Amid terror, Jerusalem agencies spring into action

Social workers helping these families knew the parents needed help beyond what the authorities could provide. So they called the Committee of Voluntary Organizations for the Absorption of Immigrants.

Within 24 hours, a team of volunteers was at the side of the victims' families, providing hot meals and helping the younger children when the parents were away at the hospital.

This case is typical of the way the Jerusalem municipality coordinates with and relies upon volunteers to help needy immigrants.

In a country where bureaucratic ineptness and narrow political interests often outweigh efficiency of services, the relationship between the committee and the municipality is a special one.

The committee and volunteer group, the Council of Welfare Services, was set up in the 1970s by then-Mayor Teddy Kollek to encourage volunteer services in outlying neighborhoods.

At the time, the committee consisted of four women's organizations — WIZO, Na'amat, Emunah and the Association of Women Academics. The panel has since expanded to comprise 24 organizations, including the Israel Cancer Society, Yad Sarah, Hadassah Israel, Keren Klita, the Zionist Forum and the Association for Retired Immigrants.

It has an executive board and a panel of representatives from each group. Its members also include those whose mission is to help newcomers.

"We have wonderful, active volunteers, who are so willing to give, and who go beyond what they need to do to help people," says the committee chairwoman, Dr. Pnina Zabari. The aim of the committee is to coordinate the efforts of all these altruists "to avoid overlap and utilize manpower and resources as efficiently as possible," she says.

With terrorist attacks and the difficult economic situation, volunteerism in Jerusalem is strong, says Zabari.

"These are people who give their all," she continues. "There are many instances in which a volunteer becomes a close family friend to those they are helping."

Few volunteers, it seems, are not involved in the city's facets of life. Their activities are the backbone of Israeli social services. With budgetary cuts, and overburdened social workers, the government and municipalities are unable to meet the growing welfare needs. And with a rising unemployment rate, large new-immigrant and elderly populations, and escalating poverty, volunteers are picking up some of the slack.

"The government isn't providing all the necessary services," says Zabari. "And people, seeing the country going to pot, want to do something about it."

Last year alone, the committee ran dozens of projects, both on a city and neighborhood level, says Zabari. For Ethiopian children entering first grade at the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, the committee bought 240 new school bags and 60 bags for kindergarteners.

In Gilo, where frequent shooting attacks from Beit Jala have turned the neighborhood into a war zone, there is a large concentration of new immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Iran. The committee equipped kindergarten classrooms with indoor play equipment, video machines and television sets, as the children were unable to go outside. They also provided trips for elderly newcomers to Gilo, a psychologist to work with the elderly and field trips for teenagers.

"Together, we are trying to provide for the physical, cultural and spiritual needs of newcomers to Jerusalem, whether they are from Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, North America, France, Argentina, Iran. We want them to make Jerusalem their home," said Ya'acov Sabbagh, director of the city's Absorption Authority. The authority supervises 11 coordinators working in neighborhoods throughout Jerusalem. They absorb each new immigrant family or individual in their neighborhood and accompany them through the initial bureaucratic absorption maze, from the Ministry of Absorption to the Ministry of Interior to opening a bank account.

Miriam Meyouchas, a founding member of the voluntary committee that helps immigrants, says the committee worked with volunteer organizations to match them with different neighborhoods, ensuring that each immigrant population had the appropriate volunteers working with them.

"We bring the volunteers and the problems which they feel need attention to the municipality, and work with them to find solutions," Meyouchas says.

Meyouchas, who received an award for her years of dedication, recalls a time when some volunteer organizations did not think it was worth their while to join the umbrella committee, preferring to operate independently.

Then they saw the consequences of working at cross-purposes, which can result from a lack of coordination, Meyouchas explains. For example, she says, some years back when an influx of new Russian immigrants came to the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center, two volunteers from different organizations met at the same house, offering the family the same provisions.

"After this, both organizations understood the importance of joining the committee and using their resources and energy efficiently," says Meyouchas.

Another prominent volunteer is Jamila Mehrian, who came from Tehran in 1979, after the fall of the shah. An educated and cultured woman, she left behind six sisters and her parents, who chose to go to America. Her husband had family in Israel, and they felt the future of their three children was here.

"I was an active volunteer in Tehran in Muslim organizations and in WIZO to help those in need," recalls Mehrian, 60.

When she came to Israel, Mehrian experienced culture shock. Not only could she not speak Hebrew, but she was treated as a second-class citizen, she says. "Everyone called us 'Farsi' [Persian] in a derogatory way, and I understood that they had no idea what our culture was all about."

To explain Persian culture, Mehrian set up her own organization with her own money and went to schools, organized cultural activities, lectured and organized exhibitions.

Eventually, Mehrian's activities led her to work with new immigrants from Iran, helping them overcome the same difficulties she faced.

"I raise money for the Iranian community. My whole family helps in the effort, including those in the United States."

She recently received an award from Mayor Ehud Olmert recognizing her volunteer work.

Mehiran now works with Nesli-Sephardi Women for Jerusalem, and interacts directly to new immigrants, bringing them heaters, blankets, food, clothes, helping with medical needs and assisting parents in giving their sons a modest bar-mitzvah celebration.

Some of them "call me their angel," she says. "Sometimes, the smallest gestures make the greatest impact." In Neveh Ya'acov, the committee brought together all the separate bodies working with new immigrants to discuss the pressing issues facing this population. Many useful projects emerged from their ensuing cooperation.

Keren Klita established a program for the elderly, Emunah, helping new-immigrant pupils in the religious school. Volunteers set up a multimedia room and established a summer camp program for new-immigrant children.

"The Keren Klita program has been an incredible success," says Zabari. "We are now expanding it to bring members of Jerusalem's youth movements and musicians to the homebound elderly. The interaction is extraordinary."

Zabari, a gerontologist by profession, established an Elderly Visitors Program for homebound elderly immigrants in 1993. The program also trains pre-retirement-age volunteers from the former Soviet Union to work with this population. It serves five neighborhoods, with almost 40 visitors working with 130 homebound seniors.

For these seniors, the visitors are their only connection to the outside world.

Foundations in Israel and abroad provide funding for the committee, but finances are a constant struggle. "We have wonderful, active volunteers, who are so willing to give, and who go beyond what they need to do to help people," says Zabari. "With additional financial support we could make a difference to so many more people.

Zabari wants to help teen immigrants to develop a strong Jewish identity and to prevent missionaries from recruiting them. She would like the committee to establish a youth group for new immigrants.

Unlike many organizations that believe immediate integration is the most effective way for new-immigrant youth to become part of the society, Zabari feels that teen-agers need to be with others who speak their language and know their culture in order to build their sense of identity. Once they have a strong identity they are better able to integrate into Israeli society.

"Teenagers find themselves in conflict when they come to Israel. They need to build their self-image and their self-identity with their peers, and then branch out," Zabari said.