Thirty-six years ago I made aliyah to Israel. On February 12 1982, along with 18 young and idealistic young men and women, we boarded a plane from South Africa. Barely able to restrain our excitement, we were filled with the anticipation of realizing a dream we had shared for many years. For me, although I had a passionate desire to “come home” and to bind my destiny to Israel, a significant part the deep satisfaction I felt was that I had left South Africa — and Apartheid — behind me. I looked forward to a life that would not be in conflict with the dictates of my conscience.
The Israel of today is not the same Israel to which I made aliyah 36 years ago. I am haunted by an eerie feeling that the very moral dilemmas which made life untenable and intolerable in South Africa are following me and overtaking me, while I watch with sadness and despair how this country which I love so deeply is turning into a society that I find increasingly hard to defend and whose actions I find increasingly hard to justify.
Yet not once have I contemplated leaving Israel. There is no other place I would want to live. It is here I can be whole, where my heart and my heritage reside as one. But I have wondered why, despite everything I see that is wrong, I still feel this way. The reason I have found, is because there are diamonds in the dust.
These jewels of hope make me proud to be an Israeli and a part of this incredible enterprise. They are to not be found in our elected leadership, but in the actions of ordinary people who have become through their indomitable spirit, beacons of all that is good and worthy about us. Wherever the government “system” has failed us, individuals of extraordinary commitment and vision have stepped into the breach.
The Jewish people believe that the world stands on three things; Torah, Avodah and Gmilut Hasadim (the Torah, work and care for those in need). I often feel that our leadership has forgotten the third part, that they have abandoned their responsibility towards those who most need their attention and care. But there are people from among us, for whom gmilut hasadim is not an empty phrase, but a solemn vow. Allow me to highlight some of them.
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It is the autumn of 2015. Crammed with refugees from Syria and Libya, countless makeshift sailing vessels and rubber dinghies limp towards the coast of Greece, desperate to reach the shore before they capsize. Among the first people to welcome them are two young Israeli doctors standing knee-deep in the sea, ready to treat those who are on the verge of collapse. They belong to a dedicated group of volunteers, who have chosen to leave the safety and comfort of their homes in order to alleviate the suffering of the desperate. These are members of IsraAID, a humanitarian organization dedicated to respond to emergencies all over the world. Whether it be disaster relief in Haiti or Sri Lanka, search and rescue in Peru, or helping refugees in Kenya, these volunteers will be there. They will perform thankless tasks to provide succor and relief to those who have lost everything. IsraAID has become a mainstay of disaster relief, earning international respect and appreciation – a source of tremendous pride for every Israeli.
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During the period of the Oslo accords, Israel was rocked by a wave of suicide bombings. The scenes of the attacks were horrendous, with human remains scattered far and wide. Among the first people to arrive on the scene were Orthodox Jewish volunteers of Zaka, who came to assist ambulance crews and aid in the identification of the victims.
With indescribable dedication and loving care, Zaka gathers body parts no matter how small at disaster sites, allowing grieving families the possibility to perform a proper halachic burial of their loved ones and giving them something tangible to mourn. Working through the night until the scene is clean, they can be seen toiling with a gentleness and respect that brings tears of appreciation to one’s eyes. Their work is the epitome of Chesed shel emet, which is how they prefer to describe what they do. Today they are recognized as an auxiliary arm of emergency services, and can found wherever disasters of any nature occur. However in my opinion, one of the greatest benefits from the indispensable work of Zaka, is in the kiruv levavot (bringing hearts together) between the Israeli secular community and the Orthodox Haredi community. The deep appreciation for the work the organization does, has formed a bridge between traditionally antagonistic communities and has aided the Hassidic stream of Judaism to at last become an integral part of the kaleidoscope that is Israeli society.
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Rabbi David Applebaum became a physician and made aliyah to Israel, becoming the chief of emergency and trauma services at Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital. Identifying the need to make emergency care more accessible to the public, while at the same time relieving the burden on hospital emergency rooms, he pioneered the idea of Terem immediate care clinics in cities and Arab villages, spread throughout the country. The idea is to divert non-serious emergency cases away from hospital emergency rooms, enabling doctors to deliver faster care to patients. With meticulous foresight, Applebaum trained both Arab and Jewish physicians and nurses, so that the centers would be staffed on the holy days of both religions. Tragically, Applebaum lost his life in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem on September 9 2003, along with his daughter, on the eve of her wedding. However his legacy lives on. Every Terem clinic has a dedication to this extraordinary man who did so much to make the care for people in need of medical attention more accessible.
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In 1982, Israel was considered a welfare state and there were no recorded homeless people. Today, it is estimated that 200 families lose their homes every year. It has taken barely one generation for Israel to move from one end of the spectrum, to the other. There are more than 1.5 million people in Israel, who are regularly going hungry, never knowing where their next meal will come from. The constant cuts to social welfare — together with the rising cost of living — have left the public of dependents with the agonizing choice of having to choose between spending what little they receive on food, heating, or medicine.
Although the government has all but shrugged off its responsibility for these people, volunteer organizations like Latet, Leket Yisrael and Meir Panim have stepped into the breach. Together, these organizations provide nutritional aid and security to hundreds of thousands of families per year. Leket is an organization which specializes in collecting surplus fruit and vegetables and distributing them to the public who cannot afford to buy. Latet works to provide meals to the needy, mainly by collecting left over food from restaurants and hotels. Or, by compiling packages with food donated by the public, which they distribute to those registered with them. This includes preparing sandwiches for children to take with them to school. Meir Panim runs nutritional centers, which are something special. They are not soup kitchens, they are “restaurants”- and the public is served by volunteer staff and waiters who have been screened and trained to serve this “special public” with respect and dignity.
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Financial difficulties and domestic violence often go hand in hand. In an attempt to escape this abuse, many teenagers leave home. They find themselves on the streets, destitute and homeless, struggling not to get sucked into the world of drugs, prostitution and crime. Yemin Orde is a youth village which provides a haven for youth on the fringes of society. In addition to its academic and vocational programs and its home setting, it fosters an environment that neutralizes the influence of underprivileged neighborhoods and promotes social integration. Through nurture and guidance Yemin Orde gives its young wards a chance at a better life, with opportunities which would never be available to them in the neighborhoods they come from.
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I have watched with growing discomfort as the character of my Zionist vision is being taken away from me by the actions of fanatical elements drunk on their power, which erode our values and derech eretz. It is easy to sink into despair and become bitter. Then, I think about these organizations and the exceptional people who founded them. Like jewels half-hidden in the sand which glisten in the night, these diamonds in the dust light our way and remind me that the essence of Israel with which I fell in love still exists.