The Greek Orthodox Priest in Akko, Israel

Here’s my article in Israel21C. A story of inspiration, spiritual, faith and hope.

He calls himself Father Philotheos, meaning “a friend of God” in Greek.

As the priest of the Greek Orthodox St. George Church in the Old City of Acre (Akko) in northern Israel, he serves 600 Greek Orthodox residents of the city as well as 30,000 people in 14 surrounding villages in the Western Galilee.

Among his congregants are also a growing number of immigrants from Russia. And when Father Philotheos isn’t leading prayer services, blessing newborn infants or giving last rites to the dying, he is busy restoring the outside of the church himself, adding decorative mosaics, shells and designs in the ancient stone walls.

The Greek Orthodox priest who found his calling in Israel
Father Philotheos’s decorative shells in the church wall. Photo by Cathy Raff

St. George Church, probably the first Christian house of worship built in Akko, dates back to 1631. A physician from Marseilles who visited the church in 1666 declared it was the most beautiful church in the Middle East.

That is where Father Philotheos has served for the past five years. The story of his journey from the island of Crete, where he was born in 1962, to Israel is his own personal pilgrimage.

Heaven on earth

When he was a young boy, he said, a bishop came from Jerusalem to visit his family’s church in Crete. After the services, the bishop asked Philotheos if he wanted to come with him to Jerusalem.

“I immediately said yes,” Philotheos said, “but my father said, ‘How can you go alone?’ I was about 11 or 12. He wanted me to stay in Crete and marry, and carry on the family name. But I was stubborn and I left.”

Showing a book of Byzantine music. Photo by Cathy Raff.

For the rest of this uplifting story, read here.

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An Unexpected Bakery in the Galilee

This unusual couple makes unusual baked goods. Here’s my story from Israel21C.

Vered Baer and Morad Bishara in front of the bakery in Tarshiha, Galilee, Israel

Vered Baer started experimenting with gluten-free cooking and baking when her younger sister was diagnosed with celiac disease about 20 years ago.

After years of experimenting and studying, in November 2020 Baer opened Tupelo Bakery, the first wheat-free bakery and coffee shop in the Western Galilee.

The bakery, with its outdoor garden and tables, is in a picturesque alley on the Tarshiha side of Ma’alot-Tarshiha, the town near the Lebanese border where Baer lives with her husband Morad Bishara, a Christian Arab, and their two children, Lilana, 7, and Dylan, 4.

Baer said that Tupelo draws people from all over Israel, including Eilat at Israel’s southern tip. On Saturdays, market day in the town, there’s a line of customers waiting to eat the sometimes vegan, always vegetarian and wheat-free products.

An artistic wall at Tupelo Bakery’s outside garden.

Just like people who don’t have celiac can eat anywhere we want, I wanted a place where people with the disease could eat anything on the menu,” Baer said on a sunny morning in the middle of the week when the bakery wasn’t crowded.

You can read more of the article here: https://www.israel21c.org/gluten-free-bakery-is-a-sweet-spot-in-the-western-galilee/

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Camping Under the Stars in the Galilee

Our faithful tent and my faithful husband, Jonny Kuritsky, setting up our campsite in the Galilee. CREDIT: Diana Bletter

Why? Why would anyone want to schlep mattresses, a grill, sleeping bags, tent and toothbrushes to camp in the wilds of Israel?

I ask myself this question each time my husband, Jonny, and I load up our Fiat 500 with all our camping equipment and stuff, making our tiny auto look like a circus car from which we remove all the above items. Oh, did I also mention bug spray, bathing suits, towels and a folding chair? And a light to see by in the darkness, provided you check the batteries. Which I forgot to do before we left our house in the Western Galilee and headed north.

I have been camping with Jonny and our blended family of six children for almost 30 years.

We’ve camped in Horshat Tal, in the north, often. One time, when soldiers in a nearby army base were told to go into shelters because there was the possibility of missile attacks, we had nowhere to go and just lay in our tents.

This is on the Snir Stream, a tributary of the Jordan River. PHOTO: Diana Bletter

We’ve camped near Mitzpeh Ramon, where “Star Man” Ira Machefsky set up telescopes for us in the middle of the Ramon Crater when there was very little moon and thousands of stars. As hard as I try, I still can’t fathom how the stars I looked at no longer exist, and how they traveled millions of lightyears just to reach here…

For more of this nostalgic, whimsical look at camping in Israel, click here for the full article in Israel21C.

