Making something positive out of the war

Former birthright students help out in the North, plan charity to boost Rambam hospital.

daphna zilber 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
daphna zilber 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
Maya Zachodin, who attends Manhattan's Baruch College, and Daphna Zilber, who studies at the University of Buffalo, have had a summer vacation they will not forget in a hurry. Both came intending to work as counselors on Oranim Taglit-birthright israel's tours and found themselves living in a war zone - Zachodin with her grandparents in Haifa, and Zilber with her family in Metulla. They told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday they intended to turn this negative experience into something positive. "I'm sure when I return home I will say to myself, 'Wait a second, this is not normal,'" said Zachodin, who turns 22 on Saturday. "It is kind of crazy, constant sirens going off and then hearing the booms of the rockets landing, but I seem to have gotten used to the situation." One of 12 young people to receive the Schusterman Foundation's 2006 Charlie Award, given to birthright alumni who have distinguished themselves working for causes in Israel or in the Jewish community abroad, Zachodin laid the groundwork for a charity that will raise funds for Haifa's Rambam Medical Center, the largest hospital in the North. "The aim is to raise $100 million for the hospital," said Zachodin, who sent letters and e-mails to foundations while she was confined to her grandparent's home by Hizbullah's Katyushas. "All the wounded soldiers and those injured in rocket attacks arrive at Rambam. The hospital is stretched to its limits financially paying salaries to keep all its workers going around the clock. While most hospitals have big donors, Rambam does not." Zachodin said she had persuaded those responsible for the Charlie Award - each $1,800 award must normally be split equally between an Israeli and a US charity - to allow her and the 11 other winners to donate the entire amount to the new Rambam Hospital charity. "It would be roughly $23,000, and now we just need to get organizations to match that," she said, adding that she had already contacted an Australian charity that was interested in contributing. Zilber's story is a little different. About to finish her degree in economics and Judaic Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, the 23-year-old actually grew up in Metulla and has experienced Katyusha rocket fire for most of her life. "I got one hour's sleep last night," Zilber said in a telephone interview, the stress in her voice clearly apparent. "I can't seem to shake the sounds of Katyushas, constant shelling and firing of tanks from my head today." "My family has been in Metulla for four generations and I grew up here, but I do not remember anything like this," she said. Her family left their home briefly last week but returned two days ago to care for their pets. "It's hard to be away from home for too long. We have a dog, a cat and a parrot. The dog is very scared. All the dogs here have developed a weird stain on their stomachs from all the stress." Zilber, who is vice-president of the Jewish Student Union at Buffalo, arrived on June 6 and was supposed to be a counselor. However, a few days later, Zilber was rushed to the hospital with a appendicitis and had to undergo surgery. Recovering with her family in the North, she hoped to salvage her vacation by enjoying the festivals held in the area every summer. That all changed when the fighting broke on July 12. "Every plan I had this summer got ruined," said Zilber, who found herself dodging mortar fire and rockets or hunkering down in underground bomb shelters. Now she spends her time sending mass e-mails and blogging her friends back in the US about life on the frontline. She also volunteers at Metulla's town hall. "I help with phone calls from distressed residents, distributing food and medicine to the elderly and helping to send younger children off to summer camps in Jerusalem," she said. As the time approaches for her to return to the US, Zilber said she had mixed feelings. "I am supposed to go back on August 21, but I don't know if I want to leave," she said. "How can I concentrate on my school work while I am worrying about my mother?" Zilber, however, said that she would be able to use her experiences from the past few weeks for hasbara, to tell Israel's side of the story. An active member of several Jewish advocacy groups, Zilber said, "The Muslim groups on campus bring anti-Israel and anti-Semitic speakers and Holocaust deniers all the time, and many people protest [against] Israel based on scattered information or because it is 'cool.' I will do whatever it takes to change that."