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Making the most of your trip to Israel
a guide to Mitzvah opportunities
Part of the enjoyment of a trip to Israel is getting to know some of the people who live there, and participating with them in the amazing Mitzvah work they do.
One of Israel’s best kept secrets is that there are a huge number of people there doing all sorts of volunteer work to help those less fortunate. Often, visitors from overseas can be incredibly helpful by bringing things, spending some time helping out, or just showing up and doing some souvenir shopping in strategic places.
This is a guide to some of our favorite people and places, but it is by no means a list of everything. (We’d like to add your favorites to this list—please send details to louisberlin@COMCAST.net.)
If you are going North, to Tzfat (also known as Safed), you are in for a special treat. You can run into some remarkable schnorrers, by accident or by design. These ladies love to meet tourists, especially those who are willing to bring over gently used clothing and new baby items. (It’s not that difficult. The airlines allow you two suitcases, and if you are there for a week or two, you’d be hard pressed to fill two suitcases with things you need for yourself. We like to bring over two suitcases—one with our stuff, and one with things to give away—used clothing, baby supplies, school supplies, etc. The nice part about this is that when we are done giving things away, we have an empty suitcase to schlep back souvenirs.)
Rena Cohen (email@example.com 051-268626; 04-6924183) and her friends Faga and Yaffa, (Yaffa and Moshe Smolensky, 04-682-1663 firstname.lastname@example.org) raise money (they take donations, but will also put on puppet shows for kids), and collect clothes for poor families. It is worthwhile contacting them before you go—they’ll meet your bus at the entrance to the artist’s colony, take away your clothing donations, and fill you in on how they are helping the poor of Tzfat.
One of their projects is helping Tsfat’s small shopkeepers continue to feed the poor. For the past few years, many of the shopkeepers have gone out on a limb, extending credit to needy families, at great risk to themselves. (People prefer to shop at small corner stores—mercolets—which are individually owned. Their prices are better than supermarkets, and they’ll extend credit.) Rena and her friends have been raising money to pay down the balances of the neediest of the poor, enabling the shopkeepers to survive, and the poor to continue to eat. (They wisely put controls into place to prohibit sales of non-food items, and luxuries.)
We like to have Rena take us into her mercolet, where we give Moshe, the owner, money on account for some people. When we have “virtual dollars” (that friends who are not going to Israel give us to spend there on their behalf), we love to go into Moshe’s place, fill up a shopping cart, pay for it, and leave it there for him to give out to the poor—he knows which families need it the most. That way the money works twice—it supports Moshe, and buys food for people. We’ve also purchased warm blankets, and left it in the store with Moshe, for the next needy customer.
You can help Rena and friends by going to www.lamedvuvnik.org., or emailing her at email@example.com. It is extremely easy to do a lot of good mitzvah work, easily, even if you are in Tzfat for just a few hours—it just takes minor advance planning on your part, and an email. If you are with a large group, and you each bring even just one sweater per person, it takes up no room in your luggage, but a busload of people makes an impact.
Three stories from the tzedakah women of Tzfat.
One of them, Feige, I think, was going door to door asking for a few shekels for the poor. A woman apologized, but said she had nothing to give. From behind her skirts, a boy poked his head out—“Mama, I have some money.” “But you are saving it for a bicycle,” she exclaimed. “I’d feel better if this lady used it to buy food for the poor,” he answered. From a five year old!
Yaffa tells how she got started in the tzedakah “business” in Tzfat. A man came to her door, asking for a few unopened packages of tea or coffee. A strange request, she thought. Her questioning turned up the answer. What he schnorred from one, he sold to the next, trying to earn a little money to feed his family. His neighbors were too poor to buy tea and coffee at the grocer’s, but if he could get it for free, and sell it for a few pennies, he could get by.
Rena tells the story she heard of a woman who was buying new clothes for her children before the holidays. As she left the store, she saw a poorly dressed child, with his nose pressed to the glass, looking wistfully inside. She immediately sized up the situation, and took the child into the store, and purchased a new set of clothes. The child was amazed. “Are you G-d?” he asked the woman. “No,” she replied, “I’m just one of G-d’s children.” “Ah,” he responded, “I knew you had to be related.” It’s a heartwarming story, but a sad one as well—that in the 21st century, children are so poor that they think new clothes are a miracle from G-d.
