Business lags for rabbi who performs bnai mitzvah

JERUSALEM — Ordinarily, Rabbi Jay Karzen is very busy this time a year. Known around town as the "Bar Mitzvah King" because he annually performs 100 bar and bat mitzvahs for children from outside the country, the affable former Chicagoan says that these days, he has too much time on his hands.

That's because most of the families Karzen ordinarily caters to — 75 to 80 percent of whom hail from North America, the rest from other places in the diaspora — are afraid to come to Israel at the moment. Frightened away by the nightly news, families that had planned to hold their simchas in Israel are canceling by the dozens.

"Business is drastically down, more than 50 percent from last year," says the 66-year-old rabbi and author of "Off the Wall," a collection of humorous anecdotes reaped from the 15 years he has performed b'nai mitzvah at the Kotel.

Karzen, who always seems to have a quip up his sleeve, is serious when he says, "during the intermediate days of Pesach, I was supposed to do five bar mitzvahs. Four out of the five cancelled, and they were all from the States. I've had two in the last two weeks from England, so evidentially the English are a bit more brave."

The trouble started late last year, just after the start of the Palestinian uprising, Karzen says.

"From Rosh Hashanah on, I usually get dozens and dozens of inquiries for the spring and summer of the next year. Not only are people not coming, he says, "there have been very few inquiries for the future." Even worse, "people who have booked are asking for their deposits back."

While there have been countless news reports focusing on the plight of those employed in the tourism industry, few outside Israel realize just how badly the uprising has hit people in dozens of other, sometimes unexpected, sectors.

"Everybody's affected. There's a snowball effect," says Karzen. "It's so obvious when you walk around Jerusalem. The restaurants aren't crowded; the shops are empty. My wife, who's a decorator and contractor who works with both local and overseas clients, says that people aren't buying. It's not just the hotels and bus drivers, though they're affected the most. This is my livelihood, and when there's such a tremendous downturn, I'm directly affected."

Vered Dar, director of macroeconomics at the Finance Ministry, concurs that the security situation has resulted in a huge loss of national income.

During the past six months, Dar says, the economy has lost roughly $800 million. Much of that loss has been felt in the tourism industry where business is down 45 percent compared to the same period last year. To a small degree, hotels are recouping their losses by offering deals to Israelis. But the occupancy rates are still abysmal, and prospects for the rest of the year appear glum.

Other casualties of the intifada are the construction and agricultural sectors. Until the uprising, Dar notes, a third of Israel's construction workers (about 70,000) were Palestinians. Due to the country's security closure on the territories in the wake of Palestinian violence, only 15,000 to 20,000 are employed in construction.

"The same thing with agriculture," Dar says. "Palestinians used to comprise about 12 percent of the labor force. Now it's much less, maybe a couple hundred workers. In both sectors, we don't have the manpower to get the jobs done."

While some of the slack has been taken up by laborers from Thailand and Romania, there are more blue-collar jobs than workers to fill them, particularly in the agricultural industry.

Dar says that manufacturers of everything from soft drinks to snack foods are also feeling the heat.

"We used to have exports of $2 billion a year to the Palestinian Authority. That will drop this year by 40 to 50 percent."

So far, the only sector not appreciably affected by the violence is high-tech, but this, too, could change. "People may think twice about investing," Dar warns. "There is an impact on almost everything. If someone thinks twice about going to the movies, or to a shopping mall, it hurts."

Ruby Karzen, the rabbi's wife, says that her home decorating and construction business has suffered almost as much as her husband's has. Though work suddenly picked up — quite inexplicably — two months ago, she says that "November, December, January, February, March were just horrendous."

The decorator attributes her slowdown both to the overall real estate slump that has plagued Israel for the past couple of years and to the overall security situation.

"It's true that things were slow before, but now they're worse," she says. "The people from overseas who used to come and buy apartments and fix them up aren't coming, and it filters to everything. It affects the people who make and sell furniture and draperies and tile and building materials." Due to the dearth of tourists, she notes, "the hotels are afraid to spend money redecorating."

Even educators like Sally Klein-Katz, who works with visiting North American adults and teens, is feeling the crunch.

Although none of her incoming groups have canceled, "attendance in each program has been down something like 50 percent, sometimes more."

Klein-Katz has only praise for the minority of diaspora Jews who continue to support Israel-based trips at this difficult time.

She applauds community leaders who are going forward with planned trips even if theyhave to increase their subsidies.

"They're the ones who realize that Israel is the best place to hold many, many programs," she says.

The few who do come, Klein-Katz says, end up being good will ambassadors for Israel. "Basically, they all go back and tell people that what you see in the headlines isn't happening on every street corner and that this is the time to come to Israel."

Jay Karzen says he is not angered by the lack of Jewish visitors from overseas, but he is perturbed.

"At the Kotel last week, there were between 100 and 150 non-Jews watching me perform a bar mitzvah," he recalls. "They're not afraid to come. I think it's because they think of themselves as pilgrims going to the Holy Land. When you go to the Holy Land, you feel that God is watching over you."

Most diaspora Jews, on the other hand, "come to Israel for a vacation," the rabbi says. "When you go on a vacation, you want everything to be safe and wonderful. You go to Hawaii, Las Vegas. I understand it, but I'm disappointed."

Putting the current situation into perspective, Karzen notes that 80 percent of American Jews have never visited the Jewish state.

"They don't come even during the good times, when there is no intifada. I'm not asking them to make aliyah, just to visit for two weeks," Karzen says.