Not on my watch: IFCJ coordinator Shira Gergi’s battle to help society

One of Gergi’s latest projects was opening up a club in Kiryat Shmona for extracurricular activities for schoolchildren.

 International Fellowship of Christians and Jews’ coordinator Shira Gergi (photo credit: FACEBOOK)
International Fellowship of Christians and Jews’ coordinator Shira Gergi
(photo credit: FACEBOOK)
More than half a year ago, Shira Gergi had a life-changing experience. The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews’ coordinator of the “With Dignity and Fellowship” program in Safed and Kiryat Shmona was working too hard. Driving back and forth from the two northern cities in the Holy Land, caring for hundreds of elderly citizens, taking care of youth at-risk and helping out anybody and everybody that came her way, and all the while raising her four children and managing her household – it was just too much.
Finally, Gergi had a heart attack. A significant one. She needed to have a cardiac catheterization procedure done. So it was then that she decided that she needed a change in her life. She knew that if she wanted to be in full control of her life, that it was now or never. So she started working even harder than she did before.
As the 46-year-old left the hospital she received an irrefutable sign. A man, who recognized her, but she didn’t recognize him, approached her. “Your name is Shira, right? But Shira isn’t your real name is it? You changed it.” Gergi was taken aback. All what the man had said was true. Gergi had changed her name after having a troubled youth, wanting to start over again. “Do you know what your name means?” Gergi answered back in confidence. She hadn’t randomly picked a new identity. Shira means song, praise – calling out to God to let him know how wonderful he is – the word that appears in the Bible for the first time after Moses splits the Sea of Reeds and he and the Israelites break out in song, saying “Who is like unto thee, O Lord... who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” “This is the name that I chose,” Gergi told him. The man wasn’t impressed. While, undeniably, that’s the simple meaning of the name Shira, there’s a deeper meaning to the name. When the letters are put in a different order it means God’s minister, his angel. “You can’t stop helping people.” Ever since the heart attack and that incident, Gergi says, there’s a new significance to what she’s doing. “Today, I’m really trying harder, and being part of the IFCJ is an amazing opportunity because it helps me fulfill this mission that I have.”
Hearing from those who work with her and from those who receive assistance from her, and reading about the list of things that she has done and accomplished in the past half-year, it is so obvious that she has gone from being great to even better. Those who work with have called her “an amazing woman,” and “someone who does above beyond trying to make good things happen.” In our conversation, she mentions the phrase “not on my watch” countless times. As long as Shira Gergi is alive and kicking, she will find a solution to every problem that comes her way. For Gergi, her work is never done. Her mission isn’t over yet.
The mother of four, who was born in Kiryat Ata, a suburb of the northern coastal city Haifa, grew up in a home that she says “doesn’t deserve the definition of being called a home.” With no options left, Gergi moved out of her family’s apartment when she was 16 years old. She was careful enough to keep enough control over my life, staying away from the black holes of prostitution and drugs, but life wasn’t easy. While she could shower in the Mediterranean Sea, and find places to crash for the night, the thought of if there will be food tomorrow or not, and how to get the hygiene products that every teenage girl needs, is not easily solved for someone who has left home.
After leaving her home, though, Gergi was determined to make something for herself. Working and going to classes, she graduated high school, completed her two years of obligatory national service and enrolled in university, earning a degree in hotel management.
But Gergi’s path as a youth drew her to a different type of future – to organizations devoting to finding the good in herself and in others, and bringing that goodness to those who need it most. Searching for the proper opportunity to do just that, she found a calling as a lecturer and coacher at the Michael Project. The innovative Michael Method is meant to develop and realize an individual’s emotional, intellectual and behavioral potential. Students learn to use effective tools and principles allowing them to actualize their innate talents more efficiently and develop dramatic improvements in their educational and personal achievements. The method is based on the firm belief that every human being can excel in every field they choose. To instill excellence as a way of life, students must be taught to believe in their own capabilities and to understand the significance of personal responsibility, independent thinking and a craving for knowledge. In Israel, the Michael Method is implemented in junior and high schools in all sectors of the country’s educational system.
