By Rachel Thimangu
Today we took a winding path in and around Tel Aviv, hearing stories of people who set out in one direction, but detoured to another.
A few dozen young people who wanted to start a kibbutz, but wound up (literally) underground making bullets for Israel’s soldiers in the 1940s.
A well-known Israeli journalist, who left her job to found a desperately needed (and rather controversial) day care for the children of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees.
A crop of entrepreneurs, some of them university professors, who forged the country’s incredibly successful high-tech startup sector.
And a Canadian artist who became fascinated by graffiti taggers, and now decorates the streets of Tel Aviv.
At the Ayalon Institute, we stepped into what once was the bakery of a kibbutz, climbed down some narrow stairs and into a hidden munitions factory. In the windowless, extremely hot and very loud room, a group of young people recruited by the Hagana, Israel’s first defense force, spent hour after hour painstakingly crafting 9 mm bullets that were crucial to the country’s success.
They used tanning lights to get needed Vitamin D, along with the color needed to maintain their cover story of spending days out in farm fields. They kept the secret of their work from friends and even spouses — people above-ground whom they called “giraffes” because they could see up high, but missed what happened under their feet. As an early warning system, their compatriots above ground told British soldiers who wanted to stop by the kibbutz for a beer that they drank theirs warm – and it would take an hour to cool to British liking — so every visit was preceded by a call that gave enough time for the factory to shut down and the workers to get out. They filled each cartridge with just the right amount of gunpowder, risking an explosion that could have killed everyone in the room and some people above.
Over three years, they produced 2.25 million bullets. After independence, they returned to their original plan of working the land of a kibbutz.
At our next stop, in the poor neighborhood surrounding the city’s bus station, we learned about Elifelet – Citizens for Refugee Children, a grassroots nongovernmental organization founded by journalist Yael Gvirtz. Her life changed when she learned of “child warehouses” where some young kids perished while being kept in terrible conditions while their parents, illegal refugees from the East African nations of Eritrea and Sudan, worked long hours for low-wage and high-labor jobs.
As in the U.S. and other countries, some Israelis believe the influx of poor people with differently colored skin will somehow spoil their society. They troll Gvirtz online and spew hatred. Because these refugees don’t qualify for social support granted to citizens, and may fear hospitals and other institutions where they could turn for help, their children were hidden away and didn’t always get needed healthcare.
Elifelet began in 2012 with 21 babies. Today, 250 volunteers run 35 facilities and care for more than 1,000 kids. The organization lost a major donor — due to political pressure, Gvirtz suspects — and relies on small, individual and foreign donors, the latter including St. Louis’ Jewish Federation.
At the Center for Israeli Innovation by Taglit in partnership with the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, we learned about dozens of startups and high-tech companies that have led this tiny country to some impressive achievements. It has the highest number of startups per capita in the world (more than 6,000 in all) — second only to Sillicon Valley — and the informal title of “startup nation.”
Among the companies and technologies started here are Waze, Mobileye and Pillcam, tiny cameras that people can swallow for incredibly accurate imaging of their digestive systems. The innovations in agriculture, military defense, healthcare and environmental technology were amazing and attract young people from around the world.
On our last stop, street artist Muriel Cohen took us through winding alleyways and streets in the midst of gentrification to see hundreds – maybe thousands – of works painted, stenciled and even crocheted and mounted on the sides of nearly every building and wall.
She wrapped up by creating a 30-second portrait for each member of our group, complete with a brief message that came to her while gazing into our eyes.
It was an insightful day, filled with eye-opening stories of people who found their paths unexpectedly leading them to build Israel’s future along with their own.