Rafi Yoeli – Aerospace Inspiration

Rafi Yoeli – Aerospace Inspiration


There is something about Rafi Yoeli’s physique – he’s wiry and reed-thin – that somehow creates an impression of weightlessness. And there’s something about his latest invention that actually appears to achieve it. If ever a designer and a machine were meant for each other, it’s Yoeli and his new CityHawk hovercraft.

Yoeli, 56, grew up in Israel, where he attended the Technion, the local equivalent of MIT. After a stint in the air force, he joined Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd., then spent 18 months with Boeing in Seattle. In 2001 he started his own company in Israel, Urban Aeronautics. Its mission, he says: “Developing robots and flying machines.”

What held special interest for Yoeli was hovering vehicles that work a bit like helicopters but have the cockpit and passenger area on top and the rotors below. Build it right, with relatively small blades, and you’ll have an agile craft that can swoop in to rescue wounded troops, pluck victims from floodwaters or dock alongside a burning skyscraper so people can jump aboard.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. military experimented with just such aircraft, but they wobbled, and a gust of wind could send them spinning. “Nobody had touched this technology for 40 years,” says Yoeli. He decided to revisit the hovercraft, this time with the help of light modern materials and advanced computers and other electronics.

In 2003 he unveiled the result, his futuristic CityHawk, which in its first test rose and hovered just as advertised. The craft has two horizontal blades housed inside its body to keep them away from people, power lines and buildings. Rows of vents direct airflow to provide maneuverability and stability while rear-mounted vertical propellers move the vehicle forward and backward.

Yoeli is working in the U.S. with Bell Helicopter, which hopes to build a military version of the craft called the X-Hawk, capable of carrying a 12-person crew, reaching 155 m.p.h. (250 km/h) and climbing to 12,000 ft. (3,700 m). The first X-Hawk will be ready to fly in 2010, and Yoeli already has orders lined up. “I think about the future a lot,” he says. Now he’s helping shape it.

A baseball dream come true

The growing pains were a small price to pay to be part of bringing high caliber baseball to Israel. This summer I lived a multi-layered dream. I played professional baseball in Israel, I signed autographs for smiling children and excited adults, I helped to introduce a sport I love to a country I love, and I made friends with ball players from around the world who share my passion for baseball.

I had daily conversations with World Series winning major leaguers, I read about the games daily in both Hebrew and English newspapers, I spent this summer doing what millions fantasize about doing but only a very select few get the chance to do. I lived a dream this summer and while doing so thousands of baseball fans were entertained. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a perfect summer. Most of the players were housed and fed at Hakfar Hayarok, a youth village where about 1000 students live and go to school. The facilities were modest at best. The first weeks were rough. There was no place to work out, there was no physiotherapy on campus, the food was inappropriate for the players, the laundry situation was a mess, games were postponed due to fields not being ready, there was no ice for the players, my teammate got hit in the head by a line drive that ended his season, paychecks were postponed for a few days and I played for the Petah Tikva Pioneers which means I felt the pain of losing far too often.

Like I said it wasn’t a perfect summer. The players were frustrated. But it did not remain that way. The players and league officials started meeting on a regular basis and changes were made. One by one, things came together and by mid season it was all about playing ball. The frustrations of growing pains were a small price to pay to be part of bringing high caliber baseball to Israel.

I am grateful to have been chosen to be member of a select fraternity that shared this summer breathing life into the dream of bringing professional baseball to Israel.

Judging by the attendance and fan enthusiasm at many of the games there are thousands of grateful fans too and next year there will be more. Wether you hail from or play for Petah Tikva doesn’t matter, this summer we were all pioneers.

Now that I am back stateside I keep thinking back on a glorious summer. I see 6’7″ Dominican Maximo Nelson in the dugout before the game fooling around with a giggling seven year old bat boy with tzitit hanging from his sides. On the far side of the dugout sits ‘Miracle Met’ Art Shamsky looking at his lineup card.

I hear a teammate ask if I am finished stretching and ready to have a catch, I see the sun setting at magical Gezer Field while the fans are cheering their beloved Blue Sox. I hear Australian, Dominican, Israeli, American, Japanese and Canadian accents in the dugout, I feel the excitement and tension of being on the mound in a tight game, I see long home runs, diving catches, head first slides and nasty curve balls.

I hear American Israelis explaining to native Israelis the rules and joys of baseball, I see fans davening Mincha (afternoon prayer) by the concession stand, I hear the guys sitting around at night playing cards and talking baseball.

I miss the sound of ‘Hatikvah’ being played everyday while the Israeli flags waved on the outfield fences. Maybe it was a perfect summer.