“Everyone has a potential for greatness. Maybe not everybody is suited to be accepted into university, but they are suited for something else in life where they can excel, where they can reach the highest spots, to flourish, to achieve their goals.”
During the period when she was leaving her house, one of her aunts came to visit and told her that it doesn’t matter what other people think. All that matters is that you have to keep telling yourself that you love yourself and you deserve the best.
“This slogan is written all over the place in my house,” Gergi says, on little sticky notes on her fridge, her doors, her mirrors, practically everywhere. This is how she lives her life, and as a result, it has also become how her family lives their lives. The family has even incorporated this motto into the Shema bedtime prayers, supplications asking God for a peaceful night, which she says together with her children before they go to sleep. “This has accompanied me the whole way – it’s a very powerful statement for me.”
And with the complete support of her husband and four children, she’s determined to make sure that no one else has to experience what she did. Her dream is to run a house for teenage girls where they would be able to get out of the difficult situation they’re in, fulfill their potential and ultimately become contributors to society instead of dependents.
“We need to provide a proper response for these girls so they won’t get to these types of situations. So the street isn’t even an option. We’ll have helped way before they’re even thinking of that.
“I didn’t give up on myself. Every child just needs someone to believe in him or her... I want to give teenage girls an opening like this in their life – to give food, clothes, a warm bed. I don’t really think about it, but I guess this interview has made me more aware of why I do the things that I do. Right now I have a car full of hygiene products for teenage girls. It all starts from your own private experiences.”
One of Gergi’s latest projects was opening up a club in Kiryat Shmona for extracurricular activities for schoolchildren. All the activities are free, and the only condition to participate is that the children first to have to finish all of their schoolwork. When community members ask her about why it’s free and why not even charge a minimal fee, Gergi says that she knows that even a small amount of money can stand in the way of a child growing up on the right foot. A young girl in the city would go to a Zumba dance fitness course, sneaking in and each time telling the instructor that she’ll pay the fee – only NIS 10 ($2.5) – the next time she comes. “And people look at her mother and say what’s NIS 10 for her. She’s always at the hairdresser, or getting pedicures and manicures. Yes, her mother has things mixed up. She’s decided that the girl can do without a Zumba class. You take a look at another girl’s father and you see him smoking [expensive] Marlboro cigarettes and drinking the finest Chivas whiskey. ‘She’ll make do,’ the father says. But what’s going to happen when this girl grows up. ‘She’ll make do on the street.’ This is not going to happen on my watch, not on my shift.”
Making the connection with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has been one of the greatest things to happen to Gergi’s life. Through the organization, she is able to fulfill her lifelong mission of helping people, expanding her mission to other parts of society, all the while being supported by a foundation that has the exact same objectives. “The work dressed itself up as my life.”
The Hebrew word for The Fellowship is keren, which means foundation or fund. But the word has a lot more significance than that, Gergi says. “Keren” is also the word to describe a ray or beam, as in a ray of light. When Moses comes down from Mount Sinai in Exodus 34, he is not aware that his face is beaming, and the Hebrew Bible uses the word “karan” (which has the exact same letters as keren, with a different set of niqqud pronunciation vowels) to describe that shining of light. “The IFCJ is a type of lighthouse,” Gergi says. “I don’t think it’s possible to describe to the donors how significant each and every dollar is that they give. it just means so much. If I could, I would fly to the US right now and thank each and every one of them individually.”
