Grapevine: Love at first sight

Somen Debnath bikes around the world with a mission to create awareness about HIV/AIDS.

May 9, 2013 22:15
INDIAN CYCLIST Somen Debnath (right) with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.

Ron Huldai and biker 370. (photo credit: Tal Cykler)

Almost every municipality in Israel honors the veteran residents who have made significant contributions to the city’s development in any number of fields. Accordingly, each year Yakir celebrations in cities across the country honor residents aged 70 and over.

In Jerusalem, the Yakir Yerushalayim ceremony traditionally takes place on Jerusalem Day – arguably the most appropriate date for such an event, with the exception that it is almost impossible to get to.

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Due to all of the festivities taking place in the capital, bus routes and other traffic are diverted, causing acute congestion and the most chaotic of conditions. People living within an hour’s walking distance to the Tower of David Museum, where the ceremony was held, found it easier to go on foot than to try to navigate traffic.

On Agron Street, which was chock-a-block with pedestrians heading towards the Old City, it looked as if the US Consulate was under siege. There were double rows of barriers enclosing the building on all sides, so that passersby had to step off the pavement and into the road. In addition to consular security personnel, there were also numerous police lining the barriers – though none of the pedestrians demonstrated any interest in the building, which to most visitors to the capital is just another example of Jerusalem stone. The nearby Mamilla Mall, which generally offers easy access to the Old City, was packed with humanity like a sardine can, though the only establishments that benefitted from the influx were food outlets.

Ordinarily, when individuals in a group are being honored, the most illustrious of them is chosen to speak on behalf of the others.

Under other circumstances such a task might have fallen on former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch, the first woman to reach this highest rank in Israel’s legal system, or on the shoulders of Rabbi Mordechai Piron, the second chief rabbi of the IDF. But when there’s a professional wordsmith in the group, he becomes the obvious choice.

Though not a native of Jerusalem, Baghdad-born writer Eli Amir rose to speak on behalf of his fellow honorees. He had first laid eyes on the Holy City in his midteens, two years after arriving in the country, and it was love at first sight. Every person has his or her own Jerusalem, said Amir, and there are those who are still searching. Amir continues to be enchanted by Jerusalem’s mystique, and captivated all his listeners as he described his journey from neighborhood to neighborhood, walking through streets and alleyways and drinking in the charm of the city. He also spoke of the various positions he had held – among them delivering newspapers and being involved in immigrant absorption.

The honorees were all ushered in by three white-clad musicians, who blew large shofars and then switched to a drum fanfare with a decidedly Middle Eastern beat.

The other honorees were journalist Dov Genichovsky; Jerusalem-born educators Zehava Grosshans and Rabbi Nahum Hacohen; founder of the Frankfurter Center for senior citizens Sima Zini; architect David Cassouto; Rabbi Yitzhak Kalman, Prof. Ruth Kark and Haim Rashelbach, also educators; and Rabbanit Miriam Shoshana, who cares for economically deprived brides.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said that he had recently visited the Mount of Olives, where his great grandfather is buried. As he looked around him, he said, he wondered what all the people who had long been buried there would say if they could see the modern, vibrant and constantly developing Jerusalem of today.

The awards ceremony was punctuated by songs sung by David D’Or, and surprisingly – given the date, occasion and venue – he did not include “Jerusalem of Gold” in his repertoire.

■ DUE TO arrive in Israel on Sunday to celebrate his bar mitzva is Jamie Doft of New York, who is a fan of the elite IDF General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. Jamie is so enamored with this special operations unit, he decided that in lieu of gifts, he wants people to contribute to the refurbishment of the unit’s recreation room, which is somewhat dilapidated. Jamie believes that if the soldiers are ensuring Israel’s safety and security, something by way of appreciation should be done for them. The upshot is that he is coming with a check for $20,000, with additional contributions on the way. Already a philanthropic entrepreneur, Jamie set up a website for the purpose of encouraging donations to the project. No doubt there will be quite a few soldiers joining in his bar mitzva celebration on May 16.

■ KILLING TWO birds with one stone is perhaps not the most politically correct expression to use about the upcoming visit to Israel by former US president Bill Clinton, who is coming primarily to join President Shimon Peres in celebrating his 90th birthday at the fifth Presidential “Facing Tomorrow” Conference in Jerusalem, and to receive the President’s Medal of Distinction.

Another reason for Clinton’s visit is his participation in the World Conference of Presidents of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which will be held at the Peres Academic Center in Rehovot on June 17. Peres will be joining Clinton there, as will JNF world co-chairmen Efi Stenzler and Eli Aflalo.

The event is going to be really top-heavy with presidents. In addition to Peres, Clinton and JNF presidents from around the world, there will also be PAC president Ron Shapiro, who is obviously thrilled that the educational institution which he heads has been elevated in status by the guests it will be hosting.

