Raising money to raise spirits

Be’er Sova, Beersheba’s largest soup kitchen, has overcome its own financial difficulties to provide for the needy year-round.

Soup kitchen 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Be’er Sova)
Soup kitchen 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Be’er Sova)
Two years ago, times were tough at Be’er Sova. Hundreds of needy people all over the city depended on the daily hot meal Beersheba’s only soup kitchen served to anyone who walked in the door. During Passover, needy families of all kinds depended on the box brimming with kosher-for-Passover food that Be’er Sova delivered to several hundred homes right before the holiday. For many of those families – Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Ethiopian – Passover would be a meager holiday without the culturally appropriate foodstuffs Be’er Sova provided.
But two years ago, Be’er Sova itself was in need, suffering financial woes so severe that its very existence was threatened.
“It was serious,” recalls veteran Be’er Sova volunteer Eli Grossman, who recently took over the chairmanship of the organization’s board of directors. “Even though we didn’t realize it at the time, our problems dated back to 2009, when the worldwide economic crisis hit. Most of the international donations Be’er Sova had relied on for years were dropping disastrously. Initially our governing team decided to wait and see, hoping that the downturn was temporary and would resolve itself quickly, but that didn’t happen. As the weeks passed and Passover approached, we knew we were in deep trouble. Passover is expensive for everyone, and with our own economic problems we weren’t sure how we could meet the needs of all the people who depended on us.”
“We knew we had to make some hard decisions,” recalls Elisabeth Homans, another long-time Be’er Sova stalwart. “When I came on as resource and development director in 2010, all that came in the mail every day were letters saying ‘No’ to our requests for funding. We had no choice: we had to take a very close look at what we were doing, how we were doing it, and find some way back to financial stability.”
One thing was clear: Be’er Sova could not be permitted to fail. Having served hot meals and delivered monthly food boxes to tens of thousands of needy Beersheba residents during its 10 years of existence, Be’er Sova was simply too essential to too many people to be allowed to go under.
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“Everyone who’d been involved with Be’er Sova from the beginning stepped in to help,” Grossman recalls.
“The board set about making big cuts in our operating expenses, drastically reducing our paid staff. Before, we’d had two full-time fund-raisers, one for international donations, the other for domestic. We eliminated both positions and instead brought Elisabeth on, working just part-time. Before,” he continues, “we’d had individual directors for each of our four big programs. We combined them and eliminated two director positions. We also asked our then-director to leave – that’s public knowledge.
There just wasn’t the effectiveness there that we needed. As we started the search for a more effective director, we all stepped in to work ourselves – and I mean work. A year ago exactly, all of us volunteers came in and took over. We cooked the midday meal. We packed the Passover boxes. We delivered them, everyone working side by side. And you know what? We never missed a day. Nothing closed, no one missed a meal. Everyone got their monthly boxes and their Passover packages. Most of the recipients probably didn’t even notice.”
“I’ll tell you this,” Homans laughs. “After that, I’ve never welcomed the holidays more than I did that year.
We were exhausted, but we’d done it. It was very satisfying.”
For Be’er Sova – a play on the city’s name, translating as “well of fullness” – satisfaction is an abundant commodity, not just for the needy recipients of the organization’s largesse but for the hundred or so volunteers as well. Today the organization is back on a solid footing, enthusiastically making plans to expand its outreach instead of cutting back.
“This year we will deliver 700 to 750 Passover boxes” says Homans. “Actually we’re hoping for a thousand, if we get the last-minute donations we need. Financially, things are much better. We’ve been successful in finding new partners to help support our programs. Today, most of our funding comes from local Israeli sources. We’re not as reliant on international contributions as we once were. That’s as it should be,” she says. “Many of our international supporters tell us that they’re now working to feed and care for people in their own communities, so we need to rely on Israeli support, too. Of course raising money is still difficult – most organizations are still struggling.
But we’re back on solid ground again.”
Homans says that one of the organization’s best decisions was to hire an outstanding new director, Erez Nagauker, who “changed everything for the better... He has both the leadership qualities and the education we needed. But most importantly, Erez has the heart for this kind of work. He’s made all the difference.”
