Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

El Al has experienced a lot of growing pains and financial losses. But we need it.

Last week, as the missiles continued to land in Israel from Gaza, I sat bleary-eyed at Ben-Gurion Airport, waiting to board my 3 a.m. flight to Newark. At Gate D8 in an eerily quiet airport, I drew one step closer to clarifying my complicated lifelong relationship with El Al Airlines.

My love/hate relationship with El Al started in the late 70s with my childhood rabbi-led ZOA mission and bar mitzvah trip. This flight to Israel was also my first time flying anywhere. It was important to fly El Al, we were told over and over again, since they had “the best security.”

I flew El Al on my summer teen trip at age 16, and for my college year in Israel for the same reason – even if the food, customer service and entertainment console left a bit to be desired. I began to suspect there were other options. Tower, for example, flew to Israel from 1983 to 2000. People seemed willing to forgo El Al security to save a few bucks. Some college friends even flew as couriers – traveling without any luggage so they could carry packages for others. Those days are long gone. And Tower no longer exists – they declared bankruptcy and were liquidated. I stuck with El Al for years, though ticket prices seemed to also include a certain unique El Al experience and attitude that was not for the weak. Only on El Al fights would flight attendants scream at, then allow religious passengers to congregate at the back of the plane to pray in a minyan, or socialize with passengers – comparing notes about growing up in Holon or serving in the IDF “with your sister.”

As an adult, I made the switch to real airlines like United, Delta or American. How convenient to take a flight directly from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv on American!

While the many Birthright trips I have led meant flying on Israel’s national airline, I felt liberated flying these other airlines on pleasure trips. These airlines could also provide kosher meals, they had better entertainment consoles, frequent flyer programs that made sense and were fair, competitive prices, and they could keep haredi passengers in check – patiently and skillfully handling the occasional passenger who refused to be seated next to a woman.

In my recent first post-COVID flight to Israel, United Airlines was clean, flight attendants enforced mask rules for everyone, and they even boldly announced, “If anyone needs to daven during the flight, please do it in your seat sitting down; do not congregate at the back of the plane.” 

Everyone listened.

I began to think it might be possible to never fly El Al again. Then, Operation Guardian of the Walls started. 

Immediately, all of the other airlines suspended service to and from Israel. Who kept flying? El Al! At first, they outsmarted Hamas by flying into Ramon International Airport in Eilat, and busing passengers the 313 km (3½ hours) to Ben-Gurion Airport. Within days, they resumed service into and out of Ben-Gurion. El Al shuttled passengers to and from Newark and JFK, Tbilisi, Zagreb, Addis Ababa and the Seychelles. 

For a week, they were one of the only airlines flying. My United flight was canceled twice. Loyal customers of Delta, United and American began to consider other options if they wanted to leave Israel. There was essentially only one option – El Al. As the bar mitzvah of my long-time students rapidly approached, even I jumped ship and got one of the last tickets on LY 25, El Al’s 3 a.m. flight on Wednesday morning.

As I waited for our 2:10 a.m. boarding time, it occurred to me just what makes El Al unique. El Al is the sabra of airlines. They are prickly on the outside – a bit rough with customers and not the best with customer service – but they have heart of gold, or at least a rich history and unwavering commitment to bringing Jews to and from the Promised Land.

They have been doing so since September 1948 when EL AL operated its maiden flight, bringing home Israel’s first president, Haim Weizmann, from a diplomatic visit to Geneva. In 1949, El Al participated in Operation Magic Carpet, bringing Jews of Yemen to Israel. In May 1960, EL Al transported the famous Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem for the Eichmann Trial. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, EL AL continued flying and assisted in airlifting military equipment.

In 1991, EL Al participated in Operation Solomon, transporting thousands of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. Ever complained about lack of legroom on an EL AL flight? Remember that one of El Al’s flights from Ethiopia reportedly carried more than 1,088 people, including two babies who were born on the flight. 

