CAPE TOWN, Aug. 28 (JTA) — For the past four years, Divote, an initiative of the South African Jewish community, has been bringing help and happiness into the lives of young Israelis affected by terrorism. Now the group’s efforts have been recognized with an invitation to the home of Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, where group officials attended a bar/bat mitzvah party for 70 children who have been orphaned, mostly by terror attacks. Divote originated in the coastal city of Durban and has now spread countrywide, with additional branches in Australia and the United States. Speakers at the July 14 event warmly acknowledged the contribution of the South African Jewish community. Divote presented each child with a portable CD player, as well as a disposable camera and photograph album to enable them to “create their own memories of this special day in their lives,” said Divote’s coordinator, Cheryl Unterslak. A few days later, Divote held a party for 56 other children affected by terror at the Netanya municipality offices. They were given backpacks full of gifts, which included clothing, toys, stationery and jewelry donated by members of the South African Jewish community as well as by Christians from the Cape Town branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. Unterslak says the touching thing is that some of the gifts were given by people who are “so poor but have embraced the project and have been so grateful to have had the opportunity to give.” She noted that while she experienced a lot of religious “separation” in Israel, that was not the case at both parties. “It didn’t matter if you were Satmar, haredi or secular — everybody was together,” she said, using phrases for two different types of fervently Orthodox Judaism. The group has broadened the scope of its activities to show solidarity with other Israeli children in need. And while there is much division in the country over the Gaza disengagement plan, Unterslak experienced a “very powerful moment” when delivering gifts to the Hadassah University Hospital’s pediatric cancer ward in Jerusalem. “There were two Haredi fathers there, a Palestinian mother, an Israeli Arab, a secular Jew — what was unbelievable was standing there and watching how suffering is such an equalizer. Everybody was helping everybody else’s child. It didn’t matter what they were.” In addition, Divote treated several needy families to a special evening out at a restaurant. It also arranged for many children of families affected by terrorism to attend summer camp, as well as to take arts and crafts courses and rap-music lessons. The group also paid the children’s entry fees to swimming pools. “The object of all this is to show these special children that the South African Jewish community does care and support them and to bring them some joy and happiness,” said Unterslak. While there, she took the opportunity of distributing wedding packages containing gifts from the South African Jewish and Christian communities to brides and grooms who have been injured by or lost parents to terror attacks. A number of baby gift bags were given to new parents who have been similarly affected. Divote is going from strength to strength with “more and more projects and more and more people getting involved,” says Unterslak. “The wonderful thing about it is that it is a vehicle for everyone to show their support, regardless of who they are or their financial status,” she said. With the Jewish New Year approaching, Unterslak is appealing to the South African Jewish community for new outfits for children in Israel whose families “haven’t got money to put food on the table.” She recalled past recipients’ expressions of gratitude for similar gestures. “Thank you for making us feel like other kids, giving us dignity and making us feel special,” they had told her.
Moira Schneider is a JTA correspondent in South Africa. A law graduate and psychology major, she is the Cape Town correspondent for the South African Jewish Report. She contributes to London's Jewish Chronicle, is a reporter for the Cape Jewish Chronicle and has been published in the Cape Times and Cape Argus.