"Last Tuesday, when everyone was outside in the streets for the holiday, I realized that it’s my responsibility to raise everyone’s spirits. What better way to do that than to feel a sense of purpose? I told my assistant Yishai, 'Let's hang huge pictures of all our elders in the streets,'" says Tal Ohana, the head of Yeruham Local Council. At a time when elders are particularly vulnerable, Ohana decided to hang pictures of the community's founders on billboards throughout the town.
"Once a year, we have an event for Sukkot, and I make sure to take pictures of them," she says. "We called the local photographers, got permission, and started working. I didn't imagine the project would cause such excitement."
Mazal Avissror, whose image is also displayed on the streets of the city, immigrated to Israel and settled in Yeruham in 1963 with her husband and eldest son. Abyssror, who has ten children, thirty-eight grandchildren, and twenty-three great-grandchildren, says everyone in the community knows her. Still, the gesture caught her by surprise: "For almost a month I didn't leave my house, and the children told me about the picture. It’s an honor," she says, almost shyly. "In Yeruham, everyone is like a family. Everyone knows us."
"We have to do everything we can to protect that generation," says Ohana. "Our goal is to remember everything they have done for us. During times of crisis, our community must unite around a shared purpose and remember our resilience. This year is the 70th anniversary of the founding of Yeruham, and I promised we would hang pictures of everyone from the founding generation. It's a daunting project, but we will succeed. We’ll send photographers to everyone."
Over the past few weeks, local municipalities have emerged as major players in the COVID-19 crisis. In many ways, the fate of ordinary Israelis citizens is determined by decisions made at the local level. Ohana, who was elected as chair of the council in 2018, is currently dealing with the first cases of COVID-19 in Yeruham. Rather than waiting for the Israeli government to take action, Ohana told Davar that she feels the responsibility for the situation on Yeruham is on her shoulders.
"We had to get in touch with the first patients during a time when they weren’t available by phone because of the holiday – we wanted to respect the fact that they were observing religious traditions," she said. We did our own contact tracing four times for each patient to identify all the people they’d come into contact with. Luckily, the patients agreed to let us publish their names, which made it easier for everyone who’d come into contact with them to start self-isolating. I chose to take full responsibility for the situation and not wait for the Ministry of Health to manage things."
Ohana is full of praise to the Ministry of Health and director Moshe Bar Siman Tov, but also notes that the local council has consistently been one step ahead of the state. The local council response has included "food distribution, organizing volunteers, giving activity kits to families that are also appropriate for the ultra-Orthodox community, and distributing 9,000 books through the municipal library.”
As Ohana notes, “we’ve worked with all our municipal services to help them adapt to the situation, and we shut the city down before anyone else did," she says. "We purchased seventy-five computers for students who didn’t have them so they could participate in distance-learning, and local children used a 3D printer at our Science Center to make masks for medical staff in Soroka. Now, with the help of Intel, we are using simple technology to connect elderly's homes to wifi."
According to Ohana, 25 percent of Yeruham's workforce, amounting to a 1,000 people, are facing unemployment as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. She notes that economic recovery will be a long road, especially for those who work in the service-industry, the tourism sector, or the Phoenicia glass-works factory, whose future is still unclear. Still, Ohana sees this crisis as an opportunity. "Maybe we will learn to appreciate the simple things in life that we took for granted. I also hope that opportunities generated by the government following the crisis will reduce gaps between the periphery and the center of Israel."
“Our connections to one another make a unique community, and they’re the reason for our strength,” says Ohana. Avissror echoes her: "With God's help, we will defeat the Corona, just as we beat the swine flu. We’re praying that this will pass quickly, and that all the people of Israel and our soldiers will come out of this safe and sound."