Ask Abraham Israel about hungry people in Israel and he gets exasperated.
"The situation is pathetic," said Israel, the founder of Hazon Yeshaya, a charity that supports seven soup kitchens. "It's terrible, terrible, terrible. We're feeding 5,000 people a day. For Passover we needed to give 12,000 families food packages."
And according to Israel, the situation is only getting worse.
A couple of years ago, the Los Angeles community raised upward of $19 million for The Federation's Jews in Crisis campaign, with most of the money going to charities that helped victims of terror. Now many Los Angeles congregations are responding to other victims of terror -- the Israeli poor.
According to Haaretz newspaper, one in five Israelis lives below the poverty line. The Israeli poor might not have been wounded by suicide bombs, but they are suffering as a result of Israel's ailing economy. Hazon Yeshaya is among several charities, like Yad Eliezer, Keren Yismach Moshe, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Israel Chesed Fund and Meals4Israel, that help Israel's indigent population. These charities are now increasing their Los Angeles presence to raise more money to meet the growing need for their services.
"I go maybe four or five times a year to Los Angeles, and it's growing in leaps and bounds," said Israel, who receives support from Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Nessah Synagogue, Sinai Temple and the Saban Foundation, among others. "About 20 percent of our budget [which in 2003 was $3.2 million] comes from Los Angeles. It's a very important city for us."
Yad Eliezer is another organization working to increase its Los Angeles fundraising. The organization provides food and social services to more than 7,000 families in Israel and runs programs that give baby formula to 1,600 poor mothers. Yad Eliezer currently raises 75 percent of its $12 million budget in the states, with a small portion of that coming from Los Angeles. Six months ago Yad Eliezer upped its Los Angeles presence when Eli Joshua, a retired businessman living in Glendale began fundraising for the organization and received support from Temple Israel of Hollywood and Chabad of Glendale.
But while most agree that these and other charities provide a necessary service, some congregations are reluctant to view Israel's hunger problem as a strictly Jewish issue. Joshua initially approached Wilshire Boulevard Temple for support, but they rebuffed him when they realized that Yad Eliezer only helps Jewish people, and does not donate food to Arabs.
"I have a lot of respect for Yad Eliezer, and I hope that in the future they will also take a broader view of hunger in Israel," said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. "We, as a liberal Jewish community, understand that poverty is a worldwide concern, and we see [the situation in Israel] as not a problem of religious identity by as a human problem."
Instead of supporting Yad Eliezer, the Temple donated funds to MAZON, a nondenominational charity based in Los Angeles that supports hungry people all over the world, and earmarked the funds for Israel. In 2003, MAZON donated $130,000 to Israeli charities, but in keeping with its charitable tenets stopped short of giving to any organization that only helped the Jewish poor.
The Israeli government is upset about the increased focus on Israel's hungry. In June 2003, The Forward newspaper reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon downplayed the problem of hungry people in Israel and launched into Diaspora organizations that used images of Israel's poor and hungry to raise funds.
However, groups raising funds say that there is real need in Israel. Hazon Yeshaya's Israel told The Journal that he expects his budget to double this year to $6 million in response to growing demand.
David Suissa started Meals4Israel, a Los Angeles based charity that gives money to existing Israeli soup kitchens, when he read reports about the number of hungry people. Meals4Israel soup kitchens currently feed 60,000 people a month.
Federation President John Fishel posted a letter about the problem to the group's Web site, raising the question of whether the group "should address the growing hunger and poverty in Israel with whatever resources our community can muster." He noted that The Federation had sent funds to support food pantries and distribution of food packages in Israel.
"Young Israel of Century City's Tzedaka fund gave over $250,000 last year, and 60 or 70 percent of that went to Israel," said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, whose congregation gives money to four charities that support poor people in Israel. "Last year we gave $1,000 to Keren Yeshoshua V'Yisroel. This year [the charity] asked -- begged -- for $2,000. There are a lot more people approaching them and asking for funds."
"I think [the poverty] is understandably downplayed by the government because in any country it makes the government look bad that there are hungry people for whom social services are not adequate," Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple said. "But the private organizations are absolutely essential. The thought of people going hungry in Israel is a painful one, and it is incumbent on us to do what we can."
For more information, visit the following Web sites: Hazon Yeshaya, www.hazonyeshaya.org; Yad Eliezer, www.yadeliezer.org; Meals4Israel, www.meals4israel.com; Keren Yismach Moshe, www.yismachm.com; and MAZON, www.mazon.org .
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