During trying periods such as the one experienced by Israelis at the moment, most individuals, institutions and organizations reveal the finer side of their characters, offering all kinds of assistance and support.
The traumatic conditions under which so many people are living are even more frightening for those in the lowest socioeconomic sectors, who rely on organizations such as Leket Israel to provide food for them. Accordingly, Leket founder and chairman Joseph Gitler put out an email this week announcing that Leket Israel’s staff and volunteers are continuing to work non-stop, providing food for more than 140,000 needy Israelis.
The organization’s logistics center in Ra’anana was visited this past week by Deputy Welfare and Social Services Minister Mickey Levy, along with fellow Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman. During a meeting with Leket CEO Gidi Kroch, the three discussed the NIS 100 million budgeted for the shmita year, which begins on Rosh Hashana. Levy said he believes that some of this money should be allocated to Leket Israel for produce rescue for the needy during the shmita year, saying the poor should also be entitled to fresh fruits and vegetables. Lipman, who was already familiar with the work of Leket Israel, supported Levy’s initiative and said he was overwhelmed to see the quantities of fresh produce being distributed to the poor.
Likewise, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, who heads the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has made funds available to regional and municipal councils in the South and some other parts of Israel to use for emergency needs.
The Orthodox Union has launched an Israel Emergency Fund that will finance urgently needed psychological services, day trips and other essential activities away from the threat of missiles, according to OU executive vice president and chief professional officer Allen Fagin and executive director Rabbi Avi Berman.
World ORT director-general Shmuel Sisso, who is a former mayor of Kiryat Yam, has asked current mayor David Even Zur to organize summer camps in his city for 500 children from the southern region, to provide them with a broad range of activities to take their minds off of their fears.
Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which invariably comes to the rescue on such occasions, made buses available to children and families in Ashkelon and surroundings, taking them out of bomb shelters for a fun day in Jerusalem.
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel took to his Facebook page and asked Jerusalemites to open their homes and hearts to people from the South, as they have done in the past.
The Tower of David Museum offered free entrance to anyone from the South who had come to the capital.
While endorsing all such activities and more, Shas leader Arye Deri told Israel Radio that now that long-range rockets from Gaza can reach any place in the country, everyone is more or less in the same boat. Together with other MKs, Deri has been traveling extensively throughout Israel to see for himself where help is needed and to arrange assistance. In similarity to what opposition leader Isaac Herzog told Channel 10, he said that under the present circumstances there is no coalition or opposition; everyone is standing united behind the government in the effort to calm the situation and prevent further escalation of attacks by Hamas.
■ RELATIVES AND friends of the late Arthur Abrahams had planned to visit his grave on the Mount of Olives last Tuesday for the consecration of his tombstone. In fact, his relatives had specially come from Australia to pay their last respects. But the escalation of violence in Jerusalem, coupled with stories that visitors to the Mount of Olives risk being stoned by wayward youth, put a damper on the original plan.
As an alternative some of his friends, particularly Liza Lawrence of Ein Kerem, in discussion with his longtime companion, Sele Gaye, thought that since some 40 people had indicated they would be attending the unveiling of the tombstone, the best way to honor Abrahams would be to hold a memorial lunch for him at the Israel Museum – one of the places he loved most in Israel, to which he had donated his extraordinary collection of Papua New Guinean art.
While the museum’s restaurants are open during the day on Tuesday, the galleries are closed to visitors. However, Dorit Shafir, the curator of the Arts of Africa and Oceania, was able to get permission for the group to visit the gallery in which the Papua New Guinean art and artifacts are on display. It was very interesting, said Shafir, that Abrahams – who had been such a cultured Western gentleman – had so much sensitivity for non-Western art, which decorated his homes in Paris, Senegal and Jerusalem.
Abrahams, an Australian, had a great sense of adventure and even as a child, had been fascinated by Papua New Guinea – where in the 1950s, he built a coconut plantation. It was in Papua New Guinea that fellow Australians Sonia and Daniel Lew first met him. Subsequently all three came to Israel, left and came back, then left again and came back again. Daniel Lew, in fact, served as the honorary consul for Papua New Guinea in Israel.
