Published in Arim news paper in Israel.
Once a week an enormous line builds up at the entrance to the central "Lev HaChesed" Charity Mall in Rishon LeZion. New immigrants, single mothers and veteran residents from all parts of the city wait for hours to get some meat.
THERE WILL BE FAMILIES THAT WILL JUST HAVE TO MAKE DO WITH POTATOES
A line of hungry people waits up to four hours for food at the entrance to the "Lev HaChesed" charity mall in Rishon Lezion. Those waiting in line, which is considered one of the longest in the country, hope they will reach the head of the line before meat for Shabbat runs out. The manager of the charity operation says, "We supply food to 3,875 hungry mouths, but we cannot give each family as much as it needs." With the scent of elections in the air, the local politicians have started showing up, smiling and promising to produce a working paper - to pass on to the Prime Minister.
By Adamit Pera
A young couple passing the line of people waiting for the doors of the "Lev HaChesed" Charity Mall to open finds it difficult to believe this is a soup kitchen. "They are probably giving away gifts", says another passer-by. Others also cannot believe that all these people waiting in line have nothing to eat. Yet none of those who pass this huge line can provide any other explanation why people should stand for two and a half hours in the January cold on Rothschild Street in Rishon Lezion.
Those waiting have to suffer the degrading looks of those going by, have to put up with shouts of "Don't push!" by police and Civil Guard volunteers, and hope they will reach the head of the line in time - before the meat runs out and the soup kitchen volunteers start to fill the trolleys with bags of potatoes.
Every Thursday hundreds of people arrive - the elderly, single mothers and new immigrants - at the doors of the "Lev HaChesed" Charity Mall of Chabad House, which in a sad touch of irony is located right next to the Rothschild Shopping Mall. The Charity Mall opens its doors at 8pm, so that the long line will not block the entrances to the shops, but people arrive up to four hours early to get a good position on the pavement, while the volunteers are still organizing the food distribution.
It just grows
The basket of food a family receives is made up of three bags: a bit of fruit and vegetables, dry products such as rice, bread and oil, and a frozen bag of meat, as well as sometimes some fish. Meat and eggs are the most in demand, but there is not always enough for those at the end of the line. If they run out of meat, the volunteers give the last ones frozen pizzas. Some people come to get goodies for their children and babies: powdered baby milk, baby cereal formulas and sausages.
"This basket is meant to last a family for a week," says Lev HaChesed manager, Ronen Singer. "But it is perhaps just enough for the weekend. The object is that at least they will be able to get through Shabbat. Every family gets a basket relative to its size - a family of 14 will get two baskets, small families get one, otherwise it's at the expense of other families. Every bag ought to be enough for seven or eight people; we can't afford the luxury of anything more.
"Every week we distribute baskets to 775 families, which represent 3,875 hungry mouths. At the moment the rate of claims from needy families stands on average at about 750 families per month, and it is growing every week. Last week 850 families turned up. We get the lists from the Social Services Department at City Hall - there are soldiers, senior citizens and new immigrants, but also veteran residents. Every language is spoken here: Amharic, Yiddish and Russian.
"The cost of running this place is about NIS 125,000 per month. We rent the building. We get two thirds of the products as donations and the rest we buy. Sometimes we also buy meat with our own money, since there is the biggest demand for that. As we cannot meet the demand for food baskets, we check ID cards at the entrance. We just can't give every family everything it needs.
"Anyone who does not appear on the Social Services' list from the municipality has to wait to the end, and if bags are left they get. Every week there are at least 15 families left outside. We send these families to the Social Services Department to get an approval. We don't want to send anyone home empty-handed, but it is tough to handle an increase of 80 families every week. Last week it went up by 150 families. It just gets bigger".
