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Some 2.9 million people visited Israel last year, a 3.6-percent rise over 2015. Earlier this week, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism released a report summarizing international travel to Israel in 2016, with the largest influx of visitors coming in the last quarter of the year. Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin attributed the increased travel to the government’s significant investment in targeted marketing initiatives and outreach to “new markets.” JNS.org presents 10 noteworthy facts contained in Israel’s tourism report.

On an unseasonably warm Friday, the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” drew more than a hundred baseball fans to an empty lot in Beit Shemesh, a small town nestled in the hills outside Jerusalem. In a country where Little League Baseball is unheard of and Cracker Jack snacks are nonexistent, this was no typical weekend in the Jewish state. Jan. 6 marked the groundbreaking for the new Beit Shemesh Baseball Complex, which will be Israel’s fourth major baseball field. The excitement was palpable for an event attended by 10 current and former American-Jewish Major League Baseball players who will represent Team Israel at the March 2017 World Baseball Classic. Many in the crowd recently immigrated to Israel. Jewish National Fund (JNF) spreads awareness for the sport in Israel through its Project Baseball initiative, a relevant endeavor for American immigrants. “This initiative gives children who have made aliyah a taste of home and an opportunity to get close to their Israeli peers,” said Eric Michaelson, JNF’s chief Israel officer.

The 1948-1949 War of Independence was Israel’s longest, costliest and most fateful war, says one veteran, who at age 97 still speaks to audiences about his experiences. Harold (Smoky) Simon, a South African-born accountant who became chief of air operations of the nascent Israeli Air Force in May 1948, is just one example of the kind of person whose story led an American immigrant to create an organization dedicated to preserving and publicizing the testimonies of those who founded the state. On a recent evening at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot Museum, Aryeh Halivni, founder of the Toldot Yisrael organization, introduced the dapper and articulate Simon to a large group of English-speaking immigrants brought together by the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah agency. Toldot Yisrael's goal is to inspire an understanding of the need for a Jewish state and to supplement the work of historians who have written about the state’s early history. “Without oral testimony you can’t understand history,” asserts Toldot Yisrael videographer Peleg Levy. 

Before there was the U.S. Olympic team’s “miracle on ice” against the Russians, there was Maccabi Tel Aviv “miracle on hardwood” against CSKA Moscow at the 1977 European basketball championships, a feat that resonated across the free world. Dani Menkin’s new documentary, “On The Map,” recounts the achievements of an Israeli team nobody thought could win, and captures the unique charisma of the players who inspired a nation that was still making its initial foray onto the world stage. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s story proves that regardless of the current international mood, Israel remains a country that matters, writes film reviewer Jeffrey Barken.

As chair of The Judy Fund, film producer Elizabeth Gelfand Stearns channels Jewish values and personal experience in her work to motivate action in support of people dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. The Judy Fund is the fastest-growing private fund in the history of the Alzheimer’s Association, raising more than $6 million to support Alzheimer’s research and public policy initiatives. “Both my mother and father made giving a priority, thus my siblings and I had great role models exemplifying the core concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world),” Stearns told JNS.org. “The Judy Fund is a fine example of the impact that one family can have on millions to help repair the world.” Stearns was the co-producer of “Still Alice,” which earned Julianne Moore the Academy Award for Best Actress and has been an important conversation starter for Stearns’s organization and for the Alzheimer’s community in general. 

It’s not every day that a renowned American pollster and political adviser comes to Israel to discuss some highly sensitive subject matters with high school students. “Part of the struggle for those who advocate for Israel is that we need to respond to simple questions and accusations with really complicated answers, because the truth itself is so complicated,” public opinion guru Dr. Frank Luntz recently told a group of Jewish American, Australian and Colombian students at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Luntz presented the students with a rapid-fire series of hard-hitting and politically charged questions, with the purpose to better prepare them for the unpleasant questions they may encounter when they arrive on college campuses. 

Picture the girl from the famous Vietnam Napalm Photo or the more recent Falling Man image from 9/11. Every so often, uncensored media pierces the status quo, shocking readers or viewers. Americans for Peace and Tolerance’s new documentary, “Hate Spaces: The Politics of Intolerance on Campus,” does just that. The film explores the roots of the BDS movement waged against Israel and reveals the mob mentality that characterizes anti-Semitic student groups on college campuses across the U.S. This 70-minute production provides an alarming wake-up call, but also a resource to combat an ideology that would otherwise commandeer the discourse on college campuses, writes Jeffrey Barken in his review of the film.

