Children play in a water fountain near the Tower of David in the Old City of Jerusalem on April 17, 2016. Photo by Corinna Kern/Flash90 (via JTA).

Millions of Israeli children said at risk of stunted development, possibly from desalinated water

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Israel’s first-ever national survey of iodine levels in the population revealed widespread deficiencies, which could mean millions of children are at risk of stunted development.

The survey, whose unpublished results were presented last week to endocrinologists in Ramat Gan, found that 62 percent of school-age children and 85 percent of pregnant women have iodine levels below the World Health Organization minimum.

According to the researchers behind the survey, Israel appears to have one of the highest rates of iodine deficiency in the world. The national health problem is likely related to Israel’s world-leading use of water desalination, they said.

“We could be talking about a significant detriment across the population,” Dr. Aron Troen, a nutritional neuroscientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who helped lead the survey, told JTA. “For anyone below the minimum level, you may lose 7 to 10 to 12 IQ points, which translates into a huge decrease in GDP due to reduced productivity.

“We are concerned that increased reliance on desalinated water in the Israeli food chain is contributing to iodine insufficiency in the population.”

Even mild iodine deficiency can limit intellectual development. In the womb or early childhood, deficiency has been shown to impair brain development and in severe cases cause physical malformation, dwarfism and intellectual disability. Previous studies have found the children of iodine-deficient mothers perform much more poorly in school.

Researchers from Hebrew University, Maccabi Healthcare Service, Barzilai University Medical Center in Ashkelon and ETH Zurich in Switzerland collaborated on the survey, which analyzed urine samples from 1,023 school-age children and 1,074 pregnant women. They found similar results among Israeli Arabs, secular Jews and Orthodox Jews.

From left, researchers Dov Gefel, Yaniv Ovadia, Aron Troen and Jonathan Arbelle (Courtesy of Hebrew University)

Based on their findings, the researchers called on the Israeli government to mandate the addition of iodine to salt or other foods, as do many other countries, including the United States. They said the change would be easy, inexpensive and have potentially large public health benefits. They also called for regular monitoring of national iodine levels.

In the meantime, Israelis can change their diets, including by buying iodized salt, which is currently expensive and hard to find in Israel.

“Individuals can improve their iodine status through increased consumption of iodine-rich foods such as milk, dairy and saltwater fish. They can also replace regular table salt with iodized salt,” Yaniv Ovadia, the doctoral student and registered dietitian who performed the survey, said in a statement.

Israel was one of only a few countries to have never before gathered nationally representative data on its residents’ iodine levels. But Troen said “the trajectory” of his research suggests the problem has worsened in recent years and may be related to Israel’s pioneering use of water desalination, which removes iodine as well as other minerals. About half of the water Israelis consume is desalinated – a higher percentage than in any other country.

In a study last year, Troen and fellow researchers found a “surprisingly high” prevalence of insufficient iodine intake among the residents of the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, where residents get much of their water from the local desalination plant. They also found a strong association with thyroid dysfunction among adults and evidence that the problem increased in the 2000s, as Israel was ramping up its water desalination program.

According to data from the Israel Center of Disease Control, self-reported use of thyroid medication among Israeli adults increased 63 percent between the Israeli National Health Interview Surveys of 2003-04 and 2007-10.

Troen said other potential explanations for Israelis’ iodine deficiency are increased consumption of processed foods and surprisingly low consumption of dairy products. The scarcity of iodine-enriched salt and other food is certainly a factor as well, he said. Troen has started new research on the causes of iodine deficiency in Israel.

Is Israel-California partnership paying dividends?

California Gov. Jerry Brown had some choice words for Glenn Yago.

The Milken Institute, the Santa Monica-based think tank that employs Yago, has provided a good deal of citizen muscle behind a March 2014 agreement Brown signed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that pledges to deepen ties between the two states.

Though he’s neither a politician nor a diplomat, Yago, a financial economist, is a crucial figure in implementing that memorandum of understanding (MOU).

When the two encountered each other at a posh conference at the Beverly Hilton in May 2015, Brown wanted Yago to understand something about the California-Israel MOU: “This is not just a press release,” Yago recalls the governor telling him.

Not all MOUs are created equal

The memorandum Israel signs intermittently with the U.S. government, for instance, including one currently in the final stages, determines the amount of military aid Israel will get. The document Brown signed in Mountain View (near San Jose) is not that concrete. In fact, it has more in common with a press release than, say, a trade agreement.

The MOU lays out bold blueprints for collaboration but brackets them in qualifiers such as “plan” and “intend.” In the final paragraph, almost as a postscript, it notes that it “does not create any legally binding rights or obligations for either Participant.”

In interviews with the Journal, leaders involved in the memo’s implementation noted a political paradox it creates: It is at once a diplomatic watershed and a more or less pie-in-the-sky 493 words of text.

In the words of Gili Ovadia, the head of the Israel Economic Mission to the West Coast, the treaty is “political paper.”

“The memorandum of understanding isn’t worth a lot,” Ovadia said.

But the “amazing atmosphere” it creates has to be worth something, he said.

Ovadia spoke with the Journal from his San Francisco office the day after he returned from a trip to Southern California for two back-to-back symposia on water innovation in Marina del Rey and San Diego.

Appraising the memo, he said, “It doesn’t really have money. It doesn’t have people. It doesn’t have mechanisms. It was just a piece of paper signed by two really important men — maybe the most important people for [California and Israel]. I think it generates a lot of interest, a lot of attention, a lot of press.”

He attributed the water conference, for instance, in part to momentum from the MOU.

By itself, though, it doesn’t do much of anything.

“That’s always the challenge with MOUs,” said Yaki Lopez, consul for political affairs at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles. “To make sure they’re action-oriented, to make sure it’s not just ink on paper.”

Lopez called the MOU “the crown jewel” of all the accomplishments of West Coast Consul General of Israel David Siegel, who completed his post here at the end of July, after five years of service in Los Angeles and the Southwest.

Asked to pinpoint its impact over the more than two years it has been on the books, Lopez, like Ovadia, mentioned the optics: “It created a whole exciting and vibrant atmosphere for the two states to work together.”

If anybody should be able to point to tangible outcomes, it’s Yago, an informal evangelist for collaboration between California and Israel who divides his time between the two.

As the head of the Milken Institute’s Financial Innovation Lab, his job is more or less to figure out how to stimulate technology transfer, in particular these days from Israel to California.

“There are some very concrete, tangible results going on right now,” he said. “People are working on specific projects. Everything from perchlorate remediation of groundwater contamination in the San Fernando Valley to putting in rain catchment for toilets in schools in San Diego and in L.A.”

The proliferation of projects being undertaken under the Milken Institute’s umbrella can’t be claimed as direct outcomes of the MOU, although each received a boost when Netanyahu and Brown shook hands like exuberant new business partners.

“You need air cover to start working on these things,” Yago said.

A ‘cascading effect’

In most discussions of California-Israel collaboration, water is first and foremost.

While California and Israel share a parched climate, Israel, unlike the Golden State, is a water exporter. Policymakers here point to this difference as evidence that Sacramento could learn a thing or two from the Israeli model.

But the state of California has a weak regulatory grip on water use, and an alphabet soup of local agencies are most directly responsible for keeping the taps running.

So it’s not the statewide agreement but rather a series of local and municipal pacts in Southern California that it inspired which have generated Israel buzz over the past two years.

L.A. City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield was the intellectual grandfather of the MOU. A bill he wrote but that didn’t pass while he was serving in the state assembly eventually formed the template for a letter of intent then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed outlining the need for an MOU, and ultimately for the MOU itself, he said.

He’s also among the first local officials to apply the MOU as a mandate for collaboration at the municipal level.

“At lunch right after the signing ceremony, I said to myself and the folks who were around me, ‘I want L.A. to be the first city to implement this thing,’” he said in an interview. “And so the Israel-Los Angeles task force was born.”

In October 2014, the task force met for the first time, building on L.A.’s sister-city relationship with Eilat, a council of Israeli industry leaders and city officials aimed at harnessing Israeli innovation to the city’s struggles.

The brokering of diplomatic relationships between local governments and the Israelis has boomed since Brown and Netanyahu consecrated the practice — a phenomenon Lopez described as a “cascading effect.”

On Sept. 1, 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Beverly Hills City Council voted on the same evening to partner with Israel on a number of issues, beginning with water conservation.

For climatic reasons, water is normally the first item on the agenda, but it’s not the only one. The Brown-Netanyahu pact highlighted water, alternative energy, health and biotechnology, cybersecurity, arts and culture, education and agricultural technology.

The day after Ovadia attended the water conference in Marina del Rey, a summit brought Israeli and Californian cybersecurity leaders together at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills.

Addressing the audience from the stage in the main theater, Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch said the prosperous city hopes to leverage Israeli network protection as it integrates driverless cars into its public transportation grids.

“That’s what our relationship is about — is finding solutions,” he said.

The latest step forward in Israel’s trickle-down diplomacy in California was a unanimous vote by 37 local elected officials who make up the regional council of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) — a technocratic inter-government agency.

On June 7, SCAG approved an MOU with its Israeli counterpart.

Like the March 2014 accord, the agreement with the Federation of Local Governments in Israel is an equivocal document. Studded by the words “whereas” and “may,” it also “does not create any legally binding rights or obligations for either Participant.”

It does, however, include 18 million Californians in 191 cities and six counties — L.A., Orange, Santa Barbara, Riverside, Imperial and Ventura — under some sort of Israel MOU endorsed by their local elected officials.

It also adds smart growth, emergency preparedness, public safety and the startup ecosystem to the list of focus areas provided by the Mountain View agreement.

The Israeli-American Nexus (IAX) and the Israeli American Council (IAC), both prominent and well-connected nonprofits in L.A., acted as citizen diplomats in facilitating the agreement. But the political will was furnished by the two heads of state.

That handshake “definitely paved the way for this partnership,” said IAX and IAC official Shawn Evenhaim, a local developer.

In an interview with the Journal, Evenhaim sounded a lot like Brown in his directive to Glenn Yago in July 2015: “The intention of this was not to sign a document and file it somewhere.”

How to import chutzpah

There are limits to what a contract can do, even between two heads of state.

For instance, Israel’s success in tackling its water problem is often chalked up to a certain Jewish chutzpah, and it’s much easier to import a technology patent than a cultural attitude.

Nonetheless, some have tried. The prevailing method is to put the leaders and high-ranking officials of public and private agencies on jetliners to Israel, including people such as Scott Houston.

Houston is a director of the West Basin Municipal Water District, a water agency that delivers 220,000 acre-feet of water each year to customers in an area covering much of the South Bay.

In July 2015, he traveled with the Milken Institute to Israel, where he learned, among other things, that Israel is crisscrossed by 110 miles of “purple pipe” (they’re actually purple) that carry 85 percent of its wastewater from treatment plants to farms.

But asked to summarize what he took away from the trip, he noted a tight-belted reverence for the Israeli watershed by its consumers.

“We’re trying to instill that here,” he said on the sidelines of the water conference in Marina del Rey, steps away from the Pacific Ocean.

For instance, he said, Israel seems to have overcome what he called the “ick factor,” which still gives pause to Americans: a psychological aversion to piping treated wastewater into our gardens and fields.

About a week after Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, came back from Israel, where she’d been traveling with IAC, she summed up her trip in much the same way.

“A real takeaway is the water ethic — how precious every drop of water is within the country,” she wrote in a statement to the Journal.

While there, she met at the Milken Institute’s request with a group of agriculture officials, academics and industry leaders for a daylong session on delivering Israeli solutions to California markets and vice

The working group was the latest in a series of intensive working sessions hosted by the think tank and aimed at coupling Israeli and Californian knowhow to crack tough market and sustainability problems.

“They’re kind of like mini Manhattan Projects,” Yago said of the labs. “Instead of creating a nuclear bomb, we’re trying to create solutions to global problems.”

Ross wrote in a blog post that the June 23 brainstorm had dwelled on the fact that smart agriculture technology “doesn’t generate the rate of return compared to other elements of the tech industry.”

If it did, Netafim, an Israeli company and the world’s largest drip irrigation concern, would likely see its revenues multiply.

The company encourages farmers to switch from the less efficient (and more expensive) flooding agriculture method popular in California.

Watering the plants rather than the ground, as drip irrigation purports to do, is one of the simplest ways California could imitate Israel’s portfolio of water solutions.

(Of course, Israel is already on to the next best thing: Yago mentioned a technique now in beta called precision irrigation, which involves plant growth cycles and something he called “fertigation or nutrigation.”)

Ze’ev Barylka, Netafim’s U.S. marketing director, is confident U.S. agriculture will make the switch to drip irrigation eventually, although, he said, “It’s a long process.”

It’s something his company has been pushing since it arrived in the United States 35 years ago.

“It’s very difficult to isolate what is the contribution of the MOU because we have been living [with the spirit of] the MOU for 35 years,” he said when asked about the agreement’s contribution to Netafim’s bottom line.

He went on, “It’s benefiting the [agriculture technology] sector overall in terms of visibility, activity, on the internet, in articles, in awareness, in education — all that.”

Ramifications of the agreement have yet to fully play out, according to some of its architects. A number of Israeli sustainability technologies are taking baby steps into the California market.

Blumenfield said the Department of Water & Power is currently looking into Israeli technology to clean up San Fernando Valley groundwater pollution left behind by the defense industry. But for now, “they’re studying rather than going sort of headlong.”

In the meanwhile, there are some more immediate effects, like generating coverage of Israel beyond the negative press afforded to it by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Blumenfield said the memo and the publicity it generates “help people understand the dangers of a BDS movement that is designed to do the opposite [of what the memo seeks to do]. That’s not why we created the task force, obviously. But it is a tangible political outcome.”

Despite its political outcomes, the MOU’s chief mechanism of action has proven to be other than political.

“Most of what we do these days is innovation — innovation on water, innovation on stem cells, innovation on biotech,” Siegel said at the Beverly Hills cybersecurity
event. He added, “Innovation is job No. 1 in this relationship.”

Siegel’s formula is simple: joint innovation equals diplomacy.

Blumenfield had a similar formula for collaboration: “Israel is the startup nation and California is the scale-up nation.”

How Israel manages its water better than California does

California and Israel share a climate of perpetual drought. As far as water is concerned, however, that’s where the similarities end.

Israel has a water surplus, while California struggles to manage. Among other reasons, the Jewish state owes its water wealth to technology such as drip irrigation and water reclamation, which have yet to win wide popularity here. 

But different rules on water use pose one often overlooked answer to why California remains parched while Israel thrives.

Water law is a famously complex field, but one regulatory difference is clear-cut: In California, if a landowner digs a well, he can freely use the water that comes up. In Israel, the government controls that water.

“This itself is so powerful,” said Tamar Shor, senior deputy to the director of the Israel Water Authority. 

In late June, Shor sat at a round table at the Ritz Carlton in Marina del Ray, at a conference on Israel-California water collaboration. Across from her was Felicia Marcus, who, as chair of California’s State Water Resources Control Board, is the top water official in the state.

Around them, conference guests participated in structured discussions with designated experts, riffing on cue cards that had been distributed in advance. 

At Shor’s table, the card prompted conference goers to discuss “How to design long-term water policies.” Hers was among the most popular discussions.

As Shor and Marcus talked back and forth, a group of farmers, water entrepreneurs and municipal functionaries leaned in.

Marcus expressed her “Israel envy” over the way water rights are apportioned in the Los Angeles County-sized nation.

In comparison to Israel’s system, she said, California’s water rights look something like the Wild West.

“Right now, it’s whoever has the deepest pump wins,” she said.

Shor explained that in Israel, a license is required to dig a well. In California, local health and safety departments can ask for permits, but the state does not.

What’s more, even if a farmer digs a well herself in Israel, she’s required to pay the government for the water she draws from it in the form of a tax, Shor said.

