Rahel Ben-Shimon
Rahel Ben-Shimon Photo by Alon Ron
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It’s happening again. The fears of those who have seen it before have returned: another cry from one who has become too weak, another inconceivable act of despair. Welfare professionals and the journalists telling these stories are feeling the cries for help stronger than ever.

It started the morning after Moshe Silman’s tragic act of self-immolation. Many people felt that perhaps now, things would change. Absurdly enough, it was Silman’s despair that gave them the strength to ask for help and to try to escape their own pain.

Here are ten stories, representing hundreds, who remind us that Silman was not an isolated tragedy but a representation of the hardship felt by many. This is the story of a social safety net – hospitals, public housing, social workers, the education system – whose infrastructure is crumbling.

No money for a divorce

Ofra Markowitz never dreamed that her body would fail her so completely. She engaged in physically demanding work her whole life. She worked first as a nanny, and then in catering. But suddenly, at age 48, her strength failed. She suffers from severe anemia and pulmonary edema. By doctor’s orders, she is forbidden to work. Even though she was officially recognized as disabled, she does not receive yet receive an allowance from the state.

“My physical pain has turned into emotional pain as well, and I no longer have the strength that I once had. My daughter is a student, and she took out all of her savings to make sure that I have something to eat,” Ofra says, her voice choking.

She is not eligible for rent assistance because her husband, from whom she has been separated for several years, has an apartment registered in his name. As far as the National Insurance Institute is concerned, until she and her husband are officially divorced, the property is considered hers as well, even though she says she gets no benefit from it at all.

“We separated and we’re in the process of divorcing,” she says. “But there’s not even enough money to get divorced.”

“Old people” need not apply

“My name is David. I’m 58 years old and self-employed, and I don’t own a home,” says David Sarno.

He can hardly believe the words that are coming out of his mouth. When he opened a real-estate business, he never imagined that the real-estate sharks who threatened his livelihood were virtual ones, and he never guessed that he would eventually have to shut down.

But it happened. Since then, he has been unable to find a job that will employ “old people” approaching sixty. Even though he has paid his fees to the NII all his life, the law states that the self-employed are not eligible for unemployment benefits. Today, he still lives in a rented apartment, but he knows that soon, he will no longer be able to pay rent and will have to live on the street.

A confiscated driver’s license

After he was forced to stop working as a taxi driver, Eliyahu Kahlon began working as a driver for a trucking company. He worked there for two and a half years, also as a crane operator, until one day a heavy load fell on his legs. His employer sent him home with a letter of dismissal. To this day the employer refuses to admit to the NII that it was a work-related accident. Kahlon, therefore, receives no compensation.

Meanwhile, he is forced to sit at home the debts have piled up. He receives NIS 1,500 in welfare payments from the state, which is all he has to support his four children. In theory, he could take a retraining course offered by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and earn NIS 6,000 per month. But because of his debts, his driver’s license was confiscated, just like Moshe Silman. Without the license, he cannot take the course.

“I don’t dwell on Silman’s story, but I’ve found myself sitting and thinking about how I would do something like that. How I would end it all. I want to work, not beg.”

Money for a paternity test

Louisa Winsko has worked for 12 years in a treatment center for people with developmental disabilities in Jerusalem. After 12 years, she still earns minimum wage – NIS 4,100 per month. Although she has tried to find better-paying jobs, a 58-year-old woman has few alternatives. Her 31-year-old son is married to a foreign worker, and they have an infant daughter. But now, the Interior Ministry refuses to recognize her officially and is demanding a paternity test, which costs a great deal of money. The lawyer that the family hired to fight for recognition by the state charges a high fee as well. Louisa’s son, who is between jobs, lives with her, along with his wife and baby. Louisa wants to help help her son and his family. She has asked the bank for one more small loan to help him get back on his feet, but the bank has refused.

