Last week Hershel Puretz paid 50,000 shekels [almost $13,000] in bi-monthly heating bills to the Israel Electric Corporation. Does he own several windswept mansions? A large factory? A hotel? No, Hershel, originally from Brooklyn, lives in a modest apartment in Jerusalem’s Mattersdorf neighborhood. A full-time yeshiva student, he is 30 years old, married, and has three children. The heating bills are not his at all. They belong to a couple hundred destitute Israeli families.
This week Hershel has to come up with 60,000 shekels for several hundred other families. If he doesn’t, they will be like the nearly 100,000 other Israeli families who had their electricity cut off during the last year because of their inability to pay their heating bills.
And it’s not just heating bills that Hershel pays for. In the last four years, he has given oil-filled electric radiators (the safest, most economical heating solution) to 1,844 families who live in apartments that lack central heating: elderly people; young couples with newborn babies; indigent families who can barely afford food and rent, whose children (before Hershel stepped in) slept in their tattered coats; and people for whom cold could mean not only discomfort but also illness, or even death.
Brooklyn born and bred, Hershel Puretz never used to worry about heaters and heating bills. He grew up in Flatbush (where his parents still live) in a house with central heating. When he came to Jerusalem eight years ago to learn in yeshivah he lived with other students in an old apartment building without heat, but he was young and hearty and didn’t care. Then, at the age of 24, he married a young woman from New Jersey, and they moved into a new apartment with central heating. When their first baby was born two winters later, they simply raised the thermostat for the baby’s health. Hershel, however, started to wonder how poor families in old apartments without heaters managed when they had a baby.
Around that time, in the middle of a very harsh winter, the father-in-law of Hershel’s friend moved into an expensive new home in Jerusalem. To show his gratitude to God, he wanted to contribute a sum of money for the poor, “to be used for people’s homes.” Hershel suggested buying space heaters. The donor agreed. Hershel bought 40 heaters and distributed them to families who lived in unheated apartment buildings. Having performed an important mitzvah, Hershel thought he was done. However, word had gotten out, and more cold families appealed to Hershel for help. He somehow raised enough money to buy sixty more heaters.
The next winter, as soon as cold weather hit, Hershel’s phone started ringing. “I hadn’t realized the magnitude of the problem,” Hershel recalls. Even more jolting, he found out that some of the heaters he had distributed the previous winter were still in their boxes. Families who couldn’t afford to buy an $85 heater also couldn’t afford to pay $200 for electricity to run the heater through the worst months of winter. (Electricity rates in Israel are almost double those of the United States.)
Hershel approached the Israel Electric Corporation, one of Israel’s last remaining government-owned companies. He asked that he be allowed to pay part of the electric bill, equivalent to the average heating cost, for particular indigent families. The electric company refused. Their computers did not permit the possibility of paying partial bills. Besides, in a society as fractured between religious and secular as Israel’s, the management of the electric company looked askance at this obviously religious Jew.
Hershel persisted, and eventually his sincerity and compassion won them over. The Israel Electric Corporation overhauled their computer system to make it compatible with Hershel’s requirements. Today Hershel’s one-man operation, Warm the Needy (or in Hebrew, M’hammimei Lev, Warmers of the Heart) pays 400 shekels [$100] toward the electric bill of large families and 250 shekels [$65] for small families and elderly couples for the coldest two-month period of the winter.
More than that, the electric company itself, although it is not free to give discounts due to its government ownership, has become an avid advocate of the project. When families cannot pay their winter bills, the electric company refers them to Hershel. Many electric company employees work after hours in order to facilitate Hershel’s project. They consider it “avodat kodesh – holy work.”
In the last four winters, Hershel has helped 2200 families in 30 cities throughout Israel. The financial meltdown, however, has forced him to cut back this winter. Whereas for the last three winters, he paid two bi-monthly heating bills per family, this winter Warm the Needy’s reduced income has forced him to cut benefits by half. The 300 new families who have applied for help received heaters, but not help paying their electric bills. Heating aid to one family costs $250: $50 (wholesale cost) for a heater and $200 for electric bills. Tens of families are on a waiting list to be helped when funds become available.
Some people are hard to turn away. For example, Hedva is a single mother of five children, ranging in age from 4 to 10. Her husband abandoned the family a year ago, leaving Hedva with a bank overdraft of 30,000 shekels. Hedva and her children live in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, facing the Judean desert and its bitter winds. Their apartment building was constructed with cheap materials and is poorly insulated, so the cold winds penetrate their three rooms. When Hedva was referred by her social worker to Hershel Puretz, he was heart-broken to tell her that he could provide her with a heater, but not help pay her heating bill.
Another case that tugged on Hershel’s heart was Mr. and Mrs. Weisberg, who just made aliyah from America. Mr. Weisberg is 81 years old and Mrs. Weisberg is 79. The couple worked hard all their lives, bought an apartment in Beit Shemesh, and expected to live their twilight years in comfort. The very month that they moved to Israel the Bernard Madoff scandal totally wiped them out. They were left with nothing. Aware of how vulnerable to pneumonia people their ages are, Hershel answered their call for help by immediately sending them a space heater. But how will they pay their electric bill at the end of the month?
Hershel is on the phone till 2 a.m. every night trying to raise money to cover Warm the Needy’s expenses, which this year will come to $150,000. He takes not a penny for himself, so 100 percent of donations go directly to pay for heaters and electricity. Tax-deductible donations can be made through his website www.warmtheneedy.org or by mail (1449 Heathwood Ave., Suite 101, Lakewood, N.J. 08701).
Hershel Puretz was minding his own business when the plight of cold families came to his attention. He made it his business, not his full-time occupation, but his every spare moment business. Some people achieve greatness simply by saying, “Yes.”
Sara Yoheved Rigler