By contrast, in California “if you dig a well on your property, you have a right to use it by virtue of owning the property,” said Eric Garner, a water lawyer and adjunct law professor at USC.

Wells draw from underground water tables with finite resources. 

Imagine a single cup of water with a number of straws in it: In California, anybody with the funds to buy a straw can drink freely, while in Israel, the government owns the straws.

Of about 6,000 groundwater basins in California, some 20 percent of them are considered medium to high priority, meaning there is more water going out than coming in, Garner said. 

Southern California faces further groundwater challenges; Local officials say the aerospace industry left many aquifers tainted with toxic industrial byproducts, such as perchlorate.

But Garner said even in contaminated or prioritized basins, the only law regulating the use of private wells is a provision in the state constitution saying that all water use “shall be limited to such water as shall be reasonably required.”

Functionally, that means the law is “pump until a judge tells you not to,” he said.

 The difference in who owns wells changes the incentive scheme:  Whereas once a farmer in California digs a well, it make sense to pull out as much water as they can; in Israel they’ll draw out only as much water as they care to buy.

“I’m a strong believer that wherever the economic incentives and the regulation don’t go in the same direction, it won’t work in the end,” Shor said.

The rule on who owns wells dates back to Israel’s 1959 Water Law that established government control over water use across the state, Shor said.

That’s hardly the only difference between California’s water regulation scheme and Israel’s.

In 2006, Israel established its Water Authority to replace a previous control board that many felt was mired in politics. Since then, the agency has maintained sole power over distribution and use.

By contrast, in California multiple agencies are responsible for making sure faucets don’t run dry. In Southern California, estimates put the number of governing bodies somewhere around 100.

Often to our detriment, Garner said, “California does probably have the most complex water rights system in the world.”

Scientists find evidence of recent water flows on Mars

Scientists analyzing data from a NASA spacecraft have found the first evidence that briny water flowed on the surface of Mars as recently as last summer, a paper published on Monday showed, raising the possibility that the planet could support life.

Although the source and the chemistry of the water is unknown, the discovery will change scientists' thinking about whether the planet that is most like Earth in the solar system could support present day microbial life.

“It suggests that it would be possible for life to be on Mars today,” John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administration for science, told reporters.

“Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past. Under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, the agency's director of planetary science.

The discovery was made when scientists developed a new technique to analyze chemical maps of the surface of Mars obtained by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

They found telltale fingerprints of salts that form only in the presence of water in narrow channels cut into cliff walls throughout the planet's equatorial region.

The slopes, first reported in 2011, appear during the warm summer months on Mars, then vanish when the temperatures drop. Scientists suspected the streaks, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSL, were cut by flowing water, but previously had been unable to make the measurements.

“I thought there was no hope,” Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology and lead author of a paper in this week's issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, told Reuters.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter makes its measurements during the hottest part of the Martian day, so scientists believed any traces of water, or fingerprints from hydrated minerals, would have evaporated.

Also, the chemical-sensing instrument on the orbiting spacecraft cannot home in on details as small as the narrow streaks, which typically are less than 16 feet (5 meters) wide.

But Ojha and colleagues created a computer program that could scrutinize individual pixels. That data was then correlated with high-resolution images of the streaks. Scientists concentrated on the widest streaks and came up with a 100 percent match between their locations and detections of hydrated salts.

The discovery “confirms that water is playing a role in these features,” said planetary scientist Alfred McEwen, with the University of Arizona. “We don't know that it's coming from the subsurface. It could come from the atmosphere.”

Whatever the water's source, the prospect of liquid water, even seasonally, raises the intriguing prospect that Mars, which is presumed to be a cold and dead planet, could support life today.

However, McEwen said much more information about the water's chemistry would be needed before scientists could make that assessment.

“It's not necessarily habitable just because it's water – at least to terrestrial organisms,” he said.

The evidence that there was water on the planet recently was the key finding in the study released on Monday. NASA's ongoing Mars rover Curiosity has already found evidence that Mars had all the ingredients and suitable habitats for microbial life to exist at some point in its past.

Scientists have been trying to figure out how it transformed from a warm, wet and likely Earth-like planet early in its history into the cold, dry desert that exists today.

Billions of years ago, Mars, which lacks a protective, global magnetic field, lost much of its atmosphere. Several initiatives are under way to determine how much of the planet's water was stripped away and how much remains locked in ice in underground reservoirs.

Desalination: Science, engineering and alchemy

'Let There Be Water: Israel's Solution for a Water-Starved World (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press; September 15, 2015) reveals the secret to Israel’s bold approach to water security and how the rest of the world can adopt these measures now, to get ahead of the looming global water crisis

The irrigation of the desert with purified seawater will appear a dream to many, but less than any other country should Israel be afraid of dreams capable of transforming the natural order . . . . All that has been accomplished in this country is the result of dreams that have come true by virtue of vision, science, and pioneering capacity.
— David Ben- Gurion (1956)

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy occurred two weeks before the Weizmann Institute’s 1963 fund- raising gala in Manhattan. Kennedy had been announced as the keynote speaker and with his sudden, violent death, the event’s organizers cancelled it. Two months later, the dinner was held. To the organization’s good fortune, Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor, agreed to take the slain president’s speaking slot at the rescheduled event.

The Weizmann Institute was, and is, a leading Israeli scientific research center founded in 1934 by Chaim Weizmann, a world- renowned scientist who later became Israel’s first president. The institute was renamed in Weizmann’s honor in 1949, a year after the country was founded, when he was elected the ceremonial head of state. From its earliest days, the institute had taken on an array of scientific challenges. One of these was how to efficiently remove salt from seawater.  The desalination research was scientific, but it also had important ideological and political implications for the young country.  Success in desalination would produce important benefits for Israel in helping to fulfill the Zionist goal of building a secure, self- sufficient economy and society that would be a magnet for Jews worldwide. Lacking adequate natural water from rain and rivers, the nation’s growing water deficit would be an impediment to both its economic vitality and, as important, its ability to absorb new waves of Jews resettling in Israel. Large- scale desalination of seawater from the Mediterranean was seen as an ideal, if entirely theoretical, solution.

David Ben- Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and the moving force in building the institutions that would lead to the creation of a state, never had water far from his mind. Shimon Peres, Ben-Gurion’s close aide and himself later Israel’s prime minister and president, says Ben-Gurion talked about water all the time. Ben-Gurion, Peres says, was captivated by the idea of turning salty seawater into freshwater for homes and farms.  Lyndon Johnson shared Ben-Gurion’s deep interest in “desalting” water. Coming from a hardscrabble Texas life, Johnson’s views about water were similar to the desert- centered Ben-Gurion. A few days before his election in 1960 as Kennedy’s vice president, Johnson took time out from campaigning to help prepare a lengthy article for The New York Times’ Sunday magazine. The article advocated a national focus on developing cost- effective desalination techniques as a tool for eradicating poverty and promoting world peace. Candidates in the heat of a campaign put out many proposals, but Johnson could have placed an article in the magazine on any of several more higher profile topics. But he chose to write about what he called “desalted water,” a seemingly odd topic for water- rich New Yorkers at any time, and especially so in the closing days of a tight presidential race.  Desalination has the feel of science, engineering, and alchemy combined. The medieval alchemist tried to take lead, a product of scant value and transform it into one of great worth, gold. So, too, the desalination process tries to take seawater (or inland, brackish water), strip it of its worthless elements, and change it into a lifesaving product of enormous value.

The ancient Romans tried to purify seawater for their army, but their efforts never went far.  During World War II, American scientists also began thinking about ways to either take the salt out of the water or the water out of the salt, which sounds like the same thing, but which require completely different approaches and scientific techniques. The problem with either approach, they realized, was that it might make sense in limited military applications where expense is of little concern, but the enormous amount of energy needed to produce pure water from seawater would have made it impossibly expensive for civilian use, at least with then current technology.  Expensive or not, Johnson was sure desalination was in America’s and the world’s future. He had been instrumental as the senate majority leader in obtaining funding for federal research on the issue, most of which was allocated to the U.S. Office of Saline Water, which had been established in 1952.  Senators knew that Johnson could be counted on to support bills which included water components. And all the more so, when desalination research was included. 

“Johnson the Jew”

When Johnson stepped to the podium at the Waldorf- Astoria Hotel ballroom to greet the seventeen hundred dinner guests and Weizmann Institute donors in February 1964, few likely expected Johnson to set in motion a project that on the one hand would spark an immediate firestorm in the Arab world, but on the other would promise a significant boost to Israel’s own desalination efforts. Johnson said, “We, like Israel, need to find cheap ways of converting saltwater to freshwater, so let us work together. This nation has begun discussions with representatives of Israel on cooperative research in using nuclear energy to turn saltwater into freshwater. This poses a challenge to our scientific and technical skills. . . . But the opportunities are so vast and the stakes so high that it is worth all of our efforts and worth all of our energy, for water means life, and water means opportunity, and water means prosperity for those who never knew the meaning of those words. Water can banish hunger and can reclaim the desert and change the course of history.”  From Damascus to Beirut to Cairo, Johnson’s speech was met with fury. One Lebanese newspaper columnist addressed the Texas- born, Disciples of Christ church- president as “Johnson the Jew” and said that the speech went “beyond recognition of the birth of Israel to recognition of Israel’s future.” The Syrian government newspaper called the speech “the ultimate in American support for Israel.”  Israel’s adversaries understood what a secure water future would mean to their sworn enemy.

Although Johnson saw desalination as an essential tool in transforming the Middle East, he may have decided to reach out to Israel due to his respect for Israeli science and the country’s rapid and remarkable achievements. With uncanny intuition, Johnson saw in Israel a worthy, if junior, partner who might provide an alternative route to his longstanding dream of desalted water.

From Let There Be Water by Seth M. Siegel. Copyright © 2015 by the author and reprinted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

L.A. County, Beverly Hills discuss their own water deals with Israel

The State of Israel has entered into two separate agreements with the Beverly Hills City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors related to tackling water-shortage problems and more.

The L.A. County vote Sept. 1 was unanimous, according to Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel. Each supervisor — including Mike Antonovich, who introduced the motion, and Sheila Kuehl, who co-sponsored it — supported what is described on Kuehl’s website as “a resolution between Los Angeles County and the State of Israel for the purpose of establishing a formal relationship that fosters the exchange of research and information, facilitates joint developments, and enhances relationships and opportunities to incubate solutions to the water crisis.”

Kuehl told the Journal in a phone interview that Israel and L.A. County have been in talks for some time about coming together to work on water issues.

[READ: History of water desalination in Israel]

“I think when the consul general was first sworn in, he had indicated he was interested in working with the county on any number of issues, and one of them we discussed had to do with water and how we are in a severe drought, and how, when I was in Israel, I was impressed with technology they were developing for reuse, recycling, conservation, etc.,” she said. “So I co-sponsored to work officially with Israel to see how we can learn mutually from the research they’ve done, the technology they’ve developed — and we really need it.”

The agreement with Beverly Hills, also  unanimous, passed on the same night. 

“It’s also significant beyond water,” Siegel said in a phone interview, describing it as “a strategic agreement, deepening the relationship between Beverly Hills and the State of Israel on a host of issues — six issues — loosely based on the California-Israel [Memorandum of Understanding] from last year.”

Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu co-signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership for Joint Innovation, Exchanges and Cooperation. Both leaders at the time said the pact would help to solve problems in such areas as water conservation, alternative energy and cybersecurity threats.

“I co-sponsored to work officially with Israel to see how we can learn mutually from the research they’ve done, the technology they’ve developed — and we really need it.” — L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl

“Truly there is no better partnership for Beverly Hills than to be a partner with Israel,” City Councilmember Lili Bosse said during the council meeting shortly before the vote took place. 

The partnership between Beverly Hills and Israel will focus on cybersecurity, public health, emergency services, disaster preparedness, public safety, counterterrorism and art and culture. But Siegel, who attended the vote, said the most critical part of the plan involves water, as Beverly Hills residents are among the most scrutinized in terms of Angelenos’ water-usage habits. 

“I think the most urgent [part of the partnership] is going to be water because of what’s happening with the drought, and in Beverly Hills, they need to cut back 30 percent,” Siegel said. 

How will Israel and Beverly Hills work to conserve water? That’s yet to be determined, Siegel said. 

“We didn’t go into that much detail yet. It’s an overall agreement. We’re already looking at various technologies — they have significant water plans they are working on,” he said. “And L.A. County is going to be similar. We’re coming together with work groups, possible demonstrations and projects.”

Siegel said he expects more than 800 people to attend when Israel and Beverly Hills formalize their partnership on Nov. 10 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts during a gala benefit for the Annenberg Center and American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The evening will feature a performance by Israeli conductor Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic; the resolution will be signed during intermission.

“That’s going to be a big event,” Siegel said.

Information regarding the formalization of the L.A. County partnership was not immediately available.

Siegel said these sorts of agreements are important ways of strengthening the United States-Israel relationship. 

“It is not just top-down — it’s from bottom-up. So we are very active,” Siegel said. These include a 2014 partnership with West Hollywood toward convening an HIV/AIDS task force.

Next on the horizon, Siegel and various officials of the Southwestern United States will travel to Israel for the country’s annual Water Technology and Environment Control Exhibition and Conference, held from Oct. 13-15.

The Israeli official, who is near the completion of his tenure as consul general, said the recent agreements represent the culmination of years of work.

“This is my final year — a year to see a lot of things come to completion that we have been working on for a long time.”

8 Easy ways to conserve water right now

As you probably know, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a mandatory water-use reduction of 25 percent across California back in April because of our state’s historic drought. It has been up to the individual cities and communities to implement the reduction efforts, so you may have received a letter from your local water utility company about how much you are required to conserve. Where I live, we have been told to reduce water usage by 20 percent from 2013 levels. 

Saving 20 percent can seem daunting, but when I think of it in increments, it seems more doable. Every little bit of conservation adds up and makes a difference. Here are some tricks I’ve implemented in my own household that are simple and do not require a lot of effort. I’m eager to get my next water bill to see how much I’ve saved. 

Check for leaks

There could be a leak in your home, and you might not even know it. To check, note the numbers on your water meter, and then don’t use any water for two hours. If the numbers have gone up, you have a leak and it’s time to hire a plumber.

Shower power

A whopping 75 percent of indoor home water usage happens in our bathrooms, and a lot of that is from the shower. According to the American Water Works Association, a typical shower lasts eight minutes. With a standard showerhead that uses 2.5 gallons of water per minute, each shower can add up to 20 gallons of water. So if you reduce your daily shower time to five minutes, you will save 225 gallons every month. If everyone in the family does this, imagine how much water you’ll save. 

Stop flushing so often

At the risk of being too graphic, you don’t really need to flush your toilet every time you use it. Some older toilets use up to seven gallons of water per flush. Even the newer ones, which are required to consume no more than 1.6 gallons per flush, make up a substantial part of our water usage. By flushing just one time less each day, we can reduce our monthly water usage by a minimum of 584 gallons a year.

Make your older toilets flush less water

A simple way to reduce water use is to minimize the amount of water that goes into your toilet tank. To do so, fill a plastic half-gallon bottle (such as an orange juice or bleach bottle) halfway with rocks to weigh it down, then fill it with water and tightly close its lid. Place the container inside your toilet tank, and you will save a half gallon each time you flush. Note: sometimes people put a brick in the tank for this same purpose, but bricks can erode and add sediments to your toilet.

Turn off the tap 

This one seems really obvious, but leaving the water on while brushing your teeth is a bad habit many of us can’t seem to break. However, when you remember three to five gallons of water come out of the average faucet every minute, you’ll realize this is another simple opportunity to save water.

