An entertainment entrepreneur

First it was butterflies. Then mirror and laser mazes. Last month, sharks, sea lions, otters, penguins and thousands of sea creatures were added.

They are all part of Odysea in the Desert, a concept conceived by Israeli-born developer Amram Knishinsky. In addition to Butterfly Wonderland and Odysea Mirror Maze, both of which opened in 2013, the 35-acre entertainment destination includes Odysea Aquarium, which opened in September; Dolphinaris Arizona, which is owned by Ventura Entertainment, an entertainment company based in Mexico, and opened Oct. 15; and Polar Play, an indoor ice playground for children and adults where everything – including the bar – is made from ice. The entertainment destination, which is on land owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, will soon include restaurants and retail shops, as well as a courtyard featuring music on the weekends. “Eventually we’re turning the area into a new town square,” Knishinsky says. “It’s a gathering place, you can come and enjoy all the activities.”

A passion for aquariums

Odysea Aquarium represents a lifelong passion for marine life for Knishinsky, which began as a child growing up in Ramat-Gan, Israel. Although there is no beach in Ramat-Gan, he recalls travelling to the beaches of Tel Aviv during summer months. “That’s how we spent the summer,” he says, learning how to swim and being introduced to some of the species in the Mediterranean. He also served in the Israeli Navy.

When traveling for business or pleasure, he found himself making it a priority to visit the local aquarium. After noticing that all aquariums in the United States were nonprofit – they were either paid for by municipalities, local residents or philanthropists, he says – his entrepreneurial spirit was intrigued and he and his team eventually developed the country’s first for-profit aquarium, Kentucky’s Newport Aquarium, modeled after the Sydney Harbor Aquarium in Australia. It was sold about nine years ago and is still in operation.

When deciding to develop the Odysea Aquarium, Knishinsky and his team wanted to create a place that was different from other aquariums throughout the world. “I’ve probably seen every [aquarium] in America and abroad, from Paris to Osaka, Japan,” he says. “I’ve seen many of them to give me a good perspective as to what I wanted to do and what makes each one of them unique.” The process helped him see what is “available elsewhere and how we can do it differently,” he says.

Visitors to Odysea Aquarium follow a journey that begins with a drop of water falling from the sky into lakes and rivers and then to the ocean. The more than 30,000 animals and 500 species are organized by their habitats, such as fresh water turtles, a 60-pound catfish and baby Siamese crocodiles in the American Rivers exhibit and piranha and bigtooth river rays in the Rainforest Rivers exhibit. “We have probably one of the largest fresh water exhibits in the country,” Knishinsky says.

The aquarium’s habitats have large windows and feature a variety of sizes, including cylinders and tunnels. “The opportunity to walk around [the aquarium] and get different perspectives is what makes us unique,” he says.

Other unique features include bathroom mirrors replaced with acrylic windows that allow a view into the shark tank, an escalator ride surrounded by an aquarium designed to make “people feel like they were going down to the bottom of the ocean” and the first-ever indoor SeaTrek experience, an underwater ocean-walking adventure that doesn’t require scuba certification.

Other features include a 37-foot long tide touch pool; a South African penguin habitat with a Penguin Interaction Program; a 3-D documentary called “Underwater Giants”; and a Living Sea Carousel, where guests sit in rotating stadium-seating theaters for a 20-minute presentation on divers, sea turtles, sea lions and seals and sharks.

Although the aquarium – which is 200,000 square feet and holds more than 2 million gallons of water – is for profit, a foundation has been formed that will allow for an educational component that includes field trips, research, scholarships and internships, Knishinsky says.

Future plans for Odysea in the Desert include a rainforest and amphibian exhibit as part of Butterfly Wonderland that is currently under construction.

Knishinsky and his team are also about to embark on developing the 53 acres to the north, he says, with hotels; Paradise Earth, a rainforest aviary; and a “Jurassic Park” type of attraction, featuring animatronic dinosaurs.


Odysea in the Desert is an entertainment district anchored by animal-related projects.

An entertainment district anchored by animal-related projects “makes us unique,” Knishinsky says. “It’s not a place for another roller coaster.”

This article first appeared on

Valley grads prepare for service in IDF

As some of their peers prepare to head to college this fall, two Valley graduates have opted to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces.

Danny Wilder, a graduate of Phoenix Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva High School of Arizona, attended a Hesder yeshiva in Israel after his high school graduation in 2014. That year, seven of the school’s eight graduates opted to attend yeshiva in Israel after graduation. Wilder chose to attend a yeshiva that combines army service and Torah study, deferring his admission into the honors college at Arizona State University, where he was offered a full-tuition scholarship.idf-logo

After his first year in yeshiva, he returned to Phoenix for the summer and contemplated staying. However, since his nonrefundable airline ticket was already purchased, he decided he’d go for one more semester and return to Phoenix if things didn’t work out.

Within a week of returning to Israel, “he said, Mom, I want to make aliyah and I want to join the IDF,” said his mother, Lana Wilder of Phoenix. He had only been to Israel one time before he started yeshiva – to visit his older sister in seminary – and had never before expressed an interest in joining the military. “This was not on my radar at all,” his mom said.

He started the process of making aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh and joined the military through Machal (a program for overseas volunteers) and the Hesder program as a lone soldier. Lone soldiers are IDF soldiers who have no immediate family living in Israel. There are currently more than 6,000 lone soldiers serving in the IDF, according to The Lone Soldier Center in Memory of Michael Levin, an organization that is dedicated to helping the physical and social needs of lone soldiers.

Next he decided that he wanted to be a paratrooper so he began training for the tryouts. “When he decides he wants to do something, he does it,” said his mom. He started eating healthy and getting up around 4 a.m. to run and get conditioned, she said. “He put his mind to it and he did it. It was quite an experience. They really push them physically. ”

He was officially sworn in to the IDF in May and is scheduled to complete his paratrooper training in October. Through the Hesder program, he will have 19 months of active duty and then plans to attend college in Israel after his service.

“This is a kid who gave up a full scholarship to an honors college in the United States,” his mom said. “So this is someone who has really sacrificed.”

