Colel Chabad: Israel's oldest charity is making bigger impact than ever

The needs of those in Israel changed drastically, especially with the foundation of the state. As a result, Colel Chabad adapted to become what it is today.

 MENACHEM TRAXLER outside the Colel Chabad soup kitchen in the Old City. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
MENACHEM TRAXLER outside the Colel Chabad soup kitchen in the Old City.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Perched behind the Western Wall Plaza is a building familiar to many in appearance, though foreign in what actually goes on inside. 

It’s there that the Colel Chabad soup kitchen in the Old City, the oldest charity organization in Israel, provides meals to the needy 365 days a year, free of charge.

The organization, founded in 1788, is led by people who are so deeply engaged in its work that to them, there is no other duty they can be achieving. Fulfilling a Torah commandment to always give a helping hand to those in need, those who work every day at Colel Chabad have dedicated their lives to providing for the needy in the Old City and Israel at large.

The nonprofit was established at the behest of the first rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Alter Rebbe, to aid the needy in the Land of Israel. Though living in Eastern Europe, the Alter Rebbe recognized the inherent value in the Land of Israel and those establishing their lives there.

Initially, the organization set up operations in Tiberias, Safed, Hebron and Jerusalem – where most Jews lived in Israel at the time – providing funds mainly to purchase food. It raised funds by encouraging donations in pushka boxes, now commonly known as tzedakah boxes. As time progressed and government processes improved in the Ottoman Empire, the organization shifted to providing food stamps. These funds came mainly from wealthy Jews living in Europe and then America.

 TRAXLER: HANDS ON.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) TRAXLER: HANDS ON. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Fast forward, the needs of those in Israel changed drastically, especially with the foundation of the state. As a result, the organization adapted to become what it is today.

What is Colel Chabad doing today?

The Old City building, Colel Chabad’s flagship location, is imposing from the outside, with a massive space that has the capacity to feed hundreds of people. Opened in 1996 and dedicated by Arthur Luxenberg and his family, today it feeds a range of people every day, offering lunch daily at 1:30 p.m., usually consisting of soup, a protein, salad, bread and fruit, no questions asked. For Shabbat, some 100-plus people will attend.

Throughout Israel today, Colel Chabad as an organization runs 77 unique programs, operating 22 soup kitchens across the country feeding more than 3,400 people a day; delivering pantry goods to nearly 30,000 households per month; supplying holiday food to 22,500 families; providing dental care; interest-free loans; weddings; daycare; support for orphans and widows; and hosting mass bar and bat mitzvahs for fatherless children – all for free. What is remarkable is that this is just the tip of the iceberg for the organization.

Today, providing food is its biggest service. Its flagship program, in partnership with the Social Affairs Ministry, Colel Chabad was selected by the ministry in 2017 to lead the National Food Security Project, which gives the organization 72% of its budget of nearly $100 million. The remaining 28% is raised from private donors and organizations.

Interestingly enough, under 10% of those receiving aid from the organization are part of Chabad, and 19% of the people that Colel Chabad helps across the country are not Jewish, with the organization providing food to Christians and Muslims as well.

Alongside food, assisting widows and orphans is one of the organization’s most significant operations. A terrible reality in Israel is that with terrorist attacks happening frequently, a new wave of orphans comes to be. What Colel Chabad has found is that if it can ensure that an orphan graduates high school and completes his/her army service, the likelihood of his/her being successful increases substantially. To do this, the organization provides a plethora of services such as paid-for vacations, therapy, horseback riding and emotional support. It likewise provides support for single mothers.

For young couples who are unable to pay for a proper wedding, the organization has two massive wedding halls, in different parts of the country, that offer subsidized events. For example, the Gutnick Wedding Hall in Jerusalem’s Har Nof allows couples to pay NIS 48 per person, including a three-course meal, staff and all. If one of the pair is an orphan, the organization will cover 50% of the cost. If both are orphans, then it is paid for in full.

The chairman of Colel Chabad is Rabbi Sholom Duchman, who was appointed by the last Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Since Duchman took over the organization 45 years ago, it has increased its operations substantially, becoming a staple part of Israeli society.

“It is just incredible to see how the organization mirrors the amazing miracles we are living in… with the blessing and vision of the Rebbe [Schneerson], the organization has climbed to miraculous levels,” said Duchman.

This year, the organization began an initiative with the Social Affairs Ministry, providing 3,155 mothers with free baby food. This is paired with the 15 daycare centers providing free care to thousands of children every day. All of this is paid for by Colel Chabad and the government.

Duchman is especially grateful for the government’s support, which enables Colel Chabad to create a “revolution, providing thousands of meals every day, tens of thousands of pantry items per month.... We should be blessed to always have them as a partner.”

