Getting to Know Us….An interview with Rafi Poch

Thanks to volunteer Irv Cantor, we present this third installment of our new “Getting to Know Us” blog series, which began in December with an interview with Executive Director, David London. Watch this space for further articles acquainting you with the many members, employees, volunteers and donors who make AACI the place for English speakers in Israel.

 

Each of us brings our own perspective to any project. An airplane engineer was once asked what he thinks about when he sees a plane he designed flying overhead. His response was, “I think about five million parts flying in close formation.”

 

The same could be said of Rafi Poch’s point of view, as the Artistic Director for AACI’s  J – Town Playhouse theater program, when he thinks about any one of his productions. Delivering a production is a complicated and demanding management effort, coordinating separate streams of activity that must merge on opening night.

We hope this interview with Rafi gives you more insight and greater appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes.

Rafi Poch

 

 

Rafi, thank you for this opportunity to talk with you about the J-Town Playhouse and your work. For starters, can you describe how you came to Israel, and more specifically to AACI?

 

I came to Israel after high school, to go to yeshiva. I decided to stay for a second year, and then I decided to join the army, and then I thought, what the heck, and I made aliyah. I went to Bar Ilan and earned a Master’s in Jewish History, with a minor in Talmud. Nothing to do with theater. But I got bored, and I tried to open an archery club. But that didn’t work, so I tried to start a theater instead. I just thought that every nice, upstanding college should have a theater. So I started a theater at Bar Ilan, run by students and for the students. We paid for everything and did everything, and we had a great time with it. It lasted nine years and was called the Bar Ilan Acting Society. Through that work I started making contacts with other people in the English speaking theater community in Israel, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Raanana.

 

When I graduated, I was offered two jobs, one of which was to be come the Artistic Director of the theater at Merkaz Hamagshimim of Hadassah. I took that position and stayed there for about four years. It was a great space, a great location, working with the English community in Jerusalem. I was developing connections with all of the other theater companies in Jerusalem – there are currently seven – and it was a lot of fun. And then along cam Bernie Madoff’s impact on Hadassah, and they had to close Merkaz Hamagshimim around May in 2011. However, some of the projects created by Merkaz continued. One of them was one I created called Stage 1 English Theater Festival. The purpose was to get the different theater companies together to work together. It was hosted by the Beit Avi Chai cultural center. That project has continued until this past year, and may be taking on a new format.

 

Around that time, AACI was looking for someone to take over as Programming Coordinator, because the existing Coordinator was going on maternity leave. So I took the position for six months, with the understanding that the possibility of a theater company would be discussed at the end of that time period. I put together a proposal, including logistics, budget and so on, and it was accepted. We opened a theater department. The theater is called the J-Town Playhouse, under the auspices of AACI.

 

We focus on things that other theater companies can’t, because we have a specific location. What differentiates us from the other theater companies is that we have a space and an organization that oversees the theater. It allows us to do workshops, classes and one-off events. We can do smaller projects that other theaters cannot do, because they need big shows that sell three hundred tickets a night or else they go financially under. We can do shows that have smaller audiences, that don’t have to be the big, old classics. We can do more engaging ideas, more engaging topics, shows that are more specific to a time or place. And we can do shows that are more confrontational.

 

We have a small stage and can do small musicals. We’ve been doing about one each year. The rest of the time, we do straight plays. Each year we try to do one comedy, one classical, straight play, one Jewish-theme play, one musical, and one other play. Sometimes those categories overlap in one production. At the same time, we have classes on learning acting, learning improv, or other topics related to theater. And we have smaller events, like the 48 Hour Play Project once a year. Once a month we have a concert, and we just started a choir which we hope will continue and expand. We are also starting a new improv troupe.

 

How do you see your role in connection with all of these things going on?

 

The juggler, It takes a lot of energy and logistics and orchestration to make sure everything works. Not just on its own, but that it works with everything else at AACI. AACI is not just theater. There are many other programs and activities going on. The other hat I wear here is Program Coordinator. So I have to make sure the logistics work between the theater and the art show exhibit or the movie nights, for example.

 

I have been to some productions where you actually perform. Is it difficult to work that into your busy schedule?

 

It’s difficult. It’s difficult because my effective role in every performance is that I produce it, which means I am responsible for all of the behind the scenes logistics – getting people to do makeup, getting people to be stage managers, getting people for the box office, getting the budget together, making sure all of the props and costumes are there, all that stuff. At the same time, being in front of the director, having to memorize lines, having to put on the character, having to develop the character, like the other performers, it’s a lot of energy, and it is quite a challenge.

 

Are the other roles – stage manager, director for example – steady and unchanging from production to production? Or do they change? 

 

They change from production to production. We have people who like working with us that we like working with, who come back often. Many of them. We have Eryn London, who is directing her second show for us. We have Aliza Schoffman Land, who has stage managed four or five shows for us. Chani Loeb, who comes back all of the time. We have box office staff who come back again and again.

 

Are the performers the most changeable part of the productions?

 

There are usually three or four projects in production around the city at any one time, having seven theater companies here. So the actors go wherever there is a project of interest to them. We do have a lot of repeat performers, but we also have a lot of turnover. Usually, because of the intensity of how often we do performances, which is also different from most other theaters. Most other theaters work only one at a time, maybe two. We can work on two or three at a time. Because of that, we need a team for each one. An actor who is acting in one show in October will have a very difficult time acting in another show in December. They would have to be in rehearsal performances while the other show is going on. So someone in a production in October will more likely be in a show in January or March. The actors like the atmosphere here, and they like the quality of productions we do here.

 

Each theater has its own niche, its own focus. Some are more focused on wonderful sets and costumes and great music. We are focused on the quality of great acting.


How do you decide which shows to put on?

Most of the shows that happen here are done in-house. Also, there are shows that other theater companies will offer.

