“I’m here at a basketball game for the first time in my life. It’s impossible to put into words the energies that fill the air," said Meshi-Zahav.

ZAKA FOUNDER Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (left) receives an award from Maccabi Tel Aviv chairman Shimon Mizrahi. (photo credit: ZAKA)
ZAKA FOUNDER Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (left) receives an award from Maccabi Tel Aviv chairman Shimon Mizrahi.
(photo credit: ZAKA)
In the years since his transformation from an anti-Zionist leader of demonstrations to a pro-Zionist organizer of rescue missions, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav has lit an Independence Day beacon on Mount Herzl, has escorted his sons for their induction ceremonies into the army, has led search and rescue units to help find survivors of disasters in various countries and has been a guest at diplomatic receptions. But until last week, when he received an award from Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Club, he had never been to a basketball game. If anyone had asked him to define a slam dunk, he would not have known what they were talking about.
The powers that be at Maccabi Tel Aviv decided to present him with the award at Yad Eliyahu Arena before the EuroLeague game against Red Star Belgrade.
The award was presented to Meshi-Zahav by Maccabi Tel Aviv chairman Shimon Mizrahi in recognition of the outstanding work that ZAKA does at home and abroad.
Excited by the pervading atmosphere, which he had not previously experienced, Meshi-Zahav said: “I’m here at a basketball game for the first time in my life. It’s impossible to put into words the energies that fill the air. It was very moving to see and hear the great appreciation of Maccabi fans for the important activities of the ZAKA volunteers.”
The ovation of the crowd had indeed been astounding – the kind of cheering usually reserved for a pop star. Meshi-Zahav lapped it up and didn’t forget to have himself photographed with some of the top players and with former Maccabi Tel Aviv captain Tal Brody, who famously said in 1977, after Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated CSKA Moscow: “We’re on the map and we’re going to stay on the map.”
■ THERE HAVE been four United States ambassadors of the Jewish faith serving in Israel. The first, Martin Indyk, was actually appointed twice and was later the US envoy to the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Next was Daniel Kurtzer, who had previously served as US ambassador to Egypt. No. 3 was Dan Shapiro, who is still living in Israel a year after completing his stint and is frequently called upon to comment on US politics. But the fourth, David Friedman, the current US ambassador, may be the first to serve at the relocated US Embassy in Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, if the declaration by US Vice President Mike Pence to the effect that the embassy will be moved before the end of 2019 proves to be true.
When Friedman took office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to him by his full Hebrew name, David Melech. With a name like that, it was almost in the cards that he would be the first Jewish US ambassador to inaugurate and serve in the US Embassy in Jerusalem.
Under the circumstances, Indyk may be having an attack of sour grapes. Indyk tweeted this week: “Trump is indefensible and Tillerson incompetent. so US ambassadors are told to keep their heads down and try to do their jobs. Little wonder they’re heading for the exits. How does this make America great?” Indyk was responding to an article in The New York Times stating that in embassies around the world, some of America’s diplomats are being dressed down by their host nations. Others are considering leaving their posts.
News junkies around the world are well aware that there is little love lost between US President Donald Trump and The New York Times.
■ GETTING BACK to the Pence visit, Sara Netanyahu and Karen Pence, who were just getting acquainted, hit it off nicely on Monday morning when they attended a meeting with members of the Israeli organization for art therapy. The art therapists demonstrated the unique approaches that have been developed in Israel and held a joint art exercise in which each participant drew part of a common sketch.
Karen Pence is an art therapist and meets with colleagues from around the world as part of her efforts to promote art therapy as a valuable profession.
Sara Netanyahu, who is a child psychologist, said that she shares Pence’s deep commitment to art therapy and is a true believer in its healing power.
Netanyahu also believes in drama therapy and in animal-petting therapy.
Netanyahu praised Pence’s Art Therapy Healing with the Heart initiative, which she said is helping to spread awareness and which encourages a next generation of professionals.