A not-so-quiet demographic and geographic revolution is taking place in Israel these days. After years of planning, concrete efforts are underway to shift population sectors away from the overcrowded and overpriced center of the country. The new destination is the southern Negev region and its wide-open spaces. JNS.org profiles the expansive new Israel Defense Forces (IDF) City of Training Bases in the Negev, where base commander Col. Avi Motola explains how the region is affected as the IDF closes old training bases scattered throughout Israel and centralizes the world's most advanced training for defense forces. With 10,000 soldiers from every part of Israel’s armed forces, the "city" of bases functions like a small town. “They call me Mayor Motola,” quips the commander.

Who would ever imagine that two peoples living 5,470 miles apart (that’s 8,803 kilometers for the Israelis) would share so much in common, notably a mutual passion for innovation, a creative work ethic and a deep well of talent? Those ties that bind Israel and Massachusetts were both celebrated and strengthened during the Bay State’s Economic Development Mission to Israel last week. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker led a delegation of leaders from across his state—representing industry, academia, the non-profit world and government agencies—through a packed schedule of briefings, summits, forums and site visits. Participants said they were struck by the so-called “start-up nation” culture of innovation shared by Israel and Massachusetts. “The synergy between the two is amazing, especially when you consider that we come from such different backgrounds. But we have the same kind of passion for innovation,” Lior Div, CEO of the Israeli cybersecurity firm Cybereason, told JNS.org.

When Fania Bilkay and her son Evgeni stepped up to her desk, Sima Velkovich, a staffer in the archives division of Yad Vashem - The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, was winding down what appeared to be an ordinary work shift. But suddenly, she was pulled into the center of a complex family drama that reached its climax this week. Bilkay had visited a Warsaw synagogue where she discovered a form on Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names that counted her father among those killed by the Nazis, despite the fact that her father survived the Holocaust and died of natural causes in 1983. What Bilkay didn’t know that day in Warsaw was that by disputing the recorded evidence of the “murder” of her father, she was about to be begin a journey that would unite her with relatives she had never known existed. The family reunion took place in Jerusalem Dec. 13.

Meir Barzilay was one of the lucky residents of Haifa during Israel’s recent wave of fires. "I live in a row of six houses," says the homeowner living on Shahar street. "Somehow, the fire magically jumped from house number two directly to number four, sparing us." Barzilay's house lies in the district of Romema, the neighborhood of Haifa hit hardest by the fires that invaded central and northern Israel in November. Eight-hundred Haifa apartments have been rendered uninhabitable, leaving 1,700 people homeless. Yet despite a long road to recovery, the city is trying to remain upbeat ahead of this month's Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations. “No matter what,” says Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, “never postpone a festival.”

Orthodox Jewish leaders are challenging the claim made in a recent report by Israel’s Channel 10 broadcaster that the country’s strictly Orthodox sector is “in the process of disintegration.” The Channel 10 program had quoted a researcher as saying that one in 10 haredi Jews in Israel are leaving the haredi community on an ongoing basis. Baruch Rochamkin, a supervisor at a youth center in the central Israeli city of Elad that caters to youths who have drifted away from religious practice, rejects the report's analysis. “Haredim have opened their eyes and are dealing with the problem” of some community members decreasing their religious observance, he told JNS.org.

Having paid their dues on the Brooklyn food scene, emerging young chefs Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz are on a mission to reclaim and revolutionize Ashkenazi cuisine. The millennial duo’s mission starts with their book, “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods,” which was released in September and could make for the perfect Hanukkah gift as the holiday approaches this month. Alpern and Yoskowitz, who were featured in Forbes’s “30 Under 30” list for food and wine in 2014, are drawing praise from prominent chefs. “It’s no small feat to retain the character of an old, emotionally held culinary culture while imparting fresh life to the standards,” said Mollie Katzen, a bestselling author-illustrator of vegetarian cookbooks. “Jeffrey and Liz nailed it, not only with outstanding recipes but also with history and stories and context, impeccably written.”