“HEART” WAS where it all started in 1999 when Prof. Vered Slonim-Nevo of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Department of Social Work happened to see a television documentary about L’Sova, a Tel Aviv soup kitchen. L’Sova, a charitable organization started by two Tel Aviv attorneys, Sharona and Gilad Harish, was providing daily meals to hundreds of needy residents every day, no questions asked. Some were new immigrants, some were vagrants or addicts, some just regular Israelis who’d suffered a downturn in luck. Seeing what L’Sova was doing, Slonim-Nevo realized that Beersheba needed a charitable organization like it.
Slonim-Nevo together with Yael Sonin, an embryologist at Soroka Medical Center, met with Gilad Harish in Tel Aviv to see if their project could be adapted for Beersheba. With his encouragement and promised backing, the two women, together with several of their friends, set about opening a soup kitchen in Beersheba.
“Within a week we’d found a place, but we had no money,” Slonim-Nevo recalls. Harish trusted the Beersheba start-up and offered a loan to pay the rent, but the building the nascent organizers found needed serious rehabilitation before it could be used. Undaunted, the group of friends, most of them from Beersheba and Omer, asked everyone they could think of to help, including a few local contractors who ultimately volunteered their assistance with the initial renovations. Be’er Sova opened its doors and, almost immediately, 50 people a day, most of them homeless or suffering from drug or alcohol addiction, began to stream in for a hot midday meal. In no time at all, social welfare organizations discovered Be’er Sova and began referring people and the numbers of clients grew.
The need for food in Beersheba surprised many new immigrants, including Homans. “I’d never seen anything like this when I made aliya from Montreal in 1983,” she recalls. “People eating out of the garbage? I’d never seen that, not in Canada, not in Israel. But in Beersheba, back in the early 1990s, hundreds of new immigrants were sent here, many of them senior citizens.
Unable to work, they simply didn’t have enough money to live. If you went to the shuk [market] on Friday afternoon, just before Shabbat, you’d see way too many people trying to find food in the garbage cans. For me, it was an eye-opener – this was real hunger.”
“I wasn’t technically a part of the original group who founded Be’er Sova in 1999,” Homans says. “Eli [Grossman] was on the team from the beginning, I wasn’t.
But I was representing the city of Montreal at the time, and the Jewish community of Montreal was interested in everything happening in Beersheba, so I became involved that way. There was no question that an organization like Be’er Sova was critically needed in Beersheba.”
Is there still hunger in B e e r s h e b a ? “Unfortunately, there is,” says Grossman, now a retiree after 43 years with Israel Aircraft Industries.
“We work hand in hand with municipal social workers. They frequently report going into an apartment where several children live, but finding no food at all in the cupboards or t h e refrigera t o r .
T h o s e kids are hungry, no question about it. I first became involved because I just couldn’t stand to see people I knew were literally hungry and not do something about it.”
THE SOUP kitchen – referred to as “the restaurant” by volunteers – is located at 58 Mordei Ha’getaot Street in Beersheba’s Old City, and welcomes anyone who wants a hot meal. The doors open at 10:30, and from then until 1 p.m. an average of 70 people come in to receive a lunch of soup, meat and vegetables, salad, fresh bread and dessert. A contribution of NIS 3 is requested. “That’s for their own benefit,” Grossman explains. “They need to give something – it’s for their dignity and self-respect.”
Working under the direction of professional chef Chaim Lagosi, volunteers do most of the food preparation, including serving and cleaning up, notes director Erez Nagauker. “Most of our regular volunteers have been with us for many years, some for the entire time.
Some are retirees, some are students. The funny thing about students is that most stay on as volunteers even after they finish school. Some volunteers started as clients of the restaurant. Now they work here because they want to give as well as take. All in all,” says Nagauker, “they come from all over, all ages, from every ethnicity in the city. We’re now also on the municipal list of organizations who can supervise people performing community service, so we have a number of those volunteers. Another source of help are organizations who want to come as a unit, work from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
for one day only, doing a little bit of everything, starting in the morning with peeling and chopping vegetables.
