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The New Pioneers: Being the change they wish to see in the world

In honor of Israel’s 74th Independence Day, we talked to young activists who prove that even in 2022, “Zionism” isn’t a bad word. They choose to live with their families in the geo-social periphery of Israel, and together with local residents, improve the quality of life, build community, and lead change on the ground to create a more equal and just society.

“In the Hadar neighborhood we aren’t just about nostalgia, we work and create intergenerational connections which put the elderly at the center of the community action and experience.”

Keren Sagi, 41, is a member of Dror Israel’s educator’s kibbutz, director of the Changing Neighborhoods initiative, and the community growth director at the neighborhood community center in the Hadar neighborhood of Haifa.

Keren Sagi has lived and worked in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood for 17 years. Through her work over the years with children and youth, she learned to identify the ones who are at-risk, to locate them, to figure out what exactly they are struggling with, and to help empower them through education and guidance.

“Over the last few years, I’ve come to understand that in my neighborhood there is an entire population on the rise that I don’t see, who are under our radar - the elderly population,” she says. “Sometimes it doesn’t feel so good to look directly at the phenomenon of aging and we avert our gaze and prefer to ignore it and continue on with our lives. Because it exposes a lot of difficult things, like loneliness and sadness and mainly it makes us think about ourselves and how we will age.”

“I’m only 41, a mom to two young girls, but when I open my door and go out into the street, I feel that I can’t ignore my neighbors,” she explains that around a quarter of the residents in her neighborhood are elderly.

“We wanted to make the voice of the neighborhood heard. We wanted to shine a light on its beauty and make it a meaningful city center again.”

“I moved here 17 years ago as part of a decision with friends from Dror Israel, graduates of the HaNoar HaOved youth movement, to create an urban educators’ kibbutz. It’s just like it sounds - communal community life, with an emphasis on education in the heart of the city. And today I’m the director of the Changing Neighborhoods initiative in Hadar and the community growth director at the neighborhood community center.”

In the 70s, the Hadar neighborhood was an attractive center in the north with bustling streets filled with people, stores, cafes, a legendary department store and lots of cinemas- a neighborhood overflowing with life and culture. “When we came to Hadar it wasn’t like that anymore,” Sagi shares, “the neighborhood had declined in lots of ways, people didn’t feel safe walking the streets, poverty had become a defining characteristic of the neighborhood and it really was becoming dilapidated.”

“When we, as the urban kibbutz, arrived here, we wanted to make the voice of the neighborhood heard. We wanted to shine a light on its beauty and make it a meaningful city center again. We met other communities of driven young adults here. Our activities in the beginning focused on education, as part of our belief that education can change society.

We worked with at-risk kids and youth, and together with city hall and the Ministry of Education we established a preschool, created an urban kids’ center and a ton of other educational programs. Slowly we decided to develop in the direction of working with adults and the elderly as well.”

As the years passed and activities grew, additional communities of young adults joined Dror Israel to make change in the neighborhood. Together with other residents, Sagi and her friends established a neighborhood council, which initiates activities in the neighborhood and works with the city and the authorities to improve the neighborhood.

“The council members include ultra-Orthodox Jews, olim from the former Soviet Union, Arabs and senior citizens, and they are all active in order to promote the goals that we decided on,” says Sagi. “The neighborhood council has put Hadar on the map for the city’s decision-makers and we have witnessed the change that the communities living here have succeeded in making, by working together. For example, we recently held a community evening to raise awareness about the condition of senior citizens in the neighborhood – an open discussion which drew dozens of residents.”

A community celebration for all ages in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood.

“You have to look reality in the eyes – not all of the seniors can even leave their homes, and so in partnership with the welfare department and relationships with local residents and activists, we created the Social Safety Net, which is a program based on hundreds of young volunteers who use a WhatsApp group to help meet any need or lack. They have already renovated homes, accompanied seniors to medical appointments, and got groceries for people who couldn’t get to the store. During the period of COVID lockdowns, this network became a real situation room that handled so many crises and needs. It has also organized meetings with homebound and lonely seniors, and distributed food packages to hundreds of residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities.”

The issue of senior citizens has grabbed the attention of the Social Safety Net since the start of the pandemic. “We realized that a lot of elderly people in Hadar who live without family are totally alone in the world and have nobody to ask for help. Through the Social Safety Net, we also reached people who are homebound, and through requests for food packages, we also encountered elderly people in extremely at-risk situations. Unfortunately, we also became aware of the phenomenon of isolated seniors who have died alone in the homes and their bodies are only discovered after a few days because nobody is in regular contact with them.”

“We started a thorough process with the welfare department and the Technion’s social situation room with the goal of understanding the extent of the problem, mapping each building in the neighborhood and developing plans to meet the needs of lonely seniors in Hadar. We went door-to-door and met people, our neighbors, who were so happy to meet us and feel that someone was interested in them, and who see them as an integral part of this neighborhood, that they really belong. Today, as part of the Changing Neighborhoods program, we are working to promote cultural and leisure activities for residents of all ages in the neighborhood’s playgrounds and public spaces.”

Members of the Social Safety Net organize food packages for the elderly during the first wave of COVID

What’s happening in Hadar is human and community urban renewal, with hundreds of driven and ideological young people who have fallen in love with the magic and the diversity of the population here, and who find meaning in working in the neighborhood for the benefit of their neighbors. Together, neighborhood activists, parents, and seniors – all from different cultural, religious and national backgrounds – are living together in this diverse neighborhood and see that as an advantage. We feel that here you can create a society with people and human connections at its center. People who choose to live in Hadar feel this every day – that there is no replacement for the interpersonal connections created here and the feeling of purpose that you can create for yourself, your family, and your surroundings,” Sagi concludes.

"What’s happening in Hadar is human and community urban renewal, with hundreds of driven and ideological young people who have fallen in love with the magic and the diversity of the population here, and find meaning in working in the neighborhood. "


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