"Apart from letters, the Social Services do nothing at all. There is no work. No justice. The state gives nothing. The rich get richer, and the poor no longer live on the ground but underground - living dead"
Distributing food to 750 families each week
Most of the people standing in line don't want to talk. Many of them do not speak Hebrew since they are new immigrants from the CIS or Ethiopia. Most are elderly, though there are some single Israeli mothers, as well as divorcees whose National Insurance and maintenance payments are not enough to support their children. There are also children standing in line to get something to eat, like those who were sent by their mothers to bring back food and are pushed forward, in the face of shouts from the police.
An old woman, just six months in the country, is forced to stand in line to get food, but says optimistically, "We love our country, there are no problems. They give us food for free. The food is fresh and tasty, and there's meat. I just hope they let us in early enough so there will be something left".
A 36-year old single mother who is waiting next to her thinks otherwise. "The food here is not great", she says from experience. Last year, she recounts, she stood in more than one line to get food. "Here it is less well organized than at Pitchon Lev, (the association for assisting the needy that operates in west Rishon Lezion - AP). Even the things they give are not always OK. The vegetables are not always fresh. Sometimes there is no oil, sugar or coffee. Half the vegetables I get here I have to throw away. I'm already standing here two and a half hours and some times I get here at 10 o'clock to get bags. It's not pleasant coming here, I'd rather work. I've been coming here for two months, and before I have been to Pitchon Lev.
"Most of the people here are single mothers - they stand in line and then go home with pains in their legs and throw away half the food. Up to now I lived on NIS 1,600 a month maintenance money, and now I will get another NIS 1,000 income supplement, and I've got to manage with that. It's hard standing here, but it's even harder meeting all the expenses".
Another single mother (35), has been bringing up two children alone for eight years in her parents' home: "I haven't been able to rent an apartment. I live on NIS 2,000 per month, which includes maintenance and income supplement. That's very little. I am dealt with by the Social Services Department, but they don't help, apart from letters they do nothing. Before, I used to work as a teacher, but there's no work. No justice. The state gives nothing. The rich get richer, and the poor no longer live on the ground but underground - living dead".
"My children have never seen a summer camp or a show, and they don't know why. They ask me why other children go to shows at school and they don't. They just point to others and that hurts. What hurts is that my kids are not living as they should. The child has no books. I sleep in my parents' bedroom with the children. I'm ashamed. I only believe in G-d, and I am alive because I want that at least my children should have a mother".
Dozens of volunteers come to the Charity Mall, from all walks of life and of all ages. Singer defines them as "good, sensitive people who care". About 50 people come every week. Some had come as part of a social commitment program from school, stayed and then brought all their family to help; some are business people who donate money or help with deliveries and come to help with organization. All work in a hive of activity - some pack bags, some are at the registration and distribution desks, while others make sure the place stays clean. Assaf Eliyahu is only five years old but he already comes to help. He tells how he came with his mother to put food into bags for those who do not have anything to eat. He thinks the bags are sold and he is ready to pop another tomato into a bag.
Ruthie Saroussi, a teacher at Yigal Alon High, came to help on account of her students: "My son is doing his social commitment work through school and he said there was pressure at work, so all the family joined in. I can't really take in what's happening there. I thought the state allows a proper, reasonable existence for everyone. I regret this taking, it's against my whole outlook on life. Every sort of work is honorable, and anyone who wishes to can work. Despite that I'm here, because I can't bear all this".
Yaacov Dushitz, a volunteer at the Charity Mall, does a weekly survey to know what to forecast for the following week: "We also make deliveries to the homes of people who are bedridden, to those who cannot get here and then stand an hour and a half in line. Last week, on account of the floods, there were those who couldn't get here. In the previous week there were 850 families, though on the list of the Social Services there are over 1,200. Every week it increases by at least 25 families.
"The lists include people from every community and from all different neighborhoods, even people from the new parts of Rishon Lezion, people who bought apartments in the west of the city and cannot meet their payment commitments today, people who are left with no money to eat because the mortgage eats it all up". Dushitz is in charge of the lists and has to explain to people whose names are not down that they have to get an approval from the Social Services. Some people do not always understand what he wants of them and return a week later to request food, without an approval. "Each one is listed when they were accepted onto the list, and when they complete the period the Social Services gave them they have to go back and get a new form. I have people on the list who have already been here a year, but recently because so many families applied to receive food packages, the Social Services changed the criteria and the longest approval they will give is for half a year.
