This Passover, Israelis Are Helping Those Hardest Hit by the Coronavirus

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Volunteers package food at Avigdor, an events space made available for the cause.
Volunteers package food at Avigdor, an events space made available for the cause. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Rebecca Gompertz
Rebecca Gompertz

When Alma Beck and Danielle Cantor realized restaurants and offices in Tel Aviv would be closing down due to the coronavirus crisis, they recognized an opportunity to help those most vulnerable. 

Initially, Beck, a 32-year-old film professional, and Cantor, a 26-year-old researcher of food cultures, planned on taking groceries that would otherwise be discarded by shut down businesses, and using them to cook for the homeless. But after receiving more donations than they could possibly cook, they decided to do something different. “We realized that rather than offering a meal for the day, it made more sense to help underserved folks prepare for the coming weeks, if not months, when there will be very limited access to social services and aid,” Beck says.

So together with Leah Tonic, a 38-year-old filmmaker, they started an unnamed operation in Tel Aviv. Their volunteer movement has helped hundreds, if not thousands of people, over the past three weeks.

The group has managed to run food drives twice a week and feed hundreds of elderly people, domestic abuse survivors, asylum seekers, and others who have come to them for help. “At first we were helping organizations and nonprofits that were struggling to serve their people. But once our initiative spread on social media, people started finding us,” Beck explains.

Food donated for those in need being packaged in Tel Aviv.Credit: Sharona Cantor

"There are people who are struggling so hard, and the system has completely deserted them," she continues. "Disabled people who aren't getting their pensions, caretakers who have been laid off without unemployment benefits, elderly folks quarantined in their homes without care for their basic needs. These are the kind of calls for help we get every day, every hour.”

During the weeklong Passover holiday, which starts Wednesday, dozens of volunteers are assisting Beck, Cantor and Tonic deliver 700 boxes with groceries, which are packaged at Avigdor, an events space that has been donated for the cause. 

Besides working on food drives, volunteers cook warm meals for those unable to do so for themselves, or join an "adoption" program, in which they are paired with seniors for regular phone conversations.

Running the volunteer operation.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“We are hundreds of people who, rather than stay home to ride out the storm solo, decided to come together to help those hurting the most in our community," reflects Beck. "Our movement is growing and teaching solidarity every day, and that's something I hope we can continue beyond this time of crisis."

Stepping up to the crisis

But theirs is not the only operation working to provide for underprivileged people during this year’s Passover.

Nevet, for example, is a non-profit organization that has provided daily meals for Israeli children from disadvantaged backgrounds and dysfunctional homes since 2006. Around 9,000 students rely on the free breakfasts they distribute every morning at schools.

According to CEO Rotem Giladi, the group grew worried about what would happen to the children and their families with schools closed because of the coronavirus

“We started getting calls from school principals and municipalities saying the kids were in bad shape," she says. “With the unemployment rate in Israel reaching 25 percent, these distressed families have taken the greatest hit.”

Food packages that will soon be distributed to those in need.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The organization decided to adapt its program to the crisis. It is now providing kids and their families with food packages, complete with enough groceries to feed a family of five for a week. Anticipating Passover, the packages contained special products for the holiday.

When asked about the importance of the work they have been doing, Giladi shares a short story: “I received a message from a mother of one of the families. She was so thankful, saying it was exactly what she needed and didn’t have the money to buy. We worked so hard these past three weeks, getting to hear the people we are helping is heartwarming.”

Another non-profit that has had its usual activities altered by the coronavirus crisis is Latet. As the largest food bank in Israel, the organization runs food drives both on Passover and Rosh Hashanah in partnership with the supermarket chain Shufersal. This year they had to adapt to coronavirus regulations and instead of having volunteers stand by supermarkets' exits, boxes asking for donations were placed next to the cashiers.

Gilles Darmon, chairman and founder of Latet, says the food drive posed new challenges this year. “On one hand, people who are regular donors suddenly found themselves without jobs and without the resources to help," he says. "On the other hand, we got a formidable number of contributors who understood that it is now or never: this is the moment of truth, of mobilization.”

Contestants on the Israeli version of the "Big Brother" reality show help out with Nevet's food drive.Credit: Courtesy of Nevet

In addition to the Passover food drive and their regular commitments to local agencies, this year Latet is also providing food and hygiene products to 15,000 impoverished elderly people all over the country. To make that logistically possible they formed a national coalition with the Israeli Humanitarian Aid, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, the IDF Home Front Command and other government agencies.

“The coronavirus crisis is mainly a social challenge faced by the collective, not by individuals. The only way we can succeed in getting through this crisis is together,” says Darmon.

In his opinion, the quick response to the crisis showcases a true understanding of what the moment demands: "We have been asked to be locked into our homes and focus on ourselves. But the way Israelis mobilized shows that they understood that when it comes to strengthening the responsibility we have for one another, it's now or never."

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