El Al has experienced a lot of growing pains and financial losses since then. But this past week taught me a valuable lesson. We need El Al. They have managed to stay in the air through tough times, and they might just be taking steps toward becoming a real airline. 

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Original Article in Jewish Ledger:

Every year, I approach Kosherfest with a healthy dose of both excitement and skepticism. How can there possibly be anything new in the world of kosher, I wonder? But there always is. And this year’s Kosherfest did not disappoint.

Kosherfest 2015 – held in the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey in mid-November — marked its 27th year with an event featuring 400 booths and 300 new products. The more than 6,000 who passed through the doors of the two-day represented just about every area of the kosher food industry — chefs, cookbook authors, restauranteurs, grocery and specialty store owners, buyers, distributors, caterers, representatives of summer camps, nursing homes, kosher supervision agencies. and manufacturers of products from organic chicken to mock shrimp, knishes to falafel balls, chocolates to wine and liqueurs.

Simply put — kosher is big business. According to a 2015 report by Lubicom Marketing Consulting, there are 12,350,000 kosher consumers in the United States (not all of whom are Jewish), and 205,000 kosher certified products manufactured by 11,400 kosher companies and plants. Also, Lubicom reports, 3,400 products received kosher certification in 2015 alone.

Here are some of the new products featured at Kosherfest 2015:

Two new brands of hummus surfaced at Kosherfest 2015. Mediterranean Chef representative, Eyal Schmerling, was giving out samples of its matbucha, pesto sauce, roasted pepper strips, cooked beets, and various hummus flavors. Schmerling boasted that his products have “fewer preservatives and a 65-day shelf life.”   Meditteranean Chef, which according to Schmerling has been a fixture in Israel for 35 years, is now based in Lincoln Park, N.J. Also new to the hummus market is Fountain of Health. Founded in 1990, Fountain of Health is just now hitting the U.S. market. With unique hummus flavors such as sesame ginger, roasted beets, caramelized onions and chipotle.

RC Fine foods showed off the company’s various gluten-free soup bases; and Glutzero of Helsinki, Finland featured fresh gluten-free fetuccine and other pastas. Healthy snack products on display included Amrita’s five flavors of energy bars — all raw, peanut and tree nut-free and grain and wheat free. A man sampling both a cranberry raisin and chocolate maca bar was overheard telling the Amrita rep, Alex Alam El-Din, “This is the best product I tasted in the show.” He was delighted to learn that the product is currently sold at Whole Foods. Another delicious, healthy snack product on display was Matt’s Munchies, the premium fruit snack. Based in Santa Ana, California, Matt’s Munchies comes in eight flavors.

Nancy Kalish, the gregarious owner of Pure Genius blondies and brownies – a vegan delight that is both gluten- and nut-free, said, “We launched just five weeks ago and received our OU kosher certification practically on the way to the show!” adding, “I have an unbelievably terrible sweet tooth. When I had kids, I had to find a healthy treat that tastes good.”

Other sweet new products include gourmet soft caramels in five flavors from Shay’s Chocolate (my personal favorite: sea salt and espresso) and chocolates by CocoArt Artisan Milk Chocolates. According to the CocoArt CEO Yoseph Schwartz, the company boasts 26 chocolate products. He thinks they’re all winners – but the one that garnered the best feedback thus far, he admits, is orange creamsicle.

There was no shortage of wines and liquors at the show, with the countries of Argentina, Italy and Israel each manning large pavilions. Odem Mountain Winery of Golan Heights was on hand offering samples of Alfasi Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot. Michel Murciano, owner of Hevron Heights Winery, was offering samples of various wines from his vineyards. When the Ledger asked how he planned to handle the European Union’s new policy requiring special labeling on products “made in the territories,” Murciano said, “I called the printer to make 1000 labels which say, ‘Achtung Juden” (Caution, Jews). For me, this is the same thing the Nazis did [to the Jews].”

