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.

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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.

Cruise of Dreams – The Mediterranean, May/June 2013

With thanks to Irv Cantor, AACI member, volunteer and traveler, who wrote this guest post.

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There is something about the power and elegance of a ship when you stand by its side at port.

The Golden Iris seemed to rest in pride and confidence, asking us to come on board, hinting at the wonders it would show us. The sun was brilliant, the sky an uninterrupted blue, as we humbly scurried around taking care of luggage and check in.

There is something about leaving the port, watching the thick ropes gathered, and hearing the ship announce its departure. The land recedes, as if we are not the ones moving. Buildings and buses shrink and the blue water surrounds us.

Our first day was spent at sea, and it gave us time to become familiar with the general schedule and the ship’s decks and layout. The staff were wonderfully friendly and obliging. The minyanim gave structure to the day. And the meals were our first opportunity to meet the other travelers in our group and to get to know them. The kosher food was generous and delicious.

We wore AACI name tags around our necks. At first it seemed a little strange, but it soon became obvious that  being an AACI member  was a passport to special treatment.  Requests were filled more quickly, with greater concern and attention. There was a specially scheduled stage show for our entertainment. The Captain’s dinner focused on the unique relationship with AACI over many years.  Every evening we anticipated the printed AACI schedule for the next day – what unique activities and opportunities would be available to us, and only us.

Our visit to Chania, in Crete, showed us the beauty and history of this town. At the Etz Hayyim synagogue, a centuries-old house of worship, we listened to a young man describe the remarkable dedication and devotion of the small group that maintains the shul’s legacy.

The next day we toured Kefalonia, an island of Greece that shows evidence of settlements going  back thousands of years. The peaceful grounds of the Gerasimos Monastery, with its beautiful flowers, gave time for slow walks and contemplation. We went to the town of Melisani and paddled through Blue Cavern, so impressed by the sunlight’s ability to pierce through the stone and make the waters glow.

After a day at sea, we came to Sardinia. and seemed to enter another world as we drove along Costa Smeralda. The changing hues of the ocean and the stunning villas seemed endless. The walk through Porto Cervo highlighted homes of the famous and powerful. We came back down to earth, but not too far, as we shopped in a maze of exclusive shops from the world’s most well- known  designers.

We returned to the ship with plenty of time to prepare for Shabbat. With the help of Rabbi Karzen, we enjoyed inspirational prayer services, words of Torah,  and energetic Shabbat songs at our meals.

We arrived at Barcelona on Saturday night, and took a short but special tour of the city. It was the perfect preparation for the full Sunday tour. On Sunday, we began with a trip through the new part of the city, seeing its modern structures. The sparkling cleanliness of the streets and design of public squares was unforgettable. The remainder of the day was dedicated to the historic sections of Barcelona.

The contrast of the modern open areas with the almost claustrophobic synagogue in Barcelona will forever remain in our minds. Like a small hidden treasure, the synagogue was lost for almost half a millennium and then rediscovered and refurbished. We then moved on to the world of Gaudi, marveling at his Battlo House, then to the incredibly complicated and overwhelming Sagrada Familia church, and finally  the Park Guell with its long ceramic bench and magnificent panorama of the city.

The next day we arrived at Palma De Majorca. Alleyway-type streets seemed to take us back in time. We visited the Beliver Castle, a unique, circular gothic structure.  That was followed by an interesting museum about pearls, with the opportunity to purchase a variety of pearl jewelry.

We ended with a visit to La Seu, the gothic-style cathedral.

After a day at sea, we arrived at Malta, driving through Valetta, it’s capital city, and reaching a remarkable high point with a panoramic view of the harbor.  From there we walked through the streets of the city passing by palaces built by countries of origin for the knights who protected the island. We ended the walking tour with the Grand Master’s Palace, with its impressive collection of  countless old weapons and armor. We moved on to the Valetta Glass Factory, where we had the opportunity to buy one-of-kind glass creations. Finally, we visited Mdina Old City, perched on a plateau, a perfect example of an ancient walled city. The sound of our echoing footsteps still remains with us, as do the views down winding pathways and  impressive views from the bastions.

Our last stop was highly anticipated – the island of Santorini. Our bus climbed a narrow road to the top of a mountain for an astounding perspective of the island and the beautiful ocean around it.

We visited the village of Pyrgos and then the city of Fira.  Our reluctant goodbye was done by cable car, descending the mountain to the port, for our return to the ship.

