Almost half of Jerusalem is in poverty: How do they survive?

Charity, food baskets and tough realities are the daily struggles faced by families in Jerusalem. The second installment of the Poverty in Jerusalem series.

 CHOOSING BETWEEN bread and milk: 47% of Jerusalemites live below the poverty line (Illustrative).  (photo credit: FLASH90)
CHOOSING BETWEEN bread and milk: 47% of Jerusalemites live below the poverty line (Illustrative).
(photo credit: FLASH90)

The skinny boy (let’s call him Avrum) is standing on the sidewalk, impatiently waiting for the van that was supposed to arrive 10 minutes ago with the family’s weekly food package. 

When it arrives, a young man in haredi garb quickly gets off and gives Avrum the carton containing, as usual, a bottle of oil, grape juice for Kiddush, two challot, two packages of pasta, two boxes of tomato paste, sugar and cornflakes, as well as some fresh vegetables and some dairy products. Usually, there is also a package of candies or cookies, which are quickly devoured by Avrum and his siblings.

This is the standard fare for these food packages, with slight variations from organization to organization. Some put more emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, some put more on bread, or chocolate spreads and jams. Some will also include poultry or fish – all according to the financial capacity of those organizations.

The weekly basket of groceries that arrives at these families’ homes provides them with only part of their needs, but it is not the only one that arrives. Families known to the welfare services are registered with these charitable organizations, which provide food baskets or shopping vouchers or, in recent years, also a type of credit card with fixed amounts that go toward the purchase of groceries at the discount chains. 

Avrum is in charge of receiving the supplies that arrive every week, from three different organizations operating in the city. It’s not a matter of tricking the system but of a real existential need – a regular food basket cannot satisfy the family’s needs alone for a week, so most families receive baskets from several organizations. 

 ‘WE LIVE on donations’: The Carmei Ha’Ir charitable organization is struggling to maintain operations (Illustrative). (credit: FLASH90) ‘WE LIVE on donations’: The Carmei Ha’Ir charitable organization is struggling to maintain operations (Illustrative). (credit: FLASH90)

The thousands of impoverished Israelis

AVRUM AND his family are just one of thousands of needy families in the capital, reminding us that behind the shiny facade of a successful country, there are still many children and adults among us for whom tomorrow’s meal is the most uncertain thing in their lives.

The common denominator for these families is their almost complete dependence on the assistance of welfare services and charitable organizations to meet their basic life needs. While the reasons that brought them to this situation may vary, there are some common denominators: no high income over the years due to lack of education, large families to support, the death or serious illness of a parent.

Most of these families (and also many individuals, generally elderly) are part of a larger family where poverty has been prevalent from one generation to another, thus condemning them to remain in a cycle of poverty. Ultra-Orthodox men are often absent from the labor market; Arab women don’t enter the labor market for cultural reasons; and Arab men often lack necessary Hebrew proficiency, which also hinders their entry into the workforce.

In the last decade, young families in which both spouses work are still finding themselves below, or slightly above, the poverty line. The reason is the relatively low salaries in the city, such as service-related jobs. This is in contrast to the high-salary hi-tech positions in the center of the country.

Avrum’s father passed away about a year ago from a serious illness. Avrum lives in a small rented house with his three brothers and a sister; his mother is trying to cope, without measurable success, with the difficult everyday reality. 

“He is a very wise boy, very mature for his age, who has long since understood the harsh reality in which his family is barely surviving. He has a heart-wrenching mixture of resignation and anger at this situation,” notes the social worker who has been in charge of the family’s case for years.

Food baskets to thousands of poor families in Jerusalem

The organization Pitchon Lev distributes more than 160,000 food baskets to thousands of poor families each week. Last week, in a move almost out of desperation, the organization distributed 120 empty food baskets to politicians and policymakers, to raise awareness about poverty in Israel and the day-to-day difficulties of the over 1.8 million people living below the poverty line. As in the last five elections, poverty did not feature on the agenda at all. 

POVERTY IN Israel – and more specifically in Jerusalem – is not a matter of choice between expensive or cheaper products. 

