Slumping Safed Hopes Madonna Visit Will Boost Local Economy

When it comes to spirituality, Safed lacks nothing. But the Israeli mountain town has been struggling economically since last year’s war with Hezbollah.

That’s why local tourism authorities are hoping a Rosh Hashanah visit by the Material Girl will bring real material benefits to its 30,000 residents.

Madonna, returning to Israel for the first time since September 2004, plans to visit Safed — the world center of Jewish mysticism — along with Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and other points of interest as part of a tour being organized by the Los Angeles-based Kabbalah Centre.

The pop icon is expected to bring along celebrity friends Demi Moore, Donna Karan and about 3,000 Kabbalah Centre students from around the world who are participating in a 10-day pilgrimage to Israel that is set to end on Yom Kippur.

“From a business point of view, anything that brings people into Safed is desirable,” said Laurie Rappaport, who has lived here for 24 years and runs the visitor’s center for Livnot U’Lehibanot, a

volunteer organization.

“A lot of people are looking for spiritual fulfillment and making themselves better. Once they get here, they’re curious to learn more,” said Rappaport, a Detroit native, adding that “this is a stop on almost every group tour, and a lot of shops try to bring people in using Kabbalah. If they don’t buy a Kabbalah necklace, they’ll buy something else.”

Yet not everyone is seeing the Madonna visit as a shot in the arm for Safed, one of Israel’s four biblical “holy cities” and the site of historic 16th-century synagogues dedicated to Isaac Luria,

Joseph Caro and other Jewish luminaries.

“The phenomenon of Madonna is not mainstream, it’s just silliness,” said Eyal Riess, the former director of the visitors’ center at Ascent, a Jewish studies program in the center of town. “The way she acts and behaves is shtuyot,” or nonsense, he said. “She is not a role model.”

Ya’acov Kaszemacher, a bearded, 66-year-old Orthodox Jewish artist who incorporates mystical themes into the watercolors he sells to tourists, also complained.

“Kabbalah is too holy to be put into the hands of everybody,” Kaszemacher said. “Even me, I’m a Jewish artist and I live in Safed, but I’m not a kabbalist because I’m not at that level.”

Yet as more and more Jews — and gentiles — follow Madonna’s example and take up interest in Kabbalah, Safed officials see a unique chance to revive an economy that’s still recovering from the destruction caused last summer by Katyusha rockets fired from nearby Lebanon.

“We have a very beautiful and interesting city,” said Amos Lotan, director of tourism for Israel’s Tzahar region, which encompasses Safed and the adjacent towns of Rosh Pina and Hatzor Haglilit. “Here there’s magic in the air. This could be the best place to create a world center for Kabbalah.”

That’s exactly what a Florida Jewish federation has in mind.

Since 1995, the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County has donated more than $8 million to fund development projects throughout the Tzahar region. Its latest project is the construction of an international Kabbalah center that would boost tourism revenues for Safed, which has few hotels compared to the nearby town of Tiberias.

The federation has donated $100,000 in seed money to get the center started. Several millions more will probably be earmarked in years to come, with other donors being sought, including some from Europe.

“Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah has certainly helped focus a lot of attention on Safed internationally, but the project we have in mind is very different from the Kabbalah Centre with which Madonna is affiliated,” said Sharon Levin, the Palm Beach federation’s representative in Safed.

“We are a public organization dedicated to developing a pluralistic center for anyone, regardless of background or religious affiliation, whereas the Kabbalah Centre is a private enterprise with a very clear profit motive.”

Levin said that while the structure still does not exist, it will include a visitors’ center with audiovisual presentations, an auditorium capable of seating 100 or more for lectures and seminars, and smaller rooms that can be used for classrooms or workshops.

Jeffrey Klein, the federation’s CEO, said that Safed has not fully recognized its potential either as a center of tourism or as a center of spirituality.

“In response to the terrible trauma that Safed suffered during the war, one of the things we can do is bring people to the region,” he told JTA. “We’re very concerned with the vitality of the Galilee. This is critical to the future of Israel. We want this region to be a tourist destination and not a two-hour stop on a tour bus.”

The director of the new project is Riess, 41, who was with Ascent for 13 years before being selected from among 200 applicants by the federation. At Ascent, Riess supervised a $2 million-a-year organization run by Chabad with programs in English, Hebrew, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and Russian.

“There is already mass tourism to Israel from America and Europe,” said Riess, a Tel Aviv native. “A lot of this is Christian tourism, and I know for a fact that those Christian pilgrims are very much interested in Jewish culture and mysticism. So if we can draw these crowds to Safed, it will help us a lot. Those people do spend nights in hotels, so instead of sleeping in Tiberias, like they do, they can sleep here.”

Madonna reportedly is thinking well into the future.

“The valley of Rosh Pina is the entrance to where the Messiah will come to Safed,” said Lotan, the Tzahar region’s tourism director, “and Madonna is negotiating to purchase a house there not far from where we are.”

NEXT STORY