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Magazine coverThis article was the cover story in The Jerusalem Post Magazine on Friday, September 25, 2015.

Indian Pastor Samuel Devasahayam of the Zion Gospel Church was devastated: his elder sister Sheela, a Mother Theresa-like figure who had devoted her life to serving those in need – had passed away at the age of 60 and the entire city of Erode – close to 7,000 people – had had come out for the funeral. All 3,000 of Samuel’s own community were in attendance as well and the pastor knew he had to deliver the sermon of his life.

Standing before them, on an already hot and humid Indian day in April 2011, tears welling up in his eyes, he held the microphone tightly in his hands and shared stories of sister Sheela’s devotion; how she never married or had children but cared for the community’s widows and orphans and secretly delivered rice to 100 needy families every day. Sheela represented everything that was good about this close-knit Christian community, Samuel said. And then, as a seeming non sequitur to the assembled mourners, he dropped an unexpected bombshell, one that had been welling up inside him for nearly ten years.

“My friends, I have to tell you something very important,” he said, facing forward. “Sunday is not the correct day of the Sabbath. The Sabbath should be kept according to the custom of the Jews, beginning on Friday night at sunset and ending Saturday when the sun goes down again.”

Samuel’s congregants from the Zion Gospel Church were stunned. What was their pastor implying? Was it just that their day of rest was wrong? Or was he suggesting something bigger about God and their religious faith as a whole? No, he must be speaking out of his sorrow, the people concluded.

But Samuel, 51, knew exactly what he was saying. Since 2001, Samuel, his wife Anne, Samuel’s two sisters and the Devasahayam’s children had all been living a secret Jewish life, keeping the laws of the Torah to the best of their limited knowledge at the time. Samuel had come to the conclusion that Judaism was the true path to God and the family had begun keeping Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and kashrut secretly. But he was too fearful to reveal his inner truth, concerned about the fallout, both personally and for his community.

And indeed, there was fallout. After the funeral was over and in the months to come, congregants approached Samuel to ask more questions. “’What do you mean by that, Pastor,’ the people would ask,” Samuel’s wife Anne recalls. “’Do you mean that Jesus is not God, Pastor?’ And he would answer yes. ‘And do you mean we should keep the Sabbath on Saturday too?’ Yes, he would say.

Eventually the people agreed. Well half did; 1,500 congregants left the church. Those who remained said, “We have known you for many years, we know your character, we see how you are with the people. So whatever you say, it must be true,” Anna continues.

Jewish star in Zion neighborhoodThe church was renamed the Zion Torah Center, mezuzot were affixed to members’ doorposts, a Torah scroll was imported, and Stars of David appeared throughout the new “Zion” neighborhood which Samuel and Anne set up after some Christians in Erode – which is known locally as “Turmeric City” – refused to continue renting to members of the Zion Torah Center.

Today the community comes together every Shabbat where Samuel leads them in a full prayer service that would be familiar to Jews anywhere else in the world. The men wear white shirts and kippot, the women sit on the floor in long white dresses and saris with their hair covered. There is Kiddush (with Samuel’s own “kosher” wine) afterward, and the community is well versed in traditional Shabbat zemirot (songs).

The adult men even took it upon themselves to get circumcised. (Their children have it easier, with a version of a brit mila at eight months. “The doctors are afraid to do it on the eighth day,” Anne explains.) Samuel and Anne send out a weekly SMS with the times for Shabbat candle lighting and havdalah at the day’s conclusion. At least one community member – Samuel and Anne’s son – wears Tefillin during weekday prayers. A giant sukka is built on the roof to celebrate the fall holiday.

The community’s long-term goal: to convert to Judaism fully and perhaps even make aliyah to Israel.

How did this remarkable community, located far inland, an eight hour twisting turning ride from Cochin deep in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, turn to a Jewish lifestyle? The story begins with Samuel’s father, a pastor himself, who in 1972 founded the church along with a club called Friends of Israel. The church was fervently Zionist from the start, with daily prayers on behalf of the State of Israel and fasting whenever Jews were in danger (for example, during the Entebbe hostage crisis or the trials of Prisoners of Zion in the USSR). The church focused almost exclusively on the Hebrew Bible rather than the New Testament.

Samuel describes his father as a “strict disciplinarian. He’d tell me if I don’t memorize the Ten Commandments, he wouldn’t give me any food. He wouldn’t let me watch TV or read the newspaper – he said it would ‘spoil me’ – but he’d cut out clippings about Israel and put them in my lunchbox.” When Samuel’s mother wanted to send him to a Christian bible school at age 12, his father said no. “If you want to understand the bible, you have to wear ‘Jewish spectacles,’ my father would insist,” Samuel says.

(There is actually a Jewish connection in the family. Samuel’s great, great grandfather was an Iraqi Jewish man who came to India to work for the British government and married a local woman. “He had a big kippa with fur,” Anne recalls. “We kept it for a long time until the fur fell off. It was more than 100 years old, but we cherished it.”)

Samuel’s father died when Samuel was just 14-years-old. Samuel’s mother and his sisters Sheela and Wilma ran the church and the Friends of Israel club for several years. The young Samuel was not interested in following in his father’s path. “I was more interested in physics and science, or maybe becoming a musician,” Samuel says. But an accident left Samuel with a bum leg. “I thought, maybe God doesn’t want me to be a secular fellow and so he punished me. And from that day, I didn’t have any conflict in my mind. I gave all my decisions to God.”

Samuel took over the church and, a number of years later, was courting Anne. “I didn’t know much about Israel back then,” Anne says, “so he tested me with songs. He would play Ofra Haza and Shoshana Damari, to see if I enjoyed them, if the language spoke to me. I loved the music. From that day he understood that I loved Israel too.”

The Devasahayam’s see miracles everywhere. Once in a second hand bookstore, Samuel found a High Holy Days machzor (prayer book). “How can this be?” he thought to himself. A book in Hebrew in the back roads of India! The same thing happened a few years later when he found another book called The Illuminated Manuscripts of the Jewish World in a different second hand shop. “It cost ten rupees, not even a shekel,” Samuel marvels. “This was a present from God for me.”

Zion Torah CenterThe Zion Torah Center community’s connection with the Jewish world often expresses itself in surprising ways. There is a tradition that the community’s leader names newborn children. Samuel has taken to giving them names from a book he acquired of children who died during the Holocaust – names like Bella, Miriam, Hanna and Mendel. “Their teachers can’t always pronounce the names and they can’t even write it in Tamil,” Samuel says. “But we just gave them the exact names. To keep the memory alive.”

Samuel and Anne were quick to take on the custom for themselves. Their children are named Moshe, Jerusha (from Jerusalem) and Rivka, who was born on November 26, the same day that Chabad emissary to Mumbai Rivka Holzberg was murdered in that city’s horrific 2008 terror attack. “We wrote to Chabad and they were very happy that there was a little Indian girl named after their Rivka,” Anne says.

One reason the Zion Torah Center community took to Jewish practice so quickly, Samuel says, is that nearly 60 percent of them were already keeping “some kind of Jewish ritual” as members of the Chettiar caste.

A mercantile caste in southern India, the Chettiars have a number of “Jewish” customs, Samuel explains. “They light candles on Friday night and keep a kind of Shabbat. On Friday afternoons they wash the whole house. On Hanukah, they light clay oil lamps. When a woman niddah [that is, she has her period], she sits in a different part of the house, outside under a portico, for seven days and must take a bath in the well before re-entering the home. Teenage Chettiar boys go through a rite of passage into manhood that includes donning a shawl and “sacred thread” before proceeding to conduct a festive ceremony at the local temple..

A year ago an archaeologist working in Chennai found Jewish graves inside a Chettiar cemetery, Samuel adds. “That’s just not possible! Cemeteries in India are strictly divided according to caste.” He speculates that, as businessmen and travelers, the Chettiars may have had closer links with other Jewish Indians and adopted some of their customs over time. He isn’t suggesting that the Chettiars have actual Jewish ancestry.

When Samuel made his bombshell announcement at his sister’s funeral, there was another prompt: his son Moshe was approaching the age when it was expected he’d be baptized. But Moshe was increasingly uncomfortable. He finally blurted out to his father, “Abba, I can’t be baptized. I’m Jewish!” That gave Samuel the courage to finally reveal his truth.

Samuel’s dream for the future of his community is to make mass aliyah…to Israel’s Negev desert. He cites Isaiah’s prophesy (Isaiah 35:1) that the children of Israel would help make the desert bloom. He knows that Israelis have been doing just that for decades. “Still, there’s a lot of desert area, so let our community be part of the dream,” he implores.

