Rachel Bamberger Chalkovsky doesn't need statistics to know about poverty in Israel.
Affectionately known as "Bambi," the retired head midwife of Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Hospital can tell heart-wrenching tales of women who gave birth wearing tattered undergarments and shoes, and young women in their prime who are missing several teeth for lack of dental health care and an adequate diet. From reading the postnatal hemoglobin counts of mothers she knows that 20 percent of the 900 birthing mothers coming to the hospital each month are subsisting on food such as bread and margarine.
"Israelis are not suffering from extreme poverty and they are certainly not hungry for bread and tea. They are just not getting enough meat, fruit and vitamins. For some, a tiny piece of chicken on Shabbat is the only meat they see each week."
Fifteen out of 100 births in the hospital are from the Arab population, where the situation may be worse: "They don't have the same network of helping volunteers like the Jewish communities."
The truth is, one in five Israeli children is going to bed hungry. Recent findings by Israel's Health Ministry show that many Israeli families are not able to guarantee a reasonable food supply to their children, and that too many children are living on unbalanced diets deficient in protein and vitamins.
Chalkovsky said that they started the organization Matan B'Seter (giving in a hidden way), 30 years ago during the Yom Kippur War. On a $1 million budget, the organization helps 500 families. Referrals come through social workers and nearby schoolteachers, and Chalkovsky and her board allocate cash donations based on need.
"Advocates make a difference in any society," said Eric Schockman, the executive director of MAZON, at the recent Poverty and Food Insecurity Conference in Tel Aviv. "They represent the voice of the voiceless."
As a guest at the conference, Schockman delineated a blueprint built to end hunger in America. He contributed experience he gained at MAZON, a nonprofit organization that distributes donations from the Jewish community to help feed America's needy from all faiths and background.
The conference was initiated by The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. The four-way venture between The Jewish Federation of Los Angles, the municipality of Tel Aviv/Yafo, the Jewish Agency and the City of Los Angeles has previously contributed to initiatives in education, culture, economics and health.
"The food idea started 18 months ago when North American Jews were becoming aware of Israeli's food insecurity, which mainly resulted from the intifada and the dot-com bust," said Marcie Zekilow, project chair. "Donors wanted to help and well-meaning individuals wanted to set up soup kitchens, but well-meaning isn't always effective. Israelis are asking for the tools in order to help themselves."
What was slated to be a two-way exchange between the two countries bordered on a rescue mission. The agenda of the Oct. 31 to Nov. 3 event appeared to be focused on what Israel needs to do in the short-term to alleviate a problem that the Israeli government can no longer sweep aside.
High-ranking guests from the American side included Eric Bost, the U.S. undersecretary of food, nutrition and consumer services; Robert Forney, president of America's Second Harvest, the nation's food bank network, and Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis.
Bost, whose position hinged on President Bush's re-election, has been managing a yearly budget of $50 billion. He represents the 15 main nutrition programs in the United States, and helps allocate money that goes to one out of every five Americans who are hungry.
"We believe that we run an efficient and most successful feeding program in the world," he told The Journal. "The Israeli government hasn't yet made decisions about what they are doing to avoid pitfalls. They are at the information gathering stage."
While the efforts of most guest speakers were commendable, Jacob Klerman, director for RAND Center for the Study of Welfare Policy, was more reticent about giving advice.
"There has been an increase in social welfare expenses in Israel, and caseloads are increasing with trends similar to those in the U.S.," he said. "The administration in Israel is cutting back on benefits, but there is a serious debate on whether or not the basic ideas [that Israel] borrowed from America will be effective in Israel."
In 2003, Israel made its first study on food security using definitions borrowed from the United States. In response to its findings, the government immediately upped social benefits to the elderly by about 300 NIS ($67) per month and has initiated a school lunch program at 100 schools nationwide.
"Is there hunger in Israel?" asked professor Dov Goldberger, the director general of the Ministry of Welfare on the second day of the conference: "Unequivocally no. The problem is that food is not being equally distributed."
Throughout the event, participants experienced hands-on activities and helped local nonprofit organizations, like La Sova, make late night food runs to collect leftover food from banquet halls and restaurants.
While the conference was into its third day, a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv's Carmel market reverberated through the streets a stone's throw away. Participants carried on as planned and continued their visit to Hayarden School.
The school benefits from a subsidized lunch program provided by the Sacta-Rashi Foundation and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. The project enables the school day to be lengthened so that children from lower socioeconomic areas in Israel can benefit from individual tutoring and homework help, together with extracurricular courses such as capoeira (Brazilian martial arts), basketball and drumming.
Schoolteacher Danielle Max from England has seen students from other locations begging their teachers for pitote (Israeli pita bread) from their staff rooms. But, she noted, problems with nutrition cannot be ignored even in high-level income schools.
"It is the layout of the school day in Israel and the vending machines that are a problem," Max said. "The kids don't have a proper lunch break and when they do, they are sold stodgy food from vending machines."
Some local Israelis and concerned parents, like therapist Adam Jessel, are not convinced that the Israeli government should shoulder the burden of feeding the nation's hungry in the same way the U.S. government does. He believes that the Israeli government should spend its shekels on education and on helping raise awareness to and the productivity of the thousands of covert nonprofit operations that are already in operation.
"In religious communities, even in small ones such as Kiryat Sefer with only 10,000 people, there are typically hundreds of family-run operations, called gemachim, that provide needy individuals with loans or gifts of everything from power tools and pacifiers to money, furniture and clothing," Jessel said.
Gemilut chesed, or acts of giving kindness, is a patent of the Jewish people, Jessel explained. He believes that potential donors, many of whom are ready and willing to open another soup kitchen, might not know about existing operations staffed by efficient and dedicated volunteers.
"It is in our nature to support one another," he said. "Our government, on the other hand, needs to focus on raising awareness abroad to the multitude of community-based nonprofit organizations in Israel."
Donations to Matan B'Seter can be forwarded to Matan B'Seter c/o Deena Zyskind, 447 N. June St. Los Angeles, CA 90004. (323) 934-8157.
Karin Kloosterman is a freelance journalist and researcher living in Israel. She writes for The Jerusalem Post and Israel21C. Comments can be sent email@example.com.