When Hamas fired two Katyusha rockets into the southern Israeli city of Netivot, on May 24, the city officially joined the ranks of Sderot and kibbutzim along the border as a target for Gaza-based terrorists.
Despite the recent cease-fire, which was tested by Islamic Jihad on Monday, Netivot still faces various challenges and an uncertain future due to the situation. Unlike Sderot, however, which has been battered by Qassams for the past seven years, Netivot has been able to prepare itself for those challenges, in part thanks to its deep relationship with the Philadelphia Jewish community.
While the threat to the city itself is relatively new, the people of Netivot are not unaccustomed to dealing with the situation.
“It’s not really new to us,” said Noa Cohen-Orlev, who is the coordinator of the Gesher L’kesher program and has lived in Netivot for nine years. “A lot of kids go to school in the kibbutzim (collective communities in Israel) within range, and people have parents, aunts, uncles and other family who live within range.
“Personally, the hardest thing is to, as a mother, send my kids to study within range of the Qassam missiles. ‘Why not move?’ I ask myself. And it’s a hard question, but it’s reality. We deal with questions of life and death every day here.
“The only answer I have is that this is our home, and I believe it is the safest place for Jews. It doesn’t solve everything, but it is still the best option we have.”
Israel is probably one of the most popular causes to which American Jews donate money, but all too often it becomes as impersonal as paying taxes.
“I’m not sure if [people in Philadelphia] understand, or if anybody [outside of the region] understands, but we get donations and e-mails from people in Philadelphia all the time, and we know they sympathize with [our situation],” said Ms. Cohen-Orlev.
The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2000 Program attempts to bridge the understanding gap. As part of the program, an American city and an Israeli city (or region) forge a partnership through which the cities interact at an economic, political and social level. The Netivot (and Sedot Negev)-Philadelphia relationship is one such partnership.
Netivot and Sedot Negev are part of the Western Negev region in Israel, which is still in the stages of growth and development first begun in 1997. Through the partnership, the Jewish Agency has been able to use donations from the Philadelphia Jewish community to create opportunities for Netivot and the region to grow, and a sense of brotherhood between the two regions separated by more than 6,000 miles.
“Most of the projects we promote are based on creating personal relationships between the two communities,” Philadelphia schlichah (representative) Talia Lidar said. “We want people to create relationships based not on praying to Jerusalem or sending a check, but based on a sense of brotherhood.”
Philadelphia residents visiting Israel often stop in Netivot and Sedot Negev, where the community welcomes them with hospitality whether they are staying for a few months as part of a program, a few days or just a few hours. For its part, the Jewish Agency tries to inform them on the situation.
“We take visitors on security tours around the region to help give them some perspective on how destructive the situation is and how it changes lives,” said Adina Young-Swissa, who has lived in Netivot for five years and will be taking up Ms. Cohen-Orlev’s position later this year.
One of the many challenges the new situation presents is helping children in Netivot cope, and Philadelphia aid is contributing to that effort.
The Saligman Center, which was built using money from Philadelphia donors, was originally meant to address the realities of children with special needs that required services such as diagnoses or various therapies, Ms. Lidar said.
According to Ms. Cohen-Orlev, it has been a great benefit to the community. Before, families would first have to wait until a teacher noticed signs of a learning disability or other conditions, and then, parents would have to take their children to Be’er Sheva or the center of the country for diagnosis and treatment – not a small task for families without cars or for whom money is tight.
Now, thanks to the donations from Philadelphia and the region, families are able to identify problems early and get professional diagnoses and therapies as early as possible – sometimes before the child starts kindergarten – at an affordable rate close to home.
“We discovered my son had a speech problem when he was young, and we sent him to 10 sessions of speech therapy for about $900, which is almost nothing if you think about it,” she said.
That same early childhood center now also functions as a sort of intervention center for children and their families who are having trouble coping with the situation – adults and children often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety disorders.
In addition to providing service to trauma victims, the agency and the center have focused on creating an infrastructure that promotes outreach, specifically to provide support to children at an early age. These efforts include training teachers to identify signs of PTSD or anxiety disorders and making social workers available, according to Lidar.
One of the popular programs for the children is the Chibuki program, which, roughly translated, means “my hug.” The children receive a plush dog with a sad look on its face and long arms (hence “my hug”), and they are told to take care of and comfort the stuffed animal anytime they face a scary situation.
It is meant to make them feel as if they are in control and responsible for another’s feelings, rather than feeling as if they are simply helpless victims, Ms. Young-Swissa said.
“It’s unfortunate, but everybody has to learn and accept that this is part of life here right now,” and there is nothing we can do except fight through it, she added.
The Philadelphia community has also been a big part of Netivot’s ability to meet some of its practical security and emergency needs.
“The people of Philadelphia feel they have a connection here,” Ms. Cohen-Orlev said. “They know we are like brothers, that when they come to Israel, they have a home in Netivot and Sedot Negev.”
The bond between the two cities is such that, in a sense, the Philadelphia Jewish community went above and beyond the standard duty of the American Jew to Israel in order to contribute to Netivot.
When Israel collected money for its emergency fund, Philadelphia raised $2 million and insisted that it should go directly to Netivot, rather than spread throughout the country, Ms. Cohen-Orlev and Ms. Lidar added. Their donations helped build shelters, security fences, stocking the emergency warehouse with food and water, and supplies for emergency response volunteers.
While it is important to understand that these programs do not solve the root of the security problem in Netivot, Ms. Lidar believes that they help create an infrastructure that promotes resilience, the lack of which has crippled Sderot.
“When you are facing threats to your life every day and cannot trust the government that is supposed to protect you, there is nothing to lean on. It is easy to lose hope in peace, in the future. But resilience and hope are the only things that will see us through this.”