As the days tick down to Rosh Hashanah, Jews mindful of the Rambam’s injunction that each person should view himself at every moment as if his mitzvos and aveiros are equally balanced, are busy running after every mitzvah they can grab.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, in his Kuntras Hachesed on Rosh Hashanah, points out there is a unique connection between acts of chesed and Rosh Hashanah: Just as the original Creation was an act of chesed – olam chesed y’banei – so should we emulate our Creator by engaging in acts of chesed in connection with Rosh Hashanah. He notes that Hashem responds with greater precision to acts of chesed than to any other mitzvah.
For those looking to attach themselves to acts of chesed, Yad Eliezer would be the natural starting point, for there we find the impulse to give at its purest. What’s the proof? Every time the Wiesel family, who founded Yad Eliezer, responded to one need, Hashem revealed to them dozens more opportunities to get involved in chesed.
When Rebbetzin Hadassah Wiesel began collecting food for a poor neighbor, with a number of disabled children and major health problems, 32 years ago, she had no intention of founding an organization of any kind – much less one with an annual budget of $24,000,000. But as her daughters went collecting door-to-door, they kept returning home with reports of other families in equally desperate straits. Soon Rebbetzin Wiesel had a whole corps of neighborhood girls also collecting.
Today, 3,500 families receive Yad Eliezer food boxes every month, another 1,500 receive food coupons, and another 350 receive weekly hot meals delivered to the home. Before the chagim, those numbers swell.
Yad Eliezer’s feed-a-baby program began in the same fashion. Rebbetzin Wiesel noticed that the infant son of a woman in the neighborhood could not hold his head up. After a discreet investigation, she ascertained that the mother was malnourished and unable to nurse. To save money on infant formula she was diluting the baby’s infant formula with three times the recommended amount of water. As a result the infant suffered from an acute vitamin deficiency. Last year, 1,500 babies in Israel benefited from infant formula from Yad Eliezer.
Four years ago, Yad Eliezer acquired and renovated two chasanah halls at a cost of $4,000,000. Weddings in those halls carry no stigma, since they are as elegant as most Jerusalem wedding halls, and “middle-class” families too vie for any open nights on the calendar.
Here too the concern with young couples lacking the resources to make a chasanah began with a single case. A young woman came to the Wiesels’ door collecting coins in a nylon sandwich bag for hachnasas kallah. She confessed to Rabbi Yaakov Wiesel that she herself was the kallah. Her father had been unable to meet his financial commitments, and she was afraid that her equally poor chassan would break the engagement. To date, Yad Eliezer has sponsored over 11,000 weddings, and added two supplemental funds for poor chasanim and kallot.
One of Yad Eliezer’s largest programs is its Big Brother program, in which 4,000 boys were enrolled last year. Again, Yad Eliezer was alerted to the need by one single-mother. Dov Wiesel, the son of Rabbi Yaakov and Rebbetzin Hadassah Wiesel, and today the director of Yad Eliezer, visited the home of a ba’alas teshuva raising a son alone. Even though there was nothing to eat in the house, she told Dov that her greatest need was for someone to learn Gemara with her son.
Dov realized that there must be many other boys in the same situation, though he could never have guessed at the magnitude of the problem. There are 130,000 families in Israel today headed by single-parents, of which 30% are below the poverty line. In addition, there are many other families in which the father cannot serve as a role model. For boys growing up in such homes having an avreich with whom to spend at least three hours a week, to serve as an advocate for him in school, and to invite him to his home for Shabbos can be life-saving. The original Big Brother program subsequently gave birth to a parallel Big Sister program and in early intervention school program, providing tutoring before a child falls irreparably behind in his or her learning.
During the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, Yad Eliezer set up a food distribution center in Tzefat for the entire surrounding area. That experience brought Dov Wiesel face-to-face with the poverty in the North. As a consequence, Yad Eliezer set up two dental clinics (free for children; $5 per visit for adults), one in Tzefat and the other in Tiberias. Last year, the clinics treated 21,000 patients.
