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Behind the Headlines Renewing Neighborhoods and Lives

A program here is involving hundreds of volunteers from the diaspora in a darker side of Israeli life by moving them into neighborhoods plagued by chronic unemployment, wife-beating, drug and alcohol abuse and other social ills.

The volunteers, mostly from Britain, are helping staff many of Project Renewal’s programs here in an effort to bring social and physical rehabilitation to Israel’s poverty areas. Far from being repulsed by the problems they seek to ameliorate, many are deciding to make Israel their home.

Overseeing and nurturing this source of new immigrants is the British Olim Society, which has since 1948 helped British and Irish olim find their niche in Israeli society.

Last year, noticing that Project Renewal volunteers began to see Israel in a new appealing light, the Society assumed the direction of the Joint Israel Appeal (JIA) Project Renewal United Kingdom Volunteer Program, which staffs much of Project Renewal here.

Project Renewal represents a partnership between diaspora Jewish communities, the government of Israel and the residents of the country’s poverty neighborhoods. Ever since its creation in 1978 shortly after Premier Menachem Begin proposed a massive housing renovation plan, Project Renewal has furnished badly-needed rehabilitation to the development areas into which Sephardic immigrants flocked in the years since 1948.

ASHKELON’S NEED IS GREAT

The need in Ashkelon is great. Its most densely populated, poorest neighborhood contains half of its population. In the largely Moroccan neighborhood of Givat Tzion, a typical family numbers six persons, residing in a flat offering each person only slightly more than 100 square feet of living space. In the upper middle class neighborhood of Afridar, established by South African Jews, a typical family has four members living in an apartment twice that size.

Project Renewal has taken many diaspora communities’ desire to play a more direct role in aiding Israel with their large financial and human resources and “twinned” these with needy development communities in Israel. Ashkelon became linked with the Joint Israel Appeal, the fund-raising body for the Jewish communities of Great Britain and Ireland.

Up to 600 volunteers a year from Britain and Ireland come to staff many of Project Renewal’s programs in Ashkelon. According to Marty Davis, the Brooklyn-born director of the British Olim Society’s Ashkelon office, many of the JIA volunteers, seeing how Israel can utilize their talents and energy, are deciding to remain.

MULTIVARIED BACKGROUNDS OF THE VOLUNTEERS

The volunteers come from all walks of life, according to Davis, whose beard and heavy build recall “Wolfman Jack” of the 1950’s radio fame in the United States. Davis made aliya four years ago at the age of 27 after four visits. Addressing one of the many groups which come to Ashkelon to see the fruit of Project Renewal’s labor, Davis mentioned that about 20 to 40 volunteers came annually in the Project’s first few years. The Society furnishes the volunteers with an orientation, room, board, and pocket money, said Davis, who also heads the volunteer program.

They toil in this Mediterranean town located some 40 miles south of Tel Aviv at the doorstep of the Negev desert, where some 60,000 Jews have settled since 1948, coming from 74 countries. Many of the settlers were unskilled and uneducated, and brought with them little more than they could carry in an often hurried and harried exodus from Arab and Asian countries.

More than two-thirds of Ashkelon’s population is Sephardic, many from Morocco. These new settlers often moved into makeshift quarters, while many of Israel’s Ashkenazic Jewish immigrants after 1948 had the freedom to plan and save for their immigration and so populated more affluent neighborhoods. The Ashkenazim, usually far more educated, also had access to better jobs.

Ashkelon, which 2,000 years ago was the site of one of Herod’s summer palaces, rose again atop the Arab village of Magdal, abandoned after the 1948 War of Independence. Today, Magdal is Migdal, the commercial center of the town, and its former mosque is a popular restaurant.

SOME OF THE TOWN’S PROBLEMS

A good number of Ashkelon’s residents are not working, Davis said. Unemployment is high and it contributes to many of the social ills and family problems found in the town’s depressed areas. Ashkelon’s location six miles from the Gaza Strip’s nearly half a million Arabs has flooded the area with cheap labor. Davis said that Ashkelon’s jobless find it as rewarding to collect welfare benefits as to work at what they consider to be menial jobs, low pay and onerous hours accepted by many Arabs.

Wife and child abuse and family abandonment are serious problems in the town’s poverty areas but, Davis said, Project Renewal, with its emphasis on “bringing social work and community work together with physical renewal ” has made these problems less pervasive. Even drug abuse, which along with alcohol abuse, in an additional problem here, “is not as serious as it was five years ago, ” he said.

Ashkelon’s residents may not have the time to feel sorry for themselves. Davis said that 45,000 residents participate in Project Renewal here. The Project provides them with a key role in the process of renewing their neighborhood. “People of the community are made part of the planning and implementing process, ” in effect, forming a “spirit of cooperation” between the community and the government, Davis said.

Getting this level of participation in the numerous committees set up by Project Renewal to steer its activities here has taken “an enormous amount of effort, ” Davis said, as the residents had come to expect government to do things to them or for them, but not with them.

CONTRIBUTIONS BY PROJECT RENEWAL

Project Renewal planning for a town like Ashkelon requires approval by the “twinned” diaspora community, in this case, the Jews of Great Britain and Ireland, and the Israeli government. But the neighborhood committees have an equal say in setting and acting on priorities. Nothing moves through the Project Renewal pipeline without the input of a neighborhood’s residents.

Project Renewal has brought to Ashkelon a new, progressive look. Davis is frequently called upon to give tours of the town, which was shown off to the diaspora leaders attending the Jewish Agency’s annual assembly last June.

The volunteer program buses in 700 children a week to Ashkelon’s handsome new tennis center, funded by Project Renewal. The development at the center of more first-rate young tennis stars like Ashkelon’s Shlomo Glickstein should be a source of further pride to the town’s residents.

Project Renewal contributed to the development of a nearby beach, raised funding for a beautiful modern swimming pool and helps run a town-wide art center.

New drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers, a health clinic, 64 new or rebuilt kindergartens, a center for mentally handicapped adults, and Israel’s first dental clinic which assures that each child in Ashkelon receives a yearly check-up, are additional testimonies to the success here of the diaspora-Israel partnership forged by Project Renewal.

Playing a vital role in bringing about a new brighter Israel for the more than 350,000 Israelis reached by Project Renewal are the volunteers like those headed by Davis. With already 120 olim from the ranks of its volunteers over the past four years, the British Olim Society is making Israel a more Jewish and a more hospitable homeland.

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