Thursday, February 02, 2023

Vered Shapiro and Maddie Steinberg weren’t even twinkles in their parents’ eyes when Jewish National Fund-USA began aiding Israel’s new border communities following the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. And they were still in booster seats in 2014 at the onset of Operation Protective Edge, when the organization delivered 30 mobile bomb shelters to the localities inside the Gaza Envelope. But as the cross-country cousins’ b’not mitzvah arrived in 2021–2022—on the heels of new violence that erupted in the region in May 2021—the continuing security needs of the children living in these desert communities captured their attention, compelling them to take action. Vered, who lives in New Jersey, and Maddie, who is in California, banded together from across the country to make a difference.

Vered and Maddie rallied family and friends from coast to coast to help them raise $10,000 to beautify two of the 100-plus bomb shelters in Israel’s southern region—one in Nitzan and one in Ashkelon. Interviewed via email the cousins explained that they were drawn to this mitzvah because “we both knew we wanted to help make a difference in the lives of kids like us living in Israel.”

When a siren sounds, Israelis have only 15 seconds to reach a shelter and avoid being in the path of disastrous rockets and missiles. Therefore, these concrete fortifications are a common part of the southern border’s landscape, placed every 328 feet (100 meters) in a neighborhood. The cousins said, “By choosing this project we truly felt as though we were leaving our mark in Israel, both artistically and for the safety of the civilians. By beautifying bomb shelters through playful art and imaginative designs, the once upsetting and scary cement boxes are less frightening and hopefully turned into magical masterpieces for the many children who need to race to one quickly when they hear the sirens.”

Managing both distance and time differences, the runup to unveiling the shelters was carried out remotely as the cousins brainstormed themes and designs over FaceTime. Fortunately, the teens were able to celebrate their simchas together in person. “Growing up so far apart for 13 years and yet getting the chance to stand side by side, proudly telling our guests [about] the impact we were making on children living in the Gaza envelope was such an emotional moment to experience.”

The cousins sifted through many great ideas to arrive at two beautiful and meaningful finalists to be airbrushed in vibrant, effervescent colors. The shelter in Nitzan, adjacent to the children’s soccer field and playground, features a sunset over the water “to represent the view of the sea they had in Gaza before they had to leave their homes.” The shelter in central Ashkelon is “a more urban interpretation of our ideas. This shelter include[s] our initials, our favorite places, music, but our favorite part [is] the sunset, which truly tie[s] the two shelters together.”

Vered and Maddie surpassed their fundraising goal and were able to donate the additional funds to other Jewish National Fund-USA initiatives supporting the children of the Gaza Envelope. Vered, her parents and two siblings traveled to Israel over Passover 2022 and included on their itinerary a visit to the newly beautified—and selfie-background-ready—shelters.

Seeing the completed shelters “made us realize that even though we’re only 13, we can truly make our mark for generations to come.”

The cousins intend to continue their work in Israel, “especially since it’s a place so close to our hearts and our heritage as Jewish people.” Indeed, the connection with Jewish National Fund-USA has spanned generations for both the Shapiros and Steinbergs. The blue tzedaka boxes were ever-present and always filled in all of their homes, and trees were planted (for and by them) for myriad special occasions. Vered’s parents, Adam and Rena, and Maddie’s parents, Jon and Rebecca, have instilled a love of Judaism and Israel in their daughters. Additionally, Adam attended Alexander Muss High School in Israel in Hod Hasharon and went on to become a Jewish educator.

“We knew at the outset that by choosing this project we would be bringing comfort and safety to children and communities, but we never anticipated that we could leave a footprint bigger than the shoes on our feet. We have loved every minute of this project and cannot wait to see where our journey with Jewish National Fund-USA will take us next.”

By Robyn Schwartz

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