The spirit of volunteerism

From umbrella organization Yisrael Beyahad to individual efforts, the war in the North forced Israeli generosity into the spotlight.

September 21, 2006 10:34
4 minute read.


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Notwithstanding the dark cloud following the war in Lebanon, one valiant ray of humanity did emerge - the basic good-heartedness and generosity of the people of Israel. There was hardly a sector of the population that was not engaged in one way or another in efforts to provide relief for communities in the North. Ad hoc groups sprouted overnight to organize collections and deliveries of food, games, books, television sets, computers, medications and more to bomb shelters. Additionally, busloads of entertainers boosted morale, including high-profile musician David Broza, who was just one of many Israeli entertainers who cancelled summer schedules to tour the multiple bomb shelters in their mission to bring cheer to as many people as possible on any given day. And the Yiddishpiel ensemble, realizing that many elderly people in shelters were Holocaust survivors who might be reliving past traumas, got them to join in community singsongs in Yiddish and Russian. The experiment was so successful that Yiddishpiel has decided to include community singing in its regular activities. Israelis are marvelous when it comes to volunteerism, says Dudi Zilbershlag, the founder, with his wife, Rivka, of Meir Panim, an organization that supplies food, clothing and used furniture to the needy. "There are many more volunteers in ratio to the overall population in Israel than there are in the United States," adds Zilbershlag who is also vice chairman of the National Council for Volunteerism, and who recently took over the chairmanship of ZAKA, the identification and rapid rescue motorcycle unit, to save it from bankruptcy. Meir Panim's national network has branches throughout the North, which enabled assessment of immediate needs. Zilbershlag quickly realized that other volunteer efforts would overwhelmingly be directed northwards, and without any coordinating umbrella, this could lead to chaos. When organizing aid for Tsunami victims two years ago, Zilbershlag had brought together several organizations dedicated to humanitarian objectives regardless of geography. Similarly, when he became involved with the Wisconsin program, he also worked with other organizations to provide training for the unemployed so that they would be better equipped to find jobs. "Through these two experiences, I realized the value of coalitions," says Zilbershlag. Thus, when war erupted, one of his first thoughts was to bring together a number of organizations with the aim of pooling resources and reducing duplication. But even before that, he needed money for food for the hungry. He contacted philanthropist Arkadi Gaydamak, who regardless of the millions that he shelled out for his tent city in Nitzanim, gave Zilbershlag NIS 1.5 m. Having worked in the past with Israel Discount Bank Chairman Nochi Dankner, Zilbershlag was certain that here too, he would find a helping hand. Dankner unhesitatingly gave him half a million shekels and immediately agreed to recruit companies within the IDB group. Zilbershlag also sounded Dankner out on putting together a coalition of social welfare organizations, emphasizing that they would have to be united under a generic name such as Yisrael Beyahad ("Israel Together"). Zilbershlag promptly called the Joint Distribution Committee, Natal (the Israel Trauma Center headed by Yehudit Yovel Recanati), Ruach Tova (headed by former MK Rafi Elul), Amidar, Table to Table and many other non-profit organizations. In the final analysis, the coalition numbered 62 organizations that worked together in an efficient division of labor. Zilbershlag was initially reluctant to deal with medications because there were so many of them and not all were available without prescriptions, but pharmaceutical companies were exceedingly generous in making medications and first-aid kits available free of charge. In addition, a group of 700 Jewish pharmacists in France who are running a pilot project in Israel to help out people who cannot afford expensive medications, diverted their efforts to the confrontation line. "We had 4,770 requests for medications, and ZAKA delivered them all," says Zilbershlag. It has to be remembered, notes Zilbershlag, that all the volunteer efforts in the North were taking place under threat of Katyushas and even while Katyushas were falling. In all, the umbrella organization, Yisrael Beyahad, working in coordination with the Prime Minister's Office, handled 226,000 requests for aid. Of these 7,600 were for food - in addition to the 6,700 hot meals per day that the coalition provided in the early days of the war. There were also 24,600 requests for hospitality for evacuees or would-be evacuees, but in this Yisrael Beyahad was less successful and found alternative accommodation for only 6,600 of the applicants. Most were in private homes in other parts of the country, but several hotels also provided rooms free of charge. The Novotel chain, for instance, donated 1,500 rooms. There were also organizations outside the coalition that helped with accommodation placements, and many families did it themselves by advertising on the Internet. What was truly amazing was the number of households that took in families large and small that they had never met before, as a result of which new friendships were made between both adults and children. Insofar as provisions were concerned, the business sector contributed an enormous variety of products ranging from air conditioners to mattresses, toys and games, food and other necessities. Some companies acted spontaneously. Others were contacted by Yisrael Beyahad. Looking at the whole picture, Zilbershlag says that this spirit of volunteerism was what should be remembered from the war. "It was something in which we can all take pride."

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