Eckstein: Social issues will explode here, too

President of International Fellowship of Christians and Jews distributes NIS 7m. in gift cards to ‘warm’ the elderly.

RABBI YEHIEL ECKSTEIN 311 (do not publish again) (photo credit: Flash 90)
RABBI YEHIEL ECKSTEIN 311 (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Flash 90)
It’s only a matter of time before public concern over social issues explodes here, just as it has done across the region, with Israelis no longer willing to accept the growing economic gaps between rich and poor, Rabbi Yehiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday.
Eckstein was speaking just hours before launching his organization’s annual project aimed at “warming” thousands of needy senior citizens with a NIS 400 gift card toward winter heating costs.
This year, the IFCJ donated NIS 7 million to be given to more than 16,000 elderly people in need in 22 cities countrywide.
The drive, which included more than 4,000 young volunteers visiting senior citizens, comes as labor unions, the Manufacturers Association and local authorities threaten a general strike next week over sharp increases in the price of basic commodities such as bread, water and fuel.
Ofer Eini, head of the Histadrut labor federation, was scheduled to meet with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz on Thursday morning to try and avert a strike.
Meanwhile, Minister of Welfare and Social Services Moshe Kahlon spoke out strongly on Wednesday evening in the Knesset plenum advocating support for social workers who are also threatening labor action if their demands for salary increases are not met by the government.
“It’s a disgrace that social workers are paid so little for the incredible work they do,” Eckstein told the Post.
“I’m also willing to speak out on their behalf, and I just hope that the government will recognize the importance of the welfare area.”
He added: “What we have witnessed in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries in the region has not quite reached that point here, but with the Histadrut, social workers and general growing unrest, it is clear that the people are no longer willing to accept the ever-increasing gaps between the wealthy and the poor.
“Anyone who has studied history knows that social unrest can be explosive,” he continued. “I believe this is not just another round of strikes; I hope that we are witnessing long-term change in which there will be a readjusting in government priorities, focusing more on social welfare.”
According to the most recent figures published by the National Insurance Institute, there was a sharp increase in the number of families joining the poverty cycle in 2009, and currently more than 435,100 families and 1,774,800 people live below the poverty line.
Eckstein said the IFCJ project launched on Wednesday was an attempt to address the growing “anxiety” faced by older people “worried that the minimal income from their pensions will be enough to cover their growing monthly expenses.
“Our main goal is to provide funds to poor elderly citizens,” he said. “In the past we put the funds directly toward their electricity bill, but this year we decided to leave it up to recipients to make a choice for themselves whether to spend the money on food, clothing, medicine or heating.”
“The money will help a little,” 76-year-old Jerusalemite “R.” told the Post. “I don’t have a private pension, and rely only on a pension from the National Insurance Institute.
It’s not enough to cover medication, food and other basic needs I have.”
He added: “I live on the ground floor of the building, and there is no central heating here. Below my apartment is the bomb shelter and that is left open; it gets very cold here both during the day and at night.
“I have electric heaters, but, as you know, electricity is very costly; if I warmed my apartment up as much as I needed, then it would cost me more than NIS 1,000 a month to stay warm. I just don’t have that money.”
Eckstein said the goal was also to engage young volunteers and put them in touch with seniors so they could “see the conditions that many older people live in.
“It is not only to encourage and support the elderly, but also to sensitize the youth of this country to its social challenges,” he said.