The English Library and Stamp Collector’s Center
In a small apartment with a purple door at 38 Jerusalem Street, tucked between a bank and the Tam-Tov greengrocer, at the end of the pedestrian mall/main drag in Tzfat, Edyth Geiger lives with the 10,000 English books that make up the Safed English Library. Started 25 five years ago, when Edyth commuted between Tzfat and Miami, where she worked part-time at Federation, the free library serves the entire north of Israel, loaning out books, helping children and adults learn English, and serving as a meeting place. She
ships books to remote communities, and helps them start their own libraries. She also runs a stamp collecting club for hundreds of local children, and uses the stamps a tool for teaching them Jewish history, geography, and other cultures. For some of these kids, it opens whole new worlds.
It is remarkably easy to add to her collection—just let people you know, or your child’s school know, that you are collecting books, take them to the main post office in your town, and request and M sack. It’s literally a sack that you throw your boxes of books in, and they tie it up, and put a big white tag with Edyth’s address, and the letter “M” on it, and it goes by a special rate, for something like 92 cents a pound. If they don’t know what you are talking about, tell them to look it up in their postmaster’s guide. Don’t worry about duplicates, valuable books, etc—Edyth uses everything, and sells to book dealers what she doesn’t need, and buys books she does need. Stamps and stamp collections are welcome too. Edyth Geiger, The Safed English Library, 38 Jerusalem St., Safed 06-692592 or 06-682-0968. Donations are welcome, either directly to the Library, or made out and mailed to P.E.F.—Israel Endowment Fund, 317 Madison Avenue, NY, NY 10017. ($25 minimum, but this makes the donation tax-deductible in the U.S.—sidemark the check for the Safed English Library.)
If you are with a group from Miami, you’ll probably be stopping at Or Akiva, originally a poor development town next to the wealthy resort of Caesarea, and now a thriving community of 20,000 or so. I first visited there in 1981, just after it became a sister city to Miami’s Jewish Federation. At that time, it was mainly poor, with little infrastructure and industry, and a place where kids grew up on the streets. Due to tremendous local involvement, magnificent support from the Miami Jewish community, and great leadership, Or Akiva is a solid, middle class town, with industry, cultural facilities, arts, and youth programs. New areas of town boast high quality apartments, and first-rate mall, and it is highly sought after as a nice place to live.
Helping to guide the improvements is Rena Genn, Miami’s on-site representative. Among the projects she oversees is a partnership program between local schools and Miami schools. Whether they are doing computer link-ups, Bar/Bat Mitzvah twinning, joint Macabbiah games, joint newsletters or the like, these bonds help the children in each community learn more about each other’s lives, and establish personal connections with Israel. It’s a wonderful educational arrangement, as well as a way to promote “k’lal Yisrael,” and easy to do if you have good people at each end. One of the nicer relationships is between the Hanna Senesh School in Or Akiva, which has a kindergarten specializing in children with CP, and the Tauber School in Aventura. The Senesh School gets their older children to volunteer to work with the younger kids. (We twinned one for our older kids at his Bar Mitzvah with a family in need—immigrants, one child deceased, father not part of the picture, another child a soldier injured physically, and emotionally, in a terror attack, unmet medical needs—and provided a computer for the family, which opened a whole new world—outside contacts, help with schoolwork, etc.)
But for all the good work that is done, there are still pressing needs in Or Akiva, which has been hit, along with the rest of the country, with the economic slowdown, and decrease in tourism. People with mid-level jobs suddenly find themselves unemployed, and people who have never before sought public assistant now need it. We met with several groups working in this area.
The Amazing One-Woman “Gemach”
Ilanit is a young woman, who grew up dirt poor, but who is determined to show people that “you don’t need to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth in order to succeed.” Her one-woman “gemach” (combination food bank/clothing bank/social service/counseling provider/loan fund) operating in a former bomb shelter in the basement of an unfinished building, provides food for 120 families in need. Each family is issued twenty plastic containers, which they are responsible for bringing back each week, clean, for more food. No containers, no food. The volunteers who help Ilanit are all clients of the gemach. Ilanoit schnoors food anywhere she can, and a local factory regularly over orders for its employees lunches, to make sure that there is leftover food for Ilanit’s center. (A nearby kibbutz also helps out.)
Ilanit is also providing food for sandwiches and snacks for 500 children daily, in 4 local schools. As we heard repeatedly, children now come to school hungry in increasing numbers, all over Israel, due to the economic situation. As the Talmud says, “No flour, no Torah”—you can’t learn on an empty stomach. At amazingly low cash cost of $150 a month a school, Ilanit makes sure that the food gets delivered to the kids. (Moshe, the security guard, who drives the security van donated by the Miami Federation, and emblazoned with their logo, volunteers his time to make the deliveries.) This means that for $36 dollars, you, or a school, can sponsor 125 kids in one school for a week. Isn’t there room in your synagogue’s budget for $36 a week to feed 125 kids? I’m trying to start a program where a tray on the Kiddush table is left empty every week, and $36 that would have been used to buy more cakes, is donated to buy food in Israel instead. I printed up some laminated cards that you can place on the Kiddush tray—send me an email, and I’ll send you some. The donations can be made through the lamedvuvnik.org website, and specified for the Or Akiva lunch program.
