Posted by: planetisrael | May 3, 2008

In The Beginning Part I

With Israel’s 60th birthday upon us, I thought it would be a propitious time to do a story that reflects the beginning of the modern state of Israel. I had the great good fortune to meet a wonderful couple, Ruth and Adi Nir, whose personal history parallels that of modern day Israel’s from Kibbutz Ein ha Horesh to the founding of the fledgling Yeshuv Al Magor near Petach Tikvah, moving to the establishment of the strategically important Kibbutz Gvulot in the Negev and Adiultimately arriving in the coastal city of Netanya where they were to establish a nationwide network of music schools and conservatories followed by high tech ventures.

Beginnings are often the most difficult. However, Adi Nir at 81 years old, has had so many of them that he now takes beginnings in his stride. Like many of Israel’s citizens, Adi wasn’t born here. But unlike most of the country’s current population, Adi was here before Israel was a State.

Eda & VitaliAlthough his parents, Eda and Vitale were of Spanish, Hungarian and Greek descent, they had settled in France where Eda gave birth to Adi’s French older sister, Jacqueline. Then, in 1926 the Jewish Alliance Institute sent them to Istanbul to spread the French language and culture.  It was there that Adi, whose birth name was Eddy, was born in 1927. He was two years old when his mother passed away.

As it happened, Eda’s sister, Georgette and her husband had divorced with him returning to his native South Africa. Vitale found himself alone with two young children and Georgette with one. They decided to marry, adopt each other’s children and build one happy family.

There was plenty of room in Vitale’s home for everyone; soon after arriving in Istanbul, he and his wife purchased a magnificent four story villa that had been the home of the last Sultan’s French chef until the Sultan was ousted in 1917. Vitali was an educator and wanted his children to receive an education according to the philosophy of Jean Jacque Rousseau. The Sultan’s chef’s villa provided an excellent setting for Adi, his sister and cousin to receive the style of education usually reserved for European aristocracy – home schooling by tutors specializing in everything from Latin, Greek, astronomy, and the sciences, French literature, poetry, art and music, fencing and boxing. Often, Adi would find himself at the large dining room table with his step-brother being grilled by three or four tutors at once.

Vitali’s brother was an accomplished pianist. So it was no surprise that the children were schooled in piano and violin from age 4, with classical Adi and AndreEuropean music resounding throughout the villa at all hours. “Yes, the house was special to my upbringing. It provided a large, open and safe space for us to learn, always to learn. And we were very close as a family.”

When the boys turned 12 yrs. old, it was decided that the time had come for them to attend the Istanbul based French school. However, to be accepted, students had to attend one year of Turkish school. “It was the first time we truly ‘exited our garden’ since we were born. Of course we went out, but only to visit our parents’ friends and others from the educated French community. Here we were walking the streets, entering the local culture.

Of course, in our cloistered world, we had never encountered anti-Semitism. Within the first few days of school my step-brother, Andre, was knocked to the ground by a punch from the biggest boy in our class. Remember I mentioned that one of the sports in which we were trained was boxing? Well I called upon all my boxing skills that day. I jumped the kid and hit him until he was the one on the ground. Andre and I were promptly kicked out of school. Can you picture it? This little Jew jumping the biggest Turk in the class. We arrived home filthy and bloody.

“My father had kept good relations with the former owner of our house who was a VIP and a personal friend of Ataturk. As a result, he was, of course, quite an influential person. My father told him the story. He immediately called the school’s headmaster, instructing them to expel the bully and receive us back in class. The next day we were back in school.

1943 Adi with friends in IstanbulUpon completing our mandatory year in a Turkish school, we entered the French School, College St. Michael. We were there for three years and didn’t experience any anti-Semitism whatsoever. There were many Jews, Armenians and Greeks as well as a few French.” While studying at the College, the boys’ education continued at home. “We had one of those wind-up gramophones and at least 100 records. Operas, Sonatas, symphonies by all the great composers were played endlessly until they became part of me. And the piano lessons continued until I left Istanbul in 1943.”

Adi explained to me that his family realized it was time to leave when the atmosphere in Turkey began to change; it was being greatly affected by the events transpiring in Europe at the time. “By the end of 1942, the German campaign was so successful that the Turks were almost convinced Germany would win. Von Papen was sent to be the German ambassador to Turkey. He told the Turkish government, ‘if you need money, do what everyone in Europe is doing – take money from the Jews.’ For some reason they didn’t think they could just take it straight out. The Jewish population in Turkey was relatively well off. So the Turkish government imposed customized taxes that would drain them of most or all of their assets.”

Half a year before the new tax was imposed Adi’s father opened a leather goods shop. The fledgling business was soon to be taxed to the point that it was doomed to fail. Vitali saw that the German influence was very strong in Turkey leaving only two options to keep his family together – either go to Adi’s mother’s uncle in Before Israel!San Paulo, Argentina or to Israel. The third option was to split the family. “We couldn’t return to France which was my parents’ first choice, because it was under Nazi boots. Even if we had wanted to return to France, Andre and I had Turkish citizenship.  In the political atmosphere of that time, there was no way of attaining new papers and citizenships.”

With 1943 Europe in a state of war, Adi’s parents decided to wait, pay the debilitating tax and send their sons, 16 year old Adi and 15yr old Andre to Israel. In mid-1943, through the Aliyat Ha Noar program, the brothers left their family and friends and only home they had known to board a train with twenty other youth. All were Spanish speakers from low socio-economic backgrounds. “There we were, two, young, highly educated young men thrown in with people from very simple cultures. We felt like total outsiders, like we just fell from the moon.”

They traveled through Syria to Lebanon and then to Haifa. They arrived in this totally foreign land, not knowing a soul.  As was standard procedure in those Adi withhis Hashomer Hatsair shirtearly days, within a few days of the arrival of new immigrants, delegates from various Kibbutzim arrived to choose candidates for their settlements.  Adi’s group was told to choose between a Kibbutz or Shomer Ha Tzair.  “God knows, we didn’t know what that meant. We were sent to Kibbutz Ein Ha Horesh. It was shocking to see how crude and simple everything was. It was a pioneering and revolutionary atmosphere. We eventually came to realize that all the fine, considerate and polite European ways were thrown away. But we hadn’t realized this yet. So when we were told it was time for dinner in the common dining hall, we picked our best dining suits, donned our ties and entered the hall hand-in- hand. I don’t have to tell you what oddities we were standing in that Kibbutz dining room, so very European. We made such a big impression that this story was told over and over throughout the Kibbutz that entire year.

Although the appointments were simple and the room bare, we soon found that the Kibbutz members who had come before us were from Austria, Belgium and Poland and were themselves highly cultured. They spoke of Beethoven and Chopin. So Andre, who promptly changed his name to Israel, and I turned to each other and said, let’s play the Kreutzer Sonata for them. They were completely Adi as Kibbutz Bakerdumbfounded and overjoyed, developing a greater appreciation for newcomers from other countries.” 



In the next post, I write about Adi’s adventures in Gvulot, fighting off the Egyptian Army during Israel’s war of Independence.

Posted by: planetisrael | March 19, 2008

Dancing With Family

Usually I write about interesting people and their connection to a specific and special place in Israel. This is a bit different. There is an interesting person at the center of this story; but instead of leading to a certain location, it takes us to Am Yisrael – the Jewish, Israeli people who are this country.  Born to Dance Program

If you live in Israel, you’ve most likely heard of the popular television reality show, Born To Dance (Nolad Lirkod). One of this year’s competitors is a new immigrant (olah hadasha) from Canada by way of Illinois, USA. Lisa Oberman had heard a great deal about Israel growing up in Thronhill, a mostly Jewish community outside of Toronto.