One more day at sea and we returned to Israel with newly found friends, hundreds of digital images, and memories that had changed and enriched us. Our resident historian, Gabriella, brought the past alive with on-ship lectures, and made each tour more meaningful. Buildings had spoken to us without words. Panoramic views had served as snapshots in a story stretching from long ago to the current day.  The shopping allowed us to acquire things we could take home — to pick up,  touch and feel when memories would not be  not enough.

Between ports, the sky and water touched at the horizon. We lay on deck lounge chairs, absorbing the sun’s warmth, and forgetting we were anywhere in particular. It was easy to fall into a nap, with mixed dreams of home and the places we had been.

Future AACI Kosher and Friendly tours include Russia in July, 4 Night Cruise in August, Italy in September, China in October and Southern Spain in November.

For complete information call 02-566-1181 or check out our website (straight to travel information

AACI Trip to Portugal part 2

Once more, thanks to Jack Cohen as roving reporter, for sharing the interesting details of his recent trip to Portugal with the AACI. This is Part Two.

Click Here to view Part One

Sunday we drove north-east from Lisbon, arriving at the small town of Castelo de Vida (Castle of vines) around noon.  The main reason for visiting this town is that it has a recognized and partially restored synagogue.  We were met by the former Mayor Mr, Carolino, who was the Mayor during the revolution of 1974.

He was able to trace his family origins back to 1320 from Toledo in Spain. The family business was metal working and they continued that in Castelo de Vida, and he showed us their working shop with some original tools. Because he was the Mayor and because he was a Bnei Anusim he bought and renovated a small partly hidden synagogue in the Juderia, which he took us to see.  Where the Juderia starts there are Magen David in the stone pavements.  The synagogue is a small museum and has a memorial wall with the names of 400 Converso Jews who were taken from there and murdered by the Inquisition in Lisbon.

After lunch we drove further towards the Spanish border and at a place called Portagem there is an intact Roman bridge over the river Sever that separated Portugal from Spain. Next to it is a Roman tower that used to be the customs post in the 15th century.  It was here that a large portion of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492 paid to cross into Portugal.  Altogether there were ca 100 – 200,000 Jews who entered Portugal and because there were so many of them they were distributed around all the towns and villages in the region.  The total population of Portugal was then only ca. 1 million so the Jews were a large and influential group. On the wall of the tower was a plaque commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Jews expulsion from Spain.

We then drove to the highest point locally at Marvao where there is a small village adjacent to a huge Moorish castle.  The name of the Moorish General was Marwan, so it is named after him, and he had his headquarters there with a magnificent view over this area of Portugal.
From there we drove to Trancoso where we are staying while we visit the Jewish areas there and in nearby Belmonte.  At dinner we were addressed by Jose (Yosef) Levy Domingos, a journalist by profession, but a leader of the Jewish community in Belmonte and by the local Rabbi Elisha Salas, who originally came from Chile and is now an emissary of Shavei Israel to the Crypto-Jews.

The visit to Trancoso and Belmonte represents the core of our reason to be in Portugal and our interest in the Secret Jews.  We drove about an hour from Trancoso to Belmonte, where we were met by Yosef.  He took us on a walking tour of the extensive Jewish quarter (Juderia) and pointed out specific items of interest.  For example, it was always known where the Juderia started and now there is a magen David in the pavement to indicate the location.  He showed us crosses carved into the stone lintels to show where the Inquisition had confiscated Jewish houses.  Then he took us to the impressive new synagogue Beit Eliahu that he was involved in planning and building in 1996.  It has 32 families (300 members) that have returned to Judaism, and there are many more who retain their secret Jewish status even today.

It is estimated that ca. 40,000 New Christians (Secret Jews) were murdered by the Inquisition from 1536 – 1821, when it was finally abolished.  Of those, about 1,200 were burnt in autos da fe, mostly in Lisbon and Evora.  But, even after the Inquisition the Secret Jews were not safe.  During the 48 years of the Salazar dictatorship no Jewish practices were allowed in Portugal.  It was only after the 1974 revolution that religious practises other than Catholicism were allowed.  Still even today many Bnei Anusim will not openly declare that they are Jewish, but many will confess this confidentially. It is impossible to estimate the actual number of Secret Jews.

