Beersheba’s Yad Sarah spreads its wings

The charity’s drab, old corrugated metal building near Soroka Hospital occupied 300 cramped meters plus. Its elegant new Jusidman Center extends over 3,800 meters.

Yad Sarah building Beersheba 311 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
Yad Sarah building Beersheba 311
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
It’s hard to tell which of the Yad Sarah volunteers will appreciate their new quarters the most when the Beersheba branch of the venerable aid-to-the-ailing charity moves into its huge new building just after Succot.
The men who check in returned equipment will surely be delighted. Today, in a space smaller than a standard bedroom, dozens of wheelchairs vie for space with stacks of walkers, crutches, canes and all manner of sickroom equipment. So tight are the quarters that two volunteers can hardly get into the room at the same time.
The volunteers who daily staff the lending desks will be ecstatic. In the old building, four or five volunteers sit behind student desks in a small, extraordinarily crowded room. As lines of people queue up in front, waiting their turn, the volunteers struggle to hear over the din of everything else going on.
In the spacious new quarters, in a room at least 10 times bigger, not only will peace prevail, but so will privacy – a precious commodity not available before at all. No longer will people with personal or intimate questions have to express their needs in front of everyone.
Michael Benson, Beersheba’s Yad Sarah volunteer director, will be thrilled. In the old quarters, Benson theoretically had a tiny office of his own – but when other volunteers needed quiet for telephone calls, or when volunteer lawyers came to meet with advice-seekers, Benson ceded his own office and set out to find somewhere else to sit. With 180 volunteers to oversee and a dozen-plus programs to administer, he admits it wasn’t always easy.
“Sometimes there were so many people in the building there just wasn’t anywhere for me to go,” he recalls. “That’s why now, when people tease me, saying that after the move I won’t know what to do with all that space, I laugh. Believe me, I know exactly what I’m going to do with all that space!” All that space, indeed. The old Yad Sarah, housed in a corrugated metal building near Soroka University Medical Center, occupied 300 cramped square meters. Over time, three caravans were added for additional storage, but still, programs had to be curtailed simply because there was no space to administer them.
The elegant new Yad Sarah building, known as the Jusidman Center, will spread its wings over 3,800 square meters, more than 10 times the elbow room. Now the all-volunteer organization will flow out over three light and airy floors in its expansive new home on Rehov Shaul Hamelech, adjacent to the Beersheba Center for the Blind.
The contrast couldn’t be greater.
Typical of Beersheba’s vintage buildings, the old headquarters sported drab walls, uneven floors with cracked tiles and very few windows. The new Jusidman Center, with vast open spaces filled with sunlight pouring in from windows on all sides, seems like a haven as cream-colored walls, floors and tiles make the expanse seem endless.
That overflowing equipment return area will experience one of the biggest changes. It will now be housed in a room almost big enough to host a soccer match, while conferring an additional benefit: Now, instead of sending damaged equipment to Jerusalem for repair, all that will be done on the spot.
“A large section of the whole first floor will serve as our workshop and all repairs will be made here. We’ll also serve smaller branches in the South. People in outlying areas won’t have to go to Jerusalem any more for specialized equipment.
They can come to Beersheba instead,” Benson notes.
In the new building, it appears that every aspect of Yad Sarah’s function has been accommodated – even a geometrically irregular window at the main entrance reflects the organization’s mission.
“The artistic window is jagged, like a line that’s broken,” Benson says. “Like the line, everyone who comes to Yad Sarah is broken in some way. They need help. That’s why we’re here.”
Walking into the entrance with its soaring ceiling, visitors will approach a curved information desk for directions or general information. Those seeking medical equipment will be directed to the left, where the loan process starts.
“First, they’ll walk through an exhibition hall, a whole room filled with displays of every kind of medical equipment available, from wheelchairs and walkers all the way through our ‘houspital’ – hospital-room-at-home – equipment,” Benson explains. “Volunteers will explain all the different options and help people decide what they need.
“That was one of the first things that struck me when I started working here,” notes Benson, who with all the responsibilities of director is an unpaid volunteer himself.
“I had no idea it was so complicated.
Suppose someone comes in and says they need a wheelchair. It’s not that simple – there are maybe a dozen different kinds of wheelchairs, so the volunteers work to see which is most suited to the patient.
“First, is the person fat or thin? Wheelchairs come in different sizes. Will it be used inside the home or outside, too? The wheels are different. Will the person be in the chair all the time, or getting in and out? The arms are different lengths – some are short, to let the person glide up to a table. Others have longer arms.
