Monday, November 23, 2009

Planet Israel Sells Out to Cash In

It's been a while since I blogged, and probably almost a year since I was writing my daily posts.  And yet I've posted such a body of work that I still get 60 or 70 hits a day, more than I used to get even when I was writing daily.  People scouring Google for information on El Jib, or the Jordan Valley, or any of the other myriad of places I've been, still find themselves wandering in to Planet Israel due to the vast amount of writing and pictures I've posted.  I've been unemployed long enough that I've started to search for new sources of income, so I've decided to sell out to google and start posting google ads on my site. Maybe my labors will get me enough cash for another tank of gas.

In my personal life, I've descended from the holy land for the time being, but I'm still having adventures and I still want to write about them.  Since I'm no longer in Israel, I think that posting to a blog called "Planet Israel" would probably be a bit of a misnomer.  So I'm starting a new blog called "Adventures in Exile."  It's still in the preliminary stages, but we plan on driving cross-country and posting from our pit-stops and layovers while we travel from place to place and seek adventure and employment.  And I still have gigabytes worth of photographs from my Israeli travels, tours which I just never had the time to post.  Maybe if someday I find a cushy government job with loads of free time, or if we can find a kosher soup kitchen with wi-fi, I'll finally have the time to post the Planet Israel archives.  Until then, tune in to Adventures in Exile, and keep an eye on Planet Israel!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Climbing El Cap'

The day after our wedding, the phonecalls stopped. No more hectic caterers, confused florists, irate wedding planners, sobbing relatives, or lost guests. Just the two of us in marital bliss. After weeks of sleeping past noon, we got on a normal schedule and began sorting through the heaps of wedding presents, plus all her stuff, plus all my stuff. Trying to cram it all into our tiny rental apartment has forced me to purge my wardrobe of all articles of clothing over seven years of age, begin selling some of my five computer systems, and haul out bag after bag of miscellaneous junk to the trash. It’s hard to believe I landed in this country three years ago with just two suitcases.

Leaving America with all my belongings.

Purging my possessions has caused me to try to organize myself mentally as well. What are my new life goals now that the big one, marriage, is squared away? Rambam (the 11th century Jewish sage Maimonades) lists the proper order of one’s life goals as: Parnassah (income,) Bayit (home,) Ishah (wife.) In plainer talk, get yourself a job and a roof over your head before you think about getting married. In my 31 years on this planet, I have never actually owned my Bayit, always rented. In Israel, I have been homeless several times, living off the hide-a-beds and eating out of the fridges of friends and relatives for a month or more until I could find a new apartment. While vagrancy is tolerable for a rough-and-ready single, it would be a nightmare to drag my family through that. I need to own an apartment.

A compensating factor for the diminished personal wealth of life here is the feeling of total ownership. In Israel, even the sky is Jewish. I don’t need a castle with a five acre lawn because all the hills, streets, and trees around me are already mine. Still, I would like to have four walls and a roof of my own, to have my life beyond the whims of my landlord.

Personal finance in Israel, at least for most people, involves finding some way to scrape by. It is possible to pay the rent and bills, but it’s unusual to be able to get ahead. The cost of living for basic items (milk, eggs, busfare, etc.) is approximately the same as in the United States. Any luxury items, such as quality shoes, deodorant, a computer, or my car (which I have now sold,) are typically double to triple their cost in the United States. Meanwhile, my salary here is half to a third of what it was in the United States. A low-cost apartment in the settlements goes for at least $200,000, and a place in the outskirts of Jerusalem goes for a minimum of $300,000, and since down payments are typically 30%-40%, my down payment would be from $66,000 to $100,000. Based on a simple calculation of our earning potential versus expenses, it would take us anywhere from twelve to sixteen years to save up this amount, ignoring the effects of inflation. And that doesn’t include times like now, when I’m unemployed watching my savings bleed away. Also, while as a new couple it is possible to save up money, as time goes on and there are, God willing, more and more mouths to feed, saving anything in this country becomes impossible.

Our original plan was to give it a year and try to find something that paid better than my job at the solar power startup company. Then, five months ago, I was laid off. I’ve been to a couple of job interviews that looked really hopeful, to the point that one manager told me, “You are the ideal candidate. I’m flying to Austin next week to sign a contract, and when I come back, I’ll have an offer for you.” Having not heard from him in some time, I asked around. Turned out the company didn’t get the contract and was in a nose dive, shedding employees. I’ve reaped similar sour grapes from my other job interviews. It seems that, at least as far as I’m seeing, Israel is just too small a market for large, stable engineering firms. If they exist, they sure aren’t hiring. I’m sure that if I continue to apply myself, I can eventually land another six-month gig at another green-tech startup till it flops or is sold.