They will says they would like to perform a show at our location. These I look at, I judge. I see if the content is appropriate for our audience, if the quality of the production is good enough for our audience. If everything is okay, I take it to the directors of AACI and ask if this is something we want to do. If there are no strong objections, we will usually go with it.

 

That’s external. Internally, part of my job is to decide what shows we want to put on, to look for and find such shows. The main criterion is whether this will go well with our audience. There are other factors, such as content issues – is the content something the actors will enjoy while they are in it. I don’t want to do a show where the actors will be bored half the time. It won’t be challenging to them. I want to do shows that are challenging both to the audience and to the actors. And I want each show to be different than the others. And that’s a challenge. One of the things we don’t do here is we don’t build sets. We’ve done it once or twice, but we really don’t have the space to build or store sets. Personally, I think sets are the accoutrements of theater. I think theater is really about people acting, about people being in front, about people being on stage and walking and talking in front of someone watching. I am not alone in that theory. I am reading a book by a man named Peter Brook who says that exactly. You don’t need lights, you don’t need sound, you don’t need tech. You need actors telling a story. That’s how I decide the plays. If it’s a good story, I’ll do it.


I imagine you do not have a typical work day?

Every day is different. But every project is similar in what needs to happen. To get a production to go, the actors need to learn their lines, there have to be auditions. we need to get the directorial team in order – I’m not mentioning these in the right chronological order – we need to buy the costumes, male the props, create the set if there is one, we need to rehearse, we need to complete planning and cover all of the logistical things. That’s in addition to being responsible for all of the public relations work, the marketing, being the voice for AACI in social media, and doing that all at the same time as running other programs, answering phone calls, and resolving problems.

It sounds very challenging and very complex. Which of your skills contribute most to the success of the program?

The ability to multi-task is really important here. To be able to juggle. Being part of the team here at AACI is great, because other people may have your back and say “You forgot this, but I took are of it.” That will happen often, and I have done it for others. And there are lots and lots of details to take care of. You have to be okay with not taking care of them all today and leaving some for tomorrow. So another skill is patience.

What’s your biggest source of reward for doing all that you do?

 

Knowing that you had a job well done. At the end of the day, the show went off very well, the audience loved it, the cast loved it and had a great time. That’s the biggest sense of reward. Knowing you created a time, a moment, a place where people enjoyed themselves, where they were challenged, where they saw or absorbed something that made want to do it again. It could be a rehearsal, a show, a class, an activity, whatever it happens to be.

In a previous interview I had with David London, I quoted Lorne Michaels, producer of Saturday Night Live, who said the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready, it goes on because it’s 11:30. Have you every experienced that?

Yes, we have (laughing). I remember an instance last year when we doing Winter’s Tale, and on opening night the show was not ready to go on. And what was worse – and this happens sometimes – I had scheduled it very tightly in terms of other activities, including my own travel.  We decided to cancel the first two shows because it was not ready, and God helped us out with a huge snowstorm those two days. While I was gone, there were rehearsals, and when I returned we had our first show, and it was great.

There are three shows that I would call the most ambitious shows we have ever done. That was one of them. Why? Because I took a classic Shakespeare play and turned it into a musical, on my own. I took music form modern culture and added it where it fit the show. The audience liked it and thought it was cool Shakespeare. The other two shows were Rent, which I did not do here – the content was too raw for Jerusalem – and It’s Not You, Well Maybe It Is, a play which was challenging because I wrote it. It was the first show I had ever written. It was an incredible journey with the show, to see if the audience would like it, to see if it would fit or not fit. It ended up fitting immaculately well. I co-wrote it with Sura Shachnovitz, a person whom I deeply respect. It was a great experience and inspired me to write another show, which I am working on now, which deals with the military.

Are there over-arching challenges that cut across all of the shows?

 

The financial challenges that apply to AACI in general also apply here. The theater runs on its own budget and is judged on its own budget. We have to make enough to survive. Sadly, we don’t always hit those goals. It’s a chicken-and-egg challenge, because that challenge is based on the audiences we get – the theater lives or dies on ticket sales. It’s our main source of income. So we need to do shows that the audience will come and see. But we also need to do shows that the audience doesn’t know. So we have to do those shows in away that the audience will come and see them. We have to market it well, and we have to schedule it well. Scheduling is a big one, because with everything happening at AACI, we still have to schedule the first two shows that we know will not sell well until word of mouth gets around. And we have a break of a few days for word of mouth to do its thing, and then we schedule more shows. Thankfully, we’ve had a series of hits, and we have not had any shows where audiences said they didn’t like it.

In a number of productions I have seen in Israel, both from J-Town and other theaters, I have noticed Jewish content inserted into shows that did not have that content in their original versions. Is that a common practice?

I will answer you in two ways. Around the world, it is done regularly, and may not be Jewish in nature. It’s called playing to your audience. There are other theater companies that do it all the time, maybe even seven or eight times in one performance. I think it’s a little over the top. We do it once or twice, and sometimes the actors decide to do it themselves. We recently did the show The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged, and in that show at a specific point it says make a reference that your audience will get, relevant to your time or place or whatever. So some of the plays will have this opportunity built in. Most of the time, for us, they are not added in, unless the script specifically says so.

One of the things I did in preparing to talk with you was to take some quotes from people in the theater in order to ask  you to react or comment on them. So here is the first, from playwright David Ives, “Ultimately, one has to pity these poor souls who know every secret about writing, directing, designing, producing and acting but are stuck in those miserable day jobs writing reviews. Will somebody help them please?” How do you react to or use reviews?

Reviews really don’t happen here. I wish they would. They don’t happen in Jerusalem. There isn’t a culture of newspaper or web site reviews. Some big cities like New York have that, but not here. A review is done by someone who sees lots and lots of shows and compares the shows in the review. The write ups you see in the Jerusalem Post, for example, are not reviews. Those write ups are both better and worse than reviews. Reviews are written by professionals who know every little detail of what goes on into making a show happen. Write ups are sometimes written by interns who don’t have in-depth knowledge of theater. On the other hand, the intern  will often turn the write up into a personal interest story which increases readership and gives us greater publicity.

