Secure hosts

Jerusalem and its surrounding neighborhoods have found themselves in an unlikely position and have responded generously

For once, Jerusalem is the place to be. These days, Jerusalem isn't only Israel's most holy city. For now, at least, it's Israel's safest city, too. "It is a good feeling for a Jerusalemite to give confidence to other citizens," says Leah Dekel-Greenblatt, a Jerusalem native hosting a family from the North. "Usually, Jerusalem is considered the most dangerous place to be and I am proud to think that reality is changing proportionally." Residents of northern cities are fleeing to Jerusalem by the hundreds and even thousands, eager to escape the dangers that threaten them at home. The municipality has been nearly inundated with requests for hosting - and with generous responses from Jerusalemites willing to open their homes. Operating in partnership with the Association of Community Centers and Councils, the municipality is attempting not only to host the citizens from the North, but to meet their requests and needs. Even before citizens of the North contacted the municipality asking to be hosted, just days after the violence escalated, citizens of Jerusalem and its surroundings called the municipality offering their hospitality. "At a time like this people understand the need to open up their homes," said Yuli Ben-Lavi, deputy director of the Association of Community Centers and Councils. Some 50 individuals in our offices are working on these efforts alone." Making the proper shiduch (match) is often very difficult, Ben-Lavi says. "We want to match the characteristics of the families so that everyone will be happy." Successful matching, he says, must take into account levels of religious observance, allergies, fear of pets and the ages of the children, in order to ease the adjustment. The numbers of citizens from the North guesting in Jerusalem changes every minute, Ben-Lavi says. "People are fickle, they change their mind, decide it's not for them or end up staying at a relative or hotel instead." As of the beginning of the week, some 1,350 families from the North had contacted the municipality, requesting hosting. "Most of our calls come through the '106' hot-line, and are in response to the advertisements on channels 2 and 10 and in the weekend newspapers," he explains. By mid-week, the municipality had made 390 matches between families, and there is still a waiting list. "The biggest problem for us is trying to find housing for the big families with many children," notes Ben-Lavi. "These are mostly the Orthodox families who do not want to split up. But people simply don't have enough room in their houses to host so many people." Ben-Lavi is particularly pleased that the match-and-host initiative is taking place in cooperation with Arab families, too. Several Arab families have come in from cities in the North, especially from Acre, and the municipality has been able to place them in homes in east Jerusalem. For Dekel-Greenblatt, the Jerusalem native, seeing the four-year-old guest in her house from Ma'alot brings back her own childhood memories of the Six Day War. "We were sealed off in a bomb shelter for about a week with bombs falling every few minutes," she recalls. "They were very near, falling on my playground and destroying my neighborhood. That was an experience I will never forget and I feel for the child." When the little boy first came to her house from Ma'alot, he seemed to feel uncomfortable, even traumatized. "His house was being bombed. Now, after being in my home for a couple of days, seeing that his parents are more relaxed, he has begun to act like a normal child," Dekel-Greenblatt says. "He has even become friendly with my dog." "Leaving Ma'alot was the best thing we could have done for our son," says Dekel-Greenblatt's guest, who asked to remain anonymous. "At first I thought it was going to be hard for him to readjust, but being at home, constantly hearing the 'boom, boom' noises and asking us what they are - I see that it is better for him to be in Jerusalem. He is more at peace here." When Alexa Neville, a resident of Givat Masua, first contacted the municipality, she was asked "what type of family" she would like to host. Being religious herself, she had an inner dilemma: should she only request a religious family? But she and her husband decided that "now is not the time to question what anyone does. It is important to be accepting of anyone who needs a place." They are hosting a family from Acre who, Neville says, "could not be more different from my own family. They are irreligious in every sense of the word. At the same time, they are lovely people and just the other night the four adults sat up until all hours of the night, just chatting." Asked about his experience living in the Neville's religious household with his wife and two-year old twin daughters, Peter Paul Shuman laughingly responds, "We had to learn a few things in order not to totally disrupt their household. Issues of kashrut, especially the separation between meat and milk, are things we are not used to." Adds Neville, "We had a good feeling about them as soon as we met them. We even let them stay in our house alone while we were away. You can't have people living in your house and not trust them completely." Gad Yardeni was willing to host any family in the basement of his Ramat Motza - as long as they are not afraid of dogs. "That was my only specification as well as that the family should have a car because our neighborhood is on the outskirts of Jerusalem," he says. "It breaks my heart to see these people having to move out of their homes, but at the same time I have a very good feeling inside that I am able to help out," Yardeni adds. A few common themes emerged among the hundreds of families hosting northerners. Most hosts seem to feel the same way and speak of their sense of duty to help the families from the North - a duty that overrides any personal discomfort. And while most hosts were quick to mention the "temporary status" of these arrangements, they also revealed that they have been unwilling to ask their guests to set a departure date. "It would seem insensitive to talk about them leaving while they watch on television their hometown being destroyed by Katyushas," says a host, who did not want to be identified. And anyway, she adds, "We all wish that the war will end soon." And another theme emerged, too. Jerusalemites feel proud. The hosts interviewed for this report spoke of their sense of gratitude that, "for once" they are not victims but are actually in a position to help out other Israelis.