Israelis take Purim seriously – kids get the day off school, many towns put on a lively Purim parade, and the streets are filled with people of all ages running about in costumes, delivering mishloach manot baskets of prepared food goodies to their friends and neighbors before sitting down to a festive meal – a seudah – that includes plenty of spirits.
But all these items add up, and Purim can be a costly event. For the one third of all Israeli children who live in poverty, Purim wouldn’t be Purim without the help of an array of non-profit organizations who take the holiday’s other mitzvah to heart.
According to Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish scholar, “Gifts for the poor [matanot l’evyonim] deserve more attention than the seudah and mishloach manot because there is no greater, richer happiness than bringing joy to the hearts of needy people, orphans, widows and proselytes.”
Many organizations that are set up to help the poor are run by Torah observant Israelis, and at Purim they go into high gear to fulfill the precept of Maimonides.
Rabbi Yakov Schischa, founder and director of the Tov V’Chesed Foundation based in Jerusalem’s Meah Shearim neighborhood, explains how his group not only prepares and delivers hundreds of mishloach manot Purim baskets packed with prepared foods, sweets, wine, and toys, but also sends out teams of volunteers who visit single-parent families to spend time bringing Purim joy into homes that may be short on simcha (happiness). A large number of the families also receive a gift of cash in honor of Purim, “but we know it will actually get used to prepare for Passover,” he notes.
As the child of a large, poor, haredi family, Rabbi Schischa remembers the humiliation of standing in line for food handouts, so Tov V’Chesed makes a point of preserving the dignity of recipients by having volunteers make home deliveries. His organization serves some 2,500 families per year.
The motto of Yad Ezra V’Shulamit, another group founded by someone with first-hand knowledge of growing up poor, is “Breaking the Cycle of Poverty One Child at a Time.”
Aryeh Lurie, a religious businessman, named the organization after his parents who despite their own difficult circumstances managed to help neighbors with food.
The organization, which has been running since 1998, operates on a nationwide scale. Spokesperson Meira Brandwein elaborates on those who turn to Yad Ezra V’Shulamit. “The families we reach are in very deep poverty,” Brandwein says. “They’re not just people who have fallen on hard times. These are people who need immediate relief, “ she adds. The breadwinner in a family dies; someone in the family needs urgent specialized medical care; a working single parent loses her job – situations that can spiral out of control and leave a family with no resources.
Brandwein enumerates the programs that serve more than 1,000 children every day with hot meals as well as tutoring and social programs; clubs for teens at risk; food baskets filled with healthy food for 2,800 families per week; vocational counseling for the unemployed; and financial assistance to help with bar/bat mitzvah and wedding celebrations, winter clothes, and school supplies that are beyond the budget of those at the bottom of Israel’s economic ladder.
For Purim, matanot l’evyonim donations to Yad Ezra V’Shulamit are added to the funds that come from a mix of private Israeli and foreign donors, U.S Jewish federations and in-kind contributions from Israeli businesses, to provide needy families with items to enable them to feel part of the holiday.
At the restaurants run by Meir Panim, a network of nutrition-related programs for the poor, Purim is a time for increased efforts to bring relief to thousands in need.