There’s only one problem: Erode is not a farming community. “We are mostly textile workers, doctors, engineers,” Samuel concedes.

Coconut farmSo the Devasahayams purchased 100 acres of land and planted 3,500 coconut trees. “Every month, we invite people from the community to come and work in our farm, to get hands on experience with agriculture, to be ready to work in the Negev,” Samuel explains. And just to be extra prepared, the farm is watered by Israeli-made drip irrigation.

The coconut farm is part of Samuel and Anne’s income, which also includes running a local printing press. A Jewish calendar with all the holidays – written in Tamil – is one of their prized products. Samuel also prints small booklets for every Jewish festival, including their own Passover Haggadah. Their son Moshe serves as book designer and editor. Several hundred copies of each have been printed.

Samuel and Anne are under no illusions that converting to Judaism, let alone immigrating to Israel, will be easy. The members of the Zion Torah Center have no formal Jewish roots. They are not in the same category as the Bnei Menashe, the Indian tribe that claims descent from one of the Ten Lost Tribes, but are rather more like Uganda’s Abayudaya, whose Christian leader Semei Kakungulu adopted Judaism in 1919.

“But God can do wonders, there could be another Exodus,” Samuel says. “You would never have believed the Hebrews could get out of Egypt. But when God wanted to bring them to Israel, nothing could stop Him, not even the Red Sea. God will definitely bring us, I’m sure of it.”

That would allow the community to realize another dream: “To contribute 100 new IDF soldiers,” says Anne. “If you ask a child here what he wants to become when he grows up, he will say a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces.”

Meanwhile they have to contend with bureaucracy back home. For example, they don’t yet call the Zion Torah Center a “synagogue,” even though it acts like one. “We need to get permission to build our own cemetery first,” Anne says. “Otherwise if we move too fast, we’ll lose permission to bury our dead in the Christian cemeteries. And the alternative [the Hindu custom of burning the dead] is against the Torah!”

We caught up with Samuel and Anne on the tail end of a three-month visit to Israel – the longest of Samuel’s five trips to the Holy Land (Anne has made three) – where they were studying Judaism and taking a daily Hebrew ulpan. “We do everything according to what we know from the Torah,” Anne explains, “but there are so many more rules in the Mishna. We have simple kosher, we know not to cook milk and meat together, but we didn’t know what to do when, say, some meat falls into a milk pot. Every time we come, we learn a little bit more.”

Michael Freund, the chairman of Shavei Israel, a non-profit organization which works with “lost” tribes and “hidden” Jewish communities around the world, including India’s Bnei Menashe, has met with the Devashayams several times during their visits to Israel. They have invited him to visit Erode later this year.

“Samuel and Anne are two very sincere seekers of spiritual truth who have made enormous personal and professional sacrifices in order to embrace Judaism,” Freund says. While emphasizing that contemporary Judaism is not a proselytizing religion, Freund adds that if the Devashayams “have taken the first step of their own volition and sincerely wish to join the Jewish people and live a Jewish life, then I believe we should assist them. They clearly have a thirst for Jewish knowledge and are anxious to deepen their familiarity with Jewish history and tradition.”

India in general moves at a slower pace than the frenetic West, but there is one clock that’s ticking fast in the Devasahayam household: 15-year-old Moshe is considering his options in the next few years. “More than anything, he wants to learn in an Israeli yeshiva,” Anne says.

Will it be possible? More improbable things have happened in the small town of Erode, with its ever-present Jewish Stars and the sound of Hebrew mixed with Tamil on a muggy Saturday morning.

Sidebar: Bnei Ephraim also want to join the Jewish people

Erode’s Zion Torah Center is not the only community in India without formal Jewish roots that is eager to join the Jewish people. Some 750 kilometers to the north, in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh, 120 families call themselves the Bnei Ephraim, claiming descent from the biblical tribe of Ephraim, one of Joseph’s two sons.

Like the Zion Torah Center community, the Bnei Ephraim was founded by a Christian preacher. Pastor Shmuel Yacobi was living in the small village of Kottareddipalem when he visited Israel as a tourist in the early 1980s and became convinced that his ancestors were actually Jews who, after being exiled from the Land of Israel, traveled through Afghanistan and northern India before settling in an area called Nandial. Known locally as Telegu Jews, Yacobi says that the Bnei Ephraim always had certain mysterious customs that can be found in Judaism, including burial, marriage, coming of age (bar mitzvah) and family purity laws.

Shavei Israel has helped the Bnei Ephraim as well, sending teachers to India, arranging for members of the community to visit Israel, and translating books about Jewish practice into the Telugu language.

The Bnei Ephraim today keep Shabbat and kashrut and take off from work on major Jewish holidays. Several small synagogues have been established. Moreover, Shmuel Yacobi’s son Yehoshua managed to immigrate to Israel in 1993, where he served in the IDF and worked at the Hebrew University library. He lives in Ramat Gan today.


Yoni Riskin and Avichai Yosef

Lachan co-founders Yoni Riskin and Avichai Yosef

As Rafael stood before the juvenile court judge, he was given a stark choice: either join one of Israel’s heavily supervised “youth villages” for teenagers at risk…or go straight to jail.

Before this pivotal moment, Rafael’s life was moving steadily and irreversibly in one direction. Running with a criminal crowd in his hometown of Rehovot, increasingly under the influence of drugs, and never far from an undercurrent of violence that had, in this final conviction, involved a knife attack with another teen, Rafael, now 19, was out of options. He chose the youth village and the judge assigned him to a program run by the non-profit organization “Lachan.”

Lachan operates three youth villages for troubled young adults, from ages 12-18, in the north, center and south of Israel, as well as a program for college students. The organization was founded by Yoni Riskin and Avichai Yosef in 2001. Riskin is no stranger to social entrepreneurship; his father, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, was one of the founders of the town of Efrat and Lachan got its start in the community, taking over a couple of broken down and unused caravans to create an alternative educational program for troubled teens.

For Rafafel, the three years he spent living at Lachan’s “Yedidut” youth village on a quiet moshav near the city of Lod were nothing short of transformative. Today he is off drugs, out of jail and volunteering as a counselor for similar at-risk kids while waiting to enlist in an elite unit of the Israel Defense Forces. Entering the army is an achievement on its own: for teens with a criminal record, the IDF essentially prevents them from signing up and receiving all the significant social and financial benefits that military service in Israel provides.

Rafael says his experience at Lachan wasn’t smooth sailing from day one. “I was still involved with violence and taking drugs when I would come home for the weekends,” he says. “I didn’t believe I could make a change and I didn’t really want to. I just wanted to go back to what I knew; a life without any rules.”

But the counselors and therapists at Lachan were not so fast to give up. “They believed in me, they saw I had a spark in my eyes and potential,” he continues. “Moreover, they provided important personal examples. For the first time, I found role models I could aspire to.”

38-year-old Yoni Riskin was one of those role models. He says his interest in working with this population started while he was in the army. “I was a sergeant and was assigned some new recruits who had very difficult home and social lives,” Riskin says. “My heart just went out to them. I began speaking with their families, trying to help them with the personal difficulties they were going through. That’s when I realized I wanted to devote my professional life to working with teens at risk.”

When he finished his IDF service, Riskin trained to become a counselor with a program that helps teens at risk in one of Jerusalem’s poorer neighborhoods. His childhood friend, Avichai Yosef, now 38 as well, was similarly engaged in non-formal education as the project director of a prestigious pre-army academy. The two decided to join forces and opened the first incarnation of Lachan.

“At the beginning, we didn’t have a shekel,” Yosef says. “We just had a dream and a group of kids that had nowhere else to go.” Riskin and Yosef shnorred a table here and a chair there, and assembled a team of volunteers to tutor students in math, Bible, English, Hebrew grammar and history. What started as classes three days a week quickly morphed into a full-time, live-in program. The caravans were converted to dormitories.

“We realized that, in order to straighten these kids out, we needed to not only change their days but their nights too. You can’t get kids to come in the mornings if they’re out all night getting into trouble. But if they’re with us, it’s lights out at 11:00 PM and up at 7:00 AM,” Riskin says.

After its initial years in Efrat, Lachan continued to grow and, in 2007, moved to a more spacious location at Kibbutz Ein Tsurim. Before long, Lachan was on the road again, this time, renovating a former psychiatric facility for children into a fully equipped youth village, adding classrooms, dormitories, offices and communal spaces. With additional funding from Rabbi Yechiel Ekstein’s International Fellowship of Christian and Jews Federation, Lachan invested nearly $200,000 into renovating the village and the organization’s “Yedidut” campus became operational. Today, 24 teens between the ages of 14-18 study and live there.