Value in doing business with Israel

Overcoming global economic tremors may take time, but the Israeli economy is up to the challenge.

In just two days at the end of July, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 520 points. The reason: fear of “a breakdown in the low-grade mortgage and corporate lending markets stock market,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

For those of us still unsure exactly what a ‘breakdown’ of this nature entails, it is hard to rationalize the international panic. Having survived a potential economic crises following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, how can we explain US vulnerability to fluctuations in the mortgage and corporate lending markets?

As the Israeli economy continues to feel the tremors from these recent losses, we are reminded of our susceptibility to global economic fluctuations. However, Israelis can take comfort in the strength and buoyancy of our economy. We have endured far greater trials.

Reports at Israel’s foremost economic policy meeting last month, the 15th Annual Economic Policy Forum convened by the Israel Democracy Institute, told a story of unusual economic resilience and growth in 2006-2007.

Despite last summer’s war in Lebanon and an ongoing struggle against terrorism, participants at the meeting, also known as the Caesarea Forum, spoke of a thriving Israeli economy. In 2007 Israel has seen the rapid increase of both the GDP and international trade. Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimate that Israel’s real GDP growth for the coming year could reach 6% and remain at that rate through 2008. (Globes Online, 18/7/07) Somehow the country’s economy rallied through the war and continues to grow.

In spite of the Hamas rise to political leadership and recent violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s report to the conference highlighted a significant drop in the national debt. Fighting and instability did not stop the country from paying off its loans.

And despite Hizbullah rockets being aimed at Israeli cities, unemployment in Israel has been dropping consistently. Estimates by the Bank of Israel see unemployment rates falling to 7.5% by the end of 2007. Although over one million Israelis live in rocket range of a terrorist militia, Israelis work more and are providing for their families.

In blatant disregard for international boycotts, investors continue to look to Israel as fertile and stable ground for factories, offices, and research facilities. Last year, mega-investor Warren Buffett sought out and agreed to a $4 billion investment in the Israeli economy with the purchase of Israel-based Iscar Ltd. Divestment campaigns stand no chance against the economic opportunities perceived by the international community.

While Iran issues frequent calls for Israel’s destruction, the leading countries of the world make strides towards raising Israel’s economic stature. In his address to the Caesarea Forum, Governor of the Bank of Israel Professor Stanley Fischer noted that as of 2007 the “State of Israel has been accepted as a candidate to join the OECD.”

Inclusion into the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development would place Israel in the company of the 30 most advanced countries promoting democracy and market economy. Ahmadinijad, by contrast, leads a country with decreasing economic freedom (Index of Economic Freedom 2007).

Even with the continuing security challenges and a significant share of imperfections, the world continues to recognize the value of doing business with Israel. Despite the trials, the Israeli people persist in hard work, invest eagerly in their future and are succeeding in strengthening and stabilizing the economy.

Overcoming the damage of recent global economic tremors may take time, but there is every indication that the Israeli economy is up to the challenge.

Don’t be scared off by Heftsiba

Purchasing a home in Israel is still a sound investment despite the Heftsiba scandal.With the recent collapse of Israeli construction giant Heftsiba, increased attention is being paid on the overall health of the local real estate markets. This is manifesting itself in the expression of a great deal of worrying – both among homeowners in Israel and many thousands of investors and potential investors abroad. While these concerns are valid and in many ways prudent, with the appropriate protections and insurances in place, Israel should continue to be a place that is heavily invested in and those thinking about purchasing a home here need not be scared off.

Heftsiba, despite having grown to become one of Israel’s most ambitious property development companies, with thousands of units under construction at the time of its collapse, has always operated under some degree of wariness when it came to their business practices. While Monday morning quarterbacking is always easy, there was a considerable amount of writing on the wall that the company was expanding its operations far too quickly for what it would be able to handle.

After failing to secure a 90 percent buyout from an independent investor, the rumors began to fly that the company was in crisis. Within hours, Heftsiba construction sites were being flocked by hundreds of desperate individuals who had purchased homes from the company. Breaking into the yet unfinished residences, these people were acting under the assumption that squatting would be their best protection from losing hundreds of thousands of life savings that they had already paid into their purchases. Israel’s business and real estate worlds have been thrown into flux over the collapse and the company’s owner is as of this writing nowhere to be found.

While great uncertainty remains over the fate of the company and what will happen to these individuals, the consensus in the legal and real estate communities is that with the appropriate measures in place, future such nightmare scenarios can be avoided.