They are ashamed
Among the volunteers at the Charity Mall there are also local business people, who call on their friends to join this charitable enterprise. Yaacov Cohen, of the town's Association of Contractors and Builders, collects money from his acquaintances. "I reckon that at the rate the bags of fruit and vegetable in the middle of the room go, this week too there will be families who will have to make do just with potatoes. A week ago a local woman passed by and asked what the line was. When we told her, she went to the supermarket to buy a bag of produce, put it down at the entrance to our mall and left. We ask people to donate non-perishable products. It would be enough if every resident went to the store and bought just one bag for a few shekels.
"All the business owners have to contribute what they can. Once, long-standing residents used to come here. People are ashamed to stand outside for an hour and a half, so we only see new immigrants. From here Rishon Lezion looks quite different. You see, religious and secular can get on together if they want to".
Zev Langram, an insurance agent, is considered a veteran volunteer - half a year at the charity mall. When he first arrived there were only 400 families standing in line, and today the numbers are close to a thousand. Langram points an accusing finger at the Social Services Department: "I have lived in this city since the fifties and I have never seen anything like this. I have met here friends with whom I grew up in the East Side housing development. They come here every Thursday to get food. It really pains me. It pains me that all the Social Services do is decide who is entitled to receive the food baskets, and beyond paperwork they do nothing at all. The lines are getting longer every week and neither the Mayor, Meir Nitzan, nor the City Council do anything. Instead of money they give paper. There isn't a budget for anything and I have no idea what to prepare for next week. Every week we need raise another NIS 15,000, and the lines just get longer".
"EVERY WEEK IT'S A MIRACLE"
The founder of the Lev HaChesed Charity Mall, Rabbi Yitzhak Grozman,
finds it difficult to face the needy when the food runs out. He started
this charitable operation two years ago "after a woman came to my home
and begged for food for Shabbat". At the beginning they were particular
to send the food to the homes.
Rabbi Yitzhak Grozman, the founder of the Lev HaChesed Charity Mall, was sent 17
years ago from New York to the Chabad House in Rishon Lezion by the Lubavitcher
Rebbe. Eight years ago, families started coming to his house every Friday asking
for help - food for Shabbat. Over the years people brought their friends and the
line grew. "At the beginning I was naïve and gave money," recalls Rabbi Grozman.
"But after a time I had the feeling the money was not being put to the right
purposes and I made an agreement with a grocery store that I would send people
to them and they would bill me at the end of each month. I am still in debt from
that. "Chabad is an ideological organization with no financial support. The Lev
HaChesed Charity Mall has been operating for two years since the day a lady came
to me and I told her I had no food. She began to cry; I couldn't bear it and
went to the store across the road and bought challot for Shabbat. I reckoned
that this type of help had to be formalized, so that there would not be a
situation where I had to tell someone there was nothing available. Today too,
when we have run out of food, we stand open-mouthed, with a dreadful feeling.
Suddenly there is a silence after all the tumult.
"At the beginning I insisted on an iron rule - we would spare the needy the
degradation of waiting for food and would bring it in containers to their homes.
So long as we were supplying food to 120 families the volunteers would load the
containers into vehicles and go to the homes of the needy. At some point it all
collapsed, the volunteers were worn out, because there were just too many people
seeking help. Today we only make deliveries to people who are bedridden or to
families with babies who cannot leave the house. Israelis are ashamed to stand
in line. New immigrants are not ashamed - maybe they are used to it. They are
all scared that there won't be enough food left for them.
"We are collapsing. Every week it's a miracle what happens here. Up till
Wednesday afternoon I do not know whether or not there will be a distribution.
