How Many People Can One Person Feed?

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By: Rachel Cohen

Aryeh Lurie’s Yad Ezra V’Shulamit organization has so far distributed 1,000,000 food baskets...

When Aryeh Lurie looks into the eyes of someone suffering from hunger and deprivation, he knows exactly what the person is feeling – because he’s been there. He recalls all too well what it’s like not to have three meals a day. 

The child of Persian and Iraqi immigrants in Israel, Lurie vividly remembers his childhood when sometimes he had a sandwich for school and sometimes, he didn't, and when sometimes lunch consisted of pickles that his mother made from picking up the strewn cucumbers in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market.  

But there’s also something else he vividly remembers from his childhood: that as impoverished as his family was, his parents instilled within him the value of giving to those less fortunate.

“You Should Always Care for Other People”

“On Shabbat, our cholent consisted of beans and potatoes,” Aryeh recalls. “After kiddush, my mother told me, ‘Go to our neighbor and give him the first bowl.’ The first bowl is traditionally reserved for the head of household, but we were taught to give it to someone who had less than we did. When you are poor, not only are you humble, but you develop a sensitivity to others.”

This special sensitivity has remained with Aryeh to this day, and it is what prompted him to create Yad Ezra V’Shulamit, named after his two parents. 

“My parents instilled in us the strength to not only soldier on, but to care for others less fortunate,” he said. His father would tell him, “Your situation in life will change. You’ll have better, more prosperous days ahead. No matter what your situation, you should always care for other people’s wellbeing. Think of those who don’t have much. Think about what you can give up for their benefit.”

In 1998, Lurie launched a Jerusalem-based non-profit organization that provided food baskets to 50 needy families who would otherwise not know where their next meal was coming from. What started as a small and humble organization with two employees, a truck and a driver has since grown into a national enterprise, providing comprehensive services to the needy. To date, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit has distributed over 1,000,000 baskets to underprivileged families and individuals throughout Israel. 

“I never set out to grow as much as we did,” Aryeh says about the project’s humble beginnings. “I’m not a Prime Minister or a philanthropist. I just started giving out a few baskets in 1998, and it grew to over 3,000. It started when I was a student. I knew there were kids who didn’t eat all the food they had, so I’d find ways to collect the leftovers and I would distribute it to make sure students got that unused food," he said.  

“They Never Forget That”

For 21 years, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit has embodied the Jewish tradition of “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh – All Jews are responsible for each other.”

And in so doing, it has achieved nationwide acclaim.

In an address before Pesach, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a statement to potential donors, saying, “There are still families and children in need of assistance. Which is why I support Yad Ezra V’Shulamit, which aims to help these children, and this is why you should support them. I know you’re doing your best. I want you to do more. This is a very worthwhile project. It’s to give from the heart to the heart of a young child. At Yad Ezra V’Shulamit, they never forget that. You shouldn’t either.”

Since its inception, the organization has distributed over one million food baskets that include chicken, fruit, vegetables, oil, grains, beans, canned goods, pasta and challah.  But what differentiates Yad Ezra V’Shulamit from other organizations that help the needy is its long-term goal – to change the future for children who are born into poverty.  

Lurie’s philosophy is that while there is no shame in being poor, poverty has a significant adverse impact upon a child’s future.

“Growing up poor isn't a bad thing," Lurie says. “The problems begin the moment poverty damages a child's self-esteem. The path from that place to the street is very short. To stop the cycle of poverty, we have to make sure people's spirits aren't broken, especially the children.”

Reminiscing about his own experiences, Lurie continues, "People often mean well, but end up causing damage. I remember as a child standing in a line to get a free bag of potatoes when someone came up to me and gave me a used, dirty toy. I felt humiliated and terrible. That person thought he was doing a big mitzvah, but I ended up crying. The dignity of the poor person is more important than anything you give him.”  

The Grim Reality of Poverty in the Jewish State

Unfortunately, despite the rapid development and success that Israel has enjoyed in recent years, the country still grapples with a very real poverty problem.

According the country’s National Insurance Institute report published in December 2018, Israel has the highest poverty rate of all OECD countries. More children live under the poverty line in Israel than in Mexico. And many more hover just above the poverty threshold, at what experts call “near poverty.”

The study revealed that the poverty rate among Israeli households stands at 18.5 percent, and the rate of near poverty was a further 8.1 percent, such that nearly 27 percent of Israelis – more than 1 in 4 – are either poor or very close to it.

Why is Israel plagued with such a poverty problem?

According to Lurie, it’s incredibly difficult for most families to keep up with Israel’s high cost of living. Rental and housing costs have skyrocketed due to the influx of many immigrants who come and buy or rent expensive apartments, which artificially raises costs. 

"My entire salary goes for rent," one food basket recipient explained.  "How are we supposed to make it?"

“The quality of life in Israel has skyrocketed in ways we could never have imagined, thank Gd,” Lurie says. “However, close to one-third of the population lives under the poverty line. They are simply left behind. There are certain sectors who don't reap these benefits. There are people who go on vacation twice a year and there are people who don’t know where their next meal will come from.”

The author of the National Insurance Institute report, Dr. Shlomo Swirski, on the other hand, believes widespread privatization of services is to blame.