Although, her parents began making annual trips to Israel after her father took over Novopharm, a subsidiary of Teva, in Toronto, Lisa’s ballet training schedule never allowed her to join them. Her first opportunity to visit was with the Birthright program.

 Birthright Israel “I fell in love with Israel on that trip in 2006. I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the people, how welcoming and friendly everyone was, how  such a natural part of life here. I knew then that this was where I would live. During the trip, I asked about ballet companies because I was a professional ballet dancer. I told the people in charge of our group that they would see me back here. But I also knew I wasn’t read then for such a big step.”

Lisa’s ballet career was her priority at that point. In fact, dancing had been the center of her life since she was 5 years first stage showold. She specialized in all forms of dance but at age 10 began to focus on ballet when she was taken on by ballet mentor, Tatiana Stepanova. Tatiana trained and guided Lisa to win the accolade of Teen Dancer in America at age 14. From there the only way for her dance career to grow was to pursue a serious track in ballet. On Tatiana’s advice, Lisa auditioned for and was accepted to the prestigious Kirov Academy in Washington, DC. Leaving Canada to live in the USA proved difficult.

At age 15 Lisa felt overwhelmed by the cattiness and backstabbing that defined the competitive nature of her fellow dancers. The school did nothing to neutralize the tensions. After a year and a half, she decided to return to Toronto to complete her High School degree.

“I had been in a French Immersion school. My parents had originally put my older sister and brother in a Hebrew day school. But when my brother came home from kindergarten and began checking to see if the meat in the fridge was kosher, my father said Lisa with brother and parents ‘that’s it’. They wanted us to be in some kind of language school so French was the other option. By the time I came around, it was just taken for granted that that is where I’d study. But it worked out well for me since ballet is all done in French.

“Once I had my degree, I sent out audition tapes to ballet companies in the USA since there isn’t really anything for ballet dancers in Canada. I was accepted by the USA Ballet based in Illinois. Before joining the ballet company, I was able to do the Birthright trip during their summer break. I returned from Israel, went to Illinois and found myself right back in the malicious, spiteful, competitive world I had left in Washington DC. The dancing was fantastic. But on a personal level it was a difficult atmosphere and there was nothing of my Jewish culture. Spending Yom Kippur like that was too much.

“After a year, I just couldn’t do it anymore. So I sent out audition tapes to Israel and Europe. I was accepted by a professional ballet company in Israel. My parents were very supportive. They knew Canada wasn’t an option and they preferred that I be here rather than Illinois or some non-Jewish community in Europe. But I still wasn’t sure I was ready to make the big step so I told the ballet company I’d join on a trial basis. I came to Israel in April of ’06 not really sure what I would find. It was amazing. Like dancers from another world – considerate, kind, not catty in any way. They were more like family than competitive dancers. Lisa_Jump

“Artistically it was wonderful because I was trained in Russian Ballet and that is what they were doing here. Personally it was like a kind of a fairy tail. Before  coming to Israel, I worked in Toronto to make some money since dancing doesn’t pay very well at all. I met this guy and right away fell for him. Mike is half Canadian and half Israeli. We started dating and finally I had to tell him I would be going to Israel in a couple of weeks. I couldn’t believe it. He said he was also going to Israel – to study at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herztlya. So when I arrived here, my boyfriend picked me up at the airport! It was a wonderful way to start.

“But I didn’t have any chance to speak Hebrew. Either I was with Mike’s friends who spoke English, dancing which is all done in French or not understanding the other ballet dancers who often spoke to each other in Russian. My first real exposure to Hebrew was the T.V. show (Nolad Lirkod). I found out about it from this guy who had been working with the cindyarabesqueballet company. He was in last year’s competition. He kept saying I should try it. I went to watch him in one of the finals. The show impressed me. It looked like a great experience.

“For me it would be a great opportunity to return to the wide range of dancing I had done until I was 15 – hip hop, lyrical, modern – I had spent years perfecting them all. So I auditioned. And it was everything it looks like – wonderful fun, always enjoyable, a great time. I like to have lisa6a good time and my friends said I’d hate it because you have to get up at 6am every day for classes, rehearsals and everything. Well, there wasn’t a single day I didn’t jump out of bed to do the show. Now you can’t drag me out of bed at 10am.

“As a dancer, it was challenging and great fun. I had never in my life danced tango or even worn tango shoes. Learning a new form of dance was fantastic. The choreographers were great. It was always interesting. But what made the experience so wonderful was the Israelis. Everyone was so nice and considerate of each other. It was all in Hebrew that went by really quickly. I really couldn’t understand anything. But whichever of the other competitors happened to be next to me would make the effort to translate every word. Also, I don’t drive. The others would go out of their way to pick me up and give me a ride. It was such a non-competitive atmosphere. I mean this was a competition. You would expect people to act competitively. Instead there was a kind of fellowship. It felt more like dancing with people who were my family. That made it a positive experience across the board.

“That’s how I feel about being in Israel in general – this family feeling. Yes, the show opened a lot of doors and helped me realize that I IMG_5749want a future in entertainment that will include dancing but not be exclusively dance. I was just accepted to the Look Talent Agency. I see myself acting, modeling but of course always dancing. But what was great for me about Nalad Lirkod (Born to Dance) was that before people assumed I was a tourist. Now people recognize me and know I live here. It makes me feel more connected, more like I’m part of Am Yisrael.”

I asked Lisa what she would say to other young people thinking about visiting Israel.

“I was never connected to where I was living and always felt something was missing. Now I feel whole and rooted. Israel is a special place and what makes it really incredible is the warmth of the people. I’d say come. Come to Israel; it will bring out a whole new side of you.”

Posted by: planetisrael | March 5, 2008

LOTEM’s One of a Kind

To be a LOTEM (Hebrew acronym for Integrated Nature Studies) hiking guide, one must be trained in public speaking and group leadership as well as the geology, botany, zoology, and ancient and modern history of Israel. It is also necessary to have a good understanding of people with special needs as LOTEM’s raison d’etre is providing hiking field trips and nature related extracurricular activities and creative workshops for men, women and children who are visually and hearing impaired, physically and mentally challenged, and emotionally disturbed. wheelchair hike

LOTEM’S hiking guides are trained in a series of courses co-sponsored by the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI) , the Department  of Special Education at Oranim Teacher’s College and the Center for Educational Technology in Israel. The guides are given an interdisciplinary education in dealing with people with a wide range of special needs.

Until recently all the hiking guides were able bodied men and women, that is until Ori Friedland came along. Ori is a 19-year-old graduate of the three month Hiking Nature Guide course offered by Israel’s Society for the Preservation of Nature. The course trains young Israelis who wish to contribute a year of service to their country before their compulsive army service in the Israel Defense Forces (3 years for men, just under 2 years for women).

Ori and Yale on hikeOri was completing his training as a hiking and nature guide in the Negev desert at the Har Ha Negev Field School, one of seven such schools around the country, when he suffered a life-altering accident. While on a training hike in the Negev, Ori took a serious fall in one of the caves. With the assistance of a helicopter, it took emergency rescue workers 90 minutes to free him from the depths of the cave. After recovering from surgery on his leg and upper spine, Ori spent eight months in rehab at Sheba Hospital, one of the world’s leading hospitals in physical rehabilitation. It was there that the idea of working with LOTEM arose. “While I was in rehab, I happened to meet this woman, Rotem, who was doing her practical study towards a degree in psychology. She mentioned that she worked at a place called LOTEM. I had actually heard of it. Before the Haganat Ha Teva (SPNI) courses begin, all the volunteers from around the country meet up for two weeks of introductory training. I had met a couple of girls who were on their way to work with LOTEM. I told Rotem that I was trained as a hiking and nature guide. She suggested I think about working for LOTEM.”