Wilder said that although she’s always paid close attention to Israel news – she lived there as a child, from age 9 to 15 – she’s much more sensitive to it now. “Every time things heat up, I start worrying,” she said. “He’s a legitimate target because he’s military. He’s not a civilian, he’s not a child. When people say they shouldn’t target non-combatants … he’s a combatant. He’s a combat soldier. He’s chosen to put his life at risk to protect Israel, to protect his people.” She said that although she’s worried about him getting hurt, “it’s far more likely that he’ll have to shoot somebody and I don’t want my son to have to live with that. … He’d be devastated.”

Her advice to other parents whose children make a similar choice, is to find support from others who understand; she’s joined Facebook groups for parents of lone soldiers. “I made so many friends and I feel like I know them. … They get it.”

Wilder would like to see support from the local Jewish community for the lone soldiers. (His Hebrew name is Daniel Yonatan ben Elana Yehudit if anyone wants to say a blessing or tehillim for him, she noted.)

“I think we as a Jewish community should have so much pride in our young people … that we’ve instilled in them this spirit and this pride that they’re able to step up and say, I need to do this for my people. I think it’s amazing.”

Sara Turner, another PHA graduate, graduated from Bioscience High School in Phoenix last year then headed to Israel to attend Midreshet Lindenbaum, a religious seminary for girls. She made aliyah and joined a program called Hadas, which is for religious Israeli girls who will serve in the military, as opposed to doing national service, which is what religious girls previously did, said her mom, Tzipi Turner of Phoenix. She was assigned to a mentor through the Lone Soldier Center to help her with the process.

Sara’s parents, who met through Bnei Akiva, a religious Zionist youth movement, said the message they have tried to transmit to their children – Sara and her two younger twin brothers – was “that the IDF is the first Jewish army in 2,000 years, and that it is an honor and a privilege to serve in it.”

Her father, Ian Turner, served in the IDF as a young man and later as an older reservist.

The Turners made aliyah when Sara was 5 months old lived there until she was 6, when the family moved to Phoenix.

“She always felt a strong connection to Israel and always considered it her place,” Tzipi Turner said via email about her daughter, “so, it was not a surprise when Sara decided to return to Israel and serve.”

During a recent summer visit to Phoenix, Sara told Jewish News that she always knew she wanted to return to Israel, but the decision to join the military was fairly recent.

“It’s very scary, but interesting and different than what I thought it would be,” she said. Her advice to others who may be interested is: “It’s going to be frustrating and you’re going to have good days and bad days, but it’s an interesting experience.”

Says her mom, “All I can say is that I feel incredibly proud of her desire and commitment to move to Israel and join the IDF.”

This article first appeared in the Aug. 5, 2016 issue of Phoenix Jewish News

Creating a business plan for Israel

Four childhood friends who grew up in Tel Aviv made a decision while serving in the Israeli Army: If they survived, they would devote their lives to a cause.

At age 17, they weren’t sure what that cause would be, but after they returned from a trip to Poland for March of the Living, they knew they wanted to someday establish an organization that would help ensure that atrocities like the Holocaust would never happen again.

They also wanted to promote unity among Israelis and strengthen their country’s future.

“Why in the army, can we fight together but once we go to the city life, we start to fight each other?” asked Roni Flamer, during a recent interview with Jewish News, while he was in the Valley to speak to Jewish National Fund board members and supporters. “What is going on there?”

Flamer recalled that when he and his three friends left the Israeli army at age 22, they remained devoted to finding that cause, but still weren’t sure what it should be – education, culture, housing, the economy?

They soon found their answer.

After traveling throughout Israel, they learned that the Negev and the Galilee represent 75 percent of the land of Israel, but only 24 percent of the population lives there. And the Negev itself represents 60 percent of the land, with only 8 percent of the population living there.

“We didn’t think about the importance of the Negev and the Galilee at the beginning, because we knew nothing,” Flamer said. “But we looked at them as a platform for the young generation … ‘Go south, go north, let’s build a nation. It’s not done yet.’ ”

The friends felt so inspired by their plan that they anticipated that everybody would be ready to assist them in their efforts, but that wasn’t the case. They were told, “Take your dreams, it’s not going to work,” Flamer recalled.

This plan was to develop and populate the Negev and the Galilee by relocating companies and creating infrastructure such as roads and energy systems. “Like a real country,” Flamer said.

“People just laughed at us. No doors opened for us.”

In 1999, they were granted five minutes to meet with Ariel Sharon, who at the time was the country’s infrastructure minister. They persuaded him to permit them to develop 150 acres of land on a hill in the Negev Desert next to a Jewish National Fund forest and on the border of Judea; their neighbors were Beduoin, residents of a left-wing kibbutz and a wealthy community. “With the unity that we were trying to achieve, it was a perfect location to be among the society,” Flamer said. “We will create life, and we will achieve quality of life together and, once you do it, this is peace.”

Shortly after meeting with Sharon, the friends developed their first community – Sansana – and lived in a caravan of trailers on this plot of land in the northern Negev. Two of the friends were single at that time, and two were in the process of getting married. “It was a whole mess, this period of time,” Flamer said. Their energy was supplied by a generator and their water came from a water truck.

“The first four months was like the real pioneers of the beginning of the establishment of the state of Israel,” he said. Sansana “was the beginning and this was our school.”

In the first few months, the number of families living in Sansana grew to 12, and by the following year, there were 50 families.

Then, they realized that they couldn’t continue like that without further strengthening the community’s infrastructure. They began creating jobs – “in a caravan of trailers, you saw people building software” – and opened schools and day-care centers. He and his wife lived in a 400-square-foot trailer for eight years, with three children by the time they moved to another OR Movement community (they now have five children).

Today, around 80 families – more than 500 residents – live in Sansana, according to the OR Movement’s website,

Soon, others began taking notice of what they were doing and other young Israelis expressed interest in joining them after finishing their army service.

By 2002, a total of three communities were established and the OR Movement was officially formed, with the mission to develop and build up the Negev and Galilee.

OR means light in Hebrew. “We don’t fight the darkness, we add light,” Flamer said. “This was our feeling right after the March of the Living trip to Poland at the age of 17. We’re not going to fight. We will fight in the army. Once we are out of the army, we just add light. We don’t waste any minute fighting someone or something, just build and build and build.”

