Pa'amonim NGO helps families escape the overdraft trap
"Ignorance costs if you don't know where to buy and how to save. I only wish we could have met Pa'amonim earlier. That would have saved us many troubles."
By SHELLY PAZ
They had lived with a bank overdraft of tens of thousands of shekels for years and even faced eviction. Then the family of four from Jerusalem received help from volunteers from the Pa'amonim NGO and managed to break out of the cycle of debt.
"Ignorance costs if you don't know where to buy and how to save. I only wish we could have met Pa'amonim earlier. That would have saved us many troubles," says H., the mother of the family.
H.'s family lives off of a single salary; Pa'amonim helped to balance their finances. "They have opened our eyes to a lot of things we weren't aware of. First, they asked us to arrange all the bills: electricity, gas, telephones etc. I'm not an organized person but they taught us how to get copies of our bills, how to file everything so we can keep track with our expenses.
"They helped us budget our expenses, get rid of standing orders we had forgotten we took upon ourselves, and all of a sudden we were saving thousands of shekels a month.
"Pa'amonim helps you to get back to a normal financial situation, to get a better deal from the phone companies or the bank, to buy cheap or to save when you are shopping for food," says H.
Pa'amonim has already saved 4,000 families from the common Israeli fate of "living on the overdraft." The organization's 600 volunteers currently coaches 2,000 families across the country to be smarter consumers and to be aware of every "small" financial obligation they take on.
Pa'amonim grew out of an effort by three young religious people - two haredim from Bnei Brak and a modern Orthodox man from Beit El - to help a single family 10 years ago.
It was only in 2002, when their "business" became busy, that they registered as a nonprofit association and started to raise money to help the thousands of families who are stuck in the cycle of debt and poverty.
"We never thought it would come to this. In the beginning, we were only trying to help a 22-year-old widow whose drug-addict husband died from an overdose and left her with debts and no income," says Uriel Ledberg, 33, one of the founders of Pa'amonim, a father of four and the general manager of an ulpana (religious girls' high school) in Beit El.
Ledberg remembers the phone call asking for help he received 10 years ago from Bnei Brak hassidim Ya'acov Ya'acobovitz, 33, and Ya'acov Friedman, 38, both teachers.
"We saw great distress there so we decided we all should chip in from our funds. But four months later, things went back to the way they were and the family was still in the same bad situation. We asked the mother where all the money went, and apparently she had felt she needed to compensate her children and herself for the bad times.
"We sat and considered how to solve the problem at its roots. We turned to people we know in the Housing and Construction Ministry who managed to find her and her children a better place to live. We called the National Insurance Institute and asked them to reduce her contributions due to her bad situation.
"We contacted her bank manager, who agreed to give her a better payment arrangement for her debts. We spoke to a lawyer we know who agreed to help her, and through the Labor Ministry we managed to have her complete 12 years of education and acquire a profession," says Ledberg.
When the family's situation improved, all the people who had contributed to their success asked Ledberg, Ya'acobovitz and Friedman to help other families they knew who were in financial distress.
"The word literally spread by word of mouth and before we knew it, we had hundreds of families who needed guidance, help and a push to get out of the poverty cycle," says Ledberg.
Nowadays, more that 60 percent of the families Pa'amonim assists are secular, he says. "It makes no difference to us. Here we have people who wear crocheted kippot, black kippot and heavenly kippot [none at all]. All are welcome, but we do make an effort to match each family with a volunteer who comes from the same sector in society," he says.
The organization's 35 branches are divided into four districts; North, South, Sharon-Samaria and Jerusalem-Tel Aviv. Most are based in volunteers' homes. The 600 volunteers comprise lawyers, economists, bankers, social workers and other concerned people.
Yitzhak Lamdan, 57, a yeshiva student and a father of five, is in charge of the Jerusalem branch. He heard about Pa'amonim from a relative who heads its northern district and decided to join the effort a year ago.
"The training was given in Jerusalem. They asked who wanted to jump into the water, so I agreed. We went through professional and personal training to be able to help others. Since the work carries sensitive responsibilities, because you have to get into the personal business of a family you don't know, you have to acquire some skills and learn how you can help them," says Lamdan.
"Each family we assist has to have a sincere desire to leave their bad financial habits behind. Most families we helped simply didn't know how to budget their incomes. Most of the time, their expenses are out of control. It is always uncertain how they will welcome us and sometimes there are families who keep information from us, like foreclosure notices, because they are embarrassed, and then the help cannot be effective," Lamdan says.
The process lasts at least six months. In one case, Lamdan put a family with five children and another on the way in touch with an organization that supplies the basic needs of babies for the first year of their lives in an effort to prevent abortions. "You really have to be creative," he says.
"Most families also have bad mortgages on their houses and we help them to get a better one with a low interest rate, non-dollar ones that can save NIS 1,500-2,000 a month," Lamdan adds.
The changes implemented by the Bank of Israel in July requiring that each account holder enter into an agreement with his or her bank spelling out credit limits and interest on overdrafts didn't lead to significant increase in the number of financially distressed families, Ledberg says.
"Actually, Channel 2's TV show Mishpaha Horeget brought us more families, who became aware of their financial conduct while the new law didn't change much. People just got a better credit limit from the bank or from the credit card companies," he says.
Many say Pa'amonim is supplying a service that should be provided by the state.
"I don't wake up in the morning asking myself what the government should do, but rather what I can do. I am sure there are many people who devote themselves to helping others in the government offices, but I do what I can," Ledberg says.
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