Helping the needy help themselves

Municipal welfare workers say they are focused on alleviating poverty year-round, not just on holidays.

Helping the needy (photo credit: mibereishit)
Helping the needy
(photo credit: mibereishit)
Welfare and Social Services Minister Moshe Kahlon came in for criticism last week from the large nonprofit association Latet for his decision to stop distribution of leftover food to the needy because he was opposed to the “shameful photos of needy people waiting for food baskets.”
While Kahlon’s decision has met with strong opposition among the various charity associations, it has found acceptance among those in the municipality’s social and community services, who do not like, to put it mildly, the focus of public interest on the holiday period, which they say is “populist and inefficient.”
“We work on a steady basis throughout the year, aiming at helping more people to [extricate] themselves from the poverty cycle, and not on specific issues like food baskets on the eve of Passover,” says Bonnie Goldberg, director of community and social services at the municipality.
Goldberg, who declares that she is completely opposed to the trend of placing these tear-jerker stories in newspapers before the holidays to get the public’s attention, nevertheless admits that poverty is still a sad reality, to the extent that some cannot provide themselves with basic food. According to her, the solution lies not in increasing the number of associations and food baskets (or vouchers for large supermarkets), but in helping more people increase their income, whether by helping them utilize rights of which they are not aware, or simply empowering them to get employment.
“This is what we are busy doing all year long, and believe me, it works,” adds Goldberg.
She describes the four streams of her department’s programs to retrieve residents from poverty: professional training and upgrading of existing employment, empowerment on a personal basis to help people get back into the employment market, maximizing existing rights, and giving back to the community.
The first program operates through the sponsorship of the Jerusalem Foundation and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
“We reach out to people who can work but first need professional training to obtain even the simplest jobs,” she explains.
The second program aims, through community and personal empowerment, to help those seeking employment – people who are too shy, who lack the self-confidence to present themselves at a job interview, or who are not aware of the rules of the employment market.
The third program targets those who are already working but do not, for various reasons, receive all their rights.
“Since this situation often has an impact on their income, it is crucial to help them reach this goal,” she says. As an example, she cites the National Insurance Instititute laws, “which are sometimes written in such a complicated way that even educated people cannot understand the rules,” as well as the tax laws.
“In many cases, the result is that lots of people see their monthly income grow substantially, up to a point that their problems are more or less solved,” she explains.
But she views the fourth stream as, in a way, proof that the whole procedure has been successful. She gives the example of a woman, a relatively new immigrant from the former Soviet Union, who managed to advance from the position of switchboard operator to management secretary in the same firm, thanks to the empowerment she received. Once the change in her life was there, she found the strength to give back, and began to present puppet shows – something she used to do before she made aliya – in centers for at-risk youth in her neighborhood.
“Not only did she improve her situation, but she closed the circle by giving back to the community that helped her from the beginning,” says Goldberg, adding, “Can anyone still say that food distribution is a better way to solve these problems?”
Passover 5772: Click for JPost special featuresPassover 5772: Click for JPost special features
HOWEVER, FACTS on the ground are obviously far more complex. Sharona Yekutiel, director of the Reform Movement in Israel’s Keren Be’Kavod charity program, says that poverty is far from fading in the city.
Without at all rejecting the municipality’s policy regarding the needy population, Yekutiel says that still, distribution of food baskets, or better, vouchers for supermarkets and large stores, are too often the best solution, especially ahead of the holidays.
“In fact,” she says, “I can tell you that we face a doubling in the number of people who come to us.
Especially among the Ethiopian community [and] particularly the single mothers, [as well as] other parts of the population that are not often mentioned in regard to food distribution around the Jewish festivals, like the Rom community in the Old City or the Arab population in general.”
According to Keren Be’Kavod’s figures, 100 Ethiopian families (compared to 45 last year) asked for baskets or vouchers this year, at NIS 400 for each family. Requests for vouchers (instead of food baskets) have increased over the last two years, and not just because it is less embarrassing than standing on a line outside some association’s offices.
“Vouchers allow people to decide freely what they want to do with the money – sometimes the problem is not specifically food, but outfits for the children, or shoes,” she explains. “But the problem is that [baskets are] much less expensive for the associations. Many of them obtain the food they distribute at very low prices, enabling them to give a decent basket for a minimum sum, while vouchers are at face value and require sums that the associations cannot always raise.”
Another thing that charity directors have noted is the growing number of elderly who request this aid.
“It breaks my heart to see each year more old people coming to us to get something for the holiday,” says Eliyahu, who helps prepare the baskets at the Hazon Yeshaya organization in the capital’s Bukharan Quarter.
“I’ve been doing this mitzva for years now, and sometimes I feel despair when I see people coming back here, year after year, holiday after holiday,” Eliyahu continues.
“Clearly they have nothing other than us to help them celebrate decently, and when I see the senior citizens, people who worked all their lives, who toward the end need charity, it is almost unbearable.”
EVEN GOLDBERG admits that the number of people her organization succeeds in rescuing from poverty is in the hundreds only.
“It’s something, but I am aware that there are far more there who are still caught in the cycle of poverty,” she says. “I would say that in Jerusalem, as well as in the rest of the country, the numbers are steady – we do not see serious growth, but we do not see a reduction, either.”
Her organization does cooperate with charity associations, though, and provides them with the list of people who, according to the municipality and the National Insurance Institute, are entitled to get help for the holidays and during the year. This year, the municipality is working with Eshel Yerushalayim, Or Leah, Hazon Yeshaya, Mazon L’haim (Food for Life), Noam Shabbat and Yad Ezra Veshulamit. In addition, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein’s International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is active in financially aiding needy families whom the city’s social services send to it.
All admit that despite the efforts to help people get themselves out of the poverty cycle, the number of families and individuals who come to get baskets or vouchers is only growing.
“I do not oppose that help,” concludes Goldberg, “but I am concerned that those who make it to the food basket distribution centers are not the weakest among us. I am more concerned about reaching out to those who don’t even dare to come, or don’t even understand that they have this option. It is those, the weakest, the most fragile in our society, that I am trying to reach.”