Looking back on the past month, I would like to share with you the sense of pride which I feel as I contemplate the work of the Jewish Agency and its partners around the world. We are honored and privileged to have stood beside the government of Israel and the Jewish people to offer, on behalf of all, a helping hand to nearly every home and every family in the north.
Every minute of every day our partnership is hard at work. Because life doesn’t stop. The needs don’t stop. Your caring and commitment do not stop. Together, we aspire to create a secure Jewish future. Now, that future is being threatened. The second Lebanese war created indescribable damage. Together, we can rebuild. The message to our enemies is: We are not only here to stay, but we are investing in the future.
The damages in the north are vast and widespread. Businesses large and small are in financial ruin. Students who were called to active duty and were unable to work this summer cannot afford college tuition. Children and adults are suffering from post-war trauma. People are having trouble meeting their most basic needs.
The Jewish Agency will be a driving force in rebuilding the north. Initial estimated damages stand in excess of $1 billion, and this figure is only going to grow.
After extensive consultation with mayors and local authorities throughout the region, the offices of the prime minister and the Finance Ministry, the Jewish Agency is looking to four far-reaching responses for the "day after" to put every resident in the north on the road to recovery. The objective now should not be to return to the status quo ante; but rather to transform devastation into an opportunity, finally revitalizing and realizing the potential of this area of strategic priority for the State of Israel.
To the northwest of Metulla lie the beautiful orchards farmed by the Bez family. Metulla’s fruits — pears, apricots, cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, and apples — are well known in Israel and around the world for their exquisite taste.
Ophir Bez, who is 31, has been running the family’s ‘5-acre orchards since his father retired six years ago. But this year his harvest was left rotting in the fields, as the war prevented him from picking the fruit.
The day that the cease fire took effect, Ophir put a crew together to pick some of his finest plums, which he had personally nurtured. He knew that the overripe fruit had little market value. But he wanted to show Hezbollah that the Israeli people will not be beaten.
Ophir Bez lost almost all of his annual income. Without assistance, his livelihood will be lost; his business is in ruins.
Northern Israel is characterized by numerous small, privately owned businesses, many in both the tourism and agricultural areas. Some estimates identify as many as 90,000 small businesses which have been crippled by this war. Helping them to rebuild can provide the critical mass for increasing the number of job opportunities, fueling development and renewed economic growth.
Using the infrastructure of the Jewish Agency’s successful Small Business Loan Fund Initiative, which we have operated for more than a decade with the support of a number of Jewish federations, we propose to create an unprecedented evergreen mega-loan fund to support economic recovery and growth throughout the north — and head off a serious recession.
At the Jewish Agency, the next generation is a primary focus of a majority of our work. When the war broke out, we immediately mobilized to establish emergency summer camps to get as many children as possible out of the line of deadly fire. The "day after" will be no different as we work to transition children and young people from crisis to not just recovery, but to excellence.
This will start with successfully moving children back to school. One of the key elements in moving youngsters from trauma to recovery is their reintegration into the formal and informal education systems.
One mother of two elementary school children who spent many days living in a bomb shelter said, "My children are now afraid to sleep at home, in their own beds. They jump whenever they hear a loud noise and they refuse to talk about going back to school."
The Jewish Agency is working to ensure that children going back to school have everything they need to succeed, helping them regain a sense of security and self-confidence and making sure that they have basic school supplies that parents may not now be able to afford.
Using our successful Youth Futures model and existing infrastructure in a highly personalized, community-wide approach, our emphasis will be on children and teens at risk, including immigrant children, children from families of low socioeconomic levels, and populations of children from minority groups (Arabs and Druze).
More than 1,000 Katyusha rockets slammed into the northern city of Kiryat Shmona during the war, injuring ‘5 residents and forcing more than 16,000 to leave. Damage to homes and public buildings was massive. And this is only one city. The entire northern region needs to be rebuilt.
Our goal is not only to rebuild, but to go beyond. At the end of the day, our objective is to create vibrant communities with a quality of life that exceeds that which was destroyed.
The Jewish Agency intends to create a major funding pool for capital projects and renovation throughout the north, utilizing the development expertise and infrastructure of both the Israel Education Fund – a capital project partnership of UJC and the Jewish Agency – and our public housing developer.
The focus will be on two distinct areas: repairing damage to existing public buildings, including libraries, community centers, day care centers, homes for the elderly, youth clubs, sport and recreational halls, playgrounds, public parks, and synagogues, as well as raising new buildings to enhance community life.
Through the advisory council of mayors, we will initiate a process to empower communities to identify the priorities for rebuilding and restoring life in their own community.
I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude to the UJC and the Jewish federations in the United States, to Keren Hayesod, and to Israeli donors, all who expressed their faith in us and our work and contributed generously.
The trust we are privileged to receive is the source of our strength, and is our motivation to continue and march forward at full speed to face the challenges to our future.
Zeev Bielski is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.