Use the dishwasher 

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, using an automatic dishwasher is more efficient than hand washing. New Energy Star dishwashers use three to five gallons of water per wash, compared to up to 27 gallons used by traditional hand washing, counting for those who let the water run the entire time. Even older dishwashers that use up to 15 gallons per wash beat traditional hand washing. Just be sure to run your dishwasher only when it is fully loaded. And scrape your dishes first, instead of rinsing them before putting them in the machine. 

Only wash full loads of laundry

The Alliance for Water Efficiency estimates the average American family washes almost 400 loads of laundry each year. Make the most of each load by making sure the machine is filled, even if the washer has adjustable load settings. And avoid the permanent press cycle, which adds up to five gallons for the extra rinse. If you’re planning to replace an older washing machine, which typically uses 40 to 45 gallons per wash, consider either a front- or top-loading high-efficiency model, which generally uses only 14 to 25 gallons. 

Keep a bucket handy for reuse

Don’t let water go down the drain when it can be used for other purposes, such as watering plants or cleaning. If you have to let the water in your sink or tub run for a few seconds to heat up, collect the cold water in a bucket to use later. You’ll be amazed at how much water you collect — all of which would otherwise just disappear down your drain.

Jonathan Fong is the author of “Walls That Wow,” “Flowers That Wow” and “Parties That Wow,” and host of “Style With a Smile” on YouTube. You can see more of his do-it-yourself projects at

High-tech new water — next steps for sustainable water solutions in California

On July 13, a working team was formed among 12 California water officials and practitioners (led by former state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and state bond counsel Robert Feyer) and more than 50 Israel experts who had designed Israel’s water solutions industry. There was a quiet hope during the daylong session followed by two days of site visits that the force of observation could change circumstances in California and for the rest of the world. It’s beyond time for us to all be simply hot and bothered by the water crisis. It’s not going away. California is just like a growing part of the world where water demand exceeds supply for more 40 percent of the world’s population — a trend that will continue to encompass 60 percent of global population by the end of this decade.

A presentation by professor Jay Famiglietti (UC Irvine and JPL) set the tone: Nearly one- third of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are being drained faster than they are being replenished. More than 40 percent of the rise in sea level is associated with groundwater depletion and wastewater dumping into the sea. His NASA data showed that in California, there is only about one year of water supply left in reservoirs and that total water storage has been in decline since at least 2002 and probably since the early 20th century.

Like so many things in this land, this particular existential threat was first recognized here in Israel. About a decade ago, a national emergency was declared and steps were taken. Israel realized that drying out the country would finish us off a lot faster than the Iranians or anyone else for that matter. A lot was learned. Mistakes were made, yet a $4 billion, high-tech water industry was born focused on the most basic need to conserve water in Israel and on this planet.

California and Israel share a globally warming Mediterranean climate, 75 to 80 percent of water used on agriculture, and the lowest rainfall since 1895; in Israel, the lowest since 1865, when measurement began. There, the similarities stop. Israel’s per-capita residential water use is one-third of California’s and represents only a quarter of total annual water consumption; 85 percent of wastewater in Israel is recycled toward agricultural use (often more than once) compared with a roughly estimated 5 percent of recycling (no one knows for sure because it goes largely unmeasured). All Israel water solution technologies seek to mimic the natural water cycle by engineering recycling of the aquifers and minimizing groundwater pumping. Over the past decade, Israel’s large investment in an adaptive and resilient water system through water conservation, desalination, recycling and smart, integrated management systems have led Israel to produce about 20 percent more water than it consumes, exporting the rest to Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Last year, Californians passed a $7.4 billion bond issue, $3.4 billion of which will be spent in the coming year. It must do so wisely, because it is unlikely there will be a second chance, as Gov. Jerry Brown has warned. Meanwhile, fields continue to be flooded, nonrevenue water (aka leaks) wastes about 10 percent of California’s supply annually (such as UCLA’s 28 million-gallon leak last July), and there’s growing — but hardly universal — water consciousness about the centrality of conservation.

California will discover, as did Israel, that there is no magic bullet, but also that no technology that can help should be discarded or delayed. Desalination, water recycling, smart water systems that use big data science to predict and detect waste, new crops and irrigation that reduces water use are all part of the portfolio of solutions that must be used.

We are now forming project teams to deploy, scale up and localize to California conditions on these following areas that will avoid costs of wasting water by financing new technologies that will produce new water solutions. These include:

1. Desalination: Since desalination commenced and expanded, the average energy cost for desalination has been cut by 50 percent in recent years. New technologies that reduce chemical use and address environmental concerns have developed. None of these sustainable desalination breakthroughs would have occurred (and Israel would long since have run out of water) without major investment in targeted desalination, which increases incentives for new technologies;

2. California must get smart — quickly — about how it improves, produces and delivers water. Nonrevenue water saps at least 10 percent of the water supply and most likely more (because it goes largely unmonitored as indicated by a recent UCLA study). Cloud-based systems for integrated water-system management use advanced algorithms that harness utility raw data (such as flow, pressure and water quality) and enable water managers to better handle water resources. Israeli, Spanish, Brazilian and Australian users of these IT solutions report 66 percent reduction in time cycle to detect and repair leaks. Other sensors and technologies monitor closely water conservation and penalize indiscriminate water use. New material technologies and robotics can fix leaks without major reconstruction and at much lower costs through technologies such as Curapipe, widely used in Israel.

3. Drip irrigation in California has already been used on about 40 percent of the crops in California, and that has contributed about $1 billion annually. Now that technology needs to be quickly expanded to commodity agriculture (such as alfalfa, corn, grains, etc.), which will dramatically reduce groundwater depletion in the Imperial and Central valleys.

4. Embedded wetlands can provide treated effluent for agricultural use with very low capital expenditures (and swimming pools!) and are sustainable for small farms along with smallholder drip irrigation kits, which should be deployed immediately.

5. Enabling filtration of California dairy herd waste to avoid groundwater contamination.

6. Shifting to low-water, high-value crops and farming.

That’s a beginning to scale up these technologies that started in Israel to meet California-size problems in sustainable water management.

Glenn Yago is Senior Director at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies’ Milken Innovation Center and Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Local rabbis speak up about the drought

The Catholic pope is not the only one seeing moral messages in the issue of climate change and in valuing the Earth’s natural resources. Many rabbis are teaching restraint, particularly in California, where the drought, currently in its fourth year, is causing civic leaders to require residents and farmers to severely cut back on water use.  

“We need to restrain ourselves with dealing with adama [soil],” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and a member of the Jewish Renewal movement, known for his work on Jewish environmental ethics. “In the story of the Garden of Eden, God says to the human race, ‘There’s an abundance here, eat it joyfully, just a little self restraint. Don’t eat from that tree.’ They don’t restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes.”

It’s a concept also applied to the commandment of resting on Shabbat or practicing shmita, he explained, the halachic principle of letting the earth lie fallow every seven years.

For many rabbis from different congregations across Los Angeles, the California drought can be studied through a Jewish lens, and the Torah, as well as Jewish law and ethics, can offer the community guidance in how to respond.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation described climate change — which he connected to the drought — as “an enormously religious issue,” as human action is at least partly accountable.

“We are failing perhaps the most basic human commandment we were given,” Kanefsky said, referring to that of taking care of the world. Climate change “is going to create serious hardship, whether for people who are living in areas that can no longer grow food, or living on islands overrun by seawater, or people who are subject to ferocious storms. We have the obligation to think about all of humanity as being part of our realm of responsibility, given that we are largely responsible for climate change.”

Allocation of water resources is a contentious issue in California, and the Gemara emphasizes the need for compromise by referring to situations in which people using a public area must yield to one another. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox professor of Jewish law at Loyola Law School, referred to a midrash that teaches that when two camels are walking toward one another on the same road and there isn’t room for both, the camel that is not laden must retreat.

“We have different interest groups making claims on water, [and] not enough is available to go around,” Adlerstein said. “One of the things I imagine we’ll be able to do is try to come up with accommodations that produce the least amount of detrimental impact on the fewest people.”

Furthermore, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University and the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Gemara presents a framework for how to prioritize in times of scarcity. He referenced a discussion of how a person’s own livelihood comes before anyone else’s, and how when one gives charity, the “poor of the city” preside over the poor who came to the city from elsewhere (Yoreh Deah 251:3).

“The tradition already had a sense that in times of scarcity, whether it be water or food or housing, there has to be a pecking order,” he said. “The general rule is that you have to take care of yourself first.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am added that halachah urges people to prioritize the resources that are essential for one’s well-being. 

“Judaism would say you have to prioritize those usages of a limited resource that are required for sustaining life or health and not those for sustaining enjoyment or aesthetic pleasure,” he said. “Almonds and walnuts, which I love, I don’t need them to live. I happen to know they take an enormous amount of water to produce, per nut.”

Although droughts in the Torah appear as a form of divine punishment and God promises rain as a reward for keeping the commandments, it is difficult for some rabbis to think of the drought as a result of sin.

“We don’t fully understand God’s system of reward and punishment,” Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation said. “Our focus needs to be on human initiative.”

Adlerstein explained that there is a type of divine providence associated with the droughts in the Torah because they occur in Israel — a land that, unlike California, has a covenant with God.

“There is the assumption in the Talmud that rain is something that God keeps tabs on and is related more to the spiritual conduct of the Jewish community,” he said. “When rain does not fall on Israel for an extended period of time, the reaction of the community is to turn to prayer and self-reflection. But I don’t think you’re going to find Jews in America saying, ‘Wow, this drought in California — it’s probably because of our sins.’ ”

However, most of the rabbis interviewed insisted that fasting and prayer in a time of drought can motivate people to take action.

“I don’t think that our fasting in and of itself is going to bring water — that’s magic, and that is a real ‘no-no’ in the Jewish tradition,” Dorff said. “If you’re going to fast, and there’s ample [halachic] precedent for that in the case of drought, then the purpose of the fast ought to be to express your fears about an ongoing drought, for water in the future and to motivate you to ensure a reliable source of water in the future.”

According to Adlerstein, conserving water solely to reap economic rewards is permissible. He explained that halachah offers incentives to help people fulfill the obligation to give tzedakah, and the Gemara describes how “the authorities could even seize their property before their very eyes, and take from them what they should have given” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 248:1).

“I don’t see anything wrong with inducing people to act in ways that are healthy, even for the wrong reasons,” he said. “Even when it comes to things that are mitzvot, the Torah does allow for cajoling people to do the right thing by offering inducements.”

Droughts in the Torah often resulted in the displacement of people, illustrating the importance of individual responsibility to take care of the vulnerable.

“During the days of Elijah, the time of Achav, [and] in any situation of drought and in any crisis, that’s a time for every person to do what they can to improve the situation and help those in need,” Topp said. “Judaism emphasizes charity and kindness.”

For all the rabbis, caring about the drought reflects the high value that Judaism places on a human life, for which water is crucial.

“It is a Jewish value to take care of the planet and pay attention to the natural resources, particularly water,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, which hosted a June 24 panel on water conservation. “There are so many references to water as life saving, from the story of Moses who is drawn from the water, from the story of Miriam, who is the source of wells that nurtured us as we wandered in the desert,” Geller said.

“The Jewish lens is to know that this is important and that behaviors need to change. To be responsible, to act personally, and to act collectively.” 

Cartoon: Californians, conserve or die

What San Gabriel’s Padres taught William Mulholland 

On a hot August day in 1816, waves of heat shimmered off of the dusty plazas and red tile roofs of the San Gabriel Mission community. The surrounding valley and foothills were brown and dry, and the nearby arroyos hadn’t run with water since March. But the town was a verdant oasis, watered by babbling brooks that ran alongside the vineyards, through the workshops, and into a 40-acre garden. These streams quenched the thirst of more than 1,700 Native American and Spanish inhabitants; of thousands of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, and mules; and of the fruits and grains that fed them.

But more than that, the water powered Southern California’s first center of industry, including a $20,000-a-year cattle hide and soap export business. So impressive was the mission that one of the first visitors from the United States to this Spanish (and later Mexican) settlement remarked that its value was equal to a mine of silver or gold.

The extensive network of waterways was no product of nature—it was shaped entirely by human hands. And as it was improved, the system provided one of the most important early examples of industrial agriculture in western North America, and contributed directly to the rise of the young city of Los Angeles. It’s a story that reminds those of us gripped by one of California’s worst droughts on record that control over water has shaped our region’s destiny for centuries.

The San Gabriel Mission’s water system developed over a 60-year period through trial and error. The first version of the system, in fact, was an utter failure. Unaccustomed to Southern California’s fickle waterways, missionaries initially placed the mission in the fertile floodplain of the San Gabriel River in 1771. After four difficult years, the padres realized that the river’s annual flooding represented as much a threat as a blessing, and they relocated the small community to high ground. Rather than bringing the mission to water, they decided to bring water to the mission.

Tapping into artesian springs more than two miles to the north, the mission’s native Gabrieleño neophytes (captive laborers) hand-excavated a series of zanjas, or ditches, bringing precious water to the growing mission town. By the second decade of the 19th century, lit by the first rays of the dawning Industrial Revolution, clever, self-taught engineers had expanded the simple trenches into a vast system of rock-lined canals, brick and plaster reservoirs, dams, and water-powered grain and sawmills.

Only the broad outlines of the San Gabriel Mission water system’s scope and function have been preserved in the inventories, letters, and histories that the mission priests and their successors left behind. Few images, and no maps, survive from the mission’s active years, and those that we have fail to capture the details of the system. The story that was passed down has its flaws, however, being heavily biased in favor of the handful of men of European descent who designed and profited from these works. So how do we know what it looked like, and how it worked? The science of archaeology specializes in filling this kind of gap by exposing and interpreting the material remains of past human activity.

On another hot fall day in 2014, a team of archaeologists cleared nearly two centuries of soil away from the stone foundations of the San Gabriel Mission water system. Time had been surprisingly kind to the site. In a historical irony, the construction of a railroad atop the ruins in 1874, while initially destructive, had preserved the heart of the water works just across the street from the iconic mission church.

Another train project made the dig possible. The construction of the Alameda Corridor-East San Gabriel Trench, a project that will lower the Union Pacific Railroad tracks below the intersecting streets, required that the tracks be temporarily shifted to the north. This displacement represented a rare opportunity to examine the long-buried foundations, which underlay the entire railroad right-of-way, directly across the street from the mission church. My team of archaeologists excavated those foundations with machines and by hand to reveal the pattern, associated artifacts, and history of the waterworks’ construction.

Project planners have long known that archaeological materials were present in the area, prompting them to hire my firm of professional archaeologists in advance of construction. We have spent years documenting the physical remains of the mission, including numerous foundations and hundreds of thousands of artifacts and food remains. This latest dig has uncovered four major iterations of the water system, from simple earthen ditches, to cobblestone-lined canals and tanks, to masonry reservoirs connected by segmented ceramic pipes, to the pinnacle of the mission’s hydraulic technology—a massive cement flume that served as the millrace and millpond for a New England-style grain mill dating to 1825. In exposing and documenting these systems, we continue to be impressed by the innovation that marked their evolution, and the increasing sophistication that they gained as they were improved. This improvement was not simply about increases in scale—with each new version of the water system, the designers got better at conserving water. They did this not by reducing their use, but by recycling the water several times before releasing it downstream. The network of canals simultaneously powered mills, flushed tanning vats, watered animals, irrigated crops, and supported cooking, bathing, and washing needs.

We preserved the most intact portion of the 1825 flume two years ago by picking it up and moving it across the street to Plaza Park and installing a self-contained plumbing system. It once again flows with cool water so that visitors can experience the look, feel, and sound of the historic waterway. Our finds in 2014, however, included the largest and least expected element of the system, representing a kind of missing link between the earliest zanjas and the late Mission period millworks.