“Most of the big companies and organizations in Beersheba have helped Be’er Sova in some way, either by sending groups of volunteers or by establishing employee donation funds. We also have foreign groups of tourists who ask if they can volunteer when they come.
In a few weeks, we have a group of Christians from Australia coming. They called and asked, ‘What can we do? What do you need?’ Bar and bat mitzva groups also come, spending a day working together as part of their preparation.
“Why do they come? Why work so hard for no pay? I keep asking myself that,” Nagauker says. “Every time I have a minute, I go talk to them. All in all, I think it’s that volunteering here offers them a chance to give – and when you give of yourself, you feel good about it. For our regular volunteers, another big part is that we’re like family here. We know each other, we do things together, we remember birthdays, we sometimes celebrate holidays together. Be’er Sova has become their community and they identify with it. But maybe more than anything, they come because we give each person a chance to use their abilities, whatever they are.”
For the last seven years, “Shosh” has come to Be’er Sova to volunteer. Although she works around a physical disability, she’s now in charge of the entire meal preparation and service, supervising both the volunteers and the actual cooking. “I first came after seeing a newspaper ad for volunteers,” she recalls. “Now I come in three days a week. I work hard, making sure everything is properly prepared and that everyone is served. Why do I do it? I guess it’s because I’ve received a lot in this world, and it feels good to give something back. Working here gives me confidence. I feel stronger when I’m helping someone else.”
The restaurant itself is bright and cheerful, everything freshly painted and scrupulously clean. Paintings and posters adorn the walls, while each table is covered with a cheery tablecloth. The food preparation is done at the original Be’er Sova facility, on Gershon Street, just a short walk from the restaurant where the meals are served.
“We used to both cook and serve at the Gershon Street property, but it was really too small,” Homans recalls.
“For a time, Be’er Sova partnered with another food service organization, and the much larger Mordei Ha’getaot facility was their property. Last December, we took over the lease ourselves and now we pay the rent.”
The food preparation at the Gershon facility isn’t just for the restaurant. The same meal is delivered by Be’er Sova’s Meals on Wheels program to another 70 people around the city who are elderly, disabled or homebound.
“Anyone can walk into the restaurant and eat,” Grossman notes. “And anyone can receive the Meals on Wheels, although if they want the city to subsidize the cost, then the referral must come through a social worker.
Unsubsidized, a delivered meal costs NIS 600 a month. With the city subsidy, the cost is reduced to NIS 150. During the repeated missile attacks on Beersheba, we had a lot more requests for Meals on Wheels – and we didn’t miss a single delivery. If the sirens sounded when our driver, Shimon Fingel, was making deliveries, he’d just jump out of the van and take shelter.
When it was over, he’d hop back in and keep right on going. We also had a lot more people come into the restaurant during those attacks. I think people didn’t like being alone. If they could, they’d get out and come to the restaurant.
Our clients come from all over the city,” Grossman continues, “not necessarily those neighborhoods where you’d expect to find people in need. They walk or take the bus, and a few come by car. They know at Be’er Sova, they’ll find both a welcome and a tasty meal.”
For the most part, Be’er Sova’s clients are adults. “We don’t promote the restaurant as a family place,” Grossman says. “Young adults who come – ages 35 to 40 – are mostly those with various disabilities. Seniors, singles or couples, predominate.”
Why not children? “Mostly children are in school. But also because we don’t think parents would be comfortable bringing their children to a soup kitchen. The kids might be embarrassed, too. Instead, we have other programs for children and families.”
Regular food boxes are another Be’er Sova project.
Holocaust survivors get them, as do families referred by social workers. The regular food box is now delivered to about 100 families every month. “We get calls for 300 boxes,” Grossman notes. “But right now, all we can cover is about 100. Each box is packed full of dry foodstuffs – rice, pasta, cereal, soup mix, anything that doesn’t need refrigeration. We also distribute anything that’s left in the kitchen on Friday afternoon. Any leftovers go to the volunteers, food they can take home for Shabbat.
