Grapevine June 24, 2020: A new face at the King David

Movers and shakers in Israeli society.

PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN with Maria and Janusz Makuch in Jerusalem in 2018. (photo credit: COURTESY KRAKOW JEWISH CULTURE FESTIVAL)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN with Maria and Janusz Makuch in Jerusalem in 2018.
The Dan Hotels are again open for business. The chain’s Haifa and Herzliya facilities are already open, and Jerusalemites and visitors to the capital will, as of July 2, be able to meet for coffee and cake on the terrace of the company’s iconic flagship – the King David Hotel.
However, anyone who expects to be greeted by general manager Haim Shkedi, who for 25 years welcomed royalty, presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, defense ministers, film stars and famous authors, will be in for a disappointment.
Shkedi, who announced several months ago that he thought the time had come to retire, has been succeeded by Tamir Kobrin, who himself is a veteran of the luxury hotel business, and has worked for 20 years in managerial positions, including the Anantara Hotel in Portugal, Leela Palace in Udaipur and Leela Palace in New Delhi.
In a sense, this is a homecoming and the closure of a circle for Kobrin, who early in his hotel career worked as manager of the King David’s reception desk.
In keeping with Health Ministry guidelines, all the hotels in the Dan chain have been thoroughly disinfected. Even room keys have been sanitized and placed in envelopes to avoid any chance of contamination.
On arrival at the entrance to any hotel in the chain, guests will have their temperatures checked, and anyone whose temperature is above 37.8 degrees will be transferred to a separate test area. If, after a second reading, the temperature is still higher than recommended, the guest will not be permitted to enter the building.
A package of masks and disinfecting material and sanitizing gel dispensers with touchless sensors will be positioned at all hotel entrances and public areas. The hotel pool and gym will operate according to Health Ministry guidelines, and public areas will be marked in accordance with required social distance rules.
Weekend guests at the King David, in addition to being feted with lectures and entertainment, will also be able to participate in tours to the Old City, Yemin Moshe, the Armenian Quarter, Mount Zion and surrounds, culminating with a visit to the Western Wall. They can also tour the ramparts of the Old City walls and the west side of the capital, beginning in the Nahalat Shiva neighborhood, from there to the national institutions, followed by the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the Nahlaot neighborhood and finally the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
■ THE WALDORF Astoria Jerusalem stole some of the King David’s thunder last week when it hosted Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. The Waldorf, which was the first and briefly the only luxury hotel to open in Jerusalem after the lockdown, was all set to host Nicos Anastasiades, the president Cyprus, this week, but in a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Anastasiades, taking note of the spike in coronavirus cases in Israel, realized that there would be a further delay in reviving two-way tourism and in boosting the economy. In light of this, he saw that there is little point at the present time in coming with a top-level delegation of ministers to discuss tourism, energy and economic cooperation.
As disappointing as this was for Waldorf general manager Avner On, it was even more so for Thessalia-Salina Shambos, the dedicated, hardworking and extremely popular ambassador of Cyprus, who is completing her tenure, and for whom the visit by Anastasiades would have crowned her diplomatic service in Israel. But in the words of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, in his famous poem “To a Mouse”: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley,” which translates into modern English as the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
As exciting as the visit by the Greek prime minister was for On, who could boast that the Waldorf Astoria was the first Jerusalem hotel to host a foreign head of government in the coronavirus era, it meant even more for the hotel’s Greek operations manager Sotirios Ikanomou, who conversed with Mitsotakis in Greek. Ikanomou is a native of the island of Crete.
■ UNLESS SEVERE restrictions are again imposed in relation to COVID-19, President Reuven Rivlin will, on July 8, receive the credentials of ambassadors whose presentation ceremonies were postponed earlier this year. Ordinarily, an ambassador cannot fully function as such until after the presentation of credentials, but the Foreign Ministry made special exceptions, taking into account the extenuating circumstances.
Among the ambassadors scheduled to present credentials to Rivlin is Greek Ambassador Panayotis Sarris, who is actually no stranger to Jerusalem, having accompanied his prime minister here last week, and having previously attended meetings in the capital. It’s an interesting coincidence that Mitsotakis was the first foreign leader whom Rivlin met during the coronavirus crisis, and the Greek ambassador is among the first to present credentials as life slowly returns to normal.
