June 8, 2007
Nonprofits scrambling to shore up what’s left of the beleaguered southern town as gov’t response rapped.
Michele Chabin - Israel Correspondent
Jerusalem — It could have been a gold bust town in the Old West. That’s how the streets of Sderot, eerily silent and deserted, seemed to Benjy Portnoy on a recent visit to the rocket-battered development town in the Negev.
A volunteer for the Jerusalem-based Or Meir and Bracha Terror Victims Support Center, Portnoy, who lives in Modi’in, came to Sderot bearing about $4,000 to give to local residents, as well as supplies like fans for bomb shelters, diapers and baby food.
“It feels like a ghost town,” he wrote to the Jewish community in Manchester, England, where he grew up, hoping to move residents there to dip into their wallets. “Many residents of the town have left. Those still living there are mainly the poor and elderly,” he continued in the letter. “Rockets lie in the streets, and shards of glass from broken apartment windows are ubiquitous.”
Portnoy and his wife visited the home of Shirel Friedman, the 32-year-old woman killed by a Kassam rocket attack on May 21. “The place was completely empty — no food, sparse furniture, etc. We filled up the house with food for two weeks and helped the family with money. We bought games, toys and food from local businesses.”
Those businesses have been hit hard. “More than once a shopkeeper broke down in tears while informing us that no one had been in the shop for over a month,” wrote Portnoy.
Portnoy’s mission of mercy, relayed through officials at the Terror Victims Support Center, is one of the many ways nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are trying to help embattled residents of Sderot, whose lives have been severely disrupted by rocket fire. As they did during last summer’s war with Lebanon, the nonprofits and in some cases individuals, along with the United Jewish Communities-funded Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee, have assumed a vital role in supporting the townspeople.
Arkady Gaydamak, a Russian-born billionaire, has built a tent city for residents wishing to leave the town. Several organizations have sent food, medicine and volunteers to entertain bored children, visit the homebound/bomb-shelter bound and offer any assistance asked of them.
Some native New Yorkers who immigrated to Israel have donated a portable above-ground bomb shelter to a kindergarten while another is urging Israelis around the country to purchase Sderot-made baked goods. Roughly half of Sderot’s 24,000 residents have fled the town, and it remains to be seen how many will return following Hamas’ apparent tactical shift this week of targeting the Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel instead of Sderot, Ashkelon and several nearby communities.
Half of the town’s residents are relatively new immigrants. Many of them — and other, more “veteran” townspeople — cannot afford to leave their jobs and rent a second apartment.
Officials at the Sderot municipality, who have grappled with intermittent Kassam attacks for the past seven years and severe financial woes for decades, say the latest round of attacks has exacerbated pre-existing woes. Without nongovernmental assistance, they say, the crisis would be compounded.
“More than half the people are gone, and those who are here have spent three weeks in bomb shelters,” Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal said last week in a teleconference with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “A quarter of the businesses are closed. You wouldn’t believe what we’re going through every time a siren sounds. How can you run an elementary school with six students? There are no kids in the parks, and the shops are closed. This is a city under siege.”
“Everything related to security and the economy is the government’s responsibility, and the fact that after seven years of attacks the situation is worsening proves that the government isn’t doing its job,” Shimon Peretz, the municipality’s manager, told The Jewish Week. “If we had to wait for the government, there wouldn’t be any residents left.”
Miri Eisen, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office, said the security and well-being of residents of the western Negev is the government’s “top priority.”
“We’re talking about hundreds of millions of shekels that have gone to the region,” Eisen said. “Since the first day of the escalated rocket attacks, the government decided to give the region special status: if anyone suffers any kind of loss of income [even] from indirect problems caused by the attacks, they will receive complete compensation.”
The realization that people must be promptly compensated, Eisen said, “was part of what we learned last summer.” Peretz said the nonprofits “are doing an enormous amount. I applaud the Jewish Agency, the Joint [JDC], the UJC, the other organizations, but they can’t do it alone. Larger problems remain, problems that only the government can fix. We can’t hold activities at libraries and community centers because they don’t have reinforced rooms or shelters.”
