Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sit Down, Turn Around, Pick A Box Of Oranges

One of the nice aspects of Passover is that the holiday brings out the charitable nature of the Israelis. Offical statistics say that a full twenty-percent of Israelis live below the poverty line.

Friday is the end of the work week in Israel. Almost all the open air markets around the country shut down for Shabat. Leftover produce is tossed in the garbage, if it can’t be refrigerated. Friday afternoons see the poor scrounging through the garbage bins near the open air markets, filling their plastic bags with fruits and vegetables.

Come Passover help comes in more official forms. Charitable organizations usually run by ultra-Orthodox men. Warehouses are stocked with dry goods, matzot and grape juice. A few days before the holiday frozen chickens, fresh fruit and vegetables are added. When those in need come for their packages, everything is included for an entire family to enjoy a festive seder.

This spirit of giving may come from collective guilt, or simply from a generous spirit. Tzedeka is a time-honored tradition in Judaism. A family is encouraged to give up to 10 per cent of their income. Some give more, some less. The pleas for donations that everyone receives in the mail are annoying. Still one guy I know makes out a donation for “Chai” and mails it back to each organization that asked for a donation.

Giving isn’t restricted to Passover, of course. Because poverty isn’t only something that surfaces on the holidays. It is endemic to the culture. Some blame this on the “Americanization” of Israel.

As Israel becomes more a market driven economy, traditional values like Tzedeka go out the window. The bottom line isn’t helped by giving away money. Money becomes the one mark of distinction, as evidenced by the car one drives, the clothes one wears, the jewelry the female of the species can put on display as a means to intimidate those lower down on the scale of material comfort.

Israel’s economy is no longer in the “start-up” mode, where everyone is helped out no matter what their needs or contribution to society. Now the standard is ‘pay as you go.’ Health care now carries a charge. Subsidies have been dropped from many food items. There hasn’t been an active Minister for Welfare in who knows how long.

Just as the volunteer organizations took up the slack left by the government during the second War in Lebanon, many of the same organizations provide a hot meal for the needy on a daily basis. Come the holidays a greater effort is required.

A couple of days ago this reporter was in an orange grove in Kibbutz Kvutzot Shiller, on the outskirts of Rehovot. An organization called Sulchan L’Shulchan is in charge of providing produce to those soup kitchens and support groups around the country. One of the sources of food for Sulchan L’Shulchan is this kibbutz orchard.

The orchard, we were told it is about 600 dunam (about 150 acres), is owned by a wealthy man from Rehovot who donates his crops every year to the poor. Shulchan L’Shulchan is in charge of the fields. Groups of schoolchildren of all ages, factory workers, hi-tech engineers, volunteer a morning, arriving in suitable clothing to help pick the fruit from the trees. Some months its oranges, others avocados, others tangerines.

The day we were there a group of grade school children from Ashdod piled off of two buses and headed into the orchards. The children were part of the “Tali” network of schools which inserts some Jewish traditions and learning into a secular school. In this case the children had learned about “Tzdeka” charity, and the sources for it in the ancient texts, then put the learning into practice by coming out to the fields to pick fruit meant for the Passover tables of needy Israelis.

The fruit was gathered in plastic boxes, and hauled away by a tractor to a packinghouse, where it was picked up by trucks and driven to distribution centers around the country.
Yaniv was the student’s guide. He wore a sort of Greek fisherman’s cap, but his was made in Russia, but he wasn’t Russian, rather a purebred Israeli. Yaniv was religious. About thirty, he had a beard, and his peyote (side curls) were concealed by his cap. He wore jeans and a work shirt and boots.

“I’m surprised at his ability to communicate with these secular school kids,” said Miriam, a visitor to the field as part of the Tali support staff. “I never see ultra-Orthodox outside of their black garb. And they always put me off, but he’s a good guy.”
Miriam was encouraged by what she saw. “All this volunteering, I mean, it gives me hope that Israelis are all that selfish after all. That they really do have a heart and soul. I thought they’d lost it.”

In fact three different groups were in the fields at the same time as the Tali Ashdod kids. One group was from the Cleveland Hebrew School, on tour in Israel. Yaniv said “we get groups from all over the country. Depending on the season, we get groups nearly every day. And the food gets picked up by the various organizations.”

“I feel like I’m helping someone,” said Tomer, a fourth grade Tali Ashdod student. “People who don’t have as much as I do.”

Parents of these schoolchildren also showed up to pick. Ricki Cohen wore a tight powder blue training outfit and pink running shoes. A pretty woman with a Charlie’s Angels blondish hairdo and designer sunglasses, Ricki said, “I was raised to believe we are supposed to help out where we can. I’m always volunteering. If I can help someone else have a good Pesach by spending a few hours picking oranges with my kids, I’m happy to do it.”

When it was over the little group of kids picked nearly five tons of oranges. All for charity.

As Miriam said, maybe there is hope for the country after all.