A slick operator from a shady company convinces a single mother to sign a contract in Hebrew and to hand over her credit card number. Yet the woman does not read Hebrew. Then there is the 70-year-old woman who wants cosmetic work done on her face. She signs a contract for treatments that cost 3,000 shekels but two days later, before she begins, she tries to cancel the deal; the “clinic” refuses to return her money One low-income, completely disabled couple receives a rental subsidy. The couple’s subsidy is cut off after the income tax department mistakenly claims the husband owns an apartment in another city. Eviction is imminent.
Every winter, an 85-year old widow puts pails in each room of her home to catch the water dripping from two balconies above her ceilings. The neighbors stubbornly refuse to repair the insulation in their balconies.
Real-life dilemmas like these were dealt with, successfully, by staff working at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau known as SHIL (Sherut Yeutz Laezrah) in Jerusalem and local Offices for the Exercise of Social Rights (Mitzui Zchuyot). One problem took a month to solve, others up to three years, with dedicated volunteer staffers who never gave up.
SHIL bureaus are found in more than 70 cities and local authorities in Israel. Their staff offers residents absolutely free advice on, and assistance with, issues that cover every aspect of life: employment, neighborhood squabbles, scams, guardianship, the National Insurance Institute (Bituah Leumi), banks, taxes, consumer concerns, rights to fiscal benefits of every conceivable kind, never-ending bureaucratic snafus and debts – often for deals so old that people don’t remember making them. Many of the agencies’ most recent clients have questions or problems related to the coronavirus. All of the agencies are supported by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry in conjunction with local authorities.
Established nearly 25 years ago, Jerusalem SHIL was the first citizens’ advice bureau in the city and is located in the municipality building. In addition, over the past 15 years, the Jerusalem Municipality has been steadily increasing services focused on residents’ rights, and today the city boasts 14 rights offices – more than any other city or authority in Israel. The difference between SHIL and the local rights offices in Jerusalem is not merely semantic or geographic; offices other than SHIL sometimes have close ties to local welfare departments.
Often, just a phone call or simple assistance can suffice. That’s what happened with the Jerusalemite whose balcony was right next to an open field full of tall, dry brush. Worried about the possibility of a fire that could spread to her home, she contacted SHIL. Within a week the brush had been cut down and most of it removed.
In an effort to make information on rights and laws relating to daily life in this country accessible to all sectors of the city Jerusalem SHIL and other rights office directors organize workshops, lectures (to the public as well as to various social and community workers), and call-in chats. More recently, they are promoting digital information through cellphone messages and on Facebook.
Zoom programs are seen by large portions of the population: One Zoom offering concerning Bituah Leumi was viewed by more than 7,000 people. Other popular subjects featured salary slips, and labor laws pertaining to women. Ultra-Orthodox clients without computers and only so-called “kosher” phones get important information about their rights in neighborhood pamphlets.
SHIL bureaus around the country are generally staffed by one director and a bevy of volunteers (most of them, including myself, senior citizens) who listen with a sympathetic ear, and offer advice and information on the phone. When necessary, they help write letters, fill out forms, acquire documents and contact relevant officials. Sometimes they meet with clients face to face (pre-corona of course), and follow their clients throughout the problem-solving process no matter how long it takes. Many agencies offer legal advice as well.
SHIL bureaus and Rights Agencies aim to provide professional and sympathetic service with as little bureaucracy as humanly possible. Clients come from all walks of life, and the door (virtual these days) is open to everyone.
It was open for “M,” recently divorced, who did not know that she needed to change her marital status at the Interior Ministry in order to apply for financial aid when her ex-husband refused to pay child support. And with corona afoot, the ministry, of course, was closed. A volunteer from the rights office in west Jerusalem helped her with forms off the Internet. With the volunteer’s assistance, M not only got the financial assistance she needed but began studies that she hopes will lead to a job.
A volunteer in the northern office heard about an elderly Holocaust survivor with dementia who was barely subsisting on a pitiful monthly allowance. Working in conjunction with the agency’s lawyer – a volunteer who deals specifically with survivor issues – she managed to acquire an additional payment.
QUITE A number of elderly people who were employed until the pandemic hit have been fired or sent home on “leave without pay” (called halat in Hebrew). While they are ineligible for unemployment benefits because of their age, there is a corona grant that is available to many senior citizens who have lost their income.
But they don’t always know about the grant, so volunteers at the southern Jerusalem rights office inserted the relevant information into food packages that community workers bring to the homes of elderly residents. Dozens of out-of-work elders who subsequently contacted the office and were eligible for the grant, applied for, and now receive monthly payments.
Last year, a professional oboe player immigrated to Israel from Australia and settled in northern Jerusalem. He had amassed only a small number of private students before corona hit, and his income had been so minute that he wasn’t recognized as self-employed with the right to receive unemployment benefits. The volunteer working with him was able to help him obtain a monthly “income security” (havtahat hachnasa) benefit, and once he had that, he became eligible for help with his rent.
Special obstacles keep residents of east Jerusalem from knowing their rights, or exercising them even when they do. Many don’t understand Hebrew, and even websites that offer information in Arabic turn into Hebrew as soon as you click on a form. In addition, Jerusalem Arabs often work for relatives or have jobs with employers that do not give them pay slips. Unaware of their rights to income security or other Bituah Leumi benefits, unemployment payments, rent subsidies and so on, they may plunge into debt.
Three-and-a-half years ago the city opened three east Jerusalem rights agencies, geared specifically towards the Arab population. Headed by a community social worker, six employees and 15 volunteers (including several lawyers), they have separate quarters inside welfare offices in areas of the city heavily populated by Arab residents. East Jerusalem bureaus help 2,000 families each year; half referred by the welfare offices and the other half people who turn to the bureaus on their own.
One of them was a woman with two children, one of whom is disabled, and whose husband was unemployed. The woman banged her head while cleaning the house and little by little went completely blind. Not knowing that there are allotments for personal injuries (and disabled children) and very low-income families, she struggled terribly for over a year until someone suggested she turn to her neighborhood rights bureau for help.
Staff at one of the area offices helped her apply for benefits by acquiring the medical documents she needed, filling out forms, and ascertaining when the committee at Bituach Leumi would be meeting about her case (east Jerusalemites, for some reason, are never informed of the date). In addition to receiving desperately needed financial assistance, she and her husband are currently being trained for employment.
No less important are the efforts made to disperse information to the Arabic-speaking population by holding 80 lectures each year that are taped and uploaded onto the Internet and Facebook groups such as “Ask Jerusalem” with thousands of followers.
Altogether there are over 100 volunteers in the Jerusalem rights agencies, generally specialists in the different relevant fields. We remain at work (yes, we volunteers call it “going to work”), aware that we are part of a very special family. We love the encouragement we get from our directors, the enrichment courses in which we participate, and most of all, that great feeling you get when you know you are making a difference.
Not every problem gets solved to the client’s satisfaction, of course, and some are never solved. Yet clients often praise our efforts even when things haven’t worked out. And our volunteers are tireless. Indeed, as one of the volunteers repeatedly declares: “We may find time to make coffee, but rarely have time to drink it!” Contact Jerusalem SHIL at (02) 629-7221, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. To find rights offices in your neighborhood and around the country call the welfare department at 118, where a real human voice will answer the phone!