This is the Bat Mitzvah party that 12-year-old Ayelet of Brooklyn, New York did not have: An elegant affair with an orchestra, lush floral centerpieces, and a Viennese dessert table, with an $18,000 price tag.
This is the Bat Mitzvah party that Ayelet did have: Her family went to a dusty warehouse in a Jerusalem industrial park and packed 600 cartons of food -- flour, rice, pasta, oil, sugar, tuna and other staples -- for impoverished families. The warehouse was swelteringly hot on that Israeli summer day. There was no air conditioning, no music, and no flowers. There was a birthday cake for Ayelet, provided by Yad Eliezer, the organization behind the food distribution project. And there was the satisfaction of knowing that her family's $18,000 contribution would keep more than 3,000 Jewish children from going to bed hungry -- at least for part of the next month.
THE FACTS AND FACES OF HUNGER
Hunger has become a pressing problem in Israel over the last few years. With the start of the terrorist war in September, 2000, Israel's tourism industry -- the country's second largest industry -- plummeted. Hi-tech, Israel's #1 industry, soon followed. The result was the closing of tens of thousands of companies and an unemployment rate of 11%. With the economy in shambles, the government was forced to slash its budget. It made draconian cuts in all sectors, but child stipends and grants to single mothers were particularly hard hit.
In 2003, 1.4 million Israelis, or 22% of the population, lived below the poverty line. The figures for 2004 were even worse.
The result: In 2003, 1.4 million Israelis, or 22% of the population, lived below the poverty line, up from 20% the previous year. The figures for 2004 were even worse, with 119,000 more Israelis joining the ranks of the "seriously impoverished."
A December, 2004 report from the Israel National Council for the Child reported that the number of children afflicted by desperate poverty increased by 10 percent from 2003 to 2004 -- an addition of some 60,000 children.
Yesterday morning 51-year-old Dina* stood at the entrance to her local grocery store, clutching her last five shekels ($1.25) in her hand. With six hungry children at home, she stood and debated, "Bread or milk?" Finally she decided on a loaf of bread, so that her children wouldn't have to suffer the humiliation of not bringing a sandwich to school -- even with nothing in it.
Three years ago Dina divorced her abusive husband; he contributes no child support whatsoever. (Over 70% of families helped by Yad Eliezer have a father who is absent physically or mentally.) Dina, who is a skilled seamstress, took a course in fashion design. She has not been able to find work, and, despite pasting up flyers advertising her services wherever she goes, the occasional commission to sew a dress adds but a pittance to the family coffers. Dina's two sons in the Israeli army receive a stipend of 500 shekels a month, barely enough to supply their own needs with nothing left over to help the family.
Two years ago, Dina was receiving 3,000 shekels ($681) monthly child allowance from the Israeli government. Today the payments have dwindled to 1200 shekels ($272). In addition, as an unemployed single mother, she receives 2,500 shekels a month from social security. Of that sum, 2,000 shekels a month goes to pay for her children's education. Given that food and utilities in Israel cost one-third more than in the United States, it's little wonder that ends do not meet.
When Dina's overdraft grew too big, the bank closed her account and bounced all her outstanding checks. The shoe store, her children's schools, the local grocery store -- all are clamoring for their payments, but Dina has nothing to give them.
As for food, Dina depends on Yad Eliezer for her staples, which she picks up every month from a distribution center near her apartment. Yad Eliezer also gives away fresh fruit and vegetables, agricultural surplus contributed by kibbutzim, but the distribution center is too far away for Dina to schlep the produce home, and she has no money for bus fare.
According to a survey conducted by the Israel Ministry of Health, over 18% of Israeli children go to bed hungry at least one night a week, without having had supper.
The survey showed that in addition to those families unable to give sufficient food to their children, many more are forced to give their children unbalanced diets, based almost entirely on carbohydrates and starches, with insufficient protein and vitamins. "The long term ramifications of this kind of under-nutrition are significant," declared Dr. Nitzan Kilosky, who was in charge of the project for the Health Ministry.
Some 13.5% of Jewish children in Israel suffer from malnutrition.
Thirty-six-year-old Vered is a distraught mother. Last week her water heater exploded, bursting pipes and causing leaks in her ceiling and floor. When the plumber told her it would cost $2,000 to fix all the damage and buy a new water heater, Vered experienced chest pains and difficulty breathing -- not a heart attack, but "a broken heart," as Vered describes it. He might as well have asked her for the moon.
Vered used to receive 3,500 shekels monthly in child allowance for her seven children. Now she gets 2,000 shekels, with further cuts in sight. This month's payment was 300 shekels less than what she had been receiving.
There's no food in the house. "I watch the calendar, waiting for the first of the month," Vered declares. On that date she'll get her monthly carton of food from Yad Eliezer. Meanwhile, she cleans for a disabled neighbor -- one hour each day for ten shekels ($2.27), all that the neighbor can afford. It pays for a minimal amount of bread and milk for her family. Vered walks 15 minutes in each direction to save half a shekel (11 cents) on a liter of milk at a distant grocery store. Since she buys four liters of milk a week, she saves a total of 44 cents. "Two shekels is two shekels," she remarks with a dour expression.
Three of the window panes in Vered's apartment are broken. She has covered them up with plastic bags from the grocery store, a weak protection from the winter cold. "A new pane of glass costs 30 shekels ($6.81)," she explains, "but I don't have 30 shekels."
