The Human Spirit: The good and kind warehouse

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September 26, 2013 04:26

AS A little boy, Yakov Eliezer Shisha promised himself two things: not to be hungry when he grew up, and to help others who were too poor to buy enough food – and to do it in the most respectful manner possible.




Yakov Eliezer Shisha (center)

Eliezer Shisha 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The last of the home food deliveries, mostly to obscure addresses that stumped the drivers the first time around, are heading out with their heavy cartons. The Tov V’Chesed warehouse on Rikma Street, a narrow Jerusalem lane where light industry is interspersed with newly rising religious housing units, is nearly empty. Bottles of Pepsi redeemed from a toppled case decorate a table near the last dozen boxes of canned goods, noodles and cooking oil.

For weeks, forklifts have been loading cartons onto a fleet of trucks, bringing holiday food to neighborhoods around Jerusalem and even as far as Bnei Brak.

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Two thousand, five hundred families have received six cartons each. Do the math.

Although Tov V’Chesed – literately “good and kindness” – sounds like one of the new supermarket chains appealing to religious shoppers, here’s the difference: the food is free. Each recipient household has undergone screening which determines that without this delivery, the children would go hungry.

I’m sitting across the office desk from Yakov Eliezer Shisha, a bearded man in a zebra-striped coat and white crocheted skullcap who has initiated, raised the money for, and arranged the logistics of the food delivery. It’s the evening before Yom Kippur, and I’m thinking that Shisha (he’s a rabbi, but rarely uses the title) must be feeling pretty good going into the Day of Judgment.

“I do feel good,” says Shisha, with a Tom Sawyer smile. Shisha has never read the saga of Sawyer, or any other novel for that matter. He grew up in the one of most stringent hassidic communities, Toldot Aharon – where fiction is frowned upon, and school math and science are limited.

“But no one feels sure of a good judgment on Yom Kippur,” says Shisha. “We’re all imperfect.

I can’t sleep nights over the requests for food that I can’t fulfill.”

His hazel eyes glance at the window, where the sun is lowering in the sky. Soon, the pre-Yom Kippur ritual called kapparot, swinging a chicken around one’s head as part of the penitential process, will begin.

His voice becomes wistful and sad. “That was always my big night.”

You can do the kapparot ceremony anytime between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but the preferred time is the predawn hours before Yom Kippur.

Says Shisha, “I could bring home enough chicken for our family for a month. I would wait until a family with a lot of chickens would get its turn, and then ask if I might have one of their chickens.”

From the time he was eight years old, Shisha’s household chore was to acquire food handouts for his parents and younger siblings. Eventually, he had 12 younger brothers and sisters. His best resource was leftovers from neighborhood grocers, particularly before Shabbat. He would wait around and request unsalable produce that might spoil over Shabbat or had already begun to spoil. His parents’ earnings – his mother was a seamstress, his father a teacher – simply didn’t pay enough to put sufficient food on the table of their one-bedroom apartment. “My mother often had to say, ‘No dinner tonight – go to sleep and maybe we’ll have found something by breakfast.’ Sometimes there was breakfast, sometimes not.”

Not only his own hunger, but that of his siblings, stalked him.

“I knew I had to do it or we simply wouldn’t eat,” he says. “The shopkeepers were pleasant. No one humiliated me, but I was full of shame and frustration if I failed. I tried to think ahead of the joy at home when I came home with food.”

One Friday, he was gifted with three cartons of ripe peaches. “We were so excited, but what would we do with so many peaches already ripe? My mother stood in the kitchen chopping, canning, freezing until Shabbat. We ate peaches for two weeks.”

The hungry little boy promised himself two things: not to be hungry when he grew up, and to help others who were too poor to buy enough food – and to do it in the most respectful manner possible.

Schooling in the hassidic sect his family belonged to prepared him for a life of full-time yeshiva study, but Shisha had an innate business talent – perhaps inherited from an ancestor generations ago in Hungary.

At 19 he married Rivka, also 19. She is one of 14 children. Her mother died when she was only eight. As the oldest daughter still at home (several sisters were married), she, too, carried weighty responsibilities. She was expected to take care of her brothers and sisters, including a toddler and a baby.

