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July 21, 2021 12:09 pm

Protecting Sderot — and Israel

avatar by Sandor Frankel


A man photographs the damage caused after a rocket landed in a playground in Sderot, southern Israel, February 24, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun.

“The Accidental Philanthropistby Sandor Frankel (Simon and Schuster, 2021)

The Helmsley Charitable Trust, which began active grant-making in 2009, has quickly become one of the world’s largest philanthropic funders to Israel —  having given over $411 million to Israeli causes thus far. 

Sandor Frankel is the lead trustee of its Israel program. His memoir, “The Accidental Philanthropist,” will be published in August. It recounts his childhood, career, and, ultimately, the formation of the Helmsley Trust and grantmaking of its Israel program. Below is an excerpt from his book:

No rockets were fired during our visit to Sderot. The town was peaceful. We visited a school in the center of town. Outwardly, it was like any other school, with children in a classroom, teachers teaching — except here, one of the rooms was a bomb shelter, and many of the children’s drawings were of bombs falling and body parts flying.

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There’s a playground outside. In the center of the playground is a sculpture of a long, tall, brightly colored caterpillar, unusual in its size, hollowed out on the inside, that a handful of children were running in and out of.

When rockets are fired at Sderot, Israeli high-tech sensors sound an alarm warning that rockets will strike the ground in ten seconds; every day, at every moment, every resident of Sderot must be within ten seconds of a bomb shelter. There are many bomb shelters in Sderot, and there is a monument for a young man who didn’t reach one in time and suffered a direct hit.

To the people who live there, Sderot is home. They won’t be intimidated; they won’t move; they won’t desert the town. When rockets hit, the Israeli army — their army — strikes back with force. The citizens are strong, proud, and unflinching. They know the enemy.

The big, ungainly, multi-colored caterpillar in the schoolyard is a bomb shelter. The children are never more than ten seconds from safety….

During one of the Gaza wars, Israel had discovered dozens of tunnels secretly dug by Hamas, providing hidden underground entry from Gaza into Israel. Many of the tunnels were connected to others in an elaborate underground network.

We entered one tunnel that the Israelis had preserved for the world to see — it’s still there, go see for yourself. This tunnel was built more than thirty feet below ground, completely concealed. The walls inside were concrete, wired with electric lines and communication cables. We walked easily through the tunnel. It was wide and high enough for vehicles and equipment to pass through.

Several steps inside, was a junction to another tunnel. We were in the remains of a highly developed underground roadway system for terrorists, emptying secretly into Israel. The thought of entering these tunnels in the midst of a war, not knowing who was hiding in wait or what hidden explosive device the next step might detonate, was terrifying.

The Gaza Strip is less than a mile away from the opening at the end of the tunnel on the Israeli side — about the distance of my walk to elementary school in the Bronx. The tunnels had been built invisibly — they began inside a house in Gaza, or a school or mosque there, dug straight down into the earth and then horizontally underground across Israel’s border and opening into the soft underbelly of Israeli civilian communities. One of the tunnels had already extended under the dining room of a large kibbutz, where hundreds of ordinary people eat every day.

When you see it, you understand the massacre that had been planned: Hundreds of armed terrorists simultaneously emerging with heavy weapons from tunnels, running, or on motorcycles driven through the tunnels, in a coordinated attack on civilians, murdering and kidnapping children, women, and men at will.

The terrorists had also manufactured Israel Defense Force uniforms so that when Israeli soldiers would finally arrive they’d have trouble recognizing friend from foe. Standing in that tunnel, and emerging onto the quiet field steps from the small homes that dotted the area, drove home the stark reality: The entire community could have been decimated. And this tunnel was one of dozens. The massacre would have been Israel’s 9/11.

What could a charitable trust do to help these people?  The communities lacked adequate medical care. They had a beat-up building that served as an occasional clinic, rarely visited by a doctor, and easy targets for rockets. To attract more families and develop, they needed a real medical center, which had to be secured because it would surely be targeted by rockets. The Trust gave $1.9 million to build one.

We drove a few miles to a clinic in another small community near the Gaza Strip. One room in the clinic was a bomb shelter, built with Helmsley funds, so that patients being treated did not have to flee the clinic when it was under rocket attack. The personnel expressed their gratitude. The shelter would allow residents to seek medical help without fear of being killed there. We’d also given them funds to buy two custom-fortified vans and protective vests and helmets, to protect medical personnel traveling to patients or transporting medical supplies.

The director of health care services in the area showed me a map. In tiny Hebrew lettering, several dozen small Israeli villages appeared as spots all around the border of the Gaza Strip. Twenty- nine of those spots were circled in red. I asked the director what the red circles represented.

Those twenty-nine towns, he said, all have clinics with bomb shelters provided by the Helmsley Trust.

Rockets and tunnels were not the limits of the constant attacks on these small border communities. The terrorists’ tactics changed: They began sending hundreds of incendiary devices ̧ including flammable balloons, into Israel, targeting hundreds of acres of farmland and surrounding communities. We did our best to help there too. I walked through acres of burned, blackened grass and crops that had been destroyed just outside the Gaza border, until a security guard who’d driven us there gave me a dose of reality: Get back into the car, he warned, those are real snipers on the other side. When I returned to New York, we gave money to build dozens of bomb shelters to be interspersed in particularly vulnerable open areas in the fields, along with firefighting equipment, and money to fortify buildings in a college nearby – over $7 million in all.

Sandor Frankel is a lawyer in New York City. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is the author of several books, and is a trustee of The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, one of the largest private philanthropies in the United States.

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