Helping Israelis Recover, Rebuild & Emerge Stronger

Our Toronto Jewish community has always played an exceptional role in strengthening Israel. UJA’s work has been at the heart of that story, which is more important today than at any time in generations.

We recently sat down with Adir Koschitzky and Berry Meyerowitz, Co-Chairs of UJA’s Israel & Overseas Committee, to learn their insights from the Committee’s recent consultations in Israel – as well as UJA’s strategy to help Israelis recover, rebuild, and emerge stronger.

Our community stepped up in an extraordinary way after October 7th, with more than 12,000 people donating to UJA’s Emergency Appeal for the People of Israel.

As donations arrive, funds are transferred to our partners in Israel to ensure resources are available to meet evolving needs. In the first few months of the war, UJA’s Israel & Overseas Committee directed emergency allocations for urgent initiatives.

It is clear we are shifting to a new phase, focused on preparing for recovery and rebuilding. Can you speak to these different phases of priority?

Adir Koschitzky: We’ve broken it out into three buckets which are immediate, intermediate, and long-term.

The focus in the first phase was about helping those who were most impacted as quickly as we possibly could, to support the most basic needs. To give you an example, our largest emergency allocation went to the Jewish Agency’s Victims of Terror Fund. Within days, we were able to deliver roughly CAD $1,500 per family to 2,000 victim families to help with their immediate needs.

Firsthand Account: How the Victims of Terror Fund Helps the Survivors of October 7th

This was a program we had been funding for many years, and there were other allocations we made to partners we haven’t worked with in the past – like Magen David Adom and ZAKA – which were stretched for resources at a very critical moment. They reached out to us for help.

Watch: ZAKA’s Rescue Service Commander Speaks About Their Efforts (Viewer discretion advised)

We were also there to help the people of Sderot – a UJA partner city – relocate to Eilat/Eilot – another UJA partner community – and other areas in the country. This basically doubled the population of Eilat overnight. We helped with temporary shelter, food, clothes, and other basic needs. In addition to funds, we airlifted 42 tons of goods that were donated by the Toronto community.

Firsthand Account: How UJA's Reverse ShinShinim are Helping Evacuees in Eilat

Berry Meyerowitz: When we looked at the immediate needs of Magen David Adom, ZAKA, United Hatzalah, and others, we helped them replenish their materials and their supplies. They had used up most of their supplies after October 7th, because the situation is uncertain – and what happens if there is a war in the north?

Looking at the long-term, Sderot is a very important partner of ours. From the lookout on the edge of the city, you look into Gaza and can see where the terrorists came into the community. In terms of the long-term recovery, Sderot is part of what we're calling the Western Negev Cluster. It’s a large area that’s home to over 300,000 people in communities close to Gaza, many of which were devastated on October 7th.

One of the things that we did early on is help fund a consulting project that is working on a robust, long-term plan to revitalize the area. We felt that we could add more value to the entire initiative because Sderot is right there, and the city’s mayor is chairing the Cluster. We're helping our partner community, but we're also looking at the entire region.

You both recently returned from Israel, where the Israel & Overseas Committee conducted site visits and held consultations. While this happens regularly, the post-October 7th period is of course very different.

Berry:  The committee goes to Israel twice a year. It's incumbent upon committee members to participate on these consultations – and every committee member does so entirely at their own expense. It's an intense four-day trip where we meet with our partners on the ground, engage new partners, and deal with the governance of our allocations.

Post-October 7th, Adir and I have been holding almost daily calls with Susan Jackson (UJA’s most senior professional dealing with Israel & Overseas) and the committee speaks often to discuss the ongoing needs in Israel and what we can do to support.

As the emergency has evolved, we're evaluating more opportunities and trying to plan for the long-term recovery. Many of our partners on the ground don't have fully baked plans yet as the war is ongoing and the full needs aren’t yet clear.

So, we are taking a very patient and deliberate approach. Our Toronto community is very eager to help, and it’s important that our partners in Israel know that we’re going to be with them for the long-term.

Adir:  When you think about the post-October 7th response, without the relationships we had already established in Israel, our community could not have allocated emergency funds as quickly and as efficiently as we did. Those relationships and that ground-level knowledge were possible because we’ve held ongoing consultations over so many years. And it helps that, on our committee of roughly 20 members, we have community leaders whose relationships in Israel go back multiple decades.

I’ll be specific. Immediately after October 7th, the UJA professional staff, myself, Berry, and others got on the phone with some of our partners in Israel – such as the head of the Jewish Agency and the Mayor of Sderot. We were able to ask them directly: “What do you need? What's going on?”

The fact that we were able to immediately find out what their needs were, mobilize donor support in Toronto, and direct emergency funds into the hands of those who need it most within five days… is something you can only do when you have these long-term relationships, when you’re on the ground constantly, and have these commitments from trusted partners over many years.

