TORONTO — Abraham Israel, founder and director of Israel’s largest soup kitchen – Hazon Yeshaya Humanitarian Network – knows what it means to be poor and hungry.
As a 10-year-old child in 1960, he fled with his parents and sister from his native Egypt to France, where the family spent almost four years in Paris before emigrating to Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We ended up surviving in soup kitchens for 3 1/2 years,” he told The CJN during a recent visit to Toronto to meet with supporters.
Canadian Friends of Hazon Yeshaya has had a presence here for five years. The organization is planning a large gala event for March 2011, and a smaller dinner for sponsors next month, on June 9.
“I remember having torn clothes, and holes in my shoes,” said Israel. “It was embarrassing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Thank God there were wonderful people there who would feed us every day. I always dreamt of paying back this favour.”
Israel, now a retired shoe importer who made aliyah when he retired, started his first soup kitchen after a chance meeting in 1997 with a young woman who had multiple sclerosis.
Because she wasn’t feeling well, he accompanied her home and saw that her one-room apartment was bare, with broken windows, a leaky faucet, and no electricity or refrigerator.
Shocked, he asked her what she was going to eat that day, and if she didn’t receive money from the government. Her answer, he recalls, was that she would have a yogurt, and that, yes, she received a stipend, but that the money went for her medication.
Then he asked if she knew anyone else living in similar conditions. She referred him to neighbours across the hall, and before long he knew of 17 people who needed help.
“It’s all led by the Almighty,” said Israel, an accountant by training who also has rabbinic smichah. He hired an elderly woman to cook, and opened a storefront operation where he provided a daily meal to the group of 17.
Today his organization – named in memory of his late father – serves more than 14,000 people, providing daily meals as well as children’s programs, dental care including implants, and vocational training that Israel said has a success rate of 85 per cent (referring to students who find jobs). “We’re seeing some success in this, that it stops the cycle of poverty. Therefore, we’re very excited, and we’re expanding it.”
About a third of those who receive the meals are Holocaust survivors. There are also some Arab clients, including 350 children in East Jerusalem who receive the same kosher meals as other clients, at their school.
Given Israel’s business background and training as an accountant, he runs his non-profit organization “in a most businesslike manner,” he said.
The organization has an annual budget of $12 million, and only three per cent goes to overhead, a rate “unheard of in the non-profit world,” Israel said.
In part, he explained, the overhead is kept down by the small staff – seven employees in all – and the large number of volunteers, including some visitors from overseas, who do everything from cutting vegetables to serving or delivering meals.
As well, Israel noted, “clients” or “customers” are screened to make sure they meet government criteria for poverty. “We work hand in hand with government and the municipalities, and we only service ‘Status A,’ the lowest poverty level.”
Israel said that, despite well-publicized bureaucratic delays in Israel, there is a document his clients can obtain easily within 24 hours, and it is required within that time frame if they don’t have the documentation the organization requests.
As well, he insists on maintaining the dignity of those who use the services. “I just let go of a good volunteer who yelled back at a client.”
Hazon Yeshaya provides meals 365 days a year. On Passover, its kitchens are kashered overnight.
“We take it very seriously. These are Status A people. We can’t skip a day.”