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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The country's new minister for welfare and social services, Isaac Herzog, said Thursday that his first priority is to ease hunger and poverty for the 1.6 million Israelis living below the poverty line, ahead of the Pessah holiday.
Greeting senior officials at the ministry, which has been without a chief since the government took power nearly a year ago, Herzog said he had already called for a meeting to see how social services could improve the situation over the next week.
"I am very excited to finally be here," he told the gathering. "This ministry has been relegated to the sidelines and I want to bring it to the political forefront."
"I am aware of the hardships, the limited budgets and the shortage of manpower," he said. "We need to remember that the funding is the same funding and the limitations are the same and that there is no magic formula."
The ministry's director-general Moshe Shayon said that the last year and a half, with disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the Second Lebanon War, had placed an unprecedented strain on the ministry's services. Herzog will have to deal with a range of issues including children and youth at risk, growing poverty, the elderly and the disabled community, he said.
Shayon also stressed the difficulties of social workers, who must sometimes leave those in need without help because of a lack of resources and staffing.
"I hope you will succeed and be able to turn this into a ministry that can make a real difference to society," Shayon said.
Herzog has ordered the name of the office changed from the Social Affairs Ministry to the Welfare and Social Services Ministry. He also said he wanted to reshape the perception that its work consists of simply handing out money to the poor.
"This ministry deals with all facets of life, from birth to old age," Herzog said. "We want to develop new programs of substance that strengthen all the people in our society."
Also on Thursday, the Orot Hessed charity set up a mock Seder outside the ministry's offices to call for an increase in the state's funding for needy families.
"Nonprofit organizations receive a budget from the ministry to help subsidize food packages distributed to the needy at Pessah," said Orot Hessed spokesman Shmuel Klien. "If you divide that budget up [the ministry confirmed the figure was NIS 3.6 million] between all of Israel's poor it comes out to around NIS 3 a person."
That means families living below the poverty line can only afford to buy bitter herbs for their Seder, he said.
The NGO plans to give away more than 5,000 food parcels in time for the holiday. It provides around 1,000 hot meals a day to the country's needy.
"We left the task of preparing food parcels to bring this message to the incoming welfare and social services minister," said Efi Rifkin, director of Orot Hessed. "It is an embarrassment that the government and the Finance Ministry only provides its needy with bitter herbs, and the rest of the provisions for the holiday must come from nonprofit organizations."
Ministry spokesman Nahum Ido said social services would also provide volunteers to assure that the elderly were not alone for the holiday and that some services would operate 24 hours a day through Pessah.