I have been conducting archaeological research for 20 years, excavating in Arizona, New Jersey, Honduras, British Columbia, Florida, and Peru. But much of my career has focused on the early history of Los Angeles. I have learned how deeply L.A.’s roots are entwined with water issues. After making the 9-mile walk from San Gabriel to their new town site, one of the first acts of Los Angeles’ pobladores (settlers) was to create their own Zanja Madre, a “mother ditch” connecting the Los Angeles River to their houses and fields. More than a century later, a former zanjero (ditch tender) named William Mulholland took the idea pioneered by San Gabriel’s missionaries to its logical end, bringing water from the Sierra Nevada to Los Angeles in a ditch of epic proportions, the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

As Los Angeles looks to the future, the thirst of its growing population remains to be satisfied. In both Los Angeles and her predecessor, San Gabriel, bringing water to the people was only half of the equation. The other half – seeking new ways to conserve the water – was the key innovation upon which this great city was first built, and will be built again.

John Dietler is the lead archeologist for the Alameda Corridor-East Construction Authority and the California cultural and paleontological resources program director at SWCA Environmental Consultants. He is a graduate of UCLA. He wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

L.A.-Eilat task force kicks off with water meeting at City Hall

On the heels of a cooperative agreement signed in March between the governments of Israel and California, the cities of Los Angeles and Eilat built on a 55-year sister-city relationship, holding an inaugural task force meeting Oct. 20 at Los Angeles City Hall. 

The gathering, which was led by Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, focused on technology that Israel has successfully implemented to conserve, reuse and purify water in a region with an arid climate and scant rainfall. 

Such innovations could make a big difference locally. Suffering through a three-year drought, Los Angeles remains highly dependent on imported water, even as policymakers and water experts stress a need to develop technologies that would reduce the city’s and county’s reliance on far-off water sources. 

Professor Eilon Adar, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, presented to the task force a description of how Israel has tackled its water problem, from purifying wastewater to capturing rainwater. 

“If we managed to overcome this problem in Israel, in the Middle East, it can be done almost anywhere else in the world,” Adar said. 

He emphasized, to a somewhat skeptical task force, that desalination should be a tool in any water policy for a region with a growing population and limited groundwater resources. Already, IDE Americas, a subsidiary of an Israeli company, is designing the operating system for the Carlsbad Desalination Project, which is set to be finished in 2016 and will produce up to 54 million gallons of water a day for San Diego County. 

The 13-member task force selected as its chair Glenn Yago, a senior fellow at the Milken Institute. In addition to Blumenfield and Yago, the task force’s membership includes Councilmember Paul Koretz, Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel, and officials from the office of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the Department of Public Works. 

“Israel has largely solved their [water] problem,” Koretz said. “We haven’t, and there are a lot of things I believe we can learn from Israel.”

Netanyahu visits Silicon Valley, signs Israel-California pro-business pact

Saying the future “belongs to those who innovate,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined Gov. Jerry Brown in Silicon Valley this week to sign an agreement intended to boost high-tech cooperation between Israel and California.

Both leaders said the greatest goal of the memorandum of understanding is to solve problems in the realms of water conservation, alternative energy and cybersecurity threats.

Signed March 5 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, the pact gives Israeli companies access to California’s Innovation Hub program, which is composed of 16 research clusters around the state.

Each iHub focuses on one or more different areas, such as high-tech, agribusiness, manufacturing, transportation or clean tech. The involved entities — such as technology incubators, universities and federal laboratories — provide a platform for startups, economic development organizations, business groups and venture capitalists.

Israel is first nation to sign this kind of agreement with California, and to be invited to work with the iHub network.

Israel already has strong economic ties with California. Tens of thousands of Israelis live in the region and work in the high-tech sector, while trade between the two tops $4 billion according to the governor’s office.

“What a wonderful furthering of the deep connections Israel has with America, and California in particular,” Brown said to 150 Israeli and American high-tech representatives, politicians and other dignitaries gathered for the signing.

Acknowledging what he called California’s “mega-drought,” Brown said the state has “a long way to go in water conservation, recycling and desalinization. Israel has demonstrated how efficient a country can be.”

Noted Netanyahu: “Israel does not have a water problem. How is that possible? Our rainfall has declined 50 percent from the days of our founding. Our population has grown 10 times, our GDP 70 times. Israel has no water problem because we are the No. 1 recycler of wastewater in the world — close to 90 percent — because we have drip irrigation, because we prevent leakage in our pipes and desalinate. California does not need to have a water problem. By working together we can overcome this.”

As for energy, Brown pointed out that California is the only state with a goal of achieving a third of its energy needs via renewable sources by 2020. He said the challenge would be storage of alternative energy for “when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. [Israel and California] have an interest in becoming energy independent, less dependent on fossil fuels. The way to go is renewable energy and storage.”

To cheers from the audience, Netanyahu also expressed his support for a proposed nonstop flight between San Francisco and Ben Gurion Airport. Currently none exists.

“I’ll put my people on this,” Netanyahu said. “If we can get this, there will be an explosion of inventiveness between the innovation nation and the innovation state. Let’s connect the two together. We’re going to do that with this agreement today.”

The signing took place shortly after news broke that Israel had seized a Gaza-bound shop said to be carrying dozens of Iranian missiles. After signing the pact, Netanyahu took to the podium once more to comment.

“What this reveals is the true face of Iran,” the prime minister said. “Iran is smiling, talking soft in the international forums, but it continues unabatedly its aggressive behavior in the Middle East and beyond. It’s sending the deadliest weapons to the most cruel terrorist groups and despots. This regime must not have nuclear weapons capability.”

He thanked Brown for California’s policy of divesting from Iran in its largest public pension funds and for investing in Israel.

Glenn Yago, an economist with the Milken Institute in Southern California, attended the signing and afterward called the pact “the beginning of a true global partnership.” He noted the two leaders’ goal to address the challenges of water, food, agriculture, health and security.

“This partnership with Israel has the potential to be exponentially impactful in terms of what it can produce,” Yago said. “It allows a scaling up. You can’t be a startup forever.”

During his short Bay Area visit, Netanyahu also met with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, including WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, a Jewish Ukrainian immigrant who sold his company to Facebook for $19 billion last month, and executives from Apple, Flextronics, LinkedIn and eBay. In addition to his morning stop at the museum, he also visited Apple headquarters in Cupertino and Stanford University.

The prime minister’s three-day California swing included two stops in Southern California.

On March 4, he attended a screening of “Israel: The Royal Tour” at Paramount Studios on March 4. The one-hour episode stars Netanyahu as he gives CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg a prime minister’s view of Israel from the Red Sea to Masada to Tel Aviv’s hopping nightlife.

This report is reprinted with permission by the j. weekly. It originally appeared at the

California needs water – and Israel

While the leaders of California universities have been busy discussing whether or not to endorse an academic boycott of Israel — and generally weighing in against it — they are overlooking a much more productive way to single out the Jewish state: 

Invite Israel to help solve California’s water crisis.

Israel is uniquely positioned to help our state deal with what historian Victor Davis Hanson calls “the worst extended drought in [California’s] brief recorded history.”

This drought is a two-headed monster, caused by nature and man. On the nature front, Hanson writes, “There is little snow in the state’s towering Sierra Nevada mountains, the source of much of the surface water that supplies the state’s populated center and south. The vast Central Valley aquifer is being tapped as never before, as farms and municipalities deepen wells and boost pump size. Too many straws are competing to suck up the last drops at the bottom of the glass.”

But it’s human complacency that Hanson blames the most for today’s water crisis:

“In the early 1980s, when the state was not much more than half its current population, an affluent coastal corridor convinced itself that nirvana was possible, given the coastal world-class universities, the new riches of the Silicon Valley, the year-round temperate weather, and the booming entertainment, tourism and wine industries.

“Apparently, Pacific corridor residents from San Diego to Berkeley had acquired the affluence not to worry so much about the old Neanderthal concerns like keeping up freeways and airports — and their parents’ brilliantly designed system of canals, reservoirs and dams that had turned their state from a natural desert into a man-made paradise. 

“Californians have not built a major reservoir since New Melones more than 30 years ago. As the state added almost 20 million people, it assumed that it was exempt from creating any more ‘unnatural’ Sierra lakes and canals to store precious water during the rarer wet and snow-filled years.”

This is where Israel comes in. Complacency is not an Israeli trait, certainly not when survival is at stake. And in the desert lands of the Middle East, just as in any desert region, water is a survival issue.

But unlike California, Israel has spent the past few decades immersed in one of its greatest accomplishments: solving its water crisis.

“This country was on the brink of water catastrophe, reduced to running relentless ad campaigns urging Israelis to conserve water even as it raised prices and cut supplies to agriculture,” David Horovitz wrote last year in The Times of Israel. “Now, remarkably, the crisis is over.”

How did they do it?

It wasn’t just the desalination and recycling technologies, although those were critical. It was also the attitude.

“We decided we would,” Horovitz quotes the head of Israel’s Water Authority, Alexander Kushnir. “And once you’ve made that decision, you build the tools to reduce your dependence. We’re on the edge of the desert in an area where water has always been short. The quantity of natural water per capita in Israel is the lowest for the whole region.

“But we decided early on that we were developing a modern state. So we were required to supply water for agriculture, and water for industry, and then water for hi-tech, and water to sustain an appropriate quality of life.”

He might as well have been talking about serving California.

California Gov. Jerry Brown holds a chart depicting the annual state-wide precipitation levels in the state during a news conference in San Francisco on Jan. 17. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

The real question today is, can the Israeli know-how and can-do attitude help our Golden State deal with its own water crisis?

It’s clear that California’s political leaders, notwithstanding all their boilerplate rhetoric, have fallen short. We need to light a fuse under them to shake them out of their apathy. One institution that could do that is our university system, whose brilliant minds are there to contribute to society’s betterment. This model of academic, governmental and private industry cooperation is already happening, successfully, in Israel.

Instead of discussing academic boycotts of Israel, California universities ought to discuss creating a California-Israel Water Alliance that would use Israel’s unique expertise and put some concrete proposals in front of our lethargic legislators.

They can start by looking at San Diego, where a subsidiary of Israel’s IDE Technologies Ltd. is building the largest desalination plant construction project in the western United States.

Construction on the $922 million project, which is being built in partnership with the San Diego County Water Authority, is expected to begin this year and should provide high-quality drinking water to the San Diego area by 2016.

The global campaign to boycott and isolate Israel, however hypocritical and unfair, has been terrible for Israel’s image. Ultimately, of course, the very best way for Israel to improve its image would be to accomplish another miracle: make peace with the Arab world. But until that magical moment comes, we can’t underestimate the value of leveraging Israeli know-how.

And California is not the only place with a water problem. Approximately 40 percent of the planet’s entire population has little or no access to clean water, and experts predict that by 2025, two-thirds of humanity will live in “water-stressed” areas.

In other words, little Israel can become the world’s water savior. Try boycotting that.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

For the sin of destroying God’s creation

Even with a few recent showers here in Southern California, we are in the midst of what is, according to some scientists, “the worst drought in 500 years.” The cumulative effect of the past three dry years has implications for our well-being and the well-being of our planet. The threat of fires and lasting damage to the natural environment is dire. Rural areas that rely on well water (some within an hour’s drive of Los Angeles) are at risk of dangerously low levels of drinking water.

In response to this ongoing crisis, I am undertaking three personal fasts based on the model outlined in the first chapter of Mishnah Ta’anit. Fasting is a traditional religious response to times of crisis and has been a resource in the rabbinic toolbox for generations. I am refraining from eating, drinking and washing (to conserve water) sunup to sundown Feb. 10, Feb. 13 and Feb. 17. Other religious and communal leaders have agreed to join me. 

For some, historically, fasting may have been an attempt to influence God and to evoke a response to our plight — a theurgic effort to bring the rains. My intention is different (although I’m open to the possibility of divine intervention). My goals are to, in the words of Maimonides, “awaken hearts and open pathways to repentance.” (Rambam, Laws of Fasts 5:1)

[Related: California needs water – and Israel]

The current drought is an issue that deserves the attention of our community and requires practical responses. The first step to making those changes is internalizing the depth of the crisis. 

For me, fasting is a way of standing in solidarity with a parched earth. When I am thirsty or weakened from a fast, I am reminded of my utter dependence on the bounty that God has provided me through this earth. The conditions of modern life have insulated us (especially those of us in urban settings) from the ways in which our well-being is intimately connected to the well-being of the environment. It’s easy to forget how dependent we are. 

Ritual can help evoke an emotional response and inspire change in action. Since I announced the fast, community members have already responded, sharing ideas of how to conserve water in our homes. They have told me that they feel moved by an act of personal piety to re-examine their own behaviors and many are joining me in fasting. My intention isn’t to impose a fast on others (I don’t believe I have that authority), but the communal response has added meaning to what started as an act of personal religious expression.

The Mishnah describes a ritual performed by Jews in times of severe drought. They would travel to the cemetery and offer special prayers there. The communal leaders would chastise the congregation into repentance, saying, “You will be like these dead if you do not turn from your ways.” In a less dramatic fashion, I hope that this fast will achieve a similar spiritual reaction — one that will connect our souls to the world and the world to our souls. 

As a rabbi, I am ultimately more concerned with personal responsibility than public policy. Through prayer and fasting, I hope to engage in an act of teshuvah — repentance. I do not believe that this drought is a punishment from God for our transgressions — at least not in a particularly causal way. Eating cheeseburgers doesn’t cause hurricanes. My theology is much more in line with the Talmudic adage, “olam k’minhago noheg — nature pursues its own course.” But I do believe that the current environmental crisis is one of human making. We are victims of our own abuse and misuse of God’s abundant gifts. 

My hope is that the time spent in fast and prayer will lead me to greater responsibility for and sensitivity to the challenges that face our natural world. And if this fast inspires the same in others, all the better. I pray for God’s mercy on us and on the earth. May God open our hearts and open pathways to repentance. 

Ari Lucas is assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Am and a recent transplant to Los Angeles.

Water surplus in Israel? With desalination, once unthinkable is possible

As construction workers pass through sandy corridors between huge rectangular buildings at this desalination plant on Israel’s southern coastline, the sound of rushing water resonates from behind a concrete wall.

Drawn from deep in the Mediterranean Sea, the water has flowed through pipelines reaching almost 4,000 feet off of Israel’s coast and, once in Israeli soil, buried almost 50 feet underground. Now, it rushes down a tube sending it through a series of filters and purifiers. After 90 minutes, it will be ready to run through the faucets of Tel Aviv.

Set to begin operating as soon as next month, Israel Desalination Enterprises’ Sorek Desalination Plant will provide up to 26,000 cubic meters – or nearly 7 million gallons – of potable water to Israelis every hour. When it’s at full capacity, it will be the largest desalination plant of its kind in the world.

“If we didn’t do this, we would be sitting at home complaining that we didn’t have water,” said Raphael Semiat, a member of the Israel Desalination Society and professor at Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “We won’t be dependent on what the rain brings us. This will give a chance for the aquifers to fill up.”

The new plant and several others along Israel’s coast are part of the country’s latest tactic in its decades-long quest to provide for the nation’s water needs. Advocates say desalination — the removal of salt from seawater – could be a game-changing solution to the challenges of Israel’s famously fickle rainfall. Instead of the sky, Israel’s thirst may be quenched by the Mediterranean’s nearly infinite, albeit salty, water supply.

Until the winter of 2011-’12, water shortages were a dire problem for Israel; the country had experienced seven straight years of drought beginning in 2004. The Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret), a major freshwater source and barometer of sorts for Israel’s water supply, fell to dangerous lows. The situation got so severe that the government ran a series of commercials featuring celebrities, their faces cracking from dryness, begging Israelis not to waste any water.

Even as the Sea of Galilee has returned almost to full volume this year, Israeli planners are looking to desalination as a possible permanent solution to the problem of drought. Some even anticipate an event that was once unthinkable: a water surplus in Israel.

