Yes, of course, we all think that in Israel today no one can truly go hungry. After all, there are supportive communities, neighbors, charitable organizations. So some people might have trouble making ends meet; others might be in debt. But food? Everyone has a bare minimum of food. That’s what people think, or at least that’s what they tell themselves.
The problem is that this assumption has nothing to do with reality. Here, for instance, is a shocking story that came to light just a month ago at a Chasdei Naomi branch in central Israel.
B., a regular recipient of Chasdei Naomi assistance and herself a volunteer at the local branch, pleaded to have the food basket for another family enlarged, as their income had declined. Organization staff visited the family and what they found left them aghast.
At home were a couple and their two children, aged 3 and 7. The father suffers from advanced diabetes, renal disease and an array of other health problems. The mother, an epileptic, does not work.
Over the years the family had managed to survive, barely, through the sale of scrap metal and discarded objects that the father found in trash receptacles, in addition to a disability allowance and food baskets provided by Chasdei Naomi. However, they were forced to make do with only the most basic necessities, and to forgo many needed medications due to financial reasons.
This, in turn, recently caused the father’s health to deteriorate even farther; the diabetes has affected his vision and he now hardly ever leaves the house. As a consequence, the tiny income from scrap metal that helped keep the family afloat has been lost. The family tried to cut back its spending even more, but finally turned in despair to Chasdei Naomi with a request for increased assistance and greater supplies of food.
Once this perilous state of affairs became known, aid packages were sent to the family immediately by Chasdei Naomi’s logistics center, and Lev Naomi staffers mobilized to help fund needed medications and medical equipment.
In the busy days before Rosh Hashana, when most of us were preoccupied either with holiday preparations or with reflection on our deeds of the past year, we made time for a brief but meaningful talk with some of Chasdei Naomi’s angels of mercy.
Chasdei Naomi, which has now been active for 31 years, was founded by one visionary person – Rabbi Yosef Cohen. It all started when he was taking his children to school and noticed that some of his children’s classmates were coming to school with torn book-bags and threadbare clothes. “He was overwhelmed with pity for those poor families,” the organization’s personnel recall, relating further that Rabbi Cohen took it upon himself to go from house to house collecting food products and distributing them to the needy. That was the beginning. But over time an entire voluntary enterprise emerged: storage facilities were built and mobile units were deployed for the collection of donated goods.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe how modest the beginnings were. Today, when the organization regularly supports tens of thousands of families and provides occasional assistance to thousands of others – employing a volunteer staff of 20,000 at 42 sites around the country – the project’s genesis seems unrealistic indeed. But it happened, and is still happening, all the time and everywhere.
The volunteer team also includes an “intermediate” cadre who are responsible for collecting food products from their neighbors and having them delivered via the organization’s drivers to Chasdei Naomi’s sorting and packing centers, from where they are then distributed to the families who need them.
The distribution method, which is designed with the recipients’ dignity in mind, is also unique. The packages intended for the needy families and widows are brought to them by delivery-company employees – a method that masks the purpose of the deliveries and spares the wife and children embarrassment.
We talked with the heads of the Bat Yam distribution center, which of course serves not only Bat Yam but nearby localities as well.
“All year long it’s like the aftermath of an earthquake here, we’re an organization that gets requests all the time,” the center staff explain. “The requests, by the way, are not just from families; the Ministry of Social Affairs calls us all the time from all over the country, asking us to bring packages. “People go to them, the Social Affairs Ministry, and they aren’t able to help everybody. Everyone who comes from there is on file with major problems, they check and then they call us, give us a detailed report on the family, and we know, unfortunately, that any family that comes from the Social Affairs Ministry is a family in dire straits that needs urgent assistance.”
Stage 1, as they describe it, is a kind of “first aid.” “Right on the spot we authorize a package for them, or a holiday basket, depending on the time of year. They get fruit, vegetables, baby formula and a full array of basic necessities. The next stage is when they’re added to our list of regular recipients. We fill out forms, get a report from the social worker and the bank, and then, as authorized by the evaluating committee, we keep providing regular support.”
The donated items – all of them – come from the organization’s headquarters in Bnei Brak. “We get everything from them,” the Bat Yam staffers relate. “The huge trucks go out from the Arava to the Golan every day to collect the goods from the suppliers, and then they’re brought at night to Bnei Brak where it’s all unloaded and put into cartons for the [distribution] stations.
“We receive the goods in an orderly way and then, on a pre-determined date, the families come to us, by invitation and with the list [of] what they get; they just have to show up, take their things and go.”
But if it’s like an “earthquake” throughout the year, as they say, then when holidays come around it’s a complete tsunami. Large as the regular packages naturally are, holiday needs are even greater, and the phone calls start many weeks before the festivals begin.
“Before the holidays everybody remembers that they don’t have anything to eat,” say Chasdei Naomi personnel with a sorrow borne of long experience observing other people’s distress, “and that’s besides the thousands who get assistance throughout the year. At these times quite a few new families show up.” Here our conversation was interrupted for a few minutes. “Just now a woman from Netanya came to us, an older woman, crying that she has no food for the holiday. She so wants to celebrate the holiday in a dignified way, but she asks for a bottle of wine for Kiddush and a few other things for the meal. It’s heartbreaking.
“The difference between this year and all the many other years we’ve been doing this charitable work,” say Chasdei Naomi personnel, “is that it used to be large families that came to ask for help, it was hard for them with eight or ten kids. But now we’re getting requests from y ounger people with three or four children, they’re coming and asking for help. Today’s expenses are so high, they’re left with nothing. All their money goes for rent, clothing, school, and young families are literally starving. That’s something we, unfortunately, have never seen before.”
And the families’ needs are being met, with dignity. Chasdei Naomi staff contact them shortly after receiving their requests to schedule a convenient time and place, so they won’t be ashamed – so people won’t think they’re receiving charity.
The large number of families who receive assistance throughout the year actually doubles – and more – during the holiday season. And in order to meet the demand, volunteers work day and night, right up to the moment the holiday begins. “We’re used to it,” they say. “We’re about to light candles, and we get a phone call from a family that doesn’t have food for the holiday. And even with that we’re able to cope. We’ve learned to understand the distress of families in need, and that makes it possible for us to help them.”