Reporter's notebook

Modern Robin Hood with a social justice mandate helps returnees on path of renewal

During war, Social Delivery collects unwanted surplus from retailers and offices of tech firms and disperses the goods ranging from clothes to furniture to Gaza border communities

Sharon Wrobel is a tech reporter for The Times of Israel.

Volunteers and coordinators at Social Delivery's warehouse in Beit Shemesh help to unpack and sort surplus commercial goods collected from businesses and organizations. (Courtesy)
Volunteers and coordinators at Social Delivery's warehouse in Beit Shemesh help to unpack and sort surplus commercial goods collected from businesses and organizations. (Courtesy)

Micah Elimelech and Emanuel Norman, two veteran tour guides, who found themselves out of work since the outbreak of the war with the Hamas terror group more than eight months ago, are now volunteering to help rebuild a new reality for evacuees returning home to their communities around the Gaza border.

Driving a truck, the two in the early morning drop off kitchen furniture donated by a local office of US tech giant IBM for returning residents in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, where Hamas terrorists on October 7 murdered about 80 people – one in 10 residents – and abducted another 18. The next stop for the volunteer drivers is Yakhini, a moshav located about four miles from the border with Gaza.

On October 7 — when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, murdering some 1,200 civilians and kidnapping 251 into the Gaza Strip — Hamas gunmen by foot also roamed throughout Yakhini, shooting people on the streets and around their homes.

As they drive into Yakhini, eight months later, Elimelech and Norman can hear the thuds of war from Gaza and see smoke clouds billowing over the Strip’s skyline. The two are part of a group of volunteers who have a license to drive buses and were recruited by a non-governmental organization that collects mostly new consumer goods from clothing to furniture that would otherwise be discarded and delivers them directly to communities and non-profits destined for vulnerable populations.

With the outbreak of war, Social Delivery, a logistics and environmentally friendly NGO, swiftly shifted gears and switched into emergency mode mobilizing top retailers, tech firms, and volunteers with a mission to turn into a main supplier of surplus goods to people, who were affected by the unprecedented Hamas onslaught that put hundreds of thousands out of their homes.

Since October 8 and for the first three months of the war, Social Delivery worked six days a week with communities and evacuee coordinators to deliver trucks full of basic goods from diapers, underwear, socks, towels, clothes in big sizes, and personal hygiene products, that were in dire need, directly to hotels in the Dead Sea, Eilat, and Tiberias hosting displaced families, and to volunteer centers in southern communities around the Gaza border.

Micah Elimelech (left) and Emanuel Norman, are volunteer drivers of a truck dispatching office furniture collected by Social Delivery to returning residents of the Gaza border community of Moshav Yakhini. (Sharon Wrobel/Times of Israel)

In recent months, the mandate of the social initiative has been to disperse surplus goods picked up from businesses to the Sha’ar Hanegev region as war-affected communities in the area are rebuilding and rehabilitating their public and communal spaces with the return of evacuees.

“We are [a] type of a modern Robin Hood, we take from businesses, retailers and high-tech companies where there is surplus to where there is a shortage, or it is needed – but we are not a tzedakah [act of goodness] organization,” Tomer Shemesh, founder & CEO told The Times of Israel while driving to Yakhini to help with the truckload. “When we asked for some psychological advice on what evacuees will be needing when they return to their homes we were told: change from that black day or period whether it is how their home or community looks like or just a change of clothes.”

The truckload arriving in Yakhini is delivering furniture picked up from high-tech offices that typically change their interiors and electric gear every two to three years, or are redoing their spaces. Among the needed items that were coordinated directly with the moshav are white foldable computer tables and chairs, funky red and yellow comfy armchairs, computer screens, chests of drawers, a dishwasher, and a fridge.

The furniture and electric gear will serve a youth and learning center that needs to be refurbished after it was transformed into a military base overnight with the outbreak of the war.

Apart from the field and horticultural crops, and dairy farms, Yakhini is also a student village as the moshav houses students from nearby Sapir Academic College.

“We want to come back to a better place after what we went through since October 7,” Yakhini resident Shiran Gad Saad, told The Times of  Israel.

Shiran Gad Saad, community entrepreneurship coordinator of Moshav Yakhini. (Sharon Wrobel/Times of Israel)

Breaking out in bitter tears, the 40-year-old nurse recounted how on that black Sabbath, Hamas terrorists went straight to the house of her brother, the military security coordinator of the moshav – who was abroad at the time – and killed her nephew, one of the seven people murdered in Yakhini.

Yehonatan Hagbi, 18, was on the balcony of his grandparent’s home on October 7 when he was shot in the chest by terrorists. For at least two hours, his family tried to save Hagbi as no ambulances or rescue teams were able to arrive, until he tragically succumbed to his wounds bleeding to death.

“It is still so difficult to absorb… that for two hours we were waiting, and we could have saved life during this time,” Gad Saad sobbed. “I keep on asking myself when I will be able to tell the story without breaking into tears.”

