One day at a time

Marking its 25th anniversary this year, Beit Ha’Oleh is still supplying essentials as basic as eyeglasses and schoolbooks to Beersheba’s immigrants.

By YOCHEVED MIRIAM RUSSO
October 19, 2011 17:45
Beit Ha’Oleh

Beit Ha’Oleh 512 . (photo credit: Courtesy of Beit Ha’Oleh)

 
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It’s 9 a.m. on Wednesday. The dozen or so board members of Beersheba’s Fund for Needy Immigrants file into the conference room in its Old City headquarters. A coffee table, overflowing with drinks and snacks, is ignored – work first, refreshment later.
CEO Maya Englert enters, carrying the day’s work: a thick stack of written petitions, each representing a plea from someone in desperate need of help. The petitions come from social workers, teachers, hospital staff and dozens of local organizations. For most, the fund is their last resort. Other organizations aren’t set up to help.

Englert summarizes the first petition: an elderly Russian immigrant needs eyeglasses, at a cost of NIS 400. His vision is such that if he doesn’t get new glasses, he’ll be virtually housebound, unable to navigate outside by himself. The committee discusses the request, one member asking if a bigger discount could be found, but ultimately, realizing how serious the situation is, they approve the request.

The second petition requests NIS 200 to buy new shoes for two of four children in a needy family.

“Their shoes are not just in tatters but are way too small,” the social worker noted. “The family, headed by a single mother, has been in Israel for two years. The mother is still unemployed and has no extra money at all.”

Approved, with one of the committee members wondering if the family has other needs.

“We could help with food,” someone notes. Englert writes a note, reminding herself to check.

Next, a request for NIS 750 to purchase schoolbooks for a family from South America. Again the committee questions the amount. Isn’t that too much for schoolbooks? “I have to admit that one stopped me cold,” Englert smiles. “I almost needed oxygen when I saw a request for NIS 750. That may not sound like much in the grand scheme of things, but for us, it’s a lot. Every organization in town knows about us, and every one of them submits these applications, asking for help for some specific thing. But our funds are very limited. We have to be careful how we spend. Looking closer at this plea for books, we realized it wasn’t for just one child, but rather for three pupils in one family, ages 10, 11 and 14.

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“Well, when it’s schoolbooks they need, we have a contract with a library that supplies books at a reduced cost, so it won’t cost us the full NIS 750. Even so, it’s a big expenditure, but we approve it. If pupils don’t get books, they can’t continue in school. If they don’t continue in school, they won’t get into the army. Their whole future in Israel might be affected by this one thing. We’ll buy the books ourselves directly from our contact, so we know the money won’t be spent on anything else.”

Thumbing through the remaining petitions, Englert sighs.

“There are times when even I don’t know how we manage. In good times, before the world economy collapsed, it was so much easier. We depend almost entirely on donations, most from abroad. Before, we were able to do so much more. But now? It’s very difficult. We have several bottom-line priorities, and one of the biggest is keeping children in school. If we can’t keep them in school, then everything might be lost.

“Each of our committee members has their own area of expertise, their own sphere of influence, so sometimes we can find ways to help without spending money, but still every week is a challenge. How many will we help today? All of them will get something. Maybe not what they asked for, but something. We follow [up on] the people we help, sometimes for years. It’s an ongoing process.”

Created in 1991, Beit Ha’Oleh marks its 25th anniversary of service this year to Beersheba immigrants who find themselves in need of assistance. Initially, the fund was created to provide support – financial, psychological and social – to newcomers from the Soviet Union. Today the organization runs dozens of projects, including food donations and hot meals for immigrant schoolchildren, special Hebrew schools for struggling newcomers, cultural activities for kids and even helping Beersheba’s lone soldiers settle in for their years of army service. Other frequent recipients of aid are single-parent families, the elderly, unemployed, the critically or chronically ill and Holocaust survivors.

As a charitable organization Beit Ha’Oleh holds two unique distinctions, Englert notes. “First of all, we all work as volunteers. None of us is paid. The city furnishes our office building and utilities, so every shekel we receive goes directly to help the most vulnerable members of our community. Second, we’re the only organization in Beersheba [that] can help someone today – not in a week or two, but right now. This morning we had our committee meeting and acted on the requests we’d collected, but if this afternoon we learn that someone needs food or has a medical emergency, we step in right away. We have donated food and even a freezer so we can give out chicken or fish if we have it.

