Returning to Israel after almost three years, I expected to see changes, yet I was still surprised. Visiting between Sukkot and the winter holidays, my wife, Tania, and I thought there would be few other tourists.
Instead, we were astounded to enter the passport inspection hall to find 21 long lines of people waiting to enter. We saw baggage from St. Petersburg, Zurich, Lagos (Nigeria), and India, as well as New York, Paris, and London. Israel is expecting a record-breaking 3.4 million visitors this year, with Russians, Ukrainians, Africans, and Asians added to the mix of Jews and Christians from North America and Western Europe.
National Geographic magazine ranked Tel Aviv ninth in its list of Top 10 Beach Cities this year. The beach is magnificent. It is clean, has outdoor exercise equipment, playgrounds for children, outdoor showers, chairs and umbrellas, and a mosaic promenade stretching from north Tel Aviv to Bat Yam.
Beyond the beach, the city throbs. It has a very rich cultural life with hard-to-obtain theater tickets for plays often having English subtitles, opera, and concerts, as well as excellent museums and many parks. The Nalaga’at Deaf-Blind Acting Ensemble in Jaffa is both a wonderful opportunity for the performers and a sobering reminder, as one character recently put it, of the loneliness of living in perpetual darkness.
“Cinema City” features 21 movie theaters in a building that also houses boutiques and cafes. We saw an excellent film, The Human Resources Manager, adapted from an A.B. Yehoshua story by screenwriter Noah Stollman, the son of our good friends, Honey and Gene Stollman. Gene, originally from New Jersey, made aliya 40 years ago.
There are Irish pubs and much construction taking place in the more affluent neighborhoods. Though there are many synagogues, the very secular city functions 24/7. Its traffic problems are similar to most large cities though there is an increasing use of bicycles, with special parking stations for them throughout the city.
Obviously, Tel Aviv is not the entire country. Yet two UN surveys recently released reflect a general positive feeling among Israelis. In terms of citizen satisfaction, Israel tied Canada for eighth place (America was 14th). In terms of quality of life, it ranked 15th, ahead of the United Kingdom and Belgium (the U.S. ranked fourth).
Israel is trying to capitalize by reaching out to specific groups. On TV, I saw a tourism promotion — in English — stressing how friendly Tel Aviv is to gays. The Ministry of Tourism ran a promotion in American-Jewish publications featuring new tourist venues while not mentioning the usual sites such as the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Old Jaffa, and the Baha’i Gardens.
One of the new things mentioned in the promotions is “Better Place,” Shai Agassi’s plan for an electric car network being developed in Israel. “Better Place” cars and charging stations are expected to go commercial in Israel at the end of next year, and in Denmark in early 2012.
I had the opportunity to test drive one of the cars and it is quieter, smoother, and simpler to drive than our gasoline-propelled cars. It is ironic that this is another Arab defeat. They lost the military wars of 1948, ’67, and ’73; they lost the terrorist war; and now, Israel is developing something that can neutralize the oil weapon. In addition, recent discoveries in the Mediterranean will make Israel an exporter of natural gas in a couple of years.
United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ has a number of projects in Israel, especially in the development town of Ofakim, one of its sister communities. Thanks to Michal Zur of MetroWest’s Jerusalem office, I had the opportunity to visit Ofakim and meet with supervisors and line workers operating primarily out of the community center. There are 26,000 residents in Ofakim, 40 percent of whom are fervently Orthodox, or haredim. They tend to separate themselves from the rest of the town, fearing that involvement in the community would dilute their identity and tempt their children to adopt the others’ ways. Many of them are on the welfare rolls.
Ofakim is in a period of transition. A textile factory, which was the anchor of the local economy, followed much of Israel’s textile industry by moving to the Far East. Many of the jobs that remain are government or other public sector jobs. Yet, there is the probability of Ofakim being connected to the railroad line, which would make it more convenient to work in Be’er Sheva or Ashkelon and also lead more affluent Israelis to relocate there.
In the interim, the community center serves as a focus for activity for people of all ages and also as a cultural center that hosts road companies. The high school graduation rate is only 40 percent and even fewer pass the matriculation exams which are required to enter college. Fourteen post-military young adults have been hired to mentor teens, serving at times as big brothers and sisters, tutors, and mediators between teens and their families or schools and making sure that they have access to the services offered.
MetroWest is a living presence in Ofakim. Teenagers work at MetroWest-sponsored summer camps and greet visitors like us. Local New Jersey synagogues — including Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills and Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston — recently sent missions. Our philanthropists maintain an active relationship with the programs they sponsor. It is too early to tell if Ofakim will become a thriving community. If it does, it will be in no small measure due to the concrete support given it by the UJC during its period of transition.
The reader of this piece may well ask, what about the problems Israel is confronting? Fair question. That will be the subject of the next column.