“How wide are the doors at home? How long will they be sitting at a time? If it’s for long periods, then we recommend they get a cushion too, to prevent sores. Those are just some of the issues.
“Once the proper equipment is selected, the visitor will move along to the greatly expanded checkout area to complete the paperwork.
“But now we offer much more besides.
We have a large new demonstration kitchen available, so people with certain disabilities can learn how to accomplish basic tasks much more easily.
One example: If you have only one hand, how do you slice a tomato? We show them a board with a nail. Impale the tomato on the nail, and then slice away. There are dozens of such little tricks for all kinds of physical limitations.
Now we’ll be able to demonstrate them all – a big benefit for people who need to adjust to a new physical reality.”
As Benson speaks, it becomes clear that the people who will benefit most from the new Yad Sarah building aren’t the volunteers at all – it’s the people of Beersheba and Israel’s South who are the biggest winners.
National statistics show that at one time or another, one out of every two families come to Yad Sarah for something.
In Beersheba last year, just under 20,000 people passed through that tiny headquarters to borrow a piece of equipment, seek help from a visiting dentist or lawyer, receive visits from outreach workers or participate in some other Yad Sarah program. All were helped by well trained but unpaid community volunteers.
Benson tells a story about meeting with a group of volunteers in Jerusalem along with Yad Sarah’s founder, Uri Lupolianski.
“To get started, he asked each of us to say one good thing about Yad Sarah and one bad thing,” the British-born Benson recalls. “I said something good, then I said, ‘and now I’m going to say something really, really bad about Yad Sarah.’ “The room got awfully quiet. Then I said, ‘Yad Sarah is like a swamp. Once you get in, you can’t get out.’ “Everyone laughed and agreed – that really is what happens. You decide to volunteer for some limited thing, and before you know it, you’ve doing that and several other things besides, putting in much more time than you’d planned.
“Why does that happen? Because Yad Sarah is a place where people are helped.
Everyone who comes has a problem – and as a volunteer, you can help. It makes you feel wonderful. That’s a very powerful thing.”
Buildings aside, the heart of Yad Sarah resides in the volunteers. Every one of them, asked how they’d enjoy working in the spacious new building, responded with some comment on how wonderful it would be, because they’d be able to help so many more people.
Who are these volunteers? “They’re everybody,” Benson says.
“They’re all ages, they’re secular and religious, they come from all ethnic backgrounds, all levels of education and experience, and they speak as many languages as Israel has. Many of them have been dedicated volunteers for decades, like Hannah Horowitz.
“Hannah and her husband both volunteered when they lived in Beersheba.
But as the couple grew older, some of their 11 children wanted them to move to Ofakim, where they could be closer to them and to all the grandchildren. So they moved – but Hannah refused to give up her Yad Sarah work.
“Every week, she rides two buses to get here, works for several hours, then takes two buses back. That’s a Yad Sarah kind of devotion.”
On one recent day in Beersheba, volunteers ranged from 24-year-old Yasmin Simhoni to 90-plus-year-old Eli Goldstein. The Petah Tikva-born Simhoni, a biology student at Ben- Gurion University, is fairly new as a volunteer.
“My job right now is to help the women who give out the medical equipment,” she says. “I work with the computers, too. Why do I do it? I just like being here. It’s good to help other people.
A lot of BGU students come needing equipment, and several also volunteer.
It’s just something I enjoy doing.”
Goldstein is at the other end of the spectrum. A Yad Sarah volunteer for over nine years, he puts in three days a week here, and then volunteers in other organizations on his days off.
Goldstein’s duties include running the medical sales department.
“All the equipment we rent out can be purchased,” he says. “Three months is the normal length of time to borrow something, so if a person needs something longer than that – like a walker – I make the arrangements for them to buy it.”
A genial 74-year-old known to everyone as just Aviezer is nothing short of a one-man mitzva operation. Not only did he establish several of Beersheba’s programs himself, he also volunteers at several other charities, delivering meals to Holocaust survivors, arranging bar mitzva celebrations for orphaned boys, redistributing clothing to the needy and putting together 160 birthday parties – so far – for kids whose birthdays would otherwise be forgotten.
It was Aviezer who created Beersheba’s “Peep-Hole” program at Yad Sarah.