“Of course many other organizations, in addition to the government, also help needy immigrants, but sometimes help from those other sources can take weeks or months to arrive. We can respond to [crises] in real time, which is why so many other organizations turn to us when one of their clients needs help.”

FOR ENGLERT, Beit Ha’Oleh is a labor of love that began in 1986.

“How did I get into this? It all started when I did something stupid,” Englert laughs. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I’m a sabra, born in Jerusalem. My parents came from Russia, and I spoke Russian, and because of that, in 1986 I was asked to go along on a trip to the USSR to meet with some of the ‘refuseniks,’ Jews who were trying to leave and come to Israel. I agreed... and was told to come without my passport, which I did. At the time, I didn’t understand how dangerous the whole thing was. We got there, and the KGB was behind me the whole time, but while I was there, I was meeting with dozens of Soviet Jews. I gave each my telephone number in Israel. Neither I nor anyone else knew then that someday they’d be free to go, so it didn’t occur to me that one day they’d turn up in Israel, and certainly not that they’d still have my phone number and would call. But that’s what happened.

“They started coming in 1990, and as I met them here in Beersheba, I knew I had to help. I knew what their life had been in Russia, and what they faced here in Israel.

Many had been out of work for 16 or 17 years, having been refused permission to either work or leave, so they arrived with nothing – or almost nothing. Many brought books, thousands of books. That was all they had, or all they were allowed to take. Even back then, it was hard for us as Israelis to understand what it was like to live as a Jew in Russia. There were huge cultural adjustments here, in addition to everything else. In the USSR, people didn’t dare speak. Everyone was quiet. Can you imagine what it was like to live like that for decades, then find yourself in the chaos of Israel, where people talk and shout all the time?” Englert demonstrated her own Zionism as a teenager.

“My parents made aliya, but when I was 16, they left Israel and moved to Venezuela. I went along, but I couldn’t stand it. I was such a Zionist, I couldn’t bear to be away. I told them that one way or another, I’d come back to Israel to live. I started saving money, and when I had enough for the ticket, I came back by myself, alone, with no other family here. Back in Venezuela, my father was promising me all kinds of things – even a new car – if I’d return, but I couldn’t. I had to be in Israel.”

By 1972, Englert had married, her husband had finished his PhD and they’d moved from Haifa to Beersheba, where he had found work.

“I had culture shock of my own. We’d been living in Mount Carmel, and when we came to Beersheba, I couldn’t believe it. I thought only crazy people lived here. ‘Well?’ I said to my husband after a few days. ‘Are we [leaving], or are we divorcing? You choose.’ ‘Let’s try it out,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you find some volunteer work here, something that interests you, and we’ll see.’ “I agreed to give it a try. I decided to start working with new immigrants. The way I saw it, if it was so difficult for me, born in Israel, to live in Beersheba, then how much more difficult it must be for a new immigrant to adjust.

It must be almost impossible. So I started helping newcomers, most of them Russian, to find work, jobs, a place to live, whatever they needed. Things developed, and soon the city offered this building. My boss at that time was the president of the court. He had a lot of clout. That helped get things going.”

A WOMAN from Birmingham was the organization’s first “angel.”

“Somehow an Englishwoman, Dr. Esther Barnett, heard about my work and came to visit,” Englert recalls.

“She saw what we were doing and said she’d like to have the Birmingham Jewish community adopt our organization, but she wanted me to do one thing: create a fund for needy immigrants. The truth is, when she said that, I had no idea what she was talking about. I’m a family counselor. When people talked about ‘funds’ and money matters, it was a complete new language for me. Still, we got it going. The Birmingham community began sending us money and still, to this day, they support us. The Birmingham Jewish community is very small, and many of the donations come from non-Jews. Dr. Barnett, now in her 90s, still helps.”

Beit Ha’Oleh identifies two primary objectives.

“First, we help immigrants who are without money for any reason. We offer food, which comes to us from Latet, another Israeli charity. But we also offer all kinds of other things a person or family might need but can’t afford – blankets, clothing, shoes, heaters in winter, fans in summer.

We help pay for eyeglasses because so many new immigrants have vision problems. We offer vouchers to help them pay for essential medical expenses.

