Friday, August 14, 2015

A Kiddush HaShem - Turning a Lemon into Lemonade

Reflections Ten Years Later 
Guest submission by Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon

Image from the Gush Katif evacuation
I was in favor of it. When foremer Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to give Gaza to the Palestinians and evacuate it’s Jewish residents, I agreed with his decision for a number of reasons. Mostly because I saw the same problem that Sharon saw: a demographic time bomb. If areas where Palestinians resided (Gaza and the West Bank) were retained and annexed by Israel, in very short order their explosive population growth would become the majority. In Israel where Israeli Arabs are full citizens which include voting rights, that was prescription for disaster. Israel – as a democratic Jewish state would be voted out of existence. 

Among many possible solutions, the only sensible one was giving the Palestinians their own state, separating them from the Jewish one. In that way Israel would ensure remaining a Jewish state, and not a Palestinian one. 

Another reason, and a very important one in my book, was to ‘throw down the gauntlet. They want a state and want to live in peace? And the entire world supported them on that... Fine. Let us give them a piece of land and see what they do with it. Without trying something like this Israel would continue to be blamed for subjugating an indigenous population against their will under very harsh (albeit necessary for security reasons) conditions

Well we now know the results of that experiment. It was a disaster. Palestinians in Gaza have been taken over by Hamas, a terrorist organization and a very popular segment of the Palestinian people. They are sworn to Israel’s destruction. Something they have tried to implement many times and are still working on.  In retrospect giving up Gaza was a big mistake. (Hindsight is always 20/20.) But it was a chance Israel had to take – even if it was just prove the point that you cannot make peace with people sworn to your destruction.

The fallout of evacuating so many Jews that settled there and made their living there was devastating. Those who left early did OK, I am told. But of those that didn’t the evacuation was brutal. After thy were evacuated most of them did not fare so well, even after government promises that they would be taken care of. Forcibly evacuating Jews from territory they were encouraged to inhabit and develop was not one of Israel’s finer moments.

There are some Jews who practice what the Torah preaches: Kol Yisroel Areivim Zeh LaZeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. I received a post submission from  Rav Yosef Zvi Rimon who has done quite a bit to help them. He wanted to share this with my readers. What he has accomplished is nothing short of a major Kiddush HaShem. Sometimes you can really make some really good lemonade out of a lemon. I have edited it slightly to conform with my guest posting guidelines. Otherwise the words are his and follow:

Shortly after the disengagement in 2005, I was invited to conduct a chupa in the United States. I decided to take the opportunity to speak with American Jews about the situation with the Gush Katif families, many of whom I had come to know first-hand.

Did they understand the trauma that these wonderful, extraordinary people were enduring?  Did they understand the extent of the tragedy that had befallen them?  Did they understand the day-to-day problems confronting the families?  Did they understand the financial and economic challenges besetting them?

The answers did not surprise me. Israeli government officials had recently visited the American Jewish community, and had assured its leaders that 'all was under control.'

It pains me to this day, that I, an educator and Rav, a teacher at the Har Etzion Yeshiva, a writer of books and community Rav in Alon Shvut, a lover of Eretz Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael would have to disavow much of what the American Jewish community had been told. 

I began with a very simple fact:  Fully 85% of the employed Gush Katif adults worked in Gush Katif. Their jobs were not transferable, so with the disengagement unemployment catapulted to 85%.  Who was tending to this issue?  The answer was no one.  That is until JobKatif was established and so many of the Jewish communities around the world rallied together to help us.

I never thought of creating an organization to help the Gush Katif families.  I arrived at a hotel in Jerusalem to check on the situation of the Gush Katif families, as I had been requested to do by the Gush Katif Rabbis.  But, as my Alon Shvut community organized itself, we all quickly saw that while many of the issues could be managed by groups of volunteers -- laundry (hotels did not offer laundry service), activities for children, meals (hotels were not offering lunches), basic supplies, and a bevy of other services -- there was one service that no one ever considered. Not the government, nor the special organization set up to 'handle' the Gush Katif situation, not the Knesset, nor municipal authorities. 

No one.  And, that was employment.  Here was a large group of individuals who had an extraordinary work ethic. Cultivating large tracts of agricultural land, running hundreds of small businesses, providing security and community services -- this was a bloc of 21 towns with some 8,000 residents who had transformed a barren wasteland into a veritable Garden of Eden, a hothouse of profitable enterprises and tightly-knit communities.  Home to religious and secular, Ashkenazi and Sepharadi, academics and blue collar workers, people from development towns and major cities, new olim and veteran Israelis Gush Katif was a place where everyone was embraced.

The pain in the hotel where I visited with these families when they first arrived was palpable.  It touched everyone of us.

One day I sought help for a Gush Katif family who had lost everything and were just now trying to restart their lives.  A woman that supported our work donated money to help the family start a new business. JobKatif counselors had worked with the family to develop a viable business plan and when I returned to Israel the business was launched. 

JobKatif continues to provide business advice and funding for other businesses. So far more than 200 were started over the past decade -- as well as subsidies for 600 professional retraining courses, employment placement for 2,650 people, 202 academic scholarships, and counseling and mentorship for hundreds of Gush Katif evacuees. 

I have learned a lot about employment throughout the years.  I have learned that employment is far more than an occupation or a job.  It is oftentimes a measurement of an individual's self-worth.  And, this in turn reflects on the family and projects onto the community. 

How wise our sages were when they wrote "A prisoner cannot deliver himself from a prison." It is our job, our mission to help them.

We started this project shortly after the disengagement with the express purpose to help Gush Katif families rejoin the workforce.  We have turned around the numbers, from 85% unemployment to 88% today employed.  We are nearing the end of our mission.  I hope and pray that over the coming months we will integrate hundreds more into the work force so that they can make their own contribution to the State of Israel. 

Thousands of supporters from around the world have united together to help us, and we are grateful for their commitment, caring and love.

We all possess the ability to do chessed in our lives. To create. To act. To give.  Our mission has never been to just help these families 'survive' but rather to enable them to realize their dreams. This is a mission that elevates all of us -- our family, community, people, and State of Israel. 

May we be privileged to continue this work and enjoy the Divine Presence in our lives every day.