February 1, 2007
Angels in the hood
In the Jewish Orthodox world, we're familiar with of organizations like Tomchei Shabbat, a highly professional operation that distributes free Shabbat food to observant families. If you ever take your kids to their La Brea warehouse on any Thursday, you will see a distribution efficiency that rivals that of Wal-Mart.
So yes, there are all those great, big successful charity organizations. And then there is a married couple named Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen.
You won't find them on the society pages of the Los Angeles Times, receiving an award, or at a luncheon at the Luxe hotel, raising money for their cause. You're more likely to find them shlepping around town, gathering leftover food from weddings, bar mitzvahs, and kosher restaurants, and bringing it to their little house in Pico-Robertson to help the needy families of the hood.
It might surprise you, but there are more than a few families in the hood that have a hard time putting food on their tables. Yaelle and Nouriel estimate that they regularly help feed -- very discretely -- about 65 families in the neighborhood.
Discretion is a given in the Cohen chesed machine. Everyone is in on it, even their six children. No last names are ever used, and recipients usually stay in their cars while the kids bring them their food boxes.
Yaelle has been known to wake up in the middle of the night to answer the knock of a needy mother too ashamed to come while there is daylight. But not every recipient needs discretion.
The other day, Nouriel and his children took a haggard, grimy homeless Jew home with them on their way back from synagogue, much to the consternation of some people watching. When he got to their home, the man washed and got a fresh white shirt, and took a long nap before eating. The man has been coming back ever since, and often sleeps in their front yard.
The Cohens do more than give food. If you have clothes or furniture or anything of value that you want to donate, chances are they'll find a recipient. Their phones never stop ringing.
Ever since I moved to this neighborhood, I have been hearing about Yaelle and her family, usually from supermoms humbled by her selflessness. But nobody could tell me about the depth of the Cohens' motivation.
This I got when Yaelle, a sweet-looking, olive-skinned Moroccan Jew from Montreal, and her husband, a gentle Persian chasid, served me Moroccan tea on a recent Sunday night. A lot of the facts are known: They were living a comfortable life in Beverly Hills, thanks to a thriving beauty supply business.
Eventually, the business went south and they had to sell their house. To this day, they still struggle to pay their bills, and there's little doubt that this daily struggle has helped them connect with the pain of others.
But there's more to this story. Many years ago the doctors informed Yaelle and Nouriel that one of their daughters urgently needed a major liver operation. They agonized, and before doing anything, they decided to take their daughter to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe and get a personal blessing.
As they quietly recall the story, their lightheartedness is gone, their tone has sobered up. It's almost as if they are reluctant to tell me what happened -- their daughter miraculously healed, to the shock of the doctors -- for fear that no one will believe it. But my interest is in their motivation, and here, one thing is clear from looking at them: their limitless gratitude for the recovery of their daughter animates everything they do. This selfless love for others is one of the ways they say thank you to God.
In the end, though, does it really matter why they do what they do? For the father of four who called last week at 5 p.m. to say that he had no dinner for his children, it didn't matter why Yaelle immediately got on the phone with Jeff's Gourmet restaurant to get a full meal donated and delivered to that man's family. What mattered was that his family ate.
Still, I do marvel at how they do what they do. The Cohens have no mission statements or spreadsheets or strategic plans. Their business model is not old school, it's ancient school: Gather with your own hands from those who want to give, and give with your own hands to those who need.
Their marketing is from the Kevin Costner movie, "Field of Dreams": Build it and they will come. No press releases, no ads, no dinners. If the business plan is food to mouth, the marketing plan is word of mouth. Here in Pico-Robertson, quietly, discretely, the word has gotten out over the years that there are neighborhood angels named Yaelle and Nouriel who will do whatever it takes to bail you out, should you ever need it.
Can any organization do this kind of personal, hand-to-hand charity? I doubt it. Professional organizations do a lot of wonderful things at many levels of the community. But, inevitably, things and people will fall through the cracks. Some people don't know how to ask, others are too ashamed to ask. A caring neighbor with an ear to the ground is often in the best position -- literally -- to come to the rescue, with the only red tape being the one that wraps the food boxes.
It makes you wonder: How many Yaelle and Nouriel Cohens have come to the rescue of fellow Jews over our history? We hear a lot about the King Davids and the Queen Esthers, but could we really have survived as a people without the quiet angels of chesed that have graced Jewish neighborhoods since time immemorial? Thanks to people like Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen, we don't have to answer that question.