Here’s another quote, this time from Jim Henson of Muppet fame, who was in theater: “I was very interested in theater, mostly in stage design. I did a little bit of acting.” Can you talk a little about stage design?

We basically have size or space constraints, and we have budgetary constraints. We will always try to make the stage look different. It might be a completely plain stage, but we will use entrances and exits from both sides, or from the audience, or from curtains. Or it might be theater in the round. We use props, both large and small, to lend a certain feel. But we don’t do a great deal in the stage design aspect. We go for what is called the black box feel, a simple stage where the audience has to use their imagination. Stage design is the tool for getting the audience to feel they are really in that space, and it can be done from two extremes – to design every last detail of the setting, or to present a blank stage and rely on imagination.

Here is a quote from Christopher Meloni, known for his role as the tall detective on Law and Order: “The reason why I hate working in the theater is the tedium of memorization. But once that is done, you feast on this never ending meal. If you play it correctly, every night is fraught with very high stakes that are very difficult to find  in everyday life.” So I was wondering if you could comment on the actors you have worked with.  Do you see changes and growth in them, and how do they handle that kind of tension?

In community theater, you have varied levels of talent on stage. In a show you typically have actors who are all over the spectrum in talent. That’s what it means when you talk about community theater – we’re a community. And there’s something very nice about that. We don’t have performances every night. We have shows a few nights each week for a two or three week run. Broadway actors have to analyze and their nuances from night to night, which is very challenging. Here, an actor gets really comfortable with a role after about two weeks, when the production is almost ended. It’s more an issue of the adrenalin rush on opening night, followed by a letdown in the next performance, due to the lack of adrenalin, and then trying to build yourself back up to the level of opening night as the two or three weeks progress and you become more integrated into the character.

Many actors have really grown and developed through this theater. An interesting fact is that there is no English youth group in Israel. Many of the teenagers have found a community through the theater. About four or five years ago, we started doing one musical each year, for teens and by teens. It’s been a great success. Now the kids hang out with each other on Shabbat or other times. It spans the religious and secular spectra, and it is great.

One last quote, from the famous Stephen Sondheim: “All the best performers bring to their role something more, something different than what the author put on paper. That’s what makes theater live. That’s why it persists.” Given that idea, where do you see the program going in the future?

I think that quote applies to everyone in theater, not just the performers. If you don’t bring something of yourself into the job you do, then the result is something stodgy, perhaps with audiences that still come, but not happy audiences. What keeps the theater going, even if you’re not selling tickets, is a new vision, from the level of choosing a show – something new that the audience has not experienced – to the level of the director – finding the characters you see coming off that paper, not necessarily what the author saw. As I grow older and wiser,  I will not have a person who has been both a writer and director do both jobs in a single production. When I wrote my own show, I knew I was not going to be the director. We need more voices. We need the show to be universal and not have too much “me” of one person. The show has to apply to everyone.

You also have to bring new stuff to your theater, to continue to challenge your audience. “You didn’t like that last author? Here’s a new one. Give it a try.”

And with the actors, it’s the same thing. The actor comes in and says, “This is the character on paper, and this is who I am. How do I mesh the two?” The actors who don’t ask that, and who play four or five characters the same way, become very boring to the audience. That’s why you seek a balance of actors who can mesh and those who can’t. Or you bring in an entirely new cast, which is something I’ve done.

I’ve been very focused on doing specific projects and shows. One of my higher level goals is to see this theater become a home for creative people of all types. In about two minutes I have to go down the hall to a brand new children’s acting class. It’s anew thing, and I have high hopes for it. At the same time, I want to challenge audiences with new shows and new ideas. I want new people to join us to create their own challenging projects. One special goal is to have a new show introduced each year, written by someone in the comunity. We are still lacking playwrights. We have here a venue for new playwrights, and I hope to see it become a regular festure. Finally, I would like to see one building in Jerusalem dedicated to English theater. It would be home for the seven theater companies in Israel,  a place where they could come to enhance the English language culture in Jerusalem and all of Israel.

 

Rafi, thank you for this whirlwind interview. You are accomplishing remarkable things through AACI and your theater company. I hope readers are moved to both attend your productions and become active volunteers and participants in your work. 

The earlier interviews in this series can be viewed using these links:

 

https://aaciblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/getting-to-know-us-an-interview-with-donna-grushka/

 

https://aaciblog.wordpress.com/2013/12/22/getting-to-know-us-an-interview-with-david-london/

 

Chidlren’s Creative Drama Workshop:

 

http://www.aaci.org.il/articlenav.php?id=132#workshop

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel

with offices in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa

AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center

Pierre Koenig 37. Corner of Poalei Tzedek (across from the Hadar Mall), Talpiot, Jerusalem.

Buses 10, 21 and 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI.

Buses 71, 72, 74 and 75 stop at Tzomet HaBankim, a ten minute walk away.

Call 02 566 1181 for more information about programs and membership.

 

 

 

 

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Getting to Know Us … An Interview with David London

David London at opening of AACI-Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center – March 2010

by Irv Cantor, Volunteer

What is management all about? Lorne Michaels, the producer of Saturday Night Live, summarized it well when he said, “The show does not go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it’s 11:30.” Management makes sure commitments are met, expectations fulfilled. For David London, the commitment is not just on a brochure, it is in his heart. The following is a summary of an interview with David, in his office on November 25, 2013.

David, thank you for agreeing to this interview and for letting us give our blog readers a chance to get better acquainted with you.

For starters, how did you come to AACI? What were you doing beforehand?

