All over this quiet town near the northern border with Lebanon, residents strolled in the cool evening air while others ate in their sukkahs. Dogs, some of them homeless from the war, salivated nearby, anxious for any leftovers.
Given the peaceful small-town atmosphere that pervaded Kiryat Shmona during the holiday, it was easy to believe that life has returned to normal. And while it is true that schools and most factories and businesses have reopened since the ceasefire was implemented on Aug. 14, the people who spent 34 days in bomb shelters or fled the town for safety, are still grappling with the war’s many aftershocks.
The vast majority of residents—who weren’t necessarily doing well prior to the war—suffered grievous financial hardship during the conflict as well as lasting emotional trauma, local officials say. And the other problems that surfaced during the war — from the sad state of the shelters to the failure of municipal and governmental agencies to provide social services — have yet to be solved.
To get the recovery process off the ground, the UJA-Federation of New York has decided to allocate more than $9.3 million from its Israel Emergency Campaign (IEC) specifically for the recovery of Kiryat Shmona, which was hit by more than 1,000 rockets during the war, and sustained the most damage.
But instead of handing over the money directly to the municipality, which has been widely criticized by residents and the media for the way it mishandled the crisis, the UJA-Federation has handpicked five veteran agencies “that have the knowledge and the ability to develop and implement formative programs that will strengthen the quality of life of the citizens of Kiryat Shmona,” said Stephen Donshik, director of UJA-Federation’s Israel office.
Of the $9.3 million, nearly $2.7 million will go to the Jewish Agency for Israel, to help 3,700 students through programs that provide individual attention, one-on-one counseling, and professional staff support. The Joint Distribution Committee will receive $2.6 million to aid the town’s economic recovery, “strengthen its organizational resilience,” (read: figure out an emergency plan) and upgrade programs that will better serve the elderly.
Roughly $2.1 million will go to the Israel Trauma Coalition, an umbrella body for several excellent trauma-related organizations, to develop a walk-in treatment center for all citizens, and a school-based support network. The Israel Association for Community Centers will receive $102,000 to upgrade the Kiryat Shmona Municipal Library, to serve as an educational and social center, while Livnot U’Lehibanot will get $1.65 million to bring teams of North American Jewish volunteers and local Israelis to Kiryat Shmona to repair 100 bomb shelters and to design 30 bomb shelters that will serve as community and youth centers during peace time.
The Livnot initiative promises to be the most hands-on from a volunteer perspective, because it will encourage American Jews, especially from New York, to come to Israel for two weeks to rehabilitate the shelters. In the process of making the shelters habitable, they will work and live alongside ordinary Israelis equally determined to make a difference.
Livnot, which was founded 26 years ago by Aharon and Miriam Botzer, immigrants from the U.S., repaired numerous shelters in Safed, where it is based, throughout the war. Its volunteers also provided food, medicine and caregiving services to the residents who stayed behind, but who had no one, including social workers or healthcare aides, to help them.
While the federation could simply pay local builders to do the work, rehabilitating the shelters is just one of Livnot’s goals, Aaron Botzer, an effusive, bearded man said during a visit last week to one of the Safed shelters his organization is turning into a year-round community center.
“This isn’t just about repair work, though this is vitally important,” Botzer says. “It’s about the overseas volunteers getting to know Israelis and Israel while contributing to the country, about strengthening all the volunteers’ ties to the Jewish people and Judaism. It’s about empowering local residents to care about their shelters and their communities, to transform them from saying “We deserve this” to “We deserve this because…”
Avraham Ze’ev, the man responsible for the upkeep of Kiryat Shmona’s 180 public shelters, estimates that 60 percent are in “good” condition.
“There’s not a single shelter without a problem,” he said during a tour of a shelter destroyed by a fire during the war. This particular shelter, which contains the burned, sooty remains of sofas and mattresses, has already received a funding pledge from the United Jewish Communities.
“Almost all the public shelters are problematic,” Ze’ev admitted. “Only 60 have air-conditioning, and the electricity is outdated. All the shelters are below ground and the air isn’t very good. The plumbing was overused during the war and needs to be replaced.” Ze’ev, who has spent much of the past several months underground examining the shelters, said the town lacks both the money and expertise to repair the shelters.
“The public shelters are the responsibility of the Security Ministry, but the money hasn’t been forthcoming,” he said tersely. The Botzers are more concerned about the so-called “private” shelters built by contractors in neighborhoods all around the Kiryat Shmona, or in the basements of large residential buildings. Despite the fact that they were built at the behest of the government, neither the municipality nor the national government are prepared to provide money for their upkeep or rehabilitation.
The result is that the residents, who are legally responsible for the hundreds of private shelters, turned them into storage facilities long ago. Most do not have toilets or running water, Botzer said, even though the law requires this.
One such shelter, in the basement of a run-down apartment block in a working-class section of town, has several neatly stacked mattresses, good lighting and a toilet, but is infested with large cockroaches, which scurry along the tiled floor the minute the light comes on. “Some of these buildings belong to Amidar and it’s their responsibility to repair them,” Ze’ev said of the quasi-governmental housing authority.
When a group of families from Englewood, N.J., arrived in Safed to clean and paint a bomb shelter, they found a dark two-room cement block that reeked of urine. Though swept clean during the war, the remaining dust makes it difficult to breathe for more than a few minutes. During the war, the electricity was supplied, via an extension cord, by the family that lives next door, the Zatloffs.
“There’s no water, no toilet, no electricity and there are holes in the walls,” Shneor Zatloff said during the visit to the shelter. “And there’s no ventilation system,” he added, coughing.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” said Aharon Botzer, touring what he calls a “model” shelter in another working-class neighborhood of Safed. Here, Livnot volunteers have painted the walls lavender and murals welcome visitors at the entrance. Downstairs, the floors are made of sound-absorbent wood and the environment is inviting.
“We want to encourage citizens to use the shelters all year round, as community clubs and meeting centers,” Botzer says. “If the shelters are usable during peacetime, they’ll be ready during wartime.” n
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