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Picture of the Week

Photo of the Week – Tel Aviv takes to the beach

On a bright blue, beautiful day, there’s nothing nicer than a trip to the beach, whether for swimming, sunbathing or sailing.

This week’s photograph from www.shutterstock.com

This week’s photograph from shutterstock.com

This week’s photograph from shutterstock.com

If you’ve got a photograph you’d like to feature on ISRAEL21c please send it in high resolution to info@israel21c.org. Every week we will choose the best one to feature on our pages.

cap 1: ‘A moment of kindness’ with kids at Felicia’s daycare. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman
Profiles

Messenger of mercy in South Tel Aviv

cap 1: ‘A moment of kindness’ with kids at Felicia’s daycare. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

‘A moment of kindness’ with kids at Felicia’s daycare. Photo by Abigail Klein Leichman

Once upon a time, Gideon Ben-Ami brought Israeli musicians to Carnegie Hall in Manhattan. Today he brings fresh food to a shelter for drug-addicted streetwalkers in Tel Aviv.

The former impresario, restaurateur and alternative-energy executive also delivers sandwiches to homeless men, fruit to migrant children, medicine to a refugee clinic, toys and food to a battered-women’s shelter and diapers to destitute young parents and elderly Holocaust survivors.

“There are a million poor people here,” Ben-Ami tells ISRAEL21c as he drives his little white van through the shabby streets of South Tel Aviv. “We can’t reach them all. We are reaching people who are in the worst possible situation.”

The goodhearted 69-year-old grandfather casts a ray of light on a bleak landscape. He knows everybody’s stories and tries to fill their needs. Among the items stashed in the van today are expensive pressure stockings for an African man and woman burned in a grisly arson attack.

“The main thing is food, produce and money to help people recover from overwhelming tragedies, like the couple who was burned,” he says. “But there are smaller cases that are just as tragic, and existing charities don’t have the wherewithal to help them all.”

A messenger

For decades, Ben-Ami owned and managed a popular chain of eateries in Miami and Israel. It killed him to see how much food is tossed out by restaurants, bakeries and caterers. After he retired, he handed out sandwiches to homeless people in Tel Aviv.

When African refugees and migrants began flooding South Tel Aviv a couple of years ago, Ben-Ami volunteered to manage a humanitarian program, bringing rescued food to the makeshift tent city set up by the municipality in Levinsky Park.

A volunteer for the New Jersey-based Good People Fund observed Ben-Ami at Levinsky and recruited him to continue his charitable work with the fund’s support. He was delighted to devote himself full time to something he finds so rewarding.

“I’m basically a shaliach [messenger],” he explains. “The essence of what I do is taking things from one point and bringing them to another, knowing when to pick up and what to pick up because there is so much out there. It’s a small program with many facets.”

He coordinates his activities with other charities including Leket Israel, the national food bank. Ben-Ami delivers tons of Leket’s rescued food and gleaned produce to homeless shelters, battered-women’s shelters, prisoner halfway houses and African daycare centers.

He stores some of the produce in an alcove next to a publicly funded safe house where homeless and drug-addicted women working the streets can shower, grab a bite and sleep in a real bed. This project was formerly managed by his ex-wife, Manya, an addictions counselor and recovery coach.

A nearby commercial building houses Turning the Tables, where women in recovery learn marketable design and fashion skills. On our outing, Ben-Ami takes them some of the sandwiches he’s just picked up at the regional police headquarters near Jaffa.

At least once a week, Ben-Ami pulls his van to the station’s loading dock to receive hundreds of leftover sandwiches boxed up by Officer Eyal Raviv. Sometimes he brings Raviv food packages to take to a destitute family in another city.

“He’s one of a kind. I can only say good words about this man,” Raviv tells ISRAEL21c. Until he and Ben-Ami paired up, the leftover sandwiches were thrown away.

Nowhere to play

Today, some of these sandwiches will help fill bellies at Felicia’s daycare for African children. In this overcrowded and barebones facility, 17 preschoolers crowd around to shake Ben-Ami’s hand and shout “Shalom!” Clearly, the brief visit brightens their day. Ben-Ami calls it “a moment of kindness.”

Felicia doesn’t have a play yard. Once a week, volunteers travel down from Zichron Yaakov to take the youngsters to the park. They work with Ben-Ami to fill a variety of social-welfare gaps in South Tel Aviv through what he calls micro-charity.

A doctor in the group collected medicine samples from her colleagues for Ben-Ami to take to the migrant clinic in the Central Bus Station. Her daughter arranged with Ben-Ami to repair a decrepit daycare with a bunch of her friends. They collect cash to supplement the rent of an Eritrean migrant, Marhawi, whose wife hung herself and left him with two babies. When the older child was in the hospital recently, the group lined up visitors.

