Last week two frightening poverty reports were published here in Israel. The y made me feel ashamed that in this hi-tech, highly developed, chesed-filled country there are still so many hungry people.
According to the reports, nearly a million children go to bed on an empty stomach and leave for school in the morning the same way.
I remember our rude awakening to the poverty in every neighborhood just a few months after we made aliyah. The amazing people who run our local food gemach live just a few blocks away and one day they called my husband.
“Do you think you could stop by the yeshiva on your way home and pick up the leftover food to bring back to the food gemach, please?”
“Sure,” my husband replied.
He pulled up to the yeshiva kitchen entrance expecting tasty leftovers from some unusual yeshiva bachurim. I mean, what normal bachur leaves decent food at lunchtime? That thought should have been his first clue.
He was surprised when a box containing leftover pieces of bread and noodles was loaded into his car.
When he arrived at the gemach he asked Meir, the gemach organizer, “You mean people are so hungry they look forward to getting this?”
“And how,” Meir replied. “I’ll make a few phone calls and you’ll see how quickly everything gets taken.”
I have to admit I was so naïve. We live in a popular, modern area of Jerusalem, with the population divided more or less equally between Israelis and immigrants – but I obviously don’t really know my neighbors. People arrived to pick up this meager food within minutes of my husband’s arrival. Of course he didn’t look to see who they were, but they arrived so quickly on foot that they obviously hadn’t come far.
How much do we know about our neighbors’ and even our friends’ financial situations? Here in Israel, since the last government’s draconian budget cuts to kollel stipends and child allowance, many families have fallen well below the poverty line while keeping a brave face and a closed refrigerator so people won’t see their true situation.
One of the organizers of the local chesed committee confided to my husband that so many givers have been forced to become receivers over the past two years.
The Jewish people are renowned for their gemilut chasadim. Money pours in during Adar and Nissan to make sure everyone can enjoy a bit extra on Purim and Pesach.
Purim’s matanot le’evyonim are looked forward to with delight by many local families, and as this is a mostly religious area people are careful to donate the required amount. We are all aware of the dictum that it better to increase out matanot le’evyonim than our mishloach manot.
A couple of weeks after Purim, just after Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the familiar phone call comes every year:
“Please let us know when you have any room in your freezer for the gemach food. Baruch Hashem we’re already overflowing.”
For many years now our local food gemach has been collecting pre-Pesach chametz that people would otherwise probably throw away. They find places to store it, sell it for Pesach, and then distribute it after the Yom Tov is over.
Straight after Purim I try to clear out my freezer and start eating various unknown surprise packets at the back so that I can give a shelf or two to the gemach for the frozen food it receives.
The woman who allows the food to be collected in her home deserves an award as tzaddekes of the year. I don’t know if she always goes away for Pesach but her home the week before the chag looks like a chametz warehouse, with tons of food items waiting to be distributed. The food gets stored with people who are able to donate some room in their refrigerator or freezer over Pesach. Then after Pesach it is returned to her for distribution to needy families.
At first I couldn’t believe the things people gave: a quarter of a jar of jello, half a packet of puff pastry, two soya burgers, one tenth of a packet of farfel, two homemade schnitzels, etc.
I no longer express my surprise out loud as I now realize there are many people who will gratefully accept these leftovers and stretch them out to make a hearty meal after Pesach.
Kimche dePischa, the traditional collection for poor people to help them get matzos, wine, oil, and other basics to make a Seder, is usually responded to very well by community members. But what about afterward? Pesach is just one week a year and so many people are hungry the other 51 weeks.
These poverty reports should be a wake-up call to us and to Jews the world over. Now more than ever, money for hungry families is needed in every neighborhood in Israel every month of the year.