The Kosher Riviera

<< Back to Robb Report, Robb Report December 2014

The threat of conflict forever clouds Israel’s tourism industry, though you may never know it in the high tech–fueled coastal town of Herzliya

In the spring of 2014, the relative calm before the storm in Israel, a yacht raced from the Herzliya marina and out into the open sea. The thicket of sailing masts in the harbor slowly faded from the passengers’ view, sinking below the horizon like some minor Atlantis. An hour out to sea, the wheel lashed to windward, the shipmates broke out the Champagne. The sun warmed their faces, and the Mediterranean slapped against the bow.  

It was the kind of scene that belonged on a travel poster, an idyllic day in a desirable destination. The previous year had in fact been Israel’s most-visited ever—with more than 3.5 million tourists coming to the country—and the first few months of 2014 were running 3 percent ahead of that pace. Confidence in the country’s tourism was at an all-time high, as evidenced by the gleaming new edifice that overlooked the marina: the Ritz-Carlton, Herzliya, which had opened a few months earlier as Israel’s first hotel from an elite luxury chain. 

There was little about this halcyon tableau to suggest that up and down the coast a state of siege prevailed, a political reality that, with some exceptions, mandated military service for every Israeli. On July 7, however, the country’s uneasy détente with Palestine came to a violent end when Israel and the ruling authority in Gaza began exchanging airstrikes, turning the region into a war zone. 

In the days to come, images of Israel’s high-tech Iron Dome defense blasting Hamas missiles out of the sky would become staples of nightly newscasts. Predictably, travel to Israel plummeted, with hotel occupancies dropping 60 percent as the U.S. State Department and some European governments banned flights to the country’s hub and cautious tourists made plans to vacation in less contentious climes. Fast-forward a few months, however, and the tourist tide has started turning again. 

“The entire hospitality segment has been affected,” says Gadi Hassin, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton, Herzliya. “Recovery is slow, but 2015 is forecast to be a very good year, if stable.”

For some frequent travelers to Israel, now is as good a time as any to go. “Israel remains a great place to visit,” says Cheryl Fishbein, an attorney and clinical psychologist in Manhattan who, with her husband, Philip Shatten, is a regular visitor. “I was there during the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, and Phil was there during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was bombarding Israel with Scuds.” Now she plans to return in February. “Thanks to the Iron Dome, it’s safer than ever. Beyond that, whether the country is at peace or at war, the weather is great, there are new galleries and restaurants opening up, and the beaches are uncrowded.”

David Segal, a Philadelphia tax attorney, says that he felt no more at risk during his October 2014 visit than he would in his U.S. hometown. “If you can ignore what you hear and see on TV, Israel is one of the safest places on the planet. My wife and daughter and three grandchildren have lived there since 2000, and I couldn’t let them live there unless I had complete confidence in Israel’s ability to fend off an attack by its enemies,” says Segal, whose daughter, a professional makeup artist, spent her military service as an F16 jet mechanic. “There’s no country that provides greater security for its people.”

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To be sure, few countries have had so much recent experience in keeping their people safe. Since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has fought seven officially recognized wars, two intifadas, and a continuous series of skirmishes in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Even during the country’s more placid moments, and in its most placid settings, there is no escaping the reminders of its vigilance: As the yacht returned to the marina that spring day, it glided past a half score of youngsters paddling around in brightly colored kayaks; a gray naval ship bristling with 50-caliber machine guns bobbed nearby, gunners at the ready.

Still, the scene at the Gazebo, a members-only beach club in Herzliya, could hardly have been more tranquil. Beach umbrellas flapped gently in the breeze, seabirds called, and waves deposited surfers onto the sand as a slender brunette in her late 20s with a pixie cut and a diaphanous sundress slid into a seat and introduced herself as the daughter of the Gazebo’s owner. Sure, life in Israel could sometimes be stressful, but it does not stop Israelis from living. “I’m more worried about jellyfish in the water than about terrorist attacks,” she said. “You get used to it.” 

