July 17, 2008
Israel’s Hazon Yeshaya means meal in many languages
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.