No way out

Elchanan Berkovitz found that new immigrants, lacking relevant information about the "system"are often taken advantage of by government offices.

Lacking relevant information about the "system" in their native languages, new immigrants are often taken advantage of by government offices, municipal bodies and private businesses. And so it was for Elchanan Berkovitz, who, against all logic and his own financial best interests, built what he thought would be a dream house in Kedar, a community settlement on the edge of the Judean Desert, south of Ma'aleh Adumim. But with the death of his beloved Rivka in October 2005, that dream has turned into a nightmare that has left the 74-year-old Berkovitz nearly broke and embroiled in a legal dispute with the contractor who built the house. Berkovitz, a retired psychotherapist from Manchester, England, and his wife, Rivka, a writer and musician from the Netherlands who lived for many years in England, made aliya in December 2002. The pair had both previously lived in Israel - Berkovitz from 1953 to 1962, and Rivka in the early 1970s. The couple made news in August 27, 2002, by getting married in Netanya's Park Hotel, the site of the 2002 Seder massacre. At the time Berkovitz told The Jerusalem Post that they picked the Park Hotel for their wedding "in order to make a statement that terrorism won't work - and that you have to davka show your enemies that you are not afraid." Settling in Ma'aleh Adumim, the Berkovitzes became well known in the community for their numerous voluntary efforts. "Rivka had cancer when we married," Berkovitz recalls. "She was a very brave person. We had a good life in Ma'aleh Adumim but as Rivka started getting weaker, she wanted to be somewhere private, in a house with a garden and space." Berkovitz looked around and the couple decided to build in Kedar - on a spot where they could see the Temple Mount from one side of the house and the Dead Sea from the other. They went to contractor Avraham Cohen of Alef Caf Rimonim of Ma'aleh Adumim and signed a deal for a 150 sq.m. home, to be completed in six months. The cost of the house as stated in the contract was NIS 834,000, plus NIS 11,900 for the lawyers and $28,000 to join Kedar. "I know it was a crazy idea," Berkovitz says, "but I truly believed that the more she had to live for, the longer she would live. It made no sense financially what we did. But some things are not about money. I did it because I felt it would give her some extra time." Even before the Berkovitzes signed the contract with the contractor, their lawyer at the time, Dani Shalom of Ma'aleh Adumim, advised them not to sign. "It was a standard contract for the benefit of the contractor. I recommended changes but the contractor did not accept them. In these cases, I tell my clients not to sign and find another contractor. But Berkovitz signed anyway against my advice. I did not represent him afterwards." "Time was running out," Berkovitz relates. "I couldn't wait anymore. Rivka was getting weaker. Here was a contractor who was willing to have the house ready in six month. I felt I had to sign, so I did." The Berkovitzes sold their apartment in Ma'aleh Adumim, with an agreement to be out on July 21, 2005. On July 21, 2005, Berkovitz made the last payment on the house. He and Rivka loaded all their possessions into a moving van and drove out to Kedar. "I went to Cohen to get the key to the house and he told me I owed him another NIS 43,000," Berkovitz goes on. "I asked, 'for what?' And he said for the air conditioner and various changes we made. He did not provide an itemized list. We were stunned and refused to pay. But Rivka was left standing in the heat. She was ill. I called Dani Shalom and he was able to get the contractor down to NIS 15,000, in 10 payments. We were not happy about this. But it was the only thing we could do to enable us to move in." Rivka Berkovitz wrote out 10 checks, totalling NIS 15,000 and the couple was given the key. Her husband proceeded to the police station in Ma'aleh Adumim to file a complaint that the money had been extorted from them for fictitious costs. The police officer at the station said he should see a lawyer and recommended Pinchas Cohen of Jerusalem. Berkovitz went to see Cohen. "Berkovitz bought a house and paid for it in full," Cohen says. "I looked over the contract and saw that he paid the full amount. He and his wife were exploited. Their distress and innocence was taken advantage of - as well as the fact that they were new immigrants with language difficulties. He was forced to give the contractor checks he wasn't entitled to." On August 30, 2005, Cohen wrote a letter to Avraham Cohen declaring that the checks were obtained under duress and gave him five days to return them before his client canceled them. He received a reply from the contractor's lawyer, Zvi