Sunday, 29 November 2015

150 Years Old and 20 Years New

I had the privilege of visiting the off-the-map Jewish community of Giessen last week; Giessen is a small German town, located an hour outside Frankfurt.

As I come from such a community myself, Harrogate in Yorkshire, England, I could closely relate to the struggles for existence where the entire Jewish community is measured in lower three figures.

My guide was Mr Dov Aviv, who is Chairman of the Giessen Jewish Community.

Dov himself originally hails from Jaffa, Israel, and has lived in Giessen for around 30 years. He originally moved to Giessen to take a degree at Giessen University in Veterinary Medicine - at the time there were no equivalent courses in Israel  - later switching to dentistry, which he still practices in the town.

The Jewish community numbers around 400 people, of whom the overwhelming majority (90%) emigrated from the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The community center is a small campus of buildings consisting of a synagogue, an events hall, administrative offices, a student housing facility (like Hillel House), a mikve and a small museum.

The highlight is undoubtedly the synagogue, which is 150 years old, and 20 years new.

After a history stretching back to the 12th Century, almost the whole Jewish population, at its peak around 1200 people, was murdered by the Nazis or fled the country. The Jewish community buildings of Giessen were all destroyed either in Kristalnacht or during the War itself.

A local researcher discovered a rare surviving synagogue in Wohra (also known as Gemünden an der Wohra), about 100 km from Giessen, which was found in a state of disrepair and used by the neighbour as a storehouse.

This attractive wood and stone construction apparently dated back to the 1860's.

The Giessen community obtained the permission of the 'caretaker' neighbour in Wohra, and of the sole identified survivor from the Jewish community from Wohra, then living in Israel, and then dismantled the building stone by stone, transported it, and lovingly rebuilt it in Giessen.


The synagogue furniture is a reproduction of the original furniture which had been found still in the building in Worha, but had barely survived and was unusable.

There are three sifrei Torah. The synagogue holds services on Shabbat and achieves a regular minyan, with a little cajoling and encouragement from Mr Aviv and his colleagues. They do not have a permanent rabbi, but rather bring in rabbonim/service leaders from Frankfurt each week.

The "ezrat nashim" Women's Gallery
Outside the shul is a decorative plaque in memory of the victims of the Nazis from Wohra. It is a moving tribute at the relocated and renewed synogogue.
Memorial Plaque to Wohra's Victims of the Nazis
The walls of the community center displayed photos from some of the many community activities, which include parties & celebrations of Purim, Hanuka and the main Jewish festivals. I was touched to see the number of kids participating in these activities and also the weekly "cheder" classes every Sunday.

The achievements of the Giessen Jewish community are incredible - literally rebuilding from the destroyed community and creating a viable and often thriving new community.

Giessen so reminded me of my home town of Harrogate, where my father and his colleagues have kept the struggling small Jewish community going for decades, against all odds - and with so many accomplishments to be rightly proud of.

Mr Dov Aviv in the Giessen Jewish Community Hall

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Should Charities Have National Emergency Campaigns?

The major Jewish/Israeli organizations regularly initiate and participate in fundraising campaigns when there are high-profile events, often tragic and/or dramatic, in Israel, such as Wars, terror and other crises (which we should not know of). These include campaigns by UJA, The Joint, KKL, and numerous other highly respectable and respected NGOs.

Literally hundred of millions of dollars of donations are raised in these often intense and emotive campaigns. With national emergencies (unfortunately) hitting Israel approximately every two years, these fundraisers have almost become part of the fundraising calendar.

A posting by member of the Fundraisers Forum in Israel asks his fellow fundraising professionals about the ethics of fundraising from tragic circumstance: "The major issue is how much mileage can we make out of others tragedy?" 

I think it is legitimate for organizations who supply services which are particularly in demand during such national emergency events, such as MDA, Hatzola, hospitals, IDF & Home Front supporting orgs, trauma treatment centers, etc to actively bring this to public attention.

