As Israeli-Palestinian peace talks intensified yesterday, with both sides agreeing to meet twice a week for up to eight hours a day, they received an extra boost of support from Israeli and Palestinian lawmakers.
For the first time, a caucus of Israeli members of Knesset (MKs ) visited the presidential palace in Ramallah Monday, which drew the interest of dozens of reporters from Israeli, Arab, and Western media. Their aim was to give a “tailwind” to peace negotiations and underscore the strong majority on both sides that favor a two-state solution, says Hilik Bar of the Labor party, who is chairman of the Caucus to Promote Resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.
“It was important to me to emphasize both to us in Israel, to [the international community], and to Palestinians that we have a majority in the Knesset and it’s really in the hands of these two leaders to close the deal and bring us peace,” said Mr. Bar in a phone interview after the event, estimating that 70 to 80 of the Knesset’s 120 members would vote in favor of a two-state solution.
The new caucus, which was launched this spring, is the largest in the Israeli parliament, with 40 members. In May, they hosted a delegation of Palestinian lawmakers – the first time Palestinians have ever entered the Knesset, which they had long avoided doing for fear of being seen as endorsing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, Bar says.
Yesterday, 11 Israeli MKs traveled to Ramallah to reciprocate, and were accompanied by a presidential police escort from the Beit El checkpoint to the Muqata, the Muqata presidential compound that Israeli forces stormed during the Second Intifada.
It was not the first time that Israeli MKs have visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Muqata, however, and some diminished the significance of the event since nearly all of the participants were from the dovish Labor party. (Some members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party had to cancel due to the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the party who was widely considered one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation.)
But in a neighborhood where cynicism is easy to come by, fueled recently by a number of violent incidents that killed both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank, as well as a terrorist attack this weekend that injured a 9-year-old girl in the Israeli settlement of Psagot – it is worth noting that Israeli and Palestinian parliamentarians took the initiative to meet despite the fear, criticism, and hatred that challenge such reconciliatory action.
In a lighter side to the Israel-Iran standoff over nuclear weapons, Iranians armed with nothing more than jeans and a camera are protesting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intimation that they are ruled by a cultic government that restricts not only their voting options but their sartorial choices as well.
One Iranian Twitter user, who had only bothered tweeting 152 times before today, dedicated his next 140 characters to Mr. Netanyahu:
Other tweets ranged from sassy to vindictive, but all seemed to send a clear retort: We don’t need you intervening on behalf of our freedom.
The #jeans protest came in response to a comment by Netanyahu last week in which he attempted to distinguish Iranian aspirations from the theocratic system of government that has prevailed in the Islamic Republic since 1979. The Supreme Leader is officially considered “God’s deputy on earth.”
“If they had a free go, are you kidding, they’d toss out this regime, they’d go in blue jeans,” said Netanyahu during his first-ever interview with BBC Persian. “I mean these people, the Iranian people, the majority of them are actually pro-Western. But they don’t have that. They’re governed not by Rouhani. They’re governed by Ayatollah Khamenei. He heads a cult. That cult is wild in its ambitions and its aggression.”
Netanyahu has just returned from Washington and New York, where he warned the US and the world of the dangers of accepting Iran's softer rhetoric without seeing any real change in its nuclear program. Some say the Israeli prime minister sees himself as taking on a Churchillian role of warning against appeasement, just as the formidable British leader did when faced by the Nazi regime.
Thousands of runners took to the streets of Amman for the city's annual marathon this weekend, as pounding electronic music and the thud of trainers on concrete shattered the usual pre-prayer tranquillity. But this year there was a new addition: hundreds of Syrians and Jordanians who ran alongside each other to promote dignity for refugees, a campaign organized by the international aid agency Oxfam.
“When I heard about this event to show solidarity between Syrians and Jordanians, I loved the idea," says Fatima, a Damascus University student who fled to Jordan six months ago and ran in this weekend's 10 km event. "As refugees, we shouldn’t live inside a shell and we should go out and live a dignified life. It felt amazing to express myself and I want to be more active from now on."