By 2002, they had helped build three communities but were not taking any salaries and needed funds to continue their work. After a few months of trying, they managed to schedule a five-minute meeting with Ron Lauder, who was president of Jewish National Fund at the time, and JNF CEO Russell Robinson. They looked at the OR Movement plan and told the partners, “we wrote the same plan,” Flamer recalled. “Literally. They said, ‘We share the same vision.’” The five-minute meeting turned into a three-hour meeting.

“We were standing there dreaming, understanding that we found each other,” Flamer said. “We don’t know each other, but we’re doing the same thing.”

An official partnership between JNF and the OR Movement began in 2005, according to the organization’s website, and together they continue to build communities — both creating new communities and expanding existing communities in the Negev (through JNF’s Blueprint Negev initiative) and the Galilee (through JNF’s Go North Initiative).

The OR Movement also serves as a franchise of the Negev and Galilee Information Center through a partnership with Israel’s Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, which was established in 2005.

Today, the OR Movement has helped establish nine new towns and has helped more than 60 communities expand, Flamer said, with more than 30,000 people being a part of the different projects.

“We feel that this is just the beginning of the beginning,” Flamer said. The organization is now working on “the vision of how Israel will look on its 100th anniversary and this is the 2048 plan.”

Today, there are 700,000 people living in the Negev and 1.3 million in the Galilee, he said. OR Movement’s goal is to have 1.4 million people in the Negev and 2.3 million in the Galilee by 2048.

He estimates that Israel’s population, now 8.5 million, will double by 2048.

“Where are they going to live? This is our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create new centers of life in Israel. It sounds big and crazy. It is big and crazy.”

But Tel Aviv and Jerusalem can’t accommodate the influx of people so this plan is necessary. “In a way, we look at the Negev like Phoenix is today,” he said. “We are right now writing the business plan of Israel.”

Today, Flamer is the CEO, co-founder Ofir Fisher is the vice president, and they have a total of 46 people on their team. The other two friends who were originally involved eventually moved into the business world.

In 2010, Flamer received the Prime Minister’s Prize for Initiative and Innovation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week at the Technion in Haifa.

“Roni Flamer is one of the greatest visionary idealists that I’ve ever met,” said JNF CEO Robinson in a press release about the prize. “JNF’s partnership with the OR Movement is built upon a shared vision for the future of Israel: a thriving, prosperous Negev, and in a short amount of time we have begun to change the face of the Negev – with energy, determination and an entrepreneurial spirit.

“We look forward to all of the accomplishments yet to come. Thanks to Roni’s vision and dedication, our next generation is in good hands.”

“Israel is on the way,” Flamer said. “I think that there is something huge that is really happening in Israel. We look at the situation in the Middle East as an advantage to build models for impossible missions.”

This article first appeared on

Company promotes West Bank products to fight Israel boycotts


The founder of an organization that fights Israel boycotts by promoting products made in Judea and Samaria, better known as the West Bank, will be in the Valley next month to encourage American Jews to show their support for Israel by purchasing Israeli goods.

Nati Rom founded Lev HaOlam about three years ago when, after his military service, he began helping to build villages in Judea and Samaria “to go back to our roots, to our connection with G-d, with the land of Israel.” After noticing the effect the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement had on the businesses in the area, “we started to help the small producers here, the pioneers, sell their products,” he told Jewish News in a Skype interview.

Through Lev HaOlam, supporters sign up to receive a monthly gift package. The $99 package includes a variety of products by vendors living in the area; a detailed letter about the vendors and products; and a roundup of the latest news from Israel. For example, a recent box included a Lev HaOlam T-shirt, a jar of Sweet Dulce de Leche by a dairy farmer, a package of mushroom risotto from Tekoa Farms, a box of dark chocolate from the De Karina Chocolate Factory, a bottle of Adagio perfume and a magnet map of the areas designated to the 12 Tribes in the Bible.

“We wanted to find a way to connect with the grass-roots movement, with people who support Israel,” Rom said. Lev HaOlam works with hundreds of vendors, primarily those who would benefit most from the group’s assistance.

“We change lives” and “create more jobs,” he said.

During his first visit to Arizona – he previously visited Jewish communities in New York, Florida and Europe – Rom, 36, will speak at Young Israel of Phoenix at 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 11, and at an April 12 concert at the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus.

The concert, as well as his visit, is hosted by, also called, a website formed by three Valley residents: Harvey Malkin, whose background includes being a business owner, entrepreneur, manufacturer and consultant; Moshe Samuel, who has a full-time tutoring practice and is the education director of the newly formed online AZEVJ Hebrew Institute; and Charles Manos, founder and managing partner of Superstition SEO and, who designed the site.

“ provides a forum to connect with the Jewish people, with their thoughts, their lives, their businesses, their present and past and their future,” Malkin wrote in an email. Future plans include online educational videos, business networking and Shalom Tours, which will offer tour packages to Israel.

One of the reasons that the group is bringing Rom to the Valley is because they believe in the work he is doing, and the belief that “if you bring prosperity, you bring peace,” said Malkin.

“People who love Israel and support Israel are a minority,” said Rom. “The majority of the world wants to kill us.” When looking back at history, “we always say, ‘How come people didn’t act?’ ” he said. “We are living now, in the history of the future, and people will ask us what we did when products of Jewish people were boycotted and tagged, what we did when [Jews] again cannot go with a kippah in the world without fear in their heart.

“It’s time to be active. This is not only my Israel, it’s your Israel also.”

This article first appeared in the March 25 issue of Phoenix Jewish News

Finding ‘truth’ at LimmudAZ

In preparation for last weekend’s LimmudAZ, I looked over the schedule a few days before to map out my day. With one exception, I chose to select whatever session called to me most, rather than ones that I thought I should attend for work purposes.

Because of the variety of offerings, both of topics and speakers, each of the approximately 400 participants had an opportunity to weave their own unique experience during their time on the second floor of Arizona State University’s Memorial Union on Jan. 31.

In retrospect, most of the sessions I chose seemed to reflect the same theme.

The first session I attended was “Resetting the Balance Between Work/Family Responsibility: A New Point of View” with Dr. Ada Anbar. I had hoped for some guidance on juggling work and family life – because that issue is definitely something in the forefront of my life – but it was more of a look at the views professionals have about working mothers of young children. The speaker’s point of view was that since people have approximately 60 years in their adult life, from age 20 to 80, a parent should devote 10 years to “intense parenting” (meaning one parent should be at home with the child so that the child isn’t in preschool).

