Southern Israel is still suffering from the aftereffects of years of terror, economic instability and the recent army operation, Pillar of Defense. Despite the cessation of headlines from the South, the economic strains of this tumultuous region are still being felt.
On the 14th of November, 2012, Israel was yet again engulfed in fighting on its Southern border. Operation Pillar of Defense was launched by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in response to the barrage of rockets emanating from the Gaza strip. Israel looked on as the IDF began its widespread campaign targeting military structures and operatives throughout Gaza. In response, Hamas shot more than 1,400 rockets into Israel reaching as far as Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.
The South of Israel was under attack. The sirens wailed day and night, and the south shut down. Residents of cities such as Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and Beer Sheva fled to their shelters. Sderot residents on Gaza’s border had long become familiar with the “Red Alert” warning them of imminent attack, but for those cities located up to thirty miles from Gaza, the operation came as a shock.
Factories closed, transport ceased and citizens took cover. Six Israelis were killed, 269 Israelis were injured and houses, cars and businesses were damaged. For the South, which contains some of the most economically disadvantaged areas in Israel, the operation was yet another blow for the fragile economy.
But as the shelters once again gather dust, the south of Israel is still struggling to pick its feet up economically after years of poverty, distress and neglect.
Picking up the pieces economically
According to the central bureau of statistics, in 2001, 31 percent of the South was classified to be poor. The research used a new indicator to measure poverty and defined a person as poor when his “physical existence and needs distract him every minute of the day and therefore most of his economic resources are allocated to food consumption and residence.”
Just fifteen miles from the Gaza strip lies Kiryat Gat. During Operation Pillar of Defense, rockets sent residents running for shelter, and this already poverty stricken city was plunged further into darkness. “The economic situation in Kiryat Gat is unstable. The operation made it worse; people didn’t leave their houses,” said Maya Naim, whose house in Kiryat Gat was hit by one of the rockets coming from Gaza. “My business suffered, my house was damaged and my disabled son’s car was destroyed.” Naim has received compensation for the damage to her house, but the car was not included in this. She is now spending hundreds of shekels each month on taxis to enable her son to get to work.
Kiryat Gat’s residents struggle to provide for their families’ basic needs with the average wage being around 50 percent lower than the national average. Though the situation is dramatic and unemployment rates run high, there are organizations and individuals making a real difference to this troubled community. Esther Richtman is one such shining beacon, and she was recently honored with the “Citizen of the City” award at a ceremony in the city center.
Savta Esther, the city’s grandmother
Richtman arrived in Kiryat Gat in 1964 from Romania with her husband, Abraham, and their first child on the way. Following a long career in the textile industry, the couple decided to spend their retirement giving back to the people of Kiryat Gat. Richtman, who is locally known as Savta Esther (Grandma Esther), has now become somewhat of a local celebrity, thanks to her work with Meir Panim.
Leading Israeli relief organization, Meir Panim, operates two Power of Giving warehouses in Southern Israel to distribute furniture, clothes and other necessary household equipment for those who cannot afford to purchase them at regular prices. Richtman began volunteering at the Kiryat Gat warehouse sorting items and mending donated clothes. “I saw the good that Meir Panim was doing by supporting the poor, but, more importantly, how they did it with dignity.” (Customers pay a nominal fee for each item so that it does not feel like receiving a handout.)
Eight years ago, when volunteering in the warehouse, she overheard that Meir Panim was looking for someone to run its after-school facility for some of the poorest children in Kiryat Gat, and she jumped at the chance. “Within a week Meir Panim had located premises for me, provided me with National Service volunteers, and we had decorated the club to feel like a home,” Richtman explains. “We are dealing with children whose parents cannot afford to feed them healthy meals each day, who are left to their own devices and who simply continue their parents’ cycle of poverty.”
Breaking the cycle of poverty
Together with Meir Panim, Savta Esther is working to break this cycle of poverty. The children turn up to school prepared because she delivers school supplies at the beginning of the school year. The children are able to study, because they receive two hot meals a day, and studying at school is complemented with homework help from the National Service Volunteers. “I’m so grateful that Savta Esther came into our lives eight years ago,” said Chagit Hazan, mother of two participants in the afterschool club. “I work long hours in an old age home and try to support my children on my own, but without Savta Esther and Meir Panim, I don’t know what we’d do.” Hazan says that there are parents and children queuing up to be admitted to the after-school club.
Kiryat Gat is just one example of a city trying to get back on its feet now that peace has returned to the area, but it is not easy. “When the rockets stopped falling, Southern Israel slipped off the media radar,” explains Goldie Sternbuch, assistant director of Overseas relations at Meir Panim. “But for those of us who witness this poverty daily, it is clear that help is needed now, as much as ever before.” Meir Panim is currently building a nutrition center located in Kiryat Gat, which will not only produce the thousands of hot meals that Meir Panim needs to feed Israel’s poor each day, but it will provide a much needed boost to Kiryat Gat’s dwindling economy.
Getting the South back on its feet after years of trauma caused by rocket fire and economic distress is no easy feat, but slowly but surely the future looks more positive. “This Pesach we distributed food cards to enable residents stock their cupboards with the special foods needed at this time of year,” Sternbuch said. “We hosted hundreds of adults and children for communal Seders and hoped to bring a little joy to those in the midst of economic distress.” As in previous years, Savta Esther had few tricks up her sleeves for the children of Kiryat Gat to truly celebrate Pesach both with the children and also with their extended families.