Down to the Wire in New Jersey

Off-year elections rarely make headlines, especially in the United States, where just over half of all eligible voters cast ballots in presidential elections and barely one-third vote in state and congressional elections. But as American voters prepare to go to the polls on November 3, Democratic and Republican eyes alike are focused on one race that might in other years seem insignificant on a national scale: The gubernatorial race in New Jersey.

At first glance, it is hard to see just why the New Jersey race has grabbed national headlines. In many ways, there is little unique about the state – with a huge budget deficit ($ 8 billion), surging unemployment (currently at 9.7 percent) and some of the highest taxes in the country, it bears striking resemblance to New York, California and several more states around the country.

And yet New Jersey is in the news. Even Virginia, the only other gubernatorial election being held this year, has failed to garner the same national attention as the Garden State: An internet search for “Virginia governor election” returned a fraction of the same search with the words “New Jersey.” How come?

One reason is Chris Christie, the Republican challenger and a former US prosecutor. Christie, a native New Jerseyan and life-time resident of the state, has enjoyed a large lead in state polls since beating Steven M. Lonegan for the Republican nomination last summer. Even though Governor Jon Corzine has narrowed that gap (as Mishpacha went to press the two candidates were virtually tied in the polls), the fact that Christie held a large lead for so many months is no small feat for a solidly “blue” statethat Barak Obama won by more than 500,000 votes over John McCain last year. It is no exaggeration to say that at the end of 2008, many people left the GOP for dead.

One analyst, Michael Fragin, said the resurrection of the Republican Party in New Jersey has as much to do with Democratic infighting as it does with Republican comeback. 

“You’ve got an interesting undercurrent amongst Democrats in New Jersey,” said Fragin a veteran political observer a former aide to ex-New York Governor George Pataki. “There are a number of ugly leadership fights, including a nasty one between State Assembly Speaker Joseph J. Roberts, Jr. and Senate President Richard J. Codey, as well as some tension between upstate – downstate regions of the party. There’s a lot of disarray there. 

Referendum on Obama?

Beyond issues of local politics, some national observers have debated the possibility that the New Jersey election could be a preview next year’s mid-term elections, when nationwide 36 governors, 37 senators and all 435 members of the House of Representatives will face re-election. Mid-term elections are generally believed to be a referendum on the president’s job performance, but it is unclear whether this off-year (as opposed to ‘mid term’) election has any national significance. Michael Fragin says “yes,” but only if Corzine wins.

“State elections are usually about state issues, not national ones. But I’d have to say, if Christie can pull this one out, it’s a comment on Obama. But if Corzine is re-elected, it’s a statement about Corzine, not about Obama.

Predictably, some Republicans disagree. One senior GOP official dismissed the “referendum” out-of-hand: “If Jon Corzine can’t win here after spending more than $40 million, I think it is hard to blame it on Barack Obama,” he said.

Bi-partisan support

For New Jersey’s 100,000 Orthodox Jews, the result of the election has clear implications. Orthodox leaders across the board agree that Governor Corzine has “generously” tried to accommodate the unique needs of the frum community, in a variety of areas.

“As governor, Jon Corzine has pushed for and signed some of the most progressive  legislation to benefit our community,” said Josh Pruzansky, the head of Agudath Israel – New Jersey. “Today, thing such as kashrus, shabbos and yom tov observance and other critical issues are enshrined in law. State employees cannot be fired or penalized for taking time off for weekday holidays, teachers and university professors must accommodate students that refuse to take Saturday morning exams, state elections cannot be scheduled on Jewish holidays, and more. If a person is hospitalised on Shabbos, he cannot be compelled to sign anything. Nursing homes must provide kosher food for their residents. Obviously, these are very important issues to us.”

Meir Lichtenstein, a Democratic member of the Lakewood Township Committee and a former mayor of Lakewood, agrees.

“There is a general feeling in our community of gratitude towards the governor,” he told Mishpacha. “I’ve personally had opportunity to work with Jon many times on a great number of issues, and he has always been there to help our community obtain funding for medical issues, helped us navigate planning red-tape when the Lakewood Township was planning to deal with growth in the city and helped us approach the commissioner of health to approve a pilot program for Hatzolah in Lakewood.  It’s the first private paramedic outfit in the state.”