As the Syrian civil war continues unabated, with more than 100,000 killed and a third of the country's population either displaced within Syria or seeking refuge abroad, Syrians know it could be many years before they return home.
Of the 2 million refugees that have fled the country, more than a quarter are living in Jordan. Most of them reside in urban areas, where their presence has sometimes led to resentment among host communities. Public health and education services have been stretched, while rents have more than doubled in some cities.
Earlier this year a number of Jordanian politicians called for the country’s northern border to be closed, stating that Jordan couldn’t cope with any new arrivals. National media narratives have become increasingly critical of Syrian refugees, with some newspapers blaming the influx of cheap labour for Jordan’s unemployment rate, which remains stubbornly high at around 12 percent.
But Fatima’s younger brother Mohamed, who also took part in the Amman marathon, says that while he recognizes the strain the country is under, he feels welcomed by the majority of Jordanians.
“It’s important for us to be here with Jordanians. Jordanians are our brothers and sisters and it’s nice to run side by side in the streets of Amman," he says, though he hopes to return to Syria.
Oxfam’s Jordan program manager Syma Jamil says that while it's true that Syrian refugees her organization works with are "extremely grateful" for Jordanians' hospitality, Jordan and other host countries need more support from the international community.
"The price these countries and host communities had to pay has already been extremely high, and other countries have to put their money where their mouth is," said Ms. Jamil in an email response to the Monitor.
In the meantime, Syrians like Fatima are adapting to life in a new place. Though it's been tough, Fatima’s self-confidence is steadily rebuilding as she throws herself into community life. She has taken a computer class, enrolled in a citizen journalism project, and now completed her first 10 km (6.1 mile) race – no mean feat for a brand-new runner.
“It was so tiring! It’s not flat like Damascus," she said at the finish line. "But it felt fantastic.”
As the son of a man who had a personal library of some 15,000 volumes, Sami Batrawi loves the feel of turning the pages of a book rich in history.
But after years of trying and failing to establish a Palestinian version of the Library of Congress, he would now content himself with swiping a finger across an iPad if it meant being able to access the wealth of literature about Palestinian national heritage.
“We didn’t succeed to have our traditional national library but I think now we can do something else,” says Mr. Batrawi, the director-general of the intellectual property unit at the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Culture and one of less than a dozen Palestinians with a graduate degree in library science.
So now Batrawi is trying to get the PA to approve an online Palestinian national library, which would provide digitized access not only to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza but also to Palestinian refugees and expats spread out across the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and the US.
But his proposal has been mired in government bureaucracy for more than two years, and he faces a major hurdle because the PA has yet to establish a uniform copyright law. (Those efforts are also tied up in bureaucratic reviews.)
“If there’s only one minister who is interested in this project, he can get the signatures,” says Batrawi.
Before the 1948 nakba, or catastrophe, in which at least 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to leave their homes amid fighting over Israel’s declaration of independence, many Palestinians read widely and had private book collections as well as community libraries. But many of those books were lost in the nakba; to this day, some 30,000 volumes labeled “abandoned property” are collecting dust in the basement of Israel’s National Library.
Batrawi was part of an effort to build 120 new children’s libraries after the 1993 Oslo peace agreement with Israel, but it’s perhaps an even harder battle to restore the love of reading.
As part of the virtual library project, he hopes to introduce workshops, TV shows, and university programs to teach Palestinians to make better use of the computers and Internet access that many families have in their homes.
“You will not see that they’re using it in the right way to make research,” says Batrawi, noting that many use their computers mainly for games, Facebook, and online chatting.
Even among those who value Palestinian national heritage, Batrawi faces an additional hurdle: fear that Israel could destroy that national treasure in one fell swoop if it were located in one building.
“Why do you want to collect all our heritage in one building?” is a key criticism he has heard. “What if the Israelis come and they destroy it? How will you protect this?”
Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial museum, has added an Egyptian doctor to the ranks of Gentiles recognized as “Righteous Among Nations” for aiding Jews during the Holocaust.