The Lews returned to Israel two months ago – this time to stay permanently – and were at the gathering at the Israel Museum on Tuesday. For many years during their previous stay, they lived at Ramat Raziel, but are now living in Kfar Saba to be close to their daughter and grandchildren.
During the tour of the Papua New Guinean art, Abrahams’s cousin Dion Abrahams of Melbourne, who is 14 years younger than Arthur, spoke of how his cousin used to take him to school as a child, and how he gave him a marvelous sense of freedom on the plantation when he was only 12 years old. Later in life, he discovered Arthur to be a wonderful raconteur with a great sense of humor and never-ending store of anecdotes.
■ INITIALLY, IMMIGRATION and Absorption Minister Sofa Landver had been designated to represent the government at the National Day and farewell reception at the Dan Hotel Tel Aviv hosted by Lithuanian Ambassador Darius Degutis and his wife, Nida – who are returning to Lithuania after a five-year tour of duty in Israel.
Landver lives in Ashdod, where she was a city council member before becoming an MK. Taking security considerations into account, it was not the best idea for her to travel between Ashdod and Tel Aviv and back again. Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz agreed to take her place at the reception, but on the way to Tel Aviv there was a Color Red rocket-warning siren and Steinitz took cover inside a building until it was safe to come out.
He was certain that the event would be canceled or at least deferred; his aide called the Foreign Ministry representative who was waiting to escort him into the reception hall to check whether there had been a change in plans. Informed that there was no change, Steinitz was certain that he, his aide, the Foreign Ministry representative and the ambassador and his wife would be the only people at the reception, and was pleasantly surprised to see a large crowd that included Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman – who had preceded him by less then five minutes, and who slapped him on the shoulder several times by way of approving that he had arrived.
Other than at receptions hosted by ambassadors of the US, Russia, France, Egypt and the UK, it’s rare to see more than one government minister at a diplomatic reception of this kind. In fact, there are some receptions at which there isn’t even a single minister. Truth be told, there was no real reason for Liberman to be present – because Degutis and already taken his leave from Liberman a few days earlier, and had heard some very warm comments from him about diplomatic ties between their two countries. But Liberman, who as foreign minister has visited Lithuania three times, wanted to demonstrate his confidence in what Israelis and Lithuanians can achieve together.
Thus, with a twinkle in his eye, he not only showed up on a tension-filled day, but waited until the ceremonial part of the reception was over before making a quick exit with Steinitz. The two did not hang around for the traditional toast, to the chagrin of the waitress carrying the tray bearing glasses of champagne.
Degutis amazed Steinitz with his intimate yet far-reaching knowledge of the country.
Unlike his colleagues who choose to live in Herzliya Pituah, Kfar Shmaryahu and Ramat Gan, Degutis and his wife opted to live in the heart of Tel Aviv, where they could thoroughly immerse themselves in Israeli culture, sport and social life – living not in the ivory tower of the diplomatic circle, but as regular people interested in sampling anything and everything about the Israeli lifestyle.
It started immediately with their arrival in Israel. Singers from Milan’s La Scala Opera House were performing in Tel Aviv as part of the 100th-anniversary celebrations of the city that never stops, and Degutis and his wife had been invited to the performance by Israel Opera director Hanna Munitz.
No one came to meet or greet them, and they were speaking Lithuanian among themselves, wondering what to do next, when a couple walking past overheard them and joined their conversation. Soon someone else joined in, and within a few minutes a group of 10 people who had not known each other before were having an avid conversation in Lithuanian. That was the Degutises’ introduction to Tel Aviv.
And that was just the beginning. The couple went to performances by the Cameri and Habima theaters, as well to Yiddishpiel and jazz clubs; they’re also familiar with the city’s restaurants and soon after their arrival, spent two days at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People.