Israel Desalination Enterprises opened the first desalination plant in the country in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon in 2005, following success with a similar plant in nearby Cyprus. With Sorek, the company will own three of Israel’s four plants, and 400 plants in 40 countries worldwide. The company’s U.S. subsidiary is designing a new desalination plant in San Diego, the $922 million Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will be the largest desalination plant in America.

In Israel, desalination provides 300 million cubic meters of water per year – about 40 percent of the country’s total water needs. That number will jump to 450 million when Sorek opens, and will hit nearly 600 million as plants expand in 2014, providing up to 80 percent of Israel’s potable water.

Like Israel’s other plants, Sorek will work through a process called Seawater Reverse Osmosis that removes salt and waste from the Mediterranean’s water. A prefiltration cleansing process clears waste out of the flow before the water enters a series of smaller filters to remove virtually all the salt. After moving through another set of filters that remove boron, the water passes through a limestone filter that adds in minerals. Then, it enters Israel’s water pipes.

Semiat says desalination is a virtually harmless process that can help address the water needs prompted by the world’s growing population and rising standard of living.

“You take water from the deep sea, from a place that doesn’t bother anyone,” he said.

But sesalination is not without its critics. Some environmentalists question whether the process is worth its monetary and environmental costs. One cubic meter of desalinated water takes just under 4 kWh to produce – that’s the equivalent of burning 40 100-watt light bulbs for one hour to produce the equivalent of five bathtubs full of water. Freshwater doesn’t have that cost.

Giora Shaham, a former long-term planner at Israel’s Water Authority and a critic of Israel’s current desalination policy, said that factories like Sorek could be a waste because if there is adequate rainfall the desalination plants will produce more water than Israel needs at a cost that is too high. Then, surplus water may be wasted, or international bodies like the United Nations could pressure Israel to distribute it for free to unfriendly neighboring countries, Shaham said.

“There was a long period of drought where there wasn’t a lot of rain, so everyone was in panic,” Shaham said. “Instead of cutting back until there is rain, they made decisions to produce too much.”

Fredi Lokiec, an executive vice president at the Sorek plant, says the risks are greater without major desalination efforts. Israel is perennially short on rainfall, and depending on freshwater could further deplete Israel’s rivers.

“We’ll always be in the shadow of the drought,” Lokiec said, but drawing from the Mediterranean is like taking “a drop from the ocean.”

Some see a water surplus as an opportunity. Orit Skutelsky, water division manager at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, says desalinated water could free up freshwater to refill Israel’s northern streams and raise the level of the Sea of Galilee.

“There’s no way we couldn’t have done this,” she said of desalination. “It was the right move. Now we need to let water flow again to the streams.”

Desalination, Israeli-style

The subsidiary of an Israeli company has been selected to design the largest seawater-desalination plant in the Western Hemisphere. Located in northern San Diego County, the plant will be designed and operated by IDE Americas, part of IDE Technologies, headquartered in Kadima.

Announced in December, the plant — known as the Carlsbad Desalination Project — will be able to produce up to 54 million gallons of water every day and will help San Diego County’s goal of attaining 7 percent of its water supply from desalination efforts by 2020. Water authorities at the state and local levels have indicated that a greater focus on desalination efforts is critical to maintaining a sustainable water supply.

The plant will be owned by Poseidon Resources and operated in cooperation with San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA), according to a water authority spokesperson. Poseidon will spend $954 million to build the project.

Construction on the plant, which will be built near the Encina Power Station in Carlsbad, Calif., is already under way. IDE Americas will operate and maintain the plant for 30 years after construction is completed in 2016. 

Since its inception in the early 1960s, IDE Technologies has been involved in more than 400 desalination projects in more than 40 countries. IDE’s newest Israeli project is a desalination plant slated to begin operating this year in Sorek, about 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. The Sorek plant will sell desalinated water at a rate of about 50 cents for 250 gallons.

SDCWA Director of Water Resources Ken Weinberg said that he thinks IDE’s involvement with the Carlsbad project was a major selling point in SDCWA’s decision to get on board.

“We’re very excited to have IDE Americas design and operate the new plant,” Weinberg said.  “[IDE Americas] is integral to the plant’s design and operation, and SDCWA and IDE will have a very close relationship over the coming years.”

Mark Lambert, CEO of IDE Americas, was unavailable for comment, but he said in a statement last month that the Carlsbad project will help shape the diversity of American water sources. 

“Our view is that the Carlsbad project that we’re about to embark upon will accelerate the visibility of desalination in North America,” he said. “The movement in the U.S. toward desalination has been a long time coming, and we’re ready to lead the charge.”

Weinberg also said that having a plant built and operated in San Diego would stimulate the local economy. Project officials estimate that construction will create 2,300 jobs and that operations at the plant will support 575 jobs.

“It’s going to have a big impact on the local community,” he said. “The new desalination plant, alone, will double the amount of locally produced water supplies in San Diego …”

Desalination is the process of purifying saltwater to make it suitable for human consumption. Today, desalination usually occurs through a process known as reverse osmosis, or membrane desalination. 

Practical membrane desalination was invented by Jewish chemical engineer Sidney Loeb, who, as a student at UCLA more than 50 years ago, helped develop semi-permeable membranes that allow water to pass through but not large molecules or ions. Loeb took his discovery to Israel and taught developed membrane desalination for two decades at what later became the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

According to Christopher Gasson, publisher at the water-industry analyst firm Global Water Intelligence, Loeb’s contribution to Israeli desalination, as well as millions of dollars in research grants from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration to IDE Technologies, helped IDE and Israel become world leaders in desalination efforts.

“IDE’s thermal plants remain dramatically cheaper than anything that the rest of the world has to offer, although the market is limited because of access issues with the Arab world,” Gasson said. “IDE also continues to innovate in membrane desalination — besides continuing to drive the cost of water down, it has also made desalination greener through its chemical-free desalination system.”

One challenge to the Carlsbad project came from the Surfrider Foundation, which filed a lawsuit arguing that the project violated a California water code law that requires seawater-based operations to ensure optimal circumstances for minimizing damage to marine life. The 4th District Court of Appeal, however, ruled in favor of the project in November.

Gasson said that the new San Diego desalination plant shows a change in the status quo for California, which he says has been resistant to desalination efforts in the past. 

“Despite being the birthplace of membrane desalination, California seems to be terrified of the technology,” he said. “The fact that they are now having to turn to an Israeli company to supply something as basic as water suggests that America does need to look at the way it supports innovation.” 

Deluged day school, ruined Torahs and devastated communities left in Sandy’s wake

When Rabbi Avremel Okonov arrived Tuesday morning at the school he co-founded 10 years ago in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, the water in the basement had already receded from the high water mark. It only came up to his knees.

Everywhere he looked around his school, Mazel Academy, there was destruction. On the walls of the school’s lower level, which sits several feet below the street and just blocks from the Brooklyn waterfront, he could see the mark where the water level had risen. It was at head level.

Four pumps had run for several hours to rid Mazel Academy of water. On Wednesday, as the cleanup effort began to make headway, several puddles of water remained and the stench of seawater was inescapable. Hundreds of waterlogged prayerbooks were laid out on tables in the vestibule and piles of black trash bags lined the sidewalk filled with papers, books and other supplies destroyed by the surge of Hurricane Sandy.

But it was in the main sanctuary of an old synagogue now used by the school that the most poignant image was on display. Six Torah scrolls, stored during the storm in a safe on the lower level, were fully unrolled to dry, their parchment blotched and black lettering distorted by the floodwaters.

“We're drying them out,” said Okonov, the school's executive director. “But I'm looking closely — a lot of these pages, it's not reparable. This is just heartbreaking to look at.”

Across southern Brooklyn on Wednesday, residents took stock of the devastation wrought by the most destructive natural disaster in memory to hit New York. Downed trees blocked countless roads, and the sound of generators powering pumps could be heard on virtually every block in Brighton Beach as residents labored to dry out their basements.

Without electricity to power signal lights, traffic was perpetually snarled. And with temperatures predicted to drop with the sun, residents were bracing for another cold night without heat.

In the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, where the storm had left streets covered with sand and thick black muck, a lone worker shoveled water and debris from the entryway of Temple Beth-El. Across the street, an elderly rabbi who had taken shelter during the storm with a family member was discussing the cleanup with a contractor.

The cost of post-storm reconstruction in the region will take weeks to assess, but estimates suggest that the costs for the New York area will be in the tens of billions of dollars.

“We still didn't get through to our [insurance] broker,” Okonov said. “Our insurance papers are underwater. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

The storm known as Sandy took dead aim on Monday at some of the most populous regions of the country, home to tens of millions of people as well as the nation's largest Jewish communities. As the floodwaters rose from the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, dozens of Jewish communities were besieged.

With electricity and phone service still spotty in affected areas as the week wore on, it was difficult to fully gauge the storm's impact on local Jewish communities. Calls to Jewish agencies across the Northeast only occasionally went through — and even then, more often than not, were answered only by voicemail.

Jewish Federations of North America, which later this month is expected to host more than 3,000 people in Baltimore for its annual General Assembly, was shuttered, its headquarters in the flood zone in lower Manhattan. The umbrella group’s president, Jerry Silverman, was stuck overseas, unable to get a flight back to the New York area, and early in the week even emails to federation officials were coming back undeliverable.

Over in New Jersey, where the worst of the storm's impact was felt, some local federations were silent, too.

“We haven't been able to get through to a couple” of local federations, said Steven Woolf, who is helping coordinate the response for the Jewish Federations of North America. “Unfortunately, we don't have real accurate reports because of the evacuations and because people have not gone back to do actual surveys of the damage.”

On Tuesday, many Jewish organizations began responding in earnest. Several of the largest — including Jewish Federations of North America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and B'nai B'rith International — set up funds to help the victims. Others helped organize volunteers to aid in the relief effort.

But little could be done, at least in the short term, to alleviate the human loss and suffering caused by the storm.

“Lots and lots of seniors who didn't evacuate are stuck in the dark, with no refrigeration, no elevators, and no stores open anywhere within walking distance,” Lenny Gusel, a Russian Jewish activist who had visited Brighton Beach, wrote in an email early Wednesday morning. Gusel urged his fellow Russian Jews to come help, noting that some elderly residents couldn't easily leave their buildings without elevator service. (On Wednesday evening, Con Edison, the local power company, announced that it had restored power to the Brighton Beach area, though it noted that some buildings may still be without electricity due to flooding or storm damage.)

At Mazel Academy, Okonov tried to put on a brave face Wednesday, but the hurt was palpable. He helped start the academy 10 years ago with three students. Today, he has 140, drawn mostly from the ranks of secular Russian Jews that settled in Brighton Beach and surrounding areas. With the school growing rapidly, he had renovated the school's ground floor just last year.

Now, everything they had built was ruined.

“Everything is brand new,” Okonov said, gesturing toward the recently laid floors and new furniture, all of it waterlogged and beyond repair. “Here we go again.”

F.R.E.E. of Brighton Beach is located at 2915 Brighton 6th St., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11235. Click here to help with disaster relief.

The gift of water

On Sept. 2, I drove to the Valley, where it was 95 degrees. I pulled my car over onto the dirt shoulder of Woodley Avenue, walked down an embankment to the Los Angeles River, slipped a kayak into the cool, deep water,  and paddled away.

For most Angelenos, the L.A. River is a nonrunning joke, a glorified drainage ditch. Somehow, it’s easier to conceive of the Curiosity Rover landing on Mars, 154 million miles away, than of someone boating the L.A. River. 

What few know is that Los Angeles only exists because about 230 years ago, Spaniards settled along the lush banks of what the explorer Juan Crespi called a “good-sized, full-flowing river” that had supported Tongva Indian villages for millennia.

The city grew up around the river. Until the construction of the Owens River Aqueduct in 1910, it was the primary water source for Los Angeles. Once the city fathers deemed the river unnecessary and its seasonal flooding dangerous, they brought in the United States Army Corps of Engineers to entomb most of it in concrete.

That’s what I expected to see: concrete, garbage and sludge.

We put in about a mile south of Lake Balboa. We crossed beneath the Burbank Boulevard overpass and glided between banks green with narrow-leaf willows and sycamore trees. The water was cool and deep. Small fish darted beyond our paddles. White egrets and black grebes floated past. A blue heron landed in a thicket of poplar and watched us approach.

Only two years ago, a trip like mine would have been unimaginable. The first group in modern times to ride the 51-mile L.A. River did so illegally. A Venice writer named George Wolfe entered the river on kayaks with a dozen other trespassers on July 25, 2008, and spent the next three days following its course from its start in Canoga Park down to where it spills into the Long Beach harbor, near the Queen Mary. They evaded patrol officers, intransigent Army Corps officials, angry residents and police helicopters. 

Their feat was more than symbolic. By proving that the L.A. River was navigable, they ensured its federal protection under the Clean Water Act. The ultimate arbiter of the river’s fate became not the Army Corps, which had long forbade entry to it, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which became charged with seeing the river restored into a viable urban waterway.

That’s what brought me to the river. Wolfe’s group, L.A. River Expeditions, now legally runs kayak tours on a two-mile portion of the river that is not paved in concrete. 

Our group of 12 was led by volunteer guide Anthea Raymond and Dr. Joel Shapiro. 

“This is a river,” Shapiro, who was one of Wolfe’s original Gang of 12, said. “Just don’t drink the water.”

We passed some men fishing for carp. Imagine, Shapiro said, this river used to be full of steelhead trout.

Yes, times have changed. Plastic shopping bags fluttered in the trees. The water eddied and flowed past a tangle of rusted metal.  

“We call that Shopping Cart Island,” Raymond said.

Still, I couldn’t see the city through the dense trees and brush, or hear a single sound but the gurgling water.

Last week I went to the premiere screening of “Rock the Boat” a 90-minute documentary about the 2008 river expedition, made by Thea Lucia Mercouffer, who is married to Wolfe.

The movie is gutsy and spirited, more rock ’n’ roll than National Geographic. Mercouffer uses the outlaw river run to show how the future of Los Angeles is tied to the future of its river. 

Unlike most environmental docs, this one is ultimately uplifting — it’s what happens when a band of writers, poets and visionaries refuses to settle for reality.

“I had a crazy vision to go from beginning to end,” Wolfe told me. “That took my life in an unexpected direction.”

The vision worked. Thanks in part to Wolfe, and in no small part to poet and Friends of the L.A. River co-founder Lewis MacAdams and others, the powers that be, from the City of Los Angeles to the EPA to the Army Corps, are now sponsoring a multidecade master plan to revitalize the river and its habitat and turn it into a multiuse natural resource that will be good both for business development and for recreation.

In late August, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the L.A. River Access Bill (SB 1201), ensuring public access for recreation to the L.A. River.

“This will change the course of L.A.,” Omar Brownson, a real estate developer who is now the head of the L.A. River Revitalization Corp, told me. “It can be a river and a new infrastructure for economic development.” 

But it’s even more than that. 

“This,” activist and writer Jenny Price said at the screening, “is a massive act of reimagination.”

Two years ago, exactly zero people had kayaked down the L.A. River. This year, I was one of 2,000. Next year, you can sign up to do it — thousands more will. A restored river will connect Angelenos, rather than divide us. It will connect us to nature, to our heritage, to our families, to one another. Restoring the river will restore our very souls.

Think of it as a meaningful coincidence that the Clean Water Act — which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week — was signed in October, the same month that Jews around the world begin to recite Tefillat Geshem, the prayer for rain.

On the concluding day of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, we chant, “… O refuse not the gift of water.”

The L.A. River is just that, a gift of water we have already been given. Now we just have to relearn to receive it.