The question of leaving Israel temporarily to work and save is an option I’ve considered for some time and my feelings are mixed. Nobody comes to Israel to get rich, they come to satisfy a spiritual and ideological impulse, and to live with family. On religious terms, there is simply no comparison to the potential for spiritual growth in an environment with endless options for Torah study, the highest levels of kashrut, and a culture rooted in Jewish life. While I could sacrifice a few years of this growth on a personal level, there is a national aspect to living here as well. Living in Israel isn’t just another lifestyle choice, like dropping into Paris or London for a few years. I still haven’t lost the inspiration of participating in the restoration of the Jewish homeland and repatriation of its exiled natives after thousands of years of wandering. If every Jew were to base his or her decision to stay or leave on financial grounds alone, this country would be abandoned and revert to the deserted ruins it was under Muslim rule. Then again, if working abroad for a while helps me anchor myself here more permanently, then it could be a worthy sacrifice.

There is a reasonable case to be made for either sticking it out or going back into the diaspora for a while, and so I asked Hashem to affect my ratzon, my will, to push me in the right direction. In the end, my ratzon is pushing me to jump through this window of opportunity.

In Yosemite, I remember once speaking with a mountain climber who had scaled El Capitan, at over 3,500 feet, the tallest shear cliff in the world. At certain points on his ascent, he could anchor his equipment into the granite face and lower himself down by pulley, and then hoist himself back up to the same spot the next day. Walking into a bar in the evenings, his friends asking him what he was up to, he would answer, to their bemusement, "Right now, I'm climbin' El Cap'."

El Capitan

And so am I. Aliyah, literally "Ascent" is a process. When I landed here three years ago, I never thought I would have to leave again, but I'm not giving up on my Aliyah by a long shot. I have my family, friends, and connections, and I have some idea of how life works in this country. It may be a few months or a few years before I'm back permanently, but I can pick up life where I left off, I view this as part of the process.

So, on November 2nd, wifey and I are going on a voyage. We will land on the East Coast, spend some time with my wife's family and purchase a used car. After visiting cities in the east, we will begin driving cross-country. We will stop in various communities across the United States and Canada getting to know one another’s family, seeing the sights, visiting those who could not attend our wedding, and hunting down job leads, until we reach my family in the Pacific Northwest. I’m confident we can find something, but even if we don’t, at least we’ll know we didn't let the opportunity pass by. And I won’t forget to write.

Friday, October 02, 2009

More on Student Loans and Defaults

I've been having a conversation with Zapporah over my previous post on the Student Loan Scam.

I think it deserves its own post here, since this is an important issue which affects people for their entire lives.

Zapporah said...
Please answer me this... I just graduated college and I am moving to Israel in just a few months. Can I escape these high loan amounts in Israel? What will happen to my credit rating in Israel? Is it the same as in Canada with the new social number? What will the repercussions be for me in Israel?Thank you so much for this article.
8:49 PM

Ephraim said...
Hi Zapporah,There is no such thing as a credit history in Israel. At this time, lenders do not persue delinquent debtors outside of the United States. Also, there is no debtors' prison or anything like that, so you can fly back and visit as desired. Please note, however, that as of the writing of this comment, there is still no bankruptcy or statute of limitations on student loans. Therefore, if you default, and then you return to the U.S. after 20 years, your debt collectors will be waiting for you. Also, over the next 20 years, there could be a change in finance laws which makes it easier to persue debtors abroad. Nobody really knows which direction this will go. But for now, you will be safe from the loan collectors.

Zapporah said...
Ephraim, thanks. I signed up for as many classes as possible to get out of school in 18 months so I didn't have to pay more money. I knew my end date would be in June, but it kept coming up for Sept and no one could answer me why. I ended up being charged $3,000 more for the 3 months they added on because they didn't put me in more classes to get out of school by June which I signed up for. I was fully prepared to pay the $15,000+ amount but after reading this and getting $3k+ tacked onto my bill, no way am I going to start repayment. I will try for one more month to get the school to wipe the $3k off and if they don't, I'm out. Thanks a lot.

And Ephraim Says:

So basically, your college ripped you off. This is actually somewhat unsurprizing. Many colleges are now run more like businesses than educational institutions, and with a profit motive involved, inevitably there will be crooks and thieves in the mix.

However, please bear in mind one thing. If the college goes forward with charging you $3,000, then they will probably just take the money straight from the lender, unless you can find some way to convince the lender not to send the money to the university. Basically, if you default, the odds are that the university will get the money regardless.

If you do default, keep in mind that this debt will balloon with late fees and astronomical interest rates. They will not be able to come after your income as long as you are here in Israel. However, they will be able to sieze your tax returns (you still have to file tax returns from Israel to the United States every year, even if you are abroad.) That means that things like the stimulus checks or any other sort of money you would ordinarily receive on your tax returns would be lost.

