September 18, 2019

Two-Man War on Poverty

JERUSALEM — I lived in Jerusalem 12 years. I thought I knew the streets and back alleys of this ancient and modern city. I prided myself in knowing the street names and nooks and crannies of this shapeless patchwork of neighborhoods and ethnic enclaves.

Last week, one hour and 15 minutes peeled away 12 years of presumption.

I thought I knew the Bucharan Quarter. In fact, I did know the open air market and enjoyed the colorful characters there, and the ramshackle stores that had a certain charm. I remember a cavern carved out of a stone building burning with hot ovens, turning out the freshest imaginable pita bread for waiting customers.

But I never went behind the marketplace. I never crept beneath the low hanging archways and saw how the people really lived.

Last week I did.

I cannot find the words for the extreme dilapidation and sheer suffering and penury right in the heart of this burgeoning city of villas and riches.

I was led into the despair by two shrewd angels of mercy, Chaim Goldberg (no relation) and Dovid Cohen. These two unimposing, unpretentious Jerusalemites, originally from Chicago, head one of the most unusual tzedakah projects in the world.

I could not believe how humbled I was, both by the poverty and the skill with which Goldberg and Cohen attacked it.

I had heard vaguely of these two gentlemen and figured that they were merely the latest in the Holy Land’s do-gooders, people who mean well, who have their hands out for money for others, people looking for a mitzvah for themselves. Hardly a bad prospect, to be sure; but one, nonetheless, that leaves me slightly suspicious. I have seen do-gooders in the Holy City, many of them so concerned about building “mitzvah points” for themselves that they trample on the sensitivities of the people they want to help. I have seen the wisdom of Rabbi Israel Salanter’s trenchant observation: “People can destroy the world running to do a mitzvah.”

Heaven only knows that the hands are out and the beggars and their beneficiaries plentiful in Jerusalem.

One hour and 15 minutes removed my suspicions completely.

I could not believe what I saw.

Goldberg and Cohen devote a part of six days each week to their two-man war on poverty. As I first climb in their car, Goldberg hands me a bank manifest of the checks that the two of them have distributed. I figure this is their monthly bank statement. It has about 30 listings. The sums are high. But then Goldberg says this is yesterday’s statement. I had figured I was hooking up with some Mom ‘n Pop tzedakah project, only to find out that their supporters send them one and a half million dollars annually. The administrative expenses are $0.00.

The two take no salary whatsoever, nor anything to cover their own expenses.

They do not dwell on this. In fact, I have to pull it out of them. I have not been invited to hear organizational hype. They want me to see where the money goes. They want me to see the squalor in these back alleys of Jerusalem. They sink me into their work, insisting that I come on “the tour.” This is 4-6 p.m. daily, Sunday through Thursday, and much longer on Friday.

“Here, you take this.”

Goldberg stuffs one of my hands with balloons and puts a 700 shekel check (about $175) in the other.

“Go up this stairway,” he instructs. “The family has two children who need special education. This check covers those expenses. Give the balloons to the kids. Just tell them Chaim Goldberg sent you. They’ll know.”

I am skeptical. What, precisely, will they know? Will I embarrass them? I am honored to be of help, but why am I doing this? I fear I’ll be an embarrassment to whomever this mother of young children is.

I ascend the steps, do as I am told. Upon mention of “Chaim Goldberg,” the mother’s face lights up. A knowing smile speaks of a regular relationship, saying, “this tzaddik saint has helped me again, just when I needed it.”

I glance at the surroundings. The rickety metal railing on the staircase is corroded. The home is dark and dank. The floor is uneven. The kids’ clothes are shabby and full of holes. The proud dignity of the mother bodies itself forth anyway. As it turns out, this the best of the living quarters I shall see on this tour.

The best — by far.

The whole transaction takes two minutes. This is in the Geulah neighborhood. We speed off to the next stop.

As I am scrambling to take notes and absorb what’s going on, Dovid Cohen fills in a few phrases about the philosophy of the massive yet modest organization.

“We look for people suffering in silence,” he says.

It takes a while to absorb the meaning of “look for.”

Goldberg and Cohen do not sit behind desks and interview “clients.” They go into the streets. They go into homes. They seek out the suffering. They talk to families, who may not want to talk. So they talk to the neighborhood kids. Or they receive reports from teachers who notice a kid coming to school with rotted teeth.

I am amazed at how compactly and unobtrusively Goldberg phrases questions that elicit the truth. I cannot believe how he enters people’s lives without being intrusive.

More than anything, I cannot believe how comprehensive his knowledge is. Walking the slums of Jerusalem with Goldberg is something like a mad ride in an amusement park. Sudden, unpredictable shifts and jerks pull me here, now there, now all the way round. We are walking to one address; suddenly an unkempt child appears and Goldberg knows him. He gives him a smile and some of his trademark balloons, whereupon the young face lights up and before I know it we are in his home. Goldberg tells the mother about a free distribution of clothing that night at a nearby bomb shelter. Back to the original address. No one home. Knock next door to find out where they are. Telephone calls won’t help — these are people without telephones.

“Tell them to contact Goldberg. Chaim Goldberg. They’ll know.”

Three homes in six minutes. Speed is of the essence. The poor of Jerusalem are too numerous for leisurely visits.

When I first met Goldberg — it’s only 20 minutes ago — he handed me his daily statement from his bank: 700 shekels, 1,500 shekels, 200 shekels, 900 shekels; the list goes on. Behind each of these checks is a personal visit on the daily two-hour tour. “Leibedig!” keeps ringing in my ears. The favorite word of Jerusalem kindergarten teachers, leibedig! means be lively! enthusiastic! quick!