To arrange screenings of “Rock the Boat!” at your synagogue or group, visit To see the LA River Master Plan, visit  To sign up for river  trips with LA River Expeditions  click here.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Israeli water power that doesn’t give a dam

You don’t have to build dams to get hydroelectricity from water flowing through municipal pipes, says Dr. Daniel Farb, the Los Angeles immigrant who previously shook up the Israeli clean-tech power scene with his Leviathan Energy company’s award-winning Wind Tulip.

The ecologically conscious physician recently unveiled his latest brainchild, a turbine that turns excess pressure inside existing underground water pipes into energy for the electric grid.

The Negev-based Leviathan team is still fine-tuning the invention at its new testing site rented from Kibbutz Re’im. The Negev kibbutz’s Isralaser industry is fabricating many of the parts for the turbine, dubbed “Benkatina” in tribute to Second Temple High Priest Ben Katin, who made a machine to lower and raise the ancient Temple’s laver to and from the water table.

The modern version based on Farb’s vision was engineered by Avner Farkash, Leviathan’s vice president for research and development.


New, eco-friendly energy market

The Benkatina beta model already has been implemented in pilot areas by Israel’s national water carrier Mekorot as well as in the South Philippines. An Italian partner is lined up next, and Farb met recently with a power company in Mumbai that is interested in doing business.

He says that the invention is creating an international buzz because it opens a new energy market using existing infrastructure and even solves a problem in that infrastructure.

“Managers of water systems already know where there is excess pressure, and often they put pressure breakers in those locations to prevent leaks from forming. One of the great things about what we’re doing is that we are battling the water and energy shortage at the same time,” Farb said “An estimated $14 billion worth of water is wasted each year through leakage, and decreased pressure means decreased leaks.”

The company received a grant from the chief scientist of the Israeli Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor under the Eureka program to develop the technology, as well as a grant from the Ness Fund for business development in the Negev.

Farb is optimistic that thousands of potential installation sites in Israel could start adding several more megawatts of power to the seriously overtaxed electricity grid by next summer.

A smaller version of the Benkatina turbine could provide off-grid electricity in remote areas of the world in need of moderate amounts of power, as long as there are nearby water pipes. This would be more consistently reliable than either solar or wind energy, Farb said.

And if a proposed Dead Sea canal ever gets built, the Leviathan technology could play a role.

“I can foresee desalinated water coming from the Gulf of Eilat or from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea through pipes, and taking off some of the extra pressure in many points along the way to use for hydroelectricity,” Farb said.

Leviathan’s Benkatina turbine in use in the Philippines.

Radically different approach

The device is groundbreaking, according to Farb, because it is radically different from the way hydroelectric power has been accomplished for the last two centuries.

“In the past, they used a dam, used up all the pressure, worked in an environment of stable flow and used turbines that could be exposed to the air. In-pipe conditions are different, so there is no dam, which makes it more ecologically viable. Only the excess pressure is used so the integrity of the piping system can be maintained; the flow is variable; and it functions in a difficult, closed-system environment with splashing water,” he said.

The turbine would only be installed in parts of the piping known to have extra pressure. “We don’t want you to turn on the tap and have nothing come out,” Farb said.

He’s a firm believer in the need for a mix of wind, wave, water and solar energy alternatives.

“We’re in an energy crisis that will last at least 100 years, and we have to provide solutions in more than just one area,” he said. “Leviathan has provided a series of solutions that, when fully implemented with the right financial and bureaucratic support, can make a serious difference in the world we live in.”

The future of water in Los Angeles: What the Israeli experience can show us

Most people in Los Angeles don’t feel just how serious the city’s water predicament is.

After all, we are enjoying a respite right now; last year was a banner year for snow and rain. However, just three years ago we were battling a drought so severe that we had to have water rationing in Los Angeles. The anemic 2012 numbers for the Sierra Nevada snowpack (which provides most of our water) portend another shortage around the corner. 

Nearly 90 percent of our water comes from hundreds of miles away — the Owens Valley, the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta. All three of these sources are under pressure — imports from the Colorado River are capped, deliveries from the Delta are no longer fully dependable in view of the fragility of its ecosystem and the instability of its protective levies, and supplies from the Owens Valley have been significantly curtailed due to environmental obligations and an erratic snowpack. Steep price increases are projected for shipments from the Colorado and the Delta. We have to face the fact that the days of cheap, abundant imported water may be numbered. To compound matters, our sole indigenous resource of any consequence, our groundwater aquifer in the San Fernando Valley, which provides for around 10 percent of our consumption, is suffering from such contamination that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has had to close a substantial number of its wells.

Climate change will exacerbate the situation. Los Angeles is heavily dependent on the Sierra snowpack that feeds L.A.’s own aqueduct and the supply from the Sacramento Delta. The Sierra Nevada snowpack (effectively California’s largest surface-water reservoir) has already diminished by 10 percent since 1950 and will continue to shrink as more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. LADWP has projected that by 2050 a water shortage worse than the 1977 drought could occur in one out of every six to eight years.

We must act now to shape a better destiny for our city — one built to a greater extent on our homegrown water resources. This is not a new concept. Indeed, this is exactly what the 2008 Water Supply Plan, drafted during my tenure at LADWP and announced by L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, espouses. It is disheartening that four years after its release, its tenets still remain distant goals — the result of our failure as a city to garner the political will and gather the funding necessary to provide for our future. LADWP is currently attempting to obtain rate increases to finance the programs envisaged by the Water Supply Plan, such as wastewater recycling, rainfall capture, groundwater remediation and underground storage. Angelenos should support this effort.

In envisioning this road to a new water future, it may be helpful to study the experience of other countries that have made radical changes in their water portfolios. 

One such country is Israel. 

Israel has suffered a chronic water shortage for years. By the mid-1990s, a combination of unrelenting drought, population growth, urbanization (impeding the normal recharge of aquifers from rainfall) and man-made pollution led to the depletion and degradation of Israel’s natural water resources — Lake Kinneret and the country’s mountain and coastal aquifers. This crisis threatened the very adequacy of the country’s domestic water supply. As a result, Israel has embarked on a wide-ranging strategy that includes desalination, wastewater reclamation, conservation, infrastructure upgrade and rate reform strategies — all under the jurisdiction and leadership of Mekorot, the Israeli national water company. 

Israel has already begun to reap benefits from its water revolution, accomplishing the highest rate of wastewater reclamation in the world, an enviable conservation record and landmark advances in desalination processes. Mekorot has emerged as a world leader in water technologies and is today sharing its expertise and engaging in global business transactions. In effect, Israel’s actions to solve its water crisis have become exportable assets providing valuable know-how to others while also bringing revenues to Mekorot.

This is not to suggest that Israel and Los Angeles are in the same position; Israel’s water exigencies are certainly graver that any presently confronting Los Angeles, and Israel’s geopolitical and security situations place it under much greater pressures than we in Los Angeles can even begin to imagine. However, there are some intriguing parallels between Los Angeles and Israel. Both have a semiarid climate, and both face recurrent droughts and the uncertainties of climate change. Israel and Los Angeles also have similar policies for dealing with their respective water supply problems. 

However, there is at least one important distinction: Israel has staked its water future, to a large extent, on seawater desalination; Los Angeles has not, although desalination technologies are utilized in wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and other methodologies. As can be seen from the list below, ocean desalination is conspicuously missing from the L.A. Water Supply Plan as a strategy for obtaining a new water resource for the city. This is because, unlike Israel, Los Angeles has a long way to go in first attaining practical levels of wastewater recycling, conservation, rain capture and aquifer purification before it can justify desalinating the ocean (given the high monetary and environmental cost of this choice); Israel has already substantially exhausted these other options and has determined that it has no choice but to turn to the Mediterranean. It is reported that Israel will spend around $15 billion on its five new coastal desalination plants. Mekorot is regarded as peerless in terms of optimizing the design and operation of desalination plants to reduce cost, energy consumption and environmental impacts, but the fact remains that for us in Los Angeles, desalination is the most expensive of treatment technologies (especially compared to wastewater reclamation, aquifer remediation and conservation), the most energy intensive and the most problematic as far as environmental effects are concerned (considering the land area needed and marine life and brine disposal matters). It makes little sense for Los Angeles to pursue ocean desalination as a first-tier policy when it is recycling negligible amounts of its wastewater (see below). It would be illogical to clean our wastewater, dump it in the ocean, and then suck it back up and desalinate it; we need to reclaim and reuse that wastewater before it hits the ocean. Still, Israel’s advances are of tremendous benefit to us because these desalination technologies can be applied to other water purification methods beyond seawater desalination.

As a first step for Los Angeles, we need to recognize that our imported-water model (compounded by the advent of climate change) may simply not be sustainable as we seek a secure, affordable, adequate water supply for the Los Angeles of tomorrow. The 2008 Water Supply Plan already gives us the blueprint; we now need the leadership, and LADWP needs the funding, to implement it.

Let’s review the strategies for Los Angeles:

Conservation. Los Angeles has done extremely well; our population has grown by more than a million people over the last 25 years, and yet our water consumption has actually declined. Our per capita use is now less than 120 gallons a day, the lowest of any American city with a population of more than a million people. During my tenure at LADWP, we were able to dramatically reduce water consumption levels using the combination of a public outreach campaign, the enactment of the Water Conservation Ordinance (together with the deployment of the Water Conservation Team to enforce it), a rate regime to send a potent conservation signal, and a panoply of rebates and incentives to encourage behavior change. The positive results of those steps are still with us today. But, we can do better. We may be able to boast a low consumption rate in contrast to other American cities, but not in relation to other parts of the world. As a point of comparison, the per capita daily consumption number for Israelis is around 70 gallons. This is partly because a water conservation ethos is taught to Israelis from a very young age, an example we are now emulating in Los Angeles. Let’s remember also that around 40 percent of the water used in Los Angeles is outside the home — those ubiquitous sprinklers quenching the relentless thirst of lawns. By installing California landscaping and drip irrigation, a great deal of water can be saved.     

Infrastructure. Our pipelines are deteriorating, and current replacement and repair programs aren’t keeping pace. Across the United States, there are more than 240,000 water-main breaks annually (650 per day). It is estimated that this translates to wasting 7 billion gallons per day. Around 20 percent of LADWP’s pipelines are more than 100 years old. Strengthening LADWP’s repair and replacement program will protect the integrity of the system and provide a new source of water.

New building standards. We have made great strides in Los Angeles with our fixtures ordinance, which requires water-saving appliances to be incorporated in new development; the Low Impact Development Ordinance; the Green Building Ordinance; and other measures. Much more can be done by way of legal mandates, especially with respect to gray-water systems, cisterns, metering and other design features to conserve water. 

Wastewater recycling. This has to be a crucial element of any program to produce new water. In Los Angeles, we’ve spent billions of dollars building state-of-the-art plants to treat our wastewater to a high degree (secondary and tertiary levels), only to throw it away in the ocean. Other jurisdictions have long discovered that wastewater is an asset and have devised ways to reclaim it safely and affordably. Israel now reclaims almost 80 percent of its wastewater for irrigation and industrial uses. In Los Angeles itself, our rate is a paltry 2 percent. LADWP plans a substantial expansion of reuse projects for both nonpotable and potable applications. 

Rainfall capture. It is estimated that 60 percent of the rain that falls on Los Angeles is wasted. It hits impervious surfaces (roads, roofs, parking lots) and runs untreated to the ocean through an extensive storm drain system, only to foul the coast. This is both a water quantity and water quality problem. It is a central paradox of our city that in exactly this place so dependent on imported water we treat our own rainfall like some evil force to be gotten rid of as quickly as possible. We have to learn to build differently so that we don’t continually add impermeable areas. Here, our Low Impact Development Ordinance and other regulatory mandates are steps in the right direction. Israel, too, has to address the issue of lost rain as a result of urbanization that precludes the natural seepage of rain to recharge groundwater. Mekorot builds and operates catchments for the retention of rain. One example is the facility at the Shikma River, south of the City of Ashkelon, which can store up to 6 million cubic meters (nearly 5,000 acre feet) of rainwater.

Aquifer remediation. Roughly 10 percent of our water comes from our own aquifer in the San Fernando Valley. It’s a tragedy that this irreplaceable resource is suffering from contamination from human activities, which continues to spread. To its credit, LADWP has decided to execute a plan to save this basin. Israel is likewise no stranger to the qualitative deterioration of groundwater resources (as a result of over-extraction, seawater intrusion and anthropogenic pollution) and to the means that can be employed to redress these problems. In Israel, contamination caused by human activity menacing the coastal aquifer includes nitrates (probably from fertilizers), fuel (from leaks at oil refineries), volatile organic compounds (from industrial activities) and perchlorate, a rocket fuel. Pollution from pesticides and fertilizers has also posed a threat to the health of Lake Kinneret. 

Underground storage. As the effects of climate change become more pronounced, it is foreseeable that long dry spells will follow periods of heavy precipitation, that the Sierras will receive more rain than snow, and that the pattern and timing of snowmelt will change. This all points to the need to store water underground during the times of plenty for use in the lean years. Storing underground avoids losses due to evaporation and contamination resulting from aerial deposition.

The foregoing, then, is the roadmap for providing a degree of water security for Los Angeles as we contemplate a future in which our imported water sources won’t expand and may well contract as climate change takes hold and other factors play out.

The problem, of course, is to find the funding necessary for these programs. Achieving a rate increase in Los Angeles is a very political, public, often contentious exercise. Rate revisions require a broad-based, painstaking, time-consuming campaign — a dialogue with every segment of society, including business, labor, environmental, neighborhood and faith-based groups — so that these stakeholders will take ownership of the issue and, in turn, pressure the decision-makers to do what is necessary. Further, it’s not just the rate increase that needs to be explained and defended, but also the rate design because we must ensure that the burden of the rate hikes won’t fall on those least able to bear them. LADWP is going through this process right now and the L.A. City Council is scheduled to consider the requested rate additions in August.

In 2010, Israelis acceded to a number of rate increases, starting with a whopping 25 percent hike in January 2010 (with subsequent additional raises) to support construction of desalination plants. This was a difficult, divisive process in Israel, but most Israelis were convinced of the need for the increases. Our water officials in Los Angeles must gain the trust of Angelenos; I firmly believe that if our rate-payers have confidence in the truth of the reasons being offered for rate increases, they will support them, even in harsh economic times. Otherwise, we will be courting a water crisis.

H. David Nahai is a consultant and attorney specializing in water, energy and real estate matters. He is the former general manager and commission president of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, chair of the Regional Water Quality Control Board and senior adviser to the Clinton Climate Initiative.

U.S. official stumping Middle East on water issues

A top U.S. official is traveling to Israel, Jordan and Egypt to promote cooperation in the use and sharing of water.

The visit this week by Maria Otero, the undersecretary for democracy and global affairs, “will underscore the need to elevate our diplomatic efforts surrounding water; harness the power of science and technology; leverage the full range of relationships; and build capacity at local, national and regional levels,” a State Department statement said.

It said Otero “will meet with government officials and non-governmental organizations about a wide range of science, technology, and policy-based solutions that address water challenges confronting the region.”

Otero will also discuss human rights and refugee-related issues.

The very best Tashlich custom is a toss-up

On paper, the Rosh Hashanah ritual of Tashlich is about doffing one’s sins to start the new year with a clean slate. For Jason Mauro, 16, it’s also about beach football.

Every year since he was 8, Mauro and his friends at Temple Israel of Hollywood have marked the afternoon ceremony, which the synagogue holds at a beach in Santa Monica, with a sand-logged scrimmage.

“It’s a routine now,” said Mauro of Studio City. “We bring a couple of footballs and give some to the younger kids. The games used to be kids vs. parents, but since we’ve gotten bigger and stronger, they kind of back off.”