Still, it is far from clear cut that Corzine will win the Orthodox vote come Election Day. His support for the “pro-life” movement and some socially liberal ballot issues such as single-gender “marriage,” and the governor has emphasized his close relationship with President Obama – a positive in most New Jersey eyes, but a definite negative for a large portion of the Orthodox community.

More importantly, Corzine he has made clear that be does not support one of the most important issues facing the largest frum community in the country outside New York: public funding for yeshivos and Jewish day schools, something that Christie supports (but has failed to outline plans that would satisfy the US constitutional separation of religion and state). With more than 27,000 children enrolled in private Jewish education in New Jersey, at an average cost of $10,000 per child, school vouchers and or tuition tax credits for private education  is a burning issue for many people.

Then again, many voters are simply itching for change, especially in a state that many people believe has become synonymous with “corruption.” Andrew Schwartz, a tax accountant from Clifton and a 15 year resident of New Jersey, said many or even most New Jerseyans are simply fed up with politics as usual in the state.

 “People are so cynical about politics and the corruption in the state at this point that they don’t trust anyone,” he said. “To me Corzine is just another executive who can buy elections and then raise taxes on everyone. It’s your standard limousine liberal fare. ‘I can afford my tax bill to subsidize the morass of state programs and municipal pensions, why can’t everyone else?”


At the end of the day, the final piece of the puzzle may rest in the hands of Chris Daggett, a 59-year-old independent candidate who is not expected to win the race but who has set both the Corzine and Christie campaigns on edge. As Mishpacha went to press, some polls suggested Daggett could win as much as 17 percent of the vote on Election Day, a number that makes it unlikely that he could achieve an upset victory but could position him to play the role of spoiler for one of the main candidates. Again, analysts disagree which major candidate is likely to suffer because of Daggett.

But Daggett rejects the notion that a vote for an independent candidate might be wasted, telling CBS News, “I am beginning to convince people that the only wasted vote this year is the vote for politics as usual.”

© Mishpacha magzine 2009




Visiting VC head slams Israeli government

Israel has emerged in recent years as a world leader in a variety of industries, from technology to outsourcing to homeland security and more. But one US-based investor told the Jerusalem Conference Tuesday the country’s economic success has come despite an alarming level of governance. 

“Israel boasts many advantages for foreign investors,” said Ken Abramowitz, Managing Partner and co-founder of NGN Capital, “including terrific universities, a wealth of experienced managers, quality engineers and scientists, well-trained physicians and more. But I have never seen a lower caliber of government than you have in this country. Your foreign ministry is staffed with low quality people and a low quality leader (Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni). The Supreme Court is a collection of far-left activists who then appoint more far-left activists to join them on the bench. It feels like all the smart people in the country have started their own companies, and the rest have been left to run the country.”  

Despite what he called of government obstacles, Abramowitz praised Israel for what some have called a “vibrant business climate” and said the country is one of the top three countries in the world for new pharmaceutical companies, start-ups that successfully list on international stock exchanges, and added that Israel boasts one of the world’s highest ratios of start-up investment per capita. He also told the packed audience his firm plans to raise $350 million by the end of 2008, and that the fund plans to raise its investment in Israel from two percent to ten percent, in a range of start-up companies that will include medical firms and more. 

While heaping praise on Israel, Abramowitz cautioned that too much venture capital money comes from abroad, and he encouraged wealthy Israelis and pension funds to do more to cement the local economy. In addition, he said there are too few local giants ready to purchase start-up companies for what he called “big money.” He also called for Israel to push annual growth rates from five to ten percent, saying the additional cash would help prevent exorbitant gaps between rich and poor, and would ensure appropriate funding levels for social and military programs.  

United Jerusalem 

Jerusalem‘s role as the undisputed capital of Israel and the Jewish people also played a role in the session. A majority of Israelis and Jews around the world may oppose the re-division of Jerusalem, but Session Chairman Harvey Werblowsky, cautioned that economic development in the capital is the surest way to ensure the city remains united under Israeli sovereignty.  

“It’s simple, really: The stronger Jerusalem is as an economic center, the harder it would be to divide the city,” he said.Werblowsky also said foreign businesspeople such as IDT chief Howard Jonas have looked to remove economic barriers for Americans who want to make aliyah while at the same time securing top-notch employees for a global market. He said the trend would continue in Jerusalem and the rest of the country, and that the technology and outsourcing sectors have made Israel a major force in the global economy.

