Grapevine: Stars and singers sparkle for Israel

David Wiessman, chairman of Israel's major fuel company, Dor Alon, reminisces about his rags-to-riches experience at a US gathering.

THERE USED to be a joke that started with the question: "How do you make a small fortune in Israel?" The answer was: "You come with a big one." But that no longer applies, because Israel, despite her lack of natural resources, is chock-a-block with rags to riches stories. Many, but not all, are based on information technology. Some are based on shrewd investments and on taking advantage of changing situations such as the deregulation of fuel. David Wiessman, the chairman of Israel's major fuel company, Dor Alon, and of Alon USA, was the keynote speaker in Houston at the annual gala of consuls general from all over the US, which is hosted each year by the representatives of another country. This year it was Israel's turn, and because the event was in Texas where Alon USA has extensive interests including the sponsorship of major community projects, he was asked to deliver the address. Weissman chose to talk about Israel's economy and the tremendous opportunities it offers for those who want to avail themselves. He also talked about his own company, reminiscing back to September 1993 when Alon started with a single gas station in which he personally used to wash and fuel cars in the full service lane. Today, he heads a multi-billion dollar diversified enterprise. In 1999, Alon expanded beyond Israel to North America, where it now trades on the New York Stock Exchange. Success in the US did not come overnight, said Wiessman, but was attributable to what he called "the personal touch." No one has yet invented a good remote control system to manage a company, he said, adding that he spends between seven to 10 days a month in Dallas which puts a strain both on him and his family. Wiessman shared the Alon Group's philosophy which is also a major component in its success factor: "Only those who take risks and reach far can find out how far they can get," he said. "We have learned that the best way to foresee the future is to invent it." On the evening prior to the consuls general event, Wiessman held a fund raiser for the Dallas Opera where guests included Julie Andrews and Elton John. IT SOUNDED almost like a meeting of AA, only in this case, it was a meeting of EA - not Alcoholics Anonymous, but Entrepreneurs Anonymous. The speaker was Eyal Benjamin. The venue was the residence of Australian Ambassador James Larsen and the occasion was the 10th anniversary of ISEMI, the Institute for the Study of Entrepreneurship and Management Innovation that was founded by Prof. Liora Katzenstein in partnership with Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia. After a series of speakers, a former student of the Institute was summoned to the podium. "My name is Eyal Benjamin and I'm an entrepreneur," he said. Although the word was going around that entrepreneurs are now acceptable, he joked, "I couldn't find too many people who would let their daughter marry one." A serial entrepreneur, Benjamin disclosed that anyone who thinks that entrepreneurship is only about making money is mistaken. It's a myth, he said. "It's just a cover story for those who desire to change the world." Benjamin, an engineer by training and an entrepreneur since age 22, was in a period of transition with his third venture behind him when he first met Katzenstein. She invited him to join ISEMI, but at first he declined. "Two years and $5 million later, I decided that she might have been right." He finally did join ISEMI and he founded additional successful companies. "Entrepreneurship is an addiction," he confessed. "Once you're in you can't get out." But he did make the distinction between entrepreneurship and management. "Entrepreneurship is fun. Management is not." ART LOVERS from across the country will make their way to Jerusalem on Thursday for the opening of an exhibition at the Israel Museum of the early works of celebrated artist Reuven Rubin. Among those attending will be Valeria Maria Stoica, the ambassador of Romania, the country of Rubin's birth. Romania was important in Rubin's life not only because that was where he spent his formative years, but because it was the place to which he returned as an ambassador for Israel. Rubin was Israel's first ambassador to Romania. Also present will be Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and his mother Aura Herzog, the founder of the Council for a Beautiful Israel, and the widow of Israel's sixth president, Chaim Herzog. The Herzog and Rubin families have a decades-long bond of friendship, in addition to which Aura Herzog is an honorary fellow of the Israel Museum. The exhibition, under the title "Prophets and Visionaries: Reuven Rubin's early years 1914-23," showcases a lesser known part of Rubin's career. Some of the paintings on display have never been shown before, a factor that will have a magnetic effect on Rubin aficionados. Nearly all the works in the exhibition were painted in Romania and