In addition to a slew of new products introduced by new manufacturers, many of the veteran kosher companies — like Gold’s, Gabila’s Knishes, Mansichewitz and Empire Kosher – proved that they’re still on the grow by introducing a long line of new products. Empire, for example, unveiled a brand new line of organic chickens and soups.

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The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York, home of the US Open, where more than 700,000 tennis fans will watch the top men’s and women’s players from around the world compete for a staggering $42,253,400 in prize money seems a very unlikely place for High Holiday inspiration. Yet, a non-Jewish player with a very Jewish neshama, has a lot to teach us about introspection and spiritual preparation-important lessons as the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe approach. While other players are giving post-match press conferences which focus on the match itself, Mardy Fish is speaking about the difficult road he has traveled these past three years.

Mardy Fish, 33, is an unlikely Elul inspiration though he happens to be married to Stacey Gardner, a Jewish lawyer, model and former host of Deal or No Deal. The two were married in 2008 under a chuppah with close friend, tennis player, James Blake serving as groomsman

Fish is best known for a successful tennis career where he won six tournaments on the main ATP Tour, he reached the finals in the 2004 Olympics, and was in the quarterfinals in the 2007 Australian Open, the 2008 US Open, and the 2011 Wimbledon Championships. In April 2011, Fish overtook fellow American and close friend, Andy Roddick to become the American No. 1 in the ATP rankings. Fish earned more than $7.3 million in prize money as a professional tennis player, and he reached a career high of 7th in the world.

Then, in 2012, everything began to change. Fish began to experience some health problems which impacted his tennis career. At first, Fish reported fatigue as the reason for not playing during the European clay court season. He also withdrew from the 2012 French Open. During the year, he was treated for sever cardiac arrhythmia and had cardiac catheter ablation to correct cardiac arrhythmia. Fish used a heart monitor regularly and experienced sleep difficulties.

Ranked 23rd for the US Open, Fish withdrew in the 4th round before his match with Roger Federer. As Fish and his wife were about to leave the gate to return to Los Angeles, his wife saw how Fish had panicked and his heart was racing. Gardner insisted they got off the plane, and they chartered a private jet five days later. Fish was afraid to leave the house for three months.

Fish continued to experience crippling anxiety and panic attack for thirty minutes each day. He was eventually diagnosed with anxiety disorder and panic attacks.

Fish hasn’t played much tennis since 2012. In 2013, he competed in 9 matches, took up golf, and spent a lot of time with his young son, Beckett. Fish recently decided to return to Queens to play in one last US Open; he will retire when he is no longer in the tournament.

In preparation for his retirement, Fish has played in some recent tournaments. He lost in the first round of a tournament this summer in Atlanta to Israeli Dudi Sela, and lost in the second round in Cincinnati to Andy Murray. He has also had some success in doubles this summer.

But most importantly, Fish has come a long way in these three years and is an inspiration to all who hear his story. Fish has become a spokesperson for anxiety and panic disorder and for mental illness. And Fish is an inspiration to sportswriters.

After US Open matches, players are required to speak to members of the media, if requested. Some players, especially in the early rounds, don’t attract much attention. And questions tend to focus on the match just played, on the upcoming opponent, etc. The Fish post-match conference was attended by 40 or 50 reporters and photographers. The transcript of the Mardy Fish press conference filled four typed pages, with most questions focusing on his anxiety disorder. The transcript could not adequately capture Fish’s calm, thoughtful demeanor.

Fish entered the interview room, freshly showered after his first round US Open match (Monday) on the Grandstand court. He had just defeated 102nd ranked Marco Cecchniato of Italy 6-7, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3. The crowd was clearly behind Fish “We love you Mardy Fish!” “All these years, we’ll appreciate you!”

One reporter asked what exactly anxiety disorder is. “Well, anxiety disorder is when your mind takes over and usually goes into the future and sort of predicts what you think is going to happen, and usually it’s bad stuff.”  Another reporter asked about other athletes with anxiety issues. Fish noted that several tennis players — men and women — have approached him confidentially, to speak about anxiety. He noted that he sought out roles models in the sports world with the same issue who had “beaten it” or who had success with it and were able to come back again.” But he wasn’t able to find those people.”

