Acknowledging that a number of families evacuated from Gush Katif in the summer of 2005 may be in need of economic assistance, the leadership of UJA-Federation of New York and the United Jewish Communities (UJC) have committed to evaluating the situation first-hand.John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation, plans to visit some of the evacuee communities in Israel in February to help decide if assistance is required. “If we determine that families are in need of food, shelter, health care and other basics, we will respond,” he told The Jewish Week.The decision comes two months after UJA-Federation announced that it was allocating $9.3 million to help rebuild Kiryat Shemona, one of the communities in northern Israel hit hardest in the war with Hezbollah this summer. A national Israel Emergency Campaign operated by UJC, the umbrella organization of the North American Jewish federations, has raised more than $350 million for communities that suffered from the war, mostly in the north. More than $44 million for that effort was raised by UJA-Federation.
The contrast between the swift and generous response of aid for those who suffered from the Hezbollah war and the lack of major American Jewish funding for the approximately 8,500 Jews uprooted from their homes as part of the Gaza disengagement the summer before was seen by many Gush Katif evacuees as a political statement.In the last year the UJC has provided about $1 million in support for those evacuees, with $400,000 coming from funds from a previous emergency campaign, another $400,000 from the Jewish federation in Chicago, and the balance from other smaller federations.Doron Krakow, a UJC professional who heads the Israel and overseas divisions, will lead a study group to Israel in early January that will meet with leaders of the former Gush Katif communities.
“This is a population that has extraordinary needs not paid attention to, and we plan to assess the circumstances and provide a productive response,” he said, with the goal of letting federations know about opportunities for providing assistance.
He noted that the war with Hezbollah this summer “triggered new attention and created an opportunity to look at some unfinished business.”But Krakow said that “however difficult the circumstances are” for the Gush Katif evacuees, “they are hard to compare” with the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who as a result of the war this summer “were in existential danger.“Wars,” he said, “elicit extremely strong emotional and philanthropic responses from the Jewish community.”
The situation involving the Gush Katif evacuees was far more complex, he said, and not as well known to most American Jews.UJA-Federation’s Ruskay asserted that the local charity views the Gush Katif evacuees issue as one of humanitarian needs, not politics. He said he had been under the assumption that the government of Israel had met its commitment to relocate and provide housing and funding for families removed from their homes, some of them by force, as part of the disengagement. But he said that “for reasons that are unclear,” it appears that is not the case.Many of the evacuees say the government has neglected them and stalled in its promise to compensate them for lost homes and businesses because of their opposition to the disengagement.
Leaders of the Gush Katif community say the government is a year behind in building permanent homes for them, and that their unemployment rate is 50 percent, with former farmers particularly affected.Government officials have insisted that the problem is bureaucratic, not political, and that determining fair allocations for the families has been more complicated than imagined.After living in hotel rooms for months, most of the evacuees are now in mobile home communities in the south, trying to adjust to smaller living spaces and the economic and psychological hardships of being displaced.Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills in Queens organized a meeting with Ruskay and some of UJA-Federation’s top professionals at the charity’s headquarters on Dec. 11 to discuss the continuing plight of the Gush Katif families.Much of the advocacy on behalf of the families — before, during and after the disengagement — has come from the Orthodox community, many of whose members opposed the decision by the Sharon government to evacuate Gaza.Rabbi Schonfeld, who was joined by seven other local Orthodox rabbis at the meeting, said he told the UJA-Federation officials “they should do what they do best — raise money to help Jews. They do it for Jews in the north in Israel, and for Jews in countries all over the world, so why not for the Jews from Gush Katif?”Rabbi Schonfeld said that some Orthodox rabbis in Queens no longer promote the UJA-Federation annual campaign in their congregations, choosing instead to raise funds for the Jews who were forced out of Gush Katif.“We wanted UJA-Federation to acknowledge it has a responsibility to help Jews,” Rabbi Schonfeld said. He characterized the meeting as “very good,” but added: “We agreed this is just the beginning.”Rabbi Hershel Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere, who also attended, said he was pleased that the UJA-Federation officials reacted positively to the group’s request that the situation be explored, with an eye toward providing financial assistance.
“They were open to the idea that if people needed help, they would respond,” he said.Rabbi Billet, who spent much of his sabbatical from his synagogue last year in Israel, said he had met extensively with Gush Katif families who were having a difficult time. He said he believed the government “didn’t know what it was getting into” when it promised to provide social service needs for those evacuated, and that, whatever the reason, “it’s clear the government has not been able to meet its commitment.”