My youngest child is 5 and all three of my kids attended preschool so my first reaction was to feel defensive, but ultimately what she was saying was that children, their parents and society at large would benefit if children received intense parenting for at least the first three years of their life. And that society should make it easier for parents to devote more time to their children by providing support for families who want to have a stay-at-home parent with young children and that it should be easier for women to re-enter the workforce after staying home with their children. And who can argue with that?

There was no question about the next session I wanted to attend – “The Power of Sharing Our Stories in Song” – with Marieke Slovin, a performing musician, yogi, writer and songwriter in Prescott who leads song-writing workshops and composes original music from spoken stories. Since song-writing is one of my passions, I was interested in learning about her Story-to-Song method. It was a small group, which was great, and the theme of our song organically developed into one about our grandparents. We each shared a few words about a grandparent or grandparents and throughout the course of the hour, we wrote the chorus and she’s going to finish the song. A quote in her course description reads, “The great gift you can give the world is to tell your truth,” which created a lovely segue into my next session, “What Does it All Mean?” with Bruce Eric Kaplan, a television writer/producer who has worked on such shows as “Seinfeld,” “Six Feet Under” and “Girls” and a cartoonist for The New Yorker. He recently wrote a memoir called, “I Was a Child.”

The session was an entertaining therapy session, where he shared the process of writing the memoir – which dealt with the death of his father, and his feelings that he never really knew his parents because they never really shared anything about themselves with their children. Some of the Jewish mothers in the room offered their advice and analysis about his experience. Kaplan referenced the “truth” quote from the song-writing session – he had wanted to attend that one, but didn’t make it – and his message to the group was that while we are here in the world, we should all strive to be our most authentic self and share that authentic self with others.

Next was lunch, where everyone gathered together for the official welcome from Sandy Adler and Suzanne Swift – two of the volunteers that coordinated LimmudAZ both this year and last – and I was happy to run into some people I hadn’t seen in a while.

After lunch, I attended one session that I felt obligated to attend – “Israel in the News: How to Get Your Point Across” – because I’m a fan of the Honest Reporting website and thought it might be useful. Maybe it was because of the timing being right after lunch, but I had difficulty focusing during this one. But one point that did get across was that negative stories about Israel are outweighing the positive and that truth becomes irrelevant if the untruths are repeated often enough.

By late afternoon, the next session – “Four Senses Yoga,” taught by Cindy Rogers, a blind yoga instructor – was very welcome. I don’t often do yoga because I’m not very coordinated when it comes to all the different poses, so I liked the description, which read, “Experience yoga as you never have before. Blindfolded! Remove the sense of sight to fully embrace your other senses. This gentle practice allows you to connect to your true inner self.”

I was a few minutes late because I was chatting with someone in the hallway between courses so when I got there, the room was already dark. I received my blindfold, found my space then followed the instructions to breathe and move into different positions. I wasn’t sure if I was doing it right, as I couldn’t see anyone to follow, but it was OK because nobody could see me either.

My final session was a packed room with Rabbi Pinchas Allouche of Congregation Beth Tefillah, who spoke about living a purposeful life.

He shared his POPP (Personality, Opportunities, People, Places) theory with the group, asking: Are you using the skills you were born with? Do you use the opportunities you are given to use those skills? And reminding us that people come into our lives for a reason, as do the places we find ourselves.

So, with that in mind, I felt my day’s journey – as well as everyone else’s there – was the way that it should have been.

And I’d like to thank all of the volunteers who made it their purpose to bring LimmudAZ to life in our community.

This first appeared on the Jewish News blog, JN Blog, on Feb. 2, 2016.

Itineraries change, but Israel trips go on

Noah Silver, 16, had looked forward to Camp Ramah’s summer trip to Israel for several years; his sister, who went two years ago, raved about it, as did other past participants. But his trip turned out to be very different.

“From the beginning, we didn’t realize what was going to happen,” Noah’s mom, Shelli Silver, told Jewish News. “We knew that there was a problem as soon as he left” – his plane left the day after the bodies of the kidnapped Israeli teens were found and was in the air headed for Israel when the news broke about the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammed Abu Khdeir.

“We still didn’t really have the realization of what it was going to escalate to,” Shelli Silver says. “I don’t think anyone did.”

Noah is currently one of 250 students – one of eight from Arizona – on the six-week Ramah Israel Seminar trip. He and his family are members of Beth El Congregation in Phoenix.

The Ramah Israel Seminar, which started in 1962, alters its itinerary during times of conflict, according to Rabbi Mitchell Cohen, national Ramah director. In 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, the program avoided most of northern Israel and, during the Intifada, the trip avoided East Jerusalem and the West Bank, he writes in an email. This summer, there have been some itinerary changes to avoid going anywhere near Gaza. “We also delayed taking the students to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv,” he writes. “Otherwise, the trip has been very successful.” No family has chosen to have their children return home early.

As of press time, the Phoenix community Birthright Israel trip is still proceeding as planned, according to Shahar Edry, director of the Israel Center; the group was scheduled to leave July 30.

According to Taglit-Birthright Israel, all upcoming Birthright trips are scheduled to continue. On the organization’s website, a safety and security update notes that staff members are in constant contact with the trip organizers running the groups and that trip itineraries are approved daily, with information administered by the Israel Ministry of Education and coordinated with the IDF, Israel Police and the Homefront Security Administration.

From the beginning of Noah’s trip, the itinerary has gone through several changes, says his mother, such as delaying a visit to Jerusalem to spend more time in the north. The teens’ parents receive daily updates – with extra security updates, if necessary – which often include information about canceled activities. One main change was a host Shabbat, where under ordinary circumstances the teens spend 48 hours with a host family anywhere in the country. This year, many of the teens stayed in Jerusalem, Shelli Silver says. Noah spent the weekend on a moshav about an hour northwest of Tel Aviv.

Although he didn’t hear sirens during his visit, he told his mom that some of the other campers did have to go into bomb shelters after sirens were sounded where they were. “We talk to Noah quite a bit or he texts when he can get to Wi-Fi,” says his mother.

