Poverty - How many potatoes does it take to feed Israel’s hungry children?

Yad Ezra v’Shulamit is one of the largest food distribution organizations in Israel. Yet, even with its Herculean efforts they reach only a quarter of those in need.

Army food volunteers pack food baskets (photo credit: Courtesy)
Army food volunteers pack food baskets
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel has more children living under the poverty line than Mexico has.
Let that fact sink in for a moment.
Tefilla Buxbaum, the English-language spokeswoman for Israel’s Yad Ezra v’Shulamit, told the Magazine that when she shares that statistic, people simply don’t believe her. Yet, according to Buxbaum, for a third of Israel’s children, approximately 800,000 of them, hunger is a daily challenge.
Yad Ezra v’Shulamit is one of the largest food distribution organizations in Israel. Yet, even with its Herculean efforts, combined with the efforts of other food distribution organizations such as Colel Chabad, they reach only a quarter of those in need.
Yad Ezra v’Shulamit’s founder and director is Aryeh Lurie. Known to his staff as Rav Aryeh, Lurie grew up in a poor family in Jerusalem and knows firsthand what it’s like to be a hungry child.
“Rav Aryeh says that the main thing he learned from his parents, growing up in poverty and hungry, is to care,” Buxbaum reported. His mother would give him the first bowl of a dish she prepared and send him to take it to the neighbors who had even less. “The whole organization is revenge against poverty,” she noted.
The organization, named for Lurie’s parents, began in 1998, after he realized that his private efforts were no match for the need. Unable to feed the numbers of hungry children coming to him for help, he created Yad Ezra v’Shulamit. Today, the organization feeds 180,000 people a year in 47 cities in Israel.
Lurie is a hands-on director who has clearly earned the respect of his staff. They described him as willing to “deliver food, work the forklift.” He “is directly in touch with anyone who requests aid. He is the heart and soul of the company. [He] is determined to do whatever it takes to relieve others of the pangs of hunger and the shame of poverty that he experienced growing up.”
The entire organization is focused on the hungry child in Israel. Lurie calls children “the poorest in the world” because they can’t provide food for themselves. They can’t just go to a soup kitchen.
Yad Ezra v’Shulamit’s founder and director Aryeh Lurie (Photo Credit: Courtesy)Yad Ezra v’Shulamit’s founder and director Aryeh Lurie (Photo Credit: Courtesy)
One of the organization’s first services was a children’s center in Jerusalem that provided a hot meal for hungry children after school and also gave them sandwiches, one for dinner and one for breakfast.
In addition to food support, early on, the organization hired people to help the children do their homework. That secondary mission, to even the playing field, helping to raise children out of poverty by helping them succeed in school, remains an important goal.
One day, a young girl came into the children’s center in the middle of winter wearing socks and sandals. That was the impetus for Lurie to start giving out boots and clothes to the children he was already feeding.
Today, besides food baskets, hot meals, winter clothes and boots, and help with homework, Yad Ezra v’Shulamit hands out new bookbags and supplies at the start of the school year and even offers assistance to children with special needs.
When Lurie learned that some parents were diluting baby formula to make it last longer, he started distributing baby food, formula and diapers.
“He develops programs as the needs arise,” Buxbaum explained.
Believing that it’s a short road from poverty and low self-esteem to the streets, Yad Ezra v’Shulamit gives out only new merchandise.
“The most important thing is to preserve the dignity of a kid. More than what you give is how you give it,” she commented.
More than five years ago, Yad Ezra v’Shulamit opened a job desk, staffed by a part-time social worker who helps place individuals in jobs. Currently, the job desk is able to help about 50 people a year, mostly the unskilled, find employment.
“With more money, we could hire more social workers,” noted Buxbaum.
Indicating that widows are the hardest hit by poverty, Buxbaum shared that Yad Ezra v’Shulamit provides food vouchers for 200 widows each month. And in 2019, 5,000 tons of food were distributed throughout Israel, some on a weekly basis and some before major holidays.
Yad Ezra v’Shulamit’s annual budget is around NIS 100 million, which includes NIS 60m. of in-kind donations, such as potatoes and other vegetables. Yad Ezra v’Shulamit gets more than any other organization from Leket Israel, the National Food Bank.

HOW DO all these services get paid for? “It’s a miracle every month,” Buxbaum said. Most of the funding, about 80%, comes from Israel.
Only 20% of the donations come from America, clearly a source of frustration. Yad Ezra v’Shulamit gets some private donations, but Buxbaum explained that it’s hard for the organization to get foundation and federation money. “Federations don’t want to give to food [organizations], because the need doesn’t end. Their focus is not on feeding hungry Israelis.”
In an ordinary month, Yad Ezra v’Shulamit prepares 10,000 food baskets with chicken, fish, halla, rice, veggies, canned goods and fruits, and delivers them each week on Thursdays. Requests easily quadruple or more before Passover. Between food baskets and vouchers, “we try to give as much as we can to everyone,” Buxbaum elaborated.
The coronavirus crisis has stretched the organization’s resources even thinner. “The Israeli government has authorized us as an ‘essential service’ during this crisis period, which means we deliver food to the poor even when the country is in full shutdown. The government requested that we stay open, saying “We need you to get food to poor people.”
“It’s significant that the government chose food organizations to get food to poor people. That’s huge,” Buxbaum said.
The countrywide coronavirus shutdown hit Yad Ezra v’Shulamit’s clients, who already live hand to mouth, exceptionally hard. With schools closed, children are home all day and there is no food. Even those who applied for unemployment due to lost jobs have had to wait at least 20 days to get money from the National Insurance Institute. More people in need, coupled with the extra distributions for Passover, add pressure to an already heavily taxed system.
In addition, with zero tourists from abroad, volunteers to help in the food packing warehouse in Givat Shaul are needed more than ever.
On the bright side, food insecurity in Israel is solvable. Buxbaum said, “The issue is distribution. There is plenty of food, but it’s not making it to the poor.” She also said that the poor in Israel are undernourished, but that people don’t die from hunger in Israel, in part thanks to organizations like Yad Ezra v’Shulamit.
Still, Buxbaum is frustrated by the extent to which food insecurity is invisible to most people. “It’s hard to get through to the public. People have goodwill. A Jewish heart is a Jewish heart. Every single Jewish person would give a hungry child food, but people are not aware that this issue exists.”
“No one believes me. Everyone is denying how bad the problem is, and they are not dealing with it. The priorities in tzedaka [charity] are messed up. The real mitzvah of tzedaka, the first priority, is widows and poor people. Tzedaka money is going to everything but food,” she expressed.
“You can’t ignore the people who are in need now. It’s an uphill battle. We can’t do anything unless the world supports us. Whatever people give us, we give away.
I personally think food should be the priority,” Buxbaum concluded.