It was at this point, in 2009, that the Israeli Ministry of Social Welfare recognized the Lachan program and began to fund a portion of its activities. The Education Ministry also granted accreditation to the Lachan high school within the “Yedidut” campus. In conjunction with financial support, the ministry began sending to Lachan teenagers who were referred by the courts as part of the Youth Protection Authority, putting their trust in Lachan to handle students at the highest risk. It was a real eye opener for Riskin and Yosef.

If the teens were tough in Lachan’s first years, these new arrivals were on an entirely different level, coming from severe backgrounds of neglect, lack of parents at home, endemic violence, drug addiction, sexual abuse and trauma. They hailed from some of the lowest socioeconomic classes in the country. Today, 90 percent of Lachan students come to the program after an arrest.

Lachan brought on new social workers and therapists to cope with the changes, and developed special classes including art therapy; sports and martial arts; gardening; photography; and army fitness and survival training, the latter in cooperation with the “Acharei!” (Follow Me!) Association. A computer lab was opened as well as a training and employment center, which offers several vocational courses including one in professional hairdressing. “If we see that a kid has a certain interest, we’ll do everything we can to make it happen,” Yosef says.

Lachan’s overarching emphasis combines Jewish values, social pluralism and contribution to society in general, and to the community in particular. While Lachan started in the religious community of Efrat, today it takes students of all backgrounds, from entirely secular to strictly Orthodox.

Lachan Beit Yedidut

Lachan Beit “Yedidut”

As Lachan “Yedidut” was opening, the organization got tapped by the Ministry of Social Welfare a second time to start a youth village in the north of the country, between the cities of Hadera and Afula. Lachan’s “Tal Menashe” youth village is for a younger population, starting at age 12 and going through age 15, and can take up to 36 children.

In late 2013, Lachan added a third youth village campus in the Negev desert, fulfilling a pledge Riskin and Yosef made early on to bring Lachan’s approach to youth wherever they are in the country. Dubbed “Wings of Love,” this southern-most village got its start helping kids deal with their problems by caring for birds. The focus has since shifted to include agricultural work with animals, but the name has remained. In addition to the “usual” at risk issues Lachan students come with, the students at “Wings” have also suffered trauma from the years of missiles raining down from the nearby Gaza Strip.

All told, Lachan now employs some 90 paid staff (gone are the days when the organization operated with just volunteers) with an annual budget of more than $3.2 million. The government covers 75 percent of that, but for extracurricular activities, renovations, overtime (there are no vacation days at Lachan; that means 150 percent overtime for staff on holidays like Yom Kippur), scholarships and specialized healthcare, Lachan is on its own to cover the gap and must seek outside contributions. Last year, Riskin and Yosef personally stepped in for six to twelve months each to fill the roles of directors of the “Yedidut” and Tal Menashe youth villages.

How does Lachan do it – turn kids like Rafael around? “We take a two-handed approach,” Riskin explains. “On the one hand, we are filled with love, warmth, understanding and support for the teens, while on the other hand, we enforce strict borders, discipline and rules. This is what sets the students in the right direction.”

“These kids need surveillance 24/7,” Yosef says. “We had one student who was a professional burglar before he came to us. He broke into our offices and stole money and cell phones.” But Lachan stuck with him and today that young man is a high school graduate on his way to the army.

Sometimes Lachan’s therapeutic programs evolve out of opportunity. “We have a counselor who has a background in gardening,” Riskin says. “We have a lot of gardens in our ‘Yedidut’ campus. So we thought, instead of hiring a gardener, lets teach gardening to our students. They can learn a life skill, and it will make the village nicer to look at!” The hairdresser course came about because a student asked for it. “Today he’s a certified barber,” Yosef says proudly. “If it wasn’t for this course, he’d probably have gone back to jail by now.”

Another former student found that art spoke to him; today, through Lachan, he finished his high school matriculation exams and is now studying for his bachelor’s degree at Jerusalem’s prestigious Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. “Lachan’s ultimate goal is to transform youth at risk into ‘normative’ members of society,” Riskin says.

Beyond working with teens, Lachan also operates a program called “Migdalim” for college students who want to volunteer in a community. Although the program is not specifically for at-risk students, the vision is that this will allow Lachan graduates to continue within a therapeutic framework after the army. The program grants a full scholarship to its 30 participants. Some 560 young people have taken part in activities organized by the Migdalim students.

Lachan has clearly come a long way from the caravans in which it started over a decade ago. But buildings and staff are only a means to an end. It is Lachan’s graduates, like Rafael, who tell the real story. Rafael, who once was on the verge of prison, today is tutoring elementary school kids with learning disabilities in one of the harshest neighborhoods of Beersheva in the mornings, and spending his afternoons volunteering in a clubhouse for teens. He is also volunteering with the “Acharei!” program through connections he made while at Lachan.

Why did Rafael want to spend a year volunteering rather than going straight into the army? “I felt that after I took so much from the country, I wanted to give back. I wanted to fix the damage.” Does he feel like he’s been able to influence anyone from the hardscrabble communities he’s now serving? “Every day that I walk around, free in the streets and not in a jail cell, proudly wearing my staff t-shirt, I know that I’m setting a personal example. I know that I’m a leader.”

“You know, I envy him,” Riskin adds. “Not everyone is willing to look at him or herself and make a serious change. Whether that’s someone at risk, or just an ‘ordinary’ person, to be able to make that step, that leap, is truly unbelievable.”


PICO: A Force of Change in Jerusalem

by Brian Blum on February 5, 2014

in Entrepreneurs,Israel,Startups

PICO image from JPostGalya Harish could have set up her new company anywhere.

A seasoned business professional, she has both an MBA and a law degree, passed the bar exam in Israel and in the US, served as vice president of operations and finance for hi-tech incubator JVP Studios, and worked as a brand manager for several international companies in Israel and the UK.

So when the entrepreneurial bug inevitably bit her and she decided to open her own venture, the most logical location for the 40-year-old Harish would probably have been central Tel Aviv or Herzliya, with their wealth of founders in similar situations. But the Jerusalem-born entrepreneur chose to buck the trends of the last 15 years – which has seen start-ups fleeing the capital for the Center of the country – and opened up shop as one of the inaugural tenants at PICO, a new co-working space in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood.

PICO – an acronym for “people, ideas, community and opportunities” – is at the vanguard of a growing worldwide movement for entrepreneurs at the start of their business journeys to set up shop together and cut costs by sharing desks, equipment, phone lines and Internet access, all in an open-plan space. For a single entrepreneur, or even a small start-up with one or two employees, the price is appealing: PICO charges NIS 800 per month per workspace.

And if you only need to sit there a day or two a week, the price drops to as low as NIS 300.

Co-working spaces exist in the Tel Aviv area, but PICO is the first in Jerusalem. Its founder Eli Wurtman hopes it’s not the last.

Wurtman sees PICO as more than just a friendly place for entrepreneurs to park their laptops and cellphones. He believes that by creating similarly welcoming environments for students and start-ups, Jerusalem can reclaim its place as the country’s creative capital.

He should know. In 1996 he cofounded DeltaThree, one of the first companies to deliver voice-over-IP calls from a regular telephone. The business grew to 300 employees and was the poster child for start-up Jerusalem, which, at the time, was home to hundreds of small to medium-sized hi-tech ventures.

But then came the second intifada and the bust of 2000.

“The industry got snapped almost overnight,” Wurtman recalls. “And with it, sadly, most of the people who were working here left Jerusalem.”

He did, too, eventually commuting to Herzliya as a general partner for Benchmark Capital, a leading VC firm. His career thrived, he says, but “I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem.”

Within the last few years, co-working spaces have started to take off big-time.

Wurtman teamed with fellow investor Isaac Hassan and began designing what he called a New York SoHo-style “loft” space in Jerusalem.

It’s clear from the moment you walk into PICO – located in a grimy, nondescript industrial building, on the same floor as the offices of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) – that there has been an incredible amount of attention to detail without spending a lot of money.

“We didn’t want it to feel like Har Hotzvim or Malha,” Hassan says, referring to two of Jerusalem’s more popular hi-tech areas. “It needed to be functional, in sync with the area.”

The resulting look, which was meticulously planned to appear decidedly down-rent, includes bare concrete walls and exposed piping, natural wood floors, lots of metal and glass and even a large tube in the center of the office “to bring in fresh Jerusalem air,” Hassan says. (There is air conditioning, too – Jerusalem, like Tel Aviv, can get hot during the summer.) Windows open from two sides to let in plenty of light.

