Time for giving

Recession means there's much less food aid for needy families this Pessah.

poor man poverty 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
poor man poverty 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On the surface, Eran Weintraub, director of the humanitarian aid organization Latet, appears optimistic. He talks with enthusiasm about the work of his nonprofit organization and its philosophy of helping the needy at all costs, he broaches the current political turmoil and the government's role in fighting poverty, but then, as he turns his attention to the current economic crisis, his tone changes and it soon becomes clear that he is worried, extremely worried. "I try to remain optimistic because that is what drives us as an organization," confides the 37-year-old, who trained as a lawyer. "And I truly believe that we do have the support of the public who are ready to donate to our causes, but I'm beginning to feel that it just might not be enough this time, especially if the government does not start making some drastic changes in its approach to tackling poverty." According to Latet, which acts as an umbrella organization for more than 120 food distribution charities in 80 locations countrywide, before the onset of the current recession there were roughly 200,000 families (about half of those who live below the poverty line) experiencing extreme poverty and relying on any one of a number of NGOs to supply with them with basics such as food and medicine. "We're not yet feeling the strain of the recession. It will probably only become really apparent toward the end of this year and through to next year," observes the Dimona native, adding that the main fear of food aid charities is that the need for assistance will continue to grow, while the number of those willing to give will dwindle. "We've already seen a drop of 10 percent in our donations, and if the gap between these two opposites continues to widen, the poverty situation will just become unmanageable." It's two weeks before Pessah and we are sitting in Weintraub's South Tel Aviv office, not far from one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Mismatched chairs hint at the organization's grassroots philosophy - to remain frugal and diligently serve the interests of the weakest and neediest populations. "If this situation gets worse we'll just have to start getting creative," says Weintraub, gesturing to the collage of campaign posters pinned to the walls. "Despite what I've just told you, we still really hope that these next few years will be our best. It just might mean that we'll have to put in some extra hours or push ourselves to lower overheads even more and we'll find new ways of working together with other NGOs and pooling our resources. "We'll go back to basics too. While it's obviously important in the long term to invest in education, in today's environment we'll just have to help people to survive. If someone does not have food, then he just won't be able to exist. There's not much else to say really." SADLY, HOWEVER, there is a lot to say on the subject of poverty here. Weintraub starts by pointing to international poverty rates and highlighting Israel's poor showing globally. Data published late last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that this country, which is not yet part of the cooperative, has a poverty rate of more than double most OECD countries. In addition, statistics released this past January by the National Insurance Institute shows that some 1,631,000 individuals including 777,400 children were living below the poverty line in the first half of last year. Of course, these figures are still not reflective of the current economic crisis and the more than 80,000 layoffs made over the past seven months. "It's still difficult for most people to understand the scope of Israel's poverty, especially when more than half the population is walking around malls and enjoying the good life," says Weintraub, who used to head the Student Union. "There are still about a million or a million and a half people whose life is simply on the trash heap. "Of course we don't always notice them because they don't walk around wearing ragged clothes. For many of them, if you go into their houses you'll find the remnants of their previous life, when things were a little better financially and they bought a nice TV set or an expensive DVD player. But then something happened, they lost their job, got divorced or simply made a bad choice and now they are struggling." While Latet's main focus is on making sure there is enough food to reach all of its 120 partner charities, it's also a major political advocate for poverty issues. Weintraub, who has made repeated calls to lawmakers to create a national task force to tackle poverty and is constantly pushing for the issue to be put at the top of the political agenda, says: "The fate of these people should not be dependent on whether we can raise enough funds to buy food for them. We are talking about a population that is in a really bad way and the government needs to take more responsibility. "The new prime minister and government has to understand that the biggest threat to Israeli society, what is really pulling us apart the most, is our socioeconomic problems. It's worse than threats from Iran, Hizbullah or Hamas, and if we don't tackle it soon, we will not be able to deal with these external threats, we will not be a strong or supportive society at all." When talking about possible opportunities with the new government, Weintraub's earlier enthusiasm begins to wane. "What we need now is for the new prime minister to come in and take this matter seriously. He needs to put it on the national agenda and not just talk hot air about how important it is," he says. "We just don't have the energy to through more rounds of meetings, promises and talks. Enough is enough." He is referring to a legal petition filed by Latet just over two years ago calling on the government to take responsibility for the nutritional security of every citizen. Following Latet's legal moves, Minister of Welfare and Social Services Isaac Herzog established an interministerial committee to look into the matter. The committee recommended a NIS 50 million program, which would have covered some of what Latet was proposing, but the idea was later cut down by the Finance Ministry and is still being discussed by the government. "After that, new elections were announced and the matter was all but forgotten," says Weintraub without irony. "Now we are looking at a new prime minister, finance minister and welfare minister. After two years of fighting we are back to square one." MEETINGS AND bureaucracy aside, the Latet CEO says that it would cost the government NIS 2 billion annually to properly tackle the country's poverty problems both in the short term with immediate food distribution and for longer-term programs for education and employment. "It's not just about feeding people, increasing the minimum wage or creating part-time jobs, there need to be real investments made," he says, giving the example of employment programs that could give people a real incentive to out to work and not just subsist on a minimum or below-minimum wage. Changes also need to be made in the area of education to avoid what Weintraub terms "building a new generation of people living below the poverty line." "Children from poor homes are under so much pressure," he says. "They do not have the tools to learn and their parents are usually not interested in helping them. The chances that they will also fall into violence or crime or not reach higher education are very high. This means they will start another generation of poverty and the government needs to invest in this to stop the cycle." In the meantime, it is up to food aid organizations such as Latet to make sure that the weak and needy are provided for and even enjoy the upcoming Pessah holiday. "Our goal is to raise NIS 7.5 million for the festival to provide 50,000 families with a basket worth NIS 150," states Weintraub, who relies heavily on some 5,000 volunteers countrywide to collect and distribute the food parcels. To reach this goal, Latet, which receives donations from individuals, businesses and foundations both here and abroad, has teamed up with partners such as the Blue Square and Mega supermarket chains to collect physical and financial donations and with the International Federation of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which contributed $300,000 for Pessah food parcels. "It's obviously been a huge help," says Weintraub of the individuals, organizations and businesses that have stepped forward to help. "However, we know that there are many more than 50,000 families who need our help and despite increasing our output this year by some 20 percent, because of the falling donations we've been forced to reduce the size of the basket." In a final Pessah push to fill those baskets, Weintraub shares with me Latet's latest socio-political campaign. It sums up the organization's dual goal of feeding the needy and lobbying lawmakers. "We have sent all the new Knesset members empty food baskets with a list of all the items needed to fill it. It's a symbolic move to remind them of the situation today, to tell them that it's the role of the government to feed the needy, but it is also will be practical step that will allow all 120 MKs to make a personal contribution to the poverty crisis. I just hope they realize that the message is more important." To contribute to Latet's efforts, call 1-700-50-40-33, send a text message with the word Latet to 2255 - that will donate NIS 10 to the organization to provide a meal for one person - or visit its Web site, www.latet.org.il.