Rivka had grown up in the same strict hassidic background, with limited secular studies. Among the courses available to her was one on making fancy cakes for special occasions. She was good at it, and expanded the business from patisserie to selling hard-to-find bakeware they brought in from abroad. The shop did well enough to support them and their growing family, to contribute to his parents and to even give Shisha free time to help the needy, a group they no longer saw themselves as part of. “I went around collecting money from synagogue to synagogue. We were married in Heshvan (October) and by Purim (March), I had 200 parcels for the hungry families.”

Rivka supported his good deeds and didn’t mind him asking for money, he says. “I’m lucky. She also felt the responsibility to do this. The matchmaker did a good job with us.”

They live in the historic (established 1891) Hungarian Houses of the Mea She’arim Quarter. After their fifth child was born (today they are parents of seven), running the cake business was too labor-intensive for Rivka, so they sold it. By then, Shisha had discovered the Internet and taught himself English so that he could cope with international marketing. He set up an online service that provides strictly kosher holiday apartments and vacation options (reservekosher.

com) in Israel and abroad.

On the site, Shisha describes the service as an outgrowth of his own travel needs for kosher food and nearby synagogues.

Yet he wasn’t taking advantage of the While Mountain and Acapulco vacations touted on the site, but traveling solo to solicit funds for poor families’ food or to attend friends’ weddings.

Shisha established a second successful business managing Israeli apartments for friends and other absentee owners.

Office staff reports to him. There is a woman manager in Monsey, New York.

Today, Shisha isn’t rich, but he is able to devote much of his time to raising funds for and running Tov V’Chesed, which was formally established as an Israeli nonprofit organization in 2002.

Home delivery is a main element of the service, even though hiring drivers consumes a large portion of the $2 million he succeeded in raising last year. “I remember how much I disliked standing in the long lines to get food handouts,” he recalls.

Nor does he like determining who gets what. To screen applicants, he’s set up a committee of rabbis – one of whom is his own father – to review individual needs. “I’d love to give to everyone, but money is a limiting factor, so the neediest need to get first.”

An administrative room in the factory holds the cabinets that house alphabetized hanging files with family profiles. It has the meticulousness of a lawyer’s office. To make sure no one is exaggerating their level of need, photocopies of identity cards where children are listed are required. “Why was the fax invented?” he asks. “So we can get the files and give out tzedaka [charity].”

He tries to fill in for those who aren’t accepted for full food delivery with food coupons. He underwrites the massive food delivery three times a year: for the High Holy Days, Passover and Succot. Eighty-five single-parent families, usually divorced or widowed women as heads of household, get a weekly delivery of fish and chicken. On Rosh Hodesh, he sends canned goods and staples like rice and sugar. Recipients get to specify which kosher certificate they prefer, and receive an envelope inviting feedback on content and delivery.

His biggest donors are American religious Jews, haredi and modern Orthodox.

And yes, potential donors often ask why couples had so many children if they couldn’t afford it, why more parents don’t go out to work, if he’s not rewarding families where a breadwinner might even be in jail.

“There are many different lifestyles and ideas in the world,” says Shisha.

“My job isn’t to judge anyone. These hungry children exist, and I want to make sure they get food.”

His neighbors and fellow synagogue- goers see him as a bit of an oddity, he admits. “I’m different from the average Mea She’arim Hassid, but my neighbors know what I do and respect it,” he says. He is often lobbied in synagogue to add specific names to his delivery list, but he directs petitioners to the committee, “which is more objective.”

A women’s committee decides on the content of the cartons, but Shisha has certain demands. “The Pepsi, for instance,” he says. “I know how happy having a brand-name soda will make the children in the succa. And I always send candy. I remember what I longed for as a hungry kid. “ That wasn’t so long ago: He’s only 30.

His dream? “That every family will sit in a succa with plentiful food,” he says. “I’d be happy to be put out of business because everyone has enough to eat.”

Yakov Eliezer Shisha may be contacted at www.tovvchesed.com The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.


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