Dr. Mohamed Helmy is the first Arab to be honored in the 50-year span of the project, which has recognized 24,911 individuals from 44 countries.
Yad Vashem, located in Jerusalem, learned of Helmy through letters written by several Jewish survivors he helped. The letters were found in a Berlin archive and recently passed along to Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among Nations department.
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Helmy moved to Berlin for medical studies in 1922 and went on to work at a hospital, but his professional progress was thwarted by Nazi racial policies, and he was even arrested in 1939 and held for a year. Nevertheless, when a 21-year-old Jewish patient of his, Anna Boros (later Gutman), sought his help, he sheltered her in a cabin he owned in Berlin and moved her to friends’ homes from time to time to prevent her from being discovered. He also helped to hide three of her relatives, with the help of Frieda Szturmann, whom Yad Vashem has honored along with Helmy.
The recognition of Righteous Among Nations is inspired by an idea from the Mishnah, “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe.” The background of those who have been honored so far varies widely, from intellectuals to illiterate laborers, from Muslims to nuns, from a zoo director to a circus owner.
But they generally share one or more of the following characteristics, according to Yad Vashem: They hid Jews in their home or on their property, provided false papers and false identities, smuggled Jews or helped them escape, and rescued Jewish children.
A commission of Holocaust survivors, researchers, and historians currently chaired by retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Jacob Turkel reviews each potential honoree. The commission decided in March to honor Helmy and Szturmann, who have both passed away, but delayed the announcement until yesterday in an attempt to notify relatives first, according to Yad Vashem spokeswoman Estee Yaari.
“We hope maybe [the announcement] will help us find the next of kin,” she says, adding that the announcement was also published on Yad Vashem’s Arabic website. Among the Arab outlets that picked up the story was Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.
Since the announcement yesterday, Yad Vashem has received a number of inquiries from relatives of Anna Boros Gutman, says Ms. Yaari, but they are still hoping to hear from relatives of Helmy.
A Saudi sheikh's comment Friday that driving could negatively affect women's ovaries and create "clinical problems" in their children sparked a flurry of indignation on Twitter and elsewhere over the weekend.
The sheikh in question, Saleh al-Lohaidan, is a relatively low-profile judicial adviser to Gulf psychologists – not a prominent Islamic scholar, as was initially reported. But while his particular argument was quickly pounced on as ridiculous, there remains a deep-seated opposition to women driving among a conservative segment of Saudi society that cannot be as easily dismissed.
But there is also a growing cadre of civil-society activists and women’s rights advocates who are pushing back on such limits. A petition promoting the Oct. 26 protest on the female driving ban has garnered more than 12,000 hits, and may have had gotten a dramatic spike in support since Friday if it hadn’t been blocked in Saudi Arabia this weekend. Among its five points are a demand that the Saudi government make clear what the legal reason is for not allowing women to drive rather than just citing “societal consensus.”
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But women’s rights advocates are running against pretty strong currents. A recent World Bank study ranked Saudi Arabia the worst country in the world for placing legal restrictions on women and failing to provide legal benefits, such as maternity leave. The Saudi government discriminates according to gender for a variety of activities, including traveling outside the country, getting a passport, obtaining a national identity card, and conferring citizenship on one’s children.
The more fundamental issue may be a mentality that proscribes certain activities for women as un-Islamic, culturally inappropriate, or both. @ThatSalafi, a Twitter feed satirizing conservative Muslim attitudes, poked fun at the fear that the right to drive could lead to a slippery slope of immoral behavior:
But some Saudis, women included, really do see a direct connection with social restrictions and women’s modesty. When I was in the kingdom in May 2012 with the International Reporting Project, I recall a gentleman earnestly defending the ban as necessary to protecting women’s modesty and safety. What would happen if a woman got in a car accident, he asked? Then she would be forced to deal with the male driver of the other car, a stranger, with no oversight – a problematic situation in a country where male guardianship of women is deeply entrenched.
