They Just Wanted to Help a Few Hungry Israelis. They Ended Up Replacing Israel's Welfare System

Danielle, Leah and Alma wanted to help people during the coronavirus crisis. Soon enough they were feeding tens of thousands of Israelis

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From left to right: Danielle Cantor, Leah Tonic and Alma Beck.
From left to right: Danielle Cantor, Leah Tonic and Alma Beck. 'Mutual assistance requires that we look at those among us who are privileged and those who aren’t.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

The messages come in at a dizzying rate.

“I’m a social worker helping a single parent who needs assistance to buy food,” says the first one, from a welfare department employee in Tel Aviv.

Soon after, there’s another message on the screen, this time from neighboring Givatayim: “I’m at a meeting with the city’s welfare department and they’re asking how needy groups or individuals can contact you.”

A third message, from Haifa, says: “A social worker is asking about a regular supply of hot meals to a Holocaust survivor in Nahariya … is it possible?”

The Minister of Social Services or the head of the National Insurance Institute aren’t on the receiving end of these messages. Instead, it’s Alma Beck, Danielle Cantor and Leah Tonic, three Tel Aviv women in their 20s and 30s.

מתנדבים ב"תרבות של סולידריות", בספטמבר 2020. התנדבות היא דרך נפלאה להתקדמות Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Before the pandemic, they had nothing to do with the welfare system. For the past nine months, however, they’ve been fielding hundreds of phone messages and appeals every month from social workers, teachers, counselors and even mayors. They’re all requesting help for families at risk in their cities.

These aren't citizens turning to the government for assistance in return for their taxes. In fact, it’s the opposite: representatives of local government appealing to tax-paying citizens to help out and provide aid during the health crisis.

But what’s more important than the request by the social workers – who are fighting to provide assistance in anyway possible to the people who are turning to them – is what’s implied between the lines: The social workers lack the resources to meet these growing needs.

One of them, from Bat Yam, acknowledged this in the last line of a recent message in which she asked, almost casually: “May we propose the use of your organization to the welfare department responsible for food distribution? We encounter difficult cases and our present resources aren’t really enough for these families.”

Beck admits that, initially, such appeals from social workers made her really angry. “I didn’t understand why they were approaching me rather than the welfare offices that employ them,” she explains. “Only later did I understand that they’re also victims of the system.”

After they launched their effort, the three women believed someone would eventually take over. That the government would find a way to help the thousands of families they’re handling from morning till night. But what started out as temporary volunteer work has become the center of their lives. “There’s nobody to whom we can hand over the responsibility we undertook,” Cantor says.

Preparing food parcels for delivery. The initiative has thus far sent more than 30,000 food packages to 54 communities nationwide. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

No questions asked

The story began in March with the start of the coronavirus pandemic in Israel. Beck, 32, who works in the film industry, was looking to initiate a community project in Tel Aviv. She was inspired by an initiative she’d been involved in when she lived in New Orleans, where food that would have been tossed out by restaurants and farmers was instead collected and handed to people in need.

She turned to Cantor, 26, who was involved in food culture and ran a restaurant, and asked her to join. Tonic, 38, who also works in film, also joined them a couple of days later. The three went to restaurants, hotels and offices that were shut during the first lockdown and asked them for the surplus food and raw ingredients they were going to discard.

“We started out thinking we would distribute a few boxes of food, match up some volunteers with some aging adults by phone – and that would be it,” Beck recounts.

That first Sunday, they managed to gather and distribute 30 food boxes, and that number had already skyrocketed to 400 by the third day. But that was still just the beginning.

Posts on their personal social media pages led to hundreds of offers from volunteers across the country asking to participate. “We saw an opportunity to mobilize our community and we continued, not knowing where we were headed,” Beck adds.

Nine months on, they head a large mutual aid movement called Culture of Solidarity, made up of about 3,000 volunteers. The initiative has thus far sent more than 30,000 food packages to 54 communities nationwide. Seniors, asylum seekers, single parents, sex workers, domestic abuse survivors, families at risk – Jews and Arabs, secular and religious ... anyone who turns to them receives assistance in accordance with their needs and requests, without bureaucratic background checks and with no questions asked.

They’ve set up a few other volunteer services as well, including “adoption” by telephone, where volunteers speak with seniors, single parents and people coping with mental illness. There’s a volunteer group that cooks hot food specifically adapted for the individual needs of aging adults and people who can’t cook for themselves; a network of volunteer drivers bring the food packages to people’s homes; a weekly collection of surplus food from farmers and wholesalers. There’s a mobile market of used appliances, housewares, toys and clothing for people in need. The group has also recently begun to offer home repairs.

