January 2, 2009 / 6 Tevet 5769
I am writing to you this morning following an inspiring festive ceremony we held at the Western Wall honoring 80 new immigrants from South Africa who arrived yesterday in Israel, the last group of new immigrants in 2008. Parallel to their first hours in Israel, I and Jewish Agency Treasurer Hagai Meirom were visiting areas under fire in the South and meeting with heads of local municipalities in Ashkelon, Sderot and Netivot in order to understand first hand the needs of the population during these difficult times.
Only in a country such as Israel do you experience such extreme dissonance. On the one hand, new immigrants, wonderful and determined people who, despite the escalation of the security situation, all chose to come to Israel; there was not even one cancellation. In the last week of 2008, the Jewish Agency made a concerted effort and brought more than 500 new immigrants from many countries throughout the world – from Russia, England, North America and South Africa. Some people chose in advance, even before their aliyah, to settle in Israel's South and build their homes there despite the security situation. On the other hand, at a distance of half an hour's drive from Ben Gurion airport – hundreds of thousands of residents are in shelters, some of them experiencing this for eight years.
The war in the South continued yesterday, and dozens of rockets continued to terrorize the lives of residents of the cities and communities in the area. The missile range grew and it now includes Beersheva, which was hit by several rockets, among them a Grad-type rocket which hit a kindergarten. Luckily it hit in the evening hours when the kindergarten was empty. Additional communities north of Ashdod are now within missile range. Within this range, the Jewish Agency operates 10 absorption centers, in which 3000 new immigrants live, many of them from Ethiopia, as well as young people on Jewish Agency programs.
While we were in the emergency headquarters of the Ashkelon municipality, in an underground shelter, the sirens went off, followed several seconds later by the sound of huge explosions. Ashkelon was hit by another round of Grad rocket attacks. Luckily no one was injured, other than by shock. Only upon visiting Barzilai hospital which we did an hour later did we understand the real meaning of "shock". It is hard to describe the trauma, anxiety and stress the residents are experiencing, especially those who have experienced personally a rocket attack on their home or in the immediate vicinity. There are people, among them many children and youth, who for years now have been relying on assistance from the trauma centers and for whom the process of healing and returning to regular life might continue for a long time. Some of them might carry this trauma for life.
Barzilai Hospital is on emergency. Some of the wards and operating rooms were moved to the underground basements and parking lots in order to be ready for a situation of large numbers of injured people. Barzilai Hospital is not protected against rockets and appropriate arrangements for emergency situations are lacking. It is admirable that it continues to operate under these nearly impossible conditions. We met some of the people who were injured over the last few days, some of them Negev Bedouin, and we provided them with support from the Jewish Agency's Fund for Victims of Terror which at this time is providing immediate emergency assistance to families in traumatic situations including physical injures and property damage.
We came yesterday, on behalf of the Jewish People in the Diaspora, to be with the heads of the local municipalities in the South and strengthen them by conveying the commitment of the Jewish communities around the world and their concern for the welfare of the area's residents. Through a quick campaign, we succeeded in bringing a preliminary donation of computers from the "Electra" Israeli Appliance Company and Amdocs"Israel for dozens of children from needy families in Ashkelon who are in shelters, allowing them to connect to the distance learning system run by the Ministry of Education. We are continuing our efforts to get additional donations for the thousands of children in the South who don't have computers, in order to help them continue their studies during this period, which could continue for a lengthy time.
We continued on to Sderot and met with the mayor David Buskila and people manning the emergency headquarters of the city, and afterwards we were in the emergency headquarters of the Netivot municipality and met with Mayor Yehiel Zohar and his staff. Despite the difficult situation, we were very impressed by the control that the mayors were maintaining; they are doing wonderful work and are continuing to provide residents with all the regular municipal services in addition to dealing with the needs of a civilian population in an emergency situation, while municipal workers exude extraordinary resolve. We came to strengthen the mayors and we came away strengthened by them. Each and every one expressed the feeling common among residents of the South that, despite the difficult situation, the civilian front is ready to pay this price and give the Government of Israel and the IDF the necessary backing in order to bring back quiet and security to the region. "We will be strong as long as the Government of Israel and the IDF needs", said absolutely everyone.
We visited the Kalanit absorption center in Ashkelon several minutes after a Grad missile fell next to it and blew out several of its windows. We were also in the Ibim youth village. My heart is full of pride for the Jewish Agency employees who are on the front lines, providing warm and dedicated support to thousands of new immigrants and young people from around the world who are here on Jewish Agency programs. From Poland, Russia, North America, Latin America, Ethiopia, straight from the war in Georgia -- all are full of faith and dedication to the State of Israel. Some of them have been in Israel for only several months. Most of them have never been in such a situation. And they are here and satisfied with their decision to come to Israel and build their lives in Israel.
Employees of the Jewish Agency's Aliyah Department continue to train the thousands of new immigrants and young people in the absorption centers how to function during emergencies, continue to keep the children in the shelters busy with activities, enable people to call their families abroad and help them get psychological assistance through video conference links to the help centers. The Israel Department is using the volunteers of the "Youth Futures" programs in communities in the South, who are in direct contact with the hundreds of children involved in the program -- visiting them at home and running an emotional support system in order to keep up their strength during these trying times. The department is running a professional study program today for the volunteers from Sderot and Gaza-periphery communities, Netivot, Ofakim, Kiryat Gat, and Beehsheva, on stress and post-trauma in order to give them practical professional tools to assist children and their families. Israel Region staff is constantly in the field and visit all the injured people and every family whose home has been hit by a missile, giving them assistance from the Fund for the Victims of Terror. Representatives of the southern region are in constant contact with the local municipalities in order to assist with needs that arise.
Together with the municipality of Jerusalem, we have just organized a preliminary project of bringing approximately 1000 residents of the South to Jerusalem for a break and various activities. At the same time, the beginning of next week we will be bringing school children from the Eshkol regional council to Tel Aviv for a day, assisted by the "Nokia-Eurocom" company. We continue in our efforts to enable more residents and children of the South to leave for the center of the country for a break from the war and for a renewal of their strength. We are operating an emergency hotline and encouraging volunteers form the "At Home Together" program from the center of the country to host families from the South. From the beginning of next week, at the initiative of the Education Department, we will be sending returning shlichim and volunteers, among them young people who have just come back from their Jewish Agency shlichut in the Diaspora, to communities in the South to help keep the thousands of children in the shelters active.
The World Zionist Organization has also gotten mobilized to assist the South. The Zionist Federations in Britain and the United States have already announced an emergency campaign and I am certain additional Zionist Federations will join. The Hagshama Department has begun getting students and young people around the Jewish world to demonstrate solidarity with residents of the South. I send my thanks and appreciation for all those involved in these very important efforts.
On behalf of Richie Pearlstone, Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and myself, I wish to express my deep appreciation to the employees of the Jewish Agency, in the headquarters and in the field, who are doing this sacred work out of a sense of mission and dedication. We have proved in the past, in times of crisis and distress, the strength of Jewish Agency workers and their very admirable determination and dedication. We also wish to thank our partners in the Jewish world and many in the State of Israel who are working with us in assisting the South and giving residents there the feeling of mutual responsibility of the entire Jewish People.
We all stand with the Government of Israel, IDF soldiers and residents of the South.