I made aliyah with my family in 1991. Before then, I was the director for Young Judea in the southeastern United States. In those days, there was no such thing as having a job in Israel before you made aliyah, and people didn’t commute for work overseas while in Israel. My aliyah shaliach said you take the first job you can take, because they don’t really think you are here until you have a job. We moved to a merkaz klitah (absorption center), and in those days, there were barely pay phones, cell phones, and certainly no email.

Was aliyah something you and your wife had been thinking about for a while?

My wife and I had each spent our freshman year of college in Israel on separate programs. We did not know each other then, but we both loved Israel and wanted to come back.

When we eventually made aliyah, I went to ulpan, and my class was made up of all Ethiopians and me. So if I missed class, it was kind of obvious. I needed a job, a simple eight-to-four type of job. I saw a job advertised for AACI, the lowest level job, a kind of “gofer”. They liked my background and they hired me. I found a wonderful home at AACI, but to be honest, I could not afford to work there. I was offered a job at USY (United Synagogue Youth) to work for just six weeks in the summer. The pay was excellent and included a free plane ticket to America. So I approached AACI about leaving, and they proposed finding a replacement for the six week absence, but continuing at AACI for the rest of the time. And we were able to work that out. For the next two years I was given different coordinator roles. I used to joke that every time I wanted to leave they would promote me.

After some time, I became the National Program Coordinator. When AACI eliminated that position, I became the AACI Director in Haifa. Although we had a number of wonderful friends there, it was too city-ish for us and our kids. And that feeling also made us think about my leaving AACI. We moved to Beit Shemesh. When the Director positions in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem opened up, I decided to take the Tel Aviv position and was there for a number of years. Subsequently, I took on a co-administrator position for the entire organization in the National Office in Jerusalem.

In 1999, the Israeli economy was not doing well, and AACI was informed of a large cut in funding from the Jewish Agency. The high tech sector was doing well; I was offered a position at Intel, and I took it. They were specifically looking for people with no technical background. The idea was to bring in new thinking, to break out of the merubah (square) thinking typical of engineers. There were 14 of us, and we went through a six-month university-type training before being put in administrative positions. As good as the position and compensation were, I quickly realized it was not for me. I am a Zionist in my blood, in my DNA. I like helping the Jewish world. I was unhappy, but stayed there because of the poor economy, and I did some volunteering at AACI. Until one day in 2001, when I got a call from AACI about the Director position in Jerusalem. They thought I would not be interested, but I was very interested. I later became the Executive Director.

Let’s turn to something more current and more specific. Can you describe what a typical day is like for you?

A typical day for me usually starts in the office at 7:30. I boot up my computer and try to take advantage of that quiet time to plow through my email.

You know, in a global volunteer organization, you don’t work from eight to four. If you’re up at two in the morning, you will very likely find someone else immediately responding to your email or sending you messages.

My schedule is often filled with meetings, but I need to find time to do other work as well. Often meetings start the discussion about an issue, but it is the follow up work that resolves the matter. Most staff arrives around eight. Around 8:30 our front desk volunteers come in. They are lovely people, some of whom have been with us for over ten years. I always like to go out and say hello to the front desk volunteers.

A normal day ends around six.

Do you travel much? 

Executive Director of AACI

Executive Director of AACI

There are two levels – I try to visit the main branches at Netanya, Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv, but I would like to spend more time there. We can do much on the phone or by email, but it doesn’t replace being there.

I travel on some of the AACI tours. We are very proud of the AACI Kosher & Fun Travel program that we have developed. The program serves as a gateway to acquiring new members. Very often people come on the trip knowing little about AACI, but they make friends, have a great time, and learn about us on the trip and end up using our counseling services and enjoying our other programs after the trip.

I think there’s a different mentality when you are an Israeli or when Israel is in the center of your heart which people often say to me. Very often English speakers from the US, Britain Australia etc. join an AACI trip and see the power of this kind of mindset, that we’re all very proud about being Jewish and Israeli. That it is in our DNA; that it is not just going on a trip, it is going on a Zionistic trip. We don’t go around waving an Israeli flag, but we are proud of who we are, we have made a decision. And it is also wonderful because we are a heterogeneous group with various levels of religious observance. What ties us together is that we want to have a carefree travel experience with English-speakers as leaders, companions, and tour guides.

More generally, AACI is an excellent meeting ground for the religious and the secular and everything in between to come together. And I like that. Focusing on what we have in common is amazing. In Israel, where so much is categorized and separated, our goal is to bring people together and to look at a person as a human being.

What skill sets do you have that you value the most for your effectiveness in your job?

I strive to make meaningful connections with people. In my job, I have to talk to different people about different ongoing issues, I have to plan programs and sometimes accompany them. I think the modern world requires multi-tasking and this is one of my strengths.

Was there a specific event or experience over the last few months that was especially rewarding?

I’ve held many positions at AACI, but the one position I never held, and the one I really wanted to have, was to be an Aliyah and Klitah counselor. To have the opportunity to help someone who is going through a difficult period; that is what it is all about. Everything we are doing to help with klitah (absorption) and help olim feel at home is well and good, but to help with a specific problem “hands-on” is truly rewarding and something I do not get to do too often. Every now and then I get to help an individual, and when that happens, I cannot tell you how good I feel.

Is there any part of the job you would describe as fun?

It’s fun for me when I see projects or events come together successfully. When I participate on a trip, when the trip ends and people had a good time, then I can look back on the trip as having been fun. During the trip, before the event, the work is very hard. But when we achieve the success, then all the work transforms to having been fun.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The toughest part is the financial end. We are blessed to have access to an amazing amount of ingenuity, talent and hard work both from our staff and our fabulous volunteers. But ultimately, it takes money to keep the doors open and to continue to meet the needs of our members. It is always hard to ask for donations, but that is something we must continue to do, every day.

