The making of a miracle

John Brown is waiting for a miracle. Expecting one, in

It’s all there, he says, laid out in the First Book of
Kings, Chapter 8, in an overlooked part of Solomon’s
prayer upon the dedication of the Temple: ‘Also a
gentile, who is not of Your people Israel, but will
come from a distant land, for Your name’s sake… and
will come and pray toward this Temple – may You hear
from heaven, the foundation of Your abode, and act
according to all that the gentile calls out to you, so
that all the people of the world may know Your

‘When I read those words, they pierce my heart,’ Brown
says, ‘for I am a gentile who has come to pray to the
Lord. And I know that when Solomon asks God to do
‘all’ that the gentile asks of Him, ‘all’ means oil.’

Brown, a born-again Christian, has spent the better
part of the past 25 years pursuing his belief that the
Bible points to vast petroleum deposits in the Holy
Land, and that God has sent him to find them.

‘Now, I know I’m not the only stranger whom God has
called to come to pray at the Temple in Jerusalem,’ he
says. ‘I mean, if you read Zechariah and Isaiah, there
are a lot of them. I’m just one of many that He has
created for this purpose.’

The purpose of Brown’s company, Zion Oil and Gas, is
to find the oil so that Israel can benefit
economically, strategically – and prophetically.

‘Zion’s purpose is not just to discover oil and help
Israel with its energy needs, but to contribute, if
possible, to the Jews’ return to Israel. Anything we
can do is, to me, God’s plan,’ Brown says. ‘It’s a
mitzva – and not because I’m trying to make Christians
out of them or anything like that, but because it’s
all part of God’s plan.’

What God has planned for Zion Oil and Gas is, at this
stage, unclear. The company launched a successful
initial public offering on the American Stock Exchange
in New York this spring. But shortly thereafter Brown
had to deliver the news to his shareholders at their
first meeting in Dallas that Zion’s Ma’anit No. 1 well
east of Caesarea had failed to produce the copious
amounts of oil he had assured them it would. That
hasn’t shaken the faith of the tall, broad-shouldered
67-year-old former manufacturing executive – or of his
staff, who are eagerly awaiting the expansion of the
Ma’anit well for what they believe will be a stunning

Stephen Pierce, Zion’s chief geologist, wrote in a
2004 article in the Oil & Gas Journal that ‘Zion has a
strong probability of making a significant discovery
of some 484 million barrels of oil.’ To put that in
perspective: total oil production in Israel since 1955
hasn’t quite reached 18 million barrels.

IN 1981, JOHN BROWN found God. It was the same year
that Jim Spillman, an evangelical preacher, found oil
in four prophetic passages in the Bible.

Specifically: In Deuteronomy 32:13, Moses says,
somewhat cryptically: ‘[God] would suckle him with
honey from a stone, and oil from a flinty rock.’
Although most commentators and Bible scholars assume
this is a poetic reference to wild bees’ nests in rock
crevices and date palms sprouting from scraggly
ground, Spillman claims it is instead meant to reflect
an oil rig pumping black gold from a well. But where
is this treasure?

One clue, according to Spillman, lies in Jacob’s
blessing to Joseph in Genesis 49:25, when he says that
God ‘will bless you with blessings of heaven from
above, blessings of the deep crouching below.’
Similarly, in Deuteronomy 33:13, Moses blesses Joseph,
saying, ‘His land is a blessing of God, with the
sweetness of the heavens’ dew and of the deep
crouching below.’

Scholars understand the blessing invoked here to be
water, citing a parallel structure between dew from
the skies and flowing wells. Spillman, however, sees
the ‘blessings of the deep crouching below,’ again, as

The other clue follows in Deuteronomy 33:24: ‘And to
Asher he said, Blessed among the sons is Asher. He
shall be accepted by his brothers, and dip his foot in
oil.’ Rather than assume the oil in question is olive
oil, which was commonly used for anointing and would
be used for dipping in a lavish display of wealth,
Spillman insists that here, too, the Bible is speaking
of petroleum. And that where the southernmost tip of
the territory apportioned to Asher – which is shaped
like a foot – borders the territory of Joseph’s
firstborn son Menashe, there must be oil.

Zion does not rely merely on Scripture, however. In
part, it was lucky: The Ma’anit well, in what Zion
calls its Joseph License, was first drilled in 1994 by
Sedot Neft. That company had to abandon the well when
it ran out of funds. Zion moved in afterward.

The company also relies on science. Says geologist
Pierce, ‘John points his finger to the spot on the map
where his faith tells him to look. I put my finger on
the same spot on the map because of where my science
tells me to look.’

Pierce is certainly familiar with the location. Right
around the same time that Spillman was publishing his
theories on the Bible’s petroleum prophecies, Pierce
was in Israel to perform some analysis work for
Superior Oil (later to be purchased by Mobil Oil),
contracted by the state. Five years ago, when he heard
about Zion’s search for oil in Israel, Pierce
contacted the company and basically insisted on
heading up the geological work.

At Zion’s offices in Caesarea, Pierce pores over pages
of data and sheets of squiggly lines, running for
meters along the wall, that tell him about the makeup
of the rock layers thousands of meters into the earth.
Seismic acquisition equipment making its way back to
Israel from a project in Angola will soon scan some 60
kilometers of land in Zion’s license area, adding more
data that Zion hopes will unlock the secrets of the
‘deep crouching below.’

OUT IN THE FIELD, the earth’s secrets remain locked
away. Four hundred meters from the road, marked only
by a small sign next to a rough path worn in the mud,
the well that Zion proudly unveiled this spring now
sits covered by a massive concrete cap.

If there really is oil waiting to be discovered by the
Zion crew, it is proving elusive. Despite millions of
dollars spent and a well drilled almost five
kilometers into the earth, Zion has gathered what it
says are promising signs, but there have been no sales
yet, no claims of proven reserves.

‘It’s a long process,’ notes Richard Rinberg, Zion’s
CEO. ‘It’s not like the Clampetts of The Beverly
Hillbillies, where you go out into your backyard, fire
your rifle into the ground and oil comes gushing up,
making you a multimillionaire.’ Drilling a well is an
expensive, time- consuming endeavor that requires
feats of engineering the likes of which Israel has
rarely seen.

‘Imagine you’re up in an aircraft at an altitude of
30,000 feet,’ says Rinberg. ‘Now imagine a single
continuous pipeline going halfway down to the ground.
Technologically, and from a cost point of view, it’s
very difficult.’

Mechanical difficulties have killed numerous other oil
exploration efforts here, and they may yet do the same
to Zion. After hitting a snag in the Ma’anit well at a
depth of about four kilometers, Zion now wants to
reenter the well and, at a depth of about 3.5 km.,
turn a drill about 20 degrees outward and dig
sideways. They want to forge their way down to a depth
of almost 6 km., ending up about 800 meters northeast
of the well’s surface location. That’s where they
believe they can tap into the ancient Permian rock
layer and find their hydrocarbon bounty.

‘Worldwide, the Permian is one of the greatest oil
producers… and it looks very promising here in
Israel, particularly northern Israel,’ says Zion
president Glen Perry, an old-time Texas oil man who
joined Zion after rehabilitating wells in Siberia and
the Republic of Georgia.

‘Every well that has been drilled to the Permian
formation in Israel has seen some type of either oil
or gas show. All the science indicates that there is
gas in there,’ Perry says. ‘The problem has been
finding rock that has enough holes in it that the gas
is commercial. That is what we’re looking for. Our
indications are that we will have greater porosity
than we have seen in the other wells. Then we hope to
enhance that by getting into an area where the rock is
cracked. Where you have these cracks, the gas will
flow much, much better.’

Of 470 wells drilled here since 1955, only a quarter
have been of commercial interest, and only those in
the Negev’s Heletz fields have produced more than a
trickle of oil. But that doesn’t tell the whole story,
Perry insists.

Only eight wells have been drilled to a considerable
depth in the North, and all of them, Perry notes, have
returned ‘shows’ of oil or gas that warrant further
exploration. Besides, he says, ‘Texas has more than
356,000 producing wells today, of some 2.5 million
that have been drilled. Comparatively, the Zion Oil
and Gas license area is ‘virgin territory.”

THE ZION OIL AND GAS story is strikingly similar to
those of several other prominent born-again Christian
oilmen who drilled in Israel based on their
interpretation of various biblical passages: Gilman
Hill, Andy Sorelle, Jr., Hayseed Stephens and Lyle
Harron. All invested millions, and all came up with
nothing. (Interestingly, though, a possibly commercial
amount of oil was discovered last year near the Dead
Sea, in the same general area where Stephens said God
told him there would be oil.)

There is also Jewish-owned drilling spurred on by the
same biblical passages that motivated the above
companies, in the form of Tovia Luskin’s Givot Olam.
The Russian-born geophysicist started drilling near
Rosh Ha’ayin (the ‘Meged’ wells) after receiving a
blessing from the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Like Zion
Oil and Gas, Givot Olam intends to drill down to a
depth of five kilometers and, also like Zion, the
company is scrounging for a rig capable of doing so.

Ginko, another Israeli company, struck oil west of the
Dead Sea, with wells (named ‘Tzuk Tamrur’ and
‘Emunah’) that were deemed uneconomical a decade ago.
More efficient technologies and higher oil prices led
Ginko to try these wells again.

Yitzhak Tshuva’s Delek Group is a partner in the Dead
Sea drilling project, as well as the major offshore
exploration efforts. Lapidoth, one of a handful of
former government-owned companies that were privatized
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, carries out much of
the drilling work for the other companies.

Almost all of the usable oil discovered here was found
in the Heletz field southeast of Ashkelon, from the
mid- 1950s to the early 1970s. (Current production
there is down to just 70 barrels a day, although the
company that now controls the fields hopes to improve
that figure to 200 or 300 barrels per day.)

Although geologists from major foreign oil companies
in the late 1970s and early 1980s estimated that
Israel had as much as two billion barrels of oil
waiting to be discovered, only 18 million barrels of
oil have been produced since the founding of the
state. Saudi Arabian oil wells, by way of comparison,
produce more than that every two days.

Where Israel has made waves recently is in the
discovery of offshore natural gas deposits. The Delek
Group and BG control massive gas fields off Ashkelon.

This coming spring, according to Petroleum
Commissioner Ya’acov Mimran, another possible large
natural gas field will be drilled off Haifa,
potentially adding to the NIS 100 million that the
state currently receives as a royalty from the gas

A switch to natural gas power has helped decrease
pollution as well as costs, Mimran says. The resource
will make further inroads, he adds, as the state
invests in a cross-country pipeline to transport gas
to large industrial clients.

The natural gas finds offer Israel a greater degree of
energy security, another option in meeting its energy
needs. That is something the government is very much
interested in pursuing, Mimran says. After all, he
says, ‘no sane country would put all its energy eggs
in one basket.’

How much more, then, would oil flowing in the Jewish
state improve the country’s strategic position. Even
if a major oil field were to be discovered here,
though, it would not necessarily be easy for companies
like Zion, Givot Olam or Ginko to exploit it.

‘One factor that needs to be recognized relative to
Israel is the geopolitical aspect,’ says oil industry
analyst Allen Mesch of Petro-Strategies, based in
Plano, Texas. ‘That is, whether there would be any
fallout for a major international oil company doing
business there, from other oil producing nations in
the Middle East.

‘I think that’s something that would not be talked
about in the board rooms of the major companies – at
least not openly – but a company would have to ask
whether their operations in Afghanistan, for example,
would be affected by getting involved in Israel. One
would be terribly naive if they didn’t consider that.’
OIL EXPLORATION here has frequently been limited by
technology and funding. What Zion has suffered from is
a lack of equipment. Because most of the world’s oil
activity takes place in countries hostile to Israel,
Zion has had to scrounge equipment and parts from
Egypt, Italy, Germany – even as far away as China and
Ukraine. It can’t proceed with the expansion of the
Ma’anit well because there is no oil rig in the entire
country capable of doing the job. They won’t be able
to take delivery of one, Perry says, until at least

So now, it would seem, it is a game of timing for
Zion. If the company can drill its Ma’anit No. 2 well
soon – and if there really is a large store of natural
gas there – the company will have recorded a huge
victory. A potential customer is already lined up for
the bounty, a stone’s throw away. Natural gas
transportation pipelines are being constructed within
a kilometer of the planned well. If not, and
especially if expanding the first Ma’anit well does
not gush forth with oil next summer, all those
assertions of divine guidance could look shakier than

Thus far, Zion has raised interest – and funds – by
asking the tantalizing question, ‘What if there is oil
in Israel?’ They’re not prepared to ask the crushing
question, ‘What if there isn’t?’

‘I wouldn’t want to put the Creator in a box,’ says
Pierce. ‘I don’t worry about failure.’

‘You know how long David had to wait between being
anointed king by Samuel and actually ruling in
Jerusalem? Fourteen years. That’s what we keep in mind
about being patient,’ adds Perry.

Analyst Mesch agrees that a long-term approach may be

‘You have to be careful about saying, ‘Oh, there’s
nothing there,’ because naysayers have been proven
wrong,’ Mesch notes. ‘The oil and gas industry has so
many stories of large companies leaving, and small
companies coming in after them and finding or
extracting oil. Success in the whole industry is a
function of evolving technology and trying something

For Brown, who remains steadfast in his belief that he
will see oil flowing in the land of Zion, all that is
necessary is to follow God’s plan.

‘When the oil comes out,’ he says, ‘and they ask me
how I got it, I’ll say: I read the Tanach.’

(BOX) A man of reckless faith

John Brown knows that you think he’s nuts. He’s been
hearing it for years. And frankly, he understands
where you’re coming from.

‘When you start telling people, ‘God told me this’ or
‘God told me that’ – let’s be honest, it’s pretty
heavy- duty stuff,’ Brown says, speaking candidly
during a recent visit.

Ever since his born-again experience in 1981, he’s
been walking his own path.

Although he was a successful executive for a thriving
manufacturing company, Brown had struggled with
alcoholism. ‘Being saved’ changed all that.

‘I prayed a prayer, I felt the presence of God – and I
knew in my life, that there was something that had
happened… that I had had a transformation,’ he

His need to drink and to feed his two-pack-a-day
cigarette habit instantly disappeared, Brown says, ‘as
if God just took a big eraser and erased it out of my
life.’ An encounter with evangelist preacher Jim
Spillman and his Bible ‘treasure code’ theories led
Brown to quit his job, sending him on a journey into
Torah study and trips to Israel.

‘I discovered the riches of Judaism,’ he says, quoting
from Pirkei Avot and the commentary of Rashi. ‘The
Torah is so rich that I can hardly think about it
sometimes. I get emotional. It changes me.’

Listening to Torah tapes, and printing up pamphlets
about the supposed oil prophecies in Genesis and
Deuteronomy definitely put Brown outside the

‘To the Christian community, I had lost my marbles. We
were at the point where we weren’t eating any
non-kosher food. We were keeping Shabbat. My friends
were saying, ‘Man, you’ve gone nuts. Can’t you just be
a normal Christian?”

But the draw of seeing those prophecies fulfilled was
too great and, in 1983, Brown made his first
exploratory trip to Israel.

‘I went to Jerusalem, went to the Western Wall and put
my hands on the wall and prayed… I had no idea where
this was going. It wasn’t like, ‘Gee whiz, I want all
this oil so I can be rich.’ I wanted to help the
people of Israel. The oil was just the tool to do it.’
Brown moved to Texas to learn more about the oil
industry, continuing to spread the word while spending
all his savings. Partly because of the scandals caused
by incompetent wildcatters or swindlers with smooth
talk of oil exploration in the Holy Land, Brown’s
attempts to stir up interest in an oil search were met
with only a few hallelujahs and even less money.

‘I gave my whole career up, and spent all my money to
chase this dream. There wasn’t any overwhelming
support for what I was doing – not in the Christian
community, and not in the Jewish community,’ he

‘I had reckless faith,’ he says now. ‘Everything I had
ever accumulated in life, I had given away.’

In 1996, at 55 and by then jobless for more than a
decade, Brown did about the only thing he could: He
returned to his home state of Michigan to help his son
build a concrete business.

‘God did miracles with that company,’ Brown says of
the explosive growth the firm enjoyed. And just as his
life’s trajectory was heading upward again, contacts
from the Israeli oil scene began calling on him again,
urging him to apply for a drilling permit.

At that point, Brown admits, he was afraid to go
through the hell of disappointment again, to risk
getting nowhere and wasting money. But when Sedot Neft
offered him the opportunity to take part in its work
on the Ma’anit well, Brown couldn’t say no. And when
Sedot Neft ran out of money some three kilometers into
its drilling efforts, Brown stepped in with Zion Oil &
Gas to take over the license.

Since then Brown has recruited a slew of oil veterans
with bona-fide credentials – not only Glen Perry and
Stephen Pierce but Yehezkel Druckman, Israel’s
previous petroleum commissioner, and Dr. Eliezer
Kashai, a former president of the Israel Geological
Society who has consulted for the national oil
companies and others.

