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The Otef—A Needed Embrace

"We are giving them something intangible: a semblance of normalcy”

Interview with Niv Segal Doron, taken November 21, 2023

By Eli Lederhendler

Niv Segal Doron, 26, recently completed her MSW at the Hebrew University and was just at the point of looking for employment when the war broke out. After a few days of staying at home and fixating on the news, she took her husband’s advice to go out and start doing something proactive.

“I went right over to the JCCC—the Hamal—and during my first shift as a volunteer, I discovered the ‘Otef’”—the free second-hand shop whose name translates loosely as “Embrace.” This place was originally intended as an exhibition space for the School of Visual Theatre, one of several schools for the performing arts that flank the courtyard between Bezalel Street and Hamenorah Street in downtown Jerusalem. When the war broke out, the JCCC set up shop in the Nissan Nativ Acting Studio, which is part of the same structure, and as soon as the war began, city planner Dana Gazi came up with the idea of using the space for a cost-free, second-hand shop to help people evacuated from rocket-damaged cities and towns in the regions near the Gaza Strip and along the Lebanese border.

How does it work?

The shop boasts a large, split-level, open-plan showroom and huge picture windows. It is a pleasant beehive of activity, with about a dozen volunteers helping to stock the place to the rafters with donated clothing, books, games and toys—all in excellent condition, and all available free of charge to evacuated people. With clothing racks arrayed around the room, as well as shelves, tables, and cubbies, every item of clothing for children and adults is arranged according to size, just like in any store. Even the books are arranged in age-appropriate sections.

“I get here in the morning,” Niv says, “and I see twenty bags already stacked by the door, with items donated by the good people of Jerusalem.”

“Donations are sorted in the back room, since we only want to display items that are clean and in perfect condition. It’s so important to make this a pleasant, customer-friendly experience for anyone who needs this service. Everything is in high demand—the turnover here is huge.”

“Many of these people came with little to nothing. They’re housed in hotels but have no laundry service. Often, there are large families, so clean clothing is a priority. And warm clothing: the weather a month ago was still warm and sunny, but the Jerusalem winter has set in quickly. People from places like Sderot, Ashkelon, Netivot are not used to this cold. They didn’t have a chance to stock up on winter clothing.”

Niv points out that, even in normal times, many southern residents come from lower socioeconomic groups. Their needs are compounded now that they are away from their homes, often far from their usual places of employment—so money is tighter than ever.

What motivates Niv?

“Even if everything here is free of charge, we want the customers to have the pleasure of a normal shopping experience. We are giving them something material, but also something intangible: a semblance of normalcy and fun,” she says, smiling broadly. “It’s fun to go into a store, look around, try things on, and choose something you like.”

Niv says that the work she does at the “Otef” is a perfect fit for her. “It combines three things that I love: social work in the community, shopping, and fashion.”

The lanyard Niv wears, bearing her name, sports a professional store tag and logo that reads—“Otef Clothing Salon”—just like in any department store. But it’s a lot more than a gimmick. “Otef,” the store name, is also emblazoned on the shop windows—next to a prominent stenciled slogan, “BRING THEM HOME.” The word “Otef” has two connotations. Its root meaning in Hebrew is to wrap around, to clothe, to embrace, as with a garment or a hug. But in Israeli parlance, the towns rimming the Gaza Strip on the Israeli side of the border area are collectively known as “Otef Gaza”—the Gaza Envelope. The store envelops the people who arrive.

Putting the wordplay to work, the volunteers try to recreate the atmosphere of a normal store despite the emergency. “These are people who need to feel normal,” says Niv, adding that volunteers on the team lead small play circles for children while their parents scout the place for whatever they need.

“We want this experience to include peace of mind. Some of these people left home in a panic, they’re upset, they’re stressed. Our job is not just to arrange clothes on racks: our job is to know the right word to say to someone, the right tone of voice, the right kind of sensitivity. Sometimes we refer people to the team that provides personal and emotional support services. We can offer some things that other teams don’t have, and vice versa. We work together to benefit the people who come here.”

Challenges for the future

“Because of the high turnover, we can’t always keep things in stock that people need,” Niv explains. That is why the team is about to launch a new initiative aimed at raising money to purchase stocks of brand-new personal items, especially things like socks and underwear, which are chronically out of stock.

“We’re going to be open for business on Friday to sell things to walk-in customers—not for the evacuees.” The income from an open-shop day will hopefully provide resources for Otef volunteers to continue providing essential clothes and toys at no cost to the thousands of evacuated people.

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