The last of the home food deliveries, mostly to obscure addresses that stumped
the drivers the first time around, are heading out with their heavy cartons. The
Tov V’Chesed warehouse on Rikma Street, a narrow Jerusalem lane where light
industry is interspersed with newly rising religious housing units, is nearly
empty. Bottles of Pepsi redeemed from a toppled case decorate a table near the
last dozen boxes of canned goods, noodles and cooking oil.
forklifts have been loading cartons onto a fleet of trucks, bringing holiday
food to neighborhoods around Jerusalem and even as far as Bnei Brak.
thousand, five hundred families have received six cartons each. Do the
Although Tov V’Chesed – literately “good and kindness” – sounds
like one of the new supermarket chains appealing to religious shoppers, here’s
the difference: the food is free. Each recipient household has undergone
screening which determines that without this delivery, the children would go
I’m sitting across the office desk from Yakov Eliezer Shisha, a
bearded man in a zebra-striped coat and white crocheted skullcap who has
initiated, raised the money for, and arranged the logistics of the food
delivery. It’s the evening before Yom Kippur, and I’m thinking that Shisha (he’s
a rabbi, but rarely uses the title) must be feeling pretty good going into the
Day of Judgment.
“I do feel good,” says Shisha, with a Tom Sawyer smile.
Shisha has never read the saga of Sawyer, or any other novel for that matter. He
grew up in the one of most stringent hassidic communities, Toldot Aharon – where
fiction is frowned upon, and school math and science are limited.
one feels sure of a good judgment on Yom Kippur,” says Shisha. “We’re all
I can’t sleep nights over the requests for food that I can’t
His hazel eyes glance at the window, where the sun is lowering
in the sky. Soon, the pre-Yom Kippur ritual called kapparot, swinging a chicken
around one’s head as part of the penitential process, will begin.
voice becomes wistful and sad. “That was always my big night.”
You can do
the kapparot ceremony anytime between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but the
preferred time is the predawn hours before Yom Kippur.
Says Shisha, “I
could bring home enough chicken for our family for a month. I would wait until a
family with a lot of chickens would get its turn, and then ask if I might have
one of their chickens.”
From the time he was eight years old, Shisha’s
household chore was to acquire food handouts for his parents and younger
siblings. Eventually, he had 12 younger brothers and sisters. His best resource
was leftovers from neighborhood grocers, particularly before Shabbat. He would
wait around and request unsalable produce that might spoil over Shabbat or had
already begun to spoil. His parents’ earnings – his mother was a seamstress, his
father a teacher – simply didn’t pay enough to put sufficient food on the table
of their one-bedroom apartment. “My mother often had to say, ‘No dinner tonight
– go to sleep and maybe we’ll have found something by breakfast.’ Sometimes
there was breakfast, sometimes not.”
Not only his own hunger, but that of
his siblings, stalked him.
“I knew I had to do it or we simply wouldn’t
eat,” he says. “The shopkeepers were pleasant. No one humiliated me, but I was
full of shame and frustration if I failed. I tried to think ahead of the joy at
home when I came home with food.”
One Friday, he was gifted with three
cartons of ripe peaches. “We were so excited, but what would we do with so many
peaches already ripe? My mother stood in the kitchen chopping, canning, freezing
until Shabbat. We ate peaches for two weeks.”
The hungry little boy
promised himself two things: not to be hungry when he grew up, and to help
others who were too poor to buy enough food – and to do it in the most
respectful manner possible.
Schooling in the hassidic sect his family
belonged to prepared him for a life of full-time yeshiva study, but Shisha had
an innate business talent – perhaps inherited from an ancestor generations ago
At 19 he married Rivka, also 19. She is one of 14 children.
Her mother died when she was only eight. As the oldest daughter still at home
(several sisters were married), she, too, carried weighty responsibilities. She
was expected to take care of her brothers and sisters, including a toddler and a
Rivka had grown up in the same strict hassidic background, with
limited secular studies. Among the courses available to her was one on making
fancy cakes for special occasions. She was good at it, and expanded the business
from patisserie to selling hard-to-find bakeware they brought in from abroad.