More importantly, if say in ten or twenty years, should you decide to return to the United States, even if just to work for a few years, the creditors will come after you and attempt to garnish your earnings.

My own opinion is that people who are trapped in this hellish mess of massive and unrepayable debt should flee the United States as a last resort. However, this has dire personal consequences and probably shouldn't be undertaken unless the debt is so crushing that it is impossible to repay.

It's just a good idea to think about the ramifications of a decision which will affect the rest of one's life.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Our Wedding

Well, it's been a few days, and wifey and I are now recovering from the holy ceremony / wild party that was our wedding. I've posted some preliminary pictures taken by friends. We still don't have the official photos from the photographer or the video guy, but this should give you some idea as to how it went down!

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

City of Light, Part II

Continued from Yesterday...

Multi-colored buckets hanging from the retaining wall of the Temple Mount.
Lights on trees. It looked sort of wintry to me.
Back in the downtown area, spinning "movies" projected onto the Iriyah (City Hall.)
In the central plaza of the Iriyah, a 3-dimensional projection of an image. The symbols of all of the 12 tribes, in this case Reuvein, were projected holographically.Meanwhile, back in the Christian quarter of the old city. A fountain in the main plaza was covered with a giant plastic bubble. Fans spun feathers and bubbles around inside the giant plastic bubble, to make it look like it had its own weather system.

Making juice next to the giant plastic bubble fountain.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

City of Light, Part I

A couple of weeks ago, the Jerusalem municipality put on the "city of light" display, where artists displayed their light-based sculptures, also projecting colors and images on the ancient walls and buildings of the old city.

Click on the images below for larger versions.

Walking toward the Jaffa Gate, the streets are lined with hanging colored lanterns. some sort of glowing translucent plastic tanks which constantly change color.

Welcome sign projected on Jaffa Gate.

People dressed in light.
Outside the walls of the citadel, some sort of whale-shaped figurine with a kinetic flying bicycle attached.

The kinetic flying bicycle.

In the Cardo, vendors selling lamps.
Multi-colored, ever-changing lights projected onto strings.
One of the benefits of the City of Light display was that all of the archaeological gardens, parks, etc., were open to the public free of charge. We went into the archaeological gardens to view some of the sculptures on display there.
Images projected on giant 20-foot tall spinning vases.

Light tubes, with a little Magen David (Star of David) in the middle.
Looking at the light tubes from the bottom.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The Vort / Lechayim / Engagement Party

Wife2B and I had our Vort (Yiddish) / Lechayim (Hebrew) / Engagement Party (English) (choose appropriate language) last week. I've posted some photos here:

Yours truly spinning in the circle with Tel Aviv Moshe. That's Adam playing guitar in the background.

Peeking through the Mechitzah.

More guys dancing.

Rabbi Shurin from Wife2B's seminary came to give a speech.

Wife2B with friends and roomies.


Women dancing.

And, of course, more dancing on the men's side:

Yours truly with Wife2B!

Mighty Moish of Modi'in (soon Tzfat)

Yours truly, living it up

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fwd: Obama Vs. Israel

After years of blissful uneventfullness since the end of the Second Intifada, punctuated by a few weeks of intense warfare here and there, I've suddenly started paying attention to the news again.  It started with a call from one of my rabbis, who is now living in a small community on a windswept hilltop in Samaria (the northern West Bank.)  These communities are often called "Settler Outposts," but the term is a bit misleading, as it implies some sort of military fortress bristling with antennae, thermal imaging cameras, and all the toys from a spy thriller.  In reality, these Outposts are composed of small ramshackle temporary shelters and leaky trailers built, like their wealthier Arab neighbors, without the benefit of legal permits. 


"I know you like to keep up with the news, so you're aware of what's going on?" he asked me.


The new, nominally conservative Netanyahu administration, had slated twenty six such outposts for demolition.

"We need lots of tefillah (prayers) and help."
"Let me know what I can do, just say where and when."


These demolitions, which are now in progress, are the first such since 2005.  They apparently did nothing to ingratiate Netanyahu with the new Obama administration.  It was expected that the new administration would be markedly cooler toward Israel, but a sudden series of edicts emanating from the White House caught everyone off-guard for their naked hostility, including:


1.       Israel must sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would require Israel to disarm.

2.       Israel is to take no military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

3.       The U.S. understands Iran's, "energy concerns" (i.e. nuclear ambitions.)  The United States will not make efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction until Israel makes sufficient progress on destroying settlements.  Meaning, America will do nothing about Iran.

4.       In violation of previous commitments and signed treaties, Obama is now demanding Israel freeze all settlement activity everywhere, including in large cities abutting the 1949 armistice line which everyone agrees will become part of Israel.