“Due to several factors, the main one being privatization, people who cannot afford basic services are not getting what they need,” Swirski told The Jerusalem Post.

Indeed, government resources allocated to the poor are scarce, and so organizations like Yad Ezra V’Shulamit have stepped up to the plate to try to make sure that everyone, at the very least, has food, and to narrow the economic gaps in Israel.

Lurie emphasizes that food is not the only problem.

“There are elderly people who need medicines that they can’t afford. I recently spoke to a man who has high blood pressure and high sugar and he is not medicated. Why? Because he has to decide what to buy – food or medicine, so the medicine loses. The socioeconomic gaps in this country are so wide, that it takes much more to support a family than it used to. This is our real problem in the modern Jewish state. We really need to find solutions for this, and I’m doing my best to do my part.”

Even worse than the current conditions of deprivation which many endure, Lurie says, is the vicious cycle of poverty in which they are trapped.

“It’s very difficult to put a stop to this cycle. People who are poor can’t invest in the future. They can’t put money aside for their children’s education, save money for retirement or keep some funds stocked away in the event they get sick. They can't afford a tutor or afternoon activities or even a trip to the dentist.”

Bridging the Gap

To relieve the plight of poverty-stricken families in the hope of breaking this cycle,
Yad Ezra V’Shulamit distributes over 3,500 food baskets weekly and feeds over 500 children their only hot meal of the day. In addition, children who come to the Yad Ezra V'Shulamit Children's Centers get help with their homework, enjoy afternoon activities, and receive a brand -new backpack filled with new school supplies and a new coat at the beginning of the year.

"We try to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor child," Lurie explained.  "One day, a little girl came to our Children's Center with sandals and socks in the rain. You can imagine how she must have felt. So, we started giving out coats and boots in the winter.”

The organization also provides monthly for thousands of widows and orphans.  “Some situations are chronic – a widow with several children is going to always need help.”

On any given Wednesday afternoon at the main headquarters in Jerusalem, volunteers can be seen packing carrots, potatoes, onions, canned goods, bread, and chickens into hundreds of individual baskets.

Their Teen Center's for kids-at-risk serve over 2,000 teenagers across Israel, encouraging them to go back to school or get a job. Emergency distribution of food, clothes and household items are given out as needed in over 24 Yad Ezra V’Shulamit distribution points throughout Israel.

The Baby Center delivers baby formula, food, diapers, wipes and other necessities to new mothers struggling to meet the high costs of raising an infant.

The Job Desk offers employment service for the needy, helping people in poverty get their lives back on track and permanently end the cycle of poverty. Led by a professional employment counselor who matches job opportunities with the hundreds of clients from a variety of backgrounds seeking employment, this service is the perfect solution for desperate job-seekers. They get expert career advice, assistance in crafting a CV and cover letter, job interview tips and guidance for how to present themselves in a competitive job market.  

Relief in Wartime

Yad Ezra V’Shulamit is also there to help populations affected by military conflict.

During Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, the organization delivered 80 tons of food, water and other items to residents in the South who were essentially trapped in their bomb shelters. For many residents of Sderot, Netivot, Ofakim, Ashdod, and Ashkelon, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit’s deliveries were the only reliable source of sustenance during that period of crisis. Likewise, during Operation Cast Lead in the winter of 2008-9, Lurie himself traveled with several volunteers to the southern regions enduring persistent rocket attacks to distribute desperately-needed supplies to the beleaguered residents.

Back in the summer of 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, the organization distributed 1,000 hot meals to refugees from Northern Israel who fled to the center of the country to escape the bombardment from Lebanon. They also hosted a two-week summer camp for the refugee children who were able to enjoy at least a brief period of summer fun.

And during times of peace, the organization is preparing itself for the next round of violence, even as it hopes it never unfolds.

Last summer, Israel found itself teetering on the brink of war when violent riots erupted along the Gaza border and Hamas flung incendiary objects into Israeli kibbutzim. Yad Ezra V’Shulamit diligently began stocking warehouses preparing for the worst. With two warehouses filled to the brim with supplies, the organization is now ready to help should another confrontation begin, Gd forbid.

“We have warehouses stocked with food and necessities that are immediately ready for distribution should war break out,” Lurie says. “We have no shortage of enemies who want to destroy us, so we should be prepared.”

The Biggest Joy of All

With Pesach just around the corner, Yad Ezra V’Shulamit is committed to helping the needy during the time of year when poverty is most acutely felt.

Although the Welfare and Finance Ministries offer a food budget allocation for Passover, it amounts to a meager 13 shekels (less than $4) per family, not enough to cover the price of even a single box of matza.  

“This Pesach, we will distribute 30,000 food baskets to people throughout the country,” Lurie proudly reports. “It’s a lot of work, but when I sit at my seder table, I will know I did everything I could to provide food to needy families. That is the biggest joy of all.”

Lurie says that the organization’s dream is, quite simply, to shut down.

“We want to close our doors. We want the children in our centers to have everything they need without our help. We want all the widows and orphans we provide for monthly to have everything they need. We want a family to be able to support itself with dignity. It’s not about giving, giving, giving. It’s about telling them, ‘Here – go, do, create. We’ll help you in any way possible so you can move forward. 

“But until Mashiah comes, our doors will be open to anyone in need.”