Feeding the hungry

Over the past 30 years, Yosef Cohen has turned Chasdei Naomi into an impressive charity organization with an annual turnover of more than NIS 50 million. Having grown up poor himself, he now worries that history is repeating itself.

Yosef Cohen 521 (photo credit: ALONI MOR)
Yosef Cohen 521
(photo credit: ALONI MOR)
He cannot stop the tears from falling. They seem to have a life of their own as they roll down his cheeks, showing his pain and sorrow. Yosef Cohen, the chairman of the Chasdei Naomi non-profit organization, weeps for the child he used to be. He was so poor, he could never satisfy his hunger. That child has now grown up and has turned into the man who works day and night so that other children will not have to cry with hunger.
Even after 30 years, during which he has built up an enormous charitable organization, Cohen still sleeps on the thin mattress he bought when he got married. Even though the organization’s annual turnover is more than NIS 50 million, he lives frugally. And even though his life is dedicated to making others happy, he cries.
Cohen, 67, was born in the Shapiro neighborhood of southern Tel Aviv. His parents made aliya from Turkey and brought five children into the world. They lived in a small shop near the neighborhood’s open-air market, where the central bus station now stands.
“The landlord took pity on us and added on another small room so my parents would have somewhere to sleep. We used to hang a sheet to separate their room from ours,” Cohen says. “When we managed to scrape together a little bit of money, we moved to a little house and felt so rich.”
Cohen’s mother, Naomi, died at a young age. The organization is named in her memory. Cohen’s father was a cantor in Turkey, but in Israel he worked as a porter.
“My father was born poor, lived poor and died poor,” Cohen says.
Then he adds, “When he passed away, our sorrow was twofold: one that he was no longer with us, and two that we could not recite the blessing Hatov V’hameitiv [a blessing said over something good that is shared with others], since he left us no inheritance.”
Cohen and his siblings began school in the neighborhood, but they didn’t remain there for long.
“We spent our entire day just trying to survive and find food to eat,” he says. “In the morning, my mother would fry us bread in margarine and salt on the kerosene burner. That would be our breakfast, as well as our food for school. I remember that other children would eat chocolate-covered wafers. I would sit there in my old torn sweatpants watching them eat while my mouth watered.”
Instead of staying in school, Cohen went to look for work. He would take apart old refrigerators he found lying on the street and sell the copper parts. He would then use the money to buy bread. Sometimes he and his brothers would help unload trucks in the market in exchange for fruit. Once a week, each family member would bathe in a tub. Only one picture was taken during his childhood: Cohen as a young boy looking at a Torah scroll.
“Unfortunately, the people of Israel are once again experiencing this terrible hunger,” Cohen says tearfully. “There’s just one difference: When I was a child, all the families living on my block were poor. We lived in a small hut without air conditioning. We never thought we needed one. When we had a little bit of money, we bought a fan. Nowadays, some of the families are poor and some are rich. When I was young, no one had a car. And if they did, it was a [made-in-Israel] Sussita. Today, there are people who drive cars that cost half a million shekels. The cost of the insurance alone could feed an entire family.”
Today, Cohen is stout – he’s come a long way from the skinny boy he used to be. Because of his weight, he sleeps with an oxygen mask; but that doesn’t prevent him from eating. He eats to make up for all those years when he was hungry.
“I remember once, when I was eight years old, I went into the yard of one of the homes in my neighborhood to pick a tangerine off a tree,” he recalls. “I wasn’t taking it for the fun of it – I was just starving. But that didn’t stop the man who lived there from taking me straight to the police station.”
Cohen never managed to complete his studies. When he was in sixth grade, he dropped out of school to go to work. Every morning he would look around trying to figure out how to make a little money. He plucked chickens, cleaned carpets and stairwells, helped people move house, brought cars to the garage to be fixed and pushed heavy trucks down the street on a bicycle. He was constantly seeking new ways to make money. That didn’t change even after he was married.
“Everyone else had a refrigerator and a gas stove, but we didn’t have anything,” Cohen recalls.
“I used to prepare only one chicken a week for the entire family.”
As if to corroborate this information, he calls his wife, Sara, on his cell phone.
“On Thursdays, we would go to the bakery and buy rolls and chocolate,” she says. “Everyone would get a roll and two squares of chocolate. That was the best treat in the entire world.”
Sara recounts many stories, such as how their four children wore secondhand clothing and how one of their children, who is now the CEO of Chasdei Naomi, went through his entire childhood wearing a girl’s green jacket.
But everything changed when Cohen became the driver of a school bus. Day after day, he was reminded of his own childhood.
“Once I drove a group of children on their annual school trip and it made me cry because I was never able to go on one when I was young,” Cohen laments. “I decided that I had to help. I had always been a salaried worker and lived hand to mouth, but I had free time between the various bus routes. I started going door to door to collect food for the needy. I had an amplifier at home that I would lend to people to use for parties. So I started asking everyone who borrowed it to donate food.
And that’s how it all started,” he explains.
The Cohen home quickly turned into a warehouse for food supplies.
“I don’t know how they lived in that house; it was so packed with plastic bags filled with cans of food,” says Dina Namdar, one of the organization’s first donors and now its full-time project manager.
If he hadn’t been the head of Chasdei Naomi, Cohen could have been a very successful advertising agent in the religious sector. The brilliant ideas he has come up with over the years have turned Chasdei Naomi into one of the most successful charity organizations in Israel.
In the early days, for example, instead of making needy people come to him to receive food, Cohen brought the food to their homes. That was the first time any organization operated that way, and as a result more and more people became familiar with Chasdei Naomi.