Noah hasn’t expressed any degree of concern for his personal safety, she says, but he has expressed disappointment about some of the canceled activities. Of course, he fully understands what’s going on and why the changes are being made, she says, but it’s a disappointment nonetheless.

“All we really do care about is his safety and the safety of the kids on the trip. When you get past all that, he wants to see the country.”

One thing they have discussed was “that it might not have been the experience that you expected or you wanted, nonetheless, it’s an experience,” she says. “And how many Jewish Americans in their lifetime, comfortably in their suburban lifestyles, are going to be able to tell a story about how when they were 16 years old, they lived through this Israel-Gaza war and what it was like and what it was like to hear the news from the country firsthand and to meet people who were sending loved ones off to the army.”

Shelli Silver shared a recent post from her son’s Facebook post, which explains his perspective on the trip.

“Thank you to everyone who has worried about my safety and checked to make sure I’m doing okay. I have been safe and protected for three weeks in Israel, with many extra measures taken to avoid the bombs that are raining down on this beautiful country. I can’t say the same for the millions of other people living and touring here in Israel, nor for the innocents living in Gaza. …

“People are dying, and all anyone wants is peace. Life goes on in Israel. We go to the beach. We hike. We celebrate our holidays. We just want peace. Please keep the citizens of both Israel and Gaza in your prayers. Hamas must be stopped, and it is despicable that stopping them means the deaths of more civilians.”

This article first appeared on

A Czech Republic town remembers its Jews

 Miryam Salter and her brother, Gideon Jokl, stand in front of the aron kodesh in the restored synagogue.

Miryam Salter and her brother, Gideon Jokl, stand in front of the aron kodesh in the restored synagogue.

Residents of a town in the Czech Republic plan to celebrate the dedication of their newly restored synagogue this summer, even though there are no longer any Jews living there.

Miryam Salter of Scottsdale, who was born in the town of Krnov, known as Jaegerndorf in German, left the town in October 1938, when she was 4, after her father’s business was taken from him and he no longer had access to his bank account.

Anyone who left Krnov, which is near the Polish border, by 1938 survived, according to Salter, and those who stayed were deported and murdered.

After a brief time in Slovakia, her family eventually arrived in Tel Aviv/Jaffa on March 23, 1939; she moved to the United States in 1960.

She says that although she felt no emotional connection to Krnov while she was growing up, she remembers the wonderful stories her parents told her about it. So in 1986, she visited the town one day while staying in Prague. “Everything was covered in soot and it was depressing,” she says. Grocery store shelves were empty and she was told before going that she would likely be under surveillance because it was then under communist rule.

A few years later, after the town was no longer under communism, the people in Krnov “cleaned up their environment,” Salter says, which included restoring the buildings.

When Salter’s brother, Gideon Jokl, who lives in Ramat Hasharon, Israel, decided to visit Krnov in October 2012, he found a lush, green town with restored buildings, and learned that the synagogue was being restored by a group of Christian residents, who formed an association that has been actively preserving the town’s Jewish history. He was told that the synagogue’s restoration would be completed in October 2013 so he and Salter, and 13 other descendants of the town, planned to be there.

Although the reopening ended up being postponed to July 2014, the group stuck with their original plan and made the trip last October.

One of Salter’s cousins, Lize Ben Yaacov, who lives in Tel Aviv, was 15 when she left Krnov in 1937. Last year’s trip marked her first return to her hometown, and at age 90 she still remembered where her grandparents’ house was and was able to point out the coffeehouse where her grandfather played gin rummy every afternoon. “She said the synagogue was restored exactly the way she remembers it,” Salter says.

On Friday night, Oct. 10, the town hosted a flute concert at the synagogue for their guests; coincidentally that was also the wedding anniversary for Lize’s parents – they were married on Oct. 10, 1920, in that same synagogue.

One member of the group brought a prayerbook and tallit from Israel and “said the Kaddish for all the people that didn’t make it,” Salter says. She thinks it was the first time a Jewish prayer was said in the synagogue since the 1930s. Because there are no Jews left in the town, the synagogue is used as a meeting place, according to Salter. “They realize that it’s not going to function as a synagogue because there’s nobody to pray there.”

A festive dinner – with kosher dietary laws observed – was held at a house adjacent to the synagogue, a building slated to be used as a Jewish museum.

After dinner, each of the 15 guests of honor shared stories about their families’ connection to the town with the approximately 150 people in attendance.

The following day, residents gave a tour of the town, which included a visit to the mayor’s office and the cemetery, which had been desecrated, Salter says. However, two of the residents who are preserving the Jewish artifacts had found a document showing who was buried in each plot. “We found my great-grandfather’s place,” Salter says. “It was very, very emotional.”

The members of the association told her that now that the synagogue was restored, their next plan was to restore the cemetery. Funding for the synagogue restoration came from the Czech Republic government and from the European Union, she says.

After lunch, the group split up to visit the places where their families lived before the war. Since the town changed from German to Russian to Czech, some of the street names had changed.

She and her brother found the home she was born in, an apartment above a store now owned by a Vietnamese man. He brought them upstairs to see the apartment, which Salter says was very emotional. “Here I am standing, 75 years later.”

When Salter asked one of the locals about why they have done this work, he replied, “Are you nuts? Your people were here 600 years, they contributed greatly to the community, they were part of the community. They’re all gone, and we need to remember them. We need to tell the world that this is what happened here.’ ”

Salter says she is sharing her story because “I think the world needs to know that there is a community like that with decent, wonderful people that are doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

This article first appeared on

Etrog farm is long-term commitment

For most people, an etrog is on their mind only around Sukkot time, but for one Scottsdale family, it’s a year-round commitment.

In their backyard, attorney Matt Bycer and his wife, Elly, have more than 400 etrog trees, some which are more than 6 feet tall. Many of these plants are from seeds Matt received from members of the Valley’s Jewish community; others came from individuals across the country.

Last year at this time, the plants covered a 600-square-foot area in their backyard; since then it has grown to 900 square feet and Matt says he plans to increase that space again this year.

“Matt spends a lot of time with the trees, working on them and researching how to best care for them,” Elly told Jewish News in an email. For now, he spends about 10-15 hours a week outdoors, where he waters the plants by hand; they are arranged in sections, with walking paths between these sections.

