Students Flock To Aid North, but Did They?

By Rebecca Spence

Published January 05, 2007, issue of January 05, 2007.
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Kiryat Shmona, Israel - In the months since last summer’s war in Lebanon, an eerie quiet has taken hold in the north of Israel. The wail of sirens warning of Katyusha rocket attacks has long since ceased, and the loud din of explosions no longer pierces the fresh air of the Galilee. Just beneath the surface, however, lies a palpable sense that this is just the hush before another storm.

It is only a matter of time, residents say, before they will have to re-enter the sweltering bomb shelters that they inhabited during the 34 days when Israel and Hezbollah traded aerial assaults. But the next time the inhabitants of this border town, population 23,000, are forced to climb back down the stairs into their cramped shelters — it is only a matter of when, most say — they will find a starkly different subterranean environment. Instead of cold white walls, they will see washed blue walls with fish and flowers painted in bold primary colors. Reds, greens and yellows will have replaced the wan palette that lends the shelters the feel of a prison cell.

The change is the handiwork of Americans: An ambitiously large group of 550 college students and emerging Jewish leaders in their 20s and 30s have come to this economically destitute region as part of Leading Up North, a program created by the Center for Leadership Initiatives, a newly established foundation funded by Jewish mega-philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Over the course of 10 days, these volunteer service workers — among them a smattering of Jews from India, Latin America and Australia — will paint about 200 bomb shelters, out of the thousands that are in use here. They also will help to refurbish the charred landscape, felling dead pine trees that burned up when the majority of the Katyushas launched here from southern Lebanon landed in the open spaces of the Naftali mountains.

As is often the case in Israel, most of the major damage was repaired within months and, in some cases, even weeks. So these eager volunteers, working in 10 communities throughout the region, are attending to the more cosmetic work that otherwise would be left undone.

The question of whether or not the painting of bomb shelters is, in fact, merely a cosmetic salve of little consequence has emerged as a topic of intense debate. For the participants, selected from a pool of more than 3,000 applicants, the question is whether they are making a real impact on the lives of the people here or just prettying up things a bit. More broadly, the issue is just how effective — or ineffective — Jewish philanthropists and the legions of young Jews living in the Diaspora can be in providing meaningful assistance to Israel during its times of greatest crisis.

The Leading Up North project was inspired by the work of Andi Diamond, an Israeli interior designer who captured the media spotlight when she began painting bomb shelters during the war. After witnessing the transformative effect that the activity of painting had on the children forced to wait out the conflict in shelters, Diamond, 41, became convinced that turning the drab spaces into colorful rooms was a vital need. For the children, she said, painting the shelters with her served as a way for them “to overcome their trauma” and to enliven their broken spirits through a process that she likened to art therapy.

The expansion of her vision to an international project, Diamond said, represented the realization of a long-held dream. But program volunteers staying at the Kfar Giladi kibbutz, where 12 Israeli soldiers died last summer when a Katyusha landed in the cemetery as they awaited orders to cross into Lebanon, expressed mixed feelings about the lasting impact of their efforts. In interviews with the Forward, some described their interactions with local residents over the course of the trip as an invaluable exchange. Others said that they remained unsure whether their work was important enough to justify the hefty cost of the project, which covered all their expenses, and that they wondered if the $1.5 million that the CLI foundation had invested might have been put to better use as a direct donation to the ailing communities.

Many participants said that much of their early skepticism wore off after they had painted shelters and heard from parents how thrilled the children were to see the results. Several young residents even asked to have their birthday parties in the bomb shelters.

Sarah Greenberg, 25, a graduate student in psychology who lives in San Francisco, said that she felt conflicted about the program’s legacy. “If we all go back and remain proactive about fundraising, which is our goal, then it’s a great use of money,” she said. “If not, perhaps it would have been better to have employed underemployed people from the North to do what we’re doing.”

Joshua Lichtman, 32, a lawyer and farmer living in northwest Connecticut, was less generous in his assessment. He contended that the ideas underpinning Leading Up North are based on an old funding model in which people and financial resources are dispatched without buy-in from the communities they are intended to serve. “A lot of people have questioned the efficacy of taking $1.5 million and what you get is some painted bomb shelters,” he said. “I don’t think we’re helping the communities so much.”

Still, Lichtman said he saw value in the fact that the program sent a message to Israel that it could count on the Diaspora for support and reconnected hundreds of young people to the Jewish state, many of whom had not visited here for several years.

Local residents, still nursing the wounds of last summer’s trauma, also had mixed reactions. Ruhama Nakash, director of education in the town of Metulla, population 2,000, expressed enthusiasm for the undertaking. The vivid colors and playful designs will help the kids to feel comfortable in the shelters, where they inevitably will have to return, Nakash said. “You don’t want the children to be afraid,” she said in reference to the shelters, which also function as classrooms in times of peace. “It must be a kind place.”

Surveying one of three bomb shelters at the Hanadiv School, a local elementary school for 107 first through sixth graders, Nakash marveled at the green octopus and the cheerful butterfly that the outsiders had painted on the wall. But at a nearby high school, an 18-year-old student was less appreciative of the Americans’ efforts. “I don’t care,” the student said plainly, when asked by a reporter whether the fresh paint would make a difference in his experience of the shelters.

Leading Up North participants were divided into two groups, with college students, largely recruited through campus Hillel programs, working in the vicinity of Nahariya, in the Western Galilee. The 160 volunteers staying in Kiryat Shmona were meant to represent the top brass of young Jewish leadership in America and other diasporic countries. The elite group included past recipients of the Charles Schusterman award, given each year to alumni of Birthright Israel — a program that takes Jews from around the world on free trips to Israel — who demonstrate an increased commitment to Jewish communal life, and to alumni of the Kivvun gathering, an annual plenum organized by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation that allows for young Jewish professionals to network with one another.

Yoni Gordis, director of programs for CLI, saw in Leading Up North a new kind of model for service programs in the Jewish state. Simply giving the money to the region wouldn’t have afforded the same experience of service, he said, which was one of the project’s goals. “This world of service is potentially one of the most impactful bridges between Israel and the Diaspora,” he said.

Gordis also noted that Leading Up North had pumped significant sums of money into the northern Israeli economy, filling the hotels and connecting community organizations with potential partners and donors.

The trip culminated with a music and arts festival for northern residents, organized jointly with an Israeli foundation, where top-tier Israeli performers shared the stage with local bands. Ultimately, Gordis said, the benefits of the nascent experiment in uniting Jews to help rebuild the north far outweighed the costs. “The return on our investment,” he said, “is phenomenal.”

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