Paul Mirbach
Paul Mirbach

Israel’s Angels in the Shadows

It has now become a tradition. Twice a year, it seems, Israeli society wakes from the slumber of concern for oneself, and dedicates its thoughts to the less fortunate. However, for these less fortunate people, it is a daily challenge. They face the dilemma of whether they can give their children lunches to take to school for the break, or whether they can afford to buy their children sandals to wear during the hot, scorching summer. For the parents of these children the number of children is a classroom is less of an issue; the issue they face is whether they should send their children to school at all, because of all the ancillary costs.

Latest statistics show that 1.6 million people in Israel, live below the poverty line. 750,000 of these unfortunates are children. This statistic is made all the more glaring, when you figure that this means that one in every three children are poor. What I find unforgiveable, is that the government, which is supposed to care for these people, has abandoned them. They have become transparent, faceless. In a society where our government has embraced the neo-capitalist idol of privatizing every aspect of government responsibility that is not glamorous enough, or hard for them to deal with, these people are forgotten. They don’t count.  Unfortunately, as Israel’s employment practices move inexorably towards modern day slavery, spearheaded by the policies of its huge conglomerates who enjoy a disproportionate influence with our political leaders, the number of families struggling to finish the month is growing.

Working in the shadows of this bleak picture are people whose hearts exude so much warmth. Their selflessness and dedication have brought comfort to many thousands of people. Yet, they seek neither recognition, nor accolades. Their only desire is to care for others less fortunate.

Leket Yisrael is possibly the largest food rescue organization in Israel. Its 55,000 volunteers work diligently and quietly, with no publicity or fanfare. They operate in a variety of spheres and in all sectors of society, including the Arab sector. Their principle aim is to alleviate the problem of hunger among the growing number of Israel’s poor. Every year, tens of thousands of volunteers go out into the fields and orchards and collect fruit and vegetables left on the trees or ground, at the end of the harvest. The produce is shipped to central storage facilities, where it is kept in refrigeration until distribution. On average about 20 million kilograms of fruit and vegetables are collected this way every year.

Another branch frequents restaurants, reception halls and bakeries, and collect left over food, which would otherwise be thrown away. It is then repacked and distributed to soup kitchens, shelters and other aid agencies all over the country. Volunteers use their own vehicles and trucks to perform the deliveries. 1.5 million ready-made meals, are provided every year to the needy, and that does not include the 1.2 million sandwiches prepared for children to take to school. Although Leket Yisrael is based in Ra’anana, its operations reach all corners of the country and all communities – Jews, Arabs, and Druze.

Latet is possibly the first name that comes to one’s lips, when one thinks about an aid organization. That is because of Boaz Sharabi’s hit song, which it adopted as its anthem. It was established in 1996, in order to fight poverty in Israel – a society that has abandoned its social welfare status in pursuit of a capitalist, modern, Western lifestyle. There are over 8000 registered regular volunteers who work with Latet, but there are thousands more who work through them on a non-permanent basis.  In a country obsessed with its security (with justification), their motto is: “Latet, for nutritional security”. Each year, they deliver food packages to over 60,000 needy families, which translates into over 270,000 people who live in hardship. They collect donations from food factories in Israel, and salvage surplus food from company cafeterias, restaurants, as well as directly from the public. Every year they have food drives in the period leading up to Pesach and Rosh HaShana. They place crates outside all the supermarkets and ask the public to buy one item while they shop, to donate to the needy. I have never seen one crate stand empty in the days leading up to the holy days.

Lately, Latet has started a project called “Cities without hunger” in the poorest cities in Israel. It is a project where they work together with the citizens of the city to help them to care for others. The project has met with reasonable success, but it is a work in progress and for it to really have an impact it needs to broaden its scope of activities.

Another important part of Latet’s work is its alternative poverty report, which it publishes every year, around the same time that the Bureau of Statistics publishes its annual report. The Bureau of Statistics frequently changes the parameters it employs, to estimate the extent and depth of poverty in Israel. More than once it has been charged with doing so in order to sugar coat their findings, in cooperation with the government. Latet’s report puts a human face to the problem, reminding the public that we are talking about people and their lives, not just numbers.

The success of Latet can be attributed to the fact that it openly cooperates with over 150 similar smaller organizations. For them, what is important is the work they do, not the publicity they get.

Another interesting organization which does exemplary aid work, is Maor Panim – hakoach latet (“Bring light unto your face, from the power of giving”). This organization is slightly different to Leket and Latet, in that it does not limit itself to food aid. They collect furniture, electrical appliances, linen and blankets, which they deliver to needy homes. During these cold, winter months, their contribution is life-saving in some cases. Together with another organization called “Homeless”, they operate an online donation board, matching what people need to what people can donate. It is a sort of a poor man’s eBay. Everything collected is kept in storage facilities which are regularly cleaned and fumigated. Their operations are financed by cooperation with companies, banks and businesses, as well as private citizens. It is arguably the largest welfare non-profit organization in Israel. It has over forty centers in the country, serving over a hundred settlements, both Jewish and Arab.

Maor Panim also operates nutritional centers for the needy. Now, this is something special; they operate them like restaurants. They are served by waiters – volunteers, who have been screened and trained to deal with their “special public” with understanding and sensitivity. This provides the diners with a feeling of self-respect and dignity, which is so important for them not to lose hope. In fact, for Maor Panim, maintaining the dignity of the needy is a primary goal. All the meals provided are approved by a qualified nutritionist, in order to ensure that their “customers” receive a balanced diet. When I first read about this, there were tears in my eyes and a feeling of deep appreciation for the thought and consideration invested by these wonderful people, in dealing with a public that we usually studiously ignore when we pass them on the street.

In 1980 there were no homeless people in Israel. Today, two hundred families lose their homes every year. It is the inspiring work of these organizations, who have stepped into the vacuum, caused by the government’s neglect, who has shed itself of its responsibility for these citizens. These organizations have become our hope for a better Israel.

So, for those of you who are thinking of donating to a worthy Zionist cause in Israel; perhaps donating to one of these organizations would be meaningful.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made Aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz, transforming rocks and mud into a green oasis in the Gallilee. Paul still lives on Tuval. He calls it his little corner of Paradise.