Feeding the ‘Anglo’ poor

With poverty rates in Israel rising, so too are the numbers of hungry English-speaking immigrants relying on food aid organizations.

311_Leket (photo credit: Courtesy of Leket.)
(photo credit: Courtesy of Leket.)
It’s Monday evening on Jerusalem’s Rehov Ben-Yehuda and about half way up the central thoroughfare – where it branches out to Hillel in one direction and King George in the other – two poorly-dressed, disheveled individuals sit in wheelchairs shaking plastic cups in their hands and asking passers by for any lose change.
“She definitely comes from the US but I don’t like to pry into other people’s business, so I haven’t asked her where she’s from exactly,” says one, an English speaker, who identifies himself only as “Baruch.”
The other individual, a woman sitting in a Yad Sarah-donated wheelchair, is wrapped in a fleece blanket to keep her warm against the late night Jerusalem breeze. Her leg is in a plaster cast and she is dozing on the chair; her hand is still stretched out in front as if not to miss an opportunity to collect any money from those that pass her by.
“I’m from Boston originally and made aliya in 1979,” continues Baruch, his overly white scraggly beard taking up almost his entire face.
He is also wrapped up snugly in his wheelchair, a packet of cigarettes tucked into his inside breast pocket and an open bottle beer nestled tightly between his thigh and the inside of the chair.
“I used to run my own business, a print shop,” he reflects. “But so many of my suppliers did not make their payments and then my partner quit, it was hard to make ends meet after that.”
Baruch continues: “Then, four years ago, I had a stroke. The doctors at Shaare Zedek [hospital] could not believe it when I came back to life because the machine gave out one of those long beeps as if I was dead.”
Baruch, who was born in 1938 but claims to feel more like a 34-year-old, says he has been begging on the streets of Jerusalem since the stroke. And even though he receives some social security benefits from the US and a state pension from the Israeli government, it is simply not enough to live on.
The 72-year-old, who says he converted to Judaism with an orthodox rabbi in Miami before making aliya, now lives in a rented apartment not far from the city center with his son. Together they buy their food with governmentissued food stamps and make just about enough to keep the landlord happy each month.
“My daughter still lives in Boston and she keeps telling me, ‘Dad, come back to the US, we can help you here,’ but I love Israel and I love the people in Jerusalem. I doubt I will ever leave,” he smiles, and begins to describe some of his friends, all Anglos and all adept to ‘working’ the streets on a regular basis, either busking, begging or doing odd jobs for lose change.
Among them he cites Lance Wolf, an American citizen and resident of a Jerusalem homeless shelter, who was murdered last month in nearby Kikar Ha’hatulot by two teens demanding he give them some cigarettes.
“It was shocking for all of us, what happened to Lance. But I have my stick here,” says Baruch gesturing to a wooden cane attached to the side of his wheelchair. “Any trouble and I am ready for them.”
WHILE Baruch’s situation might be extreme, according to the latest figures from the National Insurance Institute (NII) released last fall, one in four Israelis lives below the poverty line and, although there are no specific statistics, those working for numerous food aid charities around the country say that the English-speaking community is not immune from the problem.
“It is very difficult for immigrants from Anglo countries to admit that they have sunk to the same levels as immigrants from poorer countries such as Ethiopia or Russia,” says Joseph Gitler, founder and executive director of Israel’s newly-formed national food bank Leket, previously the food-collecting agency Table to Table, which gathers and distributes left-over food from agriculture, restaurants, malls, businesses and banquet halls to the needy.
“People from the Anglo community come here and they are in shock that life is so hard and that it is so difficult to make a living,” Gitler says. “But there is no question of them giving up and going back; there is this mentality that those who come here and do not make it are looked down upon.”
South African-born Illana Bank, who is Leket’s coordinator of food distribution for the Sharon region and works with a sizable number of English-speaking immigrant families, says that it goes beyond the feeling that their aliya might have failed.
“I’ve been dealing with the Anglo community for almost ten years and what stands out to me more than anything else is the fact that English-speakers tend to wait too long to get assistance because of the stigma attached,” she observes, adding, “They are basically in denial and put off asking for help another month and another month until they get into a really deep hole that they can’t climb out of.”
Bank explains that this stalling tactic stems intrinsically from the fear of allowing their peers – neighbors and friends – to see that they are in trouble.
“I really think it’s a cultural mindset,” she says. “It’s very hard for Anglos to equate themselves with Ethiopian and Russian immigrants and they have a very different response to financial difficulties too. For some immigrants it’s all about survival but for many Anglos it is more important to be able to keep their heads up high in the community.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times where I’ve dropped off packages at family’s homes when the children are not there so the mother has time to hide the containers. I’ve had to duck and dive in order to deliver the food because the parents can’t admit they have fallen on hard times.”
However, the Ra’anana-based Bank, who has been a volunteer for Table to Table since it started several years ago, says she understands the shame and the stigma that these families’ feel. She herself fell on hard times after separating from her husband and struggling to find her feet as a single mother.