“We helped one single mother pay for transportation to Tel Aviv for medical treatment she couldn’t receive here. We pay for hot lunches at school for children from families who can’t afford to pay. Teachers tell us they know many children who come to school only because they know they will get food there. They see children stealing food to eat later because there’s no food at home, or they want to feed younger brothers or sisters. These problems almost always go beyond the one child who’s hungry – it goes to the whole family. So we distribute food packages and vouchers to their families who are trying to survive on minimum National Insurance Institute payments. Without our help, many months these families tell us they face an unbearable choice: they can either pay the rent and the electricity bill, or they can buy food and medicine.”

STEPPING IN while the bureaucracy grinds away is another Beit Ha’Oleh specialty.

“We had one horrific case where a father of a big family first killed the mother, then himself. A grandmother lived with the family, but she had no income and couldn’t qualify to receive state help for the children – she wasn’t the mother. It finally worked out and the grandmother was approved, but it took a very long time. In the meantime, we supported the family with food, clothes and other things they needed.”

But Englert insists Beit Ha’Oleh’s second role is just as important as supplying food.

“We see it as our job to help immigrant children become Israeli. We help them learn Hebrew. Right now we’re giving special Hebrew classes to 60 new immigrants from eight countries. We motivated 410 high school students to finish school and pass matriculation, which means that now they can join the army, which is a key element to becoming a part of Israeli society, to feel like you belong here. Feeling included is a real problem for immigrant children, especially those from needy families.

They feel like outsiders, different from everyone else.

Through all kinds of cultural activities, we help them establish the connections they need to succeed here.

“Lots of times when I’m speaking to new immigrants I tell them how much we need them. I always get some funny looks when I say that, but it’s true. ‘I don’t know how much any of you need Israel,’ I tell them, ‘but we need you. That’s why you should live here with us, not go to the United States. Stay here in Israel and you could even become prime minister!’ “They laugh, but we work to make them feel like they’re a part of things. Helping buy schoolbooks is just a small part. Last year, for Hanukka, we gave needy families with children coupons for NIS 500 so they could buy new clothes. For most of these kids, they’d never, in their entire lives, had new jeans or shoes. Just once, we wanted them to feel like everyone else. We also distributed 100 computers. The computers help them in school, but they also make the immigrant kids feel like part of the crowd.”

SOME OF the Beit Ha’Oleh volunteers are new immigrants themselves. Batya Mason made aliya from Canada in 2006 and found herself living in the Beersheba Absorption Center.

“Those first weeks and months after aliya were difficult for me,” Mason recalls. “I was struggling, looking for work, trying to learn Hebrew. Believe me, I know what it’s like to be new in the country, trying to adjust. Even so, people reached out to me with help and encouragement.”

Mason joined Beit Ha’Oleh not long after her arrival.

“One of the social workers at the absorption center came to visit. She told me about Beit Ha’Oleh, how they needed someone who spoke English to help with fundraising.

Before coming, I’d been a social worker in Canada, working with senior citizens. I’d done some fund-raising there, but not much. In Canada, most of our operating costs were paid by the government. But I went to Beit Ha’Oleh for an interview anyway. I was expecting an American- or Canadian-style grilling about my experience, but that didn’t happen. Instead, I sat down and Maya explained what she needed done – then pointed to the computer. That was it.

“The whole thing sounded interesting, but it wasn’t easy for me at the beginning. I knew very little about computers. In Canada, if I had computer work to be done, I had a volunteer to do it. Here, I had to jump right in. My assignment now is to maintain contact with our donors, seek out grant money and research other fundraising options. It’s still a stretch for me, but the work is very rewarding.”

Some of the situations she’s encountered left a lasting impression, Mason says.

“A new family came from India,” she recalls. “Father, mother and four children. They lived right across the street from me, so I came to know the family well. A few days after they arrived, the father suddenly passed away. Then in March, the mother died. She was only 58. I’d just been talking with her – she’d been baking the night before. With her gone too, the children were orphans, alone in a strange new country. One son was ready to join the army, two were in high school and one was younger. No one in the family had work, and their rent was coming due. They didn’t even have money for daily expenses.

“I’m not a social worker at Beit Ha’Oleh, but the plight of these kids touched my heart. I set out trying to do what I could. Eventually, it all worked out. Beersheba’s Indian community helped with the funeral arrangements, we helped with food and a few other things. Then a totally unrelated Israeli couple stepped in and adopted the children, not legally, but simply took care of their needs.

