Large numbers of people in Israel need support and assistance that isn't available to them in their everyday lives. Holocaust survivors, lone soldiers, people in emotional distress, and many others have to cope with loneliness or economic/bureaucratic difficulties as they attempt to exercise the rights meant to assure their quality of life. Some give up along the way, whether for psychological reasons or because they lack an understanding of the process. Numerous Israeli organizations are trying to assist these people, but the current crisis has created obstacles that didn't exist a few months ago. Donations will help these organizations survive, thrive, and reach even more of the people who need them. Three notable organizations of this kind are Aviv for Holocaust Survivors, Ach Gadol - Big Brother, The Mifne Center and ERAN.
There are presently some 190,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel = one-fourth of whom are living below the poverty line. Holocaust survivors are legally eligible for benefit payments and rights, but most of them have trouble realizing all of the rights to which they are entitled for a variety of reasons.
“According to our estimates, more than fifty percent of Holocaust survivors do not receive all of the rights they are entitled to in Israel and around the world,” says Orly Sivan, director-general of the “Aviv for Holocaust Survivors” association. “These are rights that are deserved by Holocaust survivors by right, not by charity, by virtue of the law, but many of them cannot realize them because this area is extremely difficult and complex.
“There are Holocaust survivors who don’t even know the rights for which they are eligible, or they are not aware of amendments to the law that could benefit them. There are also Holocaust survivors who simply cannot submit applications by themselves or are put off by the complicated bureaucratic process.”
Overcoming every obstacle that stands in the way
The wearying bureaucracy required to realize their rights can exhaust even the strongest of us, and that is exactly what makes Holocaust survivors, in certain cases, give up on the money they are genuinely entitled to. The Aviv Association provides solutions to this problem and provides Holocaust survivors with advice and assistance, free of charge, from lawyers who specialize in maximizing their rights and will accompany them throughout the process of realizing their rights.
“The average age of the Holocaust survivors is 84,” Sivan emphasizes. “Some of them do not speak Hebrew well enough and some of them are not healthy. Therefore, it is very important to us that the Association provide any assistance they may need under a single roof – without “tossing them from one address to another – while managing the whole complex process in a way that will make it as easy for them as possible.”
The Association’s telephone help line deals with tens of thousands of calls each year. Lawyers who serve as the Association’s consultants for rights meet with Holocaust survivors at our twenty “Entitlement Centers” – community-based locations that operate around the country. Consultants assist them in maximizing their rights and help them fill out forms and applications. The Association also helps homebound Holocaust survivors and sends dozens of volunteers who help them by filling out forms and applications in their homes.
Sivan relates that since the start of the coronavirus pandemic many things have changed for all of us, but particularly for senior citizens. First of all, we have offered more assistance through personal meetings and went into old age homes and senior day centers in order to help as many Holocaust survivors as we could to realize their rights. To date, in many cases we cannot meet with the Holocaust survivors in the field, and our work has become more complicated.
“It requires us to think outside the box and come up with creative ways of reaching them, even for things that appear to be simple, such as getting a signature, photocopying an identity card or medical document. On the other hand, the need of Holocaust survivors for assistance has only increased in light of the situation. Particularly in these difficult times it is important for us to do everything to help Holocaust survivors get through this period, without requiring help from the community – but rather to realize the rights they are entitled to.”
It is important to note that the Association’s activities are not state-supported and funding only comes from the public, through foundations and direct contributions from companies, organizations and private individuals.
“For every hundred-shekel donation a Holocaust survivor receives thousands of shekels”
Fortunately, along with requests for assistance that continue to flow, aid from the public has also not stopped – and the Association hopes that this trend will continue despite the challenges that so many of us are facing. “The only fundraising campaign we held this year, as we do every year, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, we had a good response from the public, and this is very heartwarming. It is important that the public continue contributing to this important cause based on the understanding that we all have a social and moral responsibility to ensure that Holocaust survivors live in dignity and well-being,” says Sivan.
Research conducted by BDO in order to examine the socio-economic benefit of the “Entitlement Centers” project shows that funds donated for this purpose certainly succeed in changing and improving lives.
In this study, some 4,000 Holocaust survivors who had obtained assistance at the Entitlement Centers were examined, and it was found that for every NIS 100 donated to the Association, a Holocaust survivor would receive around NIS 4,600 on average. “Ultimately, the amount a Holocaust survivor would receive in the wake of our assistance comes to an average of NIS 36,000 – and that is truly wonderful and makes us understand that we are doing the right thing,” sums up Sivan.
Ach Gadol – Big Brother
A decade ago, a group of discharged lone soldiers met, and tried to think what could be done for such soldiers, who serve the country but do not have a home or a family to go to when on leave. They are often new immigrants, but whether the soldier is Israeli-born or an immigrant – they encounter differences of culture, education, economic status, and mainly lack of support and the connection of a nuclear family. The conclusion reached by this brainstorming was unequivocal: lone soldiers need a personal address; someone who will connect with them, guide them, assist them and provide emotional support. It should also be someone like them – someone who served as a lone soldier and understands fully what it involves.
