Grapevine: The Aussies are coming

A reenactment of the 1917 Battle for Beersheba (photo credit: KKL-JNF ARCHIVE)
A reenactment of the 1917 Battle for Beersheba
(photo credit: KKL-JNF ARCHIVE)
Excitement is mounting over the number of Australians who will be in Israel in the last week of October through to the first week of November. Most are coming to join in the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, and some will attend events related to the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
Heading all the Australian delegations is Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who will be accompanied by several high-ranking members of Federal Parliament, and who is only the third sitting prime minister of Australia to visit Israel, and the first after John Howard, who came in 2000. Howard was preceded in 1987 by Bob Hawke. Robert Menzies, who visited in 1941, before Israel attained statehood, had intended to come as prime minister in June 1964, but developed a serious stomach complaint just a few days before his scheduled departure from Australia and canceled the visit.
Australian MP Stuart Robert, who was in Israel earlier this month for the meeting of the Israel Allies Foundation, declared Australia’s ongoing support for Israel.
Australian cycling legend Cadel Evans, a World Cup and Tour de France winner, is coming on his first visit to Israel toward the end of the month to participate in a charity ride on behalf of Kids Kicking Cancer and Budo for Peace, both of which are headed by Australian expat and martial arts champion Danny Hakim. Another beneficiary of the ride will be Shekel, which provides community services for people with special needs. Evans will lead mountain bikers in the bike ride along the Anzac Trail in Beersheba. He is one of 120 Australians participating in the ride along with other riders from New Zealand, Canada, France, South Africa, USA and Israel. Also accompanying Evans on the ride will be will be his seven-year-old adopted Ethiopian son. Former Australian ambassador to Israel James Larsen, who was later ambassador to Turkey, has endorsed the bike ride, and Dave Sharma, who was ambassador to Israel until June this year, will be joining the ride for the first day of the two-day journey.
MK Sharren Haskel, who spent six years in Australia and co-chairs the Israel-Australia Parliamentary Friendship Group, will also participate in what Hakim calls “a community ride,” which will include Beduin, Ethiopians and representatives of all the Australian and New Zealand Zionist youth groups who are spending all or part of a gap year in Israel.
Meanwhile, Shlomi Werdiger, a prominent Melbourne businessman and cycling enthusiast, will be riding in another charity event – Wheels of Love – on behalf of Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center, a pediatric hospital in Jerusalem that treats children with congenital and acquired conditions. Werdiger will break away from the five-day event to attend the main ceremonies in Beersheba, after which he will return to Wheels of Love, now in its 18th year. Celebrated Australian actor Bryan Brown is scheduled to give a reading at one of the ceremonies.
Paul Israel, executive director of the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce and an Australian expat who would ordinarily be in the front lines of such an event, won’t even be in the back row, because this month, including on the day of the 100th anniversary, he has to deal with an abundance of trade and other missions from Australia. These include: a close to 50-member trade mission co-led by the chairman of ANZ Bank, David Gonski, and Commonwealth Bank CEO Ian Narev ; an OurCrowd delegation of Australian investors; John Eren, Victorian minister for veteran affairs, minister for tourism and major events and minister for sport; an Erdi Group delegation; and an innovation tour for 11th grade students of Moriah College. It should be remembered that travel from Australia to Israel, depending on the route, is roughly 26 hours.
The ceremonies in which the Australian prime minister will be participating will be covered by four Australian television teams and relayed live to Australia. This will be a small measure of comfort to the many Australians on the long waiting list who had been hoping that some people who had already registered to come to Israel for the centenary celebrations might cancel. The number of invitations issued was based on the number of people that specific sites could hold.
According to Yair Nagid, who holds the cultural portfolio in the Beersheba Municipality, four television crews are coming from Australia, plus print media representatives. The total number of Australian media personnel will be in the range of 200.
The centenary celebrations will be among the most important events in the career of Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, who bears a striking resemblance to actor Kirk Douglas. This is not as surprising as it may seem. The mayor’s father, and the 100-year-old actor’s father both hail from Belarus, and the actor’s real name is Issur Danielovitch. The spelling is different, the genes are not. The mayor is not the first Israeli to have a famous Hollywood relative. Shimon Peres was related to actress Lauren Bacall. Their original surname was Persky.