■ MODELED ON the SeriousFun Children’s Network, which was founded by legendary actor Paul Newman and was originally known as the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, the Jordan River Village is the realization of a dream of Marilyn and Murray Grant. It attracts not only children with special needs, for whom it was created, but also volunteers and wellknown personalities from around the world, who come to have fun with the youngsters and help boost their morale and enrich their lives.

No fees are charged and no physically or mentally ill child is denied entry to the village, which has been operating since August 2011.

Chairman of the board is internationally acclaimed actor Chaim Topol, who brings numerous household names to the Galilee to interact with the youngsters.

Among recent visitors was former IDF chief of general staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who toured the village and then joined the youngsters in various sports. In the almost two years that the Jordan River Village has been open to youngsters from throughout the region, it has proven over and over again that no matter what the nature of their illnesses and special needs may be, children who are happy and having fun in the company of other children tend to thrive.

■ AT A glittering gala event at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv, attended by representatives of 60 countries that are members of the World Diamond Council, Israel Diamond Institute chairman Moti Gantz presented the IDI’s highest award to Eli Izhakoff, the WDC’s outgoing president, in appreciation of his outstanding contribution to the diamond industry during his 13 years in the post.

Isakhoff’s successor is Avi Paz, a past president of the Israel Diamond Exchange. Among the participants at the gala evening were Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett; three African government ministers who came from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Angola; Diamond controller Shmuel Mordechai; IDI CEO Eli Avidar; Israel Diamond Exchange president Yair Sahar; Diamond Manufacturers Association president Avraham Traub; Shmuel Schnitzer, honorary life president of the World Federation of Diamond Bourses; and many other leading lights of the diamond industry. These included Lev Leviev, who is probably best known to the public at large for his diverse business, community and philanthropic activities, which include inter alia chairmanship of the Africa Israel Group, presidency of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, and presidency of the World Congress of Bukharian Jews.

■ BICYCLING AROUND the world with a mission to create awareness about HIV/AIDS is Somen Debnath of India, who in his travels visits schools and universities in different countries and intersperses his lectures on health with lectures on Indian culture, thus working as a goodwill ambassador in more ways than one. His journey began on May 27, 2004, in the remote Indian village of Basanti, located in Sundarbans in the province of West Bengal. His goal is to spread HIV/AIDS awareness in 191 countries by the end of 2020, by which time he will have covered almost 200,000 kilometers and will have spoken to nearly 20 million people. His mission is supported by donations from people who value what he is doing.

This week, after spending time in Jerusalem, he was in Tel Aviv where he met with Mayor Ron Huldai, who like Debnath is an avid cyclist. Debnath’s next goal is Jordan; so far, he has visited 75 countries. By the time he completes his journey he will be eligible for the Guinness Book of Records, if he isn’t already.

■ BEING EVEN the ceremonial president of a country is no easy matter, particularly if you’re doing the job properly – and are being torn in all directions by organizations that want to have you as their key attraction. Israel’s president was hard at work at a ceremony in the Knesset at the beginning of the week, awarding the prestigious Wolf Prize to seven outstanding scientists and one representative of the arts. In what might be described as a head-to-toe operation, Peres was in Netanya midweek to award the Israeli State Cup trophy, following the football finals in which Hapoel Ramat Gan trounced last year’s winner Ironi Kiryat Shmona.

In his address to the Wolf Prize recipients, Peres voiced his pride in being part of a creative, vivacious country whose cultural, scientific and technological achievements have won a place of honor at the forefront of scientific progress. Israel is small in size but has achieved greatness in science, said Peres, as he offered his congratulations to the eight honorees from four countries who shared five prizes of $100,000 each. The recipients hailed from many professions: physicists – Prof. Peter Zoller (Austria) and Prof. Juan Ignacio Circa (Germany); mathematicians – Prof. George Mostow and Prof. Michael Artin (both of the US); agriculturalists and environmentalists – Prof.

Jared Diamond and Prof. Joachim Messing (both of the US); chemical and biomedical engineers – Prof. Robert Langer (US); and in the arts, architects – Eduardo Souto de Mouro (Portugal).

To date, 272 recipients from 23 countries have been awarded the prize.

On Wednesday, Peres traveled to Netanya for the football finals, after speaking first at a Mount Herzl memorial for Ethiopian Jews who died en route to Israel while pursing the dream to see Jerusalem, and later at Ammunition Hill, a traditional site for Jerusalem Day commemorations and rededications. The football game was very tense until the last minute, he said, shaking hands with the members of Hapoel Ramat Gan and commiserating with Ironi Kiryat Shmona, saying there was always another chance to win the cup next year.

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