“Some 6,500 regular soldiers in the IDF today have the status of ‘lone soldier.’ Some 50% of them are new immigrants and some 50% are Israeli soldiers whose connection with their family has been severed for different reasons, such as leaving religion that has led to alienation of their family,” explains CPA Daniel Aharon, CEO of the organization. “Every day we hear amazing stories of soldiers who defend the country and at the weekend return to an empty house, with no one to talk to face to face. They need company and emotional support. Someone like them, who is a few stages further along than the place where they are now, as a soldier. We called this person a “big brother” or “sister.” Most of our volunteers are students and they were all lone soldiers themselves. This is the condition. They come from the same place and fully understand what these soldiers are going through. Today we accompany more than 1,100 lone soldiers individually and fill this gap for them.”
A solution for a wide variety of needs
Aharon has considerable experience in the area of aliyah and absorption. In the past he served as the head of the Jewish Agency’s delegation in San Francisco and in Russia and received the Minister of Absorption’s award for pathbreaking activity in the field of absorbing aliyah. As the head of the Ach Gadol – Big Brother organization he is looking for volunteers who will serve as a personal example and role model for the soldiers they mentor. Therefore, not every candidate is accepted. Those who are undergo professional training that teaches them how to assist the lone soldiers with their problems of service conditions, cultural differences, their mental state and financial conduct.
How is help given to the lone soldier?
“It varies from soldier to soldier. Some of them can be met every day and some only leave their base once a month. Meetings, phone calls and correspondence take place according to the lone soldier’s schedule and wishes. If the soldier completes officer training, their mentor will be there in the audience holding up a placard to encourage their soldier like everyone else. The organization, on its part, gives the volunteer all the necessary organizational support, including financial help. If the mentor goes out for coffee with their soldier, that doesn’t mean that they have to pay for it from their own pocket. We cover it. The combination of the volunteer’s personal experience with the organization’s professionalism gives the soldier a personal address at eye level that provides solutions for a wide variety of needs.”
Ach Gadol is currently seeking donations to help it in this important task. Each soldier costs the organization about NIS 1,200 a year, and the goal is to accompany 1,500 lone soldiers next year. The organization is therefore asking the public to help it reach this goal. The organization was awarded the Midot Seal of Effectiveness (a kind of standard seal for NGOs) and in 2017 received the President of Israel’s Award.
“We already have five generations of volunteers who were our mentees,” Aharon says proudly. “For example, there is a soldier whose volunteer had a Big Brother when he was a soldier and his volunteer also had a Big Brother. These generations provide the way to pass on the knowledge and values. If Zionism was once building tower and stockade settlements, today in our eyes Zionism is building people – and that’s what we’re doing in the organization.”
One volunteer who was also a mentee of the organization is Yehudit Shuter. She came on aliyah from the USA, joined the army as a lone soldier and was assigned a mentor named Yael. “Yael accompanied me before I enlisted, so in the army I immediately had a big sister, and that made a huge difference to me,” says Shuter. “I always had someone to turn to, she came to all my ceremonies and always understood what I was going through. It was amazing that I had someone I could call on for support and advice. I knew I would do the same myself after I was discharged. Now I mentor a number of soldiers and it’s a pleasure. I love doing it and I also learn a lot from them. It’s not a chore, it’s something I enjoy, it’s friendship.”
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The Center treats infants up to age two, within the context of the entire family. In these times of hardship, every contribution and support are essential to ensure the continuity of their work.
The prevalence of autism in the world is rising at an alarming rate: In the US, one in forty-seven children is diagnosed with autism (1:47), in Israel one in eighty children (1:80) as of 2020.
In recent years, hundreds of genes have been found to be associated with the autism spectrum - a neurodevelopmental syndrome.
Clinical studies in the field of epigenetics (combination of genetics and environment) provide evidence of the impact of early environmental manipulations on brain development in infancy. During this period there is a dynamic growth of neurons, which creates neural networks and controls the sensory - emotional - cognitive regulation in infants.
Since sufficient biomarkers findings that can be detected in medical testing have not been found yet, the diagnosis and treatment of autism leans mainly on behavioral signs that usually appear early on in the infant’s life.
Studies conducted by The Mifne Center over the past three decades, have led to the development of a screening tool for the detection of suspected autism for infants 5 to 15 months old.
Brain research in the field of autism, confirms that while the brain is at its peak of plasticity, growth and nerve cell connections can be influenced and contribute to significant reduction of the severity of symptoms in autism. In coherence with these findings, follow-up studies of infants treated at the Mifne Center in their first and second year (6 to 24 months) showed a significant gap in developmental milestones in comparison to toddlers treated in their third year (24 to 36 months), showing a better outcome for the younger group by far.
88.3% of infants ages 6-24 months treated at the Mifne Center over the last decade are fully functioning children in society, and the majority will not require institutionalization or hostels. This is a life changing factor for the infant, the family, and for society as a whole.
The Mifne Center, a nonprofit organization, established in 1987 by Dr. Hanna Alonim, specializes in the treatment of autism in infants and their entire nuclear families. In most cases, a significant change in the infant’s development can be seen even after a short treatment period, and sometimes just proper parental guidance can make a great difference. During this time of COV-19 pandemic, the Center provides online family individual guidance for families around the globe.