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Leah Scheier, Author of the First Modern Orthodox Jewish YA Novel, The Last Words We Said

Author Leah Scheier

I had the opportunity to talk to Leah Scheier, a novelist AND pediatrician AND mother of five children. Her fourth young-adult novel, The Last Words We Said, was published recently by Simon & Schuster. It’s a moving story about love and loss and growing up, centering around a teenager struggling to accept the fact that her boyfriend, Danny, is gone.

What’s most interesting about the book, is that it is set in a Modern Orthodox Jewish community in America. In fact, it’s the first YA novel to have Modern Orthodox characters. 

There are books by Chaim Potok (who can forget The Chosen?) and best selling novels by Naomi Ragen, but there are no YA novels about the Modern Orthodox.

“Nothing?” I repeated. It seemed incredible.

“I’ve said this often and nobody’s ever corrected me,” Scheier said. 

Modern Orthodox Jews make up about 30 percent of America’s Orthodox Jewish population. While they follow Jewish law (Scheier observes the Sabbath), they are not insular, managing to maintain Jewish traditions while participating in secular society. 

“Often, the portrayal of Orthodox Jewish communities in the media is very negative,” Scheier said. “There’ a lot of emphasis on suppressing women – not just in the religious Jewish community but in other religious communities as well.” 

Scheier wanted to portray the community objectively as well as lovingly. Readers have said they had never read anything about this population, and Modern Orthodox readers thank her, saying, “It’s the first time I’ve seen myself in a book!”

So this is a very big first.

The world she creates in The Last Words We Said is very believable. The three teenage friends depicted in the book speak like “real” teenagers, sometimes religious, other times rowdy.

“How did you do such realistic dialogue?” I asked.

“I asked my three daughters, all in their twenties, to read the book,” Scheier said. “They gave me authenticity.”

Scheier’s first novel, Secret Letters, is a historical mystery. Her novel, Rules of Rain, is a story about how a girl named Rain has taken care of her twin brother, who is autistic, their whole lives. Rain feels protective of Ethan and eventually, Scheier said, he “outgrows her.” Your Voice is All I Hear is about a high school girl who falls in love with a charismatic boy who is diagnosed with schizophrenia. As Scheier’s characters make their way through troubling times, readers find themselves rooting for them.

Scheier said that even if she could pay the bills writing full-time, she enjoys working as a pediatrician so she can meet people and get more material. She moved to Israel from Baltimore in 2008. She said she isn’t sure of which direction to take her fifth novel.

“Do you write an outline for your novels?”

“I don’t,” she replied. “For Secret Letters, my mystery novel, I had to write an outline so that I could keep track of the clues. Scheier said she thinks of her books in scenes and lets the characters talk in her head.

“Sometimes they say something that surprises me,” Scheier said. “That’s the best moment. The characters have a mind of their own.”

Scheier fell into young adult novels by accident. She wrote the first draft of Secret Letters in a year and half as fantasy fiction; there was a 16-year-old character as well as Sherlock Holmes who “showed up” in the novel.

After she finished it, her agent showed it to Disney/Hyperion and the editor wanted a complete rewrite. Scheier had to rewrite 95-percent of it, she said. The novel was then pitched as YA, which is “the fastest growing genre out there.”

“I’m perfectly happy writing YA novels,” Scheier said.

She added that she loves hearing from readers. She recalled when she wrote a letter to the middle-grade fantasy/adventure writer, Lloyd Alexander, never thinking she’d hear back from him, he responded in three days. 

“It’s much easier with twitter,” she confessed. “The majority of authors love getting feedback from readers.”

In fact, when I interviewed her, I was in the middle of reading The Last Words We Said.

“What part are you up to?” she asked excitedly.

“They’re in the supermarket,” I replied. “Near the watermelons.”

“Oh,” she replied knowingly. “I don’t want to spoil it for you. Let me know when you finish it so we can chat.”

I thanked Scheier for her time and then said good-bye – sort of abruptly, I admit. I wanted to get back to reading her novel.

Scheier’s books can be found at your favorite local bookstore or on bookdepository.com.

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Catholic Israeli Walied Khoury, one of the last blacksmiths in Israel, on his ancient tools and techniques

In Europe, blacksmiths pass their craft from father to son, according to Walied Khoury, a blacksmith in the village of Fassuta in the Western Galilee.