‘I don’t ask anybody to buy stock because of my
faith,’ says Brown. ‘They need to look at this
company, look at the financial statements. They need
to go by return on investment.’

The way most people would see it, there’s no guarantee
that Brown won’t end up losing everything once more.
But Brown, who doesn’t use ‘if’ when talking about
finding oil, only ‘when,’ doesn’t see things like most
people do.

‘What will make me feel best of all,’ he says, ‘is
that God will have taken someone with no abilities, no
experience, and really, no desire – and He changed my
heart and gave me an opportunity – one little person –
to help the State of Israel.’

Hebrew in the huddle

As kickoffs go, the opening play of last Friday’s game
between Big Blue and the Pioneers was unexceptional –
the only indication of any greater significance being
that it ended, in what was undoubtedly a first for an
American tackle football league, with a Levi tackling
a Levy.

Minutes into the Israel Football League’s inaugural
game on an unseasonably warm November afternoon at
Jerusalem’s Kraft Stadium, one of the more than 200
mostly American immigrants in attendance soaked in the
sound of shoulder pads crunching against churning
thighs as if listening to a long-lost rock’n’roll
album he had just rediscovered at the back of his
closet. ‘Wow,’ he said, turning to his friend and
nodding with satisfaction, ‘it really brings you back
to high school, doesn’t it?’

As Big Blue’s Moshe Horowitz sprinted across the
artificial grass, bouncing off would-be tacklers on
his way to scoring the first touchdown in IFL history,
his thoughts, too, turned to high school –
specifically, to the first time he scored for the prep
school outside of Philadelphia that introduced him to
the game of tackle football a dozen years ago.

‘To this day, I remember that touchdown,’ Horowitz
would later recall with noticeable glee. ‘It was a
busted play going to the right… I cut back to the
left and sprinted 70 yards into the end zone, where I
spiked the ball.’

Back at Kraft Stadium, Horowitz ran around or though
Hasharon’s defense while Jerusalem galloped to a 48-16
victory over the Pioneers. But the final score hardly
mattered. For both teams, just playing was cause for

‘A lot of us have waited for this for so long,’
Horowitz said afterward. ‘For me, and for the guys who
grew up with this game and played it when we were
younger, the opportunity to play in pads again is
really precious.’

For players like Horowitz’s Big Blue teammate Greg
Tepper, who is originally from the Washington DC area,
the IFL is an opportunity to relive the fleeting
thrills and glory of a game they thought had passed
them by.

‘Once you finish high school, if you’re not playing in
college, that’s it. It’s over,’ Tepper said. ‘So, to
be playing football in Israel is great. When I moved
here 10 years ago, I never thought it would happen.
Besides, most guys my age don’t get to play.’

To clarify, it is possible to play football here, but
for most that means flag football – a simplified
version of the game that involves only minimal contact
– and no one, until now, has played in helmets and

‘Flag football is a good way to play and learn the
game without all the physicality… but if you’re a
bigger, more powerful player, flag football can be
frustrating,’ Horowitz said. ‘Tackle is the real

ALMOST HALF of those on Big Blue are originally from
the US. But the Jerusalem team is the exception that
proves the rule: Of the 86 players on the league
rosters, only 22 percent were born in North America.
Most IFL players, actually, are sabras who were
introduced to American football only recently – guys
like Ben Friedman of the Haifa Underdogs, who became
enamored of the sport in the 12th grade, when an
American friend invited him to play a pickup game.

‘When I scored a touchdown while carrying three guys
on my back, I said to myself, ‘Now, this is something
I could really enjoy!” Friedman said.

In Haifa and in Tel Aviv, a number of other sabras,
similarly smitten by the sport, had been playing
regular tackle football games, albeit without any
safety equipment. Two years ago, they organized
themselves into the Israel Football League. To take
their project to the next level, they approached Steve
Leibowitz of American Football Israel, which runs a
thriving program for flag football.

In March, Leibowitz and AFI agreed to organize and
subsidize the IFL, on the condition players use the
full compliment of helmet and pads. Eric Amkraut, a
former head strength and conditioning coach at Rutgers
University who had recently made aliya, agreed to
become the league’s commissioner, referee and primary
coach. Again, though, the use of pads was an

‘My initial concern was safety,’ Amkraut said.
‘Football is not merely a contact sport, it’s a
collision sport. You have to be concerned about neck
and spinal cord injuries.’

The players agreed, assuming the costs of the
equipment. Even with a favorable price negotiated with
football equipment company Adams, that meant about
$400 out of the pockets of every player. The players
were also required to pass a physical exam and take
out an insurance policy at a cost of another $100.

From there, things moved pretty quickly. The Jerusalem
team was created from local flag football players and
those who answered a call for open tryouts. That
rounded out the four-team league, with Mike’s Place
Tel Aviv Sabres, Dancing Camel Hasharon Pioneers and
Real Housing Haifa Underdogs. Amkraut spent time with
each team, teaching football basics until the safety
equipment arrived.

During Succot, the league held a three-day clinic at
the Baptist Village sports facility in Petah Tikva
with the help of a pair of coaches brought in from
Tennessee. Having spent months learning how to tackle,
how to block, how to shed blocks, etc., the players
were eager to finally don their protective gear.

‘It was like army recruits’ first day at the induction
center,’ Leibowitz recalled with a laugh. ‘We did
everything from showing the guys how to put on their
jockstraps to how to strap on their helmets.’

With every strap and pad in place, the players were
finally able to line up for some real action.

‘Hearing Hebrew in the huddle,’ Amkraut said, ‘gave me
the chills.’

WEARING UNIFORMS, however, did not make for uniform

‘Initially, there was a huge gap in knowledge between
the experienced players and the younger players,’
Horowitz explained. ‘Some of the guys who tried out
for the league had never even seen the game before.’

‘Israelis make up the majority of the league and,
while some of these guys know the rules, formations
and positions, other guys have only seen football once
or twice on TV,’ added Tepper. ‘It’s a process with
some of these guys… but we are learning everything
together as a team. The guys who do know have been
very patient. And the native Israelis are very

Those accustomed to American football will find the
IFL game smaller in most respects. The field, instead
of being 100 yards long, is 60 yards long. The
quarters, instead if being 15 minutes, last for 12
minutes. Play is eight-on-eight rather than 11-on-11.

And most of the players, instead of being hulking
athletes, average around 75 kilograms. Some players
are little more than 50 kg.

‘At first I was really worried about the smaller
guys,’ said Horowitz. ‘I thought that when they
started getting tackled, they would figure they had
made a mistake in coming out to play. But the funny
thing is that the opposite happened – the more they
got hit, the more they liked it.’

What isn’t smaller in the Israeli game is the players’

Friedman said that football was ‘like a virus, once
it’s in your blood you can’t stop. Until I’m forced to
hang up the cleats and I can’t play anymore, I’ll keep
playing. If I have to die somewhere, I would prefer it
would be on the football field.’

That’s a bit dire, even for football. But Friedman has
already suffered for the game.

‘In my first game as a quarterback, I tore my ACL
[anterior cruciate ligament in the knee],’ he said.
‘My doctor told me I would have to either undergo
reconstructive surgery or stop playing football. I
told him I’d stop, but I had no intention of actually
doing so.’

Friedman, 26, who has little interest in soccer or
rugby, tries to recruit fellow sabras to football, but
said the process can be ‘painfully slow.’

‘You have to fight the Israeliness of the guys,’ added
Dori Reichman of the Pioneers. ‘They’re used to
passing a ball back and forth. Running with the ball
takes some time to learn. In general, learning this
game takes discipline, and Israelis aren’t so

Even so, Reichman noted, ‘There is a whole generation
of kids who can’t wait to reach the minimum age to
play. And I get requests all the time from people who
want to join the league.’

Alfred Kour of Tel Aviv is one of Reichman’s newest
disciples. Looking exhausted but invigorated after
Hasharon’s loss to Jerusalem, Kour explained what drew
him to the American sport: ‘People think this is just
a violent game, but there’s so much technique to it.
There’s strategy behind every play.’

‘Plus, it’s a hell of a way to get into shape. Look at
me,’ said the less-than-svelte Kour, ‘a few months
ago, I weighed 132 kg. Now I’m down to 106. Here,’ he
gestured with his cellphone and broke into a
mischievous smile, ‘call my wife and ask her how this
game has affected me physically.’

NOT ONLY has the game attracted native Israeli Jews,
but even a few Arab players have joined the ranks.

Marwan Sima’an of Nazareth, who is studying at the
Hebrew University in Jerusalem, joined Big Blue. When
Tepper broke his arm only days before the season
opener, Sima’an stepped in and took his place in the
starting lineup.

‘I have loved American football ever since I was a
little kid, when I saw a game on METV,’ he said after
a recent practice. ‘I love the fact that you get to
smack into people and let out your aggression – but
it’s also a sport that is intellectually challenging.’
When a friend told him about the IFL, Sima’an had
already been searching the Internet for American
football in Israel. He e-mailed the league for more
information, tried out for the Jerusalem team and was

‘At first, I was afraid I wouldn’t know what to do. I
know the game and its rules, but I didn’t know things
like jargon, and what to do in the huddle,’ he said.
‘But I wasn’t embarrassed to ask questions, so I
started to learn. I had no idea what to do as a
linebacker, but when we were doing tackling drills,
they told me I was good at tackling. So I started
playing linebacker, and when Greg broke his arm, I
took his place.’

Sima’an’s friends and family support his decision to
play, he said. ‘They’re waiting for the day when we
play in Haifa so they can watch me play.’

A Christian Arab from Nazareth playing on a team of
largely religious Jewish players in Jerusalem might
seem like a big deal. To the team, said Sima’an, it

‘The fact that I’m an Arab made me worry at first that
they wouldn’t accept me. But very quickly it became
clear that it wasn’t an issue. The guys are good guys
and there’s no trouble. To this day, I’ve never been
exposed to any of the ugliness that there has been,
for example, in the national soccer league. Now, some
of my Arab friends want to play, too. This is real

‘You can find enthusiasm for football among religious,
secular, Arabs and Jews. This league is open to
everyone,’ Tepper said. ‘I don’t care who anyone is or
what their creed is, if someone wants to come out and
play football, I’m psyched for that.’

SO, THE IFL players are eager, they’re dedicated,
they’re inclusive and they’re tolerant. But are they
any good? Judging by the season opener, they’re no
worse than some American high-school teams.

‘Some of us were afraid there would be 10 offsides
penalties, or that someone would start running the
wrong way on the field,’ Horowitz said. ‘The level of
play, though, has been pretty good. And it has already
gotten so much cleaner, from the preseason exhibition
to the season opener.’

‘Every day that our players are out on the playing
field, they’re growing, and their level of knowledge
is growing exponentially,’ said Amkraut. ‘We are ahead
of where I thought we’d be. And, I guarantee that the
games people will see in February will be better than
the ones they’ll see in November.’

Beyond the novelty and fun factor of all the IFL, yet
to be seen is where all this will lead. What is
Israel’s tackle football potential?

‘You will know we have made it as a league when we
have our first player on an NCAA roster… and I can
tell you that we have some players who have that as a
goal,’ said Amkraut. ‘Now, are we there yet?
Absolutely not. But in three to five years, I have no
doubt that we could have a player at a [small]

Similarly, Leibowitz said, ‘Spain has 15,000 tackle
football players. Tons of small towns in Germany have
teams. Sweden has players on American college teams.
Can that happen for us eventually? We hope so.’

While the IFL players practice their touchdown
celebration dances, Amkraut and Leibowitz aspire to
steadily increase the number of teams in the league,
move up to 11-on-11 play and full-size fields. They
believe they can accomplish all this, along with
establishing a quality youth division to serve as a
sort of developmental league, within five years.

‘Our players have a sense of being part of something
new, but also of building something larger for the
long term,’ Amkraut says. ‘We expect to have a place
in the pantheon of Israeli sports. And I think that’s

(BOX #1) No Friday night lights for these footballers

In America, Friday nights in autumn belong to high-
school football. In Israel, the drama of soccer, the
king of national sports, is played out on Friday
nights and Saturday afternoons. The IFL almost
followed suit – but in the end decided, like Walter
Sobchak in The Big Lebowski, not to roll on Shabbat.

‘This year, in the initial draft of the schedule, we
had six Shabbat games out of the 18 games in the
regular season, but we later cut that down to three,’
said league organizer Steve Leibowitz.

‘I didn’t realize how much flak I would get from fans,
asking why we were sanctioning a league where games
are played on Shabbat. My answer has been that that’s
the norm around the country, that that’s the norm of
the guys who have been playing tackle football the
past few years. I mean, when Haifa plays Tel Aviv,
none of those guys is religious. Saturday is the day
that is most convenient for them. Why should I dictate
to them that their league should be shomer Shabbat?
But I came to the conclusion, after a lot of
consultation, that we have to limit [Shabbat play],
and maybe even eliminate it altogether. We’ve taken a
policy decision to eliminate [Shabbat play] by next

‘It’s hard, because on the one hand, my organization
is running things, but on the other hand, these are
existing teams and I don’t want to dictate to them
every aspect of what they do. But I do think that
religious fans have a right to see the games. I don’t
want it to be impossible for them.’

Big Blue, the newcomer to the league, is a big part of
that. Although not everyone on the team is observant,
Leibowitz said, ‘Jerusalem is a shomer Shabbat team;
all but one of the observant players in the league are
playing for the Jerusalem team.’

He noted, as well, that the flag football leagues run
by American Football in Israel – half of which are
made up of yeshiva students from overseas – do not
play on Shabbat. Also, he said, when Israeli national
teams play in international competitions, they do not
play on Shabbat.

(BOX #2) A replay of this summer’s baseball league? No
way, says the IFL

In talking with players and organizers about what
makes the Israel Football League what it is,
discussion inevitably turns to the Israel Baseball
League, which opened this past summer to much fanfare.
It’s only natural: They both involve uniquely American
sports, they appeal especially to American immigrants
and they began play within a few months of each other,
with roughly equivalent roster sizes. But that, the
football folks insist, is where the similarities end.

To start with, the football players are all amateurs;
they receive no compensation for playing. The baseball
players, by contrast, were paid $2,000 and housed in a
dormitory during their eight-week season. Whereas
several of the baseball players recruited to play here
this past summer hoped to use the experience as a
springboard to America’s more advanced professional
leagues, IFL players are playing – they say this
sincerely, without hyperbole – for the joy of it.

‘This is not about playing for money, or for the
chance to play in college,’ notes Jerusalem running
back Moshe Horowitz. ‘It’s a chance to play a great
game, to do something you really care about. It’s

Unlike the baseball league, which hired Jewish former
Major League heroes to coach the teams, the football
league has made no attempt to involve the handful of
Jews who have played in the NFL. Neither has the IFL
hired a full-time PR consultant or made much of an
effort to commercialize the league. As yet, there are
no IFL memorabilia on offer at the games or on-line.

‘We are a non-profit association,’ stresses American
Football in Israel president Steve Leibowitz, who
heads the IFL management. ‘The only person on salary
on this is the commissioner, who is paid by the AFI.
The total budget for our entire first season is about
NIS 120,000. We have a league sponsor in Fieldturf,
which paid $5,000, and each of the teams is sponsored.
But that’s about it.’

The IFL does not try to gain exposure for itself by
broadcasting its games on the Sports Channel, like the
IBL did in the first part of its season. The cost of
producing each game would be around $5,000, Leibowitz
says, and ‘I don’t have that.’

The biggest difference between the two leagues,
though, is in the athletes. The baseball players were
almost all foreigners whose sole connection to the
cities they supposedly represented was in the names
printed on their jerseys. The footballers are all
Israelis, playing in front of their family and

‘None of us is going home in two or three months to
their home country,’ notes Greg Tepper of Big Blue.

The two leagues have taken divergent approaches, one
recreating a risky business, the other recreating
scenes from American high schools. To be honest,
neither is guaranteed to work.

‘My ultimate goal is not to sell tickets to
spectators, or to sell merchandise to spectators,’
Leibowitz concludes. ‘What we want is to get a tackle
football league off the ground and get it to rise to
whatever its natural level is – not to take something
from over there [in America], plunk it down and say,
‘Look at this!’ I think that if we do it step by step,
it’ll succeed.’

Right of refusal

They worked in secret, late at night, in dimly-lit
basements. With little more than typewriters to work
with, the underground scribes toiled to translate the
manifestos of their struggle – words so potent that
they could destroy one of the most dominant empires in

Such was the power of Exodus, Leon Uris’s fictional
account of Israel’s birth, to a small group of Jews in
the Soviet Union. They passed chapters of the book to
trusted comrades, along with samizdat –
self-published, covertly distributed essays – that fed
each other’s hunger for Israel and anything Jewish.

Much of the literature that the Communist Party
considered dangerous and worthy of lengthy prison
sentences – Hebrew lessons, Purim plays, translations
of ‘Hatikva’ and ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ and petitions to
allow free immigration to Israel – sits in the
archives of Beth Hatefutsoth (the Nahum Goldmann
Museum of the Jewish Diaspora), on the campus of Tel
Aviv University. Until now they have lain dormant,
yellowing in silence as Israel busied itself with
quelling intifadas and launching hi-tech companies.