Returning to Trancoso we were taken on a tour of the extensive Juderia.  Here the houses are made of stone and all are grey.  The Jews, to show that they were converses, carved crosses on the lintels, but they modified the crosses with the letter shin at the ends and also added menoroth.   It was required that conversos move out of the Juderia and be replaced by Old Christians so that the conversos would be removed from Judaic influences.  It was a capital offense to “Judaize”, i.e. say or do anything about Judaism, including having Hebrew books.  Since the practice of Judaism was publicly banned and there were no Jewish institutions, the secret practise of Judaism continued underground, in the home.  This explains why so many of the victims of the Inquisition were women.
Yosef took us to the new modern Jewish Center that they have built there that is not yet officially opened.  He told us that although they have support from the local municipality, a priest complained to him that the JC was built too close to a church.  He replied that they built the Church on land confiscated from Jews, who they killed.  But, in general there is strong support for the return of Jewish worship and symbols as well as the open return of the Jews themselves.

watch this space for part 3 of 3 about the Portugal trip… click here for part one

here is a link to Jack’s blog.

The AACI is your place for Kosher and Friendly travel. Always staffed by AACI personnel to insure your worry-free trip.Click here for upcoming trips.


AACI Trip to Portugal part 3

Once more, thanks to Jack Cohen as roving reporter, for sharing the interesting details of his recent trip to Portugal with the AACI. This is Part Three.

Click Here to view Part One   —   Click Here to view Part Two

Today we drove further north, stopping at two pleasant towns on the way to Coimbra.  Coimbra is not the third largest city in Portugal, but it is one of the most important culturally. It was the original capital when the Portuguese state was founded in 1180.  When the capital passed to Lisbon, Coimbra eventually retained the university, which is one of the oldest in Europe.  It was based on the Palace of the King in Coimbra, but greatly enlarged upon.

We were driven around the city with a guide and then visited the famous university.  We went to the university archive where the deputy director showed us the only mss (manuscripts) they retain from the Inquisition.  It was surprising that they only had 6 mss from that period, but he explained that all the Inquisition trial transcripts from around the country are collected in Lisbon.

From there we visited the magnificent baroque library dating from the mid 17th century.  It was very highly decorated in gold leaf and has 30,000 books on view all dating before 1750.  We were very lucky that Michael managed to arrange for the Director of the library to actually bring their most valuable book over for us to see, the so called “Abrabanel Bible.”   This has the complete Torah written on parchment by hand and dates from the 15th century.  He said it was by far their most valuable book.

We were impressed by Coimbra and the university and the cooperation of the archivist, who said that he might be of Jewish origin.  We stayed overnight in the huge magnificent old Curia Palace hotel.

We left the Curia Palace hotel near Coimbra and drove for about an hour to Tomar, a small city of ca. 20,000 inhabitants.  There the main attraction for us was the synagogue, the oldest one surviving in Portugal.  It was built before the edict of expulsion in Portugal in 1496 and survived, none were built after that until modern times.

It was rediscovered in the 1920s by the Polish Jewish engineer Shmuel Schwartz who pioneered studies of the Marranos (Bnei Anusim) in Portugal.  He cleared up the place after it had been used as a store room and bought it.  Then he restored it and donated it to the Portuguese State on condition that it be kept open as a museum or working synagogue. They estimate that there were perhaps 150 Jews in the town when it was built, but now there are only a few Jewish families left in Tomar.  The Synagogue, which originally had a secret door, now has a front door and is open to the public.  It has four high stone columns and a vaulted ceiling.  We were given an explanation by a member of the tourism office in Tomar and the lady who looks after the synagogue, who wore a large gold Magen David and has Jewish ancestry.

We then had our lunch in a nearby park and drove to Obeidos, a beautiful medieval town surrounded by a castle that has nothing Jewish about it, but was lovely to visit and had many shops for tourists.

Then we drove back a few hours to Lisbon. We had our last supper in the Jewish community hall and there were speeches and mock awards, some jokes and some singing.  We all had a great time, and it was very informative and educational. Michael and Miriam did an excellent job in organizing and running the tour and the driver was also excellent.  We are returning home to Israel with a lot to remember and think about.

Watch this space more information about other AACI Kosher and Fun trips…

here is a link to Jack’s blog.

The AACI is your place for Kosher and Friendly travel. Always staffed by AACI personnel to insure your worry-free trip. Click here for upcoming trips. Call us in Jerusalem at 02-566-1181.

AACI Trip to Portugal part one

Special thanks to guest blogger, Jack Cohen who experienced this wonderful trip first hand and was kind enough to share his experience.

This is the first part of three installments. stay tuned for the next installment.

And watch for photos to come (I hope)

Our first day on the trip to Portugal was exhausting.  We flew overnight with a stop-over in Brussels, since there is no direct flight from Israel to Lisbon.  In the early morning we took a coach tour of Brussels and we saw some of the many grandiose buildings that King Leopold II had built. He had a huge personal fortune because he personally owned the Belgian Congo in Africa, and exploited the natives to produce rubber (for details see “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild).  Then we hopped back aboard a plane and flew 2.5 hrs to Lisbon.

