Rotary Club brings more than water to students
By Andrew Ryan / November 1, 2016
For decades, world leaders have tried and failed to establish a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. Generations of Israelis and Palestinians have known nothing but conflict, each side growing up while viewing the other as the enemy. But now, one organization is making definite progress in bringing both sides together by focusing on an issue that crosses all religious, cultural and geographic borders: water conservation. The leader of this program is not The White House, the United Nations or the World Water Council. It's the Rotary Club of Coral Springs-Parkland, Florida.
Rotary Hands Across Waters was established in 2010 as a joint effort between the Rotary Club of Coral Springs-Parkland and the Rotary Club of Lod, Israel. The brainchild of long-time Coral Springs-Parkland club member Dr. Gerald Sussman, it utilizes principles of water conservation within schools as a platform for promoting social interaction between various ethnic and religious communities in Israel. Israeli and Palestinian students participate in water conservation classes, make joint field trips to farms, manufacturers and government agencies, and attend conferences to develop an understanding of water conservation and reclamation.
Diminishing water supplies is a becoming a global crisis that does not discriminate between wealthy or poverty-stricken countries. According to Save the Water, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to solving the world water crisis, more than 1.2 billion people on all of the continents live in regions with water supplies designated "areas of physical scarcity." Another 500 million people are approaching the same situation.
However, Israel is widely regarded as the world's leader in water conservation. It is one of a small number of countries that can function without rain thanks to the combination of a highly efficient water supply infrastructure, and effective conservation programs.
In October 2015, Rotary Hands Across Waters sent a delegation of 70 students from four Jewish and Arab schools to attended the WATEC 2015 exhibition and conference in Tel Aviv. The students met with representatives from multiple companies developing and exhibiting new water technologies, and worked together to develop plans for how using those technologies to address a variety of global water challenges. They presented their ideas to one another and the Israeli and international business executives, water utility engineers, researchers, and politicians attending the conference.
Sussman made the trip to Tel Aviv to attend WATEC with the students, and visited several of the participating schools. Tensions were high on both sides following a series of knife attacks targeting civilians across Israel.
"Nevertheless, in the schools we went to in small Arab villages, and the reception we got was so warm," Sussman said. "The kids were so excited, principals and teachers were so supportive. I said to myself 'this thing is working!'"
The program has quickly grown bigger than what Sussman envisioned when he made his initial approach to his fellow Rotary Club of Coral Springs-Parkland members. Current president Todd Finkel held the same position in 2010 when Sussman made his presentation.
"We're a small club, with fewer than 20 members, so the joke is that if you miss a meeting, you get elected president, and I missed a couple meetings," Finkel said. "It's a passion project for Gerry, and his enthusiasm was infectious. But beyond that, it ticked all the boxes. We devote our efforts to helping children, and one of Rotary International's primary focus areas is water conservation."
Each Rotary Club decides what issues and causes to support. The Coral Springs-Parkland Club's focus on children includes a partnership with Family Central Inc., an organization that provides quality family support and educational services. The club raises and donates $17,250 every year. Combined with matching grants from Rotary International, FCI has received more than $1 million.
Other programs include awarding five $1,000 college scholarships to area Coral Springs and Parkland high school students annually, a youth exchange program that both gives local students the opportunity to live overseas, and pairs foreign exchange students with area families.
The Rotary Club of Coral Springs-Parkland continues to oversee and guide Rotary Hands Across Water that now includes 20 schools throughout Israel and Palestine with students from varying cultures, beliefs, and backgrounds, including the communities of Haifa, Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, Gedera, Daliat El Carmel, Shfaram, Kfar Manda, Kibbutz Evron, Kfar Silver, Netivot, and Lod. An initial budget of $15,000 is now a quarter of a million dollars thanks to the fund-raising efforts of local Rotary Clubs around the world, including several in Florida, as well as across the U.S. and Israel.
The program is moving into Phase 2, which includes bringing Jewish and Muslim schools (and any others that express interest) throughout South Florida on-board. The expanded program will also welcome more schools in Israel and Palestine, and send delegations of students to international water conferences outside Israel.
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