Abraham Israel was 8 years old in 1958, when his family fled to France from Nasser’s Egypt. Soup kitchens saved their lives. Now a rabbi living in Israel, he helps feed other desperate families, and he’ll be in this area tomorrow to ask for local support.
In a telephone call from Israel last week, the rabbi said that Hazon Yeshaya, the soup kitchen he founded, nourishes the soul as well as the body. In addition to providing meals for those in need, it also provides vocational training, educational support, a free dental clinic, and other services.
Abraham Israel, founder of Hazon Yeshaya photos courtesy of HAZON YESHAYA
He was moved to start Hazon Yeshaya, he recounted, when "I saw a young woman trying to cross the street. She had a cane because she had multiple sclerosis. She asked if I could help her back to her apartment because she was feeling a little unsteady."
The woman’s apartment, he recalled, was "one room with nothing in it, no electricity, no food, nothing." He asked her if she received help from the government and she said, "That just pays for my medicine, not for food."
He asked if she knew of others who lived like this, and she brought him to her neighbors across the hall, who had two children, but no food or electricity.
More than one out of three children in Israel are reported to be in poverty. Hazon Yeshaya feeds many after school.
"After always staying in five star hotels, I had no idea that people lived like this in Israel." That realization spurred him to action.
"With my own funds," he said, "I hired an elderly lady to help me and we bought a stove and we started cooking meals for 17 people."
Many patrons of the kitchens are Holocaust survivors.
The 17 people turned into 150, and now Hazon Yeshaya, which is run entirely by volunteers, provides 400,000 hot meals every month at more than 60 locations, 365 days a year. "The people depend on us for their only meal of the day," Israel said, "which is why we never close."
Clients are small children all the way up to the elderly. Among those elderly are more than 3,000 Holocaust survivors. Hazon Yeshaya has provided food for the survivors for the past six years, with the help of a grant from the Claims Conference.
These soldiers are among the more than 10,000 people who have volunteered to work in a soup kitchen.
Though the soup kitchen is based in Jeru-salem, it has opened a satellite site in Ashkelon. "There had been a piece on the news about the rampant poverty in school children in Ashkelon," Israel related. "According to government statistics, the current poverty rate in children is 35.8 percent nationwide. I met some of the children and asked if they were paying attention in school and they said no because they were too busy worrying about where they were going to get some bread to eat."
If the children can’t concentrate in school, Israel said, they end up dropping out. "Education is opportunity, I could not let these children give up on their schooling." Eighty percent of Hazon Yeshaya’s meals go to children to help ensure they stay in school.
Recalling his own childhood, as a refugee, Israel said, "When you escape a country, you take nothing with you, you just have the clothes on your back .You can survive with holes in your shoes, but you cannot survive without food."
Hazon Yeshaya also offers courses in basic computer skills, secretarial skills, and office management. Recently, 47 single mothers graduated from these programs and all are employed. Israel stressed that it is important to help people become productive members of society. "They feel better about themselves and they aren’t a burden on anyone," he said.
Sima Weingarten, a Teaneck resident, has volunteered at Hazon Yeshaya. "We would take our kids to Israel every summer," she said, "and we wanted to find a way to contribute physically to the country. We happened upon this soup kitchen. The type of operation that goes on is really amazing. We have seen it grow and the good that it has done. It has become a cause very close to our hearts."
Israel will attend a breakfast at 9:45 tomorrow at the Jewish Center of Teaneck and may visit other local synagogues that day. Times and places were not confirmed as of Wednesday. He will also speak at a private home in the township at 8:45 p.m. For more information about his appearances, call Weingarten at (’01) 836-3403 and visit www.HazonYeshaya.org