The people of Abraham

By emulating soup kitchens that helped save him and his family, Abraham Israel is now aiding thousands.

abraham israel 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
abraham israel 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Abraham Israel sits in his sparse office on Jerusalem's Rehov Rashi watching his vast empire from a computer monitor. Using closed-circuit TV technology, he gestures to the 20 tiny boxes that fill the screen showing people milling about in various stages of activity - from a busy chef in an industrial-sized kitchen to religious women attending a seminar to a dentist's technician preparing for surgery. "This is our Jerusalem center," the former New Yorker says proudly, then swiftly clicks his mouse to show me what is going on in his newly-built Rishon Lezion center. "It was a former bank. They gave it to us for nearly nothing. "We run a tight ship. I use my business experience and my accounting skills - I am very good with numbers - to run this operation just like when I was in the import business back in the States. Here, I also have a central warehouse and it is from there that I ship out goods to all my customers." While his business boasts more than 14,000 customers daily, with no fewer than 63 distribution points countrywide, the clients that Israel is referring to are not exactly the same type that made him wealthy enough to retire in his early 50s. Rather, those that utilize his Hazon Yeshaya Humanitarian Network are the country's needy, those who have been termed by the government as zaka'ut alef or "Stage 1" of poverty. "There is only one thing worse than zaka'ut alef and that is the people already buried in the ground," quips Israel, who still manages to stay positive despite the destitution he witnesses on a daily basis. "The people who come to us are the poorest of the poor, those with no electricity who live in one room smaller than my office. "There are thousands of people trying to get a free meal that they don't deserve, and it is really a malady in our society. But here we only serve those who are really in need, and I am very proud of that because it means we are doing this job the right way." THE RIGHT way, according to Israel, is to emulate the soup kitchens that helped save him and his family when they were poverty-stricken and starving refugees residing in Paris in the late 1950s. "It had a tremendous impact on me," he recalls. "I don't even know who the people were running the soup kitchens there, but they gave us meals day in and day out, even during the holidays, and this is reflected in what I am doing here too." Born in Egypt, Israel's family was forced to leave following the 1956 Suez crisis when then president Gamal Abdel Nasser "started picking on the Jews." "My father quickly decided that it was time to get out of there," says Israel, who was only 10 at the time. "But when you flee a country you don't have time to take anything with you - you cannot give the impression that you are leaving and not coming back. So we left with just the clothes on our backs." The family - Israel's parents and two siblings - ended up traveling to France on an Italian cargo ship and were sent to Paris as refugees. "We had to decide whether to go immediately to another country," he recalls. "While most of my family and community went on to Israel and Sao Paulo, my father decided that he wanted to go to what he called 'the land of opportunity' - America. Everyone said that he was crazy to wait because at that time it took three to five years to get a visa. They said to him, 'You have no clothes, no money and nothing to eat. You don't even have a place to sleep. How can you wait here for three to five years?'" But Israel's father decided the family would it stick out. "The government gave us nothing; we lived in a shack, and even today when I go back to Paris, it gives me a very bad feeling because I remember how we lived there," he says. "I just thank God a million times every day that there were some good people out there helping us. When a person is a refugee and has nothing, no money, holes in their shoes and clothes that are getting smaller on them by the day, it's a terrible thing, but it's not the end of the world. No, the end of the world is not having any food and being hungry. A person cannot survive without having a meal every day." After three years of hunger and poverty, Israel and his family arrived in America and he was immediately enrolled in school. After high school, he graduated from university with an accounting degree and built up a successful import company. "It was just like my father had dreamed; it really did become the land of opportunity for us," he says. Despite his success, Israel says he could not forget his time in Paris, and 12 years ago took early retirement to focus on helping out those less fortunate than himself. After he brought his wife and seven children to Israel, a chance meeting with a young woman with multiple sclerosis on the very same Rehov Rashi where his Hazon Yeshaya operation stands today led him into the world of food aid. "My first client was a