But there are only about eight blacksmiths in all of Israel. Khoury is one of them and he learned the trade almost by chance.

Khoury is a friendly man dressed in a T-shirt that says BLACKSMITH on it, with a tattoo of an anvil on his forearm, a shaved head and fashionable goatee. He looks more like a motorcyclist than a blacksmith.

…I loved visiting about Khoury in his unique village and writing about him. I’m always excited by the diversity of people in Israel, and their creativity. The Start-Up Nation has many varieties, not just hi-tech. To read more about Khoury, please click here.

This is Khoury on his terrace; in the distance are the hills of Southern Lebanon, just across the border. PHOTO CREDIT: Diana Bletter
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Producer Dafna Prenner on Creativity, The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, and the First Lady of Israeli Television, Who Happened to be Her Mom

Dafna Prenner, center, with actor Michael Aloni and actress Irit Kaplan on the set of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.” Photo by Nati Levi

I didn’t know this fact. You probably didn’t, either. Israel sells more scripted TV shows than any other country in the world except for the United Kingdom. I learned that when I visited Dafna Prenner.

On her office wall at Artza Productions is an axe.

Really, an axe?

Because she is tall and blondish, the writer of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem” nicknamed Prenner “The Viking” and presented her with an axe as a gag gift.

Prenner’s walls are also covered with classic movie memorabilia, photos of her family and friends, and a row of trophies for various TV shows her company has produced (“There are a lot more of them but these are the ones I keep here,” Prenner explained.)

Dafna Prenner next to some of Artza’s trophies. Photo by Diana Bletter

Along with her partner, Shai Eines, the 52-year-old has produced shows like “Miller’s Crossing,” “Stockholm” and the movie “Kicking Out Shoshana,” which was the Israeli movie debut for Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot.

During my recent visit to her office in Tel Aviv, far from the city’s trendy shops, cafés and skyscrapers, Prenner was getting ready to shoot the second season of “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem,” which debuted on Netflix in May to rave reviews.

Dafna Prenner in the costume room at Artza Productions with clothes for “The Beauty Queen of Jerusalem.” Photo by Diana Bletter

To continue reading the story, click here.

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Passing Down the Ancient Craft of Organ Building In Western Galilee, Israel

Gideon Shamir entrusts apprentice Uri Shani with his workshop, where metal and wooden organ pipes soar upwards like mountain peaks.

I was so enchanted during my visit at this workshop for organ building in the Galilee. The article appeared in Israel21C, which has fabulous news about Israel. I am sure you will enjoy reading this.

Uri Shani, left, and Gideon Shamir in front of organ pipes they will restore. Photo by Diana Bletter

I was so enchanted during my visit at this workshop for organ building in the Galilee. The article appeared in Israel21C, which has fabulous news about Israel. I am sure you will enjoy reading this.

For over 40 years, Gideon Shamir, 82, was the only organ builder in Israel. He searched for an apprentice to whom he could pass on his legacy and knowledge, but never found anyone with the patience to do the work.

Then, in June 2021, Shamir took theatre director and playwright Uri Shani, 55, under his wing.

“Uri passed the test with flying colors,” Shamir said. “He grasps what I’m trying to teach, he has good hands and musical ears.”

On February 14, the day I visited Ugavim, Shamir’s organ-building workshop and recital space in Yuvalim, in the Galilee hills, the two men signed a formal agreement. The business is now in the younger man’s hands.

Ugavim’s large, high-ceilinged workshop is filled with metal and wooden organ pipes that soar upwards Jewish organ music.

Shamir points out that the organ is first mentioned in the beginning of the Bible. Genesis 4:21 introduces Yuval, “the father of all who play the harp and the pipe — kinor v’ugav. How fitting that Ugavim (Pipes) is located in Yuvalim.

Read the rest of the story here.

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Israeli Aid Worker’s HeartBreaking Report: On the Ground with Refugees from Ukraine

Here’s the latest news…I spoke to Linor Attias, a relief worker in Moldova, helping refugees fleeing from Ukraine for Israel21C.

Israeli volunteers distributing food to Ukrainian refugees in Moldova. Photo courtesy of United Hatzalah of Israel

A delegation of 15 physicians, medics and paramedics from Israel’s voluntary emergency response organization, United Hatzalah, was the first international relief organization on the ground in Moldova, aiding about 70,000 refugees fleeing from Ukraine.