Goldberg is very quick. Decisive. Shrewd.

Of course, good decisions about family issues cannot be made in two minutes. Goldberg’s two-hour daily round, filled with two-to-five minute stops, is akin to the Sunday football game, which is but the climax of hours of daily practice the rest of the week. Goldberg has three unlisted telephone numbers. He works them late into the night, every night. People call him with cases and he calls others to investigate, or he seeks matching funds, or discusses a case with another charity. As I say, he’s shrewd. He routinely asks a wife’s maiden name. Does she come from an old Jerusalemite family whose “occupation” is begging — schnorring?

He knows all the schnorrers and he’s not interested in them. His purpose is not to feed a habit. He knows to whom to say “no,” and that’s why he’s trusted implicitly by supporters around the world.

His purpose is to help families genuinely afflicted by an unexpected misfortune or by a major disfunction, such as mental illness, physical handicap, lack of earning skills or the breadwinner’s imprisonment.

He also knows not to be the sole support. He helps a bride and groom from an impoverished family with $5,000 — if the young couple secures $5,000 in matching funds (from friends, family, whomever). He provides a family moving from a hovel to better quarters with the transition expenses. He provides unheated homes with electric heaters (the day after my tour he expects a shipment of 100 of them). He replaces refrigerators that do not work, paints a 700-square-foot apartment to make it more livable for its family of five, and fixes a burst water

He also knows when not to give money.

He seems to have collapsed 35 years of trial-and-error in U.S. government poverty policy into one rule, both complex and simple: The way out of poverty is not the same for everyone. To some, you give money; they will know what to do with it. To others, you do not give money; they will only waste it. For those who cannot handle money wisely, you pay the water heater repairman directly, or hire the painter yourself, or open a line of credit at a local grocery, specifying that it covers only nutritious foods. In such a case, a family never sees money — but the children get the foods they need.

“Every person is a world for himself,” Goldberg tells me as we approach a home in which the 28-year-old father has just died, leaving a widow and three children. Already impoverished before the tragedy, the family is renting a one-and-a-half room apartment. We arrive at the time of the afternoon prayers, the mourner’s minyan. The apartment is so small it can’t even fit a minyan of 10 men inside. The front door is open and half the minyan is outside in the stairwell. Goldberg is coordinating efforts to put together a trust fund. Meanwhile, he has committed to help the family with $200 a month for one year.

Again, no permanent dole. Rather, money to tide people through the crisis.

I never saw the inside of that home, but I blanched — in fact had to hold back tears — at the next ones Goldberg showed me. Is this Jerusalem — or Calcutta?

We are in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood. The living quarters in this “apartment” are one small room. It is impossible to describe the walls, the missing plaster, the discoloration due to the dankness, the cold, the darkness. This one room is for eating, sleeping, studying and living. Outside, across a courtyard, is another small room with a “kitchen” — a small sink and counter — also crowded with a refrigerator provided by Goldberg. There is also a washing machine, which, however, must be rigged in such a way that when it’s running it blocks the door. One can cook or wash, but not both at the same time.

There is no bathroom in either room. Rather, there is a facility outside, further down, and even this is not used exclusively by the family. It is shared with a yeshiva (i.e., with many other people). Should a child need the facilities on a typically cold, rainy, winter Jerusalem night, he has to go outside.

At some point — we’re moving so fast, it’s almost a blur — Goldberg points out the kitchen in another apartment. It’s about six feet square, including the sink, counter and refrigerator. It has room for one person barely to turn around, hardly larger than some of the plastic toy kitchens my children have had.

Dovid Cohen is the fundraiser, administrator and driver. He lives off investments and devotes his life to this project. Chaim Goldberg is a scholar of the Talmud who studies until 4 p.m. and then begins his rounds. He lives a couple of levels above the people he helps, that’s all. The two have known each other since childhood.

When Chaim Goldberg came to Israel 31 years ago, he felt, somehow, the minute he got off the plane that he was never going back. His father supervised some tzedakah funds in Chicago and, like many of us, was inundated with appeals from Israel, including poverty cases. He had no way of knowing the truth, so he asked his son to investigate. His son was on the scene. He’d know. Thus began this unique project.

Around Jerusalem, at the drop of Chaim Goldberg’s name, one hears people saying, “That reminds me, I owe him $500.” They mean they’ve promised him this sum for his work and still owe it.

I had to leave “the tour” early. It covered only three neighborhoods in Jerusalem. Goldberg and Cohen are active in other Jerusalem neighborhoods and also in other cities in Israel, including Bet Shemesh, Betar, Kiryat Sefer and Tifrach. A lot of the work outside Jerusalem is done on Friday.

“We are proud of the fact that every needy Jew, without regard to his ethnic origin and affiliation, is a potential recipient of our services,” says Cohen.

“Our list includes Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, kollel people and those in the labor force, ba’alei teshuva and converts, single-parent households and a host of other down-and-outers.”

The scope of the work now includes an annual caseload of more than 2,000 families; the distribution of food coupons for chicken, fruits and vegetables; payment for exceptional medical or dental procedures not covered by National Health Insurance; in-home domestic care; post-natal, post-hospital, mother-and-child convalescent care; repair of dilapidated apartments, including installation of indoor toilets; and the purchase of eight to 10 refrigerators and washing machines per month.

In a nutshell: “The more underprivileged families we discover, the greater is our determination to help.”

Dovid Cohen may be reached at 132/9 Ma’alot Dafna, Entrance B, Jerusalem 97762, Israel. Phone: 011-972-2-581-8426.

Hillel Goldberg is executive editor of Denver’s Intermountain Jewish News where this story first appeared.