More than anything, Duchman speaks humbly of Colel Chabad’s impact. The organization’s growth and impact are truly unbelievable, and yet its accomplishments increase every year.

LUXENBERG, WHO sponsored the Old City building and continues to contribute to its operation in significant ways, tells the story of how it came to be. 

“My connection to Chabad goes back decades, especially Colel Chabad, as it has historically done amazing social services work... the soup kitchens, wedding halls – that really spoke to me because it’s a kind of grassroots charity,” he says.

He goes on to explain that he contributed yearly to the organization, though was not heavily involved. It was not until one of his multiple-times-per-year spiritual trips to Israel that Rabbi Duchman’s vision for a soup kitchen overlooking the Western Wall would find its match.

“I was at the Kotel at 1 a.m. when Rabbi Duchman came to me. I asked him why he was there so late, and he said to meet me. I was confused. He asked me to turn around and look at a beat-up food and lodging center for the poor. He told me he wanted to open a soup kitchen, and that he wanted me to sponsor it. Moreover, he told me it would change my life.”

He continues, “I thought about it for a minute, and something about the project really spoke to me, so I agreed. And we built the most amazing place.”

The location is arguably the most prime real estate in the world today. Directly overlooking the Western Wall, it has a front-row seat to the most sought-after spiritual place in the world.

“We gave the neediest people in the world the best view in the world… it is something phenomenal,” says Luxenberg.

He speaks of times he would return to Israel by himself and sit among the needy, not revealing who he was, just taking in what he had helped to build.

“I saw a lot of regulars and became friendly with some, but I was confused because not everyone looked poor, so I asked one of the regulars about this. What he told me changed my perspective. He said that the center is ‘not just for poor people, it’s for needy people.’”

The man explained to Luxenberg that we take for granted things like shelter or having family or friends to enjoy a meal with. “These people have nowhere to go,” the man said.

In addition to the soup kitchens, Luxenberg has dedicated a wedding hall through the organization, which he sees as one of the greatest acts of hessed (kindness). And his brother has opened up many daycare centers across the country, which are ensuring that parents have peace of mind while working to provide for their families, and ensuring that children are in good hands in a nice, Jewish environment.

In all, says Luxenberg, his participation in building up the soup kitchen “has really changed my life. My involvement, doing it with Rabbi Duchman, it has been unbelievable.”

Colel Chabad’s CEO, Rabbi Mendy Blau, speaks with enthusiasm about those, like Luxenberg, who are contributing to the success of the organization. 

Individuals from across the world see the immense value in helping. Men, women and children of all ages and observance are preparing food and tending to the needs of the people in the country.

Israeli television star Guy Lerer, after COVID stimulus money was distributed, called on those who did not need the cash to give it to charity. After collecting close to NIS 14 million, he was unsure about what to do with the funds. Seeing the incredible work of Colel Chabad, he worked with the organization to put the money to work.

MENACHEM TRAXLER, who runs the Pantry Packers operation in Talpiot – a subsidiary of the Colel Chabad brand – describes the motivating factors for coming to work.

“The Shulhan Aruch teaches us that if someone puts their hand out, you have to help.”

Of course, this is not an easy task, as many of those who come to the facilities are drug addicts or homeless, bringing in their own set of problems. But this does not stop the Colel Chabad workers from helping. “It is directly in the Torah – we are required to help – not just people who are part of Chabad, all of Am Yisrael,” says Traxler.

At the Pantry Packers center, there are volunteers, young and old, helping to pack goods for the needy.

I spoke to one woman, Lauren Barr, in Israel visiting from Teaneck, New Jersey, about her time volunteering. 

“It was so amazing. We came for a wedding, but to be able to give back and do acts of hessed while here is all the better.” Coming with her daughter, she got to show her firsthand the power of giving back.

I asked Traxler about what message he hopes people can take away from Colel Chabad’s work.

“Every person has the power to give. Even putting a coin in tzedakah box has the same impact… Giving what you can is enough to fulfill the mitzvah [of tzedakah]... and recognizing that your neighbor needs help and won’t be eating. It takes empathy to stop and say they need help and that you can help. Usually, it’s the last person you would think who needs, but there is always someone who needs your help.

“We say that we would be the happiest people in the world if we had to close operations,” he continues. “But until God... ends poverty, we will be there to help – we need to help.” 

I thought about this as I left. Having watched the way Menachem talks about giving and seeing him in command, one may call it hopeless devotion; except it’s not. He’s devoted, yes, but it's anything but hopeless. It’s rooted in a deeply held faith that his work will lead to a better, more just day. A day when the selfless work he engages in on a daily basis is no longer needed.

So I asked him, “What would you do if you weren’t needed anymore? What would you do if poverty miraculously ended?”

“I’d find somewhere else to help.” ❖