"Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought an ignoramus than to open it and remove all doubt" the saying goes. A certain columnist in the Jewish News (whom shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty) should have heeded that admonition. Just before Rosh Hashanah, said columnist wrote, apropos of the all too familiar photos of ZAKA volunteers combing the scenes of terrorist bombings for body parts: It’s all very nice that the chareidim show so much concern with their fellow Jews after they are dead; too bad that they don’t show such concern when they are still alive.
The truth could not be more different. As the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, "the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country." He was not just referring to intra-communal chesed. Orbaum’ paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva students who rushed to donate blood when they learned of his need and a chareidi health fund clerk who rushed vials of Orbaum’s blood after hours to a downtown laboratory to expedite the receipt of vital test results.
The scope and variety of chareidi organizations serving the entire Israeli population is nothing short of remarkable. Consider the following partial list of a dozen organizations operating in almost as many different areas. (Composing the list did not cost me even ten minutes of thought.)
MEDICAL SERVICES is a field completely dominated by chareidi organizations. Yad Sarah, for instance, is far and away the largest volunteer organization in Israel. Six thousand volunteers, working out of more than a hundred Yad Sarah branches, serve 350,000 Israelis a year. The organization began in 1976 when Uri Lopolianski, today the first chareidi mayor of Jerusalem, decided to use a small inheritance from his father to create a gemach (free loan society) to supply medical equipment like wheelchairs and oxygen machines. Lupolianski’s own small apartment was the first branch.
Over the years, Yad Sarah has expanded into a $12 million dollar-a-year operation, not a penny of it from the government. The huge central warehouse in Jerusalem occupies a full city block. In addition to supplying medical equipment, Yad Sarah now has rehabilitation centers and a play center for children with special needs. The organization also provides emergency alarms in the homes of sick and elderly, and home therapies for those who cannot get out. The provision of equipment and services to those at home is estimated to save the state of Israel $300,000,000 annually in hospitalization costs. Yad Sarah serves the entire population, without distinction, and its volunteers cover the whole spectrum as well.
Ezra Lamarpeh, headed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer, handles 50,000 emergency medical referrals a year. According to Professor Ivo Janko of Harvard Medical School, "Rabbi Firer and his organization [provide] integrated services unparalleled in the world." A Hebrew University professor says of Rabbi Firer’s medical knowledge, he "knows more than anybody I know. I know my field, but he has a vast knowledge of all fields."
Ezra LaMarpeh has a staff of 350 volunteeers, most of them chareidi, and eight salaried employees. Rabbi Firer himself draws no salary for his 19-hour workdays, despite having 10 children to feed. The extraordinary achievements of both Rabbis Lopoliansky and Firer were recognized with the Israel Prize.
Rabbi Chananya Chollak founded Ezer Mizion in 1979, and has guided the organization’s phenomenal growth since then. With an annual budget of $20,000,000, Ezer Mizion has created the largest bone marrow registry in the Jewish world, with over 180,000 names. To date, the registry has matched hundreds of Jews in need of transplants, and is credited with saving 108 lives.
Ezer Mizion maintains a list of over 3,000 volunteers prepared to donate blood whenever needed. Thousands more participate in the preparation and distribution of 44,000 meals monthly to the families of hospitalized patients. Nearly 1,600 Israeli teenagers volunteer to work in Ezer Mizion’s summer camps and afternoon activity centers for children with special needs or suffering from cancer. The Oranit guest home provides accommodations in the Tel Aviv area for the families who would otherwise have to commute from far away for daily outpatient treatment.
Chesed V’Zimra deals exclusively with one of Israel’s most forgotten populations: those confined to mental institutions. The organization, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, consists entirely of volunteers. Those volunteers visit mental hospitals and institutions to perform for patients and otherwise cheer them up.
At least two chareidi founded and administered organizations work with victims of childhood cancer and their families. Zichron Menachem deploys cadres of girls performing national service in a handful of hospitals. The girls are on the wards in the hospitals to assist the young patients and relieve their families, and also help out in the homes of the patients. Zichron Menachem recently dedicated a new center with a learning program for young cancer sufferers who cannot be in a regular school system and afternoon programs for the siblings of the patients.
Chayeinu, the Israeli branch of Chai Lifeline, provides the families of childhood cancer victims with a case manager, who ensures that the family gets the concrete services and financial support that it requires throughout the course of the illness. A large group of both adult and teenage volunteers assist the families in various ways and help with the siblings. Chayeinu provides a number of outings and events for the entire family throughout the year, and sends many young Israeli cancer victims to Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simchah during the summer. The services of both Zichron Menachem and Chayeinu, including Camp Simcha, are available to any Jewish child, and most of the beneficiaries are not chareidi.
THE DRASTIC CUTS IN GOVERNMENT SUPPORT PAYMENTS have led to widespread hunger in Israel. And again, chareidi organizations were quick to respond to the need by establishing soup kitchens and school lunch programs. Chazon Yeshaya serves over 150,000 hot meals each month at 4 locations in Jerusalem and 2 in Rishon LeTzion. Meir Panim, named after the son of chareidi media personality Dudi Zilbershlag, currently feeds 7,400 schoolchildren daily, and serves 5,600 meals daily at 12 centers around the country. The organization plans to offer by next year 50,000 school lunches a day to children studying in the state educational system throughout the Negev. Less than 5% of the recipients of food from Meir Panim around the country are chareidi.
