Amid threats of imminent closure, Anglos of the South have joined together to save what's left of their branch of AACI.
By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
A firestorm of opposition broke out when the Beersheba office of AACI was threatened with closure. Anglos from all over Israel's South stepped up to protest, and have now pledged themselves to totally rejuvenate the organization, hoping to save the cultural icon many had taken for granted.
In early February, the Jerusalem National Office of AACI - Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel - announced that due to current and anticipated economic conditions, they were forced to "streamline" their operations, which necessitated, among other staff cuts, terminating the employment of AACI Beersheba Counselor Miriam Green. "Like any other third-sector organization, we are looking towards the future and trying to make sure we survive this [economic] situation," AACI Executive Director David London said at the time, adding that the organization was forced to take a number of steps in an attempt to save money.
For the last eight years, Green has been the only AACI employee in the Beersheba office, and has borne responsibility for the entire South of Israel, Kiryat Gat to Eilat.
"I was stunned when I first heard it," said Reesa Stone, an AACI life member who joined the organization in 1985 shortly after making aliya from Winnipeg, Canada. "It didn't seem possible. When we arrived here, AACI in Beersheba had a staff of five people plus a part-timer. Gradually they whittled that down to just one part-time person, Miriam, who was paid for only part-time work, 12 hours a week, although she obviously worked more than that. The whole thing came at a bad time. Operation Cast Lead was just over and I remembered how hard Miriam had worked, how much time she'd spent with some of the newcomers, helping them deal with this new reality. She'd even brought in a musical entertainer one evening to give us all a little break. And now they're eliminating her position entirely? It just wasn't right.
"I sent an e-mail to the local Anglobeersheba community Internet forum. All I said was, 'It has come to my attention that the AACI counselor position in Beersheba is being terminated. If anyone disagrees with this decision, please contact me.' I was inundated. Within two days, more than 60 people had contacted me, and everyone was furious. Most of us weren't willing to just accept the National Board's decision, so an ad hoc group of us began discussing things we could do to try to save AACI in the South. The first thing we did was to start a letter writing campaign to the National Office. Ultimately, 75 letters of protest were mailed in, all of them demanding the reversal of their decision."
In fact, the whole English-speaking community - not just former Canadians and Americans - was seething. A delegation was put together to go to Jerusalem to attend the next National Board meeting. The idea was to protest, or, as one attendee said, "at least to present a sour face." When nothing much came of that session, a temporary "provisional" Beersheba committee was convened and started meeting once a week to plot a strategy for overturning the unacceptable decision.
As a mostly-volunteer cultural association, AACI has played an active role in Anglo life in Israel since 1951. Although the services and activities it offers vary among the several locations, AACI's primary function is to offer immigrant advice as well as social and cultural opportunities to English-speaking immigrants. Over 40,000 member families throughout Israel belong to AACI, but in the South, as local members insist, AACI plays a uniquely critical role. In the South, English speakers constitute a tiny minority of the general population, and therefore lack the broad base of support English speakers enjoy in other parts of the country. In Beersheba, a city of 200,000, native English speakers comprise only 1.5 - 2 percent of the population. Of that, AACI statistics show that about 750 families prepaid lifetime dues to AACI, entitling them to lifelong access to all the benefits the organization offers, everything from emergency loans to vocational and crisis counseling, reduced prices on various cultural events and discounted travel rates booked through a supportive travel agency.
But to most Beershebites, AACI means much more than just discounts and paper benefits. "I thought about all of us in this community who owed our jobs to Miriam," Stone says. "She maintained lists of local employers who were hiring, and many of us found work through her. She and her husband Jeff invite almost every newcomer to Beersheba to their home for a Shabbat dinner, and are made to feel a part of the community from the day they arrive. For many new immigrants, their social lives in Israel began at Miriam's Shabbat table. But even before that, for people who were just thinking about aliya, still outside the country, Miriam was there for them, too. Many ended up moving to Beersheba because she'd provided them with the information and contacts they needed."
Dov Victor, a relative newcomer to AACI, saw other benefits. "I made aliya from Montreal in 1978, lived on a kibbutz for several years, then went back," he says. "I returned to Israel 14 years ago, and made a few trips to the AACI library for English-language books, and stopped a few times at Miriam's office for one thing or another. It didn't take long for me to realize how critically important AACI is in the South compared to anywhere else. Obviously, several different organizations provide aliya help to potential new immigrants, but no one else is encouraging aliya specifically to the Negev. That matters to me. All communities need to grow and prosper, and if we Anglos in the Negev want newcomers to consider joining us here, someone has to reach out to them, to help and encourage them. That's what Miriam was doing.
"Life in the Negev is different in another way, too," Victor says. "When English-speaking people make aliya to Jerusalem or Beit Shemesh, if they have a problem understanding what's happening at the bank or government office, they can almost always turn to someone else in line. Most likely there's another English speaker who can help. That's not how it is down here. There aren't that many Anglos. So if a newcomer doesn't have any backup support from an English-speaking community organization, getting frustrated and discouraged would be pretty easy."
It's not just newcomers who need community either, Victor insists. "For most of us, it's reassuring to have a cultural organization where you can meet other people in your situation, people who've been here longer or shorter but who have the same background, problems and experiences. It helps ease the transition to becoming Israeli. While all-volunteer organizations can provide that, in the South we'd become dependent on Miriam and AACI. Miriam spearheaded a lot of the cultural and community activities all of us olim took for granted."
