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It’s déjà vu all over again: Lockdown already wreaking hunger in Israel, again

As stomachs rumble across the nation, our food distribution charity is again busier than ever, but it's hard to ask donors to give yet again

I’m switching the Shana Tova greeting for another: Happy Groundhog Day.

Sure, the new lockdown in Israel feels very different for many of us. Nobody is clamoring for toilet paper, the shelves are full of eggs, and citizens can venture a kilometer from home, instead of 100 meters.

But standing where I am, on the front line of the fight to keep Israelis fed as their jobs and stability disappear, I can tell you it looks scarily similar.

As I write, the government is announcing that all non-essential businesses will be closed, meaning that many people will be newly unemployed, and grappling with the consequences on their pockets and their dinner tables.

Even before this tightening of restrictions, lockdown was hitting the nation hard. On Monday, the the first working day of the new year, thousands realized they are newly without a place of work to go. Israel’s Employment Service reported that some 110,000 people have registered for unemployment benefits since lockdown was announced, bringing the number of unemployed in Israel to 837,00.

In the offices and on the food trucks of Leket Israel, the national food bank, it feels like we’ve time travelled back to March, when the first lockdown began and we saw citizens who had never before experienced hunger request help to find their next meal.

It feels like a harsh reality that we thought was slowly improving has been thrown backwards several months.

The residents of Eilat, who were starting to revive their businesses by receiving tourists, are once again scrambling to pay their bills. In every Israeli town and city, even the most genteel, there are people who don’t know how they will buy next week’s groceries.

As they dipped their apple in honey over Rosh Hashanah, some wondered if it may be one of their last sweet treats for weeks.

For the part of my charity’s team, supplies of food that we’re normally given to redistribute to the needy, from the leftovers of buffets at hotels, offices and events have, once again, disappeared. In a rerun of the spring, if we want to keep people fed, we have to buy food that would normally come in as donations.

There were times during the first wave when we thought things were getting better and we were slapped back into crisis, but this is on a new scale.

Except, this time it’s harder for people like me to do what’s expected of us. We’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

As stomachs rumble across the nation, we don’t want to turn people away. On the other hand, as donors face their own worries, about their finances, about the impact of the pandemic on their health and family, we are reluctant to push them too much to give.

Heartwarmingly, many do still want to do everything they can. This is true of Israelis, who care deeply for their society, and Jewish people in the Diaspora, who in a normal year may be visiting Israel and contributing to its economy, but in the absence of a trip, want to make their contribution.

Yet just as parents feel fatigued by the prospect of children home again for weeks, as teachers feel fatigued by the challenge of online education, and as medical professionals feel fatigued by the endless demands on their time and energy, donors feel fatigue.

Lots of them reached deep into their pockets in March and April, and possibly over the summer too, but are now hearing again that the need is great.

How much should we ask? How passionately should we make requests? How do we manage both our obligation to hungry Israelis and the respect we must show to donors at this difficult time?

It feels like we’re rewinding to March, but with these questions buzzing, it’s even harder. Back then, we had our reserves — our emotional reserves, to help us and others to weather the storm, and in lots of cases, financial reserves. Now every request is a bigger ask than it was six months ago.

The days of March and April felt repetitive, but we’re now experiencing repetition of the repetition. To borrow a phrase from the late American baseball catcher Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again. There is just one difference: it feels like we’re taking on the same challenge, but this time with our hands tied behind our backs.

About the Author
Joseph Gitler is the founder and chairman of Leket Israel -- The National Food Bank, the leading food rescue non-profit organization that rescues fresh, perishable food, working with 195 non-profits throughout the country to distribute nutritious food to over 175,000 Israelis weekly.
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