"I used to contribute to Yad Eliezer," Vered comments grimly. "That was before the cut in child allowance. I never imagined that I would be dependent on them to feed my children."
Vered wears a faded, stained housedress. "I've been wearing this for 11 years," she mentions. "I have one other, almost as old. I don't mind not having clothes. But," she adds with tears in her eyes, "how will I bathe my children without a hot water heater?"
For 50,000 Israelis, the only thing that stands between them and starvation is Yad Eliezer.
According to a study commissioned by Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics and reported in Haaretz on August 9, 2004, 14% of Israelis aged 20 and over -- an estimated 550,000 people -- have refrained from food purchases in the past year due to financial difficulties, while half a million passed up on buying needed medications. (Most medications are covered by Israel's national health insurance, but a standard charge of 20 shekels is necessary to fill every perscription, a minimal fee beyond the means of Israel's poor.)
The annual study also revealed that 46% of Israelis do not manage to cover their monthly household expenses.
The study -- based on a poll taken among a sample of 7,200 Israelis aged 20 and over from all regions of the country -- also found that 65% are in need of dental care, yet 45% -- over one million Israelis -- could not afford to seek dental treatment.
The study further found that:
- 14% reported that in 2002 their phone or electric line was disconnected due to inability to pay their bill.
- 54% of Israelis have given up on clothes and shoe shopping.
- 59% forwent basic household renovations.
- 38% of Israelis forwent heating and air conditioning in their homes due to lack of money.
- 37% do not believe their financial situation will change for the better.
While the standard of living of the general Israeli population dropped by 4.6% during the last year, the standard of living of the lowest tenth of the population dropped 12% and the second lowest tenth by 7%. This means that poor families got even poorer.
For 50,000 Israelis, the only thing that stands between them and starvation is Yad Eliezer.
Yad Eliezer was started 27 years ago when Yaacov and Hadassah Weisel became aware that two families in their Jerusalem neighborhood had no food. The Weisel children went around to their neighbors and collected a couple bags of noodles from this family, a couple cans from that family.
Yad Eliezer feeds 7,000 families in 18 Israeli cities and towns each month.
Yad Eliezer now feeds 7,000 families in 18 Israeli cities and towns each month. The basic components of the Yad Eliezer food carton (worth $100) are bought directly from the producers. Each carton also contains supplemental items -- from tea and tahina to cookies and canned pineapple -- collected door-to-door by nearly 3,000 volunteers. The sight of a pair of eight-year-old girls pulling a shopping cart laden with cans and dry goods around their neighborhood is the prototypic picture of Yad Eliezer's ubiquitous food drives.
For those due to age or infirmity who cannot cook their own meals, Yad Eliezer's kitchen provides hot cooked meals for 600 individuals/families weekly. Every month over 1,000 women volunteers bake cakes for brisses and other festive occasions celebrated by destitute families.
Through close cooperation with the Department of Agriculture, $2,500,000 worth of surplus fruits and vegetables -- which would otherwise be destroyed -- are picked up from agricultural settlements by Yad Eliezer's fleet of ten trucks and delivered to central distribution points throughout Israel.
In order to qualify for help from Yad Eliezer, a family must fill out a detailed application form, listing all income and debts, and accompanied by bank records. Ownership of a car or money in the bank automatically disqualifies a family from Yad Eliezer's assistance.
The Israeli economy's dire state, and the consequent cuts in social allocations, have created what Yad Eliezer's Managing Director Milca Ben Zimun describes as "a catastrophe beyond description." According to Mrs. Ben Zimun, "There has been a 500% increase in hunger in Israel."
The problems of poverty are multi-faceted. An absent or unemployed father forms the basis of most of the tragic stories of Yad Eliezer beneficiaries, but the situation is usually compounded by health problems, which are often multi-generational. One family, for example, lost an eight-year-old daughter to cancer last year, and now their six-year-old daughter has received the dread diagnosis. The youngest child was born with Down syndrome. The father is also stricken with cancer, making it impossible for him to hold a job. A family beset with so many different troubles simply cannot get on its feet. Yad Eliezer helps them with food and cash, and also pays for summer camp for the children.
Yad Eliezer is a win-win operation. Whenever possible, they hire people who, for one reason or another, cannot find other employment. During the summer vacation, at-risk teenagers, for whom camp is a distant dream, are "employed" to pack the food cartons in Yad Eliezer's warehouse. Yad Eliezer provides them with bus fare and the Municipality of Jerusalem pays them pocket money. The teenagers love feeling contributive, and clamor to help out beyond their morning hours.
Twenty-seven years after its inception in the Weisels' kitchen, Yad Eliezer continues to operate with the personal touch of a concerned fellow Jew. On a recent winter day, a depressed Dina (the unemployed seamstress above) came into Yad Eliezer's Jerusalem office clutching her 828 shekel electric bill. Yad Eliezer has no official program for paying utility bills. But if the single mother of six children came to you in the dead of winter with a bill on which her family's heat and light depended, what would you do?
That's what Yad Eliezer's Director Rabbi Dov Weisel did. "If it weren't for Yad Eliezer," remarks Dina shaking her head, "I don't know what I'd do."
Ditto that 50,000 times over.
Contributions to Yad Eliezer are tax-deductible in the U.S. and can be sent to:
1102 East 26th St.
Brooklyn, NY 11210
Or go to www.yadeliezer.org
*The names of the poor have been changed.