As Caryle Murphy explained in a 2011 article on guardianship for the Monitor:
A woman is not legally independent under the guardianship system…. If unmarried, her father (or, if he is deceased, another male relative – usually a brother or uncle) must give permission for her to travel abroad, accept employment, get certain types of medical care, go to university, and, in many cases, conduct business in government offices. If she is married, her husband is her guardian.
While such a system would likely sound oppressive to most Western women, even some well-educated Saudi women who travel abroad feel more comfortable in this system than in the West. On the same trip last spring, I caught a ride home one night with a 20-something Saudi businesswoman who vacations in California with her family every summer. As a foreign driver whisked us past the palms and skyscrapers of Riyadh in her luxury car, she told me she prefers her long black abaya and headscarf to the jeans she wears in California, and appreciates the dating strictures in Saudi that require her family to be involved in her meetings with potential suitors.
But for her less wealthy fellow citizens, many simply can’t afford not to drive. With no public transportation, and drivers often costing as much as half of their monthly salary, women have a hard time earning a substantial income without being able to get themselves to work everyday.
Badria Al-Bishr, an award-winning Saudi columnist and novelist at King Saud University, highlighted a great example from the 13-minute Saudi movie “Scrap,” which was an entrant at the Gulf Film Festival this spring. Dr. Al-Bishr explains:
The Saudi movie “Scrap” … is based on the true story of a lady who was arrested by a traffic officer while driving her pickup. The officer found out that she was poor and that she supported herself by collecting scrap. So he escorted her to the police station and asked her: "Where is your guardian?" Her only reply was: "God is my guardian."
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As our tour bus full of Christian pilgrims rolls out of Jerusalem, the Jewish guide reads a poetic description of the Israeli settlement Itamar, a place where, we are told, the fields are carpeted in scarlet poppies and blue pansies and the deer “run free … and skip from hill to dale.”
Mid-poem, a woman snaps a photo of the Israeli-built cement separation wall just before we cross a checkpoint into the West Bank. Now we’re heading into the heart of the land where Palestinians want to build a state and Israeli settlers want to build Greater Israel. According to Scripture, God promised this land to His chosen people.
That’s a promise Christian Zionists fully support.
“If we’re going to believe the Bible is the word of God, then we must believe that,” says Heather, an Irishwoman on her tenth trip to Israel.
She’s one of 5,000 Christians from more than 80 countries – most notably Brazil and Finland – who came to Jerusalem for the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ) annual Feast of Tabernacles week in a show of solidarity with Israel.
Each year since the inaugural event in 1980, bus tours have been organized to bring pilgrims off the beaten path of traditional Christian tours. And each year, the visit to Israeli settlements in the West Bank has been one of the most popular, says ICEJ media director David Parsons, who has helped organize the Feast week for 17 years.
Rabbi: 'Spread the word'
As we make our way up to Itamar, there are plenty of sites that resonate with Jewish and Christian readers of the Bible. Off to the left is Beit El, or Bethel, where Jacob spoke with God. Further up on the right is Shiloh, where the ark of the covenant rested for 369 years and the little boy Samuel heard the voice of God. If we hadn’t turned off for Itamar, we would have ended up in Shechem, known today as Nablus, where Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel and the people made a covenant with God to serve Him.
Standing on the top of a windblown hill in Itamar, with sweeping views west toward the Mediterranean, north to the Galilee, and east to the Dead Sea, it is easy to see the appeal of such a vast inheritance, whether in ancient or modern times.
But it is also easy to see that Jews are not the only people here; a patchwork of fields and olive groves dot the Palestinian village below, and the metropolis of Nablus and the adjacent Balata refugee camp fills the nearby valley.
Only 500 families live in a handful of relatively isolated Israeli settlements that cling to the mountainous backbone here; in Itamar, Palestinian terrorists have killed more than 20 residents out of a population of 1,800, including Ehud and Ruth Fogel and three of their six children, who were murdered in their sleep in a particularly heinous attack in March 2011.