Sometimes we get a special shipment of something extra – cases of cornflakes, fresh vegetables or whatever. All that is distributed too, in additional bags if necessary.”
“GAMAL,” ANOTHER family program, offers afterschool activities for “at risk” youth ages 12 to 17. “We have 45 to 60 kids who enjoy a hot meal after school, plus tutoring in their studies,” Grossman says. “The tutors are BGU students involved with BGU’s Community Action Unit, who tutor kids in their own fields of study. We also have the Family Evening Program, a night out for families. There’s a nice dinner, followed by educational activities for both parents and the children. About 18 to 20 families are involved.”
Many other kinds of people help too, Grossman notes.
“One thing that has delighted us is a tradition among some brides and grooms. A couple of weeks ahead of the wedding, they call us and invite a specified number of our clients – five to 10 – to come to their wedding. We decide who should go and the bridal couple arranges for the transportation. It’s a beautiful thing to do, inviting people in need to come and celebrate on that special day.
Everyone benefits.”
Then there are those who those who raise money to make all Be’er Sova’s activities possible. Coincidentally, it was another television documentary that sparked interest in what has turned out to be a major fund-raising event. “About seven years ago, my mother, Hanni Mann, was here visiting us from England,” recalls Jacky Roth of Metar. “My mother was born in 1922, escaped from Germany and was one of the last Jews to escape Prague.
She knew what hunger was like, so when she saw a television program about hunger in Israel, she asked me to put her in touch with Be’er Sova. When she went back to England, she began raising money for them.
“She inspired me,” Roth smiles. “I thought that if she could raise money in England, then I should surely do something here, in our own community.”
Roth began an annual “Bring and Buy” white-elephant sale that to date has raised about NIS 70,000 for Be’er Sova. “In thinking about it, I decided that Purim would be a good time to raise the money,” Roth says. “There’s a mitzva to give food at Purim. So the first year I just opened our home.
I asked everyone I knew to bring something new, something they couldn’t use themselves.
Everything everyone brought we then sold inexpensively, at a low enough price that everyone could afford to buy something.”
The Be’er Sova board of directors works to put every shekel Roth and others raise to the best possible use. “Our original goal was to serve hot, healthy, nutritious food to a needy clientele,” Grossman recalls. “But we learned back in 1999 that to break the cycle of poverty, we need to do more than supply just food. We need educational programs, too, to help clients find their way out of poverty.
One dream of ours is to move our operations back to the Gershon Street address – but we’d like to take over the whole building, as compared to just a small part. That building would be perfect for us again, because there are several additional rooms we could put to good use. We’d run all kinds of additional programs for kids and their parents – how to shop, for example. We’d have nutrition and basic cooking classes to help them make the most of what they have. We’d also like to open a small company to allow our clients to find paying work – maybe a cleaning service or something like that, something where we could give them the tools to better their own lives.”
But sometimes, only food matters, director Erez Nagauker acknowledges. “Last week I had a call from a woman who was in the hospital. It was about 4 on Friday afternoon and her doctor had just released her from the hospital, but told her she needed to return to the hospital on Sunday. The poor lady was desperate. She’d begged the doctor to let her stay in the hospital over Shabbat but he’d said no. Her problem was that she had no food in her apartment, and was really too ill to prepare anything.
Could Be’er Sova help? “That wasn’t easy. We’re open on Fridays until about 2, but this was late in the afternoon, just before Shabbat.
We’d given away everything we had. But I made a few phone calls and managed to find people who could help.
They arranged to bring four or five meals to her home so that she could eat over Shabbat. Amazing, how many people were willing to share their own Shabbat meals with a woman they’d never met.
“Here at Be’er Sova we know we have to raise money so we can afford to do all these things,” Nagauker says.
“And raising money is hard. It’s always hard. But when you see the joy in the eyes of the people you help – or hear the relief in their voices, as I did that Friday afternoon – it makes every bit of it worthwhile. Being able to help someone like that just re-energizes you, makes you want to do more.”