“We want the space to be copied [by future co-working spaces in Jerusalem].

So we didn’t spend a lot of money on things like plaster,” Wurtman says, only half joking.

He sees the Talpiot area as the center of a renewed start-up Jerusalem, calling it “the city’s garage district,” like lower Manhattan or Herzliya originally were in their respective environs. Many of the people who have been commuting from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv live near Talpiot, so it’s walkable. And it’s right on the new bike path that runs from the Old Railway Station in the German Colony.”

Plus, adds Hassan, “you need to have a good coffee shop nearby, and we have [popular bakery] Lehem Shel Tomer downstairs. The smell of fresh-baked bread liberally comes up through the window of my office.”

Also nearby is the private studio of Bezalel industrial design faculty head Haim Parnas, adding an artistic vibe to the neighborhood.

There is room for 18 entrepreneurs to sit in PICO’s central shared space. Use of a large conference room is included in the price, and there are couches for more casual working and conversation.

Occupancy rate since PICO opened at the beginning of this year has ranged from 40 percent to 60%, and Wurtman says it is already breaking even.

There are also six private offices, where Wurtman, Hassan and several other more established investors sit.

That’s part of the design, too. The vision is that the entrepreneurs can feel free to ask business questions of the more experienced professionals, as well as the other way around: It gives Wurtman and Hassan the opportunity to identify potential investments up close.

Harish says the ability to brainstorm easily with the PICO partners and other entrepreneurs is a key reason she chose to start there.

Her company, Wear My Prayer, creates custom jewelry with a written prayer inside.

“People unconsciously touch their necklaces all during the day,” she explains. “Each time they touch it, there’s a meaning to it. They may think about what note is inside, what the message is.”

Harish describes a problem she had with the Wear My Prayer website.

“We were getting a large bounce rate,” she says, referring to when visitors surf away without buying anything. “So we called an impromptu meeting, and everyone in the office came over to look at the page and make suggestions as to where the problem was.”

She admits that it’s not easy being an entrepreneur in Jerusalem, far from most of her start-up peers. “But the fact that there is something like PICO changes things. People come here and they’re surprised. They say that they’d expect this in Tel Aviv or New York, not in Jerusalem.”

Harish, who has several part-time employees, says that even when her company gets big enough and needs to “graduate” from PICO, she plans to find a space close by and visit at least once a week.

Sean Lewin is also renting shared space at PICO. A recent graduate of the Jerusalem College of Technology, the fast-talking 23-year-old made quite a splash when he raised over $30,000 on the Kickstarter “crowd funding” website to build an LED light for the iPhone that indicates when a message, email or text has arrived.

The light fits into the phone’s headphone jack and changes color and blinking frequency depending on the type of message. It’s something that BlackBerry users have had for years but that former Apple CEO Steve Jobs summarily banned from the iPhone.

Lewin – who has business partners in Italy, the UK and the US – had been working at home, but found he was not being productive enough.

“I find I can be more focused and concentrated here,” he says, despite the noise from other people. “And if I have a question, I can ask my mates. If I’m building an Excel spreadsheet, I can speak to a VC. That’s not something I could get in my own living room. There’s just a good vibe here.”

He also enjoys the free beer.

“I usually stay until 7 or 8 p.m.,” he says with a smile.

The beer is available at what is perhaps the most striking element of the PICO design: a blue neon-lit bar and kitchen, which is stocked with all-youcan- drink soft drinks and brew. This plays a role in the regular networking events PICO hosts.

Indeed, PICO buzzes after hours often as much as during the day. A series of intimate lectures have taken place at night; so far, the founders of hi-tech darlings Waze and Fiverr have spoken to a young, invitation-only crowd of no more than 30. Executives from Bira Shapira, a Jerusalem-area microbrewery, have also come to speak.

And city council member Rachel Azaria, head of the Yerushalmim faction, brought her whole team to hold one of its weekly meetings at PICO.

Hassan has been active in outreach, too: one notable partnership is with Siftech, an initiative that the Hebrew University’s student union founded last year to promote Jerusalem as a place to stay after getting one’s degree. Ten student start-ups have participated in Siftech’s four-month intensive technological entrepreneurship workshop. PICO offered a couple of months of free rent to the top two winners of Siftech’s most recent competition.

PICO also has close ties with Ruah Hadasha (New Spirit), another student organization promoting Jerusalem.

Clearly, having one cool place to work won’t solve all of Jerusalem’s problems with retaining the tens of thousands of college students who study in the city every year (including more than half of all art students in the country). Overall employment options and the availability of affordable housing top graduates’ concerns.

But, insists Wurtman, “we have the opportunity to be a force of change.

There’s an energy that’s required to change the working reality of a city; to give it more of an aspirational nature.

If there were 10 more places like PICO, more entrepreneurs would come out of their basements and stay.”

Adds Hassan, “Entrepreneurs are special people. They can change industries. It’s not just about PICO, it’s about changing the underlying aspect of the city.”

This article appeared originally on The Jerusalem Post.


Parko logoTomer Neu-Ner was driving home from the hospital with his wife and newborn son. As always, parking was tight near Neu-Ner’s central Tel Aviv apartment.

“I was a nervous new father,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave my baby in the car more than even a minute longer than I had to.” So he stopped the car briefly on the sidewalk, ran upstairs, got his family settled and returned to his vehicle only to find … a NIS 500 ticket on the windshield.

That wasn’t the only time Neu-Ner has battled the parking gods who have decreed that the average Tel Aviv resident will spend 24 minutes on average looking for a parking spot. But it was the wakeup call that, if Neu-Ner’s new startup Parko succeeds, will transform life for curb-deprived drivers everywhere. Investors seem to agree: the new Israeli “crowd-funding” site OurCrowd recently invested in the company.

Neu-Ner teamed up with his cousin Itai David, a Technion graduate whom he describes as an “algorithm geek.” Together they created a smartphone app that almost magically senses when a parking spot will become available – even before the car’s driver opens the door.

The technology is based on the same principles that have made fellow Israeli tech startup Waze such a darling of the roads, but there is no connection between the companies.

Waze informs drivers where traffic is heavy and suggests alternative routes, all without requiring any active input by users. The app uses GPS to sense when cars with the open app are slowing down and from there it extrapolates that data into traffic alerts.

Parko also uses GPS to sense the user’s speed. Once the vehicle has stopped and the speed at which the phone is moving has slowed to a comfortable “walking pace,” Parko assumes the user has parked. When Parko senses the user returning in the direction of the parked car, the app sends a message to other users that a spot may soon open up.

Neu-Ner and David built the app so that it minimizes access to the phone’s GPS, a critical feature given how quickly location service usage drains a mobile device’s battery.

A different approach

Parko is not alone in the parking alert business. The elephant in the room, as it so often is, is Google, whose OpenSpot app for Android phones does much the same thing as Parko with one pachyderm-sized difference: OpenSpot requires drivers to tap the app to alert other users that they’re leaving their parking space.

This is also an option for Parko users. However, Neu-Ner says, it is not ideal because by the time the alert hits the cloud, the space will almost always be long gone.

A very different approach is being taken by ParkSF in the San Francisco area, which involves sensors buried under the street that will alert drivers when a spot is being vacated in real time. Neu-Ner says there is talk in Tel Aviv about deploying something similar, although he believes the entirely crowd-sourced approach has more mileage, so to speak.

After Parko’s October, 2012 launch in Tel Aviv, Neu-Ner has his eyes set on Paris and New York. Statistics for both those cities put the average time someone looks for a parking space at 40 minutes, nearly double Tel Aviv’s.

There’s no database to be updated before a city is ready for Parko. It’s more a matter of promotion and marketing, something that’s been tough on a shoestring budget of money from friends and family. Parko’s recently fundraising from OurCrowd should help keep keep the parking brake off.

Neu-Ner is taking the “give it away, charge later when you’ve built a huge user base” approach common to startups (remember Facebook?). At that point, “location-based advertising and the sale of data will be worth so much more.” He also anticipates that freemium (paid) features and “demand-based pricing will become very interesting options for revenue models.”

Won Israeli Mobile Challenge

The 30-year-old Neu-Ner grew up in South Africa with Israeli parents. He returned to Israel four years ago and worked as a product manager at a startup creating software for options trading on Wall Street. He has degrees in economics and math from the “old country” and, more recently, an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

While Parko users stand to benefit when they search for a spot, we wondered what kind of incentive would entice users to leave the Parko app open once they found parking. Neu-Ner has a quick answer: prizes. For example, after you’ve just shared your 20th parking spot, you might get a free carwash from a Parko partner, or a coffee at a nearby Aroma.

