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Power to the people

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow—you see all these people with such good hearts—we really are strong!”

Rachel Gidvi, interviewed November 9, 2023

By Holly Kemph

When the war broke out, Rachel Gidvi, an activist in Jerusalem who has worked for the LGBT and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish communities, met with Adir Schwartz – one of the Jerusalem Civilian Command Center’s (JCCC) founding members. She recalls the morning that war broke out with Hamas: “I asked him what he was doing and he told me, ‘Come over right away!’”

Rachel describes herself as “a person who always has to be doing something,” and, after getting over her initial shock, her first instinct was to come to the JCCC. Schwartz, whom she has known for a long time through her activism, asked her to manage the purchasing of equipment – an effort that was just getting under way. Nothing was clear at that early stage, everything was very spontaneous. No one knew just what might be needed, but there were a lot of young people hanging around looking for something to do, with everyone working hard to get the command center up and running.

How does it work?

The groundwork involved finding ways to cope with all the requests that started flowing into the JCCC. “I was here every day for about 12 hours,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any other life – that was the feeling.” She would go home and still continue fielding phone requests for assistance. “For those who were here in those first days, it was exciting, we all put our efforts into this, putting our lives on hold in order to help. The JCCC is about all these people.”

At the same time, Rachel notes that the JCCC is a complex structure involving several different organizations working together. The purchasing team itself has several interconnected parts: one group that does fundraising, another that purchases personal items for soldiers, and another that buys stocks of medical supplies.

“We all sat in one big room, fielding requests and assigning funds accordingly, as needed.” The kind of responsibility involved in soliciting funds and spending them on immediate needs is daunting, says Rachel, but also exciting. Spending donated funds on such a scale requires making sure that the needs are legitimate and pressing, and that the purchased materials will actually get to the people who need them most.

Ultimately, Rachel says, it’s a situation in which “we have the resources, and if you need them, we will help you.” Yet, at the same time, the team is well aware that its mandate is not to replace the government. “We sit down and discuss an issue to decide whether it properly falls within our purview or, alternatively, is it the government’s responsibility? We always face this dilemma, since we don’t want the public to mistakenly look at us as if we’re an arm of the state”—with the state’s functions and capabilities.

“Here’s an example,” she says. “Two brothers came, older men, who said their mother was in dire need. She fled her home without proper clothing. She lacked money to go out and buy what she needed.” It was a clear cut case of immediate need at the individual level, and they were glad to help. It’s not that everyone who had to leave their homes is necessarily poverty stricken. It’s more that they don’t have the wherewithal to cope with the situation at this given moment, when they have to start their lives over from scratch. There are some things that the state is not going to provide. The principle that guides the team is that people’s real needs should not fall by the wayside—but it doesn’t matter if what’s needed is a few articles of clothing or a load of supplies for soldiers at the front.

What motivates Rachel?

With an MSW and another master’s degree in public policy, Rachel understands that working for social change entails dealing with “the system,” but the primary requirement is “to understand how people live.” According to her, the fundamental issue is that the system and its policymakers are detached from the demands and needs of specific population groups.

“I’m very connected to people,” she says, “and that is my passion.” She adds: “As a gay woman in Jerusalem, I try to change this city.” For her, that means taking action. “It was natural for me to come to this place.”

She was not surprised to see everyone coming together. In all, it has been a difficult year for Israelis, but looking around her at the people gathered together to help, she was profoundly moved. “It was difficult at first, and I am not usually a very emotional person, but at a certain moment, I remember thinking, ‘Wow—you see all these people with such good hearts—we really are strong!”

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