Do it yourself

Jewish National Fund-UK looks to give Israelis the chance to literally rebuild their own communities post-Oct. 7

The DIY Program, which predates the Hamas terror attacks, is expanding in order to accommodate the growing requests from residents of Gaza border towns to construct memorials and beautification projects

Less than two weeks after returning to their village of Shlomit, the youth of the religious community near the Egyptian and Gazan borders were busy upgrading public areas and had already completed building a seating area replete with four tables and 12 benches as part of a Jewish National Fund-United Kingdom’s DIY Program for a future outdoor cafe that they envision as a gathering place for unifying and strengthening the area’s youth following the Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7.

The do-it-yourself initiative is meant to give those young people a feeling of ownership and control as they help rebuild their community, which was attacked on Oct. 7 and which they were forced to evacuate for nearly five months.

Shlomit, located 6.5 kilometers (four miles) from the border with Gaza Strip, was among the more than 20 southern border communities that were evacuated by the Israeli government following the Hamas terrorist attack. On Feb. 28 the 500 residents of the community returned in one long convoy together, just as they had left together four months earlier, and were determined to rebuild and strengthen their town.

But the whole region has become a place of mourning, said Shlomit’s youth director, Avital Koupetz, herself just 19. “The return to our village was very emotional, and joyful, but also very difficult mentally,” said Koupetz. “There is loss in every corner, and also in our town. One of the people who died — Bechor Hai Sawid — was the gardener of the town and in every blade of grass that is growing, every garden that is blossoming, you see his [gardening] projects.”

Thanks to Shlomit’s small emergency response team which heeded calls for help and went out to help defend the neighboring moshav of Pri Gan. In doing so, the team prevented the terrorists from advancing, thus sparing both Pri Gan and Shlomit from the type of massacre seen in other communities near the Gaza border. But in the battle, three members of the Shlomit’s emergency squad were killed, and another town member — an Israel Defense Forces officer —  was also killed that day.

Koupetz was doing her national service in the army as youth director in the settlement of Kfar Adumim outside of Jerusalem when the attack took place. She quickly rejoined her family and the other residents of Shlomit as they were evacuated to a hotel outside of Jerusalem. In the early weeks of the war, she also began working with JNF-UK’s DIY Program in the north where they initiated several projects revamping the run-down public shelters of numerous residential buildings.

The DIY Program focuses on engaging local volunteers in Israel’s geographic periphery to develop and carry out various small- to medium-impact improvement projects within their communities while providing them with professional guidance and tools. The projects also provide them with a sense of achievement and the awareness that they can — literally — create change within their own communities.  

Before Oct. 7, the DIY Program was more focused on refurbishing buildings and simple garden projects, now several southern Gaza Strip border communities have begun to request help for larger memorial corners and commemoration projects. The DIY Program is working with eight communities on 22 plans for renovations and beautification of their communities, according to JNF-UK Israel’s executive director, Yonatan Galon, and have already completed the renovation of an Eshkol region’s kindergarten and set up a washing machine-and-dryer wagon for the relocated community of Keren Shalom, which has temporarily relocated to moshav Ashalim.

About two-thirds of the projects are related to the war, Galon said. One such project is in moshav Netiv HaAsara, which involves the renovation of its youth center and building an outdoor deck and kitchen. “It is something that belongs to them, something that reconnects the youth to the place, to the community,” said Galon.

The driving spirit behind the DIY Program is Sagui Dekel-Chen, who was among the 80 people taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7 from Kibbutz Nir Oz — one of the hardest-hit communities during the attack. His wife, Avital Dekel-Chen, gave birth to their third daughter in December. His father, U.S.-born Hebrew University professor Jonathan Dekel-Chen, first approached JNF-UK in 2014 to establish a music school in Kibbutz Magen on the border with Gaza. Sagui had just completed his army service and began working on the ground with the project. A month after the Operation Protective Edge war in Gaza in July of that year, the school opened its doors. The music school has since moved to Ein Gedi two years ago.

Impressed by the younger Dekel-Chen’s efficiency and professionalism, UK-JNF recruited him to be project manager for their renovation work. Two years later, he proposed that the program be taken to the next stage by purchasing second hand tools and a trailer and involving young local volunteers in the projects as a more efficient and cost-effective way of working. 

Following her own involvement with the DIY Program, when the time came for her community to return to Shlomit, Koupetz knew she wanted to do something in a similar manner to engage the youth with their community and to give them a feeling of accomplishment. So she turned to Galon for help.

“I saw that our youth did not have someone to direct them or accompany them,” Koupetz said. “I really wanted it to be good for us. Also the adults were not in good mental health — some had lost friends. The mental health situation was very difficult for all of us,” she said, noting that four girls in her youth group were the daughters of two of the men who were killed. “There are other short-term projects of planting and renovating, but that ends. I wanted a project for the long term, for years; something that the youth could have a connection to.”

Though the outdoor cafe she proposed was something they had never done before, saying no to Koupetz was not an option, Galon said.

“The DIY Program is going into a new direction with this project, but we didn’t want to say no when they came to us. There was no option to say no to Avital,” he said. “A few weeks ago we did the kickoff, and it is good for her and good for us too. The main idea is to build something together with the youth.”

The participants from Shlomit have so far built the seating area for the outdoor cafe, which was relatively low cost, with material for each one costing about NIS 8,000 ($2,200), Galon said. 

Next up will be building the actual coffee cart, which is intended to be operated and maintained by the youth of Shlomit for the young people of the area to gather and strengthen one another. That will most likely cost tens of thousands of shekels, according to Galon. They are still in the planning stages, formulating a budget and deciding whether to build a cart from scratch, refurbish an old one and whether to make it potentially mobile.

“It would be easier to buy one that is already usable, but the purpose is not to just have a cart to sell coffee, but for it to be something meaningful for the youth. We want to fulfill the essence of the project, for them to feel they have done something,” Galon said.

JNF-UK had already been involved in several projects through the DIY Program with Shlomit as well as the other Western Negev communities, including the Bedouin town of Segev Shalom prior to Oct. 7, said Galon. One key element of the program is to get the people from the communities very much involved in the projects.

“It is not just a formal application process. It is those people who live on the ground giving us a clear idea of what they need. These are not essential projects in that they need them, but like in Shlomit where we are working with the youth and it is not just a physical need but it is also a social-action project to improve their state of mind and give them a sense of success,” said Galon.