There's still a war going on. It reminds me of a story that the Mayor of Sderot used to share. He said if you look back 20 years when the rockets were first escalating against Sderot, many communities from around the world showed up to help their city. But when the rockets stopped falling – and they had to deal with trauma, and rebuilding, and education – only Toronto was still there for them.

When the war is over, it’s going to be a very long rebuilding process. The Mayor of Sderot shared that, right now, he doesn’t know what his city is going to need. He leads a city of 36,000 people who are currently scattered in 200+ hotels and many Airbnbs in 100+ communities across Israel. But given Sderot’s relationship with Toronto – and our proven commitment and track record – he knows that we will be with them for the long run.

When you were there a few weeks ago for the committee’s consultations, what did you see or hear that either confirmed what you thought – or perhaps even surprised you?

Adir: Top of my list would have to be the resiliency and the creativity of Israelis that never fails to amaze.

For example, in Eilat, they literally built and now operate schools for children from Sderot, staffed by teachers from Sderot. They’re teaching students that came from across four or five schools in Sderot, trying to make life as normal as possible for them.

Think about this! Here are educators, administrators, teachers who are displaced in their own home, living in hotel rooms with their own family challenges. Then you've got students who have trauma as well. The fact that they were able to get this off the ground with money from Toronto – as well as funding from Sderot, Eilat, and the Jewish Agency – and provide a safe haven for these kids… it’s just unbelievable.

Thinking about the rebuild going forward was a big part of our fact-finding mission to determine how we can be part of it and make the greatest impact. As Berry said, our focus is going to be on partnering with those who have this kind of winning record. If they were able to do this in a time of war – in a community that's not their own – imagine what they're going to do when they get back to their homes and can rebuild.

Berry: These Israeli kids and teenagers are so incredibly mature because of the exposure to danger that they’ve had to endure. When you meet with these kids, and you ask them what it’s like living in a hotel far from home, they’ll tell you it’s nice to have a pool. They’ll tell you the first few days were great, but they want to go home. They want to live in their own house. They want to get back to life. And then they’ll tell you they’re used to living under rocket fire.

It's heartbreaking. That's why we are so focused on kids and youth programs, so they can have the best chance for a great quality of life. But because of the ongoing war, things are in flux and changing every day. We must take a very patient approach and allow our partners the time they need to plan for a multi-phased recovery. We keep in touch with them constantly. They know we're there and that we’re ready to go.

While we’re focused on the post-October 7th period, the committee has been operating for a long time.

Berry: The committee has been around for over 45 years. Its genesis was to maintain the connection between Toronto and specific communities in Israel. Our work in Israel was originally focused on nation-building. It was about helping these communities build community centres, science centres, and key facilities. We've been longtime partners with Eilat/Eilot, Bat Yam, and Sderot – and over the years, we've done a lot of really, really good work.

When I joined the committee about seven years ago, it was shifting its strategy and goals, because Israel was changing. The idea was that, in the Start-Up Nation, there was less of a need for funds to develop physical infrastructure. Our focus turned to social mobility and Jewish peoplehood, our connection to Israel, the people of Israel, and Jews worldwide. Research shows that kids who grow up in the centre of the country – in Tel Aviv, for example – have four times as much opportunity as kids who grow up in the periphery, such as in Sderot or Eilat. It affects their entire future.

We started to focus on our partner communities as the launching pads for programs that will help kids in the periphery keep up with the kids in the centre, so they have as much opportunity as anyone else to be able to succeed and excel in life in Israel.  Where possible, we try to fund or initiate a program in Israel that may be able to be brought back to Toronto and have a twinning opportunity. That’s the genesis of how it all started, and what we've been doing for the last seven years. Only now it's much more acute.

Building on that, how does the Israel & Overseas Committee go about implementing the strategy?

Adir: To what Berry was saying, I’ll add that there's also the “overseas” component of the committee. If you think about pre-October 7th, one of the key events that occurred geopolitically over the last couple of years was the war in Ukraine.

Part of the committee’s mandate is to support a “Global 911” system to help Jews in need. The way we go about doing that, whether it's on the overseas component or in Israel, is by partnering with the largest and the best organizations on the ground. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has been operating in Europe since before World War Two. They enabled us to be a part of programs on the ground to help Jews who have been impacted by the war in Ukraine.

In Israel, as Berry mentioned, our strategy has shifted to social mobility, particularly helping Jews in the periphery. There are partners on the ground in Israel who we work with, who present programs to us, and to whom we make strategic grants.

As part of that strategy, we're willing to take the risk to support game-changing initiatives that can really have a larger impact for Israelis. We're willing to take that risk on a smaller scale and, when a program is successful, hand it off – whether to the government or another entity – to have an impact on a much larger population than the initial target group.

