By Ilana Messika/TPS
It is a Monday night in late February and the basement of the community center is brimming with teens. Strewn on the floor, on tables and on makeshift plastic shelves are assorted children’s clothes, blankets, packages of diapers, pacifiers, baby wipes and Materna formula. Seven or eight youths are packing the goods into care packages, while the rest of the volunteers keep track of the inventory and sort out new arrivals.
On the surface, the activity looks like any other charity drive, but this one comes with a twist: The teenagers are Orthodox residents of Efrat, the largest city in Gush Etzion, and the recipients of the boxes are refugees from the Syrian civil war.
“There is a common view, even from friends of other states, that Gush Etzion consists only of right-wingers who don’t care about Palestinians and who consider all Arabs to be enemies,”said Asher Krohn, a 12th grade student at Orot Yehuda school who heads up the effort. “But it isn’t true. Aside from the pure humanitarian aspect, it was important to step up and show that people from Judea and Samaria really do care and do want to help”.
Gush Etzion is a cluster of Jewish communities located in the Judean Mountains, directly south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. For the radical Left, that places the area at the center of the political controversy controversy surrounding the settlements, but the effort by residents here paint a different view of the community. Every two weeks for the past two months, trucks have rolled into town to collect supplies donated by residents of Efrat, Kfar Etzion, Elazar, Neve Daniel, and Alon Shvut. The goods are then transported north for the Amalia “buses of angels” to bring them to Syrian children in need over the border.
The project is run by some 30 teenagers from around Gush Etzion, who are responsible for publicity, collecting donations and drumming up support from local politicians and business leaders.
“The idea is to help as much as we can and raise awareness, not enough people know what is going on. We are also going to use the maillist of the different communities in Gush Etzion that we have in Efrat as a very extensive connection web, to reach a maximum of people,” said Krohn.
According to UNICEF 2016 Humanitarian Results, more than 8 million children have been affected (inside and outside Syria) by the Syrian civil war since it began in 2011, including more than 2.4 million children displaced.
“The teenagers work at a slightly different rate because for them, participating in the project is part of an educating and maturation process. We adults, do things very fast, but the kids ask lots of questions about how and the why. They needed to familiarize themselves with what is happening beyond the border.” explained Shoshi Bogoch, Director of Efrat’s Community Center.
“It created a dynamic discourse inside families that I consider is no less important than the contributions themselves”.
The group also contacted Rabbi Shivi Froman, a resident of Tekoa, another Gush Etzion community and the founder of ‘Syrians on the Fences’, a group that has collected more than a million shekels from about 8000 donors to buy equipment for children, in collaboration with the Israel Flying Aid (IFA). Froman’s late father, Rabbi Menachem Froman, was a leading Israeli voice for peace and reconciliation with the Arabs in the Palestinian Authority.
“Syrians on the Fences’ was created after so many Israelis, from different backgrounds, connected to talk about what we could do for Syrian victims beyond praying for them.” said Froman. “I know where our contributors come from, and I can say safely say that a very respectable part are from Gush Etzion.”
According to Bogoch, the initiative was also an advocacy project for the ‘settlements’.
“I lived for several years in the United States and I got to see Israel from outside, how we appear evil and how we often fail to be acknowledged and valued for the things we do right,” explained Shoshi Bogosh.
“This initiative is to remedy this perception of Judea and Samaria, to show the good things that originate here and that 90 percent of the time we live in peace with our neighbors.
“Even more, one of the most important outcomes of this project is a new understanding we have of ourselves, not as a self-obsessed and powerless minority but rather as people with the amazing opportunity to be in a situation where we can contribute,” Bogoch told TPS.