So HE has become that person. “It helps me personally to be open and talk about it.” When asked what he would want his legacy to be as a player and as a role model, he said, “I just hope to help people — it helps me to talk about it. Maybe it helps other people to talk about it.”

Fish’s introspection and honesty struck me as very appropriate and inspiring for the pre-Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur season. During Elul, the month before Rosh HaShanah, we examine how we have behaved during the past year, and we think about how we can improve our behavior in the coming year. We consider atonement, ask forgiveness, reconcile, and to seek closeness with God. Fish has clearly accepted who he is and he has made an action plan to heal — both himself, and the world. He helps others by speaking openly about mental illness, and he has been working with Athlete Ally, an organization which combats homophobia in sports.

As I watched Fish playing on the same courts where his difficulties started three short years ago, I thought of the Rambam, Moses Maimonides, in Hilchot Teshuva, Laws of Repentance. What is complete teshuva? When a person has the opportunity to commit the same sin and he possesses the ability to do it, but he separates and does not do it because of teshuva — and not out of fear or lack of strength. Fish did nothing wrong. He does not need to “do teshuva.” But I think he is taking Rambam’s advice — he is going back to the place where his troubles started, and he is gaining mastery. “I desperately wanted to come back and change that narrative,” Fish told reporters. “I feel really good.”

May we all work to achieve a level of honesty and comfort with ourselves and our lives and to write new narratives. And may we all get home safely (and in time) from the men’s finals on Erev Rosh Hashana. Shana Tova

(Source: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com)

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There is an unwritten rule that sports reporters simply do not root for a sports team or player while covering an event. Admittedly, this is difficult. A life-long Bostonian covering the Super Bowl February 1st in Glendale, Arizona may have a difficult time sitting poker-faced as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots take on the Seattle Seahawks. And an Argentinian reporter in Brazil covering the 2014 Germany vs. Argentina World Cup Finals may just be tempted to put on a light blue shirt to go with her light white slacks.

For me, covering the US Open Tennis Championships each year, and more recently, reporting from the Israel vs. Argentina Davis Cup matches in Sunrise, Florida pose similar dilemmas.

How is it possible not to cheer for Dudi Sela just after midnight when he outlasts an opponent in the 5th set on the outer courts at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, New York? How can I not be moved to clap — or cry — when Andy Ram is lying on center court in what may be his last match ever, as he and partner and friend, Jonathan Erlich win an epic Davis Cup doubles match against the Argentinians? Like that Argentinian reporter at the World Cup, I am careful not to put on a royal blue shirt to go with my white shorts — lest anyone think I am partisan.

But I am.  Perhaps it is a sense of landsmanschaft — pride in a member of the tribe, usually an underdog, competing on the world stage. I feel it in my kishkes when Julia Glushko or Shahar Peer make a great shot, or when Amir Weintraub makes it through the qualifiers, in to the main draw of a prestigious tournament.

I hold it together until I get to the media center, to interview the players.  While remaining professional, the Israeli players sigh a sigh of relief when I offer to do the interview in Hebrew, and when I tell them which Israeli or Jewish publication I am writing for. We move from questions about the just-completed match, to traveling the world as a Jew and Israeli, to “where will you be for Rosh Hashana.” We are fellow travelers.

In 2013, Israel was about to compete against Belgium in the World Group of the Davis Cup Play-Off, to be held in Antwerp, just one week after the US Open. A Belgian reporter and I requested a US Open post-match interview with Dudi Sela. Players are required to honor such requests. After I asked my questions, the Belgian reporter asked a series of questions — about the upcoming tournament, likely match ups, and about the timing of the match; the Israel Tennis Association had just received at $13,000 fine for refusing to play its match on Yom Kippur.

