Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Charedi World

1 Kislev 5760 - November 10, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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When a Few Fruits and Vegetables Make a Big Difference: Israel's Poor Benefit from Center for Halachic Agriculture's Ma'aser Oni

by Moshe Schapiro

Chana, a 34-year-old mother of six, simply does not have the money to put bread on the table.

"Every time we seem to find a way that will get us out debt," she says, describing her financial situation, "we just seem to fall deeper in debt."

While Chana's husband is working tirelessly to get his family out of debt, Chana has been trying to earn money by clearing and setting tables at a Jerusalem restaurant. She earns only six dollars a day, which she uses to buy her children the basic food staples: bread, eggs, and milk. But the money only stretches so far.

Sometimes, for days at a time, her children are forced to drink tea instead of milk. Once, on a good day, she gave her young son a warm cup of milk that wasn't diluted with water.

"Ever since then," she says, "whenever he sees milk in the house he thinks wistfully of that cup of milk I once gave him and asks me for milk `like I once had.'

"I have to explain to him," she says, "that I can't give it all to him; I need it to feed the rest of the family."

Chana's widowed mother, herself suffering from poverty, tries her best to help Chana and her children. She receives clothes for the children from charitable organizations, gemachim, and sometimes, even from the trash bin. She then cleans and mends them.

"One day, when my mother came to help me with the children," Chana recalls, "she made herself coffee and used the milk I had saved for the baby. When I realized what happened, I shouted, 'Ima, you took the baby's milk!'

"Then I burst into tears. Where was my kibbud em? I forgot about it because I couldn't feed my baby."

Yad Eliezer, a Jerusalem-based organization that provides weekly food packages, baby formula and cooked meals to hundreds of needy families, has helped Chana tremendously over the last few years. Each week her family receives a Yad Eliezer food package that includes such basics as flour, oil and rice.

"You have no idea how happy the children feel when we receive a food basket," Chana says.

But while the basket is a big help, it is not enough. Chana's children still suffer from hunger pangs on a daily basis. Fresh fruits and vegetables, though necessary for every child's diet, are a rarity for Chana's children.

"Fruit is a big problem for the children," says Chana. "Sometimes, when we have fruit for Shabbos, my daughter saves hers for Sunday and hides in it her lunch bag so she can take it to nursery school like all the other children."

On another occasion, Chana's son was playing at the neighbors and their mother gave each child an apple. Chana's son asked for an apple and was told to go home and ask his own mother for one.

"I know they didn't mean any harm," says Chana, "but my son came home very sad and there was nothing I could do to dry his tears."

In recent months, however, Chana has been able to give her children fruits and vegetables on a regular basis, as a result of a new system set up this year by the Center for Halachic Agriculture that helps Israel's poor receive the ma'aser oni that is rightfully theirs.

Several years ago HaRav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv issued a ruling that since the mitzvah of ma'aser oni is still applicable today, there is no justification whatsoever for withholding the tithe from the poor.

Since then, the Center for Halachic Agriculture, which is run by HaRav Yosef Efrati under HaRav Eliashiv's direction, has been working to develop a method of reinstating ma'aser oni as a viable means of providing assistance to the poor people of Eretz Yisroel. This project is part of the organization's overall efforts to raise the level of observance and awareness of the mitzvos hatluyos ba'aretz, of which ma'aser oni is but one.

This year, 5760, is the sixth in the seven-year agriculture cycle, when ma'aser oni must be given. The center launched its ma'aser oni project right after Rosh Hashana this year.

Under the system, ma'aser oni -- in the form of produce and cash -- is delivered by farmers and produce wholesalers to nonprofit organizations such as Yad Eliezer, which in turn transfer it to the poor.

This means that Chana, along with thousands of others, will be receiving produce and cash valued at a total of 1.5 million shekels a month, or approximately $5 million in the course of the year. And it is all a direct result of the center's efforts.

What the Center for Halachic Agriculture is trying to do with this program, explains HaRav Yosef Efrati, director of the center, is to reintroduce into Eretz Yisroel the Torah- prescribed methods of caring for the poor.

"With ma'aser oni," says HaRav Efrati, "the Torah gives us clear guidelines on how to care for people in the community who are less fortunate than we. And by instituting this program, we're putting those guidelines back into practice, recreating a social safety net to help Israel's poor."

Leah, a 40-year-old mother of eight, is another one of the many people the new system is benefiting. Leah's husband suffers from a mental illness and cannot support his family, who live in a cramped, two room apartment, with an outdoor bathroom they share with their next-door neighbors.

While governmental assistance programs pay for water and electricity and the children's schooling, Leah says she has no money to pay for everything else. The biggest problem, she says, is the lack of food.

"The children cry to me," says Leah, "that all the other children come to school with a roll and chocolate milk, and they want to know why they always go empty-handed.

"It hurts me so much that they are hungry and can't learn properly," she continues, wiping the tears from her eyes. "But what can I do? I just don't have the money."

Leah also receives weekly food packages and chickens, and she says her children wait all week for the one small piece of chicken they each get on Shabbos.

On a recent visit to the doctor, however, Leah was told that her children were severely undernourished and needed more iron.

"I cannot afford to buy fruits and vegetables," she says. "Sometimes my neighbor gives me what's left over from her children and I give it to mine, but it is not enough. My little one never gets fruit, not a single banana or apple, and he needs iron."

In the last two months, in addition to the food packages and chickens, Leah has also been receiving fruits and vegetables from Yad Eliezer through the Center for Halachic Agriculture's ma'aser oni program.

A few fruits and vegetables aren't going to cure Leah's children or solve all her problem, but she says it's making a big difference.

"That little bit of food, those extra fruits and vegetables," says Leah, "bring a smile to my children's faces. I still can't give them a roll and chocolate milk to take to school, but at least I can give them apples and oranges, tomatoes and cucumbers, along with their bread and eggs. Maybe the next time I go to the doctor, my children will be a little bit healthier."

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