There was never any doubt in Ori’s mind that he would return to nature, hiking and guiding. Weaned on the outdoors, he’d been hiking since he was two-years-old when his parents took him by the hand on long walks through the Carmel forest near their home in Haifa. Throughout most of grammar school, Ori participated in an extra-curricular class that conveyed a basic appreciation for the natural environment via lessons in the local flora and fauna as well as olive and grape presswilderness navigation.

In 9th grade, Ori joined a youth group that met monthly for long hikes during the weekend. On holidays they’d walk through the Israeli desert, forests, hills and Mediterranean coastline for 4 or 5 days at a time. “I loved being in nature. Walking it is living it. We’d cook in the outdoors, sleep under the stars – there’s nothing better.”

LOTEM had never had a wheelchair-bound guide. But the fit was perfect. They needed an English speaking guide to lead special needs groups from North America. As the son of Olim from the USA, Ori is bilingual. Not only does he have the language and guiding skills, Ori has the unique ability to serve as a role brithright groupmodel. “I love leading nature hikes, conveying an appreciation for this land of Israel, teaching about conservation. For me, it’s great being in nature and at this point LOTEM’s hiking paths are the only fully wheelchair accessible options.

“And as it turns out, while I’m just enjoying doing my job leading groups, I get feedback that they are inspired by the fact that I am guiding from a wheelchair. The special needs hikers and their escorts comment I am setting a personal example that anyone can do almost anything. Hearing that this gives them hope and motivation for a richer future is really satisfying to me.”

The pastoral setting of this nature trail itself offers an opportunity to enjoy both the beauty of Israel and its history . Nachal Ha Shofet is located near Emek Ha Shalom (the Valley of Peace) and Yokneam in Northern Israel.  Each season offers a new and unique experience. The valley is rich in history. It is where the Emperor of Egypt crossed to Mesopotamia. Napolean was there as well at the Crusaders some of whose fortresses still remain.  The trail takes visitors to an Ori and Yaleancient flour mill from the Byzantine period and a prehistoric natural cave and waterfall. All this can be visited from a wheelchair accessible hiking path. Nachal Ha Shofet offers an interesting, picturesque and enjoyable hike for families and the elderly as well as people with special needs.  During last Succoth, Ori led a group of Anglo families on the trail enriching their experience with various activities along the way.

Just a short drive from Nachal HaShofet is the LOTEM center where visitors enjoy one of the world’s only wheelchair accessible  olive and grape presses. Most of LOTEM’s enrichment activities and creative workshops for the disabled take place here. However, being out in the middle of nature means that there is limited electricity available. So LOTEM’s founder, Amos Ziv, and newly appointed Fundraising Director, Paula Friedland, Ori’s mother, are working to develop a solar energy center. The center will be used to educate visitors on the technology and environmental sustainability value of solar power. But perhaps more importantly, it will provide electricity not only to the LOTEM teaching facility but to recharge electric wheelchairs, respirators and other medical equipment used by the visitors.

Ori and Paula JNF Another project in the works is a fully accessible website. LOTEM’s new site, once funded and developed, will implement the latest on-line technology enabling full access for a range of special needs. The site will talk to the blind, will have extra-large icons for those with coordination difficulties and in general will use state of the art developments to ensure that as many people as possible will be able to enjoy the site unassisted.

For now Ori is working as hiking guide while participating in a full time, one year leadership training course after which he will enter the Israel Defense Forces. When speaking to Ori, one has no sense that anything limits him. When I asked if he felt he has changed as a result of his accident he replied, “I haven’t changed but I have learned a great deal. I gained a different perspective on life. I’ve always been a very optimisitic person – it’s part of my natural character. But it’s also my great family and wonderful friends. All of it gives me an attitude that I can really do whatever I set my mind to.” And right now one of those things is giving courage and strength to others with special needs as Israel’s only wheelchair- bound hiking and nature guide.

Posted by: planetisrael | January 30, 2008

A Wine-Making Personality

“I believe that each phase of my life, in one way or another, was preparation for what I am doing now. Without those experiences, I don’t think I could have done what I did with Castel wines,” confided Eli ben-Zaken, founder and director of the Castel Winery.

Eli vineyard holding grapesCreating what is arguably Israel’s best boutique wine was only the most recent of Eli Ben-Zaken’s many challenges. Born in Egypt, life for his family, along with that of most Jews, became ever more difficult in the mid-50’s. The tumultuous period subsequent to the 1919 revolution when Egypt broke away from Britain and many businesses were nationalized became untenable during the Suez war in ’56. Jews were perceived to be Zionists and communists – the excuse given for endless arrests. Eli’s uncle, an attorney who defended many Jews accused of the crime of being a Zionist, was also arrested. Foreigners had been departing Egypt en masse. Fearing they would no longer be able to avoid the dangers, Eli’s parents planned to leave Egypt for Australia. However, attaining identity papers necessary to leave the country was nearly impossible.

Although Eli’s father was born in Egypt, he was never given citizenship making it that much tougher to come by departure visas. The government instituted a range of taxes and fees forcing the Jewish community to leave behind most of its wealth in order to exit the country. After much tribulation, Eli’s parents finally managed to secure three exit visas. Just before leaving Egypt for Australia, Eli’s Italian mother’s connections led to his father attaining a job in Italy as an export manager for a factory.

It was September, the start of the school season. With his plans to attend school in Australia abruptly terminated, Eli had only a few days he had to decide whether to study in Italy in a language he did not yet know or go to a boarding school in England. At 14yrs old, Eli Ben-Zaken headed to Britain on his own. He pursued his first degree in Economics and language at University in Italy followed by a masters attained at the School of Interpreters in Geneva.

Throughout his life, Eli felt an affinity for the land of Israel. In July 1967, he postponed his impending marriage and university exams in order to serve with the Israeli army during the Six Day War, after which he volunteered on a farm here for 3 months. Subsequent to his return home to Geneva, Eli observed the 1968 student revolution in Europe. He saw that although the Jews joined in supporting the revolution, they were perceived as dangerous outsiders. “That convinced me that there was only one place for the Jews – to be in my own country,” Eli explained.

So in 1970 with a one year old daughter, Ilana, and his wife, Monique, Eli made Israel his home. In 1971 they purchased the farm in Ramat Raziel, a small Moshav in the Judean hills just West of Jerusalem. The setting was well suited to Eli’s and Monique’s first business venture in the land of Israel – a horseback riding school. Meanwhile, Eli entered the Israel Defense Forces. However, as a father, the full three year army service was not an option. Eli was placed in the program called Shlav Bet, or Second Stage, and sent to an artillery unit. His service time was limited to a few months spread out over each year. That is until the Yom Kippur War. Like many fathers during this war, Eli was called to serve for six months straight. And like many families, the Ben-Zakens suffered the ravages of that war including watching their business go bankrupt. “Luckily, we had the house,” Eli said in all sincerity. “Although we had no money for food or heat, we had a roof over our heads.” Without hesitation, Eli took the first job that was offered – working in a nearby hatchery. “My ability to read English got me the job and it went well. But there’s little money in agriculture. So a few years later, in the early 80’s, Monique, the three kids and I opened a restaurant in Jerusalem.” Meanwhile, Eli continued his reserve duty. “I was a second lieutenant by the age of 34 and a Major at 48,” Eli noted with pride.

Things were going well at the restaurant. With an Italian menu, wine was a must. Seeking supplies for his customers exposed Eli to quality wine for the first eli with wine barrelstime. “I never liked wine as a kid. My family was not into wine; we only had cheap, simple wines that were boiled until they had no flavor.” After many years of financial pressure, the Zakens were finally able to go on holiday abroad. It was the late-80’s when they traveled through France and Italy tasting top-of-the-line wine. “The par between Israel’s wine and what we were tasting abroad was huge. It gave me incentive to start making wine.”

