Warming the needy is a full-time job

Non-profit organization works hand in hand with IEC to help as many as 2,000 families pay their electricity bills.

poor man rain 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
poor man rain 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Last winter, just days before her daughter's fourth birthday, Sara Spiegel had her electricity cut off after months of struggling to pay the bill. "It was freezing," recalls the 42-year-old, who moved here from the US 17 years ago. She asked that her real name not be used. "People do not realize that Jerusalem can get really cold in the winter. The buildings are old, made of stone and the homes are incredibly hard to heat." The mother of four, who has been out of work for years due to ill health, was forced to throw an electric cable out the window of her Neveh Yaakov apartment into a neighbor's home just to keep the refrigerator and oven working. "There are many organizations out there helping people with food staples, but none of them pay the rent or the utilities and that's the hardest thing," observes Sara, whose husband's painting and decorating business fell apart following the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000. Not long after having her electricity switched back on, Sara heard about a project that helped the country's neediest families with the cost of running electric heaters throughout the cold winter months. Warm the Needy (www.warmtheneedy.org), the brainchild of New York native Hershel Puretz, works hand in hand with the Israel Electric Company to help as many as 2,000 families pay their electricity bills. The non-profit organization, which was established in 2004, also provides them with vouchers to purchase electric, oil-filled heaters. "When we first started Warm the Needy, we did not realize the magnitude of the problem," notes Puretz, who obtained initial funding from an anonymous wealthy European Jew and now relies on donations from synagogues, Jewish day schools and individuals in the US to facilitate the $200,000 it lays out annually. "We quickly found that there were literately thousands of families living nationwide without any heating at all." At first, Warm the Needy - which is registered as a non-profit in the US only - offered the families assistance in purchasing the heaters. But after a while Puretz realized that those who had received the heaters were not actually turning them on. "They were leaving them in the boxes because they couldn't afford their electricity bills," he says, adding that he then turned to the Israel Electric Company for help. According to figures from the state-run company, an average year in the capital alone sees more than 7,000 families' electricity turned off when they fail to the bills. "Every day, we hear hard-hitting stories from customers who cannot pay their bills," comments Avi Pedro, Director of the Collection Department for Jerusalem. "Obviously, our main aim is to supply electricity, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the problems that we are constantly confronted with. We really try our best to help people as much as possible." Working together with Puretz, the IEC created a sophisticated software program that allows the non-profit organization access to the electric company's mainframe computer in order to credit the accounts of families and individuals approved to receive assistance from Warm the Needy. Puretz says his "customers" are referred to him in a number of ways, including recommendations from the IEC itself, as well as via the Welfare and Social Services Ministry and other social welfare organizations. Hundreds of requests for help arrive each week. Puretz recalls one particularly difficult situation in which an entire family had been living in the cold and dark for more than a week before his initiative stepped in to help them. He also talks of another, more recent case where an eight-month-old baby was hospitalized with pneumonia. "The doctor recommended that the family turn up the heat at home to keep the baby warm," he recalls. "But the family explained they couldn't afford to run the heating. Even though I hear stories like this every day, I am still always shocked by the situations that people are living in here."