Ben-Ami stops at Levinksy Park to pick up a member of the group who has taken Marhawi and his children under her wing. “Every month I’ve been coming down to spend a couple of hours with Gideon helping where I can,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

Volunteers provide homemade soup for Ben-Ami to deliver each week. Photo courtesy of the Good People Fund

Volunteers provide homemade soup for Ben-Ami to deliver each week. Photo courtesy of the Good People Fund

The volunteers are sometimes heckled as they accompany African children to the park. Ben-Ami can’t understand this. “The Bible commands us about 36 times to care for the stranger. If we are to be a light unto the nations, we need to set an example.”

Caring for others is in Ben-Ami’s DNA. Back in Russia, his grandmother Pesia ran a soup kitchen out of her home for students at the esteemed Volozhin Yeshiva. When poor neighbors borrowed her oven to warm their simple bean stews, she’d slip a piece of meat into the pot.

Born in Israel, Ben-Ami lived in the United States from the age of 12 until the oldest of his own four children was 12. Throughout his long and varied career, he confides, he made and lost millions. Now he is content living a life immersed in charity work.

“I discovered life is so much more beautiful and enriching if you live with voluntary simplicity, and that’s what I want my children to see.”

It seems they’ve taken his example to heart. Several times a week, one of his sons helps with the deliveries. His daughter recently asked him to help her distribute foodstuffs she collected for Holocaust survivors.

Gideon Ben-Ami and his son Doron loading produce into the van.

Gideon Ben-Ami and his son Doron loading produce into the van.

Ben-Ami always thinks of new ways to help the downtrodden. He supplied industrial-size pots to eight Tel Aviv women to make soup every week for homeless shelters. He wants to rent a storefront and turn it into a takeout soup kitchen. He finds dishwashing and table-busing jobs for down-on-their luck locals, thanks to his restaurant connections.

“Gideon’s greatest delight comes from feeding hungry people,” says The Good People Fund Executive Director Naomi Eisenberger. “He also has an uncanny ability to discover the poorest and most overlooked people hidden in Tel Aviv’s bustling metropolis. For those fortunate enough to meet him, life can improve dramatically.”

These three men from Zarka are learning to be surfing instructors. Photo courtesy of Green Prophet
Behind the scenes at ISRAEL21c

‘Peace surfer’ thanks ISRAEL21c

These three men from Zarka are learning to be surfing instructors. Photo courtesy of Green Prophet

These three men from Zarka are learning to be surfing instructors. Photo courtesy of Green Prophet

ISRAEL21c’s article on Nitzan Solan, a young Israeli engineer who surfs with Arab-Israelis in the coastal village of Zarka, has led to a new “surfing for peace” initiative.

Shortly after she read the piece published in July, Neta Hanien, co-owner of Juha’s Guest House in Zarka, contacted Solan.

“Neta told me about a lot of people looking for surfing lessons,” Solan tells ISRAEL21c. “She wants to establish a surfing school at the Guest House, and she realized that I am the girl to help her do it.”

The two women organized a training day for three new surfing instructors from Zarka, a disadvantaged village that is trying to boost its tourism offerings.They worked in conjunction with Arthur Raskovin, owner of Tel Aviv’s Doctor Surfsurfing school and cofounder of Surfers 4 Peace, an Israel-based organization that uses surfing-related activities as a hand of friendship to Gazan Arabs.

“We all connected and had a great day,” Solan says.

And that was despite the fact that the training day took place in August, during Israel’s 50-day military conflict with Hamas in Gaza.

Now, Solan and Hanien are trying to build on that good start by soliciting donations of surfboards for Zarka youth interested in pursuing the sport.

“We’re trying to push it forward. We want to provide help for these [Arab-Israeli] kids to surf on their own, and it’s really exciting. And it all started from the article on ISRAEL21c,” says Solan, giving credit to the story’s author, Karin Kloosterman, for sparking the connections.

For more information, contact Solan at nitzan.livingreen@gmail.com.

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Israel in Pictures,Picture of the Week

Photo of the Week – Boat by the Kinneret

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It may actually be a freshwater lake, but the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel is still a focal point for fishermen and water sports lovers throughout the region.

Called the Kinneret in Israel, the Sea of Galilee is the only freshwater lake in Israel, and the lowest in the world.

The most popular fish caught in the sea are the St. Peter’s fish (tilapia), but stocks of this fish are declining.

This week’s Photo of the Week was taken by FLASH90.

 

If you’ve got a photograph you’d like to feature on ISRAEL21c please send it in high resolution to info@israel21c.org. Every week we will choose the best one to feature on our pages.

