The elderly bearded ultra-Orthodox rabbi in the dark suit and suede black kippa leans forward in his chair, smartphone in hand.“You see this truck?” he asks excitedly, referring to the image in the photo on his phone. “It’s 28 tons and it’s refrigerated.”He is Rabbi Yosef Cohen, who 31 years ago founded Chasdei Naomi, an organization headquartered in Bnei Brak dedicated to feeding the needy throughout Israel. He says that the truck was one of several vehicles packed with food and sent down South during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.During the military operation, the organization’s workers and volunteers, dressed in protective vests and helmets, distributed the contents of the trucks to those in need and to those unable to leave their bomb shelters due to the rocket bombardments.In addition, some of the trucks were packed with cans of tuna and a variety of other ready-to-eat foods that were distributed to IDF soldiers preparing for battle, or back from the fight, along the Gaza border.Based on the perception that the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel doesn’t want to affiliate itself with the IDF, this reporter then challenges the rabbi, asking why his organization would go out of its way to support soldiers? The rabbi’s impassioned reaction and his answer help explain what makes Chasdei Naomi tick.Shaking his head vigorously at the notion of a societal divide, the rabbi opens his eyes wide and says, “Our goal [at Chasdei Naomi] is to help each other, all communities. The soldiers that we are helping, they are the future. They will become our doctors and our lawyers. We’re all in this together.”
NOT ONLY are soldiers recipients of the organization’s kindness, but soldiers themselves serve as key volunteers on a regular basis at the organization’s five food packaging and distribution warehouses in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak, Bat Yam and Tiberias.The weekly food packages, including fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, and other dry products such as rice and pasta, are delivered to more than 10,000 needy families from all walks of life.On a tour of Chasdei Naomi’s Jerusalem warehouse in the Givat Shaul industrial zone, exuberant branch manager Yisrael Meisler says that he helps feed 1,000 families in the area each week.Canned and dry foods are collected by volunteers throughout the city, including many children who go door-to-door in their apartment buildings asking for food donations, he explains.Fresh produce is dropped off by farmers from kibbutzim, or food packaging companies that have excess product on any given week.Meisler says that in addition to food, the organization supplies blankets and heaters for the elderly in the winter, Materna (baby formula) and baby food for new mothers, and holiday packages throughout the year, with a special focus on helping orphans and widows.Moshe Cohen, the rabbi’s son and executive director of Chasdei Naomi, says that the key to the organization’s success is its volunteers – the network of those who gather the food and drop it off at the warehouse, the packagers who prepare the food, and those who deliver.
WHILE MANY local school-aged kids, yeshiva and seminary students, special needs groups, and even some seniors serve as volunteer packers, Cohen stresses the efficiency of the IDF soldiers who carry out the burdensome task of packaging such large amounts of food.“The soldiers come here [to the warehouse] with their commanders and work so well,” he says, taking out a long printout list of all of the units who have volunteered: IDF intelligence, the air force and other combat units who volunteer from time to time.The younger Cohen says that some units are regulars.“Every Sunday we a have border police unit from the Hebron area that arrives to volunteer,” he says. “Every other week, Nativ (an IDF Jewish identity education branch) sends 30 volunteers.”Cohen stresses how the warehouse interaction between the ultra-orthodox volunteers and the soldiers helps break down barriers.“First of all, we have more secular volunteers than religious,” he emphasizes for the record, adding that 30% of the food donated in fact comes from secular kibbutzim.“And when the ultra-Orthodox volunteers are working here side-by-side [with the soldiers], we see that even though serving in the army was not part of their education and they were raised not to go to the IDF, when they get here, they are able to connect to the soldiers.”Yisrael Havusha, a 20-year-old motor vehicle electrician in the IDF who has been volunteering regularly at Chasdei Naomi since the age of 16, concurs with Cohen’s remarks about the two groups.He relates that in addition to working in the warehouse, he himself, as a soldier, has been the recipient of care packages that the organization sent to his unit for soldiers assigned to stay on base for Shabbat or a holiday “They [the ultra-Orthodox] put their own beliefs on the side and come and help in order to feel part of those who protect Israel,” he says.Meisler elaborates on how the organization often gives back to the troops.This past Hanukka, for example, while the security forces were on high alert in Jerusalem, volunteers went up and down the light rail line handing out donuts and drinks to those stationed there.Meisler says that his volunteers frequently visit far-off IDF bases handing out cakes and candies to the soldiers. Referring to a base just outside Ramallah, he says, “nobody gets out there, [so we go].”He proudly shows a picture of his volunteers holding stacks of pizzas delivered to the southern front during the recent conflict and to wounded soldiers in hospitals.Cohen notes that the organization has often helped soldiers and their families suffering from poverty, providing food, blankets and other items.Meisler recalls a soldier the day before his enlistment not having the proper basic gear for his service, such as underwear or undershirts. Chasdei Naomi stepped in to help with his needs.He adds that “we stayed in touch with him, building a personal relationship and helping him throughout his army service, and even chipped in to help with his wedding.”
ANOTHER PROJECT is providing wedding hall space to needy couples free of charge, as Chasdei Naomi manages several wedding halls in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.For couples scheduled to get married in the south during military operations in Gaza who were afraid for their safety and the safety of their guests, Chasdei Naomi hosted weddings in their halls with only a day or two notice, and even assisted in making hundreds of calls notifying guests that there had been a venue change.Kobi Brillman, a 29-year-old IDF reservist who serves as a communications officer for his company commander in a Nachal Haredi unit, is quick to thank Chasdei Naomi for its support during Operation Protective Edge.He and his fellow soldiers were called up and were in the midst of a training exercise out in the field starting on a Thursday and through Shabbat, he relates.“We were sleeping out in the field in tents. It is hard for these religious soldiers to grasp having to train on Shabbat,” he says.On Friday a Chasdei Naomi truck pulled up and delivered food, drinks, and snacks for Shabbat.“For them to bring this stuff gave us the feeling that people out there care. It put a smile on our faces, and gave us a real boost throughout the exercise. It was an amazing feeling, lifting our spirits, that the home front didn’t forget us.” For more information on Chasdei Naomi go to: http://www.chasdei-naomi.org/