This week, though, 40 years after Israel’s victory in
the Six Day War gave Soviet Jewish protesters the
momentum they needed to open the gates of freedom, the
museum opened an exhibit on the movement that toppled
the communist regime and energized Zion.

THE STOREROOMS of the museum are filled with mementos
of that era. A cigarette lighter, emblazoned with the
flag of Israel, which plays the national anthem. The
Hebrew ulpan recordings of Yaakov Suslensky,
considered revolutionary material, stored in cardboard
boxes handcrafted by Moldovan KGB agents. The coat
that Natan Sharansky wore on his famous walk to
freedom across East Germany’s Glienicke Bridge after
more than a decade of Siberian exile. A postcard
written by an inspiring ulpan student: ‘Dear Saraleh,
Here is a souvenir for you. It is a photo of my first
prison in Leningrad.’

Together, these items begin to tell the story of
thousands of Jews who risked their freedom for the
right to live in the Jewish state, who threatened the
Kremlin not with guns but with placards reading, ‘Let
my people go!’ They begin to tell the story, that is,
but they cannot provide the fullness of such a tale.

Take, for example, Yosef Begun’s Hanukka in a Moscow
prison in 1971. It was the first time Begun would be
locked up, but not his last: By the time he was
allowed to leave for Israel in 1988, Begun would have
spent 10 years in Soviet jails. In this case, his
‘crime’ was helping some 20 Jewish intellectuals
organize a public hunger strike to protest the
government’s restrictions on aliya.

Begun and his fellow inmates, nearly two dozen other
Jewish ‘criminals,’ rallied each other through the
bitter conditions with the reminder that the holiday
of Hanukka was upon them. With the more learned among
them regaling the others with stories of the
Maccabees’ triumph over their far stronger, more
numerous enemy – and with a clever ruse from one of
the group allowing them to improvise a set of candles
to light – the men celebrated as if they were joined
by all their brethren at a fancy holiday feast.

In a way, they were. A deep sense of connection to the
Jewish people, as well as an abiding spirit, helped
the persecuted heroes of the movement through such
hard times.

‘Even while we were in Soviet prisons,’ Begun told The
Jerusalem Post this week, ‘we felt like Israeli

THERE WOULD be numerous injustices against men like
Boris Kochubiyevsky, who was sentenced to three years
in jail for, essentially, having the audacity to
proclaim in open court that ‘Jews are oppressed here.’
So, too, there would be outrageous acts such as the
plan by a group of refuseniks to hijack a small plane
to draw attention to their plight. But most of those
who participated in the struggle against Soviet
anti-Semitism were people, like Aba Taratuta, who
simply wanted to pack up and leave.

‘In Riga,’ Taratuta recalled, ‘all the Jews talked
about was aliya. They would see each other in the
street and say, ‘9-2.’ Anywhere else, you’d assume
they were talking about soccer scores. With them,
however, it was the number of aliya refusals versus
authorizations doled out by the authorities.’

In those days – when, after the Soviet Union severed
ties with Israel following the Six Day War, the
government led a campaign of anti-Zionist propaganda –
few of the country’s 3 million Jews had an accurate
picture of what life in Israel was like. But, Taratuta
said, they didn’t need one.

‘It wasn’t so important what we knew about Israel. The
bottom line was, we realized that Russia was not our

When that realization sank in for Taratuta, in 1973,
he had just received his Ph.D. in astronomy after
working 15 years in a sensitive munitions factory.
Simply for filing an immigration request with OVIR,
the ministry that threw obstacle after obstacle in the
way of Jews intent on aliya, Taratuta had to leave his
job. He would become a truck driver, then an elevator
mechanic and, finally, part of a crew of refuseniks
who maintained the heating system at a public bath.

While Taratuta and his family waited 15 years for an
exit visa, Americans came to offer support. KGB agents
would come and confiscate the guest books they signed,
but the blue jeans the Americans brought made
Taratuta’s son one of the most popular kids in school.
THE ROLE played by foreigners, especially Americans
and Israelis, in making the refusenik issue an
international story, was significant. In the United
States, Jewish organizations lobbied for pressure on
the Kremlin, with the smuggled samizdat of the
persecuted bearing witness to the cruelty of the
Soviets. Congress passed a law enacting trade
sanctions on countries that restrict emigration
rights. A massive rally in Washington in 1987, as
Ronald Reagan was meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev,
embarrassed the Soviet regime into allowing more Jews
to leave.

Israel was active, of course, demanding that Jews be
given the freedom to settle in the Holy Land, working
with Jewish groups abroad and sending delegations to
the Soviet Union to help inculcate Zionism and Jewish

‘The Soviets always suspected that Israel was behind
the refuseniks,’ said Zvi Magen, a former colonel in
IDF Intelligence who served as ambassador to Ukraine
and Russia in the 1990s and early 2000s. Magen also
served as head of the Liaison Bureau, codenamed Nativ,
which encouraged Soviet Jews to develop their Jewish
identities and to continue their pro-aliya activism.
Currently he serves as director of the Institute for
Eurasian Studies at the Interdisciplinary Center in

On more than one occasion, the Kremlin has accused
Nativ of being a thinly-veiled Israeli spy ring.
That’s not exactly accurate, Magen said.

‘The members of Nativ are like soldiers, in the sense
that they serve their country abroad. What they do is
not spying, but what is called ‘influence building.’
Everyone does it,’ Magen said.

‘It’s like the Alliance Francaise or the Goethe
Institute… If you ask them who they are, who they
work for, you won’t get a straight answer. What do
they do? Encourage French or German culture…’

In most cases, ‘encouraging culture’ is innocuous. In
other cases, though… ‘[Vladimir] Putin once said
something to me,’ Magen said, ‘about his time in
Dresden’ – a murky period in the Russian president’s
KGB career in which he was in charge of a Russian
cultural outpost in Germany – ‘to the effect that this
sort of thing is worse than spying.’

In the case of Soviet Jews challenging a government
singularly dedicated to crushing independence, the
‘cultural’ work of the refusenik movement took on
immense importance, and ultimately became a factor in
the collapse of the Soviet Union.

‘No one, not even the famous dissidents, was purely
interested in human rights,’ admitted Begun.
‘Overturning the regime was part of our desire – but
people who openly worked for such a thing were
executed. So we focused on aliya, and on the right to
practice Jewish culture.’

‘Natan Sharansky believes in human rights much more
than I do,’ said Magen. ‘From a certain perspective,
‘human rights’ is a weapon.’

It is possible to understand, then, why the
authorities could view ‘Hatikva’ as a threat.

‘The Soviets always saw their Jews as agents of the
Zionists, and Israel as an agent of Soviet Jews,’
Magen explained. ‘To them, no matter how assimilated a
Jew may be, he was like a ‘sleeper agent’ capable of
turning against the regime.’

TENS OF thousands of Jews poured out of the Soviet
Union in the 1970s and ’80s, with more than 1 million
of them reaching Israel. Arrival here was not always a
fairy- tale ending for the refuseniks and Prisoners of
Zion, however. For every success story like that of
Eduard Kuznetsov, one of the hijacking plotters who
established Israel’s largest Russian-language
newspaper, or Yuli Edelstein, who went on to a career
in the Knesset, there were others who never truly
found their ‘Jerusalem of Gold.’ Some left long ago
for the US or Canada, Taratuta noted, while some even
went back to Russia.

‘The ones who were idealistic, who thought that Russia
was entirely bad and that Israel was entirely good,’
he said, ‘they were pretty disappointed.’

Not long after he arrived here in 1988, Taratuta found
work at the Technion in Haifa – not as a truck driver,
nor as a mechanic, but as a scientist. He would teach
there, at the space research institute, until his
retirement a few years ago.

In 2001, fearing that the stories of the Jewish
dissidents would soon become lost, he helped found
Save and Remember. The archive of interviews and other
material was the starting place for the Diaspora
Museum exhibit.

Taratuta still has friends in Russia with whom he is
in regular contact. Aliya, however, is not part of
their discussions.

‘I don’t try to convince Jews in Russia to make
aliya,’ said the straightforward Taratuta. ‘If they
have spent their entire lives in Russia and still
don’t understand where they are… well, I’m not going
to be the one to tell them.’

There are also huge numbers of Jews living in Israel
today who are here, in large part, because of the
sacrifices and suffering of people like Begun. He’s
not sore, however, about the lack of recognition he
feels from this community.

‘I understand,’ he said, ‘that people were afraid of
getting into trouble, of losing their jobs, if they
supported us. Also, there was a lot of assimilation. A
lot of Russian Jews weren’t very interested in
Israel… Some didn’t know much about Israel, some
just didn’t care to know much about Israel.’

Now, said Begun, who recently completed a one-hour-
long movie about his life and the dissident movement,
he is happy those assimilated Jews were able to come
to Israel.

‘That’s what we were fighting for in the first place –
the Jews who were so assimilated that they didn’t know
why to care about their homeland. When I was arrested
and sent to exile,’ Begun noted, ‘it was because I was
exposed, because I was distributing my materials, not
to refuseniks, but to the rest of the Jews. Because I
tried to reach out.’

Now well into his 70s, Begun is still reaching out.
Since making aliya he has worked in Jewish education,
both here and on trips to Russia, trying to interest
Jewish youths in their culture and heritage. He has a
granddaughter, currently serving in the IDF, who used
to bring him to her school so that her classmates
could hear his story.

That, Taratuta complained, was an all-too-rare

Taratuta’s son, whose childhood was marred by the
hardships of refusenik life, has little interest in
discussing that period of his life. Taratuta’s
grandchildren, though, do want to learn about that
chapter in Jewish history – and Taratuta fears that
they, along with the rest of Israeli children, will
not have that opportunity.

‘Why is there no program to teach schoolchildren about
our struggle?’ he asked. ‘Why are our children not
introduced to the people behind the story? Where’s the
public’s interest in us and our fight, when everyone
is complaining about the death of Zionism?!’

Indeed, the Diaspora Museum exhibit is meant to
provide a remedy for this and other problems. Part of
the motivation for the exhibit is not just to bring
the struggle of the Prisoners of Zion and the
refuseniks to the attention of veteran Israelis, for
many of whom the thrill of rescuing Soviet Jewry has
faded into an outright disdain for Russian immigrants,
but to inform the children of those immigrants as

‘There’s a young Russian woman who works here at the
museum,’ said Rachel Schnold, the exhibit curator,
‘who didn’t know any of this history. She’s not alone,
of course. And a lot of what Russian olim do know of
the struggle is only the version that the Soviets
propagated. We have to change that.’

As Begun lamented: ‘At the time, our names were in the
news all over the world. We were written about every
day. Today, though, you’d be hard pressed to find
someone in the street who could name a Prisoner of
Zion, other than Sharansky. People don’t know the
whole story – which is a shame, because it’s a very
important story.’

Copyright © The Jerusalem Post


Drawing parallels
Byline: Interviewed by Sam Ser
Date: Friday, November 2, 2007
Publication: UpFront Page: 20
Section: Features
Memo: Natan Sharansky explores the importance of the
refusenik movement today. Related articles on p. 14.&
Credit: Esteban Alterman
Illustration: Photo
Caption: Sharansky at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem,
where he heads up the Institute for Strategic Studies.
Thirty years after Natan Sharansky first gained the
world’s attention, it’s almost unnecessary to note the
two ‘jobs’ that made him an internationally recognized

One was his work as translator and unofficial
spokesman for Andrei Sakharov, the renowned physicist
who became an outspoken human rights activist after
being oppressed for going from designing nuclear
weapons for the Soviets to demonstrating against
nuclear proliferation.

The other was his activism on behalf of refuseniks,
which landed him in Lefortovo Prison for more than a
year and in a Siberian labor camp for nine more years.
Sharansky was one of the founders of the Moscow
Helsinki Group which, in demanding that the Kremlin
honor the human rights provisions of the Helsinki
Accords, played a large role in drawing attention to
the Jewish struggle for freedom in the Soviet Union.

More recently, his work has involved penning the words
that guide US President George W. Bush in his push for
democracy and freedom, and in gathering dissidents and
democracy activists from around the world in
conferences like the one held in Prague in June.

In an interview in his office at the Shalem Center in
Jerusalem, where he heads the Institute for Strategic
Studies, sitting under a photograph of the Western
Wall Plaza blanketed in snow and with his trademark
cap lying within arm’s reach, Sharansky reflected on
the period that made him an international hero – and
on the connections between that time and this.

What parallels can be drawn from your struggle to the
pro-democracy struggle of today’s Russia?

It was the spring of 1976 when we formed the Moscow
Helsinki Group. Within a year from its foundation, we
were all arrested, and either thrown in jail or forced
to leave the country. But the influence of the group
was unbelievable – in terms of drawing attention to
the question of human rights, in terms of mobilizing
the American Congress to recognize pro-democracy
groups, etc.

And it’s interesting that, after all those changes,
Lyudmilla [Alexeyeva, one of the co-founders of the
Moscow Helsinki Group in 1976] is once again chairman
of this group. It symbolizes that there is still work
to do.

On the one hand, there is continuity between our work
and the work of activists today. After all, there are
very good reasons to criticize the government of
Russia today. But on the other hand, the very fact
that Garry Kasparov can participate in the [2008
presidential] election as a candidate… and that
Lyudmilla can give press conferences – not in secret,
as it had to be in my time, when I was smuggling
documents to America, but in an open platform before
the world – shows that a lot of things have changed.

Is it wrong, then, to say that Vladimir Putin’s moves
to centralize power and silence critics are
reminiscent of Soviet times?

Well, there has been a serious retreat in freedom in
the past few years. The press, for example, is much
more cautious in its criticism of Putin than it was
just five years ago. But to say that Russia is the
same now as it was then, in the ’70s and early ’80s?
No. There is no more KGB. There is no more total
control, no more total fear. This Russia doesn’t exist
anymore, and I don’t know whether it can exist again.

Of course, because of the vital role that Russia plays
in world events, this retreat in freedom should be of
major concern, and should definitely be on the world’s

However, Luda says herself that only those who were
not active back then would say that things are the
same now… I’ll give you an example. Kasparov told me
that he needs to have bodyguards when he travels in
Russia. Well, I can tell you, we didn’t need
bodyguards. We had KGB tails and they, we kind of
joked to ourselves, were our bodyguards. You know, I
was constantly under surveillance of the KGB, but in a
funny kind of way, I felt safe. If any hooligans came
around, the KGB agents would protect me; they had to
write reports about me, so they kept people away from
me. That’s the way the regime was: It was responsible
for protecting my life, but it was also responsible
for taking my private life away from me.

Is there a lesson from your own struggle that can be
applied, not only to today’s Russia, but to other
dissident movements around the world?

I say moral clarity is key. You cannot compromise on
the question of freedom. The moment you start
compromising with the authorities, there is no hope.
That was what was so great about the Prague
conference: Here were people from different places,
from different mentalities, from different races, all
with the same story. And that story is about taking a
position of moral clarity and not compromising on the
question of human rights and freedom, a position that
challenges authority.

Is there something about that moral position that is
particularly Jewish?

Well, Jews have always been extremely important in
practically all human rights movements. Sometimes we
forget that human rights ideas are based in Judaism.
The foundation of human rights, after all, is that man
was created in the image of God. It is easier, I
think, for Jews who were brought up with these
principles to identify with human rights movements.

But there is something else, as well, and that is that
Jews have long suffered for the fact that they were
really the only truly different, or separate religious
and ethnic minority group in Europe. So Jews struggled
to make society more open, more assimilated. Or, they
tried to assimilate into their society. In extreme
cases, they tried to establish new identities, such as
communism, that made ethnic and religious differences

In other words, Jews tried to abandon their tribal
identification in favor of the freedom promised by
communism. (This actually created one of the most
awful regimes in the world, which killed tens of
millions of people.) What we did was to go back to our
tribe, to go back to our own small, national
interests… and the world benefitted from this. So we
should not be ashamed, we should not think we were
merely being ‘provincial’ about our interests. The
lesson is, if you want to help the whole world, you
have to go back to your shtetl, to your identity, and
to fight first of all for those interests.

What was the most significant part of that victory, as
far as Israel and the Jewish people are concerned?

It was an extremely important chapter in Jewish
history, extremely important. Not just because it
resulted in more than 1 million Jews moving to Israel.
To me, what’s so significant is that Jewish people all
over the world were united in one struggle, for over
25 years. A Jewish teacher from Milwaukee, and a
Jewish lawyer from Montreal, and a child in the Bnei
Akiva youth movement in Jerusalem, were all involved –
without even knowing one another, without having to
agree with one another. They all took part in one big
nationalist struggle. That’s unbelievable. And it
shows how strong we are when we are united by our
principles. This is a lesson from our struggle that, I
believe, is not appreciated enough.

