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Web Sites and Programs Help Israelis Hurt by Economic Crisis

At one time, it seemed like an oxymoron to talk about an Israeli with good customer service skills.

David Greenblatt hopes to change that.

As CEO of Customer Service Management, a New Jersey-based customer service and telemarketing company, Greenblatt hopes to hire characteristically brash sabras in computer service centers he’s opening across Israel — and provide thousands of jobs in the process.

Greenblatt’s story reflects a growing trend of American Jews busying themselves with grass-roots initiatives to bolster the Israeli economy, which has been battered by the Palestinian intifada, a steep decline in tourism and the burst of the dot-com bubble.

“We want to help Israel, and we’re frustrated as many Americans” are, Greenblatt said. “We can’t do much to stop the tragic terrorism in Israel, but we are doing all that we can to provide support by putting jobs in Israel.”

Israel’s unemployment is almost 10 percent, according to Zohar Peri, Israel’s economic minister to North America.

But he noted that unemployment already stood at 7 percent or 8 percent before the intifada began in September 2000, due to the worldwide recession and a weakened telecommunications industry.

As American Jews struggle to find innovative ways to aid their embattled brethren in Israel, purchasing power and economic aid have become tangible solutions.

Jane Scher was attending a Bat Mitzvah in December when she casually told another guest that her gift for the occasion came straight from Israel.

The guest grew wide-eyed as Scher explained that she shops online for Israeli products as often as possible these days.

When others at their banquet table proved similarly intrigued, Scher decided to promote Web sites for Israeli products so Diaspora Jews could use their consumer dollars to help Israeli vendors.

Scher tracked down a 14-year-old computer whiz at the celebration willing to create a Web site. Two months later, shopinisrael.com was born.

At least 10 volunteers respond to hundreds of e-mails each day from people looking for certain stores or products and Israeli businesses hoping to sell their wares.

The site currently links to 150 Israeli businesses, ranging from art galleries to popular shops on Ben-Yehuda Street to a pizza delivery service for Israeli soldiers.

Another 110 businesses are waiting in the wings, with new ones joining the waiting list every day.

Scher, a mother of three from San Diego who involves her kids in the project, can’t estimate how many transactions she’s helped arrange, but her site has had 120,000 hits in its first three months.

“I had felt so helpless, and there just had to be something we could do to make the situation better in some small way for Israel and for the Israelis,” Scher said.

“I never wanted to look back and say I didn’t do anything,” Scher said, adding that this is the first time she has felt that Israel’s very existence was threatened.

One of the best aspects of her site, she said, is that it’s a “mutually beneficial arrangement.”

“I’m buying things that I love, and” the Israeli shopowners “are selling, which is what they wanted to do in the first place,” she said.

Scher’s message — promoted by Israeli consulates, Jewish federations, synagogues and schools — has moved like a chain letter via e-mail from one Jew to another around the world.

Gillian Garrett, a 28-year-old New Yorker, mentions Scher’s site on an e-mail distribution group she maintains that shares tips about American stores selling Israeli products.

“Israel’s economy is struggling now, and it’s one of many ways to show my support for the homeland,” she said.

Garret says she has never visited Israel, but the Jewish state is something she cares about.

Noam Pianko, a 29-year-old graduate student in Jewish history at Yale University, is another enterprising activist.

Two months ago Pianko started Shop2Give, a program of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. With a team of volunteers that includes American students in Israel, he is raising money to buy products in downtown Jerusalem that Israeli social service agencies have requested.

“I was thinking about particular ways to provide financial and emotional support to those Israeli businesses that American tourists patronize,” along with making a match “between two different communities that both need help,” said Pianko, referring to Israeli businesses and social service agencies.

The American students will purchase the items — books, shoes and school supplies, for example — according to a “wish list” submitted by the agencies.

An Orthodox group called Mesora also has used the Internet to respond quickly and globally to Israel’s economic crisis.

The group’s Web site, www.USAIsrael.org, links American and Israeli businesses to encourage foreign investment in Israeli companies.

That’s also the approach officials are taking.

Israel’s Economic Mission in New York is collaborating with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce to create partnerships between Israeli and American businesses.

They currently are trying to expand the American market for Israeli foods, and will publicize the names of participating companies so American Jews can patronize them.

That initiative is part of the mission’s charge to boost Israel’s economy, Peri said, but the effort was prompted in part by the grass-roots work done by American Jews.

“We are doing it also in response to a lot of requests” by American Jews, who called to ask where they could buy products from Israel, Peri said.

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