“I noticed one day that many elderly people living alone don’t have peepholes in their front doors,” Aviezer recalls. “When they can’t see who’s at the door, they’re afraid to open it. So I decided I’d install peep-holes for a few people who needed them.
“I went to one of the local hardware suppliers and told him what I needed.
When the dealer heard how many units I wanted to buy, he asked what I was doing. I told him about the problem – and then the dealer insisted that not only would he donate the hardware, but he himself would install them.
“I gave him my list of names, and so far, he’s installed about 40 peep-holes.
He’s gradually working his way through the whole file.”
Another program dear to Aviezer’s heart is the home repair service for the housebound and elderly.
“The original idea was just to make minor repairs in people’s apartments – solving basic electrical problems, putting up a fallen shelf, things like that. To start, I asked one of the municipal social workers for a list of people who needed that sort of help.
“The problem with this kind of program is that it’s such a good deal – even people who have families who could help, or have the ability to pay someone to do the work, were eager to enlist Yad Sarah’s free service; so we quickly learned we had to have a filter, and the social worker seemed to be in the best position to know who really needed help. Now all referrals come through her.”
The program mushroomed. “It was like a dream come true,” Aviezer says.
“Then Teva Tech, part of Ramat Hovav here in the Negev, heard what we were doing and wanted to join us. They’d set their sights much higher. For Holocaust survivors, they’d already completed several A-to-Z apartment redos, which was much more than we at Yad Sarah could have handled on our own. Now Teva Tech works from our lists, too.
“What we do is go to a needy person’s apartment and make a list of everything that needs to be cleaned, repaired or replaced – everything. Then we come back with a team and completely renovate the apartment, whatever it needs – plumbing, electricity, paint, whatever.
We make it fresh, clean and functional.”
Aviezer admits the program results in some emotional scenes. “One apartment was in such a horrible state I can’t even begin to describe it. When we arrived, the elderly man who lived alone just shook his head and said that no, he didn’t want any help. All he wanted to do was die. We went ahead anyway, and when we were all finished – you’d never even recognize the place – the man was just bursting with gratitude. ‘Now all I want to do is live!’ he said.
“The neighbors told us he used to walk around in rags, but afterwards he began to dress properly. Before, his sister refused to visit because it was so awful; now she comes regularly. It changed his whole life. That’s the kind of thing you can’t forget.
“That first visit is always interesting,” Aviezer smiles. “We come in, start making plans and lists, and almost always, the people object. ‘You can’t do this’, they say. ‘I don’t have any money! I can’t pay!’ “So we tell them they don’t need money. They don’t have to pay. It won’t cost them anything. They don’t believe it – not until the job is done, and there’s no bill. Then they believe.”
Others find themselves swept up in the process.
“There was a person living alone, no family, but who’d adopted an autistic boy who’d managed to break just about everything in the house. When the volunteers arrived, the boy said he wanted to help, so we put some overalls on him and found ways to let him help. It was great – he was doing something constructive! “When it was all finished, the volunteers saw that none of the doors had mezuzot, so they bought them. When the boy insisted he wanted to help hang the mezuzot, that was another moment I’ll never forget.”
The only place where Aviezer cries every time, he says, is when he volunteers helping children who have been attacked or abused.
“I’ve been volunteering there for 34 years,” he says. “And every time I go, I cry.”
Why does he do it? Spend such huge amounts of his own time and resources helping others? “It’s my name!” he laughs. Avi means ‘father,’ and ezer means ‘help.’ What else could I do? “Someone once told me I should live to be 120. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I only want to live to 119, because then people will say I died before my time!’” All of these programs grew out of Yad Sarah’s original concept, Benson says.
“If sick people could stay at home instead of being hospitalized, they’d be better off. That started the medical equipment lending program. But then people realized that just having medical equipment wasn’t enough. Sick people needed any number of other things, too.
That’s how all the other programs began.”
The visiting dentist program, for example.
One of Beersheba’s volunteer visiting dentists is “Dr. Hector,” a veteran Argentinean immigrant. As a Yad Sarah volunteer, he spends one afternoon a week visiting homebound people who need dental care.
What work can a visiting dentist do? “We do extractions, we work on dentures and can do some scaling. If someone has a very bad toothache, we provide antibiotics. It’s very satisfying work,” he says.
“Some patients need only simple things, like repairing a denture. But even that helps improve their quality of life.
Being able to chew properly contributes to their overall heath.”
Transportation vans to ferry wheelchair- bound people from one place to another is another offshoot service.
