Miri Schwartzman took a break from her job caring for mentally retarded children on Tuesday. Her "vacation," however, was not spent relaxing or pampering herself, but rather shopping and preparing her Kfar Saba home for a family that had arrived to stay with her Monday, escaping Hizbullah rockets in the North.
"I guess it's not really a vacation," agreed Schwartzman in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post. "But I have not really thought about it." Schwartzman said her decision to host an unfamiliar family from the North was a spontaneous one. She did not even consult with her husband, who returned from a trip to Poland on Monday.
"I didn't see any problem," said Schwartzman. "I have the space and we are used to hosting groups when they visit Israel on programs from abroad.
"I have a sister in Haifa, but she didn't want to come," said Schwartzman, describing how she then called her local municipality and asked if she could do something to help out. She told them she would be willing to host a family in need, even though she did not know them.
Schwartzman said the family that arrived at her house Monday night is from Haifa.
"They are originally from Kazakhstan and have no family in Israel at all," she continued. "She [the mother] is in total shock from what is happening in the North. She told me that her and her daughter had spent the past few days driving to various malls in the Tel Aviv area and just walking around all day so as to avoid going home."
Schwartzman said that when the rockets killed eight people in the Haifa Bay area on Monday morning, the family decided it'd had enough and called its local municipality looking for help. Kfar Saba is one of the many municipalities that have approached their citizens asking them to accommodate stricken residents of the communities in the north, and that is how the family found the Schwartzman household.
"She is very traumatized," said Schwartzman of the mother. "She even went to the Kazakhstan embassy to apply for a visa to return to her former country.
"I tried to explain to her that as Israelis, we have grown up with this sort of situation and that it will change soon, but I don't think it helped to calm her at all."
Now, Schwartzman said she is concerned about the eight-year-old daughter, and has made some calls in order to find her a framework for the foreseeable future while they are staying with her.
"I brought my grandchildren and my niece and nephew over to play with her on Monday afternoon and they all had excellent chemistry," she said.
SCHWATZMAN is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, of Israelis who have opened their homes to distressed residents of the North and southern border regions. Whole communities have come together to offer assistance to families and individuals on the front lines. Many organizations have focused their skills to help the stricken communities, and businesses are reaching out by giving residents of the North donations and discounts on hotel rooms further south, phone calls and Internet connections.
"We have to do, not just talk," commented Jerusalemite Sara Cohen, whose name and number appeared on the Web site of Channel 10. Cohen was one of hundreds of people who answered a call by the TV station to host families from the North.
"I have space for a family," she said. "I felt I had to do it."
Even in Gush Etzion, a place that has had its fair share of terrorism, residents are making sure their fellow citizens from the North have a place to stay during this time of crisis.
"We are learning a lot from this community," said Rafi Atias, who left the Meron region with his family of six children on Monday and is staying in a dormitory in Efrat.
"They have greeted us here with open arms," he said. "They've provided us with programs for the children and everything we need. They came to meet us with strollers and cribs."
Atias and his family are part of a group of 400 people - a mixture of religious families from Bar Yochai and Or Haganuz and new immigrants from Karmiel - being hosted in the Gush Etzion bloc. The communities had asked to be evacuated to a place where they could stay together as one group.
Even though many of the residents are fleeing their homes in the North, there are still a large number who have no option but to stay put. It is these people, confined to their bomb shelters and sealed rooms, who are in need of the most help.
Humanitarian organizations such as Latet, Chabad and the Joint Distribution Committee have put much of their resources into helping to ease the pressure of the current situation for the residents of the North. And many organizations, such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, have made monetary donations which provided funds to purchase activity kits for children living in the confrontation zone, food coupons, hot meals for the elderly and equipment for the public shelters.
"THE HOME front command gave instructions that essential services should remain open," said Asher Bakir, a resident of Regba near Nahariya, who volunteers twice a week for Yad Sarah in Nahariya's hospital. "Yad Sarah is not the most essential service, but it is extremely important."
Providing vital medical equipment, Yad Sarah, whose other branches around the North are currently closed, decided earlier this week that it would run three service vehicles in the North - in Afula, the Jezreel Valley, Haifa and surrounding towns - to bring the medical equipment and oxygen production machines to patients who need them at home.
Other organizations have mobilized efforts to evacuate at least children from the troubled areas. Akim, the association for the rehabilitation of the mentally handicapped, sent a message to the mentally disabled and their families that the organization would arrange for them to stay with families further south while the conflict continues. The Alut organization for children with autism has taken a similar initiative.
Hadassah women's organization has arranged for more than 400 children and over 100 families to move into its youth villages in Netanya and Zichron Ya'acov. The Jewish Agency (JA) for Israel has already bussed more than 4,000 youth to 14 different summer camps countrywide in an emergency program it calls "To Place the Kids in the Center." A spokesman for the Jewish Agency said it has built on existing summer camp structures and some of the camps have brought together Jewish, Druse and Arab children from across the north of Israel.
"Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielsky raised $1 million from the United Jewish Communities-Federations of North America (UJC) last week to get things in motion," said the spokesman, adding that private companies such as Ma'ariv, the Supersol chain, Osem foods and Nike have all made contributions to the project.
Na'ama Levitt's two older children arrived Monday at one of the JA camps at the Wingate Institute. She said, "There are no words to describe what the Jewish Agency has done for us. We really, really appreciate the generosity. It is important that my children have a place to go, they will get much more out of this than sitting in a sealed room in Metulla."
Levitt, who also has a one-year-old baby, described how her older children had been at a summer camp in Metulla's Canada Center when the first Katyusha rockets fell on the city Thursday.
"They were very scared," she said. "The center was immediately closed and they spent the rest of the time locked up at home. Then we sent them south to their aunt in Petah Tikva, and they arrived at Wingate on Monday.
"It is very difficult at the moment in Metulla, everything is closed down," continued Levitt, who is now staying with friends in Jerusalem while her husband stayed behind in Metulla. "I don't know what we will do, or what will happen in the future. I just hope this situation will be over by next week."
Kiryat Shmona resident Ahuva Itzhaki is also hopeful that the rockets will stop falling over Israel's northern border soon, although she said, "Israel's citizens can deal with this situation so that we can eventually have peace up there."
Currently staying with her sister in Hadera, her family is also spread out among friends and relatives in the center of the country.
Her son, Noam, one of Israel's young and hopeful tennis champions, returned from an international tournament in Greece on Sunday, but rather than returning home to Kiryat Shmona, he was offered a bed by the Israel Tennis Center in Ramat Hasharon.
"The tennis center is such a warm family," said Itzhaki. "This way he can carry on training. A sports person needs to keep up his activity all the time. There is no way that Noam could be closed up at home all day, he needs to practice."
A secretary for the town's municipality, Itzhaki recalled growing up in Kiryat Shmona and called herself a "child of Katyushot."
"It is sad, but I know what it is like. I have strong memories and bad nightmares from the sirens and the booms," she said. "We've had a break of six years and life was beginning to feel free and normal. I hope this will be the last time. There is no way we can continue life like this."