The faces of Pessah poverty

'Ha Lahma Anya,' recited toward the beginning of the Pessah Seder, welcomes anyone in need to the Seder table. To many, this reading is more than ritual. It is a call to action, to provide for the poor.

chabad poverty 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
chabad poverty 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
All it took was a new pair of shoes, and 46,000 Jerusalem children could giggle with excitement as the Pessah holiday approached. For four days last week, volunteers handed out over 2,000 pairs of shoes an hour to needy Jerusalem families, according to Nachum Zemel, the engineer of the "Mesamche Lev - House of Chesed" Pessah charity project. By the end of the campaign, Mesamche Lev had distributed 46,278 pairs of shoes to 10,200 families. Last year, they distributed 25,000 pairs, an indication of the extent of deepening poverty in Jerusalem. To be eligible for the shoes, families must have at least five children and some needy families came with as many as 15 or 17 children. The "Mesamche Lev - House of Chesed" organization was established some 30 years ago in New York by Rabbi Zalman Ashkenazi to support economically challenged families in Israel. Most of the money is raised from religious people in the United States and other countries. For the first 20 years of its existence, the organization sent checks and food coupons to Jerusalem's impoverished people. But when Ashkenazi's son, Ya'akov, moved to Israel nine years ago, he opened the Israeli office and drastically changed the organization. Although people line up at the Jerusalem office weekly throughout the year for handouts, the organization's large-scale holiday projects are also well-known. The Pessah project collects shoes from all over the world, including about 36,000 from India, China, Italy and an extra 10,000 from Israeli manufacturers, in sizes and styles ranging from shoes for newborns to shoes for older teens. Parents signed up to receive the shoes two months prior to the event and received a plastic credit card with a magnetic strip holding the shoe sizes of all their children. Volunteers and staff spent long days preparing. In excited anticipation, children and parents arrived at the 16 square meter tent that Mesamche Lev set up on the intersection of Jaffa and Sarei Yisrael streets in Romema to receive their shoes - even for some of the older children, this was the first time they were receiving new, not hand-me-down, shoes. As the families walked in, a swipe of the magnetic card produced a print-out of the shoe sizes they had requested. They then proceeded to long rows of tables, which were clearly marked according to shoe sizes. Just like "real stores," every pair of shoes carried a barcode. As soon as a pair of shoes was chosen, the computer logged the size and style of the shoe so that stock could be replaced immediately. Families paid NIS 20 for each pair of shoes. The payment hardly defrays the cost of the shoes, which can often exceed NIS 200, but Ya'akov Ashkenazi believes that it is "important for the parents to pay a small amount, so that it does not feel like a handout, and parents can feel proud throughout the process. "It's important to recreate the atmosphere of a store," Ashkenazi says, although he himself is a volunteer. Instead of receiving shoes from a trailer in the street, he emphasizes, people were able to sit down, and choose the shoes they liked best from among the various styles, ranging from dress to everyday shoes and sandals. A volunteer helped them try the shoes on to make sure they were a perfect fit. "There are no words to describe it. The kids are smiling, happy, holding their new boxes of shoes," Ashkenazi says. "Some kept saying it's the first time in their lives to have new shoes. You should see the smiles. They say everything. "It's more than just a new pair of shoes," he continues and relates that one mother called him to say the entire atmosphere of her home changed during the Pessah cleaning because her children were running around, smiling and hugging their new shoes. Mesamche Lev, meaning giving joy to the heart, also gives away meat, chicken, fish and hand-made matza for Pessah from a storefront in Geula. According to Ashkenazi, the organization will be selling 80,000 kilograms of matza at half price and giving away 50,000 chickens, 20,000 kilograms of meat and 45,000 kilograms of fish, at a total cost of over $2.3m. To keep up, they have to stock the 55-meter freezer twice a day. Ashkenazi says that it is important for the needy to feel proud and respected throughout the entire process. Through prior registration, the customers receive a credit card with information regarding the amount of food they can receive, so that they know how much they are purchasing at the store front. "My father said it's bad enough that people are poor. They shouldn't have to feel ashamed too," Ashkenazi says. A 42-year-old mother from Ramot with 12 children, who declined to give her name, said that she would receive 20 kilograms of meat, chicken, and fish from Mesamche Lev. If not for the donation, she said, she would not have been able to afford food for the Seder . She is excited because she will be able to feed meat to her family for Pessah - something she cannot afford to do during the rest of the year. Several of her children also received new shoes. "It was exciting and special," she said. "Sometimes they go for more than a year without getting new shoes, but they were so happy." No one knows exactly how many organizations in Jerusalem distribute food or clothes to the needy or the monetary value of the distributions. "Yad Ezra Veshulamit," another Jerusalem-based organization, usually donates four to five tons of food for Shabbat, but Pessah food donations can exceed 200 tons. Nearly half of the 2,000 families who receive aid from the organization live in Jerusalem, according to director Ariel Lurie, who says that he also runs an after-school program, including hot lunches and bagged dinners for the evening and breakfasts for the next morning, for 80 needy children under the age of 10. Over the Pessah vacation, Yad Ezra Veshulamit will also take children on special day trips to the Western Wall and the Biblical Zoo, and children will receive new clothing for the holiday.