The shop did well enough to support them and their growing family, to contribute
to his parents and to even give Shisha free time to help the needy, a group they
no longer saw themselves as part of. “I went around collecting money from
synagogue to synagogue. We were married in Heshvan (October) and by Purim
(March), I had 200 parcels for the hungry families.”
Rivka supported his
good deeds and didn’t mind him asking for money, he says. “I’m lucky. She also
felt the responsibility to do this. The matchmaker did a good job with
They live in the historic (established 1891) Hungarian Houses of the
Mea She’arim Quarter. After their fifth child was born (today they are parents
of seven), running the cake business was too labor-intensive for Rivka, so they
sold it. By then, Shisha had discovered the Internet and taught himself English
so that he could cope with international marketing. He set up an online service
that provides strictly kosher holiday apartments and vacation options
com) in Israel and abroad.
On the site, Shisha
describes the service as an outgrowth of his own travel needs for kosher food
and nearby synagogues.
Yet he wasn’t taking advantage of the While
Mountain and Acapulco vacations touted on the site, but traveling solo to
solicit funds for poor families’ food or to attend friends’
Shisha established a second successful business managing
Israeli apartments for friends and other absentee owners.
reports to him. There is a woman manager in Monsey, New York.
Shisha isn’t rich, but he is able to devote much of his time to raising funds
for and running Tov V’Chesed, which was formally established as an Israeli
nonprofit organization in 2002.
Home delivery is a main element of the
service, even though hiring drivers consumes a large portion of the $2 million
he succeeded in raising last year. “I remember how much I disliked standing in
the long lines to get food handouts,” he recalls.
Nor does he like
determining who gets what. To screen applicants, he’s set up a committee of
rabbis – one of whom is his own father – to review individual needs. “I’d love
to give to everyone, but money is a limiting factor, so the neediest need to get
An administrative room in the factory holds the cabinets that
house alphabetized hanging files with family profiles. It has the meticulousness
of a lawyer’s office. To make sure no one is exaggerating their level of need,
photocopies of identity cards where children are listed are required. “Why was
the fax invented?” he asks. “So we can get the files and give out tzedaka
He tries to fill in for those who aren’t accepted for full
food delivery with food coupons. He underwrites the massive food delivery three
times a year: for the High Holy Days, Passover and Succot. Eighty-five
single-parent families, usually divorced or widowed women as heads of household,
get a weekly delivery of fish and chicken. On Rosh Hodesh, he sends canned goods
and staples like rice and sugar. Recipients get to specify which kosher
certificate they prefer, and receive an envelope inviting feedback on content
His biggest donors are American religious Jews, haredi and
And yes, potential donors often ask why couples had so
many children if they couldn’t afford it, why more parents don’t go out to work,
if he’s not rewarding families where a breadwinner might even be in
“There are many different lifestyles and ideas in the world,” says
“My job isn’t to judge anyone. These hungry children exist, and I
want to make sure they get food.”
His neighbors and fellow synagogue-
goers see him as a bit of an oddity, he admits. “I’m different from the average
Mea She’arim Hassid, but my neighbors know what I do and respect it,” he says.
He is often lobbied in synagogue to add specific names to his delivery list, but
he directs petitioners to the committee, “which is more objective.”
women’s committee decides on the content of the cartons, but Shisha has certain
demands. “The Pepsi, for instance,” he says. “I know how happy having a
brand-name soda will make the children in the succa. And I always send candy. I
remember what I longed for as a hungry kid. “ That wasn’t so long ago: He’s only
His dream? “That every family will sit in a succa with plentiful
food,” he says. “I’d be happy to be put out of business because everyone has
enough to eat.”
Yakov Eliezer Shisha may be contacted at
www.tovvchesed.com The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous
stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations
for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her
columns are her own.