NGOs battle rising demand to distribute Pessah parcels

"We have nine children and my husband studies at a kollel full-time. Anything extra is really a big help."

charity sukkot 88 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
charity sukkot 88 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
With three days to go before Pessah begins, the Jerusalem branch of soup kitchen charity Hazon Yeshaya is buzzing with activity. As well as the regulars who have come here to receive their one main meal of the day, many more "customers" have arrived in search of a little extra help for the forthcoming festival. "I came from Gush Etzion to get my teeth checked at the free dental clinic here, and the manager told me to stick around because perhaps there would be an extra food parcel for me," said one woman, who preferred not to be named. In recent years, she continued, her family's financial situation has grown worse. Even though she works part time for the welfare department in Gush Etzion, "it's very difficult to make ends meet," she told The Jerusalem Post. "We have nine children and my husband studies at a kollel full-time," she said. "Anything extra is really a big help." Over the past three days, Hazon Yeshaya has distributed packages that include matzot, wine, chicken, dried meats and other dry goods to more than 20,000 families countrywide and will continue to make sure that the country's weakest and poorest people are being fed throughout the festival. "We continue to operate throughout Pessah," maintains Abraham Israel, the non-profit's founder and chairman, adding that overnight Wednesday, additional volunteers would join his regular team of helpers to kosher the kitchen for the holiday. "We are planning several Seders countrywide for around 2,000 people," he continued. "Many who usually go to other soup kitchens will come to us, instead." However, Israel, who has been running his soup kitchen for more than 10 years, is worried this year. The falling value of the dollar coupled with a worldwide increase in the cost of certain food staples and the continual growth in needy people locally "has been a disaster for us," he said. According to a report released this week by humanitarian aid organization Latet, there has been a 17.5 percent increase in the number of people needing food assistance ahead of Pessah, with more than half the charities involved in food distribution being forced to decrease the size of their packages. "We have more recipients than ever before," confirmed Israel. "But how can we send people away? When a classroom [of students] is full, it doesn't kill them to turn someone away, but it's impossible to tell a person that he cannot have food." Back in the hallway where the food parcels are about to be distributed, clusters of elderly people wait patiently - seemingly happy for the company - for their food parcel. Most of these men and women are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who arrived in Israel in the past 15 years. "We don't get pensions [from our former countries], even though we really suffered during the [second] world war," explained Shifry Pala, 76, formerly from Ukraine. "I come here every month, but this time I will get food for the Seder." She said that together with her husband, the couple receives only NIS 3,200 a month from the state out of which they must pay rent, utility bills, as well as food and medicines. "About 80% of the people who come here are pensioners from the FSU," said Svetlana, a Hazon Yeshaya staff member who is responsible for checking people's eligibility to receive food. "They can't work, so social services send them to us." In her job for more than six years, Svetlana also said that this year, she has noticed an increase in the number of requests. "It's very hard to hear their stories," she said, inspecting an older man's ID card and checking it off with a printed list in front of her. "In the last few months everything has gone up in price except for the state benefits, which either stay the same or diminish." Less than a month ago, the Welfare and Social Services Ministry announced plans for a comprehensive plan to tackle poverty, including streamlining the non-profit sector; increasing the government budget from NIS 30 million to NIS 50m. to provide additional support to NGOs; and establishing a public committee to coordinate government and NGO activities in the field of food distribution.