One of the things that drew me enthusiastically to the issue was the possibility
to create unity between the religious and the secular. On the first Pesach there
were kids here from the secular Socialist Youth and from yeshivot, and harmony
was created through the young people. From the youth it reached the adults.
Differences vanish - there are no religious or secular. There are Jews. Or more
correctly, there are people. Part of those who come here are not Jewish, but
that does not bother me. They are hungry people, and we do everything in our
power to help them".
I am ashamed
It is a week before the elections, so senior politicians also come to help with
the distribution. Over the last few weeks many members of the City Council have
responded to the invitation from Chabad to come and show their presence. The
Assistant Mayor, Zev Perlstein, stands at the entrance to the charity mall to
help supervise the food chain: "The first time I came here, I stood on the side
and wept. It's true they don't get actual assistance from the municipality, and
I think the Social Services Department could do more, but I have spoken to
Nitzan and he has expressed willingness to help from next month. I am ashamed
that we have reached the situation that people come here to get challah for
Shabbat or a kilo of sugar. It's no problem to bring a vehicle to move goods,
the question is whether there will be any goods. We must get financial support
from the Social Services".
Deputy Mayor Michael Reif also arrives and smiles to everyone. He promises to
help, but he has no answers for irrefutable numbers - the number of people
waiting outside and the amount of financial assistance required. Yair Doron, the
City Councillor responsible for social affairs, brings his son so that he can
see poverty. He too points an accusing finger at the Social Services, which
operates as though it were separate from the municipality: "It all starts and
ends with the Social Services. We have to bring out a Working Paper. Three weeks
ago I talked to Nitzan and he said he was trying to find a big donor. I only got
to know about this a month ago, but in the meantime the big donor hasn't
responded". "The Social Services just generate paperwork. We are empty," they
cry for help and food. "Believe you me, the real elections take place here".
Langram: "The problem is we need immediate financial assistance. We need it
yesterday. We don't need more manpower, we have lots of good people who
volunteer to help and carry on by giving, and we have school kids from the
social commitment programs. We need a budget. And if there isn't money - they
should give the value in produce. The Mayor should talk to the managers of the
big food chains that they should make donations".
Yaacov Sofer, a businessman, started organizing donations about three months ago
and thought he could give the job up quickly, but as he recounts, "It got into
my blood. The Social Services has got to move from intentions to actions. In
principal people do give, but it is not enough. The problem is keeping it up. If
businesses were prepared to contribute through a standing order, it would be
much easier for us to plan from one week to the next. As it is we have to break
our heads every week all over again. We need to get to a situation where we can
rely on a fixed contribution and not have to raise money every month from
scratch. That's the only way we will be able to strengthen this place, which
costs a fortune. At the beginning we raised NIS 150,000 and I though that was
enough, but if I stopped raising money today I couldn't live with the knowledge
that on Thursday there would be people who wouldn't have what to eat. I never
believed this could happen in Rishon Lezion, I thought it just happened in far
away places. I'm shocked. It's a time bomb. We have to wake up before it blows
up in our faces".
There hasn't been an explosion yet?
"No. They haven't got the strength to go out and raise hell. Nitzan sends them
to us - it's time he woke up. I suggested we close this place down for a week,
and then the whole line would go stand outside City Hall. In this country I have
never seen a line for food as big as this, it's one of the biggest. People are
scared there won't be food left for them. At 10.30, when the food runs out, they
yell at us why they had to wait so long for nothing. Even if we stayed here
another hour and a half the line wouldn't get shorter, it would just double".
Three weeks ago, 65 families were left empty handed. Singer went out and
apologized personally to them. According to him, the main problem is with the
frozen food. The abattoirs give a reduction but they do not give it for free.
The number of people who need food parcels goes up every week and the members of
the Lev HaChesed Charity Mall are already not managing to cope with the
pressure, just like it was at the time of the Jewish Festivals. Singer asks
transportation companies, abattoir owners, and bakery owners with bread left
over to call and let him know. The volunteers, he can guarantee, will come round
"It's tough to stand here, but it's tougher to meet all the expenses". Food