The $228 million question: How to rebuild Israel’s North?


ACRE, Israel — Salwa Zawawi’s tiny sewing shop in Acre’s Old City virtually shut down during Israel’s monthlong war with Hezbollah this summer as Katyusha rockets fell on the city.

It wasn’t clear whether Zawawi’s business would survive. But a grant of about $930 from the Jewish Agency for Israel has helped her cover rent, buy fabric and keep the doors open.

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“The money came just in time,” said her son, Fuad Zawawi.

The grant was one of about 1,000 that JAFI gave to small-business owners in the North. The money was drawn from the $320 million raised during and after the war as part of the United Jewish Communities’ Israel Emergency Campaign.

About $92 million was distributed through UJC’s partners in Israel, JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, during the war and immediately afterward.

How are the remaining $228 million being spent? The Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors met in Jerusalem last week, its first gathering since the war, in large part to address that question.

“We’re here to see what’s happening after the war,” Jane Sherman, co-chairwoman of the agency’s Israel department, said as she toured Acre with a group of fellow board members. Sherman’s department is overseeing the postwar expenditures.

JAFI will distribute grants and longer-term loans of up to $75,000 to small businesses in the North, accompanied by consultations on business plans.

Such assistance “helps encourage people to stay in the region,” Sherman said.

Reaching out to small businesses is a way of securing the regional economy as a whole, said Ofer Isseroff, JAFI’s director of finance and human resources.

“We know on average each small business supports four families,” he said. “The collapse of small businesses is like a snowball. It affects the entire economy.”

Small businesses were among the hardest hit sectors during the war. Many closed for the entire month of the war, with no money coming in, yet their bills and overhead remained. While larger businesses probably could absorb that kind of loss, it was not so clear small ones could.

Shmuel Miron, owner of an electronics repair store in Acre, also received a grant from JAFI.

“As someone who comes from the world of small business, I know that we can often get lost in the shuffle,” said the Romanian-born Miron, 63, who immigrated to Israel as a teenager. “Some people can fall between the cracks.”

During the war, JAFI provided funds to place air-conditioning units in bomb shelters and send about 25,000 children from the North to summer camps in the center of the country.

Postwar projects also include education, including $1,000 scholarships for students in the North. Adding another incentive to study in the North — northern colleges suffered a 60 percent dip in registration this fall — JAFI is giving $1,000 scholarships to Israelis who served in the army during the war.

Fostering regional pride also is on the postwar agenda: There are plans for a program to take schoolchildren on field trips around the North and teach them its history.

Increasing the Jewish population in the Galilee and investing in its development has been a long-term goal of the Israeli government, which is wary of the current demographic situation. A little more than half of the Galilee population is Arab.

Other informal education projects would bring volunteer tutors into after-school programs. Educational enrichment programs for immigrant children also would be a focus.

“This is a rare opportunity to make changes in the North,” Sherman said.

The remaining $210 million from the emergency fund is expected to go toward trauma counseling for children and to repair hospitals, schools and JAFI-owned buildings damaged by the war.

Doug Seserman, president and CEO of the Allied Federation of Colorado, walked through the narrow stone alleyways of Acre’s Old City, hearing stories of the war.

“My objective is to see the situation on the ground,” he said. “The war ended. The rebuilding is just beginning.”