(photo credit: KKL)
"Laying a cornerstone for this park is proof that the city of Sderot is not only in the hearts of the citizens of Israel, but also in the hearts of the Jewish people around the world." KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler was speaking on Wednesday, December 29, at the cornerstone laying ceremony of the Azrieli Park in Sderot, the gift of David Azrieli of Montreal, Canada, and the Azrieli Foundation. "KKL-JNF has been part of Sderot's history ever since the city was founded in 1951," Stenzler continued, "when immigrants were housed here in transit camps. There were no means of livelihood in the area at the time, so the immigrants were employed by KKL-JNF planting trees, including the eucalyptus trees you see here. The government of Israel didn't want to build a city at this site, but the immigrants insisted, and the city was named Sderot -boulevard in Hebrew- in honor of the avenue of eucalyptus trees.
"Today, David Azrieli is realizing the vision of another David – David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who said that Israel could not exist without the Negev. David Azrieli has always believed in the Negev. He built a shopping mall in Beersheva when everyone thought it was madness to invest in this region. When the decision to create a park in Sderot was made a couple years ago, David Azrieli was involved in every detail of the planning. He wanted to make sure that the park would be built according to the high standards he sets for all his projects, and I can assure him and the board of the Azrieli Foundation that this will be the case. KKL-JNF will continue to support the Negev, thanks to the dedicated workers of KKL-JNF's Southern Region and its director, Mr. Ami Uliel. It is our hope that this region will become home for people from all parts of Israel and the world over."
The mayor of Sderot, Mr. David Bouskila, recalled that he first met David Azrieli two years ago: "We are very appreciative of your support of Israel and your decision to invest in Sderot. The park that KKL-JNF will create here will be a home for the children of our town.
"Next to the park is a community center named for Ela Abukasis. When the 'red alert' alarm sounded, this young heroine protected her ten-year old brother with her body. She sustained a direct hit from a Kassam missile that killed her as she saved her brother's life. For eight years, the children of Sderot have grown up under a constant bombardment of missiles from the Gaza Strip. 8000 missiles and bombs were fired here over the last eight years. Since Operation Cast Lead, there has been 'relative quiet' here, but I want you to understand the meaning of 'relative quiet' – 600 missiles and mortars over the past two years, an average of about one a day.
"We are the children of the city founders. By remaining here regardless of the security situation, we help protect Israel's sovereignty. We have no other home or country. We must always be strong; we don't have the luxury of allowing ourselves to be weak. It is our hope that in the future, thanks to the partnership between David Azrieli and KKL-JNF, each of whom has done great things for the people of Israel; Sderot will no longer be considered a city on Israel's periphery. Our joint goal is to transform 'color red', the words used to warn of an imminent rocket attack, into green, the color of life and growth. We are proud to be residents of the city of Sderot. Welcome and thank you for everything."
The ceremony was emceed by Mr. Andy Michelson, KKL-JNF Chief of Protocol,
and the Pirhei Sderot children's choir regaled the audience with Hebrew songs. Mr. Michelson invited Rabbi Bar Yochai, the rabbi of Sderot, to recite the shehehiyanu blessing, which is traditionally said upon receiving or dedicating something new.
Mr. David Azrieli, who came to Israel for the ceremony with his wife Stephanie, addressed the audience in perfect Hebrew: "To be here and to see the children of Sderot, who performed so beautifully, gladdens the heart. I am very proud that I have been able to participate in building Israel and to contribute on behalf of Sderot and its residents. This is a wonderful and amazing place, and what is more important, we see that the residents of Sderot are not afraid, and that life goes on. That's part of what the park is about – a place where people can come and relax, where children can play, where neighbors can meet. I would like to thank KKL-JNF for envisioning the park, especially Efi Stenzler, who was involved in the planning from the very beginning. I would also like to thank my daughter Dana, who represents the Azrieli Foundation in Israel, and to the guests who came especially from Montreal. This is a wonderful place, there is no fear here, and it is my hope that there will be no fear in the future either."
The Azrieli family received honorary certificates and signed scrolls commemorating the occasion that were placed in the ground next to the cornerstone. The scrolls noted that future plans for the park include paved walking trails, bridges, picnic corners, play facilities, lawns, trees, scrubs and lighting. David Azrieli's daughter Naomi said that this was a very emotional moment for her: "Placing these scrolls in the ground is a way of remembering this moment for eternity and a testimony to our connection to the state of Israel and the city of Sderot."
We spoke with Menahem Einan, president of the Azrieli Group, who said that the decision to create a park in Sderot was recommended by KKL-JNF: "The idea is to create a place for recreation and sport for the local residents, an esthetically beautiful park in terms of its architectural planning. Sderot is the frontline of civilian life in Israel, the people here have suffered a lot and we wanted to express our support not just by talking, but by doing."
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