Facing Israel’s ‘Katrina’
Israel Correspondent

JERUSALEM — When northerners holed up in bomb shelters needed food during the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah, local municipalities contacted non-profit organizations, which in turn delivered the food at their own expense. Numerous other organizations and individuals delivered everything from medications and toys to the northerners, most of whom had fled to the hot, neglected shelters with little more than the clothes on their backs.

When it was time to evacuate the northerners to the center and south of the country, many of the buses were hired by the nonprofits. Once out of the war zone, the “refugees” found lodging either with ordinary Israeli families, who unselfishly opened their homes to the strangers, or received accommodations — often paid for by generous donors — at hotels, school dormitories and kibbutzim.

In one instance, a Russian-Israeli billionaire established a huge tent city for thousands of uprooted northerners on the Mediterranean coast.

The enormous amount of aid provided by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee was made possible through the generosity of diaspora Jews, who spearheaded emergency fundraising campaigns specifically aimed at the war effort.

While the war underscored what many have long feared — that the government is profoundly ill-equipped to deal with a large-scale crisis—it also highlighted the strength of Israel’s nonprofit sector and the generosity of its citizens—and world Jewry as a whole.

Due mostly to sweeping government budget cuts to various ministries during the past two decades, many local municipalities have become increasingly reliant on private and volunteer organizations to provide food, clothing and school bags to the poor, and eyeglasses and dental care to the elderly.

While this patchwork of non-governmental social services has worked remarkably well during peacetime (or what ordinarily passes for peace in Israel), the charitable sector found itself doubly burdened during the war, when 1.5 million citizens found themselves utterly dependent on others.

The government lacked the ability to deliver emergency wartime services.

“We faced the same type of governmental crisis during the war that Americans experienced during Katrina,” says Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of public policy for the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), one of the nonprofits that helped fill the void.

“In general,” Kariv says, “the government failed to deal with the civilian outcomes of the war in the north. In most cases, the government was unable to reorganize itself, its institutions, its facilities, and this created a disturbing vacuum that was partially filled by the activities of the NGOs [non-governmental organizations].”

A report by the organization Social Workers for Peace reveals just how makeshift the assistance was, and how dependent the civilians became on the generosity of others.

As reported by Haaretz, three Israeli Arab villages being pummeled by rockets were forced to rely on food packages from the Super-Sol supermarket chain, the Meir Panim network of food kitchens, Keren Yedidut (another non-profit), the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and the municipality of Savyon, a wealthy suburb.

At one point during the war, the Jerusalem municipality — the poorest Jewish city in Israel — sent a convoy of aid to northern communities.

Following appeals from the government and anxious e-mails from northerners, 50 percent of Israelis donated money, goods or accommodations to people in the war zone, according to a poll by the Israel Center for Third Sector Research at Ben-Gurion University.

With funding and other assistance from Reform Jews in North America and Israel, IRAC provided more humanitarian aid than it thought humanly possible.

“We found ourselves providing food packages, toys, children’s activity kits, hygienic products, adult and infant diapers, baby food,” Kariv says. “This alone cost $100,000, and we bought the items wholesale.”

When Reform Jews took it upon themselves as a community to host more than 1,000 northerners, they also needed to hire the 20-plus buses required to transport them.

“In the early days of the war, the public transport up north wasn’t working,” Kariv explains.

IRAC also established a hotline for people with special needs because “it’s much more complicated to find a [housing] solution if someone has a physical or mental disability. We worked closely with the Joint [Distribution Committee], the disabled organizations, and dealt with hundreds of cases.” Hadassah Somosi, the director of resource development at Ezer Mizion, says the war forced her humanitarian organization (whose mandate is assisting disabled and ill people and their families) “put a new twist” on the services it provides on a daily basis—a twist that cost half a million dollars.

“Our war effort focused on the refugees who were in the greatest need at the moment,” Somosi says. “We sent ambulances up north to evacuate the ill and elderly, matched families to host families, provided meals for the families being hosted. We rented four campuses to house 1,000 people. During the war we distributed 51,000 cooked meals and other services to displaced northerners and coordinated blood drives. All this in addition to our regular services around the country.” Somosi believes that the charitable sector performed above and beyond the call of duty.

“The nonprofits deserve a big salute, and I believe the people of Israel appreciate all we did for them, even though we wish we had the financial resources to do much more. When a parent of a special-needs child calls and says, I can’t keep my son in a bomb shelter, you have to help; when a woman with a newborn baby calls from the bomb shelter, crying, you have to get her out.”

Though proud of their work, many administrators of private and non-profit organizations say the government must take more responsibility for the wartime needs of citizens.

“It’s hard to believe, but during the war, the government failed to call up the home command,” says Eliezer Jaffe, an expert on Israeli non-profits and philanthropy. “Next time, the government will have to call up the home command, or I fear the consequences.”

If the war taught the country anything, Jaffe says, it is that the government must improve its contingency plans. “The number one problem was that the people who provide services year round were themselves evacuated or left on their own, leaving the fate of the weakest segment of society – those who couldn’t leave because they had nowhere to go – in the hands of a skeletal crew and people from outside. Either the government has to find a way to evacuate everyone, or to provide the necessary services.”

Although the war ended in mid-August, the war’s fallout continues, Jaffe says.

Referring to the free-loan society he established years ago, Jaffe says, “we’ve given out $2.5 million in loans to nearly 500 northern businesses during the past two months, and we have another $3 million in requests sitting on our desk,” he says gloomily, because he does not have the resources to loan out the additional funds.

“This should be a government response,” Jaffe says of the small business loans. “Not a nonprofit response.”