■ FROM MODEST beginnings in 1988, when Poland was still under Communist rule, the annual Krakow Jewish Culture Festival has grown to one of the largest Jewish culture festivals in the world, and each year brings literally thousands of people – most of them non-Jews – to Kazimierz, which used to be the main Jewish quarter in Krakow. Kazimierz is now faux Jewish in that most of its synagogues have been converted to museums and art galleries, with piped Jewish liturgy, Yiddish lullabies and Israeli pop songs emanating from souvenir stores, and restaurants that serve so-called Jewish food and have signs in Hebrew and Yiddish at the entrance and inside, but are far from kosher and are not under Jewish ownership. Even the festival director, Janusz Makuch, is not Jewish, but knows a lot more about Jewish history and tradition than many Jews, and can recite a very moving kaddish by heart.
The festival, which takes place in the last week of June, overlapping into July, attracts increasing numbers of Jewish performers, lecturers, culinary experts and more from Jewish communities worldwide, not to mention Jewish tourists who come to Poland more in search of their cultural roots than their family roots.
The thousands of mostly young people who flock to the festival from all over Poland are caught up in a klezmer frenzy, in watching a “hassidic” dance performance, listening to world-renowned cantors or to lectures on Jewish traditions. All this and more help to dissipate a certain innate antisemitism.
Makuch is a frequent visitor to Israel, mostly on talent quests for his festival. His success in advancing cultural relations between Poland and Israel earned him and his wife, Maria, a personal visit with Rivlin.
Makuch bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Eliyahu Ben-Elissar (née Gottlieb), a former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Menachem Begin, and later a Likud MK who was Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt, and who was born in Poland.
This year’s festival, like so many other cultural events, will be virtual. There will be no dancing in the streets, but there may be on the screen. The situation presents a tremendous loss in tourist income for Poland.
■ IT WOULD appear from the contents of a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan that Melania Trump has deal brinkmanship over her husband, US President Donald Trump. It is interesting that two books filled with revelations about both husband and wife should be released in the same month during the president’s election campaign for a second term.
Jordan peels away some of the mystique surrounding America’s elegant and seemingly aloof first lady, who took her time moving from her luxury accommodations in New York to the White House in Washington. The reason given then was that she didn’t want to disrupt the studies of her son, Barron Trump, who is the youngest of the president’s children from three wives. The true reason, according to the book, was that Melania wanted to renegotiate her prenuptial agreement and also wanted to ensure that Barron would get an equal share of the president’s estate in the aftermath of the grim reaper. It was only after she achieved her goals that she moved to Washington.
Even though the Trumps have separate bedrooms in Washington and when they travel, Jordan has no doubt that they love each other and that the president values the opinions and advice of his wife, who according to Jordan was keener than Trump that he run for president the first time around. After all, it was quite a triumph for someone born in Slovenia, when it was still part of Communist Yugoslavia, to become the first lady of the United States.
■ APROPOS SLOVENIA, on June 25 it will celebrate 29 years of statehood. Due to the pandemic, the annual Independence Day reception will not be held; but to mark the festive occasion, the Slovenian Embassy is sharing on its Facebook page
videos of Slovenian artists representing various genres who collectively illustrate Slovenia’s rich culture. These videos will be screened daily, together with an address by Ambassador Andreja Purkat Martinez.
■ EMBASSIES IN general seem to be turning to social media, especially to promote tourism.
The Embassy of Colombia this week focused on a documentary about Chiribiquete National Park, which is the largest national park in Colombia and the largest rain forest park in the world. An indication of the importance of this park can be seen in the fact that the Colombian Embassy was joined in its invitation by the embassies of Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and the Holy See.
■ JUST BEFORE concluding his five-year posting to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Mark Regev and members of the Israel Embassy participated in a webinar with their British counterparts in Israel.
There was no way to avoid discussion of the issue of applying Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. In expressing support for this move, Regev stated: “All Israeli governments since the Six Day War have consistently said we want secure borders, and those aren’t the borders of 1967. We’re very aware of the concerns in the region, and we want to make sure the peace treaties with our neighbors stay strong. We don’t want to do something that would cause great instability. The hope is we can move forward on this in a way that will make Israel stronger and more secure.”
