ESRA: The night it all began
April 5th, 1979, on my 20th wedding anniversary, ESRA was conceived, albeit inadvertently. It was a momentous night – 250 English Speakers, old timers and new immigrants, residents of Herzliya and Kfar Shmaryahu, streamed into the local Yad Lebanim.
Chaired by me (I had never before chaired an event), and honored with the presence of Herzliya's Mayor Yosef Nevo, the evening proceeded with a film on Herzliya, an address by Mr Nevo, and then two hours of an open discussion with those who had come. Such a dynamic evening, effervescent, everybody participating, and ending with a cry "Go on …" What do you mean, I asked, go on? "Form an organization, headed by you and those volunteers who helped put on this event".
Thus was born ESRA – English Speaking Residents of Herzliya and Kfar Shmaryahu – a self-help organization.
Ten years later, 1989, over a million immigrants from the Former Soviet Union 'flash' flooded into Israel.
Our tiny country, with minimal resources, had to rapidly absorb this massive influx. Every government unit, every commercial enterprise, every nonprofit organization, every educational institute, mobilized, did their bit, to help settle this amazing Aliyah who revolutionized our country. They enriched us in numbers, with talents, education, and a determination to succeed.
ESRA too mobilized with all our energy and innovativeness to help the Russian immigrants. We diversified, forming the ESRA Immigrant Fund. It started as welfare aid, but within one year we were creating community projects: a warehouse for furnishing immigrants' homes, computer centers in absorption centers (Ashdod, Hadera, Herzliya, Karmiel, Kfar Saba, Raanana), specialized professional computer courses, a chess club, a choir, concerts in homes where Russian musicians could perform, a social club for older Russians, find-a-job and retraining courses, eye-help, second hand shops, aid and support to children, victims of Chernobyl who were hospitalized in Beilinson. Our flagship project was the creation of after school learning and enrichment centers in Tel Aviv neighborhoods (Neve Sharett, Schunat Shapira, Gabrielli and Yud Daled schools), on the Lev Hasharon caravan sites (Kfar Hess, Nordiya and Yanuv), in four schools in Or Akiva, Kfar Saba.
Our name spread as an organization that knew how to activate volunteers. Over 100 Hebrew-speaking Israelis, old timers, true "Eretz Yisrael Hayaffa" citizens, joined our volunteer ranks, enriching us with their professionalism, skills, knowledge of how Israel ticks, and their serious hard work.
Then on May 24 -25, 1991 14,325 Jews from Ethiopia were airlifted to Israel in 35 Israeli aircraft. They arrived with only the clothes on their backs and a few cooking utensils. Again ESRA immediately mobilized. I'll never forget our visit to the Safed Absorption Center where we met these inspiring Zionist immigrants. They were totally disoriented, coming from a simple lifestyle in Africa and thrown into a Western world, and a language that was foreign to them. We opened a clothes warehouse for them and as winter approached we bought anoraks for all the children in Safed. A year later the immigrants were transferred from the absorption centers to caravan sites. We were in action again, creating after school centers on caravan sites (Beerotayim, Hatzrot Hefer, Hatzrot Yasaf, Hatzrot Koach, Kiryat Ekron). We gave the children a hot lunch and tuition in Math, Hebrew, English and Computers. Our largest center was on the Beerotayim caravan site, where 350 schoolchildren attended daily. We developed an Embroidery Project in the Kfar Saba absorption center to promote the amazing skills of the women and enable them to earn for each item they embroidered. ESRA's embroidery project was the only one in Israel that was not sponsored by governmental agencies, as we ran it with volunteers only. Over time we sold more than 100,000 mezzuzot all over the world, and other embroidered products. We established Sewing Centers to teach the men and women to use sewing machines to make clothes for their families.
In no time municipalities that were absorbing large numbers of Russians and Ethiopians turned to us for help and always we responded by initiating supplementary education projects, anywhere, any size.
Soon other populations turned to us. Children and adults with mental and physical handicaps and we responded with original projects at that time – afternoon activities for children, Techusons, in community centers in nine cities. Each child was helped by a volunteer to take part in each enrichment activity. We developed social clubs for people with handicaps – teenagers, young adults and adults (Kfar Shmaryahu, Herzliya, Kadima). We also became partners in a regional center for victims of family violence, and violence against the elderly.
They were exhilarating and challenging years for ESRA and for me.
From our very beginnings, we threw ourselves into easing the social integration of English Speakers into Israel. Hebrew classes, tours, lectures, courses, clubs for the elderly, baby and toddler groups, jazz appreciation, play-readings, Bible study groups, a national conference on the 60+, on volunteering, Viewpoints at the Sharon Hotel where we brought politicians from all parties to give their different views, Supper Quizzes, Funfairs for the general community, a Bicycle Safety Week, support group for young women married to Israeli men, and so much more. A volunteer would come with an idea, and put it into action. Tutoring English was one of our very special gifts to Israeli schoolchildren and students.
Today we bring you in these pages ESRA's current projects and activities all over the country. Each of our 17 branches has its own character, each with its own social and community endeavors.
You too can enjoy our social, cultural, and educational activities, and you too can join our volunteer ranks. We look forward to your involvement and your enhancement of our dynamic ESRA.
Happy Pesach, and thank you for reading these pages.