 

Filmmaker Laura Bialis included scenes from her Sderot wedding in Rock in the Red Zone
Music

Rock in the Red Zone: music and romance in Sderot

Filmmaker Laura Bialis included scenes from her Sderot wedding in Rock in the Red Zone

Filmmaker Laura Bialis included scenes from her Sderot wedding in Rock in the Red Zone

When Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Laura Bialis came to Sderot in 2007 to see how its music scene was shaped by the unrelenting drum of Kassam rockets, she found a flourishing “little Liverpool” in the small working-class city less than a mile from the Gaza Strip.

Bialis fell in love with Sderot and married one of its musicians, Avi Vaknin. Ultimately, Sderot’s story became hers.

Rock in the Red Zone will have its world premiere on Oct. 14 at 2pm at the 30th Haifa International Film Festival.

Though filming began seven years ago, the movie ends with present-day scenes. Bialis believes its message is especially relevant in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge.

“The film is about life under rocket fire in the South, but as I was making the film I had the sense that in many ways Sderot is a microcosm of Israel, a kind of a metaphor,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

“Just like many Israelis wouldn’t go to Sderot, many people from the US wouldn’t come to Israel. They don’t understand how we can live here. One of the most beautiful and amazing things I discovered in Sderot was that people are incredibly resilient, and that was how it was throughout Israel in the latest war. Rockets were flying and there were still weddings and bar mitzvahs and people trying to live their lives,” Bialis says.

“My film is about the resilience of Israeli society, and how people in Sderot make music and continue their lives despite everything. And what’s happening in the story is not just about Sderot anymore. The film is kind of a prologue to what we’ve just seen this summer– the unbelievable reality that has existed in the South of Israel for years, to which most of the world has been largely indifferent.”

Young musicians rehearsing in Sderock, the city’s music club in a bomb shelter.

Young musicians rehearsing in Sderock, the city’s music club in a bomb shelter.

City of music

Bialis came to Sderot at the urging of some of the subjects in her award-winning Refusenik, documenting the 30-year international human-rights campaign to free Soviet Jewry. Their emails from Israel spoke of a humanitarian crisis in Sderot that the media were ignoring. By 2007, 7,000 Gazan rockets had hit Sderot, and thousands more were to come.

“I couldn’t just sit there and not do something,” she told ISRAEL21c when we initially featured her project in 2009. “I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘You have a camera and you know how to tell a story and make movies, so go there and do it.’”

She discovered that Sderot had earlier earned the moniker of ir hamusica, the city of music. “I’d always heard that good music comes from hard places,” she narrates in the film.

Moroccan-Israeli musicians from Sderot created a new genre of Israeli music by merging traditional North African melodies with contemporary rock. Iconic bands that started in the city include Teapacks, K’nesiyat HaSekhel (Church of Reason) and Sfatayim (Lips).

Bialis met Vaknin when he was managing Sderock, a long-running music club and rehearsal space in a bomb shelter. Later, he would propose to her in a different bomb shelter.

Sderot musician Avi Vaknin, featured in the film, married the filmmaker

Sderot musician Avi Vaknin, featured in the film, married the filmmaker

Vaknin brought major Israeli singers to work with his young protégés, turning music into a potent outlet for their feelings.

“The original idea was to suck the poison out of them; to let them scream … to let it all out,” he relates in the film. Vaknin produced two Sderock albums: “The Record Project” (2001) and “The Hope Project” (2007). In recent years, he’s worked as a solo artist with major Israeli performers such as Shlomo Artzi, Micha Sheetrit and Amir Dadon.

Bialis also followed local musicians including Hagit Yaso, an Ethiopian-Israeli who went on to win the TV talent show “A Star is Born” in 2011.

An American in Sderot

In the 1950s, North African Jewish refugees poured into Israel and many were assigned to the shanty town that was Sderot. Never a desirable location, its reputation sank even lower when the Kassams starting hitting about 14 years ago.

“Sderot felt abandoned in 2007,” says Bialis, who moved in with Vaknin while making the film. They relocated to Tel Aviv to advance Vaknin’s career, but take their daughter to visit family in Sderot weekly.

“I would go to buy furniture in Ashdod or Tel Aviv, and when people at the stores saw my address they would say, ‘What the hell is an American doing in Sderot?’ Then they had to find a delivery person willing to drive there.”

After Hamas rockets reached Tel Aviv and beyond in the summer of 2014, Israelis can empathize more with Sderot residents. But they are still under constant threat of attack as Bialis documented on camera several years ago.

Reluctantly, over time, she decided to turn the lens on herself and narrate the movie from her own perspective.

“I’ve never made a personal film before, but my story really tied it all together. Now I feel lucky that it took so long to finish, because after the situation this summer, it feels like the right time for the movie to come out,” says Bialis.

She has had many requests to screen Rock in the Red Zone on US college campuses. “That was one of my target audiences when I set out to make the film, because it’s a story about young musicians. But I also want it to be seen by the wider public.”