our fire pit.

The campground management at El Capitan Canyon also offers a ropes challenge course, wagon and carriage rides, guided hikes led by a naturalist, and horseback riding at the adjacent El Capitan Canyon Ranch. Live concerts are performed Saturday nights through September, and feature jazz, blue grass, oldies rock ‘n’ roll and more.

But if that sounds too ambitious, telephone the front office and reserve a massage, facial, mud treatments or other spa services. After all, you’re there to relax!

The hit movie, “Sideways,” has made visits to the nearby wineries in the Santa Ynez Valley more popular than ever. We toured the Firestone Winery, which offers tours every hour, and while we could not partake of the wine tasting, it was fascinating to learn about the complex and delicate nature of wine making. For those who keep kosher, Herzog Wine Cellars is now open in Oxnard. Plan to make this kosher winery part of your trip on the way to or from El Capitan Canyon.

If you are traveling with kids, make sure to drive to nearby Solvang for seasonal apple picking. A stroll through Solvang and a quick stop at Ostrich Land in Buellton can help round out a family-friendly day.

El Capitan Canyon, 11560 Calle Real, Santa Barbara. For more information, call (866) 352-2729 or visit

For help planning your trip, be sure to visit the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce at or the Santa Ynez Valley Visitors’ Association at

For a list of area wineries, visit For more information about Herzog Wine Cellars, call (805) 983-1560.

For fruit picking, try Apple Lane Farm, 1200 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 686-5858; or Morrell Nut & Berry Farm, 1980 Alamo Pintado Road, (805) 688-8969.

Judy Gruen hopes her next vacation will include a trip to at least one outlet shopping center. Subscribe to her regular “Off My Noodle” humor columns at


Wild Ride With Wildlife in Miami


Stretching along the popular beachfront area of Miami, approximately 650,000 Jewish residents support more than 100 synagogues, several Jewish community centers and abundant kosher restaurants, including authentic Thai food. The South Florida city even employs a full-time kashrut supervision department.

So on a recent trip to Miami, I indulged in Thai food and a few other favorites. Along with spotting baby alligators in the wild, viewing ancient art and other treasures, that meal was one of many memorable highlights.

We couldn’t skip the Everglades, one of the most well-known sites in Florida. Since we were on limited time over a long weekend, a friend and I opted for an airboat ride in the Everglades Alligator Farm.

With 10 other passengers, our craft launched from a canal filled with adult and adolescent alligators swimming just feet away. Their amphibious compadres, soft-shelled turtles, resemble snakes swimming with their heads above water.

As we took off, the boat’s engine roared so loudly that our driver instructed us to stuff our ears with complimentary cotton balls. We floated along as he pointed out the wildlife, alligator tracks and a breeding den. He spoke so loud, we could hear him even with the cotton.

When we neared an expansive glade he warned us to hold on. Suddenly, as if levitating on a flying carpet, we were airborne. The sensation was remarkable; the moment magical. We were weightless, skimming along gentle curves, skirting above the water and the abundant grasses. As far as the eye could see, there were only the Everglades: a clear blue sky, water and grasses spreading in every direction.

Then suddenly, the driver changed course, taking us in a 180-degree turn. He immediately accelerated again, then spun us in full circle. After a handful of more wild spins that created giant splashes and left us laughing for more, we headed back to an open stretch that led to the mainland.

There we took in a snake show, where we handled a magnificent albino python with striking yellow and white skin that was cool to the touch. We also toured the breeding ponds on a nature trail. Covered with a bright green moss, the alligators lay still, many of them just visible with their scales skimming the surface and their beady eyes staring above the water.

On our return trip, we dropped anchor at Robert Is Here, which specializes in exotic fruits. With delicacies such as monstera deliciosa, which looks like a giant green ear of corn but tastes like banana-pineapple pudding, you could easily say the blessing for tasting new fruits again and again. Mamey, atemoya, longan, canestel, anon, sapodilla, sapote and many other natural treats all qualify at this “Shehecheyanu store.”

Our next unique destination was Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, a majestic bay-front villa established between 1914 and 1916 by American farm equipment manufacturer James Deering as his winter home. Designed in the style of Italian Renaissance villas, the estate originally spanned 180 acres and resembled a typical northern Italian village with a dairy, poultry house, mule stable, greenhouse, machine shop, paint and carpentry workshop and staff residences.

The fully restored mansion was made to look as if a family had lived in it for 400 years, adding its own period furnishings, neoclassical, rococo and much more. As a result, Vizcaya contains one of the finest collections of European decorative arts from the 16th through 19th centuries. Vizcaya was purchased by Miami-Dade County in 1952 and now functions as an art house museum.

We capped off our Florida adventure at Thai Treat & Sushi, located just a few minutes drive from The Shul at Bal Harbour, where we spent Shabbat. Opened two years ago by a Thai and Indian couple, June and Naresh Choudhury, the kosher restaurant’s extensive menu features truly authentic Thai specialties.

We were sold on two superb dishes. Rich and flavorful Tom Kha Kai soup featured chicken in coconut milk, fresh mushrooms, lemongrass and lime juice. The exceptional Thai Basil Special featured chicken (or tofu or beef) sauteed with bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, chili paste and fresh herbs.

We were so taken by the captivating Thai flavors, we gave the sushi only a taste. The yummy vegetable combo, like all the sushi platters and bento boxes, was beautifully presented (and available with brown rice instead of white). We washed it all down with refreshing Thai iced tea.

The chef also recommended chicken and beef satay, montod — fries made from sweet potato and coconut — and spring rolls. We were far too stuffed for more. At least we know what we’ll try when we return — as if we really needed a reason.

Thai Treat & Sushi. Sans Souci Plaza, 2176 N.E. 123rd St., North Miami. (305) 892-1118.

The Everglades Alligator Farm. 40351 S.W. 192 Ave., Homestead. (305) 247-2628;

Robert Is Here. 19200 S.W. 344th St., Homestead. (305) 246-1592;

Vizcaya Museum and Gardens. 3251 S. Miami Ave., Miami. (305) 250-9133;


Family Time


I recently returned from Florida, where I spent the Kwanzaa break (I’ve coined a new name for the winter break that I hope will sweep the nation) with my parents. Actually, they used to be my parents. Now they’re my son’s grandparents. I was once my mother’s middle child, her youngest son, one of three apple-cheeked children around which her world revolved. Now I’m just the thing that brings the grandchild during the Kwanzaa break (I think the name is catching on). I’m pretty sure, if she could have, my mom would have skipped motherhood altogether and gone straight to being a grandmother. As a mother, she would never have given me an icing-laden cinnamon bun and a glass of chocolate milk for breakfast and then, just as the sugar rush kicked in, gone off to her aquatics class. As a grandmother, she does all that and throws in a chocolate muffin just for fun. But, to prove she has limits, she doesn’t buy the kind with the chocolate chips because that would be too much.