Needless to say, Ilanit also becomes a defacto social worker. Hunger and unemployment aggravates or causes other problems—relationships suffer, self-esteem plummets, etc. There has been at least one suicide by a despondent bread-winner, who, because he was unemployed, was no longer able to provide for his family. Another suicide attempt was thwarted by timely intervention, including television coverage, which resulted in some help from surrounding communities.
Ilanit could do more—as it is, she provides some clothing as needed, furniture and appliances as they become available, donated teddy bears for psychological comfort—if she had better facilities. She needs more refrigeration space for perishables. We bought her a freezer, which will allow her to accept donations of frozen meat. We paid for it out of the funds we were going to use to buy kippot for my daughter, Sara’s, Bat Mitzvah. Instead, Sara has decided to let us make photocopies of the cardboard kippot they give out at the Kotel in Jerusalem, and on the reverse side, a photocopy of a freezer and Ilanit’s story. A sea of these paper kippot was what Sara saw as she read the Torah at her Bat Mitzvah, and it brought back memories of Ilanit and her wonderful work.
The donations made at the Lamed Vuvnik site, we recently bought two used washing machines for “clients” of Ilanit.
An aside: Israel is blessed by many people like Ilanit—that is what I mean by the three spheres of Judaism coming together in Israel—Jewish people doing tikkun olam according to Torah principles in the Land of Israel. I spent some time talking to Ilanit about the drive that pushes her forward in her work. She does not come from a religiously observant background, and nowhere in our conversation did the phrase “G-d’s will” or the similar come up. Yet she intuitively knows that the work she is doing is Jewish, and she does it Jewishly. We were not allowed to photograph the clients, to protect their privacy and dignity, and she had warned people the day before that she was having visitors the day we arrived, and promised those who were embarrassed to be seen there that she would deliver their food to their homes that day.
You can find Ilanit thru Rena Genn firstname.lastname@example.org , 064-228976 or home 04-6373004
On to Jerusalem, the spiritual soul of the Jewish people. First stop is Hersch Katz, (email@example.com, or thru the Neve Yaakov community center 02-5834473, S’drot Neve Ya’akov 38A) who works with the Ne’ve Ya’akov community, recently ranked lowest on the list of housing values in Jerusalem neighborhoods. The reason: stick your hands out of the windows of any number of apartments, and you can touch homes in the areas governed by the Palestinian Authority. Barbed wire blocks formerly open streets where neighbors used to meet, and an empty soccer field occupies a “no man’s land” between homes. The city bus service delivers you right to the border, literally a stone’s throw from the PA. It’s not that the Arab neighbors are so bad—it’s just that Arafat’s thugs terrorize them, and force them to let them use their houses for “piguah” (terrorist) attacks. Arafat also built a completely empty town on the hill above—to create “facts on the ground” for eventual peace talks about where the border should be—hundreds of empty apartments, in plain sight.
We brought a bag of clothes for the Ne’ve Ya’akov gemach—a tiny storeroom packed full of clothes, that residents purchased for a shekel or two (twenty-five to fifty cents). It’s a way of distributing clothes without hurting people’s pride. Israel does not have used clothing stores like we do in America—everyone knows someone, and garments get passed on until they fall apart. Except immigrants don’t know anyone, so they would not get anything if it were not for the gemachs. Ne’ve Ya’akov has a turnover of about 10,000 to 20,000 garments yearly, which also provides some funds for community center operations. (You can bring clothing donations to the community center, or leave it with the concierge at your hotel, and send Hersch a message that it is there to be picked up.)
A Soup Kitchen
The ”downtown” area features a large plaza, where we saw people selling clothes on the benches, flea market style. We also visited a non-descript bomb shelter, where Rabbi Avner Ben Harosh (02-6565672, 056-734822) operates a soup kitchen, counseling center, and feeding program for school children. We gave him money for food. Our conversation was interrupted because the Rabbi had to take care of a young man, who had psychological problems as the result of a terror attack, and was unemployed.