Now, Gergi has been able to help out almost 600 elderly citizens in Kiryat Shmona and Safed. At the organization for two years now, Gergi is in contact with the seniors on a monthly basis as part of the IFCJ’s With Dignity and Fellowship” program. They receive food vouchers or food baskets delivered to their home, as well as additional funds to their monthly government stipends. “These citizens are used to choosing between medicine or food, or between heating, or going to visit their children. With the IFCJ’s help, these deliberations are over. You don’t have to hear anymore in the pharmacy where people can’t afford all their medicine. ‘Don’t give me that medicine, I don’t need that for my blood pressure.’ Or ‘I’ll manage without my cholesterol pills.’ How can you keep on living when these types of things are happening around you?” At the end of the day, though, there is only so much the IFCJ and Gergi can accomplish. There are so many problems that need to be solved, which is why she calls upon the People of Israel to help her and the organization out. A few months ago, Gergi received a Facebook memory from a project she organized in the southern city Kiryat Gat a year ago. She had let her friends and colleagues know of an elder living in an old and completely decrepit house. She raised the funds and took the man to stay at a nearby hotel for a few days. In the meantime they completely renovated his house. When he came back, he was overjoyed but the renovators noticed that he was having trouble with the stairs. So, once again, Gergi set out to raise the funds and organize a ramp for him, which was built shortly after. “Unity is our strength,” she says. “There are very good people in this country. They just need someone to tell them what they need to do.”
Recently, someone’s house in Kiryat Shmona burned down and they were left with nothing. “I started uploading statuses on Facebook and sending out WhatsApp messages, making some calls, and we were able to help them out. The seven kids received knapsacks for school with all the equipment they needed inside. They got coats and shoes and clothes, and we raised money for the family.”
Gergi wrote about a Rosh Hashana experience she organized in Safed for senior citizens just a few months ago. Together with The Fellowship’s With Dignity and Fellowship program and the local community, she enrolled schoolchildren to help decorate the hall where the meal was going to take place. First-graders made personal holiday cards and displayed them on each plate. The soup kitchen in the city, also run by the IFCJ, provided the meal – at no cost and in great abundance. But for Gergi, this was more than just providing a hot meal for residents of Safed.
“I want to share one sentence from an elderly woman who attended the meal. This justified all the effort that went into the event – even the work until 4:30 p.m. on the eve of the holiday,” she wrote “‘During the Holocaust, we were not allowed to be Jews. In Russia, with the Communists, we forgot that we were Jews. After that, the Russians reminded us that we were ‘dirty Jews.’ In Israel, we’re all considered Russians. This is the first time I’ve been invited to celebrate the holiday. This is the first time I’ve had someone with whom to celebrate.’ For me, this sentence summarizes the entire reason I’m here.”
In the June 2013 elections for the Safed City Council, as if she had nothing else to do with her precious time, Gergi presented her candidacy. But unlike a typical politician, Gergi wasn’t interested at all in all the fringe benefits of being on a prestigious council. She only had one goal in mind – to help out as many people as she could. “I wanted to be in a place where I could influence,” she says. “I wanted to take what I’m doing for individuals, and instead do it for the masses.” Gergi was on track to win a seat, but was disqualified through a residency loophole that had prevented her from being eligible. She built a succa (tabernacle) for the elderly community in Kiryat Shmona for them to finally have the privilege of enjoying the holiday of Succot. She arranged to buy a tombstone and send meals over to a family in need during its mourning period over the loss of a mother. She gives out proper hygiene equipment to girls who, without it, wouldn’t be able to go to school. And the list goes on and on. And all these are just the projects of recent memory. “I do what’s more than in the job description,” she says. “If somebody or something makes its way to me, it’s a sign that I need to take care of it. It doesn’t matter if it’s written in the job manual or not.”
And she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon, even with her physical trainer telling her that she needs to slow down. “But I won’t, not when the reality hurts so much. I’m addicted to this [helping out people].”
Gergi admits that her life seems surreal, and the amount of help that God has enabled her to perform seems supernatural. But in reality, she knows the greatest gift that God continues to give her is the strength to keep working hard. “It sounds like I’m some sort of Don Quixote or fairy, as one of my daughters says, but I don’t think of it that way. I’m just someone who thinks that as long as you are able to help others, you have to do the most that you can,” she says. “I found my calling. As long as I’m here I won’t let this situation continue.”