■ AMBASSADOR TO the United Kingdom Mark Regev, who is an Australian expat, would have loved to attend the Battle of Beersheba centenary, but he’s stuck in London, making arrangements for the second visit this year by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, at the invitation of British Prime Minister Theresa May, will be attending the Balfour Declaration celebrations in London on November 2. Presumably, Lord Rothschild will be present at the event that will be attended by Netanyahu, which is why the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association is holding its annual Balfour Dinner at the Tel Aviv Hilton on November 8.
Rothschild, who is one of the speakers at the dinner, will be one of several titled personalities coming from Britain for the occasion. He will be accompanied by his daughter Hannah Rothschild. Guests will also be addressed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Dinner organizers are particularly pleased on the local level at the large number of Jerusalemites who have registered. In the past there’s been the equivalent of one table of Jerusalemites at best, but this year, close to 60 Jerusalemites have already registered.
■ IN ITS most recent newsletter, the Federation of the Jewish Communities of the CIS reports on the celebration last month of the 100th anniversary of Vladivostok’s Beit Sima synagogue, which is the only synagogue in Primorsky Krai region and the oldest functioning synagogue in all of Russia’s far east. It seems that there’s a global trend for centenary celebrations.
The synagogue was built in 1917 and was actively used by Vladivostok’s Jewish community until 1932, when it was “nationalized” by the Soviet regime. For the next 70 years, the building housed a chocolate factory and then a confectionery, retaining the candy smell, which prompted its nickname “Sweet Synagogue.” The new masters adapted the building to their specific needs – built storage rooms and eliminated decorative Judaica symbols.
“This is one of the most beautiful synagogues in Russia. Any place can be a synagogue, but people say they feel a special spirituality when they pray here – the place where Jews have prayed since the beginning of Jewish life in Vladivostok,” said the city’s Chief Rabbi Shimon Varakin in an interview to a Russian magazine, which published a feature article on the synagogue in honor of its centenary.
The government returned the synagogue to the city’s Jewish community in 2005. It was then in a thoroughly dilapidated and run-down condition. The walls were all moldy, and in order to hold an event in the prayer hall, the sanctuary had to be heated in advance for two consecutive days. “The roof leaked. If it was raining outside, it was raining inside, too,” Varakin reminisced.
With the help of a local sponsor, banker Vladimir Kogan, a two-and-a-half-year renovation project was undertaken. In addition to building a third level and strengthening the exterior walls, the work also focused on many of the details that made the synagogue unique: ironwork which had adorned the building’s windows for a century was restored along with the Stars of David, which were filed off during the chocolate factory tenure.
Also restored were wooden decorative frames found on sealed windows and the ornament of the Covenant Tablets, discovered under wall plaster.
The restored synagogue officially reopened in 2015. The festive event was attended by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. “Now, two years later, I see how the renovation of the synagogue changed overall community life,” said Varakin. “It’s hard to feel spiritually enlightened when you have no heating or running water. Now we feel proud of the synagogue, which also influences the community.”
At the 100th anniversary celebration, the synagogue welcomed congregants to a lively klezmer music concert by a well-known local band, Dobranoch, followed by a festive supper. The management of the synagogue conducts open-door day every Thursday with guided tours for tourists and local residents.
■ IN BIROBIDZHAN, where Stalin established an autonomous Jewish Oblast known as his Jewish homeland experiment, the Jewish presence has been enhanced with a spirituality which was absent for decades. Jews from the West who came to Birobidzhan during the Communist era were amazed to find Jews who spoke fluent Yiddish, but who in most cases were ignorant of Jewish tradition and Jewish teaching. Whereas less than a decade ago, Birobidzhan’s Jewish population numbered less than 2,000 and there was only one dilapidated synagogue, today there are at least four synagogues and somewhere in the range of 3,000 Jews, most of whom are eager to learn about Judaism.