5.       In his meeting with Palestinian Authority President (and financier of the 1976 Munich Olympics Massacre) Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama indicated that the U.S. will no longer hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for upholding their commitments in previous signed agreements.  These commitments include turning over known terrorists to Israel for trial, prevention terrorist attacks, and cessation of funding for acts of violence against Israeli civilians.  The White House is only demanding a vague, unverifiable, "Commitment to end incitement."

6.       The U.S. is beginning to enact restrictions on which weapons Israel will be allowed to purchase, holding up sales of weapons which might be used to thwart Iran's nuclear program.


While no consequences for non-compliance with American demands have yet been issued, the unspoken threats for refusal include:


1.       Removal of American loan guarantees.  Israel would have to borrow money for its national budget at a much higher rate of interest during a time of economic crisis.

2.       Removal of American support in the United Nations.  One in three United Nations resolutions is a condemnation of Israel for all sorts of outlandish accusations.  These condemnations are typically authored by Arab states, embraced by the third world, sheepishly ratified by Europe, and finally vetoed by the United States.  Removal of the American veto could result in a gradual erosion of Israel's diplomatic position and, in a worst-case scenario, the eventual imposition of sanctions.

3.       Elimination of military aid.


Since all of these measures were enacted without discussion, or even a warning through diplomatic channels, it seems pretty clear that the Obama administration, for its own purposes, is actively trying to pick a fight with the Israeli government.  Taken in context of his visible cooling of relations with other American allies like Britain and India, and his warming of relations with traditional adversaries like Syria, this seems to be part of a general American trend in the world of turning away from free democratic states and toward third-world dictatorships and Islamic Apartheid regimes.


This isn't the first time Israel has come into conflict with an American administration.  In fact, Netanyahu's previous term in office in 1996 was marked by conflict with the Clinton administration.  Clinton, perceived by Israelis as a great friend, partnered with the Israeli left and managed to have Netanyahu replaced with the more pliant Ehud Barak.


Obama has made similar overtures to the same Ehud Barak, today Defense Minister, bypassing protocol and just "popping in" to a meeting between Barak and white house officials yesterday.  It was a clear signal to Israelis that there are more pliant leaders with whom he was willing to work after Netanyahu is overthrown.  But Obama is not Clinton.  Clinton took four years to prove his pro-Israel credentials before involving himself in the intricacies and intrigue of Israeli domestic politics.  Barack Obama jumped right in and began issuing demands, and already has a reputation on the street as an Israel-hater.


Also, the Israel of 2009 is not the Israel of 1996.  At that time, Israel still held Gaza, the "West Bank," and Southern Lebanon.  The Palestinian Authority still claimed, at least in English, to have no ambitions beyond a state of its own.  But after withdrawing from Lebanon and Gaza, both became launching grounds for kidnapping raids, terrorist atrocities, and rocket bombardments of Israeli civilians.  As distasteful as Ehud Barak may find the settlers, it's blindingly obvious that, should Israel withdraw from the "West Bank," his own supporters' homes in Tel Aviv, just four or five kilometers to the east, will come under rocket attack.  Israeli leaders may still mouth the words "West Bank Withdrawal," but most seem to understand on some level the lethal threat a State of Palestine would cause for Israel.


The real threat is one of Arab perception.  Since the Arab conquest and colonization of the holy land in the year 639 CE (AD), the Jews were always a docile minority accepting of second-class status.  The Arab street of today views Jewish haughtiness at demanding freedom from their rule as a direct result of American military and diplomatic support.  If they view this sudden rift in the American-Israeli relationship as serious, they may smell a moment of weakness and be tempted to attack.


In the long run, Obama will probably be forced to reduce his expectations.  Every American administration takes office with a surge of energy, convinced that the previous guy had it all wrong.  Reagan came in with a similar list of demands, although not nearly as threatening.  Within a few years, after gaining real-life experience seeing American diplomats tortured and servicemen killed by Arafat and the like, he realized with whom he was dealing and scaled back his expectations.


A temporary reduction in Israel-American ties is no need for fear.  It may, in fact, be beneficial to break Israel's psychological dependence on American support in an increasingly multi-polar world.  India and China, both rising powers, have higher public approval ratings of Israel than the United States.  Most of Israel's great accomplishments, from the building of a state, to Independence, to repulsion of repeated Arab invasions, to the immigration of millions of refugees, all happened before the American-Israeli alliance was cemented under Nixon, and often with vehement American opposition.  Still, it's a shame to see the world's greatest democracy, and Israel's greatest friend for the last thirty years and more, turn a cold shoulder to its former friends.


At least the news is now more interesting than the sitcoms.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Is Obama Good for Israel?