Hareidi Women: Driving Employment and Growth

A major focus of the session concentrated on developments in the ultra-Orthodox (hareidi) community. Eli Kazhdan, CEO of Citibook Services, said his company has built outsourcing plants in ultra-Orthodox towns such as Modi’in Ilite (Kiryat Sefer) and Beitar Ilite, providing hundreds of jobs for observant women in an atmosphere that conforms to the sensibilities and expectations of that community.  

“We’ve got separate seating for men and women, work hours that are compatible for women with large families, and other conditions that make it comfortable for religious women to work for us,” he said.  Since Citibook began operating in Kiryat Sefer in 2003, Kazhdan said there has been a quiet revolution in ultra-Orthodox circles: Whereas there were virtually no businesses in the town in 2003, nine companies now operate there, employing representatives from approximately 900 families.  

Kazhdan credited important developments in Israel for the change – reduced child welfare benefits by the National Insurance Institute, and the quiet but definite trend for leading rabbis to suggest married women start to work to support their often large families. He said there are several reasons that outsourcing to religious communities is a winning proposition for foreign companies. 

“We cannot and don’t want to compete with India,” he said. “Even if we wanted to, we could never match them in price. But Israel offers many things that India doesn’t – American, mother-tongue English, fine cultural points, superior industry proficiency in a range of sectors. 

“In addition, cultural norms in the religious community are uniquely suited to business success. The work ethic for a woman in this community is so strong that people ask us to dock their pay because they stepped out of the office for ten minutes to make a personal phone call. These are not women who are popping out of the office every half-hour to talk on the phone or have a smoke. They take the issue of gezel zman – time theft – very seriously and you can be sure they are working hard from the minute they sit down until the minute they leave,” he said.

Stolen Holocaust art at Israel Museum

 The Israel Museum opened two new exhibitions of Holocaust-era art Monday, giving light to nearly 100 paintings and Jewish ceremonial artifacts stolen by Nazi looters during the Second World War.

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, Marriage Portrait of Charlotte von Rothschild

Hundreds of Jerusalemites braved a blustery, cold night and a weather forecast of snow to attend the gala opening of “Looking for Owners: Custody, Research and Restitution of Art Stolen in France during World War II.” The exhibit includes 58 paintings by some of the biggest names in European art, representing hundreds of years and a wide variety of painting styles and topics. Paintings include non-Jewish works by artists such as Paul Cézanne and Édouard Manet, as well as Jewish painters such as Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann and others.

Israel Museum officials stress that while most of the art was stolen from Jewish collectors and private homes, some of the works were taken from French non-Jews and culture institutions. Many were sold in “legitimate” commercial transactions for prices far below market value or in forced sales. Following the war, many pieces were returned to France, but restoring the material to the rightful owners proved impossible because many or most of the original owners were killed, both in concentration camps and as a direct result of the war.

Marc Chagall, The Rabbi

Superior Aryan Culture

In a gallery featuring many priceless masterpieces, one of the most sobering features of the exhibition is a series of eight photographs documenting the theft of French art. There are images of hundreds of classic paintings, boxed up and awaiting shipment to Germany, one shows the walls of the Paris Central Train Station laden with fine art, and another shows a similar view of the private homes of some Nazi higher-ups. And of course, no exhibition on Holocaust-era theft would be complete without images of stolen Torah scrolls and other Judaica.

As with many things Nazi-related, the numbers are astounding. From April 1941 to July 1944, 138 railcars were packed with 4,174 cases of stolen artwork and shipped to Germany – an average of more than three per month. In all, more than 22,000 objects were taken during this period, some of the nearly 60,000 pieces of art looted during the war. 

Museum officials consider the “second” exhibition, entitled “Orphaned Art: Looted Art from the Holocuast,” to be secondary in importance to the French exhibit, but in many ways it is more descriptive of every day Jewish life in prewar Europe than the primary exhibition. With more than 50 Jewish ceremonial objects, paintings, books and prints, all stolen from Jewish families throughout the Third Reich, the artifacts are stunning in their simplicity. Museum Director James Snyder said many of the objects, particularly the Judaica, would not be considered “valuable” in the international art marketplace, but nonetheless they are an important record of the history of European Jewry.