What began as a hobby came to take up more and more of Eli’s time. Yet he was unprepared for the unbridled success of his first bottling in 1992. Serena Sutcliffe MW, Head of Sotheby’s Wine Department, London was given a bottle of Castel’s Grand Van by journalist Dallia Penn Lerner.

The reply was stunning…

Dear Dallia

Thank you for bringing over that fantastic 1992 made by Mr Ben-Zaken. I tried it with my husband, David Peppercorn (also a MW) and we both thought it absolutely terrific. It is quite unlike other Israeli wines and
does not have any of those “cooked” and “herbaceous” flavours that I am afraid are prevalent in Israeli reds. This wine is a real tour de force, brilliantly made and very “classic”. Please give him our congratulations.
I hope others take the hint and learn how to do it. I wonder if his vineyard is at some altitude? He also must
have just the right clones and root stocks. Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to know this wine. With all best wishes,

London, 15th August,1995

Candles in winecellar“I never had a dream to make wine. I really saw it as a hobby. But after that, we had to consider doing it seriously,” Eli stated matter-of-factly. “Wine is something to pass onto the next generation – a legacy for the children. We discussed it as a family and decided to go forward.” So while Monique and the three children ran the restaurant, Eli devoted himself full time to developing the winery. That is until Intifada broke out. “Bombs were going off everywhere in Jerusalem. I was in Ramat Raziel while my wife and children were at our restaurant. Each day I felt like I was sending them to the front line. Finally in 2002 we closed the restaurant.

“We put everything into the winery. They say good wine is about climate and technology. But it’s just as much about personality – being consistent, meticulous, having conviction in your chosen path.” In many areas of wine-making, the Castel Winery is a pioneer. No vines were grown for wine in the Judean Hills until they planted in 1988. “It was just serendipity that we happened to have a farm in the Judean Hills and that land turned out to provide excellent soil and climate for wine-making.”                      

                                                                vineyard Ben-Zaken When planting, Eli decided on a high density vineyard. The average vineyard has 2200 vines per hectare. The Castel Winery’s vineyards hold 6700 vines per hectare. Although this requires specialized equipment to maneuver the extra narrow paths between the rows of vines, the results are higher quality grapes. Another higher is cost that ensures the best possible wine is handpicking all the grapes. Machine picking causes loss of the juice that drops into the machinery during the harvesting. When machines Wine Cellarare used, many stems stay on the vine instead of coming off w/the grape, contributing to reduced quality. At Castel, only French, oak barrels are used to age the wine. Each barrel yields a maximum of 300 bottles. Then these expensive barrels are replaced.

According to Eli, managing the finances of a business like wine-making, where a great deal of equity is in the cellar much of the time, takes solid financial acumen. Fortunately for Castel, Eli and Monique’s son, Ariel has the talent and education to carry the winery forward. In 1997 Ariel returned from a two year course of wine-making study and apprenticeship in Beaune College in France. “He came home wanting to do the actual wine making. I explained it had become my passion – and how many more years would I have to do it? He was miserable until he discovered that he is an excellent business and financial manager. He saved us from bankruptcy and made all the right decisions regarding finance and marketing. He’s not afraid to take advice and receive consultation. Even in the wine making I often ask his opinion.” As Eli said, to succeed in this business a wine-making personality is what it’s all about.

more photos:

To visit the Castel Winery or attain the oak wine barrels at a token cost, please contact them at

Posted by: planetisrael | January 6, 2008

Beer & Ivy

Once upon a time, not very long ago, in a little country far, far away – on the Mediterranean Sea – a small group of Ivy League ex-pats hailing from the US of A gathered together to redefine an ancient, five year tradition.  They had tired of the old ways and sought something not necessarily new, but certainly different.  Year after year of annual wine tasting with its rarefied atmosphere and hushed conversations left them educated and enriched.  However, the time had come to move on, to leave that safe realm of familiar experience and venture on to new territory.      

Danny & The Art Bar

And so it was that our little group found themselves in one of the quaintest micro-brewery bars hosted by one of the more gregarious and colorful characters to be found in our modest country.  In the picturesque artist village of Ein Hod (which you read about in my earlier postings) Danny Shlyfestone, Israel’s first micro-brewer and his lovely wife, Analia, welcomed our small band of adventurers and served up some of the best beer we’d ever tasted. 

 Danny1 The cozy bar of wood and wicker was warm and welcoming, very much a product of the artist village itself.  Blown and stained glass by local artists and Analia’s paintings  graced the shelves and walls of their charming Art Bar.

And us? We sat back and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere taking in Danny’s stories along with the beer , pizza with everything and the steaming hot pumpkin soup. clip_image002[4]

We imbibed his Uptown Brown Ale flavored with a touch of roasted barley and an added tad of burnt caramel sweetness.

We sipped Danny’s Yiestie Beastie – his lightest pale ale with subtle added bitters.

Ordering Pizza

We drank Danny’s Yo’ Mama’s Ale – an amber ale with honey sweetness and caramel.

We downed his the Le Choco Stout that uses every grain there is, including seven different barley malts and roasted barley.   “It’s the darkest beer there is and has so much body,” Danny explains, “that I can pour it onto the bar because it stands on it’s own.  But for hygienic reasons, I compromise and serve it in glasses.”

clip_image003[4] The Men

Carice & AshokBut my favorite was the guest beer of the evening.  Truly the Champaign of beer.

It’s an etrog and wheat malt ‘dancing’ with caramel called the Trog-Wit Tart.

MIT contingent Ori, so Ori


Lecturing on the Art of BrewingWhile enjoying the uniquely  flavored beer and pizza cooked on a taboun – an arab-style open air oven, Danny  gave us insights into the in’s and out’s of home brewing.

Yale right MIT leftclip_image004

He regaled us with stories from ‘back in the day’ when he was working in a sound studio in London running the audio board for the latest Rolling Stones album when there was a knock at the door.   The door was at the end of a long hallway. 

 Very intense stuff

“I ran down the hall, opened the still-banging door and who was standing there…Steven Stills.  You know, of Crosby, Nash & Stills. 

Danny “He says, Hey, I’m here to see the boys.  So I run back down the hall, because there was this rule, no one comes in without the Stones’ OK.  So I run into the studio and say, hey, uh, Steven Stills is here to see you.  Mick and the guys all say great, send him in. Except Keith (Richards).  No. No way, he’s coming in here, insists Keith.  

“So, it turns out that a couple of nights before, the two of them exchanged blows.   Seems Steven had the last ‘word’ because Keith was not letting him in.  So I had go out into the hallway and tell Steven Stills he couldn’t come in.  The next day when we were all back in the studio, there’s another knock at the door.  In comes Ringo Star and some lawyer. 

 Danny, Our Host “And who sneaks in between them but, Steven Stills.  NO, shouts Keith.  He can’t come in.  

   “Well, finally after hours in the hallway, Steven stuck his head in.  ‘Hey man, I’m really sorry’. Keith gave in.  Steven came in and we finished the recording.”clip_image005[4]

  That’s us, all smiles. And all it took was a few tales, a little ivy and a lot of great beer….