“Nava, our 18-month old daughter, thinks of it like a maze and a wonderfully fun game,” Elly wrote. “She loves running through it. Both Matt and I get a lot of joy watching Nava play in the plant area.” Elly says she doesn’t do any of the yard work herself, “but Nava and I love visiting him outside while he is working on the trees.”

She says that her husband has promised to reserve an area in their backyard for a play area for Nava and the second child they’re expecting in December. Once that is built, she envisions the trees serving as a scenic backdrop, providing some nice shading, and a “sweet smelling recreation area for the kids and for me!”

Matt started what he calls his “etrog experiment” about five years ago, in hopes of being able to provide etrogim (citrus fruits used for the holiday of Sukkot) for American Jews during the 2021 shmitta year (the next one falls in 2014-2015, but he doesn’t expect to see any fruit for another three to four more years). During a shmitta year, Jews are not supposed to benefit from produce coming out of Israel, which is a main supplier of etrogim. (See “The etrog experiment” on

After the article ran last year, he received requests for religious school field trips and hopes to soon offer tours to teach religious school students about the history of the etrog and about its religious significance.

When Matt started his “etrog experiment,” he incubated seeds in his living room, using many lights and covering the walls with aluminum foil. When he got married in 2010, the plants moved outside, where he keeps them under a shaded structure built from random parts of a sukkah.

In January of this year, when Elly and Nava were visiting Elly’s family in New York, Phoenix experienced its coldest winter in decades. To protect the plants from frost, Matt enlisted his friend Ari Parkhurst, a teacher at Yeshiva High School of Arizona, to help him move the plants indoors. They covered the floors of the house with plastic tarps and moved the plants inside, filling an open space that serves as the family’s living room, dining room and kitchen, as well as some space in the library and his home office.

“He sent me pictures while I was in New York,” Elly recalls. “What a sight that was!”

The plants remained indoors even after she returned, for a total of 15 days. “It felt like we were living in a forest,” she wrote in an email. “All the trees made it difficult to walk through the house (we had carved out a small walking path to get in and out of the house) … I would be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to have the plants – and the bugs – brought back outside. But it did make for quite an adventure!”

By day, Matt, 34, is an attorney at his law firm, Bycer Law, PLC, which specializes in patents, trademarks and copyrights. He also teaches for the National Paralegal College in Phoenix and is a member of Ahavas Torah in Scottsdale and a longtime participant of the Jewish Arizonans on Campus learning program.

He’s learned about growing etrogim primarily from Internet research and consults with a citrus expert in Florida. The project is under the supervision of Rabbi Zvi Holland, the former dean of the Phoenix Community Kollel who is now a kashrut administrator with the Star-K kosher supervising agency.

Jon Sigona of The Perfect Water Technologies, a member of Congregation Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, has supplied the water treatment system that allowed him to start the project and helped the plants flourish, according to Matt. Arizona tap water is too salinic, alkaline and chlorinated to successfully grow sensitive citrus in pots, he says, so they treat the water and store it in containers to water the plants.

“I also collect rainwater and condensation water from my AC unit,” he wrote in an email, “and take buckets from the containers to water them.” His current capacity is about 85 gallons, which he says he more than surpassed this summer; he plans to add two new 330-gallon tanks. “My capacity should be over 600 gallons and should last me a growing season or two, before I have to expand again.”

Another challenge he experienced was the cost and supply of the soil; both were more than he originally anticipated: his project costs about $10,000 each year.

“In order to get the best price and best medium, I had to buy in quantity, so I got two pallets of coconut husk chips shipped in – about 1.3 tons.” He puts the plants in new pots each year and this was enough to repot all of last year’s plants and pot-up all the new plants this year. “I will likely need another shipment to re-pot again this coming spring.”

“The question I get asked most often is whether or not I have any fruit yet,” Matt says. “None yet, but G-d willing soon! It’s as yet an unfinished experiment.”

“My favorite part about the project is seeing how supportive and excited our friends and family, especially my family in New York, are about it,” Elly writes in an email. “They all want to be involved as much as they can.”

Last year, her father, Mayer Amsel, collected several etrogim after Sukkot, and shipped them to Matt for planting and he plans to do it again this year. Her grandfather, Louis Palgon, also shipped his etrog to Matt.

“In fact, the plants from my grandfather’s etrog are doing exceptionally well, and Matt has named that strain of plants ‘The Louie’ after him,” Elly says.

“My grandparents love to hear about the project, and ask about it every time we speak to them. It gives me a lot of joy that Matt’s project has connected our family.”

This article first appeared on

Discovering Israel’s multiple layers

Archaeological sites, such as the City of David in East Jerusalem, above, reveal past civilizations throughout the Holy Land. Photo by Leisah Woldoff

Archaeological sites, such as the City of David in East Jerusalem, above, reveal past civilizations throughout the Holy Land.
Photo by Leisah Woldoff

Israel is made up of many layers. This includes levels of religious observance, diversity of cultures and quite literally, the layers of stones in buildings that reveal knowledge of past civilizations.

This observation was most apparent in the first stop of the recent American Jewish Press Association press trip: Jerusalem. On Jan. 22, 23 participants — writers and editors from Jewish newspapers from across North America — gathered in the lobby of the Inbal Hotel Jerusalem to kick off a 10-day whirlwind tour of Israel. The AJPA trip was co-sponsored by El Al and the Israel Ministry of Tourism, the latter of which also hosted our first dinner in Israel, across the street from the hotel at the Olives & Fish restaurant.

It is not possible to summarize the entire experience in a single article, but here is only a small sample of notes I took about the regions I visited: Jerusalem, northern Israel and Tel Aviv.

In Jerusalem, everything is so close. As we drove into the city from the airport, we could see the security fence from the highway and buildings in Ramallah in the distance on the top of a hill. In Jerusalem, the pre-1967 border divided populated neighborhoods. To put it in a Phoenix perspective:

If Central Avenue represented that border, it would be like having the streets to the east under Israeli control and the avenues to the west under Palestinian control.

Our tour guide, Gideon Har-Hermon, grew up in Jerusalem and from the tour bus showed us his childhood home, which was on the Jordanian border at that time. He pointed out the bullet holes that remain in the walls of neighborhood buildings.

