Working together to stay afloat financially

A low-income community builds a model to help themselves.

co op 248 (photo credit: Maya Spitzer)
co op 248
(photo credit: Maya Spitzer)
It's a weekday morning in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Menahem and people are beginning to line up outside the small warehouse, waiting for it to open. A scarf-clad woman clutching a shopping bag pushes her head in the door to see if it's time yet, but Liat, the manager, tells her to wait a few more minutes until they finish stacking the shelves. Cleaned and ready for Pessah, the warehouse's internal appearance is not so different from the mini-market just a few meters down the street - a small cashier's desk is flanked with piles of red plastic shopping baskets and the shelves are neatly lined with a wide variety of edible and non-edible goods, each clearly labeled with hand-written price tags. In fact, the only indication to the nature of this place's true business is the sign outside that reads "Ganim Community Co-op." Set in one of the capital's lowest socioeconomic areas, the Ganim Community Co-op is less of a shopping experience, and more a united social action effort aimed toward helping some of the community's weakest and neediest individuals help themselves toward a bit more comfort. Paying only NIS 6 a month to join the cooperative, some 800 local families already share their growing economic burdens by buying basic food and household staples in bulk straight from the suppliers - therefore lowering prices - and reselling them without a profit. Members of the coop also volunteer in a variety of ways including stacking the shelves, ordering the food and collecting the money, as well as helping to run the "Right's Store" at the co-op that helps people understand social rights and benefits. Based on a model in the US, the Food Co-op and Right's Store - both of which are partially funded by the UJA Federation of New York and supported by the nonprofit organization Community Advocacy - are concepts that are growing in demand due to the current recession. Five other centers are already in operation country-wide, with another expected to open in Lod in the coming months. Community Advocacy's Barbara Epstein believes that the economic situation is likely to attract many more people, some even from more middle-class backgrounds. "It's a one-stop shop," explains Liat Dagan, the co-op's manager and an employee of Community Advocacy, as she pulls back the white metal doors to open the warehouse for another day's business. People enter, enthusiastically pulling the items they need from the shelves and filling their baskets. Within minutes a line has formed at the checkout and "customers" chat to one another happily as Varda Attias, a co-op member and the volunteer in charge of running the finances, informs them how much they owe. "The people here decided a few years ago that some basic things were lacking in our community and we wanted to do more to help each other out," recalls Attias of the co-op's roots. "The prices in the store are very, very low and we make no profits here at all. Everyone who works here either stacking shelves or operating the cash register are volunteers." "The co-op has a dual function," says Dagan, who is the only salaried employee. "It aims to both strengthen the community's spirit and to help people save money." However, for Leah Dorfman, a veteran immigrant from Ukraine, the Food Co-op and Right's Store is much, much more. "We are like a family," says the 48-year-old single mother of five, who describes her standard of living as below the poverty line. "I'm the kind of person who likes being around others and whenever I go into the co-op I am greeted with warm smiles." "Anyone can join our co-op, whether they are on welfare or not, and that is what makes our neighborhood so special." According to Dorfman, who works part-time as a care giver for the elderly, the co-op has not only improved her difficult financial situation, it has also helped her to make sense of her minimal finances. "I used to have a permanent debt at the mini-market, but, now, thanks to the lower prices at the co-op, I have managed to wipe it out completely," she says, adding, "I do receive food baskets from Yad Ezra VeShulamit [a food aid distribution organization for low income families] but it's usually only enough to last the weekend. Through the co-op, I can buy the additional things without stretching myself too much." For Dorfman and the others who use the co-op's services, the economic crisis has had little impact. "Of course the number of people wanting to join the co-op has increased in recent months," says Community Advocacy's Epstein. "But really it is not the lower income populations who are feeling the pressure of the recession, but more middle-class people. I think this situation will be a real challenge for those who were doing okay before the recession, because they are not used to asking for help and it's almost embarrassing for them to come to a place like this." "There are people who live on the edges of these low income neighborhoods who are starting to come to us for help, they have no choice." Benzion Binyamin, who works as a night clerk in a Jerusalem hotel, is one such client. He does not live in the Kiryat Menahem neighborhood but in nearby Ir Ganim, which is considered marginally stronger by the government's socioeconomic scale. "Where I live people are a little better off," he says, packing up his purchases. "But people, even the wealthy, are always looking for ways to save money." Binyamin observes that the recession has not really changed the economic reality for many of the people in the co-op's immediate vicinity, because they already had little to lose. "On a macro level, however, I can see that the recession is really hurting lots of people," he says. "This neighborhood is not a very wealthy one and most who live here struggle to make ends meet. The co-op really helps them to save money." "I have noticed a slight change because of the economic situation," adds Dorfman. "But I was struggling even before the recession and now things are a little bit harder." Despite her obvious hardships, Dorfman says she is still hopeful that this Pessah she'll be able to put together a Seder meal for her family. "It won't be amazing, of course, but with all this help, it should be enough for me to fulfill all the mitzvot," she says.