It is morally debatable if such organizations should use these occasions to raise "emergency funds" which are actually intended to fund activities which are not directly related to the said events. Such as a new cancer unit in a hospital. Or routine budgetary costs for MDA. Here the issue is to what extent the donors are designating their donation to specifically help with the war effort - and so are being deceived by the "emergency" campaign.

In addition, there are organizations which have been directly impacted by a tragic event, such as a terror attack against a specific student at a yeshiva, but where there is no specific financial impact on the institution. There is a huge amount of awareness and sympathy for the organization - which can be translated into increased financial support.

I believe there are tasteful way for such an institution which has been struck by tragedy to benefit, such as establishing a library or appropriate program in memory or in honor of the victim/s, or naming a new wing of a building, etc. Obviously, these campaigns should not cross the line into exploiting or capitalising on the tragedy in a distasteful manner. This is an issue of balance and common sense.

Then there are causes which are unrelated to the national event. Such as an organization which specifically launches a war effort campaign, where the funds are not actually being used for any activities related to the war. ("There is a war in Israel, so please fund our new synagogue"). In my books, this would be deceptive and distasteful (and potentially fraudulent). Definitely in the "never, never" category.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Feels Like Russian Roulette

Yesterday there were two more terror attacks - a 38 year old Arab stabbed Jews at prayer in a synagogue in Tel Aviv, murdering two, and at Gush Etzion, 20 minutes from my door, an Arab terrorist shot and murdered three people, two of whom were Jews.

One of these victims was Ezra Schwartz, an 18 year old yeshiva student from Boston, USA. Ezra was studying at Ashreinu, a local Beit Shemesh yeshiva for American students.

Terror attacks have become a horrific nightmare part of daily life in Israel, particularly in the past two months.

With each news broadcast and social media report of more terror attacks, a subjective filtering of the horror takes place. What happened? Where was it? Could anyone I love or know be a victim?

I have recently had the nagging surging feeling that I'm involved in some ghastly and terrifying game of  Russian Roulette.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The National Religious Pay The Highest Price

My son's yeshiva high-school, Yashlatz, is in mourning.

Aged just 18, Netanel Littman, a 12th Grade pupil, was gunned down this past Friday, together with his father Rabbi Yaakov Littman, both murdered on their way to their family's Shabbat Chatan wedding celebration.

Posters and newspaper cuttings are on the school's walls, and the somber students take turns to talk about and eulogise their fellow student and beloved friend Natanel.

At the evening prayer last night, they announced that Natanel had committed this past Simchat Torah to learn a large number of tractates; he had not been able to complete this gargantuan task. They asked for volunteers to complete the learning on Netanel's behalf.

Yashlatz has been through such horrific tragedy before, including the savage terror attack at the adjoining Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, where 8 boys were murdered by an Arab terrorist in 2008 - five of whom were teenage boys from Yashlatz.

According to staff at the school, at least 40 students from Yashlatz have been murdered or died in action, since the school was established 50 years ago.

A rough calculation puts that at over 2% of all the pupils have died young to war and terror.

In my son's class alone, he named five pupils who have tragically lost their first degree relatives. Parents and siblings...

There is no community in Israel which pays a higher ultimate price, in blood, for Eretz Yisrael, than the National Religious community.

This is mainly because National Religious families live disproportionately in high-risk communities over the Green Line, and they volunteer to serve in combat units in the Army.

The National Religious knowingly put themselves, and their families, at such risk because they are ideologically and religiously motivated and dedicated to doing so.

They know, from an early age, the supreme value of the Land of Israel, building it, and the importance of implementing their ideals and values with their souls and bodies.  

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Terror and Security on Road 60

One day after the murder of Yitzhak and Natanel Litman and just two hours after the car-ramming terror attack on an Israeli car near Psagot, I took my son  Raphael and his family back to their home in Gush Shilo last night.

Road 60, the main North-South road through Judea and Samaria, the site of these and countless recent terror attacks, was quiet. Hardly any traffic, and no sign of security measures, such as increased patrols, check points, visible army presence, etc.