Torah Crown, Alsace, France

Decade-long Effort

In addition to providing a non-traditional history of the Holocaust period in France, the exhibit highlights one of the most painful subjects for survivors of the tragedy: restitution and poverty. Museum sources say efforts to bring the exhibit to Jerusalem have been under way for more than a decade, but have hit stumbling blocks along the way from French authorities and culture institutions such as the Musées Nationaux Récupération (MNR), the current custodian of many of the French works, who were concerned about possible restitution claims by Holocaust survivors in Israel.

The concern was not unfounded: In the mid-1990s a legal battle surrounding a loan by Austria’s Leopold Foundation to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art caused  Attorney General Robert Morgenthau to prevent the return of several paintings by early 20th century artist Egon Schiele to Austria because of claims by two families that exhibits in the show belonged to their relatives murdered during by the Nazis. The New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest legal authority, eventually decided against the plaintiffs, but the case set a precedent for future claims.

In order to host the exhibition, the Israel Museum pushed the Knesset to the Immunity from Seizure Law preventing survivors or heirs from claiming ownership of the property. The controversial bill became law in 2007, and museum officials say that many of the law’s detractors eventually came to support the law, for a variety of reasons.

“The law is important because there was no way France was going to agree to let us host this exhibition here,” said Dena Scher, the Israel Museum Foreign Press Officer. “People began to realize that if we don’t pass the law we are never going to see these paintings.”

Furthermore, Scher said the law is a positive one that moves not only to protect the rights of Holocaust survivors, but also provides a mechanism to facilitate potential claims.

“The law only says that survivors can’t lay claim to the art HERE in Israel. But it also stipulates that the lending country, in this case France, must have a functioning body to adjudicate survivor claims. France does – there is a tribunal that meets once or twice a year to listen to claims.

“In addition, we had to publish the works at least one month before the exhibition, to allow the public to survey the works and file claims if they had any. All the works in this show were put on the Justice Ministry website on December 28 and stayed there for a month. No claims were made, and the material was prepared for shipment at the end of last month,” she said.

The joint exhibition is set to run through June 3. A follow-up show is scheduled at the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme over the summer.

Teenage Girls Released from Prison

The Jerusalem District Court ordered the release Monday of three teenage girls who refused to identify themselves to court officials for nearly a month. The girls were released without condition. 

The girls, aged 13 to 15, were arrested in late December at Givat Ha’Or, a nascent hilltop community near the Samaria town of Beit El, and charged with entering a closed military zone. Since then, they have refused to identify themselves and refused to sign release documents banning them from re-entering Givat Ha’Or. They also say they reject the jurisdiction of the Israeli court system because it does not operate according to the rules of halakha (Jewish law).  

The trio were imprisoned in the Neve Tirza womens’ prison in Ramle and refused parental visits and phone calls. According to some news reports, prison authorities consistently failed to inform the girls’ parents of remand extension hearings at the Jerusalem Magistrates Court, and the prisoners were brought to court through a side door in order to prevent contact with their parents.  

Michael Ben-Chorin, father of 15-year-old Ayala, told Israel National News he was “overjoyed” to learn of the girls’ release, and said the past month has increased his admiration for daughter many times over. “The girls have paid a very steep price for their beliefs,” he said, “but they remained strong throughout. I wouldn’t necessarily have sent her out to do what she did, but once she made her decision, we supported her completely. We’ve raised her to believe in Eretz Yisrael and she’s totally committed to continuing in our footsteps. I couldn’t be any prouder.”  

Ben Chorin said the girls were denied many basic rights granted to prisoners in all democratic societies, including phone and visitation privileges. He said his first substantive phone conversation with Ayala was on January 16 – more than two weeks after her arrest. Before that, he said, contact was limited to 10-to-15 second phone calls.

He also singled out the mainstream media, saying the girls’ plight was roundly ignored, and the National Council for the Child, saying the Council failed to meet his expectations. “It wouldn’t be fair to say the National Council for the Child didn’t do anything to help us,” he said, “but at least in public, their support was lukewarm at best. I would have expected (NCC head Dr.) Yitzhak Kadman to raise hell in the media – not to get them out of jail, but to make sure they received the minimum rights that all prisoners in Israel are entitled to.” 