■ THE NEW government has brought new ministers and new directors-general to replace previous incumbents, but Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was wise to select an insider to succeed Yuval Rotem as director-general of the Foreign Ministry. Rotem, who tendered his resignation last week, will be succeeded by Alon Ushpiz, a senior career diplomat who, prior to his appointment, served as a political director at the ministry. He has also served as ambassador to India and has held positions at the Israel Embassy in Washington.
■ IT’S NOT common knowledge that several of the foreign diplomatic missions stationed in Israel contribute to local cultural and social welfare causes both financially and through their personnel. Members of the French Consulate-General in Tel Aviv, which is headed by Florence Marie Andrée Mayol-Dupont, work closely with the Labor and Social Service Ministry, as well as with the Israel branch of Fonds Social Juif Unifie, and have helped in delivering food to the needy in Tel Aviv. The Consulate-General this week signed an agreement with the FSJU under which it gave the organization a grant of €20,000 within the framework of an emergency program for urgent needs during the coronavirus crisis.
Earlier this month, France’s consul-general in Jerusalem, René Troccaz, and Palestinian Authority Finance Minister Shukri Bishara signed a similar agreement for a French grant of €8 million toward the Palestinian National Development Plan, including vital services.
■ CHABADNIKS AROUND the world will, on the third day of the Hebrew calendar month of Tamuz, which this year falls on Thursday, June 25, spend the day in reflection, learning, prayer and doing good deeds to mark the anniversary of the death of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
In last Friday’s Jerusalem Post Magazine, the cover story, comprising three separate articles, was devoted to Chabad. There is so much to write about Chabad that, in the limited space available, it was impossible to cover all the bases, and there were therefore omissions requiring clarification.
The Rebbe’s call for all Jewish women, religious or otherwise, to light Sabbath candles reflects Chabad’s strong belief that light drives away the darkness of ignorance, injustice and blind hatred.
The global candle-lighting mission is known by its acronym, Neshek, which stands for nerot Shabbat kodesh (holy Sabbath candles). The Hebrew acronym in itself means ammunition, used to drive out the darkness. Similarly, in every town square around the globe where a Chabad presence exists, there is a large triangular hanukkiah throughout the whole of Hanukkah. This is but another example of light driving out the darkness.
There was also a reference to the manner in which women are treated in Chabad, with particular mention of Chani Lifshitz, who was invited to light an Independence Day beacon, but who was ordered by the Chabad Rabbinical Court to refrain from accepting the honor. In one of the articles it stated that no explanation was given. The writer must have missed the explanation given in several online publications, which was that Chabad is active in countries that have no diplomatic ties with Israel and in some cases are hostile to Israel. In order to continue to help Jewish communities in these countries, Chabad must desist from anything that could be construed as political identification with Israel. The Land of Israel is a biblical entity. The State of Israel is a political entity. In fact, the first Chabad community in Hebron settled there between 1816 and 1823, long before the establishment of the State of Israel.
Anyone who peruses the directory of Chabad centers around the world will see that wives are listed as codirectors with their husbands. It is a partnership, the success of which is the equal responsibility of both husband and wife. The cover of the Magazine featured a photograph of the annual gathering of the shluchim (emissaries). Chabad wives have a similar annual meeting in New York, but not at the same time.
Missing from the articles was any mention of Igros Kodesh, a collection of letters written by the Rebbe in response to many questions asked of him over the years. Chabadniks regularly consult these books to find solutions to their problems.
Among the most amazing stories in this regard relates to David and Esther Segal from St Petersburg in Russia. Born into totally secular families, they knew they were Jewish, but not more than that. They had a civil marriage, but became interested in their Jewish heritage after attending Jewish Agency camps in Israel. They gradually became observant under the guidance of Chabad in St Petersburg. David underwent a circumcision, after which the couple had a Jewish wedding.
They were bothered by the fact that they had no children. Esther found it difficult to conceive. They visited Israel every year and stayed with a Chabad family in whom they confided their frustration. It was suggested to them that they consult Igros Kodesh, which they did and were assured that they would have children. They returned to Russia and back again to Israel, where David was offered an important job. Again, he consulted Igros Kodesh and was advised not to take the job but to go back to Russia. He couldn’t understand why, but was already reconciled to the fact that in religion, not everything has a logical explanation. In St Petersburg Esther found a fertility expert with whose help she was finally able to conceive.