It is a very difficult financial world; it is hard to get donations. I am not always good at it, and it is a challenge to ask for personal donations, solicitations, trying to figure out what will inspire a person to involve themselves with AACI and open their wallet so that our programs continue to serve everyone because we care about everyone. We don’t run campaigns for specific causes or groups, which sometimes seem more attractive to sponsors. Our goals and programs are important to thousands of English speakers every day, and we have to deliver a strong message that will compel people to act.

Can you describe the mission of AACI, in just a few words?

AACI represents the interests of English-speakers in Israel, with a tremendous responsibility of representing our entire community, and being many things to many people. We are part of this great mission of bringing all Jews home to Israel. And we know that aliyah never stops! It’s not just about making aliyah; it is about making Israel our home! And that requires the ongoing support and friendship that AACI is famous for providing. It is crucial to help olim during those initial weeks, months and years, and yet still be here when circumstances change. Help, information and friendship can still be needed years later.

You said before that funding is one of your biggest challenges. How is AACI funded?

At one time we used to receive a million dollars from the Jewish Agency. Now we receive nothing from the Agency. We have a budget of about $1.2 or $1.3 million. We are not a large non-profit. We receive about ten percent of our income from donations. We receive about 50 percent from all of our programs, including our travel program. The rest comes from advertising and some special programs.

Let’s turn 180 degrees and get personal. What are your hobbies?

London family photo

I’ve always loved cars. I own only one car now, but I used to do some repairs on cars and love reading about them. It’s a tough topic for living in Israel – I have not owned a new car since making aliyah.

To be honest, I don’t have time to invest in a serious hobby. I have four children, the oldest was recently married. The oldest is 23 and the youngest 14. My involvement with my family is non-stop. What I really need to do is join a gym.

Let’s consider the path you did not take. If you could go back to school now, what would you study?

My wife says I am a frustrated social worker. I love boxing, and when I was young I did some amateur boxing. But I was too slow to go far with that. And I do not have a good voice, so being a rock and roll star was not a possibility (laughing).

I would like to turn from the past and look to the future. What broad goals do you have for AACI? What is your vision, five years from now, ten years?

We provide service to the English-speaking community, and I think we can be much more. The medical area is a whole area that we can address. I am very proud of taking on the Shira Pransky Project whose purpose is to provide information, at this stage; to translate all materials related to medical services. We have the potential to do much more than medical services, but we are focusing on that first because, we would all agree, people should not misunderstand their rights in such a critical area. The project is going to translate all information currently in Hebrew. Our community often does not know its rights. Even Israelis, who know Hebrew fluently, often do not know their rights and benefits. So a web site has been developed called Kol zchut (Rights) that has that information, all in one place.

I would like to return to the issue of a very divided Israel. Unfortunately, it even penetrates into chesed organizations that do not want to help people who are not like the people in the organization. By having a platform at AACI that services everyone, it enables people to come together. When I was working with Young Judea in the United States, we always talked about the idea of doogma eesheet (personal example). We wanted to set the example of people pushing together toward a common goal.

Let me give you an amazing example. AACI had a trip to Russia around the time when the changes in that country were coming to a close. There was no Chabad or kosher food in those days. People could bring their own food, eat the provided food or eat vegetarian. I was Director of the Jerusalem branch at the time that several of these trips took place. The Board received a complaint from a group of members threatening to resign because AACI was sponsoring non-kosher trips. The Board took a vote that demonstrated the compassion and empathy that we had for each other. All non-Orthodox Board members voted to cancel the trip. All Orthodox Board members voted to have the trip. I was sitting there in amazement. I was so impressed with the mutual respect shown and the ability to think and feel outside the usual boxed-in categories.

Glassman center frontage 270 tallLast question: What do you want your AACI legacy to be?

When I leave I want to be remembered for making AACI an interesting place and a welcoming place that accepts everyone. I will be proud of having brought us back from a financial crisis to a position of greater strength. Finally, the move from our old Jerusalem facility to our new one here, filled with bustling activity, has been a significant improvement. All of these things were done with the assistance of remarkable workers and volunteers. They turned visions into realities, and I am confident we will continue on this path in the future.

David, thank you for your time and for sharing so much with the AACI membership and all of our readers.

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in

Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel AvivBeer Sheva and Haifa.

AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center
Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall) Talpiot, Jerusalem
Buses # 10, 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.
(02) 566-1181 for more information about any programs or to register.

AACI Celebrates the Written Word

In honor of Shavuah Haoleh and Jewish Book Week

Thursday, November 21
15:00 – 19:00 Pre-Chanukah gift, Craft and Book Fair

19:00 Keynote Speaker Professor Moshe Arens
Professor Arens will speak on his oleh experiences and his book
Flags over the Warsaw Ghetto
Cost: 40 NIS/AACI members 25 NIS

Friday, November 22
9:00 – 12:30 Pre-Chanukah gift, Craft and Book Fair

Sunday, November 24
11:00 The Balancing Game; A Child Between Two Worlds, A Society Approaching War, with Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

13:30 Discussing Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, with Judith Oster
(AACI Classic Book Club)
14:45
The Art of Reading Poetry, with Judith Oster
Poetry is only made of words – but in very interesting combinations. We will ask “what can it mean?” and “how does it mean?”

