Editor's Notes: The 'P' word

No real poverty in Israel? Take a closer look.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
A two-minute drive from the expanded Kirya government complex at the entrance to Jerusalem, around the corner from the well-appointed studios from which many of the world's TV stations broadcast their Israel footage - and where Wednesday's terrorist rampage unfolded - one of Israel's best-kept secrets hides in plain sight. Each day, thousands upon thousands of Israelis stream into the compact, thoroughly functional Rashi Street headquarters of the Hazon Yeshaya Humanitarian Network, a charitable institution whose workload is growing worryingly fast. The clientele at Hazon Yeshaya do not look destitute. They are clean and sensibly dressed. They are overwhelmingly but not solely elderly. Only an isolated few are ultra-Orthodox. Most are immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some are veteran Israelis. And they are poor. Too poor to feed themselves adequately. They wait patiently for their food, comfortable in their surroundings, silent or talking quietly. Hazon Yeshaya provides 4,000 of them with a main meal every day - and that does mean every day, including for Shabbat and ahead of fast days. From dozens of distribution points nationwide, it sends out another 10,000 such hot meals, every day. The Jerusalem center also runs vocational training courses - in computers, hairdressing and more - attempting the highest form of charity, which is to enable people to help themselves. Demand for places in the courses - from ultra-Orthodox men, from single mothers, from the capital and far beyond - is overwhelming. A file of letters from grateful graduates, reporting that they are now able to begin earning a living, is testament to the success. The network's founder and guiding force, Abraham Yisrael, who last week received the Mayor of Jerusalem Volunteer of 2008 Award for his work, says he insists on feeding only those who are classified by the state as genuinely needy - to ensure that his limited funds are put to the best use, that the availability of free food does not exacerbate the crisis, that he is not fostering helplessness. "They are all 'zaka'ut alef,'" he says of the hungry people all around us, showing me some of the paperwork. "There's no lower classification. After that, it's 'zero'- you know, under the ground." He does not humiliate any would-be recipients by refusing them food when they first come, but asks them after that first visit to provide the readily available National Insurance Institute and other paperwork to confirm their plight. Hazon Yeshaya, which also offers dental care here, is getting ready to expand into what will be much larger premises across the street. It is opening new distribution centers around the country all the time. Last year, after a TV news investigation showed Ethiopian children in an Ashkelon school sitting abjectly in their classrooms with no lunch - because their parents could not afford to pay for the food - while their classmates ate a midday meal, Hazon Yeshaya opened a center in that city, which now prepares 3,000 meals a day. "The situation is dire," says Yisrael, an Orthodox Jew who was born in Egypt, and spent early years as a refugee in Paris - sustained by the very soup kitchens he has felt obligated to establish here. He grew up poor in America, but did well in school, studied accounting in university, made millions with an import company, and came to Israel in early retirement to try and help others. (His story was more thoroughly documented in an article by our social affairs reporter Ruth Eglash, in the January 29, 2008, Jerusalem Post.) "It's wonderful that Israel brought all these Holocaust survivors and other elderly Jews here from Eastern Europe, but the government doesn't take care of them," he says with his characteristic sorrowful earnestness. "People are expected to live on NIS 2,000 a month, sometimes less. They can't do that. We have veteran Israelis who come here too. There's a man who you just missed; he just left. He comes every day. He fought in three wars for Israel. He has a pension of less than NIS 2,000 a month. I've seen the paperwork." Yisrael stresses that the popular perception of poverty in Israel, as the near-exclusive preserve of ultra-Orthodox and Arab families with many children and no breadwinner, is skewed. A large proportion of those who are living in poverty are working, he says. They just don't earn enough to feed their families properly. Yisrael despairs at government indifference to the problem. He despairs at a failing education system that leaves young Israelis without the skills he himself was able to develop to break out of the poverty cycle. He takes particular aim at the ultra-Orthodox schools that don't teach math and sciences and other essential skills for employment. NAMED BOTH after his late father Yeshaya and for Isaiah's vision of a time of peace and abundance in Israel and worldwide, Yisrael's network is constantly instituting programs to try and alleviate some of the crises he encounters. He plans, for instance, to somehow purchase a banquet hall soon, to host the bar-mitzvahs and other ceremonies he sometimes arranges for families who cannot afford to finance their own celebrations. Last month, the Post carried a picture of one such event - a group of 16 children from around the country, some with various handicaps, jointly celebrating their bar- and bat-mitzvas in the capital. Yisrael says his organization runs with a uniquely low overhead and shows me the monthly salaries of the five top earners he employs - the highest of which is less than NIS 8,000. He himself no longer drives a car, so that no one can accuse him of profiting in any way from his work. The bill for the water that was used to make my cup of tea, he says, is sent to his home for payment. Most of the work here is done by volunteers - an army of good souls, some of whom have been working for him for years. Of the team I see in the kitchens preparing today's lunches for the masses, only the chef is paid. Yisrael shows me letters of appreciation for the food and other help that Hazon Yeshaya has provided from a Jewish Agency absorption center in the Galilee and from an Arab girls school in east Jerusalem. He shows me pictures of food and toy deliveries to an institution where young refugees from Darfur are being held. He shows me a faxed letter of thanks from the deputy mayor of Ashkelon, full of appreciation for the work of his "soup kitchens" in feeding the "needy." When the letter subsequently reached him by mail, however, it had been subtly altered, with the mentions of "soup kitchens" and "needy" excised. Acknowledging the true nature of poverty in Israel is still taboo, he says - barred by government decree. It's not the image that Israel's authorities want to circulate prominently among Diaspora philanthropists. "But the problem is right here. It's acute. And not talking about it isn't going to make it go away." The insistence on not talking about it, however, means that the overwhelming majority of North American Jewish federations will not provide Hazon Yeshaya with donations. He gets money, after the thorough due diligence inspections that he encourages, from only five of them. It is unfortunate, he acknowledges gently, that while there is an American Jewish establishment push for Israel to absorb thousands more Falash Mura from Ethiopia, that establishment largely won't fund his charitable work to help make life more liveable for impoverished Ethiopian Jews already here. He tells me the story of a major philanthropist who urged his local US Jewish federation, to which he was a major donor, to check out Hazon Yeshaya and consider allocating funding to it. Federation representatives visited Yisrael's headquarters, were inevitably shocked at the needs and impressed by the efficiency and decency with which they are met, and promised the earth. But no money was forthcoming. The donor ceased giving money to the federation in protest. Local philanthropists could do a great deal more, as well. Merrill Lynch, after all, reported only last week that Israel is home this year to 1,000 more millionaires than last year, and 10 more with assets in excess of $30 million. And Hazon Yeshaya is far from being the only charitable institution distributing food, battling Israel's increasingly acute poverty crisis, and doing so with inadequate resources. Yisrael steers all conversation away from party politics, but does highlight one particular complaint: Registered charitable institutions like his have to pay 15.5% Value Added Tax on the food they distribute, with the exception of vegetables, and VAT too for the vans that deliver the food. "We are doing work that the government should be doing," he says. "And believe me, I feel privileged that I am able to do it. But if the government is not going to help, at the very least let it not hinder us." He says the VAT issue has been raised on his behalf at the very highest government echelons. Again, the earth has been promised. Still, the requirement remains in force. And thousands upon thousands of additional meals that could be bought with that money are lost to the growing silent army of Israel's hungry.