S. Africans Say They Help Themselves when They Help Israeli Terror Victims

A South African group is working to make a difference in the lives of Israeli victims of terror.

Durban Israel Victims of Terror Enterprises, known by its acronym Divote, was launched in Durban’s 3,000-strong Jewish community after an emotional address by Ra’anana Mayor Ze’ev Bielski at an Israel solidarity rally in the city in 2001.

With the support of local philanthropist John Moshal, a small fund was set up in Israel, primarily to improve children’s lives by providing them with computers, television sets and satellite decoders, paying for summer camp or buying new clothing.

The major part of Divote’s work, however, is done in Durban and is spreading to the bigger cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Cheryl Unterslak, who is in charge of the South African operation, runs workshops with all sorts of Jewish groups in Durban, including the aged home, schoolchildren, the Zionist council and women’s and youth groups across the community.

“This has been one of the very special things about Divote,” Unterslak told JTA. “It has had an incredibly unifying effect on this community with everyone, regardless of religious or political affiliation, coming together as one for the benefit of their fellow Jew in Israel. People here feel that they are no longer armchair Zionists.”

At the workshops, Unterslak discusses the situation in Israel and the plight of terror victims and survivors. Groups then do activities such as hand painting T-shirts or making jewelry for victims, to which they attach letters of support.

These are packaged by South Africa’s Masada workshop — which employs the physically and mentally frail — and dispatched to recipients in Israel.

Before Passover, Unterslak received an overwhelming response to an appeal for new clothing for children affected by terrorism.

“In two days I had a few outfits for each child, plus toys for the younger ones. Someone even bought them all underwear and socks,” she said.

She also got a letter back from the wife of a man who had been shot in the head by terrorists saying that “for the first time, she honestly felt that the loss of her husband wasn’t only hers but that of the whole of Am Yisrael,” Unterslak said. “It means so much to them that Jews on the other side of the world who don’t know them, care.”

She plans to repeat the appeal for Rosh Hashanah. The organization also is holding a Sukkot party in Israel for child victims of terrorism.

So far, the fund in Israel has helped 12 families, and more than 1,000 gifts have been sent from South Africa. About 140 outfits are being packed for the High Holidays, and a few hundred people are expected to attend the group’s Sukkot party.

Due to Israel’s troubled economic situation, some families are hard-pressed to pay bus or taxi fare to visit loved ones in the hospital who have survived terror attacks, Unterslak said.

Through its representatives in Israel — former Durban residents Hermoine Cohen and Lindy Frank — Divote assesses needs in a variety of situations and provides assistance.

After the Aug. 19 bomb blast in Jerusalem, Divote provided money to help with basic and immediate needs. Many people needed food bought for them or for children who were home alone while their parents cared for spouses or siblings in the hospital or identified loved ones’ bodies.

Divote has started an “adopt-a-family” project where families will be linked for the purpose of emotional rather than purely financial support.

“If there are children, it could involve sending them a beautiful birthday present, or before Rosh Hashanah sending them a lovely holiday outfit, maybe even paying for them to stay in a hotel for a weekend or one day bringing them out to South Africa for a holiday,” Unterslak said.

As a former Israeli, Maya Rozanski, who is involved with Divote’s work in Durban, is especially sensitive to its significance.

“I know that they are very happy in Israel to know that somebody is thinking about them and comes to visit them. It’s unbelievable what Cheryl is doing,” she said, referring to Unterslak. “I’m very happy to know that we’ve got Divote here and we can help those people in Israel.”

Support for Divote’s work is not limited to the Jewish community. Christian Action for Israel, a South African group, has run five workshops for supporters, and the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem donated $400 to the cause.

When young people talk about the Holocaust, they inevitably ask, “Where was world Jewry?” said Unterslak, who recently took a group of Jewish school children to Poland to visit former concentration camps.

“We have in our time Jews who are being killed just because they are Jews,” she said. “But we’re doing something.”

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