Degutis recommended that every new ambassador to Israel who wants to know something about Jewish tradition go to Beit Hatfutsot; he wondered aloud how many of the people present had trekked the Israel Trail, climbed Mount Hermon and crossed the desert on foot from Arad to Masada, as he and his wife had done.
A keen basketball fan, the ambassador’s guest list included former basketball star Tal Brody, a former captain of Maccabi Tel Aviv. Degutis said he loves Maccabi Tel Aviv because they beat CSKA Moscow – and there was no better gift for a Lithuanian ambassador.
“We are leaving you, but we are not leaving you,” he told his guests. “We have you in our hearts.”
Israel’s new ambassador to Lithuania is non-resident and is stationed in Riga, Latvia.
Degutis has been trying to persuade Liberman to open an Israel embassy in the capital, Vilnius, and has even offered to be Israel’s ambassador – based on his love for the Jewish state and his vast knowledge of the country. ”I will happy to represent Israel in any capacity,” he said.
Liberman shot back that if Israel did open an embassy in Lithuania, he saw no need to send an ambassador if Degutis was already there. Of course it was all in jest, but one never knows.
Nida Degutis was sufficiently enamored with Israel to write two books about her experiences here. One is called Passion for Israel and is filled with stories that are distinctly different from those that are shown on television. The other is called Taste of Israel and ventures into Israeli-Lithuanian cuisine, and the stories behind Jewish festivals and holidays. Both books are designed to give Lithuanians a greater understanding of and appreciation for Israel.
While waxing euphoric, Degutis did not shy away from the less pleasant aspects of Lithuania’s relationship with Israel, saying, “We feel great shame over what happened during World War II. We will not forgive; we will not forget.” Before the war, he said, relations with the Jews of Lithuania were quite good, and after Lithuania regained its independence, one of the goals towards restoring ties with the Jewish people was to enter into diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.
Degutis said there is strong cooperation between his country and Yad Vashem, in relation to intensive educational programs on the Holocaust. Cooperation with Israel exists on many other levels, he said, crediting former minister Shalom Simhon with breaking the ice in economic relations by taking a huge business delegation to Lithuania.
Since then, economic relations have improved enormously and only last week, another large delegation led by Zvi Oren, Manufacturers Association of Israel president, went to Lithuania and met with President Dalia Grybauskaite and other dignitaries.
Moreover, there are numerous Israeli investments in Lithuania, and an Israeli hi-tech hub has been established in Vilnius.
In addition, over the past year, three weekly flights have been introduced from Tel Aviv to Lithuania and back, and according to Degutis, they are full in both directions.
Next month, he said, there will be friendship agreements signed between Lithuanian cities and the cities of Acre and Tiberias, and this September, conductor Zubin Mehta will take the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to Vilnius to perform at the National Opera and Ballet Theater; Degutis was proud of the fact that six of the philharmonic’s musicians are from his country.
After rattling off the names of a number of Israeli dignitaries of Lithuanian descent, including President-elect Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Degutis was interrupted by Steinitz, who said: “I get the impression that I’m the only one not from Lithuania.” The remark generated a laugh from the local Litvaks present.
Steinitz later spoke of Lithuania’s contribution to Jewish wisdom and praised latter-day Lithuania for its condemnation of anti-Semitism and its support of Israel. He said that Degutis had proven to be an excellent ambassador, serving the interests of Israel as well as of Lithuania. Liberman, well-aware of Degutis’s genuine affection for Israel, told him: “You may be the best hasbara [public diplomacy] we have in Europe – without a ministry and without a budget.”
Never afraid to call a spade, Liberman said that Jews had lived on Lithuanian soil for hundreds of years, had a complicated history with Lithuania and had created a huge cultural legacy there. “But the best page in our common history is now,” he said. “We don’t have better friends than Lithuania in the international community.
All our requests are met and we enjoy your support at all times and in every international forum.”
On a personal level, Liberman said Degutis had made a major contribution to the excellent relations between the two countries.