It should have come as no surprise last week when Orthodox Union President Stephen J. Savitsky rose at a meeting in Jerusalem of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations with Acting Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Olmert, and with last summer’s evacuation from Gaza (Gush Katif) on his mind, asked the following question:
“It is now six months after the evacuation. For the sake of uniting the Jewish people, will you see to it that these citizens’ needs are taken care of?”
Mr. Savitsky was referring to published reports that half of the families surveyed have not yet received compensation payments promised by the government.
In his reply, Acting Prime Minister Olmert stated: “I absolutely understand what the people have been through. I supported the pullout…but I understood how painful and difficult it will be… In general, the Israeli government has been generous, but I am also aware of those who are not settled properly….We will do everything we can to complete their being settled as soon as possible….We will see to it that not one Israeli citizen will have to bear the wounds for much longer.”
The Orthodox Union has been deeply involved with the evacuees and has acted on their behalf in a variety of meaningful ways – most recently, with Mr. Savitsky’s public advocacy. As the evacuation took place, the OU quickly established the Orthodox Union Gaza/Shomron Fund to assist the families, and also set up the OU Committee for Gush Katif under the Chairmanship of OU Vice President Roy Spiewak of Teaneck, NJ to oversee the Fund and its relationships with the evacuees.
The OU asked Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, an OU member congregation in Long Island, NY, to visit the displaced residents in various sites around Israel and to participate in developing a responsible plan for the distribution of the money raised, so that in the face of vast and conflicting needs, the funds would do the most good for the largest number of people.
Rabbi Billet and the OU, working with other concerned groups, helped the residents set up an umbrella non-profit organization called the Vaad L’Mityashvei Gush Katif (or Gush Katif Council). As Mr. Spiewak explained in a comprehensive report he prepared for OU leadership following a recent fact-finding trip to Israel, “The OU worked with Council leaders in consulting with accountants and lawyers to assure legal regulatory and tax compliance, and supported leaders in setting up an on-site representative body with both accountability and structure that was best able to set priorities among the myriad needs.”
“Since the Gush Katif’s Council’s founding,” Mr. Spiewak reported, “the OU has funneled all contributions it received directly to the Council,” and in the process “has been the largest contributor to the Council of any overseas organization. The OU has worked hand-in-hand with the Council both through weekly status conference calls and periodic visits to assure timely cooperation, and to ensure accountability and transparency with regard to all OU-donated funds to the Council.”
How the Fund Money Has Been Used:
According to Mr. Spiewak, examples of how the contributions have been used are as follows (not a complete list):
To subsidize purchase of Sukkot lulavim and esrogim for the families.
To purchase essential supplies, such a tea kettles, toaster-ovens, electric hot plates, heaters and school supplies for those whose belongings were still locked in containers.
To fund cultural activities and Torah clubs and setting up a kollel and group gatherings in the temporary site of Nitzan.
To sponsor trips, a learning night for Gush Katif youth, and other youth programs.
To cover salaries for social workers, psychologists and other social welfare needs during the initial months when Government funding was not forthcoming.
To coordinate transportation for the large volunteer efforts to assist farmers in dismantling and relocating greenhouses.
To fund the purchase of thousands of quilts and blankets for the residents, with the approach of winter.
Mr. Spiewak reported as well that “through the Council many individual needy families were provided direct financial assistance and aid in reemployment courses and for loans for restarting lost businesses.”
In the months since the initial disbursements, much more has been done, Mr. Spiewak explained. Among the efforts of the OU’s Seymour J. Abrams OU Jerusalem World Center was the expansion of the Pearl and Harold M. Jacobs Jerusalem Outreach Center—Zula program, which works with youth at risk in Jerusalem, to establish a “flying squad” program of counselors and advisors to travel throughout the country to work with the displaced and disaffected youth of Gush Katif. The program was vastly assisted by the generosity of the OU Congregation Beth El Atereth Israel in Newton Centre, MA, which raised $60,000 during the Yizkor service of Shemini Atzeret, to provide major funding.
Now the OU is encouraging its member synagogues to consider working with the Council in establish a “twinning” program which, according to Mr. Spiewak, will help the “displaced communal sites as they build their new communities, thus establishing meaningful ties, sharing correspondence and events together, and offering not only aid but a truly hands-on connection between members of the two communities.”
The OU also assists the council in advocating with various governmental bodies to secure funding and modified policies to aid the evacuees, Mr. Spiewak explained.
Much Still Has to Be Done:
Much has been accomplished, and the evacuees’ lives are certainly better than they would have been without the OU and the Council’s efforts but, declares Mr. Spiewak, “There remains an enormous amount of work to be done. The temporary housing sites are full of dislocated communities, and families and individuals require extensive intervention on a psychological and organizational level, in addition to badly needed direct financial assistance. Major efforts are underway in the areas of youth work and employment.”
Clearly, much will be required of the government of Israel, whose efforts so far have fallen far short of what had been promised. That is why Mr. Savitsky, the OU President, stood and asked Acting Prime Minister Olmert the key question: “Will you see to it that these citizens’ needs are taken care of.”
The OU will be watching carefully, Mr. Savitsky said, to assure that the remedial actions pledged by the Acting Prime Minister will quickly come to pass.