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A Hand, Not a Handout

Yehuda Poch

The events of the last year and a half have given new poignancy to the Talmud's contention that the Holy Land is something acquired through hardship. The almost daily terrorist incidents have added an extra edge to the already mind-numbing procedures of navigating governmental bureaucracies and staying afloat during the current economic times. It seems that almost everyone here in Israel needs a helping hand these days.

In the midst of this ongoing turmoil, David Morris is seeking to improve the lives of his fellow Jews with the innovative concept of chesed (kindness) networks. Instead of simply helping people through rough times with handouts, Morris utilizes the talents of a broad cadre of community members to help those in need get back on their feet. The Torah, he notes, considers helping someone become self-sufficient to be the highest form of giving.

"People don't open their fridge one day and discover it empty. Sad situations occur over time and within a context," Morris says. "Providing money for food is only a partial response; we aim to help at as many levels as possible."

Morris has already founded two organizations with his "network" concept. The first, Yad Leyadid ("A Hand For A Friend") began six years ago, in Pisgat Zev, a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. The second, Lema'an Achai ("For My Brothers' Sake" - info@lemaanachai.org or 972-2-999-7107), was started when Morris moved to the new religious suburb of Ramat Bet Shemesh two and a half years ago.

Morris, an British immigrant, has a day job, as a marketer of electro-optics; but he moonlights as a chesed powerhouse. Chesed, he says, is the "family business." His mother won an award from Queen Elizabeth for a similar charity organization she began in England's Harrogate community many years ago.

Morris started his first organization after witnessing debt collectors loading his neighbor's belongings onto a truck. He soon realized his neighbor was far from alone; such repossessions are practically mundane occurrences in contemporary Israel. "People literally run out of food here," he explains. "The welfare system only catches the bottom few percent, so many, many others fall through the cracks."

By matching experts who offer their time gratis or at vastly discounted rates with those in need, Lema'an Achai turns conventional charity into what Morris calls "smart" chesed. Rashie Reichert, who volunteers for Lema'an Achai, said that people "look at themselves differently when they're not just opening their wallets, but are utilizing their strengths to help others who can't do these things for themselves."

Morris explains that poverty can often stem from seemingly simple problems with debts or mortgages. When these problems escalate, people need lawyers to help them deal with the sometimes exasperating Israeli system. "In Israel you can get taken to bankruptcy court, and be evicted or arrested for bouncing a small check," Morris says, "There are defenses to help people who deserve mercy."

In other cases, families need therapists to sort out family issues. "If one pillar collapses the whole family can tumble," Morris points out.

Lema'an Achai utilizes the services of more than 100 volunteers who assist the 150 families in need in Ramat Bet Shemesh. It sponsors free dental clinics and a network of doctors and medical professionals who guide the seriously ill through the medical system. The group also offers professional care such as legal and financial consulting, social services, therapy and tutors. They have arranged for grocery stores to provide free food, discounts and deliveries to those living below the poverty line.

Recently the high-tech meltdown has caused even more people to call on the services of Lema'an Achai. Families that once were donors are now among the recipients. A Lema'an Achai social worker recently visited a once comfortable family who finally decided to call after the children squabbled over the last slice of bread in the refrigerator. "Helping people who don't have what to put on their table is becoming a more common problem in Israel," Morris says.

Along with providing a financial safety net for families, the "chesed networks" also help protect children within the social welfare system. One parent in Ramat Bet Shemesh who was provided with lawyers, rabbinic court advisors, social workers, therapists and cash during a difficult period considers Lema'an Achai "part of the family" for having helped salvage it from dissolution.

David Morris says that he has been fortunate through his work in Lema'an Achai to witness several such success stories. "We do our share," he says, "but we also see God's help in a very direct and visible way." Many times, Lema'an Achai has been close to bankruptcy itself when a sudden large contribution is received which tides them over for the next month. Once a Russian immigrant family called in desperate need of a refrigerator; the next phone call was from a family that was moving and who wanted to donate a refrigerator. "We are often reminded," Morris says, "that we are in a holy business here."


[Yehudah Poch is a journalist living in Israel. He also serves as a consultant to various community and nonprofit organizations.]



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