When she went for a checkup several weeks after her pregnancy had been confirmed, she called her husband to tell him that there was more than one fetus. At first, he imagined twins, but then she called back to say it was triplets. A few minutes later she called again to inform him that she was carrying quadruplets. The Russian doctor insisted that she was carrying too many fetuses for any of them to survive, and said that she had to abort at least one. Esther, who had waited so long to become a mother, could not bring herself to do this. Consultations were held with doctors in Israel, and there were differences of opinion. Again, the couple put their faith in Igros Kodesh and were advised not to abort.
They returned to Israel, where Esther was treated at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, and was again advised to abort at least one fetus. The doctors were really angry with her when she refused. On the cusp of summer of 2001, Esther went into early labor. The doctors doubted whether they could save any of the babies, but the Rebbe’s advice, as expressed in Igros Kodesh, was sound. Esther gave birth not to four babies but to five – three boys and two girls, all of whom were born healthy.
■ULTRA-ORTHODOX women, mostly working from home, have long been engaged in hi-tech or mid-tech professions, but now ultra-Orthodox men are catching up, and are being trained for a variety of hi-tech positions.
Just as it was long ago discovered in Israel and the Diaspora that members of the ultra-Orthodox communities have a particular aptitude for studying law, based on their study methods for Talmud and Torah, it can now be seen that the brightest of ultra-Orthodox students also have an aptitude for hi-tech and as such will be able to contribute much to the prosperity of their families and their communities, as well as to Israel’s economy. Among the various training programs in which ultra-Orthodox men are enrolled is Ravtech, a unique training/apprenticeship model that has been successfully integrating ultra-Orthodox men into hi-tech enterprises since 2013.
Ravtech, with branches in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, recently opened its eighth facility, which is located in the capital. Looking to the post-coronavirus future, Ravtech accepted 35 of the brightest ultra-Orthodox minds, from among hundreds of applicants. These men will train as software developers and are expected to join the hi-tech workforce in late 2021.
The program enables married Talmud students to combine an 18-month software development training and internship program with daily Torah study, while receiving a monthly stipend. All Ravtech graduates are guaranteed a minimum of two years of employment, working on outsourced projects for companies such as Check Point, Intel, Amdocs, Elbit and Toga Networks (a Huawei company).
French-Israeli philanthropist and educator Rabbi David Leybel, in consultation with leading hi-tech executives, launched the Ravtech initiative in 2012 as a means of relieving the financial distress of kollel students, in particular those less suited to full-time Torah study. Nearly 150 Ravtech graduates are now working in hi-tech. Some of them are supporting their families with monthly salaries in excess of NIS 30,000 while maintaining their religious lifestyle.
Ravtech training program director Aharon Safrai refuses to let the coronavirus economic crisis slow the positive momentum that Ravtech has achieved. During lockdown, students and Ravtech graduates were provided with home computers and Internet connection.
Ravtech CEO Miki Segal says that while it is an accepted fact that successfully integrating haredi men into the workforce is a national economic interest, “this needs to be achieved with sensitivity and determination. We respect their lifestyle and bring them up to speed on everything a junior developer needs to know in a short time. When they finish the Ravtech combined training/apprenticeship program, they can work on complex technological projects and bring real value to our customers. However, to truly succeed, we need Israeli organizations from the private and public sectors to show faith in this initiative, hire our developers and become partners in this remarkable journey.”
Yechiel Rosenberg, 23, from Bnei Brak, who is married and the father of a young child, is one of the 35 new students at Ravtech. He was attracted by the mix of vocational training, continued Torah study, a monthly stipend and guaranteed employment: “I want to have a skill to support my family and remain committed to Torah,” he says.
■ THE FASHION industry suffered a disastrous blow long before the economic disaster induced by coronavirus. Many people found it more convenient to shop online than to visit a store. The northern end of Dizengoff Street, once a paradise for buyers of discerning taste, has become a ghost town of empty stores.
As of next week, the iconic store run by designer Raziela Gershon for the best part of four decades will also close. In fact, it was closed for three months, and reopened so that she could have a closing down sale, which was pounced on by celebrities as well as by lesser-known people who wanted something special for a family celebration. There was really no way that the business could survive. Dizengoff Street is simply not what it used to be.