Through that couple, an apartment was rented and the children now live there by themselves. What was so heartwarming was to see how strong the children were. Right away, people started to ask them if they wanted to go back to India. ‘No,’ they all said. ‘It was our parents’ dream to come to Israel. We want to stay.” That case was sad, Mason notes, but others are pure tragedy.

“Violence and drug deals gone bad are terrible – we’re had four young immigrants killed in the last couple of years, one... because he refused to give someone else a cigarette. Then there are those that break your heart. We had a 15-year-old boy from an Arab country arrive all by himself. He’d managed to escape, leaving his family behind. He arrived with absolutely nothing, not even a suitcase. We helped with the basics and he stayed at the absorption center here for a time, then went to live with a bigger community from the same country. Some of the situations I see just astound me. A group of eight other children from that country came to the absorption center, and none had ever been to school. They’d never seen a pencil. Can you imagine the adjustment issues they face?” Sitting on the Beit Ha’Oleh board as the French immigrants’ representative is Gisele Bartov, who came to Israel from Morocco with her family as a teenager in 1964.

Bartov’s work at Beit Ha’Oleh is voluntary; professionally she represents AMI, the French Immigrants Association.“In French, ami means ‘friend,’” Bartov explains. “‘A’ is for aliya; ‘M’ is for meilleure, ‘better’; and ‘I’ is for ‘integration.’ That’s what AMI is all about, so my work at Beit Ha’Oleh fits perfectly.” Beersheba still claims its share of French-speaking immigrants. “Right now, there are several new immigrants from Martinique,” Bartov notes. “Others come from Tunisia, Morocco, New Caledonia and of course from France.

Most who come to Beersheba do so either because they have family here, or because they’re looking for a less expensive place to live. They know it’s going to be difficult adjusting to the culture, learning the language, finding a job, but they come anyway. If they have a profession it might be a little bit easier, but that first year is invariably difficult.” Bartov works with French immigrants for as long as they need her.

“One family I still help occasionally has been here 12 years. They have seven children and only the father works, so now and then they still need a little assistance. We help with schoolbooks and, on holidays, with boxes of food, as we give many needy families. Anytime anyone asks for food, they get it. We never say no to that.”

CEO MAYA Englert talks about how the summer’s upheaval in Arab countries increased the need here in Beersheba. “During the uprisings, a family of 10 from an Arab country managed to get to an airport and escape, then found themselves here in Beersheba with absolutely nothing. They went to the absorption center.

We supplied them with dishes, food and some basic clothing, and they were so happy. It was wonderful to be in a position where I help someone like that, people who appreciated our help so much.”

Part of the fun, Englert says, is watching help come from places she never expected.

“Back in 1995, a social worker at Soroka [Medical Center] phoned me, telling me about a young medical doctor who worked there, but who, due to severe diabetes, had lost his eyesight and was completely blind. I went to talk with him.... He told me he wanted to die, he just had no reason to continue living. I started helping. I found him an apartment near the hospital and raised enough money to furnish it, but that wasn’t nearly enough. At the hospital, they told me he was brilliant, and had mastered the use of a computer, but back then a computer for the blind cost NIS 18,000! Where would I ever find that kind of money? I started just telling everyone I knew about this young doctor, thinking it certainly couldn’t hurt. Then the miracle happened – someone called me and said that an anonymous donor in Tel Aviv had offered to buy the computer. A kibbutz was making them back then – computers that could talk. We went to the kibbutz, picked up the computer, and just like that the doctor had a new life. He was completely transformed.

“A year later, someone knocked at the door. It was a very young man who told me he was the person who’d bought the computer for the blind doctor. I was astonished – I wouldn’t have expected that someone who could donate that kind of money would be so young.

He explained that his late father had also been diabetic, and when he’d heard the story of the blind doctor in Beersheba, he decided that was what he wanted to do with his money. ‘I’d like to meet the man who got the computer,’ he said. ‘Would that be possible?’ “It was. We got the two together which was amazing all by itself.

But now, whenever I’m faced with a situation that I don’t know how to handle, when I have no idea where the money we need will come from, I remember the blind doctor and the young man from Tel Aviv. If you really want to help other people, something will happen. You’ll find a way.”

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