The Christian visitors listen empathetically as Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith recounts that night, eagerly ask him about the biblical geography in the area, and nod their heads with an “Amen” as he leaves them with a request: “I do hope you’ll come back, and spread the word,” he says. “You should realize that every good word about Israel strengthens the country. It’s very important to feel that you have that mission of being an emissary.”
'God has a plan for Palestinians, too'
Christian evangelicals have become increasingly vocal in their support of Israel, including Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Such activities have become so energetic, in fact, that some Jewish groups have become unnerved and actively worked to alert fellow Jews about the dangers of over-zealous Christians eroding their Jewish heritage and claims to the land.
But the ICEJ group seemed to strike a less political tone than other Christians, mainly emphasizing their appreciation for the Jewish people, the spiritual heritage they share with Jews, and their prayers for Jewish settlers. At a later visit to Shiloh, they bade farewell to their rabbi tour guide with a "God bless you, we'll be praying for you." Yet they also showed compassion for Palestinians, who see Israeli settlements as increasingly encroaching on their national aspirations.
“I believe God has a plan for Palestinian people, too, he has not cast them out,” says Heather, the Irishwoman, who references God’s care in the desert for Hagar and Ishmael, Abraham’s son by Hagar. According to Jewish tradition, Ishmael was cast out while his half-brother Isaac was favored by Abraham, while in Muslim tradition Ishmael was the favored son. John, an evangelical Christian from Oregon who didn’t want his last name published, says he believes there is a divine plan for resolving that age-old “family feud” between Arab and Jew going back to Abraham and that focusing on land and territorial issues misses the mark.
“God loves the Palestinian people just as much as He loves the Jewish people or any other people on earth, says the Oregonian, who has been to Israel 27 times in 18 years. “I think God has a huge plan for the Arab peoples in healing that rift, that family feud.”
As the evening call to prayer reverberated through the hills surrounding Ramallah last night, the kids of Kochav Yaakov were clamoring down the empty streets on plastic trikes, their kippas barely hanging onto their heads.
On any other Thursday afternoon, the hi-tech entrepreneurs, and accountants, and investors who live in this Israeli settlement would be driving the 20-30 minutes home from their jobs in central Jerusalem, or 45 minutes for those who work Tel Aviv. But yesterday was the first day of Sukkot, when Jewish families commemorate the transient dwellings of their ancestors and the fall harvest.
Part of the tradition of this happy holiday is welcoming guests, or ushpizin, into one’s sukka, a temporary structure often consisting of a bamboo roof and white fabric sides. So I tagged along with dozens of American immigrants in Kochav Yaakov on a “sukka hop,” in which members of the community go from one sukka to the next, snacking on light refreshments and sharing thoughts on the Torah.
This year’s hop was the most well attended, said organizer Lisa Bar-Leib, who brought the tradition with her from America a decade ago. The mother of two is part of the American contingent here, which makes up about 10 percent of the diverse community of 550 families, including Jews from France, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Spanish-speaking countries, as well as native Israelis.
Not everyone is interested in hopping. Some are more intent on studying Jewish teachings than sukka-hopping.
“My husband doesn’t hop, he learns,” says one young mother a bit apologetically, balancing her newborn baby on her hip.
A family event
Kids seem to far outnumber adults, creating a blur of wild hair and smudged cheeks as they scamper everywhere, making off to a corner of the sukka with a plastic bowl of kosher treats.
Subsidized daycare is available for about 1,000 shekels a month ($285) and babies as young as three months are accepted, so many of the mothers work right through their children’s early years. The bus to Jerusalem is also subsidized; it only costs 3.30 shekels – less than $1, and about half of what I pay for a 10-minute bus ride from one Jerusalem neighborhood to another. Housing is also relatively cheap; young families who were living in cramped, decrepit apartments in Jerusalem can afford a big, beautiful home with outstanding views here.
To accommodate burgeoning families with as many as 10 children, as well as new immigrants who have chosen the Kochav Yaakov (Star of Jacob) settlement to be their home for its affordability, wholesome lifestyle, open-minded people, and proximity to Jerusalem, a new bloc of homes was just built near the entrance. The new houses are part of a steady expansion of Israeli settlements across the West Bank, where the number of Israelis has more than doubled since the Oslo peace accords were signed 20 years ago. (Editor's note: The original version mistranslated Kochav Yaakov.)