An aside: There are two types of “survivor” victims of terror attacks: official victims, and unofficial victims. Not that anyone is really a survivor—everyone becomes a victim. An official victim means that you are deemed by the government to be 40% or more disabled, and entitled to benefits. But in order to receive those benefits, you have to have medical treatment at certain places only, there are lots of forms, etc. First you suffer, and then you suffer again while the government helps you recover from suffering. But that’s only if you are an official victim. But if you are less than 40% disabled, or you are not physically hurt—say, if a decapitated head landed on your lap, and you only had a minor bruise, you’re not a victim at all—psychological injuries don’t count, even if you wake up screaming every night, and can’t hold a job because you are way to jumpy, and burst out crying every once in a while. Then you’re not a victim. Rabbi Avner deals with hundreds of people like this young man. (I know you don’t believe me. But a psychologist I know visited Hadassah Hospital, and she told me what they told her—psychological wounds don’t make you an official victim.)
The Amazing Elderly
No trip to Jerusalem would be complete without a visit to Yad Hakashish, the Lifeline for the Elderly, just outside the walls of the Old City. Started by Myriam Mendelow in 1962, who saw the elderly sitting at home with nothing to do, Lifeline is now a campus with a dozen different workshops, each teaching a craft to the elderly, who come to work, socialize, get a hot meal and some medical attention, but above all, to stay so busy that “they forget to die.” Workworking, bookbinding, ceramics, silk painting, printing, sewing, embroidering, metal work—each workshop creating works of art that are sold in the giftshop, which uses the proceeds to pay the elders (everyone gets paid, irrespective of what they produce) and support the institution. Of course, sales only cover a portion of the costs (and sales are down because tourism is down). But what an opportunity to see how old people celebrate life by being productive. In the past, we’ve commissioned Lifeline to make a parochet (ark curtain) for our synagogue, so we can be reminded every day about the sanctity of life. They also make custom kippot, and a wide variety of tallesim. Their new print shop is did the thank you cards for Sara’s Bat Mitzvah, and made a custom, multi-colored, silk tallit.
Our friend Arnie Draiman, of the Ziv Tzedakah Fund (check out www.ziv.org to learn from Danny Siegel, a master tzedakah teacher, or email Arnie at firstname.lastname@example.org), introduced us to Beit Frankforter, (80 Beit Lechem St.—corner Levi--02-6714848 ask for Muriel or Esther) which offers similar programs to Lifeline, but also provides more extensive medical and nutritional care, as well as computer and exercise classes for the elderly. Their workshops supply materials and instructions to the elderly, who make a variety of items, which they sell in the giftshop at very reasonable prices. In the Beit Frankforter gift shop, however, the proceeds from the sales go to the individual craftspeople, to supplement their income. So we bought all the adorable sewn and knitted baby clothes that they had on hand, and sent them up to Tzfat for Rena and Hannah to give out.
Beit Frankforter is not just about caring for the elderly—the elderly there have decided to take care of hungry kids. In a small kitchen just off the exercise room, they prepare sandwiches daily for hungry school children. When they first started the project and called around, every school denied that they had hungry children. But when one school accepted, and word got around, more and more schools requested to be added to the list. When we were there, they were making over 1000 sandwiches a month, and looking for funding to do more. Donations are welcome.
Arnie is also a great source of the latest info on tzedakah opportunities, as is ZIV.
Meet Ethiopian Jews—right off the airplane!
Arnie also sent us to Mivaserret Tzion, a wealthy suburb of Jerusalem that also houses Israel’s largest absorption center, which caters solely to Ethiopian Jews. Because of their unique needs due to a vastly different culture and lifestyle as compared with Western immigrants, the Ethiopians are introduced to Israeli life separately. But what a contrast! Right next to a major modern mall (that even has an Arthur Murray Dance Studio) is this vibrant community that welcomes new immigrants weekly, still wearing the clothes they arrived with, shopping for familiar grains with a mortar and pestle in hand. We brought a box of school supplies—nothing fancy (basic calculators, pens and pencils, paper clips, binding clips, rubber bands, and the like)—and they were ecstatic. It cost us about $50 at an office supply place here, and would have cost a little more at a store in Israel, but to these students, it was luxuries they could not afford. To bring supplies, just show up—have the cab take you to the mall (Canyon Harel), but turn left onto Hayasim Street instead of right to the mall, to the office in apartment 198. You can also call 02-5338783, or ship items to Absorption Center, POB 40229, Mivaserret Tzion 90805, email email@example.com.
Let’s hear from you
We’d love to expand this list, and add more stories. Please share your experiences, tell us what was helpful (and not) in this guide. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And have a great time in Israel!