The Center established the first training program for therapists in collaboration with Bar-Ilan University. Graduates of the program work with families within their community. Registration for the 11th bi-annual program is currently on-going and is about to close.
The Mifne Center treats families from all sectors of the population. The family’s fees are differential. It is one of the building blocks of the foundation that a family’s socioeconomic situation should not be a barrier for any family in need of treatment.
Mifne’s main source of income are supported by donations from foundations and private individuals, who recognize the enormous contribution of the Mifne Center to promoting early detection. Every contribution and support during these times of hardship are essential to ensure the continuity of our work. Donations to Mifne Center are used solely for this purpose and do not fund any mediation services.
Suddenly, in the throes of the coronavirus crisis, we all seem to be worrying more – about our health, our livelihoods, the wellbeing of our loved ones at risk. But there's another thing we need to be concerned for that we sometimes forget, something essential and vital for our ability to survive challenging times – namely, our psychological resilience. Ironically, this is something that many of us tend to repress, obscure, or avoid dealing with.
ERAN has been providing emotional support 24/7 by telephone and Internet to anyone who needs it, for nearly half a century. But ERAN staff also understand that the current crisis is different from all other challenges faced by Israeli society to date. "ERAN is a kind of litmus test for Israeli society – our crises, wars, and challenges are reflected in the number of requests for assistance the organization receives," says ERAN's professional director, Dr. Shiri Daniels.
"At times of crisis we're used to seeing the number of queries increase by 40-60 percent, but the coronavirus has completely changed the rules of the game. Now we're talking about a 300 percent increase." From the time the pandemic erupted until late August, ERAN received no fewer than 190 thousand calls, while the total figure for 2019 was 200 thousand.
"And it's not just the number of requests," stresses Daniels. "The level of distress they embody is also very high and, it's important to understand, we're getting calls from a lot of people who've never faced emotional problems of such intensity."
Used to war, not pandemics
Israel, unfortunately, is a country with experience in facing challenges. Many of us have fought in wars, endured missile barrages or experienced terrorist attacks. However, David Koren, ERAN's executive director, believes that the coronavirus poses a different and unique challenge. "In wartime, as difficult as things may be, we know there's an end. Now we're facing a challenge of another kind that hasn't been seen for over a century."
According to Koren, "Most of us have trouble accepting the fact that there's no end in sight, that we don't understand where this is going or when it will stop. So the anxiety increases and over time it can cause major damage. Despite the growing number of people seeking assistance, we're more worried about those who don't turn to us and who contend with the problems on their own."
Over the past few months, ERAN staff have also detected a change in the type of calls they receive; they divide the pandemic period into "Coronavirus A" and "Coronavirus B." Dr. Daniels explains that "until May, we got a lot of calls from people who were afraid of the disease itself, of contagion and infection, of the death of family members, or of loneliness.
"Now the economic coronavirus is gaining prominence alongside the pandemic of loneliness, and we're helping a lot of people in distress due to loneliness, and many who are experiencing major economic distress as well as emotional crisis, conflicts with their partners or in their families. Unfortunately, we're also witnessing a rise in the number of calls featuring suicidal ideation, from people at risk."
Those involved in ERAN's activity attest that the assistance they provide, the emotional first aid, is no less important than Magen David Adom's lifesaving work. "ERAN is part of Israel's emergency response system. Our volunteers provide the emotional support that is so important for people who feel like they're being overwhelmed," Daniels explains.
"We reinforce their sense of worth, strengthen their faith in themselves, and give them tools to help survive the crisis. We also identify signs of distress, are skilled at assessing the severity and urgency of problems and, where necessary, refer clients for therapy or summon rescue forces."
Who helps the helpers?
The organization, as noted, is worried about the number of requests for assistance, realizing that the situation will either stay the same or worsen in the coming months. However, there's also concern about the wellbeing of ERAN's volunteers, who have to deal with the growing number and urgency of the calls. "These are people who are motivated by a tremendous sense of mission, but they can also burn out on this kind of demanding work," Koren emphasizes.
Due to the coronavirus restrictions, the volunteers have started working from home, and the guidance and support that the organization gives them, which are so necessary for their own resilience, are being offered remotely or under pandemic restrictions. The organization's courses – encompassing some 25 to 30 training activities – have been cancelled for the time being, just at a time when its volunteer cadre badly needs reinforcement.
Currently, assuming there isn't another lockdown, ERAN is planning to train more volunteers and to develop and empower those already active in the organization. But everything depends on ERAN's funding, a large proportion of which comes from donations. "The need is definitely growing, we require more professional staff to train the volunteers, more technology to support remote work, and more support for our people," says Koren.
Adapting to the new and complex crisis situation has recently cost ERAN a great deal of money. Fortunately, good people have so far ensured that the organization can continue its work. ERAN's staff hope that the Israeli public's benevolence, and the solidarity that they and all of us need now, more than ever, will once again shine through in the near future.