On a Wednesday morning in late July, Avi Amsalem is standing in front of the soup kitchen he founded and runs in Ashdod, Israel's fourth-largest city. A couple in their 40s and a young man approach him. "We're told we could find food here," they say, explaining that they're refugees from the North, five families all together, staying nearby. Avi greets them warmly and goes into his kitchen to pack up a hot meal for 20.
The couple, Claudio and Sarah, made aliyah from Argentina five years ago. They live in Kiryat Bialik, north of Haifa, with their four children. Claudio works, or rather worked, as a security guard in a Haifa mall. When the Katyushas started falling in their neighborhood, they fled. Why to Ashdod? They have no relatives anywhere in Israel, but when they first made aliyah, they were housed in an Absorption Center in Ashdod. It's the only safe city they know.
Their companion Gil, 24, fled south with his younger sister right after he saw a Katyusha strike next to his family's Acre apartment. His older brother had already been called up to active duty at the start of the war. Gil, two years out of the army, has not yet been called up. His 64-year-old father, who suffers from high blood pressure, refused to leave his home for an unknown destination, so Gil's parents remain in Acre.
Claudio's family, Gil and his sister, and three other families are staying with Tzion Biton, a Jew they had never met until they found themselves homeless in Ashdod. Mr. Biton owns a small building in the city. The first two floors are wedding halls. The Biton family lives on the third floor and he has given the top floor to war refugees. It consists of one huge room with a bathroom and a refrigerator. The Municipality of Ashdod has provided army cots and foam mattresses. Mrs. Biton has provided sheets and towels. "There's a shower and a TV," Sarah says with a smile. "What more do we need?"
Sarah, a mother of eight-year-old twins, most appreciates the informal "day camp" the Biton family is providing for the refugee children.
"Here in Israel, it's like a family. Everyone helps each other."
When asked if she's sorry she left Argentina for Israel, a country wracked by war, Sarah shakes her head vehemently. "No, it's our country," she asserts, adding that there was a lot of anti-Semitism in Argentina. "Here in Israel, it's like a family," she notes. "Everyone helps each other."
Ashdod, a port city a half-hour south of Tel Aviv, is celebrating its jubilee year. It started out as a tent camp for Moroccan Jewish refugees. (The nascent State of Israel faced the challenge of absorbing 600,000 immigrants—Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees from Arab lands—into its original population of 600,000 Jews.) The tent camp of Ashdod became a development town and then, with the construction of a modern port, a thriving city of 230,000 residents.
Ashdod is Israel's third-poorest city. It has only one soup kitchen -- Manna Hamma, founded three years ago by Avi Amsalem and six of his friends. Avi himself was one of ten children from a family of Moroccan immigrants. When he grew up, he realized that giving food to those caught in the cycle of poverty freed up their meager income to be spent on rent, utilities, and other necessities.
Avi and his friends began delivering food parcels to indigent homes once a month. "But people started asking for food once a week, for Shabbat. I saw that they were keeping that Shabbat food, making it stretch for the whole week. So we decided to open up a place where people could come every day for a hot meal."
Manna Hamma is staffed entirely by volunteers. It now feeds some 200 people a day, most of them elderly. The premises are small and simple: a kitchen and an adjoining "dining room," where long tables covered with flowered, oilcloth tablecloths and handsome dining room chairs provide places for about 30 people at a time. The air-conditioning is broken on this hot summer day. "We have no money to fix it," Avi apologizes.
Outside the soup kitchen no sign announces its name or function. "We don't want to embarrass the people who come," explains Avi.
"Before I found this place, I was eating out of garbage cans."
By 11:00 AM, a half hour before the doors officially open, people begin to gather. It's a varied clientele. Jacob, 51, made aliyah from India in 1979. He worked for El Al as a maintenance man and did other menial jobs until his health broke down. He is partly blind. He lives with his wife, but his two children were long ago taken away and put into foster care. "There is no one like Avi," Jacob testifies. "Before I found this place, I was eating out of garbage cans."
In addition to the soup kitchen, Manna Hamma sends 80 hot lunches a day to local schools for those children whose cupboards are empty.
Manna Hamma also delivers 180 meals a day to shut-ins. By noon, the small Renault that transports these meals has finished its mission and is parked in front of the soup kitchen. "We really need a bigger vehicle," Avi comments, pointing to the Renault. Painted on its rear doors are the Hebrew words: "GIVE YOUR HEART AND YOUR SOUL TO MANNA HAMMA."
Why doesn't it say, "YOUR MONEY"? I ask.
