May 16: Tel Aviv to Caesarea to Kibbutz Kfar Blum
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David Burnett, The U.S. Embassy Economic Minister spoke to us at breakfast. Three significant security threats are of concern to both Israel and the United States. These threats are obvious to most. First is the Iranian nuclear weapon threat, which the U.S. has attempted to address by way of sanctions and Israel will be imposing sanctions on Iran for the first time later this year. The second regional threat is Pakistan, where the influence of the Taliban and Sunni extremist are potentially problematic. Third is the uncertainty in Egypt. The Egyptian army’s preoccupation with operating the government and upcoming elections has led to border security issues, which among other things has led to disruption of natural gas supply to Israel. While both the U.S. and Israel welcome new democracies to the region, the “Arab Spring” creates uncertainty. The hope is for an orderly transition to leadership that is predictable, understandable and one that the U. S. and Israel can work with.
Economically 40% of Israel’s GDP is export with 1/3rd going to U.S., 1/3rd going to Europe and 1/3rd to emerging countries. Twenty-five percent of Israel’s GDP is non-military export. Israel has managed financial crisis well, inflation is under control and a conservative monetary policy is in place. Israel’s growth market has been technology. They are trying to improve its manufacturing base for technology and innovative products as opposed to simply selling the technology. The talk and discussion was interesting and helpful.
Speaking of innovation, after breakfast, we had the unique opportunity to visit Better Place, an innovative five-year-old company founded by Shai Agassi, an entrepreneur who at age 30 sold his software company to SAP for $400 million dollars. Better Place is an electric car service company that provides electric charging stations at home and at work, battery-changing stations strategically located throughout Israel which in essence provides the infrastructure necessary to support the electric cars it sells to customers. The model works much like the cellular phone sale and service model. You purchase the car and pay for fuel (electricity) by the kilometer driven, much like you purchase a cell phone and a plan that charges you for minutes used. Since the battery (which costs approximately $10,000 each) is owned by Better Place, the car is much more affordable. The environmental benefits of this model are remarkable. Today nearly half of the oil that is produced is used to operate automobiles. Converting to electric cars will both reduce oil consumption and the by products of the internal combustible engine. The infrastructure provides for charging stations at home and work which meets commuter and community driving. The battery changing stations are used for longer trips (trips over 120 miles). Batteries last up to 120 miles without needing to recharge. A changing station can swap out a battery in five minutes. Better Place has committed to buying 100,000 cars from Renault over the next five years. Better Place is also piloting its model in Australia and Ontario and with 60 taxis in the San Francisco Bay area. This is a great example of Israeli innovation!
We had an interesting experience at Better Place in that we were given the opportunity to test drive an electric car. Barry Schloss, Zed Smith and I took a car with a Better Place representative. We each took a turn driving at different points. We had driven a fairly long way and Barry was the last to drive and we were a little lost. As Barry proceeded down the highway we came to an Israeli security checkpoint with Armed Israeli security officers. Since we were not where we were supposed to be and since Barry and Zed did not have their passports with them, we had to pull into a security area for additional screening and brief detainment. Fortunately, after a brief questioning and search we were allowed to go and reconnect with the rest of the group.
After our adventure at Better Place we traveled to the city of Caesarea located 60 miles northwest of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean Sea. Caesarea was constructed by King Herod between 22 BC and 10 BC. It was a port city and served as the capital of Palestine for 600 years. Sts. Peter and Paul visited Caesarea and, in fact, St. Paul was imprisoned there before being moved to Rome to be put on trial. (A full description of Paul’s trial and appeal can be found at Acts 23:23 and Acts 24.)
Pontius Pilate once resided at the Palace in Caesarea. There were amazing archeological findings at Caesarea, from the Theatre which is still used today, to a stadium along the sea, an aqueduct system, pools and spas, and the foundational elements of the palace. I imagined what it must have been like back then and the presence and evangelization of Peter and Paul.
After lunch in Caesarea, we continued north to Mount Carmel to the Youth Village of Yemin Orde. Yemin Orde was founded in 1953 to accommodate orphans and immigrant children during the great immigration wave of the 1950’s. Today Yemin Orde is home, school and community to more than 500 traumatized refugee children from 20 countries including Ethiopia and Darfur. The loving, nurturing and spiritual environment with its children’s residences with house moms and counselors, its onsite school and other facilities on 77 acres reminded me of St. Vincent’s Villa and the amazing work that we do at Catholic Charities with children that have been entrusted to us. Our models and programs might be different, but our missions and operating philosophies and commitment to vulnerable children are very much the same. Another common tie between both programs is that the Weinberg Foundation has provided financial support to both. A remarkable note about Yemin Orde is that six months ago there was a devastating forest fire that destroyed many of the children’s residences. After the fire the community came together to rebuild. To the untrained eye, with the exception of charred forestation, you would not have known that a fire had taken place.
We live in a blessed, loving and caring world. We are part of something greater, greater than we can even imagine. I continue to see the Divine working in and through so many people.
The final stop of the day is the Kibbutz Kfar Blum in upper Galilee. Kfar Blum is located between Lebanon and Syria near the Golan Heights. In fact it is located three miles from the Lebanese border and 15 miles from the Syrian border. Yesterday there were problems at the border (a border breach) requiring the engagement of the Israeli Army. Our host was Dubi Ben Ari. Dubi’s parents came to upper Galilee in 1943 from Great Britain to establish, build and operate the Kibbutz along with other immigrants. There are 279 Kibbutzim in Israel. Essentially in the 1940s and 1950s the Israeli Government established the Kibbutz model based on socialism. A Kibbutz is a collective group of voluntary practicing joint production and consumption community. They make up 2% of Israel’s population and were organized for three purposes. First, they were a way to recruit Jewish people to immigrate to Israel. Second, the Kibbutzim were strategically located along Israel’s border creating population centers along the border, providing border security. Finally, Kibbutzim were an economic growth engine for Israel at the time. Today Kibbutzim provide a quality of life that is attractive to many and is in the process of changing from a socialist model to a meritocracy.
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