Ready to rumble

The yuppie crowd at the Tel Aviv port is all smiles and chitchat, downing cocktails and dancing in the rundown piers turned trendy entertainment district. They have no clue.

It’s a comfortable late October evening, blessed with a light sea breeze that lures couples in station wagons down to the shore. A handful of tourists listen attentively to their guide as he issues safety instructions for their Segway stroll around the compound, whose industrial warehouses have been
converted into art studios and cafes.

Striding past the genteel visitors are packs of muscular young men in tight T-shirts, moving quickly and purposely toward Hangar 11. That’s the building throbbing with the thunderous drone of angry music. The one where someone, rest assured, is going to end up bloodied.

It is here that Israel’s biggest mixed martial arts
event to date will take place. The fight night, the
fifth in the budding Desert Combat series that
originated in Beersheba, is about more than just 14
men squaring off in seven no-nonsense fights. It is
about a sport that is breaking box office records
around the world as it breaks stereotypes about its
brutality, and whether that sport can flourish – or
even survive – here.

The first thing that stands out about Desert Combat 5
is its audience. About 90 percent are men, many of
them martial arts or fighting sport practitioners.
It’s a sure bet that the crowd is in better shape than
the fans of soccer, the country’s most popular sport.

For all the testosterone flowing through Hangar 11,
though, it’s a friendly crowd – much less
confrontational, for example, than the rowdy young men
who are guaranteed to show up at major sporting events
in America’s top leagues. There, fans of rival teams
can easily goad each other into fistfights. Here,
though, there is seemingly no animosity outside the
ring. Guys who know each other from the mixed martial
arts (MMA) scene are greeting each other with big
smiles and hugs, not challenging each other like the
scripted feuds of professional wrestling.

Make no mistake, though, everyone has come to see lots
of fighting, so when the lights dim and the Rocky
theme comes blaring through the speakers, they howl
because they know they’re about to get it.

Alon Pdut, tonight’s ring announcer/master of
ceremonies, gives the crowd a dramatic welcome, and a
rousing introduction for the fighters of the first
match of the evening. It’s a 68-kilogram matchup
between Nathan Ovadia and 17-year-old Vitali Ivanov, a
squat, solidly built up-and-comer with a 3-0 record.

As each one approaches the ring, the doctor ensures he
has his mouth guard and protective cup in place, then
smears some Vaseline over his eyebrows to reduce the
risk of cuts. In their respective corners, each one
loosens up (and lets off some nervous energy) by
hopping up and down and shaking his arms.

Playing the part of ring girl is a tall, skinny blonde
from the former Soviet Union who struts around the
ring in what amounts to little more than a glorified
rubber band, holding up a big card with the number one
on it in case anyone didn’t know which round it was.

After a meeting in the center of the ring to receive
referee Emmanuel Cohen’s instructions – a rundown of
which blows are illegal and a reminder to defend
themselves at all times – the fighters face off and,
with the sound of the opening bell, rush toward each

So far, this is all the same as the standard boxing
event. But when Ivanov storms in and is met by
Ovadia’s attempt at a guillotine choke, the
differences become apparent.

MMA IS, AS its name suggests, a combination of
fighting styles and rules. Not only are punches and
kicks allowed, but takedowns and submission holds are
as well. Originally meant to answer the question of
which fighting system was most effective, these fights
have encouraged competitors to look beyond one
particular style of fighting and develop a
well-rounded skill set mixing striking arts (such as
boxing or Muay Thai) with grappling techniques (such
as judo, Brazilian jiu-jutsu, shootfighting or sambo).
Smaller, lighter gloves mean punches have a greater
impact, and shorter bouts with penalties for inaction
make for quick, intense matches.

Plainly said, the formula works. When the action
between Ovadia and Ivanov slows, the referee orders
the two to stand up and face off again from the center
of the ring. Suddenly, during a furious exchange of
punches, Ovadia lands a haymaker, and the young Ivanov
crumples to the mat as if his legs were made of crepe
paper. Just like that, the fight is over. Ivanov is
out, his trainers rushing in to attend to him.

Ovadia, an underdog despite his advanced martial arts
training and experience as an IDF hand-to-hand combat
instructor, is ecstatic over his decisive upset
victory. He jumps into the arms of his coach – and
then, just as quickly, turns back to check on his
defeated opponent, helping Ivanov regain his

In the mid-1990s, the early days of MMA in North
America, the sport was only loosely regulated, making
it a more vicious, everything-goes gladiatorial
spectacle. Since then it has undergone refinements
meant to enhance the sporting aspects and limit the
street-fighting aspects of matches, gaining more and
more mainstream acceptance along the way.

The end of the Ovadia-Ivanov fight, then, presents the
two images that MMA fans and promoters say define the
sport today: stunning action and mutual respect and
concern among the fighters that are unmatched by the
mainstream boxing world.

The second fight, pitting Dave Markelson against the
much older Tzahi Halifax, shows what happens when a
fighter fails to bring a broad enough skill set into
the ring.

Markelson is tall and lanky, Halifax short and stocky.
At first glance, it seems natural for Markelson to
attempt to use his reach advantage to keep Halifax at
bay. Right away, though, Markelson ‘shoots’ toward his
shorter opponent, attempting to upend Halifax and slam
him to the mat. Halifax counters easily, stymieing
Markelson with a sprawl and then a clinch. He moves
from there to a jump guard that turns immediately into
a guillotine choke hold that puts tremendous pressure
on Markelson’s neck. After some 20 seconds during
which it appears Markelson will have to ‘tap out’ and
surrender, he somehow manages to escape the choke and
survive the round.

Round two follows the same pattern, Markelson again
shooting for Halifax’s knees and Halifax responding
with a guillotine choke. Again Markelson withstands
the pressure and wiggles free. Loose choke holds are
usually to blame in this situation, but Halifax’s are
tight and, judging from Markelson’s grimaces, painful.
How many guillotines can one neck take?

The answer comes quickly. After Cohen stands the two
in the center of the ring following a lengthy
stalemate on the ground, Halifax lands a hard right
that wobbles Markelson. Halifax jumps on his opponent
and gains the advantage of a full mount position, from
which he tries yet another guillotine choke. The third
time’s the charm, as Markelson finally submits with a
tap on Halifax’s shoulder.

Looking at this matchup before the fight, the outcome
seems almost a mistake. Didn’t Markelson realize he
had a huge reach advantage? Didn’t he know he was
allowed to punch and kick?

‘He doesn’t know how to strike, all he knows right now
is Brazilian jiu-jutsu,’ explains the ring doctor.
‘That’s what’s so great about MMA. If all you know how
to do is to strike, or if you only know how to
grapple, you’ve got no chance.’

Speaking of no chance, that’s what Venus Kamal has in
the third fight of the evening. Roby Mund, who started
producing the Desert Combat events not long after
making aliya from Romania nine years ago, is making
his debut in his own league against Kamal, who, truth
be told, looks like he doesn’t belong anywhere near
the ring.

The action in the 78-kg. bout begins with a whip-like
kick from Mund that lands with an audible snap on
Kamal’s left thigh. Kamal tries to overwhelm Mund with
a flurry of sloppy, slapping punches to the head, none
of which makes any significant distance past the hands
of Mund. The promoter-turned-fighter proceeds to slam
Kamal to the mat and rain down a series of blows on
his head. Referee Cohen, mercifully, stops the fight
before any real damage is done.

For Mund, it’s the second success of the evening. With
some 1,600 people in attendance (some paying as much
as NIS 150 for a seat), he has already seen Desert
Combat’s attendance grow by several hundred since the
previous event, in June. Mund hopes some of those
numbers will grow, thanks in part to the more than
20,000 who already pay the NIS 4.90 monthly
subscription fee to watch Israeli, American and
British MMA fights on Ego Total, the all-fight cable
TV channel.

WITH THE NEXT fight at Hangar 11, the audience gets
its first taste of the four quality overseas fighters
brought in for the event. Mamour Fall of Paris is
making his MMA debut, and with a major advantage over
the more experienced Israeli Oren Levin in height and
reach. It’s an impressive premier.

Early in the first round, Levin tries a jump guard,
but he’s too slow and he’s leaning too far back. Fall
punishes him with a big right hand to the mouth. Then
he starts to walk away as if to let Levin return to
his feet. It’s just a ruse, however; Fall spins back
at Levin, who is caught by surprise, and absorbs
several blows to the face. Fall’s expression reads
‘fresh as a daisy,’ while Levin’s says, ‘What the hell
am I supposed to do?’ In the second round, the Israeli
is really in bad shape. His thighs are bright red from
the kicks Fall has delivered while Levin was lying on
the mat. Blood, loosed from his lip by a rapid-fire
connection of Fall’s punches, is dripping freely onto
his chest. Another flying knee sends Levin back into
the ropes, and it’s a wonder he’s even standing.

But Levin refuses to go down. The crowd, amazed by his
courage if not by his skill, chants Levin’s name. It
has an effect, too – not enough to save Levin from the
Frenchman’s continuing onslaught of fists and knees to
his head and body, but enough to keep him on his feet
until the final bell, in an act of undeniable mercy,
rings out.

There are still three fights left. Like diners making
their way through a meal, the crowd is eager for the
next course. On the menu: Roy Pariente vs. Traian
Carciuc of Romania in a battle of 85-kg. fighters.

Roy, 24, is following in the MMA footsteps of his
brother Ido. Together, the two are pretty much the
biggest names in Israel’s young MMA scene. The younger
and bigger of the two brothers, Roy may have an even
brighter future in the sport. As if to prove this, the
prospect from Kfar Saba who boasts a record of 13
wins, with only one loss and a draw, overwhelms the
powerfully-built Romanian in little over a minute.

Working his way into full mount, Pariente unleashes a
‘ground and pound’ – pummeling the foreigner with a
series of fists to the face that makes him tap out.
Pariente celebrates his victory by jumping into his
brother’s arms at ringsideÉ and then turning around
and high-fiving Carciuc with both hands. (Ever see
that at a boxing match?!)

The atmosphere goes from invigorating to infuriating
with the next match, which pits veteran Israeli
fighter Moshe Kaitz against Johnny ‘Pocket Tyson’
Frachey of France.

That the two couldn’t be more dissimilar is apparent
immediately. The compact, thickly muscled Frachey
makes a lively and playful entrance into the ring,
while Kaitz, tall and thin, makes his way there slowly
and solemnly. At the sound of the first bell, Frachey
charges aggressively, while Kaitz is tentative and
retreating. Even his strikes seem more desperate than
determined, whereas ‘Pocket Tyson’ looks like he’s on
the hunt.

At every opportunity, Kaitz tries to take the fight to
the ground rather than stand and trade punches. It’s a
strategy he has tried before, with only limited

Frachey, who took the fight on four days’ notice and
is unfamiliar with Kaitz’s style, seems content to
slam his opponent to the mat over and over. Kaitz’s
ground skills are good enough to neutralize Frachey
for much of the fight, but not good enough to score a
submission. So the action slows to a painfully dull
pace, and audience members plead with the referee over
and over to stand them up.

(During this less-than-riveting action, a member of
the Pariente support team trots over to the ring
doctor to ask him to look at Roy’s hand. Pariente
broke it, he says, during his fight, and the bone is
sticking out of the skin. ‘Apparently,’ the doctor
says upon returning from wrapping up the hand, ‘that
Romanian has a very tough forehead.’ Roy refuses
emergency room treatment, however, until the
conclusion of his brother’s bout at the end of the

In the third round, Kaitz lands a punch to Frachey’s
face and then, inexplicably, lies down on the mat.
Although he is hoping that the Frenchman will follow
him down and make a mistake that will lead to a
submission, the audience is hoping for some ‘real’
action. As Kaitz begins to absorb numerous punches to
his ribs, the crowd actually cheers and starts rooting
for ‘Pocket Tyson.’ He may be a French guy beating on
one of their own, but at least he’s eager to swing his

The judges award Frachey the fight, unanimously
scoring all three rounds in the Frenchman’s favor.
Afterward, he thanks the crowd for cheering on a
foreign fighter and bids them farewell with a loud

NOW, WITH just one fight left on the card, the crowd
is eager to see a rocking brawl. Fortunately, Mund has
saved the best for last.

For his opponent just like the audience, Romanian Gica
Apostu is an enigma. No one really knows anything
about him. But the moment Apostu steps into the ring,
he puts his perfect 8-0 record on the line.
Apparently, the Desert Combat 73-kg. championship belt
is worth the risk. His introduction and walk to the
ring is reserved, focused: all business, without the

Ido Pariente’s entrance, meanwhile, is a show-stopper.
When his introductory song starts blaring, ‘The Hebrew
Hammer’ doesn’t enter the hall so much as explode into
it, teeth clenched and fists flying, with a murderous
gaze in his eyes. The crowd eats up every second of
it. Here, finally, is a guy who knows how to tap into
his rage.

To be certain, Pariente is full of motivation for this
match. Fighting on the same card with his brother for
the first time, defending his title against an
undefeated challenger, the pressure of meeting his
home crowd’s expectations and coming off a stinging
loss in Los Angeles are all fueling Ido’s competitive

He steps to the center of the ring for a classic,
snarling staredown with Apostu, the two men’s faces
pressed against each other with eyes fixed piercingly
ahead in an attempt to intimidate each other. The
crowd, already on its feet, lets out a ‘whoooooooop!’
in anticipation of all-out war.

At the opening bell, Pariente storms forward to meet
his opponent like a man possessed, but a strong right
from Apostu slows his charge. Two more hard rights
that land with a thud drop Pariente on his behind. Now
he knows at least this much about the Romanian: The
dude packs a punch.

Out of necessity, Pariente turns to his Brazilian jiu-
jutsu skills, putting Apostu in an ankle lock. The
foreigner rolls over and over to relieve the pressure
on his ankle, and before long Cohen stands the pair up
again. Pariente drives his knee into Apostu’s stomach
and slams him onto the mat, sending the crowd onto its

This match is being fought at a much higher level, and
the audience knows it. This is the kind of fight worth
paying for; this is the kind of fight that could help
the sport grow. Now, no one expects Desert Combat to
rival Las Vegas-based UFC, which is bringing in
hundreds of millions of dollars. But if Israeli MMA is
to take off – if it’s going to attract more fans,
including some of the trendy sushi eaters out in the
port – it’s going to need exciting fights from skilled
artists. And it’s going to need a homegrown hero.

In the ring, Ido Pariente is doing his best to provide
both. Slipping behind Apostu, he thrusts his arms
around the Romanian’s neck in a choke attempt. When
Apostu rolls from his stomach to his back, Pariente
maneuvers into full mount. Apostu deftly grabs
Pariente’s head and pulls him close, making it
difficult for the Israeli to maneuver, and the sound
of the bell ends the threat.

In the second round, Pariente takes Apostu down and
softens him up with some punches and knee strikes from
the side mount position. When he spins again into full
mount, half the people in the crowd are standing on
their chairs. ‘Come on, Ido!’ they yell. ‘You’ve got
him now, Ido! Treat him to some punches!’

A few Romanian immigrants in attendance try to
distract Apostu with some choice words in his own
language, but the fighter is steadfast and focused,
showing a ground defense formidable enough to
frustrate Pariente. Again, though, the Israeli manages
to move into full mount… and again, the bell
prevents him from exploiting the advantage.

As the third and final round begins, the fight can
still go either way. Pariente’s wrestling has slowed
the Romanian, whose right fist has been making
Pariente regret keeping his left hand too low in
defense. Another mistake like that could decide the

In standard local-boy-makes-good fashion, though,
Pariente swoops in for a double-leg takedown and
quickly moves into his third full mount of the match.
He goes to work on Apostu, punching his ribs to get
him to drop his hands away from his face so that
Pariente can drop a few punches in there, too. Apostu
has no choice but to roll onto his stomach, a
dangerous move that allows Pariente the opportunity
for a choke.

The Romanian, desperate to survive the encounter,
thrashes furiously. But Pariente maneuvers masterfully
and quickly locks his opponent in a devastating choke.
With everyone in the house on their feet and cheering
the impending submission, Apostu taps out.

Pariente runs to the opposite side of the ring, climbs
to the top rope and salutes the crowd that is
screaming his name. The furious glare that Pariente
has worn all night melts into a wide-open smile as his
coach and training partners carry him around the ring
on their shoulders, and his championship belt is
returned to his waist – where it will sit, at least
until March, when Desert Combat returns.

(BOX #1) Glossary

Brazilian jiu-jutsu – the common term for a style of
grappling, developed by the Gracie family from Brazil,
which stresses mastery of submission techniques as the
best way for a smaller fighter to defeat a larger,
stronger opponent.

Clinch – when both fighters clutch at each other in
the stand-up position, almost like a hug. The clinch,
which is meant to prevent an opponent from striking,
usually leads to a takedown.

Flying knee – a leaping strike, leading with the knee.
Ground and pound – wearing down an opponent with a
series of blows to the head and torso, usually from
the full mount position.

Guard – a defensive position on the ground. In ‘full
guard,’ the fighter on his back neutralizes his
opponent by keeping the other fighter’s torso locked
between his legs. ‘Half guard’ only secures one of the
opponent’s legs.

