As the High Holy Days approach, residents of the city - and the rest of the country - can be roughly split into two categories: those who spend large sums of money on presents, festive food or vacations in hotels, and those who wait in anguish for food baskets and vouchers to buy cheap clothes and shoes for their kids. "As time goes by, the second category is getting larger and larger," says Yisrael, a volunteer for one of the ever-growing number of charity organizations helping the poor in Jerusalem. Yisrael, a 30-something yeshiva student and father of five, says that since he started volunteering with hessed (charity) organizations, the number of needy seems to have grown. "My father used to say that once it was a matter of helping the Orthodox communities, but in the past 10 to 15 years, we have seen a growing number of non-Orthodox, even non-religious people, who need our help - new immigrants from Russia, from Ethiopia - and nobody foresees the end." At the turn of the century, the government began to shift to a fiscal policy that emphasized reduced social spending and dependence on government services. This shift saw the elimination of food subsidies, a decrease in child allowances, increasingly stringent eligibility standards for welfare, the elimination of many social programs for the elderly and a reduction in welfare benefits. The cuts shredded the social safety net, leaving many unprepared for the misery that would follow, social policy activists say. "We had to change some rules in the face of the reality," says Dorit Biran, director for Planning, Research and Development of Social Services for the municipality. "For example, we accept fewer new cases, or we close the files of people we take care of earlier. We wouldn't otherwise be able to answer all the requests we receive in the city's different welfare departments." Jerusalem's residents, which are typically grouped into three categories - Arabs, haredim and everyone else - have the highest percentage of needy in the country. Jerusalem also has the highest number of charity organizations, some of which have developed into considerable operations over the years, while others remain localized initiatives, such as for Pessah and Rosh Hashana. Research figures reveal that there are 22 recognized charity organizations operating throughout the city, many of them food-based, 11 known soup kitchens and a countless number of gemahim (charity funds). All this in addition to the tzedaka (charity) funds in almost every synagogue and an unknown number of private and local charity initiatives. The largest handout operations take place before Pessah and Rosh Hashana. Most of those who receive food packages or prepared meals are people registered in welfare departments across the city. "Of course we never give out names," says Biran. "What we do is when we know that a family needs help, we suggest that they go to one of the charity organizations and we give them an official document stating their situation according to the official rules, which vary from the lowest to the highest degree of need." Biran admits that the situation, especially since the crisis caused by the reduction and cancellation of some of the National Insurance Institute allowances in 2000, has become so dire that new measures have had to be taken. "Two-thirds of the residents of Jerusalem are Jews, one-third are non-Jews, mostly Muslims," says Biran. "One-third of the Jewish population is haredi. The rates of poverty among the Arabs and the haredim are the highest. "Among the non-Jewish population of the eastern part of the city we estimate that the number of those who approach us is a little lower than the real number of needy residents - probably for political reasons and also because we do not have enough employees to address those needs. "But in both sectors, Arab and Jewish, we find that for at least the past three to four years the number of working people who find themselves in the poverty index is growing. This is so for a few reasons, she says. "First, because in many families, there is only one member who works, and for families with eight to 10 kids, this is obviously not enough. It is the same even when both parents work, because the salaries are low and the needs of eight or 10 or even more children are much higher, even if they keep a very modest life." This phenomenon, she explains, is behind the large number of children living below the poverty line, as documented in the National Insurance Institute's annual report. "We have different sorts of ties with the charity organizations," continues Biran. "Sometimes we even have joint events, like before Pessah. But mostly, what we do is inform the families we treat that they have such an option [to receive charity] and sometimes we also send people who really have no other solution to a soup kitchen. This happens mostly with those who live alone. "And sometimes, we go to one of the foundations who give support to the needy and apply in the name of these people to get them help. Like school supplies, winter clothing, a washing machine, dental care, things like that," she says. "Today, most of the organizations, at least the larger ones, have already compiled their