Arabs and nonArab neighbors
Most families here are religious and at least somewhat ideological: Many see this area as part of greater Israel that God promised to them centuries ago. But they do not appear to be blind to the presence of their Arab neighbors, who shop at the same supermarket, guard the gate to their community, and help build new homes.
One young mother of three said, as I recall (I wasn’t allowed to take notes due to religious restrictions on the holiday), that she doesn’t mind Arabs – the only problem is figuring out which ones might want to kill her or her family, she says. When she was grocery shopping last fall, a distraught woman got off her cellphone and told her that a bus had just been bombed in Tel Aviv; she recalls looking around at the Arabs in the aisles and wondering if any of them had similar intentions.
There have been incidents in the past 20 to 30 years where Arab contractors or employees, even those with close relationships to their Jewish bosses – even those whose families had invited each other over for meals – later murdered them. While that's a tiny number, those stories are seared into memory for Jews.
But now this mother of three has Arabs working on her house, and it’s the first time she’s really gotten to have in-depth conversations with them. One told her in Hebrew, how he and his two wives all live in one house and and "thank God we all get along." Another said that life has been better for Arabs since Israel was established, and he hoped there would never be a Palestinian state – though she wasn’t entirely confident he felt free to say what he really thinks. It's been an eye opening opportunity for her.
As the stars come out
After three hours of sukka-hopping and meeting so many Sarahs and Chavas that I couldn’t keep everyone straight, I walked out of the final sukka and into the pleasant evening air, with a full moon rising over the mountains of Jordan in the distance.
As I walked out of the gated yard to my car, I heard one of the guards say “assalamu alaykum” – Arabic for “peace be upon you.” Then he asked me, in Hebrew, if I knew when the holiday ended.
Right about now, I told him. Right as the stars come out.
Mention the word matchmaker, and many people will think of Yenta of Fiddler on the Roof fame, the nosy villager who tried to push Tevye’s poor daughters to marry men who were drunkards and three or four times their age.
Nobody could be more different from Daniella Rudoff, who is passionate about helping people build strong marriages on the right foundation.
"I’m not your typical matchmaker.... They’re thinking Fiddler on the Roof, and I’m not,” says the effervescent Ms. Rudoff, a consummate networker, both in person and on social media. After clients meet with her, she says, “They come out with a smile and they friend me on Facebook and they 'like' what I post.”
The role of matchmaker in Jewish communities, once an essential part of preserving the social fabric if not the very existence of shtetels across Eastern Europe, has evolved tremendously. While the Yenta model has a certain stigma attached to it, matchmaking today is increasingly modern and enjoys a relatively wide acceptance in Jewish communities.
The options range from online Jewish dating websites such as sawyouatsinai.com, which uses matchmakers to help clients find a suitable partner, to individuals who cater to particular sectors of Jewish society, such as converts or those who became religiously observant later in life.
“It’s not just for losers and the stigma that used to be associated with it,” says Gavi Lewy-Newman, a 20-something modern Orthodox Jew from New Jersey who became an Israeli citizen last year. “It’s kind of like getting a personal trainer in finding someone who will be fitting to you.”
Ms. Lewy-Newman, who now lives in Jerusalem, has been out on a number of dates through Saw You At Sinai, a combination matchmaker and Jewish online dating service that is free for those in Israel (in America the subscription costs $11 to $19 per month).
While some matchmakers still work on a volunteer basis, for many it is a full-time job with significant compensation. The 5-year-old organization B’Yachad (Together), for example, has a network of nearly 200 matchmakers. It charges 600 shekels ($170) per client and a bonus of 8,000 shekels per couple ($2,260) for matches that result in marriage.
For Rudoff, who works independent of any larger service or website, it is more than matching resumes and then hurrying a couple toward the chuppah. She emphasizes individual, face-to-face meetings that enable her to really get to know her clients, and offers dating mentoring to support budding relationships.
