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October 26, 2014 | 2nd Cheshvan 5775

A Small Fortune

May 18, 2003
Marc Rosenstein

When Shorashim was established twenty years ago, a group of the founders, graduates of NFTY, USY, and Young Judea, wanted one of the businesses of the collective to be a seminar center, where they would teach by personal example the values of Zionism, pluralism, socialism, liberal Judaism, and Jewish-Arab coexistence. Within a few years of their arrival, they set up "Makom ba-Galil" ("A place in the Galilee"), a center offering programs for Israelis and foreign tourists visiting the Galilee: encounters with local Arabs, simulations of settlement activities, educational tours in the area, etc. Their vision was to combine educational programming with tourist services (i.e., food and lodging); so, using makeshift facilities, they opened a hostel and dining room. The idea was that ultimately, the profit from the tourist services would support the educational program development – as the educational programs would serve as a marketing tool for the tourist services. A non-profit foundation created and presented the educational programs, while the moshav operated the food and lodging service as a business owned by the collective. After five years, a few years after my arrival, the collective moshav underwent privatization, and several families took over the business of Makom ba-Galil; within a few more years, all of these had given up their ownership except me.

From the beginning, the business was not profitable. We turned to a series of consultants. First advice: professional marketing. So we hired an outstanding marketing director who worked tirelessly and did miracles, developing warm and productive relationships with travel agents all over the country, and pushing us to improve the quality of our food and service. But it wasn't enough. Next consultant: diversify. So we campaigned energetically to attract local catering business – parties and events in our dining room as well as outside events. Our young chef was creative if not always efficient, and our food received rave reviews. But it wasn't enough. Next advice: upgrade the facility. So we did, with help from a friend, installing air-conditioning, carpeting, remodeled bathrooms, and new furniture in our guest units – and indeed, it seemed that we were about to see our first profitable year… At least, it seemed so in September of 2000.

The next step is, of course, history: the history of the intifada , 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the decline of the Israeli economy. Tourism, both domestic and foreign, collapsed. Our shining hopes evaporated as the cancellations poured in. However, we remained optimistic, as the history of modern Israel is a history of crisis and recovery – and who always feels it most acutely? Tourist enterprises. So we held on, gritted our teeth, laid off and cut back everyone we could, stalled creditors, drew on savings, and waited for the turn-around.

Then, before Pesach, somehow I "got it." My optimism was wishful thinking. A turn-around, if and when it comes, will not come quickly, and given our inherent limitations of capacity and location, even after such a recovery, Makom ba-Galil will remain a borderline case, struggling to break even. Moreover, not only was maintaining the operation placing an unacceptable economic burden on my family, it was requiring me to spend an inordinate amount of time fixing plumbing and rewiring second-hand light fixtures.

That's how it happened that the hostel and restaurant of Makom ba-Galil closed on April 30, adding half-a-dozen people to the unemployment rolls, leaving some disappointed customers here and there, and some disappointed creditors too. A sad moment, though I have to say that for me it is also liberating in a way. While I must relinquish my dream of an integrated center - which I had always described as a combination of Brandeis-Bardine Institute, the 92nd St. YMHA, and the White Dog Café - I can now devote all my time to Jewish education.

As the old joke goes: Q: How do you make a small fortune in Israel? A: Come with a large one.

 

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