Regardless of prizes, Parko needs a critical mass of users to function effectively. Thousands of Tel Aviv residents already know about the app, in part due to Parko’s win of the top prize at the Google-sponsored Israeli Mobile Challenge competition in June, 2012.


Jody and Brian meeting with "Brian of London" at the Better Place customer event

Israelis notoriously have a hard time saying they’re sorry, let alone that they may have goofed big time. But that’s exactly what happened in an extraordinarily candid meeting last week between Better Place’s new management team and several hundred owners of the company’s Renault Fluence 100% electric vehicles.

Not only did CEO Evan Thornley, the genial Australian who replaced Israeli founder Shai Agassi in October, concede that the company had set unrealistically aggressive expectations and that too many target dates had not been met, but his CFO, Alan Gelman, who’s also the CEO of Better Place Israel, went so far as to give out his personal cell phone number and email address. Talk about transparency.

“I know you’re frustrated that we didn’t fight back enough,” Thornley told the audience, referring to the blitz of negative media coverage the company received last year when Agassi was ousted, layoffs were announced, sales dried up, and cash ran dangerously low. “The truth is, what was said in the media initially was basically correct. We had to make some very big changes fast.”

The backlash against the company, Thornley suggested, actually came about, davka, because so many people wanted Better Place to succeed. When it looked like that might not be the case, the public and the press turned. That said, Thornley assured the crowd that Better Place is beyond the crisis and now it was time “to return to the sense where people want us to win again.”

Despite the problems, Thornley said he believes that “the business strategy of the company is fundamentally sound. It’s just that when things don’t go right, it’s easier to blame the strategy rather than the execution of the strategy.”

Thornley may have spoken too fast. This morning, the Israeli press reported that Thornley has resigned, citing disagreements with Better Place’s investors over exactly that: strategy. We’ll provide an update later once we know better what’s now going on (assuming the company continues to come clean).

Despite this latest news, Thornley’s examples still make sense. He cited Better Place’s lackluster sales to date of less than 1,000 all-electric cars currently on our roads but insisted that Israelis will eventually flock to electric vehicles. It’s just that it was unrealistic to expect that they’d do that before the infrastructure was all in place, and that’s just happened now.

So while the media deemed Better Place a failure for sluggish sales, Thornley believes “we are now only at the beginning, not the end.” Current car owners should be seen for what they are: tech-savvy, risk-taking early adopters; the beta testers of the electric car industry, if you will. 2013 will be the make it or break it year, he stated, understanding the risks.

To get the word out, Better Place has hired a new Chief Marketing Officer, Peter Economides (a native English-speaker like Thornley, originally from South Africa but more recently living in Greece where he’s had an even more daunting task: re-branding an entire country that’s gone nearly belly up),

Economides, who will be leading a renewed marketing campaign in Israel, has an impressive pedigree. He worked directly with Steve Jobs on the “Think Different” campaign that turned Apple around from the verge of bankruptcy in 1997. And he headed up Coca Cola’s international marketing while living in New York.

“You are the heroes,” he cheered the crowed on. “You’re the people with the vision and courage and belief to say yes. This is where the ball starts rolling.”

Economides has been at Better Place all of three weeks but he was sold in less than ten minutes, he said, when he took a ride in his first electric car on a visit to Israel. He flew back home and got in his gas-powered car. “I thought I was driving ‘yesterday,’” he quipped. That car, he added almost as an aside, was a Porsche.

What’s gone wrong in Better Place version 1.0? Plenty, as Thornley, Economides and Gelman heard while fielding questions from their outspoken customer advocates. The swapping stations aren’t in the right places (“the algorithm for networking planning is very different for electric cars and we didn’t get it quite right,” Thornley said); the batteries themselves don’t get the range initially promised (“what works in the lab is not always achieved in the field”). One owner felt Jerusalem had been abandoned (the opening of the capital’s only swapping station was delayed for months). And parking spots with power plugs and are too often filled with gas guzzlers (“we need regulatory support from the government for this,” Thornley emphasized).

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. An equal number of Better Place customers took to the microphone to lavish praise on the company. Economides’ driving experience was roundly acknowledged (the acceleration on an all-electric vehicle, along with the spooky silence when stopped create a driving experience that’s uniquely exhilarating), and the company’s responsive Customer Service is on a level several notches higher than anything else available in Israel. Battery swapping is as fast as promised. And Idan Ofer, chairman of the Israel Corporation and Better Place’s prime investor, even made a surprise appearance, showing his commitment to the company he’s invested some $300 million in by arriving in his own Renault Fluence, which he parked in front to show off some special customizations he’d added (it was all tricked out with fully leather, electric powered seats).

All this, nevertheless, begs the question: how exactly is Better Place going to make a better go of it this time around? Here’s what Thornley said last week. Whether this plan is the reason he’s no longer the company’s CEO isn’t clear. But his vision (and that of the management consultants who worked with the company over the past months) was simple: Better Place wants to be the electric recharging network for every electric car made. That means applying its experience in building charge spots and a smart power grid that doesn’t overload when everyone plugs in at once to supply the growing number of Nissan Leaf’s and Chevy Volt’s, even if they don’t have swappable batteries.

To Israelis, that might not resonate so much because the only electric vehicles in this country are the Renault Fluence’s that Better Place sells. But in Thornley’s Australia, Better Place is already working with General Motors as the car manufacturer’s “preferred charge network.

Of course, Better Place would like all the other electric vehicle makers to offer cars with swappable batteries, which Thornley said he still believes is the future of electric and the differentiating feature between Better Place and other up and comers. That will come eventually, he insisted, once a network of swap stations similar to the ones in Israel and Denmark is built out in target countries (the U.S. and China are high on the list). That poses a not insignificant chicken and egg problem, but Thornley said that, once Israel is acknowledged as a clear “proof of concept,” the economics of electric cars will ultimately win out.

“The cost of manufacturing an all electric car is much cheaper than a hybrid,” he pointed out. “There’s only one power train versus two” as in a Toyota Prius, for example. And, he added, for many of today’s fixed battery electric cars, it would be fairly “easy to produce them in a swappable form.” Think 18-24 months for a factory to add that capability.

Better Place also wants to be more transparent with its software – so far, “a brilliant integration but a walled garden,” Thornley admitted. Why can’t Better Place’s OSCAR GPS system work with Waze, for example? It should, Thornley said.

The question remains, however: can Better Place convince the world that its Israeli “beta test” country is a success that can be applied elsewhere, before the company runs out of money again? It’s an imperative, explained Saul Singer, who gave a closing talk for the evening. Singer is the co-author of Startup Nation, the best selling book about Israeli entrepreneurship that featured Better Place in its first chapter as the poster child of the scrappy Israeli startup with global ambitions.

Better Place was Israel’s first attempt at tackling a problem affecting the entire world – reliance on a dwindling supply of oil – in the living laboratory of a small country, Singer said. The author envisions Israel doing the same now for other burning issues. “But Better Place has to succeed if we want to do it next for education,” he said, giving a perhaps improbable example. “The stakes for this are huge.”

Singer then shared a personal story. His wife, he said, hates it when they have to stop the car to swap the battery. But then his kids intervene from the back seat. “’Why are you complaining, Imma?’” they’ll say. ‘We’re the pioneers.’ Yes there are problems, but that’s the meaning of being a pioneer. We have to stick with it and win.”

This report on Better Place originally appeared on the Israelity website.

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The Best iPhone and iPad Apps from Israel

by Brian Blum on October 3, 2011

in Israel,Mobile,Products

Whether you’re looking for something healthy to eat or trying to plot the best way home through rush-hour traffic, there’s an application for that on your iPhone or iPad. And if you look under the hood, you might just discover it’s made in Israel.

With its expertise in cellular technologies, a love affair with the cell phone, and a fast national adoption rate for the iPhone – despite the fact Israelis pay some of the highest prices in the world for the privilege – it’s not surprising that Israelis have plunged into development of iPhone applications.

ISRAEL21c combed through some of the best Israeli apps to come up with our top 10 blue-and-white list for the iPhone.

1. Fooducate

With a recent positive write-up in The New York Times, Fooducate is the latest darling of the Israeli iPhone app scene. And it’s healthy to boot. The concept is simple: before you buy a product at the grocery store, check out what’s really in it. If its bite is worse than its crunch, Fooducate will suggest an alternative that’s better for your body (if not for your pocketbook).

