National Service: A real plus

Mindy Ajzner founded Chaim BePlus whose mission is to educate young people to be financially responsible.

Mindy Ajzner 88 248 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Mindy Ajzner 88 248
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Name - Mindy Ajzner Age - 48 Profession - CEO of Chaim BePlus Family status - Married with five children Mindy Ajzner founded Chaim BePlus three years ago after she had worked as a volunteer for the organization Pa'amonim, whose mission is to help people in financial distress, through rehabilitation rather than handouts. In the course of her work Ajzner encountered many tragedies that were caused by families who got into serious debt and couldn't manage their budgets. "I reached the conclusion that there was a real need to go into the schools and teach high school students financial independence, to talk to young couples on how to manage on their incomes and to guide women in their career choices," she says. "Having worked with Pa'amonim, I was aware of the disasters that bad financial planning can cause. Families can be destroyed by debts, marriages break down. I have never met a couple in debt who manage to be happy." Chaim BePlus takes the work of Pa'amonim a step further. As the founder and driving force behind the organization, which now has 30 volunteers and a cadre of professional women who can be called on to talk about their careers, Ajzner strongly believes that addressing poverty should be based on prevention to avoid people getting into financial hot water. "Unfortunately in this country there are several factors working against good money management. The aggressive marketing that people are exposed to, the ubiquitous cellphone use, the pressure to make big weddings and other celebrations. Did you have a bat mitzva?" she asks. "Of course not, neither did I. But all of a sudden, people are throwing bat mitzva parties, making completely unnecessary britot for baby girls. Here people will spend a fortune on a fancy dress for a one-time wear, hire an expensive hall and caterer, spend money they don't have." Ajzner also has a problem with well-meaning people who hand out food parcels, not realizing that they are just perpetuating the poverty by teaching people to rely on handouts and not be self sufficient. "You know, Maimonides says that the highest level of tzedaka, charity, is to help someone to become financially independent. Last Pessah we heard of an absurd situation where people were told by a certain charity that to get a free chicken they had to give their cellphone number. How ridiculous is that? We have the highest rate of cellphone use in the Western world and also one of the highest rates of poverty, so something is wrong." Chaim BePlus has a varied program and several projects running simultaneously. Its lecturers go into high schools and teach basic budgeting skills, how to open a bank account and read a bank statement, how to manage a credit card and understand car insurance. For young couples, the lectures, which are usually held in community centers, are aimed at teaching the same skills, plus how to take out a mortgage, buy a property and read a salary slip. "We also hold workshops for teachers to teach financial management, and we have panels of successful career women who talk to schoolgirls about how to balance work and motherhood and what are the best jobs girls should consider to be able to do both. Seeing the actual person and hearing about her lifestyle from her makes the whole subject much more alive." The reason only girls benefit from career advice at the moment is that women earn less than men, and have more of a struggle in the job market. "We aim to expose girls to many models and give them choices so they can see what the reality will be like after they have finished their studies and start working," says Ajzner. "Seeing and listening to a successful career woman is inspirational. We want to see girls planning their futures and acquiring marketable skills." She would also like to see women take more responsibility for financial affairs in a marriage. "Not long ago I got a call from a 55-year-old woman who had left all the financial running of the family affairs to her husband. She had just been told he had gone bankrupt and she was devastated. She had no idea. Women have to take an active interest, go through the bills together with their husbands, and plan a budget." The 48-year-old Toronto native and mother of five first came here in 1973 representing Canada in that year's Bible Quiz and came in sixth. Nine years later she settled here permanently. She did a bachelor's degree in education at the Jerusalem College for Women and a master's in Jewish studies at Touro College. She also took a senior bookkeeper's diploma through the Ministry of Labor and worked as a legal assistant in a law firm. "Through my various jobs and studies, I gained a lot of skills in the areas of money and management," she says. After counseling families in financial distress for three years, she realized that preventing poverty and debt would be preferable to treating them, and founded Chaim BePlus. "You often hear people say they live in minus, so we turned it around to 'living in plus,'" she explains. At the moment the organization is financed by private donations with some help from the Chicago Federation of Partnership 2000 and the United Israel Appeal, but sponsors are sorely needed to keep the nonprofit going and to expand its activities. "We have started to operate in development towns and go directly to communities, such as the Ethiopian one, where every shekel needs to be counted. Seventy percent of Israelis are perpetually in overdraft and in debt and our aim is to reduce that figure - preferably to none."