My son and I have developed a fun game that we play upon seeing my parents: Let’s count how long it takes before Zayde swears. I’m sorry to say that my father disappointed us all by taking well over three hours to curse. Last year he dropped an F-bomb in 53 seconds. We were both proud and impressed.

There are things about my parents that I had forgotten. For example, their refrigerator is a scientific anomaly. There is so much food shoved into that poor, overmatched appliance that, if you want to get anything to eat, you can’t just reach for it. You need a strategy; a plan of attack. You have to remove the orange juice, put the Costco-sized packet of margarine where the orange juice was, lower the mystery tub that is labeled “caramel corn” (so you know that it could be any food on earth except caramel corn — it turns out to have been either mock liver or spackle) on top of a different margarine container (this one has lasagna in it) and reach for the cottage cheese, which turns out to be soup. It’s like a giant slider puzzle. I didn’t really feel like soup, but after all that work, I needed to eat something. And Mom makes a good soup.

I’d also forgotten the volume at which my parents communicate. You know those noise-canceling headphones you see ground crews wearing at airports? I could’ve used a pair of those, if only so my parents’ voices would have come through at a normal volume. My mother, who has herself been a mother (if you ever need anyone to state the obvious, I’m your man), would stand over my sleeping child and say, “HE LOOKS SO CUTE WHEN HE SLEEPS!”

He also looks cute when he wakes with a start, clutching his chest, confused as to why his 11-year-old heart is pounding to the point of giving out.

My sister has, on occasion, pulled me aside and said with a look of dismay, “OUR PARENTS ARE SO LOUD! IT’S EMBARRASSING!”

This amuses me to no end. But then, I’m a big fan of irony.

My mother was kind enough to take my son and I to Walt Disney World. It’s the “Happiest Place on Earth,” you know, but not for me. I don’t enjoy paying $9 for a sucker, even if it is the size of a zeppelin. I’m not thrilled waiting in line 75 minutes for a ride that lasts 75 seconds. I did, however, really enjoy “The Land Pavilion,” a building that pays homage to the environment. It’s sponsored by Exxon-Mobil. (As I’ve stated, I’m a big fan of irony.)

As the end of my trip approached, my parents were beginning to get on my nerves. How did I live 20 years with these people? They’re loud. They’re giving my son diabetes. They have a fridge full of food but I can’t get at any of it. I’ve got to get out of here!

Lest you think I’m ungrateful (I am, by the way, but I’d prefer that you don’t think it), the feeling was mutual. Whereas I was once the focus of my parents’ lives, now I was the guy who needed the car on my father’s bowling day.

About 10 days into my trip, my parents took a sudden and repeated interest in the time and date that my flight was leaving. It wouldn’t have hurt their feelings if, to be safe, I got to the airport two or three days early. But a funny thing happened on the way to my departure. We realized that we were going to miss each other, and we do. It’s OK, though. We’ll see each other again next Kwanzaa break.

Howard Nemetz is just getting over a bad haircut. You can reach him at


Fritter Away Your Time for Chanukah


We just returned from a trip to Italy, concentrating on the provinces of Puglia and Campania close to Naples. It is a region that we enjoy because of the diversity of the foods and wines available.

We visited several new places but returned to one of our favorites, La Caveja, a country restaurant with eight rooms, in the village of Pietravairano. It is owned by Antonietta Rotondo and Berardino Lombardo. They hosted us two years ago, when we had a remarkable experience that lasted past midnight, observing just-picked olives being crushed into olive oil.

However, since our last visit, they have remodeled their farmhouse into a wonderful villa. It is a bed and breakfast, and includes six additional rooms. In Italy, it is called an agri-turismo.

We enjoyed a delicious dinner that they cooked in their newly restored kitchen, and for dessert, Antonietta served us honey-glazed fritters fried in olive oil. She called them Scavatelle and said they were made from a traditional recipe that was handed down from her grandmother.

I couldn’t help but think how perfect these fritters fried in olive oil and dipped in a honey syrup would be to serve for our Chanukah celebration. She was happy to share the recipe with me, when I told her that I would like to serve them to our family.

This pastry is easy to make, and it is a project that you can share with your children or grandchildren. Baking helps teach children to follow directions, how to measure and weigh ingredients, tell time and other useful skills. So, let them help in the shaping and dipping of these delicacies.

The dough can be rolled out several hours in advance and covered with a dry towel. Fry and dip in the honey syrup just before serving, so they will be warm and crisp.

Remember, Chanukah begins at sundown on Tuesday, Dec. 7. Happy Chanukah!

Scavatelle (Fried Pastries)

Adapted by Judy Zeidler from Antonietta Rotondo at La Caveja.

Antonietta said that these pastries are traditionally served on a large lemon leaf.

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons water

1 cinnamon stick

1 tablespoon olive oil

Peel from 1/2 of a lemon

1 tablespoon sugar

Pinch of salt

1 cup flour


1/4 cup honey

1 tablespoon sugar

Peel of 1/2 a lemon

1 tablespoon water

Olive oil for frying

In a saucepan, place water, cinnamon stick, olive oil, lemon zest, sugar and salt. Boil for two or three minutes. Remove zest and cinnamon stick. Add flour all at once, and using a wooden spoon, mix until dough comes together. It will be lumpy.

Spoon dough onto a floured board, punch down and knead into a flat disk to remove lumps. Pull off pieces of dough and roll out into thin ropes.

Cut into 6-inch ropes and working with one rope, bring one end of rope around to form a loop, crossing over the other end (leaving 1/2-inch ends) and pinching to resemble a bow tie. Place on paper towels and cover with a dry dish towel.

In a saucepan, place honey, sugar, lemon peel and water. Mix well and simmer over low heat.

In a deep fryer or heavy saucepan, heat oil and fry pastries until browned. Dip in honey syrup and serve at once.

Makes about four dozen.

