How the Strategic Alliance between the Menomadin Foundation and Tiberias Achieved Success in Evacuee Absorption

The Menomadin Team
March 19, 2024

Eli Meiri, deputy brigade commander of the 179 Armored Brigade, has been in reserve duty since October 7th. He was initially stationed at Israel’s northern border, then sent south to Gaza. At the time of writing, four and a half months into the war, he is still leading his fighters. Now and again, when they are talking among themselves, he mentions that in normal times he heads the education department in Tiberias municipality. His fellow officers and soldiers whose families were incidentally evacuated to Tiberias, share their impression from home: “One reservist, originally from Shlomi, said to me, listen, my wife is in Tiberias, my daughters are so happy in school there,” and Meiri, in Gaza, is delighted.

“If we needed proof that our plan is working – we’ve got it,” he told Menomadin CEO, Dr. Merav Galili and Menamodin Founder and President, Haim Taib in a hurried phone call from the frontlines. “There is a war going on, 12,000 new citizens in Tiberias, the municipality is overwhelmed facing a thousand challenges, 3,000 new children joined the city’s education system overnight, and the Director of Education Department, me, is totally unavailable, all of these – and the city education system is functioning, and functioning well.”

3,000 New Pupils Overnight

On October 8th, the entire community of Kibbutz Or HaNer – babies, children, teens, parents, elderly, all utterly shocked and almost destitute – came straight from the Western Negev to Tiberias. It was just the first of what would quickly become a multitude of migratory communities that arrived at the city seeking shelter during the war. The northern city of Tiberias was ready to respond to different security and defense scenarios: mortar fire from the country’s northern border followed by evacuation of the city’s citizens to hotels and other temporary accommodations in the center and south of Israel. And behold, without any contingency plan, the city had to cope on the fly with whatever came its way.

On the first day, one hotel opened; then another and another, taking in evacuees from 13 southern regional councils and municipalities, including Ashkelon, Sderot, and Ashdod. On the fourth day of the war, an evacuation order was issued to citizens living within two kilometers of the northern border, and the city of Tiberias realized many thousands more evacuees were to be expected. Indeed, the city is taking in evacuees from nine northern municipalities, their citizens arriving with a bag of clothes, medicine, phone charger, and maybe some other necessities they were able to pack in the hurried moments when they were forced to flee their homes. Over the next few days, three or four hotels opened every day, each housing 300–1,000 refugees.

In just a few days, the city’s population and percentage of pupils expected to be integrated into its education system both grew by over 20%. The city, with a population of 50,000 in socio-economic category 4, has been under an appointed committee rule for the past four years. The municipality formed a four-member team to handle the situation, led by Chen Ofir, currently the evacuees’ absorption coordinator, usually serving as the Municipal Youth Unit Director. The education department staff plays a central role in this team and in Tiberias’ phenomenal success in evacuee absorption, and not by chance.

Tiberias will come to absorb 12,000 evacuees, 3,000 of which are children aged 0–18. Photo by: City Spokesman Eli Savti

Tiberias will come to absorb 12,000 evacuees, 3,000 of which are children aged 0–18. Photo by: City Spokesman Eli Savti; Pictured above (from right to left): Eli Meiri, Haim Taib, Dr. Rami Suleimani and Dr. Meirav Galili

Clothing, Food, Hug – and Education

In the first few days, focus was on caring for the immediate needs of the evacuees, providing clothing and laundry services, baby food and heartwarming gifts for the children. The absorption team helps hotel kitchens to become kosher, supplying kosher takeaways in the meantime. Volunteers are recruited and assigned to each hotel to provide stress-relief activities. They work alongside a city representative, social workers, and psychologist, providing professional assistance and comfort. Supported by the many local citizens who came at their own initiative – a melting pot of volunteers from all of Tiberias’ social tapestry, including the Karlin Hasidic community – they set up a donation center, a charity fund and a social club inside the hotels. City representatives mediate between the evacuees and the hotels, as accommodating non-guests was a first-time experience for them. They help with room assignments and even reunite families that were separated and evacuated to different cities. Despite the workload, no individual and personal request was too small to be addressed. Thus, the team helped a sick woman receive the special medical equipment she needed and organized a Bar Mitzvah for a 13-year-old boy from Kibbutz Or HaNer.

