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      Op-Ed: Doing Good in Lod-also in Haiti

      Published: Friday, January 22, 2010 1:00 PM
      You have seen Israel's army and medical personnel's altruistic aid to Haiti. Do you know about the social and educational altruism of young, idealistic couples in Israel for Israelis? Here is a heartwarming example to enrich your Sabbath.


      When Israelis think of the town Lod they see slums, poverty, tension between Arab and Jewish residents, gang wars and drugs. A recent spate of articles in the Hebrew press featured growing radicalization among the Moslem population: mosques that have stood empty since the War of Independence have reopened and are bursting at the seams; women are increasingly seen dressed in the traditional black dress and veil; moderate Arabs are being
      There have been desecrations of Israeli flags in a mixed high school and a demand to fly the Radical Islamic Movement flag.
      intimidated and there is almost daily incitement against Jewish neighbors.

      There’s even a real estate “war” that is taking place.  Young Israeli Arab families are buying  apartments and houses once occupied by Jewish families and thereby causing the flight of more Jewish neighbors, lowered property values, and abandoned neighborhood institutions.  There have been desecrations of Israeli flags in a mixed high school and a demand to fly the Radical Islamic Movement flag there.  Skullcap wearing school children have been attacked on their way to the grocery store. 

      What Israeli Jewish family could possibly want to live in Lod?

      For the past 14 years a Garin Torani, an organized group of young, religious Zionist couples who move to development areas together to effect educational change, have chosen to make Lod their home. They are working indefatigably to change the trend to leave the city, to assure a strong Jewish presence in one of the central towns of Israel, and to assist the weaker population of Lod who had begun to feel abandoned.  The Garin has established a Yeshiva high school, a girls’ Ulpana high school , two community centers, classes for adolescent girls, classes in existing synagogues, clothes and food distribution to the needy, a Seminar program for National Service volunteers and enrichment programs for young parents of kindergarten children.

      A new housing unit of 150 apartments built by the Garin has 100% occupancy and another 352 units are being built, proving “that they’re here to stay”, according to Aaron Atias, the director of the Garin.  Aaron didn’t come to
      What Israeli Jewish family could possibly want to live in Lod?
      Lod for idealistic reasons.  He was born there. With great pride he introduces us to the Garin’s latest project, “MaOz”, a pre-military academy (mechina kedam tzevait), established four years ago, which combines Yeshiva studies with army training.  The academy held a dedication ceremony in their newly renovated school building recently.

      Therein lies a story.

      “One of the most neglected, run down and problematic neighborhoods in Lod is Ramat Eshkol,” says Aaron.  The neighborhood population is 60% Arab and the rest are Ethiopean immigrants and destitute Jews who don’t have the money or motivation to move.  The crime rate is so high that women are afraid to walk out even in daylight.  “We heard that an elementary school was closing down in Ramat Eshkol and asked city hall to let our pre-army Yeshiva use the building.  We hoped to change the downward spiraling of the neighborhood by our very presence, and despite some dissent from Arab residents, we were given this building last September.”

      The school building was in very dilapidated condition, but the Garin didn’t have funding to make renovations.  The boys slept in abandoned classrooms, studied in an assembly hall with no air conditioning in the humid climate of Lod and for a while even showered with a garden hose on the sports field.  But they immediately set about making themselves useful in the neighborhood.  They invited children into the building for help with  homework and Bar Mitzvah lessons.  They began distributing food packages to needy families.  They did renovations such as painting run-down houses of single parent families and played basketball with adolescents who had dropped out of school.

      One day Aaron was walking in the street when he noticed a well dressed young woman who was obviously involved in Ramat Eshkol.  It turned out that Ilanit Ostrovitzky and her parents had themselves been attracted to helping the Ethiopian immigrants in the neighborhood having heard of their dire situation, and had initiated similar programs to those that the students at MaOz were conducting.  “We decided to combine forces,” says Aaron with a smile
      It’s just our presence, just being here, which makes all the difference in the world.”
      .  “We came to help the Ethiopians and ended up adopting the pre-military academy,” said Ilanit’s father, Izo Ostrovitzky, a businessman with a big heart, at the dedication ceremony.

      Since the Oztrovitzky Family’s involvement, and with the help of other donors, the Yeshiva has undergone many changes.  The upstairs classrooms have been converted to comfortable dormitories.  There is an attractive lobby, quarters for staff members, a physical fitness room, and what may well turn into an interior patio.  Downstairs is a roomy Beit Midrash (study hall) and synagogue, open to the residents as well as the students, a dining hall and kitchen. Outdoors a big sports field which is shared not only with the Jewish children of the neighborhood, but with a nearby Arab school.

      At the dedication of the refurbished site, after the speeches by honored guests like Chief Army Chaplain General Avichail Rudensky, Minister of Science, Daniel Hershkovitz and Director of Meir Panim, Dudie Zilbershlag, one of the students, Itamar Goldstein (“Itus”), explained the goals of the group. “We study Talmud, we prepare for the army, and we try to give the neighbors a feeling that things can be better.  In the end it’s not just the help we extend, the games we play with the children, the food we distribute.  It’s just our presence, just being here, which makes all the difference in the world.”