Jewish Federation works to combat poverty in Israel

Diane Katzman, President of Diane Katzman Design, chairs the Caring for Jews in Need-Overseas Subcommittee of the Jewish Federation of St Louis.  She will be returning to Israel in February to work with the most vulnerable that Federation is strengthening. 

By Diane Katzman

“One in Four Israelis Lives in Poverty.” That was the headline in the Jewish Light on Dec. 5 reporting a 2011 study by Israel’s National Insurance Institute. 

These are startling statistics that need to change and are being addressed by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis. Whether we live in Chesterfield, Tel Aviv or Kiev, we are all Jews and have a responsibility to support one another. Truly, it is our responsibility and Judaism will only survive if we continue to strengthen the foundation of Jews everywhere. 

Poverty, wherever in the world it exists, affects those of all ages. Whether you are a child or an adult, the sensation of not having enough money to cover the basic needs of life are frightening and suffocating. It stymies the performance of kids in school and negatively affects mental and physical health. For adults and seniors, it impacts the quality of everyday life from healthcare and education to the types of jobs and opportunities available to them.  

Caring for vulnerable Jews both domestically and overseas is a Jewish Federation of St. Louis priority. Jewish Federation-funded programs provide a continuum of services for at-risk individuals and families. Through the Federation’s “Caring for Jews in Need Overseas Subcommittee,”  we focus on allocating Federation dollars to address the challenges faced by the poor in Israel and overseas and reverse the cycle of poverty.

For eight years, our Federation and the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta have funded a multi-year project in our partnership communities of Yokneam-Megiddo, Israel, which includes job training, intervention for student drop outs, enrichment and counseling for at-risk kids and families and family empowerment. Through family empowerment, for example, coordinators are assigned to 40 families, predominantly Ethiopian. The Jewish families are coached on employment, self-sufficiency, parenting and more. The goal is to help break the cycle of poverty and integrate them into Israeli society while being sensitive to their needs and culture.

No family should go hungry. More than 200,000 Israeli families cannot afford to put food on the table.  We have stepped in with support for Leket Israel, the country’s largest food bank and food rescue network, where 40,000 volunteers serve 700,000-plus hot meals, 90,000 loaves of bread and 23 million pounds of produce and perishable goods for the needy. It distributes more than 1 million volunteer-prepared sandwiches to underprivileged kids from 100 schools in 25 cities.  Leket also assists Kol Halev, the food pantry in Yokneam, supplying 1.2 tons of food a week that is distributed among Yokneam’s neediest families.

And we cannot forget our seniors who are among our most vulnerable. In Israel, 100,000 Holocaust survivors live below the poverty line. In Yokneam and Megiddo we fund senior service centers where every day elderly Jews are fed, kept active and given the care and love they deserve.

Through our support of programs in Yokneam, we have helped to turn around the lives of many disadvantaged young Israelis. In 2011, 235 at-risk elementary students received scholastic assistance as a result of which 66 percent had improved math grades; 71 percent improved in English, and 87 percent were more motivated in school. Seventy-three families made significant progress and reduced dependency on social services with 26 adults finding jobs. Hopefully for them the prospects for permanently escaping poverty have increased because of our interventions. 

Through our funding of the Economic Empowerment of Women Program, we transform the lives of those who have been historically outside the work force, including Arab and Haredi women—and we touch the lives of many disadvantaged secular Israeli women.  We also support the Strive program, which is part of a larger employment initiative in Israel to assist 25 to 45 year olds across the spectrum of Israeli society, in job placement and retention.

Earlier this year, I traveled with a group to Israel to work with agencies that help the poor. I returned with recommendations to support several of them with specific grants, including the Jaffa Institute, Crossroads and Orr Shalom, all which help vulnerable children and teens.

Let me add that while the article in the Jewish Light specifically references poor Israelis, my subcommittee also funds a vital meal program for vulnerable Jews in the former Soviet Union. Through our international partner, the Joint Distribution Committee, our Federation also supports more than 160 Hesed centers that provide life-saving medical care, home care and winter relief to 168,000 impoverished elderly Jews. 

Because of donations from our St. Louis Jewish community to Jewish Federation’s Annual Community Campaign, every day Federation is able to do its work to help people in need in Israel and overseas. But programs for the vulnerable are struggling to meet growing demand. We don’t have the resources to take care of all who need us. We believe we can do more. By strengthening the foundation of our Jewish sisters and brothers throughout the world, we will secure our future. 

Together, we have the power to make an impact. It’s our responsibility to strengthen the fabric of Jewish lives everywhere. It’s our privilege. It’s who we are.