JERUSALEM (Mar. 23)
The original Exodus was a simple affair, a hasty retreat from Egypt with a few half-baked loaves of bread.
So it is always difficult to comprehend why each Passover finds us cleaning with a vengeance, shopping till we drop and wondering how we are ever going to be ready come seder night.
What we often tend to forget in the Passover pandemonium is that Jews around the world are all undergoing the same ritual crisis. And that some, even in the capital of Israel, are not so fortunate.
As people are deciding this year whether to buy two or three chickens, in Jerusalem one volunteer organization is preparing 1,500 chickens, 1,500 bottles of cooking oil and 1,500 bottles of wine as well as countless boxes of matzah, sugar and other staples for the city’s poor and elderly.
Established in 1976 to address social problems in Mea She’arim, Ezrat Avot has literally gone from strength to strength. Although still based in Mea She’arim, the group services the needy in many other Jerusalem neighborhoods as well.
At the helm of the non-profit organization is social worker and Director Naomi Sharabi, the granddaughter of Ezrat Avot’s founder, Rabbi Shlomo Gamliel, a Yemenite Torah sage.
The list of Ezrat Avot’s activities is seemingly endless. The group provides weekly food parcels, free summer camps for underprivileged children, and clothing, blankets and heaters during Jerusalem’s winter months.
Perhaps most importantly, it offers a place for people to come and talk about their problems.
However, the group’s Passover drive is its biggest annual project, ensuring that no Jerusalemite goes wanting at one of the biggest family events in the Jewish calendar.
“We have a regular weekly food distribution for 80 to 100 families but at Passover we provide for 650 families,” says Osnat Goldman, Ezrat Avot’s public relations coordinator.
People know they can come and knock on the door and they will be helped, says Goldman.
“People panic at Passover,” she says. “It’s such an expense. The price of food is astronomical, there’s the cleaning and the stress as well as the added burden of having to go out and shop, as well as buying new clothes for the kids. It just becomes too much.”
In addition to the clothing and food parcels provided, the group also holds a seder for those who need it. Although most people do manage to find family or friends with whom to celebrate the festival, Ezrat Avot promises a seder whether there are six guests or 60.
After last year’s suicide bombings on two Jerusalem city buses, Ezrat Avot delivered weekly food packages to 28 families from the Katamonim neighborhood who lost loved ones in the terror attacks.
This year, Ezrat Avot will be distributing Passover parcels to those people whose images flashed across our television screens last year, including the now 10-year-old Russian immigrant boy and his 18-month-old brother who were orphaned in the attack, the woman who lost her only son and the young woman who lost her husband.
Goldman admits there are difficulties in making Jerusalemites aware of the plight of the city’s needy.
“People don’t think about the poor on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “You live in your comfortable house and go about your day to day activities until you hear something. At that point, people suddenly turn round and say, `Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize.’
“But once it hits you and you become aware there’s a real need out there, that’s an important step.”
When it comes to Ezrat Avot’s Passover drive, the center has no shortage of volunteers, including children from local schools, willing to help with assembling the food parcels, which are distributed over a few days shortly before Passover.
Although most needy families do not feel ashamed about collecting their parcels at the center, Goldman says there are some who do feel uncomfortable. For those people, the parcels are delivered to their homes.
“We know who they are, and we’re discreet,” says Goldman.
Goldman is also quick to point out that Ezrat Avot is not just providing physical sustenance, but also emotional support.
“It makes people aware that Jews do help each other and that they’re not alone,” says Goldman. “I’m not saying there aren’t homeless centers and soup kitchens all over the world, but there are many people who are not being taken care of the way we take care of our needy in Jerusalem and in Israel.”
Despite the tireless work done throughout the year by Ezrat Avot, it is still the Passover drive that provides both the greatest challenge and the biggest rewards.
Goldman says, “It’s a wonderful feeling to know that someone can say, `Despite my situation, I don’t have to starve on Passover and I won’t. I’m going to have my matzah and my wine. Maybe I won’t get a second helping of chicken but I will be able to have my meal.'”