“We’re the only ones here,” said Linor Attias, a United Hatzalah emergency situation manager who arrived in Kishinev, the capitol of Moldova, on Sunday afternoon. (Tuesday, a team from Israeli humanitarian aid organization IsraAID arrived in the Moldovan town of Palanca.)

Reached by phone, Attias said there are an estimated 500,000 Ukrainian refugees who’ve fled into Poland, where other international relief organizations are helping them. Moldova is a less-developed country without as many resources, she said.

“Moldovan officials don’t know how to handle a civilian emergency like this but with our experience, we can help.”

The refugees have traveled by foot for days in freezing weather and snow to reach Ukraine’s border, Attias said.

Only women and children are allowed to cross into Moldova, however. Ukrainian men over 18 are not allowed to leave Ukraine and “must stay and fight. Once across the border, the women have no way to communicate with their husbands, fathers, brothers,” she said. “They don’t know if they’ll ever see them again.” The rest of the story is here.

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Take Your Wife to Work Day in Israel

Tales from the heart: Out on the tractor at dawn

Here’s my article in Israel21C about my husband, Jonny Kuritsky who has been farming the fields of Shavei Zion, Western Galilee, Israel.

By  Diana Bletter  FEBRUARY 3, 2022, 2:15 PM

Avocado grove workers in Shavei Zion in the Western Galilee. Photo by Diana Bletter

The alarm clock hasn’t even rung. Most people would say it is still night but for my husband, Jonny Kuritsky, it is morning.

He’s long out of bed as the muezzin’s voice floats toward us over the loudspeakers from the mosque in the village of Mazra’a across the road.

In the dark hours of pre-dawn, the jackals cry. Then, at exactly 5am, Kuritsky (that’s what I call him) climbs onto his rugged electric club car, headed for his job in the avocado groves of Shavei Zion, the village where we live in the Western Galilee.

He mostly works on a tractor, a dream job for a guy who, as a child, played with tractors and trucks in the dirt. He sprays against diseases that harm the avocado trees in the 1,000-dunam (about 250 acres) grove.

Most people his age – he just turned 70 – might prefer to retire. That’s not his game plan.

“Why should I stop? If I can get on a tractor and spray and do a good job with a little experience under my belt, why should I stop because of a number?”

Kuritsky works with a diverse team of men that includes four Israeli Arabs, four Israeli Jews, and four workers from Thailand who are in Israel for five-year stints. The dozen men speak to one another in a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic, Thai and English.

He mostly works on a tractor, a dream job for a guy who, as a child, played with tractors and trucks in the dirt. He sprays against diseases that harm the avocado trees in the 1,000-dunam (about 250 acres) grove.

Most people his age – he just turned 70 – might prefer to retire. That’s not his game plan.

“Why should I stop? If I can get on a tractor and spray and do a good job with a little experience under my belt, why should I stop because of a number?”

Kuritsky works with a diverse team of men that includes four Israeli Arabs, four Israeli Jews, and four workers from Thailand who are in Israel for five-year stints. The dozen men speak to one another in a mixture of Hebrew, Arabic, Thai and English.

For the rest of the article, click here.

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Environmental Activist Sharona Shnayder is Only 21, Just Moved to Israel, and She’s Already Tackling Israel’s Trash

Tuesdays for Trash founder Sharona Shnayder picking up garbage on the beach. Photo by Kseniia Poliak; makeup by Paula Fay; styling by Lilya Kubrick

Awesome. That is one of Nigerian-Israeli environmental activist Sharona Shnayder’s favorite words, and when I told her we could meet for lunch at one of her favorite cafés in Tel Aviv, a block from her office, that’s what she said.

The café is readymade for Instagram. And Shnayder, in her black sweater and impossibly long, colorful braids, fits right in. She’s a photo shoot just waiting to happen. In fact, she’s a politician just waiting to happen.

“I am focused on politics because without legislation, nothing can change,” said 21-year-old Shnayder.

hnayder, who moved to Israel in May, is cofounder and CEO of Tuesdays for Trash, a global environmental movement that encourages individuals around the world to dedicate at least one day a week to picking up garbage.Sharona Shnayder throwing away trash she picked up on a Tel Aviv street. Photo by Diana Bletter

Here’s my article from Israel21C, a great site with informative articles and profiles. It shows you what one person can do.

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