Acts of faith, help and charity

Passover: In Israel's poorest city, a charitable group helps residents keep kosher for the holy day.

April 19, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BNEI BRAK, Israel -- For the Jewish families here, "kosher for Passover" means hauling every metal implement used for meals -- from cutlery to candelabra -- down to a neighborhood parking lot.

There, under the watchful gaze of a black-coated rabbi, teen-age boys in white shirts, black trousers and skullcaps place pots, pans and silverware into plastic bags and dunk them in oil drums filled with water kept boiling hot by portable gas burners.

This scene is repeated elsewhere in Israel as part of the Passover preparation of making sure that all everyday utensils are specially cleaned and free of leavening, which is forbidden during the holiday, starting at sundown today, that commemorates the Jews' flight to freedom from Egypt.

In this congested Tel Aviv suburb, it is one of many services offered free by Hasdei Naomi, a charity that also pays the young boys who, sometimes without taking the precaution of wearing gloves, dip the utensil bags into the steaming water.

Bnei Brak is officially listed as Israel's poorest city, with 35.2 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. It is also among the most devoutly religious.

The twin distinctions are linked.

Many of the men who would otherwise be breadwinners are engaged in full-time religious studies. The ultra-Orthodox also don't practice birth control, and families of 12 or more children are not uncommon. Many women are full-time mothers and housewives.

That keeps Bnei Brak's narrow streets teeming with young children, the boys often with the downy sidelocks of the ultra-religious, and women in traditional hats and long skirts pushing strollers.

It also makes the period before Passover a particularly busy time for a charity such as Hasdei Naomi, which works to keep religious tradition alive while helping to relieve poverty.

The organization's staffers condemn the criticism of large families that is rising across Israel, deepening the cultural divide between the religious and secular. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin recently caused a stir when he said large families often condemn children to hardship and their mothers to slavery and servitude.

"You can write to Yossi Beilin that if the situation in this country stays the way it is," says Hasdei Naomi's director, Yosef Cohen, "the only people who will be left will be families with many children and Arabs," who also traditionally have large families.

"Secular people have one dog, one child and one plant."

In the days before the holiday, Hasdei Naomi's combination office and warehouse in the basement of one of the city's ubiquitous concrete-block apartment buildings is abuzz with telephone receptionists soliciting goods from wholesalers, and with mothers and children trying on pairs of donated shoes.

Trucks arrive bringing donated dried food and cash from depositories around the country. The food, including kosher wine and plentiful amounts of unleavened matzoh, is then distributed to needy families.

Amid the deliveries and donations, Hasdei Naomi has to keep its premises kosher. This means that "chometz," leavened bread and other food deemed unsuitable for Passover, must be disposed of.

Cohen, 56, goes through the ritual, practiced throughout Israel, of selling the food to a non-Jew for an agreed-upon, prohibitively high price. According to the ritual, the non-Jew is unable to pay the full price, and at the end of Passover, the charity gets to reclaim the food.

Hasdei Naomi tries to practice what it calls "charity in secret." Poor but proud, many of its recipients are ashamed to ask for charity.

Often, director Cohen will be notified by neighbors that a particular family has fallen on hard times because of death or illness. Food deliveries are made in unmarked trucks and carried in boxes indistinguishable from those of local supermarkets.

Neighbors alerted Cohen to the case of a widow with 10 children, who was unable to serve refreshments to those who had come to pay respects during the mourning period because her refrigerator had long since broken down.

He arranged for delivery of a new appliance. When it arrived, she hugged it and said, "For this, my husband had to die, so I could get a new fridge."

One woman who willingly talks about what the charity has done for her is Yaffa Zahavi, 40, a mother of nine who is pregnant with her 10th child.

The daughter of immigrants

jv0 from Iran, Zahavi says it was hard to find a husband after her father died and could not provide her with a dowry. Through a matchmaker she found a man who is mostly deaf and unable to find steady work.

During Hanukkah festivities last year, a menorah candle holder tipped over in the three-room apartment where her children sleep four to a room, setting the kitchen ablaze and destroying clothes and furniture.

Neighbors phoned Hasdei Naomi, which sent over fresh food for the holiday along with a new crib and furniture, clothing and shoes.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.