"I try to stay away from, 'She's wearing a skirt, he's wearing pants, let's set them up,' " says Rudoff. And her clients appreciate that.
“Thanks so much for the advice, not just about finding a guy, but about being the best person I can be,” a client of hers told her recently.
Not all matchmaking is so pleasant. In fact, one website, “End the Madness” was created to help correct prevalent matchmaking approaches, including undue attention to superficial religious customs rather than the essential qualities that make for a strong marriage.
“All sorts of arbitrary external practices have become divisive ‘standards’ by which the Jewish nation has splintered, each tiny faction holy unto itself,” with people’s religious worth – and marriage eligibility – based on things like tablecloths used on the Jewish Sabbath or the style of a man’s jacket, according to the website, which offers a code of conduct for matchmakers. “The dating “scene” is replete with this insanity.”
Rudoff is mindful of the religious and political divisions in Israeli society, and the tendency for singles to seek out those with similar views. But she is also happy to be as open as her clients are to going out of outside the box of a certain level of religious observance.
And, she adds, she never pressures a couple for a second date if the first one was rocky. Her background is in mentoring Jewish couples to build successful marriages, and she only got into the matchmaking business after launching her website, “Marriage Architect” a year and a half ago.
"I’m not interested in having a couple get married if it’s not a good idea. I need to see that there are foundations in this marriage for me to put my stamp of approval on it,” says Rudoff, who has seven children with her husband of 17 years. “The real reason I’m doing this is because I want people to be happy. I want them to have strong foundations, to be happy together."
As fresh graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass., R. Blaize Wallace and Mustafa Khalifeh could have taken highly lucrative positions in the business world.
Instead, they are launching a start-up from a few spare desks at Jordan’s Oasis500 accelerator. Their idea, which won the $50,000 grand prize in social enterprise at Harvard Business School’s New Ventures competition this spring, aims to help low-income citizens save up for large purchases – such as a washing machine, which could free up women’s time and thus advance opportunities for women in the developing world.
So why Jordan? Well, it is Mr. Khalifeh’s home country, where he helped found three companies before going to Sloan, but he also made a convincing sales pitch to Mr. Wallace and their two other partners, Hoda Eydgahi and Manoah Koletty. Living expenses are relatively cheap, there’s a high concentration of talent and a burgeoning entrepreneurial community, and Jordan is small enough to test new ideas; the mobile giant Zain also launches its pilot projects here.
“The entrepreneurial environment here was a huge part of why we came,” says Wallace, a lanky Californian who previously worked in venture capital in Brazil and for a start-up in San Francisco. “We could have started in a dozen countries.”
In 2011, the Middle East had less access to financial services than sub-Saharan Africa, he says, making it a ripe market for their company, called Bluelight.
For the most part, banks in Jordan have minimum balance requirements that are beyond the means of low-income people. Credit-card penetration is around 2 to 3 percent, and while informal savings initiatives exist, there are perpetual problems with someone running off with the collective pot of money, while fees for more official savings programs can be as high as 30 percent. Those who manage to stuff a bit of cash under their mattresses the old-fashioned way often get asked by friends or family to help out and feel badly saying no.
The “save-to-buy” service, which will enter a second pilot phase later this month, enables clients to create an online account via microfinance institutions, and then add as little or as much to the account at a time via a wide network of locations in Jordan that accept cash deposits. They also have the option of signing up for an account for a specific vendor, giving them access to bonus savings from their favorite appliance or electronics store, for example.
In addition to winning big prizes at both Harvard and MIT, the idea has also captured the attention of potential users. One woman from a low-income neighborhood in east Amman who participated in a focus group said it sounded too good to be true. Then the moderator told her that in fact there is an actual company getting ready to launch.
Khalifeh says there is a specific focus on women, both to help them better manage household finances and free up their time – and opportunities.
“It’s a universal fact by now that they’re the responsible ones in the household,” he says. “We also see this as a women empowerment tool.”