own lists, partly based on the people we send them, with the official document stating their situation. "It helps, of course, to lighten the burden because we do not have the means to help them ourselves, but it is also very frustrating," she adds. "Faced with urgent basic need, there is less room for the real social-welfare professional work, and I personally and the professional staff in the department deplore it very much." WHAT BIRAN refers to is the small revolution introduced to the municipal welfare departments in the Eighties. "According to the Maslow hierarchy of needs," explains Biran, "you cannot give attention to what we call the self-actualization needs until you have first assured basic needs. The basic needs are of course food, housing, security, clothing and the like. The emotional and self-actualization needs will not be achieved if you don't have the basics. "So what happened in the Eighties was that we didn't deal anymore with financial issues - those were handed over to the National Insurance Institute. And we, the professional welfare people, took care of empowerment and improving the emotional and social situation of our clients. "But since 2000, with the harsh cuts in government allowances and the deepening of poverty, we have had to revert to the traditional system, and deal again with basic needs. "It's a pity," Biran continues, "because one of the results is, of course, that people become dependent on this help, and we are witnessing here a kind of vicious circle that has set us back years." Still, Biran says, there are areas in which professional welfare work has achieved real results. "Besides empowerment, we develop strategies to fight against poverty. We help people to learn how to get themselves out of this circle - through vocational training, leadership roles in the community, support networks, day care - in other words, we put the focus on providing the fishing rod rather than on the fish for dinner. "For example, one of the most important means is to teach people how to live on a budget, to live according to their real income, not to get indebted and to use birth control. "But in the face of the dramatic situation," she says, "we have to deal first with basic needs and here we rely on the support of the charity associations." But leaving this responsibility to the charity organizations instead of the government is a terrible and problematic situation, she says. "We lack professional employees, we lack budgets. It is very frustrating. The government cuts our budgets and even though the municipality is increasing its contribution we cannot handle all the cases." ONE OF the results of the growing number of needy people is the introduction of vocational training even by the charity organizations. For example, at Meir Panim, Hasdei Yosef and Ezrat Avot, the largest philanthropic operations, in addition to handing out food baskets or special credit cards that can be used for a fixed sum each month in large and cheap supermarkets, these groups also offer vocational courses and job training. "After the budget cuts in 2000," explains Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of ZAKA rescue and recovery organization, "there was no other choice for many people in the haredi community than to go to work. So they began to take part in the vocational training organized by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. "I heard that some organizations are also now proposing vocational training, but it is not the same, of course." Biran is also skeptical of the professionalism of these new training centers. "We do not know what they exactly give and in most organizations, apart from Meir Panim, which works with the welfare department and the municipality, I don't think it is supervised by any official body." "People want to help," says Yisrael. "We know today that a food basket and even prepared meals are not enough to solve the problem of poverty. There is a need for more advanced solutions, and vocational training is a realistic option." There are some organizations that, from the beginning, have decided to choose the empowerment track, including Yedid, Community Advocacy and the Association for Housing Rights. Their attitude is that charity is not a long term solution. "The fact that there is a wave of poverty and people who need the help of charity funds is not surprising," says Sari Revkin, founder and general manager of Yedid, an association created 10 years ago with a vision and a mission to emphasize the empowerment of needy people. "When financial assistance was cut [further] in 2002 and nothing was developed to give these people a way to face the loss of this financial assistance, it was clear that would be the outcome. Of course people need food, need help, and they seek it. But I don't think that distributing food and meals is the wisest way to help people to overcome poverty." But that is only part of the picture, she continues. "The critical thing is to help people find their way out of poverty, and this is not easy. They need first to be empowered, to believe they can do it. At Yedid we give people individual counseling as well as financial management. We do it with young people, at the