Mandel, stating that his client had acted honestly and that Berkovitz had signed a contract linked to the cost of living index. Plus Berkovitz had made changes to the original plan that added to the cost. The checks were not returned. "Rivka and I believed we had paid it all. The lawyer Pinchas Cohen told us we paid it all. Nothing was ever written down about extras in the contract. We never got an itemized list. Suddenly, out of the blue, the contractor asks us for extra money. This is corruption," Berkovitz states. Avraham Cohen tried to deposit the checks. After all but one bounced, he went to the bailiff's office (Hotza'a Lafoal). On May 28, Berkovitz received a letter from the bailiff's office, dated May 11, that he had 21 days (until June 6) to pay or his furniture would be confiscated to cover the debt. "I went to the bailiff's office and told them I was never informed of any proceedings against me," Berkovitz continues. "I told them the letter was mailed to my previous address in Ma'aleh Adumim, even though I am registered with the Ministry of the Interior as living in Kedar, and therefore only reached me on May 28. I asked for more time, but was told no." Berkovitz discovered that the law says that in the case of bad checks, there is no need for a hearing. The holder of the checks automatically gets a judgment and the bailiff's office can then garnish or confiscate to the amount of the debt. With no money left, Berkovitz sought help from legal aid. "No one ever told me that I should have filed a civil suit against the contractor after the checks were canceled to forestall a judgment. I also went back to the police to get a copy of my complaint. I thought that would help bolster my case. Only then I found out that a file had never been opened. I thought that when the police take a statement, a file is automatically opened. I didn't know that this is not how it works in Israel," he relates sadly. "Elchanan is a god-fearing man," says Rabbi Ariel Bibi, Berkovitz's spiritual adviser. "He and his wife only wanted to help others. It is hard to look at what has happened to him. He has a different mentality. He doesn't quite understand how things work in Israel. He never anticipated anything like this. He was sure everything would go as it should and the opposite has happened. He sees the system as going against him." When contacted by In Jerusalem, contractor Avraham Cohen was indignant. "Berkovitz owes me money and he is complaining to the press. He gave me checks that bounced. He is a thief and a cheat. He canceled a deal." "Berkowitz owes my client NIS 43,000," explains Cohen's lawyer, Mandel. "These were charges for cost of living linkage which were written in the contract and changes he made to the plan. He received a list of these changes from my client with the cost before they were carried out. My client compromised and agreed to ask for only about one third of his debt. But Berkovitz violated this agreement and his checks bounced. Therefore, we now want the full NIS 43,000 and have filed a lawsuit for the rest of the debt." Broke, bereaved and confused, Berkovitz decided to settle with the bailiff. On June 4 he went to the office and paid the debt on the canceled checks. He was informed on June 7 that the Jerusalem Magistrate's Court had decided to close the case. However, at press time it was not clear whether contractor Cohen will drop the lawsuit filed for the remainder of the NIS 43,000. Berkovitz has also decided to sell the house and its contents, and move from Kedar. "My friends who love and care about me persuaded me to give up for the sake of my health and sanity. I am not made of steel. My beloved wife is gone. I am falling apart. I can't sleep at night. I don't eat. I am afraid to go home. I don't want to be beleaguered and harassed anymore. I need to focus on rebuilding my life. It makes me so sad to realized that the system is too corrupt for me to win," Berkovitz concludes. "This is a case study on how the system doesn't give the client the information he needs and deserves," responds Ran Melamed, deputy director of social policy and communication at Yedid, the Association for Community Empowerment. "Although Berkowiz made his biggest mistake by signing the contract he was advised not to sign, unfortunately this happens when people feel pressured to buy now. We can see that the police didn't do their job properly - not to mention the contractor and the bailiff's office." Because he paid his debt to the bailiff's office directly, Melamed says, and did not use the legal protection of a lawyer - who would have ensured that he received a receipt stating this is the final payment - this may not be the end of they story. "He may be surprised to see that the contractor will still chase after him," Melamed concludes. 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