I’ll give you just one example. Everyone knows that Israel develops some of the best tech professionals in the world. However, to get into the industry at all, you need to have computer skills in high school or even in elementary school. Many Israelis live in the country’s periphery – such as an isolated city like Eilat – or below the poverty line, and they don't have access to a computer, let alone the relevant educational programs.

So we partnered with an organization called Rashi, and others that operate AI skills training, focusing on kids in the periphery in grades five and six. This gives them a skillset that puts them on the path for post-secondary education, and ultimately very well-paying jobs that can then lift their families out of poverty. Again, this is a small investment by Toronto that has been matched by partners in Israel and has grown across several communities in the region. It’s an example of taking initiative in one area, in a way that can have a long-lasting impact on society.

Berry: We have a small team of amazing professionals representing Toronto on the ground in Israel. With their support, we do a tremendous amount of due diligence. We work with partners – like Rashi, the Jewish Agency, and the JDC – who have proven track records and the kind of data and metrics where we can fully understand where our money is going.

We’ve had partners and other organizations come to us with programs – or asking where the biggest need is – and because they trust Toronto, we’re able to steer pilot programs into our partner cities like Sderot. And then once it's proven successful, as Adir says, we leverage those dollars to try to bring in the local municipality, other NGOs, Israeli philanthropists, and then put it together for the government to evaluate. When the government adopts it on a broader scale, it’s a big checkmark for us.

Then we move on to the next big challenge. We've been able to do that successfully multiple times, and we're continuing to look for those opportunities where we can start small and scale up.

We're always pitched new programs and conducted due diligence on who they are and what their track record is. Where's the money going? How do we have oversight over our funds? Whether at home or on the ground, we have professionals and lay leaders who understand that we're a fiduciary of our Toronto community's money, so we need to have visibility all the time to ensure that the metrics are there for success.

UJA Toronto’s reputation in Israel is fantastic. We are constantly being approached by foundations, organizations – and other federations from around the world – and North America in particular. They know we have unique expertise.

The response to October 7th has been a global Jewish issue. But it’s also very personal to each of us. So I want to close on a personal note.

You’ve each dedicated so much of yourselves as volunteer leaders – including tremendous time and thought – to this work, long before October 7th. What’s your origin story in terms of what inspired you to get this involved?

Adir: I'm fortunate to be a product of the Toronto Jewish community. I went to Jewish day schools here, both in elementary and high school. I went to Jewish summer camps in Ontario. Zionism is core to my identity – and I believe Israel is the future of the Jewish people. It's our responsibility to do what we can to help Israel, but also strengthen the link between our community in Toronto and the people of Israel.

As important as the work that’s being done to help Israelis and enable Toronto Jewry to feel connected to Israel, I don't think the average Israeli knows that there are almost 200,000 Jews in Toronto; or that we’re a very Zionist and engaged community. Part of our mission – and a part of our recent consultations in Israel – was to show our support, and to demonstrate that there are Jews globally who care about Israelis, who are there for them, who will invest in them, and will be there for the long run.

Berry: One of the things that we have realized over the years is that most Israelis don't know about the Diaspora. They don't know that there are millions of Jews outside of Israel who care so much about Israel… and they've never really had to.

A few years ago, we took a different approach where instead of going to Israel for a consultation, we brought the three mayors of our partner cities to Toronto. They came to UJA’s Walk with Israel and saw how many people came out to support Israel. They were blown away. That was very important for our reciprocal relationship for them to see our support – and the challenges we face in our own community.

October 7th is the first time that many Israelis, especially young Israelis, have seen antisemitism. Before that, they had never experienced antisemitism. Now they see it online. They don't see it in Israel, but they see it in New York and in Sydney - and in Toronto. They've never had to deal with this before, and now they're starting to understand that there's a lot of Jews outside of Israel who care, and who are being impacted by this growing hate.

I was born in South Africa. My Dad's two sisters immigrated to Israel in the mid-1960s, and I have a huge family in Israel. I have always had a deep relationship with Israel and my family there. I've been involved with UJA Federation for many years, mainly on the Arts and Entertainment side. Seven or so years ago, the opportunity to join the Israel & Overseas committee came up and I jumped at it.

My passion resides with Israel, but it's also about our youth and the future. It starts with understanding, frankly, how lucky our kids are to live here in Toronto. The kids who are born in Israel, who have to live under constant rocket fire and war, it's not their choice, and it's not fair. We do whatever we can to try to help them and improve their lives, because we believe that a Jew is a Jew, and it doesn't matter where you are.

October 7th really showed that we need to engage in a way like we never have before. First, to provide the moral support so that Israelis know that we're here to support them. And then to responsibly direct all the funds that we have raised to make the biggest possible impact for the future of Israel, which will also contribute to the long-term strength of community.


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