Unable to breathe

Rahel Ben-Shimon has COPD, a lung disease that frequently robs her of her ability to breathe and frequently finds her in the hospital. At 56, she has been in intensive care and undergone catheterization. Additionally, she suffers from diabetes. The steroids that are used to treat her have left their mark on her body.

She has worked hard all of her life to earn a living and even now can’t afford to stop. At night, she is hooked up to an oxygen tank. During the day, she cleans the homes of anyone still willing to employ her. At one point, she was forced to squat in an Amidar public-housing apartment in Nes Tziona.

A trip to the supermarket

As the director of a children’s day-care center at the Hof Ashkelon Community Center, Sigal Attia, a mother of two, wears the mask of a happy person. But her life hardly has a moment of joy – only constant worry. She earns NIS 5,000 at her job, including overtime. Half the amount goes to pay her rent on Moshav Beit Shikma. Sigal supports her children on her own. There is no father in the picture.

“We aren’t living. We’re surviving,” she says. “Things like restaurants, vacations and trips are just a dream for my little girl. The only place we go to is the Rami Levy supermarket in Ashdod because they have the least expensive vegetables. It’s only a matter of weeks before we’re out on the street.”

No money for day care

Just when Yossi Wiener and his wife welcomed the twins who brought them so much light and joy, their lives took a drastic turn. Almost two years later, they are deep inside the snowball, as Yossi puts it. Day care for the twins costs NIS 5,000 per month. It’s more than Yossi’s wife would earn at work, so she stays home with the kids. The couple brings in less money as a result, and the two little girls continue to grow. Recently, Yossi’s wife got an offer to take the children to a day-care center for working mothers run by the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. For NIS 1,000 a month, the staff will care for her children until 12:30 p.m. But who is going to hire a woman who has to pick her daughters up at 12:30 p.m.?

The bank is demanding more

After 30 years of marriage, Rahel Levy went to a shelter for women suffering from domestic violence to seek protection from the physical and emotional abuse she suffered. There, in the apartment in Be’er Sheva, she gathered the strength to move on. But that was six years ago, and since then she has had a tough time getting back on her feet.

Her recent move to Tel Aviv was no help. At 56, she struggles day to day. This week, a new calamity struck. Several years ago, Rahel signed as a guarantor when her daughter bought an apartment. When her daughter couldn't make the payments, the bank foreclosed. Now the bank is demanding NIS 400,000 from Rahel, and she has no idea how to begin dealing with that.

Earning NIS 1,778 a month

For four years, Leah Klugman looked for work. She is a reflexologist by training and worked for many years a number of places, each of which eventually closed and she found herself without income for the first time in her life. She sent out thousands of CVs to no avail. Eventually the despair got the better of her.

“I tried to work anywhere I could. I even worked for ten shekels an hour,” she says. “I took on temporary work, but no one was willing to hire a woman of 60, no matter how hard-working she might be.”

Leah says that she has been on the verge of despair. Her savings are gone. Her only son lives in the United States, and she is not even eligible for welfare payments because she owns a car – a faltering 1998 Suzuki, a remnant of better days. Deciding not to give up, Leah went to the department store Mashbir Latzarchan when she saw that they hired older women. She was hired, and two weeks ago she began working as a saleswoman for four hours a day (which is all the store needs) at NIS 22.04 per hour – NIS 1,778 per month.

The rent is going up

When Miriam Levy came to Israel from Argentina on her own in 1984, she received a one-room apartment from the Amigur public housing company. When she married, she moved to a larger apartment in Netanya. A hard-working woman, Miriam Levy travels from her home in Netanya to Ashdod every day, where she works in customer service from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. But she is penalized for working: she pays the highest rent, NIS 1,500 per month, for public housing. A tenant who does not work pays NIS 300 – an incentive to parasitism.

But Levy has had difficulty making the rent. Her husband was dismissed from his job and there were several difficult months. Their debt to Amigur grew, and now Miriam is supposed to pay NIS 2,500 per month. She cannot make those payments either, and the debt is accumulating.