When people are able to remain at home instead of in the hospital, they occasionally need to be taken places. People in wheelchairs don’t fit in regular cars or vans, so Yad Sarah began offering wheelchair transportation.
Last year, almost 6,000 wheelchairbound people in Beersheba were transported in one of Yad Sarah’s buses.
Gilad Kronman is one of the volunteer drivers.
“In Beersheba, we have three buses that are specially equipped with straps and mechanisms to transport people safely in their wheelchairs,” Kronman, an engineer by profession, says. “I drive two regular routes, one on Sunday evening, when I drive five severely handicapped young people to a special school.
“I take the five all at once, all in their wheelchairs. I enjoy it – just being with these kids is a great experience. They’re in their own world, a place inaccessible to us, but when you show them love, you can tell they appreciate it. They can’t express it, but I have no doubt that deep down inside, there is a response from them, some interaction.”
The transportation service isn’t entirely free, but it’s heavily subsidized, Kronman says. It’s available for any wheelchair-bound person who wants to go anywhere, for any reason – not just medical appointments, but also social events like weddings or other family gatherings.
Providing basic legal services is another aspect of Yad Sarah’s outreach.
Volunteer Beersheba lawyer Nathan Berrebi became personally acquainted with Yad Sarah when his grandmother needed an oxygen unit.
“I knew that kind of equipment could be borrowed from Yad Sarah, so I went to the branch to get it – and ended up sitting down with a couple of people. I told them I was a lawyer, and that I’d be happy to provide assistance if there was anything I could do. They took my card, saying they did have lawyers offering legal assistance, and they’d be in touch.
Later, three of them came to my office, and we sat and talked.
“After hearing them describe what they were looking for, I didn’t hesitate.
‘I’m your guy!’ I said. Now I go once a month. There are about six or seven lawyers who volunteer.”
What kinds of legal needs do Yad Sarah clients have? “They aren’t technically clients,” Berrebi says. “They’re visitors who need some kind of legal or even psychological help – sometimes the problem is more of a family issue, and they just need someone to listen and understand. Nothing legal would help.
“But other times, people want a basic will, help getting insurance money, or help in dealing with a landlord-tenant dispute. Most of the time I write letters or contact bureaucrats or agencies on their behalf.
“What’s funny is that if I write a letter to a government agency on my own letterhead, it might take two or three weeks to get a response. If I write the same letter on Yad Sarah letterhead, the answer comes much quicker.
“I think what happens is that when government people see ‘Yad Sarah,’ they instantly know that this is a plea from someone who’s poor, maybe injured, who can’t help themselves. That puts them at the head of the line.”
And if someone comes in with a serious legal problem? “If they need real legal representation, we aren’t the ones who do it. What we do is first aid – but even so, I can’t remember even one person who left me without getting the information he needed. In my private practice I cover most areas of law except criminal – real estate, accidents, torts, insurance. So I’m familiar with most of the issues that come in.”
Have any unusual situations come his way? “One that surprised me,” Berrebi grins.
“A lady came in with her son. From the way they looked, I assumed they were probably quite poor. The lady very quietly asked if I would draw up a will for her, leaving everything to her son. No problem, I said. I assumed she had a small house she lived in, not much more than that.
“I asked for the address, but then she kept giving me more addresses, and still more – by the time she finished, she’d listed about six houses she owned! It was funny – she could have gone to a top lawyer, anywhere at all. But I did her will – it turned out to be three pages, not one, because she had so much property. She was very happy with the whole thing.”
Why would a young lawyer with a busy private practice agree to spend time doing legal work for free? “Volunteering at Yad Sarah gives you a feeling you can’t get any other way: to be able to use your professional skills to help someone else who really needs it.
When I get some government agency to pay an elderly man the money he’s owed, or help a lady resolve a situation with her landlord, that makes me feel just great. God is looking at us, but I’m not doing this for room and board in the next world. I do it because it’s a privilege to be able to help.”
Yehudit Galprin runs one of Yad Sarah’s most creative projects, the ‘Life Story Program.’ “It’s so exciting, I can’t even begin to tell you,” Galprin, who managed the Beersheba Absorption Center for most of her professional life, says.
“Everybody has a story, but some people don’t have anyone to tell it to, any way to preserve it, but it’s still important to them to record what their lives were like.
“So we match people with untold stories with volunteers who listen – not just listen, but listen with their hearts. The listeners record what the person tells them, then the recordings are transcribed.