Our intrepid guide Michael Tuchfeld met us at the airport and we went off in our shiny coach.  We had a tour of Lisbon with our Portuguese guide and it is very beautiful, quite hilly and varied.  Although Lisbon had been settled by the Romans, who called it Lusitania, most of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1775, so very little remains that is earlier.  We saw the medieval monument called the Belem Tower (Belem is derived from Bethlehem) and the relatively modern monument to the Portuguese discoveries of the world (from Brazil to Japan).  We went to the district of Alfama that used to include a Jewish quarter and we saw the street still called the Juderia.  There had been three Jewish quarters in Lisbon but nothing remains.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, about one third of those who left went to Portugal.  After King Manual I ascended to the throne he decided to keep the Jews but get rid of their Jewish identity, so he forbade the practise of Judaism and had the Jews forcibly converted, but he gave them a grace period of 20 years during which they would not be investigated.  In 1496 he wished his son to marry the daughter of the Catholic King of Spain, but they made a requirement that all Jews be expelled from Portugal.   Even though he issued an edict of expulsion, instead he forcibly converted those who remained practising Jews.  However, in 1506 there was a massacre of Jews in Russio Square in Lisbon, about 2,500 were murdered in the square outside one of the main Churches.  According to the history books, King Manuel did not intend this to happen so he arrested the perpetrators. We went to see the memorial stone with a Magen David carved into it that commemorates the massacre and nearby an inscribed apology from the Church.

While we were there, Michael told us that we were not ordinary tourists, like Japanese or Italians, but as Jews we had a particular connection to that spot and that history.  While we were gathered around this memorial some passers-by stopped to hear what was being said.  One man afterwards spoke to us and told us that his father had been Jewish but his mother was Catholic and although he was brought up Christian he thought of himself as partly Jewish and he said he liked Israel and said “shalom” to us when he left.   This was a very nice gesture.

On several occasions we were told that there is no anti-Semitism in Portugal.  There are no anti-Semitic parties like in Hungary or Greece and there are no groups of fascist thugs as there are in Britain and Germany. Indeed estimates of the proportion of Portuguese with Jewish antecedents vary from 20% to 50%.  We then climbed back aboard the bus and went to the venue where the Jewish community had arranged kosher meals for us during our stay in Lisbon and then finally after eating to the hotel Altis and a much needed sleep.

Day 2 and we drove to Evora about an hour’s drive from Lisbon.  On the way there we saw cork trees growing, for which Portugal is famous.  Evora is a beautiful old town that had an important role in Jewish history in Portugal.  In the 15th century it had the largest Jewish population in Portugal (ca. 4,000) and had a large Juderia.  Since the King liked to vacation in the town he was glad to have his many Jewish assistants live there. That was until he decided to force the Jews to give up Judaism and convert to Christianity.

The King’s brother became the Head of the Inquisition in Evora and was especially cruel in mistreating the conversos, Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity. Passing the Roman remains we went to the main town square, Giraldo Square, where the headquarters of the Inquisition had been and where they burned the Jews at the auto-da-fe, where Jews were given the last chance to recant or be burnt alive. We sat there and ate our lunch, strange feeling, everything around was normal.  Both the Jewish victims and the hateful perpetrators would not have believed this outcome.

We then visited the town library that had been a private scholarly library founded several hundred years ago.  In their vault they had an original volume of a book published in 1496 by Abraham Zacuto who was an advisor to the King and a famous mathematician.  He compiled tables of data that enabled many navigators to successfully expand the Portuguese empire.  But, even he had to flee to avoid forced conversion.  He escaped to N. Africa and then to Holland.  It was a privilege for us to see this original book, usually kept in a safe.

We returned to Lisbon and that night we went out to hear Fado music, the authentic voice of Portuguese culture, in an area known as the Bairro Alto.

Today we drove west from Lisbon to the farthest western point in continental Europe.  En route we stopped in the beautiful little city of Sintra, where we toured the former Royal Palace that was a vacation home to many Portuguese Kings.  On the very top of the hill, which we didn’t visit was the Moorish Castle from which the Arabs controlled the area for 300 years.

Then we drove to Cabo Roca (Rocky Cape) where many of the adventurous sailors went to pray as they stared across the Atlantic Ocean into the unknown.  It is a very remote and wild area with very high cliffs.  But driving a little along the coast from there we came to the wonderful little holiday resort of Cascais (pronounced Cashcaish), where we stopped to have lunch and sat in the sun by the beach.  By the way the weather has been perfect for touring, except the wind was very strong at Cabo Roca.

