soup kitchen 88.
(photo credit: )
Last year, Ya'acov (not his real name), his wife and his two young daughters spent Succot at the soup kitchen of Hazon Yeshaya in Jerusalem. For the family, living below the poverty line and relying on government benefits to get by, it was their seventh year receiving food donations from one of the country's largest humanitarian aid organizations.
"[My daughters] grew up at Hazon Yeshaya," he explains. "We all went there to eat.
"It is very easy for a person to fall between the cracks," adds Ya'acov, describing how his wife got sick, then he was fired from his job and suddenly the family had to rely on others to feed them. "But if people really want to, they can learn how to get out of a desperate situation. They have to learn to take advantage of what is on offer around them."
Throughout the years that he visited the center for food, Ya'acov said he also volunteered in the kitchen until eventually he gained enough confidence to take a course to become a professional chef. "I could see how much pressure the kitchen staff was under. People were waiting a really long time for their food, so I decided to help them out."
It wasn't easy at first, recalls Ya'acov. "But the kitchen staff encouraged me and told me to give it a try. They said if I helped out it would give me the confidence to continue."
The 39-year-old finally qualified a little less than a year ago, and three months ago he found work in a Jerusalem hotel. This Succot, Ya'acov says, even though his family no longer needs the services of Hazon Yeshaya, he will again volunteer during his free days.
By doing so, he has become one of thousands of volunteers who will offer their services this year during Succot at various soup kitchens and outreach centers around the country for many different non-profit organizations.
According to the National Insurance Institute's recently released poverty report, 26.2% of Israelis, more than 1.6 million people, lived below the poverty line in 2005. And a spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs estimated Thursday that three thousand people live on Israel's streets.
"Succot is meant to be a happy time, a time when the Jews in the desert were protected as a nation," says Moshe Lefkowitz, director of Meir Panim, another non-profit organization devoted to feeding and caring for Israel's needy. "While a country cannot provide that kind of warmth, a neighbor can, and the role of the individual during this time is to give love and help the weaker people in society."
Both Meir Panim and Hazon Yeshaya have built succot at their centers to ensure that those in need have at least one festive meal during the holiday. Lefkowitz estimates that more than 6,000 people will be fed during the holiday at one of Meir Panim's 15 succot.
At Hazon Yeshaya, founder and CEO Avraham Israel says that a quarter of a million hot meals are prepared each month for its 38 distribution centers around the country.
"It is important for these people to feel the harmony and joy of the holiday," continues Israel. "If we don't do these things then it will feel like any other day of the year. We are Jewish people and we should celebrate the holidays properly."
Twelve succot have been built by the organization, with the one in Jerusalem set to host more than 500 people like Ya'acov, who is now giving back to the organization that helped him and his family.
"I try to return and help whenever I can," he says. "I know how to repay kindness."
As a recipient of free hot meals at the soup kitchen, he noticed the overwhelming burden facing the kitchen staff. "The media do not know what really goes on there," says Ya'acov. "They say they do but they don't and the politicians live in a different world. None of them know what it's like to stand in a line for hours to receive food."
Israel and Lefkowitz highlight the growing poverty among citizens in the North of the country following this summer's war.
"The situation in the North is adding more poverty to this country," says Israel, adding that 12 more Hazon Yeshaya centers are set to open in the coming months. "Since the war many people have lost their jobs or gone out of business, unemployment in that region is almost double of what it is elsewhere in the country."
His comments are backed up by figures collected by organizations such as Latet, which oversees distribution of food packages to more than 100 aid organizations around the country, indicating increases of at least 27% in the number of people requesting aid compared to last year.