Posted by: planetisrael | December 18, 2007

Be The Environment

Speaking with Amiad Lapidot, the founder of the Eretz Carmel organic refuse recycling NGO ( gave me the same serene feeling as when I sat under the 400 year old Alon tree at the heart of his outdoor retreat center, SHEFA, located in the fields behind retreat groupKerem Maharal about 15min. south of Haifa.tree

I asked Amiad what motivated him to create this beautiful venue for people to congregate, contemplate and study. He said that his interest is to convey the joy and pleasure in living in a way that enhances our natural environment – the way people used to live, once upon a time. Amiad explained, “until about 10,000 years ago, we lived in complete symbiosis with nature, which was the sum total of the environment then. This was about the time when a significant event took place, perhaps a climate change, which caused man to evolve from living with nature to trying to control it. This pretty much marked the beginning of the end of that perfect or near perfect state of interaction with nature where man’s existence did no harm to the environment. After this, nature became an enemy to be tamed to serve man’s will. But what happened was man became dependent upon the whims of the weather – rain, drought etc.”

As Amiad explains it, “the message Moses brought to the people of Israel contained important insights in how to live in peace not only with one another, but also with nature. The problem was that the message began to be lost almost as soon as it was received. Even so, if you look at the laws of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) you see that one day in every week we are to act as we did before the agricultural revolution, as if all is provided for – no work, no food preparations, focusing on contemplation –a model for being in total synch with nature.”amiad

After receiving his BA in Geography at the University of Haifa, Amiad became interested in the environment. He earned his master’s degree in Urban and Regional Planning at the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology. Amiad is a graduate of the “Environmental Fellows” program of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership and in 2003 was accepted as the first fellow of the Israel Venture Network (IVN) 2 year program for social entrepreneurship. Amiad went on to work with a number of environmental organizations in Israel. However, it was only through participating in the ancient American Indian ceremony, Vision Quest, that Amiad saw specifically how he should express his interest in environmental preservation.

The ceremony required building a circle of stones 3 meters in diameter and then spending four days and nights within it with only water. “This intense experience allowed me to see, in a very focused way, how I needed to make my contribution to solving the problems of the environment.” Amiad continued, “I understood that I have to live it – this  symbiosis with nature and the environment. I must also create things that will allow others to experience this kind of living first hand – conveying the message by example.”

That’s where the ‘house’ idea came in. Amiad explained, “While doing research for my master’s degree, I learned that quarrying rock for construction cement has disastrous effects on the environment. So when it came time to build a house for my family, I saw this as my first opportunity to exemplify a way to live in

front entrance  

peace with the environment. I aimed to use materials that were ecologically sound while creating a home that was affordable and pleasant to live in. If I could succeed, I knew it would encourage others to build in a similar way. So we made the frame of the house with four used marine shipping containers. The exterior walls are from blocks of bailed straw that I grew in our family fields. And let me tell you, it’s a wonderful feeling to grow the materials for your own house in your own fields generating no pollution at rom

“The interior bricks come from local soil – much of it dredged from a nearby river during its annual cleaning by the local authority. We made clay for the bricks by straining the soil through a filter I made. What’s really interesting is how the house knows how to warm itself in winter and cool itself in summer. All the windows in the bedrooms face south and have sunshields. The sun enters the rooms in winter and living rmmakes them warm. In the summer, the sun hits the sunshields so the heat is reflected. On a day with temperatures reaching almost 40 degrees outside, the house is cool inside – without air-conditioning or even a single ceiling fan.“ Amiad added a small hole at the  base of one of the bedroom walls that connects to a pipe running a meter underground. This allows the 16 degree Celcius air to contribute toward cooling the 120 meter house. Energy is conserved and the bimonthly electric bill is miniscule.

The house is a major attraction at Kerem Maharal and the pride of Eretz Carmel. However, the NGO’s main effort is focused on recycling organic refuse which won them this year’s Ford Foundation first prize for environmental preservation.

“We bring eight tons of garbage here a month to our three dunam farm. There are no flies or stink here, although hundreds of composting tons of garbage have passed this site,” Amiad says. ”This is because the natural decomposition process turns the garbage into compost. We put the organic garbage with grass clippings, hay, compost processingleaves, newspapers, sawdust and weeds. Microorganisms like bacteria and fungi as well as earthworms and insects work in the compost pile breaking down the materials into compost. The bacteria that could cause disease are sterilized by the natural rise in temperature to 60-70 degrees Celsius caused by the process. Six weeks into this process we add special worms of the Eisenia Fetida species into the pile. The worms eat the organic materials and leftovers, break them down in their bodies and their secretions are the best fertilizer,” Amiad continues.

“After the pile has decomposed for six months, the parts that have not broken down are taken out, leaving plant compost. This could be done anywhere in the country or city. It doesn’t stink, and doesn’t bother anyone. By compost process shovelcontrast, when organic garbage is not separated from plastic bags and other garbage, it decomposes without oxygen causing it to emit methane gas and contribute to global warming and climate imbalance. Recycling minimizes the greenhouse מתחם הערסלים effect. Think about it – almost 40 percent of our garbage consists of organic materials that can be recycled into fertilizer. The leftovers of what we eat go to produce what we eat in an organic circle that builds instead of depletes.  My house, the retreat center, our orgainic recycling were all established based on a careful study of the local environmental conditions.  We can and aim to replicate this anywhere after studying each area.”

This seems to be the crux of Amiad Lapidot’s message – not just environmental damage control, but actually contributing to the earth’s sustenance.  Sustainability is at the heart of his retreat center SHEFA, the Hebrew word for abundance which is also the acronym for “Preservation of the World’s Wonders”. One senses that both are true when visiting this unique site. I don’t know if it’s that amazing, ancient Alon tree that casts wide, tranquil shade over the soft mossy ground or the gentle freshness of the natural wood structures. Perhaps it’s the organic, vegetarian menu shefa succahor the cool and refreshing natural stone swimming pool.shefa pool Maybe it’s because only materials from nature are used and everything is recycled from vegetable peelings to the waste in the clean and well kept out-houses. Or perhaps it’s simply the sum of the parts. Whatever it is, being at SHEFA gives one a total sense of peace and serenity, of being able to really breathe, of a natural connectedness to the land and the space.

Amiad lectures throughout the country and can be reached at

      מרפסת סוכת השלום    shefa toilet






Posted by: planetisrael | November 30, 2007

How Sweet It Is

 Chocolate Heart Logo Final-small There’s a brand new theme tour of Israel and it’s oh so sweet. Adina Mishkoff, who moved to Israel over 20 years ago, and a friend still State-side decided to put their love of Israel and love of chocolate together in a unique way by creating ‘Chocolate At Heart’ – the first ever kosher, chocolate-and-charity tour of Israel. While talking to Adina about her yummy tour, I learned that there are a number of highly trained chocolatiers working at boutique chocolate factories around the country. One factory on her tour sounded particularly interesting – Choconoy in Netanya. Not only do they hand produce some of the finest chocolates in Israel (their chocolate is considered to rate with the top chocolate makers in Switzerland and Holland), their raison d’etre was unusual and of course close to my heart. Choconoy was established by Yafi and Moti Noy in order to ensure that their special needs son, Yuval, would always have secure, steady and satisfying employment.  Having a son with mild cerebral palsy, I could empathize with their experience.

Yuval was very happy working at the mattress factory in Kfar Saba, just a half hour drive from his parent’s home in Even Yehuda in central Israel. But in 2002 the factory closed. At aged 26 Yuval, who suffers from wide spectrum autism, found himself out of work. For anyone, being unemployed is difficult and frustrating. However, for a special needs person, it can be devastating. The abrupt change and absence of a regular schedule are often overwhelming, leaving the person loose ends and unable to adapt to the new reality.Yuval made great effort to find a job, applying to Burger Ranch, MacDonalds, retail stores etc. The response was always the same. They weren’t hiring. For Yuval, who was used to a daily schedule of arriving at work at 7:30am and leaving at 4pm, a few months without a job seemed like a lifetime. Watching their usually positive, happy son become sullen and out of sorts, Yafi and Moti decided to take matters into their own hands.