Antonietta Rotondo and Berardino Lombardo can be contacted at:
La Camere della Locando
La Stalla della Caveja
Via s.s. Annunziata
Pietravairano (ce), Italy
Telephone (0823) 984824, fax (0823) 982977.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is


Funding Our Jewish Future

Imagine a world in which every newborn child receives a voucher toward early childhood Jewish education and a free trip to Israel.

That’s what philanthropist Michael Steinhardt asked 4,000 delegates to the North American Jewish federation system’s General Assembly to consider earlier this month.

The "Newborn Gift" would be part of an overall investment in strengthening Jewish education that Steinhardt is proposing. He told delegates that he was willing to contribute $10 million to the project, which he called the Fund for Our Jewish Future — on condition that his contribution represent no more than 10 percent of the total fund.

In other words, the former Wall Street tycoon was challenging the audience to raise at least $90 million for Jewish education in the Diaspora.

Many in the room found Steinhardt’s speech groundbreaking — and highly relevant.

Chip Koplin of Macon, Ga., said the speech gave him the chills. Koplin said that of all his experiences at this year’s General Assembly — his first time in Israel — Steinhardt’s speech "is going to have the most profound effect on me."

"As an American challenged with the struggles of a small, Southern Jewish community" trying to sustain Jewish identity, Koplin said he could relate to the speech.

The speech came as federations struggle to fund their local and overseas needs amid flat campaigns. Still, federation leaders didn’t appear to worry that Steinhardt’s appeal would undermine their own efforts.

"He made the speech to a convention of North American federations, so clearly he is looking" to partner with them, said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. In fact, the federation system encourages such visionary ideas, Solomon said.

Steinhardt said the proposal is a response to decreasing Jewish identification among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews.

Steinhardt mustered a litany of statistics to prove his point. Some 49 percent of American Jews identify as secular; only 20 percent give to Jewish causes, down from a post-World War II period when half the community gave to Jewish causes; and the number of American Jews is dwindling, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Steinhardt said.

"This part of the Diaspora community — its majority — is in crisis," Steinhardt said. While most Jewish activists focus on threats to Israel, in some respects the Diaspora is "far more vulnerable," he said.

"We don’t know enough about our religion to take true pride in it. We remain Jewish on the vapors of cultural memory," Steinhardt said.

He also bemoaned what he called a glaring lack of Jewish leadership and innovative ideas.

By contrast, he pointed to the birthright israel program, which offers free trips to 18-26-year-olds who have never been on a peer trip to Israel. Steinhardt is one of the program’s major funders.

"Birthright has been nothing less than a transformation in Jewish life," he said. However, "the future of the program is tenuous — not because there are no young people who want to partake of this venture," but "simply because there’s not enough money to pay for them."

While the federation system raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Israel Emergency Campaign, it has difficulty raising "a fraction of that amount" for birthright, Steinhardt said.

Steinhardt called for a "Jewish renaissance for our young people." He said his agenda would focus on the "centrality of Israel for the Jewish soul," the "pre-eminence of Jewish peoplehood," encouragement of vibrant rabbis, the principle of charity and the "imperative of a Jewish education."

"Our survival depends on the next generation being educated," Steinhardt said.

The audience, which buzzed with electrified chatter after the speech, seemed to feel the same way. Many rushed the stage to shake Steinhardt’s hand.

Passing out flyers outside the auditorium, Jewish students stated that they would raise $500,000 for Steinhardt’s proposed fund.

Federation leaders largely praised the initiative but noted that the challenge is significant. They rejected the idea that the appeal might undermine their own fund-raising efforts.

Robert Schrayer, vice chairman of the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella organization, sounded a note of optimism.

"Can he do it? Yeah, I think there’s a large amount of money available in the American Jewish community for a cause like this," Schrayer said.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, praised the effort but took a wait-and-see approach.

"We need to have more details" on what such a plan would entail before commenting on its chances for success, Ruskay said.

As far as Steinhardt is concerned, the project is an imperative.

"The Jewish future of our children" is at stake, he said. "We owe our children nothing less."

Sound of Silence

"So, maybe we should get to know each other."

My husband Glenn’s voice cracked like an adolescent as he broke the hour-long quiet inside the car. Glenn looked expectantly toward Jacek, a partner at a Warsaw-based software company and Glenn’s business contact.

When I had decided to tag along with my husband on his business trip to Poland, I had been surprised when his colleague volunteered to drive us during the three-day vacation portion of our trip.

Now Glenn’s suggestion lingered in the air, as did most of our attempts at chatting with our new acquaintance over the last few hours. I felt bad for my loquacious husband, who rarely struggled for conversation. Funny, I always thought I’d enjoyed silence. As an only child until my teen years, I often relished quiet moments to myself. This week, it felt like I had a few too many. As our time with Jacek progressed, I noticed a parallel between our host’s behavior and the history of his country.

A few days earlier, I had gone sightseeing in Warsaw. Unable to secure a tour from a local Jewish organization, I joined a regular bus and walking tour. I was baffled when the guide took us to the grounds of a historic palace and rattled on about government buildings for over an hour, but simply skimmed over the Jewish parts of the city. I was in total disbelief when we merely stopped by the Warsaw Ghetto. The other passengers agreed that since it was drizzling, we would view the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes through the cloudy bus windows rather than getting out to see it up close. Luckily, Jacek had taken us to the ghetto and the Nozyk Synagogue, Warsaw’s only shul that survived World War II, the night before. During the visit, I’d assumed that his silence was a sign of respect.

After six of the quietest hours of my life, we arrived at Auschwitz. Before we got out of the car, Jacek reminded us that we still had a few hours of driving to get to our final destination, a mountain resort called Zakopane. I felt pressured as we entered the concentration camp I’d heard about since my Hebrew school days. Every time Glenn and I exited one of the exhibits, Jacek was waiting for us, having finished moments before. While I did my best to take everything in — most memorably, a display containing a huge pile of human hair, a bin filled with confiscated children’s clothing, suitcases marked with handwritten family names and rows of mug shot-like pictures of the prisoners — I could swear that I felt Jacek’s mounting impatience. My unease continued as we headed for Birkenau, the larger camp.

The gravel crunched under our feet as we made our way up the railroad tracks leading to the entrance. The sheer size of the facility was startling. Even though birds chirped and the grass sparkled green, I had the same sick feeling I get when I visit a cemetery. I became conscious of my furrowed brow. Glenn was contemplating whether it was wrong to take pictures. I assumed Jacek was thinking that we needed to hit the road. But this time, I was wrong.