Guillotine – a choke hold from a headlock, usually
applied from a standing position, when the fighters
are facing each other.

Jump guard – a takedown performed from the clinch,
where one fighter jumps up and wraps his legs around
his opponent, pulling at the torso downward and
drawing the opponent to the ground. Usually employed
to counter an opponent’s superior stand-up abilities
and attempt a submission hold.

Mount – an advantageous position in ground fighting.
In side mount, the fighter controlling the situation
is perpendicular to his opponent, usually leading to
strikes to the midsection. In full mount, the fighter
on top is positioned on his opponent’s torso, making
it almost impossible for the defender to deflect
punches to his face. From the rear mount, a fighter
will usually seek a choke.

Shoot – a dive toward an opponent’s legs or waist, in
an attempt to knock him down.

Sprawl – a defense against the shoot in which the legs
are splayed wide to maintain balance and leverage.

Strike – any kind of punch or kick, with the fists,
elbows, knees or feet; usually delivered from a
standing position, but also often an important part of
ground fighting.

Submission hold – any of a series of joint locks or
chokes that force an opponent to ‘tap out,’ i.e.
submit, or risk injury.

Takedown – toppling one’s opponent to the ground. A
double-leg takedown involves wrapping one’s arms
around the opponent’s legs and sweeping them out from
under him; a single-leg takedown accomplishes this
through the control of either leg.

Tap out – tapping either the mat or one’s opponent to
signal submission, ending the fight.

(BOX #2) ‘I’m not a psychopath’

Haim Gozali looks like the kind of guy you want to
avoid. His thick arms are covered in tattoos of ninjas
and dragons. His expression is almost contemptuous,
it’s so aggressive. His legs shake with a nervous
energy, as if sitting in front of his apartment were
not relaxing but torturous. What he’d rather be doing,
his whole body seems to scream, is hitting somebody.

This is what most people expect from a mixed martial
artist. They expect the kind of guy who served in the
Border Police, a guy who competes in karate, Muay
Thai, submission wrestling and vale tudo (‘everything
goes’) tournaments. A guy who worked as a bouncer to
pay for his training. A guy who stays home in worn
down Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, without work thanks
to lingering effects of a stabbing. Gozali, after all,
is all these things.

What most people don’t expect from MMA fighters is a
gracious host, a soft-spoken and patient father who
reminds his seven-year-old son to dress nicely, be
respectful of guests and play quietly, so as not to
disturb the neighbors. The kind of guy who trains
young fighters for free. A guy with nothing to prove
out on the street because he’s already proved it in
the ring. Gozali is all these as well.

Even more of a shock to the stereotype is Kfir Eitan,
the 25-year-old heavyweight champion of Israel’s
Desert Combat league who is benefiting from Gozali’s
tutelage. Eitan, 10 years younger than Gozali, sports
no tattoos. He has no goatee. He has no menacing
physique. What he does have, is a degree from the
Technion and a good job in the hi-tech industry.

‘I’m not a psychopath,’ says Eitan, rejecting the
image that too many Israelis he’s encountered still
have of fighters. ‘I just happen to be involved in a
sport that’s a little violent.’

To be fair, ‘a little violent’ is an understatement.
MMA is not for anyone who isn’t comfortable with the
possibility that a fight could mean a trip to the
hospital – even for the winner. But even with all the
punching and kicking going on inside the ring, the
sport sees fewer injuries than ‘soft’ pastimes such as
soccer and skiing. Most importantly, no fighter has
died or suffered lasting brain damage – unlike boxing.
Sure, Eitan admits, ‘it takes balls to get into this.’
But it takes brains, too. ‘MMA is like an endless
puzzleÉ They call it the chess of the fighting world
for a reason.’

As a sport, MMA is many times more complicated than
boxing. A fighter has to be prepared to defend himself
not only from punches, but from kicks, takedown
attempts and a seemingly endless array of painful
joint locks and dangerous choke holds as well.

Ask just about any MMA fighter today and he’ll point
to the first tournament of the Ultimate Fighting
Championship in 1993 as the experience that forever
changed the way they conceived of fighting. For the
first time, with almost no rules and no time limits,
practitioners of karate faced wrestlers. Judokas faced
boxers. Grapplers faced kickboxers. And everyone faced
the startling realization that what they were doing
was not good enough.

Watching 80-kg. Royce Gracie, member of a family of
fighters who developed what is now commonly referred
to as Brazilian jiu-jutsu, dismantle opponents almost
twice his size with a mix of strikes and complex
submission holds opened the eyes of thousands of
fighters. Today, anyone who hopes for any success in
MMA bouts has to come prepared with a well-rounded set
of skills that includes all these things.

David Binyamin, a 39-year-old MMA fighter and coach
who trains some of the country’s most accomplished
fighters, recalls the first UFC tournament as a
watershed moment. That was the day that Binyamin, a
fourth dan in karate and member of the national team
in that art, decided to be ‘a student of reality
rather than a master of illusion.’

‘I said to myself, karate is very tough, and very
aggressive, but here’s a guy [Gracie] who tears up
karate- style strikers. From that moment on,’ Binyamin
says, ‘I began unceasing studies, even traveling
overseas for private classes. I was like a vacuum. I
tried to learn in every way possible.’

At first, says Binyamin, people didn’t want to hear
about mixed martial arts. When he switched over to the
method, half the students in his karate class left.

‘They didn’t understand what you could do with these
techniques,’ he says. ‘In time, though, came more and
more awareness as, in more and more competitions,
karate and kung fu guys ended up on their backs,

On one hand, MMA is meant to be rougher and tougher
than boxing. But the ability to defeat an opponent by
submission means that, in theory, an MMA fight can be
won without even throwing a punch.

‘In my last fight,’ says Binyamin, ‘my opponent was 15
kilos heavier than me, but not as skilled. I decided
to fight a ‘peace fight’ – I would win, I decided,
without throwing a punch. I said to myself, I’ll
submit him, then help him up and be friends with him.
And that’s what happened. Afterward, his coaches
thanked me for not busting up his face, though I could

In Israel, fighters have until now made very little
money from their fights. Binyamin, who works as a high
school literature teacher in addition to his martial
arts classes, says he puts in endless hours of running
and training just because he loves getting into the
ring. Sometimes, he says, he goes from school to
training his fighters, getting home only after

‘It’s not a regular life, that’s for sure,’ says
Binyamin, who has shown up to his literature class
with a black eye on more than one occasion.

Ido Pariente, one of the brightest stars in Israeli
MMA, has struggled to make his way in the sport. He
takes as many fights as he can overseas, where purses
are higher than they are here and where exposure at
one event can lead to an invitation to another.

‘Every fight I get to do abroad is half conniving,
half begging,’ Pariente says in Tel Aviv ahead of the
Desert Combat 5 event. ‘It’s a way of developing the
sport here, too. The younger fighters who are coming
up now and starting to get their chance, I opened the
door for them.’

Pariente, 30, pays the bills by training some 70-80
students, overseeing a handful of clubs. Like the rest
of the local mixed martial artists, he knows that if
big money comes at all, it will come to the next
generation of fighters.

For now, most fighters seem content enough with the
thrill of the fight. What they are all truly aching
for, though, is a breakthrough.

As Gozali explains, with his Star of David tattoo
rippling as he flexes his forearm, ‘I don’t even want
money. I want coverage of our sport. How much soccer
can people watch, anyway?’

The atoms family

For years, Israel was the only country in the entire
Middle East with a nuclear program. That’s about to
change. The list of Arab states that are actively
pursuing nuclear power, or seriously considering doing
so, is a long one: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan,
Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia,
Yemen and the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab

Contracts have been signed, huge sums have been
invested and work is under way in several instances.
As if the thought of nuclear power in the hands of
Iran wasn’t worrisome enough, pan-Arab nuclear power
is as real a prospect as ever.

Is this bad news for the Jewish state, which for some
four decades has enjoyed uncontested strategic
deterrence thanks to its assumed nuclear weapons
stockpile? Does it signal a dangerous escalation of
nuclear threats for the entire region?

Is it, on the contrary, a sign of progress for
governments that for far too long have failed to offer
their people the technological and financial
development they need? Or is it, typically, grandiose
promises on which regional leaders are unlikely to

There are enough indications to suspect all of the

Even more so than in North America and Europe, where
hundreds of nuclear power plants have been the focus
of heated public debate since shortly after World War
II, the issue of atomic energy becomes particularly
thorny in the supercharged milieu of the Middle East.

On one hand, an increase in the use of nuclear energy
could lead to a decline in the use of petroleum, which
would mean downgrading ‘the oil weapon’ – a boon to
Israel and all those wary of the power that oil brings
to Arab regimes.

On the other hand, nuclear power could also lead to
weapons programs that would upset a very fragile
strategic balance in the region.

Now, with a very wary Israel watching, Arab states are
trying to walk a tightrope that will allow them to
solve their dire energy needs, and at the same time
provide a viable nuclear defensive capability without
antagonizing Iran, Israel or the US.

THE MOST innocent motive for Arab states’ desire for
nuclear power is an energy situation bordering on
crisis. Most of these countries are growing rapidly,
with demands on their electric grids growing just as
quickly. As it is, many of them generate too little
electricity for current needs, not to mention the huge
leap in demand expected over the next 20-30 years.

Jordan, for example, which produces no oil and imports
80 percent of its natural gas, must import more than
550 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year
just to keep pace with current demands. If the
kingdom’s economy is to continue growing to alleviate
the more than 15% unemployment rate, it will require
vast amounts of energy – and fast.

Where doubts about the rush to go nuclear begin to
creep in, however, is in the choice of nuclear energy
over alternatives, especially when some of the
countries choosing the nuclear path are among the
world’s wealthiest in terms of oil and natural gas.

‘I think one would have to wonder about the need of
some states for nuclear power given their own energy
resources,’ US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
said in response to a recent conference in which Saudi
Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council announced
their keen interest in developing nuclear energy.
‘It’s one thing for a state to be running out of
natural gas in 34 years, which is the case of Egypt.
It is quite another for the state to be the most
oil-rich state in the world.’

Egypt derives a huge amount of its electricity from
hydroelectricity via the Aswan High Dam project, is an
exporter of both oil and natural gas and has huge
areas well suited for solar power. Kuwait, with proven
oil reserves of nearly 100 billion barrels, produces
three billion kWh more than it needs each year. Do
countries like these really need nuclear power to
create electricity and desalinate water?

‘Isn’t that where Iran is headed?’ John Pike asks

‘For Israel,’ says Pike, director of who testifies before Congress
regularly on a range of security issues including
nuclear proliferation, ‘the obvious concern is being
surrounded by hostile states with nuclear weapons.
You’re talking about states that have not been models
of political stability. You might be able to barely
tolerate a nuclear-armed Egypt, or a nuclear-armed
House of Saud, which is risk-averse. But who knows
what kind of people might be running those places 20
years down the road? The risk of a miscalculation is
always there, as is the possibility of weapons getting
loose… You look at this and you say, this is just
not a good picture.’

Remarking on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons,
Gideon Frank, the deputy board chairman of the Israel
Atomic Energy Commission, delivered a warning to the
international community last month. ‘We can hardly
remain oblivious,’ he said, ‘to intensive efforts by
some in our region to develop weapons of mass
destruction and their means of delivery, accompanied
by sustained denial of the very legitimacy of our
sovereign existence and calls for our destruction.’

With Israel taking a vigilant stance vis-ˆ-vis
Teheran’s nuclear ambitions – and with a purported air
strike last month on what foreign sources are saying
was a nuclear facility in northeastern Syria – why
would Arab states risk breaking the nuclear status

Pike, agreeing with most observers, says Iran is the
main reason that Arab regimes have suddenly become so
intrigued by the atom. ‘It doesn’t take a rocket
scientist to connect the dots,’ he says. ‘If Iran is
going to go nuclear, its neighbors don’t want to be
left behind.’

For years, analysts said Israel’s assumed nuclear
weapons program would spur its neighbors to develop
weapons programs of their own. Ironically, though,
Israel will not be the cause of a nuclear arms race in
the Middle East.

‘Israel’s program was accepted as an accomplished fact
some time ago, when the hurdles to acquiring nuclear
capability looked a lot higher than they do now,’
notes Pike. ‘But in the past 10 years or so, we’ve
seen India, Pakistan and North Korea join the club.
Now, it seems, everybody’s doing it. Israel made the
transition at a time when international norms were
tending against nuclear proliferation. The opposite is
true now.’

As Jordan’s King Abdullah II has said, ‘The rules have
changed. Everybody’s going for nuclear programs.’

FOR MANY Arab governments, though, the physical threat
from Iran is not as great as the symbolic power of its
nuclear program.

According to Gawdat Baghat, an Egyptian scholar who
heads the Political Affairs Department at Indiana
University, prestige is at least as much a motive as

Several years ago, he notes, Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak said a nuclear program would be a waste of
money. This was the continuation of a long-standing
policy of refraining from a costly game of catch-up
with Israel on the nuclear plane, but also the
practical outcome of a wealth of natural resources.
Times have changed, though, as have Mubarak’s domestic

‘With all its natural gas, Egypt doesn’t really need
nuclear energy very badly right now,’ Baghat says.
‘But when you see that [Iranian President Mahmoud]
Ahmadinejad keeps growing more popular all over the
Middle East, and that a major reason for this is his
insistence on becoming a nuclear power, you see just
how prestigious this is, how much it is a symbol of
scientific progress. Mubarak, like other Arab leaders,
has to show his people that he is in the race.’

Egyptians, he says, feel they are the undisputed
leaders of the Middle East. So it makes the country’s
leadership uncomfortable that Iran, their competitor
for hegemony in the region, is moving ahead of them.

This, Baghat adds, is worse than the fact that Israel
has had nuclear reactors operating since the early

‘When Iran makes progress,’ he says, ‘it is different
than Israel doing so. It might sound funny, but I
think of it this way: When somebody you are not very
close to becomes rich and buys an expensive car, it
doesn’t mean much to you. But if your cousin does the
same thing, it gets under your skin.’

Realistically, some of the countries expressing
interest in nuclear power may not be able to see such
an ambitious, and costly, project through.

In Yemen – an impoverished, barren country ranked one
of the three most corrupt nations in the world in the
recent Transparency International survey – citizens
openly mock the promise of President Ali Abdullah
Saleh to bring nuclear energy to the country,
according to regional reports.

‘I do not believe,’ says Baghat, ‘that most Arab
countries have the technical infrastructure, financial
resources or human resources to build a nuclear
weapons program. Furthermore, there are strategic
reasons for them not to do so.’

BAGHAT, WHO has written extensively on why Arab
states, over the past 40-50 years, have chosen to
either pursue or abandon nuclear weapons, notes: ‘The
main reason why they try to start weapons programs is
security. And right now, there is no security threat.’
Despite Iran’s aggressive push toward nuclear weapons
and its attempts to spread its Shi’ite revolution,
Baghat believes Teheran is not likely to go to war
against its Muslim neighbors. So, he says, the Sunni
states most capable of funding a nuclear weapons
program are also the least likely to do so.

‘There are only five major regional powers: Israel,
Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is a
member of NATO, so it does not need nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia has very strong security ties with the
US. The Saudis know that, if they faced any real
threat, the US would come to their aid.’

That leaves Egypt, which, Baghat points out, ‘depends
very much on US foreign aid. Since [Anwar] Sadat went
to Israel in 1977, Egypt has been the second-largest
recipient of American foreign aid. Without it, Egypt
would collapse.’

If the US were to discover that any of those three
countries was using its civilian nuclear program to
make weapons, Baghat says, they would ‘pay a very high
price. There is no reason for them to antagonize the

To be fair, he notes, ‘we can never be 100% sure.
These are not very democratic countries, and there is
always a possibility that a madman could come to
power. So to be on the safe side, there must be tight
supervision from the International Atomic Energy

Similarly, Pike says, ‘Does Israel need to worry about
its neighbors having purely peaceful programs? No. But
anybody who thinks that Iran’s program is entirely
peaceful hasn’t been paying attention. And anybody who
thinks that a nuclear desalination project [in an Arab
country] is going to balance Iran’s weapons capability
hasn’t been outside recently.’

The first commercial nuclear power plants in the Arab
world won’t be finished for eight years at least. In
that time, presumably, the Iran situation will come to
some sort of conclusion, and convince Arab leaders
about the direction in which to take their nuclear
programs. The coming years will be full of no small
amount of nail-biting in Israel as well, Pike

‘You would have to be concerned,’ he says, ‘that the
reason some of these countries have been talking about
nuclear power is that the leaders of these countries
had called in their military and industrial advisers
and said, ‘If we had to get weapons, what would it
take?’ Because, rest assured, they have all done that.
There’s not a country in the region that hasn’t had to
weigh its options.’

