Behind the headlines extolling Israel's booming economy lurks an awful truth: More than 1.6 million Israelis live in poverty. Even more alarming than that, government experts warn that poverty has increased 20 percent in the last five years; it now afflicts one in three children in the Jewish state.
A NATIONAL DISGRACE
The crisis has worsened recently because food costs have soared. In addition, defense spending priorities often force the government to reduce social welfare programs--an economic necessity that has caused widespread suffering. Poverty "is the greatest challenge facing the Israeli economy," says Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Other officials describe the problem more bluntly, calling the country's widening gap between rich and poor a national disgrace. Although the government has pledged to improve the situation by 2010, families like Tova's will not survive on tomatoes for two more years.
COMBATING THE CYCLE OF POVERTY
Severe government budget cuts have forced Israel's poorest citizens to rely on a safety net cast by private organizations. One of the most effective enterprises is Yad Eliezer--the largest anti-hunger agency in Israel. For 28 years, though, Yad Eliezer has accomplished more than merely feeding the hungry.
"We do not subscribe to a soup kitchen philosophy," says Dov Vizel, director of Yad Eliezer in Israel. "We aim to normalize the family situation as much as possible, delivering food to the households themselves, where children can see their parents as providers." Other hesed programs include job training, mentoring at-risk kids in single parent families, and funding weddings and life-cycle celebrations.
By restoring their clients' dignity, Yad Eliezer combats the cycle of poverty. "When we see the eyes of our students shine, that is what motivates us," says Eli Ya'akovi, coordinator of Yad Eliezer's educational programs in Israel. "I derive satisfaction from a child learning, working, and becoming a productive member of society."
CORPS OF CARING VOLUNTEERS
Yad Eliezer's central office in Jerusalem buzzes with activity, and volunteers and clients of all ages hurry in and out at all hours of the day. Despite the frantic pace, spontaneous acts of kindness regularly occur; for example, one elderly woman recently arrived unannounced. As if she were the only person waiting for help, she frantically waved an overdue electricity bill she could not afford to pay. In many offices, this woman might have been hushed and sternly told to wait her turn. But at Yad Eliezer, a volunteer brewed her a cup of coffee and listened sympathetically.
Magnify that single act of hesed ten thousand times, and you begin to appreciate Yad Eliezer. "If our small but dedicated staff represents the skeleton of Yad Eliezer," says Milcah Benziman, social services director, "then our 10,000 volunteers are its heart and soul." Israelis from all walks of life, and even tourists, volunteer at Yad Eliezer. They pack food boxes, drive trucks, fix appliances, and perform a multitude of other tasks. Their selfless dedication enables 95 percent of Yad Eliezer's donations to go directly to people in need.
Chana Bracha Reichert, 17, typifies the committed person who volunteers at Yad Eliezer. She recently moved to Israel from Brooklyn, New York. Last July, Chana Bracha and a group of girls from her summer camp volunteered at Yad Eliezer. They packed 50 food cartons with items such as ketchup, pickles, rice, pasta, and canned corn. Chana Bracha told BABAGANEWZ that when she gazed at the mountain of food she had packed, she felt satisfied. "Being able to help really made me feel like I accomplished something important," she says. Her satisfaction, however, was fleeting. "It's sad," she observes, "that so many families lack the basic necessities of life."
Because Jewish tradition recognizes that poverty crushes the human spirit, Jews are commanded to aid the needy: "Open your hand to the poor and needy kinsmen in your land" (Devarim 15:11). And because our religion wisely observes that the poorest among us often walk about unseen, Proverbs 21:13 admonishes, "Those who close their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be heard."
YAD ELIEZER: BY THE NUMBERS
275 tons: chicken distributed to needy families before Rosh Hashanah and Pesach
2,200: babies who receive formula each month
292,000: cans of tuna distributed annually
73,000: food boxes delivered each year
10,000: volunteers who pack and distribute food
4,200: children assisted by Yad Eliezer’s Big Brothers and Big Sisters
20 million: dollars in Yad Eliezer’s budget given annually to help the poor