represent Biblical themes and Zionist ideals. Rubin family members attending the opening will include his ever-youthful, American-born wife Esther Rubin who, though in her mid-nineties, remains forever beautiful. THE JERUSALEM POST'S political correspondent, Gil Hoffman, got an excited call from Washington, DC, on Tuesday. On the line was 'Post' columnist Uri Dan, whose book about Ariel Sharon came out two weeks ago. Dan wanted to give a copy of the book to US President George W. Bush - a difficult feat in an age of hyper-security. Luckily for Dan, when he arrived at the White House covering Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit, he was spotted by Bush's spokesman Tony Snow, Dan's former colleague at Fox News. Dan has a collection of menus from state dinners and lunches signed by world leaders who met with Israeli prime ministers. Continuing a tradition of his predecessors, Olmert asked Bush at the end of their meeting to sign a menu for Dan. Upon hearing Dan's name, Bush told Olmert that he had just received his book from Snow and that the memories it gave him about Sharon brought tears to his eyes. IN CASE anyone is wondering what Ra'anan Gissin, the former media adviser to Ariel Sharon, is doing other than appearing regularly on Galia Albin's television show and as a panelist at media-related conferences, he's currently one of the foreign press coordinators for the seventh annual Herzliya Conference that is being held from January 21-24. The Herzliya Conference, organized by the Interdisciplinary Center's Institute for Policy and Strategy, has become the most prestigious and widely-publicized conference in Israel with the participation of Israel's top political, defense, business and academic leadership as well as members of the diplomatic community and dignitaries from abroad. In many respects, the Herzliya Conference sets Israel's agenda for the year ahead and for this reason attracts extraordinary local and foreign media coverage. Gissin is at the heart of all this - so for a few months at least, it won't be all that different from being in the Prime Minister's Office. IT'S NOT every day that a mayor gets a chance to play Cupid. When that opportunity presented itself to former Israeli consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, currently the mayor of Kiryat Yam, he seized the moment. It all started when local resident Kobi Attias wanted to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Liz Buhbut, who happens to be a Kiryat Yam municipal employee. Attias was looking to do something a little out of the ordinary, and asked the mayor if he could use his office to create a romantic setting in which to pop the question. Sisso immediately agreed. Attias went to work getting the ring and the flowers and all that remained was to find a reason to get Buhbut into the office. In order to ensure that she would be fully surprised Sisso summoned her for a reprimand. Buhbut was already upset because she had gone out for a romantic, candlelit dinner with Attias the previous evening to celebrate the second anniversary of their relationship, and she had expected the evening to end with a proposal - but it didn't. She had been in tears when they said their goodnights to each other. Now, on top of the disappointment, the mayor was going to rap her over the knuckles. She entered the office with trepidation. The mayor's swivel chair was turned with its back to the door. Suddenly it swung around, and the occupant was not Shmuel Sisso but Kobi Attias, replete with flowers and ring. Needless to say, Sisso will be invited to the wedding. ISRAEL'S CURRENT consul general in Los Angeles, Ehud Danoch, has been busy drumming up interest in Hollywood in utilizing Israeli sites as locations for shooting films. A six-member Hollywood team is due in Israel this week to explore the possibilities. The team includes director and script writer Alexander Payne, who in 2005 won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay for Sideways, which received nominations in four other categories. Danoch, who has amazing connections in Tinseltown, was responsible during the war in Lebanon for initiating the full-page, anti-terror advertisement in the Los Angeles Times, Variety and Hollywood Reporter signed by 84 Hollywood personalities including leading film stars, producers, directors, and media moguls. The text of the advertisement read: "We the undersigned are pained and devastated by the civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon caused by terrorist actions initiated by terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. If we do not succeed in stopping terrorism around the world, chaos will rule and innocent people will continue to die. We need to support democratic societies and stop terrorism at all costs." Interviewed by Tom Tugend for The Jewish Journal soon after his arrival in Los Angeles, Danoch - a lawyer by profession on his first diplomatic assignment - targeted the entertainment industry as one of his major concerns. He started meeting people to learn how Hollywood