16:00 A Tale of Two Avrahams: The Joy of Writing two time periods,
two styles, three countries with Dr. Avraham Avi-hai

18:00 “To Soar or Shatter: Poetry Up, Down, and Bittersweet” Rachel
Beitsch-Feldman

20:00 Poetry Slam

Monday, November 25
10:30 Readings from Binding Memories by Diane Greenberg, Relatives Once Removed by Brenda Herzberg, and I Want to Grow Backwards by Cassandra Melnik

11:30 “A Writer in Jerusalem” with Dvora Waysman

13:00 “Getting Your Name on the Spine of a Book: How to Write and be Published” with author David L. Young

15:00 10 Steps to Publishing a Paperback or Ebook for Free with
Marcia Goldlist

17:00 Dying to Tell the Story: How Journalists Behave in a Time of War with Ilene Prusher, author of Baghdad Fixer

Cost per day on Sunday and Monday/ poetry slam on Sunday and Monday: 30 NIS / AACI members 20 NIS

Throughout the week: Art Exhibit “Creative Beginnings – Recent Immigrant Artists”

All programs take place at:
AACI – Dr. Max & Gianna Glassman Family Center Tel 02-5661181

Exotic Jewish Communities – Part 2 – Ethiopian Jews

Thanks once again to Jack Cohen for his summary of this interesting lecture, part 2 of a series taking place in Netanya. Thanks also to Gabriella Licsko, our guest lecturer, who was kind enough to review Jack’s summary (and the previous one) and approve it.

Click here for part 1.

Thanks to guest poster, Jack Cohen from the Netanya branch of AACI. This is from his blog, Isblog.

This lecture series with Gabriella Licsko continues in Netanya with Exotic Jewry:  Communities and Lost Tribes on Nov 3, Nov 17 and Dec 8.

Call 09-8330950 or visit http://www.netanyaaaci.org.il/PDF_files/Lecture%20Series%20-Exotic%20Jewry%202013.pdf

Scroll down for information and details about upcoming lecture series in November, “Let’s Surf on the Map!” and in December, “Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of Colors” at the AACI – Max & Gianna Glassman Family Center in Jerusalem.

For her second lecture in the series on Exotic Jewish Communities, Gabrella Licsko spoke about the Ethiopian Jewish community.  There are about 120,000 Ethiopian Jews living in Israel and the largest concentration of them is in Netanya.  It is common to see them in our streets and working around the city.  But, the Ethiopian community has had a hard time adapting to Israel, perhaps more than most immigrant communities.

The origin of the Ethiopian Jews is shrouded in mystery.  The popular theory is that they are descended from the liaison between Kind David and the Queen of Sheba.  Sheba was not in Ethiopia itself but across the Red Sea in Yemen.  In biblical times and later it was a very verdant area often ruled by Queens.  The son of the Queen of Sheba was Menelek who is considered to be the founder of the royal line of Ethiopia descended from King David.  Much later they converted to Christianity.  Another theory is that the Ethiopian Jews are descended from the tribe of Dan.

Around the 15th century there is eyewitness testimony of a Jewish Kingdom in Ethiopia, and for several hundred years it was ruled by a Jewish dynasty.  But, wars between the Jewish and Christian kingdoms resulted in great destruction and finally the Christians won and reduced the Jews to penury.  Jews were only allowed to be farmers and petty artisans, they were driven out of the main cities and those who survived ended up in Gondar province in the north east and some in Tigre province.  They spoke Amharic, which is a southern semitic language, but their sacred texts were written in a special language called Geez, that only the priests (Kesim) could read.

Because of their remoteness and isolation from other Jewish communities, the Ethiopian Jews never developed Rabbinic Judaism, had no access to Ashkenazi and Sephardi texts and never celebrated Hanukkah, a later festival.  They do however celebrate a unique festival of Sigd, 50 days after Yom Kippur, when they pray as a community to be returned to Israel.  This day is now a holiday for them celebrated in Israel.

During the 18-19th century things became worse for the remaining Jews who were named Falasha, a derogatory term.  Many were forcibly converted to Christianity, forming a group called Falash Mura, or “impure people.”  The relationship between the Jews and the Falash Mura is complex, some Jews regarding them as brothers, and others looking down on them as traitors.

By the 19th century their numbers had declined drastically because of a general famine in Ethiopia and attempts were made to help them.  In the 1920s Rav Kook, Chief Rabbi of Palestine, wanted to arrange their aliyah, but unfortunately it did not happen then.  Later several individuals, mostly the educated children of senior Kesim, managed to reach Palestine and then Israel.  But, the very poor majority continued subsistence farming in Gondar through civil wars and political strife under Haile Selassi and the Marxist dictator Mengistu, both of whom would not allow them to leave.  In 1974 Rav Ovadia Yosef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, agreed to accept them as Jews and this helped their aliyah, even though many Haredi Rabbis refused to accept them as Jews and still do.  In the 1980s many of them trekked across the desert to Sudan, although thousands died on the way.   In 1984 they were spirited out of Sudan secretly to Israel in operations Moses and King Solomon by El Al and with the help of the US.  But, eventually this route was closed and it only became possible for the rest to leave once the regime changed and wanted greater contact with the US.

Due to controversy about whether or not they are truly Jews there were bureaucratic hold-ups in their transfer to Israel and their acceptance under the “law of return.”  Finally most senior rabbis accepted them as Jews, allowing the Ministry of the Interior to recognize them.  The Falash Mura immigrated more recently and were also accepted, but they are required to convert.

Since they came from almost a stone-age background, they had no idea what things such as planes, toilets, elevators and TVs were.  Not only was it difficult for them to adapt to modern life in Israel, but they had to learn Hebrew and often how to read and write.  Also, since the men had been farmers there was not much they could do in Israel and often the wives, who were younger and more adaptable, became the bread winners, thus undermining their traditional family structure.   But, we should point out that this year’s Miss Israel is an Ethiopian girl from Netanya named Titi and there are now Ethiopian MKs and even one Ambassador.  The Ethiopian Jews are still adapting to Israel, and prejudice against them is gradually fading and in several generations it will probably be difficult to remember how hard it was for them to be absorbed here.

Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities.  She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of  AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program.  Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities. She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program. Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

UPCOMING LECTURE SERIES WITH SCHOLAR GABRIELLA LICSKO IN NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER

November:  Let’s Surf on the Map!