The reporter was working hard to understand what this holiday is and why Israel wasn’t going to play on that day. “It is a special day,” reported Sela. “A serious day.” The reporter probed further. “We don’t eat or drink.” The reporter (see photo) asked more questions. “So you don’t eat or drink? That must be hard just before a big match.”

“Well, I do, but….Amir Weintraub doesn’t…and my grandparents were religious and they didn’t eat or drink…”

The reporter was even more confused. At that point, Sela turned to me and asked for help explaining Yom Kippur. I took off my tennis writer’s hat and put on my Jewish educator’s hat. I explained Yom Kippur and the range of observances on that day by Israelis and Jews around the world. Now he was getting it, and Sela was so appreciative!

(Belgian reporter with Dudi Sela-US Open Media Center)

That same year, I was out to dinner with family in New York City.  Several blocks from the restaurant, I spot a blonde woman in a green dress with a male companion. She spots me and smiles.  My curious family wonders why she comes up to me to give a hug and kiss—and speak to me in Hebrew. “That is Julia Glushko—I just interviewed her today for a Times of Israel article!” I am not sure that professional athletes from other countries stop to greet reporters in the street.

I have since bumped into Dudi Sela many times, in many settings. I have observed him sticking around to sign autographs and pose for pictures for anyone who asks. And I have seen him show up at Israel Tennis Center sponsored clinics for poor children in New York. He is a real mensch, and I feel proud. I may try to hide my pride at matches, but I—and the players—feel a strong connection with fellow Jewish and Israeli-loving people.

I am not privileged to be Down Under this week in Melbourne covering the Australian Open tennis tournament. But lucky fans and reporters will witness something never seen in professional tennis—a first ever match up between Israeli Dudi Sela, 29 years old and currently ranked 106 in the world, versus Spaniard Rafa Nadal, 28, the number 3 player in the world. It is amazing they have never played since both have been at it for a long time. Nadal turned professional in 2001 and Sela in 2002. What are the odds? Nadal has won 64 titles including 14 Grand Slams—and has earned $71 million; Sela has earned $2 million over the course of his career but has yet to win a major title.

So who is a Jewish sports reporter to root for? The landsman you say?  Which one? In 2013, Simcha Jacobovici carefully argued in “Rafael Nadal: A Jewish Story?” that, perhaps, Rafael Nadal of Majorca may descend from Jews! He may be a converso.  While he flat out denied this when I asked this question at a US Open press conference, it is possible that Nadal either felt uncomfortable addressing the question in this forum, or he simply did not understand the question as it was posed in English.

Sports writer Sandra Harwitt, who has covered more than 70 Grand Slams tennis tournaments, takes up this question in her recently published “The Greatest Jewish Tennis Players of All Time.” (2014, New Chapter Press). While she doesn’t include Rafa on her list, she included Nadal in a section “Jewish Connections.”

Harwitt acknowledges, “Not that long ago, the Internet was alive with the suggestion that Rafael Nadal Parera might have a Sephardic Jewish heritage…it is known [that] the converted [to Catholicism] often chose the names Parera and Nadal as their new last names.” Harwritt asked her friend, ATP Tour Communications Senior Vice President, Nocola Arzani if he would approach Nadal and ask if these rumors were plausible—and she asked him to address Nadal in Spanish. Harwitt writes, “Nadal, it turns out, wasn’t surprised by Arzani’s query. In fact, the family was aware of the history of Sephardic Jews and had wondered themselves about the possibility they might have a Jewish past. Rafa told Nicola that his grandfather had done some research regarding both sides of the family — the Nadals on his father’ side, the Pareras on his mother’s side — but hadn’t turned up any evidence that ponted to a Jewish ancestry. How his grandfather went about the research and how far back he was able to dig is not known, but it could be an interesting pursuit for a genealogy specialist.”

For now, I’m rooting for Dudi Sela in Friday’s 3rd Australian Open round match.  But, I hold out hope that, perhaps Raphael Nadal will one day discover he is Jewish  and may even make Aliyah and play tennis for Israel. May the best Jewish man win!

(Source: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com)

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