Actually, that problem is being addressed by former New Yorkers Shep Alster and Josh Adler, the Israel-based cofounders of Operation LifeShield, an NGO launched after last summer’s Lebanon war to address the shortage of shelters. So far, the organization has donated a handful of the 42-ton, steel-reinforced, concrete, above-ground rocket-proof shelters, dubbed “LifeShields,” to communities in the north and Sderot. On May 20, one was placed at a Sderot kindergarten.
“We designed the shelters according to the strict specifications of the IDF’s Homefront Command,” Adler said in an interview. “We’re working in cooperation with the government.” But private donations, not the government, are paying for the shelters, which cost $36,000.
In another private initiative, David Landau, the director of Standing Together, a nonprofit that provides food and other supplies to soldiers, came up with the idea of patronizing Sderot’s bakeries and mom-and-pop groceries.
“It just dawned on me that we had neglected Sderot while it was going through this nightmare for seven years. We decided to go down there and show our support.”
With money donated by diaspora and local Jews, Landau’s volunteers purchased cold drinks and ice creams from local shops and handed them out to surprised residents. “We stopped a public bus and handed out ice creams,” Landau said with an infectious laugh.
Last week, Landau sent out an e-mail to a handful of listservs for English-speaking Israelis, asking people to purchase their Shabbat challahs and other baked goods from a Sderot bakery that employs 15 workers. “People ordered 1,200 challot. I want to encourage people having a simcha to order their challot from Sderot. One girls’ seminary ordered 450 rolls. The response has been tremendous.”
“It was amazing,” Landau said, still a bit awed. “We’ll be working with another bakery this time and will put together a package of grocery items from a local grocery store. Of course the stores have to want this. We can’t force the idea down their throats.” Amos Houri, the baker whose challot were delivered as far away as Jerusalem, said the extra work “was very welcome. I have so many workers to employ but half the population has left town. There’s no business.”
And sometimes the caregivers need a break. For a group of young Israelis performing their national service in Sderot, Jerusalem — not usually considered the entertainment capital of Israel — provided some welcome relief this week from the daily barrage of rocket fire.
Invited by the Conservative/Masorti movement on a “yom kef,” (literally, a day of fun), the Sherut Leumi volunteers — who are performing one to two years of community service in lieu of military service — took a tour of the city, ate a hearty lunch at a family restaurant and visited one of the movement’s synagogues.
“It’s scary living in Sderot so it’s great having a day off,” said 20-year-old Dan Alon, watching Jerusalemites doing errands and pushing baby carriages on the bustling street outside the restaurant. Like the rest of the group members, he volunteers in Sderot’s school system.
“When the Kassams are falling,” Alon continued, “there’s very little time to run for shelter. Sometimes, there’s no alarm at all. It’s frightening, especially for the children, but for me also.”
“There are several agencies helping Sderot’s residents, but no one was thinking about the Sherut Leumi volunteers who live in Sderot and help the residents on a day-to-day basis,” Olya Weinstein, the movement’s congregation development director, said of the decision to care for the caregivers.
Ruth Bar-On, the grandmotherly director of SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Center, which receives funding from UJA-Federation of New York, believes the government “is taking the needs of residents under fire more seriously this time. I feel there’s a real serious effort to help.”
Still, she added, “there are things only NGOs can do. The government can’t make frequent home visits, can’t sit at the bedside of the wounded.”
Bar-On recalled a recent encounter with an Ethiopian woman from Sderot who wanted to leave the town but who didn’t want to leave the elderly person she cares for.
“This was a terrible dilemma for her. I told her, if you need time off to be with your family, we’ll finance another caregiver for the week, so the person won’t be neglected.”
Nongovernmental agencies are providing personal assistance, Bar-On said, in a way government agencies were never designed to.
Sometimes, Bar-On said, “it’s easier to fix walls than to fix human beings.”