Family ball games, picnics and drum circles are revitalizing Tashlich as a booming social event, local rabbis say. Built on the traditional casting of sins — often symbolized by breadcrumbs, rocks or lint — into the ocean, the ritual now draws throngs of participants eager to celebrate community, revel in the great outdoors and cut loose.

“People are really gung-ho about Tashlich,” said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood. “After spending the morning in synagogue, they get to take off their stockings and shoes and suits and ties and dresses and put on shorts and T-shirts and bathing suits and sun block. They take picnics and blankets, and we all meet at the beach.”

Maybe that’s why the ceremony, which Missaghieh brought to the Reform congregation when she joined its staff 13 years ago, has been steadily gaining in popularity. Starting with about 100 participants the first year, Temple Israel’s Tashlich event now draws a gathering so large — more than 450 people, Missaghieh said — that they have to obtain a permit from the city of Santa Monica to accommodate the crowd. The city also assigns lifeguards to watch over the waterside festivities.

“It’s a great service for people with families,” said Temple Israel member Bruce Miller, who has taken part in Tashlich for the past six years with his wife, Tracy, and their three young children. “You’re not sitting in one place in a big room where you have to be quiet and sit still. Three-year-olds don’t do that so well. Here, they can run around. Tashlich is more connected to things kids can relate to.”

Miller, a television writer based in Hancock Park, also enjoys the chance to experience Judaism amid nature’s majesty.

“It’s wonderful to hear the shofar outside at the beach,” he said. “Near the water, under the sky, it seems more spiritually relevant to what the holiday is about.”

A few blocks south on Venice Beach, Nashuva encourages Jews of all ages — including total strangers catching rays nearby — to tap into their spiritual sides by taking part in a drum circle. With more than 1,000 participants, Rabbi Naomi Levy said she’s been told Nashuva’s Tashlich ritual is the largest Jewish drum circle in the world.

“We’ve been doing this for four years, and it’s been growing exponentially,” Levy said. “We blow the shofar at the beach as a call for all Jews to come. You’d be surprised how many times we get an Israeli jogger passing by, or a couple of sunbathers who happen to be Jewish. You see people coming from all different parts to join in.”

Members of the Nashuva community, which during the rest of the year holds Friday night Shabbat services at Brentwood Presbyterian Church the first week of each month, gathers for Tashlich at the beach off Venice Boulevard at 4:30 p.m. on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Organizers hand out percussion instruments, but attendees are also urged to bring their own. Drums, tambourines and even spoons are welcomed.

The first time Brentwood resident Carol Taubman took part in Nashuva’s Tashlich ceremony in 2004, “it took my breath away,” she recalled. “There were so many people, all dressed in white, and this fabulous drumming circle. There was a great sense of community, and it was very powerful.”

Taubman has attended Tashlich ever since, drawn back by the inclusive spirit of the event.

“It’s such a welcoming experience,” she said. “Some people can be intimidated by all the prayers at a synagogue service, but anybody can hit a drum or bang two spoons together. It’s like sharing a communal language.”

But the point of Tashlich — to cleanse oneself of the past year’s sins — shouldn’t be undermined by the ritual’s festive atmosphere or the ease of tossing breadcrumbs into the ocean, said Rabbi Dan Shevitz of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice.

“The notion that we can dispose of our sins in such a casual manner is problematic,” said Shevitz, whose Conservative beachfront service gathers 200 to 400 people each year. “You can’t just empty your pockets and be rid of your sins. It takes more work than that.”

Shevitz has put together a reading reflecting the idea that sins can never be truly cast off, but they can be “purified, as we treat sewage.”

The ceremony, which Mishkon Tephilo has done for decades, attracts more and more congregants each year, he said. “It’s as much a social occasion as a liturgical one. It’s a refreshing alternative to the sobriety of the morning service.”

Further inland, Encino-based Valley Beth Shalom has seen a spike in Tashlich attendance for the same reason. The Conservative congregation has been holding a ceremony on the second day of Rosh Hashanah for the past 10 years at Encino’s Lake Balboa.

“Tashlich is amazingly popular,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom. “The sunshine is wonderful, we’re out in the fresh air, and we can begin to smell the autumn coming. It’s really joyful.”

This year, Valley Beth Shalom will partner with Valley Village congregation Adat Ari El for a joint Tashlich service. Feinstein is expecting a crowd of about 250 at the lakeside park, which Los Angeles park rangers keep open an extra hour for the ceremony.

An added bonus of holding Tashlich at the site, Feinstein noted, is that the bits of challah thrown into the water end up feeding the ducks that live on the lake grounds.

Temple Israel of Hollywood chooses to forgo traditional breadcrumbs for a more novel approach to the purging of sins, Rabbi Missaghieh said. As soon as the crowd gathers at 4 p.m. on the first day of the holiday, all the children begin building a wall of sand along the shore. After songs and readings, participants consider an area of their lives they want to improve in the new year, then inscribe their thoughts by hand into the wall. The waves eventually wash the sand away, carrying congregants’ written confessions out to sea.

“I think there’s something very magical about it,” Missaghieh said. “You spend the whole morning thinking about God, talking to God. But then you actually go out into nature and feel the grandness of God’s creation on the day of creation. It’s a very visceral moment; not just your mind, but your whole body is experiencing the rebirth of the world.”

The Dead Sea is dying and it’s a ‘man-made disaster’

EIN GEDI, Israel (JTA)—The beach at the Ein Gedi Spa at the Dead Sea would seem like an ideal place for a little R&R amid the frenzy of modern Israel.

Set in the quiet of the desert, it has stunning views of Jordan’s mountains and its therapeutic waters reputedly do wonders for the complexion.

There’s only one problem at this beach: The sea is gone.

In its place are empty lifeguard towers and abandoned beach umbrellas lodged in the parched earth that make a mockery of the Dead Sea’s quiet retreat.

The sea actually still exists, but it’s smaller, shallower and much more distant than it once was—some 160 feet from the original beach built at Ein Gedi. The Dead Sea is shrinking because nearly every source of water that feeds into this iconic tourist destination has been cut off, diverted or polluted over the last half century.

“This is a completely man-made disaster,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an international environmental group. “There is nothing natural about this.”

A tram now shuttles visitors from the abandoned beach at Ein Gedi to the new beach, which sits at more than 1,300 feet below sea level. Thirty years ago this beach was submerged under water. In 10 years it likely will be dry, too, and the visitors’ ramp again will have to be extended to reach the sea.

By 2025, the sea is expected to be at 1,440 feet below sea level.

The shrinking of the Dead Sea has become an issue of grave concern for environmentalists, industries that produce Dead Sea-related products and Israel’s tourism sector, which worries that the visitors who come here from all over the world will disappear along with the sea.

To environmentalists, the shrinking of the sea is an environmental disaster that left unchecked could devastate the region in the coming decades.

The sea’s retreat already has spawned thousands of dangerous sinkholes. Created by retreating groundwater washing away salt deposits that had supported a surface layer of sand, the sinkholes have decimated beaches, nature reserves and agricultural fields in the area.

Future development along the northern rim of the sea has been suspended indefinitely, and the sinkholes have taken a toll on the area’s roads. Route 90, the Israeli highway that runs north-south along the Dead Sea’s western shore, has had to be rebuilt several times because of sinkholes opening up in its path.

In the meantime, the shifting groundwater has wreaked havoc with the natural oases and springs near the sea. Some natural habitats have been destroyed, and with them the feeding grounds of indigenous wildlife. Ornithologists say the annual migration of birds to this area—the third-largest migration in the world—has begun to taper off.

Perhaps most significantly for the people who live in the region, the economic consequences of the sea’s retreat have been staggering for agriculture and tourism.

“This has cost us more than $25 million since 1995, when the sinkholes started opening up,” Merav Ayalon, a spokeswoman for Kibbutz Ein Gedi, the largest Israeli town at the Dead Sea, said.

The kibbutz has had to close its resort village—though it still operates guest houses—abandon its groves of date palms and forego any expansion plans because it is virtually locked in now by mountains or unsafe, shifting ground.

Farther south, at the cluster of hotels on the Israeli side of the sea, hotels built decades ago along the Dead Sea’s shores have preserved their beaches only thanks to an artificial pool of sea water. The pool, which is connected to the Dead Sea, is maintained by Dead Sea Works, the massive mineral extraction plant whose operations have accelerated the sea’s disappearance through wholesale evaporation of water.

If not for the artificial pool, the hotels would be in the desert, since the southern portion of the Dead Sea no longer exists. Though visitors cannot tell that the hotels’ beaches are artificially maintained, hoteliers say they fear potential tourists are deterred from coming to the region because they think the sea’s retreat has left the hotels high and dry.

“Tourists from abroad don’t know exactly where the sea is located and where the sinkholes are, so they don’t come as much anymore,” said Avi Levy, who used to be the general manager of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea but now works at the franchise’s hotel in Tel Aviv. “Also, I think, there is antagonism that we are allowing such a valuable site as the Dead Sea to be destroyed.”

Agricultural industries in Israel, Jordan and Syria siphon water from the rivers that used to feed into the Dead Sea, diverting the water flow for agricultural use. This, along with the dumping of sewage by these countries and the Palestinian Authority, has turned the Jordan River, the sea’s main tributary, from the voluminous flow described in the Bible to a muddy, polluted dribble that doesn’t even reach the Dead Sea anymore during the summer months.

In addition, companies like Dead Sea Works are removing water from the sea at a rate of about 150 million cubic meters per year to get at the lucrative minerals beneath the water. The minerals are used to produce chemical products for export such as potash and magnesium chloride.

Potash can be used to make glass, soap and fertilizer, and magnesium chloride can be used in the manufacture of foodstuffs and roadway deicing products.

The work of these companies has turned what once was the southern portion of the sea into a massive industrial site.

At the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, about 1.4 billion cubic meters of water per year flowed into the Dead Sea. That total has shrunk to 100 million cubic meters, much of it polluted. Today the only fresh water the sea gets is from underground springs and rainwater. With inadequate fresh water, the sea has become more salty and oleaginous.

Scientists estimate that the Dead Sea needs at least 650 million cubic meters of water per year in order to stabilize over the next two decades.

Short of a major change in water-use policy, which environmentalists say is imperative, the Dead Sea will continue to shrink at its current rate of 3.2 to 3.5 feet per year until it reaches an equilibrium in 100 to 200 years at some 1,800 feet below sea level, experts say.

There are two main ideas for stabilizing the Dead Sea.

Environmentalists want to restore flow to the sea from the Jordan River. But that would require a sharp reduction in the use of Jordan River water for agricultural and domestic consumption, as well as cooperation between the Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians. At this point, neither seems likely.

The other idea is to construct a canal to bring salt water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, some 125 miles to the south. Championed by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli real estate magnate Isaac Tshuva, among others, this plan envisions the construction of up to 200,000 new hotel rooms and the transformation of the desert along the channel’s route into an Israeli-Jordanian “peace valley.”

Notwithstanding the enormous financial costs of such an enterprise—$3 billion to $5 billion—scientists say bringing salt water to a sea that heretofore has been fed only by fresh water has unknown risks.

“A decision like this cannot be made without checking the ecological impact on the environment,” said Noam Goldstein, project manager at Dead Sea Works, which has made a fortune extracting minerals like potash, table salt and bromide from the Dead Sea. “It’s possible that with a canal the sea will turn brown or red. It’s possible it will stink because of the introduction of new chemical and biological substances into the water.”

The World Bank is conducting a $14 million study into the practicalities of the channel, dubbed the Red-to-Dead Canal.

For the time being, no solution to the problem of the Dead Sea has moved beyond the review stage. Meanwhile, with the Holy Land facing its worst drought in 80 years, the sea continues to disappear.

Good Morning America visited the Dead Sea in 2006


Red-Dead canal idea stirs controversy

HERZLIYA, Israel (JTA) – On aerial photographs, the shrinking Dead Sea juts into the surrounding desert landscape like a blue index finger.

As part of the effort to prevent this finger from becoming a mere smudge on the map by 2050, the World Bank is conducting a $14 million study into the practicalities of building a channel to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which is shrinking rapidly due to evaporation and upstream water diversion.

Proponents say the plan could rescue the Dead Sea while supplying desalinated water and hydroelectric power to the region.

“We will have to balance the technological, environmental and economic issues at the heart of this complex study,” Peter Darley, the team leader of the feasibility part of the World Bank study, said at a public hearing last week in Herzliya.

Similar public hearings were held earlier in the week in Amman, Jordan, and the West Bank city of Ramallah.

The governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, all of which stand to benefit from such a project, had asked the World Bank to fund and oversee the study on the implications of building a 112-mile long conveyance system—either a canal or pipeline—to bring the water to the Dead Sea.

The idea has come under intense fire from Israeli environmentalists and water experts, who argue that more time than the year currently allotted needs to be devoted to studying the possible scientific consequences of the project.

They cite the potential environmental damages the project could cause, whether it be to the fragile coral reefs of the Red Sea or the unique Dead Sea ecosystem. They say alternatives must be studied in tandem by independent-minded international consultants—not representatives of the three governments involved, as is currently proposed.

“It’s like asking a cat to guard a bowl of milk,” said Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Bromberg and other critics of the canal plan charge that the Israeli, Jordanian and P.A. governments are interested in the canal solution because the international community might foot the bill for it as a massive desalinization or peace project.

Alex McPhail, the program manager at the World Bank who is overseeing the overall study of the project, says the bank is being methodical and scientific in its approach. He noted that the World Bank’s approach consists of three parts: a feasibility study, an environmental impact study and a report on alternative solutions.

“It’s an environmental question mark and that’s why we are doing these studies,” McPhail said. “It’s very important that we examine and understand all the potential environmental implications.”

Proponents of the canal project argue that the project could be a one-stop solution for replenishing the waters of the Dead Sea, generating energy, and providing drinking and agricultural water for Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

The project also is being touted as a rare symbol of regional cooperation.

“There is an interest internationally in saving the Dead Sea and this could also help bring water to the region that badly needs it,” said Uri Schor, a spokesman for the Israeli Water Authority.

Addressing environmentalists’ concerns, he added, “That is why everything is being checked out first.”

“We need to check all the options. If the project is deemed unsuitable, then we won’t do it. But if there are no problems found, then why shouldn’t we pursue it?”

Some developers see the project dubbed the Red-Dead Canal as a potential boon.

Isaac Tshuva, the Israeli real estate magnate, has answered President Shimon Peres’ vision for a so-called Peace Valley to be built along the canal—a corridor of shimmering skyscrapers, casinos, man-made lakes and 200,000 hotel rooms. That’s more hotels rooms than currently exist in all of Israel. The vision is for a new tourist and industrial mecca that planners hope would draw as many as 3 million Israelis to live in the region.

The project, whose scale would be unprecedented in Israel, has been described as Las Vegas meets Dubai in the Arava Desert.

Its detractors roundly condemn it as an environmental nightmare.

In 2007, when Peres was Israel’s minister in charge of Negev and Galilee development, a government decision declared the Peace Valley project and the canal as national projects.

At the time, some environmentalists warned that political and business interests were being mixed too closely at the potential expense of the environment.

Baruch Spiegel, Peres’ adviser for regional affairs, rejects any such notions.

The government made its decision to prioritize the project because of Israel’s water crisis and the shrinking of the Dead Sea, he told JTA. The Dead Sea’s water levels are dropping by about 3.2 to 3.5 feet per year.

“This is a major vision of the president of Israel—to use water and energy as a catalyst for peace and stability,” Spiegel said, emphasizing that environmental concerns will come first and any development that follows will have to adhere to strict guidelines.

“All options are being examined very carefully,” he said. “But without a project, things will get worse.”

Some Israeli and Arab environmentalists say the Jordan River, historically the main source for the Dead Sea’s water, should be rehabilitated rather than undertaking such a complex and expensive project as the canal. They also suggest reforms in the chemical industries on both sides of the sea, which are blamed for contributing to the Dead Sea’s dwindling water levels.

