Grapevine: An interesting coincidence

Generally speaking, the most generous of philanthropists are people who have done extremely well in business.

March 26, 2015 19:42
THE BAHA’I Gardens.

THE BAHA’I Gardens in Haifa.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

When they decided to open a jewelry store in Jerusalem’s Dorot Rishonim Street off the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, Nedim and Yusuf Koen may not have realized the coincidence of their choice of location vis-a-vis their own personal history.

Born in Istanbul, they belong to an affluent family that has lived in Turkey for 500 years and can trace its origins to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Dorot Rishonim translates as “first generations” – and the Koens are indeed descended from the first generations of Turkish Jews.

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Both are also married to women named Sara; Yusuf’s wife is Turkish and Nedim’s wife, whom he met and married in Jerusalem, is French.

The brothers have diverse business interests, of which jewelry is one. The official opening of their store, De Cohen’s, this week and the affixing of the mezuza was a festive affair replete with a red carpet, two female violinists and a male saxophone player, plus a non-stop assortment of refreshments. Someone in a neighboring store was somewhat of a spoilsport and kept coming in to ask them to tone down the music – even though it was the music which attracted many people to the street, and may have resulted in additional customers for all the nearby stores.

Through their various enterprises, the Koen family provides employment for many families and individuals in Turkey and Israel.

They are also generous philanthropists focusing mainly on education, and play an important role in Istanbul’s Jewish community, including in the provision of kosher food for Passover. They are among a growing number of 15,000 Turkish Jews who believe there is no future for their children in Turkey.

Nedim, known as Nissim in Israel, and his wife together with their four sons have begun a gradual process of aliya, which they plan to complete by the end of August.

The opening of De Cohen’s attracted a crowd well beyond the official invitees, and everyone was welcomed with the same degree of hospitality as those who had been invited, as a waiter and waitress continually circulated among them offering sandwiches, pastries and beverages. The launch of the store was attended by former Sephardi chief rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron and Rabbi Yaakov Hillel, head of the Ahavat Shalom Yeshiva, as well as many other members of the haredi community.

Unlike the majority of Turkish Jews – who have opted to live in Ra’anana, where they are building a Turkish synagogue – the Koens prefer to live in Jerusalem.

■ ALTHOUGH THE Baha’i World Center is located in Haifa, where its breathtaking terraced gardens are a must-see tourist attraction, Naw-Ruz, the Baha’i New Year, is traditionally celebrated in Jerusalem after first being celebrated in Haifa and Acre.

The Jerusalem reception, explained Baha’i International Community secretary-general Joshua Lincoln, is to show appreciation to the people and institutions Baha’i works with in many areas of endeavor. These include inter alia the Justice, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Religious Services and Tourism ministries; the leaders of the religious communities; the diplomatic corps; the legislature; and academia.

The golden-domed Shrine of the Báb, atop Haifa’s Mount Carmel, is the resting place of the prophet-herald of the Baha’í faith and a place of pilgrimage for the 6 million strong members of the global Baha’i community.

Work has begun on a future service facility for Baha’i pilgrims, said Lincoln, who also noted that the number of visitors to the Baha’i gardens over the past year was in the range of 870,000.

Lincoln also paid tribute to Kern and Barbara Wisman, Baha’i’s Jerusalem representatives, who organize the reception there.

Reception guest of honor was Prof. Moshe Sharon, who was Arab affairs adviser to prime minister Menachem Begin and also participated in the peace negotiations with Egypt; he now holds the chair in Baha’i studies at the Hebrew University’s faculty of the humanities.

Coincidentally, Sharon – who is also a Hebrew University alumnus – was born in Haifa. He joined the faculty of the Hebrew University in 1965 and received his PhD in Islamic history in 1971. A world-renowned specialist in Arabic epigraphy, Sharon has recorded all the Arabic inscriptions in the Holy Land. He related that 40 years ago, when he was teaching at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, one of his students came to seek his advice on a doctoral thesis on Baha’i; he told her he knew nothing about it and suggested she find another subject.