In a previous post (Three Elections,) I mentioned that, since Obama was dangerously inexperienced and had dubious associations, I was going to be voting for McCain. However, I also added a sort of disclaimer:

Of course, I remember, eight years ago, writing that G.W. Bush would be, like his father, a Country Club Republican, sneering and hostile to Israel. Boy did I have him pegged wrong! Maybe I've got Obama all wrong too, and he will completely break with the views of his friends and advisers to become a truly noble person.

In the 2000 presidential election, I voted Democrat, for fear of George W. Bush being as hostile to Israel as his father had been. But during the Second Intifada, when the Europe and much of the American left betrayed Israel and sided with terrorism, Bush's stalwart support stood out like a lone voice in the wilderness. After two years of mass murder in the streets of Jerusalem at the hands of Islamic predators, in 2002 his diplomatic support provided Israel the latitude to finally send in the tanks and crush the terror war. As terrorism continued to drop, despite almost unbearable European and Arab pressure to throw Israel to the wolves, he supported Israel's defensive measures, including the targeted assassinations of the terror gangsters, the construction of the security barrier, and the erection of life-saving checkpoints. I felt that despite Bush's having botched Iraq and reduced America's strength domestically and abroad, I could give him a bit of leeway.

I was gravely concerned when Obama won the election and took office, given the animosity of many of his associates to Israel and fear they would be moved into positions of influence. His recent overtures to Syria and the State Department's calling for Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (disarm) while simultaneously allowing Iran to build a bomb are causes for concern. Also disconcerting is his apparent support for the "Arab Peace Initiative," which calls for a complete withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice line, the destruction of the Jewish villages over the armistice line and the dispossession and destitution of their half-million inhabitants, and the unlimited immigration of hostile Arabs from neighboring countries into what would be left of Israel to vote this country into the grave.

But really, none of these threats, except Iran, have any teeth to them. Israel will never surrender its nuclear weapons, ever. Syria will not realign itself with the United States. Israel will not sign an Arab Peace Initiative which legalizes its own destruction, and will only accept a modified version in which Israel would somehow continue to exist. For a Muslim state to sign such a modified Arab Peace Initiative with a Jewish state guaranteeing its continued existence would imply some sort of shared humanity between Jews and Muslims. The Islamic political program enacted in neighboring Arab states legalizes an Apartheid system with Muslims on top and non-Muslims (Dhimmi) completely disenfranchised, so any Arab leader who signed a treaty would be branded a heretic.

As for Iran, well, both Clinton and Bush II also sat idly by and did nothing while they pursued their nuclear ambitions, so Obama is no better or worse. It's like watching the diabolical villain in a James Bond movie, except with no James Bond to stop him. On the other hand, I remember reading headlines back in 1998 that Iran was six months away from having the bomb.

As for Obama's anti-Israel advisors, it's important to remember back to the administration of Bush I. James Baker influenced George H. W. Bush to threaten to withhold foreign aid if Israel's conservative Shamir administration were to continue building in Judea, Samaria and Gaza (the "Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip") Shamir realized Bush I was so implacably hostile he had nothing to lose, and so he founded dozens of new settlements and authorized massive expansions in the others. It was the greatest flowering of the rebirth of Jewish life in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza in the last forty years. Even today, two decades later, homes are still being built based on permits he issued. As for Bush I's threats, congress stepped in and stopped him, so there were no negative consequences.

Is Obama good for Israel? No, but neither is he bad, merely indifferent. While Obama and Netanyahu may not share the lock-step relationship that Bush II and Sharon did, I don't sense much overt hostility from the Obama administration. The administration is staffed with savvy politicians and business people who have to fix their own country first, so why would they risk a fight with congress over an issue no president has ever been able to solve anyway? If Obama can somehow repair the economic disaster he inherited, it would be better for Israel to have a lukewarm but strong ally under Obama than an enthusastic but pitifully weak one as under Bush II.
The peace processors are returning to the region with their lingo about, "windows of opportunity," "peace partners," and "bolstering moderates." In the end it will prove impossible to reconcile the Arab objective to deprive the Middle East's non-Muslims of their freedom with Israel's objective to continue existing. The world will keep turning, the diplomats will keep yacking, the Arabs will stew in belligerent self-pity, and Israel will keep growing.
Next week... is Obama good for America?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"Messianic" Aliyah?

I've noticed the "Who is a Jew" question popping up in relation to "Messianic" Jews lately, and it seems to be morphing into more of a "What is Judaism" question.  As a people dispersed across the world for the last two millennia, constantly either assimilating into or being expelled from host cultures and nations, so much mixing of blood and ideas has occurred that it's very hard for the secular state of Israel to determine who is truly Jewish.  It should be mentioned here that according to traditional Judaism, a Jew is anyone either born of a Jewish mother or who underwent conversion under which he or she accepted the 613 commandments, underwent circumcision (if he is a "he"), and immersed in a mikvah.


