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Faith drives Christian factory to filter Jewish air

Ha'aretz (Israel), Oct. 19, 2001
http://www.haaretzdaily.com/ Off-site Link

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For years, the German Protestant community that runs Beth El Industries in Zichron Yaakov has had only minor success in convincing the Israeli government and the public that they are not prepared in the case of a biological or chemical attack. But since the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, Israelis have placed dozens of orders for Beth El's air-filtration system every day, and the first orders ever from the U.S. are coming in - in droves.

The heightened demand for its product, however, has put Beth El in an unusual spot: Its business is based not on any intent to generate profit, but rather on ideology. The sect - which prefers not to be called "fundamentalist" due to the term's negative connotations these days - believes that God chose the land of Israel for the Jewish people, and that the Messiah will come only if all Jews are living here.

In addition, the group believes that it has a responsibility to protect the Jews from experiencing another tragic Holocaust. In other words, one can say with inescapable irony, the members of the group will breathe easier knowing Jews are protected from poison gases by their invention.

Beth El also wants to help supply U.S. demand for its product at this difficult time, both on moral grounds and also because any profits will be turned back to producing its air-filtration devices for Israelis.

Yet, with an Interior Ministry prohibition against additional foreign members of the community moving to Israel - about 700 live in Germany, Canada and Holland - the factory simply doesn't have the manpower, even with its 50 Israeli employees, to fulfill the post-September 11 demand. The factory is thus now operating in overdrive, trying to fill orders for Israelis - its priority.

"Whatever is left over, we sell to the U.S. and Europe," notes Albrecht Fuchs, manager of the company. "Right now, we're running around like crazy."

Hundreds of requests have flooded Beth El since that fateful day last month, says Fuchs, who claims that Beth El's "NBC" ("nuclear, biological and chemical") air-filtration system has no competitors in Israel. This device for combating poisonous gases - which can be operated by electricity, by battery, or manually in the event of an attack - was conceived after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Israel's Arab foes began developing more advanced types of warfare.

Members of the German Protestant community - who today number about 160, many of them long-time residents (and most on tourism visas) - began to teach themselves engineering and, in 1982, presented their first "NBC" system to the Israeli Civil Defense Authority, which dismissed the idea as "nutty," according to Fuchs. (He admits that the product is only guaranteed to work during a nuclear attack if special walls have been installed, so it is, arguably, "just a BC system.")

Undaunted, the group continued to push the government to protect its citizens in the event of a biological or chemical attack, and in 1989, Beth El won official approval for its device and began to supply systems to the military. Until then, the Germans had made a living by producing other equipment including a device to filter and clean air in public places, like hospitals, and by selling its NBC system to European countries, which it continues to do.

Most members of the German Protestant group in Zichron that is working so hard to protect people against new terrorist threats, never even saw the footage of the hijacked planes crashing into the World Trade Center; they don't watch television, listen to the radio or read newspapers. They get any vital news from their Israeli employees, and read only the Bible and engineering textbooks.

The Beth El community's roots date back more than 50 years to Stuttgart, to Emma Berger, a Christian whose brush with a near-fatal illness gave her a fervent belief in God. She led a group of followers to Israel in 1963, and purchased land in Zichron Yaakov. The group has historically produced much of their food themselves on their communal farm, resembling a kibbutz.

For years, local residents - among them members of Zichron's ultra-Orthodox community - suspected the Germans of being missionaries; on several occasions, they were stoned by yeshiva students. But those days are long over, in part because the Germans took many Zichron residents into the factory's shelters during the Gulf War. Now, says Fuchs, the group's members are known around town as "the Shabbes goyim" - fixing Jews' refrigerators and other necessary equipment on Shabbat and holidays.

Meanwhile, the NBC has been perfected over the years and the Beth El factory now manufactures a compact version of what was once a rather unwieldy device. It can be installed in any sealed room, and the larger versions can be used in public shelters.

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