Although the two women have known about each other for many years, this was the first time that they actually met and got to talk to each other, discovering in the process that they have a lot in common. Pence explained why she had chosen art therapy as her second lady initiative.
She made that choice in the realization that art therapists are greatly misunderstood.
“Art therapy is not arts and crafts,” she said, adding that most art therapists have a master’s or doctor’s degree and are mental health professionals.
Art therapy is not meant to supersede any other therapies, she clarified. “It is meant to be a supplement.”
■ ON TUESDAY, when Vice President Pence called on President Reuven Rivlin, his entourage included three Sabbath-observant Jews: Friedman, Jason Greenblatt, who is Trump’s special representative for international negotiations, and Tom Rose, a top Pence adviser, who has had a close friendship with the veep that spans more than quarter of a century. Rose is a former publisher and CEO of The Jerusalem Post and The Jerusalem Report. Of the three who sat alongside each other, only Rose wore a kippa.
Another senior official who came to Israel to be with Pence and who, like the trio mentioned above, also happens to be a Sabbath-observant Jew sat on the other side of the room.
Despite his American accent, he was part of the Israeli delegation, even though he is currently stationed in the US. The man in question is Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer.
To add yet another Jewish element to the event, the table at which Pence sat to sign the guest book once belonged to British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who was born Jewish but was later baptized, after his father had a quarrel with the Bevis Marks Synagogue committee. Disraeli became a practicing Anglican, but never denied his Jewish roots or attempted to change his distinctly Jewish name. The table was gifted to the President’s Residence close to 30 years ago.
■ IT USED to be that the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv was the main venue for culinary promotions of the traditional foods of their countries by foreign ambassadors. But over the past year or two, the diplomatic community has moved down the road to the Sheraton Hotel. Such events are usually held in conjunction with promotions of tourism and visits to Israel by tourism ministers or heads of tourism boards.
Coming up in the first week of February is a Nepal evening hosted by Ambassador Niranjan Kumar Thapa and his wife, Nirmala. Lentils, grains – mainly rice – curries, and meat, poultry or vegetarian steamed dumplings are among the staples of the Nepalese kitchen.
■ THIS COMING Friday, January 26, is Australia Day, and Linda Dessau, the Jewish governor of Victoria, which is the home state of the writer of this column, will be holding Open Day at Government House, which is located in Melbourne, the home city of the largest Jewish population in Australia. Visitors will be able to tour the State Apartments and enjoy a range of free family activities, displays and performances throughout the spacious grounds. Tables and chairs will be set out on the lawns, food vendors will be on hand. There will be special activities for children. There are ceremonial trees that were planted by royal visitors and by previous governors, and there will be all-day performances by some of Australia’s leading entertainers.
Although Dessau is the first Jewish and first female governor of Victoria, there have been Jews of higher rank in top positions. Sir Isaac Isaacs was governor- general of Australia from 1931 to 1936 after having previously served on the High Court of Australia from 1906 to 1931, including as chief justice.
More recently, Sir Zelman Cowan served as governor-general of Australia from 1977 to 1982. Like Isaacs, he was an expert in law, but whereas Isaac’s expertise was exercised in the law court, Cowan’s was in academia.
Dessau’s background is also in law.
She served as a judge in the Family Court of Australia from 1995 to 2013.
Australian expats living in Israel may have some private celebrations of Australia Day, but unlike their colleagues from other countries in the diplomatic corps, Australian ambassadors do not host national day receptions, unless the date coincides with the visit to Israel by an Australian prime minister or foreign minister.
■ APROPOS AUSTRALIA, the education division of Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael- Jewish National Fund brought to Israel a large delegation of school teachers – not all of them Jewish – who teach in Jewish schools and colleges in Australia and took them on a dream tour from the extreme north to the extreme south of the country.