Chabad, is naturally an influential presence there, and the Chabad chief Rabbi Eliyahu Riss, 27, oversees the building of the first public mikve (ritual bath), which he hoped would be completed in time for the 20th anniversary celebrations last month of Jewish revival, as distinct from Yiddish, in Birobidzhan, though Yiddish remains a dominant feature of Jewish life. The mikve wasn’t ready on time and is still under construction, as is the city’s first kosher restaurant.
Many former Jewish residents of Birobidzhan live in Israel. Some 20,000 of them left in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Soviet Union began to collapse.
■ IT’S NO secret that David Friedman is one of four Americans of the Jewish faith who has been sent to Israel in the role of ambassador. But the advantage that he has over his predecessors is that he’s also a kohen, a member of the priestly tribe, which puts him in great demand at religious services, because it means that there will be someone of high rank both Jewishly and generally to bless the congregation.
Joey Freudmann, who organizes Sukkot and Passover events in hotels around the country, was thrilled this past Sukkot when Friedman and his wife, Tammy, accepted his invitation to attend Sukkot services at The Sharon hotel in Herzliya Pituah, which is approximately a five-minute walk from the ambassador’s residence. The Friedmans brought some of their offspring as well, and the ambassador and his son Daniel duly blessed the congregation and later joined the members for breakfast at the hotel.
■ DEDICATED NEWSPAPER and magazine readers often have their favorite writers and look for their bylines before reading anything else. When they don’t see those bylines, they are extremely disappointed. Fans of The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman are unlikely to see his byline for a couple of weeks, because Hoffman is on his way to what he believes is making history. When he’s not writing, Hoffman is on the international lecture circuit and in frequent demand as a paid speaker – especially in his native America. Among the destinations that he has on his current tour is Hawaii, and once he has lectured there, as far as he knows, he will be the only paid lecturer speaking on Israel who will have lectured in all 50 states of the US. He is scheduled to speak at Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu on Sunday, November 5.
Most speakers just go to the big Jewish communities in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and South Florida, he says, but Hoffman has made it a point to reach out to smaller communities and tell them what is going on behind the scenes in Israel. He has felt especially appreciated in places like Little Rock, Arkansas; Bowling Green, Kentucky; and Jackson, Mississippi, where it’s rare for visiting speakers to make the case for Israel. When he spoke on Israel Independence Day in Alaska a year-and-a-half ago, it was actually still Remembrance Day, because it only became dark at around 10 p.m. Hoffman’s talk in Hawaii is co-sponsored by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, whose CEO, Russell Robinson, has been supportive of Hoffman’s quest to speak in all 50 states. Hoffman also speaks regularly on campuses, at synagogues and churches, and for organizations such as AIPAC, ADL, American Friends of Magen David Adom, Hadassah and the Jewish Federations of North America.
But as widespread as the activities of these organizations are, there are places in which not even one of these organizations is active. Chabad recently reached all 50 states with great fanfare, when it initiated a synagogue in South Dakota, says Hoffman, but he makes the point that he was there ahead of Chabad and spoke at a synagogue and a church in Sioux Falls, with a great turnout in both. “But without Chabad, I wouldn’t have been able to speak in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana in four successive days in March 2013,” he acknowledges.
Altogether, he’s spoken in a dozen countries, which, besides the US and Israel, include Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, England, Ireland, Scotland, Costa Rica and the European Parliament in Brussels.
Hoffman finds it especially rewarding to meet people who care deeply about Israel and read the Post religiously. What he may find even more rewarding at the end of this current tour is a much needed real vacation. His wife, Maayan, who is also a journalist, and whose byline can occasionally be seen in the Post, is accompanying him to Honolulu so that they can holiday together. She’s been very supportive of his going on lecture tours, said Hoffman, and they really deserve time together away from the usual hustle and bustle of their lives.
■ ISRAEL RADIO’s Yaron Enosh, one of the nation’s most ardent and best-known Grecophiles, on his most recent trip to Greece was in a Cretan small coffee shop at night listening to music when he saw an elderly man come out and sit down with a cup of coffee at one of the tables. Enosh asked if he could join him. The man welcomed him. Enosh invited him for a drink of something stronger, but the man explained that his health no longer permitted it. Then he took something out of his pocket and showed it to Enosh. It was a metal mezuza, replete with scroll.
