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December 7, 2011 By:
There's a saying that Israelis are everywhere.
And that goes for the most remote reaches of the world -- like Palau, a dreamy island archipelago, located just 7 degrees north of the equator in the West Pacific Ocean, and which ranks as one of the world's top underwater diving spots.
Palau is where I met Navot and Tova-Harel Bornovski, an Israeli couple who sailed here in 1993 and have made it their home ever since.
The Bornovskis have played a key role in putting this tiny island nation of 20,000 -- which enjoys close ties with Israel -- on the world's radar by operating the Fish 'n Fins dive center and Barracuda Restaurant.
Tova also serves as president of the Micronesian Shark Foundation and points out with pride that Palau was the first nation to declare itself a shark sanctuary.
But most people know about Palau -- where English is spoken and the currency is the U.S. dollar -- because of its scuba diving, the Survivor TV show, and the fact that so many sunken World War II Japanese ships and seaplanes lie submerged under its waters.
"In 2000, we found the USS Perry, the only U.S. ship that sank in Palau during World War II," said Navot, who was born on Kibbutz Merhavia, Golda Meir's home, located in the Jezreel Valley.
For the Bornovskis, Palau was love at first sight.
"We spent a year in Palau in 1986 to 1987," Tova said, "crewing on a live-aboard," used on extensive dives, "and we totally fell in love with the island."
The couple then returned to Israel, where Navot studied for an engineering degree at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, but when an opportunity opened up to run another live-aboard on Palau, they eagerly returned.
By then, they had two of their four children, Yarden, 4, and 3-year-old Udi, with whom they sailed through the Caribbean, the Panama Canal and across the Pacific to Palau.
In 1998, the couple bought Fish 'n Fins from Francis Toribiong, a famed member of the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and the brother of Johnson Toribiong, Palau's current president.
I arrived in Koror, Palau's main town, after flying from Los Angeles via Honolulu and Guam, and I awakened the next morning at the five-star Palau Pacific Resort, whose palm-lined beach is simply postcard-perfect.
The tiny constitutional republic is strong on preserving its natural beauty, like Jelly Fish Lake, where I swam with gentle jelly fish; Milky Way, a hidden lagoon, where white deposits are said to act like beauty cream; Ngellil Nature Island Resort, a pristine, hideaway with sweet, orange coconuts growing alongside thatched huts; and Carp Island Resort, where I woke up to a spectacular sunrise.
When I met Tova at Barracuda, she surprised me with a serving of gefilte fish made with Palau reef fish.
Next came warm pita, accompanied by those flavorful Israeli classics of falafel, hummus, babaganoush, Moroccan pumpkin dip and eggplant in balsamic vinegar and rosemary.
The title of her cookbook, Taste of Rainbow's End, reflects the country's many rainbows and Palau's motto: Rainbow's End.
Probably my most unforgettable island activity -- next to being surprised with gefilte fish -- was snorkeling at Blue Corner reef, which has an incredible 1,000-foot drop.
On my way to the reef, I joined a group in a tarpaulin-covered speedboat, zipping around Palau's Rock Islands -- some of which are spread out over the calm waters like giant strings of pearls, while others take on the appearance of giant mushrooms.
When I finally got in the water, I looked through my mask at fantastic sea fans and watched fish of every conceivable color.
Divers in my group, attached to a thin rope wound up on anchoring loops hooked to the edge of the reef cliff, also saw thousands of fish, including white- and black-tipped sharks.
Back at Fish 'n Fins, I asked Tova about Jews and Palau.
Yes, she noted, there have been other Jews here from time to time, but they usually come to work under contract and then leave.
"Since we're the only Israeli or Jewish people on the island," she said, "I made a vow that for my kids, for tradition every Friday night, we have a family dinner and we light the candles, and I bake challahs."
The Bornovskis' third and fourth children were born on Palau and have Palauan middle names: Liam Lmall, 16, and 15-year-old Gayle Dilmowais ("Girl of Dawn" in Palauan).
Their daughter Yarden, now 23, studies medicine in Italy, and their son Udi is in college in British Columbia.
All of their children, Tova noted, "have the easy island personality," and, being "Palauan at heart," are divers, too.
Tova's father, Yitzhak Kallenberg, was the mayor of Tivon, Israel, for 17 years and later went to Vienna for the Jewish Agency for Israel to manage the wave of Russian Jews coming out of the Soviet Union.
Navot believes that Palau offers an additional allure for Jewish visitors.
"I think that nowadays, with growing tension in the world," he said, "with Jewish and Israeli people not welcome in many countries and facing danger, Palau is a great escape because it's very friendly, very safe; you can fly here directly from the U.S.
"You don't stop in any countries that are not comfortable to be in. So I think for the U.S. market -- and the Israeli market and Europe -- I think it's a very good escape."