YAD ELIEZER SERVES AS A HUB connecting Jews around the world to one another through a panoply of chesed activities. The organization’s activities would be impossible without the help of 12,000 volunteers around the globe. School-age children going door-to-door in apartment buildings, collecting foodstuffs for needy families – just as the Wiesel daughters and their friends did over thirty years ago – are a fixture in Orthodox neighborhoods across Israel. Others work stacking the shelves at Yad Eliezer’s Jerusalem warehouses and packing the monthly food boxes. Working in the warehouse has also become a popular activity for families visiting from abroad.
Families in chutz l’aretz can sponsor a wedding in Israel for a poor young couple on the same night as their own simchah, for a small fraction of what they will spend on their own simchah. A similar sponsoring program has been created to benefit poor bar mitzvah boys in Israel, whose families find themselves forced to choose between tefillin for the bar mitzvah boy and food to eat. Another program to provide shoes for children in Israel involves children in schools throughout the United States in chesed from a young age, as they contribute their used but still serviceable shoes to Yad Eliezer sponsored shoe drives.
No matter how many distinct programs Yad Eliezer develops to deal with different facets of breaking the cycle of poverty in Israel, there will always remain one-time emergencies that do not fit within the parameters of any program – cases where a one-time infusion of money can prevent a family from tumbling into overwhelming debt. Yad Eliezer’s director Dov Wiesel spends a good deal of his time “selling” just such mitzvos to a select group of friends looking to have a clearly defined, life-changing impact. Last year, Yad Eliezer’s Emergency Fund dispensed nearly four million dollars.
Mrs. Milka Ben-Ziman interviews families and handles the original intake for these special emergency cases. A well-known religious writer once offered to volunteer her time to help her with her caseload. After two hours, the woman fled never to return so overwhelming did she find the level of need being described. One day a nine-year-old girl approached Mrs. Ben-Ziman, and told her classmates were laughing at her shoes, which were little more than a patchwork of cellophane held together by tape. The girl’s father, a maggid shiur had been stricken with cancer and become partially blind, and the entire household was falling apart.
When Mrs. Ben-Ziman examined the girl’s shoes, she immediately saw that she had developed festering sores on the bottom of her feet. She needed not only an expert dermatologist to heal the sores, but special orthopedic shoes because of the damage done by her makeshift footwear – both of which were provided out of the emergency funds.
Social workers around Israel know that they can contact Yad Eliezer with their most desperate cases. One social worker heard about a boy who had not been in school for five years since a bicycle accident knocked out his four front teeth. His family could not afford dental care, and he was too embarrassed to leave the house. Yad Eliezer was able to draw on its web of contacts to reduce the dental costs by two-thirds, and Dov Wiesel easily sold off the remaining shares in the mitzvah.
WHEN JEWS DECIDE to attach themselves to the mitzvah of chesed as donors, they want to know that their tzedakah dollar is having the maximum impact. Many of the Yad Eliezer programs are designed in such a way as to have a dual impact. For instance, the success of the Big Brother program has convinced municipalities around Israel to contribute significant matching funds. Of the total expenditures of the program, approximately 90% goes to the mentors, who in most cases are themselves financially struggling avreichim. Thus both the boys who gain a male role model and the mentors benefit tangibly from the program.
Rabbi Yaakov Wiesel worried for a long time about how he could get money to distinguished talmidei chachamim too proud to accept any tzedakah. Finally, he hit upon the idea of creating an intensive Mishnah Berurah program, with rigorous weekly tests, for which the scholars would be paid according to their results. Thus he succeeded in aiding hard-pressed Torah scholars, while also increasing Torah learning in the world.
Charity Navigator, by America’s largest independent evaluator of charitable organizations, has given American Friends of Yad Eliezer, its highest rating for financial management for the last six years, a distinction achieved by only 3% of the charities it evaluates.
If donors want to know how their donations will be treated, one story will suffice. Eighteen years ago, thieves broke into the home of Rabbi Yaakov Wiesel and demanded that he hand over all the money in the house. Though the Wiesels never kept large sums in the home, just that day Rabbi Wiesel had received a large contribution. He knew that he was under no obligation to risk his life for the money, but the thought of the desperate need of the intended beneficiaries did not permit him to hand it over. The robbers ended up stabbing him twenty-one times, missing major blood vessels by millimeters, before fleeing with an empty safe.