by Steve Maas, Advocate Editor
Israeli Simcha Reiser’s mission took him to his native America at perhaps the worst of possible times.
While the authors of “Start Up Nation” were touting the ingenuity of Israeli entrepreneurs and the Jewish state’s minister of finance was lecturing at places like the Harvard Business School about how his nation escaped the brunt of the economic crisis, Reiser was in town telling the other side of the story.
And, just as Americans are beginning to recover from the crisis, Reiser was asking them to put aside a little money for the thousands of Israeli Jews living in poverty.
“I’m here now because I have no choice,” Reiser said in an interview with the Advocate. “There are people in my own back yard who are starving.”
Reiser represents Yad Eliezer, the largest anti-hunger agency in Israel. It was launched three decades ago by a family in Jerusalem who prepared food baskets in their kitchen for needy neighbors; last year, the organization helped 13,000 families, 70,000 people in all.
In depicting Israel’s prosperity, the media presents a distorted picture, Reiser said. “Yes, you now have more millionaires and billionaires than ever before, but your average, hardworking stiff is a struggling person who is barely making it or not making it all.”
One in three Israeli children – 783,000 in all – live in families defined as “poor,” according to 2009 statistics released this month by the National Insurance Institute Research Administration, an Israeli government agency.
One in five Israelis overall lives in poverty, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD defines poverty as disposable income that is less than half the national median. An OECD review, released last month, found that just over half of Arab Israelis and 60 percent of the Heredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, are in poverty, compared to 10 percent of the rest of the population.
Yad Eliezer limits its clientele to Jews. “In the best of all possible worlds, we’d like to help everyone,”Reiser said. “Being that we have limited funds our brethren are our top priority.”
While he could not provide an ethnic breakdown of the agency’s beneficiaries, Reiser said, “If you’re a white Jew, if you’re a black Jew, if you’re a green Jew – whatever the case – if you’re a Jew in need, we’re going to try to do everything possible to help you.”
Reiser said that half of the people under the poverty line are working, but simply don’t make enough to support their families — even with government assistance.
Besides supplying food and emergency funds, Yad Eliezer sponsors programs designed to break the cycle of poverty. In one of them, children from troubled homes who are deemed at risk of delinquency are paired with a “quality couple” so that they can experience a stable home environment. “Our kids build a real, healthy relationship with the family,” he said. “It’s their home away from home.”
Some 3,500 children are in the program now, with another 2,500 on the waiting list. The couples, who are paid an hourly wage, mentor an average of three hours a week.
Other programs help children with learning disabilities and offer job training to adults.
Yad Eliezer reported its 2009 annual budget was $25 million, with overhead accounting for less than 4 percent of its expenses thanks in large part to a network of 12,000 volunteers worldwide. Charity Navigator, which evaluates the efficiency and performance of charities,has given Yad Eliezer its top rating, 4 stars, for five consecutive years.
With the agency relying on foreign donors for 80 percent of its funding, Reiser is working to raise Israeli contributions. “I have met with very prominent business people, trying to teach them the importance of tzedakah,” he said.
Nadav Tamir, the Israeli consul general to New England, said that Israelis “still have a lot to learn [about philanthropy] from the Jewish community in America.”
In the past, Tamir said, Israelis “thought the state should solve everything” and that it was enough “to pay taxes and serve in the military.”
Now, though, he said he is seeing an increase in Israeli philanthropy. Reiser said that while the Israeli government offers generous tax breaks for charitable donations, the average Israeli is on a tighter budget than the average American Jew. As in the United States, Israel has seen a growing gap between its rich and poor – forget the kibbutz colored image of a nation of economic equals.
Reiser, a Long Island native who first visited Israel five years ago when he was 25, said he bases his pitch to Americans on an old adage. “Every Jew is responsible for one another,” he said. “If there is a Jew anywhere in the world who is in spiritual, mental, emotional, physical pain, it’s another Jew’s job to do what he can do to help eliminate that pain.”
The Jewish Advocate (February 26, 2010)