Within a day or two, informal education programs were already operating in the hotels; it would take another two to three weeks for the formal education system to return to some sense of normalcy. Then, as the initial storm of the evacuations and absorption began to settle down, it became clear that this was not a short-term event. Although no one had anticipated it to last so long, everyone understood that providing a long-term education solution for the children was necessary. The Ministry of Education assigned a representative to each hotel, and Tiberias opened kindergartens for around 700 preschoolers between the ages of zero to six in each hotel. Unlike Eilat, Tiberias’ hotels are not designed for long-term family stay but specialize in overnight group tourism. Some creativity was required to establish learning zones in which the Ministry of Education asked to provide online studies for school children, COVID-19 style. This solution wasn’t working at all. There was a consensus that neither the children nor their parents could be confined to the hotel for days at a time.

And so, alongside opening the city education system and integrating the evacuated pupils into its schools, Tiberias, the Menomadin Foundation, the Joint (JDC), and the Ministry of the Negev, Galilee, and National Resilience came together to establish a facility dedicated entirely to the wellbeing of the evacuees – the WOW zone. The city had located a three-floor building, and a fortnight later, with the help of the Ministry of Welfare, the first floor was redesigned to accommodate activities for the elderly population; the second floor became an indoor playground for toddlers with a soft play and other attractions; and the third floor transformed into a youth club equipped with XBOX stations, billiards and table hockey, tennis and soccer, and other pastimes which will enable the teenagers to get together and vent a little in a safe and joyful zone instead of wandering around the street or sinking into their smartphone in the hotel bed.

City appointed committee chairman Boaz Yosef at the WOW Center opening event. Photo by city spokesman Eli Savti

City appointed committee chairman Boaz Yosef at the WOW Center opening event. Photo by city spokesman Eli Savti

First – We Say Yes

Tiberias had started to open its already overloaded schools for the benefit of the evacuees. “In Tachkemoni school, on September 1st, we didn’t know where to place even one more child,” says Meiri. “At the end of October, we made room for 60 evacuated pupils. For a whole month there were no chairs in the teacher’s lounge; actually, there was no teacher’s lounge because it was converted into a classroom.” It was the same in the other schools. School principals first said yes and then went on to find creative ways to fulfill the mission: rooms were renovated into new classrooms, overcrowded 30-pupil classes were stretched some more to accommodate 35 pupils. In a city where parents would go on strike if even one hour of school time was cut, the school week was shortened to five days with the parent’s consent, and Friday’s teaching staff came together for the benefit of the newly formed classrooms and the evacuated pupils. In its existing schools, the city has provided a solution for 1,100 evacuated pupils. For the remaining 1,000, it quickly set out to construct an entirely new school; this massive project, led by the Ministry of Education, was completed in just three weeks. The municipality allocated land, 34 classrooms were set up, the surrounding infrastructure was adapted, and teachers were recruited from among the teaching staff who had been evacuated to the city and from the local education system. All this was done while the City Engineer, the Execution Department Director, and the Practical Engineer were all on reserve duty.

The impressive municipal mobilization during days of unremitting crises, the dedication of teachers who did not take a single day off for months while many of their spouses were on reserve duty, the local parents who showed understanding and tolerance, and the psychologists in Tiberias’ education system who worked 24/7 – “No one counted hours, no one complained. Heroes,” says Meiri, “but without the infrastructure we built in the last three years, none of this would have happened.”

Three Years of Growth in the Tiberias Education Sphere

The infrastructures Meiri speaks of are the fruit of a strategic plan in education, developed and led by the Menomadin Foundation with JDC-Ashalim and Dr. Rami Sulimani. Dr. Sulimani, who was the JDC CEO for many years, specializes in comprehensive, long-term processes in educational systems. Menomadin Foundation came to Tiberias around four years ago when an appointed committee was tasked to run the city after almost all of its municipal administration mechanisms failed to function. “Tiberias was a city struggling to provide any citizen services, even struggling to pick up the trash,” says Meiri, who took office as the Director of the Education Department in December 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force. The unemployment rate in the city was a staggering 50%, and the pressure surrounding the operation of the education system in the country at the time was remarkable. In Tiberias, this was compounded by a managerial crisis, with almost all of the city’s education department officials being replaced, and the pressure from the citizens was immense.