The app uses the iPhone’s built-in camera to scan a product’s bar code. Using its own proprietary algorithm, Fooducate counts up the nutrients and assigns a letter grade from A to D. The app is smart enough to spot cleverly disguised additives – did you know that “autolyzed plant protein” is just another way to say MSG?

Fooducate is primarily for products manufactured in the United States, and its database isn’t yet complete (the company encourages users to snap pictures of items they’d like to see covered and send them in).

2. FiddMe

FiddMe is also a food app, but it takes a very different approach than Fooducate. Rather than aiming to educate, FiddMe wants to turn eating into a worldwide social game – a kind of FourSquare for foodies.

FiddMe allows users to take pictures of great meals they’re eating (in real time) and post the snapshot and information about the restaurant to the cloud. Other FiddMe users can tap into the growing database of yummy recommendations. The service is integrated with other location-aware apps like FourSquare and Facebook. You can also post to Twitter or to the FiddMe website.

FiddMe is not competing directly with user-generated recommendation services like Yelp. Those focus on restaurants as a whole, while FiddMe drills down to the quality of the fettuccini. Not surprising from an app created by a bunch of self-described Israeli “foodies.”

3. Waze

Waze has tackled a problem we’ve all experienced – getting stuck in traffic and not knowing the best alternative routes – and crowd-sourced it. Users automatically add information about traffic tie-ups in real time – without having to do a thing. Waze tracks where drivers are via GPS. If there are more drivers than expected in a certain stretch of road, the Waze map will turn red.

So if Highway 101 is backed up coming into San José, Waze will instantly tell you if Interstate 280 is the better bet. That’s a whole lot faster than waiting for the radio to report the latest jams every 15 minutes. And it’s one of the reasons the service has proved incredibly popular, with more than two million drivers signed up.

The automated aspect to Waze is particularly welcome, since texting while driving is a big no-no. But users stopped at a red light can more proactively input traffic information. And to really keep things safe, Waze turns off the keyboard when the car is in motion – neat!

Waze has other features – such as allowing drivers to build maps together, create private groups to share tips, and even play interactive social games.

Waze is free, in keeping with its 2006 roots as an open-source project called FreeMaps. The service began in Israel but is available all over the world.

4. Viber

Within three days of Viber’s launch in December 2010, some one million people had downloaded it. Two months later, the number is up to an overwhelming 10 million. What’s all the fuss about? Viber, a free app, aims to be the Skype-killer, a voice-over-IP phone service that integrates seamlessly into your iPhone’s contact list and allows you to make free calls to other Viber users anywhere in the world.

The app is drop-dead simple: Install it, and any other Viber users in your contact list show a Viber icon. Since the Viber app runs in the background (and the company claims it doesn’t drain the phone’s battery like Skype does), calling that contact for free is a single tap away.

Viber also doesn’t require any registration (another step saved) and uses your phone number as your ID. Contrast that with Skype, where you have to sign up for a unique ID and use only the Skype app to make calls. Viber “officially” only supports the iPhone, but savvy callers claim it works on the iPad and iPod Touch as well. Android and BlackBerry versions are coming soon.

5. Fring

Fring is another made-in-Israel app that allows free phone calls. Unlike Viber, Fring piggybacks on existing phone networks like Google Talk, ICQ, Twitter, Facebook and more, acting as a universal communications center for voice, chat and even video calls. You open the Fring app and get a separate contact list; you can then call any friends on the list at no cost.

For friends not on the list, “Fring Out” calls start at one cent per minute (although that can jump to as high as 44 cents per minute for far-flung locations like Samoa and Zimbabwe).

Fring got a big boost when the iPhone 4 with its front-facing camera came out last year, making video calls a major attraction (the upcoming iPad 2 is rumored to have the same feature).

The app also has a “Fring Stream” that consolidates all your Twitter tweets and Facebook updates (plus, of course, any Fring chats and calls) in one place.

There’s one service that’s noticeably missing from the Fring roster: Skype. Fring used Skype’s network to enable video calls for several years until December 2010, when they parted ways. Fring claims Skype blocked its service; Skype says Fring had been misusing its software and decided to pull out on its own. Either way, Fring is slightly less useful than it was six months ago.

6. Babller

Babller is a simple iPhone app that was an obvious product to be developed in multilingual, multicultural Israel. The app allows you to post status updates to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn in your preferred language and have it automatically translated into a variety of other lingos. The app works the other way around, too, translating posts you receive.

Babller is essentially Google Translate with built-in social networking integration. It’s not likely to be around for long – as soon as Google does its own Facebook translation mash-up, Babller will be out of here.

7. My6Sense

Owning an iPhone can quickly result in serious information overload. With your email, social network updates, tweets and RSS feeds all coming at you a mile a minute, you may find yourself sifting through hundreds (if not thousands) of messages and articles every day.

My6Sense aims to reduce the clutter by learning what you’re interested in and filtering the stream so that’s what you see. Focusing primarily on updates via RSS, My6Sense “learns” what you like by monitoring which articles you choose and which links you forward. You may view your subscriptions by most recent posts or by My6Sense recommendations.

What’s particularly cool is you don’t have to do anything – no tapping buttons to give a thumbs up or down to a particular piece of content, for example. The company calls its service “digital intuition” and it seems to be on to something. My6Sense has received media accolades including a “Best of 2010” award from ReadWriteWeb.

8. Libox

Consuming media on an iPhone or iPad is perhaps as popular as actually making a call. Despite its tiny screen, users love to watch video, show off pictures and, of course, listen to music. But how do you get your media content from your desktop computer or laptop onto your phone?

Apple’s answer is to synch via iTunes. But that requires plugging your mobile device into your computer. And you have to physically move files onto your phone, which means you can quickly bump up against your iPhone’s memory limit.

Israeli startup Libox lets you stream your media from home. There are two parts to the app – one that goes on your computer and scans your hard drives to find media, and a second that you download to your phone, which then streams the media from your computer via your regular cell service or WiFi. Libox also allows sharing media with friends, although that might put the company in hot water with copyright holders.

One downside: the app requires that your home computer be turned on with Libox running. That may not work for people whose laptops are their primary machine.

The company’s pedigree suggests that Libox will continue to innovate in future versions: The company’s founder is Erez Pilosof, who also founded Walla!, the Israeli equivalent to Yahoo and still an uber-popular Hebrew language site.

9. Touchoo

Buying your toddler an iPhone or iPod Touch is not as wacky an idea as it seems with Israeli startup Touchoo’s vision of creating interactive “touch” books for tykes. The company, which calls itself a publisher rather than a development house, has assembled a team of writers, illustrators, animators and programmers (all from Israel, for now) to create their touch books, and the company emphasizes that all book apps are made under the supervision of a developmental psychologist.

Featured first books include Benny the Cat and the touch-screen appropriate Thumbelina (based on the original classic from Hans Christian Andersen). Some of the books are available in multiple languages. Touching not only changes pages but triggers interactive fun (an animated character may jump out and sing).

Touchoo’s concept has already been proven … 20 years ago. When the first round of interactive multimedia products was being released on CD-ROM, one of the most popular genres was animated storybooks that both entertained and taught. Touchoo has simply updated a proven concept to the 21st century, where a click of the mouse has been replaced by a tap of a finger.

10. Appsfire

Appsfire is an app that lets you find other apps. Sure, you can always go searching in the Apple App Store or visit an app review site. But Appsfire uses the power of the crowd to recommend the best apps. As an Israeli company, its roster of “VIP” experts making recommendations is mostly culled from the Israeli tech scene; that will change as the app gains traction around the world. And there are plenty of “regular” users adding their favorite apps.

There’s also a separate iPad version called Appstream that, as its name suggests, has a moving stream of apps. You can tap on an app to preview it, and tap again to share a recommendation with friends or to buy the app. You can filter by just iPad apps or by free apps.

Appsfire and Appstream, by the way, are both free. Appsfire takes a cut of sales from app developers via an affiliate model.

This post originally appeared in March 2011 on the Israel21c website.


Something For Everyone at Israel’s Music Festivals

by Brian Blum on February 28, 2011

in Israel,Media

Despite this past summer’s flurry of over-hyped overseas cancellations, Israel’s music scene is thriving. Indeed, one need look no further than the extensive roster of festivals that paper the creative landscape – from the kabalistic city of Safed in the north, to the hedonistic beach town of Eilat in the south – to find a festival lurking in every corner. Whether you prefer jazz, rock, classical, choral, rap or klezmer, there’s surely an event tailored to your taste.

