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June 8, 2012

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, JUNE 8, 2012 ii A video game you can&apos;t win00about Israeli red tape . Courtesy of Alan Simon and Oren - Rubin The video game's cover shows Yigal running the bureaucratic gauntlet. ways to use objects. Since its release, "Arnona Race" <www.arnona-race. > has received a lot of atten- tion in the Israeli press, more than 40,600 unique visitors, and 6,700 '.'likes" on Facebook. Few games are developed in Israel, and even fewer are entirely in Hebrew because of the limite; otential audience. But it is exactly this specific, local perspective that makes "Arnona. Race" relevant and funny to many Israelis in situ- ations similar to that of Yigal's. It pokes fun at the expected stereotypes: an ultra-Orthodox Jew from Mea Shearim, an old Arab woman from east Jeru- salem, an Ethiopian security guard. The punch line, itseems, is that all of them stand in the By Emanuel Maiberg j. the Jewish news weekly of Northern California In mostvideo games, players battle dragons or space aliens, or engage in modern warfare. The goal in the Israeli-made game "Arnona Race" is mun- dane by comparison, yetequaily heroic: paying Jerusalem's municipal property tax. The game begins when Yigal, a Jerusalem university student, comes back from vacation in India and discovers that his feckless roommate has failed to pay8,000shekels (about$2,100) on their basement apartment's arnona (the local government tax tied to the size, location and type of property). To avoid eviction,Yigal needs to run a gantlet of paperwork, local government officials and shady landlords. The game's creators, Alon Simon and Oren Rubin, both 30, started "Arnona Race" in 2009 as a senior animation project at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. After graduation, Simon and Rubin continued working on the game until it went online Feb. 11. "Arnona Race" is inspired by "point-and-click" adventures made popular in the '90s by Bay Area developer LucasArts. These games rely on good writing'as opposed to frenetic action, and ask players to solve puzzles by exploring the envi- ronment and finding inventive solve equally dull issues at the city council. "Arnona Race" is apolitical in its humor. Everyone is equally ridiculed. But the game's con- ceit is inherently tied to the country's ongoing housing crisis, which came to a boil with the tent protests across Israel last summer, which were focused on deteriorating public services and the cost of living. The obstacles beforeYigal are seemingly endless. In order to .get a student discount on his taxes and bring them down to a manageable sum, he must navigate the local government bureaucracy, known for obtuse- ness of Soviet proportions. But I'm a student," Yigal pleads with the stone-faced clerk as melodramatic violin music illlustrates his despair. "I don't have money .... Pita bread with dry rice is all I eat!" Yigal must also obtain his lease from his surly landlord. Moshe, who isn't even willing to cooperate on a leaky sink, let alone a nuanced municipal dispute. "I know plenty of people that would die to move into that apartment for that price," Moshe threatensYigal."And I'm raising it by the way!" "The story is a little exagger- ated, but it's based on reality," Simon said. "It's true that the bureaucracy is complicated and clumsy, but the bottom line is that as a student youreally are entitled to a significant dis- PAGE 15A Courtesy of Alan Simon and Oren Rubin The video game "Arnona Race" skewers Israeli bureaucracy and the country's housing crisis. "I don't know how it is in the United States," Rubin adds."but here in Israel customer service is not good. There's a feeling that [government employees] are doingyou afavor as opposed to doing their job." What's most telling about "Arnona Race" is that the player doesn't get to win. Different games tell differ- ent stories and sometimes address real issues, especially in student and independent projects. However, one thing they all have in common is that with skill and time they allow the player to overcome the obstacles and succeed. all the problems, get all the paperwork, and deliver it to the city council on time doesn't make a difference. In the end, Moshe sells the apartment tea real estate agent who, we can assume, will reno- vate and make it unaffordable, a common practice that was one of the tent protesters' main grievances. Simon and Rubin,who live in Tel Aviv, took part in the mas- sive demonstrations connected with the tent protests, the largest in the country's history. "There was something mov- ing about being there," Simon says. "The feeling was that the and that the Israeli public un- derstood its ability to influence the country's conduct. Now, it seems that the movement evaporated without apparent results." It's another way the game reflects the hardships fac- ing young Israelis. In the epilogue, we see Yigal spend- ing a few weeks sleeping on friends' sofas, then living in a tent with the protesters, and finally moving back in with his parents. "It's not so bad," Yigai admits. "I have my own room, my parents feed me, do the laundry, and most importantly I don't have to schools. Two ottier steps were key to bringing in more students. The 'school opened admission to children-of mixed nrriages, and it operates an ambitious bus rvice that ranges all over Athens' vast urban sprawl to bring Jewish kids to the school. Some commute from as far as 40 miles away. "The bus fleet is crucial," Taraboulous said. "Without this door-to-door service, many would not be able to come." This year, there were 136 children enrolled in the school" (Full disclosure: this reporter's daughter is one of them). Next year, 151 are registered, accord- ing to School principal George Kanellos. The changes at the school seem to appeal to parents. Even though Zanet Battinou and her husband are both Jew- ish-she's the director of the city's Jewish museum, and he was a member of the school's first-ever class--the decision to send their three children there had not been a no-brainer. They shopped around Ath- ens' best