Yael's corner: The war on poverty

"It’s better to die than to live like this,” a heartbreaking sentiment I have heard far too many times from poor elderly Israelis.

A man in Jerusalem searching through the garbage (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A man in Jerusalem searching through the garbage
David is an elderly man who recently called the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews in fear and despair. “I borrowed $1,500 from the black market in order to cover my electric bills,” he said. “I have no way to pay them back and they’re coming to my door every week threatening me. Please help.”
Although this situation might sound far-fetched, sadly, it is far from it.
David is one of the tens of thousands of elderly in Israel who live alone in debilitating poverty, and each month desperately tries to spread out the $500 state stipend he receives to cover all of his bills.
“I live on the top floor of an old apartment building without an elevator, I take half of the medicine that my doctors prescribe me, and I only take a hot shower once a week,” he told me.
“I have cut back in every place possible and have come to the conclusion that I simply can’t survive on the income I have. I borrowed money so that my electricity wouldn’t be shut off, but now I can’t pay it back. It’s better to die than to live like this,” David said in despair, which is a heartbreaking sentiment I have heard far too many times from poor elderly Israelis.
The government’s Poverty Report for 2014 was released recently, confirming the reality every nonprofit in the Holy Land knows all too well: that David’s desperate situation is not out of the ordinary, nor a problem that is going to go away by itself. The report documents that more than 1.7 million Israelis live below the poverty line, yet almost all independent studies have shown that to be a very conservative number. The reality on the ground is that more than 25 percent of Israelis live in poverty, and no one is immune.
Sitting at a Shabbat table while discussing the disturbing numbers coming out on the “war on poverty,” I concluded that we’re clearly losing the fight. I saw many people roll their eyes. “The number is exaggerated by the haredi and Arab populations,” a middle-aged man confidently said, echoing the thoughts of others. I have heard this sentiment many times. Yet to me, that’s just an easy excuse for everyone who is not haredi or Arab to deflect their responsibly in the fight on poverty.
What do I see as our responsibly in this war? First, to simply care.
Too many people have become comfortable dismissing the horrifying statistics on poverty by trying to rationalize them. Yet there is no rationalizing the fact that Israel is one of the only developed, Western countries with such a high percentage of working poor, needy Holocaust survivors and hungry children. And that has nothing to do with our national scapegoat excuse of the “Haredi and Arab problem.”
For years I have been asking myself how the statistics continue to worsen when it comes to the social welfare of Israel’s people. With more than 60,000 registered nonprofits in this tiny country, how are there still people who feel like they have nowhere to turn for help? How do we have elderly who are so desperate that they dream of dying? How do we have a surplus of food, yet children who go to sleep hungry? More than 12 years ago, my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, identified this problem and, in response, immediately opened up IFCJ offices in Jerusalem.
Since then, we have distributed over half a billion dollars sponsoring more than 400 organizations across Israel, and we recently moved into direct aid in order to ease the suffering of the people in the Holy Land in the area of poverty and security. We have started national food programs for elderly, clothing programs for orphans, scholarship programs for Druse, and dental programs for the poor, among many other projects. We reached over 1.4 million people with aid last year alone.
Yet the longer we’re in the field, the more problems we identify.
This past year we have been working to address the fact that there are many nonprofits, yet no centralized phone number for people in need to turn to in order to learn about available aid.
For the police, you dial 100, ambulance 101, fire 102, but what phone number do you call when you are a single mother whose refrigerator is broken and you can’t afford a new one? Or when you’re elderly without money for eyeglasses, or you’re sick and facing eviction? For emergency situations like these, exactly one year ago IFCJ opened the historic Kav Yedidut service, which provides a social help line for any type of problem. The statistics are eye opening.
Forty-two percent of calls for help came from Tel Aviv and central Israel – not haredi or Arab cities – and the most reported problems related to debt, health, food and housing.
In dealing with nearly 10,000 calls, IFCJ directed people to the right place to get help, let people know about state aid they’re entitled to, set up local volunteers, distributed emergency aid, and in some situations contacted the media, who publicized the story of people in need, which usually leads to people rushing in to help. In 2016, we are equipped to deal with 10 times the amount of calls we received in 2015.
If I had to summarize what makes the people of Israel extraordinary, it would be that we all feel responsible for one another. When there is a terrorist attack, everyone runs toward the scene of attack to help. When young men or women orphaned by terrorist attacks get married, the entire country celebrates with them. When a child falls, everyone on the street stops to help him get up.
And now, with Kav Yedidut, we can all unify to meet the emergency social needs of 1.7 million Israelis who are caught in a cycle of despair and who previously had nowhere to turn to for help.
If you know someone in Israel who needs help or wants to volunteer to help those in need, call Kav Yedidut at (02) 995-5600.
The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.