(photo credit: Karen Tsroyua)
It all started one morning in early winter. It was a regular rainy Tuesday when Lior Levi exited his building on Geula Street to be confronted by a disturbing site; an ambulance had arrived to remove the body of a homeless man who had died on Levi's doorstep.
"At first I was in disbelief - how can this happen in this country? How can someone die of the cold in this mild weather? And under my window - on my 'watch'" recalls Levi. "I had to do something - it was unthinkable to me that something like this could happen again."
The intimate brush with the grim reality of the 2,000-odd people that make up Tel Aviv's homeless community (based on the estimated 4,528 homeless people in Israel, 40% of whom live in the city) spurred Levi, a then 27-year-old aspiring musician and part time high school music teacher, into action.
"First I started posting information pages containing practical information on how to help, statistics from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services, and my e-mail address for people who wanted to help." Levi also led a project with his class of students at Ort Geula, collecting food from restaurants and distributing it around town. This was Anashim L'anashim (People to People) in its earliest form.
Over the five winters that followed, Levi greeted the rain and cold by posting Anashim L'anashim's page-long call-for-help come manifesto. It reads: "According to Ministry of Social Affairs and Social Services statistics there are 4528 homeless people in Israel. 40% of them are 'Tel Avivians.' In the winter of 2008, 50 homeless people died..."
At the same time, Levi was performing semi-regularly with his band, The Marionette. He would use the performance space as a stage for the cause, trying to raise awareness and calling for action when introducing his song "Winter Comes," written about Tel Aviv's homeless.
Levi also began circling the city on his bicycle, distributing blankets, warm clothing and hot tea to anyone in need. "But," he says, "it's about more than just giving out blankets or leftover food. Anashim L'anashim is also about treating our fellow residents like people, with the respect each of us is due."
THIS WINTER, though, something unique happened. A journalist noticed Levi's posting and decided to write an article about him. One interview and article led to another, and another. "Because of the media interest the project has really grown. On the day the first article was published on Ynet 700 people contacted me. Since then I've received more than 1,000 calls and e-mails from people who want to help or make donations."
Until two weeks ago, Levi's 1.5-room central Tel Aviv apartment served as storage space and headquarters for Anashim L'anashim, but extra space has since been donated, enabling Levi to accept more donations and make more distribution rounds on his bike than ever before.
"The more I gave, the more I saw the need was enormous," Levi explains. "Because I come from music, the connection between need and something like Live Aid was immediately apparent, and that's how Sweater Festival came about. The idea was not to raise money, but to organize a benefit concert that would raise awareness and warm clothing. It was also a personal revelation - this is the first time that Lior the musician meets Lior the activist. It's like a bridge, connecting these two parts of me."
Although he has been performing as a solo act since The Marionette disbanded, it was actually Levi's day job in the film section of Tel Aviv's Third Ear that enabled Levi to connect with fellow musicians, getting some big names on board for the festival.
The Sweater Festival (Festival Besveder - a play on beseder, meaning 'all right') brings together 14 musicians each volunteering a performance. With artists like Ninet Tayeb, Gilad Kahana, Hemi Rudner, Quami, and Yael Deckelbaum, the eclectic festival is sure to be an unforgettable event.
LEVI AND FESTIVAL co-producer Yonatan Kutner are overjoyed with the line-up. Kutner, an old friend of Levi's and a professional band manager and concert producer, explains how he got involved: "I saw that first article on Ynet and ran into Lior a couple days later. He told me about the festival and the musicians he had already booked. I'd been going through a rough few months. But I had to get involved. I realized that doing something you believe in brings you a certain center. Prioritizing something important like this gave me a newfound sense of self worth."
The Sweater Festival is Anashim L'anashim's
flagship project and one Levi hopes to continue. "I hope to do this every year - it's not enough to say that the government and municipality are not doing enough. As neighbors we need to take care of those who can't take care of themselves. To me, the festival is proof that although music may not be able to change the world, it can change an individual person's daily life; in this case, it can warm someone at night."
The Sweater Festival takes place tomorrow, December 11 at Levontin 7, starting at 1:30 p.m. and running into the evening. Entrance fee is an item of warm clothing or a blanket.