A legal battle is brewing in Bet Shemesh.  But rather than a battle over the city’s religious character – a still-roiling conflict that has made headlines all over the world – this fight is about the allocation of money ear-marked for helping children with development challenges.

The conflict centers on funds that flow from the national government to the Bet Shemesh municipality to support clinical child development services.  According to professionals, city activists and parents, the municipality’s problematic allocation of such funds is threatening to negatively impact the lives of 1,500 children, by forcing the closure of Mercaz Rakefet – an institution that has served as the city’s primary “safety net” for young children at risk for the last 14 years.

“Ligdol V’lifroach – Mercaz Rakefet is a non-profit organization that provides therapeutic and educational enrichment services to children with a range of developmental challenges,” says Director Ziva Schapiro, a certified occupational therapist who, together with her husband David, established the center as a local initiative.

“We work in cooperation with the national health funds, but as these funds cover only 2/3 of the cost of any therapy session, we also rely on private donation and as well as government funding,” Schapiro explains. Noting that the center has treated 6,500 children since it opened, she adds: “Our contribution is undeniable, but the municipality is refusing to share with us with any portion of the over 400,000 NIS it receives from the national government for child development services annually. Instead, for each of the past five years, it has chosen to invest all this money in a new, much smaller clinic at the Meyerhoff Community Center. This new clinic reached a total of 400 children in 2014 while we provide services for almost four times that number.  Still, the smaller institution has been granted the entire government allotment, while we get nothing.”

Schapiro, who has never drawn a salary for her professional work at Mercaz Rakefet, is the recipient of a special citation for volunteerism from Israel’s Ministry of Welfare.   Additionally, the 250 square meter space that the center occupies is donated annually to the center, which functions as a legally-recognized non-profit institution. Families who cannot afford the already low market prices for services not covered by the health basket are offered significant subsidies.  However, Schapiro asserts, the voluntary spirit that keeps Mercaz Rakefet afloat should not be used as an excuse by the Bet Shemesh municipality for funneling funds meant to support all the city’s children into favored city projects.

“In years past, before the competing center opened, the city provided us with minimal funding for special projects.  But now, we find ourselves with no government funding at all,” Schapiro says. “We have reached out to the mayor as well as many other top city officials and told them that they don’t support us, we will have to close our doors. That would mean that the 1,500 children who are served at Mercaz Rakefet each year will be without therapy! Unfortunately, the city has not stepped up, and we have been forced to take our case to court to try to get what we deserve.”

Bet Shemesh City Council member Moti Cohen says that the municipality’s lack of support for Mercaz Rakefet’s activities stems, at least in part, from fiscal mismanagement, which has led to a municipal debt of over 40 million shekels. “The city is beholden to a wide range of special interests, and needs money to cover promises made to various constituencies,” he says, adding that the city’s demographic balance – with the ultra-orthodox not holding a slim majority over national religious, traditional and secular residents – certainly plays a part. “In a situation like this, it’s inevitable that money is moved from one pocket to another, rather than being allocated as it should.”

Spokespeople for the city have responded to Mercaz Rakefet’s charges, stating that decisions about funding allocation were made on purely professional grounds. Specifically, they say that the new center is necessary because of its location in an area that has a large Ethiopian population, including many children at risk. Schapiro, however, says that the numbers tell a different story.

“Of the 400 children seen at the Meyerhoff Child Development Center last year, only 17 were members of the Ethiopian community,” she says. “This does not justify the effective de-funding and closure of a much larger and more active professional center, with strong roots in the community, and which serves every sector of the population.”

According to client and special-needs parent Randi Lipkin, the loss of Mercaz Rakefet would be a huge loss. “Mercaz Rakefet has excellent therapists who for many years have been providing the caring and expertise that children – like my son – need to get ahead in life,” she says. “The staff has been willing – time and again – to go to bat for our kids. That’s why – as a community – we’re going to bat for Mercaz Rakefet, so this institution can get the government money it deserves, stay open, and continue to help the children of Bet Shemesh.”

During the past week, volunteers from around the city have been signing concerned community members on a petition to the mayor. Over 1,500 signatures have been accumulated so far, with more on the way. Many outraged parents have written letters to the mayor by email or on the city’s Facebook page.  For her part, Schapiro hopes that the mayor wakes up and does something, before it is too late.