Jewish Journal

Vouchers for Life

by Norman Ciment

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

"Murderous explosion at Sbarros"

"Three dead in fatal drive-by shooting"

For me, like for most American Jews, reading the morning newspaper is an event that fills me with dread. Over the last two

years I have conditioned myself to hope for the best. But, after reading and hearing about so many horrific events, deep down it seems that I have come to expect the worst.

In addition to the terrible loss of life, there are other fatal results: the tourists are gone; retail stores and other businesses are closing. Tragically, the Israeli economy is in shambles.

And like most American Jews, my family and I felt depressed about the situation, and helpless regarding our lack of ability to do anything about it. Sure, we wrote our checks to the federation and bought Israeli bonds, but we wanted to do more.

So last October, my family and I organized our own bikur cholim (visit the sick) mission to Israel. Our goal was simple -- to bring financial and emotional support to different groups of people living in Israel.

Like other synagogue-led missions, we wanted to visit and help the victims of terrorism and their families. But we also wanted to revitalize businesses facing closure or dramatic downsizing due to both low tourism rates and a local population that is scared to shop in areas where there have been bombings, such as Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda Street.

Two of my sons, my brother, his wife and I together with Yossi Goldberger, the director of Hatzalah of Judea and Samaria, visited all types of stores and restaurants in Jerusalem. At each place, we purchased between $500-$1,000 worth of gift vouchers. At first, the owners of the establishments were suspicious.

"Who are you? Why are you doing this?" the owner of Cafe Rimon, located in the heart of the Ben Yehuda, asked me the first time I met her. "How do I know your money is real?"

At a small children's toy store on Jaffa Road, the owner asked, "Who are you going to give these vouchers to?"

When they realized that the vouchers were going to be distributed to victims of terror and their families, the business people became speechless.

"I can't believe it," the toy store owner said.

On many occasions, they even agreed to give us an additional 10 percent in coupons -- as their own contribution.

We found a lovely restaurant in a hotel near the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, which was on the verge of closing. We purchased dinner for 90, and gave it to people who lived in a settlement in the West Bank -- they had not been in a restaurant for almost two years. The local municipality agreed to send two buses to bring them to Jerusalem for dinner and entertainment and then take them home.

Armed with our gift vouchers, we began visiting the injured at Share Zedek Hospital, Hadassah Hospital, Tel Hashomer and Rabin Medical Center. But nothing could prepare us for the emotional experience we were about to encounter.

Like the shopkeepers, the victims and their families were initially suspicious and skeptical. They kept asking, "Why are you doing this?"

"I can't believe that you are like a miracle coming to visit a complete stranger and bring gifts," said the driver of the bus that was blown up in Ariel on Oct. 21, killing 14 people. The 35-year-old father of eight was incredulous: "How did you find me?"

We told him and the other victims that as fellow Jews, we simply wanted to share their grief, and in some small way, to try to ease their burden. Their skepticism gave way to gratitude, blessings and, sometimes, tears, as we distributed the gift vouchers.

At Tel Hashomer Hospital, a 19-year-old man, who had been injured in a suicide bus bombing, had just received vouchers to buy toys -- and immediately he began thinking of how he could get gifts for his younger siblings.

Our last visit took us to the Hadassah Hospital. We visited a man in his early 30s who had been taken by ambulance to the hospital after a terrorist bombing. While he was in surgery, another ambulance came to the hospital bringing the lower portion of the man's leg, which had been recovered at the site of the explosion. The doctors were able to reattach it, but the man was required to stay in the hospital for five months. We gave him, his wife and three children vouchers for every type of store and restaurant. His wife began to cry; her parents, who were also there, began to cry as well. Then all of us joined in the crying. We couldn't help but feel their plight. Again and again they blessed us, saying that they never expected anything like this, and admitting that very few people except friends and family ever visited them.

As our plane took off to return to America, we looked at the skyline of Israel, knowing that we gave an emotional and financial lift to the local merchants, and that we encouraged the local population to feel that it was safe to visit and shop in that area. But more importantly, even as we had touched the lives of the victims and their families -- they had touched ours more.  

Norman Ciment is a former mayor of Miami Beach, Fla.

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