From the purchaser’s perspective, it is important to recognize that the law is largely on the side of the consumer. Contractors are required by Israeli law to provide the purchaser with a way to address a situation where the builder falls into financial difficulties and is unable to complete construction. But in order to ensure that the purchaser has financial coverage for every cent that they pay, they must insist on obtaining a contingent bank guarantee before any payment is made. This contingent bank guarantee should go into effect as soon as money is placed in the project’s bank account and serves to protect the purchaser even before any transfer of funds.

A second important point to look out for, and one which has become a point of considerable consternation for Heftsiba clients, is to ensure that the building company has created a specific bank account for the building project in question. Many customers simply made out checks for hundreds of thousands of shekels to Heftsiba general office accounts and now have no real recourse.

A final issue is that when negotiating with a contractor in regard to purchasing a home, the contractor or their representative will usually inform the potential purchaser of a fee for legal representation that they must pay. Many purchasers assume that the lawyer’s fee includes legal representation that ensures their interests, while, in practice, the lawyer?s fee that they are asked to pay goes to the contractor?s lawyer for services rendered to the contractor. The purchaser should not rely on contractor?s lawyer who will have the contractor?s interests at heart and must make sure to always get a lawyer of their own, whose expertise lies in representation of purchasers in real estate transaction of this sort.

There’s no denying that the Heftsiba affair has inflicted a deep and painful wound on the Israeli market- particularly for the thousands of families whose life savings may have been lost because of the improper practices of a company who mislead its customers.

Yet, it need not be a source of major concern for those looking to invest in Israel who are prepared to do their homework and ally themselves with responsible and informed advocates. In Israel as in any other place else in the world, let the buyer beware is an excellent and critical piece of advice. If heeded, there’s no reason that purchasing a home in Israel won’t be the very fulfillment of a dream the way you always wished it would be.

The jury is still out in Israel

Our children will ask ‘What did you do for the Sudanese refugees?’ What will we tell them?
I missed Ismail at synagogue last night.

This intelligent, thoughtful man, a refugee from Darfur – then in Israel for less than 20 days – had joined me the previous Friday night for services. At the end of the service he had spoken to the community. After a slightly nervous start, he told his story to the 300 assembled people: many bullets, three countries, two jail arrests, fear and death. They were dumbstruck to hear what I knew was only a small part of his and his family’s harrowing and dangerous journey, one that had led him to be there that night. At that point, Ismail, his wife and four children (aged 1, 3, 5 and 15) had been living with my family in our Jerusalem home for a week.

That morning, our photo and a detailed story had appeared on the front page of national paper Ha’aretz; what had felt to my family like simply a Jewish, moral, and Zionist thing to do – to help a refugee family – had been portrayed as an act of great exception. It was one of many interviews and a TV appearance.

Then, in the middle of the next week, the family moved to Tel Aviv where Ismail began work at a restaurant. As a computer technician and network administrator – better trained than most of his peers and with excellent English – I doubt it will be long before he moves into his chosen profession. When I visited them the following night to see their rented apartment, he pointed out an empty shop front he had set his eye on, from which he hopes to start repairing computers, as he had done in Cairo. While I miss the intense experience of their company, I am glad they have moved on.

But the stories of Ismail and the 1,400 or so other Sudanese refugees in Israel have only just begun and Israeli society must contend with this new situation. For now, the refugees are being hosted in private homes, living temporarily on kibbutzim, staffing hotels bursting with summer holiday makers and, perhaps surprisingly, in Ketziot – Israel’s high security jail for Palestinian security prisoners. But then what? Nobody knows quite what to do.

Only if we get our arms around this challenge in real-time will we be able to handle this burgeoning crisis in the humane and moral tradition on which our deepest values rest. Before serious mistakes are made and long-lasting regrets created, several leading Israeli nonprofit organizations have created the Coalition for Refugees from Darfur and Sudan to coordinate their direct activities and to prompt the government into action.

Ismail was born in a small village in Darfur, the region where the ‘Fur’ kingdom existed till a hundred years ago (‘Dar’ means Kingdom and ‘Fur’ is the name of the group of African tribes that made up the Kingdom). Over the years, Western intervention was followed by Arab and Islamic efforts to ethnically ‘cleanse’ the area of the Darfurians, who are neither Arab nor Moslem.

Forty years ago, Ismail’s family lived on the family plot growing agricultural produce; in his late teens he went to Khartoum, the capital city, to learn English. It was then that the attacks by the Janjaweed, Sudanese government backed militias, began. This escalated in 2002 with murderous attacks amounting to outright genocide.

Following many atrocities and family tragedies, Ismail and his family fled to Cairo, where they were given refugee status. Initially things were bearable, but the situation of Sudanese Refugees in Cairo became shockingly bad; they have no access to health or education services and were randomly beaten and arrested on the street.

