'I will never forget this one young woman named Zippi who, when we met her, had no hopes and no vision for the future other than to get married and have children. I don't know what happened to her, but we helped her find a place at college," recalls Sylvia Busis, one of thousands of Americans who once actively participated in Project Renewal.
Started in 1977, under orders from prime minister Menachem Begin, Project Renewal was created as a way to eliminate poverty through an intensive effort to provide adequate housing for approximately 45,000 Israeli families, mostly immigrants of Middle Eastern origin.
What set Israel's program of physical rehabilitation apart from other Western countries, however, was its direct connection to Jewish communities in the Diaspora.
Sylvia and husband Sid were active in Project Renewal from its conception, when Sid was president of the Pittsburgh Federation, which was twinned with the town of Tirat Carmel, on the outskirts of Haifa.
The couple says Project Renewal gave them an opportunity to really impact on a little corner of Israel.
"We really loved working on it and made many trips to Tirat Carmel," says Sylvia. "When we first went there, many of the young men were not accepted for military service and the women had no ambitions for themselves. It was very depressed psychologically, economically and socially. We provided them with social empowerment, as well as donating to a variety of physical projects.
"The biggest sense of satisfaction was when we suddenly got a tourist brochure in the mail from the people of Tirat Carmel," she continues. "Suddenly, we knew that they had some sense of pride in their hometown."
Prior to Project Renewal, Diaspora communities had simply handed over donations to bodies such as the Jewish Agency for Israel. But Project Renewal was a way for the Diaspora to get its hands dirty in Israel, without having to make aliya.
Run jointly by the JAFI, communities from the Diaspora and the Israeli government until the early 1990s, Project Renewal has had a decades-long history of both successes and failures in rehabilitating low-income neighborhoods. But passed on in recent years to the Construction and Housing Ministry, the project has arguably lost sight of its founding goals - physical rehabilitation with a soul. And now some 70 neighborhoods that were once included in the program are finding themselves left out in the cold.
AFTER THE picturesque, village-like setting of Jerusalem's Ein Kerem, the eroding high-rises of Rehov Brazil and Rehov Olswanger - overlooking the capital's western approach - are a shocking concrete eyesore.
Built in the 1960s, these eight-story buildings in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood run four floors down the mountainside and four floors upward, with a bridged walkway linking them to the street. With a total of 620 apartments, they have become a mecca of sorts for families which cannot afford housing in any other neighborhood.
"The buildings are in a terrible state," begins Shlomo "Soli" Cohen, volunteer head of the steering committee for the neighborhood, as he shows me around the cul-de-sac on a stormy day last month. "In winter, the apartments are freezing and they all suffer from condensation; in the summer, there is no air-conditioning, it gets boiling inside."
Cohen, a divorced father of two, bought his apartment seven years ago. He says Brazil-Olswanger is a breeding ground of crime and poverty. "I've had two cars stolen," he states, adding that more than one-third of the families here have open files with the social welfare services. "Many of the residents are elderly Russian immigrants and Ethiopian families.
"Now the city is talking about closing the school because only nine children signed up for first grade. That means our children will have to travel down the hill to Ein Kerem for school," he continues. "They even said they might replace the school with a special-needs one, but we already have the Alyn Hospital [a rehabilitation center for physically disabled children] here, why do we need another institute for special-needs people? In the end, everything here will end up being special needs.
"We need to tear these buildings down and rebuild them," explains Cohen, pointing to the land around the cluster of buildings that he says was promised to the residents to begin the rebuilding process. "The aim should be to bring in younger families that can afford to pay a higher city tax."
He says that many of those who bought property in the project were promised that one day soon it would all be rebuilt. "The government promised 40 dunams [10 acres] and NIS 40 million for this project," he says.