After being confined to the shelter room for more than 30 hours, Gad Saad had to abandon her home and live in a hotel room in Jerusalem with her husband and four kids between the ages of 3 and 14, as fighting in Gaza raged. Almost the entire community of about 700 residents was displaced, mostly staying with their families in hotels in Jerusalem, Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan, and in Eilat.

Gad Saad returned home at the beginning of March, almost six months after Hamas terrorists invaded the Gaza border community. Since then, about 95% of the community’s residents moved back to Yakhini.

“It felt as if we were six months in prison without committing a crime,” Gad Saad recounted. “After moving back to the moshav we are renovating a lot of buildings for the community and its residents.”

Gad Saad, who said that until now she hasn’t been able to go back to work to her regular job as a hospital nurse in the emergency room, has taken up the role of community entrepreneurship coordinator for the moshav.

“With many of us nervous about returning home, we see many residents staying in their homes, so what is important now is to create and preserve community life to make them feel comfortable and encourage them to go out of the house and meet up whether it is in communal spaces, at the playground or by improving green spaces,” Gad Saad said. “With funds, we received, partly from Jewish federations in the US, we are drawing up plans for projects in education, culture, youth, and for the elderly.”

Tomer Shemesh, founder of NGO Social Delivery helps to unload a dishwasher delivered to the community of Moshav Yakhini. (Sharon Wrobel/Times of Israel)

One of the projects is the renovation of the youth center, which will be dedicated to the late Hagbi, who was also a counselor in Bnei Akiva to dozens of children.

The Israeli government has established the Tekuma Authority to rebuild and develop the communities along the Gaza border, but both Shemesh and Gad Saad lamented that the bureaucratic procedure and lengthy process of receiving assistance are making a swift response to immediate needs difficult.

“The government doesn’t know how to speak with an entrepreneur like we do and we are not working at the same speed,” said Shemesh. “The time it takes the government to do the research about what evacuees’ needs are, we have already provided a solution or met the needs.”

The social entrepreneur proudly recounted that within 24 hours of receiving a request from the Education Ministry, the NGO transported school furniture and supplies from deserted schools in communities in the Gaza region to pop-up schools in Eilat and the Dead Sea area for evacuated students.

Founded in 2018 by Shemesh, 45, and chairman Raanan Dinur who was the Prime Minister’s Office director-general during the Second Lebanon War, Social Delivery is supported by Taavura, an Israeli road haulage and logistics group, that provides a fleet of six trucks to pick up unwanted surplus goods from more than 220 retailers and high-tech companies across the country and delivers them on demand.

A former operations manager at Leket Israel – the national food bank, that rescues food that would otherwise go to waste and distributes it to those in need – Shemesh took the concept of redistribution and applied it to any consumer goods.

“Businesses in Israel want to donate, there is ample goodwill – they just don’t know how,” said Shemesh. “I never finished high school, I don’t read books, but I know how to, creatively connect the dots, find solutions, and solve issues without giving up.”

“We are a one-stop shop logistics chain from the orders that we receive to providing a transparent process for businesses who are happy that their surplus is being taken care of and does not go to waste or end up in landfills,” he remarked.

Working with businesses and organizations, the surplus Social Delivery picks up are often new commercial goods from previous seasons or items that are being returned and can’t be sold. Among major retailers that are donating surplus are Sano, Delta, Panda Mattresses, Strauss, and the Golf Group. From numerous tech firms, such as Wix, etoro, Cyberark, Hewlett Packard, Nice Systems, Meta and Microsoft, the social initiative gets office supplies, computer and electronics, and electrical appliances.

Social Delivery picks up chairs and office gear from US tech giant IBM. (Courtesy)

Since October 8th, Social Delivery has distributed roughly $13 million worth of goods including 15 containers sent from Jewish communities in the diaspora to evacuees and communities affected by the war, along with several deliveries, including mattresses to soldiers. Overall, the social initiative said it saved over $30 million worth of goods from landfills and distributed them to vulnerable populations.

Its philanthropic partners include Big Shopping Center, Yad Hanadiv, the Rashi Foundation, the Schusterman Foundation, and the Jewish Federations of North America.

In the early days and weeks of the war thousands of civilians and volunteers quickly mobilized to an almost overwhelming degree and organized themselves into a support infrastructure to help in the war effort. Many grassroots initiatives collected and distributed everything from food, clothing, and toys to medical supplies, furniture, and appliances.

However, the outpouring of local and international volunteerism, that was prevalent in the first months of the war, has abated in recent weeks, as more reservists have been released home, people have returned to work, and some volunteer centers have closed shop.

“Once reservists came back home and the military operation in Gaza was less intensive, we received another wave of orders as the smaller, grassroots organizations slowed down their activities and the government didn’t take a role or come into the picture to help,” said Shemesh. “We need to take care of the vacuum as evacuees are returning home and communities want to rebuild but they have become different people with different needs  – physically, emotionally, and mentally.”

For the father of four kids between 4 and 13, the biggest dream is for Social Delivery to expand and become an international organization that would turn Israel into a country that knows how to provide humanitarian aid globally to help the country attain its good name back and counter rising antisemitism around the world.

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