December 16, 2018

The happiness of paying it forward

Michal Sayas remembers all too well those days when she couldn’t afford a peach at the supermarket. Today, she could buy the entire store — and all the peaches her heart desires. 

It is from this personal experience of being in need that the Israeli immigrant created the organization Be’Simcha (Hebrew for “happiness”) in order to give hope to local Israeli-American and Jewish families. The nonprofit assists people with everything from school supplies to utility payments.

It all started with a chance encounter while standing in line at Burlington Coat Factory, where she overheard the woman at the front of the line arguing with the cashier.

“She was pregnant and had three small children with her,” Sayas said. “And she was arguing in Spanish about an item she purchased in installments. … The woman at the register told her that she didn’t finish the payment plan and the customer insisted she did. For me, it was a sign that I’m at the right place and at the right time. When it was my turn to pay, I asked the cashier how much the woman still owes and paid the entire sum. The woman couldn’t believe what was happening. She couldn’t stop thanking me — things like that don’t usually happen to her.”

From that day on, Sayas, 52, said she took it upon herself to pay off the remaining balances of the store’s layaway customers who didn’t have enough money to pay for their items. She had only one condition: not to reveal her identity to the customers. She also didn’t reveal her secret charity work to her husband, Yossi, and three children, Adam, Orian and Roy.  

Sayas, who came to the United States in 1986, was not always  a woman of means living in a Calabasas mansion. And her husband was not always successful in the construction business (where Sayas used to help in the office).

“I remember us, a young couple with no money. We came here with nothing,” she said. “When I was pregnant with my first child, Orian [25 years ago], we went to the supermarket and saw a big and beautiful peach. I told my husband, ‘Oh, how much I would have loved to eat it.’ But of course, I knew we couldn’t afford it. … Later on that day, my husband went back to the supermarket and bought that peach. I told him, ‘Are you crazy?  We can’t afford it, go back and return it.’ He went to the kitchen and quickly cut it to pieces before I’d be able to do anything about it. Of course, I didn’t have a choice but to eat it.”

Today, even though the couple’s financial situation is much improved, Sayas said she has never forgotten those harsh days of calculating every dollar spent and serving sandwiches on Friday night instead of a warm and festive Shabbat meal. 

In November 2013, two months after the death of her mother, Simcha Koobi, Sayas decided to take her charity work to a new level. Her youngest child was already 16 and the two older ones in their 20s, and Sayas found herself with a lot of time on her hands. Her solution was to establish her own charity.

“I invited 14 friends over and asked my husband and children to join us and told them how I’ve paid all the debts of buyers in Burlington during the past seven years. My husband and children were shocked. They had no idea,” Sayas said. “My girlfriends were very supportive and agreed to join my charity organization, which I called after my mom’s name: Be’Simcha. The only condition my friends had was that we are going to support only Israeli or Jewish-American families, which I had no problem with.”

Sayas approached three Jewish schools, which provided her with a list of families needing help. Then she filled 135 boxes with school supplies for them.

Since it officially opened as a nonprofit in August 2014, Be’Simcha (