Even in this time of emergency, in survival mode, when you do not know what tomorrow would bring and your main focus is on how to get through the day, Meiri and Dr. Galili insisted on building a long-term plan for the city’s education system. They faced harsh criticism and were called crazy dreamers. “School principals told me: we need a chair and a table now, we don’t care about five years from now,” and Meiri told them: “We’ll bring you the chair and the table for tomorrow morning, and we’ll also take care of the future of education in the city.”

Keeping with the nature of the work of the Menomadin Foundation, the first step was to build a strong partnership network, with its representatives forming the plan’s steering committee: the Tiberias Municipality, the Ministry of Education, the Menomadin Foundation, and the parents. Yes, the parents. The consensus in Tiberias was that imposing a pre-built general program on the system, that is, assuming that what works for one city works for all cities, is impossible. They relied heavily on the professional guidance of Menomadin and the JDC to build a program tailored specifically to the needs of Tiberias. “The Menomadin Foundation presented us with the results of the research it had initiated, which surveyed, among other things, programs that had succeeded in different places – and instructed us to examine what do we need and what is right for us. With this information and their flexible and open-minded guidance, we set out to the field to learn what the real needs were, and in the process, we have already started the work itself.”

New elementary school for evacuee children. Photo by city spokesman Eli Savti

New elementary school for evacuee children. Photo by city spokesman Eli Savti

Trust, Dialogue, and Organizational Work Platforms

Five teams were established to support the steering committee, each focusing on a different educational issue. Each team includes representatives of all senior partners alongside school principals, vice principals, teachers, pupils, social workers, and various organizations operating in the city, such as ORT Amal and others. “Each such diverse team is a breeding ground for leadership,” explains Meiri. “These are the men and women who will be able to take on the task and carry out its implementation.”

“During the first year, we worked intensely with the teams, creating networks, establishing connections and communication. The immediate result was that people felt they were not alone. They had each other and an open channel to strong organizations and the local government. In frequent meetings, they brought up difficulties they had experienced and instantly found solutions. Experiencing empowerment and thinking about the future, especially in the chaotic reality of COVID-19 and the understanding that they are all committed gave everyone a lot of hope and strength. In the meantime, we also completed formulating our strategic plan, which includes measurable, precise short-term and long-term goals.” At this point, Meiri asked the Menomadin Foundation to continue to accompany them throughout the implementation stage, a stage at which many plans fail. This is particularly true for local authorities, which are complicated arenas that require complex partnerships, and doubly so in weak authorities. The Menomadin Foundation agreed and continued with Tiberias to the implementation stage.

“When the 2022/2023 school year ended, the first year of the plan’s implementation, we felt very good about it. And it wasn’t merely a feeling. In absolute numbers, we showed 80% success and achievement of goals, which is phenomenal for any strategic plan, and even more so for an ambitious plan like the one we set for ourselves.” Among other things, the previously nonexistent informal education system was established in Tiberias. We built the Municipal Youth Unit that, together with the Israeli Association of Community Centers, made a real revolution in the city. Another achievement was the establishment of a community center in cooperation with the citizens of Shikun A, formerly an old and rundown neighborhood, now a strong community that has learned that it can do a lot for itself. From an education department where the only pedagogue was the department manager, a middle management professional team was built, and large and robust partners were brought in to create joint education projects with the municipality. “And there are other triumphs, ones that cannot be quantified,” adds Meiri. “We managed to bring together representatives from the Orthodox, national-religious, and secular education systems, who learned to communicate, recognize their similarities, and work together for a common goal. In a city that was characterized by polarization and division, the education system brought a new message: we talk to each other and evolve together. Education is a bridge, and education does not operate in a vacuum: It is the foundation of the community, the city, and our society as a whole.

The Overarching Goals of Education: Resilience and Belonging

The main infrastructures laid in Tiberias in the last three years are those of trust and dialogue, platforms of orderly and stable organizational work. “When we initiated the plan, we set two overarching goals, which turned out to be prophetic – resilience and sense of belonging. Two or three years ago, no one was talking about resilience or belonging in the context of education. The focus was on achievements, excellence, and equal opportunity. The war made it clear to us how relevant our goals were and how essential was the preparation we did with the principals and teams over these two years. A team means leadership, and today, we have five teams for city leadership: an active team of secular and Orthodox principals, a team of deputy principals, and three reserve teams. We have the leaders who will carry the mission on their shoulders, both into the future and onto the circles surrounding the education system. They are supported by an organizational system and significant budgets allocated to education in Tiberias from the state, the city, and through the partnership with the Menomadin Foundation.