They began to consider what kind of business they could launch that would be interesting and would provide stimulating employment for Yuval.  Yafi and Moti wanted the business to include handwork where the work environment would be positive and aesthetically pleasing.  Yafi wanted something out of the ordinary.  But most importantly, the work had to be connected to ‘goodness’.   While they were mulling over different ideas, they saw an ad in the newspaper that a cocoa factory was for sale.  They thought, yes, chocolate makes people happy.  The factochoco6.jpgry turned out not to be the right solution.   However, in the process of researching chocolate that could be produced in the factory, they heard about and attended the Paris chocolate exhibition in May 2002.  Seeing all the wonderful, creative things that could be done with chocolate they realized that this was just what they were looking for.

Upon returning to Israel, they consulted with a chocolate specialist. By June 2002 they began purchasing equipment and rented a 300sq. meter space for a factory in the industrial area of Netanya. They hired a chocolatier who’d studied in Switzerland to build customized recipes.

choco7.jpgBy Oct. 1st, on Yuval’s birthday, the Noy family began manufacturing some of the best chocolate there is.   Using only fresh cream, the best ingredients and no preservatives, Choconoy pralines and chocolates are, as they say, to die for. Not only are all Choconoy’s choco2.jpgproducts kosher, Yafi made sure they received approvals from the Israeli Health Ministry, the US FDA.   

choco4.jpgAlthough a small company, half of Choconoy’s staff of six has special needs. Its company policy is that everyone does everything from answering phones and packaging to running the creatively designed shop in front of the factory and cleaning up. By providing a positive, supportive atmosphere where they are trusted to rise to any challenge and given the opportunity to take on responsibility, the special needs employees have gained confidence, developed greater self-esteem and become more

Choconoy Chocolate Shop located in front of the factory

Yafi explained, “Being out of work for a few months left Yuval despondent and even unwell physically. As a social worker, I can tell you that without a psychologist, without a support group, without any of the formal aids provided for people with special needs, having a job for the past 5yrs that allows him to expand as a person has transformed Yuval. Now, at age 33, his attitude and approach are so positive. His ability to interact and take on commitment have improved significantly. One wonderful example occurred last week.

“Unbeknownst to me, last Tuesday the phone rang and Yuval happened to answer it. The woman said she wanted to order 16 boxes of assorted pralines as a gift for her company’s business clients visiting from abroad. Yuval took the order but failed to follow our company procedure of taking payment information up front. The woman said she’d be in on Wed. or Thurs. to pick up the order and pay for it. On his own, Yuval prepared the 16 boxes of fresh pralines and readied them for pick-up. The woman didn’t show up on Wed. When by noon on Thursday she didn’t appear, on his initiative, Yuval called her and asked when she’d like to pick up the order. She said she’d be in on Sunday.

“Sunday arrived and lo and behold, so did she, with payment in full and endless praise for Yuval’s excellent customer service. That evening she called to say that her CEO had tasted the pralines and decided to make an order of 180 boxes to send to clients abroad as their corporate holiday gift. We were all thrilled. It was a fabulous order. The best moment came when Yuval asked, ‘can I say I’m in marketing?’. “ Yuval and the staff of Choconoy are now hoping to develop clients in North America.  Anyone interested can contact Yuval or Yafi at


Yuval Noy holding Globes Prize presented to his father, Moti’s company, Mono Electronics

The company is underwritten by Moti’s engineering solutions firm, Mono Electronics. Each year, Israel’s leading business newspaper, Globes, recognizes companies that make the most significant contribution to the community. In 2004, in the  small business category, that honor went to Mono Electronics for their efforts on behalf of Choconoy.

picking vegitable for needy families

Chocolate - website 5

Choconoy is just one stop on this unusual theme tour of Israel.

Participants will travel throughout the country, visiting some of the best boutique chocolate factories, wineries and restaurants while enjoying a rare opportunity to partake in hands on charity projects. For more information or to join the tour, get in touch with In Israel: ADINA MISHKOFF Tel: 02-563-1761 or In the US: ENID MOSKOWITZ  Tel: 1-212-873-7649 and experience how sweet Israel really is.

Chocolate - website 2  Tour Group preparing themselves a gormet meal under the tutelage of one of Israel’s best chefs.

Posted by: planetisrael | November 14, 2007

GINA: Only In Israel



Louis Ferreira de Moraes (Brazil), “Big Fish of the Guarau River”, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 50×100



Where can you find the only Naïve Art gallery that displays works from the four corners of the planet?  OK, it’s a rhetorical question – the answer is in the title of this post.  GINA Gallery of International Naïve Art is a case in point of why I love this country and love doing this blog.  Only in Israel can you walk into a gallery and see naïve art from 25 countries around the world.


Maria Julia Fraile (Spain), “A Spring Festival”, 2005, Acrylic on canvas, 38×55 cm


There is a good reason that most Naïve Art galleries don’t display art from other countries; the gallery is logically established where there are lots of Naïve Artists to provide a good solid supply of quality works.  Makes sense, right?  It also makes sense that there would not be a Naïve Art gallery in Israel since there have been and are very few local artists who focus on this genre.  However, when you hear this story, I hope you’ll agree that it also makes sense that the world’s only international Naïve Art gallery is right here, 20 kilometers south of my home, at GINA gallery in the heart of Tel Aviv.




                                                                GINA GALLERY


dan-chill-1.jpg Dan Chill should have been born in the land of Israel, but thanks to the conscientious US Consulate in Jerusalem in 1940, his father, an American citizen, was told that because Rommel was threatening British Mandate Palestine from the South and the German Panzer Division was threatening from the North, the American government would not be responsible if anything happened to the Chills and their young daughter if they didn’t leave the British Mandate within 2 weeks. Departing the land of Israel was not an easy decision. Dan’s mother’s family originally came here in 1809.  Heartbroken, they decided to emigrate.


Dan grew up in Florida and New York City.  After attending New York University and completing a joint JD and master’s degree at Harvard’s Law School and JFK School of International Affairs, he worked as an attorney in Boston.  Yet his heart was always in Israel.  With each war here, he felt progressively worse about being in the comfortable USA.  Working to raise money for the young State just wasn’t the same as fighting for the country with which he felt deeply affiliated.  Visiting a sad and depressed Israel after the Yom Kippur war, the Chills felt it was finally time to make aliya.



Soon after arriving in Israel in 1975, Dan joined Israel Aircraft Industries as assistant general counsel.  It was while traveling for them in 1983 to negotiate a sales contract with the Honduran government that he caught sight of a painting in a small gallery across the street from his hotel.  Captivated by the brilliant colors and genuine innocence portrayed in the painting, Dan made his very first acquisition of Naïve Art.


Tito Lucaveche (Spain), “Cake Shop in Majorca”, 2005, Oil on canvas, 41×33 cm


Legal work for IAI followed by four years with the Eisenberg Group and then 12 with Indigo fortuitously took him to the far corners of the world where he was able to pursue his growing interest in this unusual, off beat and very optimistic style of art.  “I began to seek out Naïve Art galleries during my travels.  I was curious to meet the people who created these charming works,”  Dan explained. “When I traveled to a country where I knew there was a possibility to find indigenous artists of this genre, I’d give the concierge a good tip and often he’d be able to track down galleries and artists.  Gradually, I found myself building a personal connection with artists and various galleries around the world.  But what happened next came as a complete surprise. 



Barbara Rochlitz (Brazil), “Tropical Paradise”, 2007, Oil on canvas, 50×70 cm


“Of course each new acquisition found a place on the walls of my home and office.  Suddenly I began to see a strange pattern in the behavior of our guests at home.  They’d enter the house and instead of the usual conversation about family and friends, the topic of discussion was inevitably about the art on our walls.  People were captivated and fascinated by the innocent, simple stories and rich colors.  I was able to tell first hand stories about how the painting came about because in each case I’d either met the artist or heard his story from the gallery director displaying the work.