That promise was broken recently, says Cohen, when the ministry announced plans to downsize its physical renovation program, known as Project Renewal, and focus the budget on 30 communities whose situation is much worse than Brazil-Olswanger
The basis for choosing the new Project Renewal neighborhoods is a scale set by the Central Bureau of Statistics, he says. Because more affluent streets surround Brazil-Olswanger, its socio-economic status according to the CBS scale was bumped up, he argues as he shows me Rehov Shmaryahu Levin, the continuation of his road. Neat villas are set in their own manicured gardens, oblivious to the hardships faced by their neighbors.
Cohen says that he has tried to contact Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit to explain that his neighborhood is unique and is still in need of government intervention, but so far his efforts have been unfruitful.
"The minister refuses to meet with me," he says sadly. "As far as I know, he did not even go out and see the neighborhood for himself. If he had, he surely would not have excluded us from the project."
While Ariella Ravdel-Nedkov, director of the ministry's Social Welfare Department, agrees that perhaps leaving the area out of the reformed Project Renewal was a mistake, she defends the latest changes to the 30-year-old program of physical and social rehabilitation for the country's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
"It was meant to be a short-term program, with the government subsidizing physical improvements and then moving on to other areas," she says. "There were some neighborhoods, however, that never seemed to get out of the program. The aim now is to focus on the weakest of these areas, put money into them for the next five years and help them move on."
But Brazil-Olswanger's Cohen hits back angrily: "We've seen the new proposals by the ministry. They just want to placate us, to add a few rooms onto the buildings and paint the outside; they will not deal with the problems on the inside. It's just something to keep the people happy for a few years. It is only cosmetic changes. The problems here will still exist."
And while Ravdel-Nedkov points out that most of the social programs funded by Project Renewal will continue, Cohen says: "You can't separate the physical and social elements here; the government can't fix the social problems without fixing the physical ones too."
ORIGINALLY, SAYS Ardie Geldman, a former Chicago Federation employee who oversaw the Israel end of his community's donations to Project Renewal between 1982 and 1990, "Project Renewal opened a crack for donors to play a more hands-on role in the projects they were supporting in Israel and it marked a change in the relationship between the Jewish Agency and the Diaspora."
Each Jewish community was twinned with a neighborhood.
"Project Renewal saw the establishment of neighborhood councils, which included the participation of residents, municipal workers, Jewish Agency representatives and government officials," recalls Geldman, whose community was initially twinned with the Amishav neighborhood in Petah Tikva and later with Ramat Eshkol in Lod. "We would all meet once a week in a neighborhood household, and residents would have a say in what improvements were needed to the neighborhoods. That was the innovation of Project Renewal.
"Americans who visited on a mission would go into the homes of these residents, have dinner with them and ask them about their lives. The programs on Project Renewal were very people orientated."
But Sylvia and Sid Busis believe that just as they were starting to facilitate changes in the community and establish strong personal ties, the Jewish Agency and the Diaspora communities decided to phase out Project Renewal and launch a new Israel campaign.
"Suddenly, we were told that we had a new project," says Sylvia. "We were getting there but we had not quite made it."
"Communities were encouraged to move their money to Partnership 2000 in the early 1990s," confirms Paula Edelstein, co-chair of the Israel committee for the Jewish Agency. "Small sums continued to be invested in Project Renewal but the idea was that the Israeli government was meant to continue funding it.
"We can't continue with a project for too long. We don't want to be doing what the government of Israel should be doing. We want to set it up and then pass it over."
Edelstein says that the reasons for moving on from Project Renewal were purely internal within each community.
"World Jewry decided to get out of it in order to strengthen its own fund-raising campaigns," she says. "Most campaigns have a shelf life of about 10 years; Jewish communities need to move on and look for new participants and new donors."
Stephen Donshik, director of the Israel Office of the UJA-Federation of New York, agrees with Edelstein. He believes that the shelf life of campaigns is only between four and five years.
"The UJCNY invested $25 million in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv and $15 million in its Renewal neighborhood in Ramle," he says. "We completed both projects and moved on. Project Renewal facilitated the investment and involvement of the Diaspora communities in Israel, but once we'd completed these projects, we had no real interest in maintaining the campaign."
While Project Renewal saw Jewish communities acting as a wealthy sponsor for underprivileged neighborhoods, global Jewry's follow-on campaign was designed to rebalance that relationship and make it into a "partnership."
