An elderly woman. [illustrative].
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In my work with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, I am confronted daily with the poverty that plagues much of Israeli society. Speaking both as an Israeli and a Jewish woman, I feel that it is critical for us all to be proud of the incredible progress our young state has made. Yet, at the same time, we must make a pledge to never close our eyes to the growing population of Israelis who live well below the poverty line.
The desperate requests for basic necessities that I see from needy people in Israel are heartbreaking.
One in three children lives below the poverty line, as do close to 25 percent of the elderly. There is no national food program to ensure that people don’t go hungry. The combination of no food cards, no safety net, and a growing poverty rate creates a tremendous need for help. This huge responsibility of feeding Israel’s hungry is left completely to nonprofits such as the Fellowship. It’s hard to digest the scope of the problem until you see it firsthand.
I often remember a life-changing visit I paid to a Fellowship-sponsored soup kitchen in Haifa a few years ago, where the reality of Israel’s underbelly came to full light. Pulling up to the soup kitchen, I saw a crowd of elderly Jews waiting anxiously for its doors to open. As the manager opened the entrance, there was pushing and shoving. The elderly men and women – many of whom were immigrants from Russia – clearly were desperate to receive their only meal of the day.
I had come that day to help kitchen staff serve lunch to these desperate elderly. I tried to squeeze through the line of people to enter the building, but they would not let me pass.
“I haven’t eaten anything since yesterday,” I heard one frail man yell out. My heart broke as I looked in the eyes of an elderly woman, a Holocaust survivor with numbers tattooed on her arm from a Nazi concentration camp.
I couldn’t stop myself from crying out in frustration, “An elderly Holocaust survivor should not be begging for food in Israel!” Once we entered the soup kitchen, as people ate and the pots of food were emptied, I spotted one elderly man huddled in the corner. I walked up to him and asked if he had eaten yet, and he looked down at the floor and gently shook his head. This old man looked lonely and sad, his eyes wet with tears. I led him gently to a table where I brought him a plate of rice, vegetables and chicken, and he immediately grabbed his fork and began to eat.
Minutes later I returned to check on him, his plate was empty, and he was licking his bowl.
Without waiting for him to ask, I refilled his plate, and he gave me a smile that I will carry with me forever.
Sadly, I have seen too many cases like this poor man’s in my work with the Fellowship.
It is disheartening to witness, but it is a reality that needs to be dealt with nonetheless. Israel has progressed with such speed, and for that I am immensely thankful. But I also feel that it is our duty to not turn away from the poor, the elderly, and countless others who are simply down and out and have nowhere to turn.
After seeing the need on the ground, the Fellowship, under the leadership of my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, has created a strategic project to meet the needs of hungry elderly in a dignified and respectful way. For the past year, more than 10,000 needy elderly have been receiving food cards and prepared meals delivered to their door on a weekly basis. In 2015, we hope to expand our reach to more than 25,000 elderly.
Serving food to the hungry is avodat kodesh (holy work), and you can feel it tangibly in your heart as you do it. That life-changing day at the soup kitchen, I could see relief and joy replace the sadness and pain in the eyes of each person who received a plate filled with rice and chicken. That is what gives me the motivation to work long days in an emotionally difficult environment. There is no greater blessing than to be able to put food on the plates of so many hungry people.
As a person who sees heartbreaking poverty on a daily basis, it is my obligation to share their stories so that others too will hear the call of the suffering and in the future, more can be done to alleviate their pain.
There is lots of work to be done to bring comfort to the needy people of Israel, but if we work together, anything is possible.The writer is vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.