(BOX #1) Atoms in Arabia


Egypt’s nuclear program has taken a roller coaster-
like course. It began peacefully in the late 1950s,
with American and Russian support for a small research
reactor; turned aggressive shortly thereafter, with
(failed) attempts to purchase weapons for use against
Israel; was frozen after the Chernobyl disaster in
1986; was revived a few years later with help from
Argentina, which built a 22- megawatt research reactor
at Inshas; and is now being revolutionized with the
launch of plans for three reactors of up to 3,000 MW
total capacity at Al-Daba. The first plant, Egypt’s
energy minister claims, will be ready in a decade.


Only a few weeks ago, Jordan and the United States
signed an accord supporting the Hashemite kingdom’s
development of nuclear power. Under the agreement,
‘the two countries will work together to develop
requirements for appropriate power reactors, fuel
service arrangements, civilian training, nuclear
safety, energy technology and other related areas,’
the US Embassy in Amman said in a statement.

In addition to desalinating water, nuclear power would
bring a much-needed energy boost to Jordan, which
imports all its oil and almost 80 percent of its
natural gas. Conversely, the country has an estimated
80,000 tons of uranium available to be mined, and
Jordanian officials aim to see nuclear energy produce
30 percent of the country’s energy by 2030 and convert
the kingdom into an energy exporter.


A year ago, President Bashar Assad asserted that his
country had no intention of becoming a nuclear power.
But in recent months, Syrian officials have sung a
different tune, saying that the nuclear option could
not be rejected, or even that it was ‘in our sights.’
The country’s energy needs are increasing, while the
industrial infrastructure is growing less and less
efficient all the time.

Over the past few years, Israeli sources have
expressed concern that Syria had been trying to obtain
nuclear weapons from the rogue Pakistani nuclear
regime. Last month, in a still-murky incident over
eastern Syria, Israeli warplanes were alleged to have
targeted what may have been a nuclear facility
developed with the help of fellow ‘Axis of Evil’
member North Korea.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi officials have been laying the groundwork for a
nuclear program over the past year, making public
statements about the right of all states to peaceful
nuclear power and holding meetings with neighbors on
the importance of investing in nuclear power.

Some analysts claim that the Saudis have tried to
purchase nuclear weapons from China. Publicly,
however, Saudi Arabia is lobbying for a Middle East
free of nuclear weapons.

Gulf states

The five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council
– Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab
Emirates (in addition to Saudi Arabia) – have closely
followed the Saudis’ lead on nuclear energy, investing
billions of dollars to pave the way for power plants
and pledging entirely peaceful motives. The small
Persian Gulf states are said to be extremely concerned
by Iran’s nuclear program, which is considered at
least as much a factor in their interest in atomic
energy as the development that such electricity would

Ironically, Iran has offered the GCC its help in
developing nuclear technology.


A little over a week ago, Yemen signed a deal with an
American energy company to build a number of nuclear
power plants over the next 10 years, designed to
produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity. The country’s
oil production has dropped from 480,000 barrels a day
a few years ago to a current level of 330,000 barrels
a day.


Algeria is eager to make use of its uranium deposits,
which are estimated to be the 10th largest in the
world, to create a nuclear industry that can provide
domestic power as well as generate lucrative exports.

In January, Algeria signed a cooperation agreement
with Russia to build a reactor and train personnel to
run it. France has also offered to cooperate on a
nuclear project with Algeria, which is trying to
promote the idea of a ‘Mediterranean Union’ between
southern Europe and North Africa.


France agreed last December to help Tunisia develop
nuclear power and desalination capabilities, although
such a program still appears far off for the
resource-poor country.

(BOX #2) Is Israel next?

Like the Arab states now weighing the benefits of
nuclear power, Israel is interested in increasing its
electricity production to meet burgeoning demand. From
1990 to 2000, the country’s electricity requirements
increased an average of 7 percent. In the next 20
years, the National Infrastructure Ministry estimates,
Israel will need to provide twice the amount of
electricity used today – already in excess of 47
billion kilowatt-hours per year.

Powering today’s electricity are billions of shekels
worth of coal, crude oil and natural gas, which must
be imported. That means a combination of total
dependence on foreign sources, high costs and
environmental problems, all of which the government
would like to relieve rather than exacerbate.

In August, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin
Ben-Eliezer strongly suggested that nuclear power
could be the answer, saying the country was reviving
20-year-old plans for a nuclear power plant in the
Negev and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert supported
such plans.

‘The government of Israel is to make a historic
decision concerning the building of a nuclear power
plant… in the Negev,’ Ben-Eliezer was quoted as
saying. ‘Given the conditions that have surrounded
Israel from the day it was created and its unique
geopolitical situation, I believe it is not enough to
rely on energy production through conventional means.’
Certainly, Israel’s ‘unique geopolitical situation’
would become even more complex if its neighbors
started building nuclear reactors. That this
possibility made the government’s interest in nuclear
energy an urgent matter was confirmed by Gideon Frank,
chairman of the board of the Israel Atomic Energy
Commission, the country’s highest civilian nuclear
authority, who said as much during an international
conference in Vienna two weeks ago.

Referring to Iran’s nuclear program, Frank told the
members of the International Atomic Energy Commission
that the world body had allowed ‘gross and consistent
non- compliance’ from Teheran, and that Israel ‘can
hardly remain oblivious to intensive efforts by some
in our region to develop weapons of mass destruction
and their means of delivery, accompanied by sustained
denial of the very legitimacy of our sovereign
existence and calls for our destruction.’

Even though the remarks were indirect, the suggestion
that Israel would build a nuclear power plant in
response to Iran’s assumed ambitions to obtain nuclear
weapons confirmed the inevitable connection between
civilian and military nuclear programs.

For Israel, that means some tough questions – about
any nuclear facility to be built in the future, and
about the country’s existing facilities as well.

DESPITE HAVING one of the world’s most controversial
nuclear programs, Israel does not have a nuclear power
plant. Whether or not the infamous nuclear facilities
in Dimona are producing nuclear weapons, as the rest
of the world and most Israelis assume, one thing is
clear: It does not produce electricity for our homes.
But because, according to foreign reports, it is
assumed to be used for the manufacture of
weapons-grade plutonium, and because Israel has not
ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),
it may not receive materials from the Nuclear
Suppliers Group that would allow it to build a nuclear
power plant.

In the past few weeks, officials have been lobbying
for exemptions to those restrictions, hoping the
nuclear development deal that the US recently signed
with India – another country that is not a party to
the NPT but has nuclear weapons – will serve as a
precedent in Israel’s favor.

Considering that there seems to be a consensus among
NSG states against allowing Israel to import nuclear
material, even limited exemptions to the
non-proliferation rules will be difficult to achieve.
But the government is taking its request a step
further: While officials say they would open up any
future nuclear power plant to international
inspectors, as required, they would not do the same
for the Dimona reactor.

Israel, an Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told
The Jerusalem Post, is stressing that it has been
‘responsible’ with its nuclear program since its
establishment in the 1950s, and hoping that this will
be enough to convince the NSG that Israel poses no
threat to regional security.

How safe, though, are the country’s existing nuclear

To begin with, both the Dimona reactor and the much
smaller research reactor at Nahal Sorek south of
Rishon Lezion are powered by highly-enriched uranium
(HEU). There are about 100 more HEU-type research
reactors around the world, but many of them are being
converted to low-enriched uranium systems because HEU,
being a few steps closer to weapons-grade material, is
considered a proliferation threat.

The Nahal Sorek reactor, which was donated by the US
in 1958 as part of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ program,
conducts medical radioactivity experiments and other
highly advanced research. It is open not only to
international inspections, but to tour groups as well.
The Dimona facility, which is not only closed to
inspection but kept highly guarded from all public
discourse, hosts a national radioactive waste disposal
site where radioactive waste from hospitals, research
institutions, higher education facilities and
factories is stored. Fears that the facility, built
clandestinely nearly 50 years ago, was a threat in
itself were heightened three years ago when
authorities distributed Lugol iodine tablets to
residents of cities and Beduin encampments around
Dimona, in case of an accidental radiation leak.

An Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told the Post
that any fears over the safety of either the Sorek or
Dimona reactors are unwarranted.

‘Age is not an issue with these facilities,’ she said.
‘The reactors have been refurbished and upgraded
several times over the years. In effect, these are not
the same reactors that were installed nearly 50 years

Regardless, questions about Israel’s nuclear program
are likely to increase dramatically – whether because
of the development of Arab reactors or because of
concerns over a civilian power plant in the desert.
Five decades after Israel became the first nuclear
power in the Middle East, the long-standing status quo
is sure to change as the country’s ‘unique
geopolitical situation’ changes dramatically.

(BOX #3) Pros, cons and alternatives

Advocates and opponents alike can be fanatical in
their positions on nuclear energy. Complicating
matters for policy-makers is that both sides make
valid arguments. Worse still, none of the available
alternatives to nuclear power and conventional fossil
fuel-driven power has yet proven capable of producing
energy on a large enough scale to supersede these
options for the near future.


The two biggest benefits of nuclear energy are its low
cost and its cleanliness relative to coal, oil and
gas- powered energy plants.

A nuclear plant generates power in much the same way
as most of those old-style plants – by creating steam
that spins a turbine – but it does so in a much more
efficient manner. The cost of nuclear fuel is also
much lower than the cost of coal or oil, and even
lower than natural gas. The combination of high
operating efficiency and low materials cost is,
understandably, attractive to governments.

Also, nuclear power plants don’t produce the carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gases that fossil
fuel-driven power plants produce. As more countries
make environmental concerns a larger factor in their
energy plans – and as countries committed to the Kyoto
protocols seek ways to avoid pollution penalties –
that ‘eco-friendly’ benefit becomes extremely

Despite some notorious exceptions, the safety record
of nuclear power facilities is also much better than
that of their conventional cousins.


Due to their intricate and potentially volatile
design, nuclear power plants are much more expensive
and often take much longer to build than standard
power plants. Also, nuclear foes claim, the lower cost
of electricity produced by nuclear plants is achieved
in part by subsidies and government funding that is
generally not included in the calculation of this
cost. So the total savings are, arguably, minimal.

Opponents also contend that nuclear energy is not, in
fact, better for the environment. In addition to the
danger of a catastrophe, such as the infamous
Chernobyl disaster, there is the problem of
radioactive waste, the byproduct of nuclear energy.
Both in enriching uranium for fuel, and in the nuclear
fission process that ultimately results in
electricity, extraordinarily dangerous waste products
are created. Because of the complexity of storage
needs for nuclear waste – some of the waste products
remain radioactive for thousands of years – finding
localities willing to host storage facilities can be a
daunting task.

Of course, there is also the danger of a peaceful
nuclear program leading to a weapons program.


None of the available alternatives to the current
energy systems offers a perfect solution.

Wind power creates no waste products, but requires a
large area and provides energy in unstable quantities.
Hydroelectric power is extremely efficient and very
‘clean,’ but it is nonetheless limited by its
environmental impact and by the fact that it can only
be used in areas with large flowing water systems.

Geothermal power may be an elegant solution harnessing
natural steam vents, but it can only be realized in a
small number of locations.

With free fuel (sunlight), no resulting pollutants and
increasing efficiency, solar power is as close to a
perfect power source as is available today. Until
solar energy can be stored cheaply and in a relatively
small area, though, it will not be an economically
viable option for more than a fraction of a country’s
electricity demands.

While some or all of these alternatives are relevant
choices for the Arab states currently weighing nuclear
power, they are unlikely to fully meet the growing
electricity demands of those states.

(BOX #4) Europe is split over nuclear energy

Calder Hall crumbled in seconds. Once symbols of
progress and might for a nation focused on the future,
the four lofty cooling towers at Sellafield, England,
were demolished on Saturday after becoming instead a
symbol of decay.

Fifty-one years after the world’s first commercial
civil nuclear power plant was constructed, the
continent that has embraced nuclear energy the most is
also the one that is relegating the technology to

There are more than 440 nuclear power plants around
the globe, supplying about 16% of the world’s energy.
The highest number of plants is in the United States,
where in certain states nuclear energy is an
increasingly popular choice. But the countries that
rely most heavily on nuclear energy – France,
Lithuania, Belgium, etc. – are in Europe.

The continent, however, is increasingly divided by an
all-or-nothing attitude. In Europe, it seems,
countries are either feverishly building new power
plants, or furiously tearing them down. Some
countries, like England, are doing both, replacing
older facilities that are no longer safe or efficient
with newer models.

For years after the initial surge of interest in
nuclear energy, when the atomic age promised endless
bounty at minimal cost, countries lost interest in
nuclear power as environmental concerns took
prominence. Then, in 2002, Finland’s parliament made
the first decision to build a new nuclear power plant
in Western Europe for more than a decade.

Ireland at first fell in love with the idea of nuclear
energy, moving in 1968 to build a power plant.
Thirteen years later, though, having fallen out of
love with the idea, the Irish dropped those plans.
Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden,
meanwhile, have all decided not to build new plants,
or intend to phase out nuclear power altogether.
Austria has not only stamped out any domestic nuclear
development but also seeks to ensure that none of its
neighbors will build nuclear power plants near its

Italy has taken the hardest line of all against
nuclear power. Shortly after the explosion of Reactor
No. 4 at Chernobyl sent radioactive fallout across
Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in 1986, Italy voted to
scrap its four nuclear reactors, completing the hasty
shut-downs by 1990. Since then, however, Italy has had
to import energy – produced by nuclear plants, no less
– and seen its energy costs skyrocket.

The Netherlands moved to shut down its reactors, but a
few years later a new government put that on hold. In
Poland, construction of four nuclear power plants was
halted halfway through; now, after investing in
Lithuania’s nuclear power program, the country intends
to built a plant of its own within the next 15 years.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, France, insisting
on self-sufficiency in energy despite lacking the
natural resources to accomplish it, has adopted
nuclear power so strongly that it derives 78 percent
of its energy from nuclear plants.

The position of Europe on nuclear energy, then, is not
merely ambiguous, it is downright torn. Only time will
tell whether Middle East countries, enamored with
nuclear power as they are at the moment, will be as
excited about their nuclear plans in the future as
they are now.

Charity begins at home

‘Thank God,’ says Ronit, ‘Rosh Hashana went well. We
had plenty to eat.’ 

That’s saying a lot for Ronit and
her family. If not for some drastic changes in the
past few years, her six children could have been among
the one million Israelis who, charity groups say, go
hungry on a regular basis. Not long ago, things were
so bad that Ronit was afraid to walk down the street,
lest a store owner demand she pay an outstanding debt.

Although Ronit’s husband Yaron makes a decent living
doing home improvement jobs, the couple was deeply in
debt, and sinking deeper by the day.

‘Our overdraft was at NIS 65,000,’ Ronit recalls, ‘and
growing by NIS 3,000 every month. Whatever we needed,
we bought. If we didn’t have the money for it, we just
bought in installments. And to be honest, we didn’t
really need a lot of it.’

Realizing that what they really needed was help – and
loath to take a handout – they called Pa’amonim, an
organization whose approach to charity is to help
people help themselves out of their troubles.

It didn’t take long to see what was dragging Ronit’s
family into financial ruin. The first time financial
coach Shira Deitcher showed up at their home, Ronit
says, she was shocked.

‘We would leave the electric kettle on all the time,
just in case,’ Ronit recalls. ‘What can I say? My
husband likes to have several hot drinks each day. But
at Shira’s suggestion, we started turning on the
electric kettle only when we wanted a drink; soon we
cut it out altogether and fired up a finjan on the
stove instead. That move cut NIS 600 out of our
bi-monthly electric bill.’

Putting the air-conditioner and the boiler on timers
saved more money, and made the couple realize how much
money they were wasting. Deitcher helped them go
through a grueling itemization of their expenses, and
encouraged them to record in a journal every single
shekel they spent, to give them an alarmingly accurate
financial picture.

The picture was alarmingly bleak, too. Changes would
have to be severe, and they would have to be
immediate. One step was to bring in more money. So,
after 13 years of taking care of the kids and the
home, Ronit went back to work, cleaning houses to cut
down the overdraft.

‘We really don’t care that other people have more
respectable jobs,’ she says. ‘For a few months, when
the home improvement jobs were infrequent, my husband
cleaned stairwells. We understand that if you work
hard, you’ll earn the money you need.’

In addition to putting in extra hours at work, the two
did all they could to tighten their belts at home,

‘Some Shabbatot, we ate canned tuna instead of fresh
fish. We cut down on meat and chicken, too. Several
times, we were offered food from charitable
organizations. But we never went bankrupt,’ Ronit says
with pride, ‘and we never took handouts.’

That fierce independence and work ethic differentiates
Ronit and her family from a lot of the able-bodied
regulars at soup kitchens and on food package delivery

‘I’ve been told by someone who works at [a large
nationwide charity] that they have some people
receiving food who are the third generation of their
family to do so,’ Ronit says in can-you-believe-it
tones. ‘They’re not ashamed – on the contrary, they
expect it. That’s living in a culture of poverty, and
I’m against it. I never did it. My husband didn’t do
it. I don’t want my kids to do it. I prefer to help
myself rather than take help from others.’