Kadman rejected Ben Chorin’s criticism out of hand, and told Arutz Sheva he has been criticized by left-wing groups for acting in support of the girls. “The moment we found out (about the arrests), we were the first group to get in touch. We formally asked prosecutors to release them, we have been in constant touch with state and local prosecutors and with the police to try and get the girls out of jail. I’ve published open letters in (left-wing Hebrew-language daily) Haaretz calling for the girls’ release, as well as on Arutz Sheva. I’ve been occupied with the issue non-stop for the past 10 days, and the media has covered it. So I think it’s a bit unfair to be attacked by one side for trying to help, and the other side for failing to do anything.”

Jerusalem: Songs, Prayers and a Human Chain

More than 2,000 people braved intermittent showers and cool temperatures Tuesday to form a human chain along the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in order to send a clear, loud message to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush ahead of the latter’s visit to Israel: Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Israel and the Jewish People, and must not be divided.

The protest, organized by the One Jerusalem organization, included a cross-cultural and cross-generational mix of native and immigrant Israelis, yeshiva students, professionals and blue-collar workers, Jerusalemites and residents of nearly every section of the country. Dozens of participants carried large Israeli flags as organizers stretched flag strings along the Old City wall near Jaffa Gate and passed out gold ribbons – an echo of the orange ribbons associated with the anti-disengagement campaign two-and-a-half years ago. The new ribbons are intended to show solidarity with Jerusalem as a united city and Israel’s capital.

Of course, no protest rally would be complete without appearances by politicians and other public figures, and Tuesday’s gathering was no exception. Notable figures in the rain included former Prisoner of Zion and former Knesset Member Natan Sharansky, current MK Yisrael Katz, Jerusalem City Council Member Nir Barkat and Yechiel Leiter, a former Chief of Staff to Binyamin Netanyahu, One Jerusalem spokesman and veteran Yesha leader.

As the human chain broke into a short rally in favor of united Jerusalem, Leiter stirred the already-energized crowd by quoting former Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert’s comments from a protest rally held on January 8, 2001 – eight years to the day (according to the Gregorian calendar) before Tuesday’s gathering. Then, Olmert pleaded with then-President Bill Clinton not to pressure Israel into dividing Jerusalem: “Please, Mr. President. Do not lend your hand to dividing Jerusalem,” he said.

Organizers estimate that 400,000 people attended that rally, making it the largest demonstration the capital has ever seen.

Leiter continued to denounce the current prime minister for not only agreeing to divide the Holy City, but for asking for Bush’s help to implement the plan, and said a majority of Israelis opposed such a move.

“We are here to tell President Bush that Ehud Olmert does not represent the Israeli public with regard to Jerusalem,” he told the crowd. “We are also here to tell our own parliamentarians that we will be watching. In two weeks the Knesset Laws Committee will begin debating a law to require a special parliamentary majority of 80 MKs to approve any changes to Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries. We will be watching to see who votes in favor of the law, who votes against and who abstains. And we will act accordingly on Election Day.” 

Leiter’s words clearly found a mark with many audience members. 19-year-old Elisha Breningstall, a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota who now studies at the Netiv Aryeh yeshiva next door to the Western Wall, cited both historical and security reasons for coming to the rally.

“I am 100 percent against giving up any part of the Land of Israel, especially in Jerusalem,” he told Israel National News. “For 19 years, the Jordanians controlled our holiest places, and no Jews were allowed to set foot on them. Today, Moslems can visit al-Aqsa Mosque whenever they want. How could we even think about reverting to the former scenario?

“Furthermore,” he said, “look at what’s happened in Sderot. We gave away our land and now there is a constant rain of Kassam rockets on the city. It’s a direct result of disengagement.”

In contrast to many, or even most, political protest rallies, the event had something of a non-political feel, perhaps due to the presence of hundreds of teenagers from Jerusalem and around the country. Many sang songs about Jerusalem and there was even a bit of dancing despite the rain, giving the event a marked sense of joy and celebration, rather than the anger that often grips “traditional” political rallies.