Join us for a new series about the Land of Israel, about the geography and society:  get to know the amazing geographic, social and cultural diversity of this Land, explore holy cities and the secular ones

 When:

Wednesday, November 6th at 14:00

The four holy cities: Hebron, Jerusalem, Tzfat and Tveria; past, present and future.

Wednesday, November 13th at 14:00

”If you want to be a mayor, go and build for yourself a city” Meir Dizengoff. Tel-Aviv and the center of Israel

Wednesday, November 20th at 14:00

“The South and the North will rise again! But how and when?”

Wednesday, November 27th at 15:30

Yehuda and Shomron and a crash course on Kibbutzim, Moshavim, Yishuvim, development towns and planned cities.

Cost of series:  170 NIS / AACI members 150 NIS (Individual lectures 50 NIS each) Pre-registration with payment required.

_______________________________________________________________

December:  “Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of Colors”

Get to know more about the capital of the State of Israel.  Learn about the neighborhoods, both old and new, their history and society, the culture and population of different areas, the famous residents, institutions, schools and synagogues, social and demographical changes, real estate prices and new projects in town.

When: 

Wednesday, December 4th at 14:00

The OldCity, Yemin Moshe-Miskenot Sheananim, Musrara, Kfar David.

 Wednesday, December 11th at 14:00

Meah Shearim: Learn how a relatively modern religious neighborhood established by Polish and Lithuanian Jews in 1874, turned to be the symbol of extreme ultra-orthodoxy and anti-Zionism.

Wednesday, December 18th at 14:00

The most popular areas and neighborhoods in the city and the “Anglo colonies”

Wednesday, December 25th at 14:00

Lesser known and less central neighborhoods, their population changes and potentials, and Jerusalem real estate in the past and now.

Cost of series:  170 NIS / AACI members 150 NIS (Individual lectures 50 NIS each) Pre-registration with payment required.

 Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities.  She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of  AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program.  Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa.
AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall) Talpiot, Jerusalem
Buses # 10, 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.
(02) 566-1181 for more information about any programs or to register.

Exotic Jewish Communities – Part 1 – Yemenite Jews

Thanks to guest poster, Jack Cohen from the Netanya branch of AACI. This is from his blog, Isblog.

This lecture series with Gabriella Licsko continues in Netanya with Exotic Jewry:  Communities and Lost Tribes on Nov 3, Nov 17 and Dec 8.

Call 09-8330950 or visit http://www.netanyaaaci.org.il/PDF_files/Lecture%20Series%20-Exotic%20Jewry%202013.pdf

Scroll down for information and details about upcoming lecture series in November, “Let’s Surf on the Map!” and in December, “Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of Colors” at the AACI – Max & Gianna Glassman Family Center in Jerusalem.

http://www.commentfromisraelblog.blogspot.co.il/2013_10_01_archive.html – FRIDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2013

Yemenites

We went to the first of a series of lectures on “Exotic Jewish communities” given by Gabriella Licsko at Netanya AACI. Gabriella is a Hungarian Jewish immigrant to Israel who specializes in Jewish cultural phenomena. She gave a series of lectures last year on the various Orthodox Jewish sects in Israel, which were so popular that we invited her back. The current series started with a description of the Yemenite Jewish Community, that includes not only the true Yemenites, but also the Habbani and Adeni communities.

The Yemeni Jews are a very ancient and separate grouping, not included under the Ashkenazi (Yiddish) or Sephardi (Spanish) main Jewish rites. They developed largely in isolation and their distinct attribute was to largely follow the teachings of the Rambam (Moses Maimonides), who came from Cordova, Spain and resided in Cairo (1168-1204). He wrote a famous letter to the Yemeni community, in answer to the question, if a Jew is threatened by death unless he converts to Islam, should he choose to convert or accept death? He wrote that it is preferable to convert, because first one can secretly continue to believe and practice Judaism (as many conversos did in Spain) and second there may come a time when the forced convert can revert back to his original path (as the Rambam once did). He also advised that conversion to Islam was preferable to conversion to Christianity, because Islam is determinedly monotheistic while Christianity requires belief in a “trinity.”

The reason the Yemenite Jews would ask such a question is because they lived under a terribly oppressive Muslim regime. Although they had developed a strong community during the pre-Muslim period, once Islam arrived in Yemen they were very badly treated. It was common for Jews to be abused in broad daylight on the street and Jewish women stayed mainly in their houses and only went out dressed as Muslims. But, many Jewish communities experienced harsh treatment, what made the Yemenite experience worse was the co-called “Orphan decree.” Under this, if any Jewish child was orphaned then they were automatically required to be converted to Islam. To avoid this fate many children were either betrothed and/or married at very young ages, something for which the Yemenite community is known, but the origin of this custom is not well known.

The Yemenites wore characteristic oriental-style clothes, the men with long peyot and were not allowed to wear turbans or wear swords or any protective weapons or ride horses, only donkeys. The women wore black clothes with a pointed cape on their head. They were not allowed to be farmers or engage in agriculture, so they became silversmiths, pot- and earthen-ware makers and shop-keepers. Ironically when they arrived in Israel in large numbers in the 1950s they were channeled by the Israeli authorities into agriculture. Because of their persecution the Yemenites developed Zionism independently and started arriving in Palestine in the 1880’s. The area of Tel Aviv called Keren Hateymanim became a Yemenite enclave, and later many settled in Rosh Ha’ayin, and Rehovot and vicinity. They were famously brought to Israel on Operation Magic Carpet in 1949-50 when many of them had never seen an airplane before. There are estimated to be now ca. 350,000 Yemenite Jewish descendants in Israel.

Yemenite Jews en route to Israel from Aden, Yemen - from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Magic_Carpet_(Yemen)

Yemenite Jews en route to Israel from Aden, Yemen – from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Magic_Carpet_(Yemen)

The Yemenites were not homogeneous, they divided into at least three major religious groups, there was a group who were influenced by Sephardic rites and mysticism called Shami, and those who were not influenced in this way were called Baladi (from the Arabic for “home country”). The offshoot of the Baladi were the Rambamistim and the Dordaim both of whom advocated a more “rational” version of Judaism and mostly rejected Sephardi mysticiswm.

