With zeal and determination, and assistance from the NJ Jewish community, a rabbi from the Israeli city of Arad is on a mission to create a state-of-the art complex to serve children and adults with special needs.
At the same time, he is changing perceptions about Israel’s haredi, or fervently Orthodox, community, often perceived there as insular and unwilling to engage in the wider civic sphere.
Rabbi Avraham Kaminer, a member of the Gur hasidic movement, was born in B’nei Brak, a haredi enclave near Tel Aviv. Since being dispatched to Arad in 1981 by the Gur grand rabbi to establish a Gur community, Kaminer, 57, has been deeply involved in both the civic and religious affairs of the desert town of 27,000.
In addition to his duties as religious leader of Beit Yom Tov Lipman, a local synagogue with 100 members, he helped develop a secular educational system for Arad as well as an emergency medical facility.
“Kaminer really cares about Arad as a whole and not just his hasidic community,” said Noga Maliniak, who directs the Ness Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, which granted Kaminer $50,000 toward his special-needs project.
“He has a vision for the city and that this is exactly what Arad needs now,” she continued in an e-mail from Israel, where she lives. “He is very open, easy to communicate with and has no problem with non-Orthodox men or women.”
Last month, Kaminer was in New York, part of a week-long trip meeting supporters and potential supporters there and in Montreal and London. He is also laying the groundwork for a weekend retreat and fund-raiser focusing on Arad and its needs to be held at the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel Nov. 7-9.
“I try to act differently from the norm in my community,” Kaminer, speaking through an interpreter, told NJJN in a July 29 interview at a Manhattan coffee shop. “In all of my community work, in everything I’ve done and built, each project I have worked on is pluralistic. They all include the secular, the right wing, and the left wing.”
He recalled the distrust when he first arrived in Arad, founded in 1962 as a “development town” meant to populate the Negev.
“Arad was a very secular city and the mayor at the time was very opposed to Orthodox people coming in. I was asked to be a ‘bridge man,’ to find a way to make contact with the secular,” he said.
In 1984 Kaminer was elected to the Arad City Council and became deputy mayor five years later. He served until 2003. “There was a point when I wanted to become mayor, but once I got involved in philanthropic work, I thought it would be a better way to serve my city,” he said.
During his tenure, he helped establish an emergency medical facility that the Arad area needed desperately. “I worked to build a medical center in Arad that catered to the entire Negev community,” he said.
Prior to its construction, those in need of medical attention had to travel for nearly an hour to the closest hospital, in Be’er Sheva.
“People used to die en route from Arad to Be’er Sheva,” said Iris Kozlovich, chair of the external relations committee of the Israel Businesswomen’s Forum. A former resident of Arad, she has volunteered to help the rabbi on his fund-raising tour.
“After he built the emergency room it was much more easy for him” to relate to the non-Orthodox, who make up some 80 percent of Arad’s population, she said. “People believed him and believed he could deliver.”
His newest project, the Arad CARE Complex, will include child development, sports therapy, remedial learning, and after-school sessions, offering everything from academic tutoring to guidance counseling for students.
A hydrotherapy pool, to be staffed by psychologists and physical therapists, will serve people of all ages who have special needs, as well as accident victims and those with orthopedic problems.
Another feature will be a respite facility for the caregivers of some 2,000 children in the area with special needs.
The estimated cost of the project is $23 million. The Ness Fund, which supports economic development in the Negev region, is providing funding to hire a professional to manage development of the project. Kaminer has already raised $7 million — mainly from private donors — and expects to open the center at the end of 2017.
“The Ness Fund has been extremely helpful in developing the center and bringing in young people and giving them jobs, which will further help us develop our economy,” Kaminer said.
Because he had friends in London, Kaminer created a fund-raising group called British Friends of Arad. “He has friends there who trust him and give him money to do the best projects in the Negev,” Kozlovich said.
Could the ecumenical work he is doing in Arad, NJJN asked the rabbi, serve as a model for coexistence among Jews, Palestinians, and other feuding groups inside Israel?
He paused for a moment, smiled, and said, in Hebrew, “Absolutely.”