Mall owners partner with local businesses in philanthropic push for Ethiopian youth

BIG Shopping Center owner: "Many in Isreal are doing very well and there's no reason why they wouldn't want to give back to the community."

With Jewish philanthropic organizations suffering a loss of international donations due to the falling dollar, the owners of an Israeli shopping mall chain have turned to the local market and initiated a program of giving among its high-profile chain store tenants. SuperPharm, Fox, Gali, Pelephone, Café Aroma, Optica Halperin and clothing chain H&O are just a few of the big-name stores that have contributed more than NIS 480,000 to a comprehensive educational program in Beit Shemesh run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and aimed at helping Ethiopian-Israeli pre-schoolers and their families. The fundraising initiative is the brainchild of BIG Shopping Center owners Yehuda and Liz Naftali, who, working hand-in-hand with the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, put up NIS 300,000 of the overall donation. "It is very important for American donors to see that Israelis are also participating in projects and that it is not just them [the Americans] who are taking care of things here," said Liz Naftali, who together with her husband and five children divides her time between Herzliya Pituah and Los Angeles. "Israelis are very generous people and good at giving, they just need the opportunity to give and know that their money is going directly to a specific cause." She continued: "There are many businesses and individuals in Israel that are doing very well [financially] and there is no reason why they would not want to give back to the community." The Naftalis hosted a special ceremony Tuesday to pay tribute to the businesses in their Beit Shemesh shopping center, which opened six years ago and is one of 11 other BIG Shopping Centers countrywide. "Most donors do not expect anything in return for what they give; however, it is very important to show that their efforts are appreciated," noted Naftali, who grew up in a "philanthropic family." The JDC program supported by BIG's efforts is called PACT (Parents and Children Together) and it provides assistance to Ethiopian-Israeli parents who, due to language and cultural barriers, often struggle to navigate Israel's educational and health systems and are unable to offer their children essential support. The program is currently run in 14 other locations countrywide. In Beit Shemesh, PACT is now in its second year and provides services to some 210 Ethiopian immigrant children between the ages of 0-6. Eighty percent of the 600 Ethiopian-Israeli families in Beit Shemesh are under the care of the local welfare offices. "These are exactly the people who shop in our centers and this is a chance for shop owners to say thank you to them for supporting their stores," said Naftali, adding that most of the stores did not hesitate to join the project. While this is not the first philanthropic project initiated by the BIG shopping centers, Naftali said that it is by far their largest endeavor. "For such a pioneering venture, I believe that we did very well," said Naftali, who believes that the key to increasing local fundraising lies in "raising future generations of givers." "It is something fairly new to Israel but I believe that we are planting a seed and in the future more Israelis will join in," she finished.