One group of ninth-grade girls who traveled by bus from Rechovot to attend the rally were clearly in awe of the fact they were standing in the shadow of the Jerusalem; another group of teenaged boys organized a minyan (prayer group) for the afternoon service. One man in his fifties or sixties wore a shirt declaring, “I am a settler from Givatayim,” referring to a middle-class suburb of Tel Aviv. An uninitiated passer-by could easily have come away with the impression that several thousand people had spontaneously gathered to celebrate Jerusalem, rather than come to deliver a potent political message.

At the end of the day, the most compelling message of the afternoon did not come from the central stage or from any of the polished speeches by accomplished public figures in attendance. Rather, the centrality of Jerusalem to the Jewish people was best expressed by 14-year-old Frima Bubis, a resident of the capital’s Har Nof neighborhood.

“The reality of what our soldiers went through so that we could be here today,” she told Arutz Sheva, “is why I’m here today. When you live in Jerusalem, it’s easy to forget about it or to get all caught up in politics. But when you think about what it was like before those critical six days (the 1967 Six Day War), what they went through for us – it really hits home, and brings the point home for a lot of people.”

In Sderot, defiance and defeat

By Dina Kraft and Andrew Friedman

After enduring years of rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip and no end in sight, the residents of Sderot contemplate whether to stay or leave and the town’s crippled businesses survive on hope and loans.

SDEROT, Israel (JTA) — Once a sleepy Negev town, Sderot has become a place where residents take sedatives to get through the days and sleeping pills to make it through the nights.

After seven years of rocket fire from the nearby Gaza Strip and no end in sight, the ceaseless barrage is pitting husbands against wives over the decision of whether or not to stay and leaving crippled businesses to survive on hope and loans.

Many of those who can afford to have left.

About 4,000 of the town’s 23,500 people have moved out in the past two years, according to municipal figures. Many more say they would leave if they could.

According to a recent poll published in Yediot Achronot, 64 percent of Sderot’s residents would go if given the financial assistance.

“There are people who are selling, but there is no one to buy,” said Yakov Levy, a realtor in town. “People cannot go, so they feel stuck. If only they could sell their homes they would go.”

Home prices have fallen by 50 percent, Levy said, with the cheapest apartments on the market for just $15,000 and the most expensive houses for about $200,000. Prices were nearly double that in 2000, before the daily rocket fire began.

“We are suffering, not just me, but all of us. The strong ones left, the weaker stay on and everyone complains,” Levy said. “We are waiting for better days but do not see a solution because things have gone on for so long now. If the situation continues, however, the only things left standing here will be the buildings.”

After seven years of ongoing rocket fire, residents of this working-class town seem divided between defiant and defeated.

Although they all speak of the power of Sderot’s close-knit community, some talk openly about their desire to leave to regain some semblance of a normal life. Others say that despite the difficulties, the only home they know is Sderot and to abandon it would show the Palestinians firing the rockets that Israelis’ spirit can be broken.

Last week, Palestinians in Gaza fired an Iranian-made Katyusha rocket that reached Ashkelon, a city of some 120,000 about eight miles north of the strip. The rocket served as a reminder that Sderot is not alone in the danger zone around Gaza.

Sderot’s economic downturn began when it became the target of constant Kassam rocket fire from Gaza. The attacks, which intensified after Israel withdrew from Gaza in August 2005, have thus far claimed 13 Israeli lives.

The damage to residents’ psyches, homes, businesses and families has been far reaching.

Between 20 to 30 percent of businesses in Sderot and surrounding areas have shut down, said Daniel Dahan, a supermarket owner who heads an organization of local businesspeople. Overall sales at the stores that remain open have dropped by nearly 50 percent, he said.

Dahan says families are struggling to get by on reduced salaries and many find themselves divided over whether to stay or leave Sderot.

Often the husband will have taken out several loans and dipped heavily into family savings to keep the business afloat. The wife, distressed at the mounting debt and the danger to their children from the rocket fire, pushes for leaving.

Stories of divorce have become common here, Dahan says.

“What happens is that a business owner comes into work and finds it difficult to manage things because of the pressures from home, concerns over the children and his workers,” Dahan said, describing how the security situation creates a ripple effect of stress. “The wife wants to leave and the husband does not want to because of the business, and the wife says, ‘If something happens to the kids it will be your fault.’ ”

He said the ramifications of the economic crisis have slowly begun to sink in.

