Rebbetzin aids Jerusalem poor

Rebbetzin Bracha Kapach, left, speaks in her Jerusalem kitchen with a disadvantaged woman on March 9. (Brian Hendler)

Rebbetzin Bracha Kapach, left, speaks in her Jerusalem kitchen with a disadvantaged woman on March 9. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — On a quiet, little-known street
in one of Jerusalem’s poorer neighborhoods, the line on Fridays
begins to form as early as 6 a.m. outside the home of Bracha
Kapach.
They come from all over Jerusalem, particularly
in the weeks before Passover: men down on their luck, elderly women
with meager pensions, street kids living from fix to fix, mothers
with too many mouths to feed.Kapach treats them all
the same. She hands them challahs or clothing or cash, wishes them a
“Shabbat shalom” and sends them on their way.This is
how Kapach, a diminutive Yemenite octogenarian known all over Israel
for her good works, has become a lifeline for some of Jerusalem’s
neediest, delivering hope in the form of food packages and small
kindnesses.

Kapach says it’s not charity; it’s her responsibility.”How
can a person sit at his Pesach table and not have helped someone else
for the holiday?” Kapach says. “If I help God’s children, He’ll help
me.”
From her modest living room in the Jerusalem
neighborhood of Nahlaot, Kapach runs a busy operation that regularly
provides food, clothing and myriad assistance to some 1,400 indigent
families in Jerusalem every year to the tune of about $180,000
annually.Before Passover she shifts from challahs to
matzah and provides food packages containing meat, oil, wine, sugar,
instant coffee, dates, tea and nuts. When she can, she gives some of
the needier cases a little extra cash.
Families
with eight, nine and even 15 children knock on Kapach’s door. Young
men who have been cast out by their families because of drug problems
or an abusive parent, mothers who cannot afford weddings for their
daughters, prostitutes trying to break out of the cycle of vice and
desperation, providers who have lost their jobs — they all come to Kapach
for help. Kapach doesn’t just offer handouts on her
doorstep. She manages a used clothing center, runs a summer day camp
for needy youths, organizes bar mitzvahs for orphans and throws
together weddings for couples who cannot afford them.

In one recent
case, Kapach made sure a destitute couple had a wedding complete
with flowers, candles, volunteer musicians and a sit-down dinner using
leftover hotel food, homemade fill-ins and rolls contributed by a local
bakery.Kapach seems uniquely able to make do with whatever she can scrape together.But
the last year has been very difficult, she says. In the wake of last
summer’s war in Lebanon, many of Kapach’s regular donors redirected
their money to Israel’s North rather than to her charity, she says, and
she is short on cash.
The weeks before Passover found Kapach wringing her hands with worry.”We
haven’t paid off our debts from last year, and now Pesach is coming,”
she says. “It frustrates me that I give less. They come and I send
them away. What can I do? God have mercy on me.”Fiscal
challenges have forced her organization,
Segulat Naomi, to borrow money from supporters and banks, sending her
into debt and reducing the number of needy she can assist.”This
holiday we’ll only distribute 4,000 Pesach packages, not our usual
6,000, because we don’t have enough money,” she says. “This year has
been very hard. I hope God sends me some donors so I can repay some
loans. I’m very ashamed about it.”Kapach may be generous, but she’s no pushover. When junkies she knows come to her door, she gives, but no more than $5.”They
cry, ‘It’s not enough,’ and I tell them, ‘It’s enough for a fix,’ and I
laugh. I’m not afraid of them,” she says with a smile. “When they bug
me for more, I say, ‘Wait around a bit. The police will be by.’”
Kapach’s
energy appears boundless. Asked her age, she demurs.”I’m an old woman” is all she will say.Born
in Yemen’s capital city of Sanaa to a prestigious Jewish family, Kapach married her first cousin at age 11 and had her first child at
14. She had two more children before she made aliyah with her husband
in 1943. Kapach’s late husband, Rabbi Yosef Kapach,
was a scholar and extraordinary person in his own right. The rabbi’s
research and commentary on Maimonides won him the venerated Israel
Prize in 1969. His wife’s charitable work won her the prize
three decades later, in 1999.The Kapachs remain the only married
couple ever to have both won the Israel Prize.Kapach says she doesn’t deserve the credit for the dozens of prizes and plaques that adorn her kitchen wall.”It’s all on the merit of God — He helps and He gives,” she says. “My work expanded so nicely. It’s all from God.”Kapach’s
charity began gradually, when she started helping her neighbors in
Nahlaot some 42 years ago. She washed the floors and prepared hot meals
for an elderly woman too infirm to care for herself. She helped rebuild
the home of a family whose house was destroyed by a fire the husband
had started to keep himself warm during a Jerusalem snowstorm. She
rented a room for a gang of street boys on drugs, paving the way for
their eventual return to society and embrace of Judaism.
When she was asked who sent her, Kapach invariably proffered the same answer: “God.” Little
by little, more and more people began coming to Kapach. She helped
everyone from the neighborhood’s shmatta lady with the
cockroach-infested house to the Israel Defense Forces, for which she
knitted caps for soldiers. Kapach’s embroideries earned her an
international reputation.

Seven years after her
husband’s death at the age of 82, Kapach is still going strong. But she
says her work is just a fraction of what’s needed. “Jerusalem
is one of the hardest places in the country. It’s poorer than anywhere
else,” she says. “There are so many here that I just can’t help. The
state of poverty has gotten worse and worse. You know how many people
come just to ask for bread and milk? It’s a very grave situation.”Even as her organization’s debts grow, Kapach says she’ll carry on, that there’s simply no other way. “We continue to give,” she says, “and whatever will be, will be.”

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