Feeding the poor

“If we can help...then we help in any way we can.”

Beggar in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Beggar in Jerusalem
On June 30, the Central Bureau of Statistics released its annual survey. The findings were not encouraging: 16 percent of Israelis forgo food due to financial distress, with approximately 7,400 people age 20 and over taking advantage of social welfare services in 2013.
The survey demonstrated an increase in poverty throughout the country, though there were some positive findings – such as the 86% of Israelis who reported feeling a general level of contentment and satisfaction with their lives. This was overshadowed, however, by the mere 53% who reported being satisfied with their financial situations.
Of that percentage, one in seven people reported feeling poor within the last year.
“The fact of the matter is, you have a national situation of poverty and gaps between the rich and poor, and that is an embarrassment to Israel,” maintains Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship for Christians and Jews, which is dedicated to aiding the poor across the country. “Next to Mexico, Israel has the biggest poverty gap.”
Eckstein says that despite reports indicating poverty, mayors throughout the country have refused for many years to acknowledge that there are homeless people in their cities, and have also denied the existence of residents suffering from poverty and hunger.
The Jerusalem Municipality, he asserts, recognizes the city’s problem with poverty and homelessness, but is not taking action or responsibility.
“I’d like to see the municipality assume total responsibility for homelessness in Jerusalem,” he says. “The government needs to allocate necessary funding so that no teenager or person would have a situation where they don’t have a place to go in the city to get counseling, a shower or a place to sleep.”
He would like to see the municipality approach homelessness and poverty in two stages: first, to care for people and give them a place to stay, and next, to have the government work with the homeless to get them out of their situation. To increase funding for this two-pronged process, he suggests that the government take 10% of the cultural budget and devote it to the community’s welfare needs.
According to Eckstein, the IFCJ is one of the only organizations today that are continuously raising funds to tackle this problem; most other organizations, he says, are cutting back.
“We are unequivocally carrying the burden and privilege of helping with roughly $400,000 a year [for] the homeless in Jerusalem,” he states.
Resources from the IFCJ and other organizations exist to support Israelis across the poverty spectrum, from teens and adults who are destitute and living on the streets, to those facing financial setbacks.
Dining with dignity
Down the road from the Mahaneh Yehuda market lies Carmei Ha’ir, a small restaurant with a blue and orange sign. From the outside, it blends in with the other cafés and restaurants that line Agrippas Street; however, a small wooden box sitting by the door quietly distinguishes Carmei Ha’ir from the eateries surrounding it.
A large white plaque engraved with a blessing hangs on the wall above the box, with the words, “All who are hungry shall eat,” highlighted in bright red.
At Carmei Ha’ir, the hungry are indeed invited to eat – three meals a day, free of charge.
Diners, if they are capable and choose to do so, may leave a donation or thankyou note in the wooden box after their meal.
The restaurant falls under the Carmei Ha’ir organization, which seeks to provide services for those living below the poverty line in Jerusalem. According to a 2014 survey by the Latet organization, which provides assistance to the needy, half of those living below the poverty line nationwide come from an “average” socioeconomic background, and fell into poverty.
For the Israelis who comprise this percentage, most organizations aim to give them the necessary tools to get back on their feet – since 36% of the people whom the Central Bureau of Statistics surveyed said they believe their financial situation will change in the near future.
Carmei Ha’ir chairman Yehuda Azrad explains that many of those who utilize the organization’s services do have jobs and homes, and wrestle with the feeling of not wanting to accept services from traditional soup kitchens and food banks. As such, Azrad wants to give them more than just a hot meal – he wants to give them back their dignity.
This is a legitimate concern, especially for the country’s elderly: The CBS reported that 55% of Israelis are concerned they won’t be able to live with dignity in their old age.
“People are not going to die from hunger, they’re going to die from their shame,” Azrad contends. “Here, we can help save dignity and honor.”
He emphasizes the importance of Carmei Ha’ir’s focus on the family, and not just the food. The organization has expanded since its establishment in 2004 and takes into consideration the condition of the family’s children, home and medical situation.
“If we can help,” he says, “then we help in any way we can.”