It began with 10 people a little over 10 years ago. The idea of those involved in the Beersheba – Bnei Shimon - Montreal Partnership (a Jewish Agency program) was to set up a mission of members of the Montreal community to travel all the way to Israel.
The Montrealers would volunteer in social organizations in Beersheba, get to know them from up-close and, if they saw fit, contribute resources.
The venture, which would eventually be called the Solidarity Mission, has been active for 10 years. Each November the mission's regular members visit Israel, with added reinforcements, for a week of volunteering in Beersheba organizations.
"Then, we were two-months-old," recounts Dana Biton, director of the ILAN Center, which provides a warm home for adults suffering from physical disabilities.
"There was hardly anything here, just the first beginnings of a center. One day I got a call that the Montrealers wanted to come for a visit, and the rest is history. Each year a distinguished mission of members of the Sephardic community arrives for a week of volunteering. They meet our people, embrace them and carry out joint projects with them.
“For example, this year we chose to renovate the garden,” Biton says. “The mission's members didn't hesitate for a minute and got to work. The operation included simple activities like cleaning up the garden, but also consisted of more involved activity such as painting high-standing lamp posts.
"It was particularly moving to see how one of the women who comes to us and suffers from speech problems (due to a stroke) succeeded in overseeing the project. Without words, she activated the entire team. And today, we have a beautiful and enchanting garden thanks to the hands-on work of our Montreal friends."
Currently the Partnership is celebrating a decade since the Solidarity Mission’s establishment. In a special ceremony held in Beersheba, we praised our city leaders and members of the Sephardic community for their activity. The speakers mainly addressed the mission's flagship project - funding a bar mitzvah ceremony for 50 youths from disadvantaged families.
‘Israel visit was fascinating’
Each year the project organizes a moving event held at the Western Wall followed by a festive meal in honor of the bar mitzvah boys and their families.
The many speakers on this night included deputy mayor and supervisor of educational affairs Dr. Hefzi Zohar, who said: "We do not take it for granted that you are here. It certainly isn't an automatic thing for 50 Montrealers to leave their families and jobs each year to come here, volunteer and give from the heart.
"You are extending to the 50 bar mitzvah families - and all of the organizations you've connected with - your love and concern, which aside from being so special, is important to us and strengthens us."
The members of the mission who arrived this year from Montreal included Robert Hasson, a high school math teacher. Hasson, who is nearing retirement, had a hard time getting approval from his principal for a vacation that would allow him to come to Israel.
"It wasn't easy," he says, "and I had to work hard to persuade my principal. They couldn't understand how I could just pick up and leave for a week to volunteer in Israel.
"As far as they were concerned, it didn't seem like a normal thing and they were right. The Israel visit was fascinating for me…I enjoyed it so much when they assigned me with one of the children who usually caused the staff a lot of problems in the kindergarten – yet with me he was really okay."
"We came here in order to give," sums up Sidney Benizri, director of social services in the Sephardic community.
"This year we witnessed the social protests in Israel via the media. When we arrived in Beersheba, not only did we notice the price gaps between Israel and Montreal, but we also understood why each inhabitant of each city needs warmth and love. We return home with a sense that we've received more than we've given."