The secular state of Israel's definition is rooted in its mission as a haven for persecuted Jews.  For Israel, a Jew is a person with one Jewish grandparent who has not opted to follow another religion.


Recent years have seen the invention of "Messianic Judaism," primarily in the United States.  In the previous generation, these would have been "Jews for Jesus," i.e., Christians of Jewish descent, most of whom believe that Jesus was the Jewish Moshiach as prophesized in the writings of the Prophets.  In recent years, a new brand of Jews for Jesus, "Messianic Judaism," has sprung up.  In this religion, adherents set up "Synagogues," observe their Sabbath on Saturdays, and acknowledge Jewish holidays, although concepts like "Halachah," (Jewish law) are unknown.  Some of the adherents are of Jewish descent and some are not.


The traditional Jewish perspective is that the Moshiach must complete three tasks to be considered authentic:

1.       Ingather all the exiled Jews from around the world.

2.       Rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

3.       Bring peace.


Because Jesus, as well as dozens of others throughout history claiming to be Moshiach, failed to do so, he obviously does not qualify and Jewish texts do not spend much ink refuting Christianity.  It's assumed that anyone who was raised with even a rudimentary Jewish education would never go for such a thing. Indeed I have never met a "Messianic" Jew who could quote a single Gemarah.


Most Israelis, and many traditional or "Orthodox" Jews to whom I mention "Messianic Judaism," are genuinely confused.  After all, don't all Jews believe in the imminent arrival of Moshiach?  It's one of the thirteen basic principles of the Jewish faith.  It is only when they begin to understand that, "Messianic Judaism," is just Christianity by subterfuge that they begin to feel offended.  It would be as if one were to rebuild the holy temple in Jerusalem to exactly the dimensions and layout as defined in the Torah, and then place an idol to the Roman god Pan in the Holy of Holies.


The question then arises, what about a Messianic Jew who wants to make aliyah? 


The Jerusalem Post's aliyah expert answered:


Q: We are Messianic Jews and would like to make Aliyah. How difficult would this be?

A: From the inquiries that I have received, I have come to the conclusion that there seems to be 2 different interpretations of the meaning of "Messianic Jews." One seems to be people born Jewish who have embraced Jesus as the Messiah and follow the New and Old testament. The other appears to be people, not of Jewish birth who support the Jewish religion and who believe in both testaments. If the questioner is the former then it would appear that s/he is entitled to make Aliyah in accordance with the Law of Return. If the latter is the case then the questioner does not qualify for Aliyah.

So by his interpretation, Messianic Judaism still passes the bar.  But then this morning I read a story in Yediot Achronot:


Three Messianic Jews residing in Britain filed a petition with the High Court of Justice Wednesday in an effort to convince Interior Minister Eli Yishai to grant them citizenship…


..They claim they have appealed to the Interior Ministry a number of times but were rejected because they are Messianic Jews. They say the ministry sees members of their faith as missionaries and has denied their appeals for this reason.


The courts, which determine who is a Jew, are controlled by the liberal-secular ruling class, but the Interior Ministry is controlled by the Hareidi ("Ultra-Orthox") Shas party and the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.  Of course I too would oppose allowing them to make aliyah.  I have respect for Christians who want to practice as they choose if they leave me alone, but to allow these people to spread their beliefs through deceit and subterfuge is too great a risk to the spiritual health of the state.  Such are the conflicts in a state which defines itself as both secular and Jewish, but not all-the-way Jewish.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Student Loan Scam

In the last month, I have been introduced to an issue which I think I should call to the attention of anyone who reads this blog: the Student Loan Scam. I have spent the last several weeks reading online message boards and chatrooms with people suffering through various stages of this scam. This is probably one of the greatest frauds perpetrated in American history by a special interest group against American, and I would strongly urge anyone who is considering taking out a private student loan to think long and hard about the ramifications.

Back when I entered college in 1996, I used federal Direct Loans as a way of bridging the gap between how much college cost and how much my "wealthy" parents would be expected to contribute to my education. Of course, there were some who declared bankruptcy to avoid paying back their loans, so in 1997 congress and the Clinton administration made student loans non-dischargeable in bankruptcy and retroactively eliminated the statute of limitations. While my own payments were rather high, the federal government, with its main motive being to get its money back to loan to the next student, was willing to work with me to refinance at a lower rate and help me find a payment plan I could afford. After five years of hard work in America, I was out of debt and could continue with my life.