For the 47% of Jerusalemites (out of 971,000 residents in the city) defined as living under the poverty line, it is a daily and impossible choice between bread and milk, between diapers and medicines. In the absence of a nationwide and governmental plan to eradicate poverty, most families and individuals who are unable to take care of their needs are helped by charitable organizations that focus on the supply of basic necessities – food, assistance in purchasing medicine, clothing and school supplies. 

For many years, the municipal welfare services have been providing support services, as well as referrals to those aid associations, and maintain that there are no adults or children who go hungry in Jerusalem. But this position is disingenuous, since without the assistance of charitable associations, they would go hungry. 

The late Prof. Avraham Friedman, the former CEO of the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research, defined this precisely in the 1990s, when he stated that poverty is not only a lack of food but the absence of a horizon and the absence of hope for a better future. 

Prof. Yuval Elbashan, a community lawyer who since 1997 has continuously addressed those in need of assistance in the area of social rights, is very disturbed by the current situation. In 1997, he founded and directed the legal department of YEDID – The Association for Community Empowerment. Today, he is dean of Ono Academic College’s multicultural campus in Jerusalem. 

“The aid of the charities is problematic because it is actually about giving paracetamol, something that reduces the distress a little but really does not treat the root of the problem.”

Prof. Yuval Elbashan

“The aid of the charities is problematic because it is actually about giving paracetamol, something that reduces the distress a little but really does not treat the root of the problem,” he said. “Furthermore, the activity of the organizations allows the state to ignore its duty toward the population and continue to privatize everything, without any compassion or logic. 

After all, the problem of poverty cannot be solved by organizations, it is not of this magnitude. It can only be done at the level of a government. And the government feels freed from others, since people receive this paracetamol, in the form of food baskets and special houses, and it can continue to ignore it.”

The charities in Jerusalem helping the poor

Among several such charitable organizations operating in Jerusalem, some try to cover a wide range of services. Carmei Ha’ir provides a service that includes brand-new clothing, with an emphasis on family events such as weddings or bar mitzvah celebrations. It also provides school supplies. 

Carmei Ha’ir is a seemingly normal restaurant located near the Mahaneh Yehuda. But whoever comes in and orders food will not be asked if he is known to the welfare services or not because the basic premise is that whoever comes there probably needs their help. In addition, they provide an internal credit card, loaded with a fixed amount for the purchase of basic products at the major supermarket chains. 

Every day, they serve between 150 and 200 lunches, and provide another thousand prepared hot meals throughout the city. They recently reached an agreement with Teller Bakery to receive all the bread that is not sold that day and add it to the prepared meals.

Rabbi Yehuda Azrad, chairman of Carmei Ha’ir, describes the great difficulties that his organization, like all other organizations, has faced since the coronavirus. “We live on donations, especially from Jewish communities abroad. The coronavirus took its toll, and revenues dropped by 50%. I haven’t paid rent for the restaurant for months, and I haven’t paid the food suppliers on time. Everyone understands and is considerate, but until when? Where is the government?”

Chasdei Noemi distributes packages according to the season: stoves for winter heating for the elderly and Holocaust survivors; dairy products and cheeses for Shavuot; meat and poultry for Passover and the High Holy Days, as well as products for Passover. The organization employs dozens of volunteers, mainly teenagers, who help prepare the food packages.

Mashan, one of the largest charities in the city, provides a variety of services, such as a dental clinic, soup kitchen, and basic products at a low cost, in addition to distributing food baskets and prepared meals to thousands of city residents.

The exception in the landscape of aid organizations is Afikim. It maintains that “It is better to give a fishing rod than a meal,” says its founder and manager, Moshe Levkovitz. He is focused on helping to break the vicious cycle of lack of education as the key to breaking out of poverty.

In collaboration with the Education Ministry and the education administration at the Jerusalem Municipality, Lefkowitz established afternoon programs for children, mainly immigrant children from Russia and Ethiopia, which help improve the youngsters’ academic capabilities. The organization also assists the youths’ families.

The municipality provides NIS 1.26 million to support the activities of the charitable organizations operating in the city. ❖