Jessica Lawrence

Remembering Israel’s Poorest This Passover

As we settle into Passover and leave the Seder behind we can take pride in the sumptuous meals we have eaten, marvel over this year’s cinnamon balls being the best ever and enjoy everyone coming together for this festive family favourite.

But as well as the ma nishtana being recited word perfect and the tales our children bring home from school I was left mulling over the lessons of Passover and how they can be applied to Israel today.

One of the big themes of this festival is that of optimism. Throughout the Passover story one of the most difficult tasks Moses is faced with is not just to get the Jews out of Egypt but to get Egypt out of the Jews. They were losing hope that their situation could ever improve.

Without hope Pharaoh could not have been overthrown, Egypt could not be defeated and the oppressed could not break the cycle of their captivity.

We look at Israel today and may struggle to see the connection — after all Israel is famed for its high-tech and celebrated for its medical breakthroughs and scientific successes. But we cannot ignore the stark reality of the recent UNICEF Fairness Report which shows Israel as having one of the highest levels of socioeconomic disparity among children from 41 EU and OECD developed countries. Not quite the land of flowing milk and honey. In fact, the child poverty rate in Israel, as a percentage of an entire population, is higher than places like Turkey, Chile and Mexico!

Educationally the facts are worse still. Israel’s educational achievement in reading, maths and science is yet again one of the worst.

My work with UJIA has brought me face to face with poverty. In the Galil, northern Israel, I’ve encountered some of the 45% of children living below the poverty line, way above the already disturbing 27.5% national average reported in the UNICEF report.

As I’ve learnt over the years, there is no shortage of reasons, explanations and even excuses, but from the perspective of our children, none of these really matter. We need to focus on what can be done; we need to remain optimistic.

Indeed children are another key theme from the Passover story. The festival requires us to turn our homes into places of family worship at a Seder devoted primarily to answering the questions of children. It seems all too obvious. Children are our future. They are the ones who most require our attention. The home is where we first form our identities and discover our values.

UJIA invests over £7m in programmes that better the lives of young people in the Galil. Programmes such as Carmiel Children’s Village which houses over 200 children, removed by court order from their biological families, sometimes escaping abuse and in 85% of the cases, extreme poverty.

UJIA also invests in Teach First, which operates in the UK as well as Israel. Breaking the cycle of poverty is an ongoing challenge, but for the 35 Teach First Teachers placed in the Galil, it is a personal mission. Together, they are impacting over 10,000 low-income children from diverse backgrounds. These dedicated teachers are serving the toughest classes, with students who lag far behind the grade level.

We can only make these improvements by working together — with the Government, local municipalities, and of course, our community of donors, who range from those who can give £10 to those who are able to fund entire projects. The point is that we can all do our part.

The Passover story teaches the importance of a shared responsibility. We begin the Seder by inviting the hungry and the homeless to join with us. We conclude the Seder by opening the door for Elijah demonstrating a responsibility for others.

NGOs, charities, the private sector and the academic community need to keep working together with the government to tackle the issues at all levels. In Israel, the key is to protect the poorest children’s household income, provide better educational infrastructure and opportunities for disadvantaged learners and promote healthier lifestyle for children belonging to lowest income groups.

The scale of the work may seem daunting at times but as the Passover story shows how huge obstacles can be overcome.

About the Author
Jessica Lawrence is the Manager of Young UJIA at UK based charity United Jewish Israel Appeal. Her role is working with young people and engaging them with philanthropy for the UK Jewish community and northern Israel. She has worked at two other UK Jewish organisations, and is experienced with engaging the next generation of Jewish donors and activists.