Just a few kilometers of lonely road.

The fact that the murderers of the Litmans were able to perpetrate the murders and escape, points to a paucity of basic security on this known danger.

There is no reason that every part of that and similarly exposed roads cannot be monitored live by video.

And there is no good reason that every part of that road cannot be physically patrolled and protected at all times.

Whereas there was political will to improve security in Jerusalem, and so thousands of troops were brought in and security increased on public transport, there seems to be no equivalent political will, even in this "right wing" government, to invest in the basic security for Jews of Judea and Samaria.

Friday, 6 November 2015

A Day in Tel Aviv

It doesn't sound too exotic or adventurous - I took a day off this week to tour around Tel Aviv and had a surprisingly varied and enjoyable time....

1. Beit Hatfutsot -

When I last went there (over 20 years ago!) it was called the Diaspora Museum, now the Museum of the Jewish People.

It is located at the Tel Aviv University campus and, with a little help from Waze, was fairly easy to find.

The ground floor has a nice looking cafe (I don't know if it is kosher - didn't go in) and an exhibition about the United Colours of Judaica - which was temporarily out of commission due to maintenance. Otherwise auditoriums, which were hosting conferences and talks. Not much doing.

The second floor is the main exhibition area, and is grouped according to 'theme' rather than strictly chronological. There are few genuine artifacts but the exhibition was extensive and varied.
The Mazal Ubracha temporary exhibition was potentially jarring for some orthodox Jews, and perhaps also for very liberal Jews too, as it focused on Jewish superstition.

Jewish superstition certainly exists, and it is a topic well worth examining. Sensitivity & considerable knowledge is required to differentiate native/naive superstition from 'authentic' Jewish practice. I guess that was what the exhibit organizers tried to do, with questionable success.

In fairness, there was a warning posted that anyone who might find the exhibits offensive, should miss out the Mazal Ubracha exhibit.

The core exhibition was  excellent, including Culture, Community, Family and a Memorial Section for the Holocaust.

There is a reasonable overview of the various sections here:

Overall, the Beit Hatfutzot Museum was well worth the couple of hours we spent there - we could even have enjoyed another half hour or so, had it not been for closing time.

2. Tayelet - we later walked up the coastal promenade ("tayelet") from the hotel area on Hayarkon Street to Jaffa - about 45 minutes (up to however long one wants to meander and enjoy the seaside).

The promenade was popular without being packed, and clean & attractive. There is an option to pick up a bicycle for short term rent. You then drop the bike off at one of many pick-up/drop off locations.

The Tel Aviv Municipality is to be commended for the attractive design and impeccable upkeep of the promenade. As indeed are the locals, who clearly do their part to keep their promenade clean and beautiful.

3. Three Outdoor Markets: We walked through (and along a route between) three street markets.

The Flea Market - Jaffa: Known in Hebrew as "Shuk Hapishpushim - שוק הפשפשים"
We started at the clock tour in Jaffa and explored several streets known collectively as the Flea Market. We discovered a range of products and retail styles.

There are bona fide antique shops - selling high quality antiques, mainly from Europe. Finding a bargain, such as a genuine Rembrandt in a pile of dusty pictures, is going to be tough, as the shop keepers seem pretty professional.

There are also shops selling second hand stuff - most of the stuff looked like other people's junk. If you have a talent for renovating used furniture, then it would be a good hunting ground; or specific narrow collecting habits - such as LP records of Yoram Gaon's early years - then you can spend happy hours searching for your specific treasures.

There are also commercial used, reproduction and tourist items - the buyer should be wary, as much on offer is clearly modern, or thinly disguised reproductions of old items.

The highlight of this visit to the Jaffa flea market, for me, was the "Only In Israel" street minyan for mincha.

The Nachalat Binyamin Arts & Crafts Market: About 40 minutes walk from the Jaffa market, is a street market on Nachalat Binyamin, in south/central Tel Aviv.

I guess there were about 50-100 table top stands in the "midrachov" pedestrian precinct, spread along two or three streets.

