Like many others forced from their homes by the fighting in the south, sisters Tal Cohen, Or Caspi and Raz Sella now find themselves in digs with a view of the sea. But unlike some of the evacuees being housed in hotels in Eilat or at the Dead Sea, the sisters and their children aren’t in a hotel room, but rather one of the thousands of second homes owned by wealthy foreign Jews dotting Israel.
With hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting in the north and south, and many needing long-term solutions that make hotel stays untenable, some foreigners are opening their normally empty vacation pads to suddenly homeless families, filling ghost apartments long-derided as a blight on the real estate market to help meet a critical need for a nation in the throes of war.
Anglo-American immigrants, Israeli volunteers, and Jewish organizations across the country are mobilizing their networks and communities to reach out to Diaspora Jews around the world to ask them to lend their empty homes and properties they own in Israel to the many evacuees in dire need of temporary housing and relief for the next couple of months.
With the help of American immigrant Nechama Levy, Cohen and her two boys Hallel, 6, and Lavi, 5 from Ofakim are now staying together with Sella and Caspi at a seaside apartment in coastal Netanya that’s normally occupied for a few weeks out of the year by foreign residents.
Sella and her daughter Avigail are also from Ofakim, and Caspi and her 3-year-old and 10-month-old daughters Tamar and Ayala are from the nearby city of Sderot, less than a mile from the Gaza Strip, which like Ofakim was hit hard by the October 7 Hamas terror assault.
Their mother, who is an essential worker in Ofakim, comes to stay with them in Netanya on weekends. All three of their husbands were called up by the military to join the war effort.
On October 7, a Saturday, Caspi and her family were staying with her sister Sella in Ofakim.
“We were woken by multiple sirens and went straight into the shelter, where we remained after hearing about terrorist infiltrations in the town,” Caspi recalled.
The two families then moved to a shelter of a neighbor who had a weapon for self-defense, she recounted. “We stayed there, petrified, until Sunday evening,” Caspi said. “There was little food — no one had an appetite — and no electricity, so we sat in the dark.”
After the two families moved back to their own house, they spent another week in the safe room. “We were too scared to leave Ofakim because of the danger of encountering terrorists on the road,” Caspi said.
When eventually the three sisters and their families agreed to leave, they heard through a neighbor about an initiative started by Levy, founder of the Alynu immigrant aid organization, and her Netanya-based volunteers who are working to match evacuees with empty apartments in safer areas while the fighting is ongoing.
“We contacted Levy, and she found us an apartment, seafront,” Caspi said gratefully.
Levy told The Times of Israel, “We have been calling homeowners in England if they are willing to lend their apartments which are in most cases the biggest asset they have, and often serve as a second home.
“The generosity has been incredible, and people are going out of their way to help.”
To make it easier for homeowners to sign up, Alynu is also assisting with helping to protect their interests with a legally binding agreement and maintenance services.
“We can deliver kosher food to the families every day so there is no need for them to use the kitchen in the offered apartment if this is an issue,” Levy said.
Levy secured about 55 vacant apartments, some of them wheelchair accessible — mostly in and around Netanya; some in Herzliya — which she and her team of volunteers are filling with families from Ofakim, Netivot, and other ravaged places.
“Many of the people opening up their homes would never rent their apartments,” said Levy. “Most of the apartments are made available for free or at the most the owners ask to cover maintenance costs such as electricity, and water.”
The organization brought in mattresses and basic supplies, and has delivered hundreds of Shabbat meals. Volunteers also arrange activities for the children and support for the mothers.
The apartment the three sisters and their kids are staying in is a vacation home owned by an English family what immigrated to Israel and lives in Jerusalem.
“We are immensely grateful not just for somewhere safe to stay, but also for the ongoing support we are receiving from Alynu, including catered meals, activities for the children in day camps in the local community center, football, tennis and swimming, as well as the help for mothers such as babysitting and yoga therapy,” said Or.
To support the ongoing activities and assistance for the traumatized families that have been relocated to Netanya, Alynu has launched an emergency fundraising initiative, which Levy hopes will gather at least NIS 250,000.
Hila and Moshe, who were forced to relocate from the southern coastal city of Ashkelon due to heavy rocket fire, found refuge in a Jerusalem apartment that was made available by a homeowner who lives in San Francisco. But first Moshe transferred his father from Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, where his mother has been sitting by his side, to Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem.
The family turned to the World Zionist Organization (WZO), which has been reaching out to Diaspora Jews and Israelis who own second, vacant homes, with a request that they lend them to evacuees or displaced families from war-torn communities — and is offering to act as a guarantor that the properties are returned in the same way as they were received. As part of the process, a contract is signed between the WZO and the owners of the apartments, and another contract between the WZO and the family that will live in the apartment.
Moshe and Hila were found a home within a five-minute walk of Shaare Zedek hospital less than a day after they contacted the WZO, including the signing of the contract.
“At the beginning when the idea for this initiative was presented, I have to admit I was a bit skeptical if foreign property owners would make their apartments available for free,” said Roi Abecassis, head of WZO‘s center for religious studies in the Diaspora. “I am amazed by the fast response that we have been getting since we started to approach Jews living in the diaspora owning a home in Israel.”
“Within 48 hours we received 100 applications,” added Abecassis, who is also the coordinator of the housing project. “What has been huge help is that we provide a guarantee that the owners will get their property back without damage, pay for utilities and they have a contact person.”
Since the “My Home is Your Home” project was initiated by WZO’s chairman Yaakov Hagoel, it has gathered a database of 400 vacant apartments with contracts for at least three months, mostly located in Netanya, Herzliya, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for families evacuated from communities around the Gaza border. The organization is now in the process of trying to match displaced families with its database of apartments in coordination with local authorities and municipalities of Sderot, Kfar Aza, Ashkelon and other communities where residents are being evacuated.
“We have a family from Netivot whose apartment was damaged by a rocket and we managed to move them to Netanya just before the mother gave birth,” Abecassis said.
He noted that the right match can be complicated as some families have pets and others have special needs and other requirements.
There is a long way to go, as WZO has a list of at least 3,000 displaced families in need of housing.
“Over the next couple of days we want to do the matching and then in the next stage our goal is to house more than 500 families,” Abecassis said.
In a passionate appeal, Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum is calling on Jews who live abroad to volunteer their vacant homes in and around the capital to provide shelter for evacuees from the south and north of Israel.
“If you have a holiday home in Jerusalem or surrounding areas, we need your help,” Hassan-Nahoum said in her video appeal. “We would love you to open up your doors to an evacuee family temporarily and we will take care of the rest, legal, insurance, etc.”
Hassan-Nahoum said that the Open-Doors Initiative has joined forces with the Israeli Bar Association to formulate legal contracts that will protect the rights of the homeowners and the displaced families. The contract, which enables property owners to decide for how long they are willing to lend their home, are accompanied by a specially tailored insurance policy.
Still, many owners of vacation apartments in Jerusalem have balked at letting evacuees stay in them.
Hassan-Nahoum said she recently signed up to the initiative and is hosting an evacuated family in her late mother’s apartment in Jerusalem.
“My mother had an apartment right next to mine and three days ago I was privileged to receive a family from the south who are running away from rocket fire and from the war zone,” she said.
“I hope you can join me in doing the same thing.”
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