According to Amnesty International, a protest against this situation in 2005 led to some 30 refugees being shot dead by the authorities. Ismail was arrested and jailed. On his release, he realized he had to do something. That led him to recently pay Bedouin smugglers to smuggle the family to the border with Israel and, after short stops in Beersheva and then Jerusalem’s Rose Garden opposite the Knesset, they were the family we decided to host to save their being ‘relocated’ to the Ketziot prison in the Negev desert.

As our family sat around our lounge discussing this decision, we wondered whether the yet-unknown family would be with us forever. We decided that two weeks was our limit. But what if the government hadn’t made any progress? Would we take them back to the Rose Garden and say ‘It was nice, but that’s all we can do?’ It was clear we would not.

The emotional, moral and practical territory we decided to chart was to do every single thing we felt we could do and to trust that our friends, the organizations involved and the government would rise to the challenge so that we would not face that unthinkable situation. By reaching out to our networks and working closely with the organizations, we proved to be right. We feel this is a microcosm of what Israel must do: to do everything it can and rely on the world community to do its part too. If we think ‘all or nothing’, we paralyze ourselves into inaction.

So far, the government has been slow to react. Perhaps fearful of Israel being overrun at the barely-fenced border between Israel and Egypt, the government’s response to date has been to let citizens look after the refugees.

Recently, new arrivals coming over the border have been sent to jail. I visited these refugees in jail last week as part of the Coalition delegation. While the 52 women and children were being looked after relatively well, the 200 men are in the regular prison facility and having a very hard time. But they should not be in jail at all. The government has not decided whether any of the refugees will be given some sort of permanent status in Israel. Some ministers have said the current status quo is just ’till they are all returned’. That makes us very, very concerned.

So while Ismail is managing, he and the other refugees are still in a complete twilight zone. Our coalition is working hard to achieve three goals:

1. Advance Israeli NGO efforts to directly help the 1,400+ Darfur and Sudanese refugees who have entered Israel (and those still coming over the border) receive proper treatment, have their rights protected and find short and long-term solutions for health, housing, work and childcare/education needs.

2. Advocate for the Israeli government to develop policy and take action in a range of short and long-term issues, including but not limited to: establishing facilities and services to help refugees; developing and implementing a border protection policy and a refugee absorption policy; taking part in international efforts to end the violence in Africa and advocate for protection of refugees there. We will develop and advocate for specific policies as needed.

3. Develop an Israeli and international Jewish humanitarian response to the plight of African refugees, including the creation of an Israeli-international Jewish managed facility for 1,000 refugees in a friendly African country partnering with Israeli and Jewish volunteers.

In Israel we are actively seeking volunteers, donations and more organizations to join the coalition. In North America, we seek the involvement of those who wish to help us carry out goal #1, lend their weight to help convince the government to fulfill goal #2, and partner with us to fulfill a basic Jewish responsibility – as the Jewish people – in fulfilling goal #3. We have begun discussions with major American organizations working on this issue.

When asked by a reporter how I rate my government, I said the jury was still out. This could turn into a huge violation of Human Rights and of the 1951 international treaty on refugees, one which Israel not only signed on but was instrumental in creating. This would be a source of heartache and guilt for generations. Or we can rise to the occasion with mindfulness, compassion and resolve. When our children and grandchildren come to us in the future, as they will, and ask ‘What did you do for the Sudanese refugees and to stop the genocide in Africa?’ will we be proud of the story we have to tell?

My own family narrowly escaped from Vienna when, in 1938, the Nazis came over the border into Austria. Months earlier, prior to my grandfather applying for papers to immigrate to Australia, he had sent a letter to long-lost Uncle Borer asking him to make the mandatory declaration of taking responsibility for the family. Little did my grandfather know that when he wrote to Uncle Borer, he actually sent it (not knowing any English) to the Borer and White Ant Extermination Company. The company owner and friends decided to sponsor my grandparents and then 7-year old father out to Australia. They wrote back as if they were Uncle Borer. Till the moment my grandparents and father arrived, they expected to meet Uncle Borer at the wharf.

Today we Jews – in Israel and elsewhere – are challenged to decide. Do we take responsibility for people in desperate need only if they are part of our Jewish family? Or will we break the barriers of psychology, comfort and habit to include others in the human race? We must now embody what we constantly tell ourselves we believe: that all humanity is one family, that to save one life is to save a whole world; that we truly mean it when we say ‘Never again’.

It is here and now. It is not in heaven.

(The author can be reached at yglaser@netvision.net.il.)