“At work the effects of these colorful, heartwarming paintings were even more tangible. Dealing with legal matters, visitors were often tense, the subject matter sometimes contentious.  The art was an inevitable ice breaker. Attorneys, clients, adversaries would come into my office and soon become engaged in a pleasant conversation regarding the disarming art gracing the walls of my office, transporting us all to a distant, pastoral land. People found themselves smiling.  The tension level dropped dramatically.  Business was conducted in a much more positive atmosphere.




 Barbara Rochlitz (Brazil), “Playing”, 2007, Oil on canvas, 40×59 cm


“It suddenly occurred to me that people’s reactions were indicative of something very special.  They seemed to naturally take to this art that celebrates the human narrative by portraying some event in the artist’s life or a story they heard.  I realized that I had unintentionally done something revolutionary by gathering together in one place this unique indigenous Naïve Art from a wide range of countries.  I realized I could create something that had not yet been done in the history of the world  – create a gallery of Naïve Art from around the world.



Natan Heber (Israel), “Simchat Tora”, 1970, Oil on board, 47×75 cm




 Eduardo Ungar (Argentina), “A Feast of Flowers”, 2007,  Acrylic on canvas, 60×60 cm




Michael Falk (Israel), “The Orange Grove”, 2006, Oil on canvas, 80×70 cm



“If I could transform my avocation into my vocation…???…and so was born the GINA Gallery.”


Dan continues to travel the world.  However, instead of negotiating contracts, he’s visiting artists in Brazil, Argentina, France and scores of other countries where he’s discovered a coterie of quality naïve artists.  Those discoveries are the result of a good deal of homework, visiting museums and exhibitions, reading about the local art markets, building files and knowing who to meet and which artists to visit.  The all-important ‘home visits’ are one of Dan’s favorite aspects of this business.  Hired translators and drivers facilitate these endless adventures where Dan learns first hand how each artist – always self-taught – came to paint that particular story in his or her singular style.


                                                                                         3320.jpg  Maria Laura Bratoz (Argentina), “”Where is that Movie?””, 2007, Acrylic on canvas, 50×50 cm


Since opening on Dec. 4, 2003, under the artistic direction and (when Dan is abroad) day to day management of Ifat Reiss, Dan’s new vocation evolved from showing paintings of 75 artists from 10 countries to representing and displaying the works of 275 artists from 25 countries. 


There’s definitely something special about these enchantingly innocent scenes of an idealized world devoid of political or social commentary.  Perhaps the joy they inspire is the reason it is said that more people have visited GINA Gallery than any other single art gallery in the history of Israel.


For Dan, it’s very much about the human factor; each painting that hangs in GINA gallery has a story behind it and one way or another, Dan Chill discovers that story to bring home and share with the hundreds and hundreds of visitors to the gallery each month – an experience, it seems, that can only be had in Israel.


Haim Harbon (Israel), “The Sea Shore of the Promised Land”, 1969, Acrylic on board,64×96 cm

Posted by: planetisrael | October 26, 2007

Biking for Alyn; It’s All About the Feeling

sunset-mitzpeh-ramon.jpg  “Biking – it’s THE way to really see this country.  Walking or jogging is nice but how much ground can you cover in a morning or even in a day?  When you drive, you do travel a good distance and you can enjoy the scenery along the way.  But often the roads for cars don’t take you to those hidden, really cool places.  When you bike, on road or off, you follow out of the way paths and trails that reveal new wonders on each trip.”  

That’s what David Mirchin, an attorney who came to Israel about 6 years ago, told me by way of explanation about why he bikes and why he’s going to ride 350 hard, mostly off road kilometers to raise money and awareness for the Alyn Hosipital. 

day-4-minchah.jpg  Although this weekend David will be teaming up with 400 other riders to bike for Alyn, the rest of the year he joins thousands of Israelis crisscrossing the back roads and trails of this country’s rich and varied countryside.  In fact, you’d have to be in a coma not to have noticed the huge cycling rage that has spread throughout Israel.  Not being a biker myself, I was curious as to what the attraction was for these often over 40’s riders and why a father of three with a way-too-full work schedule would take off  5 days to ride – albeit for a great cause – with such a large group. The Charity Bike Ride takes place from October 28 to November 1 and supports Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem, which provides intensive physical rehabilitation for children with severe disabilities.


This year, the Alyn Charity Bike Ride will wind its way for about 350 kilometers, mostly off-road from Tiberias at an altitude of 600 feet below sea level, on a circuitous route up and down dry river beds and past the dormant volcano of Karnei Hitim, where in 1187 battles were fought between the Islamic forces led by Salah A Din and the Crusaders and which was afterwards conquered by the Muslims. The route will then go past Degania, the first kibbutz in Israel (and the world!), past Mount Tabor, across Emek Yizreel, down through the center of the country, not far from David’s home in Raanana, into Tel Aviv, and then, on the last day, up the wadis to Jerusalem.


“When, I mean when would I take a ride like that?  This Charity Ride is a great opportunity to both make a contribution and see amazing areas of Israel.  When you ride, you really feel the topography of the land. There’s nothing like the feeling of starting out the day – like we did in last year’s Alyn ride –  at 800meters in the cold, heavy rain of the Jerusalem hills, riding down through the Judean desert past sea level and a few hours later finding yourself 400meters below sea level in the warm bright sunshine.  You feel like you’re living the land or experiencing the life of the land.  I discovered roads I never knew existed.    

                            david-machtesh-ramon-day-4.jpg                                                 david-passing-sea-level-day-1.jpg

“It wasn’t until I started biking that I discovered amazingly beautiful places not far from my home.  There’s a fabulous nature reserve on the Hasharon Beach south of Wingate (Israel’s leading Sports College in central Israel).  The view from the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean is exquisite. 

“I’ve found visiting places I already know with a bike has revealed hidden treasures I would never, ever see.  Because riding takes me to the back trails,  I end up discovering that within parks I knew there are things I would never have found.  For example, I love going to the Ben Shemen Forest and had been there many times.  Yet it was only when I started biking there that I came upon these incredible little theme parks for children.  There, hidden in the middle of the forest, was a play ground where each piece of equipment was in the shape of a musical instrument.  Swings like saxophones, seesaws like trombones.  And all of it was handicapped accessible.  Amazing.  Simply amazing.  And get this, a short ride from there is a nature path for the blind.  All the signs are in Hebrew, English and brail.    

“Another wonderful benefit of bicycling is that, when spending hours riding though forests and fields, at some point you inevitably enjoy the inimitable reward of discovering bits of nature that are simply incredible for their pure beauty and rarity.  In June I happened to be biking in near Yokneam (15km south east of Haifa) and came upon a sea of special lilies that bloom for only 10 days a year.  

                   bike4.jpg                                           bike3.jpg “There’s also the camaraderie and social aspect of biking that adds to the fun.  But riding for Alyn is an experience unto itself.  Picture 400 riders, all clad in these bright yellow T-shirts starting off as a single organism or giant meadow cutting a brilliant image against the dark road before splitting into the on and off road groups.  Bikers from at least 10 different countries participate and everyone is great.  Most are observant Jews so we have no problem with a minion for daily prayers.   


 “It’s also outstandingly beautiful.  We ride through some of Israel’s most dramatic terrain  – last year in the Negev, this year north of the Sea of Galilee.  Picture last year’s Negev ride – set against the brownish red hills that resemble moon cliffs with their flattened and jagged peaks is a miles-ling line of bright yellow comprised of hundreds of riders moving in one long flowing wave.  It’s like a moving sculpture of nature. In fact biking in nature in general gives you a great sense of freedom.”  