It wasn’t always this way. During the austerity years of the 1950s, festivals were hard to come by. One notable exception was the Ein Gev Festival which is still going strong, now in its 66th year. Held at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee during the intermediary days of Passover, it was originally conceived to bring culture to the “distant” northern region of the country.

In the festival’s early years, that included a wide variety of arts – from ballet and folklore to choral and orchestral works (including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra which made the journey up from Tel Aviv).

More recently, the Ein Gev Festival has focused on presenting Hebrew music and choirs. There are now more than 70 vocal performances including every one of the country’s 300 singing groups, some of whom have been together for decades. While that gives the festival less of a cutting edge feel than it had in earlier years, it is still quite popular with Israelis who enjoy following along with the nostalgic classics of the country’s pioneering days.

The festival scene took a major leap forward in 1961 with the launch of the Israel Festival, which to this day remains the country’s cultural anchor, bringing together dozens of performances from both local and overseas acts in a three-week period from May until June. While there is no shortage of international acts playing individually throughout the year, the Israel Festival hosts the greatest concentration by far.

World renowned musicians (among them Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Maureen Forrester, and Leonard Rose) in Tel Aviv for the first Israel International Music Festival, 1961 (Photo: GPO)

Originally staged at the Roman amphitheater in Caesarea, since the 1980s it has been centered in Jerusalem. The range of performances is staggering. In 2010, for example, among the 50 acts one could see a Lithuanian version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; dance performances by the local Vertigo troupe and Argentina’s Nuevo Tango; Itzhak Perlman conducting a program of young musicians; a theatrical version of a story by Nikolai Gogol; and nightly jazz at the Jerusalem Theater. There are also free musical street performances.

Israel Festival 1998 - "Hi five" band performs songs by Naomi Shemer at Jerusalem's Sultan's Pool (Photo: GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)

From fringe to folk on a muddy hill

The 1980s saw a further awakening of the festival scene, most notably with the Acre Fringe Theater Festival, which was modeled on the acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Acre version presents mostly local theater companies, but the backdrop is particularly compelling: the Crusader castle setting and archaeological sites of Acre’s Old City.

Festival artistic director Avi Gibson Bar-El is delighted with the venue, which draws its power, he says, from “the gentleness of the sea, the power of the ancient walls, the smell of fish and lavender in a virtuoso juggling act between languages, cultures, and religions.”

Scene from a play at the Acre Fringe Theater Festival, 1900 (Photo: GPO/Alpert Nathan)

The festival was nearly shut down a few years ago due to riots between the Jewish and Arab populations in this mixed town, but has bounced back and now draws some 200,000 visitors a year. It is seen as a sort of staging ground for promising playwrights, producers and actors.

While the Israel Festival and the Acre Fringe Theater Festival feature music prominently in their programs, there is no shortage of exclusively musical events. One of the earliest and most enduring is the Jacob’s Ladder Folk Music Festival.

Founded by UK immigrants Yehudit and Menahem Vinegrad on a muddy kibbutz hill in 1978, the festival has grown to become an internationally recognized program that attracts talent from around the world and close to 5,000 Israeli folk music fans. It is held twice a year at the Kibbutz Nof Ginosar.

Fans of Jacob’s Ladder compare the festival favorably with similar events in Europe and the US. Indeed, the relatively small size of Jacob’s Ladder gives it a homier feel that is perhaps more fitting for small Israel. The festival has branched out beyond its folk and country roots; in recent years rock, blues and a smattering of World music (such as the Balkan-gypsy-Russian band Yolki Polki) fill out the three-day line-up.

Jacob’s Ladder takes place just north of Tiberias, on the opposite bank of the Sea of Galilee from the Ein Gev Festival. A bit further north you come to Safed, renowned both for its mystical Old City – the birthplace of much of today’s trendy kabala – and a funky artist’s quarter. Both are the unlikely setting for a festival featuring European Jewish “soul music,” or klezmer.

The Safed Klezmer Festival was launched in 1988 and now features more than 100 performances, which fill every nook and cranny of the city as well as the local Red Mosque. Local artists set up their wares on craft tables and there are salutes to non-klezmer musicians such as the late singing Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Band performing at the Klezmer Festival in Safed, 2003 (Photo: GPO/Avi Ohayon)

The festival attracts upward of 15,000 visitors a year. Indeed, tallying up the demand for accommodations at the Ein Gev, Jacob’s Ladder and Klezmer Festivals, the upper Galilee region has experienced quite a boon.

At the opposite end of the country, the Red Sea Jazz Festival may be the best known overseas of Israel’s music extravaganzas. Taking place in Eilat (in and of itself an international destination, tucked between Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia), this festival is a major draw for international talent.

Singer Ahinoam Nini performing at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival, 1990 (Photo: GPO/Alpert Nathan)

Held over four days with nine concerts a night, six “clinics” and nightly jam sessions, plus an outdoor stage facing 4,000 seats, it’s no wonder that the festival has been graced by the likes of Chick Corea, the Mingus Big Band, Tower of Power, The Manhattan Transfer, Ricki Lee Jones, and Spyro Gyra since its inception in 1987.


Meanwhile, classical music fans can claim their share of the music on Israel’s burgeoning festival scene. The premiere event is the Abu Ghosh Vocal Music Festival, which takes place in the Israeli Arab village of the same name, just a10-minute drive from Jerusalem.

The festival is actually one of Israel’s veterans, inaugurated in 1957, but it was discontinued in 1971, to be re-launched in 1992. Music from Schubert to Bach, Mozart to Brahms, with a special “baroque hit parade” thrown in for good measure, is played in and around the Kiryat Yearim Church, with street performances popping up in the alleys, groves and grottos of the village.

YouTube: The Moran Singers Ensemble, Abu Ghosh 2007
YouTube: Opera at the Abu Ghosh festival

For hungry visitors, Abu Ghosh is also known for its outstanding hummus and knafe (an Arab dessert made with cheese and pistachio nuts), and the local restaurants do a brisk business during the weekend-long festival.

During the past 10 years, the festival landscape in Israel has taken a turn toward the new age. The biggest of the new age festivals is Boombamela. Launched in 1999, it is held during the intermediary days of Passover, and upwards of 40,000 people congregate on the Nitzanim beach between Ashdod and Ashkelon to go with the flow.

The festival grounds are divided into small “villages,” with a holistic area, which includes workshops in various forms of artistic expression, meditation and lots of yoga; a “green revolution” village, which – in full new age garb – describes itself as an “alternative universe that runs parallel to this one…waiting for you to switch sides” (it also features more plebian concerns such as a recycling center); a face and body painting area; and in recent years, a prayer quarter, for those who want to more fully observe the Sabbath.

The new age Boombamela festival at Nitzanim beach attracts more than 40,000 people

And then there’s the music, of course: Nightly concerts on the water; two trance dance floors in the sand with live DJ’s; and even belly dancing. And oh yes, for those with a less-inhibited vibe, there’s a separate nudist beach.

Sagol is a more laid back new age festival, which focuses on “love and meditation.” Sagol is the Hebrew word for “purple” (“the color of the third eye, signifying the metaphysical world,” its organizers say), the Sagol Festival is held twice a year and attracts a turnout of around 5,000 for those “seeking spiritual essence and awareness.” The main musical program is on Friday night and starts with the Kabbalat Shabbat (liturgical prayers welcoming the Sabbath) service.

The Sagol Festival, first held in 1993, is actually part of a bigger endeavor – the Sagol Eco-Village, which trains participants in sustainable building practices with mud, organic gardening, and daily meditation. Volunteers also set up the festival itself, which wanders between its home base in the Negev desert and locations further north (the Hof Dor beach and Beit Shean in the Jordan Valley have both hosted Sagol in recent years).

Israel’s many festivals take place primarily on weekends and during the Jewish holidays. One could argue that these art and music festivals serve as a counter-balance for non-observant Israelis to the more traditional rituals practiced by religious Jews, making them a sort of alternative spiritual nourishment.

In Jerusalem, however, festivals are not held on the weekends. That hasn’t led to a shortage of music, however. The capital’s leading event is the annual Hutzot HaYotzer festival, for more than 30 years the country’s largest arts and crafts extravaganza. Every evening at 9:00 pm Israeli superstars take to the stage in the historic Sultan’s Pool with the Old City walls looming above.