When the Nazis came, the man told Enosh, “they took away our Jewish neighbors. One of them gave this to my father and asked him to keep it till he returned. He didn’t return, and my father kept it until his dying day and gave it to me to give to some member of that Matitias family who may have survived. Do you know any of them?” Enosh said that he didn’t, and the man told him that he shows the mezuza to every Israeli that he meets. “I’m 87 years old, and before I die I would like to give it to a member of the family.” All that Enosh could do to help him realize this ambition was to tell him that he would broadcast the story on his weekly radio program, in the hope that it might bring the desired result.
■ SOME OF her colleagues were surprised to learn that Rhona Burns is a published poet, whose book of poems Rubble of the Earth, which is written in Hebrew, is due to be launched on Saturday evening, October 28, at Hamiffal, 3 Hama’aravim Street, Jerusalem. Several poems in the book have appeared in various publications, and have now come together in a single book, which hopefully will be the first of many. The 30-year-old poet, who was raised in Haifa, and who is essentially an academic, has studied in both European and Israeli academic institutions, and after a stint as editor of The Jerusalem Post Magazine has returned to academia to study Zionist history.
■ SINGER, COMPOSER and instrumentalist Kobi Oz has an aunt whose medical condition requires the constant attendance of a caregiver. The aunt and the Filipina caregiver are devoted to each other, so much so that when the aunt’s health took a temporary turn for the worse and she had to be hospitalized, the caregiver was completely distraught. The aunt told her to take the day off and go to the beach to clear her head. Later, she asked her how she had spent her day. “I did what you told me to do,” replied the caregiver. “I washed my hair in the sea.” Just another illustration of the importance of language and the need to check that the people we talk to actually understand what we mean.
■ IT’S DIFFICULT to determine where recently inaugurated president of Yeshiva University Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman fits into the bringing coals to Newcastle category. The New York-born and YU-educated rabbi, who is currently visiting Israel, came on aliya in 2008 and was passionate about living here. He had previously been the rabbi of the Jewish Center of Manhattan and had been successful in building up the congregation. Despite his popularity there, he decided to move with his wife and five children to Israel. To add to his various degrees from YU, he also earned a PhD from the Hebrew University, headed the Heichal Shlomo Jewish Heritage Center in Jerusalem, taught at Herzog College in the West Bank and delivered lectures wherever he was invited.
But when Richard Joel decided to step down from the presidency of YU, and Berman’s alma mater reached out to him to take Joel’s place, Berman found it impossible to refuse. So it was back to the Big Apple. He was officially named president in November last year, took up his tenure in June of this year, and in September was officially installed amid great pomp and ceremony.
While in Israel this week he met with President Reuven Rivlin in the latter’s office. Berman was accompanied by former ambassador to the US and former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon, who is now a YU faculty member. The conversation was largely on the integration of Torah studies and other Jewish subjects with academic excellence in secular subjects.
■ THE POLICE have been subjected to a lot of criticism lately, but Zohar Sukenik of Tel Aviv has only words of praise. Sukenik is a volunteer with United Hatzalah, and uses an emergency electric bicycle outfitted with first-response equipment, lights and sirens. The bike was stolen from an apartment complex on Malchei Yisrael Street in Tel Aviv on the first day of Sukkot. The theft was reported to the police, who succeeded in tracking down the bicycle and returned it to Sukenik near the end of the holiday period. She was ecstatic that it had been located and returned to her so quickly. Without it she felt almost helpless in her desire to help the sick and the injured. “The theft severely hampered my ability to help people and save lives. I want to thank the police, who invested a lot of resources to locate and return the bicycle to me.” She had to replace the medical supplies which had disappeared, or perhaps been thrown away by the thief, but she was happy to be in the position of responding to people who needed her help.
The theft was filmed by security cameras near the building. The following Sunday the police caught the suspects who stole the lifesaving bicycle. The two suspects, aged 44 and 41, were brought to a municipal court in Tel Aviv for their primary hearing.