The Israeli government has basically abdicated responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of refugees from northern Israel and left it to private relief organizations to deal with their needs.
The haredi community, with its plethora of existing self-help and charitable organizations, has leapt into the breach. Haredi soup kitchens, like Chazon Yeshaya and Meir Panim, immediately addressed the food needs of both the refugees and those still living in bomb shelters. Meir Panim is providing 5,000 meals daily for residents of the North, and Chazon Yeshaya has set up 38 distribution points around the country where refugees can receive free meals.
Yad Eliezer created a food distribution center in Tzefat that served the residents remaining in Tzefat and the entire surrounding area, including army bases where Yad Eliezer found soldiers without adequate food.
Yad Ezra Ve’Shulamit soup kitchens in Jerusalem, Sderot, and Eilat served an extra 1,000 meals per day during the war. In addition, the organization sent three trucks, filled with 1,000 hot meals, 500 loaves of bread, fruits and vegetables and diapers, to the North each week. The drivers went from bomb shelter to bomb shelter delivering supplies, and came under katyusha fire on several occasions.
Even a relatively small organization like Ezra V’chesed Mishnas Yakov, which normally helps feed 600 families a week, delivered $300,000 worth of foodstuffs to bomb shelters in the first week of the war. Volunteers of the Gerrer-run Refuah v’Yeshuah organization commandeered school cafeterias in Jerusalem and Ashdod to prepare hot meals for those stuck in bomb shelters.
Ezer Mizion ambulances ferried handicapped people from the North to the center of the country, and those of Rabbi Elimelech Firer’s Ezrah L’Marpeh organization brought patients in northern communities to their medical treatments, and in some cases from hospitals under fire to those in the central region. Yad Sarah medical supply centers continued to operate in the North, in some cases from bomb shelters.
AS SOON as fighting broke out, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman began going from bomb shelter to bomb shelter offering encouragement. (Approximately 60% of the 6,000 students in his Migdal Ohr institutions are from the North.) The fear and suffering he observed convinced him to move as many children as possible out of danger. He initially rented one campus for 800 children for 10 days. Four weeks later, he has 22 campuses housing 7,000 people – two-thirds of them children – and offering round-the-clock activities.
Just this week, the mayor of Nahariya begged Rabbi Grossman to take 1,000 residents from that shell-shocked city.
Much of this hesed has come spontaneously from the grassroots level. A young hassid with a large family took out a mortgage on his apartment in order to purchase food for the North. (He refuses to permit his name to be mentioned.) The proprietor of a small on-line toy store has spent the past four weeks purchasing and packing $50,000 of toys and games, many of them contributed at cost by her religious suppliers, for distribution in bomb shelters and community centers. Another woman announced at a pre-Tisha Be’av gathering on “forbidden speech” that she was looking for accommodations for a family from the North. Somehow word got out that she was matching families, and she has been doing nothing else since.
Such matchmakers abound. Ezras Achim in Beit Shemesh placed 150 families in empty apartments, or with other families. Lema’an Achai found accommodations with families for 200 refugees, and is hosting 350 more in seven Ramat Beit Shemesh school buildings. Those in the schools are partnered with local families to take care of needs like laundry and hot showers.
The Bnei Brak municipality provided space for several hundred refugees in two school buildings, and has opened five day care centers/summer camps for the nearly 1,000 refugees currently living in the city.
Lezion Berina, a religious high-school for Russian-speaking youth in Beitar, opened its dormitory to 100 Russian immigrants, and is providing them with three meals a day. A SHUVU high school dorm located near the prime minister’s residence has become home for SHUVU families from Acre and Nahariya. And Ezer Mizion rented a grassy campus in Petah Tikva for another 300 refugees from the North.
IN ADDITION to organizing hesed activities, the Torah community has been doing what comes most naturally: praying and learning Torah. An initiative launched by the Bostoner Rebbe and Rabbi Simcha Kook based on the idea that Moses drafted 1,000 men from each tribe to pray for each 1,000 sent to fight has caught on like wildfire. Internet sites matching Jews to pray and learn with the names of IDF soldiers were quickly oversubscribed.
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef issued a call for all Sephardi yeshivot to remain open during the traditional three-week intersession after Tisha Be’av. And the three most senior figures in the Lithuanian-yeshiva world ordered all yeshiva camps cancelled, and forbade yeshiva students from going on outings and recreational trips. They urged all yeshiva students to continue learning during the vacation period, “without any break at all,” and expressed their support for those yeshivot that cancelled vacation.
NONE OF THE foregoing is meant to suggest that the haredi community has a monopoly on hesed activities, or is doing more than other communities. The outpouring of volunteerism across all societal lines gives more hope for Israel’s future than anything happening on the military front. The national religious community, which unfortunately has amassed too much experience caring for refugees, has been exemplary. (Volunteers from the national religious world are active in many of the organizations mentioned above.)
Rather I wish to dispel a common misconception that the haredi community views itself as removed from the rest of Israel – a misconception based on a confusion of politics and theology. From the outbreak of the war, for instance, round-the-clock prayer vigils have been maintained in the shuls of the anti-Zionist Eidah HaChareidis in Mea She’arim.
One of the animating concepts of Torah life is the vision of Klal Yisrael – the Jewish people – united by a common mission to reveal God to the world. The circumstances of modern Jewish life often make that ideal seem delusional. Yet whenever the occasion presents itself for haredim to act in accord with their belief in the inherent unity of the Jewish people, they eagerly seize it.
That is what has been happening this past month.
Originally published in the Jerusalem Post, August 11, 2006.