Savta Esther and the Hazan family in the Meir Panim afterschool club
Savta Esther and the Hazan family in the Meir Panim afterschool club

By Anna Harwood

This Pesach, as we celebrate the Jewish People’s redemption from the depth of slavery, let us not forget Southern Israel, which is still suffering from the aftereffects of years of terror, economic instability, and the recent army operation Pillar of Defense. Despite the reduction in headline news stories, the economic strains are still being felt in this tumultuous region.

On November 14, 2012, Israel was yet again engulfed in fighting on its Southern border. Operation Pillar of Defense was launched by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in response to the barrage of rockets emanating from the Gaza Strip. Israel looked on as the IDF began its widespread campaign targeting military structures and operatives throughout Gaza. In response, Hamas shot over 1,400 rockets into Israel reaching as far as Tel Aviv and the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The South of Israel was under attack. The sirens wailed day and night and the south shut down. Residents of cities such as Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Melachi, and Beer Sheva fled to their shelters. S’derot residents on Gaza’s border had long become familiar with the “Red Alert” warning them of imminent attack, but for those cities located up to 30 miles from Gaza, the operation came as a shock.

Factories closed, transport ceased, and citizens took cover. Six Israelis were killed, 269 Israelis were injured, and houses, cars, and businesses were damaged. For the South, which contains some of the most economically disadvantaged areas in Israel, the operation was yet another blow for their fragile economy.

But as the shelters once again gather dust, the south of Israel is still struggling to pick its feet up economically after years of poverty, distress, and neglect.

According to the central bureau of statistics, in 2001 31% of the South were classified as poor. The research used a new indicator to measure poverty and defined a person as poor when his “physical existence and needs distract him every minute of the day and therefore most of his economic resources are allocated to food consumption and residence.”

Just 15 miles from the Gaza Strip lies Kiryat Gat. During Operation Pillar of Defense rockets sent residents running for shelter, and this already poverty stricken city was plunged further into darkness. “The economic situation in Kiryat Gat is unstable. The operation made it worse; people didn’t leave their houses,” said Maya Naim whose house in Kiryat Gat was hit by one of the rockets coming from Gaza. “My business suffered, my house was damaged, and my disabled son’s car was destroyed.” Naim has received compensation for the damage to her house but the car was not included in this. She is now spending hundreds of shekels each month on taxis to enable her son to get to work.

Kiryat Gat’s residents struggle to provide for their families’ basic needs with the average wage being around 50% lower than the national average. Though the situation is dramatic and unemployment rates run high, there are organizations and individuals making a real difference to this troubled community. Esther Richtman is one such shining beacon and she was recently honored with the “Citizen of the City” award at a ceremony in the city center.

Richtman arrived in Kiryat Gat in 1964 from Romania with her husband, Abraham, and their first child on the way. Following a long career in the textile industry, the couple decided to spend their retirement giving back to the people of Kiryat Gat. Richtman, who is locally known as Savta Esther, has now become somewhat of a local celebrity thanks to her work with Meir Panim.

A leading Israeli relief organization, Meir Panim operates two Power of Giving warehouses in Southern Israel to distribute furniture, clothes, and other necessary household equipment for those who cannot afford to purchase them at regular prices. Richtman began volunteering at the Kiryat Gat warehouse sorting items and mending donated clothes. “I saw the good that Meir Panim was doing by supporting the poor but more importantly, how they did it with dignity.” (Customers pay a nominal fee for each item so that it does not feel like receiving a handout.)

Eight years ago, when volunteering in the warehouse, she overheard that Meir Panim was looking for someone to run their afterschool facility for some of the poorest children in Kiryat Gat and she jumped at the chance. “Within a week, Meir Panim had located premises for me, provided me with National Service volunteers, and we had decorated the club to feel like a home,” Richtman explains. “We are dealing with children whose parents cannot afford to feed them healthy meals each day, who are left to their own devices, and who simply continue their parents’ cycle of poverty.”

Together with Meir Panim, Savta Esther is working to break this cycle of poverty. The children turn up to school prepared because she delivers school supplies at the beginning of the school year. The children are able to study because they receive two hot meals a day and studying at school is complemented with homework help from the National Service volunteers. “I’m so grateful that Savta Esther came into our lives eight years ago,” said Chagit Hazan, mother of two participants in the afterschool club. “I work long hours in an old age home and try to support my children on my own, but without Savta Esther and Meir Panim I don’t know what we’d do.” Hazan says that there are parents and children queuing up to be admitted to the afterschool club.

Kiryat Gat is just one example of a city trying to get back on its feet now that peace has returned to the area, but it is not easy. “When the rockets stopped falling, Southern Israel slipped off the media radar,” explains Goldie Sternbuch, assistant director of overseas relations at Meir Panim. “But for those of us who witness this poverty daily, it is clear that help is needed now, as much as ever before.” Meir Panim is currently building a nutrition center located in Kiryat Gat which will not only produce the thousands of hot meals that Meir Panim needs to feed Israel’s poor each day but it will provide a much needed boost to Kiryat Gat’s dwindling economy.

“This Pesach we will be yet again distributing food cards to enable residents to stock their cupboards with the special foods needed at this time of year,” Sternbuch said. “We will be hosting hundreds of adults and children for communal Seders and hoping to bring a little joy to those in the midst of economic distress.” Like in previous years, Savta Esther also has a few tricks up her sleeve for the children of Kiryat Gat, and she looks forward to truly celebrating Pesach both with the children and also with their extended families. v


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