Hard Times: Anglos Join the Lines at J'lem Soup Kitchen

When Sarah was living in the U.S., she never thought she'd have to stand in line to receive a free hot meal. But since her husband underwent heart bypass surgery in 1997 and can no longer work, the Jerusalem resident has been picking up a hot lunch a day for herself, her husband and her four children.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

When Sarah was living in the United States, she never thought she'd have to stand in line to receive a free hot meal. But since her husband underwent heart bypass surgery in 1997 and can no longer work, the Jerusalem resident has been picking up a hot lunch a day for herself, her husband and her four children, aged five to 15, at the Hazon Yeshaya soup kitchen.

If the house she's cleaning that day is far from any of the four Hazon Yeshaya branches, including one near her Old Katamon house, she sends her oldest son to pick up the meals. She never really knows when she'll be home at night because another odd job, in addition to her regular cleaning and sewing, might come up at the last minute. But it's hard to let her family know when she'll be back because she doesn't own a telephone; she prefers not to have any expenses.

"You think it's not going to happen to you, but unfortunately, things happen, and that's the way it is for my family right now," said Sarah, who refuses to divulge her real name because she said she is "too embarrassed." She immigrated with her family 10 years ago.

Sarah, who was born in Morocco but lived in the U.S. for 25 years and is married to an American, is one of about 800 people receiving a daily hot lunch from Hazon Yeshaya.

English speakers comprise about 5 percent of the people who get the hot meals, said Eli Darshan, who is in charge of the soup kitchens. Not all the branches have enough room for people to sit down and eat, but even when there is the space, Anglos tend to take the meals home or send a child to pick up the food and bring it back. "They're a little embarrassed," he said. "They're more sensitive."

Nationwide, one out of five Israelis, including a quarter of Israeli children, lived below the poverty line last year. That means that a single parent with one child would have to live on NIS 1,918 a month if National Insurance Institute support is the only source of income. The high unemployment rate - which reached 271,000 earlier this year, the highest figure since the state's establishment - also contributes to the problem.

Breadwinner to breadline

Sometimes, the hungry and needy include victims of the high-tech bust.

One middle-aged English speaker who started picking up his meals at Hazon Yeshaya about six months ago used to work in computers. Now he doesn't have a job or enough money for food. Abraham Israel, the American-raised founder of Hazon Yeshaya, saw the man looked different from many of the others. "He was dressed not that bad," said Israel. "I saw he was different, intellectual, educated. I saw he was fidgety."

Israel began speaking to him and noticed he was taking three meals home. "So it's you, your wife, and a boy or a girl?" he asked. No, the man said, he had three children. Israel asked why he didn't take an additional two meals. "I'm too embarrassed to ask," the man told him. "The main thing is to feed the children."

Israel was born in Egypt but fled with his family to France in 1956, where they ate in soup kitchens - an experience he says he always keeps in the back of his mind. The family then moved to the U.S., and Israel became a successful shoe importer. He immigrated about eight years ago and founded Hazon Yeshaya five years ago with his own money. Now he receives some financial support, mainly from Anglos in Israel and abroad, but continues to work without a salary. "I decided time is passing by and I wanted to do something," he said. His dream, he said, is to have the resources to expand beyond Jerusalem. Right now, he is not even able to provide for the 300 people on his waiting list within the capital.

Unlike many other soup kitchens here, Hazon Yeshaya is open every day of the year, including Yom Kippur. But though Israel wants to make sure the people who need the food can get to it the whole year, he also wants to be sure that those who are eating from it really are in need. Before people are allowed to get food from the soup kitchen, they have to meet with a social worker who reviews their case. Most of the people the organization serves are classified "Level A" - the most needy.

But Hazon Yeshaya is not just soup kitchens. Israel also runs four day care centers for children between two and a half and five whose families are needy; otherwise, he said, they would be left to play in "four walls of nothing." Hazon Yeshaya also organizes bar and bat mitzvahs for orphaned and abused children, and distributes food packages to more than 5,000 needy families for the holidays. The Rosh Hashanah package includes chicken, grape juice, honey, potatoes and onions, and is worth about NIS 180-200. Sarah is particularly grateful for the holiday food, saying that is when she is most worried about providing for her children."

Israel employs seven full-time people, including certified day care instructors, and utilizes more than 100 volunteers. One of those volunteers is 59-year-old Fruma Rosenthal, who immigrated from New York about a month ago. She leaves her ulpan class a few minutes early to dish out hot food and a warm smile at the Katamon soup kitchen, which mostly serves elderly Russian immigrants.

Rosenthal, a nurse, heard about the soup kitchen shortly after she arrived and decided she may as well get to work. Walking around Rehavia, her new neighborhood, one would think there was no poverty, said Rosenthal. But her experience has shown her otherwise. "You see the underbelly," she said. "The underbelly of Israeli society."

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