That was the reality of Tiberias to the morning of October 7th and how it has been succeeding in absorbing the evacuees until today. Now, four and a half months into the war, the city has a kind of evacuees’ education department, an early childhood coordinator, an education coordinator, and a coordinator for at-risk youth. There are 800 evacuated teenagers, who, even if they were not previously defined as at-risk, the very fact of them staying in a hotel for so long when parents’ supervision and coping abilities are eroded, separated from friends and family, required the creation of an informal education system, which is mostly based on activities for at-risk youth. The Youth Unit recruited five employees, all from external, independently raised budgets. The unit’s success can also be attributed to the partnership with Menomadin and the other partners it connected the city with, as well as new capabilities of recruiting partners and resources previously nonprevalant in Tiberias. The line Tiberias set – first we say yes, only then we will figure out how – prevails.

Even today, the work is still in full swing. The situation is dynamic, there is a turnover of evacuees, those who came to Tiberias from the south are trying to return south to get closer to their workplaces, and on the opposite end – citizens of the north who were evacuated to the south and are now arriving in Tiberias. The education system is constantly being updated, the placements in majors, providing integration stipends, and the adjustments to the system continues – the flexibility and resilience of the system are being tested every day.

Enjoyable activities for evacuated families in Tiberias. Photo by city spokesman Eli Savti

Enjoyable activities for evacuated families in Tiberias. Photo by city spokesman Eli Savti

A City Braving the Storm

Six months before the war, Tiberias and Menomadin decided to leverage the fundamental change in education to initiate a similar change on a city-wide level. Tiberias joined the Ministry of Welfare’s Local Government Mobilization initiative, developed by JDC-Ashalim and implemented in cities across the country. A city social mobility team was established, and the Menomadin team is accompanying Tiberias in the process of building municipal resilience. Menomadin, the Joint, and Tiberias Municipality believe that what has been happening in the city since the war started, especially in the education system, will significantly boost the process. Tiberias’ performance indicates a potential that is already being realized and can only grow from here.

Everything that was built during the war will remain in its wake to serve Tiberias’ citizens. The new infrastructures – the WOW center and the new school – will be made available for the benefit and use of the citizens. Moreover, the capabilities and experience accumulated will serve them, whether in the field of early childhood or in supporting at-risk youth. The trust the citizens now have in the municipality in general, and the education system in particular, is invaluable. They trust the municipal system to provide them with solutions for every problem because after overcoming a challenge of such magnitude, it seems like there is nothing this city can’t do. The trust is mutual, as the system also knows it can count on the support of the parents and citizens at large.

The citizens joined the many activities, volunteered to do laundry for the evacuees, brought equipment, and organized activities. They have all gained experience along the way, and their desire to be socially active grew. Even now, the municipality is already being approached by citizens who want to lead and implement similar initiatives in their neighborhoods.

Trusting the Process and Spreading the Wealth

“This trend is exciting and inspiring, and it should teach us an important lesson as citizens,” says Meiri. “In a country that is constantly taking shortcuts and cutting corners, where everything is built in patchwork; the process we did in the Tiberias education system is an example of how to do things right despite all the pressures and criticism. Here is a story about a peripheral city and a foundation that aim for the long term instead of going for a quick band-aid solution to publish in a nice brochure. We see foundations that come to a city with all their strength and money, and upon departing, they often leave it weaker than it was when they arrived. The Menomadin Foundation’s move to enter a broken city and invest in it with a strategic plan was indeed a gamble, but we trusted the process, built things brick by brick, and (un)surprisingly – they work.”

Indeed, even during a time of war, Tiberias was able to break down the barriers, shake off decades-long stigmas and prove its municipal resilience. The meaning of this resilience is a functioning home front, the foundation and basis for our national resilience. “The success of Tiberias and the knowledge we have accumulated throughout the process have led us at Menomadin to develop an initiative to strengthen community and municipal resilience alongside the education program,” says Dr. Galili. “As an immediate step, the foundation is expanding the endeavor to ten local authorities in Israel’s northern and southern borders. In each local authority, the unique challenges and needs will be examined, and an orderly process will be formulated within which all relevant parties inside and outside the local authority will join forces to create a tailor-made infrastructure, one that will allow optimal coping with challenges in routine and in times of emergency.”

To the magazine