"My father was Jewish," Jacek revealed quietly as we walked along the same tracks where more than a million Jews were sent to die. "Some of his family was killed here."

This time I couldn’t speak. Why hadn’t Jacek mentioned his half-Jewishness earlier? We mentioned our religion at least of dozen times in (attempted) conversation. Was he ashamed of it? Disconnected from it? Or did he, like me, feel hollow visiting the site where family members were killed?

It suddenly occurred to me that the Holocaust was an attempted silencing of the Jews. While World War II was decades ago — and the camps were liberated — the quiet lingers. We’re so far away from it all in the United States. In Poland, the wounds are still raw and it isn’t something that the locals are comfortable talking about.

I wondered if we reminded Jacek of his Jewish roots and brought up issues he didn’t want to think about. Maybe he wanted to put history behind him. Or maybe we’re simply very annoying guests.

Whatever the reason, Jacek’s silence gave me the time to reflect and feel connected to my long-gone relatives in Poland. I hope our presence helped him feel more comfortable with his Jewish identity.

Koala Makes Aliyah

Ben-Gurion Airport welcomed a new Israeli, and a rather furry one at that.

Didgee, a koala, made aliyah from Melbourne, Australia, but he won’t be the only Aussie in his new home. Cindy and Mindy, two cute koala girls who made aliyah from the Melbourne Zoo in February, already have been resettled in the park.

Upon his arrival, Israeli authorities put Didgee in quarantine for six weeks. When his isolation ends, he will meet his prospective mates, and they can kick back in the Beit Shean valley and talk about the old days in Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s estimated that Didgee has been photographed more than 10,000 times by enthusiastic tourists in Australia. He will have some time to rest and recuperate from his trip before delighting the 80,000 annual visitors to Gan Garoo, a four-acre park fully recognized by the Australian Wildlife Authority. Gan Garoo is a little slice of Australia in the middle of Israel, which even has a plaque in memory of the Australian athletes who lost their lives when a bridge collapsed during the opening ceremony of the 1997 Maccabiah Games, said Gan Garoo administrator Yehuda Gat, who started the park.

Australia does not export many koalas and they need special care, said Chandi De Alwis, Melbourne Zoo’s native mammal expert.

"However, they have bred very successfully overseas and I hope Gan Garoo will be home to many generations," De Alwis said. "They are delightful animals, loved by park visitors. In these difficult times, I hope they will bring some joy to the troubled Israelis."

Koalas are not really bears but rather marsupials, like kangaroos. They are born after 34 days gestation, and live in their mother’s pouches until they are almost 6 months old.

However, Didgee will be a little confused: In Australia it’s spring, the koalas’ mating season, but it’s autumn in Israel.

"They will adjust and when spring comes round, Cindy and Mindy should have no worries, mate," De Alwis said.

Didgee is looking forward to the day he can leave the quarantine cage to snuggle up with his two Sheilas in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, and learn to say "Shalom" as well as "G’day."

Another Oil Miracle

Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, is a time to recall the miracle that occurred more than 2,000 years ago, and celebrate the discovery of the small amount of oil that burned for eight days, the amount of time needed to prepare pure oil from the local olive trees to rekindle the flame. That miracle is the focus of the Chanukah celebration that begins at sundown Friday, Nov. 29. Was it also a miracle that this event occurred at this time, since the months of November and December are the usual time for the olive harvest?

In early November this year, we joined Faith Willinger, our Florence-based food-journalist friend, on a trip to Naples and the Campania area of Italy. One of the highlights of our trip was spending several days at the hotel-restaurant La Caveja, located in the small village of Pietravairano, just a one-hour drive north of Naples.

At our first meal, La Caveja’s owner, Berardino Lombardo, placed a bottle of olive oil on the table and directed us to use it on almost every dish. The olive oil was bright green, fruity and delicious. When we asked him when the olive oil had been pressed, his answer was “early this morning.” The next day, he invited us to join him to pick olives and watch the crush at the local frantoio (olive oil mill). We were delighted and accepted his offer.

This small olive mill custom crushes olives from the nearby area for small local growers. Families had brought their olives and were waiting with their children, huddled in the cold, while their olives were pressed into oil.

Then every shape container possible was filled with this liquid gold. It was exciting to see all the activity.

When we arrived at the olive oil mill, our olives were in a large wooden container ready to be processed. The olives were first washed, then crushed into a paste. The paste was then pressed to produce organic extra virgin olive oil. As the flow of newly pressed olive oil began to glow, a small amount was poured into a pitcher, and Berardino brought out fresh bread to dip into the oil. It was the first time we had ever tasted olive oil that was only minutes old and it was absolutely delicious!

On my return from Italy, I was inspired, during Chanukah, to serve our family several of the dishes that were introduced to us by Berardino. They are perfect for the holiday as all these dishes use either olives or foods fried in olive oil. Included are Potato Gnocchetti, Olive Fritte, Fried Zucchini Sticks and Frittelle.

One of our family Chanukah traditions is to exchange gifts, and this year we are giving each of our guests a bottle of fresh Italian olive oil to take home.

Olive Fritte (Cicchetti)

36 pitted green olives

1 cup flour

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup fine dry bread crumbs (try mixed with Parmesan)

Olive oil for deep frying

1. Place the olives in a bowl, cover with cold water and allow them to soak for at least 15 minutes to remove some of the salt. Rinse the olives and dry them well.

2. Roll the olives lightly in flour, then dip in beaten egg, and roll them in bread crumbs to coat. Transfer to a paper towel- lined plate and refrigerate one hour.

3. In a skillet or deep fryer, heat 2-to 3-inches of oil over medium heat. Place the olives in the oil and fry them, rolling them around to brown evenly.

4. Remove the olives with a slotted spoon and spread on paper towels to drain. Serve while still warm. They can be held for a few hours, then reheated in a 250 F oven. Makes 36.

Fried Potato Gnocchetti

1 large potato (about 1 pound)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 egg

Salt to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon minced parsley

1 cup fine dried bread crumbs

Olive oil for frying

1. Peel potatoes and cut in cubes. Place on steam rack over boiling water. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork. Transfer to a large glass bowl, mash with a potato masher and let cool slightly. Add butter, cheese, egg, salt and pepper and mix well. Cover and refrigerate until cold. Add additional grated Parmesan or bread crumbs if potato mixture is too moist.