"I finished working for the Chicago federation just when Partnership 2000 was launched," says Geldman. "Partnership was not just rich donors giving and poor Israelis taking. It was a deepening of the relationship, with a focus on developing commerce."
WHILE the Diaspora community moved on to other projects, the government took over the full commitment of renovations and rehabilitations in areas that were still seen as slums.
"Project Renewal was always a government project," claims the Construction and Housing Ministry's Ravdel-Nedkov, who has been responsible for Project Renewal over the past several years.
"We oversee a social budget that aims to develop welfare and educational programs for the communities and provide a physical fund to help to fix up the buildings and neighborhoods in general," she says, adding that over the last 12 years many of the original communities have left the project, while other areas joined.
In terms of the recent controversial changes, Ravdel-Nedkov says that it became apparent that some neighborhoods were not benefiting from the program, mainly because the budget had been drastically cut over the years from NIS 460m. in the early 1980s, when Diaspora communities made their full contributions to the project, to NIS 160m. in the 1990s, to a mere NIS 18m. in 2006.
"We had a few choices: Either leave the program as it was with each area getting a tiny budget that would only allow it to repaint fences and plant a few trees, or make some real changes and refocus the money," says Hanan Shlein, Sheetrit's spokesman. "Each neighborhood was only getting a few million shekels. There were too many neighborhoods still caught in the cycle of Project Renewal just getting the money but never really moving forward."
But just as some lower-income communities are up in arms about the changes and fear that they will never be able to break the cycle of poverty without government intervention, so too are social activists who claim that leaving these places out only further weakens them.
"Places such as Wadi Nisnas in Haifa and Shlomi, a development town in the North, have been left off the list," says Ronit Heyd, head of the social justice department at Shatil, the organization for social empowerment, which this week brought together the 67 disenfranchised neighborhoods to begin the fight against the government's decision to refocus Project Renewal on a handful of areas. "It only ends up leaving people in a poverty cycle."
Furthermore, she says, "The cuts made were never discussed with professionals working in the field or with the residents who live in the neighborhoods. They did not check with the people on the ground. The Jewish world made such an investment in this project and now the government has destroyed it."
Shlein argues, however, that "in 2003, no neighborhood got out of the program. Now we can refocus the money on the worst of the worst neighborhoods and help them improve. Besides, the minister has new ideas for the neighborhoods left out of the reformed Project Renewal.
"Sheetrit asked the government to invest more money in this project but that request was denied. He could have just left the program as it was, but this way we will hopefully be able to help the neighborhoods that remain in the project."
WITH SOCIALLY focused programs such as Project Renewal failing to capture enough government funding and Partnership 2000 running since the mid-1990s, maybe it's time for the Diaspora to put its financial focus on a more paternal level like it did in the 1980s?
"There is an unequal distribution of wealth in Israel," comments Geldman. "But while it is clear that the government has to create a comprehensive program of reform, it would still be good for Diaspora Jewry to get involved again in social welfare issues."
But Donshik disagrees, saying, "I don't believe that it is the responsibility of the Diaspora to tackle Israel's poverty problem. That is a challenge for the Israeli government. Project Renewal did not deal so much with poverty but more with empowerment."
Prof. Eliezer Jaffe, founder of the Hebrew University School of Social Work and author of Giving Wisely, a comprehensive list of non-profits in Israel, who advised the Jewish Agency to set up the twinning mechanism of Project Renewal back when it was first drafted, says that even when the program first went public there were cynics who said rehabilitation and renovation of Israel's impoverished slums was the responsibility of the Diaspora.
"They were wrong back then and they are wrong now," he says. "American donors have always wanted to feel as though Israelis were doing their share of the hard work and they always were. It was never a one-way street."
"One of the main facets of Project Renewal was that it gave the Diaspora a meaningful way to become involved in Israel," concurs Geldman. "It made them feel important back in a time when Israel was heroic and very needy. This type of program was good for the Jews all around."