Among the environmentalists’ main concerns is that mixing Dead Sea and Red Sea water could damage the Dead Sea’s unique ecosystem, leading to growth of algae that could change the color and buoyancy of the water. That would also damage the tourism industry that has sprung up around the Dead Sea in both Israel and Jordan.

Others note that if the salty marine water from a canal or pipeline were to leak, it could seep into the ground water and contaminate local aquifers. There are also concerns that the coral reefs of the Red Sea could be harmed by the pumping out of so much of its water.

“I’m worried,” Yehoshua Shkedi, chief scientist of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said at last week’s hearing in Herzliya. “I have a feeling not enough money or time is being given to research to answer major questions. Good studies have to be done.”

For Gundi Shahal, a member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which sits near the banks of the Dead Sea, the questions about the canal plan are not just academic.

“Who will take responsibility for the impact on our lives, livelihoods and what we call home?” she asked at last week’s hearing.

Save the Dead Sea by restoring the Jordan River, not a canal to the Red Sea

TEL AVIV (JTA)—Environmentalists in Israel and the Middle East have a clear vision on how to save the Dead Sea, which has been losing 850 million cubic meters per year thanks to water diversion upstream and mineral extraction at the sea.

This vision sees fresh water flowing again into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River, arresting the sea’s declining water levels. It envisions Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities that live along the Jordan River benefiting collectively from a revitalized economy based on shared water and sustainable tourism, including Christian pilgrimages to holy sites on the rehabilitated river.

This vision, however, could not be more different from that of the World Bank, Israeli President Shimon Peres or Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva.

Their solution is to build a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which they say also will counter water scarcity in the region and bolster peace ties. Along the route of the canal, in the Arava Valley, Peres and Tshuva have proposed building artificial lakes, casinos, Dubai-style skyscrapers and 200,000 hotel rooms.

Ignoring the environmental impact of their plan is a grave mistake.

The Red-to-Dead canal plan places the fragile coral reefs of the Jordanian city of Akaba and the Israeli city of Eilat at risk. Pumping 2 billion cubic meters of water out of the Red Sea could alter water temperatures in the Red Sea Gulf.

Transporting seawater in a pipeline or open canal through the Arava Valley, an area where earthquakes regularly occur, likely would lead to spills and the salinization of groundwater. And the development ideas Peres and Tshuva harbor for the route of the canal would transform the unique desert landscape of the rift valley in the Arava into a Las Vegas-type strip mall.

The canal plan jeopardizes the Dead Sea as well. Scientists are now vocal in their concerns that mixing sea water with the unique minerals of the Dead Sea could lead to the growth of algae and turn the Dead Sea’s waters from deep blue to reddish brown.

By contrast, rehabilitating the Jordan River would strengthen existing but all-but-forgotten Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley by bringing an influx of tourists and investment to the struggling region. New infrastructure would have to be built to accommodate the tourists, helping revitalize a region that is home to 350,000 people.

Rehabilitating the river would not require restoring its historical flow of 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. We can make do with just a quarter of that, 350 million.

To do so, however, we have to stop drawing so much water out of the Jordan’s tributaries, including Lake Kinneret.

How? Studies show that Israel could reduce domestic water consumption by 30 percent by promoting a combination of policy directives, from education for water conservation to pricing reforms. Rainwater harvesting, waterless toilets and low-water-use appliances need to be supported by legislation and grants. Domestic water measures would save some 200 million cubic meters of water per year.

The balance would have to come from reforms in the agriculture sector, which consumes about 500 million cubic meters of fresh water per year. Water authorities and environmentalists already agree that Israeli agriculture should be based solely on recycling treated sewage water. But while the water authorities want the savings to go toward satisfying increased urban demand for water, environmentalists want to see the saved water returned to nature, including the Jordan River.

The vision of Friends of the Earth Middle East is to decouple population and economic growth from increased freshwater demand. Our region, not Europe, should be the model for ingenuity in water conservation.

As for the Dead Sea, we believe the sea’s water level should be stabilized, not restored to its historical levels, last seen around 1930. Some 850 million cubic meters of water would be needed per year for stabilization.

If the aforementioned water reforms are applied in Israel and Jordan, a revived Jordan River could supply 500 million cubic meters of that, solving 60 percent of the problem. The 350 million balance must come from the mineral extraction companies at the Dead Sea, which are responsible for 40 percent of the water that leaves the Dead Sea every year.

It’s time that the Israeli and Jordanian publics demand that the enormous profits being earned by these companies—Dead Sea Works in Israel and the Arab Potash Company in Jordan—be invested in new technology to extract minerals without evaporating so much Dead Sea water.

The demise of the Dead Sea is man-made. Environmentalists should not be condemned for insisting on looking at the causes of the demise: upstream water diversion and mineral extraction.

Our vision is based on water sharing, water conservation technologies, sustainable agriculture and sustainable tourism. The Peres-Tshuva-World Bank vision may lead to ecological disaster.

Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East,, a regional environmental organization that brings Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians to work together in a common effort in search of peace and sustainability.

The River Jordan’s survival is at stake as pollution peril grows

Standing at Israel’s Alumot Dam, a 30-minute walk south from the Sea of Galilee, it’s a typical midwinter day: deep blue sky, birds everywhere and a brisk breeze that carries a nauseating stench. Reduced to a thin stream by this point, the Jordan River stops. A few feet south of the dam, untreated sewage gushes directly into the riverbed.

In 1948, the lower Jordan carried 1.3 billion cubic meters of fresh water. Today, it’s less than 10 percent of that — and it’s hardly fresh. About half of what’s left comes from small tributaries, springs and Syria’s Yarmouk River. The other half is runoff from farms, diverted saline water and raw sewage.

The blame lies on all sides. Israel reroutes 60 percent of the Galilee’s water for its farms and kitchens; Jordan maintains a major canal that diverts from the Yarmouk; upstream, Syria has more than 40 dams. Jordanian septic tanks allow untreated sewage to seep into the water basin, while Israel turns a blind eye to local authorities’ direct dumping of waste.

It’s all aggravated by decades of war. Most of the valley is a closed military zone along both banks, its misery effectively concealed, and in spite of the long-standing Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, both countries find it hard to cooperate while conflict remains between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.

Such deterioration would be alarming anywhere, but there’s something particularly disturbing in a place that resonates so profoundly in human culture. As Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) exclaimed: “Half of humanity sees this river as holy!”

The Tanakh and Christian scriptures often reference the valley. In Deuteronomy, Moses is shown the Promised Land from the eastern side before he dies and is buried there; the New Testament describes Jesus’ baptism in the river. Both books are also revered by the world’s billion Muslims.

“The Jordan is one of the few wild rivers left in Israel,” commented Los Angeles-based Rabbi Michael Comins, author of “A Wild Faith” (Jewish Lights Publishing, due out in April). “It’s no coincidence that the Torah was given in the wilderness, that the Prophets heard God in the wilderness and that we do, too.”

Yet, if visitors of any stripe were to enter this wild river’s lower reaches, Bromberg said, “[they’d] be likely to come out with a rash.”

FoEME is fighting to reverse the downward spiral. A tri-national nonprofit, with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian directors, FoEME is a rarity: a joint Arab-Israeli body acting to address vital shared concerns.

Both Nader Khateeb and Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Palestinian and Jordanian directors, say they’re mindful of those who oppose cooperation before a resolution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that they’re equally aware that time is short.

“The ecosystem is so small, any action effects the others,” Mehyar said. “You can’t say that you won’t talk to the other side — you’re hurting yourself.”

“Ironically,” said Mira Edelstein, Israeli coordinator of FoEME’s river rehabilitation project, “the cooperation on polluting the Jordan has been fantastic.”

Meandering about 125 miles south along Earth’s lowest point, the lower Jordan represents the meeting point of all three peoples and the ecological intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. Approximately 500,000 birds migrate through the valley annually, and many flora and fauna find their northern and southern limits here. Early humans emerging from Africa moved through the valley, and just outside biblical Jericho, archeologists have found evidence of humanity’s first farms.

In the eyes of FoEME’s activists, the valley’s unique environmental characteristics and central role in history make its survival an issue that reaches beyond the region. “We’re losing it,” Khateeb said. “And it’s not important only for us, it’s very important for the whole world. We want to see it on the world agenda.”

In order to grab international and local attention alike, FoEME has initiated a number of creative projects, but the obstacles these often face demonstrate the expected complications of Middle Eastern life. An ambitious journey down the entire lower river valley was planned for November, for instance, but had to be drastically curtailed when the IDF limited it to the last mile and a half of clean water before Alumot.

Ultimately what FoEME proposes is a limited restoration of the river: controlled access, sustainable management plans, providing farmers with recycled water and returning fresh water to its source. “Nature is a legitimate consumer,” Edelstein said. “It’s not wasting the water to let it run down the river.”

At minimum, Bromberg believes, the Jordan needs at least 300 million cubic meters of clean water. “Without it,” he said, “the river will no longer live.”

Though reclamation can seem prohibitively complex, in California, Inyo County and the city of Los Angeles recently witnessed a successful restoration that highlights the possibilities. Sixty-two dry miles of the Owens River — arguably in worse shape than the Jordan — now flow again after nearly a century of its water being diverted to Los Angeles.

“It’s expensive, and it’s hard,” Edelstein conceded, “but we have to do it, if we want to build a sustainable life here.”

Comins agreed, saying, “When I go to Israel, I don’t want to see a plaque that says ‘The Jordan River once flowed here.’ I want to see it as David and Amos did.”

As with all things in this part of the world, much depends on the grinding of diplomatic wheels. Acknowledging this uncertainty, the leaders of FoEME maintain a certain white-knuckle optimism.

“Conflict actually increases our strength,” Mehyar said, “because we can see the foolishness of it.”

“In our area you cannot give up,” Khateeb said. “Because if you give up, you’re finished.”

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer who has been covering the Middle East since the early 1990s.

Water and pumpkins mark eco-friendly Sukkot

During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue’s sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of … tap water.
“Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?” congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.

This activity is a set up. It’s modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”), an Orthodox environmental organization, it’s designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.

“At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn’t rain, there wasn’t food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don’t think about it because we live so far from the land,” said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.

In Los Angeles, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that “people will take an interest in this important endeavor.”
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth’s bounty but also of the earth itself — and to take action to repair it.
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom’s Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. “We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related,” Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
“The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment’s dependence on us,” said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the “Yaakov Lantern.” It’s a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o’-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the “ushpizim,” the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the “ancestral spirits” and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
“It’s hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached,” said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered “ner tamid” (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, “What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global ‘scorching?'”
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
“I’m hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ energy use,” Waskow said.
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah,” a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
“Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah,” she said.
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
“I coined the phrase ‘energy observant,'” said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August — billed as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?” — which will culminate at Chanukah.

USC Trojans march for restored Torah; Backyard tashlich in Fairfax

Trojans Greet Restored Torah
When the Trojan fight song rings out at a Torah restoration ceremony, where else could you be but at USC?

About 100 people gathered Sunday under the shade of sycamore trees in front of the university’s Bovard Auditorium to witness the ceremonial completion of a restored Torah scroll that will become the centerpiece of religious life at the Chabad Jewish Student Center.
“It’s an honor just to be here,” said Kaley Zeitouni, a sophomore. “I really feel like I’m witnessing an important moment in this community’s Jewish history. Every time I see the scroll at services I’ll remember that I was part of this event.”
Rabbi Aaron Schaffier, one of two Torah scribes involved in the scroll’s restoration, said the scroll is between 70 and 80 years old and probably originated in Eastern Europe. Its long journey to USC included a layover in Massachusetts, where it was used for several decades at a synagogue that has now merged with other congregations.
The ceremony was particularly moving for Abe Skaletzky, who was visiting his daughter, Michele, another sophomore at USC.
“I’m a ba’al teshuvah,” Skaletzky said. “So knowing this scroll might help other people return to Torah means a lot to me.”
After the last details of the restoration were complete, Schaffier stitched the scroll to its wooden dowels with kosher sinew. Rabbi Dov Wagner carried the Torah from Bovard Auditorium to the Chabad House under a chuppah to symbolize the scroll’s new life.
And that’s when seven members of USC’s marching band brought the moment to life. They began the procession with a rendition of the Trojan fight song, prompting students in the crowd to hold up the two-finger sign for victory.
During its installation at the Chabad House, the scroll was dedicated to the late Sandra Brand, a Holocaust survivor who established a fund to support the restoration of Torah scrolls to be donated to college communities.
— Nick Street, Contributing Writer
Backyard Tashlich in Fairfax
For a few years on Rosh Hashanah — until the raccoons ate all the fish and the fishpond was turned into a giant planter — members of Ohev Shalom, a small Orthodox shul on Fairfax Avenue, gathered in my parents’ yard for Tashlich.
The “pond,” mind you, is about four feet in diameter and maybe a foot deep. But it’ll do for the landlocked mid-Wilshire residents who don’t drive on Rosh Hashanah and want to participate in the custom of Tashlich, which literally means to cast off.
Orthodox residents across the city seek out small bodies of water in which to throw bread crumbs, symbolizing their sins, as they recite atonement-related prayers on the first day of Rosh Hashanah (unless, like this year, it falls on Shabbat).
Tashlich is a custom, not a law, and can be recited anytime during the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Ideally, the water should be flowing and have fish in it, but that isn’t always possible, so a small reservoir — or my parents’ fish pond — works, too.
A small slab of the L.A. River runs through Beverlywood, some people gather there on Rosh Hashanah to toss their sins through the chainlink fence into the trickle of water muddying up the concrete cutout.
Maybe not quite what the rabbis had in mind when they based the tradition on the quote in Micah, “And you will all their sins into the depths of the sea.” But then again, if bread crumbs can symbolize sins, why not fish ponds as the depths of the sea?
— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Visit to Ethiopia Changes His Life

In 2004, John Fishel went to Ethiopia as part of a delegation of American Federation leaders. The experience changed his life.

The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, along with five members of the UJA Federation of New York, visited shantytowns filled with Ethiopians waiting in squalor for the chance to make aliyah — to immigrate to Israel.

Fishel and the delegation saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, and, if lucky, eating one meal a day. Looking at the desperate faces of the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry — Fishel vowed that he would do something.

Africa has long captivated Fishel, who has a degree from the University of Michigan in anthropology. He had visited about 20 African countries, including Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. However, nothing made as indelible impression on him as that first mission to Ethiopia, which tapped into Fishel’s commitment to Jewish people worldwide.

After that trip, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization representing 156 federations and 400 independent Jewish organizations across North America, asked Fishel to co-chair a task force to suggest ways federations could help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia. Among the group’s recommendations: The UJC should lobby for the acceleration of aliyah and improve health care and other services for the Ethiopian Jews as they wait to immigrate to Israel.

It was partly at Fishel’s instigation that the UJC recently launched Operation Promise, an ambitious campaign that hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews in the former Soviet Union. The L.A. Federation has pledged to raise $8.5 million for the campaign over the next three years.

“John has given real leadership to the issue of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who earlier this year went to Ethiopia with Fishel and 100 American Jewish federation members. “He’s always been the first one to speak up and stir the conscience of the federation movement.”

On that trip, Fishel’s second to Ethiopia, the federation contingent accompanied nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, as they made the emotional journey by plane from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“John is a very compassionate person and was very moved by what he saw,” said Susan Stern, a fellow mission participant and chairman of the board of the UJA Federation of New York.

Fishel intends to stir other consciences as well. At every opportunity, he said, he has brought the issue of Ethiopian Jewry to the attention of Israeli leaders, from midlevel bureaucrats to prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

“I see Jewish issues as global in scope,” Fishel said. “I think Jews are all responsible for one another, whether in Ethiopia or Russia or Argentina or in the Jewish state.”–MB