Family with eleven children, sells used clothing for their livelihood, in debt from recent weddings, receives leftover food from a wedding caterer.
Household with nine children, had a devastating fire, she bakes and sells, he commutes from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak for a low-paying teaching job.
A young widower, six children including twins, doing his best to manage.
The email goes on, detailing plights and privation, condensing abject need into cold black letters on white. Luckily, the people at ZAH Keren HaChesed Fund have learned to peer between the lines at the very real people therein.
Some background: In 1965, my great-grandfather Zalman Aryeh Hilsenrad traveled from New York to Netanya, Israel to visit his aging mother, who lived there in a home for seniors. Netanya boasted beautiful beaches, a swelling population, and a robust Hasidic community – but it was also characterized by its inhabitants’ extreme poverty, which greatly distressed Hilsenrad.
That poverty came home with him – never to leave. It spurred him to launch ZAH Keren HaChesed Fund, an initiative in which American families would “adopt” impoverished Israeli families and send them monthly checks. The project had a dual objective: to alleviate these families’ financial woes, and to establish personal ties with them with the aim of showing that Jews in America cared. To that end, donors were urged to affix notes of encouragement to the checks.
What was born as a thought morphed into a mission: Hilsenrad flung all of his energies into this work. Unlike in other organizations, ZAH Keren HaChesed Fund’s expenses were bankrolled by its founder. Connecting with sources on the ground, Hilsenrad vetted Jerusalem’s poor to ascertain that they were truly in need. The key to his success, though, was his outstanding integrity: it induced people to hand him envelopes of cash, confident that 100 cents on the dollar would reach a poor family in Israel.
When the number of desperate families grew in inverse proportion to the number of donors, Hilsenrad did all he could to level the two. He would procure a list of shuls in America each year from the Orthodox Union, where he had served as executive director in the 1940s. List in one hand, pencil in the other, and a phone pressed to his shoulder, he ticked off congregation after congregation, appealing to their members’ largesse. When even this proved insufficient, Hilsenrad would thumb through the Yellow Pages and dial up every Jewish-sounding name he found.
At its height, ZAH Keren HaChesed Fund had 400 families under its wing. American Jews would adopt one to five Israeli households, mailing monthly donations in varying amounts to their brothers across the sea. The beneficiaries were the sick, the orphaned, and the desperately struggling breadwinners – some of them Torah scholars and community leaders. No, this did not remedy Israel’s poverty crisis: but when more shoulders share a burden, less weight is borne by each.
As an added dividend, lasting connections have been forged by this charity. Some Americans have been hosted by their adoptees for Shabbos meals while visiting Israel, a deed that is sometimes reciprocated when those Israelis come to the States for medical needs. Regrettably, ZAH Keren HaChesed Fund often sees three generations of one family turning to the foundation for help, since they are ensnared in a poverty cycle which is difficult to escape. On occasion, an Israeli family will tell the organization that it no longer requires its assistance – the ultimate victory.
On a trip to Israel shortly after their wedding, my grandparents served as couriers for ZAH Keren HaChesed Fund. Hand delivering a check to one young man, they were invited in to his home and given seats at his wooden table. They watched in wonder as he put down an oil-sodden newspaper parcel, unwrapping it to reveal a greasy piece of herring. Clearly, this was his family’s supper—and he was offering to share it with them. Not only the giving can be gracious.
Today, the organization is managed by my grandmother Sue Reich, assisted by other family members. About $100,000 earmarked for needy families pass through her possession each year en route to Israel. From Memphis to Miami, Los Angeles to Lawrence, the Jewish hand stretches out to give. It’s just what we do.
For more information about the ZAH Keren HaChesed Fund, email email@example.com.