As the community consensus built, specific plans to save the AACI office began to take shape. "We invited the officials of the Jerusalem National Office to come down here, to meet with us and discuss our situation. After the flurry of letters and emails they'd received, they agreed to come," Stone recalls. "During that meeting, we sensed that we'd made a little headway - if nothing else, they realized that closing our office wasn't going to be as easy as they'd thought. Basically, they gave us three months. 'Show us what you can do,' they said. 'Show us you're serious about raising some money to help cover the costs of keeping the office open. Show us that you can generate enough volunteers here to make AACI financially viable, and we'll renew the contract for a year.' So that was the goal."
The first major fundraiser the Provisional Committee agreed on was selling Purim cards. Everyone hit their e-mail lists, and notices were sent imploring Anglos to 'Raise Money for AACI and Reduce Calories!' Local artist Ruth Gresser donated her artwork for the cards, which were designed to be sent in lieu of mishloah manot. Over and over, the cards - at NIS 180 for 20 - sold out and were reprinted. All bore the message: "All proceeds will be earmarked for planned future programming and other activities to help facilitate the absorption of new olim to our region, as well as to continue service to long-time Anglo residents of the South."
Again, the community response was overwhelming - over 800 cards were sold, which meant the Provisional Committee had a significant start on fundraising.
Still, the decree from the National Office needed to be changed, and Shushan Purim seemed as good a time as any to tackle that. "We announced we were holding a big Purim Extravaganza and organizational meeting," Stone said. "It would be a party, a social event, but we'd also use it to seek support in terms of donations, volunteers and ideas."
Stone sent a memo to potential supporters: "The ball is in our court," she wrote. "If development of the South is important to you, if you feel that aliya and klita (absorption) are essential to that development, and if you want to belong to a caring, helping, and friendly community, your place is with us at the AACI. Please join us to help rejuvenate the South."
On a cold March night, 60-plus people turned out for the organizing event. They were welcomed by Dovid Lev, who told them he'd been an active member of AACI for 56 years, and was still "trying to decide if he'd stay in Israel or not." After performances by Indian dancing girls and a gymnastic soul singer from Dimona, the business session began. A tripartite volunteer presidency was approved, composed of Stone, who'd served as chair of the Provisional Committee, together with Elizabeth Homans and Ahuvah Mitbach, both of whom had been long-time AACI activists. In all, 14 people volunteered to serve on the new Southern Regional Council whose primary task was to rejuvenate AACI in the South.
"I came away from that meeting completely energized by all the fun and the spirit of volunteerism," Green said. "The best aspect of this whole roller coaster ride has been seeing all the wonderful people there are here, with everyone willing to help."
Plans for new events poured forth from all corners. "Every year, for Pessah and Succot, AACI in Jerusalem has offered organized walking tours," Green said. "This year we're going to create one or two similar tours of our own here in the South. They'll be either walking tours or bus tours, but we're hoping to attract not just our own residents, but people from other parts of the country, too."
A membership drive is underway, as are plans for such exotic fare as a Gourmet Club, whose members will meet at various restaurants. Cultural evenings, or social evenings with entertainers are another fundraising possibility, as is producing a line of AACI greeting cards for other holidays.
One special concern is outreach to the whole Negev. "Most of the new Council members live in or near Beersheba," Green notes. "But connecting with other communities in the South is important. We're looking for a way to meet with representatives from Ashkelon, Yeroham, Eilat, Arad, Dimona and other communities to at least discuss matters of common interest."
All of the new community support efforts will be handled by volunteers, Reesa Stone says. "Miriam Green is our counselor, and will still work only half-time. She can't possibly be responsible for raising money, too, nor can she supervise all the various activities. So if we're going to succeed, we need to count on the whole Anglo community."
Stone sees the matter as one of rational self-interest. "The question isn't so much what can AACI do for us individually, especially those of us who've lived in Israel for a while. We enjoy the social activities and the library, of course. But our real objective has to be to encourage aliya to the Negev. The South has so much potential, and now that aliya is up again, we need to grow. We can only do that by showing prospective olim that there's a vibrant community here, that we need them here and want them here."
The Committee's initial efforts at rejuvenation appear to have been successful. Over a third of the cash needed has been raised. Now, keeping everyone focused has become the issue.
Etheleah Katzenell, a steadfast AACI volunteer for 37 years, spoke philosophically about volunteer projects. "The basic nature of all volunteer work, for any organization, is that at the beginning, spirits and energy run high, and goals are met with gusto. The problem is, as time passes, people run out of steam. It's inevitable. No one can keep up that level of activity and commitment over a long period of time - especially not when we all have to spend so much energy just trying to live here, ourselves. That's why we've got to keep the regional office open. We need that focus to keep the volunteers inspired."
Victor agrees. "We know it won't be easy. We're more remote from the rest of the country down here. We're smaller. We have to fight harder for whatever we have, in every aspect of our lives. That's why the threat of closing our AACI office set off such a firestorm of opposition. Closure represented a real danger that the already-small number of Anglos would shrink even further. We can't let that happen. We have to keep pushing for our AACI office so we can maintain and grow. There just aren't any other alternatives."
For more information, contact the AACI Southern Branch office in Beersheba, (08) 643-3953 or email@example.com.
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