The women who manage the network say that because the project is based on mutual aid, and because they’re working as private citizens and not as part of any organization, this allows them to work more dynamically and creatively in response to the changing needs.

Volunteers take part in the food distribution operation during lockdown. Anyone who turns to them receives assistance in accordance with their needs and requestsCredit: Tomer Appelbaum

The food drives, which occur on an almost weekly basis, demonstrate how well organized their system is. A few weeks ago, the three women took over the Haoman 17 nightclub in south Tel Aviv and, together with dozens of volunteers – some of the partygoers who earlier in the year were still dancing and drinking there – filled the space with hundreds of empty boxes.

With the seriousness and efficiency of people who've done this before, they place basic foods into every box – oil, pasta, lentils, canned food, fresh vegetables – along with Bamba (peanut butter-flavored snacks) and breakfast cereals.

After several hours’ work, the trio were able to find a spot among the cartons to hold the interview, but were barely able to finish a sentence. “Where are the kosher boxes earmarked for ultra-Orthodox families?” one volunteer asked Tonic, who asked to stop for a moment so she could help. When she returned, another volunteer needed personal advice from Cantor. Beck was also interrupted repeatedly due to a stream of urgent messages from asylum seekers who were searching for food.

Broken welfare system

This is their new routine. Within the bustle they have managed to bring back to this nightlife hub, it’s easy to forget that they never had any intention of establishing an operation of these proportions. The need that led them to interrupt their lives and devote themselves to volunteer work – and the fact that now they can’t stop without neglecting thousands of people – is an indictment of sorts against the welfare system and the government’s order of priorities.

Culture of Solidarity's Danielle Cantor, Leah Tonic and Alma Beck. 'When we began the movement, we did it as good citizens. But the government is not good to us citizens.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“At first, we thought the systems would assume control of things at any moment and that each of us could return to the life she used to have,” Cantor says. But on the night of the Passover seder, she says, she realized for the first time that there is no address for these problems. “I heard about a family from the Congo that hadn’t eaten for five days. Four people heard about them before me, and nobody stopped for a moment to buy food for them. Everyone thought there was someone whose job it is to take care of such cases. Everyone thought that there’s a welfare state here that supports its weak communities.”

Like Cantor, Beck also slowly internalized the fact there was nowhere to transfer the responsibility. “I realized that we have no ‘mother’ and ‘father’ to depend on, that responsibility for the survival of entire communities lies with us, the citizens,” she relays. “I didn’t come from this background, and this period has taught me a very important lesson about the welfare systems that devastate entire populations.”

At first, Tonic says, they forwarded lists of families who turned to them and are in need of ongoing assistance to the welfare departments in the various cities. “At the time, I believed that our job was to organize the groundwork, to sit with the welfare personnel and teach them how to map the people in need of assistance in real time,” she says.

Only later did she realize that the welfare departments lacked the tools to help. “Today, I’m very angry,” Tonic says. “When we began the movement, we did it as good citizens. But the government is not good to us citizens.”

Nine months on, the three women say the lists they sent to city welfare departments received no response, and so they themselves are continuing to support these families. Nahariya, Rishon Letzion, Ashdod, Haifa, Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv are only a few on the list.

'It’s sad that one minister calls it rubbish and another attaches stickers with his own name.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Poor pay a high price

Inbal Hermoni, chairwoman of the Social Workers Union, doesn’t deny the women’s allegations. On the contrary, she reinforces them, telling Haaretz that the welfare system and social services have been suffering for decades from a serious shortage of resources – a shortage that causes Israel’s poor to pay a high price.

“Since March, appeals to the social services have increased by dozens of percentage points, but the resources for dealing with this population haven’t increased,” she says. “Social workers are operating on the social welfare front line, with scant resources, often unable to help, and that’s because the government doesn’t deem it fit to strengthen individual, community and social resilience. The coronavirus is clearly exposing the difficult budgetary problems in all of the public services, welfare services in particular,” she adds.

That’s why, when Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi declared in July, “This nonsense that people have nothing to eat is rubbish,” Tonic decided to send him a long message.

“Let me tell you about hunger and about rubbish, honorable minister,” she wrote. “Let me tell you about the single mother who wrote to me at 2 A.M. that for several days her baby has eaten nothing but water that she mixes with sugar to make her feel satiated. About the old man who contacted me crying in the middle of Seder night that his stomach was growling because he hadn’t eaten for several days. … About the grandfather who came on aliyah a few years ago because he wanted to be buried here, and I found him scavaging through the garbage. About people who, for lack of choice, found themselves contacting us and with great embarrassment are asking us to help so that they’ll survive meanwhile, until someone in your government decides to take responsibility and do his job.” Hanegbi didn’t reply.

