The flip side of the Promised Land

Israel is the country where you can see pretty much anything in an area about the size of New Jersey. From the spectacular Golan Heights to the sandy beaches of Eilat, the metropolitan Tel Aviv to the holiness of Jerusalem, Israel has it all. As well as its fair share of difficulties.

Aside from the obvious problems — like the dangerous neighbors, homeland security issues and lack of water in the Kinneret — there are other ones masquerading behind 5-star hotels, wireless Internet access and the ocean view.

For a country that declared itself a state not that long ago, Israel has done quite well — clawing its way up to the place of any other progressive country. A giant in security and technology, Israel can hold up its head proudly next to all the rest.

Yet a lot of issues are still unresolved. For one, the budget. No country has a perfectly balanced budget. Yet with the harsh deficit that Israel was exhibiting year after year, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu devised a plan — a good, capitalist plan that should have worked. The underlying message was to cut back on government-funded stipends and encourage people to join the work force.

In many developed countries, this model worked very well. Unemployment was cut back, making it imperative for people to go out and get jobs. The pattern of sitting back and collecting from the government’s pockets each month was abandoned and positive habits were formed.

The problem in Israel is that the government made broad, harsh sweeping budget cuts through all sectors. No age group was spared — children, elderly, disabled, and middle-aged — everyone felt the difference in their pockets, and on their plates. Before the economic reform, disabled senior citizens didn’t need to worry about paying the bills, and families with many children knew they could afford tuition and shoes. Less than a decade ago, a family with six children received a monthly stipend of around 3,800 NIS (about $833) for child benefit. Now it’s a mere 1,400 NIS (about $325).

Although this idea of financial reform is really a good one, it came much too quickly and drastically, and countless people’s lives have been shaken up in the process. There are too many people who fall between the cracks. Visit any soup kitchen and you will see what I mean.

Some age groups don’t fit into this “go get a job” model so nicely. A 70-year-old frail man who gave his best years to the country is not going to go look for a job. And neither is a 2-year-old. These age groups can’t fend for themselves and still require the monthly support that the government used to give them. The results aren’t pretty.

Nearly 2 million people are living under the poverty line. One out of every three children in Israel is hungry. That’s an alarming statistic! This doesn’t even take into account the growing class of “working poor” — people who put in an honest day’s work, and unfortunately still can’t make ends meet. A good part of the country operates in crisis mode every single day.

Thousands of people turn to private charity and welfare agencies just to have something nutritious to eat every day. The generosity of people in Israel and worldwide to the needy populations in Israel is a welcome blessing. This generosity comes in many forms: clothing, shoes, volunteers — and, of course, cash, checks and credit cards. Although this is not a permanent solution, it offers temporary relief.

Many organizations are now focusing on a different type of relief program — actively leading people out of the cycle of poverty. For instance, many mothers, who are capable and would like to find employment, are stuck in a Catch-22: they don’t have the money for a professional training course, and therefore lack the skills to get a decent job. Going to work for the minimum wage of 19 shekels an hour (less than $4.50) won’t even cover childcare fees. Private programs through charity agencies offering heavily subsidized courses help break this cycle.

Children at risk who are on a “sure” path to delinquency receive hot meals, homework assistance, and enrichment programs through specialized after school initiatives. This is to ensure they don’t become second-generation (or more) needy adults. Investing in them now secures a better future for them for years to come.

But these programs don’t change the reality that people have to swallow their pride and ask for help.

How will all of this be resolved? Who knows? True economic stability doesn’t seem to be in the stars for this year, but I would love to be wrong on this one.

In the meantime — next time you are in Israel enjoying the sights and the scenes — don’t forget the part of Israel that most tourists don’t go to see. Though not as exciting as the Dead Sea or the Western Wall, personally participating in the humanitarian element in Israel offers you the unforgettable experience of unconditional giving, and a sense of belonging second to none.

Leah Vogel, a former resident of Livermore, works for Chasdei Yosef, a charity and welfare organization based in Jerusalem.

Leah Vogel, a staff member of Chasdei Yosef, an Israeli charity and welfare organization, will speak at two upcoming Bay Area fundraisers.

She will be at a parlor meeting at Congregation Ahabat Torah, 1537A Meridian Ave., San Jose at 5:45 p.m. (408) 375-7770. Wednesday Nov. 15, and at a Malva Malka casino night at Beit Midrash Ohr HaChaim, 1380 Hopkins St., Berkeley at 8 p.m. Saturday Nov. 18. (510) 558-0536.