May 24, 2007
New allocations push Sderot total to more than $7 million.
Stewart Ain - Staff Writer
Within hours after Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip began launching a barrage of Kassam rockets at Sderot and neighboring communities last week, executives of the United Jewish Communities here received an urgent phone call from Zeev Bielski, chairman of the Jewish Agency in Israel.
“I think I called UJC officials on Wednesday night and 20 minutes later they came back with $1 million and said they expected more to be approved the next day,” Bielski said in phone interview Sunday while attending the second annual Jewish Agency Partnership 2000 conference in Newark, N.J. The program pairs Israeli communities with “sister” communities in the U.S.
“My experience with UJC has been a good one,” Bielski added. “To be able to pick up the phone, tell them the situation, have them make a quick call to the directors of [Jewish] federations and to people who are in the circle of decision makers ... and to understand that their response must be immediate [made] the people of Sderot very happy.”
The money will be used to take 8,200 children ages 6 to 18 in the area out of harm’s way by busing them to camps this summer. It will also be used to provide a financial safety net for businesses that have been forced to close or curtail their operations because of the rocket attacks, Bielski said.
“These people need to know that there is someone there for them,” Bielski told conference participants. “It is just like the idea behind our partnerships: that we are connected one to another, people to people, that we are bound by a common destiny.”
Jim Lodge, UJC’s vice president of the Israel & Overseas Pillar, stressed that the “key is to be on top of this and to make sure the needs are met.”
“We’re thinking in a strategic way to leverage dollars and to work with the [Israeli] government,” he added. “We’re working with federations and donors to make sure we know the extent of allocable resources.”
The UJC launched an Israel Emergency Campaign last July to assist Israelis after they came under attack by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon. A total of nearly $360 million was raised from American and Canadian donors, $314 million from Americans alone. Although the bulk of that money was allocated to helping those in the north of Israel, $4.6 million was earmarked for Sderot and the surrounding area because of the almost daily attacks by Kassam rockets fired from the Gaza Strip.
Toni Young, chair of the Israel Emergency Campaign Working Group, said it was “determined last summer that Sderot was experiencing the same problems” as the north.
“The situation is fluid and changing all the time,” she said. “We will meet [again] within the next two weeks” to reassess the needs of area residents.
Lodge said that in light of last week’s increased Kassam rocket attacks — at least 150 rockets were fired in a week that killed one woman and injured and traumatized scores — another $2.5 million was allocated. Of that, $400,000 will be used by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to provide a respite program for the elderly and disabled who have special needs. Another $1.4 million will be used by the Jewish Agency to provide camp programs in other parts of the country for 8,200 children. And 36,000 will be used to take care of the special needs of Sderot’s 500 residents of Ethiopian descent. The money will be used to pay translators and provide basic emergency supplies. The rest of the money will be held in reserve and used as needed.
It was stressed that all of the money to be allocated has already been raised through pledges and gifts to the Israel Emergency Campaign and that no new fundraising would be needed.
John Ruskay, executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, pointed out that his organization is providing an additional $1 million for the Israel Trauma Coalition in Sderot.
The coalition established a Community Stress Prevention Center, which operates neighborhood emergency teams and provides professionals who work with pre-schoolers to help them cope in emergency situations. In addition, the coalition created the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, which provides workshops, lectures and training for professionals and the general population, and supports a mobile unit for house visits.
“The coalition was launched in response to the first intifada [in the 1980s] and it has been extremely active in providing augmented support to the men and women of Sderot,” Ruskay said. “The first challenge is to provide security for the people of Sderot. We assume the government of Israel is taking every step it can to do that. Beyond that, our role is to be there to reflect the concern of the world Jewish community and to augment a whole range of services.”
Yossi Cohen, a spokesman for Sderot, said the rocket attacks have created a “very bad” situation in the community and that they were thankful the children would be taken to camps out of the area.
“They will come back if things are OK,” he said. “If they are not, they will be moved to hotels. We don’t know what will happen.”
Alon Schuster, head of the Sha’ar HaNegev Regional Council, which is adjacent to Sderot, said the assistance of the UJC in providing respite programs and financial aid to businesses “are of tremendous importance because they are strengthening the mental ability of our people to live here on the border of the Gaza Strip.”
“We have to convince our citizens that it is worthwhile to stay here and that it is not just a matter of ideology, of religious beliefs,” he added. “When you support the ability of people to earn money and to bring food [to their table], this is something whose importance we cannot exaggerate. And you are also providing people the ability to feel free, to give them a time-out of the permanent stress [they face here].”
Schuster said there are 6,000 residents in the regional council, plus another 8,000 who attend Sapir College, the largest public academic college in Israel.
Bielski said the amount of money to be distributed to residents whose businesses have been adversely affected by the Kassam rocket attacks would depend on the size of the business, the length of time the business had to close and other criteria.
“We’ll start with $1,000 and big businesses might receive $5,000 or $10,000,” he said. “We’ll evaluate it to see if they can lift their heads above water until good times come again.”
As of last week, it was estimated that businesses had lost $16 million either in physical damage or lost income, according to Israeli media reports.
There are several hundred businesses affected, Bielski said, as well as small businesses “we may not be aware of, such as taxi drivers and people who work from home. They can’t make a living and they still have to pay rent and for food and education.”
He pointed out that some of those being relocated out of the line of rocket fire will be sent to hotels and that “we got a good deal” on hotel rates.
“A lot of Israelis will contribute to try to match the UJC money — individuals and businesses,” Bielski predicted. “Once the UJC moves forward, it will be easy for us to say that our brothers and sisters in North America have been generous, let’s do what we have to do.”
Such a fund-raising effort in Israel would be unusual, according to Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“Israelis expect their government to take care of these things,” he said. “It would be an important change. It would be adopting more of the American model.”
Rahat said there has been a mixed response to the assistance being provided to Sderot residents by Russian-born billionaire Arkady Gaydamak, who in response to a letter from the local PTA president arranged for buses to take 1,600 residents to the safety of hotels in other parts of the country. Rahat said Gaydamak’s action provided an “incentive” for the government to do something similar for other residents.
“Some people did not like” what Gaydamak did because “they thought this was something the government should be doing,” Rahat said. “But other people were happy with him because he was the only one who was providing a solution. But the way I look at it, it means you are letting him buy votes for the next election.”
Gaydamak is said to be considering running for mayor of Jerusalem.
Regarding Israeli businesses helping the people of Sderot, Rahat said he believes “businesses understand they should help because ... they hope the government would then not need to raise taxes.”
Although the Jewish federations are not announcing a new fundraising campaign, the American Jewish Committee said it was reactivating its Israel Emergency Assistance Fund to raise money to help the residents of Sderot and its environs. The money is to be used for the establishment of a psychological services center for city residents.