I witnessed Israel’s diversity during a Shabbat walk in Liberty Bell Park, next to the Inbal Hotel. Religious families in their Shabbat finery were visiting the park alongside secular families arriving in their cars and carrying their children’s bicycles. Several families brought picnic lunches. A sign in the park read: “This park is for all children of Abraham.”

A photographer was shooting photos of an African wedding party dressed in traditional garb. I asked a tour guide who was there with another group about the wedding party and he told me that they were African refugees, adding that many refugees sneak across the border to live in Israel and benefit from government programs. He said this with a hint of disdain in his voice, reminding me of the immigration issues we see in Phoenix.

Earlier in the week during a tour of the City of David, which is in East Jerusalem, I overheard tour guides speaking in Hebrew, Chinese and Russian as our group walked through the archaeological site of what is believed to be King David’s palace.

Walking through the Old City, I saw Orthodox Jewish men in streimels, Muslim women in hijabs and Christian women wearing nuns’ habits, as well as tourists in shorts and T-shirts. An impressive mix of old and new is the Tower of David Museum’s The Night Spectacular, a multimedia sound and light show that uses the stones of the walls and structures of the Citadel’s archaeological remains to tell the history of Jerusalem.

To travel from Jerusalem to northern Israel, we rode in our tour bus up Route 90, driving with the West Bank on our left and the Lebanese border on our right. Here are some tidbits our tour guide shared along the way:
1. Parts of Israel are categorized in three zones: In Zone A, cities are completely in Palestinian control; in Zone B, the area is run by Palestinians but is under Israeli security; and in Zone C, land is completely under Israeli control. Route 90 does not go through Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, but there are checkpoints along the way. At one, two IDF soldiers walked through the bus, then wished us a good visit.
2. Route 90, Israel’s longest road at about 298 miles, is close to the Jordanian border — just a few feet away at some points. Along the border, there is an electronic fence that alerts guards if it is touched.
3. If a Bedouin Arab man has multiple wives, he is required to provide each wife with her own tent when setting up their camp. The Bedouins in this area — whom you can see herding their sheep and goats on the side of the road — set up tents near the highway during the winter months because the highway provides access to transportation for jobs, but during the summer, they move through the desert. In other areas of Israel, the Bedouins are no longer nomadic and live in apartments.

Northern Israel

A side excursion to the north, dubbed a “food and wine tour” (our group split at this point, with some heading to Masada, the Dead Sea and down south to Eilat), is fodder for a whole other story that includes a stop in Safed; lunch at a Druze village; cheese-tasting at Makom BaLev, a homemade cheese shop; and a tour of Akko, the ancient Phoenician and Crusader seaport; as well as lots of food and wine.

Our tour guide at the Golan Heights Winery explained the recent boost in the Israeli kosher wine market: The vast majority of Israeli wine making takes place in areas that were previously under Muslim control, and since Muslims don’t drink alcohol, these regions were not used for making wine. On a side note, the Golan Heights Winery was recently selected as a “New World Winery of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast magazine, the first time an Israeli winery has received this award.

Tel Aviv, Jaffa

During this portion of our trip, we toured the Old City of Jaffa, which is believed to be the oldest port in the world. We also visited Independence Hall, where David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. It was particularly meaningful because the day before, we had visited Atlit, a restored illegal immigration detention camp from the time of the British Mandate, and there we learned of the Jewish immigrants who were released once Israel became a state.
As we drove into Tel Aviv, our tour guide explained that the city uses the American definition for “old,” meaning buildings are 100 years old instead of thousands of years old, as they are elsewhere in Israel. There we stayed at the Dan Tel Aviv, which is very contemporary, down to the bedside panels that open and close the curtains. We also visited the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Throughout Israel

Certain things are true throughout the country, such as that Israelis are very hospitable and the food is delicious. We were fortunate to sample a variety of mouth-watering meals during our visit, including a 15-course meal at Eucalyptus, a gourmet restaurant in Jerusalem owned by Chef Moshe Bason that features unique dishes made from biblical ingredients. The Inbal offered an enormous breakfast buffet, as well as a Shabbat buffet that included a variety of fish, salads, soups, meat dishes and desserts.

At Hotel Mizpe Hayamim in Rosh Pina in northern Israel, all the food served at the breakfast buffet and vegetarian restaurant, including cheeses, produce and baked goods, comes from its organic farm. Even a quick pita with falafel, tahini and salads in the Old City of Jerusalem was delicious. According to Stanley Morais, El Al’s deputy director of international affairs, whom I sat next to at an El Al-hosted dinner, one reason Israeli food is so tasty is that most of it is grown locally and served when it is in season.

Another thing that was evident throughout the country is that Israeli businesses are very appreciative of American tourism. At many places we visited, owners thanked us for visiting and asked us to let our readers know about them.

And it’s not just true with business owners — as we were touring the Old City of Jaffa, a group of Israeli teens passed us as we descended a steep flight of stairs. “Where are you from?” shouted one teen as she passed behind us. “America,” one of my colleagues answered. “Oh!” she exclaimed.

“Thank you for coming here — we love you!”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 8, 2013 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.

A second life: Torahs represent lost communities

The Czech Memorial Scrolls are identified by a small metal plate on the eitz chayim (the wooden handles). Photo by Lee Shedroff

The Czech Memorial Scrolls are identified by a small metal plate on the eitz chayim (the wooden handles).
Photo by Lee Shedroff

Every Torah has a story. Whether its existence is due to one generous benefactor or the result of a community effort, each Torah represents a community that lovingly read from its scroll.

More than a dozen Arizona synagogues have in their possession a Torah that was saved from the Holocaust; a Torah that symbolizes a long-gone Jewish community.

One of these Torahs – which has been in the possession of the Grand Canyon Council of the Boy Scouts of America since 1974 – recently returned to its hometown of Kolin, which is about an hour east of Prague in the Czech Republic. In June, Lee Shedroff of Peoria accompanied the Torah there to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the town’s Jews.

“Kolin’s Jewish population was 30 percent of the population for more than 500 years,” Shedroff says. “A piece of them just disappeared in 1942.”

During a Shabbat service at the restored synagogue that was part of the commemoration in June, Shedroff read an aliyah from the Torah then placed it in the same ark the Nazis removed it from 70 years earlier.

