Canadians fund shelter playground for kibbutz near Gaza

Kibbutz Mefalsim children test out their new underground play space before the Rosh Hashanah grand opening

Last year Sagit Milshtein Sadi, now a mother of three, set out to build a playground in an underground bomb shelter for the children of her kibbutz, Mefalsim, near the Gaza border in Israel. 

Everyone told her it would cost too much money and involve too much aggravation. But she kept pushing, and with the help of donations from generous Canadians, she achieved her dream and the playground is set to open for Rosh Hashanah.

“Everyone on the kibbutz is eagerly awaiting the grand opening,” said Milshtein Sadi, who has uncles and cousins in the Toronto area. “Their hearts are warmed by the knowledge that people across the ocean cared enough to donate to our cause so that our children can play safely.”

Kibbutz Mefalsim, established in 1949, was built by South American Jews and sits in the south of Israel, just two kilometres from the Gaza border. The 800 residents – 100 of whom are less than six years old – are under daily threat of rocket attacks and have only 15 seconds to seek cover once a siren sounds. As a result, playing outside in the open air is not always a safe option.

Since moving to Mefalsim in 2005, Milshtein Sadi has experienced hundreds of alarms and two wars.

Her idea to convert the kibbutz bomb shelter into an underground play space germinated during Israel’s first war with Hamas in Gaza in 2012, when the kibbutz essentially “shut down,” she said. 

Residents stopped leaving their homes out of fear for their safety while schools, daycares and workplaces were closed. 

Milshtein Sadi said she recalls feeling like a “prisoner in her own home.” 

She began fundraising for her cause during last year’s IDF operation against Hamas in Gaza. In total, more than 150,000 shekels ($50,000 Cdn) has been raised, almost half of which came from Canadians (the rest came from a private donor in the United States and friends in Israel).

While Canadian fundraising started in the Greater Toronto Area last summer with Milshtein Sadi’s family members, Milshtein Sadi and Marcia Shuster, who is active in the Montreal Jewish community and has relatives living on the kibbutz, worked to get Federation CJA in Montreal to support the idea so fundraisers could issue tax receipts.

The move helped speed up the effort.

 “Only through the good offices of CJA Federation was I able to raise the $20,000 [Cdn] in a four-month period,” from August to December 2014, Shuster said. 

Overall, she was able to raise more than 40 per cent of the total.

But the project took more than just money. It took drive to co-ordinate the planning and the renovations, which began in April and were supervised by Milshtein Sadi, who was pregnant with her third child throughout the whole process.

No detail was overlooked, from choosing the theme – “Under the Sea” – to creating a seating area for parents. 

After the shelter was used during the war as a barracks for IDF soldiers, repairs were needed to its plumbing, air conditioning and ceiling. The washrooms were also upgraded and a kitchen was installed. 

The playground is set to open officially on Rosh Hashanah.

The equipment is ready. The staircase leading to the shelter is painted to match the theme. The residents are organizing a supervision schedule, and the final repairs and touch-ups are being concluded. 

“The playground instilled a new hope into the residents of the kibbutz. It gave us a common goal to work towards as a community, and we haven’t had a project like this in a very long time,” Milshtein Sadi said.

Milshtein Sadi is particularly thankful for the generosity of Canadians. “You really made my dream came true. Thank you.”