"I'll tell you something," Avi replies. "When a person comes and gives a good word, that's also a contribution."
CATERED FOOD, COTS, AND CALLS
In Ashdod, Avi is the address for food. Late the previous Thursday night, his phone rang. An official from the Ashdod Municipality was calling to ask him to provide Shabbat food for 300 refugees from the North being housed in local community centers.
"When someone asks for food, you can't say, ‘no,'" Avi asserts. He immediately agreed, intending to prepare the food in his soup kitchen. But then, feeling their pain as if they were his own family, he changed his mind. "These people were under attack. They are traumatized, far from home, and uncertain when they will get to go back and what they'll find when they do. The better-off ones are staying in hotels or with family. Those people staying in community centers need more than food. They need their sense of honor restored."
On Friday morning, Avi went to a professional caterer and ordered 900 portions—three Shabbat meals each for 300 people. It cost him $6,000. "Now I have to come up with the money," he mentions sheepishly.
According to Yossi Enteby, the Assistant Director of Ashdod's municipal hotline, thousands of refugees from the North have moved in with Ashdod residents. In addition, 500 refugees are living in community centers, dorms, and schools. The municipality provides cots, foam mattresses, and cribs. In addition, anyone whose identity card sports a northern address gets free admission to all municipal pools and community center activities. The city is also organizing special activities and shows for the refugees. "We don't provide food," Mr. Enteby explains, looking at Avi. "That's not our job."
The anteroom to Mr. Enteby's office is piled high with boxes of jigsaw puzzles -- a gift to displaced children from the manufacturer. The municipal hotline is besieged with citizens calling with offers to help refugees. "There's no lack of good people here. We are really a strong nation," Mr. Enteby asserts. "I just saw this message on the internet." He turns his computer screen to reveal the Hebrew words for: "BLESSINGS TO NASRALLAH FOR UNITING THE NATION."
THE SPIRITUAL BATTLE
Avi, the Biton family, the puzzle manufacturer, and the thousands of families all over Israel who have opened up their homes to the refugees are contributing more to the war effort than is immediately obvious. In fact, whenever Avi feeds an elderly or destitute person, he is mobilizing "spiritual troops" not just in Ashdod, but also at the Northern front. How?
According to Judaism, whenever a Jew performs a mitzvah, s/he creates a positive spiritual force called a malach, or angel, that can be sent to a designated destination: a sick patient, a person in danger, or a soldier in battle. Ultimately, of course, God runs the world, and He alone decides to where to direct these spiritual forces. But in the Jewish worldview, it is entirely conceivable that Avi Amsalem's 180 meals to shut-ins last Thursday could have created 180 angels who deflected Katyusha rockets heading toward Jewish homes and sent them into empty courtyards instead.
The soldier's job is to fight the war; the civilian's job is to pray, learn Torah, and do mitzvot to protect that soldier.
A campaign is currently underway to match up "fighting pairs" of Israeli soldiers with Jews in Israel and the Diaspora. The soldier's job is to fight the war; the civilian's job is to pray, learn Torah, and do mitzvot so as to protect that soldier. This was the practice in the time of King David, whose successful military campaigns created the Kingdom of Israel.
I met a valiant warrior like this last week in Ashdod. Had she been wearing a uniform, it might have revealed her as a high-ranking officer. Instead, she was wearing shorts and a tank top and pulling behind her a shopping cart. Her name is Deganit and she is the 33-year-old mother of three children.
She came into a community center room converted into a dormitory for war refugees. The room was lined with cots, on which were sitting the depressed, displaced, shell-shocked refugees, holding their crying babies. Deganit walked up to a family from Tsfat and announced: "Give me your baby's dirty laundry. I'll wash it at home and return it to you clean." The mother from Tsfat, who had been doing all her five children's laundry by hand, hugged Deganit. As she started rummaging through a plastic bag to pick out the dirty laundry, Deganit proceeded to the next family and made her offer.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked Deganit. "It's summer. You could be sitting by the pool instead of collecting other people's dirty laundry."
Deganit looked at me in consternation. "I should be sitting by the pool?!" she exclaimed. "There's a war going on! If we don't help each other, then what are we?"
I could almost see the angel ascending from her shopping cart, flying northward.
Contributions to Manna Hamma can be sent to P.O.B. 8450, Ashdod, Israel or, to donate by credit card, call 9728-856-4373. Every contribution creates an angel!
Using the comment section below, tell us what activities you're doing to help the Jewish people.
The prophet Isaiah proclaimed: "Zion will be redeemed by justice, and Jerusalem by tzedaka."