Shedroff also left in the ark a letter from Temple Havurat Emet in Sun Lakes, another Valley congregation that has a Kolin Torah. Tonight (Friday, Oct. 5), Havurat Emet is rededicating its Torah – which was written in 1650 and is the oldest of the Czech Memorial Scrolls – during a Shabbat service, in anticipation of Simchat Torah. Shedroff plans to bring the scouts’ Torah to the service; the two Torahs shared the same ark more than 70 years ago, he says.

While in Kolin, Shedroff also visited the Old Jewish Cemetery and brought the Torah to the dedication of a memorial plaque at the Zakladni School, where the town’s Jews spent three days and three nights being registered for deportation 70 years earlier. During the ceremony, Shedroff held up the Torah so the town’s schoolchildren could see the open scroll.

From June 1 to June 13, 1942, 2,202 Jews left in three transports dispatched from Kolin, according to “My Town Kolin: Jews in Kolin,” a book released at the commemoration. The dates had a particular significance to Shedroff: “This all happened in the same week I was born.”

Since its arrival in the Valley in 1974 – the Grand Canyon Council Jewish Committee on Scouting in Phoenix was the original recipient, according to Shedroff, who is a member of the National Jewish Committee of Scouting – the scouts’ Torah has been on display with its story in the interfaith booth at the annual Scout-O-Rama event and is used at other Boy Scout events. In March of this year, Sam Zager, a Boy Scout from Glendale, read from the Torah for his bar mitzvah.

A reunion for all the Czech Memorial Scrolls that are now in Arizona is being planned for late fall 2013 or early 2014, according to Shedroff, who is the local representative for the trust. Before the scrolls were repaired and loaned to congregations around the world, they were stored on shelves first in Prague and then in London. “These Torahs were all together for many years, forgotten and deteriorating until 1963,” Shedroff says.

Another local synagogue that has a Holocaust Torah is the Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation. “We keep it in a special ark that was built for it and is displayed permanently,” Rabbi Irwin Wiener wrote in an email. “It cannot be used to read from, for many of the letters cannot be distinguished as it was rescued from a fire,” he wrote, but the congregation includes it in its Yom Hashoah observance. The Torah, written in 1850, came from Kolodejc, Czechoslovakia.

Beth El Congregation in Phoenix has had a Torah from Rakovnik since 1978. It sat in a case there until 1998. Then, the synagogue sent it to a New York scribe who restored it letter by letter and returned it to the congregation in 2000 (“Torah’s long journey into light,” Jewish News, Jan. 14, 2000).

Temple Chai’s first Torah, which the Phoenix congregation acquired in 1976, also originated in Czechoslovakia.

In Prescott, Temple B’rith Shalom has a Torah scroll from Slaný, Czechoslovakia, which it received in 1984. In 2001, the scroll was restored by a Los Angeles scribe and rededicated.

“As the keeper of this scroll, Temple B’rith Shalom accepts its special responsibility: to care for and learn from the Torah,” reads a message in the Reform congregation’s membership directory. “It is a reminder of the Jewish community of Slaný that disappeared in the Holocaust, and their devotion to Torah. As we care for the scroll, we remember them and we learn about their times and their lives.”

Story of the ‘Holocaust Torahs’

The Czech Memorial Scrolls – often called the “Holocaust Torahs” – have a unique story. As congregations throughout Bohemia and Moravia disappeared after the Nazi invasion, a group of members of Prague’s Jewish community devised a way for about 100,000 religious items, including approximately 1,800 Torah scrolls, to be sent to what became the Central Jewish Museum in Prague, according to

In 1964, the Westminster Synagogue in London purchased 1,564 Czech Memorial Scrolls. Most of the scrolls could be traced to a specific Jewish community in prewar Czechoslovakia; 216 could not. Those whose history cannot be traced are called “orphan Torahs.” Temple Beth Shalom in Sun City has such a Torah.

According to the Czech Memorial Scrolls Trust site, scribes spent many months viewing the scrolls, determining which ones were still kosher or could be made usable, and which ones could only be used as memorials.

One professional sofer, David Brand, spent nearly 30 years restoring and repairing many of the scrolls, which then were loaned to congregations around the world.

Missing Torahs

About 1,400 of the 1,546 scrolls are currently on loan to congregations and more than 1,000 of these are in the United States. All of them remain the property of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. The others are in display at the trust’s museum, located at West-minster Synagogue in London. Those that are not in good enough condition to be used during worship services are displayed in museums, Shedroff says, which includes one that used to be on display at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum in Scottsdale.

One of the loan requirements is that every five years, the recipient must provide the trust with a condition report and that the Torah must be returned to the trust if the synagogue closes or merges.

Unfortunately, as synagogue leadership changes, the history of the Torah – as well as responsibility for it – is often forgotten.

“There are some sad stories,” says Susan Boyer, the trust’s U.S. director. More than 100 scrolls are currently lost, meaning that the trust has no record of what happened to them, she says.

Each scroll is identified with a gold-colored plaque on the base of the handle plate. Shedroff encourages congregations to check their Torahs for this plaque. The text lists the number assigned to the scroll (1 through 1,564) and reads, “Czech Memorial Scroll, Westminster Synagogue London, 1964-5724.”

One of these lost Torahs, Number 508, was last traced to a Scottsdale synagogue that no longer exists.

When a memorial scroll is entrusted to a congregation on a long-term loan, the congregation is committed to giving the Torah a prominent and meaningful role in the synagogue’s spiritual and educational life, according to a document that lists the trust’s conditions of the loan. “Each scroll is a messenger from a martyred community that depends on its new congregation to ensure that they are remembered as individuals, and that their local Jewish heritage is cherished.”

As it says in “The Second Life of Czech Torah Scrolls,” a publication by the Jewish Museum of Prague: “These congregations are building a bridge between the past, present and future and are helping to preserve a historical memory of events that must never be forgotten.”

To learn more about the Czech Torah Scrolls, visit Contact Lee Shedroff, 623-376-8737 or Contact Susan Boyer, At press time, Jewish News was unable to confirm the whereabouts of all the Holocaust Torahs in the Valley to provide a full list here.

This article first appeared in the Oct. 5, 2012 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.