Monday, January 16, 2006

Baltimore Jewish Community lends a hand to Gaza families

Baltimore Sun:

Nearly five months have passed since Israel ordered its Jewish settlers out of Gaza, but Rabbi Elan Adler still is flying an orange sash from his van.

Adler, like many Orthodox Jews, opposed the unilateral pullout in August by the government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But now, he says, his focus is on the fate of the families who were displaced. The spiritual leader of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah Hebrew Congregation plans to fly the color associated with the Gaza settlers until all have moved into new homes.

"For so many Jewish people locally, and around the country, once they left Gaza, I think it just fell off their radar screen, assuming that the government was doing everything it intended to get everybody resettled as quickly as possible," said Adler, president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. "But bureaucracy in Israel doesn't always make that happen so quickly."

Adler has invited the prominent former settler Anita Tucker to his shul tonight to speak about her experiences since the pullout.

The fundraiser is one of several efforts within the local Jewish community to support families affected by the pullout. The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore has started a Disengagement Fund to support two agencies helping to resettle families.

Two all-female Jewish groups, Encore and Ayelet HaShachar, were to perform at a benefit concert yesterday at Yeshivat Rambam. Synagogues and individuals also are sending money overseas.

"There's a Hebrew phrase, 'Kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh,'" said Paula Guttman Scharfman, the lead singer of Encore. "It means we are responsible for our fellow Jews."

The pullout from Gaza and isolated settlements in the West Bank, which was supported by a majority of Israelis, was intended to reduce friction between the settlers and the Palestinians who outnumbered them in Gaza, and to allow Israel to solidify its hold on the West Bank. But some among the 9,000 who were displaced say the government has failed to compensate them for the homes and businesses they were forced to leave behind.

According to a new study by the Israeli nonprofit organization Lema'an Acheinu, 25 percent of former Gaza settlers still are living in hotels, The Jerusalem Post reported last week. More than 50 percent had yet to receive any compensation, according to the study.

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington disputed those figures. Of the 1,700 families that have applied for compensation, spokesman David Siegel said, 700 have received all of what they are due, 300 have received at least 75 percent and 500 have received some payment. He said families now are receiving compensation within a month of completing the required paperwork.

Of the roughly 1,250 families that sought living arrangements through the Israeli Disengagement Authority, Siegel said, 1,000 have been moved into temporary homes while the construction of new homes is expedited. Fewer than 200 are still in hotels, he said.

"Most of the leadership of the settlers has embraced the Disengagement Authority and feels that they are doing everything they can to help, and that they are working the problems and trying to solve them," Siegel said. "The government is sincerely committed to doing everything to complete this process of resettling these families on a communal basis and as quickly as we can."

In Baltimore, much of the support for the former settlers is coming from the Orthodox community, where opposition to the pullout was strongest.

Tucker is on a U.S. speaking tour to talk about her experience and raise money for displaced families. The Brooklyn-born daughter of Jewish refugees, she and her husband helped to found the Gaza settlement of Netzer Hazani in 1976. There, in the cluster of settlements known as Gush Katif, they built a 2-acre greenhouse and raised five children. Now, she says, her family is living in a motel near the coastal city of Ashkelon. "We're trying to bring up awareness of the people in the communities about what's happening in Israel and what's happening to the people of Gush Katif," she said. "And then we hope also to raise funds to help the people manage until we re-establish our businesses."

Mollie Scharfman, Paula Guttman Scharfman's 17-year-old daughter, is planning to join Jewish youth from throughout North America this week on a 10-day volunteer mission to Israel to assist the former settlers."We're planting gardens and painting houses and baby-sitting their children, building warehouses, hothouses - anything we can do," she said. "It's very hard to uproot your life from a place."

The Associated, an umbrella organization that raises money for Jewish agencies and programs, has established a fund to support the Israel Association of Community Centers and Lev Echad, groups that are helping to resettle the displaced families. The Associated has committed $20,000 to the Disengagement Fund and is seeking to raise more.

"We're always concerned about the wellbeing of families, particularly of children, particularly of seniors," said Matt Freedman, chief planning officer of The Associated. "If there's a victim of terror, if there is an elderly shut-in, if there's a hungry child, this is what we do."