But as college costs have continued to rise at double the rate of inflation, a new type of loan, the federally-backed private loan, became more popular as the Direct Loans were no longer able to cover the costs of tuition. In this loan scheme, private lenders, such as Sallie Mae, are encouraged to extend credit to student borrowers by a guarantee that, should the borrower default, the federal government would reimburse the lender for the loss. It seemed like a reasonable system, except for one critical flaw: the lender now no longer had any profit incentive to keep loans out of default since they would get their money back either from the student or the federal government.

But that was only the beginning. Over the past decade, Sallie Mae, Citibank, and other private lenders have begun taking over all aspects of the student loan business, from kickbacks to universities, to lubricating Congress and the Bush administration into passing the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 removing all consumer protections from student lending, to purchasing all the debt collection companies tasked with pursuing delinquent student loans.

The business model of Sallie Mae and other private lenders now works as follows:

1. A prospective college student speaks with a financial aid officer who directs them to accept a loan from Sallie Mae. The then 18 year old student is told that payments on the loan will be $350 per year when he or she graduates from college. Unbeknownst to the student, the financial aid officer and the university receive kickbacks from Sallie Mae for each loan issued, and thus often steer students away from loans which would have a lower interest rate or longer term. This also benefits the university in that the availability of easy credit drives up the price of tuition, much as happened in the housing market.

2. The student graduates from college and is shocked to receive his or her first bill, not for $350 but for $800. The student aid officials and loan officers are not accountable because the bankruptcy reform act of 2005 exempts them from all honesty in lending laws.

3. The student goes into forebearance until he or she can find a job which will pay for this loan. At this stage, sometimes Sallie Mae pretends not to have received the students' paperwork and throws the loan immediately into default. Sometimes the student pays for a while until Sallie Mae can tack on enough "late fees" and interest to finally make the total bill unpayable. Sallie Mae does not offer flexible repayment plans like the federal government, since their profit motive is to push the lender into default. The 2005 Bankrupcy Reform Act makes refinancing or consolidating private student loans impossible. Either way, many students end up in default and Sallie Mae is reimbursed for the entire value of the loan by the federal government.

4. A credit collection agency purchases the delinquent debt back from the federal government for pennies on the dollar. After a few calls or letters, often to previous addresses from which the credit agency knows the lender has moved, a $20,000 legal fee is slapped onto the total amount. This is permitted by the Bankruptcy Reform act of 2005.

5. The credit collection agency sells the debt to another credit collection agency which slaps another $20,000 onto the debt. This process continues several times, until the total amount on a $40,000 loan can reach $200,000 or $300,000, or any number which is clearly beyond the student's ability to pay. Astronomical interest rates apply. Of course, all of these collection agencies are wholly owned subsidiaries of the Sallie Mae Corporation.

6. The credit agencies then sue the defaulted borrower. The borrower is of course unable to pay, or pay for a legal defense, due to the shortage of money that caused the default in the first place. The court passes judgment and the credit agencies garnish 25% of the student's salary and intercept all tax returns. The garnishment often results in the new employee being fired. The 2005 Bankrutpcy Reform Act also allows the collection agency to sue and revoke any professional licenses (medical, legal, engineering etc). Because there is no longer a statute of limitations on the debt, and the amount is far beyond the borrower's ability to repay, and this continues for the borrower's entire working career. When the borrower retires, Social Security is also garnished.

7. For borrowers who are sick or disabled, the debts can also not be discharged because the standards for disabled discharge of debts were set so high in the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform Act as to be impossible. Disability payments are also garnished.

Garnishment is actually a worst case scenario. Usually debt collection agencies will accept a payment plan from the student. The payment plan continues over five or six years, when suddenly the credit agency goes out of business and the debt is resold to another credit agency and the lawsuit-garnishment-settlement process begins again. The new credit agency often claims none of the debt has been paid, and the borrower will have a very hard time getting payment reports from a shady credit agency which has gone out of business.

So who benefits from this, besides, of course, Sallie Mae investors who's stock increased 1600% in a decade, Sallie Mae Executives, and the financial accounts of politicians who sign onto legislation like the Bankruptcy Reform Act?


In all the message boards I've read through, the only people who have successfully broken out of "Student Loan Hell," as they call it, are those who have left the country. While I have seen a few posts calling people who pay back their loans "suckers," most of the defaulted borrowers are burdened with an enormous sense of guilt and fear. It's only after having suffered through broken marriages, lost jobs, and having usually paid back several times the original loan value, before they give up and decide to pack their bags and escape the dominion of Sallie Mae. As one message puts it:

Posted By Jennifer Peoria, IL: October 25, 2008 2:04 pm

I work in a small, Canadian technical recruiting agency in their immigration profile division. Almost every applicant we get now is from the US and all running from student loan debacles. We gladly here them and assist in immigration if they meet the qualifications which include high skill sets, particularly in software development and engineering. It is definitely a brain drain towards Canada. When they do arrive they love our health care and social services and our retention rate is over 90% measured for a 5 year span. As Canada has a lower birth rate than the US, our program will double in the next year due to the overwhelming number of applicants. Furthermore, the cost of pursuing a student debtor here would cost about $40k CAN. It's simply not worth the return as a Canadian court would be far more lenient, blaming the lender as much for the predicament. Since a Canadian Social insurance Number will allow a new credit profile, many of our applicants are able to start over up North. We have terrific feedback from our clients, the companies that do the hiring and pay us for recruiting.