Some time later, when he was searching for Arabic inscriptions in Acre, he came across gravestones with terminology that was not familiar to him. He was intrigued and when told by an elderly man that the graves belonged to Baha’i, he found his way to the Baha’i World Center – where he asked many questions and became so enamored with the history and theology, he began writing extensively on the subject. The upshot was that in 1999, he was appointed to the chair of Baha’i studies at the Hebrew University.

In 2005 he published the first translation into Hebrew of Al-Kitab al-Aqdas, the holy book of the Babí-Baha’í faiths.

■ RUSSIAN-ISRAELI oligarch and philanthropist Arkadi Gaydamak in 2006 spent millions of dollars funding the Netzanim Village, which housed hundreds of families who fled the rocket attacks on the North, also financing weeklong vacations in Eilat for hundreds of residents of Sderot; he subsequently founded the Social Justice political movement, under whose banner he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Jerusalem. He has had more than his fair share of ups and downs in Israel – making and losing a lot of money.

In 2005, Gaydamak donated to and invested a lot of money in sport. He became a backer of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team, donated $400,000 to the Bnei Sakhnin Football Club and acquired 55-percent ownership of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club. Things turned sour with Beitar when he imported a couple of Muslim players, who became the victims of the racism that is prevalent among a segment of Beitar fans.

Gaydamak also suffered a series of financial setbacks which prompted him to return to Russia, though he has been back to Israel from time to time – particularly last June when his daughter Katia married French businessman Rafael Khalifa in Jerusalem.

Way back in October 2011, the beautiful Katia tweeted: “I just want to find peace and love... the rest will find me, I’m sure.” Well she got the love, but she won’t have peace for a while. She just presented her father with his first grandchild, which means she’s got quite a few sleepless nights ahead.

The word is out that Gaydamak’s other daughter, Sonia, will soon be standing beneath the bridal canopy as well.

■ GENERALLY SPEAKING, the most generous of philanthropists are people who have done extremely well in business. Kipling Israel CEO Raviv Erbatz has found a formula for combining philanthropy with business.

Working in cooperation with two women’s organizations – Ima and No to Violence – he is offering vouchers worth NIS 100 to anyone who donates a handbag in good condition to be given to a needy woman, for whom this will be in the nature of a new bag. In addition to the voucher, donors will also receive a 25% discount on Kipling bags and luggage, providing the purchase is made on the same day the voucher is used.

■ FRIENDS OF the late Australian philanthropist Arthur Abrahams, who died some 15 months ago, gathered at the capital’s YMCA auditorium this week to listen to the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Shemer, who is the orchestra’s founder, musical director, harpsichordist and conductor, also teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. The concert, within the framework of the Jerusalem Festival of the Arts and the Johann Sebastian Bach birthday performances, was the last concert for the current subscription season by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and was dedicated to Abrahams – who Shemer said had been one of the first Friends of the orchestra, supporting it for many years.

Abrahams, who had homes in Jerusalem, Paris and Senegal, also supported the Israel Museum, which houses his extraordinary collection of Papua New Guinea art. While living in Papua New Guinea, he made lifelong friends in fellow Australians Sonia and Daniel Lew, who now live in Kfar Saba; and Mary Clare Adam, who lives in Tel Aviv. Another Australian friend was Pamela Hickman, who lives in Jerusalem and is head of the Friends of the JBO, in addition to which she and Shemer were students together at what was then the Rubin Academy of Music.

Among other friends of Abrahams who were present were Jerusalem artist Liza Lawrence; Dorit Shafir, curator of arts of Africa and Oceania at the Israel Museum; and Sele Gaye, Abrahams’s longtime partner and companion who came specially from Senegal for the occasion.

If someone had wandered in at the end of the recital not knowing what it was about, they might have thought it was a rock concert. The cheers, whistles and sustained applause continued after several bows by Shemer, musicians including flautist Idit Shemer, and soprano soloists Adaya Peled and Yuval Oren, who are both students at the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

■ ON A different level of entertainment altogether, Jeremie Bracka, a multi-talented Australian/Israeli human rights lawyer, actor, playwright and satirist, was the guest of the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv and had his audience in stitches with his side-splitting performance, in which he turned spoofing into a fine art.

The event was attended by Israelis and Australian expats, with reactions proving that good humor can cross cultural divides.