Then we continued along the coast to Estoril, past the famous casino, and along the Tegus River back to Lisbon.  Tonite is Shabbat, so we are walking to the kosher restaurant to have our Shabbat meal. The synagogue Shaare Tikvah is just around the corner from there.  It is quite large but very discrete.

watch this space for part 2 of 3 about the Portugal trip… click here for part two

here is a link to Jack’s blog.

The AACI is your place for Kosher and Friendly travel. Always staffed by AACI personnel to insure your worry-free trip.Click here for upcoming trips.



Sarah Weinstein (this article originally appeared in the May-June 2011 edition of the VOICE)

Sarah Weinstein, former financial planner, current small business owner, full-time Mom and AACI volunteer, celebrated her 10th aliyah anniversary last June.

Sarah made aliyah June 21, 2001 from Mahattan New York. Her original plan, to join her parents who lived here, was disrupted by the death of her father, z”l, a few months before she came to Israel. Thus, when she got here, she found herself without a crucial pillar of support she had counted on.

Despite that, Sarah knew this was where she wanted to be. “This is the best place for me to raise Bonnie [her daughter], and I’ve always had a connection to Israel. I thought, if not now, when?” Bonnie was 4 and a half years old when they made aliyah, and has been thriving since. “My daughter is very comfortable. She loves it here. When she goes to America she says, ‘I’m ready to go back to Israel.'”

“It was crazy when I made aliyah, because I moved during the second intifada. It was a dream I had.”

Did you have a plan when you came?
I had absolutely no clue. My father died before I got here. I had been doing financial planning in America for 25 years, but I couldn’t keep my license once I moved to Israel.

What are the biggest challenges of living in Israel?
The language. The bureaucracy is the same all over the world, I don’t believe Israel is any worse when you have to wait online for something. You’d have the same problems in America. It’s no picnic there either!

What do you like best about living in Israel?
The friendships I’ve made are much deeper because everyone is in the same boat. Most people don’t have family here.  And I’m very blessed to have my mother here. And my friends have become my family.

Tell us about 4U Gifts.
6 years ago, a friend told me 4u was for sale, and a few weeks later, I bought it. A few months previous, I had gone to the AACI employment department. I had always wanted to own a boutique on Madison Avenue, but this is much better than being on Madison Avenue.

It’s a Gift Shop, housewares, and our primary business is bridal registrees. People can purchase online from all over the world. We import a lot of high-end brands, not like any other store in the country, customer service is just like America. People in the shop speak French, English and Hebrew.

I love buying, love being with people, love my clients, never two days that are the same. I loved financial planning because I was very much involved with peoples lives, but I was selling an abstract product. Now I see instant gratification. People generally come in happy and leave the same way.

How did you get involved with AACI?
I had known Josie (Arbel, director of Klitah Services and Programming). Josie had helped me before I made aliyah, and I knew that one lack I had was that I was heavily involved in the Jewish Community in America, but when I moved here, I was limited in what I could get involved with because of the language. I knew about AACI because my father, z”l, had wanted the AACI merger to happen. I had known about AACI for a long time, and I needed something to get involved with, so this was a logical place.

How did AACI help you when you first came to Israel?
AACI is always there as a sounding board. Any questions I have, I always talk to Sheila (Bauman, Klitah counselor in Jerusalem office) or Josie. I email Sheila, she gets back to me.
I sit on the Management Committee, was heavily involved in acquiring the building. I did the picking out of everything that’s in the offices. Chair of Development up until this year. Not involved in day-to-day operations, but in the overall where-we’re-going, what we’re doing, a board perspective, behind the scenes. Half the staff might not know who I am, and that’s fine, I don’t need to be known.
Loves AACI cruises – spends quality time with her mom, a very special time to be on that cruise.

4U Gifts – 41 Hebron Road, Jerusalem Tel. 02-671-8406 Email

Editor’s note:  Do you have an Israeli story — a personal story of life in Israel — that you would like to share with us? We are always interested in stories that will inform, uplift and inspire our readers. Of course, we reserve the sole right to publish or not, and to edit before publishing. Please submit your story, preferably including (non-copyright) photos as well, to forward to hearing from you!

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.


10 glorious days of traveling in Iceland to places with unpronounceable names yet breathtaking beauty.

Sheer bliss in experiencing the natural elements and formations of different landscapes with a group of AACI members sharing their warmth, congeniality and spirit of camaraderie.  Enjoy our pictures on AACI’s facebook.