beginning of their adult life, and with men and women who we believe can still learn how to do it. And of course there is the need to reenter the job market." "It is Maimonides who said that the highest level of charity is to give to the needy work so they can support themselves. So I agree that sometimes you have no choice - you have to give the basic needs, but you can't stop there," adds Housing Rights Association head Bracha Argoani. ON REHOV Uziel in Bayit Vagan, the owner of a hair salon is busy each year before the High Holy Days and Pessah organizing food baskets for the needy in the area. "I have worked hard myself over the years, but I know that there are people who cannot help themselves, even if they want to. The sick, the old, what can they do? They cannot work. So at least on the eve of the holiday, I do what I can to make it easier. "I find it hard to sit at a table full of tasty food with my family and my guests, knowing I haven't done something to help those who are less fortunate," she says. "It's not much, but it is a tradition I share and respect, and most of my clients have collaborated with me all these years. They give the money, and I buy in a place where I get a special discount on the items. We bring the baskets to the needy we know in our neighborhood, and every year the list is longer. "When we started we had 40 names, today we have more than 100." Not far away from her salon, a shopping cart with the inscription "Mom, you promised them chicken for Shabbat" doubles as a large tzedaka box. As people pass, some put money inside - especially now, ahead of the 10 Days of Awe between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And once a week a representative of the charity comes and empties the cart, and uses the money to buy prepared meat meals for the needy in the community. Dozens of such initiatives are scattered across the city, and it works. According to Meshi-Zahav, nobody stays hungry, and sometimes, he adds, "I'm afraid there is even more than needed." Food baskets, soup kitchens, clothing and shoes, and now vocational training, youth centers, parents' empowerment - all these are creating a real welfare network, parallel to the official services, based on volunteer work and private donations. "Of course this is coming from a good place and volunteer work is a blessing. But it might also turn into a negative tool. We do not want to see families or individuals becoming totally dependent on donations and charity instead of breaking the poverty circle," warns Biran. "THE TRADITION of gemahim in our [haredi] community is a very long one," says Meshi-Zahav. "As the years passed, changes occurred, and this tradition [of gemahim] was extended to the non-haredi community," explains Meshi-Zahav, a former member of the extremist anti-Zionist Eda Haredit. "It came as a result of the reality we were facing. Sixty or 70 years ago, we, the haredim, fought against the Zionist movement. And then the Zionists won, and the state was created. The haredim went into a ghetto and tried to fight against the secular Zionist character of the state, but we lost the battle. "The State of Israel is a fact now; there is nothing we can do about it," he continues. "Slowly but surely, we became more and more involved, we became a part of what is going on here. And then came the intifada. After the Arabs hurt us as if we were part of the Zionists, it became clear to us all that there was a real shared fate between us, and the terror attacks in the haredi quarters just speeded up the process. So at the same time, as we became closer, we brought with us to the larger community our institutions, including the tradition of gemahim and charity." Indeed, a quick glance at the list of charity institutions in the city reveals that the overwhelming majority of these organizations are religious-run. "I can only think of [the humanitarian aid organization] Latet, which was founded by a non-religious person," says Meshi-Zahav. "Besides that, it's practically all religious. And there is a lot of competition between them. Each one tries to be the biggest. It's a very important issue in our community. "There's a lot of kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name), but there is also here and there some exaggeration," he says. "Everyone wants to give tzedaka, everyone wants to be part of this." "Tzedaka is a tradition," explains Meir Panim general manager Haim Levkovitch. "We provide 12,000 food baskets for the holidays, more than 2,000 of them in Jerusalem alone. We also distribute special credit cards, in cooperation with the city's welfare department, for people who do not want to feel completely dependent on charity. "We also have a special help program for Holocaust survivors. This year, for Rosh Hashana, we will dispatch gourmet dishes, all prepared by the best chefs of Jerusalem's hotels and restaurants, on a volunteer basis, so that these people will taste at least for the holiday a special meal. "All in all, there will be 4,000 people, in Jerusalem and beyond, who will enjoy a real holiday meal with the support of Meir Panim. "People need help," he adds. "We can't let them down."

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