Eventually the storyteller ends up with an actual little book, the story of his life.”
Matching storytellers with volunteer listeners is the essence of Galprin’s job.
“Right now, we have more people who want to tell their stories than we do listeners,” she says. “We need more volunteers.
But one of the most interesting stories I’ve heard so far is being told by a lady who came to Beersheba about 45 years ago and began working first at Hadassah Hospital, then at Soroka. Her husband was a doctor, she was a nurse – it’s an unbelievable story, and the volunteer who’s listening is a professor of biology at BGU.
“The two are so involved with each other, I just can’t stop smiling.”
Other interesting matches? “We have a wonderful American woman listening to an Ethiopian woman’s story. We have a Beduin telling his story to a religious student; a young female medical doctor listening to an American woman who lives in an oldage home. We have two Romanian women, one telling, the other listening, so those two are very much involved, too. Then there’s a man who spent most of his life in the army, telling his story to a local Beersheba man.
“Every story is beautiful – I can’t wait to hear them all myself. We also have a professional photographer who volunteers to take their portraits for the books, and we’re also including old photos.
“People ask me if the stories are heartbreaking, but I don’t see it that way.
Whenever I see the faces of the people who are telling the stories and the love from the people who are listening, it doesn’t break my heart. On the contrary, my heart is full. I feel such satisfaction.”
Sometimes Yad Sarah fills a mission no one ever anticipated.
“One morning I got a call from the principal of a school,” director Benson recalls. “She told me she had a 14-yearold Ethiopian boy who needed to have eight teeth inserted. It was very expensive work, she admitted, saying she had a cost estimate of about NIS 14,000. Both the boy’s parents and even the boy himself worked, but that amount was far beyond their ability to pay. Could Yad Sarah help? “Sorry as I was, I had to tell her we couldn’t. We help people who are homebound, but even at that, we don’t install new teeth. I suggested she might contact Beit Scandinavia [a senior citizens’ project in Jaffa] – maybe they could help. I gave her the phone number.
“Two days later, I received an urgent phone call from this lady. ‘You won’t believe what happened!’ she said.
“She told me how she’d called Beit Scandinavia, and had been told that NIS 14,000 was well beyond their budget limits, too. ‘So what shall I do?’ she asked the secretary. ‘Why don’t you talk to the director?’ the secretary suggested. ‘Maybe there’s something that can be done.’ “She was put through to the director – and was stunned at the answer. ‘You won’t believe this,’ the director said. ‘But just yesterday we received a very large gift from an American who specified that his donation was to be used to treat the teeth of Ethiopian children. ‘So bring the boy along,’ she told me. ‘And if you have any other Ethiopian children who also need help with their teeth, bring them, too!’” As Yad Sarah moves into its new building, the biggest problem facing Benson is finding enough volunteers to staff the expanded programs as well as all the new ones.
“We need twice as many volunteers as before,” he says. “Now we have the space to do so many more things, so we’re adding new programs, too.
“We’ll have a new rehabilitation center for people recovering from accidents or surgery. We’ll pick them up in our vehicles, bring them in for a morning of exercises and practical help, give them lunch from our big new kitchens, then take them back home. We also hope to open a center for special-needs children, too, depending on donations. But the first goal right now is to find more volunteers for everything.”
Not that Benson is worried. He knows the volunteers will come – he even has proof.
“This gorgeous new building of ours was donated by a number of very generous people,” he notes. “Mr. Daniel Jusidman, certainly, as well as the Ada Fund, the Fund for Development of Services for People with Disabilities, Israel’s National Insurance Institute and many, many other individual donors.
“As I thought about it, it’s wonderful to have this beautiful building paid for by people from abroad, but it seemed to me the people of Beersheba should be able to contribute something as well.
“So I set out counting doors, and found there were 103 doors in the building that needed mezuzot. I started casually spreading the word that Yad Sarah had a mezuza fund. If each mezuza cost NIS 150, I calculated we needed NIS 15,450 for all 103 doors.
“Within days, NIS 18,150 had poured in – all from the people of Beersheba.
Not only that, but there are several local groups and individuals who make very special and unusual mezuzot – most of them had offered to donate one or more, and to sell us others at a discount. Our need was taken care of, just like that.
“That’s why I’m not worried about attracting enough volunteers. The people of Beersheba know what Yad Sarah does. They appreciate what we do. So anytime Yad Sarah asks for help, the community responds. We’ll get our volunteers.
Not a problem!”