They went to Kibbutz Misgav Am on the Lebanese border and Kibbutz Nahal Oz near the Gaza border. They went bird-watching at Tzipori and in the Hula Valley. They had a Kabbalistic experience in Safed, and learned from a female principal of a Beduin school in the South what it means to be a woman in the Beduin community.
In Jerusalem they visited Ammunition Hill, Yad Vashem and Herzl’s tomb. They were in the Arava, Katzrin on the Golan Heights and the Safari Park in Ramat Gan. And, of course, they were given a taste of Tel Aviv, which is nothing like any of the places mentioned above and yet so close to nearly all of them.
They met JNF educators and officials, including JNF world chairman Danny Atar, who told them that the JNF was happy to give them the tools for a more in-depth understanding of what Israel is all about.
It wasn’t all travel and absorbing information. There was also a lot of fun and dancing. Different aspects of the tour made different impressions on different people. For Irene Whitten of Moriah College in Sydney, whose grandfather was an Australian light horseman who served in Palestine and Sinai, it was “poignant to be able to walk in the land in which he fought, to see it and to feel the emotion.”
Rob de Marco of Bialik College in Melbourne was blown away by the manner in which Israelis have transformed desert areas into places of lush vegetation and was inspired to bring vegetation into the classroom.
Lindi Bloch of the Emanuel School in Sydney was emotionally moved to find happy Israeli schoolchildren near the Gaza border who took pleasure in every classroom experience.
■ THE BEDUIN community is often subjected to negative treatment by both the government and the media.
Nonetheless, there are good vibes and cooperation in certain fields, such as lifesaving services.
A team of 13 Beduin women and four men from the Arab town of Shibli- Umm el-Ghanam recently completed their training to become EMS first responders in order to be able to help out with medical emergencies in their vicinity. The new graduates are part of United Hatzalah, the national EMS volunteer organization whose corps of volunteer responders includes Jews ranging the gamut from ultra-Orthodox to secular, Christians, Muslims and Druse. All are united in the mission to save lives.
“The new group of volunteers are very close-knit and its members were very excited to learn these new skills that enable them to provide EMS services in their communities,” said EMS instructor Samara Allah. “The women in the group are especially excited, as it allows them to help those in need around them, something which they all have a strong desire to do.”
United Hatzalah founder and president Eli Beer welcomed the new volunteers, saying: “One of the main reasons why we felt that this project was important is because the women who make up the crux of this course often stay at home or work in their towns during the day, much more than the men do. Thus, these new volunteers will be able to provide an emergency medical response in their towns during the daytime hours, something which has been lacking thus far.”
In addition to providing EMS services in Shibli-Umm el-Ghanam, they will also go further afield to nearby Arab and Jewish towns, including Kfar Tavor and Ein Dor.
United Hatzalah is working to increase the number of volunteers in the Galilee and the periphery in an effort to reduce EMS response times across these areas, especially in outlying Beduin villages that often have long waits for ambulances, said Beer.
“It is important to us to provide fast and professional emergency medical response to all of Israel’s citizens, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity or gender,” he said.
■ ISRAEL IS chock-a-block with retired rabbis and cantors, so the competition for those who want to continue with what they were doing in the old country, even if they are willing to do so on an honorary basis, is pretty stiff. Nonetheless, there are those who succeed in creating an imprint in the congregations that they join by giving lectures, leading prayers when there is no full-time cantor or none at all, teaching a daf yomi group, or teaching bar mitzva boys their Torah portion. Some of the immigrant rabbis are even sufficiently fortunate to become the spiritual leaders of the congregations they join.
Among the clergy who have not only found an outlet but are appreciated for what they do is cantor Michael Plaskow MBE, a retired London United Synagogue minister who joined the Young Israel Synagogue of North Netanya, where he has been giving a daf yomi lesson since May 2005.