“It’s very, very hard,” she counsels. “I can remember times when I sat opposite my children feeding them one bowl of couscous or when they opened the fridge and there was simply nothing inside.
“I think the Anglo community comes from a different place to other immigrant communities; In South Africa, my kids had to chose between what type of ice cream they wanted to eat, not whether we could afford have ice cream. I think for many Anglo immigrants, poverty is simply something that they never thought they would have to deal with.
“They never thought they would be in a situation where they would have to accept a food package and their brains simply cannot take it in. There is a certain standard in any community and the average Jewish community in English speaking countries was always reasonably affluent.”
Although the situation around the world is somewhat different today due to the global economic crisis and all types of people face financial difficulties, Bank reflects, “before I left South Africa 14 years ago, poor families were very few and far between and if they existed, they were hardly ever spoken about.”
But she warns that moving countries for any immigrant, even those from more affluent countries, is difficult and emphasizes that “falling on bad times can happen to anyone.”
“Many of those that we help are struggling because they have not been able to find jobs or they must take jobs where Hebrew is not required,” says Bank, adding that over the past nineand- a-half years, “I’ve seen the situation get a lot worse; there are more Anglos on my list of recipients than ever before.”
ON a national level, the NII data released late last year shows that 420,100 families or 1,651,300 individuals lived below the poverty line in 2008, with 783,600 children considered poor, a steady increase over the previous years. Today, the poverty line in Israel is defined as those earning a monthly income of less than NIS 1,763 (approximately $410) for a single person and NIS 2,777 (or $650) a couple.
Economists and food aid charities also report an increase in the number of working poor (i.e. families whose household head is actually employed but whose dependents still live below the poverty line), and a growth in financial distress among large families with four or more children.
While there are no official figures for the Anglo community, research undertaken for this article shows that there are a significant number of Englishspeaking families in most urban communities who are forced to rely on food aid agencies for basic staples and other charitable support.
At Leket, Bank estimates that out of the 75 families she services on a weekly basis – dropping off food parcels to those who truly can’t afford it – more than 30 are Anglos. In Jerusalem, representatives of the Hazon Yeshaya Humanitarian Aid Network told The Jerusalem Post that English-speaking families eating at its soup kitchens around the country are definitely in the “hundreds,” and growing. In Efrat, which has a large English-speaking community, there are up to 100 families who receive either food stamps or food packages from the Network.
In another Anglo stronghold, Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, the non-profit organization Lema’an Achai pinpoints some 35 Anglo families out of about 180 that it helps on a regular basis.
“Most people I know here are struggling,” says Dvora (not her real name), an American immigrant who now resides in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph and who has received assistance from Lema’an Achai. “They are all Anglos and they are all worried about how they will be able to finish off the month.”
A single mother of four, Dvora made aliya five years ago and separated from her husband around the same time.
“I’d always wanted to make aliya and with problems in my marriage it seemed like a good time to make a new start,” she recalls, adding that with money from her parents and the sal klita (basket of immigration benefits), it was enough for about 18 months.
“My brother was already living here and he gave us two mattresses for the five of us to sleep on but that was about all I had,” says Dvora.
A trained special needs teacher, she then turned to Lema’an Achai, which has given her comprehensive support over the past five years, empowering her by helping her re-qualify in accordance with Israeli standards, and enabling her to “stand on her own two feet.”
“I just got a job,” she says triumphantly.
“But I am not likely to get paid until after the holidays and even with that I will probably still struggle to pay the rent.”
Even with the success of finding employment, Dvora says her situation has, at times, been humiliating. Being forced to stand in line for hours at the unemployment office, sent to jobs that were impossible with three small children and not being able to buy enough fruit and vegetables to feed her family was extremely upsetting.
“Every family has their own story about how they got into such difficulties,” says Susan (not her real name), a volunteer at Hazon Yeshaya in Jerusalem. “There are large families, with many children; families where both the husband and wife have lost their jobs; or those where the wife stays home to care for small children and the husbands have particularly low salaries.
“There are also single mothers, like one case where the husband took the house and the wife had to restart her whole life from scratch with five children. Every case is different but they very much exist in the Anglo community.”
Susan is quick to point out also that “what you see is not necessarily what you get.”
“There is one family that receives help from us, and if you saw the woman you would not believe that she needs to receive food packages every Friday for Shabbat,” Susan says. “She dresses very nicely but only has one or two outfits. The woman never complains about her situation but I know that she and her family have not been able to pay the rent for a very long time and I am very worried they could be made homeless.”
Susan adds: “It is not part of the Western culture to show that you are going through a difficult time or that you are in need of help. I don’t think it’s that Anglos have more pride, its just they don’t know how to ask for help and that is a problem.
“That is why we often believe that the Anglo immigrant community does not have poverty, but it really does exist. I see it here everyday.”