Gush Katif was a treasure of Israel. Although it was referred to as “the bitter land” in Arabic, the Israelis turned this sandy part of the Gaza Strip into an agricultural success story.
Using hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil, Gush Katif produced 70 percent of Israel’s organic exports and 95 percent of its bug-free vegetables, which make it easier for those who follow the laws of kashrut. This was no small feat considering the small size of the area.
“Aside from its beauty along the shores of the Mediterranean, it was wholesome living. It was a community,” said Mike Lowenstein, a Baltimore resident who visited Gush Katif. “People weren’t just neighbors, they were friends with everybody. It was a closely knit living environment.”
In addition to its economic success, Gush Katif was a haven for peace. Of the approximately 10,000 people employed there, half were Israelis and half were Palestinians, delighted to have jobs working on farms and in small businesses with their Jewish neighbors.
In 2005, when the Israeli government instituted a unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip, Gush Katif’s 8,000 residents were stripped of their homes and their economic livelihoods. Some had been living and working there since 1970 when Israelis first settled there.
Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon initially mobilized volunteers to help these displaced Israelis, but seeing needs beyond basic day-to-day assistance, his efforts grew into JobKatif, an organization that has been working to counsel, employ and otherwise assimilate former Gush Katif residents since the disengagement.
Congregations around the world and in Baltimore will be raising awareness about JobKatif’s mission on Shabbat Chazon (July 12-13), the Shabbat before Tish’a B’Av, which marks the destruction of the first and second Temple and the eighth anniversary of the disengagement.
“There are still 600 families that are struggling, and we’re in a race against time,” said Judy Lowy, JobKatif’s executive director.
The Israeli government has been matching donations to JobKatif three to one, but that match is set to expire at the end of the year.
“By participating, we’re sharing our concern, our brotherhood and our financial support as we mark the anniversary [of the disengagement],” said Lowenstein, an active JobKatif volunteer.
Four Baltimore synagogues — Shomrei Emunah, Suburban Orthodox Congregation Toras Chaim, Tiferes Yisroel and Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion — sponsored three concerts in 2010, 2011 and 2012 to raise money for JobKatif.
Since JobKatif’s founding, 2,400 people have found employment, 240 people have started new businesses with a 90-percent success rate, 580 people have completed professional retraining courses, 110 people have earned academic scholarships, and Rav Rimon received the president’s award for volunteerism in 2008 for his work with the organization.
While Rav Rimon’s initial efforts focused on day-to-day necessities, such as finding activities for children and jobs for the adults, it quickly became clear that former Gush Katif residents had a complex set of needs.
“Number one, a lot them are what we call post-trauma. They were pretty traumatized about what they went through,” Lowy said. “Number two, a lot of them were working in areas that were not relevant once they moved out of Gush Katif.”
The hardest hit were those who worked in agriculture, some of whom were in their 20s and 30s when they first settled in Gush Katif, and are now in their 50s and 60s. Some didn’t have certifications that are required to work in their fields outside of the Gush Katif. Family businesses were also uprooted.
“When most people think about the disengagement, the image they have in their minds is houses being destroyed,” Lowy said, referring to the Israeli army destroying the homes in Gush Katif. “But what most people don’t realize is that 85 percent of the people who lived in Gush Katif also worked in Gush Katif.”
Fueled by donations, JobKatif has helped those from Gush Katif through counseling and case management, employment assistance, business initiatives, a bridge-to-work volunteer program, subsidies, retraining courses and academic scholarships.
JobKatif has taken a holistic approach to families as well, looking at how to uplift entire families rather than just individuals. The organization helped one family that was making and selling garments in Gush Katif open a new business selling women’s hats and headscarves. The son runs the business, the father runs the floor, and the mother is the designer.
Having been out of work for eight years, the remaining population that needs help has a diverse set of needsl. Of the 600 families that are still without economic livelihoods, 230 need employment counseling, courses and placement, 290 need employmentincentives, and 80 need new business initiative and counseling. The organization estimates that it will cost $1.5 million to fully implement these programs.
JobKatif also hopes to build a recreation center due to the disproportionate number of Gush Katif residents with disease. A study found that men ages 45 to 64 from the area had higher rates of diabetes and hypertension than the general population, with unemployment, depression, inactivity and weight being some contributing factors.
“We feel that we’re approaching the end of the mission, and we want to complete the mission,” Lowy said.