I asked David what caused him to do a charity ride.                                                                                                                    


“Well, this may sound odd, but it was a result of the Second Lebanon War about a year and a half ago.  That entire summer saw a country unnerved. I felt like were assaulted, torn apart.  Then, when it ended, I felt a strong need to do something with the land and the people of Israel.  Someone told me about the Charity ride for Alyn taking place just a couple of months after the war ended.  It seemed like a great way to see the country, sort of reunite it in my own mind and do some good for a great cause.” 


This year’s ride will have some serious challenges including more than a few extremely steep inclines and descents through rough terrain. David has been training both on road and off.  For the past few months, about three times a week, he’s been cycling the 18km between his home in Ranana and work in Tel Aviv.  On Fridays he visits one of his favorite hill training sites, Ramat Raziel, home of the well known Castel winery (to be featured in a future blog post). Ramat Raziel is in the Judean Hills – a great attraction for bike riders around the country.  On any given weekend, the base of the hills is littered with hundreds of cars sporting bike racks.  They come for the varied terrain with sharp and gentle inclines, open air, wide jeep trails and tree covered ‘singles’ where a high speed descent can create an adrenaline rush similar to that of down hill skiing.  Riding in the early morning mist along one of the endless hidden trails, one may come across the remnants of an ancient village or be visited briefly by a fox or ferret. 

 “Although I’m a bit nervous – it’s going to be a challenging ride – I’m enthusiastic about seeing all the great things on the route and riding with people from around the world. And I have to admit that I’m really looking forward to the long days of riding to just clear my head and enjoy the Israeli scenery.  I’m also excited about raising money for this outstanding hospital.  One nice thing about it is that people can contribute both before the ride and after.  For more information, they can contact me directly at  

“In the Alyn ride, the kids from the hospital meet us at the rest stops.  We have a few minutes to share our experience and gain energy from their enthusiasm for the event and the courage they bring to their lives each and every day.  We’re riding for them, yet we feel supported by them. Yea, it’s about the feeling.”   

A bit about Alyn Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation HospitalA private non-profit hospital, Alyn is one of the world’s leading specialists in the active and intensive rehabilitation of infants, children and adolescents – regardless of religion or ethnic origin – affiliated with a broad range of physical disabilities. This remarkable place is dedicated to treating children and adolescents with the most severe disabilities—those tethered to respirators, with limb deformities, muscular dystrophies, spinal injuries, head injuries, severe burns and more.  It is the only pediatric rehabilitation institution of its kind in Israel. It has a world-class staff of physicians, nurses and therapists who work every day to create a better life for these children. It is particularly noteworthy that Alyn is home to 37 long-term patients, including 13 respirator-dependent patients, young people for whom there would be no alternative to Alyn. For more information, take a look at  

Posted by: planetisrael | October 11, 2007

Happy Birthday to You and You and You and you and you

I got the bad news and the good news at the same time.  The bad news is that thousands of children in Israel have never had a birthday party.  The good news is Birthday Angels, the brainchild of Ruthie Sobol Luttenburg. 

So far I’ve written about people doing cool things in one place in Israel.  Birthday Angels, the birthday party project, is a cool thing that happens all over the country, all the time.


Ruthie and I sat in a café near Kadima, a small community about 8kilometers from Israel’s coastline, about half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa.  I had heard that Ruthie had her own business and wondered how she went from small business owner to full time philanthropist.  I also wanted to know what this birthday thing was all about. Ruthie, what is Birthday Angels?“You know, it’s really simple. There is one day in the year when a person is the most important in the world – our birthday.   Can you believe that one out of every 6 kids in this country have never had a birthday?!?  Birthday Angels make it possible for the thousands of underprivileged children of Israel to enjoy this really important experience.” How does it work? “We created a ‘do-it-yourself’ kit which includes everything needed to make a fun and special party that, above all else, focuses on the birthday girl or boy.   The kits go out to youth leaders who deal with underprivileged children, giving them to ability to create fabulous parties with no special training or experience” What do you mean by experience? 

“Before creating Birthday Angels, I had a business that provided specialized birthday parties according to themes.   You know – dinosaurs, ice age, chocolate factory and the like.  Each theme had its own little world of equipment, decorations etc. I had a trained team who knew how to interact with the children, get them involved, set up and use the involved equipment and generally manage a party.   It was a great business.  But the parties each cost up to a couple of thousand shekels ($500).  At one point I asked myself – what am I doing?   All this effort and time spent in making fancy, unique parties for children who have everything.  Meanwhile, so many don’t even get to enjoy the simplest of parties recognizing their birthday.

So I sat down and thought out what could comprise a ready-to-use package.  I came up with a set of games, activities, decorations music and stickers that would enable anyone to host a great party. I mean anyone. No training, no major equipment, no fancy accoutrements. But what it would have is “CONTENT” which is all about the birthday child. 

“People donate 36$ and for this amount give a child an experience that he or she has never had – a birthday celebration for them and them alone.   With this modest donation, people can really touch a child.  We recognized how important this connection is for both sides – the children and the donors.   That’s why we included in the kit a thank you note that the child fills in and decorates. This brings the experience full circle. 


When did you come to live in Israel? 

“I was brought up in a home that very much believed in and loved Israel.  I spent all my summers at the Young Judea camps.   Visiting, I found myself smitten with the country. I couldn’t wait to come and spend an extended period of time here.  So I purposely finished high school early so I could get here sooner.   There was a one year Young Judea program where we learned of Israel’s history and politics. But more importantly, we lived in different areas around the country from Kibbutzim to Moshavim and traveled the entire country.   I felt so at home. It just seemed natural to be here. 

“I went to Tel Aviv University and spent 3yrs studying philosophy, political science and Mid-East studies.   While there I joined a group of university students volunteering in a depressed neighborhood.  Eventually I was hired as an Informal Education Facilitator assigned with task of creating a drug program.   That led to setting up Israel’s first center with a library of educational activities, educational toys and work shops. That evolved into an educational toy store which became a service for educational tools and I  was never happier.   


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Ruthie and Anita Alter King, Birthday Angels North American liaison at the CAJE conference in St. Louis 2007

“The fascinating difference between formal and informal education is that formal education provides a predetermined package that children are expected to absorb whether they get it or not, want it or not, connect to it or not.   Informal education customizes itself to the needs of the ‘users’ aka, the kids and it demands their involvement.  “So when I set up my birthday party company, I wrapped the theme around the child.  I was very happy with this business until the second Intifada when my business did just as well as it always had.” How did your success during intifada cause you to become disgruntled with your business?  “The daily newspapers endlessly discussed how the intifada was damaging the economy.  How was it that it hadn’t affected my business?  I realized that the families that could afford my parties were giving their kids that special attention no matter what.   My abilities were going to waste on kids who didn’t need it.  And so Birthday Angels was born.  ruthie3 

Ruthie receiving the Begin Award for Service to the Community

“As of today, 2500 children have celebrated their birthdays through this project.  On of the beautiful aspects of this project is the connection between the child and the donor, many of whom are also children.”  How is that? “Many children have donated by asking people who come to their bar and bat mitzvah’s to give them a gift of donating $36 to birthday angels.   Then the process comes full circle when the bar/bat mitzvah child receives a heartfelt, lovingly decorated thank you card.

“That’s why we call this project: ‘The Circle of Giving’. Everyone is giving something. The Angels donate a kit, the volunteers give the party, the Birthday Child sends the Thank You card and the circle is complete.  And with enough good hearted people out there, eventually, every child in Israel will experience having their own birthday party.”  

If you’d like to find out more about Birthday Angels click here.

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