Volunteers at Leket Israel, The National Food Bank, package food for needy families..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Just a couple of weeks ago I went along to a wonderful musical evening – the performer was the well-known Israeli pianist, composer and conductor Gil Shohat.
The evening was in aid of ESRA’s Hand in Hand Food Pantry Project – the proceeds of the event going to feed hungry children, something that is of particular concern to Shohat and also to the prime organizer of the concert, Nelly Perry.
Nelly’s parents, Holocaust survivors, spent the entire six years of World War II running from place to place in Eastern Europe endeavoring to escape the Nazis. During this terrible period Nelly was born in Bratislava and her sister in Hungary. Nelly’s parents exchanged virtually all the worldly goods in their possession for food to feed their children while starving themselves. At one time they even gave a diamond ring for a few apples! For Nelly a hungry child is something that is simply unacceptable in Israel. Together with the help of ESRA’s Reka Meyerowitz and three other dedicated ladies on the committee, children living in deprived areas of Netanya, whose parents simply cannot afford to feed them adequately, are the fortunate beneficiaries of this concert.
Right now negotiations, bartering and haggling are going on in an attempt to form a government following the recent election. One can but wonder if this government will be any different to previous ones. Will they be willing to address a situation that is difficult to comprehend and, tragically, still exists here in Israel in 2015?
To what do I refer? I refer to the sad reality that – up until today – far too many children arrive at their school each morning in a chronic state of hunger. Yes there are a number of organizations whose prime task it is to provide food for the hungry. Some specifically are geared to help the hungry schoolchild, but what I have discovered of late is that for all that exists today there still remain enormous gaps into which disregarded hungry children fall. Being a hungry pupil also means being one who simply cannot absorb what he or she is being taught. It is very difficult to concentrate on your lessons when your stomach is empty and crying out for sustenance.
ESRA runs an English-speaking Tutoring Program (ETP) whereby some 300 of its members volunteer to go into schools to help teenagers studying for the bagrut (matriculation) English oral exam. Recently the ETP project has been extended into some elementary schools catering for first to sixth grade. It is in one of these schools, situated in Kiryat Motzkin, that an ESRA member, Marsha Ohayon, volunteers.
Her volunteering began in October 2014. One day she found one of her pupils crying in the teachers’ lounge.
Ohayon asked her why she was crying and was shocked to hear her answer “I am hungry and have had nothing to eat.” Ohayon took her up to her room and gave her the sandwich she had prepared for her own lunch. Having that experience prompted her to meet with the school principal to find out how many hungry children there were in the school.
Apparently some 20 pupils from poor families arrive at school each day hungry.
Ohayon asked the school’s principal if she would mind if she brought some sandwiches, to give to these children, each time she came. The response was overwhelming gratitude for the offer.
Since then she brings in sandwiches twice a week when she arrives for her English teaching program. Having done some research she discovered that there are many schools, throughout the country, where this problem exists.
The reason that this is happening is not always because there is not enough food at home (although there is no doubt that this is the main cause of children going hungry). For single-parent families or those where both parents work and leave home before the children are awake, it can be that there is noone to ensure that the children are given breakfast before leaving for school.
Some single-parent families have no choice but to leave home at 6 a.m. if they have a cleaning job at a factory or office building. In these cases, often it is the school that has the responsibility of waking the children and making sure they find their way to school each day.
There are organizations that are in the business of helping hungry children.
One is Leket, which provides fresh rolls and fillings for someone to prepare the sandwiches at the school each day. To qualify for assistance a school has to complete a four-page application form and, in addition, obtain financial support from the local municipality or a private donor to cover one-third of the cost of the food. The interesting point is that the school where Ohayon volunteers was simply unaware that help was available.
The question remains, however, whether the school will have the time or inclination to complete the form and then seek help from a municipality that might or might not agree to contribute toward the cost of the Leket sandwiches.
Here again we see bureaucracy at work, which for an overtaxed teacher or principal is just too much. Who suffers at the end of the day? The hungry child.
What are the facts relating to poverty in this country and how do we compare to other countries? In an OECD report issued in 2013 Israel had the highest poverty rate in the developed world.
More recent figures show that 1.6 million Israelis are living below the poverty line – of whom 756,900 are children.
These are frightening statistics. The real tragedy of the hungry child is that what should be considered a prime responsibility of our government has, instead, become virtually the sole responsibility of NGOs.
How is it possible that this country whose hi-tech industry is on par with the US’s Silicon Valley, whose research and development ventures lead the world, whose cars cause traffic jams day after day and whose economy appears strong and stable, does not take seriously the plight of the hungry child? There was a time when it was easy to find volunteers prepared to make sandwiches each day for schoolchildren in need.
Speaking to those who have been working in the field for years it appears that there has been a steady tapering off and lack of interest in wanting to do something to alleviate this unacceptable situation. But again I would venture to suggest this should be a priority for the welfare and social services minister about to be appointed. (Sadly one does not see politicians clamoring for this position during the current negotiations to set up a government.) As we come to the conclusion of Passover – a time when we are obliged to remember the past as if we ourselves had come from bondage to freedom – surely we must ensure the best possible future for our children. Freedom comes in many forms, and one has to be the freedom for every child to be given a warm, loving and hunger-free beginning to his or her life. The writer is chairwoman of ESRA, and has been active in public affairs and status-of-women issues.