The trick, she suggested, is to make the most of the situation. “It’s the risks of life in Israel that make us so determined to live life to the fullest. Nobody knows how to party like Israelis. We like to dance and sing, and we know lots of ways of relieving stress,” she said with a smile. 

The Israeli aptitude for partying is on display in Herzliya, a seaside suburb of Tel Aviv that was founded in 1924 as a moshava, or farming co-op. Today it is the hub of Israel’s vibrant start-up economy and a favorite stomping ground of high-tech tycoons. Its marina, dredged out of the sand 20 years ago, is the country’s largest, with slips for 800 yachts and a handsome brick promenade festooned with upscale shops, harborside cafés, high-fashion boutiques, and verdant parks. With the addition of the new Ritz-Carlton, the former farming village has emerged as a paradigm of the 21st-century luxury resort—a Kosher Riviera, if you will. 

Yet even as prospective guests eagerly awaited the new hotel and its myriad amenities—which include a lavish Shiseido spa, a rooftop pool overlooking miles of powdery beaches, and a kosher restaurant from the nationally famous chef Yonatan Roshfeld—some expressed concerns to Hassin, the general manager. The concerns, however, were about service, not safety. “When I was touring the States to promote the hotel’s opening, the most common question people had for me was, ‘Is this going to be a real Ritz-Carlton or an Israeli Ritz-Carlton?’ ” he recalls. “Israelis are known for being bright and intelligent and creative. But we can also be rough. When it comes to tour guides or taxi drivers or bartenders, we sometimes fall short of world-class service.” 

Hassin, a former member of the Israeli special forces, was not alone in this assessment of his compatriots. As Herve Humler, president and COO of Ritz-Carlton, pronounced in a corporate press release, “Israel isn’t a country with a strong tradition of luxury or service. You arrive at a hotel and no one opens your car door or greets you with a ‘hello.’ We knew reaching the same standards in Tel Aviv as in New York or Beijing would certainly be a challenge.” 

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In one move intended to buttress its service standards, the hotel recruited a more experienced team of employees. “The hospitality industry in general tends to attract a very young demographic,” says the hotel’s manager, Yael Ron. “For them, working in a hotel or restaurant is a lifestyle choice; sometimes they’re floating, trying to find themselves. But they’re not used to taking orders and are more prone to argue—especially Israelis; they always know a better way.

“We made a point of staffing the hotel with at least 15 percent employees over 40 years of age, who come from all over the world,” Ron continues. “They’re more mature, more committed to a hotel career, and more inclined to understand the Ritz clientele’s more sophisticated needs and wants.” 

Aesthetically, the Ritz-Carlton is a 12-story monolith that rises slablike from the beach to overlook the yachts in the marina. The hotel’s interior departs from the haute bourgeois theme—mahogany here, flowers and brass there—that was a Ritz-Carlton trademark in years past. Instead, the decor is minimalist and sleek, starting with a light-filled lobby lined with floor-to-ceiling windows. The views are best from the structure’s 82 residences, which occupy the top six floors and start at about $1 million for part-time privileges: By law, owners can live in the units for no more than six months per year. 

According to Miri Azouri, director of marketing and sales for Tidhar, the Israeli developers behind the residences, nobody complains. “We have a lot of buyers who are Ritz-Carlton collectors; they own apartments in two, three, or four other Ritz-Carltons around the world,” she says. Owning at the Herzliya property is especially sensible when you come to Israel four or five times a year, as many of her clients do. “It’s an emotional buy for us to have something here in the Holy Land. The vibe is very heavy here; our owners like the feeling that they’re surrounded by people just like them. Some occupants I’ve sold to have bought over the phone, sight unseen.”  