A live theater performance at the Jerusalem International Arts and Crafts Fair

In recent years, Hutzot HaYotzer’s musical line-up has included bad boy Aviv Gefen; indie rockers The Church of Reason; master of modern Israeli love ballads Ivri Lieder; outrageous rappers HaDag Nahash; and Mediterranean crooner Arkadi Duchin. And at NIS 40 (just over $10) a ticket, including both concert and entrance, it is undoubtedly Israel’s best festival deal.

The list of Israeli music festivals goes on. There’s ethnic, with the annual Oud festival dedicated to the Turkish instrument that looks a bit like a pear-shaped guitar. If you prefer something more dramatic, there’s the sunrise rock concert atop Masada at the Tamar Festival. Another festival devoted to a specific instrument is the Guitar Festival of the Desert, and for nostalgic Anglos there’s the annual Woodstock Revival.

Exclusively Jewish music is on hand at RockAmi, while energetic small label rock can be found at the In-D-Negev program. A tribute to music from Spain, Portugal and Belgium can be heard at the Dona Gracia Festival, while bible lovers will groove to the sounds of Ehud Banai and Dudu Fisher at the Bible and Love Festival.

Want to be sure to catch them all? Here’s a list of the top festivals in the country according to dates, along with links to their websites:

April (Passover)




September/October (Sukkot)


This article originally appeared in January on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.
A related article on the Top 10 Music Festivals in Israel is on the This Normal Life website.


Does radiation from cell phones cause cancer? The jury is still out, with a recently released 10-year study organized by the World Health Organization saying no, and advocacy groups arguing that the research methodology was flawed.

Cell La Vie - peel on protection for your iPhone

Regardless of the controversy, a small Israeli startup isn’t taking any chances. In July, Wise Environment began selling a do-it-yourself kit to protect iPhone owners from radiation. The company claims that its product, dubbed Cell La Vie, reduces electromagnetic exposure from the phone by 98 percent.

The Wise Environment founders are on a mission. “Parents are driving their young kids to use cell phones, to keep in contact,” explains Ronny Gorlicki, Wise Environment’s vice president of business development. “But at the same time, they want to protect them from future problems,” even if it’s not certain that those problems really exist.

At only NIS 179 ($47), Gorlicki feels his product is a worthwhile investment “to defuse the question of what will happen 30 years down the road.”

Cell La Vie can be a bit daunting to install – it’s not a one-click software app, but a physical product – a thin film you apply to the front, back and sides of your iPhone with adhesive. The Cell La Vie kit also includes a spray and pump to make sure your phone is totally clean before you get started. “People are reticent in the beginning, fearful that they’ll screw things up,” Gorlicki says. “But it’s no problem to take it off and do it again. We’ll even send a replacement if necessary.”

Once affixed, the film acts to redirect radiation away from the body. “Inside the phone is an antenna,” Gorlicki explains. “The signal goes in all directions. We had to figure out how we can cover up the points where the radiation would penetrate the phone in the direction of the body while maintaining the quality of the transmission.”

Wise has so far focused only on the iPhone because of the extensive media buzz surrounding the device. “Even people who haven’t bought it are talking about it,” Gorlicki says, noting the “huge awareness in the market of ‘green’ in general and phone radiation in particular. We hear from people ‘I’d held back from buying an iPhone from concern about radiation. Now I just made the order because of your product.’ ”

Since every phone has its antenna in a different place, Wise will have to develop separate films for every type of phone – and for every version. For example, Cell La Vie doesn’t yet work with the iPhone 4, which has an entirely different type of antenna (one that has caused users no end of frustration due to inadvertently dropped calls).

Cell La Vie's Ronny Gorlicki

Wise is also focusing initially on smart phones. “They’re the ones with the higher price tag,” Gorlicki explains, “So people are more ready to invest in safeguarding themselves from radiation.” Smart phones, ironically, can increase their radiation levels as they detect signal strength. The lower the strength, the more the phone has to work to maintain a minimum quality of service, and as a result the radiation increases.

Wise Environment has other radiation-protection products in the pipeline (including one that may actually reduce radiation, not just guard against it) but is progressing slowly. That’s in no small part because the company is entirely bootstrapped; it’s relying now on sales from its iPhone product, which is available in Israel at iDigital’s Apple Stores and the stationary chain Kravitz, to finance future production. Gorlicki is optimistic and says sales are going well, pointing out that “There have already been reorders.”

However, given the company’s scarce cash situation, sales beyond Israel will have to rely on distributors. Gorlicki doesn’t anticipate opening a US or European office in the near future. And even if the patent pending Cell La Vie is as successful as anticipated, Gorlicki says that raising venture capital money will be tough.

He likens the Cell La Vie product to a mezuzah: “You don’t know if it has prevented some hardships or brought good things to you,” he quips. “There’s no immediate gratification in that sense.” He says that the problem is with the VCs, who want to see immediate results.

This is not Gorlicki’s first outing with a product that doesn’t deliver satisfaction on first use. In a previous position at Wizcom, he was in charge of marketing the ‘Quicktionary’ – a digital pen that you run over printed text to translate it into multiple languages. “There was a real learning curve,” Gorlicki recounts, “You had to hold the pen correctly, to start and end it in the right place.”

Cell La Vie is not alone in the market; one of its better-funded competitors is Pong Research, which has been reviewed widely, including in Wired Magazine and The New York Times. But Pong, by its own estimates, only reduces radiation by 60 percent and only from the front of the phone, Gorlicki points out. Both Pong and Wise have had their results verified, in Cell La Vie’s case at MET Labs, a California testing and certification company.

Gorlicki is proud that his product is entirely made in Israel and hopes that even as production ramps up in the future, the company will be able to resist the pressure to export manufacturing to China or another less-expensive location.

He says he would be delighted to cooperate with Tawkon, a company whose product indicates to smart phone users when their radiation levels are too high. They would be a good match because Tawkon detects the radiation and prompts users to take simple actions like “put the phone on speaker,” while Cell La Vie actually does something about the radiation emanating from the unit itself.

Regarding the WHO study, Gorlicki draws attention to the fact that the research was in part funded by the phone companies themselves. The study followed thousands of phone users in 13 countries to see whether people who had brain tumors reported spending more time on cell phones during the previous decade than other people did. The researchers reported that they couldn’t find any cancer correlation with cell phone use.

The study’s main purpose, Gorlicki claims, was to give federal agencies a benchmark of when radiation levels are too high. If the companies stay within those levels, they’re considered ‘kosher.’ But, he says, “we really don’t know how much and how long it would take for someone to reach proportions so high that he or she will get cancer.” Researchers are now considering a new, even longer study of up to 20 years.

Not to mention that cell phone usage has increased dramatically and phones have advanced technologically in the 10 years since the study was started. What might have been considered ‘average’ use in 2000 would pale in comparison with teenage cell phone use in 2010.

Perhaps the ideal scenario for Cell La Vie would be cooperation with, or acquisition by a cell phone manufacturer or operator. But Gorlicki isn’t optimistic: “They don’t want to have anything to do with it,’ he says, explaining that involvement could be construed as an admission that cell phone use might not be 100% safe.

Even with Cell La Vie’s protective film in place, cell phones still pose a danger – to your neighbor. Gorlicki compares phone radiation to secondhand smoke. “You could be getting secondhand radiation from the guy sitting next to you in a restaurant talking on his cell phone,” he warns. Will there eventually be cell phone-free environments, he wonders.

Beyond being potentially dangerous to bystanders, Gorlicki reminds us that cell phone use requires “good hygiene.” Even if you’re using a corded headset, you don’t want to stuff your phone in your pocket while you talk. The phone still emits the same amount of radiation. Holding it away from your body or placing it on a table is the safest bet.

Gorlicki is doing his best to live in his own ‘wise’ environment – the company’s headquarters are in his home just off of the HaBonim beach south of Haifa, in northern Israel. “I wake up and take the dogs on a walk near the shore,” he says. “What a way to start the day when you’re working for an environmentally conscious company.”

This article appeared last week on Israel21c, a great site for exploring Israel “beyond the conflict.” Check it out!


Social Media Finds a Home in Wibiya’s New Toolbar

October 9, 2010

From ‘Facebook-like’ buttons to embedded YouTube videos and interactive chat, it’s rare to find a website these days that doesn’t beckon you to share your thoughts with everyone you’re connected to. But for website owners, adding all that social interaction takes time and, if you’re not a programmer, copying and pasting esoteric HTML and JavaScript […]

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Getting Away from Technology

September 6, 2010

I wrote in an earlier post about how human beings aren’t built to truly multitask – an action we increasingly rely on to parse all the data coming at us from the web or our mobile devices. New research is trying to figure out not only what happens psychologically when we try to do two […]

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