A glass blower in the Nachalat Binyamin market
Most of the salespeople appear to be the artisans, selling their own work.

Pottery, woodwork, jewelry, paintings, glasswork...the whole gamut of lowish cost crafts products were on sale. I didn't spot anything "wow!" to spontaneously buy. So I reckon it's a good idea to go if you're looking for something specific - such as a birthday present - which I wasn't.

The Nachalat Binyamin Market is only open a couple of days a week; we visited on a Tuesday.

3. A street away from Nachalat Binyamin is the Carmel Market.

This is similar to the Jerusalem Machaneh Yehuda market. mainly selling fresh fruit & veg, spices, halva, various fresh-food stands (some with hechsherim/kosher certificates).

There are also stands selling clothes, nick-nacks, and some tourist items.

The market was apparently quieter than usual, probably due to the stabbings around the country, putting people off coming out.

4. Having finished up the three markets, we explored Neve Tzedek.

This is located in an area between Jaffa and South Tel Aviv. It was the first neighborhood built outside of Jaffa, became very popular with local leadership, such as politicians and writers.
It fell out of favour and became run-down for many years.

Today, it has been widely renovated and has become very "in" with the arty crowd and a tourist attraction. There are art galleries, cafes and restaurants.

Some is still pre-development, and run-down.

Rabbi Avraham Yizthak Kook lived in this area while he was Chief Rabbi of Jaffa, for about 11 years.

We found Rav Kook's small shul/beit medrash with a small active kolel, mainly sephardi chareidi.
They were eager to enlist our support (not financial) as they would like to attract Rav Kookniks to strengthen the institution and help with community outreach.

We were also shown the building which had housed a factory which Rav Kook established to provide employment. The factory was for producing metal safes, which were used by banks and others in pre-state Palestine.

The buildings were currently being renovated and new residential blocks built around them.

The avreichim/students told us that the apartments being built would be well beyond the ability of any avreich to buy.

Conclusion: our whirlwind self-managed tour of Tel Aviv was fascinating and varied; most of the places we visited were for the first time - and highly worthwhile.

Aside for the Beit Hatfutsot visit, we went everywhere on foot. I was rather eager to try the municipal bicycle programme, which would have saved quite a lot of walking time - I guess I'll try that on a future visit.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Photos from a Friday Afternoon Walk in the Hills

Click on the photos to view full sized

There is no need to travel more than 15 minutes from Beit Shemesh to find stunningly beautiful open countryside. I headed out this past Friday afternoon to Nachal Machasia (to the right of the road between Beit Shemesh and Nes Harim).

The rugged storm-darkened skies brought out dramatic contrasts and depth of the landscape.

In my two hour stroll, the only other person I saw was a lone shepherd tending his flock.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

That Outrageous Status Quo

Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly and internationally stated and re-stated that Israel's policy is to "uphold the status quo on Temple Mount".

As the Arabs are currently inciting hatred and terrorism against Jews, spilling innocent blood, using Israel's purported actions on Temple Mount as the pretext - it makes sense for Netanyahu to expose the fallacy & lies of the Palestinian narrative.

It was pragmatic for Netanyahu to explain: "Muslims pray on Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit Temple Mount."  

However, in so doing Netanyau has missed an opportunity to expose the absurd and outrageous situation that is called the "status quo".

The current practice of outlawing Jews and Christians from praying at this most holy site - and giving that right exclusively to Muslims - is blatant discrimination.

And the arrest of Jewish "visitors" for crimes such as mumbling psalms, or mouthing prayers, is simply absurd.

This absurdity has been publicised by "Chozrim Lehar" ("Returning to the Mount") an NPO run by Raphael Morris (my lad), by brazenly offering anyone 2000 NIS if they are arrested for praying on Temple Mount.

This offer has been widely publicised in the Israeli media, most recently in this interview:

Whereas I understand Netanyahu's need for pragmatism, to calm the current wave of terror, it is important that the Jewish narrative is also true and consistent.

The status quo is not acceptable, even if it may be pragmatic.