IT’S THAT kind of attitude that Pa’amonim is trying to

‘We chose the name ‘Pa’amonim’ [‘bells’] because we
wanted a name that had no connotation of poverty,’
explains Uriel Lederberg, the organization’s founder.
In fact, Lederberg doesn’t want his organization to be
at all like most charities that aim to help the poor.
To begin with, he wants to work with people who are
genuinely interested in changing their habits for the

The idea behind Pa’amonim came a decade ago, after an
incident soured Lederberg on the ‘give, give, give’
model of charity.

Lederberg, who was studying in yeshiva and teaching
after his army service, was approached by a woman in
dire straits. The single mother had bills she couldn’t
pay, and creditors were threatening to repossess
things from her home. Moved by her situation, he took
up a collection and raised ‘huge sums,’ as he says,
‘several thousand shekels.’

Within a few months, though, the woman came back, even
more desperate. ‘The same problems had returned,’
Lederberg explains. ‘She needed more money, and fast.’
So again, he collected donations. And again, the cash
was only a temporary solution.

‘That’s when I realized that just giving people money
wasn’t the answer,’ he says.

The real problem, Lederberg surmised, lay in a lack of
financial discipline. What was needed, he thought, was
an ounce of prevention, not a pound of cure.

The pudgy Lederberg, sporting a long red beard and a
large crocheted kippa, points to Jewish sources to
support that notion. The Rambam, he notes, wrote that
the highest form of charity was not the giving of alms
but helping someone support himself. Likewise, a
midrash on Leviticus states that it is better, and
easier, to help someone before they stumble; once
someone falls down, the midrash says, it takes much
more effort to get them back on their feet.

What Pa’amonim tries to do, with its budget worksheets
and austerity programs, is to teach families how to
manage their finances to minimize their debt – and
eventually master it. It’s a ‘holistic’ approach, as
Lederberg likes to say, that stresses living within
one’s means and includes a year or so of personal
training with a Pa’amonim volunteer. It’s catching on,
too: This year, the organization will have worked with
some 2,000 families, through more than 600 volunteers.
‘We’re not trying to solve the whole country’s poverty
problems,’ Lederberg says. ‘We’re focusing on the
‘micro’ of the poverty issue, one family at a time.’

MAKE NO MISTAKE, the process that Lederberg prescribes
is nothing short of a reeducation. The behaviors that
turn one month’s shortfall into a consistent crisis
are the result of a mistaken approach to money, which
must be corrected for there to be any long-term

‘I went to visit a young family stuck with NIS 50,000
of debt,’ Lederberg says by way of illustration, ‘and
what do you think I saw? A new sofa and new curtains,
on top of a house full of electronics. The couple
said, ‘What? The NIS 50,000 debt is too much for us,
so what difference does it make if our debt is NIS
55,000?’ This is the kind of mentality that a lot of
people have.’

Overspending may be the most easily identifiable
problem, but people often have a difficult time
figuring out what their budget should be.

‘People think only about how much they owe right now.
They don’t realize that a family is a business too, in
a sense,’ says Lederberg. ‘But a couple that makes
even slightly less than the average brings in about
NIS 100,000 over a year. That’s a significant amount,
and it needs to be budgeted, like a business. You have
to have a monthly budget.’

By listing all its expenditures, a family can see by
how much spending needs to be cut, and decide where to
cut back. Pa’amonim does not preach against ‘wasteful’
purchases, urging the families to decide what is most
important to them.

‘Cigarettes are a big expense, and they’re unhealthy.
But I don’t tell people not to smoke,’ says Deitcher.
‘What I do is to say, ‘Okay, you can budget several
hundred shekels each month for cigarettes if you want.
But they’re going to come at the expense of something
else.’ Everyone has to realize that there’s a give and

A common hurdle for Israelis is the cellphone, says
Lederberg, who calls the device ‘a modern plague.’
Often, he says, families with hardly any disposable
income spend hundreds of shekels each month on air

‘If the communications minister were to demand 25
percent of the state budget,’ says Lederberg, ‘he
would be sent packing. Yet that’s what some families
spend on cellphones each month.’

In general, he says, if a family spends more than 7%
of its monthly budget on communications – by which
Lederberg means not only cellphones but television and
Internet service too – trouble isn’t far behind.

Pa’amonim tries to get families to pay off their set
costs – housing, taxes, insurance – then to try to
trim their variable costs, such as food, travel, etc.
But even when a family wants to spend less, it doesn’t
always know how.

‘I visited a very educated couple, both of whom made a
pretty good salary, that was deep in debt,’ Lederberg
says. ‘The husband swore he was cursed. ‘It’s like
Pharaoh’s dream of the skinny cows swallowing the fat
cows,’ he said. ‘As soon as the money comes in, it’s
gone, as if it had never been!”

Their downfall, he explains, was the ‘installments
trap.’ ‘Israelis love to pay for everything in
installments. There’s a psychology of feeling as if
you hadn’t actually spent money. But,’ he says,
‘abusing the option to make purchases in installments
is a proven path to financial disaster.’


‘You don’t realize how much you’re spending, or when
you’re spending it. As soon as you put your card back
in your wallet, you forget how much you’ll owe, or how
long you’ll owe it. And the payments pile up, without
you knowing exactly why, so that the short-term
improvement in cash flow offered by making
installments becomes a long- term cash flow problem.’

One of the most egregious errors in using the
installment option is also one of the most common,
says Lederberg – at the check-out line at the grocery
store. ‘Buying your monthly groceries in installments
is a great idea – if you’re not going to eat next
month, or the month after that. But since you do eat
every month, and have to buy more groceries to do so,
it’s a terrible idea.’

As in every other consumer-driven society, Israelis
also succumb too often to the lure of sales – most of
which are designed to make us spend more money, not

‘I once stood outside a Home Center store and
conducted an experiment,’ Lederberg says. ‘I asked one
gentleman on his way in what he needed to buy. He said
he needed only one little piece of pipe. Now, it only
takes five minutes to buy a piece of pipe. But the man
didn’t emerge from the store until an hour later,
laden with a full cart of all sorts of other things.
‘Didn’t you need only one small piece of pipe?’ I
asked. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘but all this was on sale!’

‘I helped the man to his car,’ Lederberg says,
readying to deliver the big punch line. ‘And guess
what? He had forgotten to buy the little piece of

It is that kind of behavior that makes Lederberg
stress that people ought to buy something only if they
needed it before they noticed it in the store.
Otherwise, he says, it doesn’t matter that a product
is on sale. They’ll just spend money that they
shouldn’t spend on a product that they don’t actually

Abandoning these behaviors – many of which have been
reinforced since childhood – can be difficult. But, as
Lederberg says, ‘if you want to live differently, you
have to act differently. And if you want to act
differently, you have to think differently.’

IN RONIT’S house, different thinking and small changes
have led to big results.

‘Wow, the discipline!’ she says. ‘It’s everywhere

Ronit no longer puts laundry softener in every load,
for example, saving it only for those that really need
it. And instead of buying sandwich bags in a cardboard
carton for six or seven shekels, she buys the same
bags in a plastic wrapper for a fraction of the cost.

The kids notice this and learn an important lesson.

‘Everything begins with the example we set as
parents,’ she says. ‘My kids are used to seeing me in
good, expensive orthopedic shoes. But when I needed a
new pair, instead of spending NIS 300, I went to the
store and had them fixed instead, for almost nothing.
My children saw me sacrifice, and they took note of
it. I also gave up my cellphone, and my husband only
uses the ‘Talkman’ pay-as- you-go service, capped at
our monthly allowance of NIS 100. The kids see what we
have given up.

‘Recently, my son asked for a new hat and a new jacket
for yeshiva. What can you do? You have to get new
clothes sometimes. And I want to get new clothes for
my children. But the monthly budget didn’t allow it.
So we waited a few weeks.

‘Learning to put off purchases is a very important
part of education. Nothing comes immediately. This is
the time to let that message sink in.’

And that message is sinking in.

‘It’s so nice to see the kids saying to each other,
‘You don’t need that. Let’s get this for less, and
save for something else later on.’ Last year, one of
my sons collected these rabbi cards. It’s very nice,
you know, to have this album full of them. But now the
album just sits there. The other day, my son said,
‘Mommy, this year I won’t buy new cards.”

Ronit and her husband spent long hours going over
their financial statements, building a budget that
would help them pay off their debts. (‘To be honest,
it brought us closer to each other,’ she says.) But
they also sat down with their children and made them
partners in the effort.

‘We asked the kids, ‘What are you willing to do
without?’ We all agreed that we couldn’t shut off the
air- conditioner at night – here on the coast, it’s so
humid, especially in the summer – but as a trade-off,
we cut down on our Shabbat snacks, from six different
kinds to just one.’

Before the school year started, the kids got second-
hand backpacks instead of expensive new ones.

‘I’ve heard from friends who refuse to take second-
hand things,’ Ronit says, ‘but we’ve gotten over that.
We routinely give things that we don’t need anymore to
others. Why should we turn away something perfectly
good from someone else?’

The family has developed its creative side in its
attempts to save money. Ahead of Rosh Hashana, Ronit
says, instead of buying greeting cards, they made
their own from materials they had at home.

‘It’s not about being cheap,’ she says, ‘but about
buying only things that you really need, or buying
things that are perfectly good for less than the cost
of the premium products. Today, my kids appreciate
much more the luxuries they once wasted. We don’t
withhold things from them, but we don’t throw things
at them without end either.’

The children receive an allowance, but now they have
to account in a journal for every shekel of their
spending. They use their own money to buy things that
the family budget won’t cover.

‘I bought school supplies,’ says Ronit, ‘but my
daughter wanted a special pencil case. So she saved
her money until she could buy it herself. It wasn’t
much, just NIS 18. But for her, it was a big deal. And
when she finally had saved enough and told the
saleswoman how proud she was, the saleswoman was so
impressed that she gave my daughter her money back! My
daughter then saved some more, and bought herself a

EACH SMALL victory for Ronit and her family is a step
on the road to financial recovery. It has been a long
and difficult road, but the family has its eyes set on
the finish line.

‘We have worked so very hard,’ Ronit says. ‘Over 15
months, we paid back more than NIS 40,000 in debts.
Shira saw how hard we were working, too. She told us
that if we paid off at least two-thirds of our debts,
Pa’amonim would help us with the rest. And they did.
Now, instead of owing NIS 20,000 to lots of people, we
are paying off an interest-free loan to Pa’amonim over
two years. It’s a real relief to not have so many
different creditors.’

Today, the couple observes a strict financial regimen.
They pay their bills each month via automatic
withdrawals, whereas before they would have spent
their money before bills came due. In accordance with
Pa’amonim rules, they do not go into overdraft
anymore, and they observe a tight cap on their tab at
the corner store.

‘By no means are we resting on our laurels,’ Ronit
says. ‘This is no picnic. But a year from now, I want
to be able to tell you, ‘We’re out of debt!”

Making the final loan repayment is not the end for
Ronit and her family. She would like to be able to
provide music lessons for her children and, when the
time comes, marry them off. Without any savings now,
she and her husband know that they’ll have to maintain
their new discipline if they are to realize their

‘Plus,’ she says, ‘Pa’amonim has invested a lot of
trust in us. We don’t dare betray that trust. We don’t
want to let them down.’

In a country of widening gaps in prosperity, Pa’amonim
believes that resolve like Ronit’s is essential. After
all, not everyone who struggles to make ends meet is a
victim of hard luck; for many, the slow, sure descent
into the quicksand of overwhelming debt can be

‘What it comes down to,’ says Lederberg, ‘is that we
believe in people. We believe people can work their
way out of this disaster.’

Shalom, Javier

There’s nothing extraordinary about the way the
students at Machon Miriam’s conversion class are
engaged in afternoon prayer. Ditto for their modest
dress, their humble demeanor and their intense focus
on the lesson about Jewish customs their instructor is

Yet Ra’anana Birnbaum, who oversees the Machon Miriam
ulpan, insists, ‘This is a very special, very unusual
ulpan.’ What is special here isn’t something you can
see. It is, however, something you can hear. What is
so unusual about these students is revealed in their
native tongues of Spanish and Portuguese.

The dozens of people gathered in Machon Miriam’s
classrooms in Heichal Shlomo, adjacent to Jerusalem’s
Great Synagogue, have come from Costa Rica, Chile,
Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Palma de
Mallorca, Portugal, Spain, Bolivia and Peru. One
couple, Birnbaum says, has come from the farthest
reaches of the Amazon.

Among them are people like Adriana, a Roman Catholic
from Colombia who met her Jewish fiance in London and
has moved with him to Israel; and Gisella, the
daughter of a Jewish man and Catholic woman who has
left Argentina to ‘find herself’ in Jerusalem. Many,
many more are like Agison and Jerusa, two Bnei Anusim
(descendants of Iberian Jews who were forced to
convert to Christianity during the Inquisition) from

Agison first met Jerusa on a bus, making eyes at her
‘like in a soap opera.’ And like a mindbending soap
opera plot twist, the two happened to share family
secrets of converso lineage. Agison’s grandparents had
come from Portugal and maintained unusual,
non-Catholic practices that he would later realize
were Jewish customs. Although her father was Catholic,
Jerusa’s mother steadfastly refused to go to church,
part of a set of rules her own mother had established.
By the time they met, Agison and Jerusa knew they were
Jewish. She wanted to live openly as Jews, but Agison
was hesitant.

‘It took two years of marriage for me to convince
him,’ Jerusa says, as her husband smiles sheepishly.

The decision was not a simple one. It was easier said
than done.

Their town had Jews, but they were secular, and could
not teach the couple much. There was no synagogue to
provide communal prayer. So they made do as best they
could, following the Bible. Literally.

Without the benefit of knowledge of Jewish tradition,
the couple improvised. For Pessah, they meticulously
removed all hametz from their home. They made fresh
grape juice, slaughtered sheep and – without knowing
exactly how they were supposed to – baked their own
matzot. They went to the fields to count the omer.

On Succot, Agison wanted to gather for himself the
four species, but he wasn’t sure which species to
collect. For a mikve, Jerusa would travel to a
secluded beach near Rio de Janeiro.

And so it went for them. It took seven years to get
their hands on Jewish books in Portuguese. Eventually
they learned about various halachot. While still in
Brazil, the 30-something couple and their young
children underwent conversion through the Conservative
movement. They made aliya last year – not as Agison
and Jerusa, but as Eliahu and Rivka.

The changes have been extreme.

Whereas in Brazil Eliahu owned a successful business
selling packing materials, today he works in
maintenance. His wife works as a babysitter.

‘We didn’t come here for a more lucrative lifestyle,’
he says, knowing the suspicion with which Israelis
often regard strangers.

Instead, they say, they came for experiences like
their first traditional Seder, held in their spartan
apartment in the Beit Canada absorption center in
southeast Jerusalem. And although they are citizens
and already recognized by the Interior Ministry as
Jews, they are undergoing an Orthodox conversion now
because they believe that only it is valid.

‘We came to seek God,’ Eliahu says. ‘And so far,
things are working out.’

Birnbaum, who is translating the narrative, beams with
pride for her students. ‘Here we have a human fabric
that knows practically no bounds,’ she says.

THE ULPAN is connected to Shavei Israel, an
organization founded by Michael Freund that has become
well known in recent years for locating, educating and
bringing here thousands of people around the world
with previously unlooked-for historic ties to the
Jewish people.

Freund, who investigated the issue of anusim (who are
also known by the derogatory terms marranos and
chuetas, or less offensively as conversos) and
inspired the Chief Rabbinate to take an interest in it
as well, calls the Machon Miriam program ‘the best
revenge against the inquisitors.’ But Freund and
Birnbaum both know that the historical mysteries
inherent in the survival of the Bnei Anusim, and the
economic hardship prevalent in many countries where
they live, make ‘faking it’ an attractive option for
those who do not actually have Jewish heritage. Both
say they are very careful to weed out impostors.

‘We are very sensitive to those who may have Jewish
roots,’ Birnbaum says. ‘At the same time, however, we
are very careful not to be exploited by those with
illegitimate claims, who merely wish to come to Israel
for a better life.

‘I know these people,’ she adds. ‘I’m Latin myself.’

Although she was born and raised in Jerusalem, she
spent several years in Uruguay with her husband, Rabbi
Eliahu Birnbaum, who served as chief rabbi of the
country. Birnbaum’s father also served as chief rabbi
of Uruguay for many years.

‘I can tell after 10-20 minutes whether someone is
telling the truth about these things,’ she says,
speaking in the rapid-fire cadence common to many
Spanish speakers. ‘I have been told by one woman who
wanted to join our class – a devout Christian – that
she just wanted to bring her mother and sister to live
out the rest of their days in Israel. That’s why I
understand, as well, the strictness of the Interior
Ministry and the Rabbinate. There’s no end to the
people who apply.’

At the same time, Birnbaum says, ‘I see how those who
are honest and sincere only become more serious [about
the classes] all the time. Listen, this is a difficult
process. It’s a year of bonding with a community, of
coming to class twice a week, seven hours at a time…
someone who comes to this ulpan with ulterior motives
won’t be able to stand it.’