As a former Israel Defense Forces elite special forces captain, Haim Senior knows the importance of clear and effective communication—filtering out the junk in order to reach the heart of the matter. In his current position as CEO and co-founder of Knowmail, Senior stretches that expertise into an actual solution, helping individuals sort through the noise of their inbox to get to the messages that are truly relevant to them. “The Jewish mind of implementing innovative ideas with limited resources comes in handy, as it encourages thinking outside of the box and working intelligently,” Senior tells JNS.org.

A recently deceased co-star of the most widely viewed Holocaust drama in American television history was raised Catholic, but said he was so deeply affected by the role that he "became a Jew" in his view of the world. Fritz Weaver, who died Nov. 26 in New York City at age 90, co-starred on “Holocaust,” a four-part miniseries that aired on NBC in mid-April 1978. The miniseries chronicled the fate of Europe's Jews under Hitler through the fictional lives of a Nazi war criminal and a German Jewish family.

A statewide Jewish community of just 400 people is about to receive a leadership boost in a move that will also make history for the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Rabbi Mendel Alperowitz and his wife Mussie will be the new Chabad emissaries in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, helping Chabad reach a special milestone. Of the U.S. 50 states, all but South Dakota have Chabad centers. But that’s not the only historic aspect of the young couple’s arrival. Mendel Alperowitz will be the South Dakota Jewish community’s first full-time rabbi in decades. “In Brooklyn there are shuls and restaurants everywhere—it’s so easy to be Jewish,” says Rabbi Alperowitz. “In South Dakota they have to come together to create Jewish community, to celebrate Shabbat. It’s really an inspiration.”

“Put your hands behind your back and get on your knees,” 19-year-old Noam Ohayon exhorts JNS.org's reporter, who complies. “Now fall forward on your face. Without breaking your fall with your hands.” Ohayon, his voice full of mirth, then puts things in perspective. “Now imagine having to do that outside in the height of winter on the Golan [Heights] on a concrete path full of stones and ice,” he says. The exercise is just one of many challenging drills Ohayon had to endure in what is known as “Shavua Na’or,” or Na’or Week, at the Tamir pre-military preparatory academy in the northern Israeli town of Katsrin. The academy is one of 54 similar institutions across Israel that groom high school graduates for the Israel Defense Forces.

Master Sgt. Roddie Edmonds never spoke about his experiences as a prisoner of war during World War II. Captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Roddie survived an arduous march through frozen terrain and was interned for nearly 100 days at Stalag IXA, a POW camp near Ziegenhain, Germany. “Son, there are some things I’d rather not talk about,” Roddie would tell his boys, Kim and Chris Edmonds, when they were young. When Roddie died in 1985, Chris, now a Baptist pastor, inherited his father’s war diaries. Now that his father’s wartime stories are known, Chris said his life has been “turned upside down.” The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies non-Jewish rescuers of Holocaust survivors and pays tribute to their courage, honored Roddie’s memory Nov. 28 with the Yehi Ohr Award during the foundation’s annual dinner at the New York City Public Library. 

For most organizations, moving underground would be ominous. For Israel’s national blood services center, it’s exciting. Nov. 16 marked the groundbreaking for the Jewish state’s new state-of-the-art central blood bank. Located in Ramla, the facility will be the world’s first completely underground national blood services center. Israel’s challenging reality affects every key aspect of the design of the center. Eli Bin, director general of Israel's Magen David Adom (MDA) national blood bank service, told JNS.org that "due to the challenges faced by our country both in terms of security and possible natural disasters, MDA must maintain its high standard and build a blood services center that's compatible with Israel's population growth rate as well as the aforementioned challenges."

Sometimes you’ll find the most splendid synagogues in the places you least expect. Such was the case during travel writer Dan Fellner's recent three-day trip to Boise, Idaho, a popular gateway for skiing, river rafting, and hiking that isn’t exactly known for being a hotbed of Jewish life. Yet just a five-minute drive from downtown sits the oldest continuously in-use synagogue west of the Mississippi River. And it’s far more than just a beautiful wood building. As Fellner learned, Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel is the centerpiece of a surprisingly robust Jewish community with a fascinating history.