How a 91-year-old Israeli Had to Busk to Make Ends Meet

Yona Braverman’s death highlights the inadequacy of old-age benefits that only reach $830 or so a month. At least the disabled won a big victory recently

A beggar in a wheelchair in Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

Yona Braverman died Monday at 91. He could no longer see, his body was frail and his soul had withered.

The many people who felt sorry for him didn’t know his name. They knew him as “that nice beggar with the accordion” on a bench on Herzl Street in Tel Aviv suburb Ramat Gan. He sat there every morning, and from there he returned every evening to the emptiness and destitution of his life.

In Haaretz's Hebrew edition early last year, I wrote a story about Braverman but used a pseudonym to protect his identity. I wrote about “Efraim,” who received everything the law stipulates for people in his situation, but had to share an apartment with another person, an 84-year-old woman.

There was no one to take care of him because he couldn’t afford an aide, let alone an assisted-living facility or an old-age home.

As I wrote, “He is so well-known and respected that the deputy mayor himself saw to it that a new bench was placed at the spot where he played his accordion, after the one he was using was uprooted. A bench for sitting and begging was found, but there was no solution so that this nice 90-year-old would no longer have to beg.”

For the last two years, however, Braverman was helped by a young woman named Michal Isser. She tried hard to help him find an aide or a better place to live, but even the best benefits don’t include 24-hour care.

And Braverman, who came from Odessa at a relatively late age, had no pension. His old-age benefits and guaranteed income came to around 3,000 shekels ($830) a month, as well as some help with the rent.

So at age 90 he played music on the street for a living. Only recently, after the intervention of Yuval Frenkel, the chief executive of the Amidar Public Housing Authority, Braverman received a place in an assisted-living building. He never got to make the move.

Critics often ask what the state would lose if it financed high-quality old-age homes, just as it finances children’s education. As things stand now, Braverman won’t be the last person to die in poverty, considering the scale of the benefits he received.

At his funeral a few hours after his death, Braverman was accompanied by people who didn’t know him, people who responded to a call on Facebook by Isser. She now wants to carve his name on the bench that he loved so much.

“He was such a good man,” Isser says. “He never complained, he was always grateful for what he had and was very modest. He always greeted us, he always saw the good side of things; he was intelligent and spoke wise words, full of optimism. I’m glad I got to know this soul. Thanks to everyone who helped Yona over the years.”

In the apartment in Ramat Gan remains Braverman’s apartment mate; it’s unclear how she’ll manage to pay the full rent.

A win for the disabled

Meanwhile, the Knesset recently passed a law stipulating that people with serious disabilities will be entitled to receive a mortgage. The bill was initiated by MK Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid), who herself is disabled and needs a wheelchair.

The banks argued that people with disabilities deemed life-shortening cannot obtain life insurance; since anyone taking out a mortgage needs to take out life insurance, these people were ineligible.

Thus followed long deliberations by the state, the insurance companies and the banks. Starting in September, people with “life-shortening” disabilities will be entitled to take out a mortgage, but only up to 1 million shekels. The life insurance will be half the amount of the loan.

The state will contribute by subsidizing insurance premiums. Ari Pinto, the chief executive of Bank Hapoalim, a person with disabilities himself, was the man who got the banks on board.

Also very active in this initiative was Guy Rothkopf, the director of the Association of Life Insurance Companies. It marked the latest victory since the nearly 20 years that have passed since the major strike by people with disabilities.