2. To shape potato mixture, oil the palm of your hands and roll a tablespoon of the mixture between your palms into an egg shape. Spread crumbs on a shallow dish and coat gnocchetti lightly with crumbs. Place on a paper towel-lined platter and refrigerate until ready to fry.

3. Heat about 1-2 inches of oil in a medium skillet. When oil is hot, fry a few gnocchetti until they are golden brown on all sides, about two minutes. Remove with the slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain. Transfer to a large dish and serve hot.

Fried Zucchini Sticks

4 medium zucchini, unpeeled

1 cup flour

1 cup bread crumbs

2 garlic cloves, peeled

6 fresh basil leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried basil


Freshly ground black pepper

2 to 3 eggs

Vegetable oil for frying

Grated Parmesan cheese

1. Slice the zucchini lengthwise into quarters; cut in half, crosswise, and set aside.

In a small, brown paper bag, place the flour and set aside. In the bowl of a processor or blender, blend the bread crumbs, garlic and basil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place this mixture in another small, brown paper bag and set aside. Place the eggs in a bowl and beat well.

2. Drop four to six zucchini sticks into the bag containing the flour, shaking the bag to coat. Transfer to a metal strainer and shake off the excess flour. Dip the flour-coated zucchini into the beaten egg and then coat with the bread-crumb mixture. Place on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. (You can hold them at this point for at least one hour.)

3. Preheat the oil in a deep-fryer or wok to 375 F.

4. Drop the coated zucchini sticks into the heated oil and fry until golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Transfer them to a napkin-covered basket or platter; sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Frittelle (Fried Ribbons)

11¼2 cups flour

11¼2 tablespoons sugar

Pinch salt

Grated zest of 1 orange

11¼2 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

3 tablespoons milk

1 large egg

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 teaspoon vanilla

Olive oil for frying

Powdered sugar for garnish

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour, sugar, salt and orange zest. Add the butter and blend until crumbly.

In a small bowl, beat the milk, egg, orange juice and vanilla together. Pour the milk mixture into the flour mixture all at once and blend until the dough comes away from the bowl. Place wax paper on work surface and sprinkle with flour. Knead the dough into a ball, and divide in half. Using a rolling pin, roll each half of the dough out very fine on the prepared work surface until it is 1¼8-1¼4-inch thick. Using a scalloped ravioli cutter or a knife, cut the dough into ribbons about 4-inches long and 1-inch wide.

Heat oil in a heavy deep-sided frying pan to 350 F, and fry a few of the ribbons at a time very quickly — 20 seconds — until golden. Drain on plates lined with paper towels, cool slightly and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.

Variations: Twist the ribbon twice and pinch it closed in the center. Or cut the dough into rectangles and make two parallel small cuts in the center.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (William Morrow & Co, 1999), “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (William Morrow & Co, 1999) and the “International Deli Cookbook” which is available at the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica. Her Web site is

United We Stand

Nearly twice as many residents as last year intend to participate in the We Stand With Israel trip next month, Federation Executive Director Bunnie Mauldin said,adding that “despite what’s going on politically or war with Iraq on the horizon, our aim is the same.”

The trip is an opportunity for people to show their support.

“There is no more important time for American Jews to visit Israel and let the people of Israel know they are not alone. This is the time to go,” she said.

Lou Weiss, the Federation’s president, thinks the group should be making an annual Israel pilgrimage.

Mauldin is optimistic a 40-seat bus will be filled to capacity for the 10-day trip, compared to 22 who went last December.

During the first leg of this $2,530-per-person trip, participants will hear firsthand analysis of the Middle East situation in briefings by top-level officials. The mission will also tour the Golan, Tiberias and Safed in northern Israel and visit the Federation’s sister cities, Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon.

For more information, call (714) 755-5555, ext. 231, or e-mail

Beyond the Headlines

I recently returned from eight days in Israel. After months of reaching for the newspaper first thing each morning and follow with online searches for even more recent events, I felt a strong need to go to Israel and see firsthand how things were going. I was nervous before I left due to the constant photos of destruction and despair. It is the first time that I blessed each of my children before departing on a trip.

As I rode in the cab from Ben-Gurion airport to Jerusalem, I marveled at how life seemed unchanged physically. The highway was full of cars. It was hard to imagine that less than 10 miles from the airport and its modern freeway were Palestinian villages in squalor. My travel partner was going to the Sheraton in Jerusalem, a 24-story building in the heart of the city. The cabbie said that he was not sure as to its location, because he had not traveled with a tourist to Jerusalem in six months. Not everything was the same.

I met with three former Orange County residents during my visit.

Richard Jaffe moved to Israel nearly 18 years ago. He traded in his Laguna Beach home and Porsche for an apartment in the Old City. He says that he and his wife made the move to enhance their children’s lives. Richard was the first podiatrist in Israel and has developed a reputation for skillful surgeries. Richard’s office is decorated with what appears to be the world’s largest collection of ancient feet in the form of pottery, stone and bronze. Richard’s synagogue is in the Muslim Quarter of the City, providing a challenging walk on Saturday mornings. He and his wife have succeeded in crafting close bonds with their four children, each married, and their four grandchildren.

Robbie Hurwitz is a UCLA student from my congregation who has spent the academic year on the Junior Year Abroad program at Hebrew University. The UC system withdrew their support after Passover due to legal concerns, asking UC students to return home. He is now registered under the auspices of Hebrew University. Although Junior Year Abroad usually draws close to 500 students from the United States, this current semester there are 60 students. Despite the problems, he stayed and had the time of his life. The morning I rendezvoused with Robbie he was taking a noncredit class on Hasidut at the Conservative Yeshiva. He says that he has operated with caution, but has not felt afraid during his two-semester stay.

Debbie Sklar, who grew up in my congregation, has lived in Israel for the past five years and is a government-employed archaeologist and graduate student. During a visit to Israel she fell in love with an Israeli. Debbie and her partner, Masada, made a formal commitment to each other several years ago and she is now expecting twins, a medical procedure paid for by National Health Insurance. Debbie provides me a window into the life of the gay community in Israel, a collective that participates in an annual gay pride parade. Israel is a country that knowingly accepts gays into the armed service and provides medical benefits to life partners. Debbie and Masada live in Pisgat Ze’ev, a suburb of Jerusalem on the other side of the Green Line. Debbie says that Israel is home and she has no intention of leaving. It is the place where she wants to raise her children. I adore Debbie, knowing her generosity of spirit and her inner strength.