“It’s like an illness that has taken over us. At first we businesspeople did not believe it could kill us off,” Dahan said. “We have lived like patients who have been warned of health hazards by our doctor, but now we feel like we have had the heart attack.

“Some of us who have businesses feel it is a condition we can live with and take another loan. Others understand it’s a deadly disease and we have no choice but to walk away.”

Shimon, a grocer in Sderot’s open-air market, says he doesn’t want assistance to leave; he wants the government to strike back at the militant groups in Gaza.

“I’ve been working in the market for more than 30 years,” he told JTA. “I’m not going anywhere now. I raised my four kids here; my wife’s family is from Sderot. There’s nowhere else for us to go.

“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in eight years. I bolt awake at the slightest movement or noise outside the house. I just want the government to make sure that we can get back to living like normal people.”

Israel has stepped up its strikes in recent weeks against Gaza militants, particularly those firing rockets at Israelis and smuggling in weaponry, but the government remains wary of a large-scale invasion of Gaza. A major incursion could cost Israel heavily in terms of its soldiers’ lives, Palestinian civilian lives and international credibility. It also would not put an end to the rocket fire, analysts warn.

Atara Orenbouch and her husband, Orthodox Jews originally from the center of the country, moved to Sderot nine years ago. They said they moved to try to make a difference in the community. Both are educators — she teaches computer science and her husband is a yeshiva principal. They have four children.

Orenbouch says she tries to do all her family’s shopping in Sderot.

“There have been economically terrible times,” she said, recounting a period last spring when a particularly heavy period of rocket barrages sent many residents out of town. “I went to the supermarket and it was empty. I saw a man throwing away unsold vegetables and there were no lines.”

Orenbouch’s children now all sleep in bunk beds in the family’s “safe room,” which is made of reinforced concrete to protect against the crude Kassam rockets.

She says she and her neighbors are doing their best to persevere and stay, but the fear of being caught by a rocket and the question of where to run for cover is never far away.

“It gets to you. You think about it all the time — at synagogue, at lunch with friends,” Orenbouch said. “You are always thinking: If there were an alarm now, where would the safest place be to hide?”

Katyusha Barrage in Akko

AKKO, Israel – It’s an eerie feeling driving north these days from Tel Aviv. Traffic thins consistently on the coastal road, and by the time you get to Haifa there is nary a car on the road.

It is no exaggeration to say the current barrage of Katushya rockets from Lebanon has turned the cities of northern Israel into ghost towns. The streets are virtually empty; most shops are closed, save for the odd makolet (corner store) or falafel stand,

The emptiness is downright eerie. Getting out of the car or stepping out of an air conditioned office (with reinforced rooms upstairs and air conditioned shelters downstairs), into the hot, muggy, late-July weather is disconcerting: The empty streets and tension in the air make it seem like a scene out of a horror movie. You see the sunshine from the window, but still expect to step out into a dark, cloudy night, with rain and a threatening, spooky wind.

Stark reality 

Even the best bomb shelters in Akko, a mixed Jewish-Arab town about 20 minutes north of Haifa that has suffered dozens of katuyushas are a grim sight: run down, crowded and stinking, stinking hot. 

The “good” ones, at least, may have a TV or a ping pong table to pass the time, maybe even air conditioning to help break the heat. Less good ones have nothing to sit on, let alone air conditioning. Most are stark and bare, with little furniture and even less to do. 

Despite media reports that the home front is “strong,” people are clearly scared, and with good reason. The Katushyas strike indiscriminately, and even though people are relatively safe down in the shelters, the bombs are clearly audible and close enough to make the shelters shake. People are worried about their neighbors, homes, cars, and about the overall question that has gripped the country for the last two weeks: “What is going to happen next?” 

Back and forth 

Most people have been running from home to shelter and back again since the bombing began. That’s possible, if annoying, for the young and healthy, but far more of a problem for single mothers, the handicapped and the elderly.

In a squalid tenement not far from Akko’s old city, Sarah Rahmano, a frightened woman in her mid-40s brings her 85-year-old mother downstairs in the morning, and that’s it: They don’t leave again all day, apart from a single odd jaunt by the daughter to bring food from the apartment.

 In different circumstances the scene in the shelter could be a ladies’ game of cards or mah jong, but even on a “light” day (there had “only” been two sirens and seven or eight katyushas on Akko by the time we visited) the women had difficulty concentrating on more than what has come to be known here as “the situation.”