IN THE MIDST OF THE HOLOCAUST, which would claim his wife and 11 children, the Klausenberger Rebbe, zt"l, vowed that if Hashem helped him survive, he would one day build a Jewish hospital. Laniado Hospital in Netanya is the result of that vow. It took the Rebbe 15 years of traveling the globe to collect the funds to build what remains today the only hospital in the Netanya region.
In a speech to the entire staff of the hospital upon its opening, the Rebbe said, "Our Torah is a Torah of lovingkindness. Everyone can understand that a rabbi, and indeed every believing Jew, wishes to establish Torah institutions. Everyone should therefore understand why a rabbi established this hospital, which is, in fact, a magnificent Torah institution."
The Rebbe succeeded in turning the hospital into a unique Torah institution, and his influence is felt in every aspect of the hospital’s operation. Unique among Israeli hospitals, strikes are unknown at Laniado. A no-strike clause is part of every employee’s contract. The average hospital Laniado's size has six respirators. Laniado has 25 so that no doctor ever has to set priorities in the allocation of respirators. One drowning victim, who had already been pronounced brain dead, was maintained for 55 days on a respirator. Today he is alive and well.
The Rebbe told the staff that their goal must always be "to cure the patient not just cure the disease," and he insisted that concern with their pain was crucial to that task. Asked which of two types of syringe needles the hospital should purchase - one that was slightly less painful or one that was half the price - he immediately ordered the more expensive needles.
Dr. Andre deFreis, the former director-general of Beilenson Hospital, who later worked at Laniado, described the difference: "Here I feel I'm a healer. There is a feeling of being involved in holy work." He told a medical conference, "At Laniado, I learned that the patient is a person."
WHEN THE MASS ALIYAH FROM THE FSU began in the early ‘90s, Rabbi Avraham Pam, the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, announced that something must be done urgently for the Jewish children of the new immigrants, who had been denied any access to their Yiddishkeit for over seventy years. Orthodox philanthropists around the world responded to Rabbi Pam’s plea to the tune of tens of millions of dollars over the last 13 years. And the SHUVU educational system, which today includes 35 schools in 21 cities, is the result. Over 8,000 children from Russian-speaking families today learn in SHUVU schools, and another 4,000 participate in SHUVU summer camps.
The secret of SHUVU’s success has been to provide Russian-speaking parents with a superior alternative to the dismal state educational system. After a visit to a SHUVU school, Ronit Tirosh, the Director-General of the Education Ministry, described SHUVU’s mathematics curriculum and Jewish studies as models that deserve widespread emulation. The SHUVU math curriculum adds 25% more material each year to that covered in the state system.
Israeli students in the state system report the lowest level of satisfaction of any students in the industrialized world. By contrast, 84% of the parents of SHUVU students, most of whom began in the state educational system, report that their children are very satisfied, a result that they attribute to less violence, better decorum, and a higher cultural level. A team of researchers, headed by Ben-Gurion University Professor Tamar Horowitz, recently found that SHUVU students have a high level of self-esteem, despite their more challenging curriculum, and a very positive image of themselves as Jews.
THE DEMOGRAPHIC THREAT is often cited as the greatest danger to the state of Israel, and used as the explanation for everything from the Gaza withdrawal initiative to proposals for "fast-track conversions" of 300,000 non-Jewish Russian immigrants. Yet over 50,000 pregnancies of Jewish babies are terminated in Israel a year. EFRAT, which was founded by Herschel Feingold, a Gerrer Chassid who survived the Holocaust, offers assistance to women who have decided to terminate their pregnancies, usually out of economic concerns.
In many cases, the women themselves are deeply ambivalent about their decision. Just the knowledge that there is someone there to help them if they decide to go forward with their pregnancy is decisive. Dr. Eli Schusseim, the director of EFRAT, says that of the 16,000 mothers assisted by EFRAT to date (with 1,000 currently receiving assistance for six months prior to delivery and six months afterwards) not one has ever complained that she made a mistake by having her baby.
EFRAT maintains a data bank of nearly 3,000 volunteers, a high percentage of whom were themselves aided by EFRAT. The volunteers make the initial contact with the expectant mother, often bringing along to that first meeting their own EFRAT baby, and hold the mother’s hand through the entire process. No religious or ideological appeal is ever made to the expectant mother. All that is ever offered is a bit of financial help and emotional support.
Very few of the mothers aided by EFRAT are religious. Yet interestingly, many become religious either while pregnant or thereafter. The walls of Dr. Schussheim’s office include many photos of EFRAT babies with long peyos or before their upsheren. Apparently the gratitude to Hashem for having given them the strength to bring their beloved child into the world brings many of the mothers helped by EFRAT back to Yiddishkeit.
The common thread running all the organizations mentioned (and many more could be added) is that they are all founded and run (and in many cases funded) by chareidi Jews, and they serve the entire Jewish population. We eagerly await the teshuva of the Jewish News columnist.