Life in Israel is a roller coaster, with great highs and lows and always a sense of leaning forward on your chair. On my last day in Israel the homicide bombing resumed after a two-week lull. I was on a tour bus to the Palmach museum, an engaging, audiovisual immersion in the birth of Israel, when I heard the news. As the radio on the bus told the story, the tension and sadness was palpable. Life in Israel is hard because there is uncertainty over how the situation will progress. Nonetheless, people maintain their sanity by looking to each other for friendship and investing time in their families.

I returned with holy envy for the sense of place and purpose I observed among family and friends. I was also much more relaxed in Israel than I had anticipated, because the tragic events have a larger context of ongoing daily life. I am glad that I went and would take my family the next time, because it is a joy to be in Israel and far safer than it appears from reading the newspapers’ headlines.

Hit the Road, Jeff

I have heard people refer to the process of meeting someone as "the dating minefield." I can’t think of a place as chaotic, dangerous and fraught with anxiety as a minefield, except possibly anywhere one might go on a trip with one’s new girlfriend. Out of this chaos comes order. There are rules. Things go a certain way. A-B-C. My friend Marcus used to describe it as, "Getting your ducks all lined up in a row."

After you’ve been "a couple" for a while, it’s time to hit the highway together. The inaugural weekend road trip is the first test of your emergency relationship system. You drive somewhere, maybe Palm Springs or Santa Barbara. As far as New Haven is from Broadway. Far enough that you’re "out of town," but still close enough that you can bail out in two hours if things don’t quite go as planned. A lot of nice new couples have blown up on their first trip together. Take two normal, healthy adults out of their normal, healthy environment, put them in a confined space for 48 hours, and there’s a reasonable chance that at least one of them will go completely crazy. That’s why you must have the escape hatch built in to your travel plans. Some people leave on the freeways of Los Angeles as lovers, but return in icy silence as mortal enemies. In the theater they call this "closing out of town."

Keeping one foot out the door gets harder to do as you go along. The second trip is going to require an airplane. The number and variety of vehicles involved is like a scorecard for where you are in your relationship. A travel agent is involved. Your girlfriend’s name is now on file — the same file where your travel agent keeps your credit card information. This may be the first time her name and your credit card number are officially linked. This is a "moment" you won’t soon forget.

I’ve been dating someone for a little while — let’s call her Alison. Two months into the action we took our first trip, but we’re seasoned veterans, so we bypassed all these half steps and went to London for a week. My friend, Steve, asked, "What if you have a fight?" Good question, Steve, and I want to thank you for putting that notion into my head. "I think we’ll be okay," I said. "But, if it should come to pass, I will look back on this informative little chat and realize that’s why carrying cash and ample available credit is so important. That, my friend, is a long drive home."

Alison and I had a wonderful time in London. I don’t think you know another person until you get away. And the further you get from home and hearth, the more you’re likely to meet their inner child — especially where shopping is concerned. Alison developed a tic when we passed by the JP Tods store on Sloane Street, and I think I saw her head do a 360-degree turn when our taxi passed by Robert Clergerie. By the time we entered Harvey Nichols, she looked like Indiana Jones discovering the lost ark. "Eureka!" she said, disappearing into a sea of Burberry plaid, from which she did not return until tea time with the Queen Mum.

I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. I mean, I thought the Prada store on Rodeo Drive was perfectly fine. But no. Oh, no. No, no, no. Obviously, I am not familiar with their entire line of fashion accessories, or I would not give voice to such an uninformed opinion. The Prada store in London is totally different, you boob. Ditto Paris and anywhere else worth traveling to. For that matter, civilization can now be gauged by the presence of a Prada store. Aspen has one, but Omaha does not. I rest my case. The further you get from one of these temples of urbanity and their insanely expensive nylon Sportsacs, the worse things get. Look at Afghanistan, for example. The nearest Prada outlet is in Rome, nearly 3,000 miles away. The entire situation there could be solved by the construction of a Rem Koolhaas designed boutique on Main Street in Kandahar.

On the flight back, we looked at the map in the back of the airline magazine and mused about where we’d like to go next. Turkey? Sicily? Thailand? Alison tells me there’s an outlet mall with a Prada store on the way to Palm Springs. Is it too soon to start taking separate vacations?

Tijuana: A Tale of Two Synagogues

A bus trip to visit two Tijuana synagogues this spring provided an irresistible opportunity to learn about two distinctly different Jewish communities in a bustling border metropolis where Jews number fewer than 1 percent of the city’s 1.2 million residents.

By far the more unusual of the two shuls was Congregacion Hebrea de Baja California, made up almost entirely of converted Mexican Catholics, including its leader, a charismatic non-ordained rabbi, whose resume includes a stint as a Methodist minister. Carlos Salas Diaz, an imposing man in a dark suit, who welcomed us warmly into the temple’s brightly lit sanctuary, looks like the successful businessman he continues to be and at least two decades younger than his chronological age of close to 70.

"I have been teaching and serving my community for over 35 years," Salas told the rapt audience of about 40 Angelenos. "And we have never charged one single red cent. Our secretaries also work free of charge, and everyone else in our congregation donates their time. We don’t have any mortgage to pay because we built these facilities with our own funds."

The synagogue is in a quiet residential neighborhood in Tijuana’s La Mesa section. While graffiti is in evidence elsewhere, none is visible on the long white wall at the temple’s entrance, on which the primary ornamentation is a seven-branch menorah set against a baby-blue shingled background.

Since the shul opened, 128 families have been converted to Judaism, Salas said, with many later relocating to San Diego or Los Angeles, a fact which doesn’t seem to faze Salas. It is a fact of Jewish life in this border town, where estimates of the Jewish population vary widely from 200 to 2,000, and fluctuating currencies and fortunes send populations surging back and forth across the frontier.

Many of the Jews who came in the 1920s to Tijuana were from Eastern Europe and settled near the border after being denied entry to the United States because of quotas. Others migrated to Tijuana from Mexico City or from South America, where many Jews fled from the Nazis. Most of these Jews are not members of Salas’ shul, however — at least 80 families are affiliated with Congregacion Hebrea. Since the synagogue doesn’t have a mikvah (ritual bath), the first group to convert in 1984 went to Rosarito Beach instead and converted in the frigid Pacific in December under rabbinical supervision.

