"I believe it is not just financial help that is needed here but also hands on help by the young Jewish community of New York," said Jerry Levine, joint chairman of the mission together with his wife Caroline and daughter Adi. Levine, who addressed the delegates in a sweltering bomb shelter, spoke of the $44 million already raised by UJA-Federation of New York. He stressed the need to reach the target goal of $60 million dollars to help citizens of Kiryat Shmona not just with immediate aid but to develop a long term strategy so quality of life will not only be as good as it was before the war, but better.
Kiryat Shmona, located on the northern border with Lebanon, is a primarily low income town with a population of 24,000 residents of whom approximately 20% are new immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Of all the communities in Israel, Kiryat Shmona was hardest hit by the recent war that raged between Israel and Hizbollah. The delegates picked their way through shattered glass and debris as they toured the Danciger school, which was hit by five rockets. The visitors were clearly moved by childrens' art work still hanging on the walls of a destroyed art room. The school will reopen its doors to 1,300 very traumatized pupils for the start of the school year.
The Jewish Agency has developed a comprehensive afternoon enrichment program to move these youngsters, and others like them in the north, from trauma to recovery. Utilizing student volunteers in Northern Israel’s colleges, the program will assist the war-scarred pupils in their quest to return to normality, while overcoming tensions and fears and building their personal potential.
The school visit was followed by a stop at a community bomb shelter in a low income area of the town. The shelter housed up to 150 residents at any given time during the 33 day conflict. Entire families spent the duration of the war in this humid, low-ceiling, cheerless place.
Many bomb shelters were fitted out with air-conditioners donated by the Jewish Agency and its partners around the world. This shelter had no air-conditioning and after half an hour the delegates were hot, sticky and clearly uncomfortable. Mayor of Kiryat Shmona Chaim Barbibai, who accompanied the mission, exclaimed, "we are just 50 people in here for half an hour, imagine what it was like to be here for 33 days with 150 people!"
As the delegates left the bomb shelter, visibly relieved to get into the open air, albeit with a temperature of 34 degrees in the shade, Jerry spoke about the harsh media coverage Israel has gotten in the western press. "I was impressed and moved by the spirit of the people of Israel who despite the recent suffering and fear are determined to pick themselves up and carry on," he said.
Later, some members of the mission visited a family run ice-cream parlor which had opened in time for the start of the summer season just six weeks before the war, and was then forced to temporarily close when damaged by shrapnel and flying glass after a Katyusha rocket landed nearby.
Sitting over a tall glass of homemade ice-cream in the newly rebuilt and decorated parlor, mission delegate, business executive and frequent visitor to Israel Steven Greenberg pondered, "I'd been following the war in the media back home and felt I just had to come out and see for myself. I am glad I did. After seeing the bad press Israel has gotten both in the States and in the rest of the world I realize we're all Israel's got."
Photo Credit: Naftali Hilger
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