The demand for—and shortage of—high-end real estate in Herzliya has created a market for independent designers like Sari Danon, who graduated from New York’s Pratt Institute, then honed her decorative sensibilities doing displays at Barneys New York. As she led the way through a chalk-white villa in Herzliya Pituach, an affluent beachfront district, she explained that she does not build houses; she creates fantasies. This particular fantasy—Danon’s 20th property in the past 14 years—was surrounded by olive and fig trees and combined elements of min­imalism and antiquity with touches such as a faux stone ruin running along a stairway that debouched into a capacious downstairs movie theater. Any minute, one expected to see David feeding grapes to a robed Bathsheba by the reflecting pool. 

“I can do kosher or nonkosher, whichever you’d like,” Danon said. “My customers are usually foreigners. Jews can come from everywhere.” The locals, though, are not so easily swayed. “They won’t pay my prices,” she said. “Israelis always think they can do everything better.” 

If this is so, who is to blame them? As Dan Senor and Saul Singer observed in their 2009 best-seller Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, Israel was a country of only 7.1 million, surrounded by hostile powers, with no nearby allies and no natural resources, and in a constant state of war since its founding about 60 years earlier. Yet it had produced more start-up companies than had such large and stable nations as Japan, China, India, South Korea, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Per capita, the country had attracted more than twice as much venture-capital investment as the United States, and 30 times more than all the member states of the European Union. 

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No doubt much of this economic dynamism is due to education and culture. But some part of it is fueled by pizza and beer, as evidenced by happy hour at Zemingo in downtown Herzliya. Here, the offices outside a conference room resonated with the sounds of young computer engineers, programmers, and assorted software designers playing video games, drinking beer and wine, and socializing while an episode of South Park played on a TV monitor in the background. 

“So far as we know, we’re the biggest mobile-services provider in Israel,” said Tsiki Naftaly, a cofounder of Zemingo, which has created apps including Traffic Observer. Launched in 2011, Traffic Observer allows motorists to record the obnoxious actions of errant drivers and upload the video to their country’s traffic-safety authorities. “Tens of thousands of people installed the app,” said Naftaly, a former U.S.-based corporate pilot. “In the short time the app was available, dozens of bad drivers were apprehended after people filmed their violations.”

Traffic Observer is one of some 220 apps the company has developed. To stay ahead, said Naftaly, he has to attract young talent. “That’s why we’re here, in Herzliya. This is the hottest place in Israel for high tech. It’s a very young place. We’ve got the beaches, the bars. . . . If you want to mix business with pleasure, this is the place to be.”

Herzliya’s high-flying, high-tech lifestyle is nothing like life on the kibbutz where the Ritz-Carlton’s general manager spent his youth. “When I tell my kids how I grew up they can’t believe it,” Hassin says. “There was a lot of ideology involved. It was a rugged way to live. So now I’m running a luxury establishment, but the values of childhood stay with you.”

If the Ritz-Carlton aims to blend modern luxuries with traditional cultural values, nowhere is it more successful than at its restaurant. It was big news in Israel’s culinary circles when Roshfeld—a star of MasterChef Israel, the country’s most-watched TV show—announced that he was going to create a kosher restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton. But the way Roshfeld saw it, this was no great stretch from the way he had been cooking for years. “Kosher uses many of the same key ingredients as southern-French cooking—olive oil, vegetables, herbs, and fish, with little use of butter, cream, and other dairy products,” he says. “The basis of my cooking is soil and salt. When I cook lamb, the meat and the salt must come from the same area. I use 15 different kinds of salt.”

While Roshfeld did not foresee any problems with kosher restrictions, he did have some concerns about adhering to the cultural constraints of a Ritz-Carlton. When the hotel first asked him to head the kitchen, he said that there were two rules. “First,” he recalls, “there must be no elevators; the chef must be no farther than 20 meters from the customer. Second, leave the people in the kitchen alone. 

“Those aren’t kosher rules,” he adds. “They’re my rules.”  

The Ritz-Carlton, Herzliya, +972.9.373.5555, ritzcarlton.com

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