So America's northern neighbor inherits a generation of highly-trained professionals at no cost to itself whatsoever. You have to wonder what future a country has when its predatory lending laws drive a significant percentage of its best and brightest into exile.

Addendum: If you have been caught up in this scam, there is a political action committee, Student Loan Justice, which is dedicated to taking action on this issue. Of course, since this system was set up with government collusion, there is as of yet no legal escape from Sallie Mae (at least as long as you are alive.) But you can at least meet others in a similar situation and learn from their experiences how

Sunday, April 19, 2009

It's Hard to be a Jew

Last Shabbat, i.e. yesterday, Wife2B and I spent a day in my old home-suburb of Pisgat Ze'ev.  We went to my old shul, Pisgat Moriah, to hear a very gripping announcement.  On the seventh day of Pesach, one of the congregants, a mild-mannered 51 year-old father of four boys had suffered from a heart attack on the seventh day of Pesach.  He had been up late studying, when he felt something tickle in his chest.  His wife offered to give him a ride to the hospital, but he said to call the ambulance.  By the time paramedics arrived, he had expired. 


I had not known him personally, but he always carried himself with great dignity, and stood out in the crowd.  When his name was mentioned, I immediately knew about whom they were speaking.  As I later learned, he and his wife had met at age two and grown up together in Uruguay prior to his making aliyah to Israel.  After aliyah, he had continued in his intense Torah study, and maintained contact with his former congregation back in Uruguay, answering whatever questions in halachah or spirituality might arise in the community.


The body is considered muktzeh, an object which can not be touched on Shabbat, so after attempts to resuscitate him failed, he could not be removed from the house until after Shabbat (although I have heard conflicting opinions on this matter.)  So the family had to wait with their deceased father in the house.


Even worse, his youngest son's Bar Mitzvah was scheduled for Shabbat two days later.  The family is now sitting shiva, the mourning period of intense bereavement following the death of an immediate family member, but all mourning is suspended on Shabbat.  For the boy to have not read the Torah at his Bar Mitzvah would have been a sign of mourning, and is expressly forbidden due to this suspension of mourning practices.  He was called up to the Torah and read beautifully, with great clarity and precision.  But he didn't smile.  It was an impossible situation, but it happened.


It's said that anyone who feels they are suffering from the burdens of life needs to understand that Hashem (God) provides him with exactly his measure of suffering.  We look out at others and assume that the smiling exterior of our friends belies inner tranquility, but in reality, none of us could handle the burdens of any other.  Sometimes it seems like just a nice thing to tell ourselves, but once in a while I get a peek behind the veil into the real burdens of another, and realize the truth of this.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pesach Cleaning

Pesach cleaning is usually a drag. The concept of destroying every last chometz (leaven) particle from the house prior to the Pesach (Passover) holiday is symbolic of destroying the puffiness, or haughtiness in our own egos. At least that's what we're told to make us feel better about getting on our hands and knees scrubbing for hours at a stretch.

My own cleaning usually goes long into the night before Pesach. But this year, S., my wife2B, came over and lent me a helping hand. She's small and versatile, and can get to spots I could never reach...

Like on the countertops.

At one point, I came back to find a hand protruding from my fridge.

Looked in side, to find...


So, we finished at 11PM (a reasonable hour.) Then, the search for chometz began. This usually involves the children searching the house for ten little bits of chometz wrapped in paper. There is a little bracha (blessing) you say at the beginning of the search, and the children run through the house with candles finding them one by one. At the end, all of the chometz is nullified, and the next morning it is burned. Of course, Judaism doesn't really account for the older single living alone, like me. Traditionally people stayed home until bar mitzvah, and for some yeshivah, and then they were married and making more children right away.

For the past decade, I've been forced to go through this ridiculous ritual where I hide the chometz from myself, then say the bracha, then find it right away. Eventually it turned into this wrote recitation:

1. Throw the chometz bits on the table.
2. "Barucha blah blah.."
3. Find the chometz on the table.
4. "Barucha blah blah..."
5. Throw them on the fire the next morning.

Of course, this year, I had S. to hide it from me, and we did a little "warmer colder" game. It was the first time I have actually smiled during my Pesach cleaning and chometz destructon since, well, forever.