The numbers are staggering. According to the latest report conducted by the national office of social security, 677,700 families (20.5 percent of all families) currently live below the poverty line in Israel. The statistics get even worse when you count the children -- 925,800, which is more than 35.9 percent of Israel's entire population younger than 18.
More than 10,000 people come to
Hazon Yeshaya every year to help
assist the poor in Israel
The Israeli Ministry of Welfare and Social Services claims that new initiatives have been put in place to reduce the increasing poverty.
"The government decided last year for the first time on a clear goal to reduce the poverty in Israel. A social economic agenda was formed based on a report by the National Organization for Economics headed by Professor Manuel Trachtenberg," said Nachum Ido, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Welfare and Social Services Office in Jerusalem.
By encouraging economic growth and improving education, science, technology and research and development in key sectors of the population, the government plans to ameliorate the situation by 2010. Theoretically, the plan is a good one -- especially for the most affected sectors of the population, the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli Arabs. But for those who cannot afford to buy food today, two years is a long time to wait for the next meal.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of the problem is the lack of attention it receives in the international and local media, whose coverage of Israel centers largely on nuclear threats from Iran, internal political turmoil and the wild success of the Israeli economy -- thanks largely to the high-tech industry.
With the shekel currently listed as the strongest currency in the world and the perceived economic growth despite close ties to the struggling American economy, the poverty is difficult to fathom. But for Abraham Israel, the founder and director of the Hazon Yeshaya Humanitarian Network in Israel, it is grotesquely apparent.
By 11:30 a.m. on a sweltering day in June, the lines to receive a hot meal in the Jerusalem branch of Hazon Yeshaya spill out of the building and into a large concrete courtyard. Protected from the scorching rays of the sun by a sliver of shade near one wall of the building, a group of elderly Jerusalemites patiently await their turn to sit and eat inside. A group of young children on the other side of the courtyard listen quietly to their mother, who is scolding them for bickering.
Inside, the spine-tingling sound of a dental drill is muffled by the din of chattering crowds. From the free dental clinic to the left, another line of people, young and old, winds around the corner. A pushing mob carrying identification cards waits outside of the secretarial office for verification that they are indeed Status A, Israel's lowest rung on the socioeconomic ladder.
"We are the only organization in Israel to make sure that people who come here really need our help," Abraham Israel said as we took a brisk tour of the facilities. "And we are the only soup kitchen open 365 days a year. Hunger doesn't take holidays."
A cacophony of different languages rose above the masses in the entranceway. Amharic, Russian, Tagalog, Yiddish, Hebrew and Arabic, to name only the most common, could all be heard in various clusters of people who hail from all over the globe, united in the Hazon Yeshaya center today by one factor: hunger.
"Poverty is Israel's greatest problem today, but no one talks about it," Israel said, opening the door to the vocational school, where volunteer beauticians give lessons on how to apply make-up, cut hair and style nails. One of Hazon Yeshaya's 40 free programs, the school gives battered, divorced and single women who often have children to support an opportunity to learn a skill that they can work in from home.
"All we hear about today is the Arab conflict, but this situation is a total disaster. Just look around," Israel said, waving an energetic hand over the crowds.
In the center of the building, an industrial-sized kitchen, with its enormous ovens and stoves, is a flurry of steamy activity. Volunteers are chopping vegetables and stirring pots as plates are served on plastic trays in the dining room next door. Near the kitchen's entrance, gigantic vats of roasted chicken, boiled potatoes and fresh vegetables are covered with aluminum foil, waiting to be picked up and delivered around the country.
"We have volunteers who come to pick up this food and take it to one of our 63 distribution points around the country, and 70 percent of our meals go to the children in schools," Israel said before greeting Chalad Tsalman, the director of the Arabic sector's distribution points.
"These volunteers are doing holy work, and we don't discriminate here. The only thing we require is proof that people are in need, but we help everyone, no matter where they are from or what religion they follow." This diversity, in fact, is perhaps at the heart of the growing poverty problem.
According to Shalom Verrilli, the director of development and one of the few paid employees at Hazon Yeshaya, Jews in the Diaspora provide funding for making aliyah, but then the ball is dropped.
"A lot of money is given to bringing new immigrants here, and when they arrive they're given an apartment and some furniture and then the money stops and they can't find jobs or integrate," said Verrilli, who originally hails from Long Island.
He adds that the large budget required for security and defense in Israel lessens the government's ability to aid the needy and points to the rising anti-Semitism around the world and the aging Holocaust survivors as other contributing factors to the rising poverty.
Not only does the government provide less than 1 percnet of Hazon Yeshaya's annual budget, they also require the non-profit organization to pay value added taxes (VAT) on the food they purchase.
"We feed 14,000 people a day, and we have an annual budget of 14 million dollars, almost none of which comes from the government," Israel explained with frustration. "I travel six months out of the year to raise the money we need, and people who come here and see what we're doing get hooked and either volunteer or leave us checks, but the thing that's hard to accept is that for every $1 million we spend buying food, $155,000 of it goes to taxes. I could feed a lot of people with that money."
A skilled businessman, Israel adds that the overhead of running the organization only requires 2 percent of the annual budget thanks to volunteers, most of whom, he says, are so sweet you could dip them in your tea and not need sugar.
"We don't spend any money on advertising. We survive on fundraising and articles like this one."
A recent recipient of the "Mayor of Jerusalem Volunteer Award" for 2008, the walls of Israel's small ground -- floor office are decorated with past honors, framed letters from grateful children and vocational graduates, sketches of the new building under construction across the street that will feed five times more people, photographs of him standing with famous politicians and previous articles about the foundation's work.
Hazon Yeshaya was founded 12 years ago, but in order to fully understand Israel's unwavering passion for what he does, one must look back half a century. Born in Egypt and forced to flee with his family in 1958 after the Sinai Campaign, he ended up in Paris as a 10-year-old refugee with nothing but the clothes on his back and jobless parents.
"I couldn't work, and my parents couldn't find jobs so we survived by finding soup kitchens for three and a half long, miserable years," he said. "I had holes in my shoes, but that wasn't the end of the world. The end of the world was not being able to eat every day, and we were lucky to find a way to do that. If it hadn't been for the soup kitchens, we would not have survived."
After four years in France, the Israel family eventually made it to the United States.
"We got to the land of opportunity, and I spent the rest of my youth in New York. Praise God, I did well in business, and after working for 35 years as an accountant, I decided to fulfill my dream and come to Israel," he explained quickly, his speech peppered with a slight New York accent.
One afternoon in Jerusalem just after he made aliyah, a young woman named Ronit asked for help crossing the street.
"She was suffering from MS, and after I helped her get to her apartment and saw where she was living -- without electricity, in total squalor -- I asked her what she has to eat," he said. "She said she got money from the government but had to spend most of it on medicine, so she was lucky to eat one yogurt in a day."
Across the hall from Ronit, a family of six was crammed into a tiny room. In order to make space during the day, they were forced to lean the one mattress they shared against a wall. Next to them, an elderly woman was also living in deplorable conditions.
"I decided to rent a little store in the neighborhood and feed these people. At first I had 17 people who would come and eat every day, and from there it started growing."
Today, Hazon Yeshaya is one of the largest nonprofit organizations in Israel and the only one open 365 days a year.
"My success in this holy work, to truly target the worst cases and help the future of this country by making sure children can focus on their education and not the rumbling of their stomachs, is thanks to the Almighty," Israel said. "I do it because I love it, and because I know what it's like to be hungry."