Israelis find refuge with friends, strangers

By Deborah Fineblum Raub, JTA

TEL AVIV — There’s a crib standing ready in the Ariel family’s living room outside Tel Aviv. Within a few days there will be a new Israeli settled in between the stuffed animals. The new parents, Larisa and Daniel Ulianitsky, however, don’t live here. In fact they’d never laid eyes on the owners of the home until last Friday.

They had called the municipal offices of their northern town of Carmiel and explained that Larisa, at full term minus one week, could not be driven to the hospital through closed streets.

Soon the Ulianitskys, natives of Kiev, along with their 5-year-old son Lior and Larisa’s mother and her husband, were on their way to Tel Aviv in a match made by Babait Beyachad, a program of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

They are among thousands of families from the northern region of Israel who have found refuge from Hezbollah rockets in homes in the nation’s center. Some are with family or friends but others, like the Ulianitskys, with complete strangers.

“They came right before we made kiddush and have been part of the family ever since,” says Diana Ariel, whose household — and subsequent food bill — doubled, with no immediate end in sight.

An estimated 10,000 northern Israeli families have taken up residence in private homes, a figure that doesn’t include the thousands more in children’s camps and schools, tent cities and yeshivas, says Yehuda Freidiger, who is helping to run Israel Beyachad, another home hospitality program. The clearing house has 25 volunteer-staffed phones that ring around the clock, with both offers and requests for emergency housing.

In fact, the offers from people willing to open their homes has outweighed the number of requests to date, says Josie Arbel of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel, still another group that is making matches.

“The outpouring is amazing,” she says. “Now we’re hoping more people step up and ask us for housing, because we have homes ready to go.”

Adina Rosen, buying eggs and yogurt in a small shop in Jerusalem, fled her Safed home after a missile landed next door, killing her neighbor.

“We heard glass shattering and smelled smoke,” says the Kansas City native.

“My 10-year-old was really traumatized.” Now living with two of her children in a friend’s apartment in Har Nof, a religiously observant Jerusalem neighborhood, while her other three stay with relatives elsewhere in the country, Rosen says she has no idea when she’ll feel safe going home.

Others, like the Ulianitskys, who have no centrally located family or friends to move in with, have very specific needs which have to be considered when placing them in a home.

Whether they have a late-term or high-risk pregnancy, need dialysis or use a wheelchair, these individuals need a home equipped and located to meet their needs. One family felt no one would understand the fears and unpredictable behavior of their autistic son, unless it was another family with an autistic child. Within a day of receiving the request, such a family was found through Israel Beyachad.

Because they haven’t had the time to build an extensive network of friends throughout the country and because their Hebrew skills may be rudimentary, new immigrants in the North are often hard-pressed to find safe housing.

The numbers affected are considerable — and the flow has been little affected by the war. The Jewish Agency expects more than 2,000 North American immigrants to Israel in the first eight months of 2006. And on Tuesday, some 650 new Israelis touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport from France.

New arrivals are being sent daily from their northern homes to families in the nation’s center, through the Jewish Agency’s Babait Beyachad program.

These immigrants are getting their first taste of Israeli warmth, says Yair Redl, acting director-general of the Immigration and Absorption Department of the Jewish Agency.

“Openness and hospitality is a part of our culture,” he says, adding with a grin: “It’s the flip side of our chutzpah.”

That impulse to share led Mickey Hubner, who heads the international private banking department of the Israel Discount Bank, to pick up his phone last week and ask the manager of the bank’s Carmiel office if any of his employees needed a place to stay.

Within hours, a mother and her three children, ages 8 to 16 were on their way. More than a week later they remain with his family in Jerusalem.

“I hope they feel at home with us,” he says. “I know that, at first the little one was afraid of our two dogs but now he loves them, so something good came out of it.”

As for Larisa Ulianitsky, she is learning a bit about a new culture.

“I’d never tasted Persian food before,” she says, referring to her host family’s culinary preferences. “And it really is delicious.”

Thursday morning, Ulianitsky gave birth to a son in a Tel Aviv-area hospital. Her hostess, Diana Ariel, attended the birth. It went off without a hitch and mother and baby were resting comfortably. “My mother was so moved by the whole experience she was crying when she called me,” said Ariel’s daughter, Sharona. “Who would ever have believed such a story could happen?”