Thursday morning, day 20 of Israel’s war against Hamas and Hezbollah, I arrived at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem—except now, it is a hotel in name only. The Ramada has turned into the new town of Sderot North. Sderot, a community half a mile from the Gaza border, has had more than 10,000 rockets and mortars fired upon it in the last 18 years, with hundreds in the last three weeks alone. With the intensity of the deadly Hamas massacre on Simchat Torah and the force of the IDF response, some 22,000 residents from Sderot and tens of thousands of others from nearby towns and kibbutzim have been evacuated to safer areas within Israel, as well as families from the northern border, too.
The Ramada was one of the first hotels to accept refugees, and is certainly one of the biggest, housing some 1,500 displaced persons. These people are being subsidized by the government, and despite the set prices fixed for this—every hotel in the country gets the same rate regardless of the number of stars, location, etc.—the Ramada has gone beyond the call of duty, despite being short-staffed due to people being called up to reserve duty and some of the non-Jewish staff having trouble getting to work.
The residents of this new town are getting three meals a day, full buffet-style, with lots of kid friendly options. In the hotel, there are now several full-service medical clinics with doctors and nurses, as well as government representatives from various agencies helping with the paperwork and bureaucracy each family has to go through, Jerusalem municipality social workers are on duty in the lobby full time (offering immediate referrals to professional therapists as necessary), and there is a full school system.
The huge ballrooms of the Ramada have been turned into a full early-childhood center with volunteer staff including a preschool, pre-K, kindergarten, and a space for infants. The city of Jerusalem has helped set up an elementary school at the nearby Givat Ram campus of Hebrew University, with grades 1-6 having classes each morning. Next in the works is school for the upper grades and teenagers.
Some of the maintenance rooms have been turned into a laundromat. Donors have purchased washing machines and dryers for 25 hotels with displaced families, and here, the Ramada graciously brought in an electrician and plumber to install them properly. The machines are running non-stop—remember, the people left with clothes for their entire family for only three to four days, and it appears they may be here for two to three months.
Speaking of clothes, most of the hotels and distribution centers are flooded with donations of clothes—if you donate, please be sure it is high-quality, like new. Sadly, too many items donated are not suitable for others to wear.
And the Ramada might be the only facility in Israel that has allowed dog owners to bring their pets with them. Most pets have been stranded, put up for adoption, or placed with family and friends. David Tucker, general manager of the Ramada and chairman of the Jerusalem Hotel Association, said: “We are privileged to do our part for these people. We have gone out of our way to try to make them feel as comfortable as possible under some of the worst conditions Israel has seen. We have accommodated many of their needs, and will continue to do so.”
“It is hard to express in words how we are feeling. We have everything, but I just want my house back and my life back,” exclaimed Batsheva Goodman. Batsheva and her husband, Asher, live in Sderot with their four children, and are among the evacuated families at the Ramada. Batsheva was born on Long Island (Five Towns), and both have family in the greater New York and New Jersey area. One set of cousins, the Westrich family from Teaneck, have been active in writing letters to the editor published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. “There isn’t much to do for people living overseas, but hasbara (positive PR campaigns) is certainly one much-needed action that they can take,” said Asher, who is currently on active reserve duty. He had been in a combat unit for 15 years, and was recently reassigned to an IDF unit responsible for evaluating building and structural damage, since he is a civil engineer. “Our family overseas is 100% supportive of Israel, and this has made them want to make aliyah even sooner,” they both happily explain, and they add that they “have patience and can wait for the IDF to carry out its full and complete mission.”
Sderot is fortunate to have a very active nonprofit organization that is based on family memberships. Reut Sderot was started in the late 1990s by true Israeli Zionist pioneers. The idea was to move from the center of the country to an area where they could become a part of the city and help strengthen it. The core group of families that arrived has grown to over 400 families, with a waiting list to move to Sderot (despite the horrible situation that arises from time to time). Reut Sderot has been instrumental in creating elementary schools and other educational institutions and providing the qualified teachers to work there. Many of their members are certified teachers, among dozens of other professions. They have been so warmly received and recognized for their tireless work, that one of their own was elected mayor.
Shimmy Musai is the assistant director of Reut, and he and his family are at the Ramada as well. He explained that the Sderot families are in 12 different hotels in Jerusalem, and dozens more throughout the country. “Coordinating this entire operation is a huge project, and fortunately, about a month or two ago, Yaniv Tzabari, our executive director, had us run a drill for something similar. So, while we never thought we would ever have to use this plan, Yaniv had the foresight to have it ready, just in case,” said Shimmy. The motto of Reut Sderot is “A Community that Does Good,” and he and his fellow staff members show that it is possible to live up to that every day.
“Life is a gift to be used,” proclaimed Shimmy. His wife, Maayan, was a refugee herself from an Israeli community in Gush Katif (Gaza Strip area) in 2005 when Israel pulled out. Remembering the eight months she and her family had to spend in a hotel back then, she said, “I never want to see the inside of a hotel lobby again.”
Contributions to help the people of Sderot can be given through Reut Sderot https://reut.org.il/en or via Hands on Tzedakah, their 501(c)(3) tax accredited partner of 20 years at: https://handsontzedakah.org/donate/
Arnie Draiman is a philanthropic consultant helping people and foundations give their tzedaka. money away wisely, efficiently and effectively. He is also an experienced social media and website guru, and enjoys reviewing restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions. He can be reached at [email protected] or www.draimanconsulting.com