girl called Ronit," he says. "It's amazing how the Almighty puts things in place for you. She was trying to cross the street and I did not understand why such a young girl - she was only about 22 - was wobbling and using a cane. I stopped traffic and helped her across, but she told met that she did not feel well and asked if I could just walk with her to her apartment." When he arrived, he was shocked by what he found - "a room literally of nothingness. I had visited Israel at least 30 or 40 times during my years in business, but I always stayed in five-star hotels. I had never been in the back alleyways of Jerusalem." Israel's first question to Ronit was what she was going to eat for dinner. When she responded that she would have a yogurt, he simply did not believe her. "I had been a volunteer in America for organizations helping people in poverty, but the people there seemed rich compared to her. In America, a poor person may not live in a house but will live in an apartment building, they'll have a phone and perhaps a car, but here we are talking about people who don't even have electricity." Israel questioned Ronit further about her situation. He was told that despite receiving government benefits, she was forced to use all her funds on medications and had nothing left for food. He was also told about others in the neighborhood living in similar conditions. "She sent me across the hall to a neighbor. It was a family of three kids living in one room with their mattresses piled against the wall. They would flip the mattresses down at the end of the day to sleep on them. I was simply startled because I had never seen such a thing before in Israel." Israel decided then and there to rent a small storefront on Rehov Rashi. Purchasing a stove and hiring a cook, he started to feed 17 people that he had found to be starving. "Word got out and within a few months that 17 turned into 30, then 50, then 100. I had no choice but to expand and buy a state of the art industrial stove and contact some of my old business colleagues and friends to help keep running it." TODAY, Hazon Yeshaya, with feeding centers in Eilat, Ashkelon, Rishon Lezion, Jerusalem and several other locations, also prepares and distributes hot meals daily to the elderly and housebound, as well as food to after-school programs for children at risk. On Shabbat and holidays, the operation prepares meals in advance for families to take home. Shalom Ben-Zion comes to the center on Rehov Rashi every day carrying a large shopping bag. Unable to work due to severe diabetes, the father of 12 takes home hot meals for his children and his wife. "It is an amazing place, with excellent food, and on Shabbat they even give us hallot," he says. "I really don't know what I would do without this place. I was managing for many years until [the government] cut back on my benefits by about a quarter. Now I come here and it has really saved my family." "Our recipient list is growing every day. Only last week I got a letter from a school program in Rishon Lezion asking us for meals for another 300 kids," Israel says, adding that he finds it almost impossible to turn people away and has even started to provide services to the hundreds of Sudanese refugees in the country. "It's terrible. We are not just talking about a few people in need but a big chunk of the population. I don't know how the people who have the power to do something sleep at night in their comfortable beds knowing that there are people out there starving. "When I started in 1997, it was not that bad. However, after the intifada in 2000, my business shot up and [former finance minister] Binyamin Netanyahu's slashing of welfare benefits and child allowances about three or four years ago really boosted business too." Israel's business has also grown with the establishment in the last two years of free vocational courses for those able-bodied individuals who want to haul themselves out of the poverty trap. With courses ranging from hairdressing, cosmetics and wig repair to computer programming, bookkeeping and secretarial, Israel says he has received the green light from the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor to expand further. "I really get a kick out of seeing these people succeed," he says, showing me a well-maintained folder filled with business cards of former course graduates. "We are hoping to reach 1,500 people this year and help them on the road to getting jobs." Israel's future plans also include the development of an expanded food distribution center across the road from his current location that will be able to feed up to 500 people at one time, and he is constantly encouraging visiting foreign groups and missions to stop by his soup kitchen to catch a glimpse of the real Israel. "I tell people all the time that the No. 1 problem in Israel today is not the conflict with the Arabs but the poverty situation. Of course the security problem is terrible, but we have been living with it for 60 years and we know it is likely going to continue for a long time. However, unless we start building up a strong society, we'll be left with nothing."