works, and in the process discovered exactly where to put his finger on the pulse. AND IN Los Angeles this week, Israeli bigwigs were beating a path in one particular direction. It obviously doesn't matter how important one is - there's always someone who commands a little more attention. Thus nearly all the Israeli ministers, plus some other Israeli VIPs attending the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in Los Angeles put in requests for meetings with the governor of California, former strongman and film star Arnold Schwarzenegger. One of the lucky ones to meet the governor was Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. Despite his popularity and his close relationship to the Kennedy clan, Schwarzenegger can never be president of the US because he was not born there. Schwarzenegger, who is just beginning his second and final term, has still not climbed as far as he can go on the American political tree, but it's somehow doubtful that he will follow in the footsteps of German-born Henry Kissinger. Then again, who knows, maybe he could be a future secretary of state, and those photo opportunities may prove to be a sound political investment? ALSO IN Los Angeles this week, Carole Solomon, who chairs the Jewish Agency's board of governors, received congratulatory comments on being named by the Forward as one of the top 50 American Jews. Solomon, who has homes in both Israel and the US, was cited for her dedication to the people in the north during the war in Lebanon. According to the citation: "Within a few days of the first Hizbullah rockets falling on northern Israel, Carole Solomon was on the ground, in the bunkers, determining just where Jews around the world could best be able to help the besieged Israelis. The Israeli government was widely criticized for abandoning the needs of the home front, but Solomon and a few other philanthropic leaders made sure there were charitable dollars to fill at least some of the holes. As chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the world's largest and most broadly representative Jewish philanthropy, Solomon took a lead role in coordinating the worldwide effort. Within a few weeks, she had put together some $300 million in commitments from American Jewish charitable federations - a sum roughly equal to the entire annual budget of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency. Since being elected to her position in 2003 - the first woman to ever take the spot - Solomon has developed a reputation for skillful, low-key consensus-building. That's no small achievement. Surveys consistently show passion for Israel's needs gradually declining among American Jews. With deft negotiations, Solomon has ensured that American Jewish dollars haven't similarly declined." Some of the other people on the Forward list include deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, politicians Jane Harman and Joseph Lieberman, Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University, Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, writers Elie Wiesel and Philip Roth, philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman, ADL national director Abe Foxman, American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations Malcolm Hoenlein and former US envoy Dennis Ross. A surprise name on the list is that of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen aka Borat, who is persona non grata in Kazakhstan, but who qualifies for the list by virtue of the fact that he has purchased a home in Los Angeles where he is living with his fiance, Isla Fisher, who is preparing to convert to Judaism. ON THE local front, Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, is preparing for the inauguration next Sunday of its International School for Jewish Peoplehood, the brainchild of the museum's chairman of the board of governors, Leonid Nevzlin, who came to the museum's rescue when it was in danger of closing down for lack of funds. Nevzlin is one of several Russian oligarchs who amassed enormous wealth in the aftermath of the fall of the Iron Curtain and who, in addition to their diverse business activities, have engaged in widespread philanthropy both in Israel and abroad. Nevzlin and two of his partners established the Nadav fund which, aside from being an acronym of their names, also means benefactor in Hebrew. The school will add a new dimension to Beth Hatefutsoth in that it will enable the expansion of the museum into a world center of Jewish peoplehood facilitating dialogue between Israel and Jewish communities abroad as well as all parts of the Jewish world among themselves. The school will act as a driving force and an international hub for a variety of educational activities and special programs and will encourage awareness, connection and commitment in the younger generation and those that come after it towards the preservation of the history and the continuity of the Jewish People. The school will be opened in the presence of Education Minister Yuli Tamir. The founding director of the school is Dr. Shlomi Ravid.