A distinct smaller group from the area of Yemen called Habban are the Habbani Jews, who although nominally Yemenite Jews, were quite different. Many years ago they developed a military tradition, and wore their hair long, wore turbans, rode horses and were much feared by the local Arab tribes, who tended to avoid them. They were called “wild Indians” by the Israelis who rescued them. By contrast to most Yemenite Jews who were not strongly builtt, the Habbanis were tall and muscular. However, there were only several thousand of them, and they settled together in Moshav Bareket near Ben Gurion airport and became wealthy, since they owned the land on which Airport City was built.

Finally, the Adeni Jews were also quite distinct, due mainly to the fact that the British conquered Aden in 1839 and treated the Jews there very well, recognizing that they were loyal to the British Crown and were excellent traders, just what the port city needed. Although they descended from the same Jews as the Yemenites, they did not consider themselves Yemenite Jews and greatly intermarried with Iraqi and Indian Jews. They spoke English, were quite wealthy, adopted British dress and customs (including afternoon tea) and even before the Brithish withdrew from Aden in 1963 they mostly went to Stamford Hill, London, although there is a small group living in Israel in Tel Aviv. The persistence of these groups of formerly Diaspora Jews in Israel is a testimony to the strength of ethnic customs and practices.

Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities.  She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of  AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program.  Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities. She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program. Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

UPCOMING LECTURE SERIES WITH SCHOLAR GABRIELLA LICSKO IN NOVEMBER AND DECEMBER

November:  Let’s Surf on the Map!

Join us for a new series about the Land of Israel, about the geography and society:  get to know the amazing geographic, social and cultural diversity of this Land, explore holy cities and the secular ones

 When:

Wednesday, November 6th at 14:00

The four holy cities: Hebron, Jerusalem, Tzfat and Tveria; past, present and future.

Wednesday, November 13th at 14:00

”If you want to be a mayor, go and build for yourself a city” Meir Dizengoff. Tel-Aviv and the center of Israel

Wednesday, November 20th at 14:00

“The South and the North will rise again! But how and when?”

Wednesday, November 27th at 15:30

Yehuda and Shomron and a crash course on Kibbutzim, Moshavim, Yishuvim, development towns and planned cities.

Cost of series:  170 NIS / AACI members 150 NIS (Individual lectures 50 NIS each) Pre-registration with payment required.

_______________________________________________________________

December:  “Jerusalem of Gold, Jerusalem of Colors”

Get to know more about the capital of the State of Israel.  Learn about the neighborhoods, both old and new, their history and society, the culture and population of different areas, the famous residents, institutions, schools and synagogues, social and demographical changes, real estate prices and new projects in town.

When: 

Wednesday, December 4th at 14:00

The OldCity, Yemin Moshe-Miskenot Sheananim, Musrara, Kfar David.

 Wednesday, December 11th at 14:00

Meah Shearim: Learn how a relatively modern religious neighborhood established by Polish and Lithuanian Jews in 1874, turned to be the symbol of extreme ultra-orthodoxy and anti-Zionism.

Wednesday, December 18th at 14:00

The most popular areas and neighborhoods in the city and the “Anglo colonies”

Wednesday, December 25th at 14:00

Lesser known and less central neighborhoods, their population changes and potentials, and Jerusalem real estate in the past and now.

Cost of series:  170 NIS / AACI members 150 NIS (Individual lectures 50 NIS each) Pre-registration with payment required.

 Gabriella Licsko is a lecturer on Jewish history and society focusing on different religious communities.  She leads tours of different neighborhoods in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and across the country, and is one of  AACI’s Scholar in Residence for our travel program.  Gabriella holds a bachelor’s degree in Culture Studies and a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and made aliyah from Hungary in 2007.

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa.
AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall) Talpiot, Jerusalem
Buses # 10, 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.
(02) 566-1181 for more information about any programs or to register.

Live from Jerusalem! It’s Avraham Avinu!

So by now, if you are a member of AACI, you have received a letter in the mail. And if you receive our free enewsletter, or if you are like us on facebook, or follow us on twitter, then you may know that Avraham Avinu was recently sighted in our Jerusalem office in Talpiot.

Here are some highlights of his visit.

Please like and share the video. And of course, you can donate by clicking here.

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa.
AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall) Talpiot, Jerusalem
Buses # 10, 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.
(02) 566-1181 for more information about any programs or to register.

AACI Annual Memorial Ceremony October 14, 2013

Please join us on Monday, October 14, 2013, for the AACI Annual Memorial Ceremony on this, the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.

We are honored to welcome this year’s keynote speaker, Nobel Laureate, Prof. Yisrael Aumann, father of Shlomo z’l who was a tank gunner killed in 1982 in the war in Lebanon.

Here is a video clip from last year’s ceremony.

This is the first year in a long time that we are blessed to have no NEW names to add to the Memorial Wall. May this be a tradition that we can get used to in years to come.

for more information about this year’s ceremony, or to reserve space on a bus from Jerusalem to the Sha’ar Hagai Memorial site, call 02-566-1181

Click here for more details.

Click here to support the AACI Memorial Program

AACI is the home for English Speakers in Israel with offices in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Beer Sheva and Haifa.
AACI Jerusalem – Dr. Max and Gianna Glassman Family Center Pierre Koenig 37, corner of Poalei Tzedek 2 (across from Hadar Mall) Talpiot, Jerusalem
Buses # 10, 21 & 49 stop on Pierre Koenig across from AACI; 71, 72, 74 & 75 stop at Tzomet Habankim, a 10-minute walk away.
(02) 566-1181 for more information about any programs or to register.