“Where do you want us to go,” said Rahmano when asked why she didn’t leave the area for safer regions of the country. “My mother here isn’t well enough to travel, my children live in the area, I’ve lived here for 29 years, since I emigrated from Baku. And I don’t have anywhere to go, even if we could travel,” she said.

Although most people are trying to stick close to their local shelters, it isn’t hard to see how people get hurt. Even for those spending most of their time “downstairs,” it simply isn’t possible to stay in a bomb shelter all day. People have to run out for something to eat, a quick shower, maybe a walk around the block.  Once the siren sounds, there are somewhere between 30-90 seconds until the bombs start falling – hardly enough time to get out of the shower and take cover four floors downstairs.

And that’s only for the people that leave. There is usually someone crying somewhere in most shelters, especially when they hear the bombs falling outside. One woman was so shaken she couldn’t pronounce her name for this reporter or answer questions about how long she’d been in the shelter. Other people said she hadn’t stepped outside in a week.

Welcome break

Because of the stress, visits by Chabad-Lubavitch teams are a welcome break. Part of the reason is practical – this particular day a team led by the head of Akko’s Chabad House, Rabbi Natan Yitzhak Auerlichman, passes out more than 1,000 sandwiches to people not only under physical attack, but who were hardly in a strong financial state even before the war forced them to take the past three weeks (and counting) off work.

The people are happy to receive the sandwiches, but according to Rabbi Yosef Makmal, the assistant director of Chabad-Akko Rabbi Auerlichman, food is clearly not the main issue.

“Just being there with people, for people, makes all the difference in the world. People – Jews and Arabs alike – receive us here with open arms because they know we care,” said.

Rabbi Auerlichman agreed, and added that the confidence and happiness of Chabad representatives rub off on people in the shelters.

“I don’t believe any of this is a punishment from G-d,” he said. “It is all part of the signs that moshiach is coming. Of course, I believe we have a Father in heaven who loves us and wants only to do what is in our best interest. People see that we aren’t scared, and it helps them relax as well.”

In truth, “relax” may not always be the right word. In at least one shelter, the rabbis were whisked off for a round of dancing and singing as yet another siren sounded outside, followed by group repetition of central Torah phrases such as Shema Yisrael (affirming G-d’s unity) and “Moses commanded us to keep the Torah” (Deut. 33:4). Of course, men who wanted to were encouraged to put on tefillin.

Rabbi Auerlichman said that while that reaction may not exactly be typical, it is certainly not unheard of. And even without the dancing and singing, he said people are always happy to see Chabad emissaries show up, for several reasons.

“I’d say there are three reasons we are able to connect with people,” he said. “One, we are here all year round. We don’t fly in when the action starts.

“Two,” he said, “we are honest and straightforward. We care about people and their well-being, no matter who they are. We aren’t putting anything on. And third, people can feel the Rebbe’s blessing. They know he is with us in everything we do, and it gives people strength.”

Still, the material support offered by Chabad is important. Most public bomb shelters have been neglected for years, and lack basic supplies such as air conditioners, baby food, diapers and more. Rabbi Auerlichman even said he has received requests for help from several municipalities in the area, who said Chabad was better equipped than city hall to respond to people’s needs.

That is apparent at a run-down shelter further inland. There are no chairs, tables, televisions, and the only relief from the heat is a fan one woman, Shoshana, brought from her home across the street.

“We called the Akko municipality to try and get some chairs or air conditioning here, just something to make this hell a bit more livable. They couldn’t have cared less; all they said was ‘sorry, we’ve got no time for you,’ “she said.

 While Shoshana and neighbor Zahava Yossikovitch were thankful to receive several sandwiches each from Rabbis Auerlichman and Makmal, it is hard to say they were “happy” as they loitered tensely outside their neglected shelter with a smattering of small children. A patient Rabbi Auerlichman took mental notes of the things they needed, and the visit clearly served to relieve some of the stress.

 But there is only so much that one visit can accomplish, and demand in such places is higher than can possibly be totally fulfilled. Shoshana said she had no choice but to continue making the dash across the street several times a day, but that she looked forward to the end.

 “We’ll keep dashing, and keep praying,” she said. “What else can we do?”