Since then, Salas has brought many of his congregants north to the University of Judaism (UJ) to be converted by the beit din (rabbinical court) operated by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). Those who converted "were fairly knowledgeable, and they all seemed to be very sincere," said Rabbi Edward Tenenbaum, chairman of the RA’s western states region.

Salas, whose flock often call him "Maestro" rather than rabbi, has played a key role in all of this and his influence on his Mexican faithful cannot be underestimated, Tenenbaum said. "He impressed me as being very charismatic." The pull toward Judaism among his Catholic-born flock wouldn’t happen without the influence of the one-time shepherd, he added. "He has an ability to draw people to his own way of thinking."

Salas’ own history unspools like a biblical film saga that might star the late Anthony Quinn in his fiery "Zorba the Greek" mode. Born one of eight children near the town of Fresnillo in the north-central Mexican state of Zacatecas, Salas tended sheep from age 5 to 9 to help ease the family’s poverty. Although his parents were Catholics, he said he really didn’t learn much about his faith "because what kind of religion can you learn when you’re taking care of animals?"

He had a deep hunger for religion, which was at first whetted by a Jewish businessman in Mexico City. Later he joined a brother in Buffalo, N.Y., served three years in the military during the Korean conflict, then returned to Buffalo. He married a Cuban-born woman with whom he had five children and whom he later divorced. (He has since added five more offspring and is married to his third wife.)

Meanwhile, continuing to seek a religious identity, Salas entered a Methodist seminary in Buffalo, eventually becoming an ordained minister. He says he went to the Methodist seminary because there was no yeshiva in Buffalo, but that he always intended to become a rabbi.

In 1960, Salas came to Los Angeles and two years later began attending UJ. Along the way, he made his fortune by investing in jewelry shops and other businesses. It is this money that he used to fund his Tijuana synagogue, which he started in 1967, the same year he converted.

For five years Salas took courses at the UJ, eventually renouncing Methodism and converting to Judaism. He made a decision not to become ordained, which he defends passionately. "I took all the courses to become a rabbi, but I never did wish to be ordained by any of the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist (movements)," he explained. "I have never belonged and I don’t care to belong to any of those four movements or to any movement." It is enough, he said, just to be a Jew, to pray, to go temple, to observe Jewish law. "When people ask, ‘What are you?’ I say, ‘We are just Jews.’ "

The synagogue uses a Conservative Spanish-Hebrew prayer book and a Ladino-Spanish-Hebrew haggadah, he says. Some members believe that their ancestors were descendants of Marranos who emigrated to Nueva Espagna (New Spain) to escape the Spanish Inquisition. Zulema Ruiz, who has been studying with Salas for 27 years and converted 13 years ago, says she was born a Catholic, but never felt at home in her faith. "Probably I have some Jewish blood. My father’s name is Israel, and Zulema means Shulamit."

The synagogue hopes to open its doors to a large influx of Indian Jews from Venta Prieta in the state of Hidalgo near Mexico City. Salas explains that they are a small township of more than 6,000 people (some accounts have pegged the number at a fraction of that number, perhaps only 200) who claim to be descendants of the Marranos or Crypto Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. "Everybody thought they were Indians because they didn’t understand what they were saying. In fact they were speaking Hebrew," Salas said. Some have shown an interest in migrating to Tijuana since the largely Orthodox congregations of Mexico City question their Jewishness and are reluctant to accept them, Salas said. "We have welcomed them without questions."

At the center of a poor neighborhood, the synagogue has excellent relations with its Christian neighbors, gathering groceries weekly to feed the poor. The local priest helps distribute the goods to the needy. "We’re extremely close in our relationship," Salas said. "We were born in the same country and have a complete understanding."

After introducing his wife, who converted to Judaism last year, and three of his children, Salas shows off the shul’s four Torah scrolls inside their hand-carved cedar ark and an Israeli flag which he insists is not just for show. "We feel very Jewish. If Israel needs our young people, we will do whatever has to be done. We are proud to serve in any way, shape or form."

In another part of town, our tour bus pulls up in front of a white building with green awnings shielded by iron bars. In contrast to the Hebrea Congregacion, there is no external sign that this is a Jewish building, the Centro Social Israelita, Tijuana, until we enter the building. Greeting us is the president of the synagogue, Sofia Model de Segal, and Rabbi Mendel Polichenco, the Argentine-born Chabad rabbi who leads the congregation. The Centro claims to have 100-plus families who "belong to us," with many commuting across the San Diego border, Salas says.

Some are members of the Ashkenazic Jewish community that helped build the synagogue in the 1970s under the leadership of Max Furmansky. A trained cantor and a Conservative Jew, Furmansky led the primarily Orthodox membership in the ’70s, presiding over Shabbat services, organizing classes in Jewish law and history and inaugurating a Jewish summer camp which attracted children from Mexico City and Guadalajara, as well as Tijuana.

In the early 1980s, a schism in the synagogue between Sephardic and Ashkenazic practice drove membership down to about 50 or 60 families and left the synagogue without a regular spiritual leader. The falling value of the peso also sent many Jewish-Mexican Tijuana families north of the border to San Diego, with the Centro’s loss proving to be the gain of several San Diego synagogues, according to an account by writer and National Public Radio commentator Alan Cheuse.

Polichenco, a short, stocky, bearded man dressed casually in jeans and an open-neck shirt, arrived at the Centro fresh from the Orthodox seminary. The first Chabad rabbi authorized to work at a Mexican synagogue, he married an Orthodox Jew from a large Italian family and, with his wife, helped to build a strictly Orthodox facility, with three kosher kitchens, a "kosher" mikvah, a day school that goes through third grade and a daily minyan. In the Latin American tradition, the synagogue also aims to be a social gathering place, including a small outdoor pool with a Mogen David at the bottom and a somewhat neglected, looking play yard.

In contrast to Salas, who makes a show of proud financial independence, Segal makes no bones about asking the American visitors for contributions. "It’s so important to have a Jewish presence here," she said.

The two synagogues, a mile or two apart represent two poles of the dynamic and ever-evolving Mexican-Jewish experience.

The next Tijuana bus tour will take place Sun., Oct. 28, through Jerry Freedman Habush’s Jewish LA Tours. For information, call the University of Judaism Department of Continuing Education at (310) 440-1246.