One of the characters created by Bracka is Sagi Ben-Ganav; when he told his tale of his overextended visit to Australia and his search for an Australian wife, the 50 people gathered at the embassy could hardly breathe for laughter.

Over the past decade, Bracka has performed his one-man comedies – “Lox, Shmocks and Two Smoking Salmons,” “Enough About Me… Let’s Talk About Jew” and “Arafat in Therapy” – at festivals in Australia, Auckland, Hong Kong, Jerusalem and New York. Simultaneous to his work in theater, Bracka worked in more serious positions at the Foreign Ministry, Supreme Court and Israel’s Permanent Mission to the UN. He is currently a PhD candidate in human rights law and a visiting scholar at Tel Aviv University.

His skit, at sunset on the 28th floor of the high-rise building where the embassy is situated, was a sample of what the audience can expect when he performs at Teatronetto, Tel Aviv’s prestigious one-man-show theater festival during Hol Hamoed Passover.

His is one of only five international shows that were accepted to perform there, and his “Arafat in Therapy” is the only Australian show to ever be part of the festival.

Ambassador Dave Sharma summed up Bracka’s irreverent sense of humor as typical to both Australians and Israelis, who don’t take themselves too seriously and are able to laugh at themselves. Sharma also thanked Yaakov Agmon, the Israeli producer, manager and director who founded Teatronetto, for supporting the Australian comedian. In an embassy raffle, 21 lucky guests won tickets to see Bracka perform at the festival in April.

■ ONE LAST reference for the time being to Australia and Australians: Many more Aussie expats than usual are expected to attend the annual ANZAC Day Services at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus on April 24, because this year marks the centenary of the ill-fated landing of Australian and New Zealand troops in Gallipoli during World War I, in which casualties were very heavy.

The event is usually attended by diplomatic representatives and military attachés of the Allied Forces, as well as by a representative of the Turkish Embassy and occasionally one from the German Embassy; the IDF and Foreign Ministry also are represented.

This year, because of the historic importance of the occasion, the memorial ceremony will also be attended by President Reuven Rivlin, who is currently in Singapore – where he went to represent Israel and pay respects to the memory of Lee Kuan Yew, Asia’s great statesman and the founding long-term prime minister of the island state.

The funeral is scheduled to take place on Sunday with the participation of British Prime Minister David Cameron, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and many other world leaders.

Rivlin left Israel on Wednesday night soon after tasking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the formation of the 34th government. Prior to boarding the plane, Rivlin spoke of the close relations between Israel and Singapore and of the extraordinary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew.

■ PASSOVER AND Succot are annually marked at Moshav Mevo Modi’im by a country fair featuring music and stalls with fashions, handicrafts and food. This year’s festivities on April 6 begin at 11 a.m. and continue until 10 p.m., with a wide range of activities for adults and children and plenty of room for kids to play. In addition, many members of the moshav, which was established by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, will be dressed in biblical attire – something in the nature of fashion from the King Solomon era. Guests are invited to do the same.

Among the entertainers singing Carlebach and other melodies will be Gavriel Naftaly, Yerachmiel Ziegler, Yitzhak Even Shays and Josh Lauffer, Eyal Cohen, Shlomo Katz, the Solomon Brothers with their father, Ben-Zion Solomon, Chaim- Dovid Saracik, Yitzhak Attias & Sons, Lazer Lloyd, Aryeh Naftaly and several others. Chana Schuster has put together a diverse children’s festival, and as always there is a multifaceted women’s festival.

Leah Golomb, who is always a warm speaker at such events, will this time dedicate her talk to her husband, Michael – who passed away on February 18, Rosh Hodesh Adar, just a little under a month-and-a-half ago. The Golombs were among the earliest of Carlebach’s disciples and the ever-smiling Michael accompanied him to many of his concerts around the world, playing the tambourine. Both Leah and Michael absorbed Carlebach’s teachings, sharing them with countless students and audiences in Israel and abroad.

The gentle optimism which characterized Michael’s being remained with him throughout the difficult periods, when he already knew he was dying of cancer. Hundreds of people attended his funeral despite the fact that it was a rainy day. Among other things, Michael had for years been one of the organizers of the moshav country fairs, and his absence will be felt by many people this coming Passover.

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