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After Aiding Israeli Ill and Elderly, Yad Sarah Takes Its Model Abroad

May 26, 2005
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It all began with a vaporizer for a sick child. A schoolteacher borrowed a vaporizer from another neighbor for the child, and then, realizing that such devices were in short supply in the neighborhood, bought several more to lend to others.

People then began dropping off medical equipment they no longer needed. Soon afterward, the teacher’s cramped Jerusalem apartment was overflowing with vaporizers, crutches, walkers and other items.

That schoolteacher, Uri Lupolianski, today is the mayor of Jerusalem, and the loaning system that began in his living room has become Yad Sarah. It provides a range of medical devices or services free or at a nominal cost to make life easier for the ill, disabled or elderly and their families.

With 6,000 volunteers from every walk of life, Yad Sarah is Israel’s largest volunteer organization.

“Among Israelis and Jews there is a notion of helping one another,” Lupolianski told JTA.

He said he is encouraged that the Yad Sarah model is now being exported abroad.

“We think that home-care services are desperately needed in the world and can help millions of people,” he said.

More than 380,000 people are helped by Yad Sarah each year. Many borrow equipment that ranges from wheelchairs to oxygen tanks to hospital beds.

The organization has branches across the country, from the main cities to development towns and Arab villages. A recent survey found that one out of every two Israeli families has been helped by Yad Sarah.

Shlomo Cohen was among those in line at Yad Sarah’s main Jerusalem branch one recent morning. He had come to request an extension on a walker he had borrowed for his 80-year-old father.

“It helps a lot. It gives him more confidence,” Cohen said. Looking around the reception area where an unusual mix of Arabs and Jews, the Orthodox and the secular waited together to be helped, he added, “Yad Sarah brings unity to the country because it helps everyone.”

Behind him in line was David Cohen-Khallas, a university student who recently broke his ankle and was returning a pair of crutches.

“It’s a great service. I broke my ankle over Passover, and without any questions they helped me. It’s great to see how everyone is treated equally,” he said.

One of Yad Sarah’s primary goals is to keep the ill and elderly in their homes and with their families for as long as possible. The organization saves Israel an estimated $300 million in hospitalization fees.

The Yad Sarah model is now being replicated around the world, from the former Soviet Union to Africa.

One of the group’s newest projects is in Jordan, where Yad Sarah officials are working on a plan to help set up a lending center, exhibition center and workshop for maintaining wheelchairs, walkers and other items at a hospital in Amman.

Meir Handelsman, who helps promote the contracting of Yad Sarah assistance abroad, is coordinating the project with Dr. Mohammed Al-Hadid, president of the Jordanian Red Crescent.

Al-Hadid first heard about Yad Sarah through the Israeli Embassy in Amman, and soon after he came to Israel to see Yad Sarah’s operations

“I was really very, very impressed by the work they are doing. It was all new to us at the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, and I thought we could copy this in Jordan” on a smaller scale, Al-Hadid told JTA in a phone interview from Amman.

Yad Sarah can expect to have an even wider role internationally following a decision by the United Nations in January to include it on an advisory body to the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council, or ECOSOC — the highest status a nongovernmental organization can achieve.

Handelsman said Yad Sarah’s inclusion in ECOSOC was a indicative of its growing international reputation.

Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yad Sarah, together with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, launched several centers to assist elderly Jews there. Similar to the system in Israel, the centers have medical-equipment lending centers, warehouses and workshops. There are now 100 centers, known as Cheseds, across the former Soviet Union.

Yad Sarah recently helped Angola’s government set up a warehouse of rehabilitative medical equipment, together with a workshop for maintaining the equipment. Angola recently emerged from over 25 years of a brutal civil war. During that time, land mines took a heavy toll on the civilian population. Many lost limbs.

Handelsman said that in the past, many wheelchairs sent to Angola from abroad weren’t sturdy enough for the country’s rough conditions and dirt roads, especially in rural areas. Yad Sarah instead brought over Soviet-issue wheelchairs that were more suitable to local conditions.

In Uzbekistan, Yad Sarah plans to set up a community rehabilitation center in the capital, Tashkent, that will serve some 10,000 children with special needs. Plans for the center include equipment lending, a warehouse and workshop and transportation services for the disabled, as well as a rehabilitation center.

Yad Sarah’s annual budget is $15.5 million. Most of it comes from donations from Israelis and the nominal fees paid for the organization’s services. Its work abroad is funded by outside sources.

Yad Sarah enjoys support from many Jewish communities abroad. The main wing of the Jerusalem headquarters was donated by the UJA-Federation of New York.

At the end of the month, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is planning to host a fundraising event for Yad Sarah at his home.

In Jerusalem, a steady stream of people make their way through the organization’s headquarters, returning and collecting equipment. Volunteer Shimon Morgenstern, 78, helps a woman returning a wheelchair.

As he returns to the storeroom, where shelves are piled high with blood-pressure monitors, baby scales and crutches, Morgenstern explains why he comes here three times a week to volunteer.

“It’s close to my heart,” he said. “I have also used equipment from Yad Sarah, and now I come and give out equipment and explain how to use it. Here they can come and get what they need and they are always so grateful, saying, ‘Thank you so much.’ “

On one of the building’s top floors is an exhibit center where people can see for themselves a model apartment full of devices to make life easier for the disabled — a hydraulic bath lift in the bathroom, a stair climber for wheelchairs and special pots with easy-to-hold handles in the kitchen.

Elaine Pomrantz, a rehabilitation counselor who made aliyah seven years ago from New York, helps tourists who use Yad Sarah services — from equipment to special vans for transporting the disabled — while visiting Israel.

Pomrantz, who is wheelchair bound, first came to Yad Sarah as a consumer. Now she volunteers twice a week and is moved by the thanks of those she helps.

“There is a gratification here that is so much more than money,” she said.

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