Showing Solidarity

Back in October, 60 UCLA students learned that over winter break they would be going on the trip of a lifetime. They had been chosen from among hundreds of applicants to take part, virtually for free, in UCLA Hillel’s Birthright Israel contingent. The Birthright program brings thousands of Jewish students to Israel for 10-day tours that encourage them to discover their own Jewish identity. The 1999 trip had received glowing reviews. But in December 2000, one-third of the UCLA slots were suddenly up for grabs.

The problem, of course, was the ongoing flare-ups of violence that have made some college students and their parents nervous about scheduling a visit to the Jewish homeland. UCLA Hillel, like the other participating chapters nationwide, did its best to reassure the travelers, taking pains to spell out the elaborate security measures that would be in place during their stay. Not everyone was convinced, but UCLA managed to fill a fair number of the vacated spaces with names from the waiting list.

Ultimately, 47 UCLA students made the trip. At some campuses, the high dropout rate proved to be an unexpected boon. The Hillel chapter serving Pierce and Valley colleges was originally entitled to 20 slots. When this group departed on Dec. 31, it had gained an additional 17 travelers. In all, as of the first week in January, some 5,100 young Jews from all over the world had made this winter’s Birthright trip. Eight hundred of them hailed from California.

Marlene Post, chairman of Birthright Israel North America, acknowledges that many of the young people had serious concerns when they arrived. Some were additionally shaken when a car bomb exploded in Netanya just one day after their group had visited the city. But the Birthright format allowed them ample opportunity to discuss their fears, and the remainder of their stay in Israel showed them that life goes on. They were encouraged to speak at length to soldiers and others close to their own age, which showed them the stress under which their Israeli counterparts live. Post sees a major benefit in such personal contact: “You start to understand that you are really one people.”

Birthright gave each of its participants two 10-minute phone cards, for phoning home in order to allay parents’ fears. Many of the cards were put to use on the evening a planeload of UCLA and USC students touched down in Tel Aviv. Upon reaching their hotel, they were quietly informed that there had been a bombing in the city earlier that day. Rebecca Charmack, a USC grad student, was frightened enough to consult the group’s rabbi. Later, she was able to be philosophical, recognizing that media reports can blow isolated incidents out of proportion.

Says Charmack, “I go to USC, in the middle of South Central Los Angeles, where there are shootouts and drive-bys every day.”

As a new student, she was terrified of walking to her off-campus parking space; later she came to feel completely safe. So too in Israel. When the trip ended, she didn’t want to go home, and she looks forward to a return trip some day.

Given that several violent episodes occurred while they were on Israeli soil, Birthright travelers could not resist a touch of gallows humor. Lisa Schloss of USC recalls that on a rainy afternoon in Jerusalem, everyone in her group was handed a matching umbrella emblazoned with the Birthright name. At which one wag quipped, “Oh, we’re just one huge target now.”

By and large, the students were well aware of how carefully they were being protected. USC’s Garrett Shaw notes there was a soldier with a sniper rifle for every 20 students; when Shaw left the group briefly to get minor medical treatment, he was accompanied by an armed bodyguard.

Bill Golditch of UCLA admits that “a lot of the trip was like traveling in a bubble,” a far cry from the experience of soldiers with whom he chatted. From them he learned the basic fact of Israeli life: “You really don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day.” That doesn’t stop Golditch from wanting to return. He’s convinced that having visited Israel once, he knows enough not to be afraid.

Shaw, a USC senior, was able to take part in the Birthright trip because someone else had opted to stay home. Originally on the waiting list, Shaw had planned to use his winter break studying Spanish in Costa Rica. But when a slot opened, he didn’t hesitate to come aboard. As he puts it, “I think Jewish solidarity is a major thing right now. Not only was I not nervous — I was proud to go.”

Sarah Talei, a USC junior, made the opposite choice. She pulled out of the trip a mere week before her schoolmates departed. Her decision was based on her parents’ anxieties. They consulted an uncle based in Israel, who advised her to wait until the current cycle of violence had run its course.

Talei muses, “I hope I gained some points [with my parents] by not going.” Still, she can’t help having regrets: “The majority of people around me told me not to go. But my gut feeling was that nothing would really happen.”

The Birthright returnees agree that despite the tension in the air, their trip was a superlative experience. In Golditch’s own words, “It gives a whole new dimension to Jewish identity.”


A mission to Israel that’s billed as the largest ever in the history of the Los Angeles Jewish community is scheduled to take place between Nov. 1 and 10 of this year. About 500 Southern Californians are expected to participate in the Golden Anniversary Community Mission, which is being coordinated by the Jewish Federation Council in commemoration of the Jewish state’s first 50 years.

Some 200 people have already signed up and paid their deposits, with another 300 expressing interest, said Evy Lutin, who is co-chairing the mission with her husband, Marty Lutin. She expects that at least half of those who decide to go will be visiting Israel for the first time.

The 10-day trip, which is priced at $2,950, includes round-trip air fare between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv aboard a charter plane, five-star hotel accommodations in major cities, most meals, top Israeli tour guides and air-conditioned buses. A contribution to the Federation is required, but there is no minimum.

Highlights of the trip include:

* Meeting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv Mayor Roni Milo and, possibly, poet Yehuda Amichai at his home in Jerusalem.

* Visiting Yad Vashem’s Children’s Memorial and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Mount Herzl grave site in Jerusalem, and celebrating Shabbat at the Southern Wall.

* Celebrating Israel’s 50th anniversary, in Tel Aviv, visiting the renovated ancient port city of Jaffa and, possibly, the Israeli stock market and fashion and jewelry centers.

Some will tour northern Israel, meeting with Golan Heights settlers, taking a security seminar at an army base, visiting Caesarea and Haifa, and staying overnight at kibbutz guest houses. Others will head south, where they’ll meet recent Ethiopian Jewish immigrants at an absorption center in Beersheba, visit a Bedouin museum, and possibly meet Palestinians in Gaza.

In Jerusalem, options may include visiting the new Western Wall tunnel, the Jewish Quarters, Masada and the Dead Sea. A two-day extension to the trip will take visitors to the Jordanian cities of Petra, Jerash and Amman.

For more information on the Golden Anniversary Community Mission, call the Federation at (213) 852-7872. — Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

10-day trip,


includes round-trip air fare between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv