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Safed hopes for Madonna economic boost

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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.”

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