Grassroots grow deeper

As war drags on, pop-up initiatives in Israel created after Oct. 7 preparing for the long haul

Ayin Tova knitting circles, which started almost accidentally, now help hundreds of evacuees; they and other grassroots groups received microgrants from Shaharit and the Fund for New Leadership, which are now helping them gear up for the next phase

The first weeks after the Oct. 7 terror attacks saw a flurry of activity, generosity and volunteering that is unprecedented in Israeli history. As well over 100,000 Israelis fled their homes, without the government support that was expected, regular people rushed to help them, from providing food, furniture and clothes to the evacuees to organizing weddings and working on staff-strapped farms.

While some of these efforts were launched by established organizations, many sprung up ex nihilo — a person or a few people with a good idea and a sense of urgency and purpose. But as the war drags on, these on-the-fly projects are having to develop the resources and infrastructure to continue — either on their own or by merging another organization — or close up shop.

In the early days of the war, Heela Harel had a friend who was going to the Dead Sea to volunteer with the evacuees from Gaza-border communities.

“I just joined him, and so did another friend [Shifra Wygoda]. She was in the middle of crocheting something, and she said maybe I should bring my stuff too,” Harel told eJewishPhilanthropy.

The two started crocheting in the lobby of one of the hotels and “within five minutes, someone asked us what we were doing, and if she could join us,” she recalled. “We said, ‘Of course,’ and that’s how it started, in the most ‘grassroots’ way possible.”

Within an hour a few more women had joined the knitting and crocheting circle, and the word spread from there.

“We saw that the need for this was [immense]. The people there loved it,” Harel said. “We started to post on Facebook, and it just started spreading.”

Backed by research showing that knitting and other textile crafts can reduce stress and lower heart rate and blood pressure, Harel believes that the initiative — Ayin Tova, a play on words meaning both “good eye” (in contrast to the evil eye)  and “good stitch” — provides both a social outlet for evacuees and a form of therapy.

“[The participants] say that it saves them because it gives them something to do, not just when they’re with us but throughout the week. They also make friends, they knit together and share patterns,” Harel said.

“We meet these women at a sensitive time. Some of them have been through horrible things,” she said. “But this is all about the wool, and the kids and the grandkids [who will receive what they make]. It’s something physical and good, and we can see it.”

Early on, Harel and Wygoda started looking for sources of funding for their initiative and applied for — and received — a NIS 25,000 ($6,850) grant as part of a joint program by the Israeli think tank and nonprofit Shaharit – Creating Common Cause and the Fund for New Leadership (FNL), which was found and is supported by Alan and Kim Hartman. Shaharit, which focuses on leadership development and community organizing, and FNL gave similar micro-grants to more than 170 initiatives across the country in the weeks following Oct. 7, as part of a fund they created called Shahar, or Daybreak.

In addition to Ayin Tova, recipients of the Daybreak grants include an initiative to dispatch volunteers to clean the houses in communities that were rapidly evacuated on Oct. 7; a group that filled a warehouse full of furniture for evacuees, who also meet with a social worker to assist them through the at-times traumatic process of moving; a person who distributes guitars and organizes sing-alongs for evacuees in hotels; and a group of volunteer bakers who were baking birthday cakes for displaced children.

Harel’s knitting circles now operate at some 30 hotels around the country, with hundreds of participants.

But nearly four months into the war, Ayin Tova is struggling to keep itself going. The initial outpouring of generosity that exemplified the start of the war is starting to fade, not through lack of compassion but as a natural result of people being able to go back to work and the government starting to step in and fill that role that volunteers and philanthropy had been filling.

“At first, everything was in this tiruf [mania] — We have to do something! — so it was easy. You’d put out a request, and someone helped,” Harel said.

“There were all different communities in the U.S., sending us money and knitting needles and wool — and then they would thank us!” she recalled.

“But the war isn’t ending. Our challenge is how do we continue to provide this as long as there is a need, and the need is growing,” she said. 

Harel and Ayin Tova are not alone in their growing pains. As time goes on, these knitting circles and volunteer cleaning services and free used furniture outlets will have to find the funding and other resources needed to continue, or they won’t. Such is the nature of the free market.

“A thousand flowers bloom, and not all of them make it through the winter,” Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, told eJP earlier this month. “There are going to be a lot of these nonprofits that are going to fizzle out or they’re going to get folded into existing organizations.”

To help Ayin Tova and the 170 other recipients of its microgrants navigate this moment, Shaharit and FNL will hold a daylong conference in Jerusalem next month, gathering these entrepreneurs together for discussions and workshops.

Eilon Schwartz, the director of Shaharit, said that while the organization is looking to give its grantees the tools to keep their initiatives going, those projects are not necessarily his organization’s primary focus.

“The idea was that it would be transitional, that many of these places were going to be ephemeral. They were going to exist for three weeks and then they’re going to be gone. And that’s fine,” Schwartz told eJP. “And some of them are going to morph into something more permanent. And some of them are going to be ephemeral, but the person who built it is now going to be looking to do something else.”

Shaharit and FNL had originally planned to start a new entrepreneurship program, focusing on a small number of participants, who would be selected through an intensive scouting process, who would get a large amount of support over the course of two years. 

“We were about to launch this thing,” Schartz said. “We turned to them after Oct. 7 and said, ‘Let’s do these microgrants instead.’ And they were incredible. They pivoted with us. So they gave us a seed grant of $100,000 and then another $50,000. And off that, we raised another $600,000.”

Instead of Shaharit doing the scouting, finding people with the talent and drive needed for social entrepreneurship, the war was effectively doing it for them as people — many of whom had no background in this kind of work — came forward when the moment demanded it.

“People who had never done community work and never done social change and never done the work of NGOs, just felt, ‘I have to do something,’” Schwartz said. 

Schwartz said his organization believed that these niche, grassroots initiatives would not be getting the same funding as the larger, more established groups would, and that this style of “nuanced, local, targeted reaction to real needs” would also help mend the rifts in Israeli society that came to the fore in the past year.

“This is the stuff that can be an antidote to where we were on Oct. 6,” said Schwartz, whose organization focuses on shared society and finding common cause among disparate parts of Israeli society.

Over 1,800 people applied for Daybreak grants by December. The roughly 170 recipients were selected based on a number of criteria, namely that they were responding to a real need, that they were innovative, that they served Israel’s social or geographic periphery and that they were mobilizing volunteers (no one-person projects).

The recipients were awarded grants of between NIS 5,000 ($1,370) and NIS 40,000 ($11,000) for a total of more than $700,000, but according to Schwartz, the money was not the only thing that they received. “You give somebody NIS 5,000 — it’s not so much money. But it came with a hug and attention and an address [for help], and so they felt they were in a community,” he said.

In addition to hosting the conference on Feb. 19, Shaharit plans to further develop the recipients leadership and management skills, though Schwartz said the organization was still determining the best way to go about it — creating an incubator, holding regular training sessions, etc.

“We estimate that of the 170 people that we gave grants to, we’ve got probably 60 to 80 of them who are people that are worth continuing with,” Schwartz said. “[These are people] who are not just going to go back to their day job now, this is becoming their day job. And we want to help them both to pivot [their initiatives], and we want to help them to imagine either what their next thing is.”

For Ayin Tova, the plan is to keep going. In addition to Harel, Wygoda and the other members of the project doing direct outreach to potential donors, the group has also created a GoFundMe page for donations from abroad, which has already raised over $6,000, and a similar option for Israeli contributions, which has raised roughly $675.

“As long as the war is going, we’ll keep going,” Harel said.