private schools before making their decision. "It turns out that it is a very good school, with teachers of the highest caliber," Battinou said. "It's very professional but also very warm." For other parents, the sense of community is the draw. "There is something very special about bringing your children to a school where you went, where the other parents were your classmates. It is very comforting and intimate," said MatildaVital, a Hebrew teacher at the school, whose daughter is in the nursery program. But now, the enormity of Greece's economic and political crisis threatens to undermine the school's success--even, possibly, its existence. From Taraboulous' office in downtown Athensmaway from the leafy green suburb that houses the school--the signs of the country's distress are everywhere: The mound of flowers marking the ite where apensioner shot himself in pro- test, roads dosed by rigt police ahead of protests, a homeless man begging for money to treat his brain tumor. Every day, it seems, the distress of five years of a brutal recession, massive unemploy- ment and harsh European- imposed austerity seeps deeper into all corners of the Jewish community. "I have parents who can't pay, or are missing or delaying payments," Kanellos said. "In many houses now only one parent is working, or those who had their own companies have seen them close. The situation is very hard." Last year, only one child in the school received a full tuition subsidy. This year it's seven. "The next few years will be worse," Kanellos said. The school has begun provid- ing some children with clothes to wear to school celebrations and paying for outside therapy for children with learning dis- abilities. Once-wealthy community members who used to pick up the slack now find themselves hard-pressed to pay for their own kids' education. "People who could afford more are asked to donate, but most of the big donors we had in the past are now bankrupt," Taraboulous said. "They are totally broke." The official Jewish com- munity organization, which provides 40 percent of the school's budget, has seen its income drop sharply, too,, in particular from rental properties the community. owns. A few months ago, the community asked for help from Israeli and international Jewish groups. - In February, the Jewish Agency for Israel voted to grant about $1 million over two years to help Greece's Jewish communal institutions con- tinue operating. Other Jewish groups have offered aid, too. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee gave $330,000 forwelfare and school scholarships. "We hesitated to ask for assistance, but after doing all the cost-cutting we could, we decided we could not cut morewithout losing important things," Taraboulous said. "We decided the school should not sniper." . With no end in sight to the crisis, however, he fears the community may need to ask again. "Many Greeks gave a lot in the past to support Israel and other Jewish communities," he said. "Now is the time for the Greeks to get help. We need it, and we need it now." ATHENS, Greece (JTA)-- When the bell rang, the sixth- graders who had been playing basketball rushed off to a computer class. Their place in the yard at Athens' Jewish Community School was taken by two dozen giggling 4- and 5-year -aids practicing dance steps for the year-end concert. "One, two, three and turn," the kindergarten teachers chanted as the kids, wearing yellow caps to protect them from the bright Greek sun, jumped, stepped and shimmied through their complex routine. The vibrancy reflects a re- markable renaissance Athens' lone Jewish school has under- gone in the last decade. With an enrollment rate of 70 percent of Athens' Jewish children, it has a penetration rate that would be .the envy of any American Jewish school. The school's success--which could hold lessons for Jewish schools elsewhere in the Di- aspora-has been the result of heavy educational invest- ments, an aggressive recruiting strategy, significant commu- nity subsidies, comprehensive busing and an open-minded enrollment policy for children of intermarried families. But the school is now in peril as Greek Jews struggle through the economic and political turmoil roiling Greece. A few years ago, the Athens Jewish Community School had reached a nadir. Since its founding in 1960, the number of children enrolled had been slowly dropping. By 2002, fewer than 80 students remained, and the leaders of the city's small Jewish community debated By Gavin Rabinowitz whether their school was even viable anymore. Community members be- lieved that shutting the school down would have been an ominous development for the capital's community of some 3,500 Jews. "This school is the Athens Jewish community and its future," said Alvertos Tarabou- lous, the current chairman of the school board. Instead, they embarked on an ambitious and largely successful plan to revitalize the school. The concept was simple: To getas many children as possible to attend the school that runs up until 6th grade by providing top-notch private education, modern facilities and a warm environ/nent--at an affordable price. Realizing that many children did not attend because their parents were hesitant to uproot them after they became settled and made friends at local kin- dergartens, the Jewish school opened its own one in 2002, followed by a nursery in 2007. "Now we see that if we get them into the kindergarten, they do noleave,"Taraboulous said. "If our children are really happy, that is the best promo- tion for the school." Aggressive recruiting bor- dering on chutzpah didn't hurt either. When Jewish women give birth in Athens, the new- borns are sent a gift basketwith anotefrom theschool thatsays "expecting you in two-and-a- half years." The school is also heavily subsidized by the Athens Jewish Community. Parents pay about. $4,000 in tuition annually per child, compared to $10,000 to $14,000 at comparable private Athens' Jewish school, the community's jewel, imperiled by Greek economic crisis same long line, waiting to re- countwhenpayingthearnona." However, helpingYigalsolve rulesofthegamehavechanged pay arnona."