Technically, Plaskow is a returning Sabra. He was born in British Mandate- ruled Palestine, but his family moved to London. Plaskow, together with his wife, Phyllis, returned to the land of his birth in 2000. In London, he was well known for his 43 years of service to the Woodside Synagogue in Finchley. He was a freeman of the City of London, chaplain to Kisharon special needs school, chaplain to the Jewish Deaf Association, and was honored by Queen Elizabeth with an MBE (Member of Her Majesty’s Most Excellent Order of the British Empire).
In Netanya, his students and other congregants gathered to present him with a certificate of appreciation.
Studying a daf yomi – a page of Talmud – is actually a big deal, because it takes seven-and-a-half years to complete one entire cycle of studying the Babylonian Talmud at the rate of one page per day. The certificate, designed by Anthony Felix, one of the daf yomi regulars, is in the form of a page from the Talmud.
The certificate, presented in the first week of January in appreciation of Plaskow’s dedication over the past 12 years, was signed by Rabbi Boruch Boudilovsky, the spiritual leader of the congregation, and chairman of the board Hilton Share. Netanya is known for its large French-speaking community, but it also has a large and active English-speaking community.
■ NO MATTER how well intentioned, there’s a certain risk in showing a foreign language film about a poet, songwriter, composer and carpenter to an audience familiar with the original.
That’s what happened last week when a beautifully made Polish film about Mordechai Gebirtig was shown at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.
The screening was a joint effort of the Austrian Cultural Forum and the Polish Cultural Institute. One of the reasons that they joined forces was that when Gebirtig was born, Poland had lost its national identity and was under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austrians claim him as one of theirs, and the Poles, with their identity now restored, claim him as one of theirs.
There are monuments to his memory in Krakow, where he was born in April 1877 and murdered by the Nazis in June 1942. Many of his songs, which were originally written in Yiddish, have been translated into Polish and are sung in Polish cabarets, where neither the singers nor the audience know the identity of the composer who wrote both the lyrics and the music, or realize that he was writing about Jewish life in Krakow before and during the war.
Piotr Szalsza, the director of the film, was present to hear the protests of people in the packed auditorium who were familiar with all the melodies.
Some people sang along very softly, but were angry that these songs had been presented in the film in Polish and that fragments of only one or two had been sung in Yiddish.
Szalsza, who is a Polish national of Jewish background who lives in Austria, said that songs are translated all over the world. The film was essentially a Polish documentary, and therefore the songs were sung in Polish.
If it had been an Israeli documentary, the songs would have been sung in Hebrew. As it is, he pointed out, he is so far the only filmmaker who has made a documentary about Gebirtig.
These arguments did not placate the audience, but the irony was that among themselves, most of them spoke Polish; some spoke Hebrew, but very few spoke Yiddish.
■ PRIME MINISTER Netanyahu did not get to Davos in time to take pride in listening to the session on cybersecurity at which the top cyber researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev spoke about the impact of artificial intelligence – the good, the bad and the future. They delivered their address at the annual gathering of the Economic Forum on Tuesday afternoon.
They were one of only two Israeli delegations invited to come to Switzerland to make presentations at the high-profile Davos event.
The BGU researchers’ session, titled “Cyber-Forensics with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev,” was part of the IdeasLab forum in Davos. The IdeasLab connects big ideas with big thinkers in an engaging session format where discussion leaders pitch cutting-edge scientific innovations.
The BGU cyber-research experts discussed how both hackers and defenders are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and spoke of how AI-enabled attacks are no match for current defenses.
BGU president Prof. Rivka Carmi termed the invitation to Davos as “a significant milestone for the university and further acknowledgment that BGU is the place to go for cutting-edge cybersecurity innovation.”
The BGU speakers included Prof.Yuval Elovici, Prof. Bracha Shapira and Prof. Lior Rokach. Elovici explained how attackers utilize AI to render their attacks undetectable.
Shapira spoke of how defenders use AI to catch abnormalities and deviations, and Rokach discussed adversarial AI, and how attackers have started an AI arms race, as they seek to circumvent systems. He also gave his audience recommendations on how defenders can prevent such circumvention.
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