Delivering food parcels to those in need.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Donors in need

Since the night Tonic sent her message to Hanegbi, the situation of tens of thousands of people who receive assistance from the movement has only deteriorated. The three women tell of a farmer who reached out to them during the first lockdown with a request to donate food to people in need, but after the second lockdown turned to them with a request for assistance for his own family.

“That broke me – the realization that such good people who donated are simply unable to survive. He’s not the only one who started as a donor and became a recipient,” Tonic says.

“Mutual aid is recognizing first of all our neighbors and the root problems in our communities,” Cantor says. “It’s about openly opposing the systems of racism, class discrimination and large retailers. Mutual aid requires that we look at those among us who are privileged and those who aren’t, and to ask how we achieve control of the resources and distribute them so as to advance justice in our communities. What makes our actions acts of resistance is that we’re operating in the direction of dismantling oppressive mechanisms by means of showing radical empathy. It’s political.”

Beck says the sights and problems to which she was exposed caused her sleepless nights during the first lockdown. “I would toss and turn at night, thinking about seniors stuck in their homes, without their caregivers and senior centers, without visits from family or acquaintances,” she recalls. “I felt that beneath the surface, there’s an intolerable sense of loneliness which gave me no peace.”

These feelings are also apparent from the messages they receive from people in need, which paints a sad picture reflecting the severity of the situation. “Can we get Paracetamol for children?” asks a single mother. “My older son suffers from chronic headaches because he has no eyeglasses, they broke.”

Another mother thanked them, writing: “Imagine what it means to raise six children alone, when I’ve been unemployed for five months and their father doesn’t pay me a shekel in child support. It’s simply unbelievable that I’m in a situation where a few vegetables on Friday save Shabbat for me.”

'I felt that beneath the surface, there’s an intolerable sense of terrible loneliness that gives me no peace,' says Beck.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Another woman stated: “I’m 100 percent disabled. They closed my husband’s place of business. He left and didn’t return. The welfare services don’t help us.” And a Palestinian woman wrote: “We live seven people in a one-room apartment. Every morning, I have to pray to God that they’ll let me and my husband cross the checkpoint in order to bring bread to the children. What can I say? I want to die of shame.”

Cantor collected these testimonies and, together with artist Arbel Steiner, who illustrated them, screened them at a demonstration opposite the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. The three partners protest there regularly – and Beck and Cantor have even been arrested there. They also harbor criticism for the welfare minister, who in September distributed packages bearing the inscription: “Packed with love by the minister of social services, Mr. Itzik Shmuli, Jerusalem.”

According to Tonic, “It’s sad that one minister calls it rubbish and another attaches stickers with his own name. People are hungry. They don’t care who the minister is; they care about not going to bed hungry.”

Cantor says: “Today, we’re demonstrating and creating a mutual aid alternative by ourselves. Everyone is excited about how people come together to help each other – to the point that we fail to understand that these difficulties shouldn’t even exist. We favor mutual help, but also target the root causes that brought about the lack of equality to begin with.” She adds that helping one another is “not just a matter of packing and handing out food.”

‘Extraordinary work’

The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry stresses that the picture is complex, and that the efforts of volunteers are in addition to what the ministry does.

Responding to this story, Social Services Minister Shmuli told Haaretz, “The aid organizations are doing amazing and extraordinary work out of devotion and a real sense of mission. This is also a welcome initiative, but the claim that the welfare system relies or depends on them is exaggerated and has no basis in reality.

“We’re full of admiration for the activity – and out of a deep understanding that there are Israelis who prefer to approach organizations and not the welfare system to get help, we provide hundreds of millions of shekels in support directly to the activities of some of the aid NGOs.

“In addition, the Social Services Ministry has provided unprecedented security networks to the disabled, pensioners and welfare recipients to the tune of more than 15 billion shekels ($4.5 billion), and has nearly tripled the budget for food security, and handed out more than 6 million meals and coupons and food baskets worth hundreds of millions of shekels to families and individuals in need.

“Therefore, there is no need to minimize the ministry’s activities in order to emphasize the amazing and valuable work these organizations are providing as supplemental assistance. The coronavirus crisis has pulled the rug out from under many Israelis who didn’t even know the location of the welfare office in their city, and today are coming to get help. Were it not for the supplemental assistance provided by the aid groups, there’s no way we could have provided a solution to this tremendous flood.”

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