Later on, when the organization had a truck to use for transporting food, Cohen organized parades in the streets of Bnei Brak during which he would play loud music. Today, he records children’s songs about biblical stories into which he incorporates the name Chasdei Naomi a number of times.
The organization has carts in every city in Israel upon which hang large banners with its slogan, “Mommy, you promised we’d have chicken this Shabbat.”
“I noticed that other organizations wrote their messages bluntly. I decided to be more subtle,” Cohen says about the slogan, which became the organization’s trademark. “Everyone understands from this statement that if a mother promised her children food but didn’t give it to them, she probably didn’t have any money to buy it. This message is straightforward and free of depressing imagery.”
Recently, just before school was about to resume, Cohen brought in a number of celebrities who were photographed as they filled backpacks with school supplies for needy schoolchildren. In this way, the celebrities promoted themselves and Chasdei Naomi at the same time.
“I don’t really know who any of them were,” Cohen admits. “Once I asked out loud what their names were and was told to be quiet before I made a fool of myself.”
As with any business, there are always be people who try to replicate successful ventures. Chasdei Naomi is no exception. In one such occurrence, someone stationed a cart in Jerusalem that looked suspiciously similar to Chasdei Naomi’s. And 10 years ago, Cohen learned that someone in the US was seeking contributions in his name.
“That was the first and last time I ever flew overseas,” Cohen says. “I had to minimize the damage.”
While the passports belonging to other heads of nonprofits in Israel are full of stamps showing their numerous trips overseas, Cohen remains in Israel.
“My territory includes Bnei Brak, Safed, Tiberias and Jerusalem. In my opinion, it’s just disgraceful to see public officials drive around in fancy cars. They don’t understand that so many people living in Israel are truly hungry. They can’t imagine that some people’s refrigerators are actually empty.”
Many of Chasdei Naomi’s distribution centers are situated in areas with large haredi populations.
“My grandchildren are religious. They have nothing, but they don’t need anything,” says Cohen. “They don’t buy clothing, go to movies or go anywhere, for that matter. They don’t spend much on the upkeep of their homes, and yet they are as happy as could be.”
Namdar adds, “We also assist a large number of secular families. Just this week when I was at our Pardess Katz station, I saw many hungry children.”
Chasdei Naomi receives lists of poor people from the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services. School principals and community rabbis also turn to Chasdei Naomi for help. At holiday time, numerous people who are not on National Insurance Institute or school lists also turn to the organization for help with food.
“As Rosh Hashana approaches, we usually have to double the number of packages we prepare,” Namdar says.
“Throughout the year we tend not to respond to requests from individuals, but it’s hard for us imagine that some families might not have food to serve for the New Year, so this week we are processing every request we receive.”
The packages are prepared at Chasdei Naomi’s center situated on one of Bnei Brak’s dusty side streets, while the drivers wait outside looking on as volunteers scramble to prepare food that will be distributed around the country.
The facilities are bursting with food. The produce room is filled with pallets of watermelons and beets.
It’s excellent quality produce, not leftover produce that couldn’t be sold in a store. Some 300 tons of goods pass through these rooms every week.
“Recently we even received a shipment of avocados,” Cohen says excitedly. “Do you have any idea how much a kilo of avocados cost? NIS 28. If I were a farmer, I’m not sure I’d be donating such valuable merchandise.”
Next to the avocados sit cartons of Materna. For 12 years now, Materna has been carrying out a campaign in which it donates a container of baby formula to needy families every time a consumer sends them four spoons or containers.
“We receive NIS 350,000 worth of merchandise from them each year,” Cohen says enthusiastically. “Do you understand what that means? Secular people from Kibbutz Ma’abarot, which belongs to the Shomer Hatza’ir movement, are donating food to religious people. That is very exciting.”
On well-organized shelves in the organization’s large warehouse, Chasdei Naomi keeps merchandise that it has purchased. Families receive fresh produce weekly and non-perishables once a month. Schoolchildren who live in the neighborhood volunteer to prepare the packages.
Namdar says that soldiers, college students and children from day camps help out as well.
Every month, 5,000 baskets are sent out. They contain oil, flour, sugar, canned food, legumes, coffee, tea and sweets.
“We don’t provide everything the families need for an entire month, but we do try to make their lives a little bit easier,” Namdar says. “If we can help them reduce their grocery bills by NIS 300, then we did our part.”
Just down the street from the warehouse, Chasdei Naomi bought a building and turned it into a banquet hall. Bar and bat mitzva parties, circumcisions and weddings are held there daily. In contrast to the building’s exterior, the interior events hall is elegant.
Here, no family feels pitiful. The meals cost NIS 44 a plate, and people come from all over the country to hold their festive events there.
Namdar says that a wealthy family chose to hold their daughter’s wedding there to set an example that no one needs to spend exorbitant amounts of money on celebrations.
The organization invested NIS 18 million in the building.
“I don’t even know how to write that number,” Cohen says as he pulls out a bank statement that shows the organization’s huge overdraft.
Back in the offices, an elderly woman slowly makes her way up the stairs and enters the bustling headquarters.
In one area sit women who call the 30,000 people who contributed to Chasdei Naomi to thank them. Other employees contact suppliers to coordinate arrival dates for merchandise. Another group answers phone calls from needy families.
The elderly woman stops at the desk of one of the workers and slowly takes her wallet out of her bag.
She removes NIS 18 and places it on the table. All the employees know her well. Every month she donates a percentage of her modest pension.
“Why doesn’t the government help poor people?” I ask Cohen.
He replies quietly, “I guess they’re busy with other issues.”
• Translated by Hannah Hochner