Moreover, Birnbaum continues, ‘It doesn’t matter to me
why a person comes to convert. It doesn’t matter to me
whether he comes because he has fallen in love with a
Jew, or whether he has fallen in love with the Jewish
people as a whole. What matters to me is that, as soon
as he has made that decision to convert, that he
undergoes the process with a sincere desire.’

GISELLA’S DESIRE, says the shy 22-year-old from
Argentina, is to ‘seek myself, to find an identity.’

That has been a painful process so far for Gisella,
who made aliya in 2003. The child of a Jewish father
and a Catholic mother, she has been wrestling since an
early age with the question, ‘Who am I?’ First,
Gisella went to public school. Then she was sent to a
private school that taught both Catholic and Jewish
children. Feeling part of neither crowd, she hung out
with a small group of kids who considered themselves
atheists. Eventually, in a bid to ‘fit in,’ Gisella
started to take lessons in Christianity with the
Catholic kids, but they wouldn’t speak to her.

So, Gisella went back to public school. There, a
strange thing happened when the drama class prepared a
presentation of the movie Sister Act, in which Whoopi
Goldberg impersonates a nun.

‘My father absolutely refused to allow me to take part
in this,’ Gisella says. ‘He had never made much of a
big deal about his being Jewish, but all of a sudden,
the idea of his daughter dressed up as a nun made him
very upset.’

The incident also compelled Gisella to explore what
Judaism meant to her. After high school, she came to
Israel. Once again, she doesn’t quite belong in any
particular crowd.

‘Growing up, I suffered because of my Jewish name,’
she says. ‘Now in Israel, I am treated as a non-Jew.
When people hear that I am converting, they start
testing my knowledge of Judaism. Some people say,
‘What, are you looking for more money in Israel?’

‘I’ve learned to be inconspicuous about my past. It’s
easier for me that way.’

Gisella, however, is finding her way. She has a job in
telemarketing and is studying for her psychometric
exams. She has a boyfriend (‘He’s religious,’ she
notes) who is helping her through the conversion

More than a few times, Gisella thought of going back
to Argentina. Her parents, though, encouraged her to
stay here.

‘They know,’ she says, ‘that there is something here
that I need.’

THE TRANSITION from Spanish-speaking outsider to
Hebrew-speaking Israeli immigrant is a complicated
one. The Machon Miriam staff tries to make that
transition as smooth as possible.

‘When someone comes to us,’ says Birnbaum, ‘I ask, ‘Do
you have a community? Do you have an adoptive family?’
If not, we provide them with one. We have a network of
graduates who support and guide the students on their
path to a new life. They have connections to
communities, to rabbis, to synagogues. We make sure
students find jobs. There’s a lot of ‘togetherness’

There is also, she says, a focus on more than just
basic knowledge of Bible stories.

‘My approach is that conversion is a cultural
transformation as well as a religious one, so students
need to learn about everything – about society, about
history, about culture, about Halacha, about faith and
dogma. That’s why this is such a broad curriculum.

‘For example, when they walk down the street, the
students see so many different modes of dress, just
within the religious community – many different kinds
of kippot, so many different kinds of women’s head
coverings. There are cultural codes to understand. So
we teach them the history of the Jewish people, we
teach them Hebrew literature… but we also teach them
about these Jewish cultural cues.’

All these elements, Birnbaum says, add up to success.

When the ulpan’s graduates stand before the Chief
Rabbinate’s conversion court judges, she says, ‘they
are so well prepared that 99 percent of them pass
their tests. I can count on my hands the number of
students who, over the years, haven’t passed.’

The connection does not end there, however. Graduates
are welcome, even encouraged, to hold their weddings
and bar and bat mitzva celebrations at the ulpan. The
organization’s social network is mobilized to ensure
that new converts aren’t simply thrown into their new

‘You have to remember,’ Birnbaum says, ‘that the
conversion process is difficult even after the
conversion itself. You’re in a state of euphoria. Your
whole life has changed. But everyone sees you as the
same person they knew yesterday. Work doesn’t just
fall from the sky, nor does a spouse, nor do friends.

‘There’s always an emotional let-down after
conversion. So we always try to guide them through it,
and beyond. Converts need to acclimate to life after
the conversion. It may sound very easy to someone who
doesn’t understand it, but it can be very hard.’

The current class is Machon Miriam’s ninth. Overall,
about 500 students have finished the course. The
surface, Birnbaum says, has just begun to be

‘We have a full class right now, and there are more
people waiting to get in. There’s never a situation
where our classrooms aren’t full to bursting.’

(BOX #1) The monk in the minyan

If only the abbot could see Justo Jorge Calderon now.
With curling peyot dangling below his chin and the
long black cloak of his small hassidic sect hanging
off his broad shoulders, Calderon sure doesn’t look
like a Benedictine monk anymore. Besides, he goes by
Aharon now, and he’s the proud father of three little

Calderon’s story is one of those stranger-than-fiction
tales that grows more intriguing the longer it goes
on. Fortunately, it’s also one he doesn’t mind
sharing. It begins in a small town outside Buenos
Aires, Argentina, where Justo Jorge was born into a
family of Roman Catholics.

‘Today I am a very kosher Jew,’ the 36-year-old says
with a smile, ‘but once I was a very kosher goy.’

When Calderon was 12, he says, his parents sent him to
a private religious school to get a better education
than the public schools provided. Before long he was
spending extra time studying with the monks. At 14, he
joined the pre-mission seminar.

‘I was young and idealistic,’ he explains with a

After high school, with his religious zeal increasing,
Calderon went looking for the ‘ancient, original
teachings’ of Catholicism. The local Benedictine
monastery offered the oldest, ‘purest’ form of
Christian life around. Based on a 1,400-year-old order
and centered around a largely self-sustaining ‘holy
village,’ it meant spending most of the day in
silence, reflecting on the divine.

‘The word ‘monastery’ is derived from the Greek
‘monos,’ meaning one, or alone. We monks were each one
seeking the One,’ explains Calderon, revealing his
divinity student’s mind-set.

Although Calderon’s parents weren’t happy about his
commitment to the monastic life – he’s their only son,
and they hoped for grandchildren – the young man felt
at home in the Benedictine monastery. At home, that
is, until he experienced what he calls ‘my two
surprises.’ The first came in the monastery’s library.
One of the largest around, it helped make the
monastery famous, Calderon says. Of the thousands of
volumes it held, though, one particular book would
change his life.

‘One day,’ he says, ‘I chanced upon a Haggada, in
Spanish and Hebrew. I was drawn to it, and read it
from beginning to end, in amazement.’ At the end of
the Seder service, Calderon read the prayer looking
forward to celebrating the Pessah holiday ‘next year
in Jerusalem – Jerusalem rebuilt’ and stared at a
drawing of the Third Temple.

Calderon sat in silence – not his usual contemplative
silence, but a stunned silence.

‘Christianity,’ he explains, ‘looks at Judaism as
something of an archeological concept, not as
something that is still alive, relevant and
flourishing… Looking at this prayer at the end of
the Haggada, I was shocked that modern Jews still
nurtured hopes for the future of their religion.’

The discovery rocked Calderon, but he was still unsure
what to make of it. Shortly thereafter, though, he
experienced his second ‘surprise,’ which sent his
spiritual quest in an entirely unforeseen direction.

It came on one of his weekly visits to the abbot of
the monastery. Upon entering the abbot’s study,
Calderon found him poring over a Hebrew Bible. (The
abbot, Calderon learned, had once studied in
Jerusalem, and was comparing ancient texts.) ‘I was
fascinated by the language,’ he recalls. ‘I wanted to
know, what secrets are in those letters?’

By that point Calderon had spent several years in the
monastery and, although he was well on his way to a
permanent stay there, he returned to his home for a
planned one- or two-year break. Once at home he began
attending classes at the Catholic-run university in
town and working as a nurse for the Red Cross. But,
with his ‘surprises’ spurring him on, Calderon also
sought out Jews who would be willing to teach him

At the time, conversion was not on his mind. ‘I just
wanted to know how Jesus prayed,’ he says.

On Friday nights, Calderon attended services at a
local synagogue (‘it was kind of like a Protestant
church’) where the rabbi agreed to let him join the
weekly Hebrew class. He also discovered a Messianic
Jewish congregation, and prayed there as well.

Thus began a period when, Calderon recalls, he would
pray to Jesus while in synagogue on Friday night, and
wear a kippa to church on Sunday morning. To Calderon,
these interreligious prayer sessions didn’t seem like
a contradiction.

‘It sounds strange,’ he admits, ‘but at the time, it
made sense to me. Judaism was not ‘outside’
Christianity, but part of it… like an ancestor.’

Soon, however, something in the Shabbat prayers struck
Calderon, and shook the foundations of his faith. It
was part of the Saturday morning kiddush,
specifically, the passage from Exodus that says: ‘And
the Children of Israel observed the Sabbath, to make
the Sabbath for their generations an eternal covenant.
Between Me and the Children of Israel it is a sign

‘This expression stuck in my mind,’ Calderon says,
repeating the words. ”It is a sign forever.”

‘That meant,’ he says, ‘that there is an eternal bond,
established by God. And since God does not change,
then that bond’ – the sign observed by Jews, marking
Saturday as the Sabbath – ‘must still be in effect!’
Why, Calderon asked himself, would the Church move the
Sabbath day to Sunday, if it wasn’t really a day
sanctified by God?

The question was more than a little troubling to
Calderon. After all, if Sunday was not really the holy
Sabbath, and if God’s covenant with the Jews had not
been abrogated and superseded by Christianity, then
maybe other tenets of the Christian religion were also
not true. Maybe, he allowed himself to think, Jesus
was not actually the son of God?

Calderon stopped going to church.

‘Everything I believed,’ he says, ‘just fell apart.’

He started a conversion class at the local Reform
synagogue. When the synagogue closed down due to
financial difficulties, Calderon sought out more Jews
and discovered the local Chabad rabbi.

Rather than eagerly welcome a new convert, the rabbi
at first tried to dissuade Calderon.

‘He would say, ‘Why would you want to be Jewish? We
have so many commandments, while non-Jews need only to
observe the Noahide laws. Besides, you are already a
good person in God’s eyes!” This, however, only made
Calderon’s desire to convert even greater.

‘Until then, I had thought that Judaism was a religion
of strictness and law, whereas Christianity was a
religion of love. But suddenly I realized that it was
really the opposite.’

‘You see,’ he explains, ‘in Christianity, if you don’t
believe in Jesus, you can’t go to heaven. But in
Judaism, there is a place in heaven for everyone; you
don’t have to be Jewish. So really, Christianity is
the religion of strictness, and Judaism is the
religion of love!’

After a period of ‘trying it out,’ Calderon knew that
he wanted to convert, and that he wanted to move to
Israel to do so. There was just one problem: finances.
‘A ticket to Israel cost $1,200. As a nurse, I was
only making $200 a month. How could I ever afford to
go to Israel?’ he says.

The situation was bleak. But then something happened
that would be right at home in a hassidic story, the
kind that circulates in the little Stropkover shul in
Jerusalem where Calderon is now a gabbai: There was a
raffle in Calderon’s town, with a grand prize of a new
ambulance; he entered. Just before Rosh Hashana,
Calderon was informed that he had won the grand prize.
He sold the ambulance and, suddenly able to afford the
airfare, flew to Israel.

At first, Calderon, in his new identity as Aharon,
studied at a yeshiva for potential converts. But
within a few months the yeshiva had closed. In early
1999, Calderon met Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum and joined
the Spanish speakers’ ulpan his wife had just started.
Around Rosh Hashana that year, Calderon underwent a
brit mila. Before Succot, he entered a mikve and
completed his conversion.

Back home in Argentina, there was little celebrating
going on. Although Calderon’s mother was happy that he
would, having given up the monastic life, provide her
with grandchildren, several family members told
Calderon, ‘If you’re Jewish, don’t come back here.’

‘A few years earlier, I had realized that love, hate
and jealousy were separated only by a fine line,’
Calderon says. ‘I made a choice to love the Jewish
people. Later, I began to see the hatred that some
people in my town had for Jews.’

Back in Israel, Calderon met and married a Jewish
woman who had emigrated from Russia with her family.
In yet another strange turn, Calderon’s mother-in-law
met Russian Orthodox missionaries in Jerusalem and
converted to Christianity.

‘Family gatherings,’ Calderon says with a knowing
shrug, ‘can get pretty weird.’

(BOX #2) What about the Russians?

It is generally agreed that roughly 300,000 of the 1.5
million olim from the former Soviet Union are not,
according to Halacha, Jewish; that all but a minuscule
number of these olim have not converted here and are
not likely to, and that this situation is unacceptable
to everyone.

To be certain, claims of insensitivity and unnecessary
stringency on the part of the Chief Rabbinate’s
conversion courts have been frequent. Also, many FSU
immigrants say, they were ‘Jewish enough’ to be
persecuted in their birth countries, and ‘Jewish
enough’ to qualify for aliya. Why should the Chief
Rabbinate make further demands on them?

However, hundreds of Bnei Anusim – and tens of
thousands of Ethiopians, as well – have accepted the
obligation to convert, and to do so according to the
standards of the Chief Rabbinate. Why is the Russian
community not following suit?

‘I asked our guides this exact question,’ said Angela
Levine, lifestyle facilitator director at Itim, a
non-profit organization that offers information and
counseling about Judaism, and creator of the
conversion course at the Hebrew University.

‘Some ask why they, as converts, have to keep kosher
and observe Shabbat, while born Jews who are secular
routinely violate these laws. It doesn’t seem fair.

‘Also, because circumcision is a necessary step for
male converts, some people have the impression that
mitzvot in general are physically demanding. Others
say the studies are too hard. Some say the process
should be as easy as converting to Christianity. One
woman actually suggested a mass conversion ceremony
where everyone would simply be declared Jewish.’

Levine, who immigrated from Ukraine in 1992, said many
responses revealed what she called the typical
perspective of someone from a communist society.

‘Some said that conversion was just like switching
political parties – you used to be in one party, now
you’re in another one. Why make such a big deal? Some
said that Judaism was just a culture (and therefore no
formal conversion process should be required). Others
said, ‘Why bother? Converting won’t bring me a

Often, the rabbinate is portrayed as being
unreasonably strict with prospective converts,
especially Russian immigrants. According to Levine,
however, that is not an accurate portrayal today.

‘The rabbinate is actually more flexible today than it
was before,’ she says. ‘It knows that people aren’t
going to be haredi, and it tries to be sensitive to
Russian immigrants. I think they demand the minimum
they can. The approach of the beit din has definitely
changed – toward the lenient.’

About 80 percent of prospective converts who open a
file with the Chief Rabbinate pass their tests on
either the first or second try, according to Itim. But
with only several hundred Russian olim converting each
year (plus a few hundred more through the army’s
conversion programs), that means most of the
immigrants are not even applying.

‘The truth is,’ Levine says, ‘there are a whole lot of
people who don’t want to take on a religious Jewish

A survey of Russian immigrants carried out by the
Tzomet Institute in 2003 showed that the primary
motive for conversion was not a religious one. For
these respondents, the religious motive was only half
as strong as the desire to integrate socially, and it
was barely stronger than nationalistic or familial

‘Sometimes it boils down to the fact that people just
don’t want to change their lifestyle,’ Levine says,
‘and conversion demands changes.’

Levine knows what it’s like to change. ‘In Ukraine,
other children in school would bother me for being
Jewish. They would say, ‘You Jewess! Go to Israel!”

Once she moved here, the shoe was on the other foot.
‘There were several girls in my school who were not
halachically Jewish. One particular student in class
really didn’t want to be here, in a Jewish country.
Every day in class, this student would draw a cross
next to her name on the attendance sheet. It bothered
me terribly. I said to myself, ‘There’s no place here
for people like this; they should go back to Russia.’

‘But now,’ says Levine, who became religious during
high school, ‘I’ve changed my approach. I deal with
lots of Russian immigrants who aren’t Jewish, but who
serve in combat units in the army, who want to stay
here, who want to marry. Why not help them?’

Ever since finishing high school, she has been helping
explain the ins and outs of Jewish life – first as
part of her National Service stint, then with the
Jewish Agency and now at Itim.

‘We deal with all kinds of people,’ she says, rattling
off a list of people who have approached the
organization – which does not run a conversion class
of its own – for help in navigating through the
conversion process.

‘There are also more than a few people who have
trouble producing all the necessary documents [from
their birth country, attesting to their Jewishness for
marriages, etc.]. Why not make an effort to resolve
their situation? We make calls to whomever we can, to
help them find whatever they can.’

Going out of one’s way, rather than telling the
potential convert, ‘It’s your problem,’ is a courtesy
that too few receive, Levine